Great unwritten laws of MMOs (and possibly life)

I have been switching between MMOs at the moment, which gives me an opportunity to muse on truisms that seem to be valid for all guilds, all players, and all MMOs.

  1. Law 0: Murphy lives! (Redbeard.)
  2. Every guild or raid group you join that uses voice chat WILL use different voice chat software. It is inevitable that if one guild uses Mumble and another Ventrilo, the third one you join will require Teamspeak. (me). Your guild will use one of the Big Three – EVEN IF the game you all play has a voice client built right in! (Jonathon Barton)
  3. Whining actually does help. The more you whine about not getting that rare drop you want or never being able to get a group to some location, the more likely it is that the thing you want will actually happen immediately afterwards, thus making you look like a miserable whiner with no grip on reality.
  4. Unscheduled maintenance happens on your day off. (Tesh) Or, if you’re in a relevant time zone, right in the middle of your progression raid for the week. (Siha)
  5. Double XP weekends happen on the weekend you are best person at a wedding. (Nick Smith). Or you’re at a music festival all weekend. (Andy Horton)
  6. “You have a push to talk key for a reason. Use it.” (Oestrus). Similarly, at least one person will have their PTT key bound to something like Ctrl or Alt that they also use as a modifier in-game, usually for something they cast quite a lot. (caerphoto). Courtesy of a raid leader I knew – correct positioning of your microphone is not in your mouth and not up your ass. (kiantremayne).
  7. Joining a PUG always means you’ll have an interesting story to tell later. (Jeromai)
  8. Whenever you see one spam mail / message, rest assured, more are on the way.(Jeromai)
  9. The item that you’ve been waiting 7823578923 raids to get will not drop until the raid *after* you’ve bankrupted yourself purchasing an alternative. (Siha) Or that drop you want for toon X drops every time you are on toon Y or Z. (Thelandira/Sheeturself)
  10. If you pick a rare and little-played class, then next patch it will be buffed and everyone will assume you are one of the FOTM bandwagon-jumpers. (kiantremayne).
  11. Whatever class you pick, there’ll be seven others in the guild. Until you get fed up and roll a new character, after which none of the others logs in again. (Zoso)
  12. You like to think you’re a hipster gamer, and you genuinely don’t play a class for it’s power, but no matter what you do, you will end up picking the class Everyone Else plays and getting lumped in with the negative ones. Regardless if this class is ‘Warrior’ or ‘Milk Dud Tossing Basketweaver’, rest assured, everyone will want to play Your Class. (azaael)
  13. Whatever loot distribution scheme you think is equitable, someone disagrees. (kiantremayne)
  14. Your guild forum will only have important/amusing posts when you’re not checking it. (Mika Hirvonen (@Hirvox)
  15. When you’ve finally reached that chest at the end of the never ending tunnel, all the mobs around you will respawn (and pwn you hard with no res point close!). (Syl)
  16. 2 seconds after you finally reach that hard to find Shiny, you will pull unseen aggro that dots you heavily so you die an ignoble death while watching some casual passerby waltz over and pick up your rarely spawned Shiny. (gaspodia)
  17. Your game-friends are never portable, so you wind up building a whole new social circle from scratch in each title. (Jonathon Barton) Or if they do come to a new game with you, they will get bored and move on long before you do. (me)
  18. No matter what the topic in local chat, someone will bring up that WoW did X first, despite the fact that WoW did nothing first. (SynCaine)
  19. Also see: “wish this was like WoW” on day-one of any MMO release. (SynCaine)
  20. Don’t buy a new game at release, don’t log in on patch day. (Indy)
  21. 95% of your guild will not read the forums. (typhoonandrew)
  22. As soon as you decide to purchase a lifetime-subscription, the game will inevitably go F2P (or close down completely) within the next 6 months. (Moridir)

Feel free to add any great unwritten laws of MMOs that you have discovered and I’ll add them to the list.

Social learning in MMOs: there are groups and there are GROUPS

I have been throwing myself into the gaping maw of the group finder tool this week on SWTOR and the overall experience has been great, I haven’t had a bad group yet. So why do I keep thinking about how strange it feels to play in a PUG put together by a sorting tool compared to a group of players who had  previous contact, even if it was just via chatting about the group in general chat? Most of all, the overwhelming sense of relief that I already know most of these instances and bosses from having learned them alongside my old guild, where we used to go in blind to see what happened, figure things out as we went along, and chatter on voice chat the whole time.

Frankly, a LFG environment can be a punishing place to learn content for the first time, especially if you are tanking or healing. Other players might turn out to be tolerant mentors, or might just be there for a speed run and guaranteed badges. They might be pleasantly civil, abhorrently rude, or merely silent. And always the looming threat of encountering one of those abusive hardcore player who will rage at anything or anyone which prevents them from collecting their entitlement of badges after a flawless 5 min speedrun.

It can also be a great place to learn content. More experienced players will know the faster routes through the instance, can tell you the smartest tactics, and can explain strategies quickly and simply. The more players you group with, the more you could potentially learn if everyone shares their best tactics on every run.

I can’t say I ever enjoyed trying to learn complex content (like raids) in random groups, however.

So how do we learn in groups?

The relationship of MMOs with groups has always been uncoordinated. These games were designed to include group challenges, but designers left it up to players as to how they would manage the tricks of group formation and learning. Still, we can imagine two main types of learning in groups.

1. The learning group. This would be a group of players that works together and learns content together. They’ll tend to stick with the same core set of members because that way they’ll be able to organise better, to learn each other’s strengths better, and put into use together what they’ve learned in previous runs. Group members will give frequent feedback to help the group improve. They may also offer social support (ie. if one player is nervous about a new raid or role, others will often encourage them: “Of course you can do it!”) Yup, this describes a raid group, or an organised guild. There are lots of theories about how groups form and work together to accomplish tasks, such as learning new instances or raids. But the main thing is that this type of group works together for more than one session and aims to learn as a group. A long standing group will have strategies to bring new members up to speed and include them in group activities, so that the group can keep learning and improving. Players will tend to feel some kind of commitment to the group.

You could also argue that the entire community of a game is a kind of learning group, with various members writing up strategies and tactics and providing video instruction of how to beat various bosses. But I don’t think there are really the kinds of feedback and support mechanisms in place to really underpin that. The resources are great, but they just underpin how difficult the task of learning in a group can be.

2. Learning in groups. You join a group, watch what they do and copy it. This is also known as social learning. Now, human beings will tend to learn all sorts of things in groups as well as boss strategies, such as how to behave towards other players. So if someone plays in LFG a lot and sees people being rude to the tanks or demanding speed runs, they’ll learn that is how you should play the game. While guilds and raids will also expect players to learn from being part of their group, they’ll tend to be more supportive about it than random players (even if they show this ‘support’ in ways like requiring high gear or dps scores before they’ll let you raid with them, that’s still setting a new player a learning target which could be useful.)

When WoW was released, I think the expectation of designers was that players would tend to commit to a guild and that the guild would learn the raids together. The notion that the more ambitious members would be guild hopping a lot wasn’t common at the time. Neither was the thought that a lot of people might not want (or be able) to commit to a guild, but would still be interested in endgame raids. On some servers, typically the RP ones, raid alliances formed so that people could have a raid schedule without leaving their smaller guilds. But the general idea of the raid guild as a learning organisation was built in from the start.

LFG is very much a newer and different kettle of fish. The groups are likely to have a mix of novice and experienced players, of people who know the content from people who don’t, characters who are overgeared and characters who are undergeared. So the kind of content that they want isn’t going to be the same as a dedicated learning group who will patiently wipe while they learn how best to handle a new boss.

I personally think the great flaw of Cataclysm was making the heroic instances both too hard at the start AND accessible via LFG. They weren’t too hard for learning groups, and in guild groups they were challenging and fun. But for LFG they were way too tough, and the fact that players had become used to fast easy LFG runs in Wrath didn’t help. If LFG had been restricted to normal mode instances at the start of Cataclysm so that the player base could learn the instances and gear up in a more forgiving environment, I think they would have been fine. No amount of gear requirements can really overcome the difficulty that players who have only learned content socially will have with new and complex encounters, if the more experienced members of the player base aren’t willing to patiently teach. And expecting people to patiently teach strangers (who may be idiots!) is a very different expectation to wanting them to teach members of their own guild. Blizzard I think has finally understood this with their easy mode LFR raids.

It isn’t fair to expect a random group to perform like a specialised learning group. But there is still one type of learning that devs haven’t really supported, and that is players who would rather learn and perfect an encounter on their own before joining a group. Diablo 3 shows how this can work. You can run through all the bosses on single player mode before ever joining a group, if you want. I think a lot of players would feel more comfortable if they could do something similar for MMO instances and raids. I have certainly played games where many of the raid mechanics show up in single player quests (SWTOR likes to teach you to interrupt, for example), but it isn’t the same as being able to practice an encounter carefully and at your own pace.

I suspect that presenting LFG groups with content that is too difficult for players to learn in those groups just adds to the stress levels. Players in general are not patient enough to say “I’ll come back when I have geared up more” or “I’ll try the normal mode a few more times” : they see the reward and the button that says “Queue for LFG” and they figure its worth a shot. And players who are already geared up and do already know the strategies will just be frustrated with queuing with people who don’t, particularly when explaining the strategies is tricky or would take ages.

This just adds to the stress for anyone new who is trying to learn an instance by PUGging it, which they are more likely to have to since the rest of their guild is probably off somewhere in the LFG tool too. Devs can help with this by making the encounters reasonably straightforwards, by providing as many pointers as possible in the environment (ie. graphical and sound indicators about what is going to happen), which I think they generally try to do in boss fights. Players can help by using LFG and trying to make it as pleasant and civil experience for everyone as possible. We can all shape what other players learn from their social experiences in our groups, just by modelling how we’d like people to behave towards us.

So if my SWTOR groups have been good, it is partly because the instances are quite fun, but mostly because the players themselves have been good humoured about the experience. People who were up front about their wish for a quick run and quick badges being understood and accepted by the rest of the group, people who explain that this is their first time in an instance being given the explanations they need, people who use raid markers for CC being chilled when CC is accidentally broken, the group just casually adapting if someone makes a mistake without making an issue of it, and so on.

It came from the PUG

50shades

Yes I was in a random group with someone called Fifty and someone called Shades. I would name my next alt Grey to keep the theme but I think it’s already been taken. (This means that yes, there is a possibility of a Fifty Shades of Grey instance group on my server.)

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.

Random LFG in WoW: Day 2

In which badges are traded in for epics and a hapless stranger is relentlessly mocked

Anyone else finding these random heroics quite addictive? They’re very ‘just one more’ish and I’m still finding the whole setup to be successful beyond my imaginings.

Is it just that the horrible players people talk about haven’t found the tool yet? Only time will tell.

1. This one was an early morning instance, run on my new death knight. Drak’Theron Keep, an uneventful instance with a friendly group of early risers. After this instance finished, I realised that I had 30 emblems of triumph so ran off to upgrade my green shoulders to … err… Tier 9. I think that sums up how WoW has changed in this expansion. They are shiny! I even bought a rare gem for them.

2. The Old Kingdom. This instance marks the first time that my Death Knight actually topped the damage meters in an instance. Baby’s first pwnage? Clearly those epic shoulders were dazzling the others into standing around and gaping instead of actually nuking stuff. Another smooth run until we got to the extra optional boss at the end where the healer had one of those healer-psycho moments and managed to pull all the mushroom guys and the boss at the same time. I don’t actually know how. Group disbanded after the wipe (I think no one could be bothered to run back in and regroup just for one badge.)

3. Utgarde Keep. I suspect the LFG tool is actively trying to cycle me around the different instances, I haven’t had a single one repeated yet. Another perfectly fine group which is a shame because it would be way more fun to write about a dysfunctional one. Upgraded my green leggings for the nice purple ones that dropped off the last boss. Sadly the LFG tool still doesn’t think I’m well enough geared to let me queue for ToC or the new heroics, which is a shame because they’re the most likely source for a weapon upgrade.

4. Grabbed my partner and queued for an instance on Spinks. We pulled Drak’theron again, and the rest of the group had already killed two bosses and was waiting by the third. I have noticed that people really don’t mind being brought into a part-completed instance with the new tool, probably because they’ll get their completion badges more quickly. Noticed that one of the other guys was called Pornostar (or something similar) so we mocked him relentlessly about his name, in the sure knowledge that we wouldn’t get kicked. But who calls their character Pornostar? Really, people, you manage to name your dogs and cats, your cars, your partner’s naughty bits and even your kids so I know you understand what names are all about. So why when it comes to naming a character do you just type the first thing that comes into your head? Non-RP servers are weird. I have noticed that I am much more likely to boss people around or poke fun at them when I am on my tankette, I must be more careful to use my power for good.

I am increasingly curious as to how long the positive experiences will last. Guildies report that lower level instances are more active also, so it may be that players now have a much better chance to practice group skills while levelling. Is it still going to be like this a couple of months from now?

Deciding on loot rules

You cannot play an MMO for very long before butting your head against the notion of loot rules. In fact, the first time you are in a group and some item drops, what do you do?

Maybe a little box comes up on screen with some obscure symbols. Perhaps it says need or greed. So you press some random button because you don’t know, and if you get it wrong people yell at you. If you’re polite or with friends, you ask them first. If you’re not then you just hit need and hope for the best.

None of this is obvious to new players. But a large part of MMO culture and social custom is centred on looting rules; when you can loot, where you can loot, how you can loot,  and what are the looting taboos. In WoW, different servers can even have different customs.

Looting in PUGS

The requirements for a good PUG looting rule are:

  • Should be known in advance, so that people who don’t like the rules can turn down the group.

That’s the only important rule. But it’s actually quite rare that people will discuss loot before a run. They’ll assume usually that you go with whatever the server custom is.

Some people are also very fussy about letting others roll on off-spec gear. Game custom is usually that you roll for gear that supports the role you are currently playing. But it’s a PUG so who really cares what they think? It really isn’t worth fussing too much about such things, and if you’re concerned about the social implications of rolling for off-spec then just let people know what you plan to do at the start.

But players do have a strong sense of ‘priority loot’, and which of the possible drops are ‘theirs’. And if you are relying on PUGs to help gear up your tank/healer for raiding, you can understand why it is annoying to have the rest of the group roll for something you need when they may or may not ever use it. I think this is mostly silly but that’s how PUGs roll.

  • Looting should be memoryless.

Looting rules in a PUG shouldn’t care about what players were doing before they joined the group. It doesn’t matter how many times you have already run an instance to try to get a specific drop, it doesn’t entitle you to automatically win it in the next PUG if others want it also.

Raid Rules

There’s been so much said and written about DKP schemes and raid looting rules. The purpose of loot rules in a raid are very different from a PUG. This is partly because they’re often used more as incentives than as pure loot distribution, and also because of the history of raid loot.

It’s hard to imagine now, with Naxxramas practically throwing loot at raid groups, but in the past you’d expect to kill a boss and get two items to distribute between 40 (or more) people. That’s the atmosphere in which DKP was devised. Somehow it had to make for a fair scheme that would get those 40 people to keep coming back until everyone was kitted out. And because loot was so rare, it was important not to ‘waste’ it.

So that meant raid leaders wanted to prioritise giving loot to the more active raid members (loot gets used to help the raid more), giving loot to primary specs and often to tanks and healers first (loot helps the raid progress more quickly) and sometimes penalising players who slowed down or messed up the raid (-50DKP!!!!). And it had to give players an easy way to see that if they turned up more frequently they had a better chance of getting loot.

And, equally important, raids were difficult. It was quite likely that you’d spend all night wiping and picking up no more loot than repair bills. But you needed people to be willing to keep coming along and doing that, in the knowledge that their effort would be rewarded once the loot started dropping.

I reject most of these criteria. That was then, this is now. We have more loot to share around and people will find other things to do if the raids aren’t fun. And, more importantly, the current 10 mans are fairly easy. So it isn’t so important to lure people along for wipe nights.

Will it work in future too? Only time will tell.

My 10 man rules

These are my criteria for picking loot rules:

  • Must be fair (or at least equally unfair to everyone involved)
  • Must involve as little work as possible for raid leader (ie. me!)
  • Must be easy for everyone to understand.
  • Must be sufficiently rewarding that players feel they always have a shot at any item they particularly want

My personal experience of running large raids in the past has always been that prioritising gear based on main spec sucks. This is because it requires the raid leader to be able to rule on which gear is appropriate for which class or spec. Other people may be happy trying to rule on whether paladins need expertise or resto shamans need crit, I am not.

They’re all grown up, and they’ve all been playing their classes long enough to know what works for them. So I rejected this at the start.

Instead, because we’re just working with 10 people, I decided that I would invite people who knew their own class well enough to know what they want, and/or would get on well enough to discuss it if they weren’t sure.

I also wanted to keep the memoryless aspect of PUG looting. This was to be a casual raid. I hoped very much that people would find it fun and profitable and would want to keep coming, but I also wanted people who couldn’t make every week to feel that it would be a good use of their time. So no DKP (hurrah!).

I also decided that gearing people up for off-specs was going to be one of the main goals of the 10 man runs.  There have already been a few times when I’ve asked a tank or healer to respec to dps because it made the raid balance work better. So why would we not help players do that? Plus it’s an extra incentive for people to keep coming after they have their main spec gear. So I decided on no loot priorities.

What I actually said in the rules was that people were welcome to discuss it but that if there were any disagreements, we’d go with a dice roll. In practice, players often do pass gear to people who want it for a main spec but I don’t have to be involved. (That’s a win from my point of view.)

I also decided that if anyone brought an alt, they could roll on an equal footing with the mains. Gearing up alts is a perfectly good aim for 10 man runs, encourages people to keep coming along, and there’s no reason not to reward people equally if they put in the same time and effort.

The final tweak was because after a couple of weeks, I noticed that a few people really were just raiding because there was one specific item they wanted. So I let people specify a priority list of 1-2 items. And if that item drops then only people who named it can roll. There’s no guarantee that they will be the only person who will roll (if more than one have it on their lists) but the chances should be a bit better.

This is a bit more housekeeping than I really prefer to do (I can’t be bothered with DKP or bidding mini-games). And in practice people tend to pass for main spec anyway. I’m not actually convinced this priority list idea is anything but an empty incentive, but people do seem to like it. And it encourages players to come along  for that one last drop.

I also let people specify if they want priority on abyss crystals for some enchant, but they can’t also claim priority on a drop if they do that. So after the run, we split the crystals by first giving them to people who prioritised them (ie. just give them as many as they need, assuming we have enough) and storing the rest for future use. Another goal of the 10 mans is to provide people with expensive enchanting materials. But they have to actually come on the raid and help get them.

Anyhow, it has been working fine. People seem happy. Lots of gear has dropped and been given out. It’s quick and easy and if people get frustrated, it’s at the RNG and not at me ;) But it does very much require that you can trust your own raiders to know what gear they want.

What I hope you can get from this is that I designed the incentive/reward system to fit the type of raid I wanted to run and emphasise not only the fun, casual nature but also the fact that I actively encouraged people to come get offspec gear and kit their alts up.