Monday, August 24, 2009

Game Design Day Three: Groups

Welcome to my blog. I will be discussing “A” list Massives aimed at the American and European market, such as EverQuest®, Dark Age of Camelot®, World of Warcraft®, Lord of the Rings Online®, Eve Online®, Warhammer Online®, etc. I will be discussing game design from the abstract to the specific. Today I will be discussing experience groups.

Day One. Define a Niche and have a very rough idea of gameplay.
Day Two. Determine the intensity levels of the player game experience.
Day Three. Determine the experience (including rvr, pvp) groups your game will have and a rough idea of the tools your players will have to form and join these groups.

It is the nature of Massives that a player requires other people to have fun. Therefore early in game design we should think about how we are going to get players together.

World of Warcraft (WoW) is fairly typical in its experience groups:
· Basic Experience Group, up to five people
· Small Raid, up to two groups
· Raids, up to five groups
Warhammer (War) adds realm vs. realm content that may include five or more raid groups. (Note: guilds are not experience groups and I will discuss them and social groups at a later time)

The Basic Group

The basic group is used as:
· a chat channel,
· a gameplay component, such as heals or buffs that effect everyone in a group,
· a method to share rewards, and in some cases penalties.

Grouping up is fundamental to not only the Massive experience, but the Human experience as well. This is one area of design I’m just going to accept, humans group up, in game and out of game. It’s how we work. Our challenge as designers is to implement systems that let people group up easily.

Group Size.

In WoW the basic group is maximum 5 people, in Warhammer it is maximum 6 people. Massives have a fixed maximum level on their group size. If more than one group is required, like a small raid, then two groups are linked together. Some gameplay such as heals, may remain on the group level, and some gameplay such as buffs may extend to the raid (or super-group). A raid can be thought of as a super-group, with again, some gameplay components remaining on the group level and others on the super-group levels.

Let’s look at the basic group size. Keep in mind that a maximum group size limit is a legacy mechanic, it is not necessarily the best way to design your game. WoW (a beginner game) has a group size of five. Blizzard’s game design philosophy seems to be focused on controlling a player’s experience. In vanilla WoW, content such as instanced dungeons required a full group of five. One of those five slots had to be a tank-type character, another a healing-type character, and a third a crowd control (cc)-type character. This left players just two slots to fill as they desired. By restricting groups in this fashion designers got a two-fer; 1. they pretty much knew the composition of the group and could tune (adjust difficulty of) their content and 2. made it easy for players to figure out optimum group composition.

A larger group size offers players more flexibility but may make tuning encounters more difficult. Personally I would accept that a group size of no smaller than 5 has a solid foundation, especially if the alternative was to actually open one of my Sociology books and do some research. A quick search on Terra Nova did not find any discussion about minimum viable group size. For now don’t worry about basic group size, it is important, but let your design dictate the size. Keep in mind that optimum player vs. environment (pve) and player vs. player (pvp) group sizes may be different.

Groups & Tuning Content

Groups are also used to tune (adjust difficulty of) content. For example, instanced dungeons in WoW only allow one group to enter at a time. In this fashion developers can tune the difficulty of the content to a known group size and have an idea of its composition. In vanilla EQ, non-instanced dungeons did not limit number of players. Personally, I led my 40+ guild of lowbies into Upper Guk in a vain quest to find the Ancient Crocs and got em all wiped. It was a blast. Anyway, in non-instance dungeons, players tune the difficulty of the dungeon by how many characters they bring. The risk-reward mechanism is: the more characters along on a run, the less likely any one particular character will get loot. Contrast with WoW restricting the number of participants but rewarding everyone in the run.

So, the first thing to throw up on the white board is: “Who is tuning content: developers or players?”

Public Quests. Warhammer Online introduced a new feature which I feel is greatly underappreciated, the Public Quest. This is content that is open to all, no need for groups, and everyone who participates in the content has a chance at reward. (The reward system was buggy at release, which does not detract from how innovative this system is.) The rewards of the public quest scaled depending upon the number of participants. Thus the risk reward mechanisms is: high participation equal high number of low level rewards and low participation equal low number of high level rewards. Different groups and/or individuals can participate in the Public Quest, thus solving some looking for group (LFG) issues as well as letting players tune the content.

Looking For Group (LFG)

The number one player complaint is: down time waiting for a group.

You don’t like waiting in the doctor’s office, or standing on line in the grocery store. Players don’t like standing around trying to get a group together. Grouping is essential for players to experience content. Therefore it is the designers’ responsibility to design in systems to make looking for group a quick, easy, fun, experience.

Pick-Up-Groups. (PUGs) A pick up group is a group of people that aren’t in a formal social group, such as a guild that join together temporarily to experience content. A typical forum complaint about LFG in WoW is similar to my own experience. That is, a player logs on with a play-time of two hours, and wants to do an instanced dungeon with an expected duration of one hour. Yet because of the difficulties of finding a group, getting it together in the proper place with the proper potions (expendable buffs), replacing the guy who had dropped group without saying a word or replacing the character that did not have the proper gear, takes too much time. None of this is fun.

A lot of you may be shrugging at this point and thinking players should join guilds and just run groups with their guildies; that finding a good group of people is part of the challenge of playing a Massive. We could chase the blame around, designers not giving players strong enough tools, players being too lazy, or in the immortal words of a Stars War Galaxy (SWG) designer “players are not playing the game correctly.” Let’s agree that a lot of players are sitting around LFG and not having any fun.

I started writing out in detail what causes people to sit around and be bored LFG. The problem is, well, complicated. In WoW, some of the causes are: server population, time of day, player expectation, not enough of a particular class (some servers don’t have enough healers, others not enough tanks), the fact that rewards are easier to get in arena’s and battlegrounds than instances, players logged on alternate characters, guild progression, solo content and basic risk vs. reward calculations. And these are just some of the factors. A lot of these problems are created by other parts of game design that are “working as intended.”

For example, a small fixed group size is consistent with Blizzard’s design philosophy (as deduced from their games). This small fixed group size leads to needing a tanking-class and a healing-class as essential members of the group. But there may not be enough tanks or healers on a particular server. Players are given no guidance when creating a new character and may not realize that there is a shortage of needed classes. It may also be that playing a tank or healer is not as much fun as some other class. These are problems that we as designers can solve.

In WoW, arenas give some of the best rewards and are arguably easier to get than other content. That may in fact be working as intended, but the side effect is that players with limited playtime will get their arena matches out of the way first, and then LFG for instanced content. In a similar manner, battlegrounds, which offer superior rewards, take people out of the LFG pool. The easy availability of solo content, such as daily quests, also take people out of the LFG, especially the people with limited play time who need it the most. So a player with limited time may decide to engage in a game activity which is not much fun but is guaranteed a reward, such as daily quests, rather take the risk of entering LFG.
(Note: as I am sitting here editing this Blizzard has announced they will patch in cross server LFG, in effect expanding the LFG pool.)

Some quick fixes for LFG. I’m just going to throw out what I see as some quick fixes for LFG in most DikuMUD-based, instanced Massives. Keep in mind that I’d rather see non-DikuMUD, non-beginner games being developed, but here we go.

Problem: Not enough needed classes. Solution: notify players at the character selection screen, offer rewards for playing needed classes. Give needed classes additional rewards in PUGs.

Problem: Creating and leading a PUG group is a pain. Solution: give leader a reward, such as 10 percent additional experience, or leadership tokens to turn in for special gear. (Note: Blizzard just announced they will patch this in. I would have looked a lot smarter if I hadn’t held off publishing this until I went over it one last time.)

Problem. Players not committing to joining a PUG until it is almost full. Solution: give the second player to join a PUG a bonus, the third player a smaller bonus, etc.

Problem. Under-geared characters and players not familiar with the content. Solution: under some conditions allow the maximum group size to go up. Alternatively, give all other members of the PUG a bonus reward for taking a sub-optimum player.

Well you can see where I am going here. And my need to appear clever has ended. So let’s move on. I feel that looking for group is so important that I would design a LFG system and then build a game around it. I can’t tell you how to do that, but let’s discuss optimal LFG features.

Optimal LFG. To me this is a real no brainer. As a player I want to log in and have the game find me a group. Now I don’t want to be unreasonable, let’s say I’m willing to log in beforehand and schedule a time for my group, and accept penalties if I do not show up for my appointment. I’m also willing to be flexible in what content to explore. Finally, I want to group with people on my friends list and avoid people on my ignore list. This is all doable with data should already be in a game’s databases.

By being able to schedule content, I believe we can broaden the appeal of Massives and bring more people in, particularly self-described casuals. I think scheduling would encourage people to extend their subscriptions, even as they have less time due to real life, and/or take up a new game.


I talked about giving rewards for joining a group, or playing a needed class. Let’s talk briefly about tools for group, raid, and realm leaders. WoW lets group leaders mark enemies. War let’s the group leader designate a main assist and every player has a button to target the same enemy the main assist has targeted. Leaders can also kick out a group member, and arrange groups. That’s about it for tools in current Massives. Obviously there is room for more. For example, when joining a raid, perhaps a new chat tab should be opened up for just raid and group leaders only. Groups are important, think about what you can do to make them easier once formed.

Warhammer (War) has some content (realm fights) that need multiple warband (raid) groups to accomplish, such as fort pushes and city fights. The problem starts with the fact that leadership is hard. While a lot of people can teach themselves how to lead a small group, fewer can lead raids and even fewer can lead multiple warbands. The good news is that leadership can be taught. A good place to start is The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual. Having a pool of good leaders makes our games more fun. We could address this as an industry, but since that is unlikely, think about how you can address this in your game. Perhaps an optional mini-game that teaches leadership basics, perhaps quest lines, perhaps just rewards for leadership. Designing games that require leaders to evolve and not giving them training or tools, is sorta loony.

Once you have leaders they need tools. Some of these tools should be communication tools, to automatically create channels just for leaders. You might allow raid leaders to hand out cosmetic rewards, for duty above and beyond. I had one raid leader who had the raid vote on best healer for that particular raid, and then give that person a reward from the guild bank. Another thought is to institutionalize the dragon kill point (DKP) system into your game. Players join groups voluntarily, we need to give leaders some tools to motivate players.

To Sum Up

Groups are good. Players want to join groups. Players don’t want to wait to join groups. This is the game designers problem.

Groups need leaders. Designers need to help create leaders and give them tools to work with to motivate players.

If your design requires players to fill certain niches in groups, then you must also put in methods to motivate players to do so.

Day One. Define a Niche and have a very rough idea of gameplay.
Day Two. Determine the intensity levels of the player game experience.
Day Three. Determine the groups your game will have and a rough idea of the tools your players will have to form and join these groups.

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