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Monday, 1 June 2015

The Holy Trinity (of MMOs) Part Two: Diversity over Inclusivity.

MMOs have tried to become more and more inclusive.
The more inclusive an MMO is, developers reason, the more subscriptions are attracted and perhaps you'll have a hope of recovering the investment.
Considering the expense of developing an MMO, this is completely understandable.
It is entirely incorrect though.
World of Warcraft has it's massive share of the market not because it is so easy to play, not because everything can be done by everybody.
It is so big because it changed the nature of MMOs. It required communities to develop in order to see large parts of the game. Those communities attract more interest and increase subs.
It is the community behind the game that powers Warcraft's massive popularity, and those communities were built when the game was not inclusive at all.
As inclusivity had increased, communities have suffered, as Blizzard can attest with a decline in server populations as people migrate to greener pastures and whole servers die, all the while the subscriber base remains high.

I believe whole heartedly that what needs to be offered is diversity of play, rather than inclusivity.
Many ways in which to play the game, not an ambiguous crap heap than anyone can dive into and "complete" with little effort.
That is where the trinity comes in.

For the last several expansions Tanking has become more simple and far easier.
Anyone arguing with this point is an idiot, I'm sorry.
Blizzard themselves have admitted as much and with sound reason.
The Looking For Group tool requires FAR more tanking players than any raid team can provide.
1 tank and 1 healer for each 3 dps. Fine if every guild is a 10man, but in the modern 20, outdated 25 and archaic 40man, that ratio is impossible to maintain.
And so, tanking was made easier to attract more players to the faster queues, lowering queue time for everyone. As anybody using the LFG tool can attest, the queues are still not friendly for a damage class.
Their design philosophy also wants player experiences to be fairly short. 20 minutes in a dungeon, not the 2-3 hours of vanilla, or 1hour+ of burning crusade.
The old requirements of Crowd Control classes meant Blizzard addressed this by giving most classes a CC ability, and then removing any need to use them in almost all content. Only a limited selection of classes could use Area of Effect abilities to clear a lot of monsters quickly, so all classes were given access to AoE. Players then dedicated their play time to finding ways to make all encounters reliant on these new damage abilities, as the raw damage output was exponentially higher.
All of this served to kill the diversity of classes and options for players, replacing it with being inclusive.

It might be fun in the moment to see big numbers, but people become bored very quickly of doing the same things again time after time.
Blizzard does an exceptional job of designing Boss encounters that remain engaging and challenging, but this in and of itself is self defeating. As a long time raid and guild leader, players are trained to play poorly by the game outside of high end raiding and expect to compete immediately without effort. Newer players are simply not made ready for endgame with the tools provided by blizzard, but must be plunged directly into the fire to be tempered. A frustrating proposition for all involved.
Add to this the latest tool for finding a raid, and for many joining a community is simply not worth it.

So, how to "fix" the problem and build content that is engaging and encourages communities to flourish.
  • Remove ubiquitous aoe
Players should need to target the thing they need to attack, not just point in the right direction.
At the moment we have MMOs build around players spraying and praying in the general direction of danger. When they are finally required to target monsters tactically, it becomes an exercise in herding cats.
  • Restoring the Trinity
Design specialisations around their job in the raid.
Tank specs should be designed around controlling the behaviour of monsters, damage reduction and raid utility. If a tank is required to track a complicated rotation and many dps ability cooldowns in order to be effective they are not playing a tank, they are playing a glorified dps.
Healing is largely unfuckupable, though I think more hybrid roles are awesome (this is the one area I think Blizzard has done remarkably well, with healers able to switch to fairly substantial damage on the fly)
Damage classes should specialise and vary. Build classes that can do certain jobs very well, and put content in that makes them useful. Kiting, Crowd Control, debuffing, AoE. This should be that persons role in any encounter. Make some classes/specs more difficult to get right, some easier. Give people options in playstyle and don't stress perfect balance or the fact a VERY limited part of the player base will exploit.
  • Crowd Control is FUN and USEFUL
Making Crowd Control ubiquitous was somewhat necessary for Blizzard, as mages were essentially mandatory in even 5man content.
Unfortunately, at the same time they gave everyone (including tanks) easy AoE and made crowd control entirely redundant. Players then refused to CC in order to see big numbers and "increase speed" and complained when content was too difficult, which saw it nerfed repeatedly over every expansion since.
CC was not broken.
People still played and ENJOYED burning crusade 5man content for the WHOLE EXPANSION.
That has not been true since.
Making groups play strategically gives a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
  • Attunements are not a bad thing.
Perhaps a little controversial, but attunements don't make people groan, they provide a structure so people know what they should be doing. Now, developers keep making the mistake of making attunements a PUNISHMENT, but they do not need to be.
Wildstar screwed up by making it's attunement so time intensive, and forcing players to play through the same content when they had already done it all because of an arbitrary restriction. (seriously, having to go and repeat scenarios for the 5th or 6th time in order to advance a quest is frustrating. Attunement should direct play, not dictate it)

Burning Crusade was onerous in the extreme.
Having to run dungeons to Revered reputation to get a key to enter heroic... it was a bit much after doing it on your main.
It did however ensure that people were committed and new what to do (generally)
Later in the expansion attunements were relaxed and a perfect medium was reached (imo)
Rep grind and familiarisation on a main character and that unlocks the content for your whole account.
Great!
Scrapping the attunement for the later raids?
Perfect!

Then we hit The Frozen Throne and it is all thrown out of the window and we see the start of the decline of group play.
Developers need to keep in mind two things when planning endgame content.
First, attunements can be used to direct players to the content you built for their exact level of gear. This limits the frustration your playerbase feels at failure and more importantly, having the deal with those unprepared for the content you find yourself in.
Second, it gives a sense of achievement. It advances your character in a very real sense. Think of it more as just another item they can equip; it's the whole point of the game!
Don't use attunement as a stick to beat people. Use it to funnel players to where they are able to play well. Make it about personal accomplishment and skill, not a time sink (or in the case of the long term "legendary quests" Blizzard has been doing, please allow players to catch up when new content is released. It is endlessly frustrating to have people behind and unable to catch up because the content isn't regularly cleared any more)
  • Encourage community play.
MMOs live and die on their community.
Give people incentives to play in and be active with a guild (whatever it may be called)
This one is tough, but I think it is entirely possible.
Of course there should be options for solo play (I actually enjoy it, strangely enough) but emphasise group play, especially ad-hoc, if you can manage it. Public Quests were a great idea, and they work very well. Prompting people to join together automatically is a very good concept I wish was used more (even allow people to flag themselves as potential "leaders")

  • All content should be endgame content.
The fact that content becomes obsolete is so strange to me.
It does not need to be this way.
In my opinion, the best game to demonstrate what I mean is Eve Online.
You enter the game and despite being able to do very little, everything you do can be used by the most jaded veteran towards their goals.
The most easily obtained crafting material remains relevant to everyone, meaning no content becomes obsolete and new players can engage with whomever they wish and accomplish shared goals.

Another principle to consider is level adjustment.
Allow players of wildly different levels to play the same content.
If you can allow the high level player to receive loot relevant to them, great (Neverwinter does this) but regardless it will serve to bring people together, which again is the core of building a real audience in an MMO.

***

These are just the ramblings of a mad man, but they are the conclusions I arrive to after 15+ years of playing.
"Inclusion" has been poison to MMOs because it demeans everyone. Diversity (of available playing options) will serve the same end, without needed to dumb anything down in an attempt to expand the target audience.
I live in hope we see this in future franchises, and I wait with baited breath for my appetite to be whetted by a truly engaging MMO.