Tuesday 8 June 2010

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.

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