Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Group Logistics And The Perception Of The Grind

Over the year since its launch, Warhammer seems to have perfected no-hassle, instant access group content. On the map above, the glowing treasure chests are group public quests with at least two players present, and the crossed swords indicate where RVR battles are in progress. All you have to do is sign in, head for one of those spots, and pitch in.

Having a guild or a group are purely optional, as anyone can see where the action is and everyone who helps gets the appropriate share of the public quest rewards. You show up when you want, stay for however long you want, and get rewarded proportionally for your efforts. It's easy enough that I've spent about 75% of my time during the free retrial on group content, even though I'm gaming with limited time and have been known to spend the vast majority of my time solo (e.g. soloing from 1-73 in EQ2 without ever joining a group for any reason).

By contrast, World of Warcraft focuses on instanced PVE content with fixed parties (tank, healer, 3xDPS), so this sort of map wouldn't be effective. Instead, they're simply automating the process of group formation, so that players can click the "find group" button and instantly be transported to a dungeon with a (hopefully viable) full party to clear it out. It's less immersive but it may or may not be more effective in the long run, especially since the system works across multiple servers.

Is there a catch to instant access?
The issue with the Warhammer open RVR and public quests is that the options, though fun, are limited. At any given level/zone, you have maybe 3 public quests (one of which probably requires 9+ players and therefore can't be done with the available numbers) to choose from. Those three red shields on the Warhammer map represent the only three open RVR battlefield objectives in the zone, so players can expect to be battling over those for a dozen levels. You'll also have the same instanced scenario choices for that dozen level bracket.

(There are technically three zones per level bracket, each with its own PQ's and battlefield objectives, but there really isn't the population to support that number. Mythic made the decision to start all new characters in the human vs chaos zone as of the most recent patch, in the hopes of getting enough player in the same place to actually fight.)

All of this is a necessary feature of easy access to groups. The more choices a game offers, the more the population will spread out. (As I've discussed before, WoW will have sixteen 5-man instances in 3.3, but you can bet that half of them will be much more popular due to superior quality loot or ease of completion. The catch is that it starts to feel very grindy, very quickly. You finish a public quest and your choices for what to do next are one of the same 2-3 quests (if anyone else is doing them) or battling over the same small corner of the zone in RVR.

Losing the illusion of variety
In terms of actual gameplay experience, the solo PVE quest grind is no less repetitive; go somewhere, kill and loot the local mobs, repeat. The difference is that the frequent change in location creates the illusion that you are going to new places and doing new things. That illusion is gone when your only option is to turn around and do the same quest that you just did, or perhaps the quest before, depending on what you can find a group for.

When the dust settles on WoW's new automated system, I wonder if its five-man content will feel largely the same way. To a certain extent, the time it takes to actually assemble a group creates an impression of scarcity - the reaction when a group finally forms is "now I finally get to snag some emblems" and not "sigh, time to run one of the same old dungeons again". When finding a group is as easy as clicking a button, that anticipation may go along with it. (In much the same way, the 3-hour timer on Wintergrasp may be a blessing in that it physically prevents players from fighting again until the next match.)

Blizzard doesn't really have a choice in this matter - the 30+ minutes it takes to look for a group and travel to the instance the old fashioned way are 30 minutes that I don't really have these days. Even so, I can't help but wonder whether having increased access will increase the recognition that the dungeon grind is, in fact, grindy.


Jormundgard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jormundgard said...

"I can't help but wonder whether having increased access will increase the recognition that the dungeon grind is, in fact, grindy."

Now that heroics are a joke, raids are puggable, gear is periodically refreshed by emblems, consumables are trivial to gather, and hard modes recycle old content, isn't this where WoW has been since 3.0?

The removal of grind and inconvenience has really exposed a lot of the monotony of the game, and I wonder if those once-treasured moments inbetween the grinds are becoming the new grinds.

DeftyJames said...

I'm not sure that it will increase the recognition so much as it will make people recognize it faster.

I think in the long run this catering to casuals is a poor strategy because something is desirable insofar as it is scarce. If it is no longer scarce it is no longer valuable. And why should people grind for something that isn't valuable. In other words, I would argue that the "grindyness" of an instance isn't merely a function of repeatability as it of perceived value. The less valuable something is perceived to be the less people are willing to repeat tasks for it and the quicker the boredom sets in. The one advantage daily quests have is that they give you gold, which can be used for all sorts of purposes. Badges, not so much.

Stabs said...

I think what's keeping most veteran WoW players interested and motivated is Cataclysm.

I think Cataclysm will be hugely popular with many players returning but after a few months most will leave.

For now while it is a grind people value their status (max level, epic gear, good guild) and don't want to risk it or reset it by moving on.

WoW continues to be extraordinarily newbie-friendly in many ways - a new player willing to solo to 80 will get awesome gear and see amazing content in epicly large groups.

I think though they may be running out of newbies.

As for Warhammer the trial will fail to rescue the game for precisely the reasons you state here. There isn't enough of an improved experience, in fact there's probably a worse experience if you sub than if you play for free.

Still in the 9 hours of downtime DDO suffered on Monday I was very glad to take advantage of the new streaming download and kick some elf butt.

Dalt said...

The "catering to casuals" excuse for the woes of online gamming is pretty stale. By *scarce* it sounds like you mean that good items should be for raiders only. That would be a poor business strategy on Blizzards part since casuals (who outnumber raiders) pay the same monthly fee. I doubt Blizzard would be focusing so many resources on casual playing if they didnt have good numbers showing them that it is a sound investment. I guess there just arent enough elite players to pay the bills.

The biggest challenge any game company faces is keeping the majority of their player base interested in logging in regularly (if not daily) so they keep their accounts active. To do that though it will definately be a challenge to keep the game immersive so the grind isnt staring at you in the face.

I think (and this is just a personal opinion) a good example are the level 1-20ish quests in WoW that were introduced in the Burning Crusade expansion for the Draenei and the Blood Elves. Even though I know all the quests for those zones I still find the pacing, setting and music very pleasant. I level a new character though those zones whenever I need a change of pace (though they usually get deleted afterwards).

I think that Cataclysm will bring more of those elements to the game. Pacing and atmosphere go a long way towards masking the illusion of the grind.

DeftyJames said...

@dalt. The flaw in your logic is that you are confusing casual players with casual raiders. They are not the same thing. Most casual players don't even raid, not even casually. Blizzard goal is not to keep or lose casuals so much as it is to turn casuals players into casual raiders. So making questing more appealing to casual players does nothing to turn those causal players into casual raiders.