MMO Herds and Guild Wars 2

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.

19 thoughts on “MMO Herds and Guild Wars 2”

  1. I wonder, is the gut reaction really to join another player if you see them. Or to try to avoid them, wait silently for them to finish, and avoid all contact?

    It’s an interesting question. And could have quite chilling consequences for a game that doesn’t explicitly encourage grouping.

    1. I really think that depends on the expectations of the player on what will happen if they join up with another. If the expectation is that joining another player means “fewer rats for me” then I think the gut reaction is as you described.

      Way back when we first started stepping into online worlds, I would think (from my own experience) that would not be the impulse. It may be that a system like GW2’s requires a bit of re-training (GW2 devs have already talked about testers not immediately “getting” the concept of events, and running past things going on because there was no “!” in sight), and that is what I wonder if it’s possible.

      1. The training issue is a thorny one, after so many years of training in the opposite direction. Do they use exclamation points in the first few levels? If only to tell people “this isn’t that kind of game! Go look around!” Or do you just trust that people can figure it out? WoW has done a very thorough job of teaching people to follow the question mark…

        As for memories of “back in the day” when we first started playing MMOs, it was a very different crowd, then. I remember in the WoW Beta the norm was forming small temporary groups. We did it for everything. We’d form groups to kill mobs that were 3 levels below us, because it was fun to work with other people, and pretty much everyone was a pleasure to be around. We’d form groups with people we’d never seen before and run/swim half way around the world to start fights in the other faction’s starting areas. Any excuse for a group to form, it would happen.

        Very different times. I will definitely try to join as many groups as possible in GW2, but I’m afraid what will happen over time, as I develop preconceptions about the community I’m part of; particularly given the sort of trolls attracted to GW due to its lack of monthly subscription…

  2. Quests and Groups/grouping: a very good question indeed.

    I like to play with other players, but I do not want to group up in a formal team immediately.

    I think GW2 is doing something right in this regard: People will get some reward and can participate without a formal application to join the party questing in the area.

    That could – and hopefully is – the beauty of the “event” rather than quest/task based system.

  3. I’ve always hated the fact that the way most MMOs work these days is to punish someone for randomly helping someone else out, usually by reducing XP. I’m hoping GW2’s design will solve this problem.

    Thinking you might have saved someone from getting killed only to have them turn and yell at you afterwards? No thank you.

  4. I believe that all MMOs should be designed in this manner. INclusive in playstyle, not EXclusive like WoW.

    UO was the first game to have this feeling of not having to jump through hoops in order to play the game. Not having to worry about finding the “right” people and the “right” gear in order to have fun.

    When EQ came out, I found out that it was all about exclusivity, and I passed on it. Unfortunately I found that DAoC was sort of a mixture of both.

    I am still having fun in Warhammer, and I think the whole idea of being able to come and go as I please, and being able to play with anyone I choose to is a big part of why.

    Unfortunately, elitism has crept into that game as well in the form of closed warbands and premade groups, and that pisses me off to no end. Sure, some people are better players than others. But I would rather choose to help them to be better than to shut them out completely. It seems that I am among the minority in this way of thinking.

    It is good to hear that GW2 is all about this, and it has made me more interested in it than I was before. Now I just have to get over its art design direction. *sigh*

    1. The art design and small pops of what appear to me as steampunk inspired are a huge draw. I can’t wait to see it live.

      WAR did a wonderful thing by introducing the concept of open grouping. I can be a loner but am more inclined to join groups when as you said, there’s no application to participate which is why scenarios and PUG PVP is something I enjoy very much.

      Hopefully GW2 has a better recipe out the gate for the player density to content situation, on both sides of the scale. It’s on my buy list – period. Nothing to lose except the box price.

  5. I think this is why they’re pushing the synergy thing. Along with no drawbacks to more players joining in.

  6. If I run into one other player while out hunting in any MMO I am extremely resisitant to grouping with them. It doesn’t have much to do with efficiency; it’s mostly about intimacy.

    Joining up with one other player brings up a whole set of social conditions that I generally don’t want to deal with. I don’t want to have to be the one who carries the conversation, but on the other hand I’m wary of the kind of conversation I might have to listen to. I don’t want to bring my character to the notice of someone who may latch onto me and dog me for weeks, trying to get me to come and do stuff. I don’t, basically, want to stick my hand into a barrel and pull out a person.

    It’s really no different to what would happen in the physical world in similar circumstances, and it’s probably partly personality and partly cultural background. English people tend not to speak to strangers willingly in public situations. We famously don’t speak to each other even on public transport, when we may be sitting beside someone we don’t know for several hours. Other nationalities will introduce themselves and strike up a conversation immediately, but to many English people, particularly in their middle years, to do so is an anathaema. We’d much rather travel a hundred miles in silemce than risk social embarrassment. One-to-one conversation is far too personal an act to enter into on a whim.

    However, once a third person is added, that all changes. Three (and anything above) does not carry the taint of intimacy that so disturbs. It’s never just your responsibility to make things work when there are two other people there as well. Consequently I’m quite likely to join up with a couple of characters I meet out hunting boar and even more likely to join a larger group. The more people involved, the less intimacy, the more comfortable it is to join in.

    Warhammer does do this brilliantly. You can join and become part of an instant gang, all bent on a single purpose. You don’t even have to be asked, you can invite yourself. You can yak away like a fairground barker on dexedrine or stay as silent as a trappist and no-one cares. All conversational pressure is off. There’s precious little chance of you forming any awkward relationships that you’ll wonder later how to get out of. It’s socialisation without having to be social.

    Guild Wars 2 looks as though it will offer the major attraction of intimacy-free communal gameplay. It also looks as though it will avoid the extreme downside of the auto-socialising mechanics WoW uses, namely extreme performance anxiety. True crowd play, in other words. I hope so, anyway.

  7. ““herd instinct” activates to make us want to play with other people. That is why, after all, we are playing MMOs, right?*”


    Doesn’t apply to Bhagpuss and doesn’t apply to me.

    There’s a subtle, but so very amazing difference between playing with other people and playing next to other people.

    1. I’ll second this. Or is it thirded?

      I’m enthused about game design that makes grouping optional, and lets players do their own thing rather than try to mold the players to what the devs feel is the One True MMO Path.

  8. Even in GW, the urge to invite the unknown someone along in the mission is there, but easily suppressed, due to memories of bad pugs. Farming also discourages grouping. I can take my character out solo and get all the drops or I can bring another player and share, which means doing more runs to get the drops I need. When you add in that most of us have helped someone only to have them become demanding and obnoxious, it all adds up to backing off from strangers.

    It seems like the GW2 grouping will attempt to rectify those problems by making the groups a temporary thing in which you don’t have to even speak to each other. We will have to see whether this improves socialization.

  9. I have always been inclined towards grouping with random people, or at least helping them as much as possible. Well, until WoW tried to train it out of me – Whether through increasing efficiency penalties, or an increasing level of immaturity in the community.

    I enjoyed the aspects of WAR that you mention, but unfortunately I found the leveling curve too steep, and the opportunities for group play too few and far between in tier 3. Add to that my frustration as all my chosen servers decayed into inactivity, and I burned out fast.

    Now I get the same social urge filled by TF2 – by choosing to frequent certain servers that I know have good communities, I get much the same effect. I meet new people, we immediately have a common goal, and form ad hoc teams to achieve that goal. Groups are large enough that it’s OK if a few people are of differing skill levels, and there are lots of self-directed jobs to do, so you can happily do whatever you want and not rub anyone the wrong way.

    I can only hope that GW2 captures some of this flexibility. I think the decision to not employ the holy trinity was an excellent one, given this different approach to group play – hopefully it will allow for everyone to just pitch in in the way they want, rather than creating anxiety that you’ll be berated by your fellow players for not having the right build, or otherwise being a “newb”.

    I also wanted to point out that happily, GW skill design has often eschewed party-limited skills for other sorts of limitations, such as AoE or Ally/enemy only. There are a few party heals, but most other skills I can think of are “All allies in earshot” or “targeted ally”. I think this, combined with the fact that the most efficient heals are all self-only, should make informal “groups” pretty convenient, even without the help of the party interface.

  10. What I’m interested to see is how Arenanet will handle the motivation for dynamic events. i mean yes, you can very easily give people more karma, exp or loot for participating but perhaps the risk of failure should rise too? It has been explained already that more participants = more spawned monsters however there seems to be a nagging thought in the back of my head that the game will be too easy if more people join, or the opposite. The game must be difficult in certain scenarios, it must also promote players to become more powerful / social.

    The way i see it, as long as the difficulty rises at the same pace or just beneath the reward for “herding”, we will see a shift in the player psyche. To make a player want something, the system has to promise a reward, then place obstacles in the way of it. but of course, the reward must be -worth- tackling those obstacles.

    If there aren’t any reasons to team up, they’ll all play solo. Alternatively, if the game becomes too easy, people will dismiss it and play something else.

  11. The individual player in the persistent world in GW2 receives essentially the same benefit working with a group as without. Same EXP. Same loot. There appears to be no immediate benefit to joining a group other than your task may become easier to complete. With the “!” gone, the problem of who has what quest, where people are in the quest, and whether one person can help the other complete the quest becomes moot. Everyone can help with the quest because the “quest” (read: dynamic event) is at the same place for everyone participating in it.

    That being said, people will or won’t join a group of players for many reasons, as Bhagpuss eloquently described. People are likely to join a group if they will benefit from doing so (e.g., social enjoyment, bonus loot, etc). People are likely to avoid joining a group if doing so will have a negative impact (e.g., rude players, decreased loot, loss of one member could hamper success for the whole group…such as a monk rage-quitting). As humans, we want our cake and we want to eat it too. We want to get some benefit from grouping and we want to minimize the negative effects of doing so.

    GW2 appears to be approaching the cake + eat aspect of grouping. They are minimizing many of the negatives of grouping by the nature of the technicality that people aren’t really grouped (Julian’s comment above about playing next to someone). You can join and leave with little risk. ANet’s selling point for grouping with other players appears to be intrinsic, with the best argument I can find being “why not?” Grouping appears to be no more beneficial to the individual player than soloing, with the major exception of the combination abilities (e.g., arrows through a wall of fire). In effect, the player is rewarded for grouping with more efficient gameplay, but is neither required to do so, nor penalized for avoiding it.

    Since we’re discussing gamer research, I’d wager a hypothesis that the herding behavior of players is positively correlated with the level of benefit received by joining a group. Most of you would probably respond “duh” to that statement, but I add that I also believe that there is no significant relationship between herding behavior and negative consequences of joining a group (e.g., annoying players, decreased loot). This is largely due to ANet’s efforts to reduce these consequences. People will herd into groups when it suits them and leave when it no longer does. I think we’ll see a lot of parallel play (Julian’s comment) because of the simultaneous lack of commitment and immediate reward for proximity to other players. This is especially true if buffs are targeted AoE rather than “affects group.”

    As a final note, I think one of the best things ANet has done in GW2 is build a better PUG. All players, no matter how noob, are given a skillbar based on their weapons that simply doesn’t suck. And the benefit of combination attacks allows for more experienced players to salvage an ignorant mistake on the part of a noob player (e.g., walking around a poorly placed wall of fire to put it between yourself and your foes to fire through it). Additionally, even in a PUG chock full of noobs, someone is bound to cast a spell or use a skill that another player will inevitably interact with in a beneficial way. Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while. Sadly, we have no control over whether noob PUGs learn from those experiences and go in search of more acorns… :)

    1. GW2 seems to be minimizing, but not eliminating, the effects of grouping on efficiency. This is a good thing. It will free people to play the way they want.

      People like Ravious and myself can group up, simply because we like social gaming. No other incentive is required.

      Loners like Bhagpuss and Julian can stay solo, because that’s what they prefer.

      People in the middle can join and leave groups as they please.

      Players who are all about efficiency can determine which approach is optimal for their playstyle. Even with the benefits of combining abilities, some players may “feel” more efficient if they don’t have to coordinate with others.

    2. Awesome write-up, Rav, as usual! :)

      To further elaborate on on one of Belzan’s excellent points, I think that the addition of the “combination” system between different players’ skills in GW2 will, in fact, be one of the big draws to grouping up in the persistent world.

      In the early days of the game, just after release, folks will make their new characters and get shiny new skills to play with. They will run out into the world and want to test these skills alone but, knowing full well that ANet has designed some of these skills to combine with other player’s skills to create MORE effects/damage/etc., they will also seek out other players to try these combinations with.

      You could find these players in a town before you go out into the world (“LFG – ranger LF ele w/firewall to shoot arrows thru), or you could just contact your guildies and get a group together that way, but the persistent areas in GW2 makes it just as easy, or even easier, to just go out there and see who is using skills in a battle somewhere and jump right in! “Look, there is an ele fighting with fire magic, maybe I can join in and she will make a fire wall for me to shoot arrows through!!”

      In this last scenario, you are actually not in a real “group” but just fighting alongside someone and synergizing skills. So folks like Bhagpuss and Julian wouldn’t have to endure the “intimacy” of the PUG as it exists today in GW, yet you still get the benefit of trying out skill combos, and getting EXP, loot and other rewards!

      So far, this looks to be a win-win situation, no matter what your socialization playstyle is for MMOs.

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