Monday, November 3, 2008

Games giving feedback

As you might remember I've been playing in the Football Manager Live beta for some time during the summer. The beta ends today, and the game is going live, but I ended up not subscribing after all, in spite of a half-price for beta testers offer. And the reason why I didn't subscribe was lack of feedback. FML is based on matches which have to be played in a certain timeframe, and if you don't log on to play, an AI is playing the match for you. And when I was busy with other games, and didn't log on for a while, it turned out that the AI was playing exactly as well as I did, I remained at the same rank as when I played myself. So why bother logging on?

The guy who got me into the beta, and who knows the Football Manager series a lot better than me, has skills I don't have: When he watches the start of a match, he can see the tactics of the other player, and adjust his tactics to counter them. Me, I only see a bunch of moving dots, and could never really make out enough to be able to improve my tactics during a match. Thus I developed one set of tactics that worked "most often", and just let it run. Which explains why the AI can do that as good as I can. What I was missing was better feedback from the game: When I'm losing a match, why did I lose? Did the other team outflank me, or did they have the better midfield, or what? What could I have done to play better against them? I never found out, so I got stuck at a certain level, so I wasn't interested in playing more.

The experience made me think about the lack of feedback in MMORPG group combat. My first 3D MMORPG was Everquest, back in 2000, and since then most games I played worked with a similar tank / healer / dps trinity. I'm not saying I'm the worlds best MMO player, far from it, I'm not all that fast in reaction time and pressing buttons. But I *do* understand the concepts of aggro management involved in MMORPG group combat very, very well. Especially when I play my healer I have a better overview than anyone else in the group of what exactly happened, and why we just wiped, as I'm watching everyone's health bars anyway.

But do the other players in the group always get enough feedback of what went wrong? Group combat can be quite chaotic, and the combat log isn't well designed to replay what happened. As the healer I can tell you that we wiped because the tank after pulling only hit mob A with sunders and taunts, while the mage thought it would be a good idea to launch an AoE attack, thereby getting all the aggro of mobs B, C, and D, which killed him faster than I could heal him, then killed me, and then the rest of the group. But if it was a pickup group, I probably get some comments of "why didn't you heal me" from both the mage (I did heal you, but can't possibly heal fast enough when you try to tank three mobs) and the tank (I can't heal all that well when dead). Unlike FML there isn't even an option to replay the fight and watch it just to see what went wrong. And there is certainly no such thing as an automated feedback telling you what mistakes you did, so you could learn and avoid them next time.

And of course the problem gets even more pronounced with bigger groups. There are lots of raid boss encounters where what every single player has to do isn't all that hard, but if one or several players mess up, the whole raid wipes. The one player who is turned into the bomb and can't find the designated safe spot, but explodes in the middle of the healer group instead. Or the decurser who forgot to install decursive and didn't tell anyone. Or the hunter who takes three steps back for ranged attacks, and runs backwards into the next group of mobs. Or, or, or, the possibilities to wipe a raid are endless. And some of these mistakes are easy to identify afterwards, while others are not. You wipe, and try again, without knowing what lead to the wipe, thereby increasing the chance that it'll happen again.

What would be great would be some replay-utility for World of Warcraft, which shows the whole fight in 2D birds-eye view, with colored moving dots, showing what exactly happened, who got aggro, and so on. If everyone could see what went wrong, it would be a lot easier to fix the problem and do it right next time. If Blizzard won't add this to the game (and I don't think they will), maybe somebody could develop a program parsing the combat log to find out what went wrong. It would be good to have a bit more feedback, because unless you understand what went amiss, you'll have a hard time improving.

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