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The Quinquennial (or sometimes more often)

Various thoughts on online gaming, often pulled from articles I've written for other sources.

Author: Quizzical

Making grouping viable

Posted by Quizzical Sunday December 21 2008 at 1:15AM
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When I was younger, I’d sometimes imagine playing a multiplayer equivalent of some of the single-player games I liked. I didn’t expect it would ever happen, as Internet was hardly suitable for MMORPGs yet.

Today, of course, we can play online games with (or against) other people whom we’ve never met in real life. Fighting alongside a good group in a good MMORPG can be a lot of fun. But it hasn’t worked out the way I imagined it.

I hadn’t really considered the question of where the other people to group with would come from. Unfortunately, a lot of MMORPG designers seem not to have considered that question, either.

While fighting with a good group can be fun, taking half an hour to try to assemble that group is not. People who commonly play for five hours in one sitting may not be terribly bothered by spending half an hour to get a group together at the start of that session. But for people who are only going to be on for half an hour in total, it’s a much bigger problem.

The great advantage of single-player games is that you can start playing whenever you like or as fits your real-life schedule, play the game for a while, and then turn the game off when you wish to do so. There’s no need to spend a considerable fraction of your time trying in vain to find people to group with. That’s why so many people who play MMORPGs treat them mostly as single-player games.

That can work out pretty well if you’re playing primarily an economic game. Competing against other players allows for much greater economic depth than the AI in any single-player game can offer. But most MMORPGs don’t have much of an economy. If they have a crafting system, it’s often just something stupid to grind levels in. You can do that just as well in a single-player game.

Otherwise, an MMORPG is essentially a Massively Multiplayer Online Single Player Game. Single player games can be fun, but if that’s what you’re after, you might as well pick one that doesn’t require an internet connection or charge a monthly fee.

The question, then, is how to make an MMORPG where you group with other players to do quests or whatever, but don’t have to spend much time searching for groups to get one. Some purely pvp games can do this by distributing players into teams at random to let them fight each other, but that’s not really an MMORPG. As I’m not aware of any MMORPG that has a viable solution to this, I’d like to propose one.

The first key point is that the game has to force players to group. Doing content solo cannot be viable. There can be a handful of exceptions, such as a tutorial at the very start of a game. But beyond that, if players can solo, then many will, and that will leave fewer potential group mates available for those who wish to group.

Next, if there are enough players who wish to do the same content, they should be able to form a group. Many games have a variety of classes that fill different roles within a group. If you have all but one slot full, and need some particular role for that last group spot, it can be a major pain to find the last player of a particular class that you need.

The solution is to have AI characters who can function as group members. Guild Wars did this with henchmen and heroes, and it works pretty well for what it does. Unfortunately, if you need a group of eight and can bring seven AI characters, most players do. That puts you back in single-player territory, so for our grouping game, that can’t be allowed.

Restrict the group to one AI character per human player and you’re fine. The AI characters could be locals from whatever town sends you out on the quest. For reasons that I’ll get to later, I wouldn’t favor letting players level their own heroes as Guild Wars does in this proposal.

The great advantage of this is that you no longer need to find players of particular classes. If you need a group of eight, in order to get the right class mix, you might need 12 players before some subset of eight of them is a suitable class mix. Even if you get 12 players, they can’t all be in the same group, so some of them still don’t have a group.

On the other hand, if you get five or six players at random, most of the time it’s possible to selectively pick the classes for the remaining spots to fill out a well-rounded group. Being able to fill in AI characters for your group makes this easy to do.

It is essential that players be able to easily join and leave a group. The solution on joining a group is to let a player who joins a group immediately warp to the group. However unrealistic this may be, having to wait 15 minutes every time you replace a player is a major nuisance.

Letting players leave a group is easy enough. The problem is what happens to the group when players leave. Leaving a group shorthanded and unable to finish its content can be disastrous. It’s not fun to be 45 minutes into a one hour mission, and then be unable to finish and have to start over because someone else in your group got called away by his parents to go eat dinner.

This can be partially fixed by letting late joiners warp to join the group at any time. But it can be almost entirely fixed by letting groups summon or dismiss the AI group members at will, or at least when out of combat.

For example, suppose that you need eight characters for a quest. You fish around a bit and come up with five players. You look at your class distribution, pick out which classes would be nice for the remaining spot, and bring AI characters of those classes. Meanwhile, you leave a group recruiting message up on some in-game bulletin board to organize groups.

Five minutes into the quest, another player of a class you want contacts you asking to join your group. You kick one of the AI characters from your group, invite the player, he warps to your group, and you resume work on the quest. Ten minutes later, someone else in your group has to log off and can’t finish the quest. He leaves the group, and you summon an AI character of a suitable replacement class, and go on to complete the quest. In both cases, the group has under a minute of downtime caused by the membership change. That’s a huge advantage over the grouping systems commonly in place in the existing MMORPGs that I‘m aware of.

This would greatly improve the quality of pickup groups, and not just the ease of organizing them. If you get a group together and find out that one of the people in your group is an idiot, in most games, to replace him could be a considerable hassle, and sometimes even require restarting. Here, you could kick the idiot and immediately summon an AI character to replace him. The rest of the group could fight on while you hope for another player to fill in. No longer would you need to drag the idiot along with you to avoid being shorthanded.

One of the implicit assumptions here is that there are enough people who want to do the same quest. That needs to be addressed as well.

One of the big dividers that prevents players from grouping with each other is level and gear differences. If a level 30 player and a level 50 player happen to be in the same guild, or friends in real life, and would like to group together, well, they really can’t. If they do level 50 content, then the level 30 player is probably pretty useless and just tagging along. If they do level 30 content, then the level 50 player is way too strong and handily slaughters everything, which is rather boring.

The solution is to make the various regions of the game particular levels, and set everyone in a given region to that level. Players would not be able to access regions above their “real” level, but going to lower level regions would be easy. If a level 50 player wishes to group with his level 30 friend, he goes to a level 30 region and is magically level 30 himself, with all of the restrictions that entails. He cannot use skills obtained after level 30, equip gear that requires a level above 30, and so forth.

This would require switching to alternate gear, skill builds, and so forth, which could become an enormous hassle if handled improperly. To avoid the hassle, the game would record the gear and skills that a player had when he was at each level, immediately before he gained a level. When the level 50 player goes back to the level 30 zone, it gives him back the gear and skills he had when he was level 30. He could update them if he has since obtained better gear also useable at level 30, for example, and the changes would be saved as his new level 30 build.

To avoid twinking, all gear dropped in a particular area should require the level of that area. If you’re in a level 30 area, all gear dropped requires you to be level 30 or higher to equip it. Thus, you could never get gear in a higher level area and use it to make a lower level area trivial. That preserves the challenge necessary to make the combat interesting.

This would make guild groups work a lot better, too. If several people in a guild wish to group together, they usually aren’t terribly close to each other in level. Under this system, they could all go to an area suitable for the lowest level member of the prospective group, and all be an appropriate level for that area. That would allow guild groups not at the level cap to do content of a suitable level for the members of the group.

Players would still gain experience from killing mobs, of course, even in an area far below their “real“ level. In order to avoid accidentally creating incentives to stay in low level areas for a long time, the game should give experience at a faster rate in higher level areas, as most games do.

What the experience level would do is to give players access to higher level areas, rather than making them directly stronger everywhere. Players would be stronger, have better gear, better skills, and the rest of the usual benefits of being higher level, but only in the higher level areas that they could now access.

The next problem that makes it difficult to group is that the players who are in a given area and are of a suitable level for the area often wish to do different quests. If a server has 2000 players online, but the game has 1000 quests, most of the quests aren’t going to have five people who wish to do the quest at any given time. Someone may wish to do one quest, while someone else of the same level and in the same area has already done that quest and doesn’t want to repeat it.

This could be fixed by making all quests repeatable. The obvious problem with this is that players will pick out the quests that give the best rewards and do those repeatedly, while ignoring the other quests. Doing one quest twenty times in a row is a lot less interesting than doing twenty quests once each.

That can be fixed by having the game scale quest rewards by how often players are doing the quest. Keep track of how many groups complete a quest each day (or week or whatever). If a lot more players are doing one quest than are doing another in the same area, tone down the rewards for the former quest, while increasing the rewards for the latter. Keep incrementally changing the rewards until, in equlibrium, all quests in an area give rewards commensurate with the length and difficulty of the quest.

Above, it was assumed that groups would sometimes get replacement players in the middle of a quest. This requires that players be willing to join in the middle of a quest. With quest structure as it is often done, if you need to kill 50 furbolgs and a group has already killed 10, when you join, they’ll probably want to kill 40 more and then stop. You’d thus have to get another group to finish the quest.

The solution to this is to make it so that when a group finishes a quest, everyone gets credit, even if they joined late. Late joiners should only get a pro-rated portion of the quest reward based on how much of the quest they were present for, to prevent abuse from people inviting their friends seconds before a quest is completed. This would still make joining a group late an attractive prospect, as it would mean you could jump in and immediately be in a group that is ready to go, rather than having to fish around a while for people to group with.

I’m not arguing that all MMORPGs ought to implement the above system or something vaguely like it. However, if a game is going to be built around players doing content in groups, then the game ought to provide the means to quickly organize groups. 

BarakIII writes:

I haven't finished reading this post yet, but I'll comment on what I've read so far.

I don't really like the idea of forced grouping...never have. That said, your idea here of using AI characters to fill the gaps in a group is a good idea. One AI per player character seems reasonable. Overall a great idea.

On the issue of friends of differering levels playing together. CoH already has a great system for that which works fantastic. It's a mentoring system. In CoH if you want to play with a friend of a higher level you can become a sidekick and as long as you remain close to your friend you are effectively just one level lower. If you're a higher level character and want to play with a lower level friend, then the inverse is true as an exemplar. This mentoring system is superior to the one you've suggested since it's not a forced thing due to being in a particular zone.

I'll try to read the rest of the post later.

Sun Dec 21 2008 2:17AM Report
KrystDaymen writes:

I didn't read but half the post but so far all that you have offered as new can be found in various games.  The only problem is it's not all in one game.  But let's be realistic...none of us will ever find a game that caters to our EVERY want and need.  And number leveling systems are just ignorant anyway imho.  It should be the skills that level...and you should be able to choose from several...check out Darkfall online and Mortal Online...they are trying to bring back the golden age of gaming and let us pray to whatever higher being, if any, that we believe in that they succeed.

Sun Dec 21 2008 2:46AM Report
Quizzical writes:

I'm well aware that a lot of selected parts of what I outline above already exist in one game or another.  But while a lot of games basically say, you need to group to play this game (or at least considerable portions of it), I'm not aware of any that go the next step and say, and therefore, we're going to do everything possible to ensure that you can quickly get a decent group.

A game that requires you to group is nothing new.  A game that has a few things in place to make getting a group merely a major nuisance, but not quite completely impossible is also pretty common.  But a game that reliably let you get a decent group within a few minutes of logging on would be revolutionary.  That would open up group content to people who can only play for half an hour or an hour at a time.

Sun Dec 21 2008 12:25PM Report
Hellscream07 writes:

Just finished to read it all. Great ideas, I'd love to see some of them in a MMO.

I, for one (and probably other people as well) do enjoy the grouping part MMOs, since if I'm paying a monthly fee to play with other people, I want to either play alongside or against them in some way rather than just play by myself. However, even if fast grouping would surely increase the incentive of playing with others, there are people who just like playing solo. Either they don't like grouping with asshats, or they just like knowing there are real people to chat with out there: grouping or not, there are people who would play solo even if they could get a group in 5 min.

Bout the idea of having areas with limited areas and levels, I see it kind of restricting. People raise their levels to get better gear and better skills and yes, going around and showing it off is part of the appeal. If you restrict players to only wear the gears and skills they hardly worked for in the last areas of the game where everyone else has them, they lose part of the interest in levelling up. Barak said bout the mentoring/sidekick system of CoH, which I think it works great. When I started playing CoH, I remember being able to group up with a friend IRL immediately unlike other MMOs, so that might just work better instead.

Great idea bout the AI characters. I always liked that in GW (although most people would just abuse it and either bring 7 AI or bout 5 or 6 and just get a couple of friends alongside them).

The repeatable quest with scaling rewards...uhm...might work, but it depends on how the quests are built up. Having just a handful of repeatable quests where you have to either fetch items to said NPC or kill x mobs might just prove insanely grindy. However, set in a line of quests/dungeons like DDO, where the quests are few but well-designed, might actually be a great idea (I remember thinking of something similar back when I first played the game, since everyone would just play the same dungeons over and over). At least we'd end up with quests worth of replayability.

Sun Dec 21 2008 1:44PM Report
Quizzical writes:

I'm not saying have few quests.  Have a lot of quests, to the degree that an average player does an average quest maybe once or a little less on the way leveling up.  The point of making them repeatable is to make it easier for players to group with each other.  If there are five players in a group, each of which has already done 2/3 of the quests in an area, even with 30 quests in the area, there probably isn't one that none of the players have done.  So let the group pick a quest that one or two of the players have already done, but give them credit for it again upon completing the quest.  Otherwise, you've got five players who would like to group, but can't because there isn't a quest that they all need.  The point of the proposal is to eliminate the things that prevent people from grouping with each other.

I'm aware of the sidekick system in City of Heroes, though I haven't played the game to see exactly how it works.  The main point is that higher level players in lower level areas cannot be too strong for the area, or else it makes the content unduly easy.  Everything has to be scaled down, including gear and skills, and not just the things intrinsic to being higher level.  If the level 50 player has his gear stats reduced to what they would be if it were level 30 gear, that's fine, too.  If the higher level players don't get scaled down, then again you get a situation where some players might like to group, but can't without spoiling the content, because some of the players are simply too strong for it, which makes it trivial and stupid.

Certainly there are players who like to solo in MMORPGs, and would do so even if getting a good group were quick and easy.  They would like this game.  That's fine; no game can appeal to everyone, and this system is meant to appeal to people who would like to group.  Having half of the players soloing means that on a given server, only half as many people are available to group with you, which makes it harder to get groups.  As I said before, the point of this proposal is to go all-out in making it as easy as possible to get a good group.

I think there might well be fewer of the hard-core soloers than you might expect.  One of the big factors that drives solo gameplay is that getting a group is such a pain.  If you're only going to be on for half an hour, and it takes half an hour to get a group, that's simply not viable, so either you solo for that half an hour or you don't play the game.

Sun Dec 21 2008 2:52PM Report
Danshir writes:

Excellent article, Quizz. Let me know sometime if I can "quote" up some of your points on my site, you make some very good points.

*Sorry for the lack of a comment, I'm working =(, so bravo..I'll post something more in detail later*



Sun Dec 21 2008 3:02PM Report
Hellscream07 writes:

Yeah, I saw the point in having the quests repeatable and I think it would actually work well. I guess it was just a rant on how devs focus on quests' quantity and forget bout quality, heh.

The system of mentoring/sidekick (as much as I recall, only played a few months sharing an account with a friend) works that you can either, as a low level player, get a higher lvl player as a mentor or, the other way around, having a high lvl player getting a low lvl player as a sidekick. The effect is that as long as they're close, the mentor would have powers and stats reduced to be equal in level to the low level player or, the other way around, having stats and powers of the sidekick increasing. In this way, you'd get high level people with cool gear and different powers, but that would be scaled to missions and mobs of the lower level player in order to be able to group with him.

Sun Dec 21 2008 5:05PM Report
fansede writes:

City of Heroes/ Villians I thought had the most flexible grouping mechanic. Players can be summoned ( if they were in the zone) to the group. Players that lose connection can log back in and still be in the group.

Even some Task Forces i thought could be paused and restarted at at a alter time if need be.

Sun Dec 21 2008 8:04PM Report
scotczech writes:

All MMORPGS should have differents servers, one or two with a real DP where only green mobs are soloable.

other servers can be the current crap we get served now.

Mon Dec 22 2008 2:36AM Report
Conley writes:


Forced grouping removes what is in my opinion the most beautiful thing an MMO can have: Freedom.

Mon Dec 22 2008 5:07AM Report
Egamst3k writes:

Good article. A few ideas seem a little too complex to work well, but overall I agree with many of them. I'd love to get more community into the games - assuming I can do so quickly and not have to spend hours looking for a group.

Mon Dec 22 2008 10:50PM Report
Quizzical writes:

fansede:  I haven't played City of Heroes.  Is it the case that in that game, you can reliably find a level-appropriate group for content designed to be done in a group within minutes of logging on?

Conley:  A game has to make trade-offs in game design.  A game that tries to do anything and everything will end up doing many things badly and nothing well.  The game won't be worth playing to anyone, regardless of play style.

Wed Dec 24 2008 5:38AM Report
wkwork writes:

Actually CoH has the best (and most manadatory) teaming system I've ever seen. Each character type is VERY specialized and after about level 20, there's really no point in playing solo.

Tanks control aggro and take lots of damage. They do very little damage themselves though. That's the melee and ranged characters jobs. Those characters can't control aggro at all though (and the ranged fighters are pathetically squishy). Controllers and healers are useless solo. You get the idea.

I used a third party XP tracking app to compare my XP per hour while solo and teamed and with a level 40ish tank, I got about 10x the XP in a full team that I did solo. I was impossible to kill but it took FOREVER to poke things to death. It's ludicrous not to team up in CoH.

So the teaming options are front and center and it's very easy to find a team. Not to mention the mentoring system (which isn't perfect, but is certainly the best out there at the moment).

Strangely, City of Villains has the most crazy, grabbastic character classes that just refuse to fit into a box. I assume it was meant for solo players (which kinda fits the villain theme) but I found it unplayable.

Sat Dec 27 2008 5:34PM Report
Quizzical writes:

Does City of Heroes reliably let you get a group of appropriate size and strength (level, gear, etc.) for whatever you want to do within minutes of logging on?  If so, I might have to try it sometime.

Mon Dec 29 2008 3:17AM Report
wkwork writes:

How reliably depends on the level, server and goal. Low levels can be hard to group cause everyone has 20 alts just burning through to level 14 as fast as they can (to get a good travel power). After you get to 14, I'd say yes - definitely.

And regardless, if you want to write about team play in an mmorpg, you have to give CoH a try as the most team based game on the market.

Mon Dec 29 2008 9:32AM Report
tupodawg999 writes:

Defo agree with the first point. I'd been thinking along the same lines myself with the leader having a "warp to group" option.

Thu Jan 01 2009 9:12AM Report writes:
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