Blaugust Day 6: Mind the Gap (GW2 / MMOs in General)

Mind the gap... the really big one...

Last night (or midnight, rather) I was idly listening to the GW2 Gamescom livestream and the panel that was mostly a recap of what we already know about Heart of Thorns and a lot of advertising to new players about how NOW is the best time to join the game.

No sub fee, buy one expansion and get the base game for free and available to play right away, probably the nicest community you’ll ever meet in online gaming, totally respectful of your time – if you want to play PvP, you can just jump in direct and immediately play without having to grind for stats in PvE; if you want to take a break for several months, you don’t have to scramble to “catch up”; beyond leveling to 80, you’ll be pretty much equal to any veteran player…

… albeit, one of the developers hedged, without the three years of gameplay experience that a veteran has.

It’s that exact skill-based knowledge/practice/experience gap that will absolutely guarantee that a new player stepping into PvP will get his face wrecked for at least the first few matches.

It’s that gap that lingers in the back of my mind casting doubts, even as I try to assure and encourage new players that the design of Guild Wars 2 puts everyone on a stats even playing field, letting friends downscale down to accompany those newly entering Tyria and still face a challenge, rather than blowing everything away with a sneeze.

It’s the gap that I suspect separates the veteran dungeon “elitists” who just want to earn four dungeon rewards in the space of one hour and not have to explain every last nuance to an unending stream of evidently-no-clue-what’s-going-on newbies from the regardless-how-long-I’ve-played-the-game I’m-still-nervous-about-grouping-in-dungeons-because-I-lack-that-specific-amount-of-repeated-practice crowd.

It’s the gap that tends to yield a very common behavior – just like Wilhelm experienced from his daughter when first starting out in Minecraft – an almost condescending god-you’re-so-slow here’s-the-RIGHT-way-to-play-this let-me-just-play-the-game-for-you impatient attitude.

People often forget to be patient during the learning curve, and to give others that space to learn at their own pace.

It’s often made doubly tricky by the fact that different people learn at different paces and like different styles of learning – one may be happy being spoonfed answers and fast-tracked to success, another may find it overwhelming to be a) fed too many answers too fast and smothered with handholding or b) fed zero answers and left to scramble around lost and frustrated.

(I’ve no solutions to the above besides the suggestion that the learner should take control of their own pace of learning and speak up if they’re overwhelmed – “Slow down! Hang on! Let me figure this out on my own!” or “Halp! I’m lost! Tell me outright what to do now!”)

But despite the existence of the gap, I’m of the mind that the stats-even playing field is still the best bet.

After all, what is the alternative?

Vertically progressing stats tend to WIDEN the gap between the veteran and the newbie, assuming they play at equal rates, one starting later than the other.

Not only does the veteran have more knowledge/practice, aka “skill”, they have numerical superiority on their side in terms of levels and stats and combat performance.

Err, no. That doesn’t help things.

The newbie only has the hope of “catching up” with the veteran if the vet stops playing, and that can also happen skill-and-knowledge-wise too, stats or no stats.

A stat reset with an expansion, leveling the stats playing field temporarily?

Well, this might help, if you only care about the people -currently- playing your game.

Basically the field temporarily equalizes, beginning a new race among current participants until the disparity begins to widen out and the gap makes itself known once again.

As for those that took a break, well, tough, you’re left in the dust. Not very encouraging motivation to return, is it?

Ultimately, one is probably better off just making sure that playing field -stays- equalized at all times.

How about sloping the field so that the newbies tumble down to where the veterans are at?

That is, making it easier and easier for the newbies to “catch up” to the vets.

I suppose this is what WoW has been doing for several years now, speeding the process of leveling, making ‘on-par’ gear a lot easier to get ‘now’ as compared to ‘then,’ and so on.

One does run the risk of pissing veterans off, the ol’ “I ran uphill in the snow at midnight to attain the same level of success, and here it just falls into your lap, bow-tied and gift-wrapped” protest.

And I don’t think it actually addresses the core issue of learning the knowledge and getting the practice required for competency or mastery. It probably makes it worse, because of less learning time experienced before getting on-par stats-wise.

One intriguing possibility is the prospect of making things ‘harder’ for the veteran, skew the playing field into a slope for the veteran, as it were.

But there are issues there as well.

One is player acceptance, especially from a ‘fairness’ standpoint. For instance, I still really think the present downscaling in GW2 is more than a little borked, mostly because the vet also has access to characters of that level range and can probably game/twink to better performance results over a true newbie or a downscaled level 80 character.

Another is incentive and reward structure. MMO folks tend to only willingly do something ‘harder’ and away from the path of least resistance when there’s something in it for them, that they -want-.

I think a key aspect is autonomy, is the choice to experience something harder within the player’s control?

I didn’t have issues with GW1 hard mode at all, for example. I knew it existed, I sometimes played on it, and mostly I chose not to, because I preferred the easier feeling while traveling through the world. I’m sure others switched immediately to hard mode and never looked back.

The increase in fractal levels appears to be something along this front, allowing players to voluntarily pick their difficulty level.

It’s what I do in Trove too, I try to find that point of flow where it’s not super-easy and unrewarding, and not super-hard to the point where I’m spending ten minutes beating on one boss monster. (Might do it once to say I’ve done it, but not a productive use of time otherwise.)

The last flaw in the sloped playing field is that of separation and exclusion.

That happens naturally. You must be ‘this tall’ to ride or pass that obstacle. Not skilled enough? Guess you can’t do this or that ‘hard mode’ then. Folks that can will tend to segregate themselves away from those who can’t, posing an ever-increasing dilemma of how in the world can those-who-can’t ever learn or cross the gap then?

I suspect the gap will always be with us though.

It’s the nature of the beast, humans are learning creatures and someone who is an old hand at something will always have an advantage over someone coming in brand new for the first time.

Perhaps where we need to focus on is not so much the threat of the gap, but the threat of words like “have an advantage over” and the impulse to segregate into exclusive silos.

And that, I believe, is where the perfectly flat playing field does its best work, if accompanied by incentives to cooperate and form open, loose communities.

If you’re not competing head to head versus each other, or if success is not hinged on 100% top-of-the-line 24/7 optimal performance from all participants, the fact that one player is somewhat better than another becomes less divisive or disagreeable.

Player B may be contributing less than player A, but hey, they are still contributing, and depending on how the game tweaks matters, the combined rewards for player B’s mere presence might benefit all.

Being even stats-wise reduces the number of hoops player B has to jump through to reach equivalency with player A, they just need to focus on the actual knowledge accrual and practice that player A has, rather than spend hours grinding from Tier 1 to Tier X.

The one critique that I can think of regarding this goes like so: “What if Player B is incapable of gaining the knowledge and practice of Player A?”

Vertically progressing stats would give Player B the ‘hope’ of matching Player A’s performance, if he or she puts in the time required to obtain better stats than Player A.

(We are, of course, assuming that Player A doesn’t use that same time to improve stats-wise, staying on-par or even getting better in terms of stats, while still staying ahead in terms of knowledge and practice.)

I guess it boils down to what we value. Especially in our games.

Is it more respectable for someone to be better than another person, due to having more knowledge or practice at something? Does it feel ‘fair’ as in “beaten fair-and-square?”

Is it worth more respect for someone to be better than another person, by clocking in the hours and ‘showing up,’ regardless of actual productivity or performance?

Is it worth more respect, even, for someone to be better than another by the virtue of how much real life cash they decide to put into a game?

Are there other measures of a person, beyond skill, time and money, that we are, for now, not really quantifying or rewarding – such as the person’s actual character (as in character development) behind the avatar, or attitude, or sportsmanlike conduct, or sociability or leadership or ability to be a community nucleus and pull in others to work and play as a team?

Perhaps we should support more games which are cognizant of and in congruence with what we value, and less of those that do not.

Maybe we need to be less obsessed with measurement altogether, less concerned with a gap that’s always going to exist and ranking people on this side as ‘better’ than people on the other side, then trying to figure out how to help someone ‘cross the gap.’

Maybe that’s a pipe dream, since there are, after all, gaps that should be crossed, such as gaps of poverty (something that cripples performance, yields a poor standard of living) or education (knowledge/skill) in real life.

Or maybe it’s just about having a baseline. We would probably want to (ideally) bring everyone across a poverty gap, but when we start to obsess over slight differences and segregate ourselves based on earning a hundred dollars more or less, well, that might be taking things too far.

Speaking of which, that’s about as far as that metaphor will stretch, methinks, so I shall stop.

No real answers here, just some food for thought.

Oh, and on your way out… Do mind that gap.

This post was brought to you by the letter B for Belghast and Blaugust, and the number 6.

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2 thoughts on “Blaugust Day 6: Mind the Gap (GW2 / MMOs in General)

  1. James says:

    Since you linked my post, I’m going to reiterate that my issues with GW2 were not of a new player unwilling to brave the wilds of Tyria alone. Rather they were of a player who reached max level on multiple characters and was staring down this gap that you mentioned. It became clear that what I learned through leveling was insufficient to progress further in the game. Sure, I could get through dungeons and not always get stomped in PvP but nothing ever truly ‘clicked’. It was always a struggle and stopped being fun as the game seemed to be shouting “YOU’RE DOING THIS WRONG” in my face. Sure I could’ve done even more research into guides and videos than I already had been doing but it felt like diminishing returns for the effort already invested.

    That’s not to say that I didn’t have fond memories of GW2. I may return at some point, now may be a good time to do so. I just feel that I may never cross that skill gap and that will limit my enjoyment.

  2. Sylow says:

    I think two factors actually play into this problem. The one you stick to strictly is the feeling of eligiblity. Players who once worked hard to get the top of the line gear want to stay special. Allowing other players to catch up is not in their interest and if it was up to them, all content would even be made harder after they defeated it, to defend their position of “privilege”.

    The other problem, not mentioned in this posting, is more severe in my eyes: in almost any PvE game, the worst enemy of a good player is another good player. After all, there are only so many places (5/6/8/10/20/35/40/pull out any other arbitraty number of a sunless place) in one dungeon/raid/whatever-other-name group. Due to these restrictions, which only make sense in terms of gameplay, the NPCs are the targets, but the other players competing for the same spot in the group are the real threat and thus the actual enemy.

    Now look at the veteran player, he worked hard, invested many hours over many weeks, months or years, to have his top gear and thus have his spot in the raid group. See how he is threatened by the new player, who just started the game shortly ago, but got all his gear much easier now and thus has the same gearscore as the veteran. You just have to understand what a menace and thus what a hateworthy abomination the new player is.

    The problem here is in the system. The numeric limitation is very logical from a game designers perspective. How to make content which is challenging, if people can simply pick up ten more players and then steamroll the content? But it’s very illogical in any other aspect. I doubt there ever was any party, be it raiders, bandits or any military group, who decided to leave people behind and attack with a smaller force for the sole reason of giving the enemy a fairer fight and a better chance of victory.

    Interestingly enough, the only place where i never experienced this issue is open world PvP, which i participated in in several MMOs. In those games you happily took along weaker players, too. They might hit like a wet noodle and be just a small speedbump for an attacking enemy, but that small speedbump might give you just the time you need and the damage of a wet noodle might be just the difference between the enemies healers being able to outheal you or not.

    As a bonus, the inexperienced players thus also saw plenty of action and within limited time became useful group members. This is in strong contrast to those PvE systems, where the weaker players are only taken along at content where they could be carried through. Not only do those players not shape up to top form due to lack of exercise, often their forced inactivity also makes them give up. Once the mindset of “i am not good enough” really is in them, they won’t ever become good players, not even when the “top” ones get bored and quit and the former “second line” now would urgently needed.

    Unfortunately while i see this problem, i am not aware of any fix within a PvE environment. The two sides, one demanding even more challenging content, the other side being left behind by this, can’t ever be satisfied at the same time. I am quite certain that if somebody would find a real solution for this, he’d ring in a new era of MMOs.

    And on GW2 and skill, this game has it’s additional unique set of problems, in comparison to other action MMOs out there. Most other action MMOs provide consistent information on threats. A good example is the combat of The Secret World. While many people shun it for not being spectacular enough, it provides information in a clear and consistent form. All interruptable abilities have a castbar, all ground effects have the same style of telegraphs (white markings on the ground with a “fill” animation) and even early on in the game those effects are significant enough to teach players to avoid them. At the same time, they come in fair enough intervals that you indeed can avoid them all.

    In contrast to this, GWs2 has many ground targeted effects, some of them are significant, others can easily be ignored, and your endurance recharge doesn’t allow you to dodge them all. Additionally many special attacks of bosses are only shown with unique animations and unfortunately often the big and threatening looking attacks actually are trivial (but still make you waste endurance), while the real killers are small animations which are hard to notice. (And you’d be out of endurance, anyway, even if you noticed it. )

    Due to this, GW2 requires much more “learning by dying” than many other MMOs out there. Don’t get me wrong, i also die plenty at the hard content of TSW, like the new NM dungeon, but that’s because we missed an interrupt, dodged the wrong way, didn’t intercept something fast enough or stuff like that. Me make mistakes and wipes do happen, but at least it doesn’t require me to first die several times to learn what is killing me.

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