The third role: neither devs nor players but somewhere inbetween

3168012226_b740f3e49b from flem007_uk@flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The thankless life of a guild leader in a MMO

Everything you need to know about guild leading can be summarised in  that the #1 piece of advice most existing guild leaders give to someone who is considering it is “Don’t do it.”

It is terrifically fun to build and run a guild, but it can also be crazy stressful and your guild members will typically not care as much about the guild as you do. So similar to running a business, except you’re not paying them to be there, at least not in hard cash. Or making a profit.  (I wonder if a F2P business model where guild leaders pay ‘good’ players to join them and charge ‘less good’ players would fly, I’m sure the hardcore would enjoy it.)

What certainly doesn’t help is when the game design favours soloers over group players. In fact, any aspect of game design that rewards individuals for individual achievement over social or group achievement is practically begging players not to bother being loyal to a guild. I have seen similar developments in real life and wonder if we’re heading toward a job market where the majority of people will be self employed and employers will pick them up on temporary contracts as needed. But in any case, game devs these days hate guilds and are actively trying to harm them. They may not say so, they may not even know it themselves, but they’re moving to a world where there will be automated ways to do all the things guilds used to do for players and you’ll be able to do it without talking to anyone if that’s what you want. And in WoW, a new player will probably get a silent invite from a huge guild full of perks just for turning up. That’s not a guild, and certainly not a community, it’s not even an anything.

It’s a shame because guilds are and have always been one of the prime examples of player created content in these games. Just understand if you are a guild leader that the devs could be helping you more, and they’re not because they are valuing individuals over player communities.

Anyway, back to guild leading, and raid guilds in particular. Syl posted yesterday a set of home truths for raid guilds and he’s right on the money. I used to be very involved in running raids in MMOs, I ran huge public raids in DaoC, I was a class leader in a 40 man progression raid in vanilla WoW, I’ve run 10 man raids, etc etc. I presume I was a decent raid leader, or at least good enough. Yet when I got bored/ burned out, I didn’t take a break and then start running another raid, I joined someone else’s raid instead.

I do feel guilty about that in a way. I knew all the pain and burnout that goes with raid leading and I was happy to let someone else do the job that I didn’t want to do (any more.) And inevitably, they faced similar stresses about filling raids and guild drama – much less stress in a more social raid group, actually, but still present – and I … sat back and hoped that the leaders would be able to deal with it better than I did.

I suspect that for a lot of raid guilds, the flim flam that you  find on progression raiding blogs about how professional you need to act, how you should design your application form, how badass you need to be to new recruits and how you have to whip your raiders to make them perform better will not address the base problem of not having enough regular raiders in total. Or of what to do when the content is just too hard for your players. Driving away the guys who do turn up isn’t going to help unless you have replacements on tap, which you don’t. They won’t have easy answers for these problems because there aren’t any.

It might be more useful to talk, for example, about how we used to turn a blind eye to the priest who always turned up to 40 mans in shadow spec even though he was healing because dammit, at least he turned up. About how we felt when we’d spent ages trying to get friendly with people and they just pissed off when they got ‘a better offer’ from another raid group. And why it is that most guild leaders would advise anyone considering it not to bother.

Rewarding team play

Ferrel@Epic Slant and Psychochild have been discussing how best to reward team play in MMOs.

Ferrel is a guild leader. His problem is that people don’t like showing up to progression raids ie. where they meet with limited success, may be frustrated, may wipe a lot, may incur a lot of repair bills and don’t get many rewards. He looks for solutions that will give better rewards to progression raiding than to  less challenging content. He asks why success is the only thing that is rewarded. He also complains that DKP systems are set up to reward players, not guilds.

His observations are correct. Although DKP systems reward players because it’s easy to administer and it works. Even the most basic DKP gives points to people for turning up to raids. These systems are set up to reward constant and consistent attendance which is what most raid leaders want to reward. Not only that but people are rewarded for sticking with the same raid group, they see their DKP total build up.

If players aren’t enjoying progression raids and you are a progression guild, then find other players who do. Maybe progression raiding really isn’t for everyone. Maybe some players just don’t enjoy it and handing out better rewards will only make them more miserable because they feel that they must play in a way they don’t enjoy. Maybe people have a bad day at work and just aren’t in the mood for a stressful progression raid some nights.

One problem with  the whole raiding setup is that after you have beaten the encounter, you have to keep farming it for weeks of boredom so that the rest of the raid can gear up. That’s the real problem. Of course people get bored of farm content, of course people are reluctant to spend every raid night smashing their head against a brick wall of frustration. If your core problem is human nature, then no reward system is going to fix it. Go back to the beginning and look harder for a problem that you can actually solve.

This isn’t a problem that sports teams face — and the semi-professional sports team is one analogy for a raid group. They meet up every week, they have scheduled practice and training sessions, and then they have weekly matches against other teams. This makes me wonder whether the rated battlegrounds that Blizzard plans to implement may yet be the saviour of the raid game.

Guild leaders like Ferrel believe that if only people were more loyal to their guild, they’d happily keep showing up for the frustrating progression raids and boring farm raids. They wouldn’t, they might feel bound to show up more but if they’re really not enjoying it then they’d also burn out and leave the game. You can only nudge people so far. And there will always be some people who enjoy progression raids and some who don’t. Some nights where people are in the mood for it and some where they aren’t. And labelling people as selfish because they stop coming when they’re bored is just ignoring the real problem and asking them to burn themselves out instead. Is that really a good long term solution? Or would it be better if you didn’t have to keep putting together weekly raids to content with which people are already bored?

Or is the problem connected with having so much emphasis on difficult group content? That naturally means that pressure falls on the weaker members of the team to shape up, and that if you have a bad day, your team suffers (and boy will they let you know about it.) And unlike battlegrounds which are over in 20 mins so you get another chance to pull your socks up for next time, a raid will occupy a whole evening.

What you can do is make farm raids more fun, and either turn them into more social events or invent some fun challenges to keep people’s interest. It won’t work for everyone but there are worse ways to spend a night in game than chatting to friends while running through some cool encounters that people like even though they aren’t especially challenging. Particularly if rewards are structured to help your guild or alts or friends.  And even then, devising a system that locks people into the same farm raids for months on end is going to run dry eventually.

Psychochild tackles a different problem altogether: how can game designers reward the actual learning process? Is it possible to reward people for not chasing loot single mindedly, and to de-emphasise individual reward?

If I have learned anything from raiding casually, it’s that the learning curve is still just as fun when it is slower. That it’s OK to take a night off from progression raiding and come back to it later. That you don’t always have to be on the cutting edge or racing the rest of the server to feel a sense of achievement from your first kills. I wish I could think up a good reward scheme to show other people the same thing. I think it would make for a much happier raid experience all round, and less stressed out guild leaders too.

In any case, it was a fascinating set of posts to read, if only to see how two people come at an issue from very different perspectives.