The third role: neither devs nor players but somewhere inbetween

3168012226_b740f3e49b from flem007_uk@flickr

When I started playing games as a kid, everything used to seem so simple. You had players and you had a game. You unpacked the game, read through the rules together and then played it. My first introduction to the idea that one player might have a different role with more meta-responsibility was via the banker in Monopoly.

The great thing about offering to be the banker wasn’t that you got to feel important by doling out stacks of pretend money, it was that you got to secretly cheat when no one was looking by giving yourself extra cash under the table (banking in Monopoly had more in common with RL than we realised at the time.) Even then, I wondered why banker was such an important role that players couldn’t just collect their own cash from a communal bank. But it was in the rules as a player role. And when you were the banker, you felt more important.

With RPGs, the difference between the players and the GM was far more marked. The GM wasn’t a game designer, but they weren’t just a player either. They were a player who’d taken on a different role which involved scenario design, and meant that they couldn’t play their own character in scenarios, only NPCs. Wacky, huh? Imagine being a mod designer where that meant you could never play your own mods. Then you had the regular players in the group who did create their own characters and just played. And games had to put out extra rules for GMs, to explain how to design and run scenarios. This is why the Dungeon Master’s Guide was always the largest of the AD&D core books. DMing is and continues to be one of the most exciting things about roleplaying, a combination of storytelling, scenario design, group facilitation, and mediation. But it is extra work.

One meme that travelled from D&D into MUDs was the idea that a player could become a scenario designer. In MUDs there was often an endgame path by which someone who started as a player could become a MUD wizard (ie. staffer, builder, implementer.) In the MUSHes I played, we often also  recruited players to be RP staff/ storytellers and run plots in the game for other players.

Although most MMOs don’t (yet) offer player created scenarios, with the honorable exception of CoH and STO, there is still a very key place for players whose main role is enabling other players. They are the guild masters, raid leaders, RP event organisers. Yet unlike pen and paper games, the devs don’t really publish rules and material to support and help them out. Instead there is a trend to undermine these people , make the roles superfluous, and make it easier and easier for individual players to play solo or switch guilds as soon as they meet with a moment of frustration. And it’s a shame because finding a guild/ community in game which perfectly fits your personality and needs is one of the most difficult and most brilliant things about online gaming.

Pen and paper groups were very attached to their GMs, if you had found a good one you stayed loyal. Because they created an awesome game experience for everyone in the group. And GMs were fond of their players too – we used to swap anecdotes about amazing/ stupid/ hilarious things ‘our players’ had done.

So it does make me happy to write about ideas like the Storybricks, which I touched on last week. Because I’m an old school DM at heart. Because I still wonder if empowering the player facilitators more to help create these amazing game experiences would be a better trend than forcing everyone to solo. Or at least one that I’d like to see further explored.

Ulduar Update: Beam up the rare pattern, captain!

I was struck this week by Veneretio’s post on praising warriors as off-tanks in Ulduar.

I enjoy playing my character in the new raid instance. There are plenty of fights that showcase her strengths – I get to zip around picking up adds,  put on interrupt duty, kite stuff around in interesting patterns, run a tanking gauntlet, share a taunt rotation with the other tanks, and that’s just the fights I have seen so far.

If I were to write down a list of activities that make for fun raid tanking encounters, Ulduar would hit a lot of them stone cold. And not only that, I also don’t spend my time in raids fretting that another class would do the job better, it’s honestly something I haven’t even thought about since the last patch.

One of the reasons I am still loving Warcraft is because my character is such a blast to play. Love the game or hate it, their class design is generally excellent.

Although I do often off-tank, it amuses me that I always end up main tank on Ignis. I think the other tanks have a blindspot for him, they settled awfully quickly into ‘let Spinks tank the boss’ on that one. Come to think of it, they were never very fond of tanking Grobbulus either. Maybe I’m the only one who likes the boss kiting fights.

This week saw us consolidate a lot of past work. We knocked out five bosses on the Wednesday night, which involved no more than one wipe on any of them. While farm raids are less exciting than progression, it is a good sign of solid progression to get the early parts of the raid under control. We’re also running on a lighter rota than normal because the students are into exam time for another week or so and are sensibly skipping raids to revise. On Thursday they got Auriaya down and put in some solid attempts on Freya. General feeling was that she’d get killed next week.

Rare Patterns

We also now have a couple of blacksmithing patterns including the Indestructible Plate Girdle. In fact, I now have that recipe which is probably the first time ever I’ve been in possession of a rare crafting recipe. Our raid decided to prioritise tanks on crafted gear so I’m also second in line to get more runed orbs to make one!

Meanwhile I’m pondering how to profit from this knowledge. We have a crafting exchange arranged with other raid guilds so that we’ll make items free for each other to widen the range of available items, so no luck there.

I think the main options are either:

  • Buy the materials and sell the completed pieces at a profit. Runed orbs are not plentiful enough yet to make this viable. I wonder how much people really would spend for a best in slot tanking belt. I suspect the ones who would be more likely to pay high are the ones I’ll be making it free for from the other raid guilds. But later on when runed orbs get cheaper this will probably work.
  • Charge a high crafting cost.
  • Charge a modest crafting cost and sell the mats myself on the AH (i.e.. make the profit from selling the materials and use the recipe to create the demand). So that involve lots of titansteel, which is a time-limited resource.

The latter seems most appealing. But in the meanwhile, how on earth to decide how much to charge to people who are just looking to have the item crafted? I may have a temporary monopoly.

Incidentally, I take all this as a sign that the rare recipes are starting to get more widely distributed. Expect the price of titansteel and other materials to go through the roof shortly, as we find out who failed to stock up in advance.

10 Man

In the ten man team, we had a long raid last weekend. I came along to the evening portion. They’d already knocked out Freya for a first kill and we had some good learning time on Thorim. We all felt that it was a useful opportunity to learn the fights for 25 man.

Fighting Thorim requires you to set up a bridge team (to stay in the arena) and an away team (to fight their way up the gauntlet). If you had to use a teleporter to get to the gauntlet, the metaphor would be perfect. But in the absence of that, we just made lots of jokes about Thorim setting his phasers to kill whenever he nuked us due to wipes in the arena.

The gauntlet in 10 man is a bit of a joke. It’s easier than Utgarde Pinnacle. There really aren’t any special tricks to share other than kill the healer first (duh) and keep an eye on the minibosses. They had more trouble in the arena and although we tried swapping people around between the two teams, it wasn’t really working.

So, need more work on that. Maybe we’ll get another raid in before reset if people are keen.

You’re playing it wrong!

No multiplayer game ever survives contact with the players. This is as true for traditional card and board games (and pen and paper games, if those count as traditional these days) as it is for MMOs, but there is a huge difference in scale.

For example, has anyone ever played a game of Monopoly without some house rules? In fact, has anyone read the actual rules? I sometimes wonder if every family has its own set.  Note: Monopoly is such a poor game  that I’d advise anyone to PLEASE USE YOUR OWN HOUSE RULES IF THEY MAKE IT MORE FUN

Running pen and paper games, it’s also  a given that players will always think of something that you didn’t expect them to do. But when I’ve been running those sorts of games, a large part of the fun for me is finding out how players will surprise me.

I’m fascinated by player behaviour in MMOs,  particularly in ways we find to play the games that the devs never intended. This could involve:

  • exploits
  • players cooperating on goals where devs expected that they would compete, or vice versa
  • roleplaying in games that aren’t designed around that
  • exploring instead of achieving, or vice versa
  • soloing content that was designed for groups
  • buying gold instead of farming it
  • powerlevelling
  • griefing
  • building elaborate social structures that weren’t foreseen by designers
  • any kind of mixmaxing that devs didn’t spot
  • focussing on unexpected goals (eg. the naked warrior, or people who collect pets as their endgame)

As soon as you bring real players into the picture, the sky’s the limit. Some of these emergent behaviours get labelled as cheating. Players are told ‘you’re playing that wrong’. Or ‘you’ve broken the game.’ Some exploits get fixed, some players get punished, life goes on.

But is it really possible to play the game wrong? It is understandable that if you present a player with a game — and no rulebook — they’ll assume that anything they can do in game is reasonable.

Even if there is a rulebook, as per Monopoly, they’ll feel comfortable tweaking it the rules just don’t reflect how they want to play.

Some players will not make this assumption. Instead, they’ll assume that the way they play is reasonable and everyone else is wrong. You’ll sometimes see complaints about perfectly legitimate power levelling from players who think it removes the fun from a game.

So in any case, it’s easy to feel confused. The huge MMO sandboxes that we play around in are welcoming to lots of different styles of play. You can do what you like. Except when someone decides that you were playing it wrong. That rock on which no mob could reach you? You thought it was designed like that, but what if it was a bug? That’s an exploit right there. That super powered combo you built your character around? Sorry, not intended. It gets nerfed next patch.

It is absolutely part of the MMO genre that if players find a way to be a little too optimal in game, steps will be taken to fix it. For the sake of balance. And because in order for the game to be fun for the majority, the optimal route through needs to be a ‘fun’ one and not a dull grindfest? Well maybe.  In any case, devs have their ideas of what is fun and since you are paying them to produce fun games, we assume most players are down with that.

So when is an exploit not an exploit?

Most people are aware of when they are exploiting an unforeseen bug in the coding, or even outright cheating. When these bugs are fixed and the exploits closed off, the majority of sensible players nod, remind themselves that these games are complicated, and may even think in passing how much more fun MMOs would be if you could just dump the hardcore achievers with their minmax attitude, exploits, gold buying, and tendency to focus on the ends rather than the means.

But sometimes it simply isn’t that clear.

Recently City of Heroes introduced a mission architect. You could create your own instances, your own plot arcs, your own supervillains and enemy groups, and other people could run through and give them marks out of 5. You could even earn xp and pick up achievement badges inside architect missions. It was (and is) terrifically fun.

Then someone worked out how to create a mission that was optimised for xp. It was called meow. It wasn’t just optimised for xp, it was crazy xp. You could create high level mobs with virtually no health. You could use high level mobs who were effectively rooted to the ground. You could use bunches of high level mobs clustered around a bomb that players could explode.  Here’s a  video of a player in a meow farm mission.

Other people caught on quickly and before you knew it, the channels were full of requests for groups for meow missions. They zipped up levels like wildfire.

And then NCSoft decided that enough was enough. Positron stepped in (as reported by Blog of Heroes) and stated clearly that this was going to stop. Meow missions would be banned, and:

Players that have abused the reward system egregiously may lose benefits they have gained – leading up to and perhaps including losing access to the characters power-levelled in this fashion

So the punishment is not just for the people who designed the missions. But possibly for anyone who ever used them. Even if it was just to grab a couple of quick levels to get a new ability, to help a friend or partner, or just to get high enough level to access some of the cooler zones.

Ardua@Echoes of Nonsense has a good rant about this. He helped his wife get her character a couple of levels via a meow mission because he was tired and it was late, so that she could get a pretty cloak and a pet that would help her to solo and now she risks being banned for it? And this is in City of Heroes, a game with no significant endgame.

I don’t have a problem with devs banning exploits and cheaters where they find them in games. But when it was down to their mistake and no one was really hurt by the extra powerlevelling, what’s the point in coming down so hard on all the players who may have taken part?

Maybe instead we should ask: why were people so keen to powerlevel in CoH? Is it because the midgame is boring as heck? Is it because some characters just don’t get fun before they collect a full set of abilities at higher levels?

Yes there will always be some people who exploit loopholes just because they can. In a way, they get their fun by outsmarting the devs (and good luck to them). But when you find a large proportion of the playerbase jumping onto the bandwagon, you have to ask what’s wrong with the game at a more fundamental level. Because if it was fun in vanilla mode, people would eat vanilla.

And if it takes hours of boring gameplay to get the character you want, then maybe the problem isn’t with the meows.

On another note, I’m still impressed at whoever thought to design powerlevelling missions. Someone recruit that guy as a level designer, stat. S/he obviously has a solid understanding of game mechanics and how players behave in game.