Grouping as the Better Option

Some games require grouping. We hate that, especially when certain classes are required, because you can easily spend half your in-game time looking for group members. Some games encourage soloing. We often like that, but single-player games deliver a much better solo experience. Some games discourage grouping, often as an accident of game mechanics, which is just poor. Some games encourage and reward grouping without requiring it, which is the best of all possible worlds.

I have a very long version with many examples after the break, but that is the core of my message today: encourage grouping, do not require it, and make sure the game mechanics really do encourage it.

You encourage grouping by increasing rewards for groups and adding abilities that require groups to take full advantage of them. You require grouping by giving enemies ridiculous numbers of hit points, failing to scale encounters for different numbers, or making encounters that demand (or all but demand) several specific abilities that are spread across the classes. You discourage grouping by making quests difficult to do together and failing to scale encounters for different numbers. Yes, a lack of scaling can both require and discourage grouping.

Let’s take that one first. If the encounter is what it is, with no options to vary it based on who is attempting it, its requirements are static.

  • If it is designed as solo content, you gain little to nothing for bringing a friend. Indeed, it might take the two of you longer to do it together than it would to do it separately, say if you each need to loot a dozen ground objects that despawn after they are looted; you would have been better off each going alone, five minutes after each other, rather than going together and waiting for the respawns. If the enemies are designed to be soloed, they will be radically unsatisfying fights for a full group. DPS is all that matters in those cases, with the rest of the classes trying to get a spell off before the target dies.
  • If it is designed as group content, you cannot complete it without the right group size. If it is not designed for a full group, you can go a bit bigger, but see the previous point. If it is designed for a full group, you might be able to get away with being one member short, but you will inevitably need your holy trinity and/or crowd control. When the enemy has 20,000 hit points and regenerates 1,000 per second, you have no option but to bring >1,000 DPS; when it hits for 200-500/attack, area effect, with an attack every two seconds and a chance for critical hits, and your characters have 2,000-3,000 hit points, you must have a healer; and so on for whatever else is required for encounters.

(As I am tossing out numbers, my apologies if they are the wrong order of magnitude for your game. I always have that problem talking to my WoW-playing friends about The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™ prices. 10 gold is the most expensive item in all of Middle Earth, not a normal quest reward. So when a hobbit talks about something with 300,000 hit points, he means a full raid taking an hour against the meanest thing in the game, not a mini-boss.)

Without scaling, you either get a group then see what you can do, or decide what to do then put together the right group for that. Either you have who you want but your options are limited or you can do what you want but the “who” is limited. You need a happy coincidence to match your group with your plan.

I like the City of Heroes scaling because it opens the same content to many people. If scaled properly (significant if), it makes the mission equally difficult for one person as for a full group. Every group can do every mission. You can worry that helping someone does not help; if they could not solo it and the mission scales perfectly, you probably cannot duo it either. But I would argue that is a problem with that one mission, rather than the scaling that works so well elsewhere.

The real problem with scaling is that it limits developers’ ability to create interesting encounters. If everything must scale from one to eight people, there are a lot of things you cannot do unless you can re-write the same mission several times. You would be creating several pieces of content using the same art and text, then hiding all but the one for that group size. This would be inefficient and defeat the notion of “opens the same content to many people.”

One solution is to have tiers of the same dungeon (5-man, 10-man, 20-man, 40-man), so it scales but not as finely. Maybe there can be a little of that standard scaling in-between, so you dial the 5-man up for 6 or knock off some enemy hit points for 9. This last twist might lead to people min-maxing the best size for every dungeon, so it might be a really horrible idea.

Another solution is just to ignore it. City of Heroes have a few missions designed for a certain minimum, meaning they do not scale below that, but they otherwise scale up uniformly. Everyone, including fans like me, should recognize that City of Heroes has very little variation in its core gameplay. Smashing ten Freakshow is not that different from smashing ten Skulls, and there is no interesting synergy that makes ten Freakshow a different experience from six. The difference in experience is based on what the players bring to the table, because the enemies are bringing similar challenges to the table at any group size.

This points out a way to encourage grouping: what the player characters bring to the table. You want them to have abilities that work solo but do better in groups. City of Heroes has many area effect heals. That is fine if you are solo, especially if it is a PBAE, but isn’t it better if that same heal also helps four other people who are attacking while you hit it? Ditto on area effect buffs, debuffs that benefit all attackers, and area effect attacks. Why throw your fireball at three targets when you could hit ten for no extra endurance cost? That area effect hold is an expensive toy if you use it solo, but locks down twelve enemies as easily as two.

The best powers along these lines are auras. Auras have two great features: they work equally well on multiple targets, and they are low maintenance. I have already addressed the target issue, so let’s talk about maintenance.

Abilities with low duration are huge annoyances. If my buff lasts 30 seconds, I need to refresh very often. I may not bother to, making it a half-wasted ability. How much of your character’s life do you want to spend refreshing that one buff? Duration is often used as a way of limiting the available buffs, but there is a better way: just limit them directly. The Dark Age of Camelot concentration system does this (or did when I played). If you want one buffer to be worth “50 points” of buffs, give him 50 points to spread and leave them on until he dies or breaks group. If you really do want the buffer just to stand there buffing for his entire in-game life, make it a channeled ability rather than one with a low duration. Think of the medic in Team Fortress: he follows one target around and keeps pumping the juice. There is nothing wrong with a channeled buff, as long as the buff is big enough to be worth it: it admits to the player that this really is all he is doing, rather than getting him to think that he may not be chained to that animation for the rest of his life. (I prefer the concentration approach.)

No, we must go back to targets. Making buffs area-effect increases their value for reasons already stated. Think of how that interacts with single- versus multiple-target abilities. A teamwide buff that lasts ten seconds is something I cast every ten seconds; a single-target buff that lasts ten seconds will be gone from my first teammate by the time I put it on the last. My beloved Kinetics includes two buffs called Speed Boost and Increase Density. Increase Density cures and protects against some crowd control, which is a great thing, except that it lasts 60 seconds, single-target, in a game with teams of eight. No one wants to cast that every 8 seconds no the chance of a sleep or hold, so it is used reactively if someone gets held, with the protection as a secondary effect of the cure. Speed Boost is one of the best buffs in the game, but it only lasts two minutes, so you recast it frequently (or in fairly long binges as you hit the whole team).

On another front, single-target buffs with long cooldown/recharge times mean that you can keep it active on one teammate or maybe a few. This limits how much you are encouraging grouping, because it works as well in a duo as in a full team. Why meet new people if you need just one friend to get the most from your abilities?

(Does it show that I play support characters a lot? Yes, I think about teams in terms of sharing buffs and debuffs, not in terms of tanks and healers. Also, the benefits of area effect attacks in teams seem to obvious to belabor further.)

So auras get the best of both worlds. They affect everyone, no matter what the team size, and they are always on. You get a 5% damage buff if you solo; if you are on a team, everyone gets a 5% damage buff. Isn’t that team looking a bit better, especially since that other guy has a 5% accuracy buff? This encourages teaming by making what you already do better in groups, even without your doing anything else.

Note: if you balance around this too much, it can lead to forced grouping. If encounters assume multiple stacked auras, you better have multiple stacked auras, or you all die. See non-scaling encounters above, particularly the ones with “you must have this much DPS to ride.”

You also encourage grouping by giving rewards for it. By this I do not mean the standard forced grouping for late-game content, requiring raids to get the best equipment. I mean simply increasing the amount of experience and loot an enemy provides based on the number of people fighting it. Any game not doing that by now is too stupid to discuss, at least on the experience and currency side. Actual loot scaling is a hard spot for many. Sure, make that rat start dropping five or six tails.

This becomes particularly important for quest drops. One way of encouraging grouping is sharing “kill ten rats” quests. Heck, we could solo five rats next to each other while “teamed” and come out ahead. One way of discouraging grouping is sharing “get ten rat tails” quests but not increasing the number of tails per rat in groups. (Okay, that thought makes more sense for “get ten chunks of rat meat.”) If I must still kill ten rats per person to get my tails, why have I gained by grouping? This makes even less sense when the tail has less than a 100% chance of dropping. Each rat drops a tail 50% of the time, we have six team members, and everyone needs ten tails; welcome to the quest of “kill 120 rats.” Shoot me now.

The oddest example I have ever seen comes from the Evendim wood trolls in The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™. There is a quest chain involving them, and it is pure group content because it involves elite trolls that can sometimes aggro two or three at a time. The second quest is to get pieces of wood, and there are two sources. Some spawn on the ground around the trolls, so you can grab them as you clear trolls, and some trolls will drop some. There are several “some”s in that sentence, which is because the mechanic is not “everyone on the team gets one.” If you pick one up from the ground, you get one; if you loot one from a troll you get one, although some trolls seem to drop more than one, but only one per person and not enough for a full group. It seems that the amount of wood the quest-giver needs is multiplied by your number of teammates, but the amount of wood available does not scale, nor is the amount of wood designed for teams to collect even though you need a team to collect it. May the gods help you if another team is doing the same quest and competing for ground and troll spawns. (It does not help that the chain ends in possibly the most unreasonably difficult and under-explained quest in the game, even after a round of toning it down.)

This is part of my reason for looking forward to Warhammer’s public quests.

The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™ does have one of the best incentives to group in its fellowship skills. Randomly against elites, or whenever the Burglar uses a special ability, you get a chance for free health, mana, or damage, with bigger bonuses if you can coordinate your team, and even bigger bonuses if you have a full team. A full team can cure all its debuffs, summon two oathbreakers ghosts from Return of the King, or fire off an AE that is about half an elite worth of damage. And some classes let you buff the fellowship maneuver. Doing these well and often is the difference between a great group and a mediocre one.

I should explicity mention area effect attacks, just for completeness: they work better when you have multiple targets. Duh. If you fight one enemy solo and five in a group, your AE attacks are worth more in a group. AE crowd control is also worth more in a group. Please be careful if you have both AE damage and AE crowd control.

Sharing quests is the modern way to encourage cooperative questing (although public quests as auto-shared may replace that). WoW does this pretty well, as best I recall. The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™ is okay but not great. Many missions are in chains, and I cannot share step 5 with you if you are on step 3. Repeatable quests also have sharing issues, but that’s tech/buggy. City of Heroes is the best: for any instanced quest (almost all of them), everyone who walks in the door is sharing the quset. You get the mission complete bonus as long as you were there for enough of the mission. It does not matter who owns the mission; you still get the experience and influence. (You do not get your own private credit with the mission contact unless it was a newspaper/radio mission.)

City of Heroes is also the best known for having sidekicks, although EverQuest 2 and others now share this. You can encourage grouping by making level less relevant to group formation. I can sidekick up or exemplar down to be the same level as my friends. This works best if you have the “buy your skill once” system like City of Heroes, The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™, Warhammer, or any game that does not still require the stupidity of “Fire Bolt III.” Yes, WoW, you should just have Fire Bolt and make it scale with level.

Finally, you discourage grouping by placing hurdles between people and their quests. long delivery quests between group content bits in a quest chain are a great example. I do not want to make my group wait for me, nor do I want to wait on the slowest or least considerate person in my group. If step 4 is a cave full of trolls, steps 5 and 6 involve running across the zone three times, and step 7 is another cave full of trolls, I am probably going to do steps 4 and 7 in different groups. How do you prefer to wait: on people running or on groups re-forming, to say nothing of what you do when someone goes linkdead “but I think he’ll be back” on step 6.

The more extreme case is just to force solo content in there. The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™ has some of those: quests that you cannot do on a team. You must go into a solo instance. Hopefully your team needed a break at that point.

This is already tl;dr, and my apologies if the order was annoying. I decided to try a conversational flow rather than a closely structured list. Feel free to critique the style or content in the comments, or add your own examples of works well and poorly.

: Zubon

14 thoughts on “Grouping as the Better Option”

  1. Not tl;dr at all. Thoughtful discussion… I think that CoX has been the closest to “getting it right,” in my experience. I’m looking forward to checking out the systems (including public quests) in WAR, as well.

  2. I’d have to say that overall CoH nails the “encourage, but don’t force” grouping better than any other MMO I’ve tried. If you aren’t playing something pretty funky like a gravity controller you can solo perfectly well. However missions go by a lot faster and you get more XP per unit time in a party. Travel powers, the summoning ability in teleport, side-kicking, and the fact that the game is very forgiving about party make-up all combine make getting a PuG together as painless as I’ve ever encountered in an MMO.

    If only the core of the game weren’t so utterly repetitive. It’s a serious blast for a month or so, but then I always peter out.

    Turbine and Blizzard obviously wanted to go for that design. Lot’s of solo content, and lots of content a solo player can’t handle and that yeild better rewards than solo content. However to me both LoTRO and WoW feel like “two steps forward, one step back.” And I think the main culprit is gathering quests. As you pointed out, gathering crap once is painful enough, doing it multiple times in a party can be grueling.

    One very simple fix that would greatly improve both games: when hunting for drops (rat tails or whatever) make it so that everyone in the party can loot every single one that drops. LoTRO even has several book quests that work this way, but doesn’t do it in the majority of quests for some reason. It’s as if they decided to put an artificial wall between “solo” quests and party quests.

    Better yet, make it so that if one person loots an item needed for a quest it appears at once in everyone’s inventory. That would give players a real incentive to group for both kill and gather quests. Wouldn’t it be nice if in some of those WoW quests with retardedly low drop rates you could search with 6 players instead of by yourself?

  3. Are are teh genious of english langwej. Please forgive the numerous grammatical errors….I need to learn to proofread before hitting the submit button.

  4. I really like that in WAR there is none of that “I need 10 boar skins, and I must share them with my party.” If you need an item and kill the thing containing the item, everyone gets the item. WAR really makes me think their goal was to make grouping more fun everywhere.

  5. What I didn’t like about CoX was that it was so instanced that I didn’t feel like I was in a world.
    If you could have the dynamic scaling, but also have it not instanced somehow, that would be the best.

  6. There are things in CoH that do have interesting synergy: For example, Demolitionists. Three demolitionists can wipe a party of three even if one demolitonist is no trouble for one, due to their amazingly good AoEs.

    Generally, in CoH, the wqay it scales it makes exp gain faster in parties then if the two people did it solo: but not enough to make soloing worthless. There IS the issue with archetypes.. Dominators and Defenders don’t solo well and there’s the fact that a Stalker can solo virtually any non-kill-all mission in approximately five minutes, but that’s different.

  7. Another approach that is used is the Guild Wars way – all content is group oriented, but not all members of the group need to be real players.
    This approach is neither encourage nor enforce, at least since most content is scaled so that you can complete it with only one real player in the group – at least PvE. PvP is a very different matter of course.

    While not directly encouraging grouping I think the Guild Wars leveling approach is pretty nice for content that does not scale – reaching max level is pretty much at the point when you are done with the extended newbie content.
    The vast majority of the content is all at the same level, so sidekicking is pretty much a non-issue and everyone can group with everyone without trivializing the content.
    If you do not have 8 people for you group, add some NPC group members to fill the remaining slots. Or don’t, if you think you can handle the content with fewer group members.

  8. @Thallian
    As Sente said. GW does not “require” Grouping. But, if you wish to group, you are not stuck waiting hours on end for a “Healbot” or “Warrior” as you can just add a henchie or hero if they are not available.
    LFG for hours like I remember doing in EQ2, WoW, LOTRO is not needed in GW.
    I still remember needing one boss in GW, and my group makeup was not working. I needed Necros. Lo, and behold. One shout is all it took to find the exact other player with a match.
    It seems to promote quicker groups actually.
    Weird.

    I like it…a lot.

  9. @Ravious

    Wow, I didn’t know WAR did that with all of their quests. That’s pretty much exactly what I was suggesting. If only I had the PC to run it well.

  10. One interesting part about City Of Heroes/City of Villains is that it provides unusual incentives toward large groups. While you can easily play the game in small groups or solo, and experience most of the same content, there are rewards for groups unrelated to content, money, or experience.

    A solo scrapper can almost certainly run through the various Rikti War Zone arcs, but going in a large group instead means he or she will get Zoo Keeper and more of the Rikti-beating medals for costume pieces. They may also do better on the Damage Taken badges. A solo defender can run through the Clockwork King story arcs, but going in a group does the force multiplication thing and gets the gear-killing badge and helps toward other badges.

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