Friday, April 4, 2008

Who is supposed to train them?

Doing a level 70 quest solo is trivially easy for a level 70 character in World of Warcraft. Visiting a level 70 dungeon with a pickup group of level 70 characters in comparison has a much higher probability of failure. Group play is a lot harder, because besides taking care of your own situation, you need to watch for something called "aggro": a parameter, by default invisible, which determines which group member is being attacked. The perfect group is all about aggro management, having the monster hit the group member who is best equipped to withstand its blows (the tank), having a healer keep the tank alive, and having the remaining three group members deal damage to the monster. That is already hard enough against one monster, but gets much more complicated against multiple enemies, where the group needs to remove some of them from the combat temporarily by various abilities summarized as "crowd control". And what really complicates the matter is that nobody ever teaches you how to do it!

In principle you are supposed to be learning by doing. Unfortunately World of Warcraft doesn't offer much help in that respect. If something goes wrong, there is usually such a chaos that it becomes very hard to determine who made a mistake. The combat log, even the "improved" 2.4 version is such a mess that doing a post mortem of a wipe is impossible. So everybody just blames the healer, who is actually least likely to have caused the wipe, based on the flawed logic that if the healer would just have healed everybody, nobody would have died. It is rare that a wipe leads to the real culpable realizing his mistake and learning from it, which would be the basic requirement of self-training. If you don't understand aggro management, failing with a couple of PuGs isn't likely to teach you.

While players frequently complain about other players being bad at group play, they aren't doing anything to improve the situation either. Because even those who understand aggro management often do so on an instinctive level, and are either unwilling or unable to teach that knowledge to others. As there are a lot of other players, it becomes easier to select the people you play with than to try to teach others how to play well. Even guilds, who are supposedly about long-term relationships between players, and often measure their success by the hardest group content they are able to beat, curiously fail to offer any sort of training. Thus the recently discussed guild recruitment ad asking for applicants who already know everything about various raid encounters. Of course the epidemic guild hopping in WoW doesn't encourage guilds to make the effort to train people.

But while the first generation of WoW players leveled up at a time when the lower level dungeons were still populated by players, and thus at least got some training by trial and error, most people reaching level 70 now have a lot less group experience. With veterans burning out and quitting, and new players soloing all the way up to the end-game, the average group skills of players is actually dropping. Many people already refuse to group with anyone except guild mates and people known to be competent. The training gap between old and new players becomes larger and larger.

The one thing Blizzard promised to do against that is to make aggro visible. Many players already use addons like Omen to measure aggro, and Omen having some problems with the recent patch caused quite some problems for some guilds. And it isn't much help in a pickup group, because it only works if all group members have the same addon. So introducing an official threat meter will be helpful, and it will be easier to point out to new players that they should watch their aggro. I can only hope that this sort of information will also be recorded in the combat log, so people can scroll up after a wipe and really see what went wrong.

But that won't solve all problems of players not being sufficiently trained for group play. One good suggestion that was recently discussed by readers on this blog was that Blizzard shouldn't make only quests that require dealing maximum damage. If there were quests where you went out with a group of NPCs and had to tank, or heal, or deal damage while keeping strictly under the aggro of the NPC tank, solo play would already teach players a lot of important group skills.

If Blizzard isn't doing something to improve training, players will have to step up. One day guilds will run out of recruits who know how to play, and will have to accept less skilled players and teach them how to behave in a group. Already now most mid-level raiding guilds would be well advised to spend more time analyzing what went wrong after a wipe, and try to correct those mistakes instead of blindly going into the next attempt and next wipe. I've been in various raid guilds and was always surprised of how little communication is going on. And the most successful raids were those where somebody took on the job of "drill sergeant" and via voice chat gave simple orders like "stop dps now". In many other cases all participants kept silent and pretended to know what to do, when in reality quite many of them just didn't have a clue. So many raiders talk about skill, and nobody talks about how people are supposed to acquire those skills.

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