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.

GW2: Do Players Have the Patience for Long Term Strategy?

This week, I had another one of those small revelations. Natural Selection 2 is launching on October 31, in case you didn’t know, and it suddenly hit me that there are some significant similarities between it and GW2’s WvW format. (But there are also some big differences.)

What is Natural Selection 2? Well, it’s an FPS mixed with an RTS basically. It’s the long awaited sequel to a now-very-old Half Life mod which I used to play very heavily. It’s human Marines with guns and armor versus bitey, clawy, flappy, spitty, goring aliens known as the Kharaa.

I’m not going to talk about NS2 any further, though I’ve bought it long ago to support it. I’ve had too much fun with the free NS1 to regret it.

You see, I do have to admit that I am disappointed that I can’t seem to run it very well. Like 1-3 FPS on a self-created map, then crash. I can’t even join a server without stalling and hanging. Part of it may be that the beta has not yet been graphics optimized, or maybe it’s just poor coding, or most likely, it is the first reason colliding with my ailing ancient computer – I’ve mentioned I crash out of GW2 WvW habitually if I’m not on the rock bottom graphics settings, right? Other people get like 80 FPS in WvW while FRAPSing, the lucky bastards. Still got to wait until my budget stabilizes some, alas.

Instead I’ll talk about Natural Selection 1. The first game had a Marine commander calling the shots, placing structures for his fellow players to build, supporting them with medpacks and ammo dumps and basically giving them a set strategy to focus on and move toward taking out all alien hives on the map. Sound a bit familiar? That sort of coincides with WvW commanders in the sense of pointing out the long term strategy and giving direction. And yes, if the commander was bad, it made for a fairly short game, though folks would give some leeway to commanders still trying to learn the ropes.

Aliens had no commander in NS1, but they will have one in NS2, so it’ll be interesting to see how that develops. The alien hivemind in the first game was pretty much a sum total of the general intelligence of all the players in the field. Hopefully, some people would contribute their resources to building necessary structures and new hives (by turning into a builder alien, called the gorge) and at the same time, you needed some people who were very good at killing Marines to keep them occupied, reap resource, and eventually change into a hit-and-run assassin alien known as the Fade. Generally, if the aliens lasted long enough to have two good Fades, that meant the backline was doing well enough to have 2 or 3 hives and the aliens would be on their way to victory.

If insufficient players worked together well, or ran around like chickens with their heads cut off, the aliens would be massacred in short order. Sound like certain PUG zergs in WvW, perhaps?

NS1 had some interesting evolutions through its lifetime. In the patch version that I first joined in, it held at a fantastic balance point that could see 2h+ long games. This was a massive human versus aliens war that would rage on and on, with humans ending up bottlenecked at their last base, guarded by so many turrets the aliens couldn’t get in to seal the deal. Humans could have fun playing “Last Stand” for a long time, mowing down lots of aliens, holding out, while desperately guarding and waiting for their one last lone resource collector to earn enough to buy one or two jetpacks, for the most skilled of the team to sneak out of the vents and try and blow up the alien hives as quickly as they could with upgraded shotguns (aka a ninja.) It was tremendously exciting to watch your guys on the map and win as the underdog like this.

However, I’m not sure how fun it was from the alien perspective. On one hand, they are undoubtedly winning the strategic game. If they stayed on guard to end the ninjas, and kept pushing and pushing relentlessly, eventually, through sheer attrition, they might take down enough turrets and bleed the other side dry of resource long enough to break through and end the game by mauling the base and the commander’s chair (aka the victory objective.)

WvW arguments for giving underdogs a chance and hope for victory sound a lot like the above scenario, actually. I’m not sure if this would be a good or bad thing. Certainly it would get more people in fighting if they had more hope, there would be longer protracted raging battles (which some people really like, and I’m one of them, to a point) but if the battle rages on for too long, people also hit a certain satiation point and get bored. Then the next round of complaints would be, “Oh, it’s a perpetual draw. We can never really win. Why bother?”

Eventually, NS1 decided to move away from the huge tableau of unending perfectly stalemated battles. (I do kind of miss them, to be honest.) Instead, they took a larger page from RTSes and made resource point control more important and the higher tier upgrades slightly more game-changing. What this meant was that if one side played better than the other, and capped more resources, they would steadily accrue a larger and larger tech advantage. Past a certain point in the mid-game, eg. one or two Fades for the aliens or zero Fades for the aliens, it was possible to predict with nigh 98% accuracy which side was going to win.  The losing team could only hope to hold out as long as possible, if they were honorable, or they would quit or jump sides.

Does that also sound familiar from a WvW perspective?

Yes, it’s morale draining and heart breaking to be on the losing team, but quite a number of strategy games seem to have this period where the winning side is obvious, but they still have a “finish the cleanup” phase and the loser just has to sit there and take the lumps and wince as everything of theirs is demolished.

Perhaps the biggest difference between games is how long this cleanup phase lasts, and the next match begins.

In the later incarnation of Natural Selection, cleanup was methodical, but it was also fairly quick and over shortly. The marines would move in, upgraded shotguns blowing up barely evolved skulks (with no resource left) in one hit, and smash the hive to smithereens. The aliens would rampage in with all their number, maybe a celebratory massive Onos or two, and wipe everything and everyone out of existence. Match over. GG. Back to lobby. New map.

A reset happens quickly, and the losers forget their low morale by looking forward to the next game where they might have a chance. (However, if a team or guild was obviously stacking into one side, causing a skill imbalance, people would jump ship and leave the server very quickly.)

WvW at the moment lacks this quick game, match, reset. I think the keyword here is “persistence.” They’re going for what makes them an MMO, rather than a lobby game. (They’ve got structured PvP for the lobby lovers.)

I have a feeling that a lot of the people protesting on the forums haven’t quite grasped just how long term ArenaNet may be aiming for here. They may not be looking for their Alterac Valley fix, but there seems to be this hope for 3 or 4 day matches.

On one hand, it’ll certainly make stuff more exciting in the short term. It’ll give those who primarily WvW and don’t PvE or do structured PvP a reason to keep logging on, instead of being bored for a couple days if there’s a blow out victory. But how many people have the earning power to spend so much gold on siege and upgrades that last so short a time? Even I’m not sure how long the hardcore can keep up that kind of pace before getting bored and burning out. Certainly, the employed cannot. The weekend battle is perfect for them.

To me, and I’m speaking directly from first hand experience here, as the Isle of Janthir is experiencing one of those blow out victories for the moment (who knows, maybe the other servers might organize a push later in the week,) yes, it is kind of  boring to have a quiet battleground after so long an exciting battle, but maybe we kinda need these quiet breaks, the slow moments, the changes in pace.

If the borderlands jumping puzzles weren’t broken, we could be reaping a little more rewards of that hard won fight. There’s still the jumping puzzle in the Eternal Battlegrounds, and the Champion mobs that are like mini-raid bosses on an open world map.

And if the server and guilds were smart and organized enough, perhaps this would be a good time to teach fellow servermates where to place siege, or indeed, how to fire siege, or practice trebuchet shots and get ranges for such-and-such a place.

Certainly for myself, I’m exploring the Red Overlook Keep of the Eternal Battlegrounds from the inside for one of the first times ever, and marveling at how defensive its structure looks – like a real castle, tbh. I don’t envy someone trying to break in here.

Problem is, a lot of people don’t seem to have that kind of long term patience. You see ’em roaming around, looking for a fight, looking for excitement, the next victory, the next kill, deathmatchdeatchmatch, and the next thing you know, there are 20-30 people hovering around some poor demoralized bugger’s spawn, hoping to find a red name target.

My last story about Natural Selection 1 is a sad one. A while after the patch incarnation I talked about, they introduced a new mode for NS called “Combat” mode. This essentially took out much of the strategy and commander-ing from the equation, and made it a team deatchmatch. The better you killed the opposing team, the more resource you would get, the more upgrades and so on you could make for yourself.

The idea perhaps was to ostensibly help people become familiar with the more upgraded lifeforms and tech that they might not see in Strategy mode games except for short bursts of time, so that their play could improve. Instead, it turned out that many players, given the choice, would much rather go for the short term deathmatch kills all night and aim to become the pros of ganking and leaderboard champion, rather than work as a team, fight for resource, and follow a coordinated strategy to eventual victory. Combat mode took over the majority of NS servers, leaving Strategic mode fans mostly high and dry.

That was the death knell of NS for me, and I moved on shortly after – while combat mode was fun in short term spurts, it just didn’t give me the satisfaction of a real team victory. I enjoyed the buildup, the cooperation, and how people gelled together and supported each other. (I also missed the protracted wars.)

(Also, one always had the sneaky suspicion that some players on the top scoreboards were abusing hacks, and without team-based objectives and the attrition aspect of resources/upgraded tech, there was no way to best these guys – whereas in Strategy mode, no matter how well you aim, if you’re just one person, ramboing it alone, you’ll get mowed down eventually by the combination of all those factors that push one team towards victory.)

I don’t know what the fate of GW2’s WvW is going to be.

At the moment, I am just adapting to how it is.

If I get too depressed at being endlessly slaughtered, and can’t find it in me to do guerilla warfare, I’ll bow to the force of morale and stay out for the week. I’m human, after all. I’ll confess to taking a break last week to do some PvEing on an alt – had a mild infection that set me on antibiotics, no willpower to try and face two very alert teams without a stealth class, and it was refreshing to just quit worrying about the score or all things WvW for a while. This will allow the victors their map, their rewards, their quiet time to use or misuse as they will, and if others on my side want to practice their guerilla tactics or stay out also, all power to them.

If I feel like jumping into WvW, then I will. Possibly that’s what caused the massive onslaught of Janthir on the weekend, lots of people all spoiling for a new match after a loss, plus the regulars that play consistently.

When it’s too quiet when we’re winning, then I’ll do my jumping puzzles, PvE champion mobs, fool around with siege on innocent bunnies, and then zone out to PvE again, leaving the map in the hands of the fairer-weather players who come out to gank only when their server is dominating (but are fairly disorganized and can be run around) and the consistent players who will be in WvW rain or shine.

I think I’m basically lucky in that I don’t mind most of the activities in Guild Wars 2. (The only thing I’m scared of and won’t venture into alone is paid PvP tournaments, because I’m sure I cannot match that level of build/team cooperation by my lonesome, who knows how the metagame has evolved by now?

As such, this gives me a wide range of choices for stuff to do at any one time. And I know I’ll be playing this game on a long term basis (just like in GW1, I might take a couple months’ break at a time, but I can always pop in again when I feel like it, hooray, no sub) so I can afford a good amount of patience.

I only wonder if other players feel the same way. Or if they’ll be off chasing after the next shiny.