Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Players are the legacy

MMOs rise and fall, in what Raph Koster describes as a "classic market acceptance diffusion model". More and more people buy it until it peaks and then numbers tail off in a parabolic curve.

Additionally these curves overlap with and interact with each other: the Rift players came from somewhere after all, mostly other games. As a guild leader with close to 100 members I usually ask what people have played before, there's only a couple for whom Rift is their first MMO.

One thing that happens as a result of this pattern is that the earlier games bequeath players to the newer ones in a pattern that is quite facinating. Because not only do these games bequeath players but they bequeath them having trained their expectations and playstyles first.

Let's have a look at this evolution.

In the beginning there were muds. Muds predate the internet going back to the days when most of the people able to play them had access to them because they were academics or in some branch of the scientific or military professions that demanded high IQ. Therefore early muds were designed by and for ferociously, abnormally, intelligent people. They also weren't commercial.

Richard Bartle describes MUD1's early playerbase thus:

"We didn't playtest or listen to playtesters; we decided what it was we wanted and programmed it. We were doing this because of what we wanted to say, not because of what people wanted to hear. We let people play the latest version, but it was more testing than playtesting (i.e., did it crash/hang?)."


Everquest came about, in the words of Scott Jennings, because some "MUD players who wanted to make a MUD in 3D."

So the inheritance EQ got was these ferociously clever MUD players, hence a lot of the gameplay is punishing so as to challenge them, many of people's favourite stories relate to borderline exploits, or as it's proudly called "creative use of game mechanics". The game rewarded the clever.

It also rewarded the social. Many bosses required huge raids of up to 100 people. This is also a result of inheriting a player base from MUDs and its more social variants such as MUSHes. The game was designed so that it suited the strengths of the player base it inherited.

WoW was a natural progression to the growing popularity of the genre. What WoW did is it took the MMO gameplay but said you don't have to be clever or social to succeed (but it helps). WoW achieved a perfect storm in 2004-5, attracting the ambitious and talented old school players who wanted to export their superb playing and organisational skills to a new challenge while also drawing in people who, frankly, would not have been welcome in regular static EQ groups where a noob who keeps making mistakes would cost everyone exp.

For a while WoW was perceived as the best game for a number of different playstyles:

- if you were a hardcore raider WoW was the big challenge, the Great White Whale of MMOs. And the game did and still does put together very entertaining raid challenges.

- if you were a killer WoW had lots of opportunities to murder the innocent with its huge population of newbies and its pvp servers.

- if you were a socialiser you followed your friends to WoW where you met lots of newbies you could help.

- if you were new there were veteran players offering a lot to enhance your game experience. They would form instance groups and raid guilds for you to jump into. They would explain the game mechanics in chat channels or give you items to help you find your feet. There were awesome fight 4 at once pvp gods to aspire to.

Now a lot of these behaviours stemmed directly from MUD playstyles via EQ and other early MMOs. Games that had taught players to be social, to be organised and how to prey upon others in interesting ways.

Since 2004-5 WoW has evolved considerably. In order to get bums on seats WoW has designed in features that make the game more appealing to freeloaders and people who don't pull their weight. For example people who were too lazy to bother finding 4 people to do an instance with no longer have to spam chat channels with "LFG Maraudon". I wrote about consumer players like this in 2009. Since then the game has been designed to benefit them to the detriment of people who enjoyed arranging content for others.

They've actually gone a little too far with this and it's turned round to bite them in interesting ways.

One thing that is happening is that few players want to tank pugs. It's actually miles easier and more relaxed to turn up as dps so the game is full of people who are playing the tanking classes but who are only willing to dps.

Another thing that's happening is that 25 man raid guilds are not being formed. The ones that already exist keep going until they run out of recruits but no one in his right mind would make a new one. This is because, for similar reward, you can pick the ten best players you know or you can pick the ten best players you know plus 15 half-arsed slackers. And the reason there's so many half-arsed slackers? Because the game encourages people who don't want to particularly try. And people who simply aren't very bright.

What this means for new MMOs over the next few years is that the majority of their players will be bequeathed to them by WoW having been trained to put in the minimum. This is why in Rift we're seeing so many "dps only" players in a game where every class is a hybrid and limiting yourself to just being dps really hurts your chance to group.

There are 6 tank souls, 4 healers (5 if we count Bard), 2 support souls (not including Bard) and 20 dps souls. A 5 man Expert group usually consists of a tank, a healer, an off-healer and 2 dps/support. So if everyone were to pick one soul and say I'm only doing that an even distribution would support 2.5 Expert groups per 32 players. That's 12 players in groups out of 32 players waiting for groups.

In practice that doesn't happen since any smart Rogue has a Bard offspec and any smart Mage has a Chloro offspec. Because if you don't you will keep getting frustrated in your attempts to run content. And they use the same gear anyway so gear is a non-issue.

If you are a Rogue without a Bard or tanking spec not only will you not be able to join most groups ("full on dps, sorry") but if someone leaves during the run your group is more likely to collapse halfway through.

It also sends something of a signal to old school players. If you can only dps and haven't twigged that for virtually no effort you could make yourself much more effective you're probably not that bright. And you're probably not that worth grouping with. There are exceptions of course, perfectly intelligent people who take long waits for groups as the price of playing their preference but even that indicates you're not of the "achiever" Bartle type. And achievers make the best team-mates.

This ties in with another aspect which I think will be very interesting - the LFD tool which Trion is developing. The player base is expecting, based on developer comments, a single server automated LFD tool broadly similar to the WoW one. Having inherited players used to this convenience it's not really practical to try to wean them back to social methods of group-building.

But I don't think they will copy WoW's fixed tank + healer + 3 dps setup. It just won't work in Rift as almost all gear-appropriate Expert groups run with 2 healers.

If they design a LFD tool where you can specify the roles you want I'm thinking I'll make groups with 2 tanks and 3 healers. Naturally once they join we'll ask a couple to dps, that shouldn't be a problem as nearly everyone who can tank or heal at endgame can also dps. My thinking is that by eliminating the "dps only" players you will get much better groups. The players that can do both are simply better players than the players who can only do one.

The way I think it will pan out is the achievement oriented players will use LFD to filter out ALL dps only players so they can use the automated tool to build groups of like-minded players.

So that could make Rift a really interesting MMO social experiment as achiever players test ways to eliminate opportunities for underachievers to group with them in ways that WoW doesn't allow. Assuming Trion's LFD tool allows us to contruct the groups we queue for.

So what will the legacy of Rift be to future MMOs? I'm hoping, and it depends very much on design decisions, that Rift will leave a more skilful legacy than it inherited. I think they are very aware of these issues and are trying to gently steer the players they've inherited towards a different playstyle than the one WotLK taught them.

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