Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

16 September, 2013

Frustrated while trying to play with friends
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 2:24 PM

My MMO poison of choice these days is Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO). It’s a great game and I love it a lot. These days, I mostly play with a few fixed, or “static”, groups; however, I have played some solo characters on other servers when the fancy strikes me. But, for the most part, if I play the game I’m playing a character that plays with others.

Sometimes, however, the strain one has to go through to play with friends makes you wonder if other MMO developers actually play. Let’s take a look at a recent frustration.

I love DDO, I really do….

I think DDO is the most fun MMO for my playstyle that is currently available. I love flexible characters, and once you understand the system you can make some amazing characters. For example, I really enjoyed my monk/rogue character, which I really enjoyed. The latest expansion revamped how the enhancement system works, making more like old-style WoW talent trees. While there are a few less-than-desirable changes, overall the trees allow for a lot more flexibility for characters, which has pleased me greatly.

But, sometimes the game makes it hard to love.

The importance of playing together

Now, I think group play is incredibly important for MMOs. Not that soloing should be abolished, but games should make sure that playing with others is a fun process without unnecessary hassle. Having things like quests where you have to fight for updates, or any situation where you are forced to “compete” with a friend when you don’t want to really hurts a game, in my personal and professional opinion.

As I said, I do most of my playing in two static groups. One group plays with just one main group of characters, and the other plays about 3 different groups on rotation, depending on our mood. This is how I enjoy DDO the most these days.

One thing to understand about DDO is that they use D&D levels; originally the level limit was 20, meaning that a 1 level difference was actually pretty huge. Even with the level cap being raised to 25 and more recently to 28, the levels are still very tightly packed together. Being off by one level has huge ramifications in a party.

The wonderful world of DDO experience

In order to get to my point, I have to explain how DDO experience points and levels work. First, every quest is rated based on its level which corresponds to character level. But, quests also have difficulty levels which affect the actual quest level: Normal (+0), Hard (+1), and Elite (+2). Now, if you play a harder difficulty your first time, you get a bonus to experience. In addition, if you play the harder difficulty first on multiple quests in a row, you get a not-insignificant “bravery bonus” to experience points. The trick is that everyone in the group has to be at the right level; everyone can only be at most 2 levels over the base experience level, otherwise you lose the bravery bonus.

Let me give an example. Let’s say there is a group of level 10 characters, and they can play level 8 quests on elite difficulty (+2) and and they will get the bravery bonus. But, what happens if someone gets to level 11 ahead of everyone else? Well, level 8 quests no longer give the bravery. So, the group loses the potential bravery bonus from running level 8 quests. If you’re running with a static group, advancing levels is not something you should do.

Now, you have to actually go “train” a level, so in practice it’s pretty easy to avoid getting too far ahead. Usually. Plus, you usually stop earning experience points at the point where you could gain two levels; so a level 10 character will hit the xp cap at one point shy of earning level 12. However, when the level cap was raised, the rules changed slightly for characters over level 20; given that you could earn experience for Epic Destinies (a form of alternate advancement over level 20), they removed the cap on experience for your normal levels. But, this has turn around to bite me on the rump.

Enter the reincarnation

Last post I talked about DDO’s reincarnation system. Although I mostly talked about true reincarnation (TR), you can also reincarnate your character as a way to respec the character. With the most recent expansion, the developers decided to give everyone a free reincarnation. Since there were a lot of massive changes to how characters work with the new enhancement trees, they wanted to allow everyone to respec to take advantage of the changes and to fix some potential bugs. Hooray! But, in order to reincarnate, you must train up any levels you can beforehand.

So, our group of level 21 characters were to take level 22 in order to be able to respec. Except….

600 experience points too far

Guess how much experience my level 22 character has? 1.350,599/1,350,000. That’s right, I’m 600 experience points into the next level! I did a lot of extra questing with this character, so I have a few hundred thousand more experience than other members of my party. But, unless I take that level I cannot reincarnate and adjust my character. But, if I take that level, I will be far out ahead of everyone else in my static group, and it will affect their ability to earn experience.

Of course, I did try to put in a support ticket to see if I could get my experience adjusted; after all, what harm is there in losing a bit of experience? But, sadly, I got the time honored “I cannot help thee with that,” of MMO customer service disappointment.

So, in the meantime, I shrug hope there’s no bug affecting my character from the recent expansion. I’ll wait for the rest of the group to earn up enough experience, then I’ll reincarnate when we finally take our next level. And, I lament the straightjacket of levels that put me in this odd situation in a game I otherwise love.

What about you? What group mechanics drive you crazy? Or, what strange situations have had you frustrated with a game?


  1. My biggest pet peeve of group dynamics in MMO’s is pretty much as you’ve noted: Experience limits. There’s just no way in a level based MMO to have a static group if any player/players spend any time in game when the others do not.

    For example, my wife and I. Back in the Vanilla WoW days, we tried to play together. But the problem was this: She’s very “casual”; and spends most of her time when not with me off doing oddball random things – generally, not progressing whatsoever.

    I, on the other hand, tend to progress fairly quickly. Not that I burn through content, but I’m very good at games in general and optimize everything even when I’m not paying attention to it. So, if I play *at all* without her, I very, very quickly outpace her. Even a one level difference in a game like WoW is very significant. This trivializes her, and reduces the fun for both of us. But I dislike playing multiple characters at the same time, it’s just not fun for me. And if I DO make an alternate character, because I can progress a LOT faster on my own, I end up experiencing all the content on my own first, then with her after, so we don’t get to experience everything for the first time together.

    Even if a group does play exclusively together, they’ll still tend to progress at slightly different rates and as you said, even a single level breaks things.

    This, incidentally, is where I feel the “love of endgame” thing comes into play. It’s not so much that so many players are interested in raiding or PVP, but rather once you hit level cap the difference between characters shrinks dramatically. Sure, one person may have gear a tier above another’s, or some such, but it’s a much more gradual scale and everyone is able to enjoy the same content, more or less.

    I feel this is irreparable. Level scaling in games like GW2 helps, but my experience there was that it definitely just wasn’t ideal.

    It’s far, far better in my opinion to have granular progression systems in MMO’s, where even new players are still fully capable after a small investment of time – generally speaking, extra progress opens more options for characters instead of directly more power. Eve and Darkfall are good examples of this, to some extent. It seems dev’s see the advantage of that in a PvP game (it’s extremely important there) but it has a lot to offer to a PvE-centric game too.

    Grouping is so often “encouraged” by content that requires groups, or effectively penalties while solo, but this is an ass-backwards approach that inherently locks players out of content while not making it any easier to group.

    MMO’s need to focus on making it easier for players to play together. Not easier to manage UI’s or formal/impromptu groups, but for players to actually play together without trivializing less progressed players.

    Comment by Derrick Whittet — 16 September, 2013 @ 8:16 PM

  2. My pet peeve is size limits. Quests/dungeons/raids/whatever are tailored to a specific size. Two+ doing normal quests annihilate everything, because they’re tuned for solo play. Quests asking for a group tend to ask for maximum group size or good luck.

    If you have a friend or two and want to work together you either mow through content or are forced to work with the dreaded PuG to reach a set size. Too easy content encourages boredom, while forced grouping tends to engender rage (you occasionally meet new, nice people, but all too frequently meet people you’d rather never see again). In automatic zone grouping or shared tagging I tend to see little communication – other players are effectively NPCs.

    Even more frustrating are limits. I’m in a WoW guild. I consider more than 5 of the players as my friends. I would love to level with many of these people at once, but if more than 5 join a group, we’re barred from quests and cannot participate in the exactly-5-warm-bodies-required dungeons.

    At max level you need more players than raid slots to accommodate sickness/vacation/social obligations/work/etc. On days when everyone shows up, you’ve got “too many” for the objective. 95% of all guild drama I’ve ever witnessed has been due to someone being player number 6, or 11, 26, etc.

    Oddly, I’m aware of one MMO (and I’m sure there have been others) that did this mostly right. City of Heroes scaled everything. One person and things are difficulty X. Two people and they’re somewhere above 2X (to account for synergies, split targets, focused fire, etc). 3 and somewhere above 3X. It did have (rather small) upper limits, so by no means was perfection.

    WoW has lately introduced something somewhat similar in Flex raiding, but it still takes 7 to 25 (and 7 are treated as 10). Also it’s a separate thing from “real” raids (10 or 25 in size). Personal opinion is that this should have replaced the old static size system. One raid fits all, bring as few or as many friends as you want.

    Comment by Sutekh — 17 September, 2013 @ 6:35 AM

  3. Wow…if you can’t get a support ticket filled, what possible hope is there for the rest of us lol.

    The biggest frustration to group play in all but a handful of MMO’s is not having quests update for the group. Having to wait for a mob to respawn multiple times, not having escort quests trigger for everyone in group, forcing us to kill ten rats – each. Things like that.

    Comment by HarbingerZero — 17 September, 2013 @ 10:07 AM

  4. I think it should also be pointed out the “bravery bonus” seems to be that mechanic dreaded by developers – the buff that becomes mandatory. You’re jumping through hoops to maintain the “bravery bonus” for your party because, painful as it may be, the hoop jumping is considered less painful than being without the buff.

    Comment by Sutekh — 17 September, 2013 @ 12:59 PM

  5. Derrick Whittet wrote:
    There’s just no way in a level based MMO to have a static group if any player/players spend any time in game when the others do not.

    Well, you can. A few games have the concept of side-kicking (raising lower level characters up) or mentoring (lowering higher level characters down) to match levels. Of course, the scaling isn’t always smooth so someone often gets the short end of the stick.

    I’d prefer to see a flattening of power curves, myself; as you say, advancement means more options rather than more raw power. I’d rather see a level 14 character able to adventure with a level 4 character just fine. In tabletop D&D, I’ve heard of groups that required all players to start at level 1; the exponential experience curve meant that by the time that level 14 character got to level 15, the level 4 character had probably advanced to level 12 or 13.

    But, MMO players seem to love their outsized power curves.

    Sutekh wrote:
    My pet peeve is size limits. Quests/dungeons/raids/whatever are tailored to a specific size.

    DDO in theory does have scaling. It’s a bit wonky, where in some quests it’s not meaningful, and in others people actually prefer to go in with a small group. But, I agree that limits cause a lot of aggravation when someone feels like the “odd person out”. I’ve been really lamenting the move toward 5 person groups down from even 6.

    HarbingerZero wrote:
    Wow…if you can’t get a support ticket filled, what possible hope is there for the rest of us lol.

    I tend not to throw my weight (such as it is) around. I could probably chase down a few contacts in Turbine and beat some heads, but leaning on some poor CS person clearing out the petition queue is just mean.

    Plus, once you start “cheating” a game starts to lose it’s interest for me. I’d rather approach the game as a player to retain the fun.

    Sutekh also wrote:
    I think it should also be pointed out the “bravery bonus” seems to be that mechanic dreaded by developers – the buff that becomes mandatory.

    Well, to be fair, the bravery bonus is less of an issue than other xp penalties. If I took level 23 while everyone else was 22, that means we’d either have to do quests that were a level harder, or take a small but constant xp penalty (-10%). The bravery bonus was a better way to illustrate the problem, I thought. The real issue is that, especially at the higher level and when you need a lot of experience to advance through your epic destinies, losing out on xp because you advanced when you didn’t want to kinda sucks.

    As I said, a lot of the time it’s not a problem since you can choose when to advance. It’s just this one case with the new expansion and the special rules for characters over level 20 that lead to my problem here.

    Comment by Psychochild — 17 September, 2013 @ 4:27 PM

  6. At the end of the day, current MMO design has made grouping more trouble than it’s worth. A few fun things of being in a group remain, but the value of a group is way past the point of diminishing returns. The constant pressure to eliminate the negative aspects of grouping has resulted in diminishing their value.

    I like to role play, and I don’t mean I pretend to actually be my character, I like to play a tactical role. But the trend is to homogenize character builds so that there is little or no dependencies between classes. When I hear a design lead promise that no one will ever have to wait find a player of a particular class, what I hear is that he’s building game mechanics for solo play. A group in that design only creates an aggregate of hit points and DPS and any one player is pretty much exchangeable for any other player.

    Reduce the value of groups, the value of the socialization between players required to build a group is diminished. The socialization element of an MMO drives a player’s personal investment in a virtual world. Time, attention, and affection are real in any world and, to me, provide much more of a reward that the item du jour could possibly deliver. The only real thing you can take from a game is a friend, Its sad to think that game designers have lost touch with that.

    Comment by Kern — 17 September, 2013 @ 9:14 PM

  7. Diablo 3 example. The system somewhat works to adjust quite large level differences if you are still leveling, but I experienced how it breaks down when someone just has way better gear. While you just die, your buddy barely takes any damage.

    The problem is that some games like D3 are all about progressing in gear/power. Most people like that, but I think this power creep is rather detrimental.

    Guild Wars 1 also had some “skill powercreep” (skills added later and more skill selection at your disposal made you more powerful) but weapons stayed the same for all three “chapters” and the Eye of the North expansion for several years. Guild Wars 2 also has a fairly stat- and level-even playing field with the exception of the special ascended gear. This way you can always play with friends and be useful.

    I think this is rather way to go than the endless +1 progression. I often think GW2 could have done away with levels entirely the way it nonstop levels players up and down depending on area.

    It will be interesting to see how future MMOs will deal with all kinds of progression and being able to play with “lower” level or worse equipped friends.

    Comment by Longasc — 20 September, 2013 @ 7:01 AM

  8. This is what hurts mmo’s in expansions. People who were at end game able to play with thier friends get seperated by playstyles. This is why I don’t play MMO’s much anymore. My friends and family all level at different paces and we just can’t ever seem to get on and play together without forcing someone to redo lower level content that is too easy and make everyone else feel totally useless as the overleveled party member blows through the content for them.

    I’d love to see some equalizing mechanic, that downranked the higher leveled characters when they grouped with those at lower levels, become standard in MMO’s

    Comment by sam — 3 October, 2013 @ 7:34 AM

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