Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tanking is easy, Being tank is hard

I've been on vacation the last few days. And .. woa! Blizzard starts the next step in their endless experiment that is WoW. Players are now officially bribed to play a tank in the teleporting, anonymous dungeon finder. Will it work?

Yes. Of course not on everybody, but there will be several people who just needed a little bit more incentive to tank - like a non-combat pet. Of course, there are also the very few people who would consider such a thing another reason to quit, if we hadn't already. We are a minority, anyway.

Bribing people works. But will it achieve more than its direct goal: Will it not only reduce wait times for non-tanks, but actually add to a fun game? Will the new tanks have fun?
In some way: Yes. Working for something is fun. Grinding heroics as a tank - even if you dislike tanking - can be fun. Until you got what you wanted or burn out.

On the other hand, there already is a very strong bribe: waiting 30-45 minutes or not at all. I am not certain the additional bribe adds much here. Especially for casuals an instant queue must be a enormously strong incentive!

What might be interesting, is the question what the effect will be on those players that already liked to tank? External incentives reduce inherent fun. Long known fact. Blizzard knows. They seem to consider this sacrifice worth it.

Now, about that tanking problem. Why don't people want to tank? Is it too hard? No. Tanking itself isn't hard. Don't believe me? Try it! Tanking in a reasonable group is easier than dps and easier than healing. But what about an un-reasonable, bad, group? Well tanking is hard there, but so is dps and healing!

The problem with tanking is not that the process of tanking itself is hard. The problem is that tanks do much more than just tanking in WoW. Tanks also are exspected to lead. For good reasons, by the way. But this is the root of the evil.

Leading is challenging. In a bad group it is quite difficult if not impossible. You remember Blizzard talking about extra rewards for the 'lead' role? In the end, they didn't do it for a lot of good reasons, but they know very well that leadership is a real problem.

Leading, even if it were simple, is no fun for most people. Leading means assuming responsibility. Casual players hate this. You ask what's the difference between hardcore and casual? The harcore are willing to lead, the casuals want to be lead. And there is nothing wrong about this. I, for example, always hated leading 25-man raids. I wanted to be lead. I also never liked to lead any raid on workdays.

Leading requires more knowledge, more time investment, more disappointment if you fail, more stress. And what for? Well - usually for a rewarding emotional response by the ones you lead. Like, "Well done!", or "Thanks!!".

Ask yourself: How often have you lead people in real life? How often did you lead strangers iRL that you knew you would not see again, ever? Perhaps you have done it for money before? Have you ever done it without being much better informed about the 'content' than the ones being lead? Have you ever done it without having more authority?

See, an anonymous LFD is just not a good environment for leadership. Most humans don't like to lead. They may claim that they want to be the boss, but really, they do not. Why do you think managers get paid so much more in a market economy? Well, partly because our market economy isn't really as efficient as we'd like, but also, because being the boss isn't fun. And playing boss in front of strangers that demand to be lead, but also consider themselves as smart as you (or smarter); no thanks!

The only way to have fun tanking in a WoW LFD is to ignore the other players. But then, Blizzard wants you to communicate to beat challenging content! So tanks downloaded addons that told people what to do. And if the group screws up two times in a row; well, bye. You don't want no emotional involvement with 4 strangers that exspect you to lead without respecting your authority. ("I pay as much for this game as you do!!!")

The usual reward for assuming responsibility are emotional reactions. Direct or indirect. Leading other people is stressful. Leading other people in an anonymous environment is a completely thankless thing to do, because there cannot be meaningful emotional reactions. The only reason people might lead in an anonymous company iRL is external rewards: prestige with other people on their level. A Ferrari perhaps or another title.

You know how much you have to pay someone to do an anonymous management job? $200k+. And there still is a shortage.

Concluding, if Blizzard wants to solve the tank shortage problem long-term, without sacrificing the rest of WoW on the way,

- they need to reduce anonymity to make leadership more rewarding. Leading a team of 1-20 people can be great fun iRL, 1-100 can still be ok. Leading four random people out of a pool of thousands is unfun. Leading strangers who don't even respect your authority is more like a punishment, than like a game.

- they need to separate the tank role and the leader role. They need to allow those who want to lead to lead. And they need to allow those who don't want to lead to be lead; irrespective of the class/specc they want to play.


  1. "reduce anonymity". This might have been an option if it were implemented from the very beginning, but many players (and people on the internet in general) take solace in anonymity.

    We all know how the reception to RealID was. I think that there are interesting implications for being associated irl for leadership responsibilities in a game, but it is something that has to be associated with the game early on (and not put on people who are used to being anonymous).

    Beyond the direct impact to esteem that having yourself associated with responsibility brings, I can imagine that taking on positions of responsibilities could even lead to benefits in reaching real-life positions of authority, perhaps by showing credibility for leading groups on a resume. There is a lot of potential to make a virtual leadership experience satisfying and rewarding on many levels if it is implemented right.

    This leads to your last point: have a role that is specifically for leadership, but again, I'm not sure if a separate role could realistically be added into a typical MMORPG at this point. In my own thoughts on games I imagined this role as well, there is a void in this position. Tanks being considered leaders is a quirk of WoW, most likely based on the fact that tanks manage the content for the most part due to what they do (they also most closely fit a strong "leadership archetype", but that isn't necessarily significant). You can't really change the fact that tanks tend to manage things since that's their role in terms of gameplay.

    In a theoretical game, how could a leadership role be implemented? I think that's an important question because I don't think that any current MMORPG could realistically have a role like that stand on its own. If you were to have a leadership player, you would have to remove that player from being directly on the battlefield or taking damage for them to be effective, but in the current MMORPG structure of questing and mob grinding, that removes the core of progression.

    So while I agree with your points, I think that they are options that would have to be explored in an entirely new and different game. I think that benefits and incentives are the best that Blizzard can realistically do for WoW; they essentially have to pay the player for the extra work.

  2. Do note that the tank's new bribe - pets and gems and elixirs - are all tradeable to their mains, while the existing benefit of tanking - short queues - won't help someone advance a toon that's not the tank.

    People might choose to knock out a random on their tank alt rather than grind stratholme again for the Baron's mount on their mage.

  3. WoW is doomed. It's not even salvageable.

    WoW's numbers will slowly but surely decline as developers realise that designing EVERYTHING around newbies only goes so far.

  4. Dammit I just spent all morning writing a post about this to find out you said the exact same thing yesterday.

    I hate failing at original thought. =|

  5. Gilded, thanks for the long comment.
    There might be a misunderstanding, though. When I say 'anonymous', I am not talking about real people's identity. But rather the identity (and thus accountability) inside the game world. I didn't like RealID all that much.

    There's certainly some RL benefit to organising and leading and assuming responsibility in a MMORPG. But if that's what you are after, I'd still suggest to do something else and not play a MMORPG ;)

    I agree with you that there's no reason to try to change WoW yet again. Let it be what it is, let it die a (very) slow and deserved death. And concentrate on new worlds.

    Joseph, thanks for the point. I agree.

    Stabs, I don't really agree. WoW does not only focus on new players. In fact, few MMORPGs are as hostile to beginners as WoW - if you ignore the leveling solo-play content that might even be too trivial (=boring) for beginners.

    Coreus, problem with the truth is that it is rarely 'original' :)

  6. Thought experiment: 1 second into the fight, one player of a heroics group gets disconnected. What are the probabilities that the group survives the fight in the three possible cases:

    1) The disconnected player was DPS
    2) The disconnected player was the healer
    3) The disconnected player was the tank

    While you are totally right that every role *can* be *voluntarily* played in a hard way, the tank and healer roles are always hard. The dps role is not hard, because even if that player disconnects, there is still a good probability that the group finishes the fight successfully. Thus if he stays connected but just mashes random buttons, which isn't hard at all, the group will also win. Extremely easy for the DPS.

  7. As I have said on your blog before, Tobold, you need to differentiate more between consequences and challenge. They are related, but they are not the same.

    For example WoW isn't necessarily easy, just because the death penalthy (consequnce) is trivial. And EQ wasn't necessarily hard just because you could loose your stuff.

    Imagine an encounter that requires top-notch dps. If any DD performs not at least at 90% of his theoretical optimium, you wipe. Is this hard for the individual DD? Let's assume 3 DDs in the group. If the other two do 100% theoretical dps, I can do 70% of my theoretical optimum and still beat the boss. easy.. isn't it?

    In fact, this is a really hard boss. Due to too low-dps problems! And it's much more extreme in raids!

    This also means that if you are not an idiot, you will try to give your very, very best as DD. And thus, it is a challenging task.

    Now look at the tank. The process of tanking is trivial. If you build up threat with 50% efficiency, it's probably no problem right now in Cataclysm. Your rotation is just for fun.

    Sure, if you stood in the fire for 10s, the group wiped. But, trust me, if you stand in there for 4 seconds, nobody complains. Tanking in WoW has a very low probability of going wrong. If it does, the raid wipes. But this also means that you, as a tank, aren't really challenged.
    You need to screw up significantly to even endager the group most of the times.

    It is the responsibility to not screw up that weights heavily on your shoulders, not the challenging gameplay.

  8. @Nils
    If that's the case then there isn't much different from the current games as they stand. Games already let characters build reputations in a pretty organic way. If I find a good PUG then I keep in contact with the players, and if I need a group I have a bunch of contacts. If someone is a great tank etc then they build a reputation. If you want to emphasize in-game credibility and making a name for a character than emphasize PUGs and random grouping for minor content. I think the problem is having a game be mostly solo'd through the levels and by the time people actually need to group up for group-specific content they don't have any connections.

    As far as the class imbalance, I think we both agree that the balance issue is fundamental and that it is too late for WoW to really change it. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts and solutions for actually solving the problem given a blank slate (I know I have my own thoughts). The points you made at the end don't really solve the problem, and if we're talking about a blank-slate game design, then I'm sure more could be done.

  9. Gilded, I don't know when you last played WoW, but you tell me how anybody is supposed to make a reputation when he cannot control with whom he enters dungeons. More importantly, if the people he enters dungeons together with, are actually from other servers.

    Class imbalance is one of the smallest problems of WoW, in my opinion. It is probably the best-balanced MMORPG in history. Which isn't really surprising considering that it uses a restrictive class system.

    The points at the end were meant for WoW. Not for blank-slate game design. In that case I'd probably change so much that the whole problem would be replaced by other problems -.-

  10. I'm not talking about dungeons or raiding or any of that, I'm talking about building a reputation from PUGs and grouping before the serious grouping content. Also I'm not specifically referring to WoW, I've played many games and that is how reputation organically comes about on a server.

    Class imbalance is not the biggest problem but it is the problem that is being focused on.

    We agree that there are a limited number of things that can realistically change in that game, whether or not the end points were for WoW, which is why I think it would be more productive to focus on a blank-slate and how a developer could avoid the design issues altogether, which is why I was inquiring how you would solve this type of design issue if you could.

  11. Also I'm not specifically referring to WoW, I've played many games and that is how reputation organically comes about on a server.

    You're right. But this is not the way reputation comes about in the WoW-LFD ;)
    This post was purely about WoW.

    What I did on a blank-slate? Well, I wouldn't introduce a teleporting, cross-server dungeon finder in the first place. That takes care of the anonymity.

    Then I would use an Eve-Online-like system to take care of the class system. And finally I'd try to make tanking less powerful, without giving it up completely.