Casual Play: Raiding Needs to Die
Weekly Column by Steve Wilson
Raiding has got to be the worst possible design solution to the problem of end game content. Rather than make the world more compelling designers rely upon the tactic of dangling a few shinies in front of obsessive-compulsive players in order to keep the subscription dollars coming in. For casual players, this phase of the game is typically when they pack their bags and move on to more entertaining pastures. Like roleplaying, raiding is really a niche play style. For longer retention of casual players, focus needs to shift from raiding to some other more interesting kind of end-game content.
It's easy to understand why developers fall back on raiding. By creating one dungeon with a small chance of a very rare bauble dropping, sometimes from a very rare boss, players can be strung along, playing and replaying the same content over and over again. While these players keep running this content ad nauseam they continue to pay subscription fees. For the effort of creating one dungeon, developers have maximized development cost.
As end-game content however, it really is the wrong direction for all but the most hardcore achiever type personalities.
Players limited by time constraints of real life cannot hope to ever engage in this content. It takes hours to run these adventures, and it can take an hour to get all the people gathered for bigger runs, not to mention days in the case of rare spawns. The gamers that play just for fun can not arrange their life to fit around the schedule of an online game. If a casual player gets an opportunity to spend a couple of uninterrupted hours playing chances are they're not going to want to waste a large portion of that waiting for a group to show. Not to mention only being able to complete a fraction of the content.
There are also serious problems with repetition for most casual players. Those that play for fun are typically looking for unique experiences. Their ego isn't tied directly to the achievements of their character. These two play styles diverge dramatically. Those looking for unique experiences aren't going to tolerate running the same content over and over for the very small satisfaction achieved gaining an uber trinket. Achievers place their value of worth on the trinket itself, willing to undergo almost anything in order to obtain the satisfaction of surpassing their fellow players. One only needs to look back at the queues for mob bosses in EQ as proof of that. Many of the casual players I've do not enjoy the highly rigid and ritualized process required to defeat boss mobs. Rather than playing the entire range of their character, they are often delegated to performing a few highly specialized tasks. Repetition in content and repetition in game play are not compelling mechanics for those just looking to enjoy themselves.
Raiding also encourages serious inequity across the game world. Only those players who are willing to devote their entire lives to the game have any hope of seeing the end level content or acquiring the most useful items. This frequently rears its head in PvP content where even the most mediocre achievers have vast pools of health and mana to call upon. The casual player looking to enjoy this content can wind up frustrated when they die a disproportionate number of times to other characters of equal level. The casual player is hopelessly outclassed; not for lack of understanding the game, but because the obsessive are rewarded excessively. When this content becomes as frustrating as raiding the possibility of a lost subscription looms.
What could be done to improve the end level casual experience?
The best thing that could be done to make MMOs more compelling would be to make a world space that has meaning. EVE has done an amazing job with this. The zones themselves matter to the players that occupy them. Alliances are formed to prevent other players from intruding on this space. Wars are fought out for control. The world space has a very real meaning to the players. One unique aspect of this system is that it pulls both casual and hardcore players together. The hardcore are essential for long-term management, while the casual players are the ones that bulk up forces during peak times. Dark Age of Camelot does the same with the battleground having an effect on entire world for the faction that owns them. World of Warcraft too, looks to be headed in the right direction with their new expansion, The Burning Crusade.
But really more is needed than just a reason to engage in PvP. Character actions in the world itself need to have meaning. Clearing a forest of bandits should change the world state slightly so that there are fewer bandits. Great for the players on the side of law and order, but players of the opposing faction should have incentive to shift the balance back in their favor. Or perhaps a struggle where crafter classes need to chop down trees deforesting the server, while druids, rangers and the forces of nature might have compelling reason to advance the spread of trees. The two sides don't necessarily have to engage in PvP but there'd be a world state dependant upon the action of opposing player factions.
Random dungeons are a concept that has been explored in single player games but not so much in MMOs. Oblivion and Diablo did masterful jobs creating themed dungeons that were completely random and thus new and exciting for the players. While the core mechanic is one that would be repeatable, both of those games delivered the experience of seeming new quite well. There was also a greater variety of smaller 30 minute to two hour dungeons as well as the inclusion of dungeons that can be done solo. EverQuest, in 1999, had an intro movie featuring a lone hobbit sneaking through a dungeon to free his comrades, yet that experience was not included in the actual game itself.
There are a lot of directions that games could go for end level content. I'm not convinced that raiding is the best one for the casual gamers that now make up the bulk of a subscribing audience. A new direction from the current niche content would be a welcome relief.