MMOs Have Group Content All Wrong

One of those unwritten rules of MMO design seems to be that group content should always be the most challenging content, and that the most challenging content should always be group content. There’s even a progression where the larger the group, the harder the content becomes, with raids inevitably being the toughest challenge there is. To that, I have just one question:

Why?

My panda hunter doing Scarlet Monastary in World of WarcraftThat’s not a question I can recall ever seeing asked, let alone answered. It only occurred to me recently, and thinking about it, I’m not sure I can find any compelling reason why group content and the hardest content must be one and the same. But I can think of a lot of reasons why they shouldn’t be.

The wrong priorities:

Since I seem to be interrogating my readers today, let me ask you another question: What is the purpose of group content in an MMO?

I’d wager most people would answer something along the lines of supporting the multiplayer aspect of the game. Group content encourages people to work together, and supports socialization. That’s a good thing in a social genre like MMOs.

I don’t think many people would answer that question with, “To provide the hardest challenges.”

But yet, that seems to be the overriding priority for MMO developers. Not to provide opportunities for socializing, but to make players sweat as they struggle with content of the highest difficulty.

Not only does making group content and hard content synonymous not aid socialization, it actively harms it.

My Hell Raised group in The Secret WorldFor one thing, difficult content immediately excludes players who lack the skills to complete it. You might say that they don’t deserve to complete it if their skills aren’t up to snuff, and arguably, you’re right, but that’s exactly my point: It divides players based on skill level, when the whole point of group content is to bring people together.

One of the reasons I tend to prefer soloing in MMOs is because I don’t enjoy putting social stress on top of content-induced stress. I’m perfectly okay with a challenge — I think the time I’ve spent in StarCraft II and The Secret World proves that — but when you also add that to the stress of potentially letting your friends down, or being let down by your friends, it’s just too much.

When people in a group are of differing skill levels — which is pretty much always going to the case to some extent — it invariable starts to feel awkward. Perhaps a friend is under-performing, causing wipes. You’re forced to choose between hurting their feelings or hobbling your own progression. If someone is far more skilled than their friends, they will inevitably become frustrated and may have to abandon their in-game social circle entirely. Or maybe you’re the weak link. Even if your friends are understanding, you still may feel ashamed for holding them back.

None of these situations are fun.

It’s also worth noting that playing as a group is innately more challenging than doing solo content, all other things being equal. Even putting aside issues of logistics and getting everyone to actually show up — which I do not consider to be true difficulty — it is a fact that the more moving parts there are, the more that can go wrong. The more people there are in your group, the more it becomes inevitable that at least one person will screw up. So why does group content need to be innately more challenging even on top of that?

Group content isn’t even a good measuring stick for skill because of the potential for being carried. There are people in WoW right now who are buying full gold challenge mode runs for massive amounts of gold. They’re earning rewards meant for the most skilled without displaying any skill at all.

Battling Amber-Shaper Un'sok in the Heart of Fear raidThe only rationale I can think of for why difficulty and group size should be equated is that developers wanted to encourage people to group by putting all the best rewards behind it, but felt that they then had to crank up the difficulty, because it doesn’t feel right to give the best rewards for easy content. But if that’s the case, it’s a pretty tortured logic.

Group content is for socializing:

Currently, most if not all MMOs put their effort into finding new and creative ways to make group content challenging. What they should instead be doing is finding new and creative ways to make group content a welcoming environment for groups of all sizes and skill levels.

Even Guild Wars 2, a game with incredibly laid-back and inclusive design philosophies, decided its only organized group content, dungeons, should be intensely difficult and require rigid party sizes.

I would much prefer it if group content was designed with the idea of being relatively low stress. I would rather see the greatest challenges come in the form of solo content, so each player is judged solely on their own merits, while group content is made for relaxing with friends.

Developers should instead put their effort into scaling technology that can accommodate any and all group sizes and other such tools to ensure everyone has a place. Group content should be a social feature first and foremost, not something that exists purely to test one’s skills and determine who the most uber-leet gamers are.

Battling karka on the Lost Shores in Guild Wars 2That’s not to say that group content can’t or shouldn’t ever be challenging. Indeed, I think a variety of difficulties to suit all skill levels — including the best of the best — is one of the things that would promote socialization.

But it shouldn’t be the overriding goal for group content, to the exclusion of all else.

The Secret World does a better job on this front than most games, though it’s still far from where it should be. The primary source of group content, nightmare dungeons, are brutally hard, and the lack of any decent tools for finding groups rather hobbles the game’s socialization potential.

But it has plenty of challenging solo content, so it’s not a stark divide between easy soloing and hard group content, and scenarios are a step in the right direction. They feature numerous difficulty settings and group sizes to suit the needs of most anyone, and interestingly, group sizes are not actually enforced on most difficulty settings. This means you can do a group scenario with less than five players, or do a solo scenario with all your friends.

In scenarios, it also tends to be true that doing them solo is more difficult than doing them as a group. This has been decried by many for being a departure from the norm, but if you ask me, it’s a welcome concession to what should be common sense.

I’m told that City of Heroes had a very flexible stance on grouping that put socialization first, but since I never played that game, I cannot comment on it further.

Caught in a dust storm during the Hotel scenario in The Secret WorldWorld of Warcraft has had an odd and inconsistent history on the matter. These days, it does offer a lot of easy group content that is good for socializing without stress, but it still tends to obey the logic that the larger the group, the harder things should be, and Blizzard has been systematically stripping any significant rewards from most everything but organized raiding so us casual scrubs never forget that we’re not real players.

For whatever reason, MMO developers have decided that if you want a challenge, you must group, and if you want to group, you must be ready for a challenge. I am left baffled as to why this is, as it seems to only hurt the social connections that should be the focus of group content, but it’s not a policy we’re likely to see changing any time soon.

I’m afraid I shall be left with my confusion and disappointment over the matter for a long time to come.

WoW: Cloak Crazy

As of last night, I completed my third and final run through Wrathion’s quest chain in World of Warcraft, earning my rogue her legendary cloak. She follows in the footsteps of my warlock and my monk, who had previously earned theirs.

My World of Warcraft characters show off their legendary cloaksWhen I first completed it on my warlock, I figured I’d never have the patience to attempt such a massive grind again. However, with nothing better to do in this seemingly endless pre-expansion lull, I ended up giving it a go again on my other level 90s. A variety of nerfs had made it much less of a grind than it once was, though still quite an effort.

I still have fairly mixed feelings on the legendary quest, but in the end, I think my positive memories will outshine the negative ones.

A legendary journey:

Yes, it is an ungodly grind, even in its heavily nerfed state. If I never see the Isle of Thunder or its associated raid again, it will be too soon (EXECUTUS). And I still don’t really think a legendary item is something that should just be handed out to anyone and everyone. It may not be a popular opinion, but I think Burning Crusade had the best philosophy to handling legendaries.

However, while I do tend the mock the idea of “accomplishment” in video games, I must admit there is a certain satisfaction to completing such a long journey.

More importantly, it was one of the better pieces of storytelling Warcraft has seen in recent memory. Wrathion is a very interesting and complex character, and it’s great to see a strong anti-hero in WoW again. Let us hope he doesn’t go the way of Illidan and Kael’thas.

My rogue's story is told at the completion of the legendary quest chain in World of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaAlthough he can be deadly serious at times, Wrathion also brings a lot of humour with him, and the writers manage to incorporate it in a way that doesn’t seem clownish or detract from the player’s ability to take him seriously. That’s a difficult tightrope to walk, and one WoW rarely succeeds at.

And some of his banter with Anduin is just sheer gold.

The few aspects of the chain that didn’t involve a massive grind offered some very fun gameplay, as well.

As I was working through the quests on my monk and rogue, I came to the conclusion that a major portion of my motivation was simply the desire to replay the solo challenges at the Thunder Forge and the Celestial temples.

A lot of people — including myself — like to complain that WoW is far too easy, and there’s a lot of legitimacy to that complaint, but it’s actually a little more nuanced than that. The vast majority of WoW’s content is insultingly easy, but there is difficult content, as well — but it’s insanely, brutally difficult.

What WoW is severely lacking is moderately challenging content. There is no happy medium; only ludicrous extremes.

The solo challenges on the legendary quest fell into that sweet spot of being difficult, but not overly frustrating. I’d usually only die once or twice on each before completing it. And because it’s solo, there’s no sting of letting anyone down if you fail, or feeling of being carried if you succeed.

My monk participates in Niuzao's challenge as part of the legendary questline in World of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaI really wish we could have more content like that.

Controversy. There’s always controversy:

Of course, just as I was finishing up my final legendary quest, Blizzard came out with the announcement they’ll be removing the entire storyline from the game when Warlords of Draenor is released.

The odds of my ever attempting the quest again were very low, so this doesn’t effect me much, but I still think it’s bad for the game.

Blizzard has made a lot of questionable decisions lately. This isn’t necessarily the worst, but it’s definitely the most confusing.

Nobody benefits from this. It fractures the lore, eliminates an impressive chunk of content, and results in people having less to do during the next year-long content drought.

Content should never, ever be removed unless there’s absolutely no way to avoid it. It’s a known fact that no MMO developer on the planet can produce content faster than players can consume it. A large stable of legacy content is one of the ways to mitigate player boredom during content lulls. Why would Blizzard shoot themselves in the foot by eliminating some?

My monk's image floats above the Seat of Knowledge after earning her legendary cloak in World of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaI’ve heard Blizzard talk about how it’s a problem that all of the game’s story is so scattered and disjointed. Why would they make that problem even worse by gutting Mists of Pandaria’s main storyline and eliminating a massive amount of development for two crucial lore figures?

The only explanation we’ve gotten so far is that it’s meant as a reward for those who played during MoP, but that doesn’t make any sense. The reward was getting the cloak when it was still relevant. Removing the storyline going forward doesn’t reward anyone, but it does punish a lot of people.

I honestly find it a little insulting that Blizzard thinks I’m a sufficiently petty person that I would view kicking the teeth of everyone who came after me as a reward.

It also seems to indicate that Blizzard cares more about stroking the egos of a vanishingly small minority who find some kind of prestige in a cloak you get from LFR than about its own epic lore and story. That doesn’t fill me with a lot of confidence for the future of this franchise.

The news that Warlords of Draenor’s legendary quest will also be temporary content has dampened my already minimal enthusiasm for the new expansion. On top of removing flying, on top of the lack of new features, on top of the wacky lore, I also have the to spend the whole expansion worrying I won’t be able to grind fast enough to finish the chain in time?

Bleh. It’s hard to convince myself it’s even worth playing at that point.

My warlock showing off her legendary cloak in World of WarcraftIt’s rather a trainwreck from a PR perspective, too. They announced the chain’s removal far too late, such that anyone who sees the announcement and thinks, “Damn, I better get on finishing that” will have no reasonable chance of completing the chain unless they were already very close.

And it comes across as incredibly tone-deaf considering how sensitive people are about all that’s being removed in Warlords of Draenor. One of my favourite comments on the matter to date has been, “They ran out of things to remove from the new expansion, so they started removing things from live.”

This is why I struggle to maintain my former level of love for World of Warcraft. It’s not that Blizzard isn’t putting out great content. They are. But there’s inevitably some kind of poison pill, some utterly baffling and pointlessly punitive decision that puts a damper on the festivities. I can never just relax and enjoy the game.

Edit: Because I’m a masochist, I posted this rant on the official forums. If you agree with me, or if you disagree, post and help keep the discussion going.

Always look on the bright side of life…

Well, at least I can be glad I got all the cloaks I wanted while I still could. I’ll enjoy my memories of the storyline, even as I mourn its loss.