[WoW] Assorted thoughts, the curse of accessibility, crafting in Pandaria

mop_ally

 

Accessibility is the curse of Warcraft at the moment. Whatever the designers do, they can never seem to please all of the people; even offering a  range of content from chilled out casual daily quests and farming, to high speed challenge dungeons with a leaderboard and ranked battlegrounds will not stop players complaining when they try content that was aimed at a different group and find it wasn’t tuned for them. It must be frustrating for devs who are trying to entertain the masses, and World of Warcraft has never tried harder to provide entertainment than it is right now, with Mists of Pandaria. The new expansion is terrifically endearing, like a puppy that just wants to be loved.

If you have enjoyed WoW PvE in the past but burned out on lack of content or high end raiding or the frustration of being bottlenecked by group content, there has never been a better time to come back to the game. The new continent is beautiful, the zones are stunning, the storytelling is classic Blizzard (spotty in parts, but lively and likeable, and the good parts are really exciting), and the company has also made real efforts to tweak the gameplay with modern updates.

For example, the picture above shows Spinks (who is in the foreground, bottom right) fighting a big elite mob. You can see the shiny spell effect wings of the paladin who is helping her, behind the mob. That character is Alliance. That elite quest mob was not tagged to either one of us, we both got the kill. Now anyone who has been playing GW2 will be au fait with this, because it’s a game where no mob is ever tagged. In Pandaria, only the named quest mobs get this treatment, but they have done it fairly consistently. So while you will still be competing with other players (unless you group) for mobs in farmed out daily zones, when you go for the bosses, everyone can pile in.

I quite like the interplay of both different types of fight. Sometimes you have to compete and others you cooperate.

The world feels very vibrant compared to some previous expansions. I couldn’t say exactly why this is, but there is something very lively and lived in about Pandaria.  They’ve really taken the Chinese inspiration, put a fantasy twist on things, and run with it. As far as the storytelling goes, I will have more to say in future, but the goal has clearly been to make the player feel like a hero. And not just the murdering zillions of kobolds kind of hero. The kind of hero who helps people who need heroes. There are thrilling set pieces where your character helps to defend a village from bandits, in classic wuxia style, or takes part in larger battle scenes, and these offer much better actual gameplay than previous set pieces such as Wrathgate (however cool it was).

And maybe it’s because I play a warrior, but the wuxia storytelling style really plays to the warrior as a class. It felt very appropriate that Spinks might just take a feisty young panda girl under her wings and teach her a bit of warrioring along the way (I hope that panda grows up to be panda Mulan, just saying). So it felt more personal to me than Cataclysm, and more meaningful also.

Accessibility to a fault

Now the expansion seems to be trying to train people to play the game, even though anyone who has managed to get to level 85 probably already has a clue or two about that. So the introductory quests are quite streamlined and don’t encourage you to explore much. You could, but its not encouraged. Later on, the world does open up more, but throughout the first three zones I never had any fights that left me below about 80% health. I was thinking, “This is fun and all but surely they didn’t mean it to be THIS undertuned?”

However, by the time you get to the level 90 content, mobs will put up more of a fight and there is a definite trend for requiring movement in fights. There are mobs which put damage down on the floor, or have an attack which will do loads of damage if you are standing in front of the thing, or need you to run out of melee range, etc.  All of this is very well telegraphed (well I thought so, but I’m an experienced raider), and I’m sure the idea is to train players for instance and raid bosses. Which is great, and all very well, but not very satisfying to players who already knew that.

The panda starting zone, to my mind, is even worse. It’s very fun, very in genre (with nods to Ranma, for example), very railroaded and easy up until the last few encounters. The intent is very clearly to be an introduction to both the pandas and to the gameplay for new players. And as above, this is great and all, but the majority of people rolling pandas are probably not new players.

For my money, the best starting zones currently in the game are the Blood Elf and Draenei areas, and it’s because they open up very quickly and encourage you to wander around, explore the areas, and smell the roses. I would have enjoyed a Pandaran area more in that style, with more quest hubs, more hints about the culture (maybe for the various classes, like Pandaran magi et al) and less about ‘you will follow this questline until it ends.’

Crafting

Crafting actually feels coherent in this expansion. The goal is clearly to make it easy for people to train Pandaria crafting skills, but characters who are actively played will have access to more recipes, and more specialist materials. This is made easy by the baseline materials being incredibly plentiful. ‘Actively played’ doesn’t mean that they need to do hard group content (there may be raid recipes and materials in future I guess), they just need to be levelled through the content and after that can amble around doing the odd daily quest or anything else that involves a bit of random killing. So a casual solo player will have better access to crafting and recipes in this expansion than ever before.

In some crafts, such as Blacksmithing, if you want to raise the skill above 575, you will need recipes that are accessed from a vendor that you will have to open up by completing a questline. But it is a questline that can comfortably be done solo. I think this is a nice balance between gating content and still making it accessible in a non-frustrating way for more casual players.

Accessible Progression

I think Blizzard are aiming for an accessible form of progression in MoP. This is good news for all those players who do enjoy the progression aspects of WoW but have felt frustrated or gated in the past when hitting a progression brick wall that only raiders could pass. There are still ‘gates’ (or things you have to do before you can access other content you want to see), but people who enjoy working on progression goals but prefer a more casual or solo style will also have cool things to work towards.

See, it was never attunements themselves that were the issue, and people who argued in favour of them were always pretty much on the money. A lot of people enjoy planning out how they will attune a new character. Just now you can largely do it with less frustration. Not ‘no frustration’ because sometimes someone else beats you to that rich trillium node, or you wish you could just skip the dailies, but mild frustration is also a part of the genre. For a lot of players, it adds to the sense of achievement when you stick at it and finally get the thing/key/content/progression that you want. And I think Blizzard realise that, and have embraced it.

[Cataclysm] Racing other players

One of the things that happens when a lot of players are going after the same objective, whether it’s a quest mob or a crafting node or anything of that ilk, is that people tend to get more competitive.

In WoW at the moment, if you log on at peak times on a busy server, you’ll often be waiting around with other players for a quest mob to (re) spawn. And people handle this in different ways.

I’ve played games in the past where players politely queued. Sometimes people will turn it into a race and see who can target and hit the mob first when it appears. Sometimes people will start inviting everyone into a group so that everyone can share the kill (this is the smart way to proceed really). On a PvP server, there’s often a bloody killfest to sort out priorities.

So if someone invites you to a group when waiting for a boss to spawn, accept the invite.

I was more amused last night when we were dogpiling on some mob whose name I forget, and one of the alliance foolishly turned on their PvP flag. (Argent Dawn is a PvE server so you can’t attack other players unless they do that, but as soon as you do you will get flagged too.) In short notice, everyone in the vicinity was flagged for PvP and the alliance got slaughtered. Then once the numbers were thinned so that the remaining people could actually see each other, we invited the other hordies to a group and got the mob jointly.

But despite all the talk about sharing kills and horde powah, I have an admission to make. I kind of like racing other people to mining nodes and quest NPCs. Especially when I can charge in and tag something quickly.

But shamans and paladins – when you target the ground area with an AE DoT? That’s totally cheating :P

Screenshot of the Day

cata_staff

I may be the only player who doesn’t like the worgen starting zones. Too much “go here, kill 10 x, now go here, kill 10 y” for me – the goblin area is much more fun.

But darn if they don’t get the most amazing looking staves.

Improving Roleplay: How to find other roleplayers?

This is the third post in a series about improving the RP experience in MMOs. Previous posts were:

So you’ve created your character, you’ve run it through the starting zone and had some ideas for a backstory and personality traits, and now you’re ready to go and interact with other players. So where do you go next? How do you find these other players? How do you know they’ll be interested in roleplaying with you?

There are two main types of roleplay in a largescale setting.

  1. Scenes that are pre-arranged. This could include huge scheduled events, the weekly RP guild meeting, or just whispering around a group of friends to arrange be in the Stormwind pub at 8pm on Tuesday. If you need to roleplay with specific people, then the chances are some of the key scenes will be pre-arranged to make sure that everyone can be there.
  2. Scenes that are not pre-arranged. You run into people, start roleplaying, and see how it goes. They may be people you have never met before. Or it might be that your group likes to roleplay around the same hangout (or guildhall if you’re playing a game that has them) so you know to go there and see who is around. Some people like to go to the newbie zones on RP servers and start roleplaying with people there.

Immediately you can see the similarities with any kind of group activities. It’s like the difference between pre-arranged raid schedules and PUGs. We have several mechanisms in MMOs to find other players to game with, but they cover instancing (and maybe PvP), not roleplaying as an activity.

Finding other players who want to do the same thing that you do is key to any social interaction in an MMO. So getting this right is a big deal. I’m going to look at how roleplayers find other roleplayers in game, and where the systems could help out.

Who is out there? LFG

Even if you could use LFG to find other players who wanted to roleplay, that’s not enough information on its own. You need to know what type of roleplay they’re interested in and whether it matches with the kind of stories you want to tell. This isn’t just so that you can avoid the guys who want to cyber (ie. roleplay having sex), but if you’re looking for light hearted gnome roleplaying about clockwork chickens, it’s not going to mesh well with the night elf hunter who wants deep dark RP about being possessed by a demon, or the dwarf guy who wants to RP a grizzled veteran and talk about beer.

(Note: people really do tend to play to racial types, which is why race-based RP guilds work so well in WoW.)

And this is really the big problem with just searching for other roleplayers. It’s much easier if you can find them because they’re going somewhere your character might go or doing something your character might do too, rather than just because they tagged their character as wanting to roleplay in LFG.

It would be possible to add extra switches to LFG – maybe light hearted RP vs serious RP. Or you could just whisper to the person and ask them before you arrange to meet. But I’ve never really found these kinds of switches useful in text based games, except in being able to avoid the people who are all about sex.

Roleplaying Servers

At the most basic level, a roleplaying server is somewhere you would expect to find roleplayers. In practice, a lot of people pick RP servers because they like the more social atmosphere and less hardcore focus. Neither of these things are guaranteed. And in another tragedy of the commons, the more non-RPers who gather on a roleplaying server, the less easy it is for actual RPers to find someone to roleplay with. So if you do pick a RP server, it’s polite to at least respond IC if someone addresses you IC.

Roleplay servers could benefit a lot if new players understood what they were about and were forced to at least create characters with acceptable names. They’d benefit even more if experienced RPers were motivated to go chat to the newbies and find ways to include them, but that issue affects all types of MMO activity.

Still, if devs want to support roleplaying, it’s not really fair to treat RP servers exactly the same as all the others. A little more time spent on approving names would go a long way.

Guilds and Alliances

Another way to find roleplayers is to join a guild that is all about roleplaying. A guild can do a lot to support RP and some of them have organised events, heavily lore based structures, in character guild channels (so that you can RP with the guild while doing something else in game) and support strong storytelling among members. It’s just a case of finding one that suits you, hoping that it’s active and people haven’t got bored and gone off to raid, and that you don’t end up hating everyone else who is in it. So it’s like joining any social guild really.

A guild can provide you with a pool of other roleplayers. The guild will also probably have a strong theme (race based guilds are common, as are guilds based around in game organisations) so that you should be able to find players who want to roleplay the same types of stories.

This is all great as far as it goes, but it is difficult to roleplay and to do other things in game. You won’t want to roleplay running every instance and raid, for example. It takes time to type and time to think about the story and your character’s response. And also, just because another player wants to roleplay doesn’t mean that they’ll want to do the other things in game that you do. For example, you might be guilded with a strong RPer who has no interest in levelling their character past level 10. That’s not a problem, but if you want to raid with your guild then it may not be realistic to expect a RP guild to provide enough people who want to RP AND who want to raid.

This is one of the reasons that RPers get a reputation as poor players. There are plenty of RPers who are also hardcore and as elitist as anyone else. But there are also players who are mainly there to socialise and RP and don’t care about learning to play the game. All that they have in common is that they enjoy roleplaying. So a strong RP guild can actually restrict you from doing anything else apart from roleplaying.

In practice, a lot of people play in RP guilds and then leave reluctantly because they want to do something else in game and the guild can’t support it.

Letting players join multiple guilds would go a long way towards solving this problem. ie. one for roleplay/socialising, one to raid, one to PvP, one to chat with people who come from the same area iRL, etc. Until game designers realise that it’s unreasonable to expect a guild to focus on more than one game activity, we will never get away from people feeling stressed because they have to leave their friends to be able to do some organised game activity. This is something that roleplayers need. But it would benefit other players too.

In the meantime, guild alliances can bridge the gap, in games that support them. A few smaller guilds can band together and raise a critical mass of members who do want to raid or PvP, even though the majority may still not be interested. I also think it’s an absolute travesty that WoW has never implemented guild alliances. I don’t think they really see beyond their raid guild model.

Location based roleplaying, and name tags

One of the things I noticed in EQ2 is that the game supports roleplaying name tags. You can make your character’s name turn a different colour if you are interested in roleplaying, and then go about your daily business as normal. Just other players will be able to spot you and may choose to engage you in roleplay.

I like this a lot, because it supports location based RP. A player could go to a location that fits their character (maybe their racial capital city) and if you see other roleplayers – who you will recognise from the colour of the nametag – you can interact with them quite naturally. And it is easy to find a good starting gambit, you can assume that their character has a reason to be there and go from that. It is much easier to roleplay in a location than in a vacuum. The location itself gives all the players some props to work with.

If you’re in a pub, then people can roleplay about booze and getting drunk and socialising. If in a guild hall, they can roleplay about guild business. If in the cathedral, they can roleplay about in game religion or church politics. If in a shop or auction house, they can roleplay about commerce. They aren’t forced to do those things, but it’s a good way to start a conversation. Just being in that location gives other people an idea of what you might want to RP about.

And this points to a glaring gap in the systems. We have a /who command to see who is online. Why don’t we have a /where? At least tell us how many people are in the hangouts or the cities.

Developers are actually pretty good at providing roleplay-friendly locations. There are usually in game hangouts (such as pubs or nightclubs), churches, shops, houses, town halls, parks, and other empty spaces in which to roleplay. But to be RP-friendly, these spaces need to be empty and quiet. People don’t want to be constantly interrupted by spam from the NPCs. They also don’t want to be constantly breaking off the conversation to go fight some mobs.

I have noticed that WoW is noticeably worse at this in Wrath than in previous expansions. Perhaps the developers have decided that players are bored with empty buildings and every single space needs to be entertaining.

So if the game MUST be this spammy with NPC chatter, roleplayers need a way to find a quiet corner in which to chat IC. Maybe side rooms with doors that close to keep out the noise, or corner tables at which players can sit down and have a private table-only conversation. Perhaps even a short-range version of /say which only lets conversation travel to people in the immediate vicinity would help.

Finding people to fill specific roles

In pre-arranged storylines, sometimes there will be space for a character to play a specific role. For example, if someone has a character background in which they had an argument with a friend and ran away from home, they might want someone to RP being the ex-friend. Or in a more mundane storyline, maybe two siblings are quarrelling about their father’s will and want a lawyer to help sort it out and may want another player to be the lawyer. Or perhaps a wizard wants to teach a class via RP and is looking for potential apprentices.

There is no easy way to do this on an MMO. If you’re in a RP guild and would put up a note on your guild bboard to see if anyone was interested. In practice, you’ll first ask round your friends and other people who you currently RP with. Then you’ll check the RP guillds and put notes on their bboards asking people to contact you if they are interested and hopefully go from there.

A looking-for-roleplay board on official forums can be useful, but only if people read it. Plus they tend to get spammed by people writing huge fanfic stories. Note: fanfic is NOT roleplaying. At best it is writing up an account of RP which you have already done. Feel free to write stories about your character. But do not spam my RP forum with them!!

Ideally what roleplayers need is some kind of in game mailing list or bboard which they can more easily access. Some games give players the facility to organise this themselves. For example, in WoW it’s easy to set up a roleplaying chat channel and invite other RPers to join it.

These are all things which support emergent play

So I’ve discussed: better LFG functionality, multiple guilds, focussed servers, location based gaming, name tags, in game mailing lists and boards

One thing they all have in common is that they wouldn’t just benefit roleplayers. Anything which is good for roleplayers is likely to be good for other social gamers, anyone who enjoys immersion, and probably lots of other emergent behaviour which we haven’t seen yet because current game mechanics don’t encourage it. If I had to pick just one thing that I’d like to see, it would be more support for multiple guilds and alliances. The crapshoot of trying to find a guild that does all the things you want to do, with a schedule that suits you, and where you like the people, is something that would be greatly eased if you didn’t have to look to one guild to do all of those things.