GW2: Fixing the Fractures

At the moment, it's ugly as sin, but there's always hope for tomorrow...

I still can’t stop thinking about fractals.

But rather, it’s nagging me at a deeper theoretical level.

Design is so important to a game. It’s so easy to nudge players into behaving one way or another, and inadvertently, I fear Guild Wars 2 has let players slip back into some of their older, negative gaming habits with how effectively current day fractals are -fracturing- the community.

Everyone knows the gathering node example by now. If two players are set up in competition for that one resource, very quickly, people start cursing that other bastard for ‘stealing’ ‘their’ node.

If it’s a shared node, then there’s less of a rush and time pressure, and opens out the option for the two players to cooperate on their way to the node, and harvest it together, both benefitting.

Of course, in practice even in Guild Wars 2, we see a certain subset of players having created their own personal version of rush and time pressure (get as many nodes as possible in a short period of time) and acting selfishly as a result. These would be the ones that ignore the mobs on the way, either using you to fight for them or assuming everyone is equally in a hurry and will run past, grab their nodes and go.

Depending on your expectations of their behavior, you might either get upset by their actions, or just aim a muttered curse in your thoughts in their direction, or shrug and ignore them because you like killing the mobs anyway. Or you may quickly change and adapt and follow their example, snatch the node and head off yourself. Or maybe you and they were on the same page from the beginning and both snatched and went without a moment’s thought that other players might play differently.

Complete unity is impossible. A well-populated MMO naturally contains different groupings of players with differing priorities. It’s quite natural that they will gravitate to those that share their own interests. What is important in the game’s design though is to try not to shove them at each other and force them to accept one group or the other’s playstyle because that’s just asking for a headlong confrontation complete with screaming, yelling and kicking in-game and across all manner of internet channels and bad blood across both divides. (Unless that result is what is desirable for the game for whatever reason.)

Ideally, you might want the different players to still come in contact with each other from time to time and find reason to work together or tolerate each other if the sum contribution is still valuable. GW2 was striving towards this in its world events, where pretty much any body is welcome, an extra hand, to do damage or rez or support, even if some levels are better than others, some builds are better than others and so on.

WvW also still relies on a sizeable militia body as well as organised groups, (if only because no one server can field sufficient organized group numbers 24/7 and maintain that for long),  even if differing values and strategies and opinions and the flood of adrenaline and competition can occasionally lead to some dramatic implosions or fractures in a community.  This generally results in fairly controlled, mostly mature behavior even through numerous disagreements from a majority of players, if only because overall unity is still the only way to get somewhere. But you can see some of the hidden, negative behaviors shine through when the situation breaks down – griefers, forum trolling, exploiters, back seat commanders, commanders turning on each other, individuals fleeing to save themselves, the works.

Failing which, another alternative is to separate out and leave the different players with differing priorities hobnobbing in their separate circles, achieving success in their own way and having little reason to quarrel with each other.

In retrospect, it seems Guild Wars 1 used this route quite considerably. PvPers did their own thing – make a PvP character, get all the skills already unlocked for your meta building contentment and eventually the devs did separate out PvE and PvP skills from affecting each other (there may have been some screaming in the meantime, I’m not sure, I wasn’t paying attention back then.)

For PvE, they included heroes and henchmen, and a very shallow level and stat cap. You know what this did? It immediately allowed all the soloists to segregate themselves and -still- feel like they were making successful progress in their own staggered time. You might race through all the missions in a week or two, I might take a month or more to get there. Doesn’t matter, we all got there in the end, and me being slower does not have to affect you because I would never join your group, my heroes would do just fine.

Of course, the drawback was that this left out the sociable groupers to quite an extent, who complained that it felt too lonely, the lobby instancing made it less ‘world-like’ and couldn’t find groups easily. However, the partial solution for them matched their nature – they could find a good guild, whom they might socialize with, group and play with and progress that way with others. No one’s solved the guild matching problem just yet, though.

World of Warcraft is perhaps another interesting study. There’s the obvious achievement focused hardcore raiders, whom are all found at the max level plateau, happily chugging through their vertical progression ladder of tiered raids and item levels. And, though I’m lumping them very generally here, there are more casual-oriented players who spend most of their time in the leveling game, socializing and what not. What is their unique focus? Chris Whiteside mentioned it in the GW2 AMA and I thought it very intriguing. Collection. They collect stables of alts of various races and classes, god-knows-how many cute pets, mounts, achievements, costumes, etc.

The real fanatics, of course, do both.

All kidding aside, to me, it seems they generally do operate in their own little spheres, content to ignore each others’ playstyles. However, it is contingent on the WoW casuals having cheerfully accepted that they will never ever reach the level of perceived ‘progress’ as the raiders. Any discontentment along that front and you can get quite the war.

And it does seem these days that Blizzard has had to stagger things out along a casual to hardcore spectrum or continuum in order to try and make everyone happy, rather than carry on with the bait and switch leveling/raid divide. The drawback in their system? People getting tired or jaded and burning out from running an endless treadmill of vertical progression.

Guild Wars 2 has an exceptionally tricky puzzle in their hands now. Both the Clock Tower and the fractals have demonstrated just how violent the uproar can become when one inadvertently forms and highlights divides in the playerbase (even along arbitrary lines, hello, character SIZE as a discriminating factor? Wow), and how reflexively negative behavior aimed at others can result.

Which is completely counter to the overall goal of having players cooperating and working with each other in relative unity, even if they do have to segregate out now and then into their little ghettos to hang with others of their kind.

We’ll have to leave it in the devs’ hands to see what they will do next.

If it were up to me though?

The first thing that comes to mind is to try and diminish the immediate divides. Fractal levels are way too fractured, and players are only receiving progression benefit from players of their specific level tier (or higher, if they would deign to come down to join the hoi polloi, which rarely occurs.)

The pool of players that can offer each other benefits has to expand a lot more rapidly, including making it easier for cross-server groups or guildmates of currently different fractal levels to play with each other, and indeed, for players to find and draw from the totality of the pool (aka LFG spam is not the most ideal of group finding methods.)

They’ve already said they will be including opportunities to obtain Ascended gear through other activities. Which should help to keep the separate groups happy doing their own thing.

What now concerns me is that the divides have already happened. This will leave scars in the psyche of the playerbase. We might already have gotten meaner, more elitist, less trusting, more selfish.

We’ve already seen most of the world abandoned, except for Cursed Shore and Frostgorge Sound, little comfort zone areas of the farmers – despite tweaks that have made other zones decently viable to run level 80s about in. The profusion of things to do at any one time also separates people – harvest nodes, chase world completion, WvW, PvP, jumping puzzle, umpteen dungeons including an infinite one now, farm DEs for loot, farm DEs for karma, farm mobs for crafting items, I’m sure there’s more I’ve missed in my casual run-on sentence list.

What I’d really like to see ArenaNet focus on in the next few months, or even in the long-term (because realistically, companies can’t react that fast) is to try and reiterate a sense of unity in the playerbase. Make us value cooperation and coming together again, if only for a little while.

I know it sounds very cheesy-Treahearne heal-the-scars-of-the-land at the moment. And lord knows I don’t want another one-off lagfest of epic proportions.

But I’d like to be able to run with a group of 10-20 out in the world again, taking down world bosses, running through mini-dungeons, falling and being helped through jumping puzzles, loling and laughing in a friendly manner with each other, cracking jokes and bonding with each other.

Hell, even a costume brawl. Or revive an interest in Keg Brawl. New mini-game activities of a nonserious non-end-of-the-world omg-the-dragons-are-here nature.

Get a guild, you say? I got one, thanks. And we -do- do this sort of thing in WvW, which has helped quite a bit with my recent morale problems.

But why dump the sole load and responsibility on individual guild leaders and officers and players? Design for the feature and give us players a hand here. Throw us already premade into random groups of 10 or 20 into not-too-difficult fun instances. Help us laugh and have fun with each other, not resort to blamethrowing and shit slinging for whatever twisted behaviorial reason. The dragons are always fun to take down together, but it’s notable that players have had to resort to an out-of-game dragon timer in order to congregate en masse. Guilds might benefit from more tools and features to get their members working together and hanging out together in one place. Hell, if you can solve the age-old problem of player matching with suitable guilds, that would be a design miracle and be ripped off by all future MMOs just like the uber-customizable character creator.

Here’s hoping to good things coming for Wintersday. Toys. Toys equate to casual fun, right? How could they possibly screw this one up?

Glitch: The Dangers of Self-Righteous Groupthink

It was hard to find a screenshot to represent mobbing, as in bullying. Here, have one of a crowded Glitch room instead.

Today, I witnessed a mob in Glitch.

No, not an NPC mob(ile), but a lynch mob.

Figuratively speaking anyway, before someone comes down on me for being disrespectful of true lynchings where people lost their lives. But as in bullying or mobbing as defined by Wikipedia, verbally, over the public Global channel.

And shamefully, directed at a self-professed kid.

It all started when some Glitch player came onto Global, asking if anyone could give them some items. (Aha! Begging behavior, any MMO player probably has Kid Alert bells ringing by now.)

Somehow as multiple conversations were going on at the same time, that same Glitch player, in the course of joining in the conversation and attempting to brag a little (BEEP! Kid alert, arrogant bragging!) revealed themselves to be just under the legal age for Glitch. (Glitch’s Terms of Service unequivocally deny anyone under 14 years of age from playing the browser MMO.)

The multiple conversations were immediately derailed as a couple of established Glitchen jumped on the fact of that player’s age, lol’ed and jeered a little, told him about the TOS violation, and over the course of 10 minutes or so, declared they were reporting him, brandished it around like a threat, yelled at him to log off, spoke about him as if he wasn’t there, “watched” him stay online (the term “stalking” comes to mind, but that might be a little extreme), told him that they were watching him stay online, and demanded he log off right this instance.

In fact, one or two went as far as to switch over to the Live Help channel to see if any Staff were present so they could tattle about him to them.

Faced with that sort of harassment, the poor kid eventually gave in and did as he was told.

I can’t help but feel sorry for him.

Perhaps I should have said something at the time, but it’s always been my habit to stay silent and off any group chat channels, I prefer to watch from afar like a cultural anthropologist. Putting in my input there and then would disrupt the social phenomenon *wry grin*.

I was heartily tempted to send the guy a private tell to ask him not to take the harsh words and “outcasting” to heart, but I admit it, I was afraid for my own toon.

Because hell, I’d know what I would have done at that age of 13, just shy two months of 14 (or so he claimed.) Log off that character and make a new one and come right back and this time, shut the fuck up so that any self-righteous bastards wouldn’t have a clue. Very very tempted to tell him this, but you know, this stuff could be logged and monitored like probably all chat channels are in an MMO, and theoretically, he was indeed in the wrong for breaking the TOS, and I didn’t want my toon (with lots of time invested in it) associated with any of the uproar.

(Out of ignorance, no doubt, who reads those TOSes anyway, right?)

And because I’m also afraid of needy kids. You know the kind, show them a bit of kindness and leeway and they’ve stuck on you like a leech, begging you to “help” them with… everything.

Despite all that though, I don’t think it excuses the behavior of those players who essentially lynched the poor chap off the game.

I wonder what kind of impression he would have left with, regarding the players of said game.

Part of my empathy, I guess, is because I faced similar abuse from an A Tale in the Desert player once when I had just started messing about with the beta on a trial account. No, I wasn’t underage, but a trial account has connotations of ‘noobness’ and a veteran player got very mad at an ignorant faux pas of mine (I built a compound too near to theirs, but it looked pretty far to me at the time) and pretty much chased me off their land with a verbal shotgun and made me feel very very unwelcome. Gee, if this was the kind of insular reception new players got, I told myself, they could take their silly old game and stuff it. (It wasn’t, and I eventually tried again elsewhere, with a different name and account, but I was /this/ close to walking off for good.)

And part of me can’t help but think about the other MMOs I’ve played and how more accepting other players are of kids in their game. On my old MUD, one of my best friends and guildmates was a mom who’d let her 8-year old son play from time to time. She’d let us know, oh, he’s on my char now, and we’d take care not to say overly adult stuff on our chat channels, watch him zip erratically from place to place with good humor, and as he got older, 11-12-ish, even praise him to the high heavens when he’d sit and take over for his mom on the equivalent of a raid. He basically just needed to watch his hp and hit a ‘heal’ macro to keep his character alive and hit another skill to do damage – he did pretty good, actually. I’ve never played World of Warcraft to such a hardcore extent, but I’m willing to wager that similar things happen there.

In City of Heroes, you could sometimes tell that you were playing with an underage kid (beyond just suspecting it based on their behavior and typing/speech patterns.) Once or twice, I’ve seen weirdly hopping characters just bounding around shooting grey con mobs and moving in erratic fashion, and on their bios would be a notification, like “This is an X years of age kid playing, all his tells are turned off, he will not respond, etc” and you just grin and leave ‘em alone – or you watch for a while because it’s obvious they’re having such unadulterated glee and fun and it’s so refreshing to see. Or you get the parent who tells you outright that they’re letting the kid steer for a while in missions, no one I’ve teamed with has minded, a couple good players can easily cover for one or two less-than-optimal performers, etc.

Then there’s the “Is this really an issue?” issue. I don’t remember precisely, but when I was 13, I’m almost sure I was off dialing into free BBSes unsupervised and playing door games.  Like urm, Legend of the Red Dragon, which, hem, included the opportunity to flirt, marry and have sex with certain NPCs. Of course, I was smart (and paranoid) enough to know not to reveal any personal information, be it age or home address, to anyone.

Which, given the ubiquity of social media sharing these days and the revealed ‘stupidity’ of the self-professed kids in freely sharing their personal details and information, may be asking a bit much of all of them. Sadly. Which is why I guess things like COPPA turn up to protect them from themselves.

It’s interesting to see how different MMOs handle the ‘child’ issue. I actually Googled up WoW’s and LOTRO’s Terms of Service to see how they deal with it. World of Warcraft asks account holders in their TOS to agree that they are legally an adult in their country of residence., which covers the varying age of majority for different countries (normally 18-21), and they can then, at their discretion, authorize a minor for whom they are a parent/guardian to play, with the license granted to them.

Lord of the Ring’s TOS doesn’t specifically mention anything, but a quick forums search reveals that one has to be apparently 13+ to create the account, and it is permissable for a parent to use their own personal information to sign up for an account for a minor under that age and thus authorize them to play.

I couldn’t find anything in Puzzle Pirates’ TOS, but apparently, age limit for most of their servers is 13+ and they have a Family Ocean with no age limit where they’ve removed poker games and so on.

It’s kinda curious that Glitch has a zero tolerance 14+ years of age limit, when most other places have it at 13+, and make no allowance for play with parental supervision. Very odd. Perhaps they just don’t want any legal trouble and are playing it very very safe.

Still, the whole incident leaves me with a bit of an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

I keep thinking of the Edmund Burke attribution. Paraphrasing, “The only thing necessary for evil to prevail (or triumph, depending on which quote website you ask) is for good men to do nothing.”

Should I have spoken up and said something? Was I guilty of passive evil, of allowing something that I thought wrong (the rampant bullying), to continue unchallenged?

Then again, the players who perpetuated the wrong were perhaps thinking the very same thing. There was a TOS violation, and they could not help themselves but to call it out and call it loudly, to the point that they perhaps indulged in groupthink and the self-righteousness of their cause, and decided to enact vigilante justice.

Perhaps, the Glitch Staff on the Live Help channel said it best. “If you find someone violating the TOS, please report him and let the GMs/staff deal with the issue and move on.”

No need to drag it out and have a pitched battle on public chat channels.