In space no one knows you’re a girl

Last post (for the moment) on women in gaming. I was interested but not surprised that CCP recently informed Destructoid that 96% of EVE players were male.

I don’t think there is anything inherent in the game itself that edges women players out. It’s not a very exciting game on a minute to minute basis, but plenty of people would theoretically enjoy the crafting and economy game even if they didn’t want to get involved in fleet action. I also think that the gameplay is fairly hostile to the more casual gamer who may have hours at a time to devote but may also have to leave the computer at short notice to answer the door/ phone, or deal with some minor household emergency.

I also take huge issue with the argument that women traditionally don’t like scifi. Hello, thousands of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica female fans would like to prove you wrong there.

The heavy competitive/ PvP focus traditionally is more appealing to male players. I imagine there are way more female players in games like Wurm Online (another sandbox with strong crafting emphasis) which doesn’t have the same push to PvP. The EVE community has also never been that friendly to women – what I mean by this is that if there was a kickass female-run corps, you’d see more interest from the type of women who might like the game anyway purely from the appeal of “get to play the type of game you like with people like you”. Which is more appealing than “get to play the type of game you like with the kind of people you try to avoid online where you can.”

There is also a certain type of complexity-for-its-own-sake that appeals to people who (in tabletop) love setting up spreadsheets for their Champions campaign, using the encumbrance mechanics in D&D and designing tanks using GURPS Vehicles. I’m talking about the trainspotter faction in gaming, predominantly male.

The other factor is because of the great advantages you get in  game by joining as part of a pre-existing group (most notoriously, Goons). That’s not a bad thing in itself, but when the majority of the groups are heavily male dominated anyway offline, any lone female joining the game is at a double disadvantage (because she would have to sign up with a group that are not particularly welcoming if she wanted that environment). Sure you could go sign up for SA but if you find that community toxic, why would you?

So basically I think the entire social structure of the game, albeit unintentionally, edges out the type of women who would otherwise enjoy it. And because so much of this is down to the metagame and out of game communities, there’s not really much CCP can do even if they wanted to. And they don’t really want to market to women because it might impact on their “harden the fuck up” narrative.

Plus of course it’s a hard sell pushing a subscription game to anyone in the current climate.

3 big problems with ranked battlegrounds

Ranked battlegrounds have been something of a THING in the current MMO cycle, with WoW introducing rated battlegrounds in Cataclysm, and SWTOR introducing ranked battlegrounds with the last patch. I imagine they exist in other games too. They involve players being part of a fixed team and queuing together for battleground play against other fixed teams, with rankings and points assigned for wins and losses. So it is an arena-style setup but with more players and pre-existing layouts and objectives.

On paper, it should be a happy medium for offering keen PvP players the chance to play battlegrounds competitively, while keeping the random PvP players away from organised groups that will roll straight over them.

I haven’t heard much from the WoW side about how well the rated battlegrounds have been working out, but I do know the main issues in SWTOR. I suspect they will be similar, although because of the cross-server queues in WoW, it might not be as bad. This is hard to gauge since the WoW PvP forum is dominated by discussions about arenas rather than the rated bgs at the moment. And here’s a thread from the SWTOR forums where people discuss why they aren’t queuing for ranked warzones.

Problem 1: Long queue times

I noted in a recent post that one of the goals for any random queuing mechanism would be to get as many players into the queues as possible. The queues in ranked battlegrounds can be very long, purely because each group needs 8+ players so there aren’t many teams queuing at any given time.

This sometimes means that ranked teams get bored and queue for random PvP instead, where they just walk all over the randomly queued players which isn’t much fun for them either. You could argue that this means the system is working as intended and random players should be encouraged to PvP in a more organised way. Which isn’t much help if the rest of your team isn’t on, you’re a new or casual player, or if you like random-ish low impact PvP.

Problem 2: Insufficient teams for well matched rankings

In any ranked PvP setting, ideally players would prefer to be matched with teams who can give them a good fight. (OK, there are some players who would always prefer a walkover, but aside from those.) That means teams of similar experience/ ranking/ ability in PvP. If a newbie team is consistently matched against an ultra-hardcore PvP team, they don’t have a lot of space to experiment and learn tactics because they’ll be over-run immediately all the time.

You would expect the hardcore teams to dominate, but if they are actually putting off newer teams from learning to play the rated game, then there’s no turnover when more experienced teams get bored,  and also no teams for other newbie teams to play.

Problem 3: Needing to grind random PvP to get the gear to play in ranked teams

The way PvP gear is acquired in both SWTOR and WoW is that a new max level character can buy a set of entry level PvP gear. To improve this, they need to earn tokens by playing battlegrounds which they can use to buy better gear. This will likely be quite grindy, depending on how much you enjoy the PvP in random battlegrounds. (In WoW you could also play arenas to gear up more quickly, as those queues are much shorter.) If the majority of teams in rated battleground play have the better quality gear (which they will) then every single new team member needs to do that gear grind if they aren’t going to be a weak link, gearwise.

The gear dependency of PvP is an issue in themepark style MMOs in any case, but it’s clear that this pre-requisite isn’t going to encourage more teams to queue for ranked battlegrounds unless they were already quite keen PvPers. That’s another barrier for newer or more casual teams to face.

Getting more teams into the ranked queues

Probably the rewards for playing a ranked game, whether you win or lose, need to be significantly better if they are going to encourage inexperienced players to team up and try their luck. The gameplay and rewards system should encourage teams to work on improving their performance, and that means limiting exposure to wildly better teams. This may mean that hardcore teams keep facing the same small number of competitors. It may mean extra achievements for the first time you play a ranked match or win one to encourage new players to try casual teams formed from general chat as an alternative to random queuing.

Another option would be to enable ranked battleground queues only at specific prime time slots, so that queues will be primed at those times. Or just give extra rewards to teams who queue on ‘ranked battleground night’.

I find this quite a tricky problem, but it’s undoubtedly true that people are put off creating new teams or  experimenting with pick up teams with voicechat because of concerns that their gear isn’t good enough or they’ll be facerolled repeatedly by the server’s best teams. And the people who do run teams are frustrated by the long queue times and lack of good matching. Ultimately I suspect the ranked bgs will be left to the hardcore who will probably arrange their own fight nights between themselves.

[SWTOR] My experience of endgame

Here’s a couple of screenshots from Kaon under Siege, the most recent flashpoint. It has many zombies, of which the top picture shows us disposing of one (yes, this one’s a screamer). Also there are some cool darker areas where you get to grab little floaty torches, as shown below. Arb and I were a bit girly about our torches and shrieked when the torches went out, and looked frantically for the next box of torches. The guys in the group were much more stoic.

It was a good, fun instance though. Looking forwards to the next one.

kaon

So, SWTOR endgame. I don’t really have a thoughtful summary for this yet, so this is in bullet point form. My experience is based on being in a friendly casual guild where we don’t yet have enough 50s to consider ops (raids) but when there are at least 4 players on of appropriate level range and role who have time available, there will often be an instance or hard mode run.

  • Dailies: I have been sticking with the Belsavis level 50 dailies, since they’re quicker and easier than the Ilum ones. I am not doing them religiously every day, or cleaning them all out when I do spend time there. Slacker? Sure. But I’ve made enough tokens to upgrade all the armor/ hilt in my gear, and it’s possible to solo one of the [Heroic 4] Belsavis dailies by judicious death runs so my companions all now have orange weapons with blue level 50 mods (because that’s one of the quest rewards as well as the daily tokens).
  • PvP: I may have run the occasional warfront but that’s about all, I’m not gung ho for PvP.
  • Instances: Have now completed all the normal ones and one hard mode. (I’m not big on PUGs, I suppose I could but the demand for melee dps isn’t high and gearing for tanking is a work in progress.)
  • Datacrons: Gathering Datacrons (one-time permanent buffs) is a much more engaging game than I had expected. Some need pinpoint (and frustrating) jumping skills, others include odd forms of transport or exploring detailed areas of the grid you hadn’t noticed before. It’s all quite intriguing. Teppo has the patience of a saint and organised a guild run to pick some up from Balmorra and Nar Shadaa. This was enlivened by me *accidentally* attacking a PvP flagged Jedi Knight we ran into who promptly returned with a raid group. So we had a lot of running battles on Nar Shadaa in between Holocron gathering. This reminded me a lot of DaoC, where it was standard tactic to annoy a high level enemy character in the hope they’d bring their friends out to play.
  • Matrix Shards: These are a special type of Holocron. I decided to collect the three shards I was going to need for my dps warrior matrix cube relic. This probably needs to be the subject of another post because it turned out to be quite involved but I’m dead proud that I did it! Gamewise, it made for an interesting and quite engrossing solo sort-of quest.
  • Space Game: I am getting more into this. Currently stuck on Polith Minefield (I can do all of it except getting all the turrets on the minelayer right at the end – feel free to offer any suggestions! :) ).
  • Crafting: I haven’t really been bothered to do much of this except for guildies. I seem to make enough credits from dailies that it isn’t necessary.

So it probably sounds as though I don’t do much in endgame, and that would be correct. On the other hand, I’m also busy with work and often don’t have much time to log on and I am finding enough to do when I do want to be online. I need an endgame like this where most of it is purely optional because I don’t have the time or energy to grind. On the other hand, my gear is fine for hard modes at the moment, and probably decent for ops as well (the rough rule of thumb I’ve heard is 1200 in main stat), when we get round to them.

The main lure away from endgame is playing alts. I do find it awkward that the legacy system encourages players to play alts of the opposite faction but there’s no guild system that can support having characters from opposite factions. So if you do this, you lose access to guild chat and being invited to guild runs etc unless your guild uses something external like voice chat.

The other thing with alts is that if you enjoy playing in duos (which I really do in this game), the alts are off the table unless the other person is on and wants to play the appropriate alt. I may need another solo alt I think…

The big surprise for me from endgame is that I’m enjoying the Datacrons much more than I had expected, even though the really jumpy ones are immensely frustrating. SWTOR Spy have a good guide on how to find them all.

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).

[SWTOR] The ‘oops we just broke high level world PvP’ patch

So, first content patch of the game has brought new flashpoint, operation (raid) stuff, class tweaks, and PvP tweaks and boy has the latter turned out to be a doozy.

There were tweaks made to the open world high level PvP zone on Ilum to encourage players to earn valor via killing other characters rather than just capturing objectives. However, the faction bases had not been given sufficient safe zones, add to that a population imbalance and what you end up with is one faction farming the other at the respawn point for eternity. And the respawning guys couldn’t get to their taxi/ escape point. MMOCrunch describes in more detail what’s been going down.

Bioware have apologised and are planning to patch it urgently. So basically PvP was messed up on Ilum for an evening, and there will be fixes. They also commented about noticing individuals who took ‘extreme advantage’ of the situation, but we’ve no idea what’s happening with that.

I find it hard to be up in arms about this since I’ve never even been to Ilum and although the game contains PvP, I don’t really consider SWTOR to be a PvP game. If they’d broken PvE I’d be mildly irritated though. However, PvP tweaks in a game really do need to be more carefully tested that this. It leaves the feeling that Ilum had been a problem when players were deliberately zone flipping so they put in a quick patch which has led to worse problems. I suspect they will eventually iterate on a fun/ workable solution, because open PvP zones can be fun and aren’t a bad idea.

As for players leaving en masse, it comes down to how much patience you want to have with a new MMO and team. I think the general lack of patience in the player base has been the doom of MMOs in general, but at the same time, a dev team needs to build the level of trust that means players will roll with a bad patch in the knowledge that it gets fixed. Bioware have not got off to the best of starts.

The important thing for me is a) how quickly they hotfix the problem and b) whether they can learn from the experience and avoid doing it again. The faction imbalance, however, is a whole other issue …

[SWTOR] More thoughts from beta (space combat, PvP, etc.)

This was the last weekend of beta testing for The Old Republic, and now the servers are down and being wiped. Hopefully some of the team get a few days downtime too before the craziness of launch.

The changes from last week’s build were noticeable. I think graphics were improved, servers seemed more stable (we didn’t suffer lots of d/c during flashpoints this time around) and I noticed some minor but very useful UI changes. For example, last week people commented that it wasn’t obvious where the bindpoints were or how they worked unless you specifically set them to show up on your map. Now they’re indicated more clearly in the game. There’s no doubt that the game itself is ready for prime time — main technical issues I had were with how long it takes to quit out of the game. (And it did hang my computer while quitting at least once, or at least took long enough that I got bored and rebooted.)

This time around I aimed to try a few of the classes I skipped last weekend, and level my sith warrior high enough to get my own ship and try out the space combat. My overall impression is that the story emphasis has a much bigger effect on how involved players get with their characters than I first thought. I did miss my sith warrior when I didn’t have beta access, gonzo as she is. Agreed with Arb and other friends in the beta that we had all enjoyed all the classes we’d tried, and thought it would be fun to play all of them at some point to see their stories. (That’s quite a lot of replayability in itself, but raises other issues around communications. This is a game that could really use a realID style comms channel, so you can chat to your friends without having to remember which alt they’re on today.)

So here’s some notes in bullet point form:

  • Found out how to buy advanced class skills. Apparently I did have a taunt at level 10, who knew? (Will post separately to explain how that’s done, in case anyone else misses it the same way I did.)
  • Sith Warrior still is a faintly embarrassing indulgence for me. I don’t know what the rest of her story is like but Act I is a gonzo non-politically correct power fantasy. There’s nothing really surprising yet, it’s the sort of stuff you’d expect, but beautifully implemented. Vette did imply that I was bonkers at least once, not sure if I should punish her for insolence or buy her a new blaster. No signs of any romance yet, but I think you’d have to be crazy to flirt with a sith lord anyway, even if they were hot. (OTOH, I could imagine my character picking out a hot imperial soldier with: “You, my room, tonight!” because that’s how she is. Like I say, it’s not politically correct. But probably something that everyone should try once ;) ) Am puzzled that my protective headgear seems to consist mostly of a mouthpiece — it is thematic but does the rest of my head not need protecting more? I do love how her voice changed when she was wearing it though. Darth Baras still sounds cool although am suspecting he is in fact a colossal jerk (you could argue that I should have twigged this sooner.) Created a male sith warrior to compare the voices, and he sounds awesome.
  • The ships are nice, similar in style to the KOTOR ship with floor plans and several rooms. It is basically player housing. It also comes with a friendly droid (who is excessively subservient if you are a sith warrior.)
  • Space combat is a separate minigame with its own missions, tokens, and rewards (mostly stuff to kit out your ship to make it better at the minigame.) It’s not difficult and I’m not sure how deep it really gets but is pretty and can be a bit fiddly, I had to repeat the first mission a couple of times before I got it. Kitting out your ship also helps enormously. Ultimately I thought it was fun so we’ll call that a win, but it’s not full 3D elite-style dogfighting, Star Trek possibly still your best bet for that in a MMO.
  • Tried PvP on my Bounty Hunter, I suspect strong influence here from the WAR team. Scenarios are compact and combat is fast paced. I tried Huttball which is a capture the flag scenario with extra tweaks involving ramps, platforms and air vents that help you jump. And you can pass the ball from one person in your team to another. Was fun, and worth doing once for the xp, but reminded me of all the annoying things about MMO PvP that bug me (ie. the bunny hopping rogues.)
  • Played consular some more. I still enjoy the slower, more thoughtful pace of the storytelling. And being able to throw rocks at people with my mind; that’s quite good and is a skill I’ve often wished for iRL. I’m curious to see how they deal with the mind reading/ controlling aspect of this class (a la Obi Wan), or whether it gets glossed over.
  • Played smuggler; the Han Solo quotient is high here. I find the class quite fun and like the cover mechanic. The smuggler isn’t as sarky as some of the empire classes (no really!), instead she has some cocky conversation options and lots of opportunity to tell people that it’s all about the money and you’re not really fighting for the republic. Liked the starting storyline also.
  • Character models are stylized and that can sometimes mean odd design decisions. All the male models except the weediest have huge barrel chests, and all the female ones have big boobs. (Was touched to hear someone on one of the republic chat channels wondering why the female models all looked skinny with big boobs, because he wanted to make a char that looked like his girlfriend who was “small and normal looking with big boobs.” Awwww.) Male characters do get an option to be fat, the female equivalent is merely very curvy with a big bum that sticks out when she is in combat stance in a way that makes you wonder if she’s about to fart.

As you can see I’m very positive about the game, and can’t wait to play it with friends in live. Haven’t decided yet on which class. I loved my sith warrior so much, but the bounty hunter was awesome too and it’s nice to have ranged options. Plus BH can be Chiss (ie. blue).

The judgement call is “if you like this sort of thing, you’ll really like this game.” It is what it is, but I’ve never played any RPG with this kind of attention to detail/ story/ voicework.

Do we really need to separate PvE and PvP servers?

The first MMO I played, DaoC, didn’t have separate PvE and PvP servers. (I know the US side got full PvP servers later on but they were always something of a curiousity.) But there was plenty of open world PvP. It just meant that some areas were designated for PvP and others weren’t, and there were plenty of incentives to get out there into the battlefield which people generally did with enthusiasm.

Games that included PvP servers back then were specifically for players who wanted all PvP all of the time and everywhere, even in the newbie zones. This tended to result in the classic vanilla WoW PvP experience of teams slaughtering each other outside raid zones as they tried to gather for raid nights. This is usually known as ganking but we have to assume that all the players involved enjoyed it because that was what they signed up to, dammit. (Compare with the DaoC experience where some raids were located inside the realm and others, specifically labelled as PvP raid dungeons, were in the frontier zones. So raid groups could decide if they wanted the chance of a PvP fight on raid night or not.)

I always felt that mixing the PvE and PvP players was generally a good idea, and encouraged people to experiment with different playing styles, but that all PvP everywhere was something better suited to some specific games than others.

Anyhow, this is a long rambling introduction to a graph posted at mmo-champion today – I’m talking about the third graph down which plots Nr Characters vs Honor Kills by realm type. ie. does more PvP actually go on in PvP realms than PvE realms? The answer is that it’s only really noticeable statistically on the lower end of PvP enthusiasm. Hardcore PvP players get most of their kills in battlegrounds, not in open world PvP, and they’re only very slightly more likely to be on PvP as PvE servers. The numbers can be a bit misleading – world PvP can be significant without being responsible for huge numbers of kills, but I think it shows how the WoW experience is getting increasingly instanced so that it makes less and less difference which type of server you pick.

These days, you’d have to be a noodle to pick a PvP server to level on for the world PvP experience, and I suspect most people pick them because they either feel that PvP server players are more competitive/ hardcore/ likely to have more successful PvE also, or they have friends there. The fact that you can transfer to a PvP server from a PvE server (which originally was not the case) has also diluted the idea of the pure PvP server player who was something of a hardcore badass frontiersman who levelled several characters through the Vietnam of Stranglethorn etc etc

I seem to see more people saying ‘I didn’t really want to pick a PvP server but ….’ than grinning gankers, but who knows? I think the DaoC model really had a lot more to recommend it, at least we all played together more or less and people settled on the type of play they preferred but with constant opportunities to mix it up. And it’s not a million miles away from EVE, which seems to be travelling towards making the newbie areas safer and leaving the 0.0 areas free for all — I don’t think hardcore players need to fret about this, the real hardcore PvP was never played out in newbie zones anyway.

Random thoughts on PvP, co-operative play, and fun

There is probably a word for the feeling you get on zoning into a battleground for the first time. Something that encompasses the existential angst of “Where am I?”, together with, “Where is everyone else?”, the panic of “What am I supposed to be doing?” and the frustration of “Argh, those bastards keep killing me! I’m really really bad at this.”

Amazingly, battleground-angst tends to clear up after you’ve run the battleground a few times. It’s amazing how learning your way around the zone and objectives will soon have you playing at a much higher level, even if you genuinely are rubbish at PvP/ duelling (which I am, incidentally). This is especially true in a well designed PvP zone where you’ll be able to use the terrain to your advantage.

Or in other words, the simple pleasure of being able to snipe at someone from cover.

I played a few rounds of PvP in Rift earlier this week with the delectable Hawley, and it was a very quick shift from, “Argh, I suck at this,” to “Let’s defend the flag. Hahaha, got them!” with achievements popping up all over the place. Part of this is due to being able to work together (everything is easier if you have a healer next to you in PvP) but mostly just getting more familiar with the goals and layout.

One of the reasons I like battlegrounds is that you can have fun and help your side win without ever actually having to be good at PvP. This works better if you are not playing against pre-made teams.

Portal 2 and Co-op

I was also able to play Portal 2 at a friend’s place the other week, and it looks great. Definitely on my list of games to buy when I have more time to play during the summer, along with LA Noir and (probably) Witcher 2.

One of the really fun things is that it works brilliantly as a console game. By that I mean when you have several people sitting on the sofa but only one person actually playing. It’s fun to watch people play Portal/2 and you can chime in with suggestions without ruining their fun.

The actual co-op mode involves two people with controllers, which we weren’t doing. But one of us with the controller and the other helping with ideas seemed to work really well as a fun social experience. I’m sure the co-op mode is good too, will look forwards to trying it sometime to see how that works as a social thing as well as a gameplay mechanic.

Social Capital #2: How we make connections in MMOs

Last week I was writing about communities in games, different types of communities, and why strong social capital is a good thing for both games and players.

Next week, I’m going to talk about the challenge of building strong, long term communities.

This post is more focussed on the nuts and bolts of player interaction. The different ways by which we can make connections with other players. If you like, these are the building blocks that make social networks happen.

Buffs: the gift that keeps on giving

Abilities which temporarily make other players stronger are very specific to computer games. Pen and paper RPGs didn’t typically time combat closely enough to allow for a variety of short or long term buffs.

But mechanically, buffing is a brilliant mechanism for allowing players to spontaneously help each other. I’ve known many players who enjoyed being able to carry out drive-by-buffing when meeting another player ‘in the wild.’ Usually the convention is that if someone else buffs you, you return the favour if you have any buffing abilities handy and they hang around for long enough.

Buffs in MMOs are one of the many ways in which players can do favours for each other. You can compare this with how virtual gifts are passed around in Facebook games. A buff is something quick and simple that you can do for another player, and it doesn’t cost you anything, require spamming your friends list, or ask you  to making pointed suggestions that they should give you something back in return.

It has always puzzled me why some games are so down on out of group buffing. Limiting buffs to situations where the entire group benefits, including the buffer, means that the buffing character can’t just get to go around freely handing out buffs and feeling generous and altruistic. I don’t mean that all buffers should do this, but some people really enjoy it. By contrast if buffing only happens passively or in groups, all that happens is people whine like crazy in a group if the buff isn’t there. In my opinion, something is lost.

And you can see how a game in which it’s very common for people to happily buff/ assist other strangers could feel friendlier and more welcoming than a game where they don’t. If your first contact with a strange player is that they wave, buff you, and move on, it shapes your expectations for the game and its community.

Emotes: Is there really an emote for that?

Emotes, like buffs, are very very old school. MUDs had plenty of them, and even in a text only game where people could just chat to each other anyway, people did still use the canned emotes (they functioned like macros).

The great thing about emotes in MMOs is that they are so immersive. Seeing another character wave at you in game and being able to wave back is pretty cool. I’m now sure how many people would actually be watching the emote rather than the chat window, especially if you are in a crowded location, but it is a way to exchange greetings and simple interactions without having to get into a complex discussion.

Amazingly, given the amount of animation work required, there are way way more emotes in games than most people would ever need. And yet, when some of them catch on in the community, they take off like wildfire.

In WoW specifically, dancing has been vastly popular. This is partly because Blizzard put so much effort into the special racial dances when the game first went live, I remember everyone being blown away by the dance videos. However awful people find the WoW community, when a group of bear druids start dancing in one of the major cities, expect EVERYONE to join in.

Emoting also can be a type of minigame. You can play it with enemy players as well as friends, or with players who don’t speak much English. Occasionally you will see people communicating mainly via emotes, either for one of these reasons or just because it amuses them to try to act out their responses and try out some of the less familiar emotes.

Emotes are also great for nervous players who aren’t sure about chatting yet or are cautious of the community. You don’t really have to worry about saying the wrong thing with an emote. It can be an ice breaker. And emotes are also great for games targetted at children where there is a desire to not allow unedited chat channels. It’s a more controlled way to communicate (although players can usually find a way to simulate some sort of sex via emotes if they really want.)

Given how old school the emotes are, I’m always surprised when they make it into new games. And yet, being able to wave at that guy who you always see in the auction house at 6am and get a wave back does engender a sort of feeling of recognition and community. You don’t always want to have long conversations with people, and text based conversations do tend to take awhile.

Grouping for quests and PvE

Joining a PvE group is a step above waving at someone in a city or buffing someone as you run past. This is a form of mechanic where players have to work as a team in some way to beat a mutual challenge and reach a mutual goal.

Closed groups involve a fixed number of people. Whoever creates the group will recruit people, either from anyone in the vicinity who is interested, to members of their guild/ friends list, or directly contacting other players of the right class and level to invite them. I have memories in DaoC of paging people across two zones to ask if they wanted to group, it was how we used to do things.

The way in which groups were traditionally formed was blown apart by WoW’s random dungeon finder tool which forms groups based on role and level and dumps them into appropriate dungeons together. Being able to skip the harrowing group forming step has definitely made group content a lot more accessible. But it is having an effect on how players view the rest of the LFD community. Rather than being able to negotiate with each new player individually and decide who you wanted to group with, there’s a good chance you’ll be thrown in with players who you would never ever have come into contact with otherwise.

And unfortunately, people now view it as the equivalent to jumping into a shark tank. Maybe you’ll be lucky (in actual fact, the vast majority of runs I have done have been fine, they might not have been smooth but the actual players were OK) or maybe you’ll meet Jaws and have to bail.

The other issue with LFD is that it has become so accessible that dungeons are no longer really seen as special content that you have to really focus on because it might have taken so long to arrange. So a lot of people take a really half arsed approach, bail as soon as anything doesn’t go their way and generally act as though everyone else was an NPC with bad AI.

It’s hard to blame Blizzard for this entirely. It was a shame when so few people had access to their nicely designed dungeons and they must have been thrilled at how many more can play through them now.  How to fix LFD is a subject for another day, but it may well be that different types of instance is the answer and recognising that there is a hunger in players to play with other people and get the group rewards, but also to chill out after work, not be tied up for hours and not have everyone feel forced to play at hardcore levels.

What grouping also does is require people to play with a team at a similar level to beat PvE based puzzles/ mobs at a fixed difficulty (games like CoH allow you to vary the difficulty a bit which I always thought was an interesting idea). This team play is one of the more addictive qualities of MMOs from a gameplay point of view. It shows off how the different classes and roles can fit together and should ideally give everyone the chance to both help other players and help themselves. I am personally a fan of the class model where everyone has some buffs, heals and crowd control but not enough to solo buff, heal, or CC an instance.

Ever since Warhammer Online, we have seen a lot of interest from designers in the idea of open public groups, most recently demonstrated in Rift. In this model, when you see a group of players out in the wild fighting a group encounter, you can easily run up and join in. Having more people involved should always be a good thing in this design (this has not always been the case), and in fact EQ2 is making this specific in their next patch with better rewards given for having more players in the public group.

A great alternative to instancing for the casual players, open groups let everyone pile in on an encounter with rewards for everyone and very little chance of being shouted at for not being an expert in your class or in that particular encounter.

I’m not touching here on raiding, because in WoW and similar games it has more of a long term approach so will be talking about that next week. There are also large scale casual PvE raids which are just another form of public quest. In my experience, players always enjoyed them and I certainly enjoyed organising big public master level zergs in DaoC.

Group and solo  PvP

One way in which we communicate with other players is by ganking them in PvP. If you think this doesn’t communicate anything worthwhile, it’s worth noting that some of the strongest communities I have ever seen in games involved hardcore PvP players of several factions chatting outside the game. They had a good competitive atmosphere.

Having a competitive encounter with another player of similar skill isn’t really any different from playing chess with them, in the sense that you’re playing a game.

Battlegrounds have become the PvP equivalent of instances. They are mini zones into which fixed groups from both sides zone in and have to battle over specific objectives. To me they always feel very sterile, I prefer open world PvP or large PvP zones where you can really make use of the terrain and make good use of scouting and area knowledge to lay out ambushes. However, they do encourage tactical play and if they feel more like pocket games than actual PvP, that’s because they are. The team with the best communication usually wins, a fact that you kind of hope would not be lost on players.

One of the trademarks of MMOs is also the big open world PvP battles involving 10s of players on each side. There is a strong sense of community that you can get from fighting alongside others in your faction for your faction goals.

Other games allow economic routes to help your faction in PvP also. In Pirates for example, you can create “unrest bundles” to help either stabilise or destabilise ports that are under attack. Again I think this is a great way for allowing different types of players with different strengths to aid their faction in a meaningful way.

((Ugh, out of time here. Will finish this post tomorrow when I want to talk about economic transfers in game, in game chat, guild chat, sharing information, and out of game communications. Sorry everyone, this almost never happens.))

The Miracle of Tol Barad

If you have been following any WoW blogs at all, you have probably realised that Tol Barad, the new open worldish PvP zone, and inheritor of the Wintergrasp mantle has been a complete clusterfuck.

Problem 1: How to find your PvP zone

Tol Barad is actually a zone in two sections. One which has a bunch of annoying daily quests, designed to encourage PvP by setting both horde and alliance after the same NPCs. It also features fast spawning mobs with massive aggro ranges, and – naturally – lots of nice reputation rewards such as weapons to encourage people to keep plodding through dailies there anyway.

The second part of the zone is the area where the 2 hourly PvP battles happen. I spent at least a month wondering why I never saw any of the PvP when I was doing my dailies and it was announced that the battle was on. The reason is that there’s actually no signposting at all to the PvP section of the zone.

tolbaradmap

The bridge that I’ve marked in red is actually the route to the PvP section. It isn’t marked and there aren’t any breadcrumb quests to take you there.  (You can also get ported there via the PvP tab, of course.)

So you can do your daily quests in Tol Barad without ever either engaging in PvP or encountering the battles for the zone. Some people would see this as a good thing. I think it’s just bizarre.

Problem 2: Unbalanced PvP

The actual battleground section has a central keep, three surrounding buildings and three surrounding towers. When the battle is on, the attacking force has to take and hold the three surrounding buildings at the same time. The defending force has to stop them. Each faction is nominally there with similar amounts of players.

What could possibly go wrong with this scheme? Apart from the fact that the attackers need to split their forces into at least three parts and the defenders just have to stop them holding one building for 10 mins to win.

Problem 3: This isn’t a fix so much as a bribe

The better fix would be having NPCs take the central keep or something and just get both attackers and defenders to have to hold as many buildings as possible.

But actually what Blizzard did was increase the rewards for when the attackers win. 1800 honor points (which is what you get for an attacking victory) will buy you at least one piece of PvP gear. Do this a few more times and you’ll have a full set.

The miracle of match fixing

You might think that it wouldn’t really matter how large the bribes were if it was still so much harder for attackers to win. And you’d be right if just about every server in both US and EU hadn’t started to arrange match fixing. I checked through several realm forums on the official site and every single one had a thread about Tol Barad, suggesting exactly this.

All that needs to happen is for the defending side to not try very hard so that the attackers always win. That way both faction get lots of freebie honor points for winning as attackers, the zone changes hands every 2 hours and everyone gets a chance to do the extra dailies that are awarded to the winner.

I know a lot of people view this as cheating but I am so impressed that pretty much all the playerbase, with minimal interaction, got its head together to cooperate on this. This is what I call the miracle of Tol Barad, and I hope other game designers are paying attention.

It’s normally so hard to get people to cooperate even minimally and Blizzard just pretty much threw some free loot at people with an obvious optimal strategy (let the zone switch hands every fight) and they’ve all been able to communicate, organise, cooperate, and profit.

Shame it had to ruin the one way I had found to make money as a blacksmith though, in selling starter PvP gear …