Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

22 February, 2011

Changing social conventions
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 2:26 PM

I played the RIFT open beta in the last week. My twitteresque review: “Nice game, pretty, good explorer hooks; not different enough to purchase.” But, that’s not the reason for my posting. I found their concept of “public groups” to be fascinating and wanted to take a closer look at that design decision.

What are public groups?

I only really participated in the open (aka “marketing”) beta, so I’m hardly an expert on RIFT. From my limited point of view, the public groups means that unless specified otherwise, people interested in joining your party can do so without a formal invitation. By default, everyone was running around as a public party of 1 person. To join another person, you simply had to click a button on their character portrait when you had them selected. Joining another individual made them the default leader of the party. The goal here was to make it easier to get into a group.

During the rift events, there was even a prominent button on the UI to allow you to join (one of) the groups fighting the rift. Note that you can also set your party to private if you didn’t want strangers to join you.

Contra social conventions

I had an interesting discussion with a good friend of mine who is an old-school MMO player. He’s played with me in quite a number of MMOs now, but he’s the type that tend to prefer to doggedly solo content rather than group with others, except to join his friends in running content. I explained about how the public group system worked, and he said it sounded terrible. He said he’d much prefer people ask him to join.

Of course, he’s right, it would be better if people would ask to join a group. But, let’s face it, people don’t in current games. I’m sure we’ve all been in an MMO chasing after some quest monster when you see someone else nearby. What’s your first reaction? Sadly, mine is to try to snag the monster first because taking time to ask to join a group will likely mean the other person will just snag the monster instead. I’d prefer not to wait around while the quest monster respawns and try to grab it before some other person walks over the horizon and shoots it from afar. The alternative is to have the quest monsters spawn in rapid succession, leading to difficulties in getting away after you do complete that item on your checklist.

How social mores have changed online

Back in the bad old days of the internet, we had this thing called netiquette, a portmanteau of the words “net” and “etiquette”. As you can probably see from the antiquated site behind that link, it’s a bit of an “old fashioned” concept. But, I think it’s still applicable and we even referenced it in the Meridian 59 Rules of Play.

But things change. As I’ve said before, there is some logical overhead in coordinating with other players. And, most people have demonstrated that they’d rather not have to bother with other “idiots” or “morons & slackers” or whatever insulting name is preferred these days. This has lead to a rise of incivility, where people (including myself) make the assumption that other players are competition for rare resources. Even two people who might otherwise be willing to work together assume the other is “the enemy”. It’s like a pseudo-prisoner’s dilemma where your options are to stop and cooperate or gank the quest monster; unfortunately, if both people choose to gank both people don’t lose big, which is why the winning strategy continues to be to try to gank the quest monster.

My friend said that he’d almost certainly drop out of a group that someone joined into. I told him that’d be fine, as he was fiddling with the UI setting I’d be grabbing more quest monsters out from under him. :)


So, the solution in RIFT is pretty interesting: allow people to just join with each other. No asking, no hesitating, just click on the button as the other person rushes toward the quest mob and you’re in the same party sharing the kill count. But, it’s not all sunshine and roses, right?

The first problem is that it can violate some people’s expectations of how cooperation should work. My friend was not fond of the idea of others just grouping with him. I can definitely see his point, as grouping tends to put certain obligations on people (or at least they feel they have those obligations). If you’re a healer, for example, you might feel an obligation to keep your fellows alive and might worry about being called mean names if you can’t. Having random people just join up with you can cause some stress.

The second problem is that it seemed to cheapen the group experience. I often found myself in groups where even rudimentary communication like “heya” or even the “gogogo” shouts reported about WoW’s dungeon finder were absent. People would often just leave a group for no good reason. There was also little reason to cooperate beyond an event like a rift invasion. I often saw people just scatter to different areas after an event, chasing down their own quests without asking if anyone wanted any help. I found myself just dropping a group quickly, mostly to make sure I was available for public grouping when doing my next quest.

Finally, the consequences weren’t clear. If I join with someone in a public group, am I hurting their xp? (In RIFT, I’ve read that xp wasn’t split at all and groups actually got a bonus, for what it’s worth.) If xp is split evenly in some other game, it might be annoying if someone who can’t or won’t carry their weight joins with me. Even if there is a bonus, it might not compensate for someone who stupidly rushes forward and aggros too many monsters. Again, social obligation might make me try to help that foolish person and end up inconveniencing me with a penalty for dying I wouldn’t have incurred otherwise. At the very least, quests requiring me to collect items mean that I’m still competing for ground spawns or might have to stick around and grind out things a lot longer than I might need to if the drops just aren’t coming for the other guy.

Grouping could still be easier

As I have written before, I think game designers can do a lot more to facilitate and encourage grouping. Ultimately, I think the formal group mechanic is outdated, even as loosely defined as in RIFT. Having the ability to group up with specific people is nice for tracking their locations and having a shared chat channel, but I don’t see why having a formal group is necessary for things like sharing quest mobs. If I come along and contribute to a fight, there’s no reason not to allow me some benefit without taking away from the original person. If I need to kill foozles and someone else is already killing foozles, healing allies or combating foozles should get us both credit. Likewise, experience points or other forms of rewards shouldn’t be “split”. Give equal shares to everyone who participates, xp and loot; we already see games heading in this direction with token/badge drops that can be turned in for rewards.

Unfortunately, it seems a lot of design simply mimics other games without really considering the core reason for why the mechanics exist. So, while I applaud open groups as a way to allow people to work together, I see it as treating the symptom rather than the problem. In addressing the problem of people not wanting to take the time to form formal groups, the developers are ignoring some of the underlying mechanics that stand in the way of other people working together.

What do you think? Do you like RIFT‘s open grouping system? Or do you find it intrusive? What solutions could address the problems of players not working together even though it is in their best interests?

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  1. I find that idea horrifying. I must be very much like that friend you mention.

    On the other hand, what I did like were the group-like things in the Warhammer MMO… don’t know what they called them. Essentially you automatically joined a group when you entered a specific zone on the map, and the group consisted of all people in the zone. At least one of the goals in the zone can only be achieved cooperatively, so grouping makes sense.

    Comment by unwesen — 24 February, 2011 @ 4:16 AM

  2. ‘Oh god a stranger whatdoIdowhatdoIdo?’

    I’d find it stressful. I do not enjoy the experience of playing with random strangers; that doesn’t mean I won’t, if there’s someone else I know in the party, and saying ‘hi’, ‘hello’, or ‘hey, I see you’re an [insert healer class here] – want to help us out?’ goes a long way towards making someone less of a stranger, in my mind.
    It’s part of why I stay far, far away from games like TF2. Anyone random joining in without saying a word or, worse, joining the opposing team and instantly sending insults my way? That is why I’ve only ever played one match. Competition or cooperation with strangers, or people who refuse to do anything that would make them less of a stranger, is just stressful.

    I’m like your friend. I like being asked to join, or asking if I can join. Random invites out of nowhere, party or guild, get rejected, and THEN I start talking to the sender.
    That said, though ‘netiquette’ is an outdated term, quite a lot of people go ‘do you mind if I party with you?’ before throwing invites your way. RIFT might make it easier to ignore politeness, and the kind of people who throw invites around without asking are probably still going to do that, but the kind of people who ask first? They’re probably still going to ask.
    At first, anyway.

    Comment by Rebecca — 24 February, 2011 @ 5:42 AM

  3. I think open grouping seems to be a solution to the problem of MMOs being eminently soloable, and that these days you generally don’t need other people in order to be able to level your character.

    Don’t mistake it for me calling for a return to the group-dependant days of EverQuest, but I think developers need to try to think of ways to make it so that i) players are at an advantage when working together (other than simply being able to overpower mobs), and ii) players actually want to work together like that. I think there are untried options for the first part, but getting players to want to play together is quite probably out of the developer’s hands: to want to play with someone is generally a problem whose solution domain lies outside of the mechanics of the game, it’s actually a ‘community’ issue.

    Comment by Melmoth — 24 February, 2011 @ 9:46 AM

  4. I do understand the concerns but I do have just 2 comments.

    1. This is not new. Warhammer had open groups, especially for the Public Quests. The grouping worked almost exactly the same way as it does in Rift.

    2. You can turn this feature off. If public grouping is not for you, you can change yourself or your group to private. It’s easily found by r-clicking your portrait and changing your group settings. Making your group private means only people you invite can join you.

    Comment by JdJdJd — 24 February, 2011 @ 10:33 AM

  5. Regarding the effect of game mechanics on grouping, I remember when starting out in City of Heroes I’d frequently set my “Looking for Group” flag, join up with groups if an invite came (often without a /tell, if you had the flag set), you’d see what mission had been selected and pile on in. Mind you, at the time about the only thing to do was instanced missions that scaled to the group size, everyone in the group automatically got any rewards (I don’t think the person who actually had the mission got anything special), and so long as you had travel powers it didn’t take long to get anywhere to team up, so the coordination overhead was low. Going over to WoW, early on I was doing some general questing, I saw someone else from the guild, chucked an invitation, and it then took about ten minutes of figuring out what quests we were both doing to pick a common objective, which we promptly overpowered anyway as it was eminently soloable, and the coordination overhead was much more apparent with little benefit. Not sure if it’s the game mechanics or generally getting older and grumpier, but I’ve never gone out looking for random groups like in early CoH since.

    Warhammer Online has a group mechanism that sounds a lot like Rift, open parties as a default, with a window listing any open parties, how far away they are, and whether they’re in PvP or PvE. Mostly useful in Public Quests, and also when there’s a big old RvR rumble and you want to tag along with the zerg, I found it tends to work well enough, groups forming and breaking apart quite fluidly. Like you say, though, it’s a bit of a band-aid, I’d certainly prefer less formal group-focused reward/incentive scheme.

    Comment by Zoso — 24 February, 2011 @ 10:44 AM

  6. I’m in the “why do I need to formally join a group?” camp. Just let me share credit when I cooperate with somebody. And go ahead and show me the health bars of the nearest ~5 players so I can see who needs healing or whatever. If you let nearby folks cooperate but remove all of the formal commitment then that could fix the “oh great, now I have an obligation to these people” problem.

    Comment by Vargen — 24 February, 2011 @ 12:00 PM

  7. I love to solo. I normally don’t like grouping at all, but the way groups work in Rift are just great. If you’re a soloer, haven’t played Rift, and don’t like what you’ve HEARD about Rift’s grouping mechanics, play Rift. If I had more free time, if I had any free time, I would have preordered and subscribed.

    Comment by Morgan — 24 February, 2011 @ 2:55 PM

  8. Star Trek Online and Champions Online both have interesting experiments with this. Big events in CO maps require no teaming; everyone contributes to it’s goals and earns it’s rewards. STO will auto-team people entering particular instances. These auto-teams don’t often tend to last longer than the instance and often are quite silent in chat (as you noticed in Rift), but do add a feeling of camaraderie in the vasty loneliness of space.

    I’m looking forward to Guild Wars 2′s event chains and wondering if they handle this topic as well as they sound like they might…

    Comment by Max Battcher — 24 February, 2011 @ 5:03 PM

  9. Rift actually does a neat thing with the monster-snagging issue. If it’s Kill 10 Foozles, then you need to kill your own Foozles. But if it’s ‘Click this item on that big named creature and watch a cinematic’ then if you’re nearby and have that quest, it updates for you too! So there are no long queues of people waiting to throw the magic spear at the magic dragon. Two or three people get there, one chucks the spear, everyone moves on with life. It’s nice.

    Comment by Aaron — 26 February, 2011 @ 12:55 AM

  10. Hmm, a couple more thoughts:

    1. I don’t mind invites being fired at me without people talking to me. Most of the time, the context is obvious: I’m about to engange some quest mob, someone fires an invite at me, they want to join in. You can chat whilst in the group.

      I do mind random invites from people who are nowhere near me. They get rejected, and I ignore the people even when they whisper me afterwards. Most of the time it’s a noob wanting someone else to do the work. If that’s what someone wants, they better ask politely.

    2. The term ‘netiquette’ is outdated? God I’m old…
    3. @Vargen: that’s close to what I saw in Warhammer, and I quite liked. I wouldn’t want to be forced to join a formal group, though… I’d consider that a form of harrassment.
    4. I consider grouping for anything other than instances a broken gameplay mechanic, despite what I said earlier. It essentially turns fun into work: you can’t decide what to do when you want to do it any longer, but have to go through the hassle of coordinating with other players.

      The sad thing when I say that is that I love cooperative gameplay. I just don’t want to be coerced to play with a bad group.

      So anything that requires a group in a game should IMO

      • Level with you, so that scheduling the group content in your solo gameplay is not a burden. LotRO’s skirmishes seem like a good start.
      • Level with your group, so it’s always challenging, regardless of when you play it. LotRO’s skirmishes again work somewhat like that. If you offer reward tokens instead of loot, you rewards can easily be levelled with you, too.
      • Be independent of your solo advancement, much like battleground (rewards) vs. raid (rewards) in WoW. In general I think multiple avenues of advancements (crafting, group PvP, solo PvP, group PvE, solo PvE, etc.) should be as much independent of each other as possible.

      If you can’t guarantee these things, grouping really is only for those people who are able or willing to schedule their life around a game, to a lesser or greater degree. To me, that seems to run counter to the idea that games should be fun.

    Comment by unwesen — 26 February, 2011 @ 7:39 AM

  11. A lot of times today as I was running around and questing, I was throwing heals to random people I saw. Some of them apparently were doing the same quests as me (hardly surprising, we were in the same area for a reason) but I did get quite a few quest completions automatically. Don’t know if it was because of the heals or because being nearby when the objectives were completed by them, but it worked for both of us.

    There was no grouping at all, no buttons popping, nobody asking anything. It just happened. Turned a 10-minute quest (kill the 4 named goblins in the guardian forest that you have to spawn by putting out the fires) into a 2-minute one. I barely stopped moving from pointer to pointer.

    Comment by Julian — 26 February, 2011 @ 4:15 PM

  12. I can appreciate that it’s a bit rude just being able to join straight into a group with someone but I also think it’s necessary evil in today’s MMO. I think too many players now are conditioned not to group and lead a very solitary experience and that’s a real shame. I guess it stems from the simple concept that humans always take the easiest path possible and that means that soloing up the levels by oneself is almost always the most common thing because it’s a lot less hassle than finding a group.

    So yeah, I’m all for it :)

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 27 February, 2011 @ 12:07 PM

  13. @WFS “I think too many players now are conditioned not to group and lead a very solitary experience and that’s a real shame.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Problem is, the situation is a catch 22. I remember old EQ days when firing up the game meant that I would likely spend the next 15-30 minutes looking for a group to kill mobs in X zone or Y dungeon/zone. It was one of the first draws for me to Warcraft in that I didn’t have to wait to start killing mobs/gaining XP. I just quested a bit till I could get a group. Of course they then stripped out a world LFG channel and eventually replaced it with the DF system. I think the grouping pendulum has swung too far in the other direction at this point in that I can play the game pretty much right up to the line (pve content wise) and never actually talk to another human being. Not sure why that’s worth $15 a month when I can just buy Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect, etc. I find myself actually hungering for a smaller community where folks know each other and want to socialize but still has the streamlining and polish of Wow.

    Comment by Askander — 1 March, 2011 @ 12:30 PM

  14. You actually want to drop group immediately after the public event finishes. Otherwise, if you move to another area with an event, you won’t be able to join the group there — you’re already in a useless group with people spread all over.

    They need a “move to the largest nearby group” button. They do have the functionality to merge groups, but it’s not quite sufficient. I sometimes find myself dropping group and rejoining to get into a larger one, and sometimes I have to do that several times.

    Comment by Paul — 2 March, 2011 @ 6:50 AM

  15. “And, most people have demonstrated that they’d rather not have to bother with other “idiots” or “morons & slackers” or whatever insulting name is preferred these days.”

    Except they don’t. Warhammer showed very clearly how people would immediately choose to group when the cost / benefit pointed at grouping (RvR and public quests) and immediately switch back to solo questing when it didn’t.

    Games can easily make players group if they balance the cost / benefit that way.

    I think the problem with grouping in EQ was that there were a lot of negatives to grouping but the game made you do it anyway because the mobs were too dangerous to solo. However i think a lot of those negatives could be designed out.

    “Sadly, mine is to try to snag the monster first because taking time to ask to join a group will likely mean the other person will just snag the monster instead.”

    This is a prime example. I think designers who want to promote grouping should focus on reducing the costs of grouping as low as possible first. Each player in the group should get exactly the same exp as they’d get for a solo kill. Each player should get the quest item or quest update as appropriate. Each player should be able to loot the mob. If the mob has a 25% chance of dropping some item then each player in the group has a 25% chance.

    You want there to be no extra game cost to the player from grouping because as you mention there will always be a time and co-ordination cost.

    In that light i think Rift’s open group idea sounds like a good one except i think it should be off by default and your choice visible in some way when your character is clicked. Setting it to on would signal consent and save time.

    Once all the uneccessary costs to grouping are removed or reduced then you only need to increase the benefit a small amount i.e make the game more dangerous so you level faster in at least a twosome, and people would group a lot without thinking twice.

    Comment by tupodawg — 4 March, 2011 @ 1:48 AM

  16. Interesting post by Gordon over at We Fly Spitfires about the social conventions in RIFT:

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 April, 2011 @ 5:12 PM

  17. The importance of sharing

    [...] But, because of xp sharing rules like this we get some pretty definite (and to some convoluted) social conventions in online games regarding assistance and grouping in many [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 5 November, 2011 @ 7:24 PM

  18. A look at Guild Wars 2

    [...] a kill is a great design. I hope this trend takes root, and I suspect it will, as it started with RIFT's grouping system and GW2 took it one step further. My one complaint is that it does seem to remove the last little [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 19 November, 2012 @ 4:17 PM

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