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.)

Gaming morality vs RL morality

Jim Stirling posted a video blog in The Escapist this week discussing why murder is pretty much the norm in video games but rape presents greater issues. I didn’t watch it because I pretty much never watch video blogs, but read enough of what he said afterwards to get the gist:  his current position is that this is OK because there could be good/ ethical reasons to kill (ie. in self defence, if it’s a zombie, etc) but not rape. So he’s taking a fairly sensible perspective, which might be surprising to people who have read his previous outbursts.

 

This post is not about rape, however. It’s more about how we do lots of things in games because we can, or because they score points or combos, or because they unlock more content or a cool cutscene/ kill scene. My partner is levelling an Agent in SWTOR at the moment and while I’m trying not to spoil the story for him, we do sometimes chat about when I made different decisions on my (dark side) agent than he has on his (light side) one. My Agent was also a kind of intergalactic Martin Sheen so I went for all the seduction options too. My beloved summed this up as, “So you shagged everything shaggable and shot everything shootable.” I said “Yes, obviously!”

 

The way in which the gaming brain makes decisions is not usually around morality so much as min-maxing, high scores, or winning the game. Maybe there is some power fantasy in there as well, especially in immersive settings. Where morality does come into gaming, it’s often around roleplaying or ‘staying in genre’ or ‘telling a good story.’ Some players always project themselves into the game, or prefer a heroic stance. But if a game awards points for a kill, double points for shooting people in the back, and triple points if you shag the corpse afterwards, then a lot of people would go for the necrophilia without a second thought. It doesn’t seem quite right  to blame players for doing madly immoral things in games if the game was designed to reward those activities.

 

And that’s why it is down to game designers to act like grown ups when it comes to deciding what actions get rewarded. If you reward it, they will do it.

 

Another way of talking about games that reward ‘madly immoral’ activities is the concept of moral hazard. This is where people are encouraged to do hugely risky (or just unwise) things because someone else will pick up the tab if things go wrong. In EVE recently, players found an exploit in a new patch and exploited it crazily for a couple of weeks before reporting it. CCP (after being prodded by other players) duly retrieved the ill gotten gains, released a comment about how clever their players were, and let it go. There’s no major punishment in EVE for this type of exploit – other than massive publicity. I assume the rewards for reporting exploits are decent also. Incidentally, EVE players are the craftiest in the world in the same sense that Carlsberg is the best lager in the world.

 

This is not however a snarky comment about EVE so much as noting that all sandbox games really struggle with empowering ‘good’ players to keep the ‘law’ and control or punish bad ones. The ideal platonic sandbox game would probably have a player run militia and legal system, in practice this is very hard to do without very active support from staff. Partly because naughty players can just log off when the cops are around, but mostly because the information you need to prove crimes is held by the system, and it’s generally hard to think of good punishments other than bannings. Because cop players pretty much have to be in collusion with staff to get the information they need (unless you’re in a hardcore RP game where baddies will volunteer info OOC so as to make a better story), the whole thing is subject to accusations of bias and can easily end up being both ineffective and actively bad for the game.

So even the players who disapprove of exploits have limited facilities to find out about exploiters in game or punish them. Especially if they are part of a large and powerful alliance. This is why people will tend to shrug and leave it to the devs to handle. So again, it’s down to the devs of a sandbox game to keep a close eye on what activities they are rewarding and make some judgement calls on whether emergent player behaviour is something they want for the game or not.

[Question of the Day] How do new single player games affect your MMO playing?

As everyone who isn’t living in a hole knows, Mass Effect 3 is due to be released next week. I have never had much success with getting into the ME games, but for those of you who are, I’m imagining other gaming will be on hold until it’s finished?

My personal pattern with single player games tends to be that if it’s one I really really want then I buy it at launch (full price) and play exclusively until I’m done. Otherwise if it’s just one I mildly might want then I wait a few months until it’s half price to try it out, and then if it grabs me it’ll take all my time up then. Clearly neither of these patterns leave much time for playing MMOs, so in the past I’ve tended to stick with pre-organised raid or guild nights but otherwise disappear for a bout of single player fun instead. Or in other words, the single player game takes up the time in which I would otherwise be noodling around in the MMO, chatting, running instances with guild and generally socialising in game and getting on with stuff. (Unlike Syp, I don’t generally play more than one MMO at a time.)

For me, this isn’t that common. Many of the single player games I buy are casual games anyway, the big budget AAA ones on my personal to-get list are quite few.

How about you? Do you disappear from your MMO of choice several times a year to catch up with new releases? How does your guild cope when a really popular game like ME3 is released? Or is your MMO guild mostly made up of people who don’t have much interest in single player games?

The problem of difficulty in CRPGs

Challenge in RPGs has been a mixed bag at best for designers.

If they ramp the challenge up in an encounter, and classes/ builds differ noticeably in any way, then it favours min-maxing. A game with lots of these challenges can become largely about figuring out this optimal setup.  There’s room for a genre of games which are about figuring out the best min-maxed party  to beat encounters and then executing it. But the current theorycrafting metagame is largely an accident of fate. ie. if you wanted to design a game that invited all players to figure out through play the optimal setup, you wouldn’t design it like an MMO.

If we also want the diversity and flexibility in games of being able to try unusual classes or builds, or trying abilities because they sound fun rather than because they’re in the optimised setup, then this high-challenge scenario is the wrong one to be playing. Originally there was an assumption with MMOs that devs would provide a large game world with lots of ‘stuff’ in it and players would find their own level of challenge. Although you can still do this in most games, endgame tends to be situated around fixed design challenges.

Part of the popularity of Skyrim is as an antidote to this style of game design; it’s an entire game world which invites players (in a single player environment, naturally) to go explore and try stuff out. Yes, you can outlevel the content and make the game far too easy for yourself by minmaxing. Yes, you can also head into killer dungeons way above your level. But by and large no one is going to tell you that you’re playing it wrong if you do any of those things. It is flexible.

Maybe it was inevitable that massive multi-player games would end up favouring optimised character setups. Maybe the incessant focus on combat meant that optimising for combat was always going to be the end result. Maybe the freedom to experiment without being oppressed/ farmed by the hardcore section of the playerbase for not doing things the way they do can only ever happen in single player games. It isn’t that the player base is the problem exactly, more that in a multiplayer game people will eventually be pressed into conforming and competing with the rest of the online player base. And the ‘golden age’ of MMOs that Wolfshead waxes lyrical about was simply a pre-evolutionary stage, before the push of gamification, when being online with other people in real time in a virtual world was so exciting in itself that players were more patient with each other, and before there was much competition for the few virtual worlds that existed.

But one thing is for sure, that type of challenge design doesn’t work brilliantly with heavily story based games, unless the challenge can be tailored to the character/ group more closely. Because if a player feels torn between picking a character/ class for story reasons and picking one for minmaxing reasons, there will always be more pressure on them from other players (and the game environment itself) to optimise.

I think players who enjoy more flexibility do feel oppressed by the optimising hardcore, because it’s pretty rough to always be told that you’re playing the game wrong. And that’s not the same as being a bad player (‘bad’ is very much a social construction in computer games, and can  be used equally to mean someone with slow reactions, someone who doesn’t watch the youtube video of the boss kill before zoning into a raid,  someone who hurls abuse in general chat, or someone who never listens to advice and never seems to learn.)

[Question of the Day] What would you like to see in MMO endgames?

Last week, I wrote a post that touched briefly on the SWTOR endgame and it generated some great discussion in comments about what sort of things players liked to do at endgame anyway.

The SW:TOR endgame is hideously lacking if you’re not interested in conventional PvE/PvP. You might ask what else a player might like to be doing, but that’s the crux of the issue – there’s nothing.

“What I really hoped to see was for my ship to be more customizable on the inside, a form of player housing that could be developed far more than just “being there”.  “

– Zellriven

Question is – what do you think there SHOULD be to do at level cap that isn’t there? Maybe I’m a bit jaded by seeing the same debates over every game, but the nothing to do at level cap argument always takes on shades of Monty Python – “yes, but apart from all THAT what have the Romans done for us?”

-Tremayne

What I would have like to see was after you finished your class story they allowed free travel space flight. <…> I would have loved too if they somehow added Pod Racing as an endgame activity also. <…> I’d also have like to play solo challenging instances based off of using your crew as a team instead of just one at a time.

–Kelindia

In practice what you are probably doing is tooling around, hanging out with your guild, and marking time until the next story update.

–Me

So the way I see it, there are three main ways to look at endgame in MMOs.

  1. Endgame is the real game. Be it sandbox, ranked PvP, progression raiding or all three, the levelling stage of an MMO (if there is one) is really just an introduction to the game. Endgame needs to be enjoyable ad infinitum as a game in itself. But over time it will tend to mostly appeal to the more hardcore.
  2. Endgame should consist of a wide variety of opportunities for character progression to encompass all play styles, so that as many people as possible can find something they like. This progression can involve purely cosmetic upgrades. It may consist of identifiable minigames. There could be dailies.
  3. ‘Endgame’ is just a plateau between content patches, its main purpose is to keep people logging in and building social ties with their guild/ friends before the next patch. And each new patch should not be gear gated based on endgame phases. (ie. you should be able to jump into new content without having spent X days doing endgame activities first.)

These are not mutually exclusive, although type 1 games and gamers probably won’t be ‘wasting’ time on type 2 endgame because the rewards are less meaningful to them. If your type 1 endgame is based on guilds holding and defending areas of space, then anyone who spends time doing dailies to earn a minipet is probably not actively helping. (But you never know, I guess it could feed into the in-game economy in some way.).

But it is type 3 endgame that I want to focus on, because this has come to represent themepark MMOs. In SWTOR for example, there’s new single player content due for March. It is possible that Bioware will put a high gear requirement on this content, but since it’s aimed at soloers rather than raiders or high end PvPers, it would be counterproductive. Better that they don’t gate the solo content. Will it provide better gear in quest rewards than what is currently available from endgame instances and hard modes? Again, we don’t know, but it’s likely because they’d like to encourage people to play through it.

So themepark endgame tends to be forced into busywork plateaux before an effective gear reset with the next set of content. At that point it’s a question of what pattern of play do you prefer in endgame and what would you like to be able to do in that time? Or would you be happier to just unsub/ stop playing until the next content patch?

The time requirements of endgame

The other way to look at MMO endgame is to think about how people’s playing patterns change at that point in the game. Do you want the structure of organised raiding? Do you want to be part of a team in endgame? Do you like the pattern of logging on to do dailies and chat? Do you prefer to ease off and chill out in the game?

My feel is that people do like the idea of character progression, of getting something for the time spent in the game, and are less thrilled by the idea of gear resets for that reason. It’s also good to have a choice of activities, as long as no one feels forced to do the ones they don’t like.

But I also think that endgame serves a key role in cementing in game social networks. This is time when people aren’t driven by their own need to level so maybe have more time to hang out, do social activities, or just chat. It can potentially be a kind of downtime which serves a strong pacing role.

I’m still not sure what my ideal endgame would be. The games where I have most enjoyed being max level have always been those where I had the stronger social networks and where we had good options of things to do together (even organising them on the night) as well as things to do if you were feeling less social. I do know that while I have no objections to raiding (I do have a soft spot for raids, too many good memories), I don’t really want to be organising my weeks around it for months on end any more.

What would you like to see from MMO endgames that you don’t see at the moment? More solo content? More sandbox? More crafting?

 

2 MMO assumptions that are getting flaky these days …

I am really enjoying levelling characters in SWTOR. One thing I personally get from levelling characters in a new game is a reminder about things I like or dislike about diku type MMOs. I like that when levelling, no one really cares about your spec or gear as long as you are helping the team (in PvP) or able to complete the instance (in PvE). And of course if you are soloing, no one else needs to care anyway. So it’s all about you figuring the game out yourself and trying out different strategies/ builds to see which you prefer. You are free to experiment.

I recall that back in the dawn of my personal history in MMOs, I happily ran PvE and PvP on the same character in (mostly) the same gear and if it was sub-optimal then I never noticed and never got called on it. When I first heard of people keeping multiple sets of gear (I think it was druids in WoW beta), I thought they were obsessive min-maxing crazies. That’s how unintuitive that playstyle seemed to me in those days.

Even in vanilla WoW when I was priest officer in a 40 man raid guild, when I personally was taking things a bit more seriously, I knew fine well that at least one of my healers raided in shadow spec because they couldn’t be arsed to respec after PvP (note: this was before the inspect function allowed you to check other people’s talent trees).  I could have called them on it, but we were doing fine and it was more useful that they turned up regularly. We cleared AQ40 with that team, incidentally. The main thing was that they switched into healing gear when they were healing, and that seemed to make the difference.

1. What if I don’t want to play the same character in PvE and PvP

I like playing melee/ tanks in PvE, but I prefer playing healers/ ranged in PvP. There, I admitted it.  I find playing ranged is just flat out easier, and playing healers in PvP is something I learned back in DaoC.

So the MMO eat-all-you-can buffet, wide-variety-of-content model doesn’t work too well for me in this respect. I like my Sith Warrior, but I don’t want to PvP on her because I’m not finding it fun. It’s not that I’m determined never to queue for a warfront with her ever again, it’s just that the PvP gearing requirements need you to grind this stuff and I don’t like the playstyle enough to do that. Clearly it won’t matter if I never PvP – I’m not a completist, I don’t care about the achievements and titles. If I miss out on PvP gear then I miss out on it.

I just don’t like that I have to choose between my preferred PvE type character and preferred PvP type at character creation. Sure, I could have picked a different class, but I’m finding the baseline assumption that at the beginning of the game you’ll be able to make that choice to be irksome.

In comparison, the space flight minigame is independent of your character class, so not dependent on your choices at the beginning of the game. I find that a more appealing model. I don’t want more flexible respec options, or complex Rift-like multiple talent trees to choose from, I just want to be able to earn PvP tokens for my account (ie. to buy PvP stuff for my warrior IF the PvP gear happens to be better for PvE than what I have) on a character I’d prefer to PvP on.

If that was in place, the PvP game could actually be even more separate and more developed from the PvE one. (The goal of having an integrated PvE/PvP game fits better for sandboxes anyway, once you have all your PvP taking place in instances then they might as well be treated as separate minigames.)

2. Stop tying the stats to the gear

There may be players out there who absolutely adore having bags full of gear and having to laboriously click through the whole set to change any time they change spec/ function in the game.

I do not.

Even with WoW wardrobe-like addons that make changing gear a one-click proposal, I resent all the time it takes to set up. I don’t have an objection to collecting the stuff (although it’s not my favourite thing in the world either), but the faffing around with inventories is not a high point of the genre. It would in fact make me happier if I could switch spec or role without having to touch my gear.

Or in other words, I wish devs would stop tying the stats to the gear so tightly. Either use stats that can apply equally to any role that class could fill, or else find some more creative way to tie the stats to the character. Let me change gear for cosmetic reasons only (ie. more similar to real life).

Long dark winter of the MMO

It isn’t inevitable that MMO blogging dries up if a new AAA MMO hasn’t been released in the last 6 months; people will happily find things to say about their current game of choice as long as they are playing it, having fun, invested, and finding new angles. Also there is no shortage of F2P MMOs out there for people to try, as well as offshoots from the genre like Glitch and some of the Facebook games. But it is true that new players or new games give a shot in the arm to the whole debate — and when the whole debate starts to look tired and moribund, that would be a nice thing to have.

One of the RPGs I used to play was called Ars Magica (AM), and it’s a cult classic of the tabletop world. A game all about playing mages and their sidekicks in a ‘realistic’ fantasy version of medieval europe. One of the cool ideas that AM brought to the table was that for any covenant of magi (it’s their word for a group, including the building they live in and surrounding area) there is a cycle over the lifespan, which they base on seasons.

  • Spring: everything is new, the covenant is likely to be weak, it has few resources but lots of potential
  • Summer: covenant comes to its full strength, everything is going well, the future looks rosy
  • Autumn: covenant may be even stronger than in summer, but there are signs of stagnation, some of the people are getting older (maybe also a bit nuttier and more set in their ways), less open to new ideas and some of the younger magi will go their own way
  • Winter: the glory days are in the past. the covenant is slowly dying. the group has to try to store as much of the old knowledge as they can, in the hope that one day spring will come and it will be useful again

I always found this a very powerful metaphor (our group was a Spring covenant and although we were kind of useless, we were endlessly optimistic and up for challenging our elders – with predictable results, but it was what people expected from a spring covenant, so often got away with it.)

And as Winter is coming in real life (in the UK at any rate), it feels as though MMOs are drawing into a long Winter too. SWTOR and GW2 may be the last ever AAA MMOs as we would know them, and now more than ever it seems to me that we could be remembering lessons from the past.

Gevlon has been wondering a lot recently about raiding, today pondering why it was ever popular. He immediately discounts social explanations, but I have a longer memory than WoW and I do think the social aspect was important to a lot of people at the beginning. There were other aspects too, and there were also always hardcore groups who valued the idea of the group/ social challenge. I think that as the emphasis moves more to the individual challenge than the group challenges, it’s inevitable that hardcore raiding becomes a very minority pursuit — this also means that they really can’t assume an endless pit of new recruits to replace anyone burned out (I don’t think this was ever true except for some of the top guilds but lots of people bought into the conceit).

So actually the social challenge of top end raiding becomes greater, because keeping the raid together and avoiding burnout is absolutely key to a raid’s longevity if it can’t recruit easily to fill gaps. It will be interesting to see how raid leaders try to manage this, or whether people give up trying and shift to a more single player type of MMO.

I also think that while players do enjoy being able to do stuff without having to depend on others, it’s ultimately a fools’ game to pretend that a game based on soloing is going to be much of a virtual world simulation. iRL, we have to accept that everyone needs to both give and receive support at some point in their life and that even goblins need to realise that there are some things people will do for love or loyalty that they will not do just for money.

Do you feel that we’re entering the winter season for MMOs? Will there be a spring?