22 February, 2011
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. :)
OMG FORCED GROUPING!
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?