Today’s Devil’s Advocate is about failure in a general sense. Over at Massively, Karen Bryan had this excellent post for MMO Family called Failure isn't just an option; it's a requirement.
The article discusses failure from a formative viewpoint, wherein games allowing for failure and exploration of ways to attain success can help young gamers gain the confidence to do better and become more self-sufficient in the future.
I love the premise. I agree with the idea that games where people can fail and learn from their failures is great for building self-confidence, perseverance, and critical reasoning skills. At the same time, the contrarian in me wonders if we’re not getting into a gaming culture of rewarding failure instead of letting the lesson from failing be the reward.
Raid Finder Failure Buffs
Patch 5.2 for World of Warcraft is going to be interesting when it goes live. There’s one thing that really caught my attention in one of the incremental testing notes for this upcoming feature patch, and that’s what I call the RFFB, or Raid Finder Failure Buff.
The picture above, which comes from the January 30 PTR notes, says:
To encourage Raid Finder groups to persevere, each time an Raid Finder group wipes on a boss fight all players in the group receives a stacking buff that increases health, damage dealt, and healing done by 5% (up to a maximum of 10 stacks). This buff is cleared once the boss has been killed.
What this basically means is that, if a boss in a raid run through the Raid Finder feature trounces your behind, you get stronger, with the hope that your increased capabilities will allow you to trounce the boss within 9 more tries. After the 9th boss death, you no longer get incrementally stronger.
My immediate thought: “Wow, this is excellent if you’re casually playing the game and just want to see the content and maybe get some loot.”
My second thought: “Wait a minute... does persevering in this sense mean persevering against the odds till I defeat the boss, or until I die enough times to get significantly buffed up to defeat the boss?”
My third thought: “Will failing raid bosses become standard practice to get temporary buffs in the future? If so... where’s the challenge there? Will Blizzard tune bosses in the future counting on people to fail?”
The Complex Issue of Failure
I’ve not done the research as to whether there’s something else that sets the precedent for this RFFB, but it’s an interesting case because like most things discussed on The Devil’s Advocate, it’s a complex issue.
First-time raiders who are eager to learn proper raid maneuvers and role usage beyond reading what’s in a dungeon journal will enjoy the RFFB as it gives them more leeway to prevent failure while they learn.
Casual players will enjoy the connotation of the RFFB. The RFFB implies that, save for horribly lackluster groups, absolute failure is impossible.
People who’ve earned their stripes raiding or who don’t have a lot of money for repair bills will probably hate the RFFB, because it might encourage lackluster behavior in lazy gamers. The price for a failure buff is a repair bill and the lure of replacing your old beat-up gear with something shiny and new.
The nature of a raid finder in WoW, coupled with the lure of a buff for failure is perhaps what makes this complex issue so annoying. Because you aren’t completely sure who you’re teaming up with, you can’t establish a common ground with people who share different ideas of the raid with you unless you spend some time discussing it prior to the big fight. For random-type events, the time spent talking tends to gravitate towards people wanting to just run up to the boss and whack it until it (or your group) dies.
Thoughts on Addressing Failure
I personally think addressing failures in the manner done by Blizzard is inherently silly. Addressing failure by implying that “everyone will eventually win if they fail hard enough” seems counterintuitive and I’m inclined to say it sidesteps the actual issue, which is the lack of training to adequately handle a particular situation.
Going back to Karen Bryan’s post on Massively, she writes, “Game studios want kids to play their games and stick around, so they don't want to make the frustration level too high.” I would dare to think this applies to a lot of gamers who just want to enjoy games and not be frustrated.
How do you remedy this? What Bryan proposes is to “get thrown into the deep end of the pool right away and have made several big mistakes within minutes of starting the game.” She notes that, “if it's done right, it will motivate a child to step back, assess what's wrong, and learn how to fix it.”
I would propose the same thing. Then again, not everyone has the inclination, patience, or skill to learn certain maneuvers. To remedy that I suggest game developers remind people of the mechanics needed to survive the fight relative to their role in the battle.
If a tank needs to face away from the party so the party doesn’t get destroyed by acid spit, have a spirit healer remind the tank of his explicit duty to stay away from everyone else before resurrection. If the DPS and healers have to mind not to step in the deadly life-stealing gunk, or to cast interrupts, or throw more DOTS at the whelps, give the reminder in a manner that fits a player’s particular role.
In this manner, you explicitly warn people of the mechanics they need to do to succeed, force them to master it, and eventually (hopefully is more like it) beat the boss.
If after 10 boss wipes, you still can’t do it, then maybe give the raid members a 50% chance to acquire a helpful buff while after the first shot’s been fired... but don’t make the buff the first resort against frustration.
The General Sense
Most MMORPGs these days are probably more forgiving, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even I want less frustration in my life, so I can understand wanting to play a game without worrying about impending doom... and yet, I sort of miss it.
The old echelon of gamers who spent a half-day doing 40-mans is more than likely doing other things, or at the very least, the number of gamers who want less frustration with the same amount of excitement has increased.
Catering to a growing population of gamers who want less-frustrating yet equally exciting and memorable gameplay is exceedingly difficult, because the struggle is what makes the moment memorable.
We need to foster the idea of struggle as something worthwhile rather than something to be avoided. With adequate rewards for success, proper reminders for preparedness, sufficient room for perseverance and learning, and a fallback when things go utterly, horribly, wrong, I think we can make or improve MMORPGs and allow for excitement to build over conflict rather than the pursuit of loot.
Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains The Devil’s Advocate and The Secret World columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for Rappler.com as a technology reporter. You can find more of his ramblings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @iamstillwater.