A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.

Deeps: “Oi! Tankman! Have you finished my homework, Tankman?”

Tankman: “Ow, ow! Leggo my ear!”

Deeps: “Well? Have you done it.”

Tankman: “Y–ow! Yes! Deeps, ow, here. It was fairly easy, you just need to sap the caster, then take the centurion down first because he can…”

Deeps: “Whatever, Tankman. If I wanted to know how to do this stuff I wouldn’t be asking you, would I? Here…”

Tankman: “What’s this?”

Deeps: “What does is look like, dork? It’s the homework for Mr Deepholm’s class. I want it done for tomorrow, and you’d better not make any mistakes or you’ll get a right good vote-kicking.”

Tankman: “Oh come on! I’ve got to do my own work you know. And I’ve got two other groups who want me to do their dungeon work for them. And I’ve got to mark a bunch of other stuff for Roflson…”

Deeps: “Just do the work, Tankman. Or else.”

Tankman: [sigh]

Phacerol: “Hey, Tankman!”

Tankman: “Oh crud.”

Deeps: “Eh, heh, heh. Popular boy, eh?”

Phacerol: “Hey! C’mere, you. I got a B- on my Uldum coursework. So now that I have to stay behind and redo that lesson, I’m going to teach you a lesson.”

Tankman: “Ow! Look! It’s not my fault that Mr Halls sprung a surprise test on us, is it? I can’t be expected to do everythi… owwww!”

Phacerol: “The only time I want your opinion is when you’re doing my homework for me. Otherwise, Tankman, I expect you to stay quiet and do my homework. Understood?”

Tankman: “That… that doesn’t even make any sens… ow! Alright. Alright. [sigh]”

Yes, second only to announcing that Sylvanas Windrunner is a hermaphrodite and thus ruining the adolescent fantasies of half the world’s male population, Blizzard recently announced the Call to Arms feature of the 4.1 patch, their best attempt yet at causing their forums to implode from outrage.

For less frothing vitriol and more reasonable debate I would recommend visiting all the many and varied sources of excellence and elucidation to find out more about why bribery will or won’t work.

But why the lack of tanks in the first place? Speaking from a personal point of view, it’s because the tank has to know not only how to play their class well, but are also expected to have intimate knowledge of the dungeon too. It’s this primal need in the player base to know the encounters beforehand that has broken the theoretically even trinity of tank, healer and damage dealer, into a far more unbalanced affair, where the tank is both aggro-magnet and dungeon guide, and the healer is personally accountable for all deaths within the group.

I think the fundamental dungeon design philosophy in World of Warcraft is what causes a lack of tanks. Dungeons are fixed problems with known solutions, and players being the gear-chasing optimisation monkeys that they are, want to know how to perform a fight before entering into that fight. Raiding is just the grown-up version of this, where I’ve equated it in the past to Internet line dancing. There are videos demonstrating every move, when to make it, who needs to be where and when. The whole theory behind WoW’s dungeons is precision of execution, what it lacks (as a norm) is any use of adaptation, innovation, or response to unexpected events.

That’s not strictly true of course, because healers spend their entire time responding to unexpected events: damage dealers standing in the fire being the customary example. Combine this with the fact that healers are generally considered accountable for all deaths within the average pick-up group, and we can begin to see why healing is almost as unpopular a vocation as tanking.

As such, the dungeon philosophy seems to be that a clean run is one where classes don’t have to react to unexpected situations. The tank takes damage and keeps all enemies focussed on themselves, the healer heals the tank and any incidental damage the damage dealers pick up, and the damage dealers focus-fire specific targets in the precise order that makes things easiest while avoiding Token Possibility of a Wipe Mechanic X. Anything outside of this is often a wipe, or involves blowing cool-downs which won’t be available for when it occurs again in the very next fight. In other words, dungeons demand the perfect execution of a routine, and not the player’s ability to react to a situation.

It’s less of a game, more of an exercise. It’s the difference between rote learning for an exam, and actually understanding how the theories you’re studying work.

Thus (beyond the basic level of new players and the incompetent) it’s not that players don’t know how to play their class, but that they don’t know how to react to situations outside of what they’ve been trained to do, and by the time they react they’re dead. That ‘interrupt’ button sits unused on the DPS player’s hotbar for ninety five percent of their gaming life, so it’s hardly a wonder that they don’t know where to find it when a situation occurs that requires them to interrupt; and so, in response to this, players learn the encounters off by heart, so that they will know – before the fight even begins – whether they will need to interrupt or not. In addition, there’s no need to learn by mistakes because most of the time those situations don’t occur (tank controls aggro, people correctly jump through the right hoops, and nobody dies), so on the occasions where players are suddenly forced to react to something unexpected (because the routine has broken down) and promptly fail, the result is often recrimination and blame, rather than analysis and understanding. And unfortunately, in the average pick-up group found in the LFD tool, the person responsible for making sure that everyone knows how the exercise works is the tank. Why it has fallen to the tanks to be relied upon for the ‘a posteriori’ knowledge of a dungeon, I’m not sure; perhaps it is the fact that they are traditionally the class that stands at the front, and as such are expected to lead from the front; perhaps tanks have shot themselves in the foot somewhat by encouraging the belief in some sections of MMO society that they are Tiny Tanking Gods who use mythical powers to defeat dungeons on behalf of the mortals who follow in their wake; or perhaps the tank generally has to know an encounter to be able to do their job properly, and therefore everyone assumes they know it and are thus best placed to relay that information to the rest of the group. Perhaps it’s a little of all of these.

The problem isn’t even necessarily with the dungeon design in WoW encouraging learning encounters beforehand, thus reducing the game to a simple Simon game of memory and repetition; the problem with the lack of tanks is that the game provides no way for tanks to learn and practise outside of the dungeons themselves. Reading a guide and watching a video is all well and good, but to be able to perform the role and at the same time instruct others on their roles, takes some level of hands-on experience. Also, because a tank generally controls the size and nature of the pull, and thus controls the speed of a dungeon run, any tank who is learning the dungeon is necessarily slower than one who has learned it by rote; and if there’s one thing LFD pick-up groups are renowned for throughout the world it’s their high levels of patience and understanding. The fact that tanks have to perform this learning exercise as part of a group which, if not filled with understanding friends, will result in them suffering a virtual stoning that would make the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian look like a documentary, means that many tanks are driven away from the role after their first experience at the hands of the Deeps and Phacerolers of the great Blizzard school of dungeoneering.

Therefore I don’t think Blizzard can easily fix the lack of tanks in the pick-up group game because it warrants a complete change to the theory and design of how dungeons should work. Until then, until we have dungeons with randomised encounters which require players to adapt and learn and, dare I say it, play the game, tanks will need to know both their class and the dungeon, and thus take responsibility for teaching others while expecting to take an equal share with the healer of the recriminations that follow a group wipe, regardless of whether it is blamed on poor instruction or poor execution. Is it any wonder that most tanks, new or experienced, quickly tire of the desire to put themselves on the front line for others?

This is the social order that Blizzard has cultivated with its dungeon design; pouring fertilizer on the part which is being starved and strangled by the demands of the more rampant sections, won’t solve a single thing.

21 thoughts on “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.

  1. Rem

    I heartily agree with everything you wrote. However, there is this one point that, to be honest, has been bothering me as well for a while:

    Randomised encounters with N possible events tend to simply make it necessary to learn all N regardless of whether they’ll happen or not. I don’t know if you ever did the Dark Delvings in LotRO. The second boss was renowned and infamous – he would summon adds out of a pool of 4 different sets at random. Really random, not just random order, and not necessarily 4 waves either (I think it was time-triggered). Unsurprisingly, “learning the fight” meant learning how to react to every (significantly different) set of adds, regardless of whether you’d actually encounter them or not.

    So, here are the questions that bother me:
    How do you design enemy abilities in such a way that the player can interpret what’s happening on the fly?
    How do you create room for communication and deciding on a common course of action without the pause key of the single-player game?
    How do you strike the balance between mechanics you can simply ignore and get away with and mechanics so punishing you need to have a response planned in advance?

    I’m not saying it’s impossible, in fact I’d very much hope it is possible, it’s just that so far I have rarely seen “random” to mean anything but either “negligible” or “need to learn all N”.

  2. flosch

    Well, BWL had the (in)famous Chromaggus, who got two abilities out of 5 at random. It was fixed for every single week, but there was no way to figure out which ones beforehand (and, as it is in such situations, tea-leaf-reading rumors spread about looking at the color of the dead drakes the adorned the walls of the abattoir – until somebody pointed out the colors changed whenever you left the dungeon).

    So, if I remember correctly, the standard way to do this boss was to potentially take a wipe the first round, then plan accordingly. That’s probably fine for a raid encounter (though by today’s standards, I’m not sure Blizzard would do something like that again), but definitely not for a 5man-dungeon. You pointed out what the general attention span and willingness to wipe is like in a random group for such a dungeon.

    A different question is that of tuning. To this day, I’m miffed that the recycled Four Horsemen encounter was so undertuned that you could burst through it, ignoring the abilities, before you even were geared with equipment from that dungeon. It made a lot of mechanics irrelevant.

    One way to make the mechanics meaningful and random at the same time, requiring focused attention and appropriate reactions instead of just replaying a mental “boss X” script for the fifteenth time, could be to group typical abilities and give always the same or similar cues to them. For example, a “group together” ability could always be accompanied by some flashing purple cast animation, while a “fire incoming, get out of it” could be more red and accompanied by some meteor swirling.

    Although, come to think of it, I’m not sure whether that just replaces one problem with another, because then each boss encounter might play out even more similar to any other than it is these days anyway. On the other hand, such a cueing that gets ingrained into player’s heads might make it possible to give bosses truly random abilities. It could also make chaining of different abilities (move out of the fire, but 5 seconds later, group up!) possible without making the encounter too hard for a more “casual” dungeon.

  3. Melmoth Post author

    Randomised encounters with N possible events tend to simply make it necessary to learn all N regardless of whether they’ll happen or not.

    I wonder why this is true. Is it in the nature of players to do so, or does the game-play require it. If the latter, perhaps such encounters need to be designed with failure in mind; that is to say, because of the random nature of the encounters, the developers need to give a greater margin for error, for example, rather than persisting in the need for near-perfect execution of a predetermined script. Which touches on Rem’s point about striking a ‘balance between mechanics you can simply ignore and get away with and mechanics so punishing you need to have a response planned in advance’ – perhaps a brave move would be to shift the dungeon design away from mechanics that are so punishing that groups must have a response planned in advance; in part this is the tuning that flosch points towards, but perhaps it needs to go even further than that.

    It sometimes seems that dungeon design is stuck in the mindset that ‘There’ll be a tank, a healer and some DPS, now how can we screw with that mechanic such that if the players don’t react with near-preternatural responses, they’ll wipe’. Clearly there needs to be more to dungeons than tank’n’spank, but I wonder if this reliance on rote learning puts too much pressure on tanks in random group situations.

    Essentially, what the ‘randomness’ needs to achieve is to spread out the responsibility for knowledge, reaction and subsequent success between all players in a group. But as flosch points out, this could equally lead to trivialised encounters if player of class X is always going to be doing Y.

    You both make many splendid points and I’m not going to pretend to have the answers to them all – it’s not a trivial problem – but I do think they are the sort of questions that need to be asked.

  4. Helistar

    I’m not sure that they are the questions which need to be asked. What I mean, is that the MMO genre *works like this*. With WoW trampling everything else, or forcing it to adopt the same approach, it’s very unsurprising that the current state of affairs is the one you describe. It’s an explicit design decision: you don’t ask for randomness in a game of chess, because chess is moving pieces after planning an attack or a defense. In MMO, the raiding game is a synchronized dance in response of a boss’ scripted abilities (at times there are some minor random variations, but never too big), so you just cannot expect it to be different.

    The main problem is creating something which survives repetition: suppose you design a dungeon the way it’s discussed: sure, the first four-five runs may be interesting an intelligent decision-making. Then it’ll be completely trivial, because you already know what to expect. Enter the internet: it’ll be trivial from the start, since you’ll find a nice guide somewhere listing what to be done in response to what. And if you just create a dungeon which has so many variations that you cannot learn them all, you inevitably will have some a lot easier to handle than others, which turns the game into rolling dice and hoping for a six.

    For Blizzard (and all the other companies), the internet is a big problem. “Solutions” to the puzzles are all over the place, and they need to make a game which remains interesting even after reading all of them. This forces them to shift the emphasis from “preparation” to “execution” (which is what Blizzard is doing, character optimization, dps cycles, etc. are all getting simpler as encounter execution reigns more and more supreme).

    Note that single-player games are not affected: want the puzzles? Don’t read. Want to look at the scenery and ignore them? Here is a nice walkthrough. The advantage of single-player games is that what one player does will not affect the “fun” of the others.

  5. Gankalicious

    “players being the gear-chasing optimization monkeys that they are”


    Well, to continue my ‘I hate wow week’ maybe we should stop blaming Blizzard for the games woes and shift the blame to the people choosing to play in that manner. As Helistar says people have the choice weather or not to look up solutions and perpetuate this type of play.

    They also have the choice of what game to pay, and how they play it. I’ll admit I stayed with WAR and complained (some) but in the end I didn’t like the game-play, the direction the community was moving (with so many good players and guilds leaving) and the endless moaning in the forums so I moved on. Wow players could do the same….couldn’t they?

    Of course, that said, Mythic did ruin WAR, not the player base so maybe its the same with WoW….note to self, stop talking about games you’re unfamiliar with…..

  6. Sente

    Very good post.
    I think though that there is also a need to look at a slightly wider picture, not just specific gameplay mechanics. At the very least the rewards and reward systems need to be considered as well – after all, playing a game (any game) is pretty much about the path to mastering _something_, including getting some feedback/reward for advancing in that respect.

    Internet line dancing is a perfectly valid type of gameplay and many people may quite enjoy that, to strive for perfection of execution. If the rewards were only of interest for line dancers, then that would be fine.

    But if not everyone if there for the line dancing itself, there will be a clash because not everyone are on the same page in terms of enjoyment.

    I do not know how the reward systems in WoW work nowadays; do they still have (desireable) loot drop from specific bosses with some randomness involved – i.e. you do not know for sure if you get anything out of it?

    I like the token-based approach some other games use – success means you get a certain amount of tokens which you can cash in to “buy” whatever reward suits you best. Many different activities gives tokens, so you are not forced to a certain encounter/dungeon/whatever.

    Not everyone is the same, so I think a better approach is to provide variation in gameplay; if people choose what is most fun for them, that might reduce some of the vitriol that may be part of the problem.

    Of course, there will always be people who happily will bang their head against a virtual brick wall for hours if that gives them what they want more efficiently and may also want others to do the same for them. But with different options it is at least easier for others to say no and do whatever works for them instead.

  7. Kalon

    Great post (from Tobold’s).

    As long as tanks have the responsibility to know the fights, to explain the fights, and the lion’s share of the responsibility in doing the fights well this problem won’t go away. I think they’re doing a better job of requiring DPS to be more engaged and more responsible for the success or failure of a run, but ultimately there are just too many things that punish bad tanks and require good tanks that are binary – and that if those go wrong, _no one else can do their job_.

    Now, you can ‘carry’ a bad tank – and I’ve done that as DPS now and then – but it’s much harder and requires often essentially a secondary tank. But on content that’s gear appropriate, it’s pretty hard to do this. This seems to be what people want to play – they want their tanks to have all the responsibility. And the people that play tanks tend to like having that responsibility. But that’s not what most people want, and I’d worry that adjusting that responsibility scale would have the primary effect of making it unfun for most other players.

  8. Julie Weiss

    Blizzard could reverse some of the cataclysm tanking changes to make tanking easier; that would increase the supply of tanks.

    I claim Cata heroics are the wrong difficulty more or less difficult would be preferable.

    If you see a heroic as nothing different than a mining or herb node – something to be grinded for reward, not for fun or challenge – then heroics need be easier. If you have a situation where there is a real chance of failure if the group does not overgear it but everyone expects a faceroll, then people are not going to be happy.

    Considering where Blizzard is now they can make tanking easier, provide tanks incentives to tank or have penalties for not tanking. Bribes are probably the best first try.

  9. Lujanera

    Part of the reason why players feel they need to fully know the mechanics of the fight before the fight begins is because many mechanics are so unforgiving.

    Consider the following examples drawn from the current tier of raiding: attempting to tank the worms on Magmaw or the blobs on Cho’gal are pretty much a guaranteed wipe; hitting the Omnitron bosses when their shield is up usually produces a wipe; overhealing on Chimaeron will quickly OOM the healers, producing a wipe. There are very few fights on which you can make a mistake, realize your error, and recover. Atramedes is, perhaps, the only example I can think of where this is true. Heroic dungeons are generally more forgiving but, as an example, screwing up the beams on Corla will usually produce a wipe.

    Making ‘random’ fights where it is not necessary to know all of the permutations would be tricky. One approach that might work, I think, would be to have slowly stacking buffs and debuffs. Screwing up mechanics once or twice wouldn’t kill you, but continuing to do so would have problematic results (the sound mechanic on Atramedes is a great example of this). I don’t know that this approach would produce very interesting fights, though. Once you’ve done the fight a few times, it might seem too easy.

  10. Pzychotix

    Sente: WoW currently does a mix, where each boss gives specific loot with some randomness involved, but also gives you tokens where you can buy equivalent items for the majority of your item slots.

    As for random encounter mechanics, I would just like to re-emphasize something Helistar mentioned: “And if you just create a dungeon which has so many variations that you cannot learn them all, you inevitably will have some a lot easier to handle than others, which turns the game into rolling dice and hoping for a six.”

    A wide variety of mechanics means that the developers have to test every single possible string of combinations that may arise, or you suddenly end up with extreme situations such as a one-two combo that wipes the raid, or on the other extreme, a raid that can only manage its way through if the RNG gods are feeling nice.

    It’s just simply extremely harsh on the developers to deal with such randomness.

  11. Bristal

    I just don’t think it’s reasonable to bring 5 random players together, with different expectations, experience, and skill sets (human and WoW-class), and expect them to be able to consistently and smoothly handle challenging content without any kind of face time with each other.

    The anonymous random party situation as it is requires CONVENTION. We quickly established in randoms who does what. The tank does this, the healer does that, and the stupid DPS apparently do whatever they want and hopefully don’t mess the whole thing up for everybody.

    The tank has to act FIRST. And because of that has to decide HOW and WHEN to act first. Thus, by convention, is the decision maker. That’s really the ONLY damn decision that needs to be made (other than this way or that way)! And I’ve tanked, it’s a seriously stressful decision to make. A poor pull is the most public and obvious mistake that can be made.

    But, that’s really not the problem with heroics in Cata. The trinity worked fine in PuGs before the DF, and it seemed to work fine with the DF until Cata.

    The problem isn’t the holy trinity, the problem is the new challenging content, and expecting 5 strangers to work together WITHOUT ANY REASONABLE MEANS OF COMMUNICATION to overcome that challenge.

    The biggest FAIL convention of randoms, is that chat feels like a waste of time. And unless you can type like a MadMen secretary, you’re not going to get your point across anyway. Whenever I try to type anything, I get so far behind the group I can hardly catch up.

    How about this for an idea: Randoms with at least 2 random players start in a holding area with a 1-2 minute timer, kind of like battlegrounds. Each player MUST type something every 15 seconds and not go AFK or they get booted.

    That gives an opportunity to assess who’s new, who’s not. Do we feel like we can rofl stomp? How does the tank mark CC? It’s “let’s chat” time to maybe humanize each other, and it’s also a time to get a feel for how the run might go. Maybe people wouldn’t be such jerks if they had to hang out, even for just a few minutes and realize that the mage who may end up only doing 6K DPS is a nice person, and trying her best.

    Maybe someone even lays a feast? A few more “group gift” type of buffs or costumes would be nice, too.

    AND it would be cool if I could quickly pull up a very simple guide, maybe written by Brann. Just something very cursory, that would jog my memory as to who we will be fighting, and give a little flavor to the run.

  12. nugget

    Guild Wars War in Kryta, White Mantle mobs, in hard mode, before it was nerfed, did the whole random thing beautifully.

    ArenaNet wrote so many different skillbars for each of the classes that the mantle could be, and then put so many of them together, and somehow managed to make sure all of them sort of synergised with each other, that every group pull was different. You couldn’t just look at the names of the mobs (or the skins) and know what they were, you’d have to WATCH them. Watch what they did, how they did it, get it all in your head within the first couple of seconds, then decide the sequence in which you had to take down the group.

    GW at its best imo, plays like an FPS where you don’t have to aim.

    WiK was the most fun I’ve had in PvE since I stopped MUDding – or to be honest, since I left LegendMUD 6 or more years ago. WiK was the first time since LegendMUD that I went out and killed and killed and killed mountains of mobbies for the sheer joy of it. Because every fight was different, and in terms of difficulty, every fight was JUST right.

    With WiK ArenaNet did one of the most beautiful random PvE thingies I’ve ever seen. And they did it without cheap tricks. No ‘monster’ skills that players couldn’t get, no groups of 8 elementalists or mesmers spamming the exact same skillbar at the speed of light. Beautiful. =)

    It’s a pity they decided to nerf it in the end, but damn, it was good while it lasted.

    On another note though, scripted fights aren’t so utterly horrible either. Because IMO where GW really shines is when you fight groups of mobs. I find all the EotN bosses boring as Hell to do, and all the rest of the basically not worth mentioning. Boss fights definitely aren’t ANet’s strong point. All of them feel like letdowns. :(

  13. Melmoth Post author

    @Helistar: I think that’s because MMOs are a genre there is room to move with respect to the way game-play works, chess is defined by its rules, whereas MMOs are a more general concept. Looking at chess, however, is a good example. It’s a game in which there are many known strategies on how to play given a certain board layout, and yet there is no ‘solution’ to the game, each player must plan ahead and use this knowledge of movement patterns in combination with their own strategy, in order to win the game. We know how the individual pieces work, but it’s how they work in combination with the way we move our own pieces that makes the game compelling.

    @Gankalicious: You and Helistar will never get this blog war going if you keep agreeing with one another!

    It’s a fair point about the fact that solutions exist on the Internet and that this is problematic for dungeon designers, but I’ll refer you to my response to Helistar with regards to other methods of game-play which, although the pieces are known and have their own special abilities, the strategy for the game is never a certainty. My thoughts are: can this form of game-play be introduced into the way MMO battles work? I’m not talking about just ‘making it chess’ with all the inherent issues of AI design and such that that would entail. But there is a fundamental theory of game design to consider, which is different to the way current MMOs (and other computer games) work, and which might be applicable if we can find a way to express it in more general terms outside of chess. Of course, if I had already achieved this I’d be a game designer, but it doesn’t stop me pondering upon it.

    @Sente: You’re quite right, it certainly doesn’t have to be the case that we replace the Internet Line Dancing style of play, there are still a fair number of people who get great enjoyment from it. Perhaps within the context of Internet Line Dancing there needs to be a different balance to the responsibility placed on classes, as Tobold posts about today; people say that there are players who enjoy tanking, which is obviously true, but equally obvious is that not enough people enjoy tanking in proportion to the other roles available. Perhaps it’s as Rohan says and instead of fundamentally changing the way encounters work, it’s simply a matter of changing the balance of party composition to reduce the emphasis and demand on certain roles.

    @Kalon: “I’d worry that adjusting that responsibility scale would have the primary effect of making it unfun for most other players”

    It’s an interesting point, and may well already be proven by the lack of tanks. If that’s the case, then I think my meditations on moving away from a style of play that requires social responsibility in a forum of anonymous strangers are possibly worth further consideration. I think spreading the responsibility would be good, however. If nothing else it would give certain aspects of LFD society an understanding of what it is to be the person responsible for a group.

    @Julie Weiss: I agree, bribing tanks is certainly worth trying, and it’s a good experiment for Blizzard to undertake. They haven’t really got anything to lose, because I doubt they’ll have many players quit due to decreased queue times, if the gamble pays off; if it doesn’t pay off, they’ll know there’s a more fundamental problem.

    Making heroics easier for tanks is an option, but I would hope that players genuinely would like some sort of challenge, even as they hope for a certainty of victory and reward. Removing some of the extra responsibility from the tanking role is another way to make life easier for them, without having to reduce the difficulty of the dungeon.

    @Phaceroll: A core hound ate it.

    @Lujanera: Great thoughts, and very much my own sentiments. I wouldn’t be able to say with any certainty that random events with a level of forgiveness for mistakes would work, but it seems a much more interesting way to play than to learn something and then try to repeat it exactly. It’s the difference between seeing Donkey Kong as a game, or seeing it from the point of view of people trying to get the world high score: I don’t believe the latter are playing a game any longer, they’re perhaps closer in approximation to a musician than a gamer by that point.

    @Pzychotix: It’s a fair point, well made. I would refer you to my reply to Helistar in that ‘randomness’ doesn’t necessarily have to be thought of as ‘one of encounter mechanic type X or encounter mechanic type Y’. Consider something more chess-like: all the pieces could be known, but the way in which they are played will require thought and reaction on the parts of the player, and sometimes you will work out a standard response (as in chess), and sometimes you will need to consider a few steps ahead and anticipate events in picking your strategy of the moment. Whether this is feasible, however, I am willing to accept is rather up for debate, until someone attempts it.

    @Bristal: Interesting thoughts! With respect to the communication issue – and it is definitely an issue – perhaps players have become too familiar with WoW and feel that they know it all, and thus don’t need to communicate. Perhaps there is a subset of the community that assumes that all they need to do is turn up and as long as the tank knows what they’re doing and the healer can keep up, what else needs to be said.

    You’re right that the holy trinity used to work in WoW, or we all remember it working at least. Perhaps the WoW community has changed, or perhaps our perception of how things used to work has become distorted. I do agree though, that it seems daft to expect five strangers to come together and perform against harsh game mechanics when there is a general lack of desire to communicate. I hazard a guess that this failing is probably evenly split between Blizzard and the community, however.

    @nugget: I think the joy in Guild Wars was that ArenaNet tried to write the mob encounters to emulate how things would work in PvP, and of course (as in the chess example I’ve used throughout my responses here), playing against human or human-like opponents will provide the best example of an unpredictable challenge.

    Such a ‘randomness’ doesn’t have to preclude scripting either; the events during the fight could be scripted (boss monologues, waves of reinforcements arriving, that sort of thing) while the combat itself retains its more fluid and unpredictable nature.

  14. silvertemplar

    @rem and the randomized dungeons.

    The answer to your questions are to be found in a good match of Counterstrike,Battlefield or even Starcraft. The thing they have in common is PvP .

    A true random dungeon should feel like a PvP Battleground. I mean how do you prepare for a PvP Match? Yet players somehow do know when to stun, interrupt, jump through a hoop and even control the objective….yet dungeons are almost mind numbing in comparison!

  15. numtini

    A very good analysis.

    I would also add that I think all the active mods that WoW uses have made playing your class to a great extent trivial and this has resulted in an arms race where the devs try to make content challenging via “the line dance.”

    If you’re going to have random repeatable dungeons a la wow, I think the best option is something like City of Heroes/Villains where they are basically not a designed encounter, but just a big randomly generated zerg. I like the kind of complicated interesting “mini raid” sort of dungeon, but that’s not something you can set up in a game where you’re expected to do them repeatedly for months.

  16. Tremayne

    I don’t think encounters necessarily have to be randomised to make things “interesting” for all of the players.

    They just have to be chaotic. Think how the most ‘fun’ (at least in retrospect) fights in dungeons are that pull that went bad but the group recovered it. When the pack of six adds piled in and everyone had to think fast, the DPS warrior off-tanked like a champion and the healer must have been an octopus to have thrown heals in so many directions simultaneously.

    There needs to be so much going on that the tank can’t possibly control the entire fight and the best the tank can do is establish a bit of order while the healers has to deal with the fact that multiple people will be taking damage (and so needs triage skills) and the other players need to use crowd control and prioritise targets on the fly because a set kill order will not work when it all hits the crapper.

    Classic example – the first fight in vanila WoW’s Blackwing Lair (Razorgore? It’s been so long…) 40 players trying to manage 40 adds with kiting and healing all over the place.

    We need more of that.

  17. Melmoth Post author

    @silvertemplar: Yes that’s how I feel too. When I say ‘randomness’ I’m not meaning to convey one of Boss ability X or Y, but as you say, more the feeling you get when in PvP. Now I’m not the greatest PvP fan, but the nature of a PvP encounter is that there is always an element of randomness to it which keeps it fresh and exciting. Perhaps this is purely down to the fact that one is facing human opposition, but I think there’s more to it than that.

    @numtini: It certainly doesn’t help that the first thing a huge section of players do is to write or download AddOns that help to reduce class mechanics to responding to the commands of an automated decision script. At least Blizzard have been trying to reduce this by tightening areas of the AddOn API.

    And yes, City of Heroes’ random dungeons were excellent, except for the fact that they had a very limited tile set, so after a while everything became a bit ‘samey’. I’d say that that would certainly be one element of a decent dynamic dungeon design.

    @Tremayne: I think many of us here are thinking along the same lines, but perhaps it’s just a matter of terminology. I’ve used ‘random’ but I think it perhaps already had connotations for MMO players which are perhaps contrary to what I was meaning. ‘Chaotic’ is a good choice, and I would also perhaps suggest ‘dynamic’.

    Again, the dynamic/chaotic nature of PvP is definitely what I’d like to capture in the PvE game, and you give a good example to show that this can be achieved, but curiously it’s only when it’s felt that a fight has gone wrong, because among the standard MMO tropes is the theory that a fight should be regimented and organised.

    It’s Order versus Chaos. And I agree, I think we need a little more chaos in our virtual worlds.

  18. Jeromai

    This article and following comments have been a fascinating read. Adding on to the issues with inter-party communication, I think there is room for devs to explore middle grounds and other options between pure voice-enabled and pure text.

    While voice-enabled is the most flexible in terms of customizable response, PUG members may not want to mix their RL with their game so much (baby screaming in background, parents, demanding cat/gf, odd gender/build contrasts between character and real world person, etc.)

    Typing takes too long, in between 2-3 second gaps in which one is expected to hammer at number and directional keys, and no one reads it anyway.

    I always found the contextual chatting and phrasing of L4D’s NPCs-player amalgams very immersive. Player looks down at an ammo pile to collect his own ammo, and the computer helps call out to his other teammates that ammo is here, fostering learning for newbies without vet player needing to lift a finger to type.

    FPSes use a context menu system. Hit a key, mouse scroll to just a few crucial responses. Ready? Ready! Going. You take point, etc. Or in an MMO context, I’ll heal, I’ll tank, I’ll dps, please cc this + add a marker, patrol! Some players take the time to bind all this to keys and macros. Why not just include it in as part of the general communication tools available to everyone?

    Guild Wars has the reporting mechanism. Hold down a key, and you can report what you’re doing contextually. I’m attacking this! Casting X on whoever!

    I’m also all for more unpredictability and dynamism in dungeon instances that call on more reaction, positioning, player skill and intelligence in reading the situation therein.

    Thing is, it can’t be too harsh or you’ll be testing the reactions/skill of the weakest player and not enjoying yourself due to multiple team wipes because one person can’t cut it.

    This ultimately becomes a developer philosophy / combat balance issue. Can any player save the team from defeat, potential wipe, or are all rezzes only limited to a specific class, and can only be done out of combat? The latter leads to wipe-long pause-repeat cycles.

    Can players switch roles on the fly to fill in gaps as they are perceived – in-combat, or out-of-combat, or out-of-instance only?

    Are the mob gimmicks clear, easily readable on the spot and learnable in-game, or are players implicitly required to read guides and watch videos off third party sites?

  19. Ellifain @ Khaz'Goroth

    Im a tank. Pally tank to be precise. Have been since 2.1.
    Im not great, but good enough to get the starcaller achieve while in gear only 1 tier ahead (i245).
    I recently gave up LFG tanking. Was sick of trying to do 1000 things at once to be a good tank, all the while trying to herd 3 (or 4) cats.

    Today I do dailies as Ret while queued. When the dungeon pops, In i go. Some of my DPS gear is still green. Most of it is unenchanted/ungemmed. No one ever inspects me or cares.
    I can cruise through a dungeon without turning on my brain, only having to remember to CC the odd target, and not to stand in stuff. Then i get the same badge reward as if I tanked.

    Will the ‘Call to arms’ make me tank again?
    Hell no. Effort does not equal reward.

    What made me stop tanking?
    A combination of mouthbreathers, asshattery on an impressive scale, and bosses like H-ozruk where the poor tank has to run around like a demented monkey, executing perfectly or dying instantly. All while the dps stand there and produce 3k dps.
    It was like doing the Heigen dance… where only I had to dance.

  20. Melmoth Post author

    @Jermai: You make some fantastic points about the advances in intra-group communication in other game genres. I thought L4D’s system was one of those simple yet ingenious ideas where you wonder how nobody could have implemented it before now. I still find the radial comms wheel in FPS games a bit cumbersome, especially when the number of commands grows comprehensively, but it’s still an improvement over text chat with respect to quickly and succinctly getting information to other players. Guild Wars’ reporting system is also an excellent example.

    I was going to argue that you can’t beat voice chat or text chat for getting long complicated instructions across, but looking at how often groups will play in silence when running normal dungeons, I’m not sure that such verbose forms of communication are necessary outside of general socialising or the complex dance routines of raiding. Even (especially?) in PvP, short sharp clear commands are generally the order of the day.

    I certainly think it’s worth exploring the communications middle-ground, as you rightly point out, especially as so many good examples are already in play.

    Unpredictability and dynamism in dungeon instances is definitely something that would need careful play-testing and iterating in order to find a balance between chaos and order. You want just enough chaos that players come out of a fight feeling, well, like they’ve been in a fight; you also need enough order that players feel that they can exert a level of control over the situation when they pick an intelligent course of action. Not easy to do by any means, but I’m hopeful that it’s realistic to believe it’s possible.

    @Ellifain: Bloggers are quoting Penny Arcade’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory on a regular basis these days, and I think it’s for exactly the reasons you state. The general level of ungrateful demand, unrealistic expectation, and unjustified entitlement from a large vocal section of players in WoW has reached quite untenable levels. I believe that a large number of tanks, as with yourself, have stepped down from the role in order to express a strong reaction which quite rightly protests against, and rejects, this sorry state of affairs.

    Of course, depending on how cynical your outlook is on life, this is not, unfortunately, a problem specific to WoW, but a problem that afflicts a large part of modern Western society.

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