On Hardcore Raiding

After I listened to Massively’s latest podcast featuring an interview with WildStar developers, I realized that I hadn’t said anything about Carbine’s hardcore raiding philosophy, which is a topic of some mild controversy.

One of them raid thingys, blatantly stolen from the WildStar site.
One of them raid thingys, blatantly stolen from the WildStar site.

If you aren’t aware, WildStar raids are supposed to be really hard like the old school raids of yore. They are taking the stance that their raids are meant for hardcore guilds and players only, and they won’t be dumbing them down over time like most other games do. Here is their video on them:

In more unflattering terms, so-called "casual" players will be intentionally excluded from raiding in WildStar.

This is a controversial position because historically we know that only a very small percentage of players are actually hardcore enough to complete difficult raids. (I don’t know if there are any studies to quote, but I always imagine it to be around 1% of the players.) It takes a massive amount of work and coordination to get 40 online gamers working together and playing at a high level of competence at the same time. In fact I have never seen that happen. I have only seen 20-man raids in Rift, where most everyone already knew what to do, and really only 10 of those people were doing most of the work, and even those relatively simple raids took hours upon hours to put together and complete. The vast majority of MMO players simply don’t have the time or energy to do that.

It’s why the so-called "zone events" and "world bosses" in games like Rift and GW2 have become so popular. (To me, at least.) Because you can experience something like a raid, with all the fun of working with other people to meet a difficult goal, without any of the time and drudgery of coordinating a guild. All you have to do is show up and fun happens.

In a way, I respect Carbine for taking this stance. I respect them for keeping hard content hard, because there is a certain thrill in defeating difficult challenges that weren’t nerfed to the point that anyone can do them.

But.

None of the raids I’ve seen are challenging because the encounters are difficult. It seems to me that raids are challenging because it’s almost impossible to get a group of competent players to get online and stay focused for long periods of time.* So completing a raid is not necessarily a gameplay challenge, it’s a social engineering challenge. It’s an organizational problem. This is why it drives me crazy when hardcore raiders strut around as if they are the best gamers in the world. All they’ve really done is show up and suffer through a torturously long experience. It’s like they’re gloating because they sat through a six-hour lecture on accounting.

Still, as a player, I could live with Carbine reserving some content for so-called "hardcore" players. I feel like I could get into a raiding guild if I wanted to turn my gaming fun time into an anxiety-laden chore. What baffles me is how Carbine can justify this logic from a business standpoint.

Creating raids has got to take a huge chunk of development time and money, but if we use my entirely made-up figure from before, only 1% of the players will even see it. (Not counting YouTube videos and streams.) And guess what? Those 1% of players will be done with it and bored a couple of weeks after release, writing angry posts on forums demanding the next 40-man raid. How can Carbine possibly sustain that? They would have to ignore 99% of their players in order to keep pumping out new content for the 1%, and that makes no sense whatsoever. (Which is surely why WoW dumbed everything down, and every other game does too.)

I think they might have been onto something when one of the Carbine guys talked about improved guild tools for raiding. I think it would help tremendously to have some sort of in-guild group-finding tool to put together raid teams. Something that would persist across logins. So for example the guild leader could tell the tool that a raid is scheduled for X date, and then guild members could volunteer for spots in the raid throughout the week with just a few mouse clicks. The tool could be configured so that players must meet minimum requirements, or perhaps the raid leaders could override it and stick people into spots manually. Something like that. The tool could even handle the loot distribution during the raid itself, and automatically invite in alternates if someone disconnects during the raid. (Maybe that is exactly what the LFR tool in WoW does.. I’ve never seen it.)

By the way, I was very glad to hear that WildStar will have smaller story instances (I assume like Rift’s Chronicles) so that us "regular folk" can still have a way to see the story that occurs in those huge impossible raids.

* This herding cats phenomenon goes all the way back to my first multiplayer gaming experiences in Quake. I remember when it was almost impossible to get six people together to play in a match, and five was pushing it. Getting forty people together for anything but a chaotic zergy Guild Wars 2 event is mind-boggling to me.

PvE, PvP, and Racing

The topic of discussion from the NBI Talkback is whether or not PvE and PvP mix in MMOPRGs. At long last I have some time to write about it, now that everyone else has moved on.

Racing cars

The answer is no, they don’t mix. Thanks for reading.

But seriously, we’ve all seen the sharp divide between the PvE and PvP communities within any given MMORPG. In my opinion, it’s not because of the games or the players. The problem to me is that PvE and PvP require two entirely different competitive mindsets.

Competition is the basis of all games at some level, but there are different kinds of competition. Sometimes you are competing with yourself, such as when you play solitaire. Sometimes you are competing with other people, individually or in teams, such as when you are bowling or ski jumping. And sometimes you are competing against other people, such as when you play tennis or volleyball.

To further illustrate the different kinds of competition, I will use a weird racing metaphor.

I’m told that there are people in the world who participate in activities that aren’t on computers, so imagine driving cars as a sport. Let us assume that this is analogous to the “sport” of playing MMORPGs.

At the most basic level, you can enjoy the sport of car racing by getting in a car and driving down a road. You enjoy the wind whipping through your hair on a sunny day. You enjoy listening to the radio. You don’t care if someone in a Maserati passes you at the speed of sound. You don’t care if you have to swerve around an old man with his blinkers on. You just like going fast. You’re not competing with anyone. You are a casual PvE player.

As you get more serious about your car racing, you might start to care about how fast you’re going. Maybe you want to try racing on a track. So you go down to the local race track on the weekend and drive 10 laps in your car. You do this every weekend, and start to record how long it takes each time. You start to compare your times from weekend to weekend to see if you’re getting better or worse. You’re competing against yourself. Maybe you put on better tires or replace your carburetor to go faster. You’re still a PvE player, but maybe you’ve installed a DPS meter and you’re trying to play as best you can. I think the unofficial name for you is a “midcore” player.

Now you want to take your racing to the next level. You start to enter some time trials with other drivers. Each driver takes a turn at the track and does their best. In the end, you compare the times and the fastest one is declared the winner and gets a cash prize. You’re technically competing with other people, but you’re not racing with other people. You’re still a PvE player, but now you’re in a hardcore raiding guild and you’re trying to beat all the other guilds to the world firsts.

Finally you decide to enter a real race. Your time trials qualify you for a pole position. (Is that a real thing? I don’t know. :) Now you’re racing against other people on the same track at the same time. Now it doesn’t matter so much how fast you go, just so long as you are ahead of all the other racers at the end. This puts the racers in direct competition against one another. You have to adjust your tactics based on what the other racers are doing in real-time. Now you’ve become a PvP player, albeit of the more casual sort, playing in battlegrounds.

If you’re still not satisfied, you might turn to a demolition derby. Now there are no rules, and anything goes. (Sort of.) Now you’re not only trying to beat the other racers, you’re trying to knock them completely out of the race by smashing their cars to bits so they can’t race again tomorrow. Now you’re a more hardcore PvP player, perhaps playing in world versus world events or structured PvP matches.

But wait, there’s more. After the apocalypse, you still need your demolition derby fix. But now there are no more laws, and nobody to enforce them even if there were any. You attach thick, bullet-proof metal plates to your car and sharp spikes to your hubs. You don’t care about competition anymore, you just want to destroy things. You drive into random neighborhoods and start ramming minivans and mopeds, tossing grenades through windows and blowing vehicles into flaming fragments, shooting at defenseless people walking by on the street. You join a gang and terrorize whole towns together. Now you’ve gone as far as you can in an MMORPG: You’ve gone into open-world, full loot PvP, and you probably play EVE or you think Ultima Online was the greatest MMO ever made.

Hrm. That metaphor works, right? Well, it’s something along those lines.

I don’t mean to say there’s anything wrong with PvE or PvP. The point is that each of those examples is a different kind of competition with different emotional risks and rewards, and they don’t all appeal to the same group of people. That’s why there isn’t just one kind of racing sport in the whole world. There’s a bunch of different ones. I’m assuming. I’m not much into racing.

Yet modern MMORPG games typically try to jam most of those styles of competition into their games, with varying degrees of success. Instead of focusing on one core style of gameplay, they divide their attention across a dozen different styles. Inevitably, something suffers, or the game changes completely when you enter different phases.

For myself, I generally don’t play MMORPGs to compete against other people. I play them to chill out, and competition has the exact opposite effect on me because I must win all the things all the time. Ahem. Honestly I don’t consider PvP in most MMOs to be a legitimate form of competition anyway, because there is almost never a level playing field on which to compete. It’s always a competition of group size. And if you’re unlucky enough to be stuck in an even 1-on-1 matchup, it’s mostly a competition of class stun abilities and gear. (I am coming from a Quake background, where everyone had the same abilities and gear and there was no crowd control except when you hit the floor at someone’s feet with a rocket and bounced them across the room, like God intended.)

Did I have a point? I’m not sure any more. I think it’s this: It takes a certain mindset to play PvP, and it is antithetical to the mindset of the typical PvE player. In my opinion, studios should develop one game for PvE, and another game entirely for PvP.

But then I’m not a game publisher trying to keep players and appease shareholders. From a business perspective, you would want all players in your game no matter how they play. So in that case I would keep them separated as much as possible. I would probably go so far as to have PvE classes separated from PvP classes, and you couldn’t go into PvE zones with a PvP character and vice versa. (Like for example at character creation you could make a “Warlock” class that can only level in PvP, or make a “Wizard” class that can only level in PvE. Something like that.)

Many other great thoughts on this topic can be found in these posts:

Co-existence of PvP and PvE

NBI Talkback, pvp-pve mixing!

Memories of PvP!

To PvP or not PvP, that is the Question

And I’m sure many more that I have missed, sorry!

Changing the Holy Trinity

I read Scree’s A Snapshot of Pantheon, an excellent summary of the things that Brad McQuaid wants to do with Kickstarter MMO Pantheon: Something of Something. I’ll save most of my comments on Brad’s game vision for another post, or never, because I don’t think it will get funded. The part about changing the Holy Trinity model is what stood out to me today. Apologies for quoting so much of this:

"Holy Trinity Shattered (maybe); The Holy Trinity has always been a Tank, DPS, and Healing based player roles (dating back to somewhat inaccurately, Everquest). Pantheon is seemingly bringing back the Support role initially with the Enchanter class (possibly also Shaman as Support?). Support was always a powerful role to include in vanilla Everquest and hopefully its return in Pantheon signals the end of the dreaded trinity. For those of you unfamiliar with Support, its a role that sometimes includes minor capabilities in Healing or DPS, but primarily enhances the abilities of the other roles around him (making everyone else that much more powerful)."

This brought to mind a couple of things. First, I see a lot of people talk about The Holy Trinity like it’s some arbitrary draconian law imposed upon us by the gaming industry, like it’s a prison we need to break free of. (At least, it sounds like Brad McQuaid thinks that.)

I have a slightly different take on it. I think that The Holy Trinity was invented by players back in the day as the most efficient way to tackle group content. Back then, players rolled their own Holy Trinities by customizing character skills or equipment to specialize in tanking or healing. Over time, game makers saw what those players were doing, saw that it was good, and eventually built it in as a feature of the game. They then added the "taunt" feature to allow The Holy Trinity to work even better. (I feel like WoW was the first to do that, but I am probably wrong.) Naturally I don’t have any tangible evidence to support it, but that’s my personal theory on the origin of the Holy Trinity.

My point is that I think there is a reason why The Holy Trinity exists: It has a proven history of working within the mechanics of many different MMOs.

Over time, the three roles have definitely grown more and more specialized, there’s no doubt about that. But I feel like there’s nothing inherently wrong with the core concept. (Personally, I’d like to see more games allow you to shift roles in the middle of dungeons or even fights.)

Here’s my second point. I am mystified about why Brad thinks adding a Support role in any way changes the Holy Trinity. I did not play in vanilla Everquest so I have never seen a Summoner in action and don’t get that reference. But I know that Rift has a Support role and many class abilities that fall within the scope of "enhancing the abilities of others." It’s a great concept, but in actual practice people rarely need Support in groups, because the buffs aren’t good enough to compensate for the loss of a person’s DPS.

Now suppose the Support person can throw out massive buffs that justify his position in a group. He’s not really changing the core tank-heal-DPS model, he’s just making the tanking, healing, and DPS better.

(By the way I wholeheartedly support more games supporting Support roles. Ha-ha! I said support three times! But yeah, I like playing supporting roles.)

While we’re on this subject, how do you shatter the Holy Trinity model?

The short answer is I have no idea. But I think you’d have to start by removing or somehow changing the taunt mechanic, thereby trimming down or eliminating the tank role. Once you do that, I think parties would be more free to compose groups however they wanted to.

I think it would be instructive to look at what Guild Wars 2 did in their effort to destroy the Trinity. I feel like battles in GW2 are not so much a group effort as they are a chaotic free-for-all with every man for himself. They eliminated healers by basically making everyone a healer, but that resulted in the alienation of everyone who likes to play a healing role. Unfortunately I can’t comment too much on it though because I’ve never done a GW2 dungeon. It’s still on my todo list.

Without taunt, I suspect that crowd control would suddenly become a lot more important (by which I mean more important than the current level of zero). We would still need some way to keep monsters from running straight to the healers and glass cannons, and if we can’t taunt them away with a tank, then we’d have to slow them or trap them. Or possibly have a way to put down obstacles that they would have to go around, like barrels. (That could be cool – before pulling the boss, the party would have to build a big tower defense-like blockade of barrels and traps and machine-gun turrets in front of the healer.)

So to summarize this wall of text, I don’t think changing the Holy Trinity is going to be easy. I’d like to see it toned down a bit though, or at least not have characters locked into one role at a time. I personally would like to see fights be a littler easier to continue if the tank and/or healer dies.

Life Without MMO Guides

Have you ever wondered why there are so many MMO guides out there? Step-by-step walkthroughs and so forth? I think I know the answer. It’s because without Internet guides, most MMO game players would simply stand in one place and stare at the screen, paralyzed and unable to figure out what to do or how to do it.

You can tell this from watching the global chat of a game that is in closed beta. It’s filled with non-stop questions that one might conceivably fall into the "duh" variety. How do we find this or that? How do we solve this puzzle? Where do we find this NPC? Where do we get crafting materials? How do we get past this monster? There are no handy guides to turn to, and obviously reading the quest text or any of the in-game hints are out of the question in this fast-paced, go-go-go world we live in.

You might think it would be a great opportunity to hone your critical thinking skills and try to figure something out on your own. Perhaps if you figure something out before anyone else, you could be the one to write an Internet guide that becomes super popular. (And then becomes obsolete six months later but for some reason still comes up first in searches.) But no. Apparently your only recourse is to stand helplessly in place, typing in global chat.

Early Access MMOs and Character Wipes

There are a lot more "early access" games now than ever before, thanks to Steam and Kickstarter. Basically what this means is that some random, poor game developer can release what amounts to a semi-playable demo of their game and then ask people to buy it for a (surprisingly minor) discount, hoping that they’ll raise enough money and interest to fund the rest of the game development.

In a lot of cases that is as janky as it sounds, because some Steam developers think it’s okay to put out crap that is buggy and unplayable, but I think it’s a concept that can work well for the MMO genre, since MMOs are almost always in constant flux even after their official releases anyway. MMO players as a whole should be used to bugs and change.

So in the MMO space, I’ve been looking at games like Gloria Victis, Life is Feudal, Shroud of the Avatar, and Star Citizen as possibilities to buy into early. I’ve already bought into Trove and EQ Landmark.

But here’s my problem. It’s not at all clear how these games will handle character wipes during development.

If I sign up to beta test a game and I get selected for a closed beta, they are in effect paying me for my service as a tester. I feel an obligation to actually test the game and provide feedback, in exchange for the opportunity to see the game early. I fully expect that I’m going to lose whatever progress I make when the beta ends, because I’m not there to have fun. I’m there to do a job.

But if I actually pay money to get "early access" to a game, I don’t feel nearly as much of an obligation to do a job. I’m paying them for a service, not the other way around. I’m fully prepared for and fine with bugs and unfinished content, but I also expect to be able to play.

I can accept dealing with bugs and server down time and whatnot (we have to deal with that after launch day too). But if I spend money to buy into a developing MMO a year early, and I spend a year playing that game, working around bugs and providing feedback, maybe even kicking in some more money because I like where the game is going, and then all of my progress gets wiped on some nebulous future launch day, I’m not going to be very happy about that.

If I know beforehand that I’m going to lose my progress, I’ll play entirely differently (and frankly, less often). Or maybe I would only kick in $10 or $20 just to "see" an early game, whereas I might kick in $50 or more if I know I won’t lose my progress.

(Trove, which is the only MMO that I’ve "funded" and actually received, so far wipes with every new patch. Granted it isn’t a huge scale MMO and there isn’t much progress worth keeping, but it does not fill me with confidence for other early access MMOs.)

Early access games need to be very clear about their wiping policy, and so far they aren’t, and that’s super janky and misleading.

The Diefication of Star Wars Galaxies

I’ve been "into" Massively.com a lot lately, listening to their podcasts and watching their streams, and one thing I’ve noticed is that some of them have a total love affair with Star Wars: Galaxies. They talk about SWG like most other people talk about Everquest 1: They diefy it like it’s the greatest thing there ever was or ever will be.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that not only did I never play or even see it, I never even knew it was an MMORPG.

It was released in 2003, a year before World of Warcraft. That probably explains why I barely even heard of it. I was out of the MMO scene between 2000 and 2006 so I wouldn’t have heard of anything unless it made the nightly news. Also, after WoW came out, no other MMO game existed in the public consciousness until at least 2008, by my recollection. And by 2008, nobody (meaning me) was going to go back and play a game from 2003.

Reading over the Wikipedia page on SWG, it definitely doesn’t seem like the kind of game that would have ever had a mainstream following. It sounds like another in SOE’s long line of niche (dare I say cult) games, and I would imagine that their subscription numbers plummeted to rock bottom on the day that WoW came out, and never recovered. (It’s puzzling that they would close down SWG and leave the likes of Wizardry Online and Vanguard running, though. I guess it’s because of the IP license.)

Anyway. It’s just weird and frustrating to hear about this game that I never saw and can’t ever see.

A Freshly-Formatted PC

I recently reformatted my PC and reinstalled Windows 7, so of course I had to re-install all my games. But instead of re-installing the seemingly hundreds of MMOs I previously had, I decided to limit the number of MMOs installed so I could try to cut down on this MMO ADD I’ve been experiencing.

So far I’ve installed WoW, FFXIV, LotRO, SWTOR, EVE, and Mortal Online. (Well, and Steam, obviously.) By sheer coincidence, I happened to have active subscriptions for those games as well (except MO). I typically buy 3-month blocks of sub time and then cancel; the order that the subscriptions will expire over the next 3 months is: FFXIV, LotRO, EVE, SWTOR, then WoW.

(I know LotRO and SWTOR are free-to-play, but I got the subs because I wanted the resting experience in LotRO, and in SWTOR I wanted to get rid of the stupid popup that blocked my screen whenever I used a health pak in the middle of combat.)

So my plan is to focus on the games in the order that they will expire. First FFXIV, and when that expires, then LotRO, then SWTOR, then EVE, and finally WoW. Shortly after that, ESO will launch, and that’ll be the new shiny for one hopes at least a month.

2014 MMOs Coming Soon

I hate year-end posts, so here I am writing another one to talk about MMOs I’m looking forward to in 2014.

Rift 3.0. I haven’t seen a release date, but they’re talking about releasing it in stages anyway, so I expect we’ll see the bulk of it in 2014. I hope to get a month of entertainment from the new stuff, maybe not contiguously though.

WildStar. I’m planning to pre-order and play at launch, because I suspect everyone and their mother will be playing it and I don’t want to miss out. :) I anticipate at least a month of entertainment from it, and hopefully more.

Elder Scrolls Online. I’m planning to pre-order and play at launch. Unlike seemingly the entire rest of the world, I’m actually looking forward to it, but I’m a bit concerned about how much they’re talking about PvP right now. I anticipate at least a month of entertainment from it.

EQ Landmark. Pre-ordered. I expect this to be amusing for maybe a week, then I’ll start kicking myself in the head for pre-ordering it. I hope I’m wrong, though.

EQ Next. I’m curious of course, but we don’t really know anything about this game yet, do we? I’m skeptical about seeing it in 2014 simply because it seems like we’d know more by now if it was within a year of release. Given SOE’s history, I would expect this to be yet another niche game. I don’t like the talk that it will be “horizontal progression” game.

Black Desert. Too soon to tell if I will buy, but I’m looking forward to seeing more about it. This game looks amazing, but I’m fearful it will have a fatal flaw.

ArcheAge. Very similar thoughts to Black Desert. I’m glad to see Trion is the North American publisher.

Destiny from Bungie, makers of Halo. I’m skeptical. Shooter MMOs aren’t really my thing.

The Division from Ubisoft. I’m skeptical. Shooter MMOs aren’t really my thing.

Gloria Victis. Looks cool and I like the screenshots a lot. I might drop a few bucks to get into the Alpha.

Life is Feudal. I’ve seen it mentioned as a potential rival to Mortal Online. Looks extremely early in development but I would expect to see an early Alpha in 2014.

Shroud of the Avatar by Lord British. I’m skeptical, but it seems to be picking up momentum. No release date, but you can buy your way into the Alpha for $45. Not sure if it’s worth it. It looks like Bard’s Tale from the 1980s.

Star Citizen. An EVE clone. Not really my thing. Will probably pass on the Alphas unless I see people who don’t like EVE start playing it.

I’ve probably missed some, but that’s all I can think of.

I also hope to advance my characters more in at least LotRO, SWTOR, WoW, and EQ2, if not many other games.