Friday, September 18, 2009
Grouping kills you
Back in the early days of this millenium, when I was playing the original Everquest, I started out like any other level-based MMORPG: With a level 1 character killing level 1 monsters. But while my characters became stronger with every level, the strength of the monsters per level grew faster. Soon I wasn't able to kill even level mobs any more, and in the mid-levels many character classes were even unable to kill the weakest green mob still giving experience points. Fortunately I was playing a druid, and could still do some soloing, with a rather complicated technique called quad-kiting: You would cast a spell on yourself which speeded you up, and cast spells on 4 monsters that slowed them down. Then you'd run in a big circle or square, and would cast an AoE on the mobs every time you had gained enough distance to them. 4 mobs, because AoE spells were limited to hitting no more than 4. Necromancers were soloing using fear kiting. But many other classes could only gain experience points by banding together in a group. People called it "forced grouping", and it wasn't all that popular, but at least there was a certain logic to it: Adventurers where facing a given challenge, and only by banding together were they able to overcome it. A group much increased your chance of survival.
Fast forward to nearly a decade later, and games like World of Warcraft. What has changed? At level 1 you still kill level 1 monsters. But now your gain of power per level is equal or greater than the gain of power per level of the monster. A level 80 character of any class can easily kill a single level 80 monster, even in green gear. You need to be really, really careless to die while soloing. And you don't even need tactics like kiting to solo. Only large groups of enemies or elite mobs have a chance to kill you. That changes the minute you join a group. Even a pickup group for a dungeon is more likely to get you killed than if you would solo. And if you start raiding, getting killed repeatedly is actually expected. A group much decreases your chance of survival.
I think that neither forced grouping nor guaranteed survival soloing are good game design. Players enjoy a certain degree of challenge. As the leveling game in WoW and similar games does not offer that challenge, it is dismissed as "grind", as obstacle on the way to the level cap, where "the real game begins". That is a huge missed opportunity. A better compromise would be a variable challenge during the leveling game: People could solo mobs slightly lower in level than themselves easily without any fear of dying. Even level mobs would be doable, but require people playing their character well enough. And higher level mobs would be killed either using advanced soloing tactics like kiting, or in a group.
Now what is keeping a level 20 character in WoW from attacking level 25 to 30 monsters using advanced tactics or a group? Well, first of all there aren't all that many advanced tactics available for most classes. And second killing higher level mobs solo or in a group gives you LESS experience points per hour than farming green mobs. In World of Warcraft both the bonus for taking on a harder challenge and the so-called "group bonus" (which actually is a penalty, you get less xp per mob in a group than solo) are too small. Killing a monster somewhat higher in level than you either solo or in a group takes much more time, for little more xp when soloing, or less xp when in a group.
Bah, you say, lets just forget about the leveling game, it isn't important. But then I hear you complaining about people who can't do more than X dps with their character, or who can't grasp the simple concept of not standing in the fire. Why can't they? Because of the training they had. Why bother learning even a half-decent spell rotation if that is total overkill for the challenge the leveling game poses? And there are no fires not to stand in during the leveling game either. Thus while we are at it, improving the leveling game, we could add more solo encounters which train skills like not standing in the fire, as well as training better spell rotations and other ways to play your character well. And ideally we would balance the group bonus in the leveling game in a way that grouping isn't forced, but is at least a viable option for leveling.
Everybody loves to level faster. What could be better than to teach players that if they would play better or cooperate, they would level faster? Instead the current leveling game teaches them to avoid any challenge and all groups like the plague, because grouping kills you, challenge kills you, and neither hands out enough rewards to be really worth it. MMORPGs need to offer a path of advancement for even the most incompetent and anti-social soloer to attract a mass audience. But that doesn't mean they can't reward better gameplay and cooperation!