Monday, August 6, 2012

No Invitation Required: TSW

Back in the mists of time, when Allizewsaurs walked the earth and Everquest was the game that set the rules, a certain standard of behavior was expected. If you pulled a mob it was yours and yours alone. You pulled him, you kill him.

Strangers passing by would be loathe to jump in and help even when it was obvious you were looking at the short end of a long corpse run. No-one wanted to wear the Kill Stealer hat and who knew if a random act of kindness would end up in a /tell war and the eventual arbitration of a GM?

Separated at birth?
The underlying cause of all this was an all-or-nothing game mechanic that allocated xp and loot according to some inflexible and often poorly-understood rule. Whole etiquettes evolved that relied on knowing the intricacies of ownership: first damage, highest damage, killing blow? Which spells could safely be used outside of a group without leeching or stealing experience? Direct heals? Damage shields? Buffs?

Even if you safely negotiated this arcane palimpsest and did no harm, the mere fact of your intervention might not be welcomed. Your intentions might come into doubt, especially if you didn't move swiftly on. No, the only respectable way to share a kill was in a formally constituted group.

This was the way of things and there could be no other. When Blizzard built their better mousetrap they made sharing much more enticing and practical but the proper place to share remained inside the party. The team responsible for EQ2 went to such extraordinary lengths in formalizing and automating the "play nice" policy, the enforcement of which took up so much of an Everquest GM's time, that they strangled the life out of their new game almost before it was born.

Enter the iconoclast. In building Warhammer Online Mythic took one small step away from the hardline group-or-die mechanic they'd taken and run with in Dark Age of Camelot. They invented the Public Quest and in doing so pressed the MMO reset button.

I'll go left...
Sadly, the prophet is without honor in his own country. Warhammer withered but the idea it seeded grew. In what passes for short order in the deep time of MMO development along came Rift with its seamless autogrouping. Any time you came anywhere near another player fighting anything up popped a little window inviting you to group. How strange that seemed, for about ten minutes. And then how obvious.

Why wasn't it always that way? Were the designers of the early MMOs all Austenites? Did they deem it improper for us to do anything together before we'd been formally introduced?

Well, whatever lay behind those design decisions (and I imagine the reasons were largely technical rather than moral), it's all changed now. We're on the cusp of Guild Wars 2, which largely dispenses with the group itself. Even autogrouping is too formal there. All you need to do is hang around the general area and whatever rewards there are will be yours.

Which brings me at last to what I sat down to write about - The Secret World. The Secret World has no widely-advertised open grouping mechanic. When you pass someone killing a ghoul no invitation to join in pops up on your screen. There are no Public Quests, Dynamic Events or any kind of area where the game shares out xp and loot even-handedly just because you're there.

You and me and Amir makes three
And yet everyone behaves as though there is. From Kingsmouth to Carpathian Teeth, whatever you're trying to kill, any and all passers-by will gleefully pump a few rounds of automatic fire into it as they pass or whirl around and around slashing at it with a flashing blade. What's more, no-one complains. Everyone reacts as if this is perfectly normal behavior and of course it is. Actions that would have resulted in a blazing argument and demands for the name of your Guild leader in 2002 pass entirely uncommented in 2012.

It goes further. Last night I did an entire four-stage Main Mission with another player. It involved moving through a temple following a trail of glowing sigils, completing or preventing several rituals using both puzzle-solving and violence. There were a number of passably challenging mini-boss fights. We met by happenstance almost at the start, realized we had the same goals and co-operated successfully at every stage to complete them.

Need a scorecard to tell the players sometimes
At any point we could have spoken in tells to co-ordinate our actions and discuss tactics. Either of us could have offered an invitation to group. We did neither. These possibilities still exist but they aren't needed. Each of us could infer everything necessary from the visible actions of the other. It was apparent we could work together for mutual benefit and so we did.

We couldn't have done it had the mechanics of the game not supported us. Funcom haven't made any show of it but the Mission structure supports ungrouped co-operative gameplay. Everything we did, every ritual completed, every boss downed, updated both of us regardless of who contributed what, even though we were not formally connected in any observable fashion.

Thanks for the group..oh, wait, there wasn't one!
This, I believe, is the future of true massively multiple online gameplay. It's not "playing alone together". It's not "massively solo online". It's removing all the barriers that previously prevented players behaving naturally in a shared imaginary space. Verbal conversation, be it by typing or talking, simply isn't necessary for many of these interactions and has little to add to them. Being social is not predicated on chatter.

To me, the most interesting aspect of all of this is the rapidly-developing expectations of the audience. It's clear that players now want these systems, prefer them over formal grouping, at least out in the open world. It would be an unwise developer who failed to recognize this sea-change. I anticipate better and better MMOs in consequence.


  1. A nice observation. I noticed too that in TSW it often works the way you described. But unfortunately not always and some quest objectives are not shared if you are not in a group. And in some rare ocassions they are even not shared in a group. I guess Funcom quest designers have been a bit inconsistent in using the quest update mechanisms. I therefore always try play safe and offer join to people who seem to work on the same quest line.

    I fully agree with your conclusion that not enforcing formal grouping is a step forward in MMO's. It also feels much more natural and kind of liberating.

  2. Yes, Funcom haven't been as consistent as they could have been in coding the Missions for this kind of open collaboration and there were more than a few problems in the early days when several people would try to use the same object at once, causing it to bug out. On balance, though, more Missions seem to work this way than not. I keep an eye on whether I'm getting updates and if not I offer to group. So far I haven't needed to do that very often.


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