Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Improving PuGs

There is a subject I’ve been thinking about for a while, but it is hard to come up with a good solution: how could you improve pickup groups (PuGs) in World of Warcraft? A pickup group is a group formed with complete strangers, via the looking-for-group (LFG) system or via chat, usually formed to tackle a challenge that can’t be soloed, such as elite quests or instanced dungeons. In World of Warcraft PuGs are a source of constant complaints on all sorts of forums and blogs: they quite often fail to achieve their purpose and break up before they completed the quest or dungeon they were formed for. So why is this, and what could be done to improve PuGs?

The first thing to discover is that the term PuG and the complaints about them are new; they didn’t exist before World of Warcraft. Nobody complained about pickup groups in Everquest or other pre-WoW MMORPGs. This tells us one important thing: the problem is not inherent to MMORPGs in general, but specific to World of Warcraft. So what changed? What happened was World of Warcraft making soloing more prevalent, and grouping optional. Soloing was a niche version of gameplay in Everquest, limited to few classes, and everyone had extensive group experience. Of course there were still bad and failing groups, breaking up early. But as there was no alternative to grouping for most people, players had better grouping skills, and they behaved better because they didn’t want to be excluded from future groups. But of course this doesn’t point us to a solution; you can’t turn back the clock and make a game with enforced grouping, it would fail miserably. Soloing is very, very popular, we need to come up with a way to make PuGs work in a soloing environment.

When thinking about what the problems of PuGs in WoW are, I came up with three categories: risk, reward, and communication. Lets look at these three categories in order.

Risk describes the chance that the pickup group fails to reach its objective. Why does this happen so often? Now some elitist people will start about how all the other players in the game are idiots, this is the main explanation given in many of the rants on the official forums. One thing to consider here is that if you held an “exit interview” with all 5 members of a failed PuG separately, *every one* of them will tell you that the fault lay with the other players. It is rare that the mistake leading to a wipe is clearly identified and visible to all players in the group. And sometimes a wipe is just due to bad luck, a resisted taunt coinciding with a critical spell hit, leading to a failure of aggro management, with all players having insufficient skills to recover from that. Learning to play in a group isn't easy, because you often don't find out what the root cause of the failure was. And there is a vicious cycle going on: pickup groups have a bad reputation, thus people prefer to solo, thus they don't learn how to play in a group, thus they make pickup groups bad. So yes, the risk of pickup groups is strongly related to skill, but the skill of players isn't necessarily determined by their IQ, but more by practice and game design. And sometimes it's the guy who complains the loudest about the other players who actually caused the PuG to fail.

So how could risk be reduced? One possibility is a touchy one: fiddling with the difficulty level. It is evident that if a dungeon would be much easier, fewer groups would fail when trying it. But of course the danger here is to create trivially easy and thus boring content. Far too many players think of the difficulty level of World of Warcraft encounters being written in stone and having to be identical for all players. That is nonsense, as you can easily see when looking at normal and heroic dungeons in TBC. So theoretically it would be possible to have a wider variety of adjustable difficulty levels, like easy-normal-heroic, with corresponding reward levels. The purpose is to offer to all players group content corresponding to their skill level, so everyone can have gameplay that is challenging enough to be fun, but easy enough to be beatable. In a large population of players there is a distribution of skill and dedication, and the cut-off point for minimum skill and dedication required to have a successful group could well be lowered. Solo content, which is mostly non-instanced, was designed to be beatable by everyone. The instancing of most group content makes it possible to have content that is more challenging, but the current situation in WoW where group content is principally harder than solo content is not absolutely necessary. Easy mode group dungeons, not much more difficult than solo content, could be introduced to remove the step-up in difficulty between solo and group content.

The less controversial way to reduce the risk of a PuG failing is to increase everyone's skill level. But to achieve that you would need to get more people to play in groups, for training. So easy mode dungeons would actually work on that aspect as well. But if you don't want to change difficulty, you need to get more people into groups by working on the rewards and by making it easier to find groups, that is the reward and communication categories.

Group rewards in World of Warcraft, compared with previous games, are a strange beast. In many other games as a member of a group you can earn more experience points per hour than if you'd play solo. This is not the case in World of Warcraft. The xp for killing a monster are divided by the number of group members, and then a group xp bonus is added, which depends on group size, but is relatively low. A mob that gives 100 xp when soloed gives 28 xp per group member in a 5-man group. Thus if the group doesn't kill mobs 4 times faster than a single player, which is unlikely, in a group you earn less xp. Groups in WoW are nearly exclusively formed to kill mobs that can't be soloed at all, and not for the experience points but for the loot and quest rewards. If you level up soloing and don't buy gear from the auction house, in WoW you will mostly be geared in green gear. The more you group, the more blue gear you will acquire. But while better gear is always nice, for leveling up it isn't strictly necessary, as you outlevel your gear fast anyway, so you can well solo and wear greens all the way up to the level cap. So if the only reward for grouping is blue gear, and you don't really need that blue gear to advance, it's no wonder that many people decide they don't need to group. Of course that strategy stops working at the level cap, where gear improvement is the only way of character improvement left. Grouping becomes relatively more attractive (although nowadays you can pseudo-solo PvP instead), and then not having grouped for 70 levels comes back to haunt you. It is no wonder if PuGs are bad if the players in the PuG have very little training in group play.

Thus improving the rewards for grouping would improve PuGs. And it is easy, Blizzard would just need to change the group xp bonus modifier. If a group of 5 killing a 100 xp mob would get 50 xp each instead of 28 xp, grouping would become a lot more popular even for killing non-elite mobs. If it gave 100 xp, most people would hunt in groups whenever possible, and the first solo fans would start complaining about grouping being "mandatory". The group xp bonus modifier is a brilliant tool to influence player behavior, and should be used more to encourage grouping. By encouraging grouping the players would get more grouping skills and training, and the general experience of grouping would improve.

My last point is communication. If you hang out in any city in World of Warcraft you will quickly notice the amount of groups being formed via the general and trade chat. If you are of one of the more desirable group classes (tank, healer), you'll also notice groups being formed by private chat. But if you use Blizzard's own LFG system you'll find very few other players there. In my opinion this is due to the LFG system being over-engineered: it not only tries to make people find each other, it also tries to automatically groups them. And it doesn't do a very good job with that. You end up with groups without a tank or healer, because the automatic system assumes that every warrior, druid, or paladin can tank, and every priest, shaman, druid or paladin can heal.

PuGs could be improved by improving the looking for group system, and that would be very easy: just remove the automatic grouping system and replace the whole LFG system by something much simpler. People should simply be able to flag themselves as looking for group, and be able to write a short note, like specifying where they want to go, or what spec they are. It would also be helpful if you could inspect people on the LFG list, so you can already see whether a warrior is protection spec, or whether a player has the gear necessary to succeed in a heroic instance.

Pickup groups will never be perfect, and never be as fun a grouping with your friends. But making new friends is an important component of MMORPGs, and improving PuGs could well achieve that. Blizzard would just need to improve the risk/reward ratio of PuGs, and make them easier to form with a better LFG system.

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