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In My Understanding

An old school gamer discusses the challenges facing the MMORPG community and it's leaders.

Author: jesad

What ever happened to the Dungeon Master?

Posted by jesad Tuesday July 24 2007 at 2:03PM
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The other day I was running through a cave with a friend of mine and he said something to me that made me think. 

He said, "Man! If I could only have imagined caves looking like this (the virtual environment) back when I played paper and pencil D&D... I probably would have been a lot better at those games."

He was right of course.  The MMO has made leaps and bounds toward replacing the old-fashioned requirements of imagination, social interaction, and a basic understanding of the rules with beautiful landscapes, artificial intelligence, and easy to play characters.  I wondered to myself then, "Why do I not find these games nearly as fun to play as I used to find paper and pencil D&D to play?"  The answer to this, although I had not thought of it before, came as quickly to me then as it would have years ago if asked why I had stopped frequenting whatever hot-spot there was at the time to get my paper and pencil fix.  Why? You ask?  "Because the GM sucked!" that's why. 

Fast forward to today.  We have expansive virtual worlds with beautiful graphics, very handsome and/or scary character choices and several genre's to choose from and yet, there are a lot of people floating around INTERNET websites, blogging, or even turning off their computers all together because they simply are not having fun with these games anymore.  Everyone seems to think they have a solution but not many are tapping into the true essence of what the problem really is.

The responsibilities of the Dungeon Master or "DM" as they were affectionately called was to...

1. Explain the surroundings to the players.  Ok, games do that pretty well. 

2. Provide the players with encounters.  Yup, games are pretty good at that as well.

3. Run the game within the parameters of the rule-set as non-obtrusively as possible.  Games excel at this.

4. (And most importantly) Keep the story interesting and moving forward. 

 

Now those rules were always negotiable.  Rule #1 could be enhanced with little action figures, maps, my friends and I even drew a grid on a piece of Plexiglas so that we could lay it over our dungeon maps and account for our movement rates more accurately.  Rule #2 could be adjusted to deal with unruly players, i.e. "As you remove the sword from your teammates back a poisonous Asp strikes you for 2D10 points of damage and a save vs death poison attack", or they could be used in the same way to add a little flair to an otherwise boring campaign, "After killing all the Orcs you see the shadow of a large figure looming over the hillside to the west, on closer examination you realize it is a very large Troll and it is not alone!"

Rule #3 was always the choice of the house just like in Monopoly (do we put money under free parking or no?) or any other game.  But in a world where rules 1-3 are hard wired and unchangeable without a massive intervention on the part of development, the stress that makes or breaks a game becomes almost entirely placed on Rule #4 which is at best, not that good in most MMO's to start with.

MMO's rely mainly on the player to keep their own story moving forward.  The player, if they don't already have a vision or if they have already explored that vision in a previous game, puts that reliance back on the MMO and it's developers who, at any given time, can opt to hide behind the wall of reality and log off of the INTERNET leaving the cries of the unhappy unanswered.  This leaves one person or group of persons in charge of making the game fun for those who can not make it fun for themselves.  Who is this poor soul you ask that has had all of this responsibility heaped upon them?  You guessed it, it's the "Guild Leader."

We have come full circle back to the same old game breaker which is, either the DM sucks or they don't.  In cases where the DM or now the GL (Guild Leader) is concerned the task is to find a way to keep guild members inspired and moving forward without being too...too... diligent and scaring half of the membership away.  In effect, the Guild Leader gets a small taste of what it feels like to be the publisher of an MMO (who's main responsibility is to keep people playing in order to make money) complete with the option to go with the lowest common denominator (just letting the chips fall where they may) or taking a pro-active (and risky) stance toward a specific outcome.  I have heard a lot of GL's say things like "We don't want to scare them away" or adversely complain about membership loyalty all the while not taking into account that the majority of their guild members look to them for direction and guidance.

Individuals who have taken the responsibility of fun onto their selves often find difficulty finding others who share their goals or perseverance and what we end up with is a community of players who lean more toward the A.D.D. in the psychological sense than the AD&D we all came to play.

We have to find out what happened to the "Dungeon Master", where he or she is, and why they no longer visit us with their wondrous stories.  I say to look at development first, in game personnel (i.e. GM's) second, and Guild Leaders third.  Scrutinize them.  Hold them to a standard that speaks to your desire to have fun in these games and then, when those standards are met, respect them for their efforts.

That buddy of mine who was enjoying that cave so much used to be the most disruptive part of the game I ran when we were kids.  He was always running around stealing his teammates items, causing problems where problems didn't previously exist, and upsetting the general direction of the game.  Instead of throwing him out however, I used what I knew about him to make the game more interesting, and in time my friends came to think of me as a pretty good DM because of it.  Sure, there were still nights where some people went home unhappy, but they always came back, and that's because people know the difference between real fun and the kind of fun that comes from drawing negative attention to one's self and they prefer the former over the latter in most cases.

To all Developers, GM's, and Guild Leaders then I say this... Take a chance.  Embrace the linear but just don't let them know in advance what is coming, and lead your people to where you know they want to go whether they know it yet or not.  You may not have the same kind of fun they are having but you will have fun none the less.  At least, that's how it is in my understanding.

Leaders, Followers, Dependancy, Linear Movement, and understanding posts.

Posted by jesad Saturday July 14 2007 at 4:14PM
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Keeping the previous installment "The Curve - Hunger vs Picky Eating" in mind I wanted to explore a few of the sub-classes of each faction.  I will only go into a few here as there is a lot to be said on the subject but I wanted to give anyone reading this just a bit more of an idea what we are all, community and developers, up against in our pursuit to have a good game day.

Here is an old favorite.  We return to our friends "Newton" and "Hardcore" to illustrate.

Newton and Hardcore's group have just completed a quest.  Words of congratulations ring through group chat.

Newton - Grats all! So what do you want to do next?

Hardcore - Let's go down and explore "Witness Point" and see if there is anything cool down there we can get.

Newton - How about we go over to "Dark Cove" instead.  I heard that there is some really nice armor that drops over there. 

Hardcore - Ok, you guys go ahead, I'm gonna go check out "Witness Point" and maybe hook up with you later.

Newton - Ok man, catch you later.

Teammate 2 - Later dude.

Teammate 3 - Peace

Teammate 4 - I think I'm going to roll with Hardcore if that's ok?

Hardcore - Sure, drop group, I will invite.

Teammate 4 - Cya guys

In OOC minutes later "Dark Cove Group LF Tank/Healer PST"

 

Meanwhile at "Witness Point"...

Teammate 4 - Man, these mobs are huge.  We need to get more people.

Hardcore - Nah, we'll be ok, they're dying, just slowly.

 

Minutes later...

Teammate 4 - Hey man, I have to go, my guild needs me to help out on a raid.

Hardcore - Ok dude, thanks for the group, cya.

Teammate 4 - Peace

 

Yet more minutes later....

Teammate 4 - (in tells)  Psst!  Newton.  Do you still have room in that group?

Newton - Sorry bro, all full, will shoot you a tell if we get an opening.

Teammate 4 - Ok bro, thanks.

 

Aftermath - Teammate 4 not being able to find another group tries soloing for a bit, gets bored, logs off.  Newton and his group go after the fabled gear he has heard about in "Dark Cove" only to wipe repeatedly as Newtons melee class falls to the insumountale mobs in that area with only teammate 3's bard to heal him.  After two or three of these wipes players begin to drop like flies logging off or drumming up some false story about being needed elsewhere.  Hardcore struggles alone against the rules of the environment that state that a tank, healer, and at least one dps are needed to battle group mobs, while waiting for someone, anyone, to come into the area he has chosen to explore.  He gets in there pretty deep too, but after several deaths, a lot of exp debt and repair costs, his desire to explore is replaced by a sudden urge to watch TV.  He logs.

 

Later on the message boards all three people vent on their opinion of the "game".

Newton - This game sucks!  There's no customization between characters, the melee dps class is gimped, and the quests are impossible to complete!

Hardcore - The game is cool, it's the people that play it who suck. 

Teammate 4 - I like the game, there just aren't enough people.  I'm gonna quit for a while and come back when more are playing.

 

Submitted for your approval.  There are a few simple and basic rules to most MMO's in order for players to be successful in them. 

1. Someone has to lead.

2. Everyone else has to follow.

3. The burden of which, between 1 and 2 you are going to be rests on your shoulders and will be directly related to the levels your character will achieve and the gear that they pick up along the way.

 

The Soloist will never and should never be as well equipped as the good team member, be it leader or follower.  Many soloist will claim differently but I will challenge any of them to go up against a team of anything, a team of rats, roaches, ants, and win without at least soliciting the help of one other agent, be it bug spray, exterminator, or cat.

The team member on the other hand has more paths to choose from.  The trick of course, lying in which is the best path to choose.

Many who play these games now days have taken on the role of the "Hearsay Leader".  These are the folks who go out, pimp for a group, get people together, and then go after what they "heard" was nice.  They usually play necro's or melee dps classes because these classes give them just enough fire-power to substitute for the more needed tank and healer classes while keeping them from actually having to rely on anyone else to get a lot of the things they need from getting done.  The problem with the hearsay leader though is that they are directly responsible for perpetuating one path through games which have been designed to have many. 

Following the hearsay leader will get you some good gear yes, but it won't be any more different or special than the gear everyone else has and at the end of the day one might feel a certain "Linear" feeling about the game that may prove to lessen it's replayablity.  The lowest common denominator of this being the player who knows that path but refuses to go through it again and so goes out and downloads a bot program to do a lot of it for them.

Then there is the Exploring Leader.  Usually a "real leader" in their minds, these are the players who are constantly seeking to set themselves apart from others by going to obscure places and traveling the less beaten path.  These folks, often paladins, SK's, enchanters, and any class that can win against great odds are often masters of their chosen class (they have to be because they spend a lot of their time completely alone), and although completely capable of leading a group easily through most of the more traveled content, choose to alienate themselves from anyone who does not share their same sense of wanderlust. 

The exploring leader will get you some fantastic gear, if you have the time to wait for him to find enough people to complete the task he has found.  However, you will not be that guy at endgame with a million friends, a great guild, and all kinds of phat loots garnered from constant raiding hanging out with this guy.  Following this guy you might not even make it to end game as the content will eventually become too hard and require too much time for his "Pick-up styled" groups to handle.  Of course, later on, after this guy flashes a few really nice and unique pieces to the general population it will be more than easy to find a group to get these things for yourself.  Think of following this guy then, like following Edgar Allen Poe, or Van Gogh through their lives.  You won't ever be considered great for your efforts but those same efforts WILL change the way the game is played for months to come.

Teammate 4 is what I call "The Professional Follower".  Now this guy can get annoying.  The professional follower is the guy who goes where the action is.  They know enough about the game to know a good group (i.e. Tank and healer) from a bad one (all dps) and will usually choose the best following class in the game as their main (the healer).  Always in demand the professional follower can make or break a game simply by their presence.  At the same time this will be the person most likely to log out in the middle of a dungeon, go afk in hot areas to let the dog out or make dinner, and pop from group to group on a whim based on what they think they need most today.  The professional follower will get a good mix of the unique and the regular out of their game-play but will be able to offer very little to the rest of the community in the terms of what to do or where to go because more often than not these players have no idea where they are, how they got there, or how they are going to get out.  They are simply there for the ride and if they can manage to get their hands on a nice piece from a certain place while surfing the net, watching TV, or playing poker in another window, they are more than happy to do that.  Other than the hearsay that will be used by the hearsay leader to make the game more linear they rarely remember anything more than the item they were going after and the name of the place where they got it.

Working on their own brand of information, compiled from that which they have learned from following and that which they have heard, the professional follower is also a kind of a leader as well.  Often times you will see them attempting to guide the group in a specific direction for no explainable reason in order to accomplish their goals.  They rarely share with other group members the reasoning behind their suggestions and relish areas with overlapping quests that can sate the palette of the dumb while progressing their much more complicated hidden agendas.  One may come into contact with a person like this level by level for their entire game experience and not realize unless they take the time to inspect them that although this person has been in the same places as the player looking has been all along, their rewards are substantially better every step of the way.

The Professional Follower takes advantage of both the "Exploring Leader" and the "Hearsay Leaders" mentality to build their character to the best that in can be without offering little more service to the game than that of a town crier and yet, these are the players who populate most of the endgame of most MMO's.  You may spend your entire MMO career thinking that you are the man or woman in charge of what has been going on while all along it has been the PF that has been guiding you and manipulating you toward their own ends (which more often than not lately is to build up a character capable of being sold on the black market for real money). 

All three of these folks have their positives and their negatives to the MMO community yet often, in their posts on community message boards, you may find their views quite negative and slanted based on their style of play.  The Hearsay Leader wants to believe that the content can be tanked by a melee dps class supported by ranged dps and healed by a bard while the Exploring Leader wants to believe that everyone who plays the game should want to play it the way that they do.  The Professional Follower doesn't care about anyone or anything other than their own goal and will cause a large sucking sound to emanate from any game that doesn't offer them enough people to use in those pursuits as they, as previously stated, often play the linchpin characters of the game.

So I challenge the community to go to your favorite MMO message boards, take a look at the complaints, and try to figure out the perspective from which the OP is posting their message.  Not everything you read is going to apply to your own style of play but once you identify who YOU are among these types a lot of what you read is going to make a lot more sense.  It will also keep you from (as I the writer have done myself) posting things from your own slanted perspective that end up detracting from the overall fun of these games instead of enhancing it.

Take this information into the game with you every day and use it to understand who you are and who everyone else is so that you can better ally yourself with players of like-minded persuits.  There is room enough for everyone of all types but as long as we all have to depend on each other to get things done you may as well find the best kind of people that you can enhance with your own class and style of play.

And remember.  These kinds of players exist in both the "Hardcore" - Old School flavors and the "Newton" - New player flavors so after you figure out what you are dealing with you are still going to have to figure out if the player even has a concept of what they are really doing at all.  At least, that is how I understand it.

The Curve - Hunger vs Picky Eating

Posted by jesad Thursday July 12 2007 at 2:03AM
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For the intent and purpose of this first post I will begin with a short play.  The characters in this play will be named...

"Hardcore" - A 40 year old man who has been playing MMO's since their inception.  He still has a box full of paper and pen "D&D" scenarios under the ping-pong table that now holds his computer and he hasn't seen the light of day since Tuesday when he called out of work.

"Newton" - A 20 year old college student who plays from his dorm room along with several other guys from his floor.  They have formed a very large guild and have been very successful in raiding the upper levels of a couple of games.

Our play begins when the two of them meet.

 

Hardcore - So you're a gamer...really?  So am I!  What game do you play?

Newton - Well, we used to play "World of Warcraft" but now we play "EQ2".

Hardcore - Yeah?  I've played EQ2!  How'd you like Nektulous Castle?  Was that place crazy or what?

Newton - We skipped that place man, it wasn't worth the effort.  Our entire guild is epic 2 though!

The End

Illustrated to make a point.  There is a huge curve that is growing daily between the MMO player of today and the MMO player of yesterday and it is becoming more and more difficult to program any game to fit it.  The MMO player of yesterday came from a background rich in fantasy, lore, and expectation.  They were an adventurous lot of people who had been lingering around outside of cyberspace dreaming and waiting for the day that they could all come together in a computer generated fantasy world and show their ability to be heroes and champions, people of great valor and wisdom or people of base and craven desire.  In any respect, everyone had an idea.  The idea was basically role-playing based and they were hungry to share it with the world.  By the time the "M.U.D." hit you could have fed a lot of them dog food and called it an MMO and they would have accepted it. 

No pictures, no graphics, just words on a screen and some random "DOS" based menus and the RPG community was playing it in droves.  This was the spirit of that age.  The age before there was anything.  I'll call it "The Age of the Hunger".  So of course when games like the graphical "Total Entertainment Networks - Dark Sun Online" came out there was a rush that could be felt at the prospect of a graphical representation of ones RPG character in a computer simulated environment where they could play simulaneously with complete strangers.  That is where it all began to decline however.

Since those old days of "Dark Sun", "Everquest", and even "Dark Ages of Camelot" many of the old paper and pencil gamers have moved on, got their fix and got on with their lives, or simply found that it was not their cup of tea and returned to their smokey apartments and basements for a weekly session of a much more social and friendly game of role-playing.  The community that would have once eaten anything placed in front of it has been replaced by an ever growing population of picky eaters.  New players who have come via word of mouth, personal exploration, and some still through much tamer and less complicated paper and pencil backgrounds are swiftly becoming the majority and following not the path of the most adventure but more so the path of least resistance.

Newton - Stats?  What the hell are stats?  My sword has the highest DPS on the server!

This is what programmers and developers are up against before any of the other layers of grief are added to the equation and they are challenged between the decision to teach and the decision to ignore it and keep making money.  The result, unrest.  No one is happy, at least not for very long.  The old schooler can't pay for a group that actually wants to role-play, challenge early or mid-game content, or act in concert with one another to achieve a set of goals.  Of those who have not banded together there are thousands of floaters walking the earth like Cain meaning little to the worlds they live in and getting little meaning from them.  Meanwhile the younger crowd has grown discomforted by the lack of fullfillment of their expectations from products that release with too many bugs, do not offer enough raid content, or are not pretty enough.  They are not at all happy with the table scraps that the old schoolers would have sopped up with a biscuit and they know just enough about what is going on to feel as though they can make demands.  Message boards are filled with gripes and groans from both perspectives with no visible end in site and games being programmed to suit both the basic level player and the advanced are failing to translate the language between the two and subsequently failing to impress or inspire either crowd.

Of course, some of the Newton's do come through, just as some of the Hardcores who have just grown weary of attempting to make the game anything other than a game have given in.  But the curve has grown to an extent now that people no longer want to talk to each other or deal with each other because of one sides inability to tolerate the other and this is equating to exactly the opposite of the purpose for having an MMO.

If communities and developers don't all strive to get on the same page both inside and outside of these games, the curve will continue to grow until the genre itself can no longer support it.  We all have to contribute to our own entertainment by looking deeper, and sometimes not so deeply at the way to enjoy these games.  Don't be so greedy old-schoolers, we have been around long enough that we should not have to eat the slop anymore, but in the meantime, take the time out to teach these kids the merits of cleaning their plates.  Developers, invest in us, recognize our factions and build accordingly.  There is no reason we all have to exist in the same place for you to get rich.  Diversify but at the same time unite those of kinship in a place that they can call their own.  Do it soon or we all will suffer the penalty of becoming nothing more than really slow FPS players.  That is, if we continue to play at all.  At least that is in my understanding of it all.

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