Monday, November 15, 2010

The impartial computer

A MMORPG typically has solo content and multiplayer content. To get to the multiplayer part, somehow somebody has to take a decision: Who do I play with? And in the case of a MMORPG like World of Warcraft, where the fruits of a group effort can be random items, a second sort of decision has to be taken: Who receives what loot? In the early days of MMORPGs these two types of decision were nearly exclusively taken by the players. But more and more these decisions are taken by the game itself, by a random number generator and an algorithm in a computer. Groups are composed randomly by the Dungeon Finder, and loot is distributed by random numbers and rules who can roll “need” or “greed” on what item. How did we get there, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of such systems?

We all have our ideas how a perfect group would look like, and in some cases we even manage to play in one: Grouping with friends who all agree on a common purpose, and are understanding towards the individual needs of each other. Unfortunately such a harmonious setup is very hard to organize over a long duration. Thus sooner or later people find themselves either short of group members and need to find more, or they find more people turned up than the game allows to participate for some specific content. The great classic in WoW is the regular 10-man raid, where either less than 10 people turn up, or the people who turn up don’t have the right class/role setup for the raid, or more than 10 people want to play. Similar problems can happen when trying to form a group via guild chat, or a pickup raid group in trade chat.

Now there are lots of ways to take decisions like that. Sometimes it is a single person taking all the decisions, as group/raid leader. Sometimes guilds organize a council of officers to take decisions on whom to take on a raid. In some cases there are even democratic votes being held, for example in the current system to kick somebody from a pickup group. The problem with decisions like raid invites or loot distribution is that they are typically *for* one person, and *against* another person. Thus often enough the person not chosen is unhappy. And in some cases the one losing out on such a decision doesn’t accept the outcome, and starts complaining about the decision being unjust: The raid leader always chooses his girlfriend over somebody with the same class, or some similar complaint.

Taking decisions is not always easy, and given the added risk of people complaining about the decision afterwards, players generally try to set up some set of rules to make decisions more impartial. For example in my guild, if you signed up and turned up for a raid but weren’t chosen, you received “a ticket”, giving you priority for the next raid. And endless pages on guild forums and blogs have been written about loot distribution rules, with sometimes elaborate and complicated systems being developed to make distribution “fair”. Unfortunately rules do not always solve the problem. In many cases it is obvious that certain rule sets benefit certain players more than others, and then guilds start fighting over the rules, leading to potentially even bigger fights. Some rules are “unwritten”, and it is only when the moment of truth arrives that it turns out that people don’t actually believe in the same set of unwritten rules, or interpret them differently. If you persuaded your shadow priest to be a healer for this one raid, how does the usual “main spec has priority over off spec” rule work for his case?

When organizing groups with strangers, rules often have to be simplistic to be clearly understood by everybody. And sometimes rules become customary which clearly can’t work for everybody, for example pickup groups requiring participants to have the achievement for having completed a raid before being invited; obviously that creates an impossible situation for people want to pickup raid because they don’t have a guild, and who consequently don’t have that achievement. A vicious cycle, where not having the raid achievement means you don’t get a chance to get the achievement. It is telling that WoW had addons to fake achievements, created just to break out of such an impossible rules set.

Furthermore rule sets, whether for guilds or for pickup groups, are in most cases skewed in favor of the more hardcore players, and against the more casual players. This is a natural consequence of an inherent dilemma of playing together for a random chance to improve your gear: The person most likely to gain something is the person with the least good current gear, because everything is a potential upgrade. But of course that person is also least likely to contribute much towards the common effort. A dungeon or raid is easiest when all participants already outgear it. The same thought is apparent in loot rules which give priority to players who raid most, because they are the most likely to be present for the next raid, and help the progress of the whole guild. Thus rules designed to guarantee a maximum chance of success are inherently discriminating against those who play less. There is perfect logic behind such rules, but they lead to increased segmentation of the player base, or even inside a guild. And thus these rule systems aren’t inherently stable, with guild splits being a frequent enough outcome.

In a game where access to content is based on gear “progress”, and players set the rules on who to invite to raids and how to distribute loot freely, the resulting player base segmentation often excludes large numbers of players from much of the group content. Thus Blizzard came up with the idea of imposing a less discriminatory rule set, with an impartial computer AI as the judge, to handle group invites and loot distribution for 5-man dungeons. As far as we know the algorithm for getting a group together is even designed to deliberately always have some less geared players grouped with more geared players whenever possible, so attempts by players to still impose their own rule set and votekick less well geared players just end up in them getting another undergeared replacement. Of course that does not take away anybody’s freedom to rather group with his friends. One could even theoretically organize a pickup group in trade chat using specific gearscore and achievement criteria; but in practice it turns out that being grouped with complete strangers, even undergeared and less competent ones, still has a high enough chance of successfully finishing a heroic run fast enough to make trying to organize a group in chat less effective. Players are basically rewarded for taking that leap of faith, and adhering to a more inclusive and less discriminatory rule set judged over by the impartial computer.

Of course that system has social consequences, but unlike some distracters say, they aren’t all bad. There is some inherent social value in preventing stratification in a massively multiplayer game, in getting everybody to play together instead of splitting up the player base into small cliques. But the negative social consequences do certainly exist as well: When players decide for themselves who to play with, they can use social criteria as well, and exclude players who are behaving badly, or are uncommunicative. Some people make an effort to be polite to their guild mates as long it is their guild mates who decide who gets invited to a raid, but won’t make that effort towards a group of strangers picked by the random Dungeon Finder. There is also a conflict when people try to graft personal rule sets on top of the computer-given rules of a Dungeon Finder group; just watch what happens if a plate-wearing dps rolls need on a tank item, some people would say that is okay because that is the rules, others think a “main spec has priority over off spec” rule should apply in pickup groups as well. Of course such additional rules can’t be enforced, because there are basically no negative consequences to breaking “soft” rules in a pickup group. So it is no wonder that players used to social rules enforcing good behavior find Dungeon Finder groups to be less pleasant. Although part of the lack of social interaction in these groups comes not from the computer choosing the participants, but from the rather hectic “go go go” speed some people push for to maximize rewards per time unit.

In retrospect at the end of Wrath of the Lich King it must be said that the Dungeon Finder system is a success. The combination of the impartial computer allowing people to play without segregation and awkward social decisions with the convenience and rewards of the system resulted in 5-man dungeons being heavily used all the time. Compare that to some raid dungeons, like Naxxramas and Ulduar, which are more or less standing empty. Having unused content in the game is not an efficient use of scarce development resources. Thus I am pretty certain that we will see a Raid Finder functionality added to World of Warcraft in one of the major content patches of Cataclysm. Blizzard already modified the raid lockout system to make it more compatible with an automated system to put a raid group together.

Some people will certainly fear that a Raid Finder will destroy guilds. But I would say that if a guild is held only together by the fact that guild membership is the only way to get into a raid, that guild isn’t really worth preserving anyway. I’m rather looking forward to a future where people who like each other still have the option to raid as a guild, while the people with less social contacts or odd play schedules have the option to raid via the Raid Finder. Having a computer decide who participates in a raid, and how loot is distributed, might not always result in a perfect group. But at least the computer is completely fair and does not discriminate against anybody. As long as the more social options to form a raid group are still in the game, I don’t see how anybody could have a justified complaint against random raid groups. They would be optional, and anybody signing up for them knows what he is in for. Sometimes an impartial computer is better at making decisions, because at least a computer can’t be a jerk.

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