[Problem Players] What if games didn’t make people angry?

So I talked a bit in the last post about problem behaviour. I haven’t tried to define yet what it is. Before I try to do that,  I want to talk about what triggers problem behaviour – because we assume that people are not like this all the time. (If they are, then they probably are problem players.)

The reasons that players act up or rage out are basically down to: rage/ frustration, boredom, and/ or peer pressure/ local culture. Maybe another way for games to tackle this issue is to address those directly.

 

Gaming and Frustration

Things that (can) cause frustration while gaming:

  • Losing in a competitive game
  • Team members playing badly
  • You playing badly
  • Waiting around
  • Playing a game you don’t really want to play because you want the rewards
  • Being taunted by other players
  • Facing a barrier to an in-game goal
  • Feeling let down by other players
  • Being excluded socially by other players
  • Learning new content
  • Guild drama
  • Having to miss an in game event due to RL
  • Playing with people who don’t speak your language
  • Playing with people of very different skill levels to yourself
  • Playing with other people
  • Bugs
  • Staying up too late
  • Having a bad day (anything else outside the game)

 

Yup, a game that tried to eliminate frustration would lose most of its gaming aspects. It would have no competition, probably no multi-player, minimal challenge, and might start playing calming music at you and telling to relax if the time was getting late. It might still be fun. There are games like Journey that are designed to be as calming for the player as possible – and I love Journey — but it wouldn’t be an MMO as we’d know it. It is debatable how far it would really even be a game, and no game can really stop you from having had a  bad day at work or an argument with your partner.

Some of these areas could be addressed in games, though. You can reduce the frustration of team members playing badly by making team events easier, or making the matching better so you are always playing with or against people of similar skill ratings to yourself. You can stop people staying up late by having the server close down at night. You can reduce the frustration of people feeling excluded by having random group finders (most MMOs these days). You can reduce guild drama by not having guilds. You can reduce the frustration of not understanding people by not allowing players to communicate using free text (Hearthstone, Free Realms (RIP)). Learning new content can be less frustrating by making it more obvious what the player needs to do, or making the new content easier. Different games can and do experiment with these kinds of mechanics.

Not all of those things will make a game more fun for all players. That is the payoff for less frustrating games.

The elephant in the room is the trigger that I have marked in red in the list – it is frustrating to feel forced to do content you don’t enjoy because you feel you need the reward. The reward doesn’t need to be big or important to lure people into this play style. People who feel they need to min-max (for whatever reason – being an elite gamer, playing ‘properly’ etc.) will feel pressured to pick up as many of the rewards as they can.  This has been an ongoing issue with Themepark games. Warcraft for example has made a lot of tweaks to their raiding schemas due to players feeling they need to maximise their loot options. And every tweak reduces options for those players who don’t feel the need to min-max. The players who are mature enough to manage their gaming do suffer for the sake of those who claim they are being forced to run content. HINT: No one is forcing you.

Not all of those things will make a game more fun for all players. That is the payoff for less frustrating games.

On a more futuristic level, games could try to measure when a player is becoming frustrated. Maybe the player’s avatar jumps around more, for example. Maybe some day authenticators will be worn and will have blood pressure or heart rate monitors built in.  Or the game could ask if the player is feeling stressed, or give them a button to press (“press this button if you wish you could slap your opponent”). If so, maybe they could be directed to less stressful content. “Go pick some flowers, deathknightxxx, you need to chill out!” At the cost of removing some player choice, bad behaviour could be reduced. (Would it be a fun game? Who knows?)

Perhaps we don’t need to reduce player choice. Maybe when there is some calmer paced content available, players will choose to do that instead when they don’t feel up for the hassle of grouping. “Yeah right,” you may  think, but actually this is one of the appeals of big MMOs. If you log in and want to do something non-stressful, you can opt for gathering or redesigning the interior of your guild house.

 

Boredom: For the Lulz

Bored players are both the joy and the pain of MMOs. This is because boredom is a trigger for player initiated activity. Some people use it to devise really cool ways to entertain themselves and each other. Plenty of social guilds run really fun events, for example – quiz nights, scavenger hunts, wide ranging RP events, server-wide markets.

Boredom triggers players to sit around talking to each other. When people talk about modern MMOs being less social due to lack of downtime, this is what they mean.

Boredom triggers players to go and explore, or think up new challenges for themselves and each other.

Boredom has probably been the source of most of the best MMO player stories we’ve ever had. And it definitely is the source of most of the good stories you have ever read about sandbox games (in which the player is expected to be bored a lot of the time, that’s part of the appeal, and is why people say you have to make your own fun in these games).

But boredom also means the cat starts to play with the box. It can trigger people to go off and try to mess around with other players, for the lulz. And that means it can trigger problem behaviour also. Granted, in some games, the difference between problem behaviour and productive behaviour is very small – that is where the game culture comes in.

So this leaves a couple of questions.

  1. How to encourage players to start thinking about whether it’s time for them to take a break from the game?
  2. How to help boredom trigger good outcomes?

With (1), MMOs often try to keep people as long as possible which means a committed player will be encouraged to stay in the game long after they are actually burned out and bored. It doesn’t have to be this way. They could be more proactive with a call and return approach. To do this, the game needs to give benefits for the players who keep playing but also make it quick and easy for players who have taken a break to catch up and be able to play with their friends again. I think Blizzard has transferred smoothly to this type of model with Warcraft. There seems to be an understanding now that many players will not stay for an entire expansion. But at the same time, the game needs to stay fun for the players who don’t dip in and out. They need to feel their commitment was worthwhile.

Again, it’s a payoff. Making it easier for players to come and go will reduce the number of bored players hanging around, it will also reduce dev income and may make the game less fun for the committed core players. That’s a big risk. We also hope people will be able to decide for themselves when a break is warrented.

With 2, it is all about the in-game culture and the player’s social circle. Most people don’t do things for the lulz without an appreciative audience. And they can’t recruit a group to do it with them if no one is interested. It is also harder to recruit people to the cause if the majority of the players shun that type of activity. In any case, this brings me to … guild culture, game culture, gamer culture – which is a subject for the next post.

Emotional Labour in MMOs: things you can’t get players to do

“when people say games need objectives in order to be ‘games’, i wonder why ‘better understanding another human’ isn’t a valid ‘objective’”

Leigh Alexander (who is a really good gaming writer, if you haven’t heard of her), twitter

Given that being massively multiplayer is one of the unique selling points of the genre, it’s always impressed me how far players will sometimes go in order to avoid having to interact with others.  (This isn’t an argument about forced grouping by the way, don’t worry.) I do this myself too sometimes – there are times when I just can’t be asked to interact. Maybe I’m not in the mood to teach a group a new encounter, or maybe I’m  in “the zone” and happily solo grinding/ levelling away and don’t feel like going all social with a group, even if it would be more efficient.

But players and designers have been wondering since the birth of the genre about how to encourage players to be more social, whether it be via forced grouping or rewards that require social organisation to solve, giving groups extra tools and props (like guild housing), providing social spaces and encouragement to socialise during downtime, better chat and communication tools (yeah, still a fair way to go on this one), and so forth. Some have worked better than others. We know that social ties are important to players and can help make an MMO more compelling as a long term proposition.

So it’s not unnatural to wonder if there are better ways to encourage players to interact. I’ve wondered the same thing that Leigh wonders in the quote above –  could you make it as fun/ rewarding to empathise, communicate, and be kind to other players as it is to defeat and grief them? Could that be the basis of some game mechanic?

Raph Koster takes the same tweet and runs with it, arguing basically that it isn’t a valid objective because it isn’t really the role of a game to guide how players feel. He notes that this is more of a non interactive narrative and, interestingly, that he thinks players feel controlled if they are told that they have to stop speaking and listen to someone else.

His argument is comprehensible only in a context of single player games – and certainly don’t apply to roleplaying (I wonder if he thinks RPGs count as games). In my tabletop games, I absolutely did expect players to be polite, considerate of each other and to listen when someone else was speaking. That’s a core multiplayer group based dynamic. We can call it “playing nicely with others.”

Oh noes, player A thinks the man is trying to control them if they are told to play nice with others! Whatever will we do?! etcetera.

But the question remains, could games teach these kinds of skills? Could they teach people to think about how the other person might feel before they let loose with some racist, sexist, homophobic smack talking rant? And if any games could, surely multiplayer games would be the right genre to try.

There’s work and then there’s WORK

Let’s get one thing straight. MMO players adore working on their characters. Not everyone has the bloodymindedness and tenacity to grind out every last faction and endgame upgrade but this is a genre built on the expectation of 10s and 100s of hours of play. Spending a long gaming session levelling, crafting, PvPing, instancing, or raiding for some minor upgrade is absolutely par for the course. It’s not as fun to feel forced to do something you don’t enjoy but the actual concept of work in these games isn’t a dirty word.

Listening to other people and empathising with them is work, it’s called emotional labour and lots of people have to do it as part of their jobs. And even these people like to switch off at the end of the day (because it’s actually quite demanding work, emotionally). This is one of the reasons why it does often feel like more work to interact with strangers than to grind away slowly on your own, because it is. And it’s not even all that fun unless they are listening and helping you too. Can we admit that socialising often isn’t fun? I think we can.

By the same token, splurging incontinent emotional backlash all over the game/ internet may not be fun per se, but is cathartic and relaxing(?) for people. Or maybe some people find it fun.

So when we are talking about wanting a game to encourage people to do the former and not the latter, we are looking for a mechanic that can reward people for doing  emotional labour, and discourage them from something that they find liberating. No wonder it is a tough sell.

Although anyone who likes the Bioware romances or Japanese dating sim types of games will at least be open to the idea that it might be fun to get to know someone, figure out what they like/ dislike, and be rewarded with some kind of relationship. So  maybe in order for empathy to be fun and not to be a pointless grind, there must be the possibility of a meaningful relationship (not necessarily romantic) at the end. Players have to believe that they too will be valued and accepted by a peer or a peer group on their own terms.

Why social pressure can’t solve this one

For all of that, there is a real issue that players feel controlled by in game communities. Some in game communities can be very controlling. One of the great appeals of soloing is not having to be beholden to the minor dramas and power players of a guild, not being told when to play or who to play with, how to use chat or which bboard to hang out on, and so forth. This is one of those cases where art mirrors life; RL communities are controlling too (you may not notice this if you fit in Smile ). In return for some conformity, you can then get support, security and friendships – things that are really key to making life worthwhile.

Which means, in games as in RL, if you want to feel less controlled you have two options: go lone wolf, or find a group of people where you fit in and are comfortable with the rules. MMOs are typically really bad at helping players find compatible guilds, it’s a flaw that no one ever has properly addressed.

Guilds have a much easier time than game mechanics in encouraging players to play nicely with others. The threat of being thrown out of the group is a very powerful one to our social monkey brains. The more pressing issue is that antisocial players tend to form up with other antisocial players, in groups that accept that behaviour.

This is fine in a group based game. If your Diablo group wants to swear at each other, no one else needs to care. But in a massively multiplayer game, groups will interact with each other.

That is what an MMO mechanic to encourage empathy would have to fight. Not the soloers (who are probably mostly happy to be left alone and will return politeness with politeness if they really do have to talk to anyone), nor the more fluffy or mature guilds who do encourage good behaviour, but the howling packs of invective laden muppets who are having plenty of fun doing what they are doing.

I think the best answer is better moderation, and better tools to let players ignore the people who are annoying them. Some things you can teach, other people need a slap round the chops (technically we call this “appropriate use of authority”). So what if they don’t like the feel of being controlled? That doesn’t mean everyone else has to pander to it, especially if it means designed won’t even try to make more emotionally nuanced games. Some of us enjoy controls, constraints, boundaries or railroads in games – it’s wrong thinking to dismiss them all as “that isn’t a game mechanic.”

It would be possible to go further, to look at how the justice system tries to get offenders to empathise with their victims. But so difficult in an online setting to actually isolate someone from their terrible peer support group.

Or else we could just design games like Journey where it is only possible to help other players, and never to grief them or interact in a negative way.

Can hardcore players destroy a MMO?

I bet anyone who ever played a massively multiplayer online game has come up against the scenario where you realise that someone you are playing with (or against) is putting way more time, effort, research and social networking into the game than you are.

  • Maybe it’s That Guy who undercuts all your glyph auctions half a second after you have posted them. Every single time.
  • Maybe it’s the really powerful and organised alliance who seem to have a zillion players in every timezone.
  • Maybe it’s The Guy in your raid group (or LFR) who is all geared and tweaked out and times his/her rotation to the millisecond.

It’s easy to feel demoralised if you are competitive and you see a situation where you know you don’t want to put in the time/ money/ effort to compete with that. This is one of the big structural problems with MMOs: how do you have a game where a wide variety of players can all play together without breaking the game? Do you encourage the hardcore players/ guilds to be part of a separate more hardcore endgame? Do you encourage players to play alongside others of similar mindset and give them separate instances  to mess around in?

Gevlon has a good take on this in a post about RMT where he muses that if you let players cash out their earnings from the auction house, it would attract a more professional crowd (note: his opinion of professionals is a bit higher than mine).

What effect would it have on the game? Every market fully covered, leaving no trading income to casual/newbie players, only similar professional traders could compete. The simpler income sources, like doing PvE would be covered by real world corporations using minimal wage labor (after all, ratting can be done by half-illiterates), leaving absolutely no in-game income source to the real players.

He even decided to cut back on his own trading, “giving more space to other players to play in Jita”. This isn’t a case where the hardcore would be destroying the economy, it would still function fine. Just there is a theoretical case where there are enough ultra competitive players to mean that there are no niches left for casuals in that side of the game.

There are other theoretical ways in which the ultra hardcore could push a game into a stasis from which it could never escape. You could imagine a turf holding game where all the turf ends up belonging to a few large alliances who have mutual non aggression pacts.

The only way out would be if the ruling alliances deliberately cut back on their expansionary plans (much like Gevlon describes in his trading) in order to promote a more ‘healthy’ ecosystem in the game. Where ‘healthy’ could mean anything from ‘more welcoming to new players’ to ‘more likely to give us some fun territory fights in the future.’

In a themepark game, this is all largely irrelevant (I think it’s mostly theoretical in most sandboxes too). There simply are fewer parts of the game where players would have this much control that a large powerful guild could simply win the game. But it’s interesting I think to compare with RL – sometimes looking to the long term good of the community might be worth more than going for pure domination.

Have you ever played a game where you felt you or your faction dominated so hard that it wasn’t fun any more, or where you gave up because you felt the hardcore players meant there was no point?

[Solving the Content Problem] The Smörgåsbord: Adding different subgames for different playstyles

dessert_buffet

skenmy@flickr

MMOs have always given players some freedom to pick what activity they prefer to do when they log in. This is one of the aspects that makes them so different from other types of games. For sure, themepark games tend to adhere to the RPG model and prod people in the direction of levelling, or at least in the direction of whatever the other players are probably doing, but players do expect to have some standard options.

For these to make sense as addressing the content problem, these subgames need to have completely separate progression mechanics from each other. I’m not talking here about adding achievements to existing content, but about offering something for totally separate playing styles. You could think of it as being a way to attract more players to the same game, by catering for different gaming tastes.

For example, MMOs often include an economic simulation. Players progress by making gold via trade (or other in game activities). A player who chooses to focus on this subgame can do it largely independently of (for example) endgame raiding or PvP. There can be plenty of depth in a good economic simulation – you only need to look at the sheer number of gold making WoW blogs to see how many different markets and approaches there are to playing this subgame. While the economy can be connected to every other part of the game, in a separated presentation (like WoW), you never actually need to play the economy beyond selling loot that you picked up while levelling. You could happily ignore it.

Crafting  can also be a separate minigame of its own. Players progress by learning tradeskills (maybe multiple tradeskills on multiple alts) and figuring out how to acquire the materials and make the items that they want. Plenty of players enjoy crafting who never have any intention of spending much time trading. It can be separate.

PvP is another very common playing style that is offered as a separate minigame by themepark MMOs. Separate again means a completely separate progression and gearing path. Players who enjoy PvP can often do this without ever touching PvE (after they have levelled).

So: separating playing styles? Is it a good or a bad thing

There are two ways to look at this.

1. The first is that the ideal MMO (probably a sandbox) should have an integrated playerbase. It should be focussed on its niche, and every part of the game should feed into every other part to encourage players to interact. For example, there should not be artificial boundaries preventing PvPers from dominating some aspect of the economy (maybe by annexing some area where rare drops can be found) and at the same time, a player who participates in all aspects of the game (or is in a guild which does) should be able to dominate a player who doesn’t. If the game is large enough and the separate activities have enough depth, it won’t be possible for a single player or guild to dominate every aspect so there will be plenty of room for players  to specialise and co-operate. So there will still be plenty of choice for players, they can still pick which aspects of the game they prefer to focus on. They will just have to live with the consequences.

Note: this ideal would require quite a large, active sandbox game to really work. (This is the problem with a lot of the early ideas about ideal MMOs.)

2. The second is the buffet or smorgasbord approach. The game is like a buffet table, players can pick and choose which activities they want to do. More importantly, they can pick the activities which they want to avoid. There will be communities in game which focus on different activities and that’s fine. The game can never be as integrated as a type 1 MMO, the separate gaming bubbles won’t really affect each other. But if people want to PvP all the time then they can, and if they want to never PvP then they don’t have to.

It is true that there are many ways for players to cooperate or compete in MMOs that don’t involve beating the tar out of each other in PvP. You can argue that the economic game is a form of PvP also, which is true. But from a gameplay perspective, it’s a very different way of getting players to interact. There is plenty of competition but the raw aggression (and bad behaviour) that is so intimidating to so many players just isn’t as great an issue. It also can be slower paced and put more emphasis on strategic thinking.

Over time, players have seemed to prefer type 2 games. Even though type 1 games are probably more immersive and function better as integrated worlds. It might be fairer to say that either Type 1 favours a niche audience, or else that devs could do a better job with Type 1 if they stopped trying to shoehorn PvP into every game, since PvP tends to dominate games where it is not kept totally separate.

Introducing new minigames

I want to give some examples of separated minigames in MMOs, to show how different devs have used this as a way to solve the content problem.

  • Skirmishes in LOTRO. This is fairly brilliant design. The skirmishes are PvE instances that can scale from single player up to 12 people. They have their own queue. When running skirmishes you can progress your own skirmish soldier (a companion NPC who can be tank/ healer/ ranged or melee dps/ etc) via skirmish points. So there is a completely separate progression mechanic. You can also use skirmish points to buy levelling gear, cosmetic gear, and reputation items. Plus the skirmishes have their own achievements. Although skirmishes are integrated into some of the legendary book quests (and it would be an advantage to have a levelled skirmish soldier for these), they aren’t required outside this.
  • Pet battles in WoW. Another fairly brilliant design. It’s pokemon, in warcraft. You can go catch wild pets, have them fight other pets or other trainers. I’m not sure what you really get from pet battles other than the thrill of collecting more pets, or the occasional lucky battlestone drop that you can use to upgrade pets. But it’s fun, there’s some depth to it, and it’s very separate from the main game.
  • PvP in Warhammer Online. This is a fairly typical example of themepark PvP. You earn your progression points and gear by engaging in PvP. You may have special PvP abilities that you can buy with PvP points. While you can use your PvE gear in PvP, it isn’t optimal because the PvP gear has specialised stats.
  • Housing in EQ2. You get a house fairly early on in EQ2, and there is a huge array of housing items to collect and place. Fitting out and decorating both individual houses and guildhalls has pretty much become a separated minigame of its own.
  • Wormholes in EVE. EVE isn’t my speciality, but this is syncaine’s description. The reason I count this as a separated game is that it seems perfectly possible for people who enjoy wormhole play to focus on them and for people who don’t to never feel the need to go near them.
  • Space battles in SWTOR. A set of graded on rails space missions, with their own daily quests, tokens, and ship related loot. Bioware never really felt very committed to space battles, they’re fun but limited.

Raiding in WoW used to be a very separated game. The only way to get raid gear was to raid. As time goes on, players are now far more encouraged to dip into raiding as part of a general PvE playing style via LFR (ie. much easier to get into random raids), and have a much wider range of gear available for raiding.

Wildstar is touting separate player paths, and no doubt we’ll get to hear more about how those work out in practice as the game lurches towards release. My personal doubt is how well this caters for players who might be in a mood to fight/soldier one day and feel more like exploring the next. I don’t personally want to be forced to commit to one primary playstyle at the start of a new game and then be told I need to roll a new alt if I want to try something else. There’s separated and then there’s separated.

Separated minigames as content solution?

Both the good and bad sides about separated games is that they are all optional. It is possible for a dev to put a lot of effort into creating a new minigame and for the player base to collectively say meh. (PvP in City of Heroes is an example of a separated game that never really took off, the majority of players just weren’t that interested.)

It is also possible for devs to put a lot of effort into developing a minigame and then to abandon it to its own devices and not add any interesting new tweaks or content in future expansions. Housing in LOTRO feels a bit stagnant for that reason. The houses are nice, decorating them is cool, but there’s not really much to do with your house and it feels like abandoned content.

At its best though, separate minigames do give players a much wider choice of in game activities. And minigames with good depth can potentially add a lot of depth and replayability to the game world. On the downside, they can make a game feel far more complex, and it isn’t always clear to new players which content is optional, and how optional it really is.

[Thought of the Day] Difficulty isn’t always about difficulty.

Berath wrote last week about returning to LOTRO after having missed a couple of expansions. She was struck by how much there is to know, how many things have changed, and how hard it is to adjust once you have been used to playing a minmaxed/ optimised character in the past. She compares this experience with that of a new player on her kinship forum who is still struggling with being able to move, steer and fight at the same time.

I feel very much that the real currency of MMOs is knowledge. It’s the knowledge of how to play many facets of the game (tactics for all the bosses, instances etc, knowing your way round all the zones, how to counter every other class in PvP, work many different PvE markets), how the lore developed, and how the game has changed over time that marks out the real dinos. This is one of the reasons that although themepark players enjoy new content, they don’t always welcome expansions which make old content irrelevant or mean they have to totally learn how to replay every character. It makes that process of knowledge collection worthless. But at the same time, ensuring that players must work to keep their knowledge up to date means that current players can feel a sense of achievement, and that there will be payoffs for keeping up to date with the game.

The persistence and progression of player knowledge (along with a social network of gamers) is the true persistence and progression of MMOs. This is one of the reasons it can be so difficult for a new player to join an older game. Because they are consistently playing with people who just know more than they do, and may have no reason to either share the knowledge or teach newbies.

We tend to wrap game knowledge up as a part of gaming skill. ie. you can’t be good at game X unless you know A, B and C.  This is fine for people who enjoy collecting knowledge. Of which I am one. MMOs suit me fine; I have a good memory, like learning pointless trivia and don’t mind relearning it regularly. Being expert about in game lore and mechanics can also be quite sociable, it isn’t really a twitch game, and it encourages community/ blogging/ etc.

We really should stop treating in game knowledge as if it was optional or unimportant. And the game that can crack the nut of encouraging player communities to welcome and teach new players will have solved the numbers problem.

Solving the content problem: where have all the MMO players gone (longterm passing?)

“Mom, did Grandpa serve in the war?” ” No honey, he played World of Warcraft for 10 years.”

– UrbanGimli, “it’ll never be the same thread” on reddit

I’ve seen a lot of talk over the past few months about the content problem in MMOs, and how current devs hope to solve it.

This is going to be one of a series of posts looking at the issue and at some proposed solutions (which will include sandboxes, adding subgames for different playstyles,  blending mobile and fixed gaming, livening up the grind, events, giving players a stake in the world, harnessing player creativity, RP MMOs, and the game as a social network.)

What it is not is about how WoW is declining, because I’m not honestly sure that it is.

What is “the content problem” in MMOs?

  • It is when players work through content faster than developers can keep up with them.
  • It is when a game can’t seem to entice new players to stick around and form a longterm community, instead of moving on en masse when they’re done with the content.
  • It is when the sandbox content that exists seems to drive away more people than it attracts, due to griefing. And player generated content gets optimised quickly for maximal xp/exploiting/ dick pictures.
  • It is when all the methods that seem to have worked in the past to attract players to a game and make it sticky for them don’t seem to work any more.

So there’s an underlying assumption that MMOs, being permanent virtual worlds, should be attracting players who want a permanent presence. An onine ‘home’ if you like. They should be fundamentally different from single player games which you play through and then set aside.  Or play through, set aside, and come back when the next DLC is released.

There is also an implication that a successful MMO should have an in game (and out of game) community associated with it. These might be formal organisations like guilds or raid groups, or loosely associated groups who PvP with each other, keep the in game economy rolling, and create content for each other. Also bloggers and addon writers,  forum communities on fansites, groups on Facebook, and whatever other social media is hot at the moment. All of these player associations are assumed to be fairly stable for the longterm; a guild which breaks up after a month isn’t really a functional guild for example. A blogger who writes a couple of posts and then goes dark isn’t really helping the in game community establish itself either.

Or to put this another way, many commenters and longterm players feel that an MMO should be greater than its content. There is a virtual world and community involved, after all. This is important because if there’s a bad patch, then players will keep playing until the next one (at least) if the game is greater than its content.

As with all things gamery, people tend to assume that the standard ways of playing 2-3 years ago are some kind of writ-in-stone baseline to which all future gamers should adhere. But maybe, just maybe, the reason early MMO players liked to treat the games as their virtual home and build strong communities was just a part of the era. We know the internet has been great at bringing together communities of interest who might not otherwise meet. MMOs were how a lot of RPG computer gamers first met other hobbyists. Also, gamers at the time were early(ish) internet adopters and tended to come from similar geeky backgrounds, and be of similar ages. Maybe they just tended to have more in common.

What if today’s players aren’t interested in making that sort of commitment?

So how do people play MMOs now?

  • World of Warcraft – No one plays anymore
  • SWotOR – They only played for about a month
  • (insert countless other online games here)
  • Minecraft – Everyone built their cool house and left

The only things that most social groups I find want to play anymore are the simple, repetitive, FPS games like Team Fortress or other games like League of Legends.

thadrine, rpg.net

So what’s a typical gaming evening? Maybe it involves hanging out on voice chat with some other gamers who  met (and got on with) via different games, blogs, RL, mutual friends and social media. There will be smutty jokes, chat about people’s work and families, and at some point a bit of negotiation about what games people feel like playing tonight. Torchlight 2? Don’t mind if I do.

The space in which a lot of my gaming friends move is that of a loose cloud of people who play a portfolio of current and old games. There may be some regular ‘game nights’ or they might decide jointly what to play based on who is around, or people might just talk on voice chat while playing various different (including single player) games and not be playing together in-game at all. The community isn’t tied to a game, although people will tend to enjoy trying betas and new games out together and forming an in game guild to do so. They probably aren’t motivated to recruit in game, although might do if they run into someone who might fit in well. There may be some light raiding, although by the time you get that far, other players in the group will be itching to move to a different game.

I’m also in a couple of more established guilds, like my WoW guild which we started on Day 1 (the day the EU servers first went live). Over time, we’ve settled into something more than just a guild, but that is very clearly based around a specific game. Sometimes groups of people do play other games but they never have seemed to really ‘take’ longterm.

So I’m going to extrapolate wildly from my own experience and say there are two main forms of player community going on at the moment. The oldschool guild/community which does emphasise commitment to a game, and the newer social group which assumes that most players will not settle in a game for more than  few months at most.

I suspect that the newer group is growing more quickly. Why? Well, have you tried recently to find a good oldschool guild in your game of choice? If you have done so successfully then well done. It was never easy at the best of times, and I suspect it’s even harder now unless you network really hard. It’s tough because ideally you want a match for your playing style, timezone, gaming interests, social culture, and one that has room for your class/spec of choice. Plus they have to be longterm gamers. And once you have found them, they will expect a regular commitment. After all, that’s what you joined for.

It’s likely easier to find a solid guild in a game that is over six months old – that’s long enough for the more transient guilds to have broken up or stopped recruiting. Which is another way of saying that if you (as a player) have a longterm mindset, then the longer you play your game of choice, the more likely you are to find other players/ guilds with that mindset.

The newer type of more transient community is more like an extended friends network, and they are much less demanding in some ways. It’s unlikely that there will be an onerous application process. But also no guarantee that anyone in the group will want to play the game and/or content you’re currently jonesing for either. Although they’re probably open to persuasion.  You might also find group members are part of longterm guilds in at least one of the games they play, which will help you find a guild like that if you end up really enamoured of that game and wanting to commit to it.

The notion that we are growing communities of ‘play the content, then move on’ gamers has got to be worrying for MMO designers. It used to be the case that enticing existing guilds to your beta was a really good way to jumpstart an in-game community. These days, if you attract a transient guild, it will be great for your initial numbers but when they’re bored (in a month or two), they will probably all move on together. It’s harsh being a member of a group like this when the rest of the group wants to move on before you do, or if something comes up iRL so you fall behind the rest in levels in whatever game they’re into at the moment  – but you can always find another in game guild, right? If there is one.

Only 24 hours in a day

In WoW, I remember making friends with strangers. I easily met a lot of people in vanilla going through lowbie instances while levelling, 40man raids, then doing tons of Heroic runs in BC and Kara raids. Those were really good times coz you could just sit around Orgrimmar/Shattrath City and chat with your guildies/friends. I don’t know the state of WoW nowadays, but in newer MMOs, I just can’t seem to be able to do this anymore.

Klat93, reddit

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and obviously this is a rose tinted memory, but there are a lot more MMOs out there now to compete for players’ time than there used to be. There are also a lot more multiplayer games which you can play while chatting to your existing friends, rather than always having to go in blind and make new ones.

I think that for a lot of more experienced players, however much they might have enjoyed the social side of MMOs, they didn’t want to keep repeating the newbie social experience over and over again. It’s hard work, making friends with strangers. Plus they now had already met other gamers who they wanted to play with in newer games as well as the old one. And once you have a taste for achievement, it’s hard to go back and be an ignorant newbie. Also, hanging out and meeting people is very time consuming, and there are only 24 hours in a day.

As it happens ‘time consuming activities’ are one of the solutions to the content problem. An MMO that could encourage players to relive the whole ‘hanging out in Orgrimmar and chatting with guildies’ or ‘making friends with strangers’ behaviour would probably be great at retaining players. It just isn’t great gameplay – in fact, if you are able to hang out and chat with your guildies while playing a game, there probably isn’t much else going on at the time. (I’ll come back to the great gameplay concept later, because just as a good MMO is greater than its content, it may also be greater than its gameplay.)

But the baseline is that communities of players who drift together from game to game are very well suited to a lot of players. You get most of the social upsides of multiplayer/MMO gaming with less of the boring grind/endgame. But when the more vocal members get bored and move on, the rest probably follow.

  • So maybe if new games want to build their own longterm core player base, the best place to start is NOT with existing guilds.
  • And many players simply aren’t interested in committing longterm to a single game. In the past they didn’t have as many choices as they do now.
  • And the million dollar question: how do new players who might want to play a game longterm link in with the in game community?

Social learning in MMOs: there are groups and there are GROUPS

I have been throwing myself into the gaping maw of the group finder tool this week on SWTOR and the overall experience has been great, I haven’t had a bad group yet. So why do I keep thinking about how strange it feels to play in a PUG put together by a sorting tool compared to a group of players who had  previous contact, even if it was just via chatting about the group in general chat? Most of all, the overwhelming sense of relief that I already know most of these instances and bosses from having learned them alongside my old guild, where we used to go in blind to see what happened, figure things out as we went along, and chatter on voice chat the whole time.

Frankly, a LFG environment can be a punishing place to learn content for the first time, especially if you are tanking or healing. Other players might turn out to be tolerant mentors, or might just be there for a speed run and guaranteed badges. They might be pleasantly civil, abhorrently rude, or merely silent. And always the looming threat of encountering one of those abusive hardcore player who will rage at anything or anyone which prevents them from collecting their entitlement of badges after a flawless 5 min speedrun.

It can also be a great place to learn content. More experienced players will know the faster routes through the instance, can tell you the smartest tactics, and can explain strategies quickly and simply. The more players you group with, the more you could potentially learn if everyone shares their best tactics on every run.

I can’t say I ever enjoyed trying to learn complex content (like raids) in random groups, however.

So how do we learn in groups?

The relationship of MMOs with groups has always been uncoordinated. These games were designed to include group challenges, but designers left it up to players as to how they would manage the tricks of group formation and learning. Still, we can imagine two main types of learning in groups.

1. The learning group. This would be a group of players that works together and learns content together. They’ll tend to stick with the same core set of members because that way they’ll be able to organise better, to learn each other’s strengths better, and put into use together what they’ve learned in previous runs. Group members will give frequent feedback to help the group improve. They may also offer social support (ie. if one player is nervous about a new raid or role, others will often encourage them: “Of course you can do it!”) Yup, this describes a raid group, or an organised guild. There are lots of theories about how groups form and work together to accomplish tasks, such as learning new instances or raids. But the main thing is that this type of group works together for more than one session and aims to learn as a group. A long standing group will have strategies to bring new members up to speed and include them in group activities, so that the group can keep learning and improving. Players will tend to feel some kind of commitment to the group.

You could also argue that the entire community of a game is a kind of learning group, with various members writing up strategies and tactics and providing video instruction of how to beat various bosses. But I don’t think there are really the kinds of feedback and support mechanisms in place to really underpin that. The resources are great, but they just underpin how difficult the task of learning in a group can be.

2. Learning in groups. You join a group, watch what they do and copy it. This is also known as social learning. Now, human beings will tend to learn all sorts of things in groups as well as boss strategies, such as how to behave towards other players. So if someone plays in LFG a lot and sees people being rude to the tanks or demanding speed runs, they’ll learn that is how you should play the game. While guilds and raids will also expect players to learn from being part of their group, they’ll tend to be more supportive about it than random players (even if they show this ‘support’ in ways like requiring high gear or dps scores before they’ll let you raid with them, that’s still setting a new player a learning target which could be useful.)

When WoW was released, I think the expectation of designers was that players would tend to commit to a guild and that the guild would learn the raids together. The notion that the more ambitious members would be guild hopping a lot wasn’t common at the time. Neither was the thought that a lot of people might not want (or be able) to commit to a guild, but would still be interested in endgame raids. On some servers, typically the RP ones, raid alliances formed so that people could have a raid schedule without leaving their smaller guilds. But the general idea of the raid guild as a learning organisation was built in from the start.

LFG is very much a newer and different kettle of fish. The groups are likely to have a mix of novice and experienced players, of people who know the content from people who don’t, characters who are overgeared and characters who are undergeared. So the kind of content that they want isn’t going to be the same as a dedicated learning group who will patiently wipe while they learn how best to handle a new boss.

I personally think the great flaw of Cataclysm was making the heroic instances both too hard at the start AND accessible via LFG. They weren’t too hard for learning groups, and in guild groups they were challenging and fun. But for LFG they were way too tough, and the fact that players had become used to fast easy LFG runs in Wrath didn’t help. If LFG had been restricted to normal mode instances at the start of Cataclysm so that the player base could learn the instances and gear up in a more forgiving environment, I think they would have been fine. No amount of gear requirements can really overcome the difficulty that players who have only learned content socially will have with new and complex encounters, if the more experienced members of the player base aren’t willing to patiently teach. And expecting people to patiently teach strangers (who may be idiots!) is a very different expectation to wanting them to teach members of their own guild. Blizzard I think has finally understood this with their easy mode LFR raids.

It isn’t fair to expect a random group to perform like a specialised learning group. But there is still one type of learning that devs haven’t really supported, and that is players who would rather learn and perfect an encounter on their own before joining a group. Diablo 3 shows how this can work. You can run through all the bosses on single player mode before ever joining a group, if you want. I think a lot of players would feel more comfortable if they could do something similar for MMO instances and raids. I have certainly played games where many of the raid mechanics show up in single player quests (SWTOR likes to teach you to interrupt, for example), but it isn’t the same as being able to practice an encounter carefully and at your own pace.

I suspect that presenting LFG groups with content that is too difficult for players to learn in those groups just adds to the stress levels. Players in general are not patient enough to say “I’ll come back when I have geared up more” or “I’ll try the normal mode a few more times” : they see the reward and the button that says “Queue for LFG” and they figure its worth a shot. And players who are already geared up and do already know the strategies will just be frustrated with queuing with people who don’t, particularly when explaining the strategies is tricky or would take ages.

This just adds to the stress for anyone new who is trying to learn an instance by PUGging it, which they are more likely to have to since the rest of their guild is probably off somewhere in the LFG tool too. Devs can help with this by making the encounters reasonably straightforwards, by providing as many pointers as possible in the environment (ie. graphical and sound indicators about what is going to happen), which I think they generally try to do in boss fights. Players can help by using LFG and trying to make it as pleasant and civil experience for everyone as possible. We can all shape what other players learn from their social experiences in our groups, just by modelling how we’d like people to behave towards us.

So if my SWTOR groups have been good, it is partly because the instances are quite fun, but mostly because the players themselves have been good humoured about the experience. People who were up front about their wish for a quick run and quick badges being understood and accepted by the rest of the group, people who explain that this is their first time in an instance being given the explanations they need, people who use raid markers for CC being chilled when CC is accidentally broken, the group just casually adapting if someone makes a mistake without making an issue of it, and so on.

It came from the PUG

50shades

Yes I was in a random group with someone called Fifty and someone called Shades. I would name my next alt Grey to keep the theme but I think it’s already been taken. (This means that yes, there is a possibility of a Fifty Shades of Grey instance group on my server.)