Tobold's Blog
Sunday, March 07, 2004
Playing with other people

Sitemeter tells me that this blog is actually getting read by some people, so I'd better add some content. :) What I am currently thinking about a lot is the relationship between people in a MMORPG. Other people playing the same game as you are at the same time the biggest advantage, and the biggest disadvantage of MMORPGs.

The advantage side is that human intelligence is still far superior to artificial intelligence. Whether the other person is fighting on your side, or against you in PvP (Player versus Player), he is a lot more interesting than any NPC. Fighting solo in a MMORPG is often boring, especially for pure melee characters, as combat is nearly totally automated; the only thing you can do is occasionally use a special attack. But the same fighting system in a group suddenly becomes interesting. Controlling "aggro", making the monster hit the character with the strongest defence, is a challenging task. Pulling isn't as easy as it looks. And spellcasters have to think not only about how much damage they heal or deal, but also about how their spells are affecting aggro. And if you think you know everything about fighting in a 6-player group, try big encounters where several groups ally to kill a huge boss mob.

Another big people plus is chat. Chat in all its different forms is huge on the internet. MMORPGs act as animated 3D chat rooms, and the game content provides something to chat about. You make friends, and group of friends band together in guilds, with both a guild chat advantage, and the possibility to group with each other, or help each other. If you ask somebody why he is still playing a game like EQ after years, when its grown boring long ago, he will usually tell you that he couldn't possibly leave his friends there. So obviously this is something that also helps the game company a lot, and they should enforce positive player interaction by the game design. Nothing worse than a game where the guild chat doesn't work properly, or people have difficulties playing together. (Unfortunately this is my current game's weak point. FFXI guild chat tends to get lost in the battle messages, as there is only one window. And playing together is only possible in a too narrow range of levels.)

Other times the other players in a MMORPG can be hugely annoying. Many of the bad stories you read on the different MMORPG game forums are about bad encounters with other players. Some players are simply jerks, encouraged to bad behavior by the anonymity of the internet. And unlike real life, in most games you can not punch another player in the face in response to verbal insults, so the insulter is feeling safe. Good games have good coverage of GMs (game masters), customer service representatives in game that can punish people for verbal abuse, or even ban them from the game. If justice is swift, word gets around fast, and people behave a lot better.

But where even a GM is helpless is the problem of competition. All MMORPG have limited in-game resources. Most of the time the most visibly limited resource is monsters to kill. A certain area has enough monsters to keep one group happily fighting all the time, with monster respawning as fast as they get killed. Move a second group, or more, into the same area, and downtime increases. The group gains less xp and loot per hour. And there is usually no way to reserve yourself some area. The best places to hunt are often well known, and sooner or later they become contested. That gets even worse when hunting specific mobs for specific treasures. Its bad enough that a certain monster only spawns every X hours, and then only has a one in Y chance to drop the magic item you want. If after you waiting for X hours for the monster, somebody comes along and happens to be faster than you in killing it, you wasted a lot of time for nothing.

Of course the competition problem is often aggravated by game design. Both common mob areas, and specific monsters are often static. If the good spot is always at the same spot, no wonder it becomes contested. Especially the specific monsters dropping the best magical items should not spawn always at the same spot, but in an area bigger than what a single person can watch. That would turn a camp into a hunt, and the competition would at least become less noticable. Quest monsters should not be random spawns at all, but be triggered by the questing player appearing. (FFXI does that well, but only with the biggest quest mobs.)

Somebody else killing the monster you wanted to kill is called killstealing. It was one of the biggest problem between players in EQ, because the game allowed people to steal the monsters that were already in a fight. So people organized blacklists of players accused of killstealing, with the target of socially outing them, to not let them join the big player organized raids and such. But with wrong accusations, some people simply not caring about being blacklisted, and thousand of players per server, the whole thing wasn't really satisfying. Newer games, FFXI among them, at least make it impossible to attack a monster that is already being attacked by another player. But that still leaves situations where players accuse each other of killstealing. Maybe one player used a slow method of pulling, like a bow, and another player grabbed the monster he was already targetting, but not yet in combat with. Or one player pulled several monsters with an area spell, and the game only counts one of them as reserved. Then there is the problem of higher level people easily killing all the low level monsters in one area to get their loot, and a group of low level characters not being able to get xp because of that. Possibilities of conflict are endless.

One interesting solution is personalized dungeons. Anarchy Online introduced them, and World of Warcraft is announced to be having them as well, when it comes out later this year. Obviously if the game can create a whole area just for you, or your group, there is no problem of competition. We will have to see how this is implemented in WoW. While WoW is definitely the "next big thing", MMORPG experience teaches not to believe all of the hype. The game soon to be released is always rumored to be much better than the game you are currently playing, but then it often falls flat once you can actually play it.

In the end the only solution to all problems between players is in the hand of the players. We all need to respect each other more. Even if the world is just virtual, the players behind the keyboards are feeling real emotions. If humanity has learned to hold back on the verbal abuse, and not start fighting about the last piece of cake, we should apply those rules of polite society to MMORPG as well.

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