Tobold's Blog
Monday, May 22, 2006
A theory of grouping

I'm not quite ready to publish my own scientific paper on "social dynamics" of MMORPGs, but I do have my own theory of under which circumstances people group or don't group. The basis for this theory is that while of course everybody is different and has his own goals, the behavior most commonly observed in a MMORPG is the one that maximizes the amount of reward per play session.

I'm bundling gear rewards with experience point rewards here, because better gear ultimately ends up in you being able to earn xp faster in the future, so it is just a more indirect method of getting you experience point rewards. And of course all this is only true below the level cap, we all know how much for example WoW changes at level 60.

So if you look at the reward for solo play, it is relatively easy. You log on, you play, and you get rewards which are more or less linear with the time you spent during the play session. So
Solo session reward = Solo session time x Solo reward rate
with the solo reward rate being the rate at which you earn rewards like xp and gear during a typical solo session, from killing mobs alone, and from quests.

The reward for group play is slightly more difficult. After you log on, you first need some time to actually find a group, and to gather at the same spot. During that group finding time your rewards earned are zero. Only then does reward earning start, thus
Group session reward = (Group session time - Group finding time) x Group reward rate

So if people are trying to maximize the reward per session, they would prefer soloing if the solo session reward is bigger than the group session reward. But they would prefer to group if the group session reward is bigger than the solo session reward. As the term of the group finding time is always greater than zero, if the solo reward rate is equal than the group reward rate, the group session reward is diminished by the group finding time term, and people prefer soloing, because it gives greater rewards.

So what can developers do to persuade people to group? Well, the devs are in control of many of the parameters in these equations, especially the reward rates. One crude, but working approach, taken by the original Everquest, was to diminish the solo reward rate from a certain level on to be zero or near zero. Some classes were simply totally unable to gain any experience points while solo, as the lowest level of mobs still giving xp was too tough to kill. Obviously players resent that sort of "forced grouping".

So a subtler approach is to make the group reward rate slightly bigger than the solo reward rate, so as to encourage grouping, without making soloing impossible. This is something Blizzard definitely at least tried in World of Warcraft. The xp per hour rewards are difficult to compare, but it is very clear that the item rewards from group play are better than the item rewards from solo play. The reason why WoW failed to balance these two better, is in the time terms, which are harder to control. If it takes half an hour to find and gather a group, that is not much if the group stays together for 3 or more hours. But if they stay together for only 1 hour or so, the negative effect of the group finding time on the reward becomes too significant. In World of Warcraft it seems that the average player plays in relatively short sessions (the famous "casual" player), the group reward rate isn't so much bigger than the solo reward rate to balance out the rewards lost during the waiting time, and so many people just go soloing. Changing the reward rates in a patch would be difficult. You can't diminish solo rewards without causing a huge outcry of "nerf!". Increasing the group rewards is possible, for example when Everquest wanted more people to visit dungeons, they simply added a dungeon xp bonus to the game.

But even more effective would be for the developers to introduce tools that diminish the group finding time. World of Warcraft could make huge improvements in their looking for group tools. And meeting stones could be reprogrammed to work like a warlock summoning, so the first three people arriving at the dungeon could summon the two stragglers. The beauty of such changes would be that at first sight they don't change the rewards rate at all. But by cutting down on the rewards lost to a group due to waiting, improved group finding and gathering tools would make grouping relatively more attractive to players, and lead to more positive social interaction between them. We are not a bunch of hermits preferring to play alone, it is the parameters of the game that influence our behavior and preference for soloing or grouping.
"We are not a bunch of hermits preferring to play alone, it is the parameters of the game that influence our behavior and preference for soloing or grouping..."

You said it best and i must tell my story from the weekend.

The dreaded Sunken Temple group. I logged on Saturday a little before 10:00 est. actually had a group together within about 20 minutes. (which is really good for ST, been trying for 8 levels to go to razorfen down) we have a pretty balanced group. Hunter, Warrior, Paladin, 2 priests (both Dark spec). collect the feathers for the paladin. boom the other priest logs off...hmmm we cant do what i need with just this group. the leader has his stone set to IF so he hearths and gets a mage in about 10 minutes. look at the time and its getting close to doing wife's list of made up projects for the weekend. NP except the warrior thinks the best way for him and mage to come in is the suicide run...30 minutes later they are in. Its respawned and they now want us to kill ourselves and meet them at the door.(uggggg)

We meet up and kill the first group of respawns and the hunter has to a little over 2 hours, 0 quests completed. I logged off and didnt touch for the rest of the weekend. (but my 4th division Lancashire squad is on a 4 game win streak in Winning Eleven 9 now)

As a casual player that only has blocks of time to complete these "forced group quests" i find it all frustrating. There is very little reward for soloing. If you want the "elite" gear you need to group. By the time I can solo some of the Elite quests with good Blue Items, i picked up something better for 5g in the AH.

This is where City of Heroes has it right (IMHO) I need to clear a Warehouse to complete a quest. When i enter the instance it scales it to the size of my group. perfect!!

Still love WOW and will not quit, but i hate the forced groups for quality rewards.

On a completely different subject, has anyone watched the Warhammer Online trailer?

It's only CGI, but it's the first game that has actually got me looking for information about it since I first heard World of Warcraft had begun creation.

Gotta say I like what I am finding.
I think you are missing a big reason a lot of people don't group - they don't have a lot of time online, or even if they do, they may have to leave on a moment's notice (sleeping baby for example). I solo the majority of the time because it lets me log out no-notice and not screw the group I'm with. It would really piss me off if they made being in a group a big xp bonus as if people who solo are second class citizens. You can already only get the best gear in a group - now they are going to level faster too? P

Just started reading your blog and comments. We all sound like we're all in the same demographic--older folks, with job, kids, other obligations aside from raiding for 20 hours every day--so I wanted to chime in.

I recently migrated a character from one server to another in hopes of a fresh start, maybe even meeting other liked minded, time-lacking, folks to have fun with.

Let's just say, despite the fact I'm in a guild, I've spent level 47 - 56 mainly on my own. I play a warlock, which makes it easier to solo, but the rewards are lacking, especially once you start seeking higher level instance items.

I had a Sunken Temple group last night that was great, however, I stayed up way to late and was tired the next day. Why did I stay up? Mainly because of your formula. I wanted to maximize the output from the good group I had, which meant killing all the troll bosses, as well as the dragons for loot. It all worked, out, we did great and I hope I can group again with those folks.

I find WoW annoying at time as well for the sheer fact that the more time you have, the greater your opportunities for better equipment. Skill often doesn't play a huge part. Most DKP systems I've seen play more on what you were present for vs. how effective you were at your "raid" function. I guess I envy the kids that can just login, jump on ventrillo with the rest of Generation "Y" and go romp on whatever they want because they don't have any of life's deep obligations, save for getting attuned to Molten Core.
I'd say that for the group it's really not so much "group finding time" as "general group overhead", which in addition to the time to get it all together includes delays from other people in the group - bio breaks, soda runs, cats on fire, et cetera.

This is when you need to belong to a good Guild. Not necessarily made up of hardcore Uber-geared Raiders, but people like you (family-oriented, 9-5 job, etc), who are on a similar schedule/timezone to you, and at a similar level to you. More importantly, made up of people you clique with. I lucked out in joining a very small guild (1 year ago, originally) with a good group of guys who'd been playing RPGs (paper & PC) together for years. We picked up a couple of other guys over the months who all fit into the group, and when the original group /gquit to get into a BIG Raiding Guild for Uber Loot, it was perfect timing, for us. One of the newer guys had just convinced several of his real-life friends to play WoW, so they all joined and we avoided the destruction of our Guild. Many months later, after absorbing two other Guilds, we may not be the biggest Guild on Kilrogg but we can still run Guild-only raids on ZG, MC, and AQ.

We also have Vent, which is almost a necessity these days, and sometimes it's just relaxing to log into both WoW and Vent after a hard day at work, and not even play, but just kick back in Ironforge, maybe browse the AH, and chat to the other Guild members over Vent.

Of course if anyone wants to hit an Instance, from Deadmines on up, it usually doesn't take much more than 10 minutes to get a group together.
Group Session Reward = ((Group Session Time - Group Finding Time) x Group Reward Rate ) x (Competence of Member #1) x (Competence of Member #2) ... x (Competence of Member #n)

Competence is a decimal ranging from 0 to 1, and on rare occassions, can be slightly over 1, but it's rare that any individual in a group is focused and knowledgeable enough, and has enough authority, to be able to compensate for any other group member's shortcomings.

Pretty much any 'designed for group' activity in an MMO requires everyone to *all* get it right, and it only takes one member to cause a wipe, or whatever the equivalent is.

This isn't necessarily bad play - things like 'Got to go eat :(' or 'I don't have the key :(' can negatively impact on the entire group session as well. Possibly these things are a part of the General Group Overhead, above, but they all serve to make soloing more attractive by comparison.
There is soloing
There is group
There is raiding
{There is PvP too :)}

Soloing is easy to get good rewards, because as you say Tobie, you don't have to depend/wait on anyone else.

Grouping... well it’s hard to get a good group. But equipment rewards are better than soloing.

Raiding also plays a role as to why it's hard to find a group.

Many people see the natural gear progression leads to raiding MC after you get your tier 0 from grouping. The average epic wearing level 60 gets more reward from soloing (and less head aches) than he gets from running a 5 or 10-man instance.

PvP players always have to leave the "group" as soon as their queue comes up; it would be nice if the battleground queue came up for a PvPer but gave him the option of finishing an instance then joining the battleground without waiting in line again.

Players tend to play for fun, fun a lot of times is in glory or achievement. Raiders will always feel achievement downing bosses, and gearing themselves out. PvPers will get glory for hitting higher ranks. Soloing has no glory attached to it. and grouping achievements (like getting full tier 0) are sneered at by tier 1 tier 2/ tier 3 epics.

Good groups are hard to find because most competent players are either raiding or Pvping or heck even soloing(If my gear upgrades come from back wing lair or molten core, I'd rather solo to farm money for repairs, potions and enchants why would i group, it's not like you can make good money.. after splitting it 5 to 10 ways) :)

Pool of players - Raiders - Pvpers - Soloers = Pool of groupers

Pool of groupers ÷ faction(horde cant play with alliance) ÷ class/group role(a group only needs 1 main tank 1 main healer and a few dps classes) ÷ Level ranges of your toon(level 17 who wants to dead mines can't group with level 54 for sunken temple)÷ groupers with no incentive to group ( see raiders)
When we first started playing this game, you would repeat an instance a lot because you'd find a quest to go to the instance, then afterwards you'd find another quest to go back, or you repeat an instance for a particular item. But now-a-days players go to an instance like ST or ZF with all the quests possible, with the intention of only visiting that instance one time.

Honestly how many of you after doing dark master Gandling in Scholomance 15 times to get your tier 0 helm, would ever go back?

Longwinded as usual,

I see Zonk already has a good description of what I was going to note. The fundamental problem is advancement, but that's going into the whole essence and play-proposition of an MMO. If we're only going to worry about straight-line progression ("get-paid-to-play-one-way") as most MMO's are then it is about player trust. Forced grouping like in DDO is stupid and isn't appreciated probably by anyone, including the truly guilded. I'm starting to believe more and more that the whole problem is player communication and recording of experiences. Until you've got a way (DKP, forum, rank, whatever) to record your group experiences between players then you really have no way to curb bad behaviors and sponsor good skills development.
Funny, I ran in to this blogg while searching Google using the terms "Solo Instance". At level 37, I have grouped once and entered Razorfen kraul. Best 15 minutes I have spent in WOW so far. I am just like others posting here. Wife, 2 kids, house, full time job. I get 2-3 hours max in one session and I cannot see spending one hour of that time running around or yelling for help just to get the run around some more. Dang I hope I can find a decent bunch of players to group up with. I can see the fun potential where grouping and instance running is concerned and I want in. Without the run around.
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