26 February, 2014
I did a phone interview recently where I discussed ideas on how to improve random grouping. What I'm calling "random grouping" is perhaps best known from WoW's Dungeon Finder (Looking for Dungeon or LFD) and Raid Finder (Looking for Raid or LFR) systems, where you indicate you want to run a dungeon and you are randomly matched up with other people. I share the common lament that random grouping systems don't help players form social bonds within the game even if they would like to do so.
So, let me put my designer hat on and describe a system to allow for more socialization opportunities.
Why socialization matters
Even though MMOs are multiplayer, people tend to be wary of socialization. The whispered horror stories of "forced grouping" in older games have spooked people. Everyone has to pretend they are so busy today (although not so busy that they have to give up MMOs) to the point where making a social connection in a game is too onerous.
But, from a design point of view socialization is very desirable in an MMO. Players becoming part of the social fabric of the game become important touchstones for other players. Friendships forged in a game can improve the player's life, as well as give them additional ties to the game. Especially for an older game, retention starts to become very important as the "newbie hose" slows down and fewer people replace those that leave the game. Social features can also encourage a returning player to stay with the game longer if they are able to make new connections within the game.
The problems with random grouping
Random grouping is added to the game as a way for people to see additional, group-required content within the game. Players who did not have existing friends or who did not build connections in the game while gaining levels have a hard time getting into dungeons. Waiting around for a pick-up group (PUG) to decide to do a dungeon can eat precious limited gaming time. Random grouping systems allow a player to queue up and do a dungeon conveniently. Of course, once you add a convenience like this to a game then the majority will rely on that system instead of other, less convenience methods.
Random grouping tends not to encourage socialization. The first problem is that there is little reason to invest in a long-term relationship with other random group members. Dungeon finder systems are designed to have a large pool of players available to pull from to reduce waiting times. But, this means that it pulls from a pool spread out across multiple servers and there's a very slim chance you'll ever meet the other people again if the only way to interact is via another encounter in the random grouping systems. The other problem is that the type of person who is interested in random grouping but who does not have friends to group with is probably mostly concerned with acquiring rewards. And, in a heavily achievement-focused game, the goal is to acquire those rewards with maximum efficiency. A focus on efficiency means that pleasantries like socialization are impediments rather than desired outcomes. This also causes problems if people don't speak up because they don't understand some mechanic necessary for a fight.
The last major problem is that dungeon content usually places pressure on players. One person making a mistake is likely to cause problems for everyone, probably a group wipe. This leads to people only seeing others as obstacles rather than as trusted group members. Most social-minded player are going to want to focus on performance than on socialization for fear of harming everyone else's experience if they should make a mistake.
Goals of a new system
So, let's assume we want to allow people to socialize with random group members more for the obvious benefits. What are our assumptions and goals?
The main assumption is that we don't want to radically change dungeon and raid content just for this system. Smart MMO designers use data to create content that people enjoy, so trying to add yet another factor on top of that will introduce more complications. If the current content is engaging enough for players to want to play, we probably don't want to tinker with it that much.
Let's list out some goals for our system to increase socialization.
- The system should not "force" people to participate in it. Although, we may encourage people to give it a try.
- People should be able to find and keep track of other people they enjoyed grouping with.
- We want to improve overall behavior in the random groups as well as allowing friendships to blossom.
- In a generally achiever-focused game, we want to give some sort of reward, but we want to avoid people exploiting the system to make it an efficient way to farm.
- Socialization should be able to happen outside of the context of the random grouping. People may want to focus more on performance in the group and socialize later.
That looks like a sufficient list of goals for now. So, what kind of system would work?
Inspiration from other games
Although I'm not a huge fan, I've paid attention to social games and mobile games. Social games in particular encouraged interaction, although that was mostly intended to get people to tell others about the game to increase the number of players. Some of the designs were based on sound foundations. One example is "gifting", where you get a reward that you personally cannot use. You are encouraged to give it to someone else. Usually this takes the form of a present you cannot open yourself. You don't have to give this item out, but if you do then someone else may give you a gift as well; you are encouraged to use it not waste it.
This system works within the concept of reciprocity. When someone gives us a gift or does us a favor, we feel compelled to respond in kind. It's a way humans have learned to cooperate and build stronger bonds. Hmm, that sounds useful!
So, how can we use this concept of gifting in a random group?
Let me spec out a design summary for a system that uses gifting. I'll throw out a few numbers here, but of course these might need to be adjusted through playtesting and observation.
My proposed system is that you let people give rewards to other people after a dungeon has ended. A dungeon will usually end in one of two scenarios: either finishing the last boss, or when someone leaves the group after a wipe. In these two cases, we want to give people a way to reward others who were helpful to the group. So, the system will have a quick pop up when the end of a dungeon is detected, and you can optionally give one other player a "pip". The only person who knows who you gave a pip to is the person who received the pip. As you receive pips you get rewards. The rewards you get depend on a few factors: if the player has pipped you before and if the dungeon was successful or not.
The restriction on pipping the same person repeatedly is a first step in addressing exploits. We want to avoid situations where two friends or guildmates who queue up together just pip each other for an extra reward. The goal is to have people give rewards to people who are not already in their social circles. We might further restrict it so you can' give pips to existing friends, guildmates, or people you were in a group with when you queued up.
The reward would be small for a successful completion. Anyone who gets a pip might get a temporary buff. Something nice, but not overpowering. Examples: a 5% bonus to experience gain for 2 hours, or a small faction bonus related to the dungeon. If the only person who pips you has pipped you before, you might on get 25% of the full reward.
If the dungeon is unsuccessful, then we give a bigger reward because we want to reward people who help others in the group. Obviously the reward would not be larger than the reward for completing the dungeon, otherwise it would lead to farming via intentional failure and that would be undesirable. Let's say a successful dungeon gives 10 loot badges; after a failed run you get 1 badge per pip from someone who has never pipped you before. You can only earn a maximum of 2/3rds the typical reward from failure before you succeed again, so up to 6 in this case. However, these badges would count against future rewards from the dungeon, so if you got 4 badges from pips you would only get 6 badges the next time you successfully complete a dungeon run. Note that if you are the person who leaves the group and causes the failure, you cannot give or receive any pips.
We want people to pick out people they enjoyed playing with, and to reward those people who put in more effort. The person who explained encounters instead of just rushing in and wiping should be rewarded!
Dungeon Friend List
Anyone you pip is put on a personal list. When you queue up for the dungeon finder, you the system tries to match you up with people you have pipped before. This means people that you will be grouped more often with people you like, and with the people they like. This improves your experience by grouping you with good people, but also lets you "run into" those good people more often, leading to more opportunities for social interaction. The game would alert you when you are grouped with someone you pipped before, so that you recognize that the player is someone you enjoyed playing with before and giving something to talk about. This also has a side effect of reducing some abuse, as you'll be more likely to be with people you've pipped before, and they'll get diminished rewards if you simply pip them again.
If two players pip each other, then they get added to a supplemental friends list. This works like your normal friends list: you can see if the person is logged in, etc. But, this gives you a way to reach out to someone you grouped with before when not in the dungeon worrying about performance. You might be sitting around in a city and take a look at your dungeon friends list and find someone to chat with when you aren't under pressure. This could lead to opportunities to make connections, plan new dungeon runs, recruit them into guilds, and other positive social interaction.
Pitfalls and problems
This is just an initial system, inspired by a phone call. There are likely problems I haven't anticipated. But, here are a few things I would be wary of as the system develops.
One might suggest eliminating rewards and give achievements or some score. The problem is that people could turn that into another "gearscore" situation, where people expect you to have a certain minimum "pip score" otherwise they'll just vote to kick you. This makes it harder for new people to get started in random grouping.
I'd also recommend avoiding "negative" pips. The first problem is that griefers could use this as a tool to cause pain. Another issue is that we want to improve behavior, and negative reputation tends to lead to negative behavior as people try to get retribution. And drastically bad behavior should be handled by customer service. And really, we want to avoid the abuses of reputation systems as much as possible.
It might also be worth restricting how often someone can give a pip. That way people an avoid awkward situations where someone demands a pip. "Sorry, I already gave a pip today" is a little white lie that can defuse a situation.
The last problem is farming. I could see a situation where someone only needing 1 badge for a reward might join a group and try to secretly sabotage it in order to get someone to leave and hope to get a pip. I suspect this might be simply too difficult to accomplish, and we have to accept we can't fix every exploit, but it is something to pay attention to.
Making friends randomly
I think this system would help improve the attitude in random grouping situations. It gives people some incentive for good behavior that goes above and beyond the minimum required to complete a dungeon. There are some risks, but overall I think this system would have minimal negative impact on the experience, and lead to some better experiences.
What do you think? Do you think this system would help random grouping? What is your suggestion to improve this system, or random grouping in general?