Group size, challenge and reward, or why do raiders need more powerful gear anyway?

Earlier this week, I was watching Unicorn Duck Shadow Puppet (the Wildstar show) on Gamebreaker.  In the episode, and in chat, there was discussion about how an MMO should cater for different play styles.  A few points from the discussion included:

  • If you aren’t raiding, you don’t need raiding gear.
  • Should an MMO cater for solo players since it is inherently multiplayer.
  • Raiders deserve more due to the increased effort they put in.
  • A game should be consistent in catering for different play styles throughout the game and not change at end game.

Underlying assumptions
I’m going to assume only the following here:

  • MMOs are built by companies who need to make money in order to keep producing your game.
  • MMO companies are not inherently evil for wanting to make money.

Some of you might disagree with these, but they underpin everything I am saying here.  Lets boil this down to the primary goal of developers being player gain and retention.

Solo play in a multiplayer world
This is an interesting dilemma.  Should an MMO cater for solo play when it is a multiplayer game by definition?  I would argue yes, but that solo play should be combined with at least random play, and preferably group play for a richer experience.

  • Solo content is filler content.  Its what you do when your group isn’t around.
  • Solo content is important for players with irregular schedules.
  • Solo content is an important confidence building and training ground for group play.

Solo content should be about player retention.  The aim of solo content is to fill gaps, to engage players when they might otherwise lose interest and to prepare players for group play.  Solo content needs to have progression in order to maintain engagement.

A good example of solo content might be the Brawler’s Guild in WoW.  It is progressively more challenging and it is in the open world so that a community can be developed around the arena.  It best meets the requirements above.

Random play
Random play is aimed at the same people as solo play, but involves grouping.  It serves the same needs as solo content, but forces interaction with others.  PuG raiding, looking for raid functionality, etc. are all parts of random play.  Random play is really important in MMOs because most players start off solo or in small groups when they come to a game.  Random play helps set the stage for interactions that lead to group play.

Group play
Group play should bring together organised groups of players in regular activity that provides a substantial challenge.  This activity should vary in length from a couple of hours to repeated interaction over months.

How many players will it take to make my group play engaging?  How many to make it challenging?  How many to make it epic?  Answer: as many as you like.  Raids do not automatically become better if you add more people, though the number of people is one contributing factor I agree.  Karazhan is still one of the most epic raids in WoW, but was the first to only need 10 people.  Raiding is epic because of the scale.  Raiding takes time.  Many people will raid a single raid for months on end, progressing slowly, week by week.  The problem is that as the epic nature of encounters increases, so does the difficulty of organising them.  40 people are harder to organise than 25 which are harder to organise than 10.

This is where I have the biggest problem.  The question was asked: why do non-raiders need raid gear but it’s the wrong question.  The question is: do raiders need more powerful gear than other players? If increasingly powerful gear is to be the reward for challenge, then all challenging play should reward it no matter what the group size.  The gear could be different if there really is a need to denote raid gear separately.  Raid gear could be pink, small group gear could be turquoise and solo gear could be black.

I think the key is that gear is awarded for overcoming a challenge and that challenge should be substantial.  Seeing people get purple gear from daily quests is disheartening.  Seeing people get gear over time in challenging content should be fine no matter the number of people or nature of that content.  Rather than relegating other content to second place, developers should seek to put it on an equal footing with raiders. MMOs should seek to maximise participation whilst still rewarding the overcoming of challenges.  If I was focusing on Challenge Modes in WoW only and they did not award Valor, I would end up being way behind when it came to participating in world content like dailies, world bosses, etc because all the rewards are cosmetic only.  If I decided I had more time and wanted to raid, or my guild asked me to raid one night because they were short, I wouldn’t have the gear for it.  This makes no sense given I may well have been participating in more challenging content than some of my better geared fellow players.  It also doesn’t help the game at all because it segregates players from engaging in group content.

One final note here, notice I say challenge.  I don’t say skill, or time spent though these may both be factors in a challenge.  Completing the holiday meta What a Long Strange Trip Its Been, for example, is a challenge, just one of organisation and perseverance rather than skill.  Challenges should vary so there is something for skilled players, grinders, etc.  Also, challenge needs to come on a smooth scale with opportunities for gradual improvement.  The best rewards should be given for the greatest challenges, but there should be rewards and opportunities to work towards those challenges for people at all levels of skill, time and experience.

Show me the money

I read this rather interesting blog post from Terra Nova, followed by the Playnomics report on engagement and monetization. Its an interesting read, in particular the information about monetization. First things first – who spent over $7k on a game in one quarter of one year?

Do I monetize?
Yes and No.

WoW has a subscription only, though I have made additional purchases, but I do monetize in both SWTOR and GW2. I pay the subscription for SWTOR and I buy from the gem store in GW2 (where I limit my monthly purchase to the cost of a subscription). I also have other free-to-play games on my PC which I do not monetize. Examples are League of Legends, Neverwinter and Rift. I don’t monetize these because I don’t play them very often. I don’t have the time to get good at League of Legends games, the Neverwinter control system cripples me and I haven’t had a chance to give Rift a real go yet.

What the Playnomics report does not cover is this – is there a link between engagement and monetization? Are the players who monetize also the players who play the most? Do the players who spend nothing come back to the game? I am unlikely to monetize in a game until I have a max level character. I need to have developed a commitment to a game in order to monetize. This is why, for all the criticism, the SWTOR free-to-play model has its positive points. By giving you the chance to level for free, it promotes that engagement at no cost. For those who drop out along the way, they likely never feel the need to monetize. For those who make it to the end, they will likely want to enhance their experience once they get there.

This suggests the answer to the question posted by Edward Castranova is yes, the players who monetize for should be listened to more, as they are the ones playing. However, I don’t feel that it’s a case of the more you spend, the more say you get. Rather, if you engage enough to monetize, it is in the game’s interest to keep you there. After all, there are a lot more of those little players than the whales and if you do base your game on the whales and they leave, you don’t want to have isolated your other sources of income.

I’ve no evidence for this – its based on my personal experience and opinion. So what about other players? Do you monetize? If so, when? Do you feel you should have more of a say?

Evolving the guild to enhance social gameplay

I want to talk a bit about guilds and how they enhance or impede social interactions in MMOs.

How guilds enhance social interactions
When I first started playing WoW it was with my husband and a real life friend of his. Through that friend we discovered other real life friends. Then, after a while, we joined a guild. That guild was the Knights Who Say Ni. When that guild stopped raiding, I moved to Sanctity, which merged with Forgotten Heroes. From Forgotten Heroes, those of us who wanted a different type of raiding formed Dreamstate. Dreamstate has members from all of the guilds that came before it. The reason I have played WoW for 8+ years is not the game, its the people I play with.

What the guild as a structure does is enable you to meet new people in a safe(r) environment. It normally has some kind of social norms and boundaries. It makes communication manageable. It makes people feel like they have somewhere to belong.

The problem
For the longest time, I didn’t think there was a problem. There is, however. Human social interactions are highly complex. The guild is singular in all its aspects – one identity, one set of norms. Often, except in very large guilds, there is also only one set of activities.

Say you are in a raiding guild, and you want to PvP. You can PuG, sure, but its hard. The best way to raid or do rated PvP is with a guild. The problem: I can only join one guild. I could use another character to PvP and join another guild with that character. This has its own complexities to it. Will either guild understand my splitting my focus? Will I be able to manage two characters? Will I create bad feeling in one or the other guild if they feel I am not dedicating myself enough to their guild?

Enter Guild Wars 2
Guild Wars 2 took guilds in a different direction. You can join multiple guilds. However, you can only represent one. What this tends to mean in practice is that you are in much the same situation. It is a bit easier to be a part of more than one guild, but most guilds want you to represent them and gain rewards for them. If I decided to join another guild as well as my current one, would they understand? It resolves the maintaining two characters issue, but not the social ones.

Wildstar is planning a similar compromise. There will be traditional guilds, but also Circles. Circles are groups of people who ally for a specific reason. So if you are in a friendly guild but want to PvP, you could join a PvP Circle. This definitely helps the issues I’ve described. However, the Circles are still de-valued. You, by default, belong to your guild and this remains singular. The Circle is no more than a glorified friends list with a chat function. Due to the primary, singular nature of the guild I suspect there will still be some expectation that your loyalty resides there. This isn’t how interactions work in reality. It is, however, the best solution I am aware of short of letting people join multiple guilds.

What next?
Someone needs to sit back and take a look at how guilds work in MMOs. All of the above examples continue the propriety nature of guilds. You join a group, you belong, you contribute. If you join another guild via some other route, you are somehow taking away from the main guild.

There are three purposes that guilds meet – social connections, communication and organisation. What if you could simply join multiple guilds, each of which would have equal standing? You could access the calendar of your PvP and your PvE guild.

Simply changing the name and some features of guilds wouldn’t be enough, however. Even if the interaction changed, players may not. Whilst I don’t believe we can gain such change without removing the systematic singularity most games have ingrained within them, the games are not alone in their responsibilities. Players also need to think about this and what they expect from their fellow guild/group/circle members. Think about real life and remember you have more than one friend – would you expect them to prioritise you over their other friends? Establish what you believe are the commitments your guild members are expected to make and don’t be offended if they do other things outside of those. Maintain those social links because those are key to your gameplay experience.

Planning how to play more than one MMO

I’ve badged this site up as being about playing three MMOs (at least). This is something of a challenge in its own right. Its particularly challenging here as I play with a largely different group of people in each MMO. So how to juggle them? Whatever the amount of time you have to play, there is likely some kind of limit on it.

First you need to answer some questions and set some expectations:

  • If you want to be really hardcore and do an activity at the cutting edge, accept that MMO will take up most of your time. You will struggle to be hardcore in more than one MMO at the same time.
  • When do peaks of activity take place? Is raiding an ongoing activity or a short burst? When is content released that you would want to take part in?
  • Do you want to play one MMO more than the others?
  • Do you like to focus on one, or spread your time equally?

Above all:

Don’t commit to activities you aren’t going to be able to manage given the answers to the above.

Don’t say you will raid and then just not show. Don’t commit to helping your server push for new WvW success with your guild and then not be there. Don’t accept an officer role you aren’t going to be able to sustain. Have I done those things? Yes. Whatever answers you give to the above, its quite likely they will change over time, through your own preference or things outside of your control. Don’t beat yourself up over it, but don’t do it again.

Writing a plan
One of the hardest aspects of playing multiple MMOs is that you tend to want to do more than you can. MMO companies design their games for players who will play just their game for the most part, which means there will always be more content than you can manage. So you need to prioritize  It’s not easy. To give you a flavour, I’m going to write monthly plans for a while, and then see how well I manage to meet them. It will also give you a flavour of how to juggle blogging and gaming for anyone who is facing that challenge.

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