Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Arm yourself, because no-one else here will save you.

Would an MMO that heavily emphasised the group game, as opposed to the solo one, stand any chance of being successful? Is the big attraction of MMOs simply that you as a player are sharing space with other people from around the planet, or is it the opportunity to play alongside or against others that initially attracts people, but the current foibles with the way MMO games approach the concept of grouping often deters people and instead encourages them more into a solo style of play?

Looking around various blogs, a lot of people will mention the solo quests they performed in their 'journal of gameplay', or perhaps they have a frequent entry on their regular group's encounters. There is also the more occasional mention of guild groups, but very rarely is there a regular entry on pick-up groups, unless it's a tale of woe and frustration.

So, assuming that people would actually be happy to group more often than solo, is there any way that we can make group play more attractive? Is there some threshold where grouping suddenly becomes the preferable option over soloing in most situations?

The first obvious step is to have group game mechanics that empower the individual when they are part of a whole; it needs to be that the sum of the players is much greater than any player on their own can ever hope to be. This incentive, to make players perform extraordinary feats when part of group, is not new, but I feel it probably hasn't been exploited anywhere near its potential. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles and Lord of the Rings Online amongst others have implemented team-based abilities, such abilities are beyond the power of any one player but by combining their own powers, usually in some sort of timing/ordering based mini-game, they can achieve great power through cooperation and good play. This sort of idea is a great enabler of team play, it encourages people to play as part of a group, but more importantly it emphasises the need to work together as a group. Too many games have group content that essentially requires people to band together because greater numbers will win the fight, but there is little reward for working as a team during the fight, hence pick-up groups tend to perform poorly because they are made-up of several players all playing solo towards the same objective. If games could provide tangible rewards for working as part of a cohesive whole, then players might be more inclined to learn how to play as part of a team, random teams would be more likely to succeed, and thus people would be more enthused about teaming again.

The next enabler of group play would be to remove the idea of solo classes. Pick-up groups are often hard to form for anything other than basic content because there's the wonderful Holy Trinity of class design still entrenched in most MMOs, that of Tank, Damage and Healer. To try to counter this problem - that a group might be ready and raring to go but not have a healer, because healers generally suck at solo play and so there are very few around, since a smaller proportion of people want to play a non-soloable character in a predominately solo game - the hybrid class has evolved, they can usually solo and bring one or more Holy Trinity class roles to the table at the expense of not being able to perform any one as well as a pure class. This however fails to work because games are predominantly solo, so a hybrid has to be balanced so that they can't become a soloing machine: a class able to output high damage and be able to heal well would be overpowered compared to the pure Holy Trinity classes. However, group play is balanced towards a group of Holy Trinity classes, and thus a hybrid trying to fill the role of one of these pure classes often can't perform as well and the group will fail. If a hybrid can perform the role of a Holy Trinity class well enough for a group, then it's usually at the expensive of their other potential roles, they sacrifice damage to be able to heal almost on a par with a pure healer, for example.

What if everyone was a hybrid instead? What you would have is everyone with the potential to tank, deal damage, utility (crowd control, for example) and heal, but you perform one of those roles at the detriment of the others. For example: if someone starts healing the group then their ability to deal damage is reduced or negated, if someone uses their crowd control ability then it reduces the power of damage and healing for a while, but since crowd control is a utility ability rather than part of the Holy Trinity, it perhaps reduces healing and damage together but by a smaller amount than pure healing would reduce damage. This change in ability is only temporary, if the player who was healing stopped for some reasonable amount of time or perhaps after each encounter, the abilities would reset and the player could next time choose to deal damage at the expensive of healing. Thus each member of the group becomes flexible, and the group as a whole becomes adaptable to encounters on the fly: a horde of mobs coming over the hill, everyone switch to damage dealing and burn them down; a single powerful mob, someone take-up the tank role, a couple of people switch to healing, and the others split between crowd control for adds and damage dealing.

Thus, group composition becomes less of a chore because you always have what you need: players. Once the group is formed the people pick a role depending on what the group needs and you can get on with playing the game. It would still present problems, obviously, nothing is perfect; some people will always want to do damage only, for example, but then they won't get too far if they're in a game that empowers group play and encourages cooperation. You can't design a game for everyone, and it seems that designing a multiplayer game that really emphasises the idea of playing well with others would be a Good Thing.

Individuality and choice is important to players, and at first glance this would seem as though the 'everyone as hybrid' concept was going to end up as World of the Stepford Wives. However, just because you're doing damage, it doesn't have to be the same damage as other people, some players could be melee-focussed characters and some could cast magic, assuming a fantasy setting. If you went for a melee character, then damage would obviously be through weapons, but healing might be through bandages and medicine. A caster would throw fireballs and cast healing enchantments. There's still room for individuality, even though people can 'do it all'. Interestingly a melee healer would have to run around and get close to people to heal, they have armour to take damage while in melee range so that's ok, and bandages would probably heal for more because it takes time for the melee healer to get from person to person, but a good group might organise themselves in a way that makes it easier for him to run around and heal. Having simple ways to make the group work as a whole to make life easier for themselves is a good way to encourage cooperation. Some people will scoff at the idea of a person having to physically run around and heal, but is that maybe because they're entrenched in the 'healer stands at the back and plays health bar whack-a-mole' methodology? Why couldn't it be effective to heal in this way, if the game allowed for it? "A caster healer would be superior", I hear the voices cry. Well, maybe, but game mechanics might make it such that the caster healer is more likely to draw aggro on to themselves, or the bandages of the melee healer might add an additional minor buff to the group as well as heal, enough that it would balance out the slightly more flexible approach that a group could take with a caster healer.

In the end though, people are individuals and sometimes they just want to play on their own. This is where crafting, exploring and other such diversions would come in to play. These are still worthwhile activities, and can allow the player a little 'self time' without having to rely on others, but they are still able to socialise, maintain friendships and even make new ones. The crafter meets new people as they ply their trade and sell items, the explorer may well come across a group out in the wilds who could do with an extra member, they might join in, find the group fun and end-up playing with them for a while. It's possible to have the main theme of the game based around group play with alternative solo options as a sideline.

Strangely, MMOs seem to be inherently exclusive in nature, rather than inclusive, and I feel that questing is a big reason for this. What really needs to happen is the evolution of the pre-requisite and quest chain method of questing. It's all well and good to try to create a little continuity by having a chain of quests that lead up to a grand finale, and it's understandable that you have pre-requisites to stop people skipping to the final quest in order to grab the rotund reward at the end, but it's very restrictive to group play. What is needed is a quest system that empowers the group whilst not overly punishing the individual, and this is a tricky thing to balance. City of Heroes has a dynamic quest system where you are given random stand-alone quests that anyone can participate in, but they become pretty dull after a while due to their repetitive nature, and so they also include the old staple of quest lines too. As an aside: City of Heroes' dynamic grouping system is a much better example of how to make group play more accessible.

Thinking on quests as a chain, you start at the first link and work your way to the end link and then you've finished. What if you connect the start and end links, such that instead of a linear quest chain, you have a circular one? Thus it doesn't matter where you jump in on the quest line, you can still complete the chain. We think of quest lines as being 'perform A, then B, then C for result Y' but why? I, and many others, have already lamented the fact that players have little effect on their MMO world, thus starting-off with killing some badgers and finally working up to killing the evil lord Badgeron and his set of Badger Mafiosi doesn't mean anything in the fact that you haven't really defeated him, he's still there. Wait for three minutes and he'll pop right back as if nothing had ever happened. In fact the poor NPCs are stuck in their own Groundhog Day hell:

*alarm clock*

Badgeron: "Oh, what a wonderful morning. I'll make myself a quick cup of tea and then I'll see how the Badger Mafiosi are getting on with my latest nefarious scheme. Mu ha hah ha haaaa!"

Adventurers: "Halt thee, scallywag, we will not let your evil deeds go unpunished!"

Badgeron: "Accursed adventurers! You have meddled in my affairs for the last time! Prepare to meet your end"

*hack, slash, HEAL MEH!, crang, pow*

Badgeron: "I... am defeated. Farewell cruel world."

*alarm clock*

Badgeron: "Huh? Oh! It must have all been a horrible dream, thank goodness. Well, it's a lovely morning, I'll make myself a quick cup of..."

Adventurers: "Halt thee, scallywag, we will not let your evil deeds go unpunished!"

Badgeron: "Oh, déjà vu! But you're still going to die puny mortals"

*thunk, prang, HEAL MEH!, crash*

Badgeron: "Oh, cruel fate. I go now to eternity!"

*alarm clock*

Adventurers: "Halt thee, scallywag, we will not let your evil deeds go unpunished!"

Badgeron: "Wait. What?!"

*slash, chank, HEAL MEH!, zoink*

*alarm clock*

Groundhog day as an over-camped named mob. /shudders

The circular chain still presents the obvious problem that a player can now jump in at the point the recruiting group is currently at, but if it's a progression, then you're just stuck looking for a group, but simply at different point around the chain. Instead of linking quests by chains, how about linking them by area or NPC? It would work much like the reputation system of WoW (hopefully without the grind, if the quests are done well) where you could perform single quests that would build your overall reputation in that quest set to a point where you can then take on the final boss quest for that NPC. The single quests could be errands, killing some mobs in an area, or perhaps more complicated multi-part quests that need to be carried out in one go - defend the bridge from a wave of Badger Mafiosi, then escort the people trapped on the bridge through hostile territory to safety - then anyone can hop-in to the group and complete the quest the group is planning on doing, gain some XP and also gain reputation towards the final quest in that quest set. There will eventually be a point where you will have to form a group specifically for the final boss quest, but it is only one quest of many where you need people to all be at the same stage. Not only that but you could also have it so that the final quest will still reward some reputation for the quest set that it is a part of, therefore there's still worth in people who aren't ready to do the quest for the final reward in going and helping out.

And if nothing else, it's always amusing to watch Badgeron try to cope with another beating at the hands of your fellow adventurers.

*alarm clock*

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