Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The future of grouping

There is an interesting discussion going on between Rob from MMOCrunch and Cameron from Random Battle on how soloable a MMORPG should be. And as happy as I am that Cameron is concentrating on his personal blog again, on this issue I'm on the other team, the pro playing together one. Or as Raph Koster says, "the single player game is an aberration".

That is not to say that I am against soloability. There are certainly times when I am not feeling sociable, or where I just don't have the time to play together with other people, and would prefer just to do something on my own. I do think that every MMORPG should offer the possibility to do things on your own, including gaining xp and advancing your character. But what I am strictly against is the system most prominently displayed in WoW where soloing is the *fastest* way to advance your character.

I do believe that there is a small group of players who absolutely want to solo all the time, and a small group of players who absolutely want to group all the time. Between them is a huge majority of players who have no strong opinion on the matter, and are mostly moved by the incentives. Most common argument in World of Warcraft against grouping for levelling is "it's not worth the hassle". Yes, but what if it was? WoW is simply badly designed in that aspect. The LFG tool is awful. The group xp bonus is so tiny that in most situation a group makes less xp per hour than a single player. And there is a huge gap in difficulty between the content designed for solo play and the content designed for group play. Solo content is trivially easy most of the time, group content is often designed in a way that one player making a mistake will wipe the whole group. "Pickup group" is an derogatory term in WoW, evoking fears of you being killed by somebody else's faults; but that comes not from people inherently being anti-group, but from WoW teaching them that a group is only useful for specific group content, and that one is so hard that a pickup group is likely to fail. In World of Warcraft before the level cap you only need a group to get better loot from dungeons; but as you can level up soloing so fast, spending that extra group time to gather that better loot simply isn't worth the effort. WoW distorts the picture, because developers see everyone soloing and think that is what players prefer, when in reality the players just followed the incentives more than their preferences.

Soloing by definition is the default mode of a MMORPG. You log on and you are alone. Getting a group together or getting into a group requires some effort. Effort in time, effort in social skills, effort in trust. But in the history of mankind people have always banded together against threats, because in the real world a group nearly always has a higher chance of success than an individual. The Neanderthal went hunting in groups, not solo. Any half logical virtual world should make adventuring in a group easier than alone; but instead they are now often perversely designed to discourage grouping. You kill a mob in WoW in a full group, and only get 28% of the xp you'd get if you had soloed it. Half of the quests are designed in a way that if you would need 10 monsters to kill solo, you'd need to kill 50 of them in a group of 5; and then there aren't 50 mobs around, the respawn time is slow, and doing that quest with a full group takes twice as long as soloing it. No wonder nobody groups any more before the level cap!

The Everquest approach of forced grouping is certainly the wrong one, but I still have fond memories of EQ pickup groups. Banding together with strangers to face dangers, building strong communities, making new friends. And I think that you can have all the advantages of this in a system that encourages grouping instead of enforcing it. Leave half of every zone as it is now, soloable and everything. Fill the other half with challenges that a single player of that level would be unable to overcome, but which would be no risk for a group of 5. Make it easy to find pickup groups around you, and make the group xp bonus high enough that playing in a group always gets you more xp per hour, and finishes your quests faster, than if you soloed. And suddenly you get a game where most people are grouping most of the time, and liking it!

People playing together has huge advantages for a MMORPG. Once the initial effort to work together with strangers is overcome, players enjoy playing together more than playing alone. There is lots of evidence that people play games in which they have strong social ties to other players longer than if they play alone. Developers should encourage people playing together for their own benefit, because players staying longer in a game means added income. If someone absolutely wants to play alone, a single-player RPG is nearly always the better option: No monthly fee, and the single-player nature of the game allows the player to be the hero who saves the world instead of one of 10,000 heroes killing monsters that respawn 5 minutes later.

And maybe a game where people group more than solo out of their own free will isn't so far away. Mark Jacobs announced at E3 that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning will have a feature called "open grouping". That means that unless you flag your group as private, anyone in the vicinity can join the group if it isn't full. So an adventurer goes to some corner of the game world because he has a quest to kill 20 foozles, opens his looking for group interface, and sees that there is already a small group of people killing foozles quite close. He joins them with a single mouse click, doesn't have to run far to meet them, and kills the foozles together with them faster than if he did it alone. People leave the group when they finished the quest, but then new players join it, and create in effect a perpetual foozle-killing group for this one particular corner and quest. Now I can only pray that the designers of WAR made it so that being in a group gives you more xp per hour than soloing, and finishes your quests faster, not slower. But already the announcement that the LFG tool of WAR will be so much better than WoW's got me quite excited.

And then of course WAR has the public quests, where anyone entering a specific area is automatically at the same step of a quest chain, which can be repeated several times with a mix of rewards, some of which you get just by continued participation, and some extra loot you can earn in what Mythic calls a Vegas loot system. It should be blindingly obvious to most players that forming an open group in a public quest is pure unadulterated advantage. Groups always will be more efficient than the sum of their parts, and the unique incentive system of public quests actually gives you more rewards for more efficiency. A group of one tank, one healer, and one damage dealer will get more influence points per minute than the sum of influence points of an ungrouped tank, healer, and damage dealer of the same level and gear. More influence points per minute means faster access to the influence loot, and a better bonus on your roll for the Vegas loot. So finally we have a realistic system where a group is rewarded for being stronger than a bunch of loners.

Finally, while everyone knows I'm normally not a big fan of open-world PvP, the fact that the bigger team nearly always wins that sort of PvP is a big incentive for grouping in WAR. This is a game where you earn some sort of PvP xp for killing other players in open-world PvP areas of zones. And it is a game where you are polymorphed into a chicken if you enter such a PvP zone which is too low for your level, so solo ganking of lower level characters is out. Does anyone think that this is a system where you wouldn't advance faster if you just clicked on the open group button? If you refuse to group, your opponents won't, and they'll kick sense into you pretty fast.

So for me Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is the big hope, the future of grouping, the MMORPG which brings the genre back from the abyss of the massively single-player online game. This is why I don't care whether the graphics are superficially similar to WoW, or the feature list doesn't look much different. Because if WAR manages to be a game where you can solo, but the better option will often be to group, the actual play experience of the game will be dramatically different from World of Warcraft. It will require a certain amount of re-education of people having been lead astray by WoW, but if WAR pulls that off it might well beat WoW if not in subscription numbers but then at least in longevity. At the core most players want to play together rather than alone, and nudging them over the barrier can only be good for a massively multiplayer online game.
Another very nice, thoughtful post you have made, Tobold. I would just like to make one quick comment about the status of grouping in WOW as we near the end of the Burning Crusade expansion pack and head into the Lich King.

Background: My main characters are alliance side, but I also have a level 70 horde side on a different server.A couple of my alliance friends from the first server and I rolled some "just for fun" horde characters over there, and we all hit level 70.

My alliance characters include a tank, healer, and DPS. I have a strong guild and regularly run heroics (even on characters that no longer need the gear -- it's just fun to group with friends and guildmates.) My healer, in particular, is in top notch BT gear. I noticed no problem with finding a group.

But my horde priest, on the other hand...! When I hit level 70, no one would even bring me to heroic instances or Karazhan because my gear "wasn't good enough." As it turns out, players want speed runs of instances, so anyone who does not massively overgear the instance is turned down. (My alliance shaman has slightly more than double the +heal of my horde priest.) Of course, with the changes to reputations, it is very hard to get an instance run for a normal dungeon, as everyone wants to go heroics and get badges.

This leads to a very bizarre situation in which the only way my priest can get enough gear to be taken to pug instances is by farming battlegrounds for PvP gear! It's not a situation where Blizzard has overtuned the instances, because heroics can be done easily with the gear that I have now (the few groups who have taken me to their instance were pleased with my healing -- although to get an invite I had to lie about my stats and hope no one checked the armory.) The problem is that as battleground gear has improved over time, the "quest blues" have not kept up.

The general message is that if you do not have a strong guild who appreciates you as a player, you must spends hours and hours doing solo PvP in order to enjoy group PvE. In a PvE centric game like WOW, this is just completely backwards.
You make some great points. Maybe I'm just jaded from playing WoW for so long. I didn't even think about the fact that WoW actively discourages you from grouping with the way XP rewards and quests are set up, but you're very right. That's why I started avoiding grouping (outside of instances) in the first place, and why it irks me to have to drag along less skilled players.
By speeding leveling at low levels, Blizzard made it even more foolish to group as you are leveling. Why take the time to get decked out in blues from an instance that you will outlevel in a few days? The more quickly you outlevel any set of gear, the less it is ultimately worth to you.

WoW does does a better job of encouraging grouping post 60 when things slow down. LoTRO and EQ II also both do a pretty good job of encouraging grouping at all levels by locking out a lot of content to soloers.

However, if I had to pick an MMO that nails "encourage but don't force" grouping, I'd go with CoH. Not only does XP come a lot faster in a group, but it's utterly painless to join a PuG. Travel abilities and side-kicking help a ton. You can solo on pretty much any toon, it's just slow and boring.
I used to PUG all the time in WoW back when it was new and had relatively few bad experiences. It's weird but it seems like the PUG experiences have gotten progressively worse as the years have gone by. I always attributed that to my own growth as a player more than anything else, but maybe not. I haven't been in a WoW PUG since last year at this point.

I whole-heartedly agree about the lack of better group-based bonuses for XP in WoW, I realized this the first time I /gquit a new guild because nobody wanted to play together. I joined the guild to group up and play, not simply socialize in the chat box. After I had this experience a couple more times I realized it had to be because there is no real incentive to group outside of instances and it seems most people just skip those these days because they only slow down leveling.
The fact that MMORPGS have become mainstream entertainment may be partly responsible for the increasingly solo-oriented playstyle. The mainstream audience is largely casual and the designers must offer these players with little time and patience something worthwhile.

Easiest way to do this is make the game soloable. Related to this is the gradual evolution of pure classes into hybrids. To each class his CC, DPS and survivability in order to ensure solo viability. But thats another topic...

A MMORGP should actively encourage grouping though, and not make it a less efficient way of playing. While WOW succeeded massively in making the cross over into mainstream, it failed in providing incentives to group below levelcap.

Maybe the WAR mechanics are an improvement; surely they have learned from WOWs mistakes. I like what i read about open grouping and public quests.
WoW didn't arrive at its current leveling regime by accident. In WoW, everyone consumes all of the leveling content. If you go with parallel content tracks (solo and faster-progressing group-only content), either everyone has to grind more (because they're only completing part of each zone), or everyone simply progresses faster (running out of content, and thus reason to renew their subscription, faster).

If players who are serious about group content are willing to pay more or accept lower production values, there is plenty of room in the market for a more group-intensive game. What you can't do is demand a WoW-quality game at WoW's price while offering less material to solo players (who will be forced to take their business elsewhere). The market of players who cannot schedule their play ("you cannot start until you have a group and cannot go AFK or leave until the group finishes the quest" counts as scheduled play) is larger than people credit it for.
While I certainly think that there should be some sort of bonus for grouping there should definitely be a way to solo all the way to cap without a problem.

There are also design problems in some games (thinking of LOTRO here) where there is a sort of semi-forced grouping where the quests are divided into long series. They are then also mixed solo and group parts in random order more or less. I hated that design with a passion. Finding people on the same part of the series was a real pain. It's usually hard enough to find people with the same quest as you, but also being on the same part is so much worse.

From what I've understood WAR is as you say taking a few steps in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how it works in release.
Group play is fun but it's just bad for levelling. One of WoW's great innovations is the quick levels and then massive max-level content.

The issue is this : at max-level there is a lot of different things to do, so you can provide solo and group content, to fit the player's tastes and availability.

Below max-level, however, there is really just one thing to do : level. If you make group levelling more beneficial or more fun, you'll see solo players (either by choice or by availability) get discouraged and at least fall behind, if not quit.

Between open questing and public quests (mostly the latter) I do feel like WAR has dealt with these problems. But notice how much effort it took -- public quests are not a little thing you can just throw in your game.
Group play is fun but it's just bad for levelling.

Why? I would say that again depends strictly on the numbers. I'm not asking for a group bonus where in a group you advance 10 times faster than if you solo, and everyone thinks he MUST group to advance at reasonable speed. It is totally possible to find a compromise where playing in a group advances you somewhat faster, but soloing is still fast enough to be feasible. And leveling speed only matters to those who want to reach the level cap quickly anyway. As long as there is enough soloing content to have fun to fill out every level, leveling a bit slower in solo than in group is totally acceptable.
"Leave half of every zone as it is now, soloable and everything. Fill the other half with challenges that a single player of that level would be unable to overcome."
Why not simply scale all the mobs? If a solo player attacks a mob it could have 1000 hp and hit for 10 dmg each swing. If a group of 2 people attacks the same monster it could have 2000 hp and hit for 12 dmg each swing. If a group of 5 people attacks the same monster it could have 5000 hp and hit for 20 dmg each swing. The numbers are purely imaginary, but I think its clear what I mean. This way you wouldn't effectively make WoW a much smaller world by creating large areas where you couldn't go solo and other large areas where you could go as a group, but have no reason to because the mobs there are tuned for single player.

I agree with you completely here. Grouping should not be forced - some people just enjoy soloing (one of my friends is like this - he's been playing WOW for years, but mostly solos because he hates the drama associated with PUGs).

However, grouping should be rewarded. As a rule of thumb, it seems to me that you should get roughly twice as much exp per hour as a group than solo.
CoX helps grouping by (for CoV at least) not having the holy trinity of classes. Unfortunately WAR does have it, so I'm not sure how well it will work. I wonder if in the WAR we'll still see "LFM need tank or healer then GTG!"

But that is mainly the one part of the grouping disincentive: the penalty for mistakes. If there were less penalty I guess the holy trinity wouldn't matter as much. Of course is that the same as just making it "easier" and thus more boring?

I have lots of fond memories grouping for quests early in WoW, back when large portions of areas were full of elites and you needed a team, and you learned how to play in a group and socialized a lot more since you were meeting more people because you HAD to meet and work with others.

Of course you could skip all those too if you wanted. Now, you can solo it all.

And the players too are different. I rolled on a new server with some people, and players just want to pay to be run through instances, no one wants to group. Everyone will help you only if you help their alt, etc. It's bizarre, not the same game I remember.
I'm with you 50% on this one Tobold.

Agree: grouping should be rewarded, period. There's no reason the early levels in WoW couldn't be faster as a group. Even just grinding out quests as a duo or trio should offer some kind of bonus, not a penalty. And don't even get me started on the low-level instances and why people should want to group for those.

It'd be good for the game and good for the players. It doesn't lend itself to abuse, as botting groups is rather difficult and probably would not be worth the extra effort unless the reward was huge.

Disagree: any sentence with Warhammer and hope. I don't have any left for it.
Why does everyone assume the MM in MMO should equal group combat?

For me, the MM part of an MMO is in socializing, trading, and role-playing. Grouped combat is usually not very fun nor rewarding and tends to be a grind - people not knowing roles, dropping out, finding replacements of the right class, ninja-ing loot, etc. Then there are the issues of finding a group, staying in a group, guild politics, and so on. Group activities are a lot more time-intensive just by the very nature of group organization.

I can casually craft, role-play, do battlegrounds, or socialize. If I want to run an instance, I can waste all days getting a group, wiping, not get good rolls, etc.

Keep the MM for all multi-person interaction, just don't force the game to revolve around group combat all the time.

There are games like FF where it is impossible to level or achieve anything without a group - and many people do NOT play them because of that.
I generally prefer soloing - I end up quitting any MMO when I "run out" of soloable content. This happened with WoW prior to the expansion - every quest in my log was a "group" or (worse) raid quest, even though the chain started out as soloable.

I thought it was a great change when they removed most of the old-world outdoor elites, and it lead me to keep playing (created new alts) when I otherwise would have been "done" with WoW.

I also like to group with friends, with whom I've traveled from game to game. I like seeing other people in the game and being helpful when people are in trouble, etc. In other words, a single player game (like Fable), even if it had the vast content, wouldn't be as fun as an MMO to me.

I am OK with the idea of encouraging grouping in small ways - make collect quests drop items for ALL players, give a reasonable group experience bonus, etc. so that grouping is at least as efficient as soloing (rather than less productive as it is most times in WoW).

What I resent is when grouping is required for large portions of content. I had enough of that in the original EQ when I had to spend an hour looking for a group in Unrest (and sometimes logged off without a group because paladins, at the time, sucked).

Compare the shattered sun dailies to the Ogri'la or Skyguard dailies and the difference is large, from my perspective. I've had a lot of fun doing the Shattered Sun dailies on my max level alts - decent gear, gold and just something 'to do' (goals are a big part of the game for me).

The other quests, on the other hand, have barriers where you MUST get a group to progress - and that's really difficult at this stage of the game (where the mass of players have completed those quests). I gave up on them after several sessions of trying to get a group together (I see the same thing happening in Shadowmoon Valley where people beg for a group to do the group Netherwing quest.)

So, yes, there should be benefits to grouping BUT grouping shouldn't be required. I know my friends and I - who often end up soloing our characters of different levels but chatting in guild - would be long gone if soloing wasn't well supported as a viable way to play the game. (The paradox of "being alone together" I know it's been called.)
I don't think soloing or grouping should be encouraged, rewarded, or discouraged in favor of one over the other.

I also think that as these games progress (it's still early), we'll see developers creating ways for all styles of gameplay to go from point A to point B, in an equally rewarding way.

Maybe in the future, you'll be running Scholo with your four NPC buddies. Or maybe it'll spawn MOBs according to your class or group make-up. Either of those supports grouping OR soloing, that's the key to the future.

Same content, different means to the same end.

The possibilities are endless, and I think we'll see them explored more and more over the next couple of years. People have different desires socially, and those can change from day-to-day, providing choices is the best solution.
"Maybe in the future, you'll be running Scholo with your four NPC buddies. Or maybe it'll spawn MOBs according to your class or group make-up."

Sounds like Guild wars!
After thinking about it for an evening, I still stand by my original post at Random Battle, though. I'm not suggesting a massive shift in the MMOG genre... I'm proposing a new form of MMO-like game.

As others have pointed out, here and elsewhere, some people don't like grouping with others to kill monsters. Some people just want the massively multiplayer element for the social aspects that other live players bring to the game (as in Diablo 2, for example).

I don't think providing that experience in a few games is necessarily a bad thing. It's a different breed of MMOG, but that's something a lot of us are hungry for, I think. Not a replacement, but another option.

I also still think that an MMOG which was mostly single-player in the field would open up all kinds of interesting gameplay options... meaningful NPC relationships, key enemies that stayed dead when killed, and more interesting environment options beyond just running around and killing stuff. You might be able to approach something along the lines of a proper Elder Scrolls style MMOG, in fact.

Variety is the spice of life, and it would be nice to have some options. I don't see a problem with having a few games like this.
I think rewarding grouping is attractive as a principle, but flawed in practice. The main reason is the general quality of groups. I haven't been following WAR news much as I haven't had much intention of playing it, but reading your description of "open groups" really kind of closes the book on that game altogether for me.

Your basic premise is probably correct: it's more fun to play in groups than alone. I rarely have so much fun as when playing with my wife or with well-functioning bigger groups. And I do pickup groups as well, but always with some hesitation. However, before joining pickup groups or inviting randoms into the group I always ask a couple of questions first. There's nothing better than a good group and nothing worse than a bad one.

Open groups would remove all of that. I would be fully exposed to the many kinds of co-players I actively try to avoid today. It is possible that I have too high standards, but I find that party members who continually interrupt the flow of the game with remarks like "zomg n00b flaxor yada yada" or "dmg mtrs plz" significantly lessen my own play experience. And I have no doubt that they would be there all the time in my "open group". Not to mention the gold sellers, of course. Join an open group and get a captive audience for a second. Sounds un-great.

Go ahead, call me elitist now. Or just old. But open groups... eek!

I stick to my already-established boring principle: grouping is fun, so do it! If it takes longer to level because you're in a group – yay, the fun lasts longer! Tobold, you already have what, three level 70 toons, and you're less than excited with the end-game. Why are you always in such a hurry to level up?
Lotro actually has open grouping though it isn't enabled by default and thus few people know about it.
I also still think that an MMOG which was mostly single-player in the field would open up all kinds of interesting gameplay options... meaningful NPC relationships, key enemies that stayed dead when killed, and more interesting environment options beyond just running around and killing stuff. You might be able to approach something along the lines of a proper Elder Scrolls style MMOG, in fact.

I'd play it. But I wouldn't pay $15 a month for an online single-player game.
It seems to me that advocates for more single-player aspects in games simply want to take the “games experience may vary with online play” part of the MMO equation out of the game.

In extreme cases (like with the kid MMOs) we are seeing things like the inability to “chat” without using pre-defined phrases. Imagine if the only way to communicate in WoW was if you used emotes like /cry, /kiss and /laugh. I can’t help but agree that this type of thing does seem to be taking the MM out of the MMO.
As one of those people who enjoys a good group more than soloing, but also really hates all the drama, bad PUGs, etc., something I really miss from the game is better ways to filter players when forming a group. Something like being able to see a character's chat from a previous group, seeing some descriptions of their playing style, etc., would be useful (to know if they are aggressive, argumentative, "u suck, go away plz", etc.

In woW, I also agree with a required group setup being a problem, (especially with leveling talents being different than group talents, and instance and raid role divisions not being proportional to each other and to the amount of trees for the role.)
"people not knowing roles, dropping out, finding replacements of the right class, ninja-ing loot, etc..finding a group, staying in a group"

Those are problems with how grouping is implemented, not with grouping itself.

If you don't have the holy trinity of classes, your first three and last 2 problems fall away right there. That's how CoV works - you don't need a certain class, and groups form instantly. When I played that game, I spent probably a few minutes looking for a group, and you'd just keep rocking till it was time to log off. When someone left, it would take minutes to replace them.

Other issues that come up are types of players, I think there's been other posts in the past that talk about ideas for better tools for managing friends lists and guilds. There are addons to wow that let you track more than 50 people and make notes for them. This helps but better tools would help.

That's what a lot of posts are about: how to fix grouping so people WANT to - no one (well some do but not me) want to go back to when you HAD to group. Your complaints are valid for games that implement it poorly, so let's implement it better, but not take away choice.
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I dont think the grouping is the problem in WoW, its the content.

Most of the content wasnt meant to be plowed through by 5 man teams, you would feel pretty silly trying to take down Kobolds and their candles in a large group when you one shot them then spend 30 seconds running to find another.

Some games adjust the content so that groups can bring tagalongs with NP, games like CoH, AoC, even guildwars.

I think where the future of grouping needs to be would be content that is still challengeing based of your style of gameplay. If you play 10hrs a month, you probably want quick paced soloable content. If you play 70 hrs a month your probably looking to hit up the most content and the hardest content to satiate your craving for gaming. The game should offer both type of gamers content without all the hassle of LFG, grouping systems, or extraneous effort to participate.

I think where WoW faulters most is when they changed from the 1-60 treadmill to the 60-70 treadmill they failed to maintain the social aspect of the game. Just as someone who purchases a Wii, who then only uses it for Wii-fit... WoW lets you now solo 1-70 then the game is over or else you play a whole new game called WoW raiding and heriocs, which is quite a change of pace. Casual players opt out and go play something else, while the more masochistic gamer plows forward in one of the most anti-social compaigns of grouping ever created. Bottlenecks, class-restrictive and gear and skill checks make it about as fun as white water rafting naked w.out a raft in the dark. The highlight or carrot on the stick still is sense of accomplishment which is teired purple lootz, but when a player can ge that similair gear by pvping its again a major displacement of committed raid-tuned talented players and frenzied pvparena/bg grindhappy players who are your community.

And lets face it, when will WoW offer a progression that players will WANT to participate towards that isnt diversified into either a. raiders b. pvpers. What happend to world pvp and player interaction (outside of your own 5/10/25man)?

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