Raiding Literacies

The big news of one small corner of the internet today was a series of charts that MMO-Champion put out showing the number of characters who had completed the current raiding tier in World of Warcraft. Now, the numbers were based off of only a sample of avatars so one cannot use them to speak for the whole playerbase. In the manner of forum users, however, that is exactly what was done.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there really is only ~5% of the playerbase in World of Warcraft that has completed the current tier. Why is that? There are a lot of theories, but the one Blizzard is acting on is that the tier is too difficult. Raiding is too hard.

Some players argue that raiding isn’t hard – players are just bad. More sensible players respond that actually, players just don’t know what to do because they were never taught. They don’t know how to understand a fight, they don’t know how to recognize mechanics, and they have no way of knowing how to learn that. They can’t solve problems that they can’t see.

There are many kinds of literacies, even many kinds of gaming literacies, but raiding literacy is one somewhat close to my heart. As a long-time raider, I have been in low-skill groups and very high-skill groups. I remember the first raid I did and how difficult it was then. Since I love raiding so much and I see raiding culture somewhat in decline right now (another post another time), I have an interest in teaching people how to raid in the hopes that they will then be able to enjoy it as much as I have.

But first of all, what do they need to know? And then, how do you teach that to them?

Normie, level 10 warlock, said it well in the “1.35% thread“:

Players often come to World of Warcraft new to the genre, perhaps even new to video games. They don’t understand how to parse the UI, let alone busy boss mechanics. The hope is that they “learn their class” through the leveling process and as they complete 5-man dungeons. However, much of the content has been simplified to account for the age of the game and the relative age of its playerbase. Even new players without veteran perks experience easy versions of 5-mans due to their companions who are, for the most part, overly geared and skilled alts.

They experience this, if they don’t get bored, for 85 levels. There is then a level-cap crisis (what do I do now?). If they manage to pass this crisis and continue playing, many of them realize that raiding is the goal. However, they haven’t been prepared to raid at all. They haven’t learned what a rotation is, not even what the term means potentially. They have never encountered a fight so dangerous that a mere misstep can kill them and everyone else. They’ve never seen fire on the ground perhaps even before. They may not conceptually relate a red/blue/purple/sometimes-green area on the floor with danger. They don’t have the conceptual map to understand that “fire will kill me” because they don’t see fire and they don’t realize the red/blue/purple has anything to do with them. (I am focusing on standing-in-fire because it is the most obvious part of raiding literacy when it is lacking and so ubiquitous that Blizzard has implemented more than one achievement referencing it.)

It’s easy for experienced players to say ‘you’re an idiot if you stand in fire’ because in real life, you would be somewhat of an idiot to stand in a patch of fire. That judgment however operates on a successful conceptual map of the avatar as a human body and the red/blue/purple circle spot on the screen as a patch of fire or other dangerous substance, a metaphor that new players do not understand. They do not see the game world in the same way that experienced players have learned to see it. They cannot read the images on the screen the way experienced players can.

They only see meaningless pixels. They may not even notice that a part of the floor is green because they don’t know the floor is an important part. Why isn’t the wall? Or the ceiling? Why does the room matter at all – aren’t we fighting a monster?

Perhaps raiding literacy begins with understanding the visual space of the game and relating it to the avatar as one relates real space to one’s body. We learn to watch where we step as children, and are often reminded of it as adults when we trip and make fools of ourselves. Raiders-to-be need to learn where to step as well, but if they haven’t tripped in 85 levels, they don’t even know that tripping is a thing. They need to be taught. And I don’t mean they should be tripped randomly. Perhaps we could find a better way, a more positive way to teach raiders this one lesson of the very many that need to be learned.

RIFT’s new Chronicles are small instances (1-2 players) for level 50 characters. I noticed that the boss fights in these dungeons are somewhat simplified. For example, the final boss of the first chronicle has a few abilities – he has a cleave, a beam-of-death that follows you, and a meteor-type ability. All of these are marked on the screen in a consistent manner. Before he uses his cleave ability, there is a red patch on the ground in an arc in front of him. Before meteor, there is a glowing red circle that he is targetting. The beam-of-death is also highlighted in red as well as being a beam of fire.

These are helpful, and I wonder how useful they are to new players. Do new players see the red? Do they know to stay out of it? Red is somewhat universally a bad color throughout the game – enemies are highlighted in red, damage done to you is red text, and other instances of danger use the color red. They’ve been trained to see red as danger.

However, are we just training them to see red patches on the ground now? Will they be able to understand the virtual space around their avatar as a space full of potentially dangerous threats to their character’s person? I think they will. They either move out of the red cleave before it happens or they take damage from it and gradually learn that red means move. Once they have learned that red means move, they have progressed from pure visual (red signifies something bad) to kinetic (red signifies something I need to avoid). Once they have reached kinetic, they have conceptually moved from purely a visual map to a spatial map. Visual awareness can now be spatial awareness.

Is this the ideal way to do it? No. Very likely no. It doesn’t happen until 50 for one. But it’s a start.

Some thoughts on story in MMOs

This came up in the comments of a thread that Brent Breaux started earlier. We started discussing the manner in which story is going to be told in SWTOR.

Storytelling is usually a way to communicate what happened in one place to someone who was in a different place. The storyteller is the mediator of this narrative. In a game, this changes a little bit. Instead, the listener pretends to be a participator in the story and they craft that story themselves through the choices they make in the game.

This works particularly well in RPGs. A single player is able to see a character (sometimes many) and a world shift before his eyes as he makes changes that are meaningful. Some of the most powerful stories told in games earn much of that power through the agency they give to their players.

Story in an MMO has up to this point been quite different. As an MMO player, one enters a world that is much like our own. There are many stories happening, many characters and players, and many places to explore. Each place may have its own story and sometimes we happen upon stories we didn’t expect. In most cases, these are told through quest text, a somewhat tedious element of the game which many players skip. More

The Day Deathwing Came

If any of you have been living under a rock lately, maybe you haven’t heard that Deathwing came and shook the foundations of Azeroth. The world has changed and the change is predominantly good.

I’m talking about the new World of Warcraft expansion: Cataclysm. Although it doesn’t come out until December 7th, Blizzard pre-patched the world last week so that everyone now lives in the world post-Deathwing. Almost all of the quests in the game from levels 1-60 have been redone. Many are simply brand new, while others have had their narratives touched up and a few of their progression points adjusted to be more seamless.

One of these new quests is found in the Badlands, a somewhat desolate place with an environment similar to Mars or Arizona. In this new quest, the player meets a trio of gentleman hanging out by a fire on a small hill overlooking a vast furrow carved into the earth. What happened here? Each member of the trio tells his version of the story: The Day that Deathwing Came.

The quest has many things going for it, not least of all, good old Blizzard humor. If for nothing else, go take a character through it for the laughs. Aside from the pure happiness I got from playing through it, I also started to think about how Blizzard is telling stories in this new version of Azeroth. What really happened that day when Deathwing came?

Last Tuesday, we all awoke to a new Azeroth. The way Blizzard communicated what had happened while we were sleeping and they were patching was through this cinematic. We see Deathwing getting his armor on and then flying across the world. Various famous landmarks are crumbled and destroyed before our eyes. It would be like waking up, turning on the news and seeing the Statue of Liberty broken by a tsunami, the Eiffel Tower devoured in a chasm of the earth, and the Great Wall splintered as the ground beneath heaved and trembled. More

Why Boss Drops Are a Good Mechanic

Over the past couple of months, I have watched the Turbine crew prepare Lord of the Rings Online for its shift to becoming a free-to-play game. Although there are many new and changed features one could talk about, I’d like to focus attention on the scaled instances and their rewards.

The developers have taken the original instances, both fellowship and raid content, and transformed them into scaleable dungeons. This means that a level 65 can go back and play through the Great Barrows, but at a level suitable to his or her ability. It may sound somewhat similar to the Heroic dungeons system in World of Warcraft, and it is to an extent. As WoW has a currency that drops from heroic dungeons, so does LOTRO. But, as WoW has specific gear available from each heroic boss on top of the currency rewards, LOTRO does not.

LOTRO Skirmish Mark

This play-for-currency system has been in place since the last expansion Siege of Mirkwood when the skirmish system was released. A player can instantly enter into a scripted instance, typically only about 20 minutes long, with friends or alone, and acquire Skirmish Marks of varying levels depending on difficulty and size. The Marks can then be bartered with a vendor for a myriad of items, both cosmetic and combat.

The play-for-currency design is simple and easy to manage for both developers and players. Bag space is already limited, so instead of making characters loot along the way, one just gives them a currency type and lets them buy what they want. It’s like getting Gift Cards at Christmas instead of big, shiny boxes (full of unwanted crap).

However, with the new Free-to-Play system, Classic instances are going into this play-for-currency scheme as well. I can run a 24-man raid and not see any drops from the boss. As long as I do it enough times, I’ll get to pick what gear I want and be happy.

At first glance, the system seems flawless. No one has to grind for their gear. No one has to design multiple loot tables for different levels (since the instance can be scaled). No one has to do anything hard.

As old school as I may be, I’m not going to champion “hard” meaning endless grind as the best, or as the “good old days”. However, I do want to make case for boss loot tables and random drops. More

Blizzard’s new RMT – who needs great content?

I have since tempered my reaction with rainbows and harmony. Please see my revised view on the sparkly pony here.

I know this isn’t a news blog, a WoW blog, or a ranting blog, but today, I feel this needs to be said. Also, perhaps I’m revved up on caffeine and sugar cereal.

Today, Blizzard released a new digital download item in their store. It’s a flying horse mount and it’s $25.00. Yes, that’s right, it costs half as much as an expansion.

“No one will pay that much for it”, you say as you scoff at my doomsday expression.

Orly? Well, take a look at this.

That’s right, 17,000 people were in line to buy a digital product.

There are two questions I have :

a) What need is this filling that people are willing to pay $25 for?

b) What is going to be in my next expansion now? It better be more than two new mounts.

Don’t worry baby, it’s just a metaphor.

For my much-beloved (*cough*) metaphor class last term, I wrote a piece on Lord of the Rings Online and its use of the metaphor of morale in place of health.

The paper itself is quite long, but I wrote up a brief summary of some of the ideas that came out of the research discussion. The summary is over at LOTRO Reporter where I am starting a column on the Lore-Master class. If you’d like to read the original discussion (and even comment – it’s still open), head over to GoogleWave. If you need a Wave invite, email me (adaplays AT gmail DOT com).

End of a World

The Matrix Online ended this week. After a run of about 4 years, Sony decided to finish it off with an apocalypse. Players were invited back to see the end as the game graphics changed to show the world falling apart and supernatural beings arriving to clean up.

Tabula Rasa ended similarly not too long ago. Rather than slowly (or quickly) merging the servers and watching the community shrink to just the dedicated few who straggle on forever and continue to scoff at anyone who plays a new (easier) game,  Tabula Rasa and the Matrix Online celebrated the end with clearly defined closure.

But now what happens? What about the identites created in these worlds?

When Massively first announced the closure, comments began to surface lamenting the demise. One in particular commented that even though the game was far from perfect, he would miss being able to simply “jack in” and run around.

Few forms of entertainment disappear entirely. Old games, movies, and music can just be downloaded. Maybe we can’t see or play them in the original context, and maybe we can’t recreate the original experience they once gave us, but we can still visit them anytime we wish.

An online game, however, is gone. Dead. The being that we were there is also gone and dead except in our memory. There’s nowhere for them to live anymore except in some kind of cyberspace afterlife where stories are told and experiences narrated. Perhaps in the death of a world and its identities, the book of fiction they create can be closed.

But I don’t know that we want that. Is it the point to finish the story? Part of what is so great about this form of interactive storytelling is that it’s alive and continually telling.

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