Thursday, December 27, 2012

Looking For Raid, Pandaria Edition

My computer was having a lot of trouble with Looking For Raid in Pandaria. It would crash often, on pretty much every fight. Given that it would occasionally crash at other times, I finally bit the bullet and got a new machine. Ah well, the old one served effectively for almost five years, so I guess it was just time.

So in the past couple of weeks, I've actually gotten to try out the new raids in Mists of Pandaria, if only the LFR versions.  Here are some thoughts.

I like pretty much all the raids in this tier. They're a lot of fun, with interesting mechanics. By and large the difficulty seems appropriate for LFR. It's doable, but you do need at least some of your group to pay attention.

Skill-wise, LFR seems pretty much the same. There doesn't appear to be any completely terrible people, but there's the standard not-switching targets or killing adds issue that always plagues LFR. I can usually count on having at least 4 of 6 healers being competitive on the meters.

I've switched away from Eternal Flame to Sacred Shield. In LFR, raw HPS is pretty much the only thing that matters, because you can't "trust" your other healers in the same manner as in a normal raid group. So raw raid healing with cooldowns on the tanks is more likely to help the group survive.  That means heavy reliance on Holy Radiance and Light of Dawn.

Loot System

So the big controversy with LFR this time around is the loot system.  I have mixed feelings about it. On the whole, I think I get loot at the same rate as in previous tiers.  And per-character loot definitely solved the drama issues with LFR loot in previous tiers.

But now, killing a boss seems like a big letdown. Previously, you killed the boss, and there was a cascade of purples. Maybe you personally wouldn't get anything, but there was plenty of treasure for the group. But now, most of the time it seems like just a small amount of gold, which is a disappointment.

I don't know. It's like before, the treasure definitely existed. If you didn't get an item, then someone else did. You saw rogues get cool daggers, and hunters get bows, and enthused with everyone else when they got their items. But now, it seems like 80% of the time there is no treasure at all.

Also, not being able to get off-spec gear is a bit disappointing. Especially since rep gear costs Valor, that precludes reputation as a source of off-spec gear. But on the other hand, it's better than people taking off-spec gear over main spec players.

This is especially reinforced with the Greater Charms of Forture. You pop a Charm, and 80% of the time is just gold, again. Blizzard should have just tripled the cost per Charm, and only allowed you get one per week, but made it guarantee a drop.

I don't really see a decent solution for the loot issues. Maybe announcing the winners of items to the raid, since you can't change anything, would be enough to get the old feel back. This system is good enough, though. I just feel sad that the previous system wasn't able to work, that it died in a tragedy of the commons.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Case Against Cross-Server Raiding

Big Bear Butt had a post last week decrying Blizzard's stance against cross-realm raiding in the current tier. Ghostcrawler tweeted that Blizzard was worried "about what it would do to guilds".  BBB generally disagreed with Ghostcrawler, and felt that cross-realm raiding would generally be good for the game.

Well, I'm here to outline the future where cross-realm raiding goes badly.

If you look at BBB's post, there's an underlying, unstated assumption. He assumes that if you need a raider for that last spot, you would pull from your guild, then pull from your cross-realm friends list, and lastly pull from trade chat on your server. That there is a priority list that goes:
  1. Guild
  2. Friends
  3. Strangers
Now suppose that assumption doesn't hold. Suppose with the advent of cross-realm raiding, the priority list becomes:
  1. Friends
  2. Guild
  3. Strangers
I.e. you pull from your friends list before you pull from your guild.

This would do immeasurable damage to WoW in the long run. If you're someone new to end game, how would you break into raiding? Right now, the path is you apply to a guild, and the guild takes you on runs. The application and acceptance does not require an existing friendship. Both sides understand that they are taking a chance on strangers.  

A lot of people don't like guild apps because they are impersonal, but that distance sometimes makes things easier. The guild app process provides a path where strangers can become friends through raiding together. Every new app is a stranger to the guild as a whole, not yet a friend.

In contrast, breaking into someone's circle of friends will be very hard. They'll be raiding with their friends, so you can't play with them. The barrier to entry for raiding could become much larger, and the barrier between strata of raiders could become even higher. If you're a Royalty raider, is it better to raid with another Royalty raider from a different server, or take an effective stranger from your current server?

Now, you could say that this future isn't likely, that no one will prioritize Friends over Guild. (Though, wouldn't many people say you should prioritize Friends over Guildies?) But one never knows how people will react. I would have never predicted everyone rolling Need in LFR, and subgroups funneling loot to their own members. And obviously, neither did Blizzard. But that happened.

As well, prioritizing Friends over Guild does provide two distinct advantages. First, you get to play with friends, as opposed to people who are still strangers. Second, your pool of friends is often higher quality (and a known quality) than new guildies.  If you're friends with someone in Paragon, bringing her alt is more likely to lead to success than taking your latest guild recruit. And as we've seen time and again, WoW players always take the short-term success, even if that leads to issues in the long run.

So that's the case against cross-realm raiding in the current tier.  If it goes badly, it has the potential to seriously damage the method through which people get introduced to serious raiding, as well as one of the major methods by which strangers become friends in the game. It has the potential to see the raiding stratas become very tight cliques, which become harder and harder to break into.

Raiding needs new blood to keep going, and anything that has the potential to damage or block that intake should be looked at with great trepidation.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Preview: City of Steam

Last Monday, Andrew Woodruff from Mechanist Games gave me a little tour of their upcoming MMO, City of Steam.

City of Steam is a browser-based game. But it doesn't match traditional notions of a browser-based game. It's a fully 3D game, with pretty decent graphics, and is very responsive. Mechanist Games is focusing on making as easy to jump in and play as possible, with very fast loading times.  It's actually quite an impressive technical feat, in my opinion.

The setting is a more steampunk-ish, Victorian or Industrial Age fantasy. There are humans, elves and orcs, but the orcs and goblins form the working underclass. It's similar to Troika's Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.

Mechanics-wise, it looks to be a themepark MMO using the trinity. The main classes are Gunner (ranged dps), Warder (melee dps/tank), Arcanist (mage), and Channeler (healer).  Gameplay is quest driven to start, but there are lots of dungeons. Also interesting is that the dungeons have challenge modes, which change the objective of the dungeon. One challenge mode might be to kill 200 enemies in 5 minutes, or break 100 barrels, or make it to the end before the timer.

I tried out a Gunner for a bit. The animations were nice, and the early part was fun. I didn't get very far, and only got a peek at the customization options, which look very extensive and looks like complicated fun. People who enjoy tweaking their characters should enjoy this aspect.

Somehow, even though it is a 3D over-the-shoulder perspective, I got a very "Diablo II" vibe. I'm not sure entirely why that is so, it may just be how the UI is laid out, and the fact that there's lots of barrels and crates to break. But that's probably a good sign.

In keeping with the extremely accessible theme, City of Steam is going to be a F2P game.

All in all, City of Steam looks like it will be an interesting game. It's definitely worth checking out, especially to see how far the brower can be pushed, and how quickly you can just jump in and start playing. It really drove home just how much more powerful modern computers are.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Leadership and Effort

In a comment to my review of The Guild Leader's Companion, Bearness writes:

The book sounds helpful and thorough...and very disenchanting. I feel intrigued and disgusted at the same time. At what point did running a gaming guild become so business-like? I understand that a guild, especially a big one, has a lot of social dynamics and requires some leadership and organization to run properly. But, I feel like it can be done without dehumanizing guild members into "human resources".  

I do appreciate certain efficiency in my gaming. If I play for x amount of hours, I'd like to have something to show for it. At the same time, it's just a game, which means the main purpose is to have fun. For me, even if I didn't kill the boss or get that "phat" loot, if I had a good time hanging out with fellow gamers, mission accomplished. But, I guess everyone has different expectations.
Making things look effortless requires a lot of effort.

No matter how you slice it, leading a guild is work. You have to recruit people, deal with drama, keep things running, and keep people happy.

If anything, one could argue that running a serious raiding guild is easier because the expectations of people are much more concrete. Everyone expects to log in and raid at time X, that loot will be distributed according to the system, and the goal is to kill bosses. You're all on the same page.

A casual guild, on the other hand, can't really count on any of its members to show up for anything. Some of them might, some of them might not. And that is even more soul-destroying to a guild leader who's trying to make the game fun for her guildies.

Maybe this is an outdated idea, but I've always felt that the point of organization is to make life easier, to make it run more smoothly. Which ends up allowing you to have "more fun". You can concentrate on having fun, and the rules and structure take care of the necessary elements.

It's kind of like money. Sure, you can go through life running on the edge, using a credit card or borrowing money to pay for stuff and then paying it back. Heck, I've done that before. But it's astonishing how much easier a small cushion of savings makes your life. Even just a couple months of living expenses stashed away makes a radical difference in how smoothly your life can flow. It may even just be a psychological benefit, not having to worry about things as much.

That's the same role that good rules and good structure plays in a guild. Ultimately, it makes life easier, and allows you to have more fun.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Agency and Failure

Milady wrote a really interesting post last week about Agency and Powerlessness. She contends that gaming narratives are immature in part because the hero always succeeds.

I agree and disagree with Milady. Gaming narratives are often immature because the hero is always successful, sometimes verging on omnipotence. However, Milady attributes this to the general maturity level of the gaming industry, suggesting that the gaming industry prefers adolescent fantasies. I disagree with this view. I think gaming narratives are the way they are because of the fundamental structure of games.

Failure in games is different than failure in novels and movies. In novels and movies the writer controls both the protagonist and the challenges she faces. Thus the writer can have the protagonist fail, and the audience considers it a valid failure. Similarly, in real life it is person versus the world, and if the person fails, that failure is valid.

But games are innately adversarial, either player versus the rules, or player versus the game writer/designer. For failure to be considered valid, the player must fail because of a choice she made. Failure that is simply imposed by the rules or game designer is not considered valid, not considered fair. Every situation the game puts the player in must have a solution.  If a player fails to find the solution, that is a fair loss. But if no solution exists, the game is flawed.

To put it another way, Kobayashi Maru situations are innately bad game design. The audience instinctively understands this, and when James Kirk reprograms the simulator, they applaud his ingenuity.

It is fundamentally a question of the balance of power in gaming. It is trivially easy for the game designer to make a no-win scenario. Thus it is bad form for one to actually do so. You see this in tabletop RPGs. The Game Master can easily wipe out the player characters whenever she feels like it. But a GM who actually does this is considered a bad GM, and accused of "railroading".  Failure must come from the players' actions, because the GM has all the power.

So from this we see the problem that games have. All situations the game puts the player in must contain a path to success to be considered fair, valid, and good game design. But, especially in an age of saving and reloading, the player can take all successful paths, and end up with a narrative where the hero is effectively omnipotent.

Sometimes games get around this by offering paths which are partial successes and partial failures. For example, in Mass Effect there is a choice on Virmire. The player can either save Ashley or Kaiden. She cannot save both. So that situation is one way of making the player fail in a "fair" manner.

Similarly the game can make the player fail by having the player make the choice to fail. Where failure is actually the right choice. But this is extraordinarily hard to do without making things feel artificial and forced. Of all the games I have ever played, only Planescape: Torment and Bastion have ever come close to this.

A Solution

My solution to this issue is a gamist solution. The problem is caused by the nature of game mechanics, and thus it must be fixed by game mechanics, not narrative ones. We desire a narrative game where the player does not always succeed. But the player's failure must come from the choices the player makes.

My solution is to have narrative success constrained by a resource the player controls.

You always hear political pundits declare that "the president must spend his political capital" as if political capital was an actual resource that is accumulated and then cashed in. So let's borrow that idea.

The narrative game should have a resource called Influence. The player earns Influence in some manner, and can spend Influence to adjust the outcomes of situations. But the player does not have enough Influence to affect the outcomes of all situation. She must chose which situations she must win, and which situations she can afford to lose.

This sets up a game where every given situation has a solution, but not all solutions can be taken. The player will fail sometimes, but she always fails because of her own choices. Either she spent the necessary Influence on other problems, or she chooses not to spend Influence on this problem, that she can live with the default outcome, and saves Influence for a future problem.

Games are not like other works of art. Failure must be handled in a form true to gaming. It cannot just imposed from above in order to create a mature narrative.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Review: The Guild Leader's Companion, 2nd Ed

Adam 'Ferrel' Trzonkowski of Epic Slant sent me a review copy of his latest book, The Guild Leader's Companion. This is the second edition of that book, but I had not read the first one so it is entirely new to me.

Preliminary Observations

I read The Guild Leader's Companion in electronic (epub) format, so I'm not really sure what the paper version looks or feels like. The electronic version was good enough, with a detailed table of contents.

The Guild Leader's Companion is well written. It is written in a more conversational style than most non-fiction guides, with Ferrel using first-person a fair bit, and drawing on his personal experiences as a guild leader. Interestingly enough, Ferrel's experience comes from Everquest 2 and Rift, not WoW. Everything is more or less the same, though as all three games have a very similar style.

For the content, I am in basic agreement with Ferrel about almost everything. I may spend more time on the things I disagree with in this review.

One small thing I would have liked is a summary section at the end of each chapter. It does seem a little superfluous, but I've always liked summaries in other non-fiction that I've read.

Chapter 1 - Human Resources

Ferrel goes over the major categories of individuals in a guild and discusses them: the Leader, the Officers, Team Leaders, Franchise Members, and regular Members. I particularly like the discussion on Franchise Members, as they are a very important part of the guild which is not often given much ink.

Ferrel introduces an acronym, STAFF, which stands for Serenity, Transparency, Availability, Flexibility, and Fairness. These are the virtues that Ferrel believes leaders should espouse. There is a good discussion about these virtues. In particular, Ferrel has convinced me of the necessity of Serenity and Availability as essential leader attributes.

This chapter also discusses Recruiting, Punitive Actions, Organizational Longevity, Burnout, Leading vs Management, and Social Interaction. In particular, the section on Recruiting is quite good, with much detailed and concrete advice.

Chapter 2 - Organization Structure

In this chapter Ferrel discusses Purpose, Founding Documents, Written Rules, Hierarchy, Culture and Community. The chapter is a solid mix of specific advice and more general discussion.

In particular, the notion of detailing 'outs' in the rules, specifying when and how rules will be changed or explicitly giving the leader authority in unclear situations, is well done. If, during play, one of the rules turns out to be a bad rule, the founding documents should specify how the situation is handled.

It's something that seems obvious, but that many guilds don't really consider, until they're faced with the situation, and then they panic and make hasty and unwise decisions.

The only thing I would quibble with in this chapter is that Ferrel is a bit too narrow in his vision of ranks as a hierarchy of authority, as in the military. He does not really acknowledge the notion of ranks as 'tags' specifying specific attributes, rather than the flow of authority.

Chapter 3 - Public Relations

This chapter talks about Branding, Forum Behavior, Website Behavior, Dealing with Developers, Meetings, and Alliances. I rather imagine that Dealing with Developers is not really something that most guilds have to worry about.  Again this chapter has a lot of solid advice.

Chapter 4 - Applying Leadership Skills to Content Types

This is an interesting chapter. Here Ferrel goes through different types of content such as Small Group, Raids, Competitive Raiding, PvP, Crafting, and Roleplaying. He offers specific advice for each type of content.

The advice is generally well thought out. However, this chapter does discuss everything from the point of view of extended gameplay. I think some thoughts on how a guild interacts with automatic group creation, such as Dungeon Finder and Raid Finder, would be worthwhile.

Chapter 5 - Data Accounting and Resource Management

This chapter is really about Loot Distribution, with a small discussion on meters thrown in. I'm not really a big fan of Ferrel trying make things more universal by talking about Resources instead of Loot. It did make this chapter a little harder to read than it should have been.

However, Ferrel is strongly in the "Loot as Investment" side of things, and this discussion proceeds almost entirely from that. This approach is defensible. Indeed, most high-end guilds follow the same path. But it does leave one blind to problems that a "Loot as Reward" outlook would anticipate.

I haven't read a treatise on Loot Distribution that I have been totally satisfied with. Ferrel's discussion comes close, and is a quite solid discussion on several specific loot systems. However, it is missing several major ones (Shroud, Suicide Kings, Gold DKP, Wishlist). I also think it would benefit from a lower level discussion, specifically about the trade-offs involved.

Heh, maybe one of these days I'll write my own guide to loot distribution.

Finally, a small quibble, but Compound Interest is the wrong name for a problem Ferrel describes, where members use points that are built up from previous content to win items from current content. This section was really confusing until I realized what he was talking about.

Chapter 6 - The GLC2e in Practice

Here Ferrel talks about the ideas that he has put into practice with his two guilds from EQ2 and Rift. He details problems that his previous guilds ran into, and solutions that they came up with.

Final Observations

There is one major element of guild leadership that Ferrel is missing: Time Management. Time Management is a crucial aspect of running a guild, and really should be pulled out and examined on it's own. But that's really the only section which is missing.

The Guild Leader's Companion is an excellent guide to running guilds in MMOs. Most guild leaders will find that this book contains useful and specific advice that can be applied to any guild.