The conflict between autonomy and security.

I played Gears of War 2’s Horde mode until silly o’clock this morning; it’s an occasional event that takes place after the Lord of the Rings Online static group that I play with winds down for the evening, what with five of the six of us having Xbox 360s, and Gears of War 2 having a maximum co-op party of five, it makes for a quick and easy way to release steam upon coming to a squeaking hissing halt in the station of resignation after a long evening of riding the rails of traditional MMO content. All change. A quick dash to the coffee shop and rest rooms. Now all aboard the express train to Fun Town, calling at High Octane and Instant Action, before continuing fast to Kick Ass Upon Sea.

The thought that struck me last night, along with the shrapnel and the repeated blows to the head with giant explosive flails, was the fact that although Gears is a co-operative effort – you are, in effect, a five man group – there is plenty of room for players to act as autonomous units. In many MMOs the players enter a dungeon as a group and then remain clumped tightly together until they exit out at the other end, with only those players that can enter stealth mode daring to wander too far from this gestalt of adventuring crab. DDO and City of Heroes, with their selectable dungeon difficulty levels, allow players to pick whether or not they’ll have to hold hands as they skip along the level-quick road to see the Wonderful Piñata of Loot. In many MMOs, however, the players are forced to form this strange multi-appendaged crab-like entity which scuttles its way across the dungeon in a vaguely regimented fashion, the constituent parts rarely straying far from one another, with the exception of the odd appendage bouncing around and shouting “Go Go Gooooo!” on occasion, as though the crab-group had developed some sort of nervous twitch.

This crab-like structure, with the tank at its head and the various other members of the group scuttling along in close proximity, stands in stark contrast to the style of group play found in Gears of War 2. Here, as I stated earlier, each player is their own autonomous unit, capable of tackling a considerable number of foes depending on the player’s skill level and the equipment they have gathered. The equipment itself, although increasing the character’s power level, relies upon the player’s discretion and understanding as to how to employ it effectively. What happens when the player meets an opposing force that is too great for them to deal with alone? Well, assuming that they have taken care to keep an escape route clear, they can retreat and team-up with one of the other players, or they can dig in and call for help. It is then that the teamwork of the game comes into play, because although formidable as a single unit, when their efforts are combined the players can overcome incredible odds. The players act more like a hive or colony than some curious single entity of character class symbiosis, they are free to act autonomously in the interest of the hive, and yet willing to operate as a swarmed force when faced with a considerably superior antagonist.

Again it comes down to freedom and flexibility. Whilst working as a whole, the players in Gears also get to act as individuals, independent of the group. It’s an important feature because it enhances the player’s own feeling of heroism while at the same time relieving a part of the monotony to be found in MMO dungeon running: the tank pulls; the healer stands back; the ranged DPS stands back; the melee DPS place themselves behind the mobs; and the party shuffles carefully forward to the next group of mobs once the current group is dispatched. In GoW2’s Horde mode, one round (equivalent to a couple of groups of MMO mobs) is rarely tactically the same as another, the players’ tactics will change each time depending on what equipment they currently have, whether they are on one of the particularly tricky ‘ten’ rounds (every ten rounds a wave of extremely difficult mobs must be faced), and just what they plain feel like doing. We have one player who likes to grab up a handful of grenades on occasion and try to take down enemies by attaching said grenades to their foreheads; another player likes to grab the shield and pistol, becoming nigh-indestructible from any frontal assault, and thus ‘tanks’ multiple enemies at a time. Each person’s role can change multiple times in one round, depending on how the fight evolves, and thus the role of the group will change dynamically too: sometimes players are all huddled together defending a fortified position against tough opposition; sometimes they are charging around and zerging into the midst of the enemy; sometimes they are working in pairs, perhaps as snipers, or one person covering the back of another who is tanking with the shield; and sometimes they ‘execute starburst formation’ as Van Hemlock dubs it, and run off in different directions at once, revelling in their own ability, self-sufficiency and power as they take on seemingly overwhelming odds, and prevail.

It’s this difference between individuals playing as a team, and a team playing as individuals that I think is interesting, and I wonder whether it’s time to think about creating classes that are entirely self sufficient but which become greater when played as part of a group. There’s no reason that content cannot be created that will challenge a group of self sufficient characters, and indeed it allows the developers more flexibility in content design, because giving players a level of autonomous action outside of the group’s sphere of influence would allow for less linear and regimented dungeon content.

Now excuse me while I curl up underneath my desk pretending to fix my PC, and dream of Frankenstein crabs and space marine bees.

7 thoughts on “The conflict between autonomy and security.

  1. darkeye

    Saw this snippet in the guild wars 2 guru forum, it gives a good idea how flexible elementalists may be, adapting to output major damage on their own, and then changing to suit the needs of the group. It’s going to be interesting to see how flexible the other classes are going to be, able to take on different roles by swapping their weapons. Only problem is balance, and then if balance is well done, deciding who’s got which role.

    “For instance, I was playing an elementalist recently and was by myself mostly using fire so I could take down multiple enemies at once. I eventually ended up fighting with some warriors. One of the warriors was using greatsword and the other was dual wielding axes which are both weapon sets that inflict a lot of damage. I switched to air so I could provide more in the way of blinds and stuns to help mitigate damage while still dealing some of my own with Chain Lightning.

    If the warriors had been using shields or more defensive weapons like mace and hammer I would have stayed in fire to provide damage. If they had been using ranged weapons like rifle or longbow I might have switched to water or maybe earth so I could slow incoming enemies and provide some crowd control. The attunements make the elementalist extremely adaptable to most situations.”

  2. Jonathan B

    That’s very well put, and intriguing.

    One of the things besides adjustable difficulty that affects DDO is the lack of a real aggro system for pulling and keeping aggro. True tanking rarely happens on DDO, I think, judging by comparing the stories from friends who play WoW or other such games. Some mobs seem specifically programmed to ignore the tanks and go for the casters or other squishies right off the bat. And the rest are very vulnerable to switching aggro to the high damage output players. It’s hard for a tank to actually KEEP aggro on DDO.

    I think FPS type games lend themselves to the team operating as individuals style. One factor is that so many FPS players are used to kill count being the ultimate bragging right. Many is the time I’ve been on an objective-based map and seen guys running around and racking up a kill score while doing nothing to contribute to the success of their mission, and declaring the failure of the mission unimportant next to having topped the killboard. When you get used to this mentality, everyone who isn’t blinded by killscore gets used to the idea that they’re gonna have to save the mission themselves, and if someone else happens to be interested in coming along then that’s great too.

    I remember, in the original Call of Duty, a capture the flag map set at a tank factory, Russians vs Germans with about 30-40 players online. I ended up on the German side. People were spawning and running into the factory floor from both sides, dying constantly in a continuous carnage of machine guns and grenades with no change of position. One fellow, Bob, begged on team channel for someone to come with him a different way, so I followed. The two of us (with one other guy showing up for a couple of runs and then returning to the factory) proceeded to go through a back route, covering each other along the way, and capture the Russian flag in their rear area, which only had a couple of people trying to defend it. And then we did it again. And again. As the couple of Russians who were actually defending the flag begged for help of their own guys over and over again. I think we two captured that flag five or six times before the match ended all because the vast majority of players on both sides couldn’t be bothered to stop killing each other long enough to actually accomplish the objective.

    On the flip side, on the same game different map, I have seen a team with a good leader coordinate defense of their flag while simultaneously attacking the enemy flag and even arranging some spoiling attacks just to keep the enemy distracted in certain areas. They ran absolutely roughshod over the other side on what was normally a difficult map simply because of strong use of communication and paying attention to a leader who knew what he was doing and was keeping track of his assets and positioning them to best usage of their skills.

  3. Melmoth Post author

    @xbevisx: I hear that the robes of office for the mayor of Kick Ass Upon Sea consist of a power armoured beard.

    @darkeye: They certainly sound like they have excellent class flexibility for the elementalist, it will be interesting to see if their zone/dungeon design is also varied enough to allow players some level of independent action while in a group, or whether it will still be very much an ‘on rails’ experience where the group travels everywhere together at all times.

    @Jonathan B: Raiding in DDO often requires careful aggro management, and there are tools to help with this – the Intimidate and Bluff skills, for example – but you’re right that most standard dungeon runs allow for a level of flexibility. It’s the same with City of Heroes.

    The FPS issue is interesting because when it comes to PvP – the area that most online FPS games inhabit – it is indeed very difficult to get players to play for the glory of the team rather than themselves. But then, PvP battlegrounds in World of Warcraft are very much the same. However, cooperative shooters such as Gears of War, or PvP arenas in WoW, will be where you see players achieve great feats whilst at the same time helping their team to victory.

    The problem with WoW’s battlegrounds and most online FPS team games is that they put too much emphasis on the individual player’s score over the team score. If the score for a player was, as a very rough example, 1pt for a kill, 2pts for healing another player, 50pts for capturing a flag, 75 points for defending your flag near your base, and 100pts for returning your flag when it is in the enemy base, it may be that players would focus more on goals that were going to help the team overall.

    Or maybe not. Players are, if nothing else, notoriously good at optimising the fun out of anything and exploiting the spirit of the game for their own personal glory. That is, in part, why I prefer cooperative game types.

  4. nugget

    One of the things I really like about Guild Wars ‘battlegrounds’ like Jade Quarry and Fort Aspenwood is that a leaderboard does NOT pop up at the end of the match, with points here, points there, and no point to the thing except ePeen.

    That, combined with the fact that there isn’t any reason to PvP other than wanting to, makes what I know are ‘noobie’ PvP bgs in GW extremely fun and satisfying for me.

    At least with regards to behaviour inspired by point farming, the difference between FA/JQ and WSG/EotS is huge. I like that the point of FA/JQ (if you aren’t a bot -_-) is to win. Not to farm points, but to WIN.

    Oh, and I love your crab thing! O.o You’ve now effectively doomed me to seeing MMO groups as epileptic crabs!

    Tittle. Because it said so.

  5. Tesh

    I find security *in* my autonomy.

    I feel rather insecure when I have to depend on other players to actually get things done.

  6. Melmoth Post author

    @nugget: It’s good to know that Guild Wars has got the scorecard and victory conditions right in most cases. It shouldn’t surprise me, they got so many things right in that game; I can’t wait to see how Guild Wars 2 turns out.

    @Tesh: Depends on the ‘others’, I suppose. When I’m playing with friends from the various static groups of which I’m a member, I feel more secure than I would solo; when I’m in a PuG with bouncing “Go go go go gooo! HEAL MEH! Rez plix!” types… not so much.

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