Dealing with Unfairness in Games

Human Beings spend a large proportion of their lives thinking about whether they are getting a fair deal, whether someone else is getting a better one, and complaining about it. We’ve all heard the adage, “Life isn’t fair,” and it is demonstrably true. Anyone with an ounce of empathy cannot watch the news without having this hammered home.

How societies decide what ‘fair’ means, which aspects of life should be fair, and cope with actual inequities is pretty much the history of humanity. All civil rights legislation, for example, is based on a shift in views about fair treatment for all and what that means.

So it isn’t surprising that players in MMOs also spend a lot of time eyeing each other up and complaining when they think things aren’t fair. After all, in a game, you can design the playing field to give everyone a fair chance. But sometimes, the design introduces something that is deliberately unfair.

I was thinking about this after reading Tam’s complaint about people who refuse to run back to an instance after a wipe, and about how he dealt with it.

So here’s the situation: In Warcraft, if you die then you have three options for resurrecting (ignoring soul stones for the moment). You can release and use the spirit healer, you can release and then run back to your body which will spare you a debuff, or you can wait for a healer to resurrect you which they will do if they are in your group and not dead.

If there is no resurrection spell in your group then everyone must run back. Otherwise, you only need one person with a res spell to be alive in order to get the whole group back on its feet. So if you are the only healer and you die, you must run back. Everyone else can if they want.

It wasn’t quite that simple though. Before Wrath, there were healers who could not res out of combat (druids) and non-healers who could (any hybrid who wasn’t in a healing role). Then they added the ability to the engineering trade skill, shamans could self res as well as ressing other people, and warlocks could give people a self-res buff via the soulstone. So there was never a strong design that said resurrections needed to be rare or restricted.

I never understood why every class didn’t get an out of combat res spell. There was no need to force healers to always run back, just because they happened to heal. There was no need to make that part of the healer role. And also, there was never a need to make the run back into the instance so long. In LOTRO, for example, if you die in an instance, you release to the beginning of the instance.

But instead of complaining about either of those things – which are honestly outdated mechanics from the start of the game – players prefer to bitch at each other. The unfairness of the healer’s long run back has become part of the accepted fabric of the game.

And what I wonder is whether having some unfairness in the game by design makes for more interesting social environments and social challenges. Does the shared experience of always having to run back make the healer role feel stronger? Did druids feel less like ‘real’ healers prior to Wrath because they didn’t have that pressure on them? (No point running back if you don’t have a res handy, unless you just want to laugh and point at the corpses.)

10 thoughts on “Dealing with Unfairness in Games

  1. Actually I found that as a druid healer pre-Wrath, some groups would simply not want to take me along for five-mans – the thought of everybody having to run back on their own even if they were the only one who died was extremely off-putting to people. If they did take me after all, I was often expected to “waste” my combat-res (back when it had a 30 minute cooldown no less) out of combat just to save people the run. If I didn’t or simply couldn’t because it already was on cooldown, I only got more grouchiness directed at me. Not having a res as a healer certainly felt like a handicap more than anything else.

    • I know what you mean, I played my resto druid as a main through most of TBC.

      I wonder if this is why I’m fairly chilled out about whether people run back or not when I’m healing. I’m still so happy to have an out of combat res on my character (because I remember how miserable it was to be the only healer without one) that I’m happy to take the run back as the cost of entry.

      • TBC already had smaller instances than vanilla. Not being able to rezz in some huge place like BRD or a place where you leave pats alive like DM North or a place with a fast respawns, that was a pain. Nothing like wasting 15 minutes of every group member just because you are a druid. Yeah, it was stupid.

  2. “And what I wonder is whether having some unfairness in the game by design makes for more interesting social environments and social challenges”

    Absolutely. MMORPGs need imbalance and reliance in order to create social interaction and interesting situations. Without it, we’d all be playing the same class and the game would be very, very boring.

    The trick is balancing it though. Does relying on another class to “bind” you to a city make the game too hard and frustrating or more interactive and rewarding? Does requiring someone else to retrieve your corpse from a dungeon create friendship or impatience?

    Newer MMOs are definitely going down the independance road more than the social reliance one. It’s been great in some areas but they’ve stepped over the boundaries in others. Human beings always take the path of least resistance and sometimes games need mechanics that block them and force them into situations they wouldn’t normally experience.

  3. In my book resurrection-spells are only useful in the situation where part of the group died while the rest (hopefully including the person with the rezz) is still alive. In that case you can save time by rezzing. If everyone died then simply letting everyone run back is the faster solution by far. In most cases the run back will be long enough that everyone will arrive with full mana and after buffing up you can get going immediately. If only the healer runs back he will be no faster than a whole group running back, but after arriving he has to:
    – Rezz four persons
    – Drink
    – Let the rest of the group drink
    before buffing and getting it on.

    I’m not as strict as Tam, I will rezz you once. At the same time I will tell you to run on your own next time. And I’ll give you hell if you don’t, because otherwise having the ability to rezz would really be a disadvantage instead of an ability. Can’t have that, can we?

  4. “But instead of complaining about either of those things – which are honestly outdated mechanics from the start of the game – players prefer to bitch at each other.”

    This is how MMO game design works. Did you ever play any of those sim games like Populous, Majesty or Dungeon Keeper? Well the designer is like the player of a sim game. They stick an incentive on something and watch the ants to see if they change behaviour and how. If the outcome isn’t quite as desired they tinker with the incentive again.

    One thing that is undoubtedly good for these games is friction. Without some friction the game is just banal and people get bored. No one says they want friction but they do leave games that don’t have it.

    The not running back after a ress has been a source of friction and forum complaints for 5 years but has not been “fixed”. I think this is because it’s seen as a small element of friction that is not enough for anyone to cancel over but it keeps the game emotionally involving. It’s a form of death penalty that scales with the contrariness of the party. It’s like exp loss except that players blame each other instead of the “stupid game”.

  5. Try UO where folk could camp your corpse. Now there’s a fun corpse run.

    Early on, I remember having to explain to groups that I could only rez once every 30 minutes if we have several go down. For whatever reason, in PUGs at least, this doesn’t seem to have been common knowledge.

    Now, I’m happy to corpse run and rez away. First, I’m an elf and the whisp (plus my cat dash) means that I can get in more quickly than most. Second, I’ve noticed that rezzing is much more common in general now. I used to run almost by default. Now I’m usually getting rezzed before I can ask. The game’s shifted.

  6. I like the guild wars approach. Everyone can resurrect once and this “charge” is refreshed if you kill a boss. In a 5 man group you would have 5 resurrects per boss.

    This should also force some people to behave better because they couldn’t assume to be resurrected after every pull. 🙂

  7. It’s a tricky one though on where you draw the line on what spells give a class a unique flavour and what spells are a huge inconvenience when they are limited to one or few classes.

    I levelled a feral druid alt recently. And whenever I go back to my main or another alt, I wish I had Dash, Prowl or instant flight (LOVE instant flight). I have just started levelling a mage alt and have fallen in love with Polymorph (and I’m sure Blink will be right up there with it once I get it).

    Actually, now I’m wondering what special abilities my priest has that I miss on other characters (apart from bubble ofc).

    Anyway – my point is that you have to draw the line somewhere as, like someone said, otherwise all classes will be much of a muchness. And I’d rather have those arbitraty lines that makes me appreciate the uniqueness of each class rather than having one class that can Dash, Prowl, Polymorph, Bubble and cast Heroism.

  8. I’ll Rez people on my Pally if I survive, but if it’s a Wipe and we’re running back I’m going to be pissed to see you hanging around at the GY waiting for me to get back in so I can Rez you and save you the run.

    Yes, you can go AFK for a bio or drink so you can spend your “dead” time doing something else, but when my Redemption takes 10 seconds and uses 64% of my Base mana, I’ll probably be able to Rez two people then have to drink before Rezzing the other two (unless the Priest can get them, I’m a Pally Tank). But then we have to drink before Buffing everyone, then we’ll have to drink yet again before the next pull can start.

    Waiting for a Rez might let you get a drink or have a quick smoke but it does NOT save time, if anything it wastes time, other peoples’ time.

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