Does easier content make for friendlier MMO communities?


A pretty WoW screenshot, being able to fly does give you a good choice for perspectives

It has become a truism in MMOs that behaviour in random pick up groups can be really atrocious. There will be elitist jerks urging everyone to gogogo, pulling extra packs of trash mobs themselves if they think the group isn’t moving fast enough, there will be people acting like idiots purely to annoy the rest of the group, there will be insults, aggression, rage quits,  intolerance towards newbies. It’s like a war out there, put on your kneepads and body armour before venturing into LFG!

It’s also widely held that smaller, more coherent communities tend to be nicer to each other. I’m not so sure this is always true, but guild groups certainly tend to be nicer and more successful because of being willing to work together.

And yet, while I’ve been running at least one heroic a day in WoW, and LFR raids every week too, I just haven’t seen much of the horrible behaviour that gives PUGs such a bad name. The worst I’ve really seen is people leaving the group mid-instance, possibly even mid-pull (which is bad behaviour, yes), and a bit of frustration on raid/party chat which is as often countered by people telling the speaker to chill. It isn’t just that I’m on a more chilled out RP server because LFG/LFR is cross server. Although the world boss groups (Sha of Anger et al) on my server have tended to be particularly chilled out and willing to welcome any warm body who is able to help, even when people are annoyed at being beaten to the pull by Alliance – which happens reasonably often because they outnumber us on the server.

So while it’s not possible to change human nature, I think PUGs have become nicer in MoP than they were in Cataclysm. While this isn’t great for having funny ‘it came from the PUG’ stories to relate in blog posts, it probably does mean that the player base in general is having more fun (where being in aggressive LFGs counts as less fun). The only factors I can put this down to are:

  • People who left because they didn’t like pandas were some of the really annoying folks so the game is nicer without them (I don’t really see why this would be the case but you never know)
  • The instances and LFR are generally easier in MoP and less dependent on every individual performing well. Easier content means that there’s less stress on a group. If people just settle down, chances are they’ll get through it in reasonable time.
  • Less odd trash pulls which need specific tactics (Shado-Pan excepted). If you are looking up instance tactics, they tend to focus on boss fights so making these the main content in instances means there is less for new players to learn.
  • The more hardcore players are still motivated to do regular LFG/ LFR for the tokens, but less gated by inexperienced/ bad players. ie. If you are a decent dps player, chances are you can pull a group through a heroic even if the other two dps get themselves locked out of fights, die in the fires, etc.

I also think Blizzard has done a good job of making the boss fights generally fun, even though the group difficulty is a bit lower. There’s lots of movement, add switching, things to dodge, and all the other stuff that generally switches games up from pure tank and spank fights.

But really, random groups need easier content to make up for the fact that they won’t have as much experience at working together, are less likely to communicate, and are likely to contain players of widely differing skill and experience levels. We’ve seen this in the GW2 dynamic events also – they’re easy, and there’s no group size limits, so any warm body is welcome. I am glad Blizzard have twigged this, because their group content is one of the strong points of WoW and making PUGs more fun for everyone (newbies and hardcore alike) is a huge win for the game.

Bashiok actually says as much on the official forums:

While you may go in with a ((random)) group and all learn something, that a specific mob needs to be CC’d, or a certain boss behavior to avoid a wipe, those lessons are more than likely out the window with the next group you’re matched with ((…)) and most people don’t want to spend every run waiting for everyone else to learn all those same lessons. That can just be a frustrating experience. So instead of trying to force a group of strangers to be so heavily coordinated (maybe even having to jump into voice chat) just to complete the first steps of progression, we reduce the complexity to a point where the random groups that are being put together can most of the time be successful without needing to be hyper-organized or educated on each pull. Instead, that organization is far more important for the organized content where random people aren’t matched together: normal and Heroic raids.

Do you think the WoW community has become more pleasant in PUGs in this expansion?

[SWTOR] Notes on bonus missions, slicing nerfs, did WoW ruin PUGS?


This is a screenshot of my character riding a speeder along a river in Aldaraan, which is a very pretty planet. Because the speeder hovers anyway, there’s no real need to ever swim again once you have one. My trousers aren’t actually green – character classes in SWTOR have strong colour schemes and Sith Warrior is generally black and red.

I’m still having a blast with the game. I got to the end of Act I (each class story is in three acts), had some fairly tight fights and cool scenes, and am now a Sith Lord. Go me! I also have a legacy – which is like a family name. You don’t have to actually use it as a surname, but from now on every time you get xp, you also get legacy xp. I compare it to guild xp in WoW except that we don’t yet know what you’ll be able to get with legacy xp, that’s for a future patch.

I called my Legacy family De’Nevers, after the swashbuckling Duc de Nevers in Le Bossu (if you like swashbuckling films, try to find a copy). I figured if I’m a lightsabre/sword fighter, might as well be related to the best.

I remember vaguely comments from beta that people were concerned that there might not be enough quests to level up with. While this may be an issue on some of the starter planets, after that you’ll largely be rolling in xp. After you have finished the main storylines on a planet, you will open up some extra bonus missions which will usually feature a military quest giver who is in the spaceport. So if you’re pretty sure that you’ve done all the single player non-class quests on a planet, check out the spaceport for the bonus questgiver. Some of the bonus quests are pretty good, but mostly they give good xp and credits/ gold. Other sources of xp/credits are PvP and flashpoints.

I haven’t done a great deal of PvP but the battlegrounds I have seen show clear influence from the WAR devs. They’re interesting locations, with plenty of scenery or buildings to climb up, push people off, and generally PvP around. I have totally failed to figure out Huttball, which is a grab/capture the thingie battleground, because I never quite figured out where the goals were (clearly this is a problem if you do end up holding the ball). One of the others is an Arathi-style “capture and hold these points for X amount of time”, and the other is an attacker/defender setup which resets a few times to give both teams a chance to both attack and defend.

I couldn’t comment on PvP balance at the moment, but there’s no reason why this game couldn’t be as interesting PvP-wise as any best of breed in similar genre. It has a good feel.

Another thing I’m enjoying far too much is playing dress up with my companion/s. While the companions can wear normal gear, quest rewards on each planet will also offer a full set of companion-specific gear, each of which has a different style/ look. Sadly this isn’t orange/ moddable, so you can’t upgrade the stats later. I’m also quite enjoying picking gear for myself, this may be because cut scenes show your character’s face and torso rather more than you would usually see it in MMOs, so you get very aware of what they are wearing.

State of Crafting/ Slicing Nerfs

The patch news this week is that Slicing got an emergency nerf – while people are complaining about this on bboards, I suspect that there may be a later tweak upwards to make it harder to actually lose money on Slicing.

The bboard complaints are not surprising, although it’s interesting to see how many people didn’t see any problems with it. See, a consumer society would be just great if the bank just printed out extra money and gave it to everyone. This would clearly not affect prices, or the willingness of anyone to actually make/do stuff at all. Well.

Truth is, in an MMO, not every crafter enjoys the trading side of the game. Some people are mostly interested in making cool stuff for themselves and their friends – which is something Bioware forgot to figure in. (Maybe they don’t have many crafting nuts in the team.) If Slicing stayed as it was, the people who picked crafting because it was fun (ie. and not as a capitalist moneymaking ploy to bleed the Slicers of their not-very-hard-earned credits) would have ended up being hit very hard. Plus, prices would eventually drift upwards (aside from the crafters who couldn’t be bothered to check the market rate and settled for the default AH prices) and it would become necessary for everyone to have maxed Slicing and be using it all the time if they wanted to actually be able to afford stuff.

The Auction House in SWTOR is far from optimal at the moment. It’s not easy to search unless you know exactly what you want, and the default sales prices are driving me (and presumably other crafters nuts). The default sales price is the price that the system inserts for an item you are selling, you can then edit it manually before placing the item up on the AH for sale. This default price tends to be on the high side for green drops and on the low side for anything else.

So, for example, I know I can sell my implants for upwards of 8k because I’ve done so. But as soon as another crafter is too lazy to check current prices and just sticks some up for the default, that goes down to about 1.2k. I think the default prices prevent the market from finding its own value, which is generally bad for crafters but good for buyers. Although maybe not so good for buyers in the long run because I (and presumably others too) are not going to make things that sell for less than cost.

I never thought I would say this, but this is a game that needs an Auctioneer addon equivalent to help the prices settle and make it easier for crafters to pitch prices at the actual selling rate.

I can’t comment on what the various crafts are like at endgame. But watch out for crafted gear with extra mod/augment slots. Those are produced when a crafter crits, and are likely to be the most desired crafted gear at endgame. I suspect non-critted gear will end up being very cheap because you have to make a few of them until a crit turns up that you can sell for more money  (this is similar to the mastercrafting system in DaoC).

My PUG experiences

PUGs, as in any game, can be good or bad. I’ve had great experiences with PUGs for heroic/ group quests on planets, people being generally cool, willing to explore, and work together. Flashpoint PUGs can be a different matter.

I ran Esseles (the first republic flashpoint) with a PUG on an alt, and it felt like being dragged back into WoW kicking and screaming. The moment we got into the instance, the rest of the group started whining about “press space to get through conversations faster” (it’s the equivalent of gogogo). Someone complained at me rolling greed on an item I couldn’t use, while later rolling need on something they couldn’t use either.

I told them I hadn’t seen the instance before and was planning to watch the full video. They said that was OK, with a hint that I should have mentioned this previously. Since I don’t really care what random people think of me (although these are randoms on my server), I’m not sweating it. But it wasn’t anywhere near as fun as running the flashpoint with a group of friends/ guildies. I wish people would just chill out, accept that some runs will take a few minutes longer, and not harass people they don’t know to rush through faster. It feels like a WoW plague that is spreading, I hope I’m wrong.

On the other hand, planet chat in Tython (Jedi starting zone) on a RP server was worryingly solemn. People were discussing the meaning of justice, and other ethical issues. I don’t know if it is like that all the time, but it was quite cool, and I’ve never seen a general chat quite like it.

Raid Alliances, and What Could Have Been

There was a time during Wrath when I thought that we’d broken the mould.

The random dungeon finder had just been released. Emblems rained from the heavens to outfit everybody and their alts in T9 equivalent. And in every nook and cranny of Dalaran, PUGs sprouted newborn to tackle various tiers of raid content. Gold DKP runs rewarded experienced raiders for carrying rich alts and newbies. And suddenly, guilds were no longer the gatekeepers of group-based content in Warcraft.

When people wanted to run heroic instances, the advice was no longer a smug, “Join a better guild.” If people wanted to raid, no longer were they pressured into a raid guild. It was to be a new era of people being able to join guilds (or not) as social clubs, and access their group content through a variety of other channels.

And still, despite the gearscore mavens and hapless ninjas, this is how Wrath has played out. My new DK alt has gotten plenty of heroic runs, and already been able to check out raids to Tempest Keep and the Vault of Archavon. And not a single one of those was with a guildie (because the guild is quiet at the moment outside raid times). Yet I was still able to play my alt in groups, and it didn’t involve hours waiting around trying to persuade random people that they wanted a dps DK or trying to schedule with my guild.

In this brave new world, people could form guilds for all sorts of reasons, divorced from the mechanics of the game. Or in other words, you would not be driven to guild with people who wanted to complete the same group content and played at the same skill/commitment level. Never mind Blizzard’s old mantra of requiring people to be in a persistent team for the entire expansion. PUGs would set us free.

In Cataclysm, I increasingly feel, we will be thunderously thrown back into our boxes. Far from being more casual friendly, group content will be more gated than ever before. And heaven help the player who cannot commit to a weekly raid schedule, if they have an interest in raiding. Or the player who has friends who don’t all play at a similar skill level (the big downfall for 10 man raiding).

I like guilds, but I couldn’t eat a whole one

I love guilds myself. Ever since I was first invited by a random person to sign a guild charter in DaoC, I have been hooked. And it’s because I love guilds that I don’t want to play a game where I have to swap guilds any time my playing times change or my interests take a different turn.

I enjoy being part of a large in-game group with common goals. I just don’t want those goals (and that community) to be tied in so tightly with the class/spec I play, the online times I can make, and my gearscore.

Keen has a revolutionary take on how MMOs and guilds have evolved. He hates the tyranny of guilds and thinks they have become far too key. He also comments on how often guild drama or breakups chase people away from games. I’m sure that I am not the only person who ever left a game after a guild broke up – I was so invested in my old TBC raid guild that I had no energy left to start again after they split. (At least not for at least 6 months.)

And Blizzard DID have options. They could have kept their new shiny guild plans without chasing people into regiments that were organised around 10 clones wanting to do the same content.

We could have had guild alliances

Imagine an alternative future. A future in which you could be a member of a guild, and also of several different alliances or communities. Each alliance/ community would be formed because of a shared interest in a specific type of group content. Guilds, on the other hand, would be primarily social groups.

So if your alliance broke up over raid drama, you wouldn’t lose your guild. And vice versa. And if your interests or timetable changed, you could change alliance/ community without having to lose contact with your guild friends.

And all Blizzard would have had to do is to actually support alliances. Offer alliance channels, alliance timetables, and maybe even alliance banks. Recognise that people don’t like switching guilds and leaving their friends just because they have different progression goals. And maybe even add in some larger, PUG friendly raiding content alongside the main line of progression. Something for groups of mixed ability.

Maybe that was just too hard. Maybe they didn’t even consider it. Maybe the hardcore EQ raiders who were at the original core of Blizzard raid design just had too much influence over the design team, and they had no interest in setting players free.

But mark my words, a year from now we will look back and see this period in Wrath as our brief time of freedom from guild tyranny.

Critical Mass for an MMO and Cross Server PUGs

How many people do you need to have online at the same time in a MMO? Up until now, this has been determined mostly through technical requirements (how many people can one server support?). But depending on design, some MMOs need more people online at the same time than others otherwise they just don’t work.

If you look at WoW with it’s plethora of solo content, popular 5 man instances, and battlegrounds that you can jump into without being in a pre-made group, it’s very clear that server population can get quite low and people will still be able to play. So although your chances of being able to run a 5 man instance of your choice in the middle of the night are lower than at primetime, you still only need 4 other people to do it. The only big sticking point is raiding, and battlegrounds themselves – and just as cross-server battlegrounds eased the need for one server alone to provide all participants, it will probably ease the need for single server raid PUGs too.

Warhammer, by comparison, seemed from the outset to be a game that was designed for a truly massive population. Open world PvP split across lots of different zones and different level bands needed quite a lot of players on the same server to all be interested at the same time if fights were to be consistently available (in practice, there were so many different zones that player warbands could comfortably avoid combat while taking forts). Public quests, while fun, needed to have enough people in the same zone interested in the same quest to get the group together. It was never the case (except maybe in the very early days) that you could just wander around and happen on a group in the public quest you wanted to do.

So I always wondered if at any point the devs had sat down and tried to figure out their critical mass. ie. how many players do we need per server for there to be a reasonable chance that a player can find a public quest/ scenario/ open world pvp/ instance to do at prime time/ off peak daytime/ night? I’m sure they didn’t.

Note: In game economies are a different issue. They do require a certain number of active players, but those players don’t all need to be online at the same time.

Raising the Critical Mass

So there are some design decisions that will raise the critical mass of a game and spread the existing player base:

  1. Non scaling content that needs large numbers of people (ie. raids of fixed size, battlegrounds of fixed size)
  2. Larger group size.
  3. Lots of group content spread all across the level range
  4. Lots of levels, and lots of content that is level specific (ie. difficult to group with people outside your current level range)
  5. Wide choice of group content (eg. lots and lots of public quests)
  6. Very large world with long travel times (ie. once you have found people, how difficult is it to get the group together)
  7. Highly tuned content. (ie. people reluctant to run it with people they don’t know or in PUGs.)

So in general, the more choices people have about what group content to do, the more people you need to have online to raise the chances that other people will also want to do it.

Lowering the Critical Mass

Likewise, other design decisions will lower the critical mass of a game, and funnel existing players together:

  1. Have people from all timezones on the same servers (means people who play offpeak from one timezone are more likely to find other players)
  2. Good LFG channel and functionality
  3. Robust PUG scene. (ie. an atmosphere where people feel encouraged to join random groups)
  4. Announcements when public quests become active (ie. to funnel people towards them)
  5. Reward systems that funnel people towards specific group content (ie. daily dungeon rewards)
  6. Lots of solo or small group content
  7. Scaled encounters. Lots to do for different group sizes.

Is cross-server PUGs the answer?

Just from looking at those lists it’s easy to see that WoW is specifically designed to work fine with a lower player population. This seems ironic given how much more popular it is than other MMOs, but I do think it is one reason for the game’s massive success. It really is much easier to log in and just play.

On the other hand, the high critical mass design statements lead to a wider, deeper, larger game. I would rather PLAY that game, but … as soon as the critical mass dips too far down, you lose many of the advantages. More and more I believe that just as Wolfshead suggested, better scaling is the answer.

Is it possible to have the best of both worlds? It might be that in WoW, the cross-server PvE PUGs that are coming next patch will be more game changing than anyone yet guesses. Surely it will be easier to find groups for those lower level instances when you have several servers contributing to the player pool. And if PUGs for raids are implemented across server also, who knows where it could end?

Not only that, but the game retains the current server size so people who like their current server communities won’t feel swamped as they move around the game world. They’ll just have access to a much larger group of players to instance with.

Call of the Crusade might be a very smart patch indeed

We’re getting some more information out about the next content patch in WoW. Call of the Crusade is the name assigned to  3.2 (it probably has it’s own logo and theme tune coming soon too), and it’s currently including:

  • More dailies, rewards etc at the Argent Tournament
  • 5/10 and 25 man encounters inside the Coliseum itself.
  • New 40 vs 40 battleground

I was not initially thrilled with the Coliseum concept. It sounds as though you get to fight various raid bosses in an arena — so skip the interesting lore and location and just get straight to the meat of the fight. Since I really enjoy the fights where you have to use the environment to your advantage, I’m struggling to get excited about this.

But, what I’d forgotten is the Summer effect. All MMOs suffer a drop in activity over the Summer. We’ve already had a few people posting in our raid forums about planning lower activity and it isn’t just because they’re bored. We’re not unique, lots of other raids and guilds will be facing this also.

So … what if the Coliseum is (say it in whispers) PUGable? The hardcore guys still have their Ulduar hard modes to work on, and it looks to me as though many of those are simply inaccessible to more casual raids. They do require stacking in some cases, and a level of consistent performance that some raids will never be able to provide. I love the guys I raid with but we’re a mixed bunch.

But having a new set of raid encounters that people can hop into with a PUG — that just might keep people’s interest even if their regular raid group is struggling for numbers. Same with the new arena season and new dailies. The new battleground could potentially be lots of fun, and battlegrounds are fantastic for more casual play styles. These could all provide some content for people who for whatever reason can’t get regular 25 man raids.

We can assume that Blizzard is very familiar by now with the ebb and flow of players over the annual cycle. Maybe 3.2 is going to be the perfect Summer patch, with some light low-commitment content to keep people amused over the long summer nights…