Saturday, March 9, 2013

Group Lurkers: The silent MMO majority

Call it "cracking the code" but I think I understand what the "masses" really want out of an MMO.  They want what I would call Group Lurking.  

Players want to be grouped and play with others — this is why they are playing online — but they don't always want the convention of interacting socially with others. In other words, they want the interaction and benefits of grouping without actually having to invest in interacting.

In almost every online community, the vast majority of people are lurkers.  Why would we assume this is different in MMOs?  While that may seem illogical, all evidence seems to point towards this being true even in MMO communities.  The "silent majority" want to group but they also want to remain silent. 

Voice chat / communications
To find your first group of lurkers, look no further than the voice comms of your clan or guild.  How many of the people in your comms don't talk?  In every guild, the "talkers" are usually limited to maybe 8-10 really active speakers and everyone else stays quiet.

Are you the one lurking?  Then you already know the reasons why you don't speak up. There could be a 1000 reasons.  The point is.. you want to participate but you are perfectly happy not participating as much as the guys doing all the talking.

But this is only one type of "lurker" and lurking isn't always black/white.  For example, on the other extreme we have ...

The "solo" grouper
People who write about MMOs often mistake lurkers as wanting to play a "solo" game. This is a gross oversimplification and untrue.  Why play an MMO at all if you don't want a shared world with others?

Simply look at some of the most widely praised features among casual gamers as evidence: party finders, scenarios & battlegrounds, public quests, and really anything that facilitates a "group" forming automatically which has a relatively short duration.  Remember how much "open groups" and "public quests" were praised for Warhammer Online?

That's what this group wants -- they want to group, they just don't have the real-life time to invest more than 30-90 minute chunks of time.  Any feature that facilitates this type of player's ability to group is appreciated.  And just because they want to group for a bit, doesn't mean they want to invest in making long-term friends.

Cracking the Code: How to retain your players
I would posit the theory that these "group lurkers" want to be led by others.  The easier a game makes it for these "group lurkers" to be led, the better the chance that the game will succeed and retain players.

The most vocal people in “vent” are the guys who do the leading. An important group, to be sure, but not the silent majority.  In sandboxes, the quiet ones are the lurker slaves quietly farming all the resources to build your battleship/city/whatever.  In theme parks, they are the 15 silent guys making up 60% of your 25-man raid group. These players are the heart-and-soul of an MMO's success.

At it's core, I think this is what most games lack to be successful in the long-term.  Sure, they need content.  Sure, they need to be fun.  Sure, a good IP helps.  But at the core, online gaming is about interacting with others.  The easier and more important this becomes, the more successful the MMO will be at retaining players.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Balancing the Archtypes

Darkfall: Unholy Wars may still be under NDA, but that doesn't meant that there aren't topics out there that can be discussed which are public.

From the DF: Unholy Wars FAQ:

What are the classes in Darkfall Unholy Wars?

Darkfall Unholy Wars does not utilize classes in the traditional sense rather, you select a role and specify two schools to focus on within that role. Roles and Schools are not set in stone and you can change between them to suit your play-style or current situation. 

Without going into the specifics of the available Roles and Schools, one major change from the original Darkfall is that players need to select a very clearly defined Role or Archtype.  This selection, while not permanent, does mean that your "current situation" must be played as this Archtype.

While hardly a unique idea, this change marks a significant deviation from the original Darkfall which allowed players to advance multiple skills and shift from play-style to play-style while mid-combat.  Watch a DF1 video and you'll see players switch from Melee to Spells and back to Melee again in mere heartbeats.

I don't think it comes as much of a shocker that with such changes, the same class warfare type forum arguing erupts over game balance.  Again, I'm not going to speak to specifics but as with every game -- such class warfare inevitable leads to the type of forum bickering I despise most in games.

Not all Archtypes are created equal
The reality of class balance is that it's incredibly difficult to balance and it often evolves over time as players become better and/or find optimum skill usage.

Tank Archtype:  In PvP, this is by far the most forgiving Archtype because by definition, it has the most survivability.  Played poorly, a Tank can still survive and the golden rule in PvP is that you don't do any damage while dead.  This means that even a bad player can still be effective and helpful (a notion that gnaws at many players).  Typically balanced with sub-par damage and lack of range, making the Tank type too effective at dealing damage can easily make this the most OP class. By contrast, not enough damage, and good players are rendered as ineffectual as the poor players that are surviving right along-side them.

Glass Cannon Archtype:   In my opinion, the glass cannon is the most difficult Archtype to balance by a wide margin.  By definition, the cannon must do tremendous damage and be weak enough to kill quickly.  Played poorly, the Glass Cannon is easily killed.  Played well, the Glass Cannon can be un-killable even by equally skilled players.  So, do you balance for the weak or strong players?  If you balance for the strong, you'll hear no end of complaints from the weak Cannons who keep dying.  If you balance for the weak, every elite player will play a Cannon and dominate the game.

Healer Archtype:  If, like me, you think the golden rule in PvP is that you don't do damage while your dead -- then healing is the trump card. A great healer not only keeps himself alive but everyone around him. As a result, they have a huge bullseye painted on them. A tough class to balance solo because they are usually balanced on the idea that others do the damage while they do the healing. If you make them too effective at damage and healing, then the best scenario includes everyone playing Healers.

Complicating things even more is that the nature of these Archtypes tends to lend itself naturally to a sort of rock-paper-scissors thing.  Where, Tanks beat Cannons, Cannons beat Healers, and Healers beat Tanks.

Archtypes vs Homogeneity
All that said, I like having the Archtypes in games.  It provides a diversity that is fun.  Sure there are balance issues that are always evolving and need constant attention but that doesn't make it impossible.

The original "sandbox" game was Dungeons & Dragons.  Not the MMO -- the original Pen & Paper game that you played with your imagination.  And there was a reason that you started by rolling up your class and following the game rules for that class.  It provided a sense of self for who you were in the game.

The alternative is homogeneity, or uniformity, between all players. Oh sure, there are systems you could develop that limit certain things by your equipment and such but it's not quite the same as "playing a mage". :)