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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

The Problem with PUGs

Posted by Ortwig Saturday April 20 2013 at 1:44PM
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Some of the most fun times I’ve had playing WoW have been running dungeons with our guild.  My brother and I and several friends would group up and tackle a few of them every Sunday morning, and it truly was an event.  I’d grab my coffee and don the Ventrilo and we’d be off, joking as we made our way through the trash mobs on our way to the bosses.  The camaraderie was a big part of the session but a big part of the fun, for me at least, was tackling the dungeons in the area we were already adventuring in.  I had already finished up the questing in a number of the surrounding zones, knew the story and background of the area, and finishing the dungeons was a nice way to wrap up those storylines, as the bosses frequently were the final bad guys in those quest chains.  The dungeons were the culminations of those tales.  The trouble for me started when we began doing two things: random dungeons and pick-up-groups, or PUGs.

In WoW, one of the ways to be rewarded with Valor or Justice points (which can be spent for gear and other items) is to complete “random dungeons.”  That is, queue into the Dungeon Finder tool, be teleported and paired with other random players, complete the dungeon, then reap the benefits.  For me, the whole idea of being teleported to a random dungeon in the world threw me out of the context of the area I was adventuring in, and I saw little reason, within the context of story, to be participating. 

The different reasons people play MMORPGs could not be starker. 

Some folks, perhaps those with D&D or other tabletop roleplaying backgrounds, are looking for an alternative world in which to explore, group with friends, evolve a character, and pursue a persistent storyline within the world.  Others view MMORPGs simply as console games and care little for context or story, focusing more on achievement.  To those folks, MMORPGs are not much different than Super Mario Bros, and play through the game more for the accomplishment, the points earned, and the goals of getting their character better reputation or equipment.  “Winning” an MMORPG makes perfect sense to an achievement-oriented player.

People playing for story and people playing for achievement often do not see eye-to-eye.  The story- oriented player asks why everyone is in such a rush to finish the dungeon, and wants to slow down and experience what’s going on.  The achievement-oriented player is looking to complete as many dungeons as possible to “maximize” their playing time and get as many points/gear, etc. as possible before they need to log off.  Neither of these points of view is necessarily right or wrong, but it does make for a great deal of frustration for both types if they are paired with people of the other play style.

Enter the Dungeon Finder and pick-up-group, or PUG.  With these tools, players of all play styles are thrown together with other strangers and teleported to a dungeon.  For achievement-oriented players, these tools are a godsend, as they allow them to quickly get in multiple dungeon runs in a short period.  These runs are almost always done very quickly with as little interaction as possible for maximum efficiency.  For story-oriented players, the idea of a dungeon finder and PUG is almost anathema right off the bat.  Justifying the teleportation is a stretch within the context of the storyline, and then as far as continuity goes, why are you suddenly needed in some random dungeon on the other side of the planet?  Oh, sure some rationalization can occur here for it, but if one is playing according to one set of (admittedly fictional) rules or used to a certain context or framework, and suddenly those rules change, it tends to cause dismay. 

Before I had grouped up with my brother and we had formed our guild, I almost exclusively relied on PUGs for dungeons.  I would carefully pick the exact dungeon I wanted to run based on the area I was in, and never queued for random dungeons.  Even though it was with a group of strangers, at least this way, I was doing the dungeons that made sense within the storyline.  I did this for my first character almost exclusively up through max level.  Of approximately 20 dungeons, I can point to exactly one instance where any of the players actually spoke to each other during the run, and that happened to be the most fun I’ve ever had in a PUG.  All the other instances were speed runs, with an occasional berating of a player for not keeping their damage up to snuff.  I recall one instance where I had a couple quest goals to complete within the dungeon, but with the relentless push forward, I had to wait until we had downed the final boss and everyone had left the group before I could walk back (alone) and complete the quest goal – I remember being quite happy that the mobs didn’t respawn in that particular instance.

Our guild had much more of a continuity bent, and as we leveled through areas as a team, we made sure to visit the dungeons (the actual entrances!) with our group and complete them as we encountered them.  It was amazing to experience the difference of adventuring with a group of friends.  Ventrilo made a huge difference as well, and being able to talk instead of type was simply the difference between night and day. 

One day, we were short on players for our regular guild and we decided to use the dungeon finder to try and complete a dungeon I’d wanted to visit.  First thing out of one of the newcomer’s chat was “I hope you can play better than you are geared.”  Fact is, I have never been overly focused on gear, and every dungeon we had done in our guild we’d rolled through with relative ease.  But here, of course, was a highly achievement-oriented player being mixed in with story-oriented folks.  We rolled our eyes and continued doing the dungeon just fine until that same person dropped out of the group and we had to end the run.  We did the run with the guild shortly after and completed it in no time, and without all the drama.

This isn’t to say that all PUGs are terrible and that all random groups are bad.  It’s just that the tendency for those groups to be less than ideal is greater if you are not on the same page.  And the tendency for dungeon finders to cater to and produce achievement-oriented players is also greater; a story-oriented player will almost always be in the minority using these tools. 

Some will say that it’s good to get new blood and new perspectives, and I agree; meeting new folks can be great, and new ideas that improve things for everyone are always worth having.  But having diametric views on the goals for your gameplay is a recipe for frustration. 

Is there a way that allows for meeting of new players while still preserving your preferred style of play?  Sure.  Get out there and talk to people about their preferences before inviting folks to join your guild.  You can talk with people in chat, and get to know them before going on a dungeon run.  Be sociable.  But all of these take time, which is in short supply for many these days. 

I’ve argued in the past for matchmaking tools that allow you to select what types of runs and playstyles you are looking for in the guild boards and dungeonfinder tools.  Until those kinds of things are added to these games, it comes down to a choice between whether to spend time socializing, using those random dungeon selection tools, or to just play it safe and group with friends who you know well.  Here’s hoping the developers start paying attention to the need for matchmaking in these games; I’m surprised at how, for game genre that is based on online community, these tools continue to be overlooked.