GW2: Molten Weapons Facility – Analysis and Opinions

Now that the “on principle” philosophical argument about “forced” grouping is out of the way, let’s get down to some of the nuts and bolts of the dungeon design itself:

Bottom line is, I’m still heavily playing repeated instances of the dungeon, which suggests that a whole bunch of things -did- go right.

The crux of it is that I decided I really like the look of the Molten Firestorm and Molten Berserker bosses, and -choose- to keep striving for a lucky miniature drop and/or a tonic recipe that I can slooowly build up the mats for later.

Philosophically, I much prefer a token system over RNG drops (mostly because my luck sucks – see Venom precursor, and I keep getting turnip soup most of the time) but I respect that RNG has its uses and it’s a sneaky way to keep experienced people continually playing the dungeon for the time period because they are either unlucky, or are very lucky and want more drops to sell.

I am also able to tolerate the dungeon and most groups quite well because of the design which strives to prevent as much rushing past as possible. I like to fight everything. I’m playing an MMO to fight stuff and have a good time, not skip past everything to the end reward. (Which, I am aware, puts me at odds with a good many habitual dungeon speedrun farmers out there.)

I greatly appreciate the enforced pauses, because it gives a better sense of pace, allows new people to appreciate more of the story and NPC interactions, lets one switch out utilities as needed before the group members with ADD have rushed into the next set of mobs, and even, horror of horrors – gives people time to type sentences in party chat and interact socially.

I’ve had some hilarious groups with Tarnished Coast servermates – being TC’ers, I figure they must be used to RP weirdoes and have indulged in very shallow roleplay by speaking like a snarky, snotty Asura (which is never hard to do) and adding color commentary to NPC lines.

I really do. They are sexy sexy ears.
I really do. They are sexy sexy ears.

The best bit is the no-real-consequence atmospheric epilogue, which is a tremendously good time to just let one’s hair down and have a little fun after successfully beating the bosses and making people laugh or keeping them entertained. (I hope, anyway.)

epilogue1
(last bit while running around in little asura circles of panic)
epilogue2
(while aflame)
epilogue3
Of course we did.

And then there was the party with the engineer who insisted he did NOT have an elixir B drinking problem:

epilogueb1

I try to leave the bookahs to burn every run, but they keep following...
I try to leave the bookahs to burn every run, but they keep following…

Alas, enjoyable groups where -someone- else talks and helps to keep the immersion and entertainment going with wisecracks are few and far between (which is why I’ve immortalized the fun I had in the screenies above.)

In groups where I see no one talking, or don’t seem like they’d be open to a bit of fun, I just shut up and be a good little silent robot cranking out one’s path to the shinies. (Or running vainly with short legs trying to catch up with the speed freaks.)

Which sometimes leads to horrendous messes. I gotta give kudos to ArenaNet’s design team for creating stuff which challenges the group to cooperate well together. Too many times, I see a player rush ahead and accidentally aggro a whole load of Molten Alliance mobs – which leads to a great chaotic frenzy of jumping around, dodging, healing, buff-throwing, seeing folks get downed, trying to rez them up, etc. Disagreements on whether to kill the Molten Brawler or the Molten Gunner first are also another cause of extreme chaos. Fortunately, the difficulty is not too insane, so strong group-focused builds will more or less keep the team upright.

I confess to preferring something neater, where no one’s hp bar ever moves into the danger zone. I feel like something’s gone wrong if someone falls over into the downed state, let alone, dead. Maybe it’s just a carry over from tanky days in City of Heroes. I relish the rare groups which, by chance or by cookie cutter build, are well synergized to the point where buffs are flying all over and no one is in real danger of dying.

And then there was this fantastic party: a lvl 80 mesmer, me, a lvl 68 elementalist, a lvl 35 guardian, a lvl 35 thief. The non-80s had 1k-2k achievement points and I was wondering if this was going to be another fiasco. It wasn’t.

You know why? All the players were great playing their classes, and the three lowbies appeared to know each other and were used to fighting together. The group also had the patience to recognize and wait the mere 5 seconds for me to wordlessly corner pull and separate out Gunner and Brawler spawns, so that we tended to only fight one at a time, with the other stuff all stacked up neatly on the corner where the mesmer could unleash all his stuff and everyone just unloaded. The only time one or two of them fell over was during the last boss fight (and were promptly rezzed), though they were all masterful at movement and dodging… I still think non-80s are working with considerably less buffer and I have to give them kudos for being very very good. Neat, super smooth, no deaths, a few downs.

And there are groups like this, where apparently pulling means shooting shit to death while backing away slowly in a straight line.

Lamenting the lost art of pulling properly
Lamenting the lost art of pulling properly

I’m a hammer/staff guardian, I don’t have any range worth speaking of, if you don’t warn me in advance to switch to scepter.

Of course, the nice thing I really appreciate about ArenaNet’s trinity is that there are many ways to achieve the same goal. You -could- focus fire them down from range if your party was built that way. I’ve seen other guardians charge in and use greatsword’s binding blade to great grouping/clumping effect with less time than scenery pulling. Some classes use a whole bunch of pets/minions to split aggro.

And yes, you can just rush it all pell mell using your own bodies to split aggro, relying on shouts, banners and other buffs to keep you upright, with or without a focus target, with varying degrees of messiness depending on how everyone’s build is set up. Whatever works. The variance at least keeps it lively.

The ambush at the start is a nice touch story-wise. I try not to ruin it when I know someone is new in the party, but more and more, you see the couldn’t-care-less people just stand by where they spawn. A repeat group is, of course, another matter.

tunnel

I enjoy the enforced delay in the tunnel here. You see all the ADD folks humping the coals and getting burned. There’s built in time to buff up for each encounter, you can’t skip past it, and if you haven’t mined the nodes, you can usually get it mined and catch up with the people who wouldn’t wait at all if not for the big fat drill in the way.

The random spawn of Champion Ooze, Champion Troll or Champion Ember in the hall beyond is an interesting touch. I’ve seen the most chaos tends to occur when the Ember is in play.

The hidden orichalcum ore was a fun mini-puzzle to figure out the very first time. It gets problematic later on with a group with split priorities here though. Impatient people don’t wait. They turn left, rush through the steam vents and are dashing through the corridor to trigger the weapons test, while the new ones who want the ore are still being guided through the path and the cutscene no doubt triggers at a confusing time for them, ruining the narrative effect completely. At least someone who’s seen it before has just enough time to dash through the spiders, mine their ore, and get out.

If the NPCs make it there with the impatient people, you get thrown into a disorienting loadscreen teleport and end up in the weapons test with no pre-warning whatsoever.

overlooking

That said, I again appreciate the length of path here when done properly, with party in sync, and traveling with NPCs. There’s a sense of drama as you move down the rocks, and crucial valuable time to type information for people who haven’t done it before.

weaponstest

The weapons test encounter is truly excellent though. There was a fun sense of panic when first experiencing and learning what all the stages consisted of, and also fun inherent in figuring out the solution(s) and mastering them. I appreciate that there are multiple solutions, not just one thing that -must- be done.

My screenshot is poor quality, I know, but you can sort of make out the nimble people moving around. I like to hold out near the core, where there is a safe area most of the time, and use a ton of stability to negate the knockdown (barely anyone else recognizes hallowed ground when I use it though – you can stand in it too, folks!) and heal through any accidental damage (it’s a guardian thing, and I’m not very nimble so it works well.) I only move when it comes to the fire circles everywhere stage, and again, it’s nice there are multiple areas of safety to identify on the fly.

There are one or two guys hiding in the absolute corner, which no one is really sure whether it was intended or no, but you know some players, if they find a glitch, they’ll glitch it. And then demand stridently that everyone else glitches it in the exact same way with them.

My evolved preference is to sit where I am, where the molten protector spawns, because Hammer 4 (Banish) has a wind up time. Playing dredge golf and launching it out of the way before it can get its invulnerable fire shield up is SO satisfying. If I hide in the corner, it’s hard to get back in position in time. I believe other classes also have pulls and knockbacks that they can use to play with it. And worse come to the worse, people can also wait for the fire shield to drop. Multiple solutions. I like.

supercooled

The supercooled section is all right. Again, multiple solutions. You could scream BANZAI and charge in like a number of groups do, with debuff on and everything, and just soldier your way on through, taking your chances on whether you fall over based on the builds of your party. Some rush the coolant boxes. Some will have one or two high damage people take them down. Some pull back to no-debuff areas. I’m a big fan of utilizing corners to pull. It’s so sad it’s such a lost art though. When the stars and toughness attributes of the party align to give me the innate aggro, I love to do it and watch the ranged mobs come rushing up to regain line of sight.

The “Kill Brawler or Kill Gunner” first debate goes on. It seems to be evolving towards get brawler, then gunner. Either way works, in my opinion, but it’s really whether the party uses focus targets and follows them. You can negate the brawler’s shockwaves with jumping, dodging, and I liberally apply stability (others can provide regen.) But the waves do seem quite deadly to squishies who can’t jump or dodge well. He’s melee, so he’s usually ends up closer to the party and everyone using target nearest has a tendency to go for him too, so you may as well burn him down first, that kinda thing.

Other people like to block the ranged mobs’ projectiles with reflects. Which I’ve tried, but when only two people are using the wall, and everyone has rushed out in front of it because the gunner has jumped backward, you end up either joining them to thwap the gunner or hanging with the wall feeling forlorn. The gunner’s projectiles are also easier to avoid at range, though I did hear someone say it does the most damage at maximum range too. And there’s the just-suck-it-up-and-heal-it-up guardian method which I often end up doing because I’m clumsy and lack finesse and it’s really quite hard to see where those projectiles are coming from, when you’re short and are in melee range.

prisoners

Prisoner section. I like that there’s a little pause here again. Utility skill switching time if needed. Insert wisecrack about not wishing mining on your worst enemy. (But I have a shiny molten pick!)

This is where the speed freak people also tend to get a little caged up stir crazy. I’ve seen one of them jump past the gate above using the spiky rocks to the right. Which promptly ended up with him getting aggro from everything beyond while the rest of us looked on from behind the closed gate. *chuckle* We got over in time to get his downed body up. Then another one who tried the same thing, but ended up falling into the lava below. *snicker*

Probably an unintended glitch, but I’m not looking forward to the day when the majority of the party learns this, and insists everyone do it, and/or laughs at falling people dropping into the lava below. (You know it’ll happen, right?)

Yeah, so the rest of this section is an extended debate between the party on which Molten Alliance mobs to kill first, some parties which work smoothly together, and others that don’t, while the NPCs do their thing freeing prisoners and stuff. (And watching Frostbite fall over, a lot. Noooooo, poor baby devourer…)

Some people feel it’s too long, I personally don’t have an opinion either way. I’ve seen it go super smooth and fast with a good group. I’ve seen it go pear-shaped and be very drawn out and messy.

protectors

The protector schtick is interesting. I like that you can kite the protector out of the shield, which gives parties without pulls or launches a perfectly viable option to take them down. (You’ll be amazed at how many people fail to notice the shield and continue flailing away though.) And there’s always waiting for the shield to drop when all else fails.

The orichalcum ore and mechanical crusher ore trap is hilarious. I think everyone gets caught by it once when it’s their first time.

bestgateever

This gate. It is the best gate ever. I am a big big fan of this gate. Besides giving people the time to marvel up and down at the size of the structure, and take screenshots if they want to, it serves the ULTRA IMPORTANT PURPOSE of giving people enough time to type the question of “which boss are we killing first?”

Communication. Oh, thank god there is something in the design that helps it along. It’s interesting, and probably a big compliment to the team who designed the final boss encounter, that three days in, there’s still no real consensus on which boss “must” go down first.

(Or rather, in each team you end up, there’s normally a few guys convinced with high passion that so-and-so is easier, and that one needs to go down because they’ve always done it that way. And so you go along with them and help their self-fulfilling prophecy along. Oh, I am so going to hell for that. :P)

I’ve done it all ways now, and they’re all possible. There’s go all out burn on firestorm. There’s go all out burn on berserker. There’s take the time to swap targets and remove the enrage stacks from either of them. There’s assign one or two people to do the enrage stack stripping, or the people self-assign themselves.

The only way that isn’t so cool is to all stack up inside berserker to avoid the waves. Fortunately, only one group I’ve gotten into has wanted/demanded people do that. I hope it doesn’t evolve to only that before day 10.

It’s a lot more fun to do it the proper ways – because again, there are multiple solutions. I simply cannot jump in time with the shockwaves. I don’t know if it’s instance lag, or ping, or what, but it just doesn’t work. You jump it on your screen, but eat the damage anyway. But dodging works, and I often dodge forwards to close the distance to berserker to hit him. And stability/soak damage covers up most accidents, though there can be a run of bad luck when you just eat a shockwave, get knocked back and down into a big pool of fire that firestorm has thrown, which pwns you. As for the flame circle attack, turning the camera 180 degrees and running like a coward far far away works best for me. Other people jump or dodge or whatever, I just don’t like the risk. Whatever works.

And then the denouement, after the grand chest of mostly turnip soup recipes (and the odd beet soup one), there’s a bit of quiet time to catch one’s breath, load up on explosives, before the big bang and harmless but highly dramatic and cheesy fun (or is that the other way around) escape sequence. Which, as I’ve mentioned at the top, is a nice social space time to actually have time to talk before everyone quits out the instance.

elevatortrap
I see some ArenaNet person agrees with the Natural Selection folks that being stuck in an elevator is a kind of ‘social together’ experience.

The TL:DR conclusion?

I generally like it. I’m still playing it. Even if I’m running a cookie cutter build to give more leeway for mistakes and the weird chaos that can happen in PUGs. (Huge repair bills and multiple deaths make me very grumpy. So much easier to do my best preventing that from happening to me with an AH guardian.)

And I probably won’t stop until a majority of my groups sour to the point of being elitist and speed freaky. I don’t know how long that will take.

I think the devs did their best to prevent/slow that down from happening and achieved that respectably well, though I’m a cynic and am convinced it’ll happen at some point.

The burning question’s still up on whether it’ll happen before the dungeon disappears.

Learning the Metagame – Personal First Thoughts

Warning: This may turn out to be a very long post on learning the metagame in games.

I’m mulling on two things specifically:

1. How much of this learning should be clued or signaled in-game or given in-game training tools (as opposed to out-of-game tips/guides/walkthroughs from other players)

2. Preferences for learning on a group or individual basis, possibly influenced by extrovert or introvert tendencies

But first, a very long introduction.

As Dusty Monk says, he of the original idea starter,

Every MMO of any complexity has a rich metagame to learn and enjoy beyond the up front “jam on your ability keys until mob is dead” mechanic.  What I think distinguishes a good game design from a poor one is to what extent the game forces you to have to play the metagame, and how soon it forces you to learn it – if at all.

All games have a metagame – optimal strategies for playing the game in a manner that allows you to win, progress or get a high score. That’s generally the point of games, learning the rules and boundaries of the design in order to do better at playing the game and achieving whatever ‘win conditions’ are set by the developers’ design. Make the metagame complex enough, or with enough varied, alternative options and strategies, and you get the often praised ‘depth’ to a particular game. Too simple to master, and players just do it, ‘win’ and get rapidly bored.

Players of MMOs, or virtual worlds and sandboxes in particular, are pretty adept at redefining what the  ‘win conditions’ and ‘playing better’ means to them, which I believe is a good thing. It shows that MMOs are big enough to play host to a variety of people, not all of which have to share the same goal or metagame. Some may enjoy playing the traditional raid progression endgame, which then involve necessary optimisation strategies for one’s character and one’s schedule to play in a group. Some may be content just hitting max level and stopping. Or accumulating one of each race and class of alt. Or the world’s largest collection of pets and mounts. Or costumes. Or screenshots. Or PvPing. Or whatever.

Each may have their own set of optimisation strategies. I don’t need large wardrobe slots, all bank account slots unlocked, or multiple mules. Ye olde hat collector, or auction house trader (with the exception of the wardrobe, that is) might.

I myself have advised people to really examine what they want out of a game, and to either treat the game in a different way or move on when it can no longer fulfill their needs/wants, rather than get sucked down the road of other peoples’ expectations. It’s so easy to, as a commenter over at Spinksville, Boxerdogs, mentions:

The metagame in WoW snuck up on me as it does so many, by my wanting to be a good “contributor” to the raid. But learning a metagame like that is quite taxing. I kinda got suckered into learning one, and I don’t regret it at all, but I have found with SWTOR and Guild Wars 1 that I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to learn a new, complex game.

Now let’s talk about the MMO combat metagame that most folks are thinking of when they say “metagame,” wherein gear selection, optimal builds and skill rotations are often important, a good UI or add-ons can be helpful, may assume basic knowledge of jargon like “aggro,” “kite,” “AoE,” etc,  involves a fair amount of theorycrafting and out-of-game reading/discussion/copy-and-pasting of stuff other people have either mathematically calculated or video recorded to demonstrate easy-to-apply tactics,  may require some muscle memory and practice and maybe quick-ish reaction times (not to mention WASD and mouselook, is that as controversial as whether to use keyboard shortcuts or very quick mouse clicks?), and where combat parsing is often used in the search for the holy grail of efficiency…

That’s… a lot of stuff to learn. Some of it can apply from game to game, and we MMO gamers have actually absorbed a lot of it without realising. (Watch a complete newbie try to navigate an MMO some time.) But the game specific stuff can already be quite tedious a task to take on, as Spinks posits while trying to decide if she wants to join the SWTOR raid endgame:

…there comes a point where if you want to be competitive or complete cutting edge content, you have to stop playing in an exploratory, playful way, and start playing in a more defined and optimised way. Or in other words, there comes a point where you have to decide if you want to look stuff up and learn the metagame, or just move on…

…[there’s also] metagame fatigue where you spent so much time theorycrafting or practicing your minmax spec in one game that you need a break from that intensity of gameplay, or don’t want to switch to a game with another involved metagame.

Sometimes learning too much about the metagame sucks all the fun out of the game and leads to burn out. My personal theory is that this tends to happen if the game isn’t balanced in a way that leads to multiple, viable, interesting, alternate options, or deeper counter to a counter mechanics that allow players to feel a sense of control and personal agency over what they are doing and/or to vary things up, be it for novelty’s sake or to catch an unsuspecting opponent by surprise.

Starcraft’s metagame is notoriously elaborate, along with, I believe, DOTA-like games, though I haven’t much experience with their ilk. I tend to dislike games in a World of Warcraft vein, where there are one or a few good optimal copy-this-cookie-cutter spec and everything else is numerically suboptimal. True choice is limited if you’re playing a metagame which discards all the other options as invalid for the purpose.

Sometimes players are too fast to do this too, though.

There may be better ways and better strats, that don’t get found until someone breaks convention and does something different.

Me, I don’t mind optimising to a limited extent, on my own, under my control, at my own pace. But I do mind having to live up to an external ideal or standard enforced by other people or by restrictive game design that forces you to be ‘this high’ in order to start doing whatever.

I rather enjoyed what Guild Wars asked of its individual players, once I got my head around the entire “Magic: The Gathering” concept and other uniquely Guild Wars schticks.

I once bogged down in Thunderhead Keep and for the life of me, couldn’t figure out how to move on from there. It took 2+ years of learning in another MMO (City of Heroes) before the entire concept of aggro and aggro radius became internalised to a point that when I returned to Guild Wars, it was a cakewalk to look at my radar minimap and pull and otherwise pick apart groups that liked to patrol close to each other. This is a key mechanic in GW, btw, your party appears designed to take on one group of mobs well, and if you blindly charge ahead into a chokepoint where 2 or 3 groups patrol into each other, you’re in for a mad fight and probably a walk back as your party shows up at the last rez shrine you crossed.

At the point I was having major issues in Thunderhead Keep, I had no such understanding and would walk straight into such traps, limping out only by virtue of two monk henchmen and blind 60% death penalty persistence if need be. (My ranger’s build also sucked, and I don’t think I used his skills well enough to do him much justice either. I’m not really a long range caster sort by nature.)

With that hurdle down, it was easier to start learning from PvXwiki about what ‘good’ builds were, and after copying a few to learn from, to start grasping the concepts behind skills synergizing with each other, and choosing skills appropriate for the occasion as dictated by the mobs you would be fighting. Most of the time, it was still easier to use the chapter-approved uber builds for both myself and my heroes, but I grew confident enough to swap some skills in and out as needed (as first suggested by wiki recommendations) and later, that fit what I wanted to achieve for the mission or dungeon (eg. extinguish for a monk if burning was going to be flying around willy nilly, remove hex for hexes, etc.)

In fact, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’m still fond of going back to the game, I just have less urgency to do so after happily finishing HoM 30/50 and getting distracted by “ooh shiny” games of the month. Guild Wars is a classic that can keep for whenever I feel like it. Thank you, no sub fee.

So with a self-chosen, self-directed goal, it seems I am quite content to do some searching at my own pace, do a bit of experimentation and trial and error with different builds and strategies, and even die alone repeatedly and keep going back for upwards of 15+ absurd repetitions. (See my flailing around in the Moon Bog in the Secret World, enjoying myself thoroughly when I figured out a solution that works for me.)

But you know, I don’t like to do this sort of learning in a group.

Perhaps it’s just me being too sensitive for my own good, or tending to compare others to myself, but as I mentioned before, I both demand a lot of perfection/optimisation out of myself (out of both a desire to pull my own weight, contribute and do well, and fear of embarassment or disappointing others) and it also bugs me when I see others slacking off (out of ignorance or willfulness, the first is forgivable, the second less so) and forcing others to shoulder an extra load. This is also primarily a -performance- issue.

What about learning? I don’t want to have to start the learning process in an ordinary group, which is normally focused on performance and executing well. There’s too much pressure to learn fast and learn quickly… or else.

And worse, to have to learn at their pace, not my own. I’m a poor auditory learner. I hate Ventrilo and having someone talk ceaselessly while I’m trying to focus on doing something. I end up distracted, paying attention to their voice, rather than what’s on my screen. Groups who type also tend to teach badly, because most type in a hurry, in abbreviated form, and are mostly interested in go-go-go and speed. So you’re forced to learn by doing and pray that it’s not too hard and that you don’t accidentally wipe the group from ignorance.

I’m primarily visual and I enjoy reading books and walls-of-text by myself in order to learn something. Wikis and guides are okay, and scanning through forums and blogs. Videos are meh, mostly because of the audio component which means I can’t really fast forward through stuff and have to give up 20 minutes or whatever length of time the video takes to play. Failing which, I’d rather try doing and learning by trial and error. By myself, thank you.

Not where someone will get irritated at me for failing 15 times for being a “slow learner,” or as I like to call it, being thorough, experimental (because I don’t believe in just one true way of execution and must try various ideas) and just plain goddamn stubborn. When I learn something, I don’t like to learn enough to “just get by” or to follow someone else’s method blindly, I like to learn it to the point where I understand the concept and underlying principles and possibly how to apply those ideas/solutions to a different scenario.

Groups by and large just don’t have the patience for that sort of thing. They just want the shiny at the end as quickly as possible. Can’t really blame them, that’s just how it is. Once you’ve done all the learning you care to, then all that’s left is execution, preferably as fast and as well as possible.

It would be indeed nice if more games offered training modes to make the learning curve smoother. Most games are guilty of not getting around to it. Guild Wars has a hero tutorial which is pathetically basic. Why not teach pulling with heroes, aggro radius, corner blocking and such things while you’re at it? (Though albeit in the very first intro missions, they comment on waiting for mobs to patrol away from one another. It goes by so fast, most newbies miss the concept, methinks.)

If dps races and recount and other such combat parsing is going to be an integral part of your game, then by golly, have the combat dummies you provide measure the necessary stats too. If it doesn’t, then don’t have the combat dummies there, and don’t tune your mobs for that sort of thing with enrage timers.

I haven’t gotten around to sampling DDO much, mostly because the build planning appears to involve too much homework in order to minmax your character for the specific function you want (which in my case, would be a worthwhile soloing baseline) but I’m intrigued by the concept of casual mode to both learn the dungeon and see the story, just no/less loot for you.

I also wonder how much of this solo learning preference has to do with my propensity for extreme introversion. On Myers-Briggs type of tests, I tend to break the scale for Introversion and score full marks or close to it for “I”. Hanging around people really tires me out, especially since I have to pretend extroversion to a passable extent to get by in the workplace, and the last thing I want to do when I relax, in a closed room, by myself on the computer, is to hang around with EVEN MORE PEOPLE.

Susan Cain suggests that there’s a fallacy of groupwork being effective, especially where introverts are concerned, in a decent enough book that I just finished reading – Quiet: The Power of Introverts, though she has a tendency to generalize quite a bit.

A quick Google on group vs individual learning styles and introversion suggests I have a lot of meaty reading to do to find out more about this train of thought. I’ll share later if I find anything interesting.

Also, depending on who you ask, introverts make up a good quarter, or third, or even half of the population. We just hide well. And I suspect, a disproportionate number of us are represented in computer games. So why not cater for our learning styles in them? It’ll encourage us to stick around more.

P.S. There’s also a neat cycle of irony going on here in this metagame discussion.

One of the metagames I’m putting off learning is in Orcs Must Die (whom Dusty is apparently a developer of), a generally enjoyable game, but I’m hitting a wall in the later levels on normal war mage difficulty because my trap placements are likely not optimal and I can’t earn enough skulls to upgrade traps any further and I can’t unlock any more levels because it’s getting too hard.

(If I’m forced to backtrack and play through all the levels on novice difficulty with two skulls only, I’ll shoot somebody, no Diablo 3 difficulty level grind for me, thanks.)

On my to-do list is to watch this very promising video that is supposed to teach me about trap combos and maximizing score (assuming it is possible with the basic traps I have unlocked), but egads, it’s so long, I don’t know when I’ll have time for that.

Making People Group – GW2 vs The Old Way

I’m a month late to reading this post on Guild Wars 2, where Milady expresses an argument that defends “forced grouping” as having significant benefits for players to make social connections with each other, and suggests that GW2’s new system of incentivizing sociable activities makes the actions players take comparatively more meaningless than in the traditional forced group MMO setting.

I beg to differ.

You can motivate people by forcing them somewhere with a stick, or encouraging them to approach with a carrot. Personally, I know which one I’d prefer.

One liners aside, I’d agree that “forced grouping” does provide a compulsion to interact with others, and an opportunity (in that there is a captive audience) for those who would like to exercise the free choice to socialize with people.

However, there is another not-inconsiderable-in-number subset of players who do take issue with the compulsion and the “force” because it reduces their freedom of choice – to make game progress with whomever they want, alone or with others. By feeling like they have no choice in the matter, there’s even less incentive and desire to connect with others, beyond making use of them to get to wherever they want.

In a scenario like this, it becomes important to be able to tell these players apart and not befriend them overly, because you run the risk of getting stabbed in the back and having trust betrayed when they ditch you for greener pastures, possibly making off with all your items or what-not.

I’d argue that in Guild Wars 2, far from making social interaction an automatic meaningless reaction to get rewards – the aim of all the incentives, all the systems working in tandem, is to move past all that in-group out-group nonsense by making everyone on your server in-group.

Everyone is a potential person that you could make the free choice to open up to, chat with, and befriend. There is no lack of free choice with GW2’s system either.

I believe the degree of incentivization may be crucial as well in helping GW2’s system function appropriately.

The default option of many MMO players (especially if they’re trained by WoW) is to go their own way and solo. (Among just some of the in-built incentives to this option: not needing to wait for someone else, can pause or sidetrek at any time, no exposure of vulnerability to other players required.)

If you over-incentivize with a carrot, say if you gain a lot more xp in a group than you would solo, then yeah, you’d see lots of people clamoring to get into groups and travel together. But no deep social interaction occurs – people group, farm xp, leave when their objective is achieved with nary a word.

Some people may take advantage of this enforced audience to build social connections, through chatting, through personal exposure, through performing a group combat role well, through good leadership, etc. but there is free choice at work here. Others may very well not bother to connect.

Very soon, the over-incentive to group is perceived as “forced” grouping. I may want to solo, but I cannot progress my character at a good clip without “having” to group up. Free choice is lost. And then people complain.

There’s also the real force with a stick option. That’s the typical raid mechanic. If you don’t participate in this group activity that -requires- such and such amount of people, no progression for you. Or to take xp as an example: no xp when alone, you only get xp with others. Do you have any choice in the matter? Only a very binary one, play it and get the reward or not play and forgo the reward.

But what if you defuse some of the built-in incentives to soloing by providing (approximately) -equivalent- alternative options  to gain rewards with other players?

At any time, I can choose to walk away from other players and solo and gain a set rate of xp and rewards. In most typical MMOs, if I choose to walk towards other players to group, my set rate of xp doesn’t change much, or it may even go down – “omg, u’re killstealing frm me.” To maintain or slightly improve my xp, I’d have to pause, invite everyone to the same group, lead, converse, organize and keep talking – that’s an increased amount of effort for not very much reward.

Milady argues that putting up with this mild disincentive proves how worthy a “friend” another player is, because they’ve made the choice to value a social connection over self-progression. Fair enough, if your criteria for friendship is only with people who don’t mind un-optimizing themselves temporarily in order to connect with others. That’s one way of forming an in-group, only connecting with those who think more of the good of the group than personal gain.

But why would we want to lose out on the opportunity to build connections with the rest? Plenty of people balance both community good and personal gain.

In Guild Wars 2, the aim is to remove the disincentivizing barriers to grouping with others. If I walk toward other players, and help out on their mobs, I’m not taking away any xp from them, and I’m helping them kill faster, benefiting all. Social interaction doesn’t have to be a zero sum game – I put up with irritation in order to help you more? Both of us can benefit from the interaction in GW2.

Rezzing people is not the only way to gain xp in GW2. If it was, then yeah, I’d say that would promote meaningless exchanges because everyone would be racing to rez people for progress. Rezzing people is an option, and by performing it, you gain a reward. You could also happily ignore the dead person, and continue to swing away at the dynamic event boss, because when he dies, you get a big reward. That small reward for rezzing people just provides positive reinforcement, a ‘good job!’ signal for people who make the free choice to reach out and help someone – often facing the risk of coming under fire in combat to do so.

I actually think there are a couple more critical factors in this rezzing mechanic than just reward optimization encouraging automatic behavior. As Chris Bell proposes at GDC, social interaction requires vulnerability in order for people to become open to trusting another. Being defeated and about to die is about as vulnerable as it gets without harsher mechanics like the risk of item loss or permadeath. Naturally, you take note of those who come to your aid, rather than the rest of the masses who are still unthinkingly automatic firing at the boss. A little bit of trust and respect is built, paving the way for more chances at future social interactions.

I’d argue that by encouraging these sorts of iterative and positive small gestures in a game, it has a subtle effect on the entire community of the game. It becomes more welcoming, more willing to respond to someone in need and help, rather than taking the default option of treating others like a stranger who will bring more trouble than he’s worth. City of Heroes was a much nicer place when people ran around giving out free money to lowbies because they had no other use for it, instead of now being incentivized to hoard the cash to buy better loot for their characters.

As for the not-so-good apples, or those who put personal gain over anything or anyone else, Guild Wars 2 actively strives to ensure that they can never perform actions that harm others while doing so. Whatever they do, will still indirectly help others on their server.  That’s a far better design goal than tacitly permitting them to do harm.

Is it crucial to be able to tell them apart in order to judge who is worth being “friends” with? I don’t believe so, they likely have very little interest in getting to know you anyway, so they won’t make the free choice to open their mouths and interact, or even bother to travel together with you.

Guild Wars 2 is the next stage, the next experiment, in players socially interacting with one another. To move from a system that has less “I win, you lose” interactions, and more “I win, you win” ones. It’ll be interesting to see where it takes us.