A first look at LOTRO raids. And tentacles are tentacool.

I never set out to raid in LOTRO. I’m not even sure what I exactly set out to do with my shiny new lifetime subscription, aside from hang out and just enjoy the game world from time to time.

But with much encouragement and help from Arb and friends, a few hints on how the dailies work, a lot of help with crafted gear, and being patiently brought along on a couple of 6-man instance runs, my burglar now finds herself with 50 radiance on her gear.

I am lucky to have guidance, because the endgame of LOTRO still feels vast and oblique to me. There are several 6-man and 3-man instances which give different types of token as reward. There are also a variety of 12-man raids. But these instances and raids don’t get outdated as quickly as the Warcraft ones (in which people are mostly just interested in the latest tier). Moria and Lothlorien (still, confusingly, in Moria) instances still give tokens which can be exchanged for useful endgame gear. In fact, some of that gear is best in slot pre-raiding.

So there’s not really a clear order in which you need to run these instances. All of them give useful tokens. And this is without even getting into Moria hard modes – which I haven’t yet touched. Anyhow, some of the raid leaders in my kin were also starting an ad hoc group to encourage newbie raiders to dip their toes in the water – literally – beginning with a raid on The Watcher in the Water. The Watcher is an Onyxia-style raid, with a single multi-phase boss, and no trash. The requirements: 50 radiance. So I signed up.

watcher20

Our raid leader had the patience of a saint. I am very grateful to everyone who came along, both newbies who wanted to learn, people on alts who wanted to try some raiding, and more experienced players who came to help anyway. We didn’t kill the beast on this occasion, but a lot of learning was done and we got through to the final phase of the fight a few times.

I have (briefly) attended previous LOTRO raids, but this one shows that the devs have been learning. It was a step up from anything I have seen previously in that game.

So, a fight in several stages. People needed to run around and be aware of where they were standing. Lots of adds, which were dealt with differently in the different phases. Random water spouts which meant that everyone had to stop what they were doing and run to the sides of the room. If you want to see a rundown of the watcher tactics, check here. But this could easily have been a WoW boss fight. And I think it would be a fun, popular one if is it was. There’s plenty for everyone to do, and who doesn’t like being picked up and waved around by a naughty strangling tentacle? (Yes, shades of Yogg there although I believe this came much earlier.)

One big difference is that classes have more distinct roles in LOTRO. A champion, for example, isn’t interchangeable with any other melee dps. My burglar can put out decent melee damage but she doesn’t have the AE capability that a champion would. And so in this fight, I have a different job to them for some of the time. There are debuffs/ corruptions to be removed, lots of different adds to be dealt with, combat buffs/ debuffs which need to be kept up, and if you get bored you can always throw in a Conjunction. Another difference is no addons. You’re stuck with the base UI and so is everyone else.

The Watcher has been criticised as a fight for the reliance on ranged dps. It’s not actually all that reliant on ranged dps other than, “Yes, bring some. There are a couple of adds which need to be taken down by ranged.” But this was an issue earlier in a game which didn’t have many ranged dps classes and only 12 slots in a raid.

Again with LOTRO, Turbine weave the title/trait/achievement system far more tightly into all aspects of the game than Blizzard ever have. Most achievements have two stages – stage one will reward with a title and stage two (more of a grind) will improve a trait. And these are currently balanced so that stage one is very accessible. My character got a title for fighting Watcher tentacles in our one night of efforts, for example. And this goes a long way towards encouraging you to feel that a wipe night wasn’t a waste of time.

And if any more inducement was needed, Arb informed me that it is possible to get a trophy from The Watcher that lets you put a pool in the garden of your in-game house. Complete with tame tentacle that might pick people up if they walk too close. Now I realise that first age weapons and radiance gear are all very desirable loot drops, but the notion of a tame pond-tentacle motivates me much more than any gear ever could!

On Solo Rewards for Group Challenges

Group content of any kind in a MMO can be seen as a social challenge. If you want the shiny mount/ quest reward/ epic then you need to find 4/9/24 other suckers to come and help you get it. Now, the standard way to do that is to either pledge your loyalty to a guild which will require some kind of ongoing commitment. Or maybe chance your luck with a pick up group, or asking random people on the trade channel. Or persuade some friends to come along.

And people enter into guild pacts because they know that they all will benefit. So where do legendary weapons fit into this scheme? One person in the raid has to be chosen to receive the main reward. I guess the social challenge for the rest of the raid is to pick the right person and hope that s/he will stay with them afterwards.

I wonder though what legendary weapons might look like in the new Cataclysm scheme of guild design. If it is possible to have guild bound items – something Blizzard have already been discussing with reference to crafted heirlooms – then how about a guild bound legendary item? You could let different people use it from week to week. So if you helped create a legendary that was of a type your class could use, you’d share the reward.

But people do also love solo rewards. They’re the only progression for soloers, and the main progression for everyone else. So there has to be a balance between guild rewards and individual rewards; how heavily it is tipped towards the individual will control how trapped people feel by their guilds. Would players even want shareable legendaries, and to give that power to a guild (guild leader, even) rather than to an individual player? Or will it make them feel less ‘used’?

My experiences with Shadowmourne

shadowmourne

(These are some bad screenies of the legendary weapon in action)

I’ve been musing on legendaries lately due to a couple of experiences with Shadowmourne – the current WoW legendary axe.

The first was the guy who broke Gearscore, shown in the pictures above. I zoned into a random PUG with my Death Knight, and there was a player with the legendary axe. He did about double my dps, which wasn’t all that low to start with. And he was a nice guy too, he told one of the other dps to stop whining about healing. Everyone was ogling that weapon and asking about his guild. And when we left, everyone wished him luck on the hard mode LK25 fight.

The other was that we’ve been making a Shadowmourne in our raid group, which involved tackling some of the raid encounters in an awkward way to let him complete the quests. I think working together on a group achievement like that is something to be proud of, and wish him the best of luck with the rest of it. I think we’ll all be very proud to see a Shadowmourne in our raid too.

And yet. I’ve never owned a legendary weapon on any of my alts, although I have been in guilds which helped to create a couple. And frankly, even if there had been a tanking legendary this expansion, I would not have been first in line to get it (purely for attendance reasons, if nothing else).

I wonder if it’s selfish to wish for raid bound legendaries, just so that I could see what it’s like to carry one …

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?

5 Challenges for Cataclysm

Chris at Game by Night is dubious about whether Cataclysm can really keep Warcraft players occupied for another two years (the average time between WoW expansions up till now). Yes, there are new races and new levelling content, but once people have worked up their new alts … what then?

In many ways, the most surprising thing about Cataclysm is how little we have heard about it. It’s going to be released this year, but when? Is it in beta yet? Where are the screenshots or artists impressions of the new zones? Maybe a picture of a well known zone seen from a flying mount? How about some more information about the dance studio (i.e. ability to choreograph your own dances) which was mentioned at Blizzcon?

Just for comparison, the first beta leaks from Wrath were in April ‘08, and the expansion was released in November of that year. If Cataclysm is aiming for a release before Q4, we should start hearing more about it very soon. The longer they delay, the more likely that the expansion won’t go live until the end of the year.

Aside from that, there is a question of what exactly it really would take to keep WoW players occupied for another two years.

For raiders, I’m sure Blizzard can dole out the raid content at the same rate they have been through Wrath. For alt-fans, an old worlde revamp, new races, and 5 new zones will certainly keep people busy for awhile. Blizzard have also mentioned reworking some of the old dungeons as high level heroics – if they did that to all of them in addition to any new instances then that’s a lot of instanced content also. Plus the rated battlegrounds, which I suspect will be one of the really big features in practice.

So, same old same old. More zones, more dungeons, more races, more battlegrounds. But is that enough? And if not, what exactly would be enough?

Here’s the five main challenges I think the expansion will face.

  1. Rated Battlegrounds. How well will these take off? If this plan works, then it will throw a nice chunk of both content and challenge at raid guilds who are bored of running the same raid four times a week. Plus should be fun for the more casual guilds too. They will need to find a way for people to opt out of the ratings if they want to go run a random battleground or else the whole casual friendly, solo friendly nature of bg PvP will be lost.
  2. People who can’t raid or don’t want to raid. Wrath opened up WoW raiding to more people than ever before. Some will be hooked and raring to go on Cataclysm raids. But what about the people who decided that actually it isn’t for them? It may be that some form of cross-server LFR tool will make raids a fun, casual friendly option. But as I’ve said before, I don’t think a regular tuned 10/25 man raid would work for a cross server PUG.
  3. Hardcore disengagement. Hardcore raiders have worked within the new hard mode /normal mode framework for raid instances. But how much do they actually enjoy it? Do they want to sign up for another expansion of more of the same? More working their guts out to beat hardmodes, when the majority of the player base just doesn’t care any more and isn’t especially impressed because they are happy with their normal modes and get to see the same fights anyway. How many will decide that it’s just not worth it?
  4. Levelling through Outland and Northrend. Now, Outland and Northrend both offer very cool and fun levelling experiences. But how are players going to feel when they leave the revamped old world and have to chug through 20 levels of unchanged content before they get to the new Azeroth zones? How many of those new alts will actually make it to endgame?
  5. Class Balance and Hybrid Vigor. Wrath has seen hybrids winding up with a good deal of in game privilege. They get the extra flexibility of multiple roles, at very little cost (apart from the extra time and effort to gear up). We know that Paladins and Druids (and Death Knights, natch) have all been gaining in popularity – last armoury survey showed that over 15% of all level 80s were paladins. I’d expect this effect to become even more marked as more people create new alts in Cataclysm. Druids will get vastly more popular because … worgen druids. Plus of course, a class talent revamp for all classes could unsettle everything.

The big problem of course is boredom. People who are bored of the game are not going to be enthralled by more of the same, and Blizzard has shown no signs yet that Cataclysm will include anything other than more of the same.

And really, they have to go with ‘more of the same’ for the players who aren’t yet bored – plus they will want to increasingly save their new ideas for the unannounced MMO that is yet to come. This isn’t to say that WoW is being short-changed, but that the original design might just not be welcoming to some of the new things designers want to do.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I think they will at some point figure out how to make fun cross server PUG raids. I think the rated battlegrounds will be wildly successful, more than most people are expecting.

I think that the new expansion will struggle to hold a lot of existing endgame player’s attention for more than a few months. This happens anyway with any new expansion, but the drift will be faster than ever, and it won’t depend on new games coming out. But remember, a lot of new or returning players will be coming back to start again with Cataclysm. They won’t all be bored yet. They will enjoy the more accessible instancing and raid content. Blizzard is banking on the new wave replacing the old. Time will tell if they are right.

Thought of the Day: Effect of the dungeon finder on smaller servers

My server (Argent Dawn EU) has had regular login queues over the last few weeks. On several occasions, it has also been marked as locked which means no new characters can be created there. At the same time, the server has been the source of free transfers to other RP servers. Clearly that hasn’t been working.

And why is that? (Aside from my presence.)

Well, via the dungeon finder, characters can get geared up more quickly than ever before. And what will they do once they are geared? There’s a good chance that they will want to raid, and the easiest way for a more casual player to raid is to join a PUG. And the easiest way to find a PUG is to hang around a city in game, keeping an eye on the trade and LFG channels, and wait until someone announces that they are looking for more people to form a raid.

This happens more frequently on larger servers.

Being on a smaller server has never been less attractive for a casual player, and unless Blizzard can get some kind of cross-server raid function working, I think that further exodus is inevitable. It’s ironic, because one of the great benefits of the cross-server dungeon finder has been that players on smaller servers have much better access to group content. But it may yet be the death of those servers in the long run …

Sharing information in fights: Everyone’s a critic

I think we can agree that yelling at people in frustration is not the best way to pass on information. (See yesterday’s post and comments.)

But when we’re playing in a group in a MMO, a lot of information needs to be communicated quickly. Are we trying to focus fire and if so, does everyone know what they are supposed to be hitting at any time? Do you need to ask another player to remove a debuff from you? Have you just used a cooldown that your tank or healer or dps needs to know about? Are you going to assume someone else’s role because they just died in combat?

A lot of our abilities are designed to interlock with each other. A buff from one player might significantly affect the abilities or optimal ability use of another. If you have debuffs, you need to know when to use them. When you think about it, that’s a crazy amount of information that needs to be assimilated quickly.

So how do we do it?

  • Pre Pre-planning. This is where you discuss the fight and tactics in detail on a bboard before you even step into the instance.
  • Pre-planning. If you know what will happen in a fight, you can pre-arrange the kill order, any crowd control, any other tactics, and roughly when significant buffs will be used.
  • UI. We rely heavily on the user interface for information about when players have buffs or debuffs active on them. This is automatic information provided by the game (and the UI addons, if you use them) and doesn’t require anyone to actually say ‘I’m poisoned!’
  • Flashy graphics. Some spells just come with very unmistakeable graphical effects that no one can miss if they’re paying attention.
  • Boss cues. Some bosses will cue before they make a special attack with either a graphic or some kind of yell. Games don’t tend to use pure audio cues; I’d like to think this was in respect of deaf gamers but it’s probably just because they know a lot of people play with the sound off.
  • Text and macros. Sometimes the easiest way to inform your group or raid when you’ve used a cooldown or buff is to macro in an automatic comment on group or raid chat when you activate it. eg. ** Just used Bloodlust ** The only problem is … not everyone reads text chat in the middle of a fight.
  • Shout on voice chat. Best saved for if something really unexpected happens and pre-arranged plans have to change on the fly. Also probably best left for the raid leader.
  • We don’t. No one says or types a word. We just assume we roughly know what they’ll be doing and go with it. (Really common in 5 man instances in WoW these days, or any content where it isn’t critical to micro-manage.)

Either way, it is a huge amount of information to process and I think regular raiders often forget how enormously overwhelming it may have felt when you first tried a raid, particularly as a healer or debuffer.

Broadcasting Taunts

Given the sheer amount of information flying around, I’ve always tended to the cautious side when I’m deciding which of my abilities and cooldowns to publicise. I was thinking about this lately because with the heroic beasts fight, we do a lot of tank switching in the first part. So I picked up an addon which would automatically tell people on the raid channel when I’d used various different abilities. What I really wanted was to let people know if a taunt had failed, but I figured I might as well add an inform about Shield Wall also (it’s a tanking cooldown).

You know the worst part? Not people complaining about spam because actually no-one complained. I got the impression it was felt to be generally useful. Nope, the most difficult part about automatically informing your group when you use an ability is that … they automatically also get informed when you press the button by mistake.

You don’t realise how naked this makes you feel until you try it. I mean, OF COURSE I press taunt at the wrong time sometimes. So does every tank who ever lived, unless they have it bound somewhere really inaccessible. If it’s not being broadcast, you just whisper to the other tank afterwards and apologise. They’ll shrug it off, we all do it. If using taunt by mistake means it wasn’t up when you really needed it then you can always fake that it missed or failed. But if you broadcast your abilities, then suddenly your entire raid becomes a backseat driver. Or at least it can feel that way.

So one positive side to broadcasting my taunts and cooldowns? You can bet I’m way more careful with them now. There’s no doubt that it’s made me a better player, in that sense at least.

Explaining the gold DKP run – everyone’s a winner

A GDKP raid is one where any raid member can bid (in gold) for drops. And at the end of the raid the total bid is split between all raid members. Tyrian explains how this works and where it came from in a comprehensively detailed post at Elitist Jerks.

Heres the concept in a nutshell:
- GDKP stands for “Gold-DKP”
- It was a Korean concept brought to WoW
- Items which drop in your run are auctioned off in raid chat. The highest bidder receives the item and the gold they pay is added to “The Pot”
- Profession Patterns, BOE’s, Crusader Orbs etc are all auctioned off in this manner as well. Everything that drops.
- The pot keeps growing in value until the end of the run
- The pot is split evenly at the end of the run to all 25 players in the raid present when the final boss dies.
- There is no mainspec > offspec priority, its gold which determines who gets items.

This isn’t something I’ve seen on my server so I’m not sure if the idea has really taken off in Europe yet. But it probably will. If there’s one thing that might make running an old raid instance more palatable, it is getting a nice cash pot at the end of the run.

I do see advantages to the system. Players are encouraged to stay right to the end. Well geared main characters are encouraged to come even if they don’t want any drops. Well heeled alts can get geared up quickly and without much grind. In fact, you could do a couple of runs on a main to earn cash so that you could take your alt on a third run and gear it up there (if you really hate earning gold by any other means than raiding).

Then there are the disadvantages – it encourages gold selling. If you could spend some real cash for in game gold and translate it so easily into items via a GDKP run, why do anything else? How many useless but rich alts can you take along without the whole run becoming a tedious drag?

But the general idea seems so sound that I wonder if hidden somewhere in the GDKP is the future of real money transactions in games. After all, all Blizzard (or any company) needs to do to complete the circle is to sell gold themselves ….

Another route to hard modes

Lots of single player computer games have options that the player can select to control difficulty. You start up and get the Easy/Medium/Hard options, so you pick Easy, right? After all, you want to at least finish the game now you’ve bought it. Or at least get a feel for how easy their Easy mode is before you ask them to ramp up whatever tweaks they do to make things harder.

Or maybe that’s just me. If  a game offers an Easy mode, I’ll pick that while I’m learning it. But then again, I don’t like every game enough to want to replay it so maybe that’s the only mode I’ll ever try. The only hard mode I did quite like was in the Civilisation games – I don’t particularly score well at it (I claim that this is because Civilisation is biased towards world domination and against winning through better SCIENCE!) but I like that picking a harder mode unlocks extra options and complexity for the player,

So if harder modes offer a richer game, or at least a slightly different one, then I’m personally more likely to try them.

So what is a hard mode, really?

Usually it means a tweak to internal parameters so that the game becomes more testing of whatever twitch-fest they’re focussing on. More enemies. Faster enemies. Tougher enemies. Sometimes they make your character weaker – less survival options. Or add more environmental variables.

It should lead to a more exciting game experience when you can’t just idly wander through the fields of mobs randomly letting off your AE nuke of choice without any fear for your toon’s safety. Or in fact without having to really think while playing the game.

If you look at a game like Plants vs Zombies, you can see how instead of setting a difficulty at the start, they increase difficulty with each level. This is the other way to set difficulties and it’s the one I prefer. Let the player start with the easiest mode, and then add more elements, tweak settings slightly for the next level, increase complexity slightly. And keep going until players either finish the game or find the difficulty level they’re comfortable with – hopefully by the time they reach either of these points they feel they have had their money’s worth and are ready to buy your next game.

But that’s not so great for a multi-player setting where players may be of different skills, experiences with this type of game, or even seeking different goals. The player looking for a relaxing casual social experience probably doesn’t want to play ultra-hard mode, and it isn’t because they’re some kind of slacker. It’s just because they aren’t looking for a testing experience. Hard isn’t always the same as fun.

All you can do with groups is to offer the different difficulties and let players decide among their own groups how they want to organise themselves and make that decision. You probably don’t want to force them all to start at the easiest level and gradually pick up more and more difficulty because they may not all be at the same level to start with.

In practice, MMOs tend to have their easy modes at level 1. And as you level up, gain more abilities, and probably try out the group content, then things get harder. A game like WoW introduces a lot of the elements you’ll later find in raids in their 5-man instances. This is why it matters if 5-mans are too easy, if they are, people won’t learn the things they need to learn. And MMOs have not been good traditionally at ramping up the solo difficulty, which is another valid criticism. It has tended to be groups only.

Designing the Hard Mode Encounter

In a Diablo/CoH style hard mode encounter they generally just increase the numbers of mobs, increase their damage, and increase their toughness. And sometimes that’s enough. It certainly can be enough to step up the pace and excitement without requiring people to radically change their playing style.

In a WoW-type hard mode encounter, the encounter is intended to more severely test part of the raid. So you get some hard modes that are just harder dps checks with a little extra survivability movement thrown in. You get some that add a lot of extra complexity – more movement required, more adds to handle, more elements for everyone to think about. You get some where the nature of the encounter changes dramatically.

I’ve heard some complaints with hard modes (and I know I’ve seen few myself – we had a pop  at Freya+1 last night and that was fun), but I figure they can’t all be winners. As long as most encounters are more fun and challenging for the hardcore raid groups in hard mode then the hard modes are doing their job and entertaining people.

So what is the best way to have difficulty settings for soloers?

One of my guildies hooked me on Hattrick a few months ago. It’s a web-based football manager game, and not one of those games that will take over your life. Once it’s all set up you can log in once or twice a week to set your team formations for next week’s games and check how things have been going.

(It is amusing to me that I’m not big on football but I love football manager games.)

And there’s one game element in Hattrick that I think is very smart indeed. Alongside your regular team, you can also coach youth players. This means that you will sometimes be able to promote a good youth player to your A-team and it will be much much cheaper than buying a player via the transfer market, also there’s a chance that you’ll raise a brilliant player who is much better than anyone you could have afforded to buy.

The game offers two different ways of managing the youth team. There’s the hands-off method where you just pay a certain amount per week towards upkeep of the youth team. Once you have set that up, it happens passively and you get the chance to promote a youth player once a week. Most of the players you get this way are pretty poor, but there’s always that chance that you could find a winner. (I think my current goalie was a youth promotion I got from using this method.)

Then there’s the more complex hands-on method where you can actually choose to run your own youth academy. If you do this, then you get to send scouts out to find new youth players, set up games for your youth team the same way you do for your main team, decide how you want to train them and listen to the trainers reports on how they are doing. And you decide when or if you want to promote a player to the main team or if you’d rather keep training them with the youth for longer (the youth academy generally has better training options).

So effectively, this game  has a solo ‘hard mode’. If you want the extra complexity, you can choose that. And it gives you much more control over the outcome of the youth team. If you don’t want to be bothered, then you pick the easier setup and although you won’t get as consistent results, you still are in with a chance of promoting a really good player.

I could imagine something like this for crafting in MMOs. People who hate crafting can just not do it. People who like to craft as a casual side-game could pick some non-complex crafting mechanism where you just hit a single button, and there’s more randomness involved in what you get. And people who love crafting and want to spend the extra time on it could pick a more complex crafting mechanic. It would take longer and require more thought but would give them more control over the whole process.

What if we have our group and solo content the wrong way round?

I was pondering the other day why raids can be so stressful in WoW.

There’s pressure on players, and there can be crazy amounts of pressure on guild officers. You could say that there’s pressure because of the difficulty but sometimes it feels as though the whole raid guild social structure is on edge for all of the time. You cannot really grok this until you have been a guild officer in a failing progression guild and seen people leave because the progress wasn’t fast enough, and held your head in your hands (metaphorically speaking) wondering where the heck you’ll find another ‘class of choice’ so that you can keep the schedule going … so that more people won’t leave.

And I know I have played games where the whole raiding experience was just more fun. I mean, for the organisers as well as participants. So I don’t think it’s a given that raids need to be so hard that they cause stress fractures in guilds and it’s accepted by the player base as the cost of entry.

So I’m thinking, surely it’s possible to design fun raids that aren’t going to cause all this massive stress? Raids should be appealing to social players whether they’re hardcore achievers or not. Because they get to hang out with other players in a scheduled event. PvP raids, for example, are not so stressful.

Here’s the way things stand in WoW-type games at the moment with regards to challenge and difficulty.

Note: I’m leaving aside PvP, which generally sets its own level in terms of difficulty. So really it’s by far the most balanced way of introducing difficulty into a game. Also leaving aside the economic game which is a form of PvP.

Levelling

The levelling experience contains a mixture of solo and group content. It is generally easy.

The solo sections are particularly easy because they need to be accessible to a large cross-section of players and classes. Solo parts of the game are quest based and story based –- the stories may not be great but they’re supposed to be entertaining ways to get levels, not brick walls. Also some games have sufficiently poor class design that solo challenge varies strongly between classes. (Yes I went there.) In games like that, it’s very difficult to design solo content that’s challenging for the hunter but still accessible to the resto shaman. Or vice versa.

If a solo player wants more of a challenge then they can try higher level quests, or think of additional personal challenges (i.e.. solo a lower level instance, pull more mobs, etc).

Group content while levelling is reasonably easy. It is accessible to players who are still learning the game. So a lot of the implicit challenge is just learning to play your character in a group.

Endgame

Solo content is repetitive and easy. People can still think up their own personal challenges but there aren’t many new goals in terms of character progression for them.

Group/ raid content can vary from straightforward to bitching hard. The most stressful things you will ever do in game will be in groups or raids. You do have options to make things even harder by undermanning group content or attempting hard modes.

What if the raids were easy and the solo content hard?

So here is the thought experiment:

What if the raids were relatively straightforward? Make them into mass entertainment in terms of fun encounters, gorgeous scenery, cool vehicles, and so on. Let people ride on dragons, sink battleships, conduct orchestras, shoot each other out of cannons, blow up fortresses, play on ice slides and have a good time. Raids include some of the most entertaining content in the game, and the best stories. They should need tactics but let them be quite forgiving. Rewards can still be good, but few. So raiding becomes a fun night out with a small chance to win a good item.

Sure, it’s the gaming equivalent of going to the cinema to see a summer blockbuster but heck, why not?

And what if it was the small group and solo content that contained more of the challenge?  Give them the tricky puzzle-pulls that need to be worked out in advance. The smart bosses that adjust themselves to player tactics. The NPC group that uses PvP tactics to focus the healer first. The heart-thumping stealth instances where you get to do the Mission Impossible thang. The in game experiences that are actually more powerful when you are solo or with a small group and every single person makes a difference. And make rewards smaller but guaranteed – maybe badge based so that the solo player could eventually buy equivalents to raid loot.  So if you follow the solo or small group path, you’ll have a more difficult game but loot is not a lottery.

Would you play that game? I know that I would.