Can hardcore players destroy a MMO?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroic dungeons, and what is the optimal length for an instance anyway?

I’ve been reading an increasing number of blogposts from dedicated WoW players recently who are finding that the current Blizzard model of instances just isn’t working for them.

Understand also that it’s hard for someone who’s been so tied to a game to start criticising it, and trying to understand why it’s not so fun for them any more.

Kaozz writes:

Last time I queued I waited 40 minutes (as dps) for a normal instance and logged before one popped up. While they want to take the pressure off healers for ‘covering’ for other people by flinging out tons of heals- it still falls on the healers as they sit OOM holding the group up. Even if the dps was too low they will still get blamed in many cases. It’s not a fix. It’s not fun. It’s not harder, its wasting time.

Here’s the dirty secret of heroics this time around. A lot of people don’t enjoy them. It’s not just the difficulty, it’s the time and focus that they require and the fact that you can add quite a lot to that time if you have someone along who doesn’t know the place.

If you always run heroics with your guild and you’re all well geared, you’re probably thinking this sounds inane. Because they are quite smooth if everyone is well geared and knows what they are doing. This however is not the PUG experience.

And once you add really long queues for dps into the mix, it’s not surprising that people start to fret. Telling them all to play tanks or healers is AN answer but for all you know they might have tank/ healer alts and just want a break. I’m not sure how easy it is to organise runs on trade chat at the moment either, I hear people doing it so presumably it must work ok. So there’s one option.

Joining a larger guild is another option, but some people enjoy smaller guilds for reasons other than gameplay. It worked well in Wrath to be able to be guilded with RL friends and still run instances whenever you wanted via LFG. People, understandably, don’t want to be forced out of that mould.

lonomonkey adds his voice to the mix:

We’re all very casual, playing when we feel like it and when time allows. We’re not out for epics, achievements or guild levels. Yet, we do like the occasional raid and we do want to progress our characters with heroics for example.  We can’t do that anymore in Cataclsym since we’re a small guild that doesn’t always have five member ready to run heroics.

I suspect that Blizzard had something fairly special going in Wrath with the combination of quick instances and LFD. Maybe in a few months time the Cataclysm instances will be like that as well, but right now they aren’t. And once you have burned people out on a game, they may not be in a terrible hurry to come straight back.

Or in other words, the model of “start hard, and then nerf” is just going to lose casual players who happen to be in at the start.

The perfect instance length

In college, we’ve always been told that 45 mins is about the right length for a lecture. Longer than that, you can’t concentrate. Shorter than that, you won’t learn as much. If ours go on longer, we always have a 5 min break at the 45 min mark. So I think 45 mins should be the upper bound on instance length, even allowing for a few wipes. Possibly with some exceptions, marked clearly, for people who want a longer run and longer instances could have save points along the way.

But how can you measure the length of an instance? A well geared, well drilled team will demolish just about anything in a smooth run. A first learning run will always take longer than a farm run. Even Wrath heroics  took awhile when we were first learning them.

It is an interesting problem. But one thing is clear, there’s a demand for shorter easier LFG-friendly instances right from the start of an expansion, rather than halfway through …

Thought of the Day: When reaching your goals is all about the journey

The perennial casual vs hardcore debate rumbles on, and I thought this was a really interesting thread on the topic on tankspot. It is particularly interesting in WoW at the moment, because people are deciding what their goals will be (raiding and guildwise) in the next expansion.

And I just wanted to pick out one quote:

I think the reason Hardcore people really get progression(and so much faster) is because when you put 25 people in a raid who want to be the best at X class, instead of 25 people who want to get X gear(or X boss). you’ll get much further.

There does come a point where it’s all about recruitment. But there’s also a point where a lot of people would say, “who cares about being best at X class as long as you’re good enough”. Clearly not a hardcore attitude, or is it? Spending Z extra hours to nail that last 0.5% of performance when it isn’t necessary is not a very efficient use of time.

I think there’s two different types of goal setting.

  • I want to do/get X as fast as possible.
  • I want to do/ get X as efficiently (i.e. as little excess work) as possible.

Optimising efficiency hasn’t really been popular gameplay in western games, it’s a little alien to designers.

But if your goal in Wrath is to kill the Lich King, there’s no special benefit to being in a hardcore guild if a more relaxed setup could also do the job. Each week we’re seeing more raids take down Arthas for the first time. It’s a really big moment for any group that had been raiding together for most of the expansion, however casual.

And the particular  challenges facing casual raid guild leaders who need to pull together players with varying goals, commitment, and availability and keep things running for months on end are not well understood or rewarded in game.

To all of them, and everyone who raids with them, congratulations! You rock.

[Guest Post] Raid Leading in Wrath, One Tree’s story

(Thron is known in other parts of the Internet as Natural20.  You can
find him on Livejournal here –
http://natural20.livejournal.com/ or on
Twitter here –
http://twitter.com/natural20 He tends to talk a lot
about Irish politics as well as gaming and conventions, you have been
warned.)

thron poses in front of the frozen throne

It's a long way from Zul Gurub ...

A short introduction, I’m Thron, a Resto-Druid and raidleader of Cobra, the raiding community that Spinks mentions here.

I’ve been raiding with Cobra since the community started up in Zul’Gurub and I’ve been a leader since Karazhan.  As Spinks mentioned we’ve recently killed the Lich King and I wanted to share some thoughts on leading the Cobra community through eighteen months of raiding in Wrath, from the first boss in Naxx to our final victory atop the Frozen Throne.

Cobra was set up with the express intention of getting members of three guilds (Ashen Rose Conspiracy, Oathforged and The Red Branch) into content they would never see if they didn’t band together.  In Wrath we wanted to progress more than we had in TBC, but also try, as hard as possible, to bring as many people with us on our journey.  The goal was, of course, to have Arthas lying at our feet, but we knew it was going to be a very long road.

Thron and Cobra killing the lich king

Spot the tree

We benefited hugely from the company of some raiders from outside the three guilds who were looking for a more casual group than they’d been with in TBC, or those whose groups disbanded at some point during Wrath.  Integration has been hard on occasion, making sure that we held true to our guiding aims, while trying to make sure people didn’t get bored.  As all raidleaders will know, this is far from an easy task.  It’s also something I’ll come back to later.

The raid pool has always hovered around fifty toons, but the composition and balance has varied greatly.  There were times we thought we’d never want for healers and other times we’ve wondered if the hunters had a secret breeding programme going which would eventually overwhelm the group!  To be fair, druids have always made up the biggest single class, but that has always seemed right and proper to me.

This has meant we’ve struggled at times and mostly we’ve been saved by folk who were willing to play more than one spec, but we’ve held fast to our rule of only allowing one toon per player, it’s kept things much more straightforward.

So, we started out in Naxx in January 2009, speeding our way through the bosses as most groups did, running up against our first roadblocks with the Four Horsemen and feeling very accomplished when Kel’Thuzad gave up his first Journey’s End, although that’s all we ever seemed to get from him.  But clearly Naxx, easy as it was, showed us we could do it, at the appropriate gear level.  According to the realm forums we were in or around the seventh Horde-side raid to clear the instance, a position we were to occupy most of the way through the expansion, with a few notable exceptions.  This gave the raid group a lot of confidence, knowing that we wouldn’t be at the forefront of progression, but we’d be keeping up, managing to get through the content on an average of six hours raiding a week.

death of malygos, with the raid all mounted on red drakes

The Cobra synchronised red drake flying team never won any marks for style ...

And onwards we went.  While we never managed Sartharion + 3,  we killed Flame Leviathan the day Ulduar went live and pushed on until Yogg-Saron was defeated.  Trial of the Champions had already opened at that point, so we did outgear the god of death in the end, but we were happy to take the kill.  TotC was almost the death of Cobra.  Like many raid groups the instance bored us very quickly, but the heroic versions were just too difficult for us and wiping repeatedly without any sense of progress gets very boring, very quickly.  This lack of progress (and mindless repetition), combined with a number of situations where one mistake could wipe the raid didn’t please anyone.

Cobra has improved in leaps and bounds since we started, but that kind of situation has never suited us and the awful instance design and bad tuning didn’t help.

cobra eyes up rotface

We were incredibly lucky that Ice Crown opened when it did.  The raid is almost as much fun as Ulduar and the increasing buff seemed to be designed for a group like Cobra.  It was far from all plain sailing, but up we climbed, sticking with our six hours a week schedule and even getting a Horde-side first kill along the way (Princes).  And then finally, with patience and the 30% buff, we managed to kill Arthas.  What an amazing night that was.  I cracked open the very expensive whiskey and got to sit back and bask.

And reflect, with articles like this, on the journey.  We started off in Wrath with four raidleaders and we’ve ended with three.  Between us we have encouraged, explained, dragged and occasionally bullied Cobra through the expansion.  We have been amazed by just how good the group is and how individual brilliance has saved a wipe, while at the same time wondering if sometimes players just ignore everything we say before a pull.

death of halion

We’ve dealt with emo, both explicable and inexplicable, and despite Spinks’ request I’m not going to reveal which group generated the most!  We’ve managed to compromise between the hardcore raiders who want to push on to hardmodes and the more casual players who sometimes forget just why standing in fire is a bad thing.  I’m not entirely sure how we’ve managed this, mind, probably because the people in question trust us, at least that’s the assumption I’ve got to make.  We’ve nearly kicked people from raids and we’ve nearly had people quit mid fight.  Toons have come and gone, some will be missed, others less so.

Over eighteen months there have been nights when I just didn’t want to log in.  I didn’t want to have to guide the twenty-five brave souls on the list for that raid through the content and there have been times when the ten minute break couldn’t come fast enough.  But these times have been far outweighed by the moments of brilliance and fun.  And this is what sets Cobra aside.  This is why I think we’re one of only four Horde-side (25 man) raiding groups on Argent Dawn (EU) to kill Arthas.

We’ve been through things that would kill other groups dead and there have been moments when I’ve thought I was going to get zero sign-ups for the next raid, but the actual sense of community and friendship has carried us through.

map of the world

We come from all over the world

Our raiders come from as far north as Finland and as far south as South Africa.  We have raiders from Donegal (in the extreme northwest of Ireland) and others from far more easterly climes in Europe, it’s a varied bunch.  But it’s a bunch that have grown to know each other, to take humour from the strangest things, to laugh when the only other option is to cry and, ultimately, to support Phoenixaras, Elelereth and I while we, in turn, try to support them. I don’t know of any other raid group who would react to repeated wipes by riding mammoths around Deathbringer Rise and then jumping off, one by one, while voice chat is filled with gales of laughter. Cobra is a true community and it has, when we look back, managed to fulfill the mission and it’s made me proud.  It’s probably also shaved about ten years off my life, but thems the breaks.

We’re looking at Cataclysm now, staring down the barrel of a complete change in how raiding works in WoW, and I don’t know what Cobra will look like once everything changes.  My hope is that we’ll keep on raiding, but we really won’t know until decisions have to be made.

Either way Wrath raiding will always be a special, wonderful, frustrating, maddening and ultimately rewarding experience and I’d probably do it all again, even knowing what I know now.  That said, I do a few things differently, increase the number of raidleaders from day one and refuse a few applicants who turned out to be more hassle than they were worth, but these are the things you learn and nobody ever said learning was painless.

For now we’ll get the rest of the raidgroup Kingslayer, then relax for a little while and see if there’s a bunch of raiders who still want to be given orders by a loud Irishman (me) and a soft spoken Englishman (Elelereth), while a rogue picks their pockets (Phoenixaras).  I hope there will be, there are still stories left to create.

*** (Blame Spinks for the lack of good kill shots and general lack of any screenshots of Ulduar (!) )

The fun of deciding NOT to do something

Say it in whispers, but one of the things I like about MMOs is that it isn’t possible for me to do everything in the game. There just isn’t time, so I have to decide where I want to focus my efforts.

I know that other people don’t have the same time constraints and also don’t seem to get bored at the same rate, so they can throw way more hours into hardcoring it up. I just don’t find hardcore as fun as the more thoughtful gameplay choices that casual players have to make.

I’m playing far more casually at the moment, and that means that even in aspects of the games I enjoy, I’m always weighing up whether the benefits (including fun) of an activity are worth the time/ effort. Whilst a lot of hardcore gamers really thrive on grinding for hours for that last 1% bonus, as a casual I enjoy being able to say, “Nope, I’ll skip that grind. I can be 99% as good without it and put the time into something else.”

So for me, playing with time constraints (and boredom constraints) makes the day to day decisions of gameplay more fun. The decisions matter. I know I won’t have time to raid simultaneously on several alts. I know I won’t have time to get good at thousands of different specs. So I have to choose carefully and stick with my decisions. That’s fun for me; important gameplay changing decisions are fun. And it isn’t just time constraints that come into play – I enjoy exploratory gameplay where I’m learning new things. So I’ll prioritise that over grinding for achievements.

I could make time for more in game grinding if I really wanted to do that. Maybe that last 0.01% would make a difference to our raid performance after all. But I know the truth is that I enjoy deciding not to do something just because it’s there, just as much as I enjoy throwing myself into some new feature. I love that there is content which I deliberately decided not to complete, but that other people do. I know that to a hardcore gamer I must look like an unmotivated slacker.  But I don’t think that slacker really describes the way I play at all.

Do you pick and choose which parts of the game you play, or do you feel duty bound to do everything you possibly can to advance your character?

How to switch to being more casual

I have played hardcore. I have played casual. And let me tell you, switching from one style of play to the other is not just as simple as only logging in for a fraction of the hours. It involves  a change of the way you view yourself in your MMO of choice.

Being a casual or hardcore player isn’t just about the hours played or the raid schedule, of course. You can put in lower hours and still play like a pro. You can put in longer hours and bimble around with your alts. But switching from 5 nights a week to 1 night a week is still going to require a change of mindset, as well as of logging time.

It is also completely normal for people to re-evaluate their play schedule when a new expansion is coming up. Do I want to be less hardcore in Cataclysm? Would I like to try to get into a top 100 guild, and what would that involve? Would I like to do things differently in the next round? Has my life changed (new job/ university course/ baby/ relationship) and does my gaming need to change too?

For example, if you are used to playing in a heavily scheduled, hardcore raid guild, you probably see yourself as being among the elite of the server. So what happens when you have to cut your playing time? Your raid may need to replace you by someone who can make all those scheduled raids. It won’t be personal. It won’t be a comment on your failure to get out of the fire in that one raid last year.  But you may still feel like a failure, and see the raid options available (apply to a more casual guild? PUGs?) as being beneath you.

Similarly, if you’re used to being one of the mainstays of a highly social or RP guild, having to cut your hours means you simply won’t be around as much. People will talk to someone else instead. Friends will still like you and be happy to see you when you are around, but you will feel as though you aren’t the centre of the guild any more because you just aren’t there as much. You will be very aware of all the exciting RP that goes on when you aren’t there and probably quite jealous, even though it’s no one’s fault that you missed it.

So if this sounds a bit like a 5 step program, it’s because most people will be shaken in their game identity if they have to play less. So if you’re going to make this switch (which you may have no choice about), AND be happy, you have to come to terms with a few basic facts. And learn to enjoy your decision and your new playing schedule.

1. People with less time have to make hard choices, you will miss out on some things

In many ways, players with limited time are the only ones who get the opportunity to make real choices in MMOs. People with virtually unlimited time can pretty much do everything that they want. They have the time to level all the alts, attend all the raids, practice all the trades kills, make all the in game networking contacts. But you will have to prioritise. Other people may not be under the same pressure.

So although your choices do matter more, you must accept that you have to make them. Events will also happen that you will miss, and some of them you will have really wanted to attend. You need to learn to live with that.

You may also end up feeling less engaged with the game. You’re putting in less hours, doing other things as well. It is sad to step back from something that was an important part of your life, but people change and it’s natural for priorities to change too. You’ll always have the memories.

2. Pick your goals smartly

Because your choices matter more, you need to pick sensible goals for yourself. What do you actually want to accomplish in the game? Will your current group/ guild let you do that? If your current guild is making you miserable because they are based on everyone playing a lot and you can’t keep up, then maybe it’s time to look around for a group that suits your circumstances better.

It’s not easy to leave a social group behind. But infinitely better than staying and being miserable because you can no longer fit in. Plus there are plenty of people knocking around who have made the same decision in the past and will understand where you are coming from.

If you want to raid, would you prefer to find a casual friendly group that has a relaxed schedule? Or switch to a server with very frequent PUG opportunities? (A high population server with a lot of raiders will offer infinitely more raid PUGs than a low pop, less progressed one.)

Some goals are inherently more casual friendly. PUGs and battlegrounds can be hopped into at any time. Solo play can be taken at your own pace. You’ll soon find out if any of your goals aren’t feasible because you’ll be frustrated all the time you are in the game. If this happens, look harder at your current goals.

Plus, of course, it’s easier to make sure that events happen when you want them if you can organise your own.

3. Picking a suitable class/ tradeskill

Some people will tell you that tanks or healers are more casual friendly because they don’t need to wait so long for instances. Or specifically healers if you want to PUG raids – they’re always needed. Others will suggest DPS because it may be an easier role to learn, and more of them are needed.

I’d say that the best notion, as usual, is to pick the one you love. But if you’re looking for a regular raid spot, it will be a more uphill struggle with a tank.

And while hybrids will give you many more options, it also takes longer to gear each role and learn to play it. Having said all that, the answer to anything in WoW at the moment is probably paladin. Great at soloing, very forgiving, can tank/heal/dps, not too difficult to learn, no competition on the healing plate.

Trade skills are another matter. Understand that the actual crafting skills are usually time sinks and players with more time will have maxed them out long before you get there. You will make more money in less time by going with gathering skills. This is not to say that it’s a bad idea, just something to bear in mind when picking goals, and don’t expect to be the only enchanter in the village.

4. Try to be happy

Don’t be jealous of people who have more stuff or more time in game. It is hard to adjust from being one of the time-rich ‘haves’ to being more time-poor, but hating on random people won’t help. If you are used to being one of the people who always helps everyone else, it can be tough to switch to being the one who is asking for help.

I think it’s the change in mindset which is more painful than actually having less time. No one minds crafting stuff for you if you ask politely and give them the materials (and a tip, if appropriate). It just can feel harsh if you are used to being able to make everything yourself.

Still, there is plenty of chilled out fun to be had. You can do pretty much all of the things on a casual schedule that people could do with more time (it may be that cutting edge raiding is off the agenda, for example). But you have to do them in different ways and maybe a different timescale.

It is just the nature of these games that more time = more stuff. You could also look for alternative games where this isn’t such a factor. Just bear in mind that Blizzard have been trying to even things up for people who play less right since the game opened (e.g. rested xp, limited boss attempts) and people with more time have consistently found ways around it.

5. Find people to hang out with who understand where you are coming from

If you spend your time in game with a bunch of hardcore gamers who raid five nights a week, you will also spend a lot of time comparing yourself with them and being miserable about how much you are missing. As a casual player, you will very likely have more fun and be less stressed in a guild which has a good mix of people and is less focussed.

It doesn’t mean you can’t play with the same people. A fixed levelling group or regular casual-friendly PvP evening will put you on the same footing as everyone else who turns up. But that takes buy-in from everyone. A guild which makes active use of bboards during the day will make it much easier for you to keep up with what is going on and feel involved, even though you may not be in game so much.

Don’t stay in a group or game which is making you unhappy, though. Instead think about why it’s making you so miserable. Are your goals incompatible with your availability? Are your friends on a different schedule?

Playing with people who have more/less time to game

In any MMO, there will be some people who play more, and some who play less. Unless you either always solo or always play in a fixed group who log in at the same times every week, you will hang out with both people who have more time to play and people who have less.

At the moment, I notice this because I’m playing more than one MMO (WoW and LOTRO). In one, I’m the ultra casual. In the other, I’m not. And in both cases, I play with people who spend both more and less hours in the game than I do.

Can it cause friction? For sure. People who play more hours will almost always have more stuff, more alts, more trade skills, more time to raid, more practice at the game skills, more friends/contacts in the game. After all, most ‘choices’ offered in MMOs vanish if you have enough time to do everything. (Which class should I pick? I’ll just level one of everything. etc.)

People who play less may be more casual, less skilled, have less gold. And that takes some adjustment. It can be frustrating for the lower hour players (why do I always have to be worse at everything? Isn’t there any one thing I can do that player X won’t pull out 17 alts who do it better?) as well as the more intensive players (how can Y not understand this simple thing?)

And of course, people often change their playing schedules. For example, at the start of Wrath a lot of WoW players featured it heavily on their gaming schedule. There was a lot to do – levelling, rep grinds, gearing up, organising raid groups. And as people get more bored or have completed more of the game, they tend to play less. They still have all the stuff and all the skills which they accumulated during the initial glut, but will spend less time right now. This type of play isn’t the same as a more casual player, even though they might be putting in the same hours.

Do you play with people who spend a lot more or less time in game than you? What issues have you found? And how do you deal with them?

When expectations change

Tobold wrote about a week ago about players and their sense of entitlement. Do players have a right to feel entitled to easy levelling, easy loot, and accessible raiding, or is it just as much a sense of entitlement if the hardcore feel entitled to always be a quantum leap ahead of the rest?

The word entitlement implies a sense of  rights. For example,  I have statutory rights as an employee, as a consumer, and as a British citizen. Those rights are enshrined in (local) law. So as a consumer, I’m entitled to buy items that are fit for purpose – and if they aren’t, I can go argue my case in court and the state will back me up if I’m right.

In a computer game, we don’t  have rights in the same sense.  No one is entitled to anything beyond their standard consumer rights when they buy a game. What we do have, however, is a sense of expectation. If I buy a book and I don’t like it, my consumer rights aren’t breached because the book being fit for purpose doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be a cult classic. It just means that it has pages with words/ pictures on them and can be read (note: insert legal definition of book here if you are feeling pedantic). If the book radically fails to  fit the description on the jacket then maybe, just maybe, I have a case. But if my expectations are shattered then I won’t buy another book by the same author (unless they are shattered in a good way.)

But what expectation do players have from MMOs? The box and advertising will tell you a lot about what it is possible to do in the game, but cannot guarantee that you will be able to do those things, because many of them require the cooperation of other players. That’s  the one thing that no one can sell you, unless the box specifically states, “bring some friends.”

So maybe you go in, sold on the idea that you can create a character of your own to explore and adventure in the virtual world, and meet other people. Those are reasonable expectations. Everyone will be able to do that. But what then? Will the game allow you to finish all of its content, or will some be locked to specific groups of people or need commitments of time or money? If you see someone wearing a cool outfit, will your character also be able to get one? If you read about something fun that another player did, will you be able to do that also?

In a single player game, the answer may well be ‘yes,’ depending on the difficulty and time required. In an MMO, it may also be ‘yes,’ depending on the difficulty, time required, and other players required. But the ‘other players may be required’ is part and parcel of having massive games.

Still, where do the expectations come from of:

  1. Hardcore raiders will become the nobility of the game?
  2. All players will be able to do everything?

The answer is, those expectations come from within the game itself. No one went into their first MMO with any assumptions beyond, “Cool! I can create a character and go explore this virtual world with other people in it.” The assumption that people who put more work into their virtual characters will become more powerful in the virtual world is just a case of people mirroring real world assumptions – that’s not really surprising in itself, but it is the game play that determines what forms of  ‘virtual work’ are most valuable in the game. In a strongly social game, that would mean time and effort spent in politicking and socialising. In a WoW-type MMO it could mean hardcore raiding, or beating the economy.

Expectations can change, or be changed. In Warcraft, each patch has changed the expectations of the player base for the future of the game. If casual players feel more entitled to raids, loot, and achievements, that’s because Blizzard has indicated that this is how the game is now played. It isn’t a sense of entitlement that came out of nowhere. Back in the days of Vanilla WoW there were complaints about raid inaccessibility, but I don’t recall anyone ever expecting that the majority of the player base should or could raid. Similarly, if the hardcore players feel a sense of entitlement, that didn’t come out of nowhere either. The first few years of the game indicated that Blizzard intended a class based playerbase with hardcore at the top. They put dedicated hours into the game on that understanding. Both parties have good reasons for their expectations, but they cannot both be met at the same time.

The developers decide what players are or aren’t entitled to. So when a game changes to the extent that Warcraft has, it isn’t surprising that everyone is on edge. No one knows what their assumptions should be any more. People cling to the last patch as either an aberration that will be fixed in the future, or the shape of things to come. And so we pick apart the discarded musings of the blue posters (official Blizzard posters) as if we could divine the future from their entrails. Our rights in the game may depend upon it.

Thought of the Day: How we define challenge

I’ve read a few bloggers recently commenting about how challenges change in MMOs. Tobold joked that hunters were changing to FPS gameplay, as a way of talking about how WoW is tending towards twitch based challenge and away from knowledge/ puzzle solving — granted it wasn’t ever very puzzle based but it’s clear that designers now assume everyone will look the strategies up and are trying to find other ways to challenge players.

Gevlon has been thinking about why hardcore players complain about nerfs. Looking at the marathon example, the hardcore don’t ever have to be in contact with the casuals so why would it matter what they do? Again, it’s to do with the perception of the challenge and people being concerned that their previous achievements will be less ‘valuable,’ especially in a game where people often define their self-worth by what challenges they have beaten. (Sure, there are other reasons to complain about nerfs, I remember being sad when Ulduar was first nerfed because I was enjoying the original difficulty.)

This all reminded me of a wise comment I read recently on a bboard. From an rpg.net post by David J Prokopetz:

The ready availability of strategy guides and online FAQs seems to have lead many hardcore gamers to conclude that the only “real” challenges are those that test your reflexes, and those that test your patience.

Exploration-based challenges are deemed worthless because you can just look up where to go next; likewise reasoning-based challenges, because you can look up the solution; resource-based challenges are out because you can look up the optimal distributions; strategy and tactics disdained because you can look up an algorithm and apply it by rote; and so forth.

Ultimately, any challenge that doesn’t boil down to pure twitch or interminable grind will be dismissed out of hand.

So maybe it all does come down to spoilers in the end. But it speaks to something in player mentality where someone who levels naked (in game) or beats Ulduar in blue gear will be widely respected, whereas a group who go into a raid instance ‘blind’ so that they can figure out the strategy themselves will be mocked for not looking it up like everyone else. The player base values some challenges more than others.

It doesn’t look good for the non-achievers or people who prefer puzzle based play to twitch. But at least we still have single player games. And of course social players face the biggest challenges of all: running a successful guild or raid group.

And because it’s still being great, here’s the obligatory Torchlight screenie. My vanquisher at level 12 with a new gun. Why is it that I hate the thigh boots and miniskirt look in Aion but really like it here, I wonder?

Vanquisher with gun

Saturday Links: Interesting Reading

  1. There’s no drama like RP drama. So when players decided to select one Aion server as their unofficial RP home it was guaranteed to become a dramafest, right? Of course right. Aionic Thoughts is at ground zero to report.
  2. Dickie@Rainbow MMO wonders if the lifetime subscription scheme is viable in the long run. Is it possible that LOTRO just has too many lifetime subs, meaning they’re going to have to find more ways to add extra charges?
  3. Is Champions Online actually a step backwards from City of Heroes? Trembling Hand thinks so, at least when it comes to teaming up.
  4. Hawley (yay, he’s back!) writes about his experience with leaving his raid community and joining another one. But the invite came before the quit, and suddenly his ‘casual’ raid group were acting as though he was “ worse than Hitler” for abandoning ship.
  5. wow.com is one of many sites that reports on a study showing that playing in a guild actually lowers your stress. I’d rephrase that as ‘playing with friends’ lowers your stress, or ‘interacting with a friendly  and supportive community’ which might rule some guilds out from the start.
  6. Green Armadillo notices how little shelf space in games shops is given over to PC games these days (I’ve noticed that here also), and asks if this is the end of retail PC gaming and what that might mean.
  7. Tamarind tells a heartwarming story of a guy in a sissy robe and the little pet that found its way home. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Even I was in tears by the end.
  8. Brian Crecente at Kotaku writes a thoughtful piece using Beatles Rock Band as a starting point to wonder about the use of reality in games, and whether designers have a responsibility to represent reality wisely.
  9. Klepsacovic wonders how you can reward exploration in games without punishing non exploration. He also reminisces about some of WoW’s less obviously located quests. (For me, that water elemental guy who gave the MC quests just took the biscuit.)
  10. Oakstout was chatting in CO about his favourite abilities and found himself inundated with theorycraft and advice about what he should take instead. Does theorycrafting make us happier? Can we have too much information?

A Warhammer Special

Warhammer Online reached its first anniversary this week.

Jeff Hickman spoke at GDC about what he thought were Warhammer’s three biggest mistakes. He puts a lot of it down to PvE being too easy, which wouldn’t even have made my top ten, to be honest. But I do think it shows that without any ‘community’ specialists on the team, they really don’t know why their community didn’t gel. I guess blaming PvE is as good a way to go as any.

Syncaine notes pithily that you can’t blame PvE for the failure of a game that was all about RvR.

Syp chimes in with his comments and suggestions for three major mistakes, which seems nearer the mark to me. He also lists his 10 great successes for Warhammer. Dude, by the time you include “Um, Snafzg is playing it”, you are really reaching :) Also, he missed out the red blobs of awesome, the friendly/unfriendly targets that were beloved of all healers, being able to pour boiling oil onto people’s heads, and scenarios. Apart from that, it’s a good read!

In any case, it’s a game with which I had a lot of fun and my personal view is that their biggest mistake was not trying to go for a single virtual server (a la champions online). I don’t think they realised how many players they’d need active to keep all their PvP zones, PQs, and PvE instances busy.

I was going to use the title “Happy Birthday (WAR is over)” which tied in neatly with both Warhammer and The Beatles, but truth is, I hope very much that WAR is not over. I had a lot of fun with it and I hope that Mythic are plotting even now about how to lure people back from Aion (or grab the Aion tourists in a month or two when they’re disillusioned with it.)

Also, Shana Tovah, mateys.