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Weekly Musings #26 - MMO's and the Casual Gamer
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: January 10th 2004

It's no secret that I stopped playing MMO's early last year, and haven't picked one up since.

That isn't to say that I don't read about them, or appreciate them. Part of it has to do with time: unlike full-time guys like Tycho and Gabe who literally make jobs out of playing games and making game comics, and for whom NOT playing games is "slacking off", my gaming is entirely hobby. I have a day job, which takes up much of my time. I have the mascots to take care of. I play pencil-and-paper games too, plenty of them, including participating in RPGA events.

When I played Asheron's Call, originally, it was a nice game. I enjoyed the gameplay, I enjoyed wandering the world. The ability to run around and fight monsters solo was fun, and forming hunting parties was fun as well. That being said, it couldn't hold me enough that I was willing to put off schoolwork for it, and after a month and a half of not having the time, I quit.

Everquest, meanwhile, never managed to "grip" me in the way it has gripped so many others. Why, I can't be sure: I think, mostly, that it was just the sheer amount of time placed on the level grinding. Get in, kill stuff, kill stuff, kill stuff, pray to find a group, kill stuff in a group... lather, rinse, repeat. On the rare occasions I found a good group, it could be fun, but it wasn't for me. Likewise as I played Final Fantasy XI, that same old dynamic returned... rather than being able to pop in to the game for an hour or two, I would have to get on, wait possibly an hour to find a group, and be prepared to play with said group for at least two hours in order to justify the time spent logging in. Between that, and the time spent wandering around praying for item drops, the game just ceased to be fun.

Over at The Corporation, they've been running a series of developer lookbacks on the year in MMORPG's, with names like Raph Koster, Damion Schubert, Walter Yarbrough, and Richard Garriott discussing the ups and downs of the year. The one criticism remarkably consistent from the developers was that the idea of a "virtual world", with people interacting, has been subsumed by the "online game", where people play a single-player game alongside other people. They trip over a few things, though, that I think are worth exploring.

Forced Grouping

To put it bluntly: in terms of daily gameplay, forced grouping is the worst thing that developers can do to the players. I say this from experiences in four MMORPG's to date, and from discussions with others who have played other games.

Forced grouping is, all at once, a time sink (time spent finding a group), a fun sink (unless you have a regular group, a fair number of those you group with will turn out to be jerks), a recipe for disaster (when one "required" member of the group leaves), and a problem for anyone trying to create a unique build of characters. Or at the very least, that is how it usually is implemented.

In limited settings - such as entering a dungeon to complete a quest - forced grouping can be a good thing. It provides a social aspect to completing a quest, a reason to find some friends or at least players in a like situation. The problems are when it's not just a now and then thing, but pretty much required every time a player enters the game world.

Take your standard Tank/Infantry/Mage/Healer/Buffer game. Whether you're in City of Heroes, or WoW, or playing certain pencil-and-paper games, or back in the Everquest days there is a certain amount of standardization of roles. In some senses, this is a natural part of game growth: if you give someone enormous damage output, you have to "balance" it by making them easier to hit, which naturally leads to the reverse character - a "tank" - trying to protect them so that they can do their thing. Likewise, the healer may take a few swings at the enemy, but at the end of the day he spends most of his time making sure that the "tank" stays standing, to allow the damage dealers to work their magic. The Buffer, meanwhile, tries to enhance the powers of the other characters.

When fighting an equivalent enemy one-on-one, each character ought to be able to come out relatively the same. The Tank will take less damage, and deal less, so he'll kill his enemy. The healer will heal himself as needed. The "mage" or damage dealer will take more damage, but put out damage faster... so the basics are the same. The synergy of the "group" allows them to do more, each leveraging their role so that they kill higher powered enemies with minimal risk. Unfortunately, putting together this "perfect" group is difficult, due to the tendency of players not to play the game in equal distribution of roles. Thus some roles (essential roles too, such as Healer) become "rare", and creating a group and successfully inviting others to join it hinges on first convincing a Healer to join. The in-demand classes will like this, but the others will not.

The forced grouping problem also discourages creative gameplay; again, take FFXI as a good example. If you see a Tank of a certain class and level, you can likely guess (a) what armor he wears, (b) what items he has, (c) what weapon he's using, and (d) what secondary class he is using with a good degree of certainty. Likewise with other archetypes. The idea of pairing up unorthodox classes is frowned upon, because it doesn't fit in with the group mechanics. Gameplay of this sort enhances the boredom factor: rather than deciding for themselves what they want to do, players "have to" do X, Y, and Z in that order just because everyone else in the game does so, or else risk not being taken in by groups and therefore not being able to advance at all.

To reiterate, the problems with forced grouping as a daily part of the game:

1. It's an unnecessary time sink; every time a player wants to go hunting, they will dedicate 1/2 hour or more to finding a group (on average).
2. It eliminates the ability to pop in for some quick play; once a group is formed, players will be offended if someone leaves too quickly.
3. It necessitates forming groups with players who are jerks or otherwise detrimental to the gameplay experience.
4. It discourages unique/creative methods of gameplay.

Massive Grouping

From Damion Schubert's comments: However, I think it's a disappointment that most of the new games that are coming out right now really do nothing to truly take advantage of being 'massive'. Rather than focus on what you can do if you get 100 people together, the industry this year has focused once again on small groups of 2 to 6 people. This genre isn't going to come of age until we stop trying to be Diablo, and start taking advantage of our own unique selling point.

Theoretically, this is a great idea. 100+ players taking on challenges, doing things together... wonderful. In theory. Logistically, for all but the biggest player organizations, it's impossible. Everquest did this to some degree, in what players eventually termed "raids": multiple, multiple, multiple groups of high-level players from a given guild would assault high-level zones, seeking out the rarest and nastiest beasts in hopes of getting items from them, or merely clearing the zones out as a beachhead.

The unfortunate aspect is that this manner of gameplay leaves out the casual gamer. Players who play 10 hours or less a week (and for some, even THAT is a lot) don't advance as fast, don't see as much, and certainly don't get involved in the guild/clan-style gameplay. As well, "raids" of this sort require much more than casual time: there's the organizational steps, meeting up at some point to head in, executing the raid, and then recovering from the consequences (distributing loot, recovering bodies, retrieving items).

The problem designers have is that they have to balance gameplay between two groups: those that schedule their lives around the game, because they are in a guild or otherwise have specific times they wish to play, and those who play when they can spare the time. There are a great many more of the latter than the former, and the aspect of a game which can be played almost entirely single-player except for specific dungeons/quests is much more appealing to those who don't know when the next time they log in will be.

Instancing

Somewhat related to the grouping/single player dichotomy is instancing, in which groups of players upon entering a mission or dungeon, are transported to a separate, newly created version of the event that only they can participate in. Some of the developers didn't like this one: they feel that it detracts from the idea of being in a persistent world, where one can encounter other players at any given time.

On the positive side, Instancing is a godsend to casual gamers. In older games, there were monsters whose defeat was required for an item creation or storyline quest, whose respawn times were set to a matter of days. Whole guilds would set up camping rotations on the known spawn points, trying to Even in later games like FFXI, some of these monsters were continually camped by players trying to sell the dropped items. Actually reaching the monster, for a player on limited gameplay time, was near-impossible. In Asheron's Call 2, in order to attempt to help with the trouble caused by groups colliding (and killing each other, in PvP servers), the designers actually started making dungeons which included 2-3 branches of "identical" endings, each of which held the spawn monster.

Instancing solves all these problems, and eliminates the problem of waiting for a monster to spawn. To the casual gamer, who can't spend the time camping out on a spawn point, this is a godsend. Does it mean that they may not encounter others in a dungeon? Yes, but it eliminates a frustration point, that of gamers finding their dungeon completely full and hunted out, or finding that their monster necessary for the quest hasn't spawned yet.

Do developers realize the casual gamer exists?

On the whole, the developer comments were something casual gamers should be frightened of. With one exception, the newer games like World of Warcraft and City of Heroes, and their concepts, were not well-received by these developers. And that's a shame, because these two games have allowed more gamers who never would have had the time to play Everquest or FFXI or other games that were designed to appeal to the "hard-core" MMORPG types, to get into and enjoy an amalgam of online-with-others and group play.

I fervently hope that the developers take another look at these concepts, and realize that not every gamer can devote 30+ hours a week to playing their MMO.

Got Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at) Glideunderground.com!
Alternatively, post 'em right here for everyone to see!

Weekly Musings #26: MMO's and the Casual Gamer


Added:  Monday, January 10, 2005
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

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