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There are many topics that that migrate through the MMO blogosphere and similar environs (forums, interest groups) time and time again… collective murmurs of discontent, distillates of remembered experiences and hopeful conjecture.  One of the more common ones of late centers on the concept of “grouping”.

Now, I am sympathetic to the feelings and desires that drive the selection of that topic of conversation.  I have fond memories of groups in games past (and present), and I can understand the desire to recreate that experience.  However, I must admit to some frustration as well, because to me, much of the commentary blames the wrong “suspects”.

In short: your fellow players are neither the problem nor the enemy, whether they choose to entertain you or not.

Bad Reactions

Every time I see a comment to the effect of “I don’t see why people even bother playing an MMO if they’re not going to group…”, I have to fight down several basically unfair and counterproductive reactions.  First, I have to fight off the temptation to add “…with me, to perform for me and keep me entertained” to the end of that statement.  That’s what it typically sounds like (tho not always)… I know that’s not the intent.

As someone who does not often group (and who gets to actually play only slightly more often), I then have to fight off the temptation to post an offer to discontinue paying some $60-80 per month (plus box prices, of course) for various subscriptions to various MMOs, since I’m obviously not worthy to grace the same forms of entertainment by their standards.  How dare I, right?

Then I have to fight off a nasty reaction to give them exactly what they are asking for… literally “stalk” them with all my various characters on the games I do subscribe to and group up, then just let events run their course… be the lone healer that logs off in the middle of a combat because my emergency pager went off, go afk outside a mission for 15-20 minutes to deal with an after-hours customer request.  In short, just let all the reasons why I don’t regularly group out of consideration for others drive the situation, instead.  Not exactly a strategy that would lead to an after-life of heavenly grace, I expect…

And then, after all that, I finally get to the heart of the matter: that this is a somewhat misdirected, but sincerely heart-felt yearning for all those great experiences that groups can provide… and that seem to become less and less common as time goes by.

Allow me to present a few random thoughts in hope of redirecting the collective musings to other lines of attack?

Point #1: Are you sure it’s not you?

Now, I used to group quite a bit more often than I do now.  In various MUDs, The Realm, UO, and EQ, I spent hours at time, days in a row, playing in groups of all types, RL friends, guildies, PUGs, etc.

Already I can see part of my problem… can you?  “Hours at a time, days in a row”.  Boy howdy, I wish I still had that much free time.  There are days I can’t find 10 minutes in a row to respond to comments on the old blog here, let alone “hours and days”.

Grouping in MMOs, at least at the level implied by the type of commentary I note above, requires a certain base level of time commitment to be respectful to the other players in that group.  It is as simple as that.  If you can’t pretty much guarantee that amount of time… grouping as it exists today isn’t a comfortable option if you have any concern for your fellow players, IMO.  Personally, I feel like I’m pushing the limits of imposing on others if I can’t dedicate 45 minutes to an hour… and given all the various people with varying levels of expectations or demands on my time, that often feels impossible to offer.

Now, if I gave up some of my other interests and pastimes, I probably could.  Blogging, for example.  My exercise routine.  Technology research.  The occasional movie.  The even more occasional date.  Sleep… I never liked that one anyway, but my doctor says I have to.  I already usually eat while doing one or more of the above, so no time savings there.  Work… hmm, now there’s an idea…

Point #2: Convenience is key

I posted on this a while back, but I’ll rehash it here a bit.  Grouping in most of the games is also a royal pain in the keister.  I can count on the fingers of 1 finger the number of times it’s taken less than 15 minutes to form a “decent” group…

“What about a healer?” “We need a tank, too.” “Jeez, does anyone even play healers any more?” “Need some crowd-control.” “I have a cleric I could switch to, I suppose.  He’s a bit high level for the group…” “Damn, someone got to that warrior before I did.” “Is that druid over there in a group?”

Sound familiar?

Allow people to see basic LFG information before they even log in.  Allow them to chat via /guild and /talk channels before they select a character to play.  Present LFG information constantly, and make it convenient to opt-in at a moment’s notice.  Also, make it easy to opt-out, so as not to waste other people’s time.

I have yet to see an interface or design flow that truly stresses the importance of groups by making them obvious or convenient.  In essence, I have yet to see a game that seems to agree at the level of it’s design that directly interacts with the player that the second M in “MMO” has real meaning in the gameplay.  I’d like to see that change.

Point #3: There Can Be Only One (Guild)

The above has been assumed by nearly every game I can think of.  Why?

I can kind of see a point in “hardcore” PvP settings… yet, Shadowbane, one of the most hardcore PvP games ever created, allowed subguilds.  AC with it’s patron concept had a gameplay reason, of course.

I can only have one set of acquaintances?  It might be confusing to chat with more than one guild at once?  I need to dedicate my entire virtual existence to a single entity, or I’m not worthy to play? (great, we’re back to that again…)

As a player, I’d like to have multiple allegiences/guilds to tap into to find people to play with, especially at 3 in the morning (which is the time I’m most likely to be able to group without fear of interruption.)  Whether it would actually make finding a group any easier at that time, that I don’t know… but it couldn’t hurt.

I’m genuinely curious on this one, actually.  Is it crucial to have one and only one guild per player on the social level?  I’ve only lead guilds twice, once in EQ and once in Shadowbane, and I didn’t see any need to be draconian, but they weren’t exactly “dominant” guilds, either.  Any guild leaders around to offer insight?

Conclusion

I could go on…

  • the promise of solo-accessible play gets people to log in that otherwise wouldn’t, and some of those do end up grouping, so that’s not your enemy either;
  • even players that _never_ group add to the vibrancy of the world simply by moving around in it, auctioning items, crafting and repairing equipment, etc.;
  • D+D style levels are signs of the Apocalypse and cause everything from strokes to tooth decay (oops, that’s a different rant… now how did that get in there 😉 )

… but I suspect I’ve already made the point to those I didn’t drive off with my little diatribe at the beginning.  Solo players are not your enemies.  Allowing solo forms of play in an MMO is not one of the 7 signs (levels, OTOH…).  Grouping has a draw and a power of it’s own that is not at all threatened by “allowing” people to play the game without it… it just needs to be a bit less ignored as far as how it’s implemented, IMO.

My two cents.

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This was an earlier version of the same Grouping rant (posted above) from a couple weeks ago that never got finished or published due to an absolute onslaught of interruptions… presented mainly for comparison’s sake. 

Be warned, it ends in mid-thought.  I know, I know… what’s so unusual about that?

Edit: BTW, VirginWorlds visitors, there’s far more on the same topic here.

This one was prompted by several posts at various sites over the past week or so, including this post at West Karana, the discussion following this post at Kill Ten Rats, and this post at MMOment of Zen.

I have my own prescriptions for how to encourage people to play together without returning to the “good old days” of settling in for 8-10 hour marathons at the keyboard, colostomy bag and adult diapers at hand because stepping away from the keyboard might prompt the group to drop you from group, guild, friends, and Christmas lists, and threaten you with assault for weeks after adding you to the FBI’s terrorist watch list, since obviously only a commie terrorist scumbag would go afk to relieve their bladder in mid-dungeon.  Have you no shame?

Ok, maybe I exaggerated a bit.  But not much.  (8-10 hour marathons, people joking (bragging?) about wearing adult diapers, people dropped from guild as well as group, and threats of assault are all elements I’ve personally experienced.)

As I see it, there are three aspects that could be drastically improved to make grouping far more accessible and common, with the likely result of increasing player’s enjoyment of the game.

Convenience

Convenience is the A-number-1-primo issue with playing together in these games, IMO.  It simply isn’t.  Convenient, that is.

I’ve written on various aspects of this before… I listed some things that I felt could be done to make the LFG interface more useful in this post, for example.  It goes far deeper than that, though.

Why do we have to go through the entire log in process, including character selection, just to find out whether or not there is a group that could use my character’s talents?  Devs can’t figure out a way to present a list of groups looking for my class and race before I’ve gone through the 5 minute “enter world” process?  Then when I find out the “class of the evening” is Cleric instead of Fighter, I must wait a minute or two to log out, of course, then 5 minutes to re-enter the world to find out that, well, actually, that Cleric _would_ be more useful…

I’ve already asked multiple times why most of these games require you to log back in at Downtown B.F. Egypt, Middle Of Nowhere, if that’s where you logged out.  (Immersion?  Whatever you’re smoking, let me have some too, k?)  Wouldn’t it be just ever so nice if you could instead search for groups and chat up potential playmates before you pick a character, form/join the group even, then choose a log-in location close to where you will be adventuring for the evening?

Lars of MMOment of Zen mentions quests in his post as one of the impediments to playing together, and I agree.  However, in addition to what he details, I would also come at the problem from a slightly different angle.  Part of the problem, as I see it, revolves around the fact that everyone gets the exact same quests.  When I do your version of the “General Strongbad asked me to save the orphanage” quest, I know that mine will be precisely the same when/if I do it.  Thus, I am driven to either make sure I have that quest already (to “get it out of the way”) or to not join you to save it for later.

Simply personalizing quests in various ways would be something less-than-obvious that I think would go a fair way toward encouraging grouping, changing the mindset from “skip that door, there’s never anything behind it in this quest” to “I wonder what Snidely Whiplash did with the Kidnap-O-Matic remote control THIS time?  Last time, he hid it in his chamberpot.”

… And Big Brother 47: Hobo Alley will be right back after these messages …

(start adventurous-sounding theme music)

Scene: fade in to Generic Wizard throwing Generic Nuclear Armageddon XVIII at some Generic monster-like thing.

Narrator: Is your High Elf Archmage tired of running the same old instances, over and over and over again?

Geek Chorus: Yes!

Scene: cut in that final scene from Star Wars IX, where Sith Lord Luke stands gloating over that scene-stealing Han Solo’s smouldering corpse… yes, pay the royalties, it’s worth it.

Narrator: Is your Sith Lord looking for a fresh new alternate reality to subjugate and repress?

Geek Chorus: Yes!

Scene: Montage of scenes from 20 year old MMOs.  Sure, throw the latest screenshots from “UO:Reloaded, Yes, Again” in there, too.  Amazing.  -Still- fits right in…

Narrator: Tired of the same old, same old, but turned off from today’s hot new MMOs by the thought of losing all the time and effort you put into your WoW:Armageddon Redux 2150th level Orc Shaman?

Geek Chorus: Yes! Yes! Yes!

Lone Loser, in background, whinily: Mine’s only 2147th…

Scene: Narrator, in tux, booth babe on each arm, speaking excitedly to camera.  No, the other kind of excited.  The pron site commercial is next week.

Narrator: We have the ANSWER!

(crescendo theme music)

Narrator: Try New SEQUEL!  The ultimate solution is at your command!

Scene: quick trip through various low level game play paradigms.  Play up the Orkin Man angle.

No more starting over!  No more grinding 10 rats, bats, cats, zats, or other minor vermin!  No more begging to be power-leveled just so you can /ignore others begging for the same! 

Scene: Scientists in Lab Coats, discussing nuclear psychics or whatever.  Maybe throw in a shot of our investors poring over our latest progress report… that should telegraph “concerned concentration”, eh?

Narrator: Our trained, professional staff will analyze your current characters in ANY MMO and translate them automatically into a SEQUEL-compliant duplicate.  Then you can take your beloved character and explore any of our many wonderful alternate realities…

(crescendo, then fade music)

Scenes: show the designated “OMFG, there went half the budget” factor shot for each setting, then cut to the “excited geek player” professing geek-i-tude.

Announcer:  “SEQUEL: Fantasy!”

Female Voiceover (teen hottie in generic elf costume): “Elf Ears!  OOOO!  I mean, how distinguished…”

Announcer:  “SEQUEL: Sci-Fi!”

Male Voiceover (buff astronaut, in Trek-like costume, watch those Paramount trademarks!): “Vulcan Ears!  OOOO!  I mean, how logical…”

Announcer:  “SEQUEL: Cyberpunk!”

Female Voiceover (unleashed librarian fantasy/gadget gal with iPod, iPhone, iTablet, i-whatever-the-hell else they’ve got now):  “iProsthetics Audial Enhancement Modules!  OOOO!  I mean, how useful…”

Announcer: “SEQUEL: Booya!

Male Voiceover (Marine/Special Forces hunk, with latest military hardware): “Elves AND Vulcans AND Cyberpunks, oh my!  I mean, Target Rich Environment…

Scene: Back to narrator with booth babes.  Linger, camera 1… linger…

(crescendo music throughout wrap-up… stay just short of “concrete shattering fortissimo”, k?)

Narrator: SEQUEL!  Remember the name, come play the game.  SEQUEL!  Say it with me!

Geek Chorus, Booth Babes, and Narrator, shouting with excitement (shout, not scream!): SEQUEL!

Double-speed legalese jibberish, muted volume, while the viewers ears are recovering: Offer void where prohibited.  Not available in all states.  Product may cause nausea, depression, and fits of homicidal rage.  Side effects are expected.  No Returns or Refunds.  Do not take with alcohol.  Use at your own risk.  NSFW.  YASD.  YMMV.  All Rights Reserved.

… Stay Tuned For A Very Special Friends: The Golden Years after this program.  And Now Back To Big Brother 47: Hobo Alley …

How sad is this… it’s easier to find time to comment at work than while on “vacation”.  Heh.

If there is any concept related to MMOs that I despise more, I don’t know what it would be.  (There are quite a few things that come close, tho, admittedly.)

The “end game”.  A kludged convention of convenience used to putty over a gaping hole in the typical MMORPG design… and usually pretty poorly, at that.

Let’s just start with a few basics.

1) There is not a single company operating such a service anywhere on the planet that actually wants the player to stop paying… I mean, playing.  Having an “end game” kinda implies an “end” to play, right?  (Yes, I do realize that, in terms of current implementation, the end game is actually a desperate attempt to prevent an end to play…)

2) If the “end game” is drastically different than the “regular game”, three questions come to mind.

  • First, why did the developer want to go and spend the money to make two games, instead of just one?
  • Second, was it really necessary to make the players who want to play this “end game” slog through a game they possibly/probably didn’t want to play (the “regular game”) to get to it?
  • Third, if a player actually likes the “regular game”, are they really going to want to stop playing it at some arbitrary point, and play a different one instead?

3) If the “end game” is not drastically different from the “regular game”… well, it’s not really an “end game” at all then, is it?

(more loony raving after the jump)

Read the rest of this entry »

In relation to my little rant of a couple days ago…

The modern MMO is, to me,  very much like the Monopoly board game: a literal host (1225 and counting, apparently) of “localized versions”, all of them pretty much the same except for the names on the board and the occasional “house rule”.

Just struck me as an apt analogy.  YMMV, of course.

(cc’d from an email I just sent off to mud-dev… heck, at least it is something to post 🙂 )

On 5/15/07, “Tess Snider” wrote:

>> Is there /any/ ways perma-death can be implemented without being hated
>> by players?
>
> I used to be an admin on an RP TinyMUSH with permadeath.  So, what I’m
> about to tell you is not a load of ivory tower theoretical BS.  For
> permadeath to work for the players, you need to satisfy the following
> requirements:
>
> 1.) Death must be rare.
> 2.) Death must be meaningful.
> 3.) Death must be noteworthy.
> 4.) Death must be avoidable, and it should be a *consequence* of
> something the player has consciously chosen to do.
> 5.) The player must be able to make a new character with the same —
> or roughly the same — level of ability as the old one.

Thank you.  That has to be the most succinct and complete summation of the necessary components I have yet seen.

>> Well, the first question is surely why?

The answer, for me, is that it would be one way (amongst many possible options, admittedly) to _force_ the designers (assuming they have clue one about what they are doing) to NOT make Diku-WoW-clone #5439875… and counting…

I pre-ordered LotRO and played off and on for about two weeks total.  That’s probably going to be about it, too, despite all their excellent work and solid release.  Worse, I have none of the typical excuses to fall back on… poor performance, buggy initial release, or any of the other old dodges I’ve used in the past to explain the problem away.

So, why?

Because I sit there at the login screen, and say to myself… “I’ve done all this before.  Why bother?”

Now, I was an early adopter, been playing these things on one level or another for coming up on 20 years.. first text, then graphics (and I was a pen-and-paper RPer for nearly a decade before that).  I’m not the typical player, I fully admit and agree.  Regardless… if that’s not a “canary in the coal mine” moment, I don’t know what would be.

My two cents…

Commentary that I just posted to the mud-dev2 mailing list, adding to a discussion thread entitled “Homogenized MMORPG Engines”.

Adam Martin wrote…

> OK, what exactly are you aiming at here? The vast majority of
> competent programmers will know one (or both) of those two languages,
> and if they don’t would probably benefit from starting (given they are
> responsible for the vast vast majority of all programming jobs
> worldwide, or so I’m told by people with vested interests ;)).
>
> If you want to make this available to people who both cannot program
> and have no interest in learning to do so with modern mainstream
> programming languages, then my above comment is irrelevant. But, if
> that’s the case, I seriously doubt you’re going to see any non-trivial
> game, certainly little that is interesting and novel.

I can’t speak to what the original poster was necessarily aiming for, but I’d like to chime in with my own two cents on the topic.

Frankly, I think most of this thread is coming at the problem from the wrong perspective.  Is this about generating creativity in terms of hacking out code, or about generating creativity in terms of designing “game”?

The creators of Dungeons and Dragons, Monopoly, Texas Hold’em, American Rules Football, and/or Yahtzee didn’t need to know “modern mainstream programming languages” to design and develop apparently interesting and engaging _games_.  In many cases, they didn’t even need to know how to cast plastic dice, print playing cards, or forge metal goalposts in order to design and develop their games.  They just needed to have someone who could generate those resources for them at a reasonable price.

And, as a matter of fact, if they had been required to take the time and expend the effort to build all that infrastructure, even from base pattern and with copious instructions, they probably never would have gotten around to actually creating the games that so many have played and enjoyed.  They’d still be messing around with the different types of face card art, or new ways of making sure the dice were perfectly balanced, or inflating the footballs with different gases to “improve hang time”, etc.

Same deal here.

If the intent is to let people experiment with new ideas and concepts at the “game” level, then perhaps that is the level the toolset should attempt to provide the foundation for?  For example, I can only think of 2 mainstream 3D MMO titles off-hand where having the ability to walk a humanoid figure around the screen is not central to the experience (i.e. Eve and Auto Assault: yes, I know, there are probably more, just bear with me a sec, ok?).

A walking animation applied to a basic human model has to have been done 10^6 times or more.  Yet, to use most of the toolkits that have been mentioned so far, you’ll be doing it for the 10^6+1st time.

Right now, all of the offerings looking to offer a leg-up to those who want to experiment at the “game design” level fall on two ends of possible spectrum, IMO.  (Note that for this purpose, I’ve even dropped the “massive” part of the equation.)

Engines——————————-(Toolkits)—————————Mods

BigWorld                                                ???                                             Sphere

MultiVerse                                                                                                NWN(1+2)

Torque                                                                                                      Arcanum

Engines give you the tools to build an entire universe utterly to your specs… as long as you want to start with protons and electrons, (or maybe even just quarks) and build your way up from there.  You can define any game mechanics your heart desires… but you’ve got one hell of a lot of (busy)work to do first.

Mods are far easier to get somewhere with very quickly, since Life, the Universe, and Everything has pretty much already been built… you really just need to rearrange the furniture a little.  Create a map, plop a character mob in the center, write a couple of lines of pseudocode applying the walk() method… ta dum!  Problem is, you won’t be making your own game, designing your own systems or rules… no, no, you’ll be using theirs.  Don’t have Hit Points in your game design?  Too bad… use them anyway.

Again, if the point is to experiment with new “game” ideas, then give people all the fundamental resources necessary to allow them to quickly prototype, test, and refine the “game”.  On the other hand, if the point is to teach C++ programming, or 3D modeling, or about direct preparation for jobs in the industry, that’d be a horse of a different color. But I was under the impression that the discussion was about the former topic, not any of the latter.

-=-

So, assuming someone ever makes such a thing, who would buy it?  Well, I obviously can’t speak for anyone else, but _I_ certainly would.  And here’s my perspective, in case that helps…

It is -not- that I don’t know how to crank out code: I write code all day long, multiple languages on multiple OS depending upon the client/need, all sandwiched between running the business end of my small business and helping handle service calls.  (Need a custom IVR app, or a speech rec/TTS platform, or a VoIP-enabled PBX?  Drop me a line.)

It is -not- that I don’t know the basics of 3D modeling and animation: took a series of classes specifically for that, as matter of fact.  Got 3DSMax sitting right on my desktop right now. Not very good at it, admittedly, but visual art has never been my forte.

It -is- that doing all of that is essentially a distraction (at best) from what I really want to be doing… working on/weeding thru my game design ideas, trying new twists, testing concepts to keep or send to the discard heap.  That “quick iteration” design process that’s been mentioned a couple times elsewhere?  Bingo.

-=-

There are products heading this direction, I know.  Some appear to be closing in pretty fast, actually (Torque/MMOKit), and others are at least making some nods in that direction (Multiverse).  I guess the point is, make something with some of the flexibility of the “Engines”, and some of the resources and ease-of-use of the “Mods”, and I am reasonably sure I could guarantee you at least one customer.

/rant off

My two cents…

Craig Huber

(crossposted to my blog)

https://damianov.wordpress.com

So, when you realize you’re looking at the upcoming holiday (i.e. Christmas) as just another 3 day weekend… (and trying to figure out which day you’re going to work on to “try and get a few things done”, to boot…)

Anyone else think that’s an indication that maybe you should get away from everything for a bit?

Lots of commentary out there this past couple of weeks revolving loosely around RMT (from Scott Jennings, Brian Green, Matt Mihaly, and Ryan Shwayder (Nerfbat), amongst others.   For my part, I’m just wishy-washy on the whole topic.  While I have no love for gold farmers, and personally think spending RL money on something as transient as virtual gold pieces in a MMO is often inadvisable, I also understand and sympathize with the motivations of some of the purchasers, and think that RMT controlled by the developer would actually be a very reasonable business model to pursue.

Read the rest of this entry »

Just some random thoughts and comments related to Psychochild’s weekend challenge for this week, titled Rethinking the Online RPG.

Read the rest of this entry »

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