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World of warcraft and anti-social/anti-grouping MMOGs

September 23, 2007

Recently I listened to the Shut Up! We’re Talking #9 podcast, which had a number of good topics and discussions. One of the topics was “Do you help new players” and the discussion include that there perhaps were less people around than there were in the old days and this changed with World of Warcraft. More people playing, more bad apples to meet – but also that since one could solo all the way to the top level, there were little opportunity to actually learn how to group and behave well in a group. Brent from Virginworlds also mentioned that he had pretty much soloed all the way up to level 62 in World of Warcraft.

There are a few different items mixed in here. Community spirit is one, grouping is another.

First, I do agree that the community landscape changed around the time that World of Warcraft was released. It was the first MMOG I decided to unsubscribe to a number of the public chat channels because of all the trash talk and frankly annoying “discussions” that were prevalent. However, previous games were not totally lacking that kind of talk, they were just below the threshold what was bearable. Since then I have turned off chat channels in multiple games after that, because I have seen similar trends in other games – even those that I have played befire World of warcraft.

I do not think it is World of warcraft in itself and its soloing friendly environment that causes people to behave like this – there are just other groups of people that have been introduced to the genre and we have less homogenous crowds in the games nowadays. The forced grouping in some MMOGs may certainly have taught people how to work in a group in the game, but not fundamentally changed the social patterns. I would be more inclined to believe that the lack of options in terms of game environments may have contributed more there – with not many MMOGs around it would be more important to make sure one fit into the community or part of the community. The need to belong to a community is not less today, but there are more options and it is not the end of the world if it gets screwed up in one of them.

Looking at the grouping mechanics here, Brent’s comment about pretty much soloing all of the time in World of warcraft points to a game flaw in my opinion. It is not that the ability to solo is a flaw for grouping, but rather that the grouping mechanics themselves are flawed. If a person is no stranger to grouping in other games and many people say that grouping can be a more rewarding experience, then why would they still solo?

There are many different reasons, a few being:

  • Not enough time to get into a group and play.
  • No friends around or no friends in my level range
  • I may have to leave the computer on short notice, due to various real life issues
  • Do not want to group with strangers, too much risk of grouping with jerks or those who do not know how to play well

Group mechanics have changed very little in any significant ways, even though many other changes have taken place in game mechanics as well as the potential palyer base. The points listed above are things at least I see often as motivation why people do not group, including myself. But why are they not addressed?

Adding the ability to solo thought the game is a good thing, but that is not the way to address flaws in grouping mechanics – both grouping and solo play should be there, but one does not exclude the other. Typically in grouping mechanics today, one has a couple of common features:

  • You have a group leader who is responsible for inviting people to the group or kicking them out. Inviting a person is an explicit action, often initiated by a group looking for more players to fill their needs, or a player looking for a group to fill their needs.
  • You have a limited number of members, typically 5-6. If you want to have more people, you have multiple groups forming a raid.
  • Different characters in a group take on certain roles, often including “the holy trinity” (tank-healer-damage dealer) plus some added support
  • Only members that are part of the group gets credit for kills and can loot the corpses of their fallen victims/enemies.

So what if we challenge those features? Do we need a group leader, do we need to invite and kick out people? Do we need a max limit on group size? And do we need to get people in the group with certain roles and that they play that role thoughout the groups existance?

The first thought here might be – chaos! – no structure, and nothing will work. For the traditinal group setting, this is probably true. But this type of setting is typically a bit strict and provides a number of hurdles. Why not provide some less strict alternatives between solo and the traditional group, without the strict requirements of the group?

This is already happening in games on a regular basis, there is just no or very few mechnics to support it. If you see someone fighting a nasty monster and they seem to be in trouble, maybe you have helped by either healing the character in trouble, or helped killing the monster? This is an example of less strict grouping in my opinion. There is no formal invite, it may have a very short duration and the roles taken may depend on the situation.

Game mechanics should be expanded to provide some rewards and incentives here, but also lower the threshold for setting up and and playing in a traditional group. This may include better abilities to track status for multiple characters (similar to what is available in a traditional group) and potential for some reward or bonus – perhaps a bit less than it would have been in a traditional group, but more than nothing at all.

And traditional groups should allow more flexbility in terms of roles played, number of characters needed, level ranges (if the game has levels). And the groups should be able to set the challenge bar themselves also, since the challenge level will not be one size fits all. Encounters that may be challenging for one group may be dead easy for another and the members may want different levels of challenge as well.

Games like Warhammer Online seem to have included some elements to go beyond the traditional grouping and City of Heroes/Villains is in my opinion the game with the most flexibility within the scope of a traditional group. Tabula Rasa’s setting will enforce the less strict grouping in non-instanced areas, but remains to be seen how well this will work out in terms of the supporting game mechanics.

Categories: MMO Games
  1. Curious George
    September 23, 2007 at 23:01

    I like to call what you are describing “implicit grouping”. I’ve been thinking that what a game developer might do is completely eliminates groups per-se.

    One idea might be to have something like Vanguards “dual targetting” system where you can select a defensive target but extend that to multiple players. If you wanted to help someone you could target them, lock their player frame, and cast heals/buffs/assist on them. If someone else showed up you could do the same for them as well. Perhaps you could have player frames appear automatically based on player proximity/duration.

    Of course that’s just one potential change. Modifying the grouping mechanics would be very difficult and would have to provide such benefits that it would get people past their previous experience/expectations.

  2. sente
    September 24, 2007 at 00:26

    Yes, the same type of system regarding targetting is what I also have been thinking of. I have been thinking of reward mechanisms, but I am frankly not sure if there should be any significant rewards for grouping, at least not xp. But there could be other means of rewards – factional/reputation, badges/deeds and other forms of advancement, which regular grouping would not give – there it might be regular added xp etc.

    You are quite right in that would probably be difficult to make significant changes to group mechanics while still trying to appeal to the traditional MMOG crowd.

    But the goal I think should be to find the transition from solo to some group state rather effortless and in the end let people do things together just because it is fun/more fun or feels like the right things to do for the moment.

  3. September 24, 2007 at 07:17

    I speak from the perspective of a WoW player, since that’s what I have the most experience on. Implicit grouping is in use in PvP battlegrounds, where it quickly demonstrated the obvious downside: Leechers. If the game automatically grouped people based on proximity and the quests they’re on, too many players would just let others do all the work for them.

    To me, whether someone is a leecher is one of the most important criteria I consider when deciding whether to help someone. If they have tried to complete a soloable objective by themselves and failed, I’ll be happy to help. It doesn’t matter that much whether you have good gear, the optimal build or know your character inside-out.

  4. sente
    September 24, 2007 at 08:45

    One option could be to allow “implicit grouping” mechanics to be turned off for yourself. Others would not get the benefits of what you do and you would not get the benefit of what others do.

    Although it should be just a simple on/off switch in that case, if something was implemented like that, otherwise it may get too complicated.

    But in my mind the players would still have to contribute in some way to get some reward. It might be dealing damage, healing, buffing or debuffing and the reward obtained would be relative to the effort provided.
    In terms of mission rewards and potential loot it becomes a bit more difficult, since that is usually not scalable in the same way over a number of players. But this might also need to rethink loot and rewards a bit also.

  5. September 25, 2007 at 03:33

    WoW has the same grouping system of the Diku-inspired MMORPGs prior. However, it included one HUGE new element to the entire game, players are NEVER FORCED to group to advance or play. There are several current games that players log into and are able to do absolutely nothing until they get a group.

    So, I don’t agree with your solutions to fix grouping as solo play is the best solution currently. Developers can do better group play, but it is still up to the players to actually use what they are given. I don’t have much faith in players.

  6. Curious George
    September 25, 2007 at 07:40

    If advancement were all these games were about then yes you are not “forced” to group in WoW, but it isn’t just that. In fact I consider that one of the least important aspects of MMORPGs to actually enjoying them. People are forced to group in WoW for others reasons, the most annoying to me, as a soloer and casual (playestyle not time commitment), is the exclusivity of raid content, dungeons, and group quests. It sort of goes beyond just talking about grouping but I don’t think any game has adequately addressed these issue. Nor can they until they take a look at their overall design.

    But that is really besides the scope of this blog entry I think. I just wanted to make it clear that one is forced to group in WoW just not for advancement (in levels, used to be gear as well but Burning Crusade might I have changed that).

  7. sente
    September 25, 2007 at 08:24

    I think that aspect of grouping is very important – to do it for _fun_. Not necessarily to accomplish a certain task.
    If players who are not intimidated by the concept of grouping as such still solo through a game because they can and not because they have to, then there are too many hurdles in place to make it a fun experience.

    Players do of course need to take that extra step, but it can vary how long that step need to be to accomodate different comfort levels.

  8. yunk
    September 28, 2007 at 17:34

    City of Villains has the best grouping and class roles of any game I’ve tried. City of Heroes has the good grouping mechanics but the same lousy holy-trinity class roles from the past.

    But having variable spawn and difficulty meant everything had to be instanced, and that lack of a world in between (it was more than GuildWars or DDO I guess but felt the same) was why I stopped playing. If you could do that variable spawn and difficulty in the world not just in instances, there would be a viable fun game. Not sure how you could do it though without it being vulnerable to exploiting and griefing.

  9. sente
    September 29, 2007 at 01:46

    I agree with you there Yunk, CoV is top notch in that area. While CoH does have the holy trinity equivalents, it is not as dependent on them as some other games.

    The Giant Monsters and with Issue 10 the Rikti invaders is a good step towards adapting the content in non-instanced areas, since their “levels” are adapted to each individual. A level 5 and a level 50 can both fight the same mobs at the same time and provide som challenge for both (although probably more of a challenge for the level 5 in that case…)

  1. September 24, 2007 at 16:39
  2. March 9, 2008 at 09:53
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