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Armchair Philosophy

Random thoughts about gaming, both online and offline.

Author: Eindrachen

Through The Looking Glass

Posted by Eindrachen Friday December 4 2009 at 2:32AM
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It is very easy for us, as gamers, to sometimes think that people running a game of any kind have some kind of ulterior motive in doing so.  Conspiracy theories seem to actually be more prevalent in the gaming industry than in nearly any other hobby.  And sometimes they have some meat to the argument; we see evidence occasionally of a developer who just can't learn to shut the hell up about their opinions, regardless of whether or not they actually make it into the game.

But most of the theories that there is a great scheme at work against us are bunk.  The truth is that politics among game staff are just about the most cutthroat you can find, for various reasons.  The problem with a bunch of "visionaries" running a game is that just because a person has a vision, that doesn't mean it is one others share the same vision.  One person's good idea is another one's garbage.

So who gets to make the call?  That's where things get sticky.  If the game's honcho is level-headed, they'll let folks debate and then make a decision based on the best case made.  But if they aren't, or if they are friends with someone involved and can't separate business from personal life, then things get ugly.

I bring this up because I recently got to see the ugly side of some related things.  I'm helping to run a play-by-post RPG right now, when in the course of the game being run I suddenly noticed that one of the GMs made a very condescending and snide comment to one of the players.  Basically, the player did something that negatively impacted a "victory" condition (it's a social game, but there are goals people are supposed to attempt to obtain, so there is a rough win/loss ratio there).

When my players make mistakes, first I assume I have miscommunicated in some way, or did something wrong.  A good GM will analyze their own performance, attempt to adjust as needed.  If that doesn't work, they talk with the player(s) about the problem in a calm, educational manner.  Sometimes we have to actually, you know, tell our players the kind of game we are running so they will know.

But one of the GMs in the game I'm helping with didn't opt to do this.  Rather, he insulted the intelligence and/or knowledge of the player, and basically told them they are loosing the game.

Imagine, if you will, someone who submits a GM ticket in an MMO about, say, having a problem with a quest.  The GM finds that the player is, in fact, doing something incorrectly, and the game itself is okay.  If that GM send a message to the player telling them they were stupid for not knowing how to do something and that they need to think better if they want to get through the game, how fast would someone make a formal complaint to the company about it?

Me, I can only do so much.  I've protested, as vigorously and politely as I can, to both the staff and specifically to the honcho, requesting some kind of intervention or retraction before we get a black eye for man-handling a player.

Yet I am one man.  If everyone suddenly likes this one GM who spoke out of turn, what are my options?  Damned few.  I can quit or just try to work through it as best I can.  Neither option helps the players a hell of a lot.  Quitting puts all of them in the hands of a jackhole.  Working through it supports the very system that encourages that behavior.

Think on this the next time you see someone working for a game company who you think steps out of line, and rest assured that some folks on the other side of the looking glass aren't bad people.  It just takes one bad person to ruin the experience for all of us, player or staff.

Micro-Transactions: What, Me Worry?

Posted by Eindrachen Thursday November 5 2009 at 2:47AM
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So.  This week, WOW suppsoedly "jumped the shark" in their design philosophy.  They are selling two non-combat pets in the game for $10 each, with half the profits from those sales going to the Make-A-Wish Foundation until Dec. 31.

Let's ignore the faux charity of this new opportunity.  Yes, this is faux charity.  If people were really inclined to donate, they'd just donate $5 themselves on Blizzard's advice.  This charity angle is just the sugar coating on the bitter pill of the bigger issue.

That issue is that Blizzard is moving into RMTs for in-game items.  We can deny it if we want, but over the past year they've made an about-face on a lot of issues, from being able to fly in the "old" world (which was handled with an expansion that retools the geography to permit such a thing) to not allowing talking to the other faction (handled with the Battle.net merger and the need for cross-faction and cross-server communication).  RMT is just the latest thing they said they'd never, ever consider that they've apparently had a change of heart about.

You can guess what happened after this announcement.  Pandemonium ensued on every blog, forum, and other form of communications we have available to us.  This seems to be the apocryphal "end time" for WOW, which can only spiral down into an abyss of rich people ruining the game by spending loads of money to get things that "real" gamers get with hard work and devotion to the game.

Strangely, though... I don't feel that that's what will happen at all.

Let's examine the past.  At the end of "vanilla" WOW, they released a huge 40-man dungeon that barely got completed by maybe 1% of most servers.  If we assume a full server has around 40,000 players (and this is as best a guess as I can make), we're talking about 400 players a server even got to see Kel'thuzad before the expansion came.  I personally don't know of anyone at all who even completed the legendary staff Atiesh before Burning Crusade.

So Burning Crusade hits, and Blizzard sees a mistake.  They put months of work into AQ, Naxx, and ZG, and those instances became ghost towns in the wake of Black Temple and Karazhan.  Oh, some did go to ZG for those nifty mounts, or maybe put some time with Naxx to get a legendary item that was barely better than the epics found in BC's end-game (and, ultimately, wasn't as good as some of those epics).  But by and large, nobody cares about the old stuff.  Not at all.

By the time WOTLK came out, Blizzard didn't want to waste further efforts.  They could recycle Naxx (it fit lore-wise, because it's one of the Lich King's big strongholds), but the Sunwell became as barren as ZG or AQ was at that time about a month into Wrath.

If you pay attention, Blizzard keeps trying to give us reasons to go back for old content.  Achievements were one addition, and it did create a wave of nostalgia.  Even today, raiding guiilds will fire up a PUG for old content on an off-raid day and storm Molten Core, ZG, and AQ with level 80 folks who never even saw the inside of those places.

But Blizzard needed something to keep the new end-game instances relevant.  The new emblem system worked pretty darn good, and by updating which emblems dropped with each new release of content, they actually kept heroic dungeons going pretty strong.

How does this have anything to do with micro-transactions, you ask?

If they do implement a micro-transaction service for gear, it basically invalidates all the coding they put into the badge/emblems system. That system is ideal because it cuts down on ninjaing, moderately controls inflation (i.e. you can't use gold to buy badges/emblems), and it only requires you to spend the effort in running the content to get gear. Even raiding benefitted from this a great deal; I've seen little or  no loot drama since TBC first tried this method of gear progression. You may get drama over mounts and other non-essential stuff, but that's becoming few and far between.

Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that they did allow RMT for gear.  Even if they did... it probably wouldn't change much.

PVP, espeically in the Arena, is still more heavily influenced by class balance issues than gear progression, as well as individual player skill (i.e. no keyboard turning). Raiding does have some influence from gear, but not enough to overcome the combined influences of build/spec (which even now can be known to overcome gear deficiency), and individual player teamwork skills (taking orders, paying attention, reacting to changing tactics in a fight, etc.). You can have the best gear in the game, but if you don't move out of fire or fail to use a certain key ability in a fight (such as certain CC abilities), you can screw up and cause a wipe. This is why we frequently ask in-game if someone who does such things with top-geared max-level characters "Ebayed" their way into the game: it's easy to see if someone was a sucker who thought buying such a thing would give him an I.W.I.N. button to the game, only to fail miserably and be quickly ostracized from almost any raid or Arena team for being a crappy player.

Buying gear won't make you a better gamer.  Plenty of people have already tried that with shady under-the-table deals to buy and/or sell characters, and it hasn't worked well yet.  It's like plugging in a cheat code in a single-player RTS game: you still aren't beating the game, you just think you are because you changed the rules you were asked to play by.  In a way, people who buy accounts/gear/whatever are actually worse off than not doing it.  They have to prove, quickly and with no guidance, that they know what they are doing and how to do it, on demand, during intricate boss fights or pitched PVP battles.

Does that mean no micro-transactions are good?  Of course not!  I could see micro-transactions for, say, heirloom gear. That stuff's harmless; once you've hit the last ten levels or so, it can't compete with the stats on choice blue gear from non-heroic 5-man instances. And the worst part is that such items can rarely be can't (to my knowledge) be disenchanted or sold or anything to recoup the costs. For brand-new players who are firing up their first WOW character, there's no harm in letting them pay a few bucks for, say, a Dignified Headmaster's Charge and similar gear. It can't even accept enchants with level requirements, for Christ's sake.

I'm not saying don't worry.  Reasonable, sensible people should protest if they feel something has a negative impact on the game. But I think Blizzard would listen to a compromise better than flat-out rejection. If we draw the boundary at RMT heirlooms, non-combat pets, and a few other paltry things, that protects the integrity of hardcore raiding and Arena teams who deserve something special for the effort they put forth.  Blizzard makes some money, we might get more new players (always a plus), and folks get some feeling of reward in conquering end-game content.

Besides, aside from actually cancelling your subscription, they are unlikely to listen to badly-worded anonymous protests on this or any other website...

The Little Game Engines That Can

Posted by Eindrachen Thursday May 14 2009 at 5:56AM
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Lately, one issue that seems to come up frequently is the topic of a game's engine, specifically the graphics of such.  MMO gamers tend to love gorgeous outdoor vistas, and seem to think poorly of those games that don't match specific artistic criteria for them.  The common line goes, "I want my game to look pretty, damnit."

Which is a truly silly thing to say.  I'm sure some people could care less about graphics, and they probably play MUDs anyway, invalidating their inclusion to the argument.  When we start moving into the realm of personal choice, we can't start holding it over people if they actually like Super Mario Bros. on the old-school NES.  Hell, that's considered the mark of a truly classy gamer, in many circles.

But I digress.

To say that someone playing current generation MMOs doesn't love good graphics is contrary.  We probably wouldn't play current generation MMOs at all if not for the fact we can see what is going on in the game in pretty colors and shapes pleasing to the eye.

What these silly people don't consider is that a choice has to be made at some point: do you want quality or quantity?  Let me explain.

Everquest 2 is one of the finest games I have played.  The design philosophy of the crafting system makes it one of the most compelling things about that game, and if I could ship that crafting system wholesale into anything else, I'd do it in a heartbeat.  The classes are a little too numerous for my tastes, but the racial options are very satisfying.  Hell, the character creation portion is amazing; the different eye and skin colors for every race gives a whole lot of options that you just don't find in most other games, except for things like City of Heroes.  The UI is customizable without needing you to reprogram it, which was amazingly awesome to me when I first played it.

So why am I not playing it?  Because that game engine is tough on a computer, folks.  If you have a strong machine with good tech in it, and the skills to make the settings come through, yes, the graphics are amazing.  But there is a hell of a lot of slowdown even then, and more if you are short on either the hardware or personal skills end.  That's why a lot of folks do not play it: they can not, at this time, afford a stronger PC, and probably feel (like me) that if you paid money for the thing, you shouldn't have to reprogram it to make it run at least decently, if not well.

It is this particular thing that, in my opinion, cause WOW to do so well.  The game isn't technically advanced at all.  Hell, any MMO veteran can see, they simplified things in nearly every way.  But the game runs, you see?  I have a Dell PC I bought about 5 years ago, and stuck a GeForce 5500 card into, and it still freaking works for WOW.  Few MMOs that have come out then or since can possibly claim the same thing.  CoH ran well, too, and was also a good game for a while to me (I just didn't have many folks I knew playing it).

When every crap computer in the world can run a game, and only a certain level of tech can run another game, it is purely natural that the first game becomes a bigger sell.  I mean, honestly, why not?

And after you get into more sales of a game, you get to the big thing about MMOs, which is how big their community is.  Despite what some may say, size most definitely matters to an MMO.  It equals income, which equals the size of the staff running the game, which affects quality of product.  While Blizzard is routinely accused of bad customer pratices, they get fewer complaints than Sony with a larger customer base by far.  To me, this speaks volumes about the calculable balance betwen quality and quantity.

This doesn't mean I think every game needs to lower standards and compete with more successful games of lower quality.  Darkfall raised the bar on PVP-oriented games such as Guild Wars and such, and seems headed to be one of the more successful MMOs out there today.  But it is important to consider that the more quality in a game, the more quality of hardware needed to run it, which affects a lot of other issues in whether or not a game is a success.

Every gamer has to determine the level of quality over quantity they want, and then find the game that will give what they expect.  Hopefully, they won't begrudge the rest of us if we choose differently, and support the idea of an MMO tailor-made to every taste.  Even if they do, it doesn't change the that sometimes, we can put up with a little graphical roughness in exchange for better gameplay.

Dealing With Criticism

Posted by Eindrachen Tuesday May 12 2009 at 2:59AM
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The recent internet drama that came out of Eurogamer and Aventurine's little... disagreement about the arguable quality of Darkfall made me realize that one of the worst things in the internet to do is to criticize anything.  And given the kinds of comments being made about the issue, on both sides of the fence, that statement of mine is almost as close to "fact" as it gets.

Basically, people do not want to hear that anything they love and adore isn't perfection.  A person I know has a significant other who apparently insists on being the end topic of every conversation.  They've done more, know more, are capable of more, etc.  They have some personal insight to everything, and if they don't like something, it is obviously inferior no matter what they say.  This is the kind of person who makes judgements of your moral character based on the breakfast cereal you eat.

When they make a mistake, this person is incapable of accepting criticism.  It's not their fault.  Ever.  Obviously it is either a defect in other people (they got in the way, they didn't do something right, they didn't tell me what I needed to know, etc.), or the universe isn't as perfect as they are and thus the task is simply impossible.

It should be obvious that a sensible or reasonable person will laugh at such a fool and simply ignore them.  If a person can not accept that a given thing is flawed or "not perfect", they eventually become incapable of improving because they presume a set limit to knowledge or skill that can not be exceeded beyond their preconceived notions of such things.  That significant other will never attain the level of competency that other friends of mine already have in various games, because they've decided that if they can't win, obviously it isn't something they can personally do anything about.

Well, that's not true.  They can make it someone else's fault, thus covering their own lack of willingness to keep trying to improve.

This has vast implications in the current MMO industry.  People who play video games will complain.  That's just a given.  How the companies respond to the sentiments of their customer base is an entirely different matter.  It can set the tone of things for years to come.

It's not that companies like Aventurine are not entitled to an opinion.  The problem is they don't want to hear anything negative and spend more effort trying to invalidate negative opinions rather than reinforcing positive ones.

If their product is strong enough to stand on its own, then opinions in a magazine can't really amount to much in the end.  Those who love the game, despite the flaws, usually refuse to see any flaws in a game for what they are.  Those who dislike the game, despite the innovations, usually refuse to see any good in a game for what it is.

That, in the end, is the best way to deal with criticism: to treat it as another opinion, but don't let them get your hackles up about it.  Some criticism is designed to do just that, and create controversy where none existed before.  Some is misinformed.  Some is spot-on.  But all of it is subjective, and taken individually, reviews are worthless as a metric for how well a game is doing.

The worst part, however, wasn't Tasos' response.  He isn't the most professional public relations person to be speaking on the matter, but he has passion and conviction, which I respect.  No, the worst part is that I fear most of the Darkfall fanbase will polarize over the issue and become insular and unwelcoming of new players who don't start with a positive opinion of the game.

Darkfall isn't the only game this has been or is a problem with, either.  There are a few other games with players so mean-spirited that they don't want anyone to play their game.

Sadly, they may get their choice, only to see that an MMO without a good playerbase isn't staying online for long...

The Problem With Opinions

Posted by Eindrachen Sunday March 22 2009 at 4:48AM
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MMOs are always in a difficult bind.  On the one hand, the playerbase out there keeps demanding things.  On the other hand, they are all pretty dysfunctional about their requests.

The most important example of this issue is the "hardcore" argument.  Proponents want content that is less accessible to certain people playing the game.  Hardcore PVP has to be more punishing, hardcore raiding has to require more people, ad endless nauseum.  The idea is that by providing this content, these individuals asking for it will be happier and thus better off.

See, here's the problem: these people equate the kind of game they prefer playing to a kind of personal virtue.  On forums everywhere, they have successfully created the farsical myth of the "carebear" as a kind of scapegoat for all the woes in MMO gaming.  The idea is that because all these "carebears" asked for easier gameplay, companies gave in to their wishes and appealed to the lowest common denomenator.  Hardcore gameplay, of whatever kind, is upheld as a kind of gaming Holy Grail, a symbol of the perfect game.

Pardon while I laugh maniacally at such a silly notion.

It isn't that I don't think hardcore gameplay doesn't have a place.  Even I like spending hours crawling through some vast, expansive instance, in a small army of other players, destroying the inhabitants and filling my bags with swag.  If the area is well-designed, it is a tribute to their skill that they can make something that entertains me for hours on end.  And mass PVP is insanely fun; I'm not actually keen on one-on-one fights (MMORPGs, by the very definition of roles, destroys the possibility of a "balanced" fight), but in large group PVP, I love the idea of trying to help my team overcome another team.  Group PVP in MMO is one of the most enriching experiences you can have, barring the occasional bad run here and there.

No, my ridicule is reserved for the notion that these "hardcore" types have somehow been wronged by the objects of their scorn.  Apparently, it is the fault of everyone but themselves as to why their gameplay of choice has gotten easier for everyone to get into.  Well, allow me to dispel that myth: it is the hardcore crowd themselves who made things this way.  How?

Back in Ultima Online, we see a perfect example of how hardcore PVP became its own worst enemy.  By allowing players to engage in any behavior within the game mechanics, players chose to engage in the worst behavior allowable.  This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone; we can look to plenty of real world situations where anarchy is a signal for human beings to act like monsters towards other human beings.  And this was a game, so naturally there are no actual real punishments for harrassing other players, corpse-camping new players, etc.

When the Trammel server came out, the mass exodus of players to it shouldn't have been a surprise.  Most folks are playing MMOs in their spare time, because they do have college, work, etc.  Most of us gamers can't play 8+ hours of games a day, every day, for months and months.  If a person can do that, awesome, I wish I was in their position.  But if they want a game to cater to them, they can't expect me to be happy playing it.

Hardcore raiding has the same issue.  Everquest is often held up as the perfect example of how awesome raiding was.  These people never want to talk about the negatives of raiding: the internal drama, the logistics needed, the fact that the only actual skills you need to raid (other than the ones you need to solo or small-group) are being able to shut the hell up and listen to what you are being told, and following directions.  When someone tells me that they should get game content catered to them because they can sit in front of a computer every day for hours on end, and the only additional skills they have over me are knowing what macros to use (after they look up a website on how to make them), which addons to download (so they don't have to pay as much attention to the fight and can spend more time yakking on chat), and the information for their guild's Vent server (so we can hear raid leaders act like complete r-tards), I can only shrug and say, "Yeah, whatever."

Hardcore gameplay is, by its very definition, difficult for most people to do.  I'm sorry to burst anyone's bubble here, but just because you play on a PVP-oriented server doesn't make you good at PVP; it just means you are either stupid or crazy enough to put up with the crappiest behavior known, just to play a game.  (I refuse to answer questions as to my own relative sanity.  This isn't about me.  Or my invisible pet squirrel Amadeus.)  Just because you are stupid or crazy enough to play in a single area in a single game for hours doesn't mean you are entitled to more content.

That's really the crux of the issue.  Too many hardcore gamers have a sense of entitlement.  Let me dispel that lie right now.  If you paid your montly subscription to a game, and you played that game, you are not owed a single blessed thing.  You got what you paid for: a period of time to play the game and possibly enjoy it if you like what you found.  Too many veterans in a given MMO game seem to think years of paying for a game forces a company to give them more.  This notion is not just wrong, but almost hypocritical; it presumes that their opinions matter more because they paid more money to be entertained.

Folks, MMO games are just like any other form of entertainment.  If a movie you paid to see sucks, you can ask for your money back, but unless the movie projection itself was flawed, the answer is often, "No."  It may be your opinion that the movie sucked, but the act of paying for it before you've seen it implies you are accepting the risk that it isn't what you thought it would be.

The same thing goes for, well, all forms of entertainment.  Concerts, plays, sports games, and yes, even MMOs.  The truth is that if a given MMO doesn't appeal to people, they won't pay for it.  If the MMO doesn't make money, it usually gets canned.  This isn't about whether hardcore or casual gameplay is good or bad. It's about what makes money and what doesn't.

There is an adage: opinions are like buttholes - everyone has one, and they usually stink.  Before hardcore gamers get upset and sling insults and accusations around that casual gamers have ruined their game of choice, I would ask that they consider the fact that their opinions are truly in the minority and that means they probably won't get what they ask for.

There is no wrong or right in what you prefer to play in a game.  That goes for everyone, though, not just those who wish they had more hardcore content.

Dealing With Divas

Posted by Eindrachen Friday December 19 2008 at 4:31AM
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It seems that no matter what game you play, no matter how selective you are in who you play that game with, you eventually run into a common problem: one or more of the players starts to act like a drama queen.  They have nothing but criticism about everything that everyone else says or does, they never make mistakes (and immediately launch debates about how it is always someone else's fault), and nobody is more deserving of praise, glory, or reward than they are.

The sad part is that most of these prima donnas don't even understand the damage they cause to their own enjoyment of the game in acting this way.  Let's set aside the old tripe about "it's only a game" for a moment.  Yes, it is a game, but like any other team-based game or sport, if you don't intend to at least try and play it to the best of your ability, you honestly shouldn't bother in the first place.  So I can understand when someone is dragging their feet in doing something vital, and people get upset.  It's no different when you are playing tabletop D&D and someone just plain isn't paying attention to what is going on around them: it is annoying to everyone, slows things down for no reason, and makes the game boring for everyone involved.

Having said all that, drama queens in group/raid content are the opposite extreme.  Let's examine some of the worst offenses.

Telling someone how to play their class/role:  This is probably the most common and usually the most offensive thing people do to other people.  It isn't that it doesn't need to be done (often it does, if someone got to end-game without taking time to learn what they can and can't do), but drama queens don't bother to do it properly.  They take a very mean and offensive tone of voice about it, and don't realize that all this does is make people less likely to be responsive to them in the future.

Never taking responsibility for anything: Less common (but, to me, more annoying) is the person who is never at fault for anything that goes wrong with a bad pull or whatnot.  It seems to happen more when there is a lack of communication between members.  One example I've seen is that people will get defensive about using AOE when someone uses CC on mobs.  In such cases, it is everyone's fault for not communicating better ahead of time to know what tactics or strategy will be used.

Being greedy: The worst offender of the lot are those people who seem to think they are entitled to things in the game.  This is also the most ridiculous claim, since it has no basis in fact or common sense.  The only thing your $15 bought you was a chance to play the game with other people.  Everything else is arbitrary.  Even worse, some players will act down-right retarded about virtual loot that only gets outdated later on, when new content arrives.

It is easier to deal with these virtual divas by establishing some ground rules in the group/raid that will help deal with several issues at once:

1.  When you first form up the group/raid, encourage communication.  Ask folks what their spec is, professions (which may affect what mats they are looking for during the run), and other useful info.  This not only helps everyone understand what they are supposed to do and what they may need/want, but you can get a feel for how people talk in chat (or voice, if you have that option) so that you can talk to them easier.

2.  Establish loot rules as early as possible.  Make sure that everyone knows what proceedure is.  Just because you think it is dumb to pass on BOP gear and roll seperately for it doesn't mean that others feel like you do.  Make sure everyone is clear on how things will be done with loot.  This also makes sure that everyone gets a chance to speak up if any found loot is an upgrade to them.

3.  If something goes wrong, don't jump down anyone's throat.  Start by telling them what you yourself did wrong.  For example, even if someone else broke CC and caused adds to pull, you may tell them "Hey, sorry I couldn't DPS fast enough to bring them down."  This one thing seems to work wonders for the attitudes of other players; I've seen really poor attempts on a boss improve dramatically after several players fess up about even the smallest shortcoming they had.

4.  When someone starts to act like a diva, don't let them go unchecked.  If someone acts overly rude, speak out against it.  If someone continually rolls Need on things that need to be Greeded or passed on, a firm reminder not to do so needs to be given the first time it happens.  No need to be rude in standing up against such things.  After all, anyone can have an "off" day or make a mistake clicking on something they didn't mean to.  Just make sure they know that such things aren't for the good of the party.

5.  If one or more players won't correct bad behavior, just quit gaming with them.  Leave the group/raid.  You may get bad-mouthed at first, but eventually anyone who has any common sense will see who was in the right, and who was in the wrong.  Besides, if you leave, you may encourage others to leave, too... leaving the bastard stranded with nobody to help them.

The best bet when dealing with a diva in any game is to just take the high road.  Remain as polite, patient, and fair as you possibly can.  This helps other players to understand that nobody has to put up with crap behavior in a game where everyone is supposed to be having fun.  And more often than not, others will remember you when they need a group themselves.

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