Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

7 July, 2009

Punishing grouping
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:27 AM

The issue of grouping vs. soling has been going on for a while. The fashion has been to be a defiantly proud soloer ranting against the a faceless group that wants to force everyone to group up. But, recently, the group fans have struck back, describing the benefits of being in a group in an MMO. One of my first few posts on this blog was about how grouping isn’t evil.

So, let’s take a look at grouping and why it’s so painful in games.

Grouping: it’s less common than you think

One issue that’s skewing the discussion is that grouping really isn’t that common. The game-focused MUDs (LP-MUDs, DIKU, etc.) were mostly solo activities. The social text worlds (MOO, MUSH, etc.) encouraged a lot more collaboration between players, though, but you could often spend time by yourself if you wanted. Early MMOs really didn’t encourage a lot of grouping. In fact, Meridian 59 doesn’t even have a formal grouping mechanic because there are no experience points to divide up. It wasn’t until EQ came along that you saw strong encouragement to join a group, and even then soloing was possible with some classes in some situations.

The thing is, though, that the earlier games tended to have much smaller server populations. Except for UO, most games barely had more than a few hundred people on a server. So, it was easy enough to get to know people and ask for help in an area where you really needed it. As Wolfshead pointed out, though, grouping was a great way to meet people on a large server and form social bonds that would last a long time. For developers, this is important because social bonds will keep a person interested in a game longer than we can in most situations.

Needing others

One problem pointed out in the fights between soloers and groupers is that groupers need others to really play the game the way they want. Soloers can wander off and have fun on their own because, well, that’s what they like. Most games cater to that desire. This means the groupers are left without people to group with. They might hold their nose and race through a bunch of levels to get to the “real game” at the end where they can finally get together and play with others.

Some people just see no point in playing a game alone. As I said in my early post, if I wanted to play a game alone, I could pick from any number of quality single-player games that don’t charge a subscription. Some of the best experiences I had in text MUDs back in the day was meeting and talking with other people. Even though I mostly soloed, the game was small enough that I could meet people. In a larger game, people are running around completing quests, so it’s harder to make those same connections.

Not built for you

As I pointed out before, some games don’t really build content intended for people who like small groups. Content seems designed for a single person or a full group, without much in the middle. This kind of sucks for people who want to game as a couple. While mowing through solo content can be somewhat fun, it’d be nice to have some interesting challenges. Unfortunately, duos are often limited in what content they can tackle in a level-based MMO because superior numbers don’t really compensate for a lower level in some of the mechanics.

I think this is the core thrust of the grouper arguments: if the game is focused on soloers, then there’s no incentive to group. Even worse, grouping could actually be discouraged.

Punishing design

There are a lot of mechanics in MMOs that are there for no other reason than tradition. The problem with mindlessly cloning other games is that some design decisions don’t make sense as gameplay changes. Let me point out one specific example here: the experience split between people in a group. This means that if a group of 5 people kill a monster, they get only part of the experience a solo character would get.

This made some sense in a group-based game, because a group could theoretically kill monsters much faster as a group than they could alone (if they could even kill monsters alone). But, with games that focus more on solo gameplay, this is no longer the case. Five characters working together often cannot kill solo monsters five times as fast, because a solo character can kill them so fast. This means that grouping is actually counter-productive in some situations, especially at the early stages of the game. The only real advantage a group has is that the people can be a lot more sloppy and have others able to pick up the pieces. Not exactly good training for when players get to group-required content.

There’s also an issue with quest objects in the world. Sometimes you have to kill a monster many times to get one drop for everyone. DAoC showed the way fix this by allowing everyone to loot the quest item from a defeated monster. LotRO also allows multiple people to pick up some of the world quest items. But, there’s also some level of silliness when every person in a group has to individually “rescue” a certain person.

All these mechanics are on top of the normal costs to group: taking time to find a group, travel to a location, figure out who has to do which quest, etc. Added together, it’s a small wonder that grouping is seen with such disdain by so many people.

Fear of players succeeding

Unfortunately, it’s not just cloning game mechanics here. DAoC had a mechanic where experience for a kill was split between people even if not grouped; one of the most confusing things was when players didn’t want you to heal them because you’d “leech xp” from them. LotRO also goes out of its way to punish people who help each other. If a wandering passer by heals you or strikes your enemy, you’ll get less experience as a reward despite them getting nothing. On the other hand, a group in LotRO will actually gain more total xp for a monster than a soloer would.

Part of the design goal here is probably to prevent “twinking”, where a high level character comes along and helps out a low level character who isn’t in his group. This usually means that the lower level character is able to advance faster than others without a helper. (Oh, no, social interaction!) The conspiracy theorists in the audience will probably point out this is to keep people paying money longer.

Some solutions

So, what are some solutions? First of all, get rid of the “group xp split” mechanic. Let people group together and have fun with each other. Let people twink their friends and people they meet. We know by now that people will stick with a game longer if they have friends than if they have a longer “grind” in front of them.

Another interesting solution is Warhammer Online‘s “public quests”. For those that haven’t played that game, public quests were events that started on certain timers where everyone in an area was considered part of the quest and working together to accomplish goals without having to be in an explicit party. Unfortunately, these kind of fell apart if there were not enough people participating, and they really encouraged competition more than cooperation; your chance to win loot from the public quest was modified by how “well” you did (doing damage or healing).

Why not fix that concept and extend this concept to the whole world? Players are thrown into ad-hoc groups if they’re in the same area. This means full xp, money, and quest drops for all active participants in a fight so that people have a reason to want others around instead of viewing another player as competition for resources. People who enjoy playing together are encouraged to form social bonds, but without the explicit structure of a group as it is now known, there’s no need to “stick around” a bad situation just to not disappoint other party members. Finding a new group member is as easy as someone else wandering by.

I think there also needs to be a greater focus on how multiple players interact in the world. As much as I love LotRO’s Shire starting area, doing the running quests (pies and mail bags) are a chore. It especially sucks if one person fails for some reason and the other person has to wait for them to do the run again to catch up. Why not allow players to really cooperate? Grab one pie or mailbag, and let other group members run interference against and distract the NPCs that would ruin the quest for you. Or, if an NPC wants X of an item, only require that a group collaborating bring X total between them, instead of each person having to find X individually.

Yes, people will try to sleaze their way into groups to get stuff done quickly. In many cases, I don’t see this as a problem. But, if people are truly abusing such a system to run up and claim credit for a boss kill at the last moment, we can implement some restrictions such as having to have fought the boss for a certain amount of time. But, the focus should be on enhancing the group experience. And, it doesn’t have to take a way from the solo experience one bit.

What do you think? Would this bring back grouping to games without hurting soloers? Will it keep group-orientated people happy to be able to meet others? Would it keep soloers happy without making them feel “forced” to group?







56 Comments »

  1. I think you’re right, the smaller communities in text based games made a big difference in how social people were. I wonder if there’s any way to somehow throw people into smallish communities of that sort of size?

    One other thing I’ve noticed about gaming as a couple. As a couple, I tend to be way more resistant to joining groups or inviting random people than when I’m on my own. After all, we already have our own private group, plus whoever I am with might want to chat privately. So I’m not really sure that being couple-friendly would actually result in more sociable games.

    Comment by Spinks — 7 July, 2009 @ 5:11 AM

  2. “Why not fix that concept and extend this concept to the whole world? Players are thrown into ad-hoc groups if they’re in the same area. This means full xp, money, and quest drops for all active participants in a fight so that people have a reason to want others around instead of viewing another player as competition for resources.”

    I’d tweak that idea a little and base the ad-hoc groups not only on the area a character is in, but also whether they’ve e.g. (recently) engaged a mob that’s part of the quest (if the quest involves killing mobs, that is).

    On the face of it, you’d have the same openness. It’d prevent twinking to the degree that the twink has to hit a mob once in a while, so at least twinking needs active participation of both characters. But most importantly, nobody can get XP/loot while letting others do *all* of the work.

    My experience tells me that there are plenty of opportunists like that, and they aren’t generally liked. Pandering to them doesn’t seem like a good idea.

    Comment by unwesen — 7 July, 2009 @ 5:29 AM

  3. The question is… does someone else’s twinking really hurt your game experience? Back in EQ, the answer was sometimes “Yes” because the method of twinking and powerleveling involved monopolizing the spawns in an area, denying content to other players. If your exp and ability to play isn’t being hampered by someone else running in to get credit on a kill they didn’t really help with, then the only thing they are doing is denying themselves the experience of the content.

    Back to the original post, I think what you’ve got here is a great idea. More open design, encouraging people to play with other people without punishing them for doing so, and making it natural to do and not jumping through hoops.

    Comment by Jason — 7 July, 2009 @ 6:07 AM

  4. I’ve been multi-boxing WOW recently for fun. Multi-boxers will tell you that you skip collection quests when the objects drop from slayed mobs because you have to collect x per person and the mob only drops 1. It’s so silly and a huge reason why when players ask me to group up for those quests my answer is always NO. I don’t want to kill these dumb mobs enough times for everyone to get their 10 toes. Now that I’m multi-boxing the number of quests using this mechanic are very glaring and are a huge discouragement to grouping. I only do the ones that have a nice piece of gear at the level since I have to collect the items on 3 characters.

    It is game design that has propelled the number of solo players. There are people that would have soloed anyway as a style. However, the punishing design increased those numbers by encouraging players who want to level quickly and efficiently to the end-game, to also join the soloing masses. So when players whine about soloers, I’m like tell the developers to make it worth the effort to group and more players will. I grouped in WAR to do the PQs any and every time that I could because it was fun and productive. If developers aren’t going to make it worth my while to abandon my play style, I won’t/don’t. For players who wish we’d group more, they should speak up about the game design that has encouraged a whole batch of new solo players that wouldn’t naturally have soloed if it wasn’t a faster leveling method.

    Great post for providing some suggestions versus Solo players GTFO, which by the way won’t ever happen at this point. Players won’t change until the games change.

    Comment by Saylah — 7 July, 2009 @ 7:12 AM

  5. The problem with twinking is that it hurts the experience of people not twinking. As someone mentioned above in non-instanced areas a twinked character will often dominate an entire area preventing other people from enjoying content. The other issue is that twinked characters don’t often need to group. I picked up DAoC (again) several years after it first came out. I was really enjoying the game but that soon faded. The problem was that the majority of the server was multi-boxing or twinking rather than grouping. So it became very difficult to progress because I could never find people to party with.

    Now I believe that MMOs shouldn’t be about the progression as much as the social interaction and gameplay. If you design an MMO like that you can avoid the problem of twinking all together. Even in a progression based MMO I’m sure there are ways you could allow for twinking without harming gameplay.

    As for grouping overall I think another big problem with grouping nowadays is the risk. Grouping can often provide faster advancement but it also has the potential for much slower advancement. If you are minimizing your risks it’s often best to solo (and solo grind easy monsters for that matter).

    It’s also a social thing like you mentioned. If some people aren’t interested in grouping it spreads like an infection across the population. If I’m in an area and no one wants to group then I’ll start soloing. If someone then wants to come and group I’ll decline because I’m already busy doing some solo stuff and the spreading begins. Eventually people just give up ‘wasting time’ looking for groups.

    Comment by Logo — 7 July, 2009 @ 7:46 AM

  6. WoW has this sort of grouping concept in battlegrounds, where everybody who comes in is put into the raid. It works in its own way, but always has the same issues.

    But just being on the same chat channel and raid group does not mean that everybody knows what they are doing.

    It can be unsatisfying (for me at least) to be in the area for an event that grants you honor or experience for something you didn’t quite get involved with. You hate to show up and suddenly get the “quest done!” message and everybody runs off to the next objective while you are wondering what just happened.

    And then there are the guys on the raid channel who know what they are doing and what you should be doing and feel the need to tell you in all caps with that exasperated “you’re a bunch of idiots” tone. I’d like to avoid them outside of battlegrounds. Heck, I’d like to avoid them in battlegrounds, but you can only put so many people on your ignore list.

    In the end, even when I have been in such forced groups, like WoW BGs or WAR PQs, I don’t seem to develop any sort of bond with the other players. We all just run off and that is that.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t group, but I have friends I group with regularly for the most part. Otherwise my groups tend to be short groups of convenience, the “oh, we need the same objective, let’s just group and get it done quick then part ways” sort of thing.

    The only exception for me has been LOTRO where I seem to end up in great groups that last all evening and that are both effective and fun. I actually put people on my friends list from such groups. I just play LOTRO so infrequently that when I log back on those people are usually many levels ahead. But that is a different problem.

    Comment by wilhelm2451 — 7 July, 2009 @ 8:01 AM

  7. The thing is… at its core… grouping is a just game convention that really doesn’t mirror a real life analog that most players can relate to. It’s artificial. True, you might need to gather a half-dozen friends to go out and take down a mammoth with spears, but scoring a pound of ground beef is usually considered a solo activity.

    So I wonder how much of a person’s play style might be a result of how they approach a given MMO? Do they think of it as a GAME or as a game WORLD? For myself, it’s always seemed that the more “sandboxy” a game is, the less I’m inclined to seek out groups–except to meet specific goals.

    Comment by Grimjakk — 7 July, 2009 @ 10:25 AM

  8. Great notes on the situation here. I truly like the idea of extending public quests to all activities. That would make players less suspicious of each other, especially if by grouping they were not penalized.

    In any system you’ll find people trying to “game” it but I am a huge believer in players policing players to a degree. If someone is known to slink into boss kills and not help with the rest of a dungeon we tend to stop inviting them. That sort of thing works out well.

    I’ve also never had an issue with twinking. It got a bad name because in EQ1 high level players would monopolize lower level rare spawns. That has not been an option for years! It is funny though. You hit the nail on the head with borrowing design. Brad McQuaid said twinking is bad! It must be!

    Comment by Ferrel — 7 July, 2009 @ 11:17 AM

  9. The question of “Is twinking bad?” seem foolish. Clearly older existing players should be able to help new players, and clearly if they are then those assisted players have an advantage over non-helped players. The question should be “How can we control how much help they can offer and not ruin the game for players without any assistance?”. When one player in a hundred has a high level healer watching them, do you really want to change how healing impacts xp for all players just to control the twinking?

    Comment by Rik — 7 July, 2009 @ 11:06 PM

  10. I agree. Some grouping mechanics you may not have been aware of: Both Shadowband and Tabula Rasa had systems that allowed people to group w/o splitting xp. Tabula Rasa’s was nerfed between beta and release to reduce the number of people that would get full credit for a kill but still allowed up to 3 players (I think) to get full credit for a kill they all participated in. In shadowbane, at least for the period I played, this was the primary mode of play. Group together with as many of your guildmates as possible and go stake out a hunting ground to level in both for the experience, to socialize and for mutual protection.

    In the Tabula Rasa beta getting full credit for a partial kill created a tremendous atmosphere of cooperation and camaraderie which I have never seen equaled. It served to encourage people to assist each other in dangerous areas the only downside being there was no distribution of drops outside of a formal group so there was still contention regarding loot rights and who got credit for the kill.

    Comment by Max — 8 July, 2009 @ 11:58 AM

  11. To clarify my previous comment a little, I’ve got very little against twinking. I see a huge difference between a twink and someone using your effort to their advantage, though.

    In WoW, the most prominent example of this sort of behaviour would be someone waiting for you to clear low-level mobs so they can “steal” a unique mob, treasure chest, whatever.

    I can see “stealing” XP by standing around near someone engaging mobs to be similarly annoying – it doesn’t have to be. But given that it can easily be frowned upon, I would hesitate to introduce a game mechanic that more or less encourages it.

    Hence the proposed requirement that there needs to be some token participation in the activity that generates the XP – and preferrable the requirement should be for more than just a token participation.

    Comment by unwesen — 8 July, 2009 @ 2:17 PM

  12. I am totally with you on the duo issue. It really stinks that MMOs have virtually NOTHING for people who like to duo. Either you crush the solo content, or you suffer horribly in low level group content whose rewards are worthless.

    Regarding the twinking thing, I think there is one other aspect that is troublesome for designers. If you completely allow twinking, I think there is a legitimate fear that the amount of begging for powerleveling from higher level players will increase. I am a bit of a powergamer, and in every MMO I have played I tend to level very fast. Sometimes the only way I am able to shrug off the beggars is the fact that game mechanics actually make it IMPOSSIBLE for me to powerlevel them. If suddenly I could, I shudder to think how often I’d be begged for this kind of help.

    The problem is, people who ask for help rarely accept any version of an answer that is “well, actually I logged on to do some things that are fun and productive for MY character.” Since you are higher level, clearly you should just help the lower level “friend.” Even if you barely know them. It is some kind of twisted welfare state mentality.

    Other than that, I don’t have a big issue with twinking. As you note, it can be great for community and social interaction.

    Comment by Muckbeast — 10 July, 2009 @ 2:05 AM

  13. Nice article. You’d done a good job in presenting all sides of the argument.

    I think you are right, MMO devs have to get out of the “stick” mentality of punishing players and move toward the “carrot” system of rewarding players. If you want to promote a certain type of behavior in a MMO then you need to put in appropriate incentives.

    I just started playing EQ2 again and I’m amazed at how much of that MMO was designed to thwart powerleveling. There’s a lingering mean-spiritedness in the core design of EQ2 that quite frankly troubles me. The end result is that players that can’t really help each other as encounters are locked — you can’t even buff or heal a dying player. It’s very baffling to say the least to explain what the devs were thinking when they designed EQ2. The unintended consequences is that social interaction is discouraged.

    Comment by Wolfshead — 10 July, 2009 @ 2:02 PM

  14. @Wolfshead… EQ2 has an option to turn off the locked encounters for all but special encounters. Also, it is much easier to power level a person by grouping with them and mentoring then to sit out and heal.

    Comment by Fumbles — 10 July, 2009 @ 3:51 PM

  15. You miss a surprising lot of reasons why grouping is painful.

    The biggest is downtime in creating a party due to reliance of a few key jobs not very many people like to play. You need a tank, you need a healer, you need support, then dps. The first three can be rare because much fewer people like to play healers, tanks or support. Why? Because developers have no clue about how to make them fun.

    So in a grouping situation, whenever you rely on those jobs, a lot of time is wasted just finding the key jobs you need. Then you get into class imbalances.

    If one tank is weaker than the other, the weaker tank gets invited at last resort, but usually tanks are rare enough to make this bearable. If one DPS class is weaker than the others, you learn to solo or look for party for six hours when you cant build your own. Class imbalances can kill grouping, because people start to level only the wanted classes, they devs see, they get nerfed, and players get very annoyed.

    Also when you group, you have pressure on you to conform to the expectations of five or more other people. You can’t just leave when you like, especially as a key job-the party has to sit on their hands looking for a replacement, or may have to disband, wasting peoples time. If you want a party, you need to be the expected image of your class. Up to date armor, spells, talents, etc.

    It can be a pain. There’s more reasons, but its not about theory, its about the facts on the ground. To be honest I wouldn’t miss grouping if its gone. I’ve spent far too much time dealing with the dark side of it to care about the plus.

    Comment by Dblade — 10 July, 2009 @ 10:41 PM

  16. Great post. Interestingly, Wizard 101 does a number of things you suggest. First, players can informally “group” just by entering combat together against the same monster. Players fighting together each get full experience and full loot drops from each monster. So grouping is pretty much pure win–there is almost no downside. The game also has a “teleport to friend” feature that allows players to join each other easily. It’s a great example of how grouping can be supported and encouraged even in a very casual game.

    Comment by Scott — 11 July, 2009 @ 3:17 AM

  17. “You miss a surprising lot of reasons why grouping is painful. The biggest is downtime in creating a party ”

    In all the discussion of group play that is floating around, this is often overlooked. Playing together, teaming up for the greater good, connecting with others, forming bonds and so forth -it’s all great and good, but it takes it sweet time. Getting players together, ensuring people have the quests and getting everyone to the dungeon/instance/quest is the dreary part. I am sure there are gamedesign features that can improve on this, but so far I dont think we have seen it on a large scale.

    I think that we often think that its the games that have changed so much, that it is game design that leads to less grouping. Perhaps its just that the playerbase has changed. Alot.

    In the early days of WoW (when the game still rewarded noobs like myself to team up) I never thought anything of it when I waited 1 hour to get my entire Scarlet Monestary group together and to the instance. Neither that it took another hour or two to complete one wing. With chatting between pulls, lots of AFKs and distractions. I got to know lots of people, had lots of fun – but would I honestly want to go back to it now? No.
    The content is still the same. I am not.

    When talking about group play, we shouldnt be too bogged down with what we remember from “ye olde days”. I believe our selective memories will play us. :)

    Personally I think a key aspect of a solution lies in intelligent mobs that scale properly depending on the numbers of players facing them or areas that players can choose the difficulty of.

    @Scott. I agree, how Wizard 101 group people up and then moderates the enemy (often adding one enemy when antother player joins) is a cool feature, and perhaps an idea to be built on. If just Wizard 101 could go faster then 2 mph it would beeen a kick ass game ;)

    Comment by Kristine — 11 July, 2009 @ 4:06 PM

  18. This topic seemed to strike a chord. :)

    One more thought to add: A friend of mine who was consulting on a younger-focused MMO explained that the concept of “stealing my kill” was a very adult concept. Kids really want to help out! It seems counterproductive to punish someone with an xp or loot penalty just because someone else wanted to come along and lend a hand. Even in a game for adults.

    Logo wrote:
    As someone mentioned above in non-instanced areas a twinked character will often dominate an entire area preventing other people from enjoying content.

    Again, the core issue here is seeing others as competition. If you could join up with a twinked up character without having to beg and without being a burden, wouldn’t that be awesome? I’d love to have twinks in the same area I’m fighting in that case! Hell, I think it’d be neat to let people who are “too powerful” for the zone just come back and slaughter stuff for the benefit of the people still there. Perhaps for people who want to take the “hard road” there can be a setting “do not accept xp rewards for monsters I did not engage.” But, other people would still be able to gain xp from fighting with you if they wanted.

    unwesen wrote:
    In WoW, the most prominent example of this sort of behaviour would be someone waiting for you to clear low-level mobs so they can “steal” a unique mob, treasure chest, whatever.

    Again, the goal here is not eliminate the “this is mine!” mindset. Why not let everyone nearby have a copy of the chest contents or the drop from the unique mob? Then there’s less incentive to screw others over to get the better stuff. As much as we might talk about economies in games, developers have the ability to hand out as much stuff as they want. Everyone having a lot of gold just means everyone has a lot of gold. We already see in many games that you can earn a lot of money anyway if you know what you’re doing, and the games haven’t become economic wastelands.

    I can see “stealing” XP by standing around near someone engaging mobs to be similarly annoying – it doesn’t have to be. But given that it can easily be frowned upon, I would hesitate to introduce a game mechanic that more or less encourages it.

    Again, why? Question that assumption. In your comment you have a link back to your website. Should I be annoyed that you’re advertising your site on my blog after I put all the effort into writing that post up there? You’re just leeching off my hard work by just writing a few comments! Seems kind of silly to put it in that context, doesn’t it?

    Dblade wrote:
    You miss a surprising lot of reasons why grouping is painful.

    If you want a design document, email me and we can discuss consulting rates. ;) At any rate, I figured that I put enough shocking concepts into one post as it is without once again professing my love for skill-based systems. (Note that you never wait around in Meridian 59 for a “tank” to come along if you want to kill something tough.) Although, I guess I’ll say that the excuse that “class based systems are easier to balance” isn’t exactly true from your examples. :)

    Perhaps part of the issue here is terminology. I’m not talking about a group as “a required group of 5 or 6 people properly balanced to tackle specific content”, I’m talking about a group as a group of people that happen to be in the same place. There are a lot of times where, even in “solo content” another person along would be nice. The trouble is that another person is competition, taking part of the xp and other rewards from the encounter in most games. This post is about challenging that through design.

    Kristine wrote:
    Playing together, teaming up for the greater good, connecting with others, forming bonds and so forth -it’s all great and good, but it takes it sweet time.

    The issue I’m addressing is how people don’t even get to the point where they could spend the time connecting with others because the game design actively works against cooperation. Other players are the enemy, bogging them down and “stealing” part of their rewards.

    The content is still the same. I am not.

    The content may be the same, but is the game itself really the same? Or, has the emphasis shifted even further toward solo game activity? Has the game’s focus shifted away from those types of areas being meaningful content, instead focusing on the shiny new content (you just coincidentally have to pay extra for)?

    I don’t think I buy that the audience is changing. Four years later, there are people four years younger than you who are in the same position you were four years ago. And, there are people four years older than you who were where you are now four years ago. Players aren’t a homogeneous group.

    I’m also not buying the “nostalgia” angle. As John Brunner said, “There are two kinds of fool. One says, ‘This is old, and therefore good.’ And one says, ‘This is new, and therefore better.’” I think it’s important to look at concepts, be the old or new, and see if they’re worthy in their own right. I think grouping is a good thing in MMOs; it’s just that in the bad old days it was the only way so we didn’t have to make it work. With the alternative to just solo, we developers need to think of new ways to get it to work well with current expectations.

    Comment by Psychochild — 12 July, 2009 @ 2:09 AM

  19. @ Psychochild:

    “I think grouping is a good thing in MMOs; it’s just that in the bad old days it was the only way so we didn’t have to make it work. With the alternative to just solo, we developers need to think of new ways to get it to work well with current expectations.”

    I guess that is hitting the proverbial nail on the head :)

    “I don’t think I buy that the audience is changing. Four years later, there are people four years younger than you who are in the same position you were four years ago. And, there are people four years older than you who were where you are now four years ago. Players aren’t a homogeneous group.”

    That is my point (though I probably took the wrong way when making it, will try another way). In early MMOs the playerbase was fairly homogenous, just like early internet users were fairly homogenous -coming from MUDs where a large part could only be online for hours on end cause their university paid for it. Smallknit communities with people of similar social standing/interests getting along? Yes, it tends to happen. Now, MMOs is something appealing to everyone-their-mum-and-their-dog and they are all playing. In such our basic ideas about a “general community” might prove to be more elusive then we think. When enhancing grouping, approaching it from a PuG perspective rather then within that of established friendshipsgroups is catering to a playstyle that isnt very common anymore. Why? People still group and play together, it is however usually within existing social structures such as guilds, clans etc. Enhancing benefits from playing with players of similar such structures could in such be a interesting venue :)

    As a last point: New players entering MMOs today will ofcourse do some of the same mistakes and have some of the same initial pleasures as those who started playing 10 years ago, but presuming they are the same isnt right. Just ask yourself how your first meeting with an online community was, and how that would be for someone entering it now. I remember beeing in awe of communicating with someone in another country, my younger sister wanted to know how to send pictures to her friends. Or blogs for that matter… This will affect how future players engage with new game technologies, and how they want to interact with others in them. If anything, the early days of internet and MMOs was if anything a state of exception. It was possibly ideal, but an unlikely way for social interaction to continue.

    That aside, very interesting thread and comments. Keep the fun reading up :)

    Comment by Kristine — 12 July, 2009 @ 5:58 AM

  20. /AFK – July 12

    [...] claims that more MMOs punish those who group than [...]

    Pingback by Bio Break — 12 July, 2009 @ 8:46 AM

  21. Common MMO Myths

    [...] involved in numerous polite and less than polite discussions on a variety of subjects ranging from grouping to PvP. Given the topics that are flying around I thought it might be fun to tackle a couple of [...]

    Pingback by Epic Slant — 12 July, 2009 @ 2:12 PM

  22. Kristine wrote:
    In early MMOs the playerbase was fairly homogenous, just like early internet users were fairly homogenous -coming from MUDs where a large part could only be online for hours on end cause their university paid for it.

    I don’t think it was quite as homogeneous as you might think. Even back when I was playing text MUDs there were women playing! Women on the internet back in the dark ages! Can you imagine that? This was before there were easy ways to transmit pictures over the internet, we had to rely on voices on phones.

    If anything, the early days of internet and MMOs was if anything a state of exception. It was possibly ideal, but an unlikely way for social interaction to continue.

    Developers have a lot of control over these games. EQ was able to make people feel that grouping was absolutely required to do anything, as an example. I see no reason why we shouldn’t work to encourage people to interact. Even with our instant communication and ability to send pictures and stuff over web pages, some people still have a hard time connecting to others. The design problems I identified in the post don’t need to be there, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t question why they are even there. Will people start happily forming groups and socializing with complete strangers spontaneously? Probably not. But, we might be able to demonstrate in a game that other people aren’t just competition, that friends can be made. Is that so wrong?

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 July, 2009 @ 1:00 AM

  23. I always thought DDO did a really good job of handling grouping, which I suppose is fitting as it is one of the games that basically requires it, which is again fitting as it’s based on a game that is by nature a very social experience.

    Sure, they have more recently tried to cater to the solo crowd, but it really was one of the best grouping games I’ve played in a long time. You can set the difficulty level of a dungeon depending on your confidence in the team you have assembled, which means easier difficulty setting for small groups/duos, normal for full groups, and hard for your “premade” ubergroups. They’ve added a solo difficulty since release, which I think is both good and bad. There are some types of characters, whether explicitly defined by a class or implicitly by selection of skills, like Rangers or certain types of Wizards, that I usually envision as being rather independent types of characters. Soloing for them usually feels acceptable to me just as a general rule. There are more specific situations where a character that wouldn’t normally be questing alone might be doing so. An experienced thief-styled rogue running through a dungeon that is light on guards but heavy on traps and loot might be appropriate situation for soloing, as might a cleric or paladin clearing a tomb of undead. Most of the time, however, a well rounded group is just more appropriate, and this is where DDO does it right. Difficulty settings for different sizes/strengths of groups, dungeons almost always require a balance of classes, everyone gets loot from a chest, and XP is awarded not for kills but completion of quest objectives. That last one I think is the secret.

    (I haven’t played in a long while, so I don’t know if any of the PvP updates or anything else that might have happened has changed the feel of the game. I’m talking about DDO around the time of its release.)

    I’ve just had a strange realization after rereading that, since I’m really not much of a roleplayer in the “get into character” sense of the word, but it seems my judgment about the appropriateness of soloing depends largely on roleplaying circumstances. How odd. Probably because, even though I personally refuse to act like my character, I do try to make choices for them that are appropriate to my concept of their personality.

    Comment by Nerd Rage — 13 July, 2009 @ 10:11 AM

  24. Quick aside on W101… it’s entirely possible for those who *want* to screw you up to destroy the otherwise nicely designed open grouping. All a griefer has to do is jump into a fight, spawn another baddie, and then run away, leaving the bad guy behind. This can be significantly hard (and time consuming) to overcome for the original combatant. Also, when you jump to a friend’s location (a nice tool, to be sure), if they are in combat, you jump in too. Sometimes that’s not desirable. (So even those who aren’t griefing can cause trouble with the system.)

    Myth wizards (one “class”) have an especially hard time of it since they are a “pet” class, but their pet takes up a slot in combat. If their combat tactics depend on their pet, but someone fills up the combat slots (there are only four per side), they are effectively handicapped because of the other players, as they can’t call out their pet for assistance.

    W101 has addressed some of this by using “groups” that allow you to “reserve” slots in combat for friends, where passers by won’t be able to take that slot. It’s not a perfect fix, but it helps. Still, this speaks to the core problem I have with grouping. Other people suck sometimes, and without sufficient player control to compensate for the idiots, playing with others will inevitably have troubles.

    Comment by Tesh — 13 July, 2009 @ 11:34 AM

  25. “I don’t think it was quite as homogeneous as you might think. Even back when I was playing text MUDs there were women playing! Women on the internet back in the dark ages! Can you imagine that? This was before there were easy ways to transmit pictures over the internet, we had to rely on voices on phones.”

    I am sure there was some boob back then as well, what pixels dont show the imagination filled in :) Gender aside, there were quite a few demographic traits that were in common. The “average” intital internet users (which were also to a large degree those playing MUDs and early MMOs) where white, in their 20-30s, higher education, middle to upperclass with an interest for computers. Not saying it was every player, but it was by far the most common. In the biggger scheme of things, thats fairly homogenous.

    “Will people start happily forming groups and socializing with complete strangers spontaneously? Probably not. But, we might be able to demonstrate in a game that other people aren’t just competition, that friends can be made. Is that so wrong?”

    Not at all. Just pointing out that people do this all the time already, its just that those “complete strangers” are people within an already existing social structure. If you join a guild/clan its unlikely you know everyone, it is however likely that you will get to know them and hopefully form some friendships. When talking about encouraging grouping, many seem to talk about improving the grouping between random players in a “hey, I am here – you are here, lets be friends and play together lulz!”. Making it seem like social play, and group play doesnt really happen. My point (I think I am eventually heading for it) is that grouping occur to a larger degree within existing social groups, and encouraging those to do more things together is excellent. Trying very hard to get random strangers to interact is possibly catering to a very small audience, and leaving those who actually wish more grouping behind.

    Ofcourse it is possible that the discussion is about people withing guilds/exising friends grouping together, and I am reading into it more reminissance about “everyone was friends back then” then it actually has, but much of the complaints seems to be that the decline in social interaction is most notably through lack of social bonds occuring with random people during random tasks.

    Comment by Kristine — 13 July, 2009 @ 2:50 PM

  26. Quick aside on W101… it’s entirely possible for those who *want* to screw you up to destroy the otherwise nicely designed open grouping.

    I’ve had that happen a few times and it is annoying, but it’s never been intentional. Usually it happens when a low level “friend” teleports to me while I’m fighting high level monsters and sees that he’s overmatched.

    I think, if you wanted to, you could avoid grouping almost entirely by turning down friend invites and then playing on an underpopulated server. Personally I enjoy grouping, so it hasn’t been much of an issue.

    More generally, it’s been interesting comparing Wizard 101 and WoW. People seem to take WoW as proof that casual players prefer to solo, whereas in Wizard 101 it almost feels like the opposite. I think many people are somewhere in the middle: they enjoy grouping as long as it’s not too inconvenient.

    Comment by Scott — 13 July, 2009 @ 6:42 PM

  27. Kristine wrote:
    When talking about encouraging grouping, many seem to talk about improving the grouping between random players in a “hey, I am here – you are here, lets be friends and play together lulz!”. Making it seem like social play, and group play doesnt really happen.

    The point here is that this is the first step toward deeper social bonds. How do people form guilds and other larger social groups? They find other people they like spending time with in the game. In EQ, this happened a lot: you’d find someone who wasn’t a complete moron hanging out in the same areas you were and would join up when you could. Eventually you’d share your connections and perhaps form a guild. Or, one of you would join a guild and invite the other one to join as well.

    With the solo-friendly focus of most games anymore, this has been lost. The raiding guild I used to hang with in WoW had a continual (and rather common) problem: they had trouble keeping enough people ready to raid. People would drop out, leave the game, or join a higher powered raiding guild. This is nothing new, and happened a lot in older games as well. But, there weren’t enough people to replace the ones leaving. Even merging with other guilds was only a temporary fix, since there was no need to involve other people in day-to-day gameplay. The only hope was people who could stomach PUGs to find that occasional diamond in the rough to bring into the guild. But, that trickle didn’t counter the flow out.

    I also find it interesting that some of my friends still game with people they met in EQ1. But, there are few people they met in WoW that they would stick with to another game like that. (I’m the same way about people I met in M59.) There was a different dynamic in the older games, and I think it’s worth finding out what made it appealing to people.

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 July, 2009 @ 12:52 AM

  28. “The point here is that this is the first step toward deeper social bonds. How do people form guilds and other larger social groups? They find other people they like spending time with in the game.”

    Yes and no. Ofcourse many relationships start with people just meeting up, and realizing they like eachother. It is part of what makes MMOs so much fun :) However, both surveys (Yee: Deadalus project) and qualitative research (Taylor: Between worlds) show that people bring their offline relationships with them when they go online. Couples play together, family play together, coworkers, schoolmates etc. Many of the onlinerelationships are further workings on existing relationships. Guilds arent formed of 50 randomers, its mostly clusters of people of people already knowing eachother (often supported by guildstructures that invite friends of friends, or only players who have been vouched). Others are bringing preexisting online relationships with them (like you said, from other games) into new games. Clusters meet and boom: you have a large social group.
    I know its being knitpicky, but if we are trying to find solutions to “social problems” we should have our “social facts” straight.

    “There was a different dynamic in the older games, and I think it’s worth finding out what made it appealing to people.”
    It certainly was. However, I am just trying to point out that it was not all game design. It also had alot to do with the people who were playing these games, so when trying to figure out what made them special (why people grouped and made lasting relationships) we cant only look to what desginfeatures existed – we also need to understand what the players were experiencing at the time. As you said:
    “I also find it interesting that some of my friends still game with people they met in EQ1. ”
    I have seen the same with other early MMOs. I would love to find out what the big difference is between that and now. Perhaps we should just ask them? :)

    Comparing grouping and socializing in old MMOs to newer MMOs isnt currently on my research list (though after this discussion I am really eager to find out…), but if it was I would simply ask old MMO players as well as some fresh ones about when and why they group, what grouping means to them and what features that were important in game when it came to grouping. I think the answers would be interesting and would go a long way in solving the mystery of “the decline of grouping”.

    Comment by Kristine — 15 July, 2009 @ 4:41 AM

  29. Good post.

    As a proud soloer myself, I’ll just sum my position from the other side of the fence. I don’t like grouping because (in order of importance to me):

    1- The logistics are killer. My playing time is limited. If it takes me one hour to put a group together for a 15-30 minute encounter, I’ll do it once, but never again on any character. Having to make sure everyone is on the same step of the quest, with all the items they need, etc… is micromanagement of the worst kind – the kind that shouldn’t have to be done in the first place.

    2- I progress faster by myself. I may not have access to the best, there will be content I will not see, but at the end of the day my progress depends on me alone. I don’t like to put the speed of my progress and my enjoyment of the game on the hands of other people if I can help it because of point #1 above.

    3- I feel grouping is artificially and not naturally hard. I’ve come across very, very few encounters that truly required a GROUP and not just a collection of players. Your normal vanilla grouping simply adds as a multiplier for dps and healing. In other words, we’re only bringing in 10/20/40 people because the target hitpoints have been artificially inflated in order to simulate challenge and require a group. It’s a bit like chicken and egg; we bring many players because the mobs are hard, but the only reason the mobs are hard is because we need to put content for many players there. It’s lazy. I’d see grouping in a much better light if the encounters required more teamwork, different simultaneous actions and a group, not just a collection of players of which 3/4ths is dpsing the mob while the 1/4th heals them.

    It’s like we can’t break from the dps/heal/CC mantra and all our encounters revolve around that. Timing is barely meaningless, as are coordinate actions. There is no focus outside the current targets. No environmental elements to consider ot take advantage of. No group splitting to focus on different targets.

    I know I’m asking for much, but it’s discouraging to know that the only reason I need a group is because I don’t do enough dps or heal by myself. That’s all. So we don’t need others because we form a -group-. We need others because the mobs have been artificially inflated, and nothing more.

    4- Finally, and I wanna be as forthcoming as I can on this, people suck. I’m not hateful, I’m not arrogant, I don’t consider myself the best player of anything. Far from it. But when I go out I have the appropriate quests, I know where things are, I know at least the very basics of playing my character (and how other characters/classes play to boot). I try to know the game as best I can. I’m also considerate with other people’s time, because I value mine as well. I don’t like taking unnecessary afks because it holds other people’s progress and wastes their time.

    After being on the receiving end of the nasty side of other players (and truth be told, the excellent side as well) for many years, if the game allows me, I’ll take my chances by myself, thank you. My speed is my own, my rewards are my own, my failures are my own and my time is my own. I’d say in 80% of cases, to group is just not worth it to me.

    This doesn’t mean I’m antisocial. This doesn’t mean I should be playing single player games. In all the MMOs I’ve played I’ve been guilded, and enjoyed my interactions with my guildies. I did stuff with them when possible. I developed friendships which carried in some cases from game to game. But when it comes to enjoying “the game”, in the best way I know to enjoy it and to find my own path of least resistance, please leave me alone and let me do things solo. Hell is other people.

    –J.

    PS: By the way, the “play with other people or go back to playing single player games” bit is a false choice. It’s not a binary choice at all. I can perfectly enjoy the shared virtual space with other people, playing my own game -next- to them with having to play -with- them. It’s a distinction that’s at the core of the matter for most soloists and is often overlooked. To say that playing with others is “the right way to play an MMO” is as silly as saying that you only have “real friendships” in real life when you do stuff together 24/7, face to face, and calling on the phone doesn’t count.

    I have good friends from school whom I haven’t seen or heard from in years but I know if we ever meet again, after catching up, our friendship will be there and intact. We never had to “go out and do stuff” to keep it. Our social virtual spaces are large enough to let people play next to others, and enjoy that feeling of a permanent shared space without having to force or strongly encourage people to be with each other to do anything meaningful.

    Comment by Julian — 15 July, 2009 @ 3:14 PM

  30. Kristine wrote:
    [P]eople bring their offline relationships with them when they go online.

    I will certainly agree with this, as someone who is playing an MMO with his better half. The two questions I’m looking at: 1) How common is this? and 2) How much impact does this have on social group formation? Focusing on the second question for now…

    Clusters meet and boom: you have a large social group.

    As a developer, this is the important bit. Why? Because it ties people to my specific game. If people simply import their offline social groups then they can just as easily take them out of the game. Part of my motivation is to get people to want to play my game. So, I want to know how social groups form in-game so that I can encourage those.

    Guilds are not formed from random people, this is true. Just like the offline world, people need a common bond to form a social group. But, I argue that the threshold is lower in a game. The common bond in a game might be, “We’re killing the same monsters in the same zone.” or “We want to join up to tackle content that requires more people.” or “That person makes me laugh; that other person appreciates my corny jokes.” The main issue I see, as a developer, is that the bonds aren’t solidifying the same way the used to. I think the way EQ “forced” people to group helped this, because it strongly encouraged people to find other competent people and stick with them. In a solo-friendly game, this is not required. I certainly don’t think we need to go back to “forced grouping” as a game mechanic, but we can look at other ways to capture some of that.

    I would simply ask old MMO players as well as some fresh ones about when and why they group, what grouping means to them and what features that were important in game when it came to grouping.

    I’ll leave that to serious researchers. My experiences in asking players what they want results in distorted answers.

    I can answer the question from my own experiences, though: Grouping meant playing with friends. In older games this meant finding enough people to fill out a group to be more efficient, and keeping track of people I liked to group with again. In modern games it means hanging out with people I already know for the most part; I suspect this is because I don’t need others in current games, so I don’t look for others to befriend.

    Anyway, an interesting discussion. Do let me know if you decide to do research in this area.

    Comment by Psychochild — 16 July, 2009 @ 12:52 AM

  31. The problem with interdependency

    [...] taking a look at grouping last week, I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the topic. Let’s take a look at the larger topic that [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 16 July, 2009 @ 2:40 AM

  32. I dont have any research myself, but since you seem to enjoy this topic (for good reasons ;) ) I decided to pull up two quick links for you.

    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.86.8782&rep=rep1&type=pdf
    http://www.google.com/books?hl=no&lr=&id=yENNc7Fp3vQC&oi=fnd&pg=PA78&dq=yee+demographics+social+ties&ots=AKDapZGsCj&sig=L3nHOuiYT7Qp8SkDkY4-X1w_V3E

    Both are reseach papers from Nick Yee and William Decheunant that are doing large surveybased studies in MMOs as well as datamining to look at social relations. I dont find their analysis to be 100%, but they are providing good quantitative data that can perhaps give some input into the discussion of how much people actually group, who plays the game etc. Both are from WoW, and admittadly its 2-3 years old now, but they still put some actual numbers to our otherwise “genereally I think” presumptions.

    To take one easy example: Priests group more then any other class. Since priests was known as weak in dps and good at supporting, meaning it was a classdesign favoured grouping. Perhaps group design can needs to stem from the class design not just content design?
    The problem with such data is that you wont know if those priests enjoyed having to group, or if they saw it as a flaw in the gamedesign and would avoid it in the future. But you seem to be searching for real answers here, and getting some actual real data on the table tends to help. Atleast it does for me :)

    Comment by Kristine — 16 July, 2009 @ 4:00 AM

  33. “To take one easy example: Priests group more then any other class. ”

    So people who enjoyed grouping were inclined to roll priests, because ‘being easy to find groups with’ became part of the class identity (the fact that social players are probably skewed towards women, and priests are also a healing class which also skews towards women also helps). But it’s because they filled a rare/needed role that groups needed them. If the games had an abundance of social players, all of whom rolled priests, then the class would actually become useless for the purpose of ‘finding a group quickly’. Plus the players would be left with a class that wasn’t that great solo anyway.

    Comment by Spinks — 16 July, 2009 @ 7:36 AM

  34. I will certainly agree with this, as someone who is playing an MMO with his better half. The two questions I’m looking at: 1) How common is this?

    Nick Yee has done some research on this, and it seems to be fairly common.

    Comment by Scott — 16 July, 2009 @ 6:24 PM

  35. (By the way, those data are from Everquest; I suspect that the numbers are even higher today).

    Comment by Scott — 16 July, 2009 @ 6:26 PM

  36. Apologies for this series of posts, but apparently Nick does have much more recent data:

    25% of MMO players play with a romantic partner
    19% play with a family member
    70% play with real life friends
    In all, 80% play with someone they know in real life.

    Summary of the data here.

    Comment by Scott — 16 July, 2009 @ 6:44 PM

  37. They just got lots of survey data from EQ2 as well, curious to see what they have found.

    @ Spinks
    No idea why priests have become social classes (though saying things like women do x and men do y makes me cringe). They are however the class that groups the most (according to the links I posted), and shifting the “grouping predicament” to classesign rather then just content design could be a fruitful venue.

    Comment by Kristine — 20 July, 2009 @ 1:34 PM

  38. Fascinating post & comments! (Yeah, I’ve been away for a while :D) Regarding this:
    “A friend of mine who was consulting on a younger-focused MMO explained that the concept of “stealing my kill” was a very adult concept. Kids really want to help out!”

    Kids have a very different way of playing MMOs in general, as I’ve seen from being in a guild that had no problem allowing kids to join provided that had adult supervision (i.e. if their parents were in the guild, mostly to protect the kids themselves if they were under 13). Kids think nothing of doing what adults would call “despicable begging” — asking to be given stuff, asking to be given money, asking to be run through dungeons so they can get a particular piece of kit, and so on. Kids don’t HAVE any concept of the journey being more (or as) important than the destination — that’s a virtue we make of necessity as we get older, I think. I mean, it’s what experience teaches us. ;)

    Similarly, kids quite happily give stuff away to whoever asks, whenever they ask, be it time, items, money — again, whatever. For obvious reasons they haven’t yet acquired the adult “I worked my butt off for this, it’s MINE!!!” attitude we so often display in MMOs.

    Annoying as kids can sometimes be (in MMOs and out of them ;-)), there’s actually a lot we could learn from their far more open attitude to games. But maybe that’s something we tend to forget in real life in general. Being child*like* is not such a bad thing.

    Comment by Ysharros — 23 July, 2009 @ 11:52 AM

  39. Brian:

    Deal, if i somehow get into the MMO industry. FFXI though is legendary in the problems of class balancing. I wish someone someday would do a frank post-mortem with SE on it.

    Comment by Dblade — 26 July, 2009 @ 7:53 PM

  40. “My experiences in asking players what they want results in distorted answers.”

    I have to respond to this. This is a critical failure of the industry – a total lack of market research. Any other industry would disappear overnight if did zero market research, but the gaming industry has managed to blunder its way into a niche that works, and has stayed there for a decade. I don’t believe game developers even understand that market research must be done in a specific, focused, and experienced way to remove bias and find out what customers *really* want, not just what they say they want. One can’t just post on a forum and expect useful answers. I believe this critical failure in doing market research is a major reason most MMOGs today are exactly alike. If you don’t know what customers want, you can only do what other producers are doing.

    As for grouping versus soloing, I believe that the entire argument is a result of poor basic design. All the ‘reward mechanics’ and ‘xp sharing’ others are talking about in this thread are entirely within the ‘xp/item/skills treadmill’ universe… in other words, players are doing things they dislike.

    (I know it’s dangerous to say things like that among developers, but I refuse to work in denial. Many players like achieving, this is true, but spending time doing repetitive and thoughtless activities to increase a virtual number is the absolute last dynamic in the world that a player would choose to do if any other achievement was possible. The ‘xp/item/skills treadmill’ system is the laziest and worst design possible under modern implemenations.)

    As I was saying, players are doing things they dislike. Imagine the effect that has on their behavior! Why do you think leechers exist? Why do you think healer and support classes are rare? Why do you think players act like jerks around xp spots? Why do you think players look at websites to run mindlessly through quests as fast as possible? They don’t like what they are doing – and want it to be over as soon as possible!

    This leads to an amazing and simple conclusion – if you want true grouping in your game, think of a way to provide general activities that players actually like! It’ll happen on its own! Then again, if your game has activities that players actually like, the whole issue is moot regardless, because ‘groupers’ aren’t being jerkoffs to ‘soloers’, and vice versa. The distinction might not even exist.

    A good example of this is Psychochild’s Meridian 59. In Meridian 59, there is no formal grouping while building, and building is generally a boring task that people rush through solo. However, one of Psychochild’s additions after he bought the game was a new ‘high level’ building zone that was two or three cuts above the rest of the game in terms of creativity, design, interesting monsters, and rewards. The monsters in this area actually became more dangerous when more than one person fought them (they started using a strong attack that hit all nearby players), yet this zone brought groups constantly and consistently by offering positive rewards for grouping – a chest in a circular maze that generated more rewards the more people that were present.

    Personally, I thought this area was an amazing success, because it organically created a fun and interesting ‘group’ dynamic in a game otherwise filled with diehard soloers. Note that Meridian 59 has no ‘xp’, no ‘levels’, and no focus on ‘item treadmills’ – and yet grouping still happens. Food for thought I hope.

    Comment by Gar — 28 July, 2009 @ 10:03 AM

  41. Gar wrote:
    I have to respond to this. This is a critical failure of the industry – a total lack of market research.

    At the risk of sounding like the defender of the status quo, I don’t think deep market research will help us. Most of the large companies already do a lot of market research, and it hasn’t helped so far. Smaller companies can’t afford it.

    There are two issues I see:

    1) What players want is subjective. If you’re designing a car, there are certain things it needs by definition: it should run, it should carry people, it should carry a minimum amount of stuff, etc. Beyond that, you start getting into aesthetic issues that can vary wildly. But, at the core, a game is an aesthetic issue. The main thing for games is that “it should be fun”, but defining “fun” is anything but easy.

    2) Players can’t articulate what they want. Unless it’s in terms of what already exists. The best games have been ones that have seemingly come out of nowhere to introduce something players had never seen before. It’s true that games will evolve from other games, but it’s often a novel twist that brings a new type of game to light. The Sims was built on the concept of simulations, but brought down to an individual level. But, it was so unlike anything else it captured the imagination of a large segment of non-gamers. So, the trick is to give players what they don’t even know they want. The problem is that it takes a lot of luck (or expensive marketing) to reach that type of audience.

    They don’t like what they are doing – and want it to be over as soon as possible!

    I’ve never bought into this theory. I find it hard to believe that millions of people pay each month for something they don’t like. Not to say that we can’t improve, but I think the current systems are “fun enough”. The problem is, as discussed in another thread on here, is that players are suspicious of new things they don’t understand.

    However, one of Psychochild’s additions after he bought the game was a new ‘high level’ building zone that was two or three cuts above the rest of the game in terms of creativity, design, interesting monsters, and rewards.

    Q and FattyMoo also worked hard on the area. I’m glad you liked it, and that was exactly our goal. We had hoped to add more areas like that, but for a multitude of reasons I won’t go into here we didn’t follow up with the plans. That’s a glimpse of “what could have been” if things had worked out differently.

    Definitely food for thought.

    Comment by Psychochild — 28 July, 2009 @ 6:31 PM

  42. In response to what you said about players not knowing what they want – this is another demonstration of a mis-concept by developers. There are plenty of ways of doing market research that avoid this problem, like behavioral studies, ethnography, and the like. Generally, methods that don’t ask the player. Every product in the world is subjective, and customers hardly ever know what they want, but market research is still critical. Why should games be any different? In terms of a new ‘innovation’ like the Sims, something like Lead User Research could standardize the process of coming up with new ideas.

    I have read market research that is actually done on games (some even linked from this site I think), and, while interesting, it still never got to the heart of the matter.

    I absolutely do think millions of players are paying for something they don’t like. It’s part of a package, though, so they can’t pick and choose. That’s part of how they choose games – which game offers a package with the lowest ratio of annoying crap grind compared to fun/exploration/socializing/competition? That’s also how players quit. When they feel their ratio of crap grind work (of any type, even social) going too high, off they go. After decades of offering only games with inherent pointless timesinks, players have been conditioned to expect crap grind work. Heck, most even think you can’t be emotionally invested in your persona without weeks of crap grind work under it. Despite being the prevailing belief, that’s ridiculous. Why can’t someone come up with a game that bonds you with your persona through weeks of fun instead?

    Comment by Gar — 29 July, 2009 @ 6:26 AM

  43. Ah, time for a wild tangent. Perhaps I should make a new post for this line of discussion.

    Gar wrote:
    Every product in the world is subjective….

    Some products are more subjective than others. As I gave the example of the car above: if the car doesn’t get me from point A to point B, it fails. The nature of these two points may be different for each person: my point A and B might be dozens of miles apart, while yours are hundreds of miles apart. But, at the core, defining a good car is much different than defining a good game. In fact, you even point this out yourself…

    I absolutely do think millions of players are paying for something they don’t like.

    If this is true, it makes market research completely useless. What’s the point of throwing money at market research if they’ll play anyway? Perhaps this is why the market research on games never “got to the heart of the matter”, because it doesn’t have to in your theory. The hit games are still wildly profitable. As Dave Rickey once said (paraphrasing), “If that is failure, please God, visit that level of failure on me.”

    Perhaps the problem is how to define what a “successful game” is. Is it one that makes enough money to perpetuate development? Is it one that boosts the lead developer into celerity? Is it one that keeps players engaged for endless years? Is it one that gets played by millions and millions of people? Is it one that gives you an experience that no other game (or even no other entertainment) has given you? I think these could all be reasonable measurements for success, and market research can only help one reach some of these measurements of success. It’s not a panacea to solve all ills.

    I think a lot of the fundamental problems with game development and the game industry as a whole are much bigger than what market research can handle. Especially at the indie level that I’m familiar with, there are other problems beyond making a game that market research says will be popular.

    In terms of a new ‘innovation’ like the Sims, something like Lead User Research could standardize the process of coming up with new ideas.

    I see that in the same terms of a “Lead Reader Research” helping J.K. Rowling standardize what plots to write or a “Lead Viewer Research” guiding Stephen Spielberg to standardize what movies to make. Stop and consider why these two (and many others) are so beloved, and it’s not writing based on market research. Do they work in isolation without outside input? No, but if we relied on market research for all our reading needs, we’d probably never have had Harry Potter to enjoy. Market research wouldn’t lead to interesting games like Passage.

    I understand and appreciate what you’re trying to do: you want to do the reasonable business thing and take the unknowable quantity of risk out of the process. But, there’s a reason why we have visionaries and we have people who produce derivative crap in every entertainment media. I don’t think the games industry really needs help making derivative crap from the previous generation’s hits, do you?

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 July, 2009 @ 5:18 PM

  44. Eh it’s probably too much discussion for the end of a blog post, but I still think you don’t get what I mean. I’m by no means saying that J.K. Rowling and Stephen Spielberg could be replaced by market research. That’s not the role market research fills at all. What it DID do for those two is allow them to become wildly popular because they were advertised properly and brand-managed in the correct way, considering target audiences. I believe Rowling is a great analogy for MMOGs, because both offer average-to-good uninspired products that somehow sell to millions and are wildly popular.

    Let me put it this way: you create a wonderful new MMOG that abandons all of the cliche or bad concepts of previous games. You as a developer speak to players and tell them ‘it has no levels, no xp, no silly quests, no grind!’… the players probably won’t want to play it because they honestly don’t understand it through your words. They can’t relate to it. This game will fail, while WoW Clone 156 garners a cool 100k players the same week – by copy pasting WoW’s website, advertising ’10,000 spells, 100,000 items, and 500,000 monsters!!!’. Cliche, stupid, yet – the language works.

    Where market research should step in (where it hasn’t yet) is finding the proper language to convey this great new game’s appeal to gamers [[as well as figuring out where these gamers ARE]] so they might actually abandon WoW Clone 156 and try your game out. This would then lead to more games like yours getting funding, as it contributes to precedent. What I’ve been saying is that game creators don’t know any marketing language right now other than WoW Clone language. There are tons of intelligent, creative, interesting gamers out there who would probably love a powerfully innovative new game – they just can’t be reached effectively at the moment. ESPECIALLY with the inundating flood of crap games cloning each other these days… free browser MMOs have probably reduced the effectiveness of WoW-language advertising to a tiny fraction of what it used to be.

    Comment by Gar — 29 July, 2009 @ 7:37 PM

  45. Gar wrote:
    [T]he players probably won’t want to play it because they honestly don’t understand it through your words. They can’t relate to it.

    I’ll agree with this statement, you’re talking about marketing as a communication vehicle. This includes smart advertising, brand management, and all that good stuff. But this is a very different function than what you mentioned in a previous comment:

    If you don’t know what customers want, you can only do what other producers are doing.

    And this is what I disagree with: that we can find some magical questions that will somehow get to the core of what players really want despite being unable to articulate their desires and, according to what you say, they’ll pay for something the despise.

    But, marketing as communication is a very good thing and something that some game developers don’t do very well. But, I’ll argue that some game developers do this VERY well. It’s also something that is very expensive to do properly, and a smaller company has very little chance. I spent a relatively large part of NDS’s income at our peak to do marketing for Meridian 59, but it was a tiny drop in the ocean.

    As I’ve said before, the companies best able to afford a marketing push to do something innovative are the ones least likely to push innovation forward. The people most willing to do something different are the ones unable to afford the marketing push that requires them to be successful. So, the MMO audience has to seek out and actively reward games that are doing anything like what they want, because it’s unlikely to happen otherwise.

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 July, 2009 @ 1:32 AM

  46. What is missing in our games?

    [...] otherwise disrupt the slick presentation of the game. Given that one of my recent suggestions was to do away with static groups, I like the concept. I think scaling is the wrong way to think about it, though; the world should [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 12 October, 2009 @ 1:57 AM

  47. Shamus Young over at the Twenty Sided blog points out how Champions Online punishes people for grouping:

    Group combat is a mess in Champions Online. If you are in a team of three or more people, bad guys will automatically run to get reinforcements. When they do so, they get to retreat at running speed while blocking. (Players can’t do that.) It’s extremely difficult to stop the runner before he gets help, and chasing him will often drag you into crowds of foes, who will in turn all scatter for reinforcements, etc.

    He goes on to explain how this system just frustrates a player. Again, we see a system that seeks to make grouping harder than it should be for seemingly no good reason. Exactly the thing I was speaking against in this post.

    Comment by Psychochild — 12 November, 2009 @ 1:28 AM

  48. I saw that aside from Shamus, too. It sounds downright painful. As much of a soloist as I am, I don’t want to punish grouping. That’s just bad design.

    Comment by Tesh — 12 November, 2009 @ 12:14 PM

  49. Sounds Good To Me

    [...] As Raph notes, retention is sometimes strongly rooted in social ties (though Gordon rightly disagrees, pointing to the Skinner Box mechanics), and as I’ve noted before, the people really are the best part of these things… but they are also the worst part.  It’s wise to let players participate in your game world (indirectly socializing, and still playing/paying) while they sift out the sympathetic players from the unfriendly ones.  That means strong solo options to keep people invested in the world while they are sorting, and good mechanics that don’t punish those players who want to play together. [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 1 February, 2011 @ 4:55 PM

  50. Changing social conventions

    [...] I have written before, I think game designers can do a lot more to facilitate and encourage grouping. Ultimately, I think [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 23 March, 2011 @ 4:28 PM

  51. Players as Content

    [...] to incentivize that with kickbacks, discounts or perks, we should probably get rid of levels and other barriers to playing together… and actually let the players generate content in a dynamic world, in addition to [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 17 May, 2011 @ 11:31 AM

  52. What I’ve been up to, and going to Gen Con!

    [...] doesn't mean that MMOs were the ultimate social experience, however. A lot of MMOs punish grouping by adding restrictive mechanics or needless overhead to interaction. MMO designers still need to [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 15 August, 2011 @ 12:26 PM

  53. Long time reader, recent blog writer. Never did chance across this post, was linked here courtesy of Tesh.

    Insightful, to say the least. It’s refreshing to consider the design points, their implementations and just how much those have to say about the game and its mechanics vs those who actually play. We are, after all, reactionary to the systems that were chosen.
    I’ll surely ping this when I finalize an idea concerning a grouping issue I’ve noticed (recent post). It’s not a direct group:solo debate, but this piece I think will come in handy.
    Thanks for this perceptive piece.

    Comment by Ahtchu — 15 November, 2011 @ 3:45 PM

  54. A look at Guild Wars 2

    [...] if you're curious), I like what GW2 has done to encourage social interaction. I've advocated for making grouping easier before, so I'm all for this. Allowing people to all benefit from a kill is a great design. I hope [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 19 November, 2012 @ 7:07 PM

  55. M is for multiplayer

    [...] first step is to stop punishing grouping, as I've written before. This is a necessary but insufficient step: GW2 has all but eliminated the [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 22 April, 2013 @ 7:47 AM

  56. Frustrated while trying to play with friends

    [...] I think group play is incredibly important for MMOs. Not that soloing should be abolished, but games should make sure that playing with others [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 16 September, 2013 @ 2:25 PM

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