Friday, February 12, 2016

Taking One For The Team: Group Play In MMORPGs

I woke up this morning to find myself thinking about yesterday's topic. In the comments to the previous post superior-realities (whose blog wasn't in the blogroll for some reason, really should have been, is now) pointed out that an absence of the Trinity and/or Holy Trinity is not synonymous with the presence of Action Combat. This is true.

In retrospect I see that I was using Trinity play as shorthand for an older, more traditional style of group play in general. It's a pity I didn't know that when I was writing that piece but then I rarely know what I'm writing about until I get to the end and read it back, by which time I've often run out of time or energy to start over and do it properly. That's the difference between blogging and writing articles, in a nutshell.

Anyway, as a result of the discussion that arose I had kind of an insight. Not an epiphany, nothing so dramatic. Not even a very original idea, I'm sure, but one that was fresh to me. It's this: grouping in MMOs is a team sport.

Superior-realities suggested that Trinity play prevents each individual player from seeing more than a fraction of the whole of any combat: "My issue with the trinity", he says, "is simply how stilted and limiting it is. Each role experiences only a fraction of combat. Only tanks directly interact with enemies, only healers get to directly support their allies, and only DPS get to fun the of big crits and impressive kills.".

And here, I think, we have something. Back in the old days, group play in MMOs was openly acknowledged to be a team game. I'd somehow forgotten. Maybe newer players never knew.

Some scenarios naturally encourage a team ethic...
Whether we're talking pick-up groups, guild runs or long-established, tight-knit parties of friends, every four or five or six or eight person party that set foot in a dungeon or spawned an instance bore very close comparison with a sports team. Doing a dungeon in a PUG was like playing a childhood scratch match with a side picked from whoever happened to have turned up at the Rec that afternoon. Not everyone had the right kit, skill levels were variable to put it kindly, there may even have been someone who'd never played the game before and didn't know the rules.

Organization and expectation rose from there but no matter the focus and experience and commitment of the individuals involved one thing remained constant: defined team roles. Just as you wouldn't play baseball or cricket or football (any flavor) without first agreeing on who's on first or who keeps goal or stands behind the wicket, so you wouldn't build a traditional group without deciding who's going to pull, who's the off-tank, who's main-healing...

When I was at school I played a number of different team games. It was absolutely the case that I only experienced a fraction of every game directly. When I was keeping goal I was in the frenzied center of the action for brief, terrifying moments but I often spent minutes at a time standing alone, peering towards the far end of the pitch, trying to make out what was going on up the other end. As a center-forward playing field hockey, forbidden to cross my own half-way line, I had the same experience in reverse.

It is not the lot of a team player to enjoy the full experience of the game in the round. It's his or her joy and frustration to know some parts of it in extreme detail, some at the periphery and the rest only in long-shot, from conversation in the changing room or the bar afterwards.

Others, not so much.
This, naturally, is not how a tennis player sees the world. A tennis player really can do all the things. There is not a single moment of a singles match in which each player isn't fully and completely engaged. Each player gets to serve. Each player gets to receive.

Over the years MMOs have tried to give everyone that single-player experience even in content designed for groups. It doesn't work. Giving everyone access to all the roles at once gets you no closer to everyone experiencing everything to the full than it did when roles were handled with exclusivity. Each individual player only knows his or her small part of the battle, no matter what.

When this approach is applied to open-world content like Public Quests and Dynamic Events the result is as though centuries of sophistication and progress had been rolled back. Instead of a tightly codified, highly-disciplined sport played professionally by experts you have everyone in the entire village trying to kick a dead sheep across two miles of muddy field. Which isn't to say that's not a fun way to spend an afternoon...

That's a contrast between raiding and zerging, though, which is outside the brief of this piece. When it comes to single-group content, what we like to call "Dungeon Play" for convenience' sake, it's an attempt doomed to failure. Much though we might like to, we just can't all have all the things all the time.

In a supposedly free-form, self-structuring set-up like GW2's dungeons, what happens is that players, deprived of strong, specific group roles, devise full-group strategies that allow the group to act as though it were a single player. If no-one is given the tools to Tank alone or Heal alone then the default is for everyone to do as much damage as possible as fast as possible - hence the Zerker Meta, which Anet professes to abhor and yet which has yet to be broken, let alone replaced.

You can have too many specialists.

This kind of system doesn't give a player a wider, deeper, broader experience of content. All it does is turn group content into surrogate solo content that you can only experience if you find several other players willing to solo alongside you.

Okay, I know that's an extreme take on what is in reality a more flexible and varied process, but in essence the "I can do everything" mode is, at best, no better at providing variety for the player than the old Trinitarian vision. Mostly, I would contend, it's considerably worse.

In the end, though, that doesn't matter so much. What matters is whether we see group content as team-based or individual-based. If it's going to be the former then we are always going to need roles and those roles will need to be clearly defined and understood.

They don't by any means need to be exclusive or singular. You don't even need to make players play Alts to see the full picture. With its Soul system Rift, for example, was able to design around clear group roles while allowing every player to have access to all of them on the same character. However you choose to parcel them up, though, if you don't have the firm roles in the first place, you have removed a whole layer of complexity, involvement and, I would say, satisfaction from the game.

This is what I would like: clear, defined roles that require the deployment of specific, solid, effective abilities at a pace that's conducive to considered, rational decision-making. And I'd like all of this to be happening in a real-time "live" environment, where errors have consequences and concentration and application are essential if success is to be achieved.

When I choose to party up I want to experience play that is substantively different to that which I experience when soloing. I'm grouping with other people because I want to be part of a team. I understand that there's a trade-off. I know it means there will be things I don't get to do for myself. That is the point. That's why I grouped.

Otherwise, why not let's make everything soloable and stick with that?


  1. I think there's an interesting distinction to be made between roles set in place by the mechanics of the avatar you're controlling (e.g. protection paladin, to use a WoW example) and roles set outside the game by the players themselves (e.g. centre-forward in field hockey). In the latter, everyone is using the same equipment (goalies aside), and can theoretically play any role – there's nothing mechanically preventing it.

    I guess the trinity is just the ultimate way of using equipment specialised for a particular role, like a goalie in an ice hockey game.

    1. Good point. It's not a perfect analogy (when are they ever?) but you could also argue that the abilities given to classes by the game mechanics equate to skills developed by the players in Isey's example below. The really interesting part comes when players use the abilities in ways that are different from how they were intended, giving themselves roles that their classes theoretically ought not to be able to perform well.

      In EQ I have been in groups with an Enchanter as main tank. I've main-healed as a Necromancer. We used regularly to play with a Shaman who took both roles, Tank and Main Healer, at once. The possibilities may not have been endless but they were extensive. The Trinity has always been a set of requirements, not a trio of classes, at least when I was running groups.

  2. Even when people have the same equipment the specialization is evident. Pitchers in baseball, for example. You can't plug an infielder in there with any reasonable expectation of prolonged success.

    I like the analogy. Also interesting to ponder is the relative social strength and skills of someone who prefers team play.

    1. Ah yes, well, social skills! That's one of the attributes that used to be highly advantageous but is now surplus to requirements in most groups. The massive increase in the pace of combat and the extensive automation of the mechanical processes of forming and running groups has all but rendered social skills obsolete in dungeoneering.

  3. Firstly, thanks for adding me to the blog roll.

    Honestly, it had never even occurred to me that people might want to have a different gameplay experience in groups. I have never viewed group play in MMOs being about anything but socializing.

    I'm not necessarily opposed to distinguishing group play from solo play, but I think if you take it to the extreme that exists in the average trinity game, it starts to be an onerous barrier to entry for group play, and I don't think that's very healthy for the genre. I think part of the reason DPS tends to be overwhelmingly the most popular role is that it's the only one that doesn't require you to relearn the game once you get into a group.

    As an aside, I also have to wonder how much of your skepticism about stepping beyond the traditional trinity has to do with all the time you've spent in Guild Wars 2. Of all the games I've played with no trinity or a relaxed version of it, GW2 is the only that didn't manage to make it fun. Group content in GW2 is a hot mess, honestly.

    1. I find it fascinating that the idea of people expecting an entirely different gaming experience from group content to solo content is new to you. That's been such a given for me since the day I discovered MMORPGs a decade and a half ago that it seems nothing less than a baked-in basic mechanical fact of gameplay. I have never played any MMO where I felt the gameplay in a group was identical to solo play and even in these days of convergence between the two modes I don't feel we are yet at the point where the only difference is having people to socialize with.

      It's been a long time since I grouped regularly outside of PvP/WvW. I have never done a single dungeon in GW2, or not one of the limited number of official, permanent ones anyway. I have no idea what regular dungeon play is like in that game. I did do some Fractals a long time ago, which is similar, and I have done all of the few temporary dungeons that came and went with Living Story, so I have some small first-hand experience of how group play works there. It's interesting and far less chaotic than people would have you believe. My problem with it is the pace not the intrinsic mechanics.

      No, my dungeon/group model comes primarily from a lot of EverQuest and EQII, a fair amount of Dark Age of Camelot, some LoTRO, a little Vanguard, quite a bit of Wizard 101 (very different) a tiny bit of TSW and probably a few others I've forgotten. I haven't grouped for dungeon-type content regularly for four or five years though.

      I think I may have given you the impression I'm a supporter of the WoW-style "Holy Trinity". I'm not. I don't mind it but I'm not a big fan. When I refer to Trinmity play I mean the Trinity that formed the core of most of my dungeon play from 2000 - 2007 or so - Tank/Healer/Crowd Control. For the first few years of that time DPS was barely even a recognized sub-role let alone one of the pillars and even towards the end it was not as important as CC in the kind of groups I ran and ran with.

    2. Oh, I've always known there's a difference between solo and group play. It just never occurred to me someone might find that disconnect to be a desirable feature, rather than an incidental side-effect.

    3. First off, really nice post bhagpuss!

      On the subject of the "divide"/difference between solo and group play in MMORPGs, To me it is very much a desireable thing.

      A little history of my gaming (skipable)
      I started playing EQ and later wow for the group play specifically. I LOVE teamplay, and coop computer games have always been my favourites. I also play a lot of D&D and really like RPG computer games as well. So when i found out there was a way to play coop games with RPG elements, i was rather sold. Back in EQ I hardly ever soloed, (lived at my parents' stil back then, and still mostly played while at friends, or when I had planned with a friend we would play together online that evening), but when wow came (and i moved for myself) I had a lot more time to "kill", leading to a good deal more solo playtime. I still often sought out groups or even just questing partners while playing, but that wasnt always available, and it wasnt as required either as in EQ.
      Soloing was fine as well, as it was mostly just like playing a solo RPG which I also liked, and it had the immense benefit of "training" my character for when i was grouping.
      For many years that was one of the prime reasons for soloing. Getting my character better for group play. That doesnt mean that I didnt enjoy it (who doesnt like ticking boxes/advancing), but the carrot was always the knowledge that getting the shield of avoiding doom from that one questline, or crafting it from the mats i had spent hours gathering, meant that I would contribute more to the team when grouping.

      Tldr: For me the groupplay was the important part of the game.

      For the actual question of whether the "divide" or difference is a positive thing... For me it is.
      The gameplay in the group part of MMOs are very often the sort of gameplay that requires a lot of attention. Because it is a team-"sport", you have to be ready to fill your role all the time, or risk letting the others down. The group play of MMORPGs are often (at least traditionally) the most engaging parts of the game as well. That is part of what makes it fun, but it also means that it is not well suited for when you just want to use your gaming time to relax. Something i know that I do a lot, and which I presume other people like to do as well. Soloing, especially the more "boring" parts of it however, can be perfect for this type of gaming. Before MMORPGs when i played RTS/strategy games I would use other games or books to relax, but after i started with MMORPGs i had the option of continuing to advance my character in the times when i just wanted to relax. Allowing me to use the same game for all my gaming wants.
      Had the game been purely made out of either groupplay or soloing, it would not have been able to fill both roles as well. A pure soloing (read: relaxing) game would lack the "carrot" of getting better for the grouping part, and a pure groupplay game would have forced me to do my relaxing elsewhere. In either case the game would have been worse of for me as a hobby.

      For a game to allow me to play it no matter my mood, is a huge boon for someone like me who prefers to focus on one hobby at a time, as it allows me to spend "all" my computer gaming hours on the same game. And I think I am not at all unique amongst the group of "early MMORPG" players in this regard.

      To be continues below...

    4. We often talk about the virtue of MMORPGs as virtual worlds, more than just as games, and I think that this feature of allowing you to spend your time there no matter what type of gaming you feel like at the time, might be a somewhat underrated part of that. It does not in itself do anything to build a world as such, but it allows you to spend enough time in a given virtual world, that it can maybe make it feel like a virtual home.

      I know that at least for me, for several years when i sat down at my computer to play, the question was not which game i was going to play, but rather how i wanted to play it today. And as the same was the case for many of my friends, and for many of the soon to become friends i met online, it meant that i always had a group of friends waiting for me at home. Even if i just had 30 minutes before i had to get out the door, or if I had to spend the evening to study, it was always easy to log on and say hi to people. And if i had a spare night without anything planned, it was very likely that i could find 4 other friends online willing to spend the night on skype with me doing whatever in game. (Not that this is impossible with other types of games fcause, for me at least it is just a lot less common an occurence now that me and my friends play vastly different games most of the time).

      ...ok i think that was my attempt at a point.
      Difference in gameplay allows me to play the game different ways in different moods, which allows me to use more of my time on that one game, which is a very good thing for a social game, as it leads to stronger social ties in the game, that can lead to the game feeling like a "home", rather than just a past-time activity.

      Apologies for the wall of text

      (The text might be less cohesive than could be wanted as i am sick, and have been writing this whilst drifting in and out of sleep :-P, I hope it still makes sense)

    5. Makes perfect sense!. I think an awful lot of what you describe was a common experience for players who discovered MMOs in the first half-decade or so of the 21st century. Back then these games, these virtual worlds, offered a lot more than just video game entertainment; they were the equivalent of what social networks later came to represent for a vastly wider audience.

      As we move into what looks very much like an era of specialization and niche products for the genre I wonder whether that old "everything under one roof" ethos can survive. I hope so. There's a lot to be said for being able to get all your entertainment and socializing needs met from a single source.

      I also very much prefer to see a lot of variety in my MMOs - I like to be able to move from one mode to another in the same game and have a different experience each time. I don't want my solo play to feel the same as my group play or my PvE to feel like my PvP. I like to have to learn different tactics for each and to use different builds and gear too. I'm not sure that's going to be possible for ever though.

  4. That sports analogy is really interesting to me. I remember becoming the default goalie in our hockey/floorball games as a teenager because everyone else seemed to hate that role, I suspect because they couldn't get involved in the "glory" of scoring. For me it was perfect though, as I've never been good at running, so I loved having a more "sedate" role with brief bursts of high intensity gameplay.

    In MMOs, I love playing healers, where I hang back and don't have to push myself to the max all the time, yet on the other hand there are very intense moment where the survival of the whole group hangs on me making the right decision at the right moment. Others hate the responsibility and dislike not having any dps numbers to brag about. It adds up perfectly!

    1. I do think the goalie/catcher/wicket-keeper role equates quite closely to the Healer in a trinity set-up. It's set slightly apart, able to watch and observe more than some of the other roles. You could probably match up some other roles too - off-tanking is kind of a midfield sweeper role, CC is defense, tanking is like tackling, DPS is the striker or the batter...

      Maybe not!


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