Friday, May 21, 2010
Perfect MMORPG: Raiding
When I mentioned that I’m looking at various MMORPGs with the idea to assemble the perfect MMORPG from the various ideas and features of various games, several people asked me to describe that perfect MMORPG. I’m afraid I can’t give you a full description, because that would be a hundred-page design document. But I can describe parts of it. In this post I want to describe how I think a perfect raiding end game would look like. The thoughts on that are based on the one side on the recent discussions we had here about raiding in World of Warcraft, and on the other side on a recent post by Keen, and a follow-up by Muckbeast on how guilds have become too important in MMORPGs.
So before describing my proposal for a solution, I am going to analyze the problem: I believe that the root of the problem is the fundamental structure of raids, with their lockouts, multiple bosses separated by trash, and what one of my readers called “generic environment-related tasks like moving out of the fire instead of class-related skills”, which require each and every encounter to be trained several times before a raid group succeeds in downing a boss. What follows from that is the huge amount of organization it takes for a guild to set up a good raid, and in consequence the much lower quality of a badly set-up pickup raid. When Keen and Muckbeast complain about guilds being too important, they are talking about guilds being too important as gatekeepers to access raid content. Not in the right guild means you are not getting into the good raids, and then you are missing the achievements that you’d need to get into a PUG raid. And that is just the tip of the iceberg: There are also a lot of players who will never be able to raid simply because they don’t have multi-hour blocks of time available during typical guild raid times.
Trying to design the perfect raid brings us to a deceptively simple question with a lot of hidden depth: What exactly *is* raiding? I would define raiding as a large group of players fighting against a boss mob with unusual abilities. Everything else, lockouts, epic drops, trash mobs, and so on, is not essential to raiding, and is just a specific part of the implementation of raiding by Blizzard in World of Warcraft. And there lies the trap in discussing raiding in a perfect MMORPG: Whatever I describe, somebody will think I’m talking about changing how raids work in World of Warcraft, and will come up with a counter-argument which is specific to WoW, but doesn’t apply at all to the perfect MMORPG I’m talking about.
In a recent reply to a comment I stated a brief outline of what I would want from a raid encounter: What I want is raid encounters in which A) I need to think which button to press. B) My decision which button I press matters. And C) what the best button to press is depends on what class I play. To this I now add point D) which is that I would like raid encounters to *not* require a huge amount of encounter-specific practice, which is basically a consequence of points A to C. If a raid encounter follows a totally predictable script, the best way to beat the raid encounter is to follow a totally predictable anti-script, and training that script into muscle memory, which reduces the need to think, and thus eliminates the possibility to make a wrong decision. If we eliminate the predictable script, we eliminate the possibility of training specific encounters, and thus we eliminate the necessity of complicated organization in which guilds strive to learn an encounter before being able to beat it. Instead of all that we get the requirement for raiders to be able to think quickly, react to unforeseen events, and play their class so well that they are able to choose the right ability for every given situation.
Thus raiding in my perfect MMORPG would basically work via an interface not unlike the Dungeon Finder in World of Warcraft: You could sign up alone or in a group, everybody needs to say which role he is going to perform, and the computer matches your group randomly with a challenge which is appropriate to the power level of the group, taking gear into account. But that challenge would not be a dungeon with trash and several raid bosses, it would be just a single raid boss encounter. And that single raid boss encounter would be random, that is to say based on a random selection of different possible boss abilities, of which there would be enough to make it extremely unlikely to meet the exactly same mix twice.
At this point I probably need to calm down the screaming WoW players suffering from a lack of imagination, who are right now thinking that bosses with random abilities you can’t train the steps for can’t be beat. Of course you can: It is just a question of tuning the power of those abilities, and of giving enough pointers to players. That starts with how the raid boss looks: There will by technical necessity only be a limited number of boss models, let’s say 50. And the shape of the boss will be linked to some basic abilities: You can count on a dragon having a breath weapon and a tail spike, a huge giant is going to hit hard and cleave, while a lich is certainly casting spells, etc. Beyond the abilities given by the basic shape, there would be a random selection of additional special abilities. Of course the developers would need to balance these somehow, for example by attaching point values to them, so you don’t get one boss with a few harmless abilities and another with several total killer abilities. And every special ability launched by a boss would have visible and audible warnings: Think Ick & Krick in the Pits of Saron, with their shouts of “Quickly! Poison them all while they're still close!” telling you that it would probably be a good idea to run away now to avoid a poison nova.
A raid group that wipes on such a random boss would find themselves respawning at the entrance of the instance, with the same boss still around and fully healed. Thus if some combination of abilities took them by surprise, they will be better prepared for the next fight. But as soon as either they give up, or the boss is dead, there would be no way to get the same boss again. Even if they signed up for the next raid encounter directly afterwards and by chance got a boss with the same shape again, he would most probably have a different set of random abilities, thus the fight would be different. And as the raid bosses are each in their own instance, with no trash, groups can change in composition between doing different bosses, and there is no requirement for anyone to stay with the raid groups for a consecutive block of hours.
Rewards for such raid encounters would work along similar lines as rewards for heroics work now: There is some random loot, which is distributed by some need/greed roll system (and if you are in a guild group you can still design loot rules on who is allowed to press the need button). But more importantly every participant gets tokens, which can be saved up to buy gear, making loot distribution less of an all or nothing affair. And where is raid progression in all that? Simple, as a difficulty selection slider on the random raid finder interface. With possibly some requirements like gear level or a number of raids of the easier levels done before being able to select the higher difficulties. The easiest difficulty could be easy enough so that people who frankly don't play very well can still "raid", while the higher difficulty levels are for increasingly more skilled players, and give out better rewards to encourage people to go for that higher challenge.
Note that while such a random raid boss system could theoretically be implemented in World of Warcraft, that is not only unlikely to happen, but also sub-optimal due to the design of how combat works in World of Warcraft. The perfect raid encounter I am describing here is based on players making meaningful decisions based on being able to play their class well, and reacting to the unforeseeable events of a boss with a mix of random abilities. That works a lot better if your spells and abilities are more different from each other in different situations. Imagine your spells would do different amounts of damage depending on how far you are from the target, and also depending on whether you hit the target from the front or the back. Now add a boss who isn’t standing still in front of the tank, but is circle-strafing him, add a couple of boss abilities that force players to move, and suddenly you are forced to constantly decide which spell is the best based on where you are standing in relation to the position of the boss, instead of just using the same spell rotation all the time. In addition to that, the combat system could have multi-player combos, similar to those of LotRO, where your spells could have extra effects if you coordinate them right with your fellow players.
The overall goal of raiding in the perfect MMORPG should be to have a fun challenge for a larger group of players. Much of what went wrong with raiding in other games is due to the unfortunate tendency of players to optimize the fun out of games. Thus I believe that randomized single boss encounters, combined with challenges that are based on class-related skills, come closer to a perfect raid experience than multi-hour predictable sequences for which everybody has to learn the specific moves for. And a random raid finder interface would relieve guilds from their role as gate-keepers to raid content, thus decreasing the organizational burden and potential for unnecessary drama. Raiding with your guild should be possible, but not be the major function of a guild. A random raid finder with random raid bosses provides a better challenge, and a better measure of “skill”, than learning a tactic from a YouTube video and then practicing the steps until the boss goes down. With different difficulty levels tuned right, there could be an appropriate challenge with an appropriate reward for everybody who wants to raid.