16 July, 2009
After 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 makes grouping feel like a drag: interdependency.
Interdependency is when the game tells you, “you must rely on someone else to accomplish something that helps you.” In general, this is frustrating because other people aren’t always dependable. So, let’s look at this from a designer’s point of view.
The social fabric
I’m making one very big assumption this (and my previous) discussion: developer want players to become part of the social fabric of our games. This is one of the most important things we can do, because the bonds people form in the game become bonds with the game. Relationships can continue outside of games, but a relationship formed inside the game is a good thing for a developer.
The plan: make people rely on others
A common goal seems to be to make people rely on others. A direct example of this is the encouragement in EQ to group together to tackle a majority of the content. It took specific classes, specific content, and a lot of player skill to effectively solo in the game, so most players had to rely on others. This is the “forced grouping” we read about. I do not know if this was a specific design goal, or a side-effect of other design goals in the game.
For the most part, this did encourage interdependence. Players formed groups and found people they enjoyed playing with. People would remember (and/or make notes) of others they found who they appreciated; this later grew into the “friends list” in games. Some relationships were collected into formal structures (guilds). The raiding content in the original EQ eventually required much larger groups and guilds focused on this type of gameplay. Players created tools like DKP to help keep track of who participated in an event.
But, there were also problems. The most obvious is the backlash against “forced grouping” and the rise of the solo player. Being required to group with another person to see a majority of the content in the game just won’t fly in modern games aiming for the mass market.
Messing with crafting
This desire for interdependency carried over into the design of crafting. The first experience I had with this concept in crafting was in DAoC. I took armorcrafting as a profession; making heavy armors required components that only a tailor could make. The goal was probably to get you to make friends with a tailor to have an constant supply of materials. The reality was that people bought additional accounts and created additional characters to log on at the same time to create components at cost; the rest of us had to pay some markup which drove our costs up. The first person I know of to earn one mithril coin in wealth (it was a lot of money back then!) was someone who made armor and had a second account for crafting the tailored components. (This was before an error was discovered where crafters were making too much money from the crafting jobs, of course.)
EQ2 took this to new levels when it launched. In addition to a unique interactive crafting system, most of the components were created by other professions. I didn’t play back when the original system was in place, but as I remember reading: A scholar required ink, paper, and a quill to create scrolls. A scholar could only make paper and had to get the other components from other crafters. Even producing something like ink was a complex multi-step process: you had to process dyes then make the inks. If prices weren’t good (or you didn’t just roll an alt), it could be brutal for a crafter. Most serious crafters had alts that made the materials and passed them along through shared bank slots.
By the time I had started playing, this system was replaced with a more standard “harvest raw materials, put into system, get final object” system we know and love, mixed in with the interactive part that already existed. It was a lot less painful.
In a modern game, we see LotRO has some elements of this. The Tinker vocation (the only one that can take the Jeweller profession) has the Cook profession. But, cooks generally need the food grown by Farmers. On my Tinker, I’ve pretty much ignored cooking as a tradeskill; instead, I had an alt pick Yeoman which has both Cook and Farmer and worked those up together.
The problem: alts
The main weakness in each of these cases is that it’s almost always easier to craft items yourself than to acquire them. The system works better for drops (and some high level crafted items) because it’s harder to plan drops than to gather generic materials. In all three cases, players found a way to have a character they owned give them the goods. (In DAoC, of course, this involved giving more money to the developer, so that could be considered a win from the developer’s point of view.)
This is related to my previous post about punishing grouping. The problem is that the friction of working together is greater than the benefit. If, as a crafter, I’m willing to spend the and in-game resources (which also represent time) to craft, I’m probably not going to think much about spend a bit more time in crafting. Expectations just change so that some professions that require multiple characters are just seen as requiring more time in order to have another character to work up the supplementary abilities.
Restricting alts really doesn’t work too well, because as my experiences in DAoC showed, people will just buy new accounts. And, as a developer using the subscription, that’s not necessarily something you want to discourage!
So, can we really get players to work together in a game? There seem to be two different solutions:
Make it more difficult to do it all by yourself. This is the “forced grouping” solution. Players have to rely on each other because doing it all would be so painful. Playing multiple characters is difficult for most people (but not impossible). Increasing the difficulty of crafting would probably just drive people away from crafting in general and potentially the game if they are disappointed with crafting.
Reduce barriers to cooperation. This is what I focused on in my previous post. Having people automatically group and not punish people for being in a group by reducing each person’s xp or loot gain. In crafting, this could mean having an highly efficient system: being able to put in “buy orders” on the auction to purchase supplies at a set price would be one huge step forward, for example. But, this still doesn’t tackle the issue of it being cheaper to have a character you control (and therefore has no profit motive) do your work for you; the best solution would need to present some increased opportunity cost for doing it yourself beyond time, which people are going to spend anyway if they want to play a game!
It’s not all bad, right?
I don’t think interdependency is really a bad thing in a game. I think it’s reasonable to have some expectation that some of the things you do in the world may have to involve other people. The problem is that these systems often frustrate people who play them “the right way” and reward people who use alts.
What do you think? Looking beyond “forced grouping” being bad, how can you get players to work together in all aspects of the game? Or, is that concept just doomed by having players just roll alts?