Monday 11 April 2011

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.

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