Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Optimization and Player Segregation

In the past, you have often seen me argue against player segregation. When I started playing MMORPGs, my experience was that the new players were welcome by the more experienced players. And I liked to play with the more experienced; and later I liked to play with the less experienced. In this scenario, segregating players was not only unnecessary, but actually detrimental to everybody's fun.

But over time things changed. Surprisingly one root of this change was a design principle that I always supported: "A game should be easy to learn and hard to master". There also were other causes, like anonymity and focus on raids in WoW. But let's ignore them for once, in this post.

All good games are easy to learn and hard to master. Klepsacovic won't like me, but I'll still discuss soccer and chess as examples, fully aware of the fact that there are differences between these games and virtual worlds. In fact, these differences are crucial and discussed at the end of the post.

The reasons this design principle is so important are player retention and new-player attraction. Both are needed for any good game. And so you see soccer players of all skill levels. Even 35 year old men often play soccer or chess (or any other well-known game) at all skill levels. And they have fun. Sure, at times we wish we were a second David Beckham, and maybe we occasionally thought about training more to really show the others our superiority.
But mostly we have fun playing even though we cannot win the world championship, even though we are not rewarded with millions of Euros and even though our reputation as a soccer player is negligible compared to our reputation as a dad, as a friend or as a professional. We still have fun.

Because we understand that to be more we'd have to invest much more time and effort - and pain. And because we understand that the time is past. In this life we just won't become a soccer star anymore. And even those of us who strongly believe that we are all flesh and no soul and will rot under the earth (or the sea?) eventually and for eternity .. they just accept this inevitable truth. It's not fair, but to say it bluntly: Somebody perfectly managed our expectations. Thanks.

Now, this is something you cannot say about Blizzard. World of Warcraft changes all the time. It feels as if somebody told the developers to not change the golden goose too much, but since this is a large and motivated team they just cannot stand idle. So, the lead system designer muses about critical hits instead of real innovation. And rightfully so, if we look at the kind of 'innovation' that came along with Cataclysm.

Anyway, since our expectations were that badly managed, we evolved a sense of entitlement. In the past, I never cared much about that I couldn't access all content. In fact, this made the game world more credible for me. But since WotLK we think that we deserve to see all the content. Spare me the "we all pay the same price" argument, please. Point is that this is just a matter of expectation management and a harmful sense of entitlement can evolve if it is neglected or even ignored.

So the answer to the question that I haven't asked yet: why do different skill levels work in most games, especially sports, but not in some others?, is expectation management. It is something that happens quite naturally.

This is also why it is so very valuable if the designers state clearly what they want the game to be and what not. When Ghostcrawler said clearly that they don't balance arena on a 2:2 basis, he did something very smart (without knowing?). Players now know what to expect. CCP does it much more often. For example they state clearly that if you get ripped off, it's your fault. Now, you can disagree with these design intentions, but knowing what you can expect helps immensely with enjoying an activity - any activity, really.
If I climb up a mountain, perfectly certain that there is a very comfortable hotel at the top, the whole trip can be ruined if there is just a basic campground. Compare that to finding a basic campground where you didn't expect anything! Fact is that, within a certain limit, we can enjoy a lot of things, if we just know what to expect (or, alternatively, if we are pleasantly surprised).

So, how are expectation management and player segregation related?
Player segregation can help with expectation management. If you are part of a group of soccer players who just play 'for fun' and you also 'just play for fun' yourself, this is great. However, if aspirations differ too much, it is harder to have fun. This is not only an effect of comparisons with peers: You can have more fun as a below-average player in a good team than as an above-average player in a bad team. It's not necessarily the case, but it is quite possible. For example, even the worst player in the soccer-world championship is happy to be there. Even if he doesn't play a minute. He wouldn't trade this against playing somewhere with good friends and just having fun.

If we believe in the "A game should be easy to learn, hard to master" design principle, we also need to face the consequences: the more we succeed at implementing the principle, the more important does it become to empower players to choose the correct groups; to allow them to segregate the community. This segregation doesn't have to be total. Players of various skill levels and expectations should still occasionally have contact with each other! But to force these players to play with each other is a recipe for frustration.

And how does this relate to the debate about optimization?
There is an endless amount of readily available material about how to get better at soccer and chess. Now, we don't know how good these games were if this material was not available, but what we do know is that it's not much of a problem. Why?

Well, firstly, because of the mentioned player segregation that comes naturally to these games. If your peers don't read up on soccer strategy, you can have fun without doing it, too.

And secondly, because the challenge is not alone in the execution: not in soccer and certainly not in chess. In both games, donkeyspace plays a very large role. And this is true for most successful games. Actually, I am hard pressed to come up with even one very successful game for adults that focuses on the execution challenge alone. Do you know any?

So, I have changed my mind. If your game is easy to learn and hard to master, you might need to empower players to segregate into groups of roughly similar skill and aspiration. Watch the expectation management: if all players feel like they have a right (or important reasons) to be in the top group, it's your mistake.

It is maybe not a surprise that this problem occurs in a MMORPG. While you might be able to segregate the community in a game like WOW, in a better virtual world, you don't usually have this luxury! And that is a major problem. If you want a group of 5 players to literally destroy a group of 20 players if they are more skilled, you better (somehow?) make sure that the group of 20 doesn't develop an aspiration to not be destroyed. Because if they do develop this aspiration, they either try hard to get better or leave your game.

And thus, I reach a conclusion that nobody is more surprised about, than me:
If, in your game, mastery makes the players much more powerful, and, if your game is easy to learn and hard to master, then segregating the community is necessary.

But while this is an option in WoW-like lobby games, it is much harder in a virtual world. And thus, a virtual world either requires a lot of finesse (for example, geographic segregation of the community along skill levels/aspirations), or it may just not be that easy to learn and that hard to master. Alternatively you could try to develop a virtual world that is easy to learn and hard to master, but doesn't much reward mastery. I cannot say if this would work.


  1. This goes along with my sentiment of "if you don't want less than optimal people in your groups, don't group with them." Of course I admit that's not a very useful idea when most groups are formed by randoms, which is why I'm so keen on the clear separation of difficulty and skill levels.

  2. Given a game that works with the "easy to learn hard to master" principle, wouldn't the community self segregate? Players who play on an advanced level wouldn't want to play directly against casual players and vice versa.

    Players should know what they can handle and what they can't. It's like someone who plays guitar hero who can't play certain songs, they self segregate based on what they can handle. Having the natural divisions gives people something to aim for as well and can help with progression.

    As far as keeping the game from *feeling* too chopped up, I wouldn't mind a mentoring system or a volunteer/help system.

  3. Ohh you seen the light!

    Now the you are very correct that its harder to make skill separation work in virtual world than in instances.

    I believe its possible though. The main problem I see is coming with a good rating system for a virtual world. It would require many intricate and carefully balanced designs tightly tied into game mechanics

    In pvp combat you cant just judge people on dps/hps etc. And you also have to make system resilient to exploiting.

    After robust skill evaluation is made the rest is relatively easy. You can separate different skill levels, you can make the more skilled lead the less skilled and so on - its all about right incentives and "managing expectations" at that stage.

  4. Slightly off-topic - if a game such as WoW goes down the route of handing everything out to everyone (and thereby increasing the sense of entitlement) is it possible to reverse this trend and return to a state of self-segregation based on realistic achievable goals and aspirations?

  5. this reminds me of a time when I used to play magic:the gathering with a bunch of people. It was a lot of fun until some people decided to go to pro-tour qualifiers. The fun disappeared after those people would only play with highly superior tournament decks. The rest of us were no longer on a relatively even playing field.

  6. When I read this, I feel like this is the other side of the coin to using the word "entitlement". In fact, I think this is a far more constructive way of approaching the topic than saying that some communities have a problem with players feeling entitled to everything.

    But you already mentioned that issue. We can trace the current entitlement by WoW players to the WOTLK design statement that everyone should be able to raid, for example. That strategy has changed, but it hasn't been explicitly stated. Therefore, the expectation is still there.

    Tangent aside, I agree with what you are getting at here. Nobody expects to win the World Cup without blood sweat and tears, and nobody should expect to beat hard mode Deathwing without an equally proportional amount of work. (No I don't think these things are equal in terms of work) Because these are the most difficult things in their categories, and if you aren't willing to preform at that level you shouldn't be there.

    I think there are ways around the segregation though. I mention it quite a bit, but systems like City of Heroes sidekicking (and the relative ease of content) allow players to worry less about skill and level and more about who they want to bring.

  7. Because these are the most difficult things in their categories, and if you aren't willing to preform at that level you shouldn't be there.

    And imho actually main reason people are expecting being able to complete them are gear rewards. Which are better than "less hard" modes. Like for example I dont think many people get upset not being able to complete l4dead on expert, yet in wow it causes incessant whining and expectation of being able to do everything game has ,and not just see it , but get the highest reward possible

    Rewards for higher tier difficulties should be intangible.

  8. "Rewards for higher tier difficulties should be intangible."

    Yaknow, I'd like to argue this, but there is in fact a group of players who will tackle very hard content just for the bragging rights. So this might be a viable option.

  9. I really like the ideas presented here. One of the "devil is in the details" concerns I have would be how can an individual accurately "know what they can handle" in a WoW-type group setting? Four above-average players can carry a bad player, through a lot of WoW content. The bad player may not even realize he is bad, and being carried. He comes to think the he can handle the encounters, and may not believe people who tell him different. At some point, the group hits a wall, because the bad player can no longer be carried.

    It's easy to say "don't group with him", but if he's a friend it's hard to just leave him out. It would be really nice if there were a way that the game could objectively inform such a player that they really aren't able to handle XYZ.

  10. > Anyway, since our expectations were that badly managed,
    > we evolved a sense of entitlement. In the past, I never
    > cared much about that I couldn't access all content. In
    > fact, this made the game world more credible for me.
    > But since WotLK we think that we deserve to see all the
    > content.

    Is that really the problem? Or is the problem that some activities give you all good "rewards"?

    - If you raid you get the best items, every other activity is inferior yet those items can be used for all activities.
    - If you raid (successfully) you get additional mounts a mount collector cannot get otherwise yet all the other mounts are easy enough to get for a raider.
    - Now you even get a special pet for being in a 4.2 raid which a pet collector cannot get, yet all the pets are easy enough to get as a raider.
    - There are a ton of achievements you get for raiding which an achievement hunter cannot get yet most other achievements are easy to get for a raider.

    If you're a professional soccer player, at least you can't stay up late and get drunk in the evening. There is a price to pay and some of the "real world content" is not available to you because you are a professional soccer player.

    A raider gets it all.

    Yes, the world would be more credible if you can't see all the content. I think that should even be the way to go. But that must be true for everyone.

  11. Kring, what would you expect a mount / pet collector to do? Walk around and colleect mounts that lay around on the flat earth? Various activities in WoW give these things and you need to do it all to get all the stuff.

    But since I really dislike mounts and pets and 'rewards' and achievements by now, I don't really care, anyway ;)

    If you're a professional soccer player, at least you can't stay up late and get drunk in the evening. There is a price to pay and some of the "real world content" is not available to you because you are a professional soccer player.

    If you are a professional raider, you also can't stay up late and get drunk, btw.

    If you critizise that WoW is all about raiding in the endgame (and professional PvP), I agree. But to argue that a pet collector should do anything to get pets .. I don't understand that critizism. If he didn't have to do anything, would collecting stuff even be fun anymore ?

  12. The problem is that you should be able to choose what you would like to do. And depending on your choice you should set/get/experience content that the other groups don't. You should have choice.

    To me it doesn't make sense that a raider has it easier to get the 100 mounts achievement then a solo player. The reward for 100 mounts can't even be used in a raid. But good raiders have by now about 10 additional mounts...

    And there are many many more examples like that.

    Pre-WotLK it wasn't so bad.

    In vanilla the item inflation wasn't as bad. There were quest rewards which were better then most raid drops (e.g. Spirit of Aquamentas). Getting something like the Winterspring tiger was a real achievement and being a raider didn't help you there. You had to be committed to do that.

    TBC had a heroic dungeon "progression path" besides raiding. You could easily gear up with badges and you would get different loot then the raiders. Blizzard showed you that they do care for you.

    Then they started dropping BoJ in raids which was a mistake. Now raiders get their raid loot AND your loot for free. That devaluated the non-raiders content.)

    In Cata all you can buy with your JP is ("the current raiding tier" - 1) gear. (Grinding out VP is not really realistically without raiding.) You get the left over from the raiders 6 month later. Do you need better gear? No. Does it feel like a fun game if you're being told that you're a second class citizen and only get left overs? No.

    Cata is the first expansion which doesn't offer you anything if you don't raid. It's the most extreme "raid or die" expansion.

  13. What I wanted to say is: If WoW is a theme park then since Cata it's like this.

    - You would like to get an ice cream. Ok, but you have to ride the roller coaster to earn it.
    - You would like to go to the auto scooter. Ok, but you have to ride the roller coaster to earn it.
    - You would like to visit a dark ride? Ok, but you have to ride the roller coaster to earn it.
    - You're hungry. Sure, but you have to ride the roller coaster to earn it.
    - You're would like to buy a souvenir. Ok, but you have to ride the roller coaster to earn it.

    That's nice but if you can't stand the roller coaster this theme park doesn't offer you anything. All you can do is wait near the entrance and flame other people waiting near the entrance...

    I wouldn't be surprised if this theme park would suddenly get 600'000 less visitors... and I doubt it's because people consumed your rides to fast.

  14. Kring, I understand what your saying, and within a pure abstract themepark game you are correct.

    Ignoring all immersion and just conentrating on the abstract gameplay, Blizzard should probably rip the game further apart into many, many little and funny mini games.

    But that's just the opposite of what I want a MMORPG to be, that's why I have a problem with it. The fact that the world is connected is important for me - even if it doesn't make sense on an abstract gameplay level.

    But thanks for remembering me that WoW can still be made even worse in the quest for the perfect simulation-aspect-ignoring gameplay ;)

  15. I don't really see the "connection of the world" related to getting a proto drake for killing Ulduar bosses in silly ways. :)

    Cataclysm funnels and concentrates the whole world on one focal point, the current raid tier, which is neither fun, nor realistic nor immersive. (for me)

  16. Well, I certainly agree that the focus on raiding alone (and a little bit PvP that doesn't really work that well for several reasons), is not to my liking, either.

    Also, you are, of course, correct with your cirticizm that there already is a lot of completely-unimmersive, gamey stuff in WoW in the first place.

    Still, I want a virtual world to be connected. It shouldn't be ripped apart into PvE, BG-PvP, arena-PVP, pet collector, mount collector, achievement collector, etc.

    It is ok to do focus on these goals as a player. But to create the "perfect character", a player should engage in all activities, in my opinion. I don't like the trend towards disconnected minigames and the capital city as a lobby.