In which Blizzard figure out how to charge social players more

Always the contrarians, Blizzard announced plans yesterday to charge players more for the ability to group with people on their realID list who play on other servers.

The idea, as I understand it, is that the person who has paid for the service would be able to form LFD groups out of their own realID friend list (you already have the ability to chat to them while playing).

Basically, you could reap the benefits of LFG without ‘having’ to group with the great unwashed.

Since people who actually form their own groups are likely to be the more social players anyway, Blizzard effectively will be going the opposite way from Valve and charging the people who most want and are able to build social networks for their friends. I am sure people will pay for this. But clearly it is cheaper to just be friends with someone who pays for the service and hang on their coat tails, assuming you like the groups they form.

Links, and the last word on tank numbers in WoW

First off, good luck to Kadomi (of Tank like a Girl renown) with her new blog, Live like a Nerd which is going to have a broader base than the WoW-centred blog. I’m a big fan, and welcome to life after WoW!

Pete at Dragonchasers ponders how he feels about challenge in games. I’m firmly in this camp where feeling overly threatened by a game just makes me turn it off. When I see a hard mode, I automatically think, “Oh it’ll be too hard for me,” and switch it to normal (or easier)  even though I’m a fairly experienced gamer. For people like me they should label the modes, “Beginner”, “Don’t worry, it’s a bit harder but you can do it,” and “Think before you rush in.” In any case, it’s perfectly legitimate to want your challenge doled out in a careful curve so as not to frighten the less macho amongst us.

Moon Over Endor posts about his experience with the extended SWTOR demo that was held recently in London. SWTOR announced on Friday that they’ve retooled class roles somewhat so that now Smuggler/ Agent is the only class that cannot tank, dps, or heal (they can’t tank!) — all the others can. (edited to add: Nope, my bad. What changed is that trooper/ bounty hunter and inquisitor/ consular both get the option of all three roles — smuggler/ agent can’t tank and jedi knight/ sith warrior can’t heal. Thanks expostninja for the correction.) I am amused at the notion of a trooper as a ranged healer, I hope they get a healing gun :)

Nick Dinicola at PopMatters explains why the whole point of Dragon Age 2 is that your character is limited in their ability to change things. He also puts his finger on one of the things I like about the setup which is that I’m a bit tired of the hero’s journey and like the idea of playing a character who is a bit less special.

Eurogamer reports that EA is planning its own version of realID (or at least a persistent identity across all EA games).

And finally, Bashiok (a Blizzard community manager) posts about making WoW easier:

Overcoming all of the obstacles (I CHOOSE NOT TO SHOOT HER WITH THE SILVER ARROW… NOOOOO) was a big part of what gaming (I HAVE 1 LIFE!?), and especially PC gaming (HOW DO I LOAD MOUSE DRIVERS?), <used to be> about. But, I feel we’re lucky to now be in an age where those ideals (intended or not) are giving way to actual fun, actual challenge, and not fabricating it through high-reach requirements

Clearly he hasn’t tried to play Mass Effect 2 on a PC recently, if the amount of hassle I have had in trying to persuade it to locate its own saved games are any indication.

And on that note, Bioware are giving a free copy of ME2 on PC to anyone who buys DA2 before 30th April (including people who already own it). Astoundingly, some people are complaining about this. When I started it up, I commented on twitter that I wondered if the Illusive Man was a love interest and got this:

Cdr_Shepard Commander J. Shepard

@copperbird What the hell… ?
Got to love twitter.

LFD and tank/ healer numbers

I wonder if the LFD tool itself has contributed to having fewer tanks and healers in the queues.

Why? Well, when forming groups was difficult, players who really wanted to socialise in games tended to roll tanks or (more commonly) healers. It was well known that doing this would automatically make you popular without all the hassle of actually having to make friends with people. (Note: this is not to say that no tanks/ healers have social skills since most of them do, it’s just that it was a shortcut to being quite popular in groups in game when you were new and didn’t know anyone.) For example, I always felt well loved in vanilla when I played a holy priest.

But now, with LFD, groups are more accessible to everyone. Playing a tank/ healer just offers shorter queues. So people who mostly wanted to tank/ heal to get groups now have a choice — wait longer or take the grouping roles. And if the instances or the random groups are sufficiently annoying when tanking/ healing then they may well be deciding to just suck up the longer queues as dps.

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 …

It came from the PUG: Ding! Just going to train, back in a few mins!

One of the new functions which came to WoW along with the random dungeon finder was the ability to teleport in or out of an instance once you are in a random group.

So, for example, if you are in a random instance and one player has to leave (or is booted), the rest could port out and chill until a replacement was found, if they so choose. Or if someone manages to go to an instance without any arrows or reagents, they can port out and get some and then instantly port back.

Now don’t get me wrong, this can be handy, but there was a time when people were actually expected to be prepared before they got an instance group together. And once they were there, they were expected to stay in the instance until the group split up, even if they did get a nice drop or gained a level. It didn’t always happen – there were always people who dropped the group as soon as they got what they wanted, which of course can still happen.

But the phenomenon of people deciding unilaterally to just pop out of the instance to enchant their new drop or train their new skills is a new one. And it drives me nuts. What exactly is wrong with people that they can’t just wait until the end of the run?

I was in a run this week with an alt who is nearing 80. One of the other players in the group hit 80 on his healer. And immediately, it was, “Off to train, back soon.” *bamf* An instance run is like – 15 minutes. Give or take 10 mins while the guy realises that he was in the middle of nowhere when he’d entered the instance, but doesn’t bother to inform the rest of the group in case they boot him.

I think I rather miss the days when people just stayed in their goddamned instances until the run was finished. Just a teeny amount of commitment to the group, not a lot. Your training can wait, you were good enough to finish this run when you came into the instance and you still are.

It narks me in raids as well.

We run three hour raids, with a 15 min break in the middle. That leaves two perfectly viable timeslots if someone really really wants to wear their new shiny drop as soon as possible. You either wait for the break or wait for the end of the run and then go get it enchanted up. Most people do this. But occasionally you’ll get someone who absolutely must go and sort out their upgrade immediately right now or they will explode. No, you will not explode. When I was a kid, and being taken shopping with my grandparents, if I was good I was sometimes allowed to wear my new shoes straight out of the shop on the way home. Now I am grown up I usually wait until I’m home to get changed. I don’t care how excited some player is about some new item, it’s not worth holding up everyone else just so you can wear it RIGHT NOW.

You didn’t need that item to finish the raid. It will be just as nice next session. Or at least you can wait for the break. I wish our raid leaders would put their feet down collectively on this one.

State of the LFD: Repetition, repetition, repetition

Patch 3.3 in WoW was released in the US back on the 8th December 2009. That means we have had the random dungeon finder for almost three months – my how time flies when you’re having fun.

There’s no doubt that the new tool has been a great success. It has never been easier to find a 5-man dungeon run on any toon at any level than it is right now. Queues are still virtually instant for tanks, and not much longer for healers, which just shows that there are more dps wanting to run instances than there are tanks and healers. So tanks in particular make up less than 20% of the population and a lot of people on hybrid characters aren’t interested in tanking. None of this is surprising. And the wait for dps to get into a group is still a lot less than if people had to form up on their own servers using trade chat.

However, there have been some big challenges for the new tool also.

  • Throwing people with wildly different playing styles together leads to friction. Not only that, but this can put a lot of pressure on new 80s, newer players, and people trying to learn new specs.
  • Cyber-bullying. People find new and interesting ways to grief each other whenever any new functionality is added.
  • Can the hardware cope with the added activity?
  • Burnout.

Throwing random people together into a group can lead to friction, but can also work out. It all depends on the individuals. So it’s a challenge, but not by any means an impossible one. The player base just needs to decide whether it’s able and willing to work together on common goals or not with random people. Issues like rolling need/ greed on frozen orbs, rolling on offspec gear, and the like will sort themselves out in the wash. We won’t all end up agreeing, but we will all end up with some variety of widely accepted compromise.

Cyber-bullying is a larger subject than this post (maybe a future post, or series of posts), and has been going on ever since people have been able to communicate online. It’s nasty and pernicious, but in a PUG you always have the option to just leave and log out. And to put the offender on /ignore, which guarantees not only that you never have to hear from them again, but that the dungeon tool will never group you with them again either.

Hardware is a problem that can be fixed by throwing more money at it. In fact, I haven’t seen a full instances screen at all lately, which makes me think that this is exactly what Blizzard have been doing.

So let’s talk about burnout

People burn out on games for all sorts of different reasons.

  • Run out of goals. You’ve done everything that you want in the game, and you’re bored.
  • Hit the brick wall. There are barriers preventing you from doing your remaining goals in the game, and you see no way to overcome them. And so you’re bored.
  • Repetition ad infinitum. There are goals remaining for you in the game but you would rather skin yourself alive with a potato peeler than set foot into ((overly repetitive content of choice)) ever again.
  • Dramageddon. There are goals remaining for you in the game but you don’t ever want to play with these people again and they’re in your guild, on your server, and you may even know them in real life. You can’t get away from them without leaving the game. But doing stuff with them is driving you nuts.
  • Future goals trump current goals. There are current goals remaining for you in the game, but you choose not to pursue them because it would make it harder for you in future. For example, you choose not to level a new alt now because you want to save it for Cataclysm. So you’re bored until then.

Often many of these conditions apply at the same time. If you are bored anyway because you have run out of goals, you may be more irritable with your guild (and vice versa if many of them are also bored.) Hitting barriers in game also tends to dent the mood, especially if other friends don’t face these issues. (Maybe they just have more time to play.)

Repetition, however, is the game killer. All PvE MMOs rely heavily on some kind of grind, whether you need to grind for crafting materials, or daily quests, or instances, or raids. And for happy players, these grinds are a bonus. They let a player settle into a comfortable daily routine in game, which is fun for a lot of people.

It’s the same comfortable grind which makes so many facebook games so appealing. MMOs aren’t so very far from that mould. It’s just that while levelling you don’t see the repetition so strongly as at endgame. So when a player is bored of the endgame repetition, something’s got to give.

Wrath has encouraged more endgame repetition than any previous expansion in Warcraft. Doubling up of the 10 and 25 man instances has meant many people run the same raid instance several times a week. Ease of gearing alts has meant that people  can (if they choose) run heroics several times a day on different alts. And then raid several extra times a week on those alts too.

So there are plenty of ways for a player to fill in the extra hours in WoW – and even easier if you raid and are on a busy server with lots of pick up raids running. But they are extremely repetitive. The thrill of playing and learning a new alt will wear off in time, and it will wear off more quickly in Wrath because it’s just that much easier to access the content.

So whilst improved access to content is removing some of the barriers which had been causing burnout before — people getting burned out because they needed to run those heroics and raids to gear up but just couldn’t get the groups — instead people are playing more and then hitting repetition burnout.

Bored players, +  5-man random heroics = ???

I’m not saying that everyone is bored, that would be silly.

But increasingly I’m finding that I get sloppy in 5 mans. I can’t be bothered to tackle the pulls neatly, and we’re over geared enough that no one cares whether I do or not (except me) and it won’t affect the result anyway.

This increase of well geared players who simply don’t care as much as they used to is starting to drag the instances down. People still run them enthusiastically, they still want the badges, and they still want to play alts. But increasingly, I’m seeing people very obviously not bothering to play as well as they could. And while it’s fine to chill out in 5 man instance runs when you are over geared, I think that all the repetition is taking its toll.

The LFD tool isn’t doomed by any means. It’s holding up well. But it might not be a bad thing if some of those bored players took a break from random 5 mans for awhile, both for them and for the rest of the player base.

And as for the state of the game? Blizzard are taking the smart step in the next mini-patch with nudging bored PvE players towards battlegrounds, where the repetition is broken up by getting to compete against other players.

Plus a new-mini raid with some dragons, and new shiny loot to entice everyone who isn’t Arthas’ed out on raiding this expansion.

And perhaps more enticing still … hints of new pre-Cataclysm changes, and quests, possibly heralding more content for solo players too.

It came from the PUG: Do you want cheese with that?

Unfortunately(?), all my random groups this week have been pretty good so instead of pointing the finger at outrageous behaviour, this week we’ll have to settle for mildly annoying.

Achievements are not the Marmite of WoW, very few people actively hate them with the passion of a billion blazing suns. They are more like  Nutella. Everyone likes Nutella. (Oh no, I missed World Nutella Day! How is that even possible?)

But most of us like it in moderation, and not with every single meal. I reserve the option to say, “No thanks, I respect that your tastes differ from mine but I’ll have my steak without Nutella today.” Frankly, Nutella with steak is an experience you want to share only with very close and special friends, who will put up with experimental cooking techniques and later forgive you if it turns out to be disgusting. Now, imagine Nutella if you also won a special prize for eating a whole jar without throwing up. And if you ate every meal with people who insisted on slathering it over everything and forcing you to do that too.

Yeah, you might go off it after awhile too.

So, back to achievements. A poster on the EU boards this week suggested that the LFD tool could have an option for people to select if they wanted to do achievements on their random run.

This is actually the worst idea ever for the players who do want to do achievements on their random runs.

  • Everyone who just wants some quick badges will not select achievements.
  • Every experienced player who already has finished their dungeon achievements will not select achievements (at least not on their main).
  • Every player who hates achievements will not select achievements.
  • Every player who does not feel like talking a random group through one of the more complex achievements will not select achievements.
  • Anyone bored who wants to grief people WILL select achievements.

Nope, the best way to get dungeon achievements sorted out is either to assemble a group on your home server, or bully/ cajole a random group into doing them. Guess which of those options is easiest for most players?

Now, I don’t actually mind being asked if I want to do an achievement in a dungeon run. But I expect people to give up on it gracefully when I say no. Naturally in random groups, this often does not happen.

I was called a noob this week when I declined to attempt Oculus with 5 bronze drakes. No, the reason I don’t want to do that is because I am NOT a noob and I just want my quick and easy badges without having to care whether a random group can sort out drake cooldown rotations.

Given the reluctance of people in the group to speak up or show any other behaviour that would distinguish them in any way from a doormat, I should not have been surprised to see 4 obedient little bronze drakes, and then me on my red. I left. Perhaps they got a tank who’d put up with those demands and got the achievements for them. But I still wonder if the silent members really cared about the achievement or were just falling into line with the most shouty person in the group.

As a basic rule of politeness, I go this way:

  • If even one person in the group wants to kill an extra boss, then we go kill it.
  • If even one person in the group does not want to do the achievement, then we don’t do it.

To me, the basic assumption of LFD is that the group will clear the instance with no special achievements involved. So I think anything that differs from that needs group buy-in.

But achievement junkies are often not polite. They try to bully groups into doing their achievements. They harass and abuse anyone who does not fall into line. So I save everyone the bother these days and just leave as soon as the question even gets asked (unless it’s the sort of achievement that we were going to do just by completing the instance anyway.) No, I am not interested in helping Joe Random get his achievement. I don’t like Nutella THAT much.