Guild Wars 2 has no quests. At least it doesn’t have quests in the conventional sense where each player is nearly insulated in purpose outside of specific group content. I know there have been countless occasions where an unknown player and I happened to be killing the same mobs in the same area, yet we did not group up to share the experience. I might have been almost done, not wanting to group up in case the other player just started. I might have needed boar tails, and each dead boar only has one (except when I apparently can’t find it on the carcass). I might have just not wanted to deal with another possible unternet duckwad. There was an activation energy to sharing this content, and I rarely, if ever, breached it.
Guild Wars 2 has events. Events have purpose within themselves. If I see a player killing boars, I can join in for the same purpose with the same duration and roughly the same reward. There really is no activation energy to overcome. In fact, I would guess it is the opposite. I bet it takes more “energy” to choose to ignore the player-active event. It’s like some “herd instinct” activates to make us want to play with other people. That is why, after all, we are playing MMOs, right?*
Herd behavior is a sociological concept describing how individuals act in a group with no planned direction. The concept can be applied to the stock market, crowd mentality, and even MMOs. Yet, as I researched the concept of herd behavior in online games, I found next to nothing. So, in the interest of this unexplored part of science I will describe my own experiences with dealing with my herding instinct in MMOs.
In conventional MMOs, the most basic herding event occurs when a player happens upon another player doing roughly the same thing in roughly the same area. Chance meetings in the clearings of the lonely woods are a pretty poetic description of something experienced every minute in World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Aion, and so on. In my experience the gut reaction is to join, but the analytical mind overrides the need to group by screaming “efficiency!” See, for some awesome reason known only to game developers, it is usually inefficient to group up with the lonely individual. The two players might be on different quests, might have different portions of the same quest, might have different skill levels, different upraisings with regard to politeness, and so on. Even though it is more efficient for two players to kill one thing, ten plump rats might have been killed in the time it takes to ask to group up and see if the player is also on the “Hobbits Need to Eat Too” quest.
A better live MMO to look at would be Warhammer Online with the Public Quests system, and more importantly in my mind, the Open Grouping system. The Public Quests system ran events within a closed area that usually had three stages. Players could join in at any stage, and often times once a few players stuck around more players would come flocking to the Public Quest area. I found that in active areas, three to four players could usually start attracting other players in a less used Public Quest area. I attribute this to the fact that in the early days of Warhammer Online more people were required to beat each stage of the Public Quest, and it was really only worthwhile in regards to other activities in the MMO to be with a group of people capable of beating the whole Public Quest. So like the chance meetings described above, the terror of efficiency reigned in destroying what could have been a fun event filled with lots of people.
Warhammer Online was made for PvP action, which further hampered the activity and development of the Public Quest system. The persistent realm vs. realm (RvR) zones with ongoing PvP between two factions of players was where I really saw herd instinct in players. The amazing utilization of the Open Grouping system was responsible in large part for amazing herd dynamics. If a player was interested in some RvR, a very group oriented activity, he could pull up the Open Grouping menu to see if there was a raid group currently pounding the other side. If there was, he could join and immediately see where his new raid was fighting. He could also leave the raid group with very little of that dis-attachment feeling.
This constant growth and death of the raid group was what made the Open Grouping system work so well. In a conventional MMO, if a key player (especially a healer) bellies up IRL, then the whole raid could crumble unless a replacement is quickly found. Warhammer Online embraced the constant ebb and flow of raid groups. A SWAT squad of 4-5 could peel off from the raid for a short time in an active RvR zone to complete their own objective without ruining anybody else’s fun (well except for the opposition). A gamer with a job could call it a night anytime she felt like it without feeling guilty for letting the raid down. Yet, the gamer was part of a defined unit, either a raid or a group. All Points Bulletin even touts a quicker wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am SWAT style open grouping system with its Backup System.
Next week Eric Flannum and Colin Johanson, both of ArenaNet, will present a session at GDC Europe on designing Guild Wars 2 dynamic events. The session description says that they will discuss the Dynamic Events system with regard to the goal of creating the MMO so that it “encourages social interaction between players.” MMOs are rife with “encouraged” social interaction, which sometimes feels forced. A system to create cohesive herds of players is the true accomplishment. We’ve seen a fair amount of Guild Wars 2 material, but I feel the absolute lynchpin will be the Dynamic Events system.
So what’s different? Well with the chance meetings, there is no more personal advancement to the persistent world quest. There is only world advancement. That means the decision making process switches in large part from “efficiency” to “fun” because both players will advance. Yet, unlike Public Quests the Dynamic Events system will balance the difficulty and reward on the fly. So far the system is aimed at conditioning the herd instinct. What is unknown, possibly even to the developers, is the effect on cohesive herd forming due to the fact that grouping is no longer required.
Going back to Warhammer Online, I loved my Zealot. It is possibly one of my favorite classes across all MMOs. Yet when I found myself in large RvR battles there were certain skills usable only for people in my group or raid (not to mention the difficulty in healing someone whose health bar I can’t click). The Captain in Lord of the Rings Online is even worse because most of the Captain’s skills only affect group members (not even raid members). If the design goal was to not favor grouping, then it would seem problems like the Zealot’s and Captain’s group-only skills would not be a factor. Yet, group-only skills do have their purpose in creating the need for permanence in a group.
Therefore, the big question in my mind is whether the on-the-fly herding can out sustain, in permanence of herd, group required cohesion. In other words, will we freely choose to continue grouping, herding, in Guild Wars 2 without the conditioning mechanics that force us to group, or will we become more selfish and alone in our playstyle? (As an aside I truly wonder if ArenaNet can figure this out with testers [employees] that already have inherent cohesivity.) These are the things that I hope Flannum and Johanson are able to discuss at their presentation, and these are things I definitely plan to explore and blog about when Guild Wars 2 becomes playable.
you, flock of seagulls
*Does not apply to Bhagpuss.