Performance Justification in Multiplayer Games - Challenge vs. Fun

I’ve been an avid World of Warcraft player for over half a decade now. I’ve been playing in Blizzard’s little sandbox since the beta events they held for the title, through the launch pains, three expansions and countless content patches. I’ve played several classes to the level cap each expansion, been a “hardcore” raider and a “casual”. I really enjoy some of the stuff the latest expansion, Cataclysm, involves and just the general feel of the questing in Azeroth these days. Lately I’ve been busy, no doubt, so I haven’t had the time to play – or so I’ve been telling myself.

Yet, there may be a deeper underlying issue at hand, and I’ve been thinking about it for the last few weeks. It is pretty prevalent in the MMO scene, but could extend past that to just multiplayer games in general. In reality, this has always been on my mind, regardless of the multiplayer game I’m playing. It seems there is almost always a need to justify your performance to get the most out of the game.The problem with most multiplayer games is, if you’re new, aren’t quite as skilled as people feel you should be or just straight up are having a bad day, you get called all manner of things online. Have you ever played a Halo or Call of Duty match only to not do as well as the other players on your team and are constantly berated because of it? This is a common occurrence and, quite frankly, it is part of the reason I don’t play multiplayer games that often.

Now, in the MMO space, which is built around each game’s social aspects, we see the same type of need for performance justification. Not always, but I’ll give you an example. It has always been the fact in WoW that raid leaders need to bring along those who are more skilled and won’t bring the entire group down. Sometimes it isn’t as important as other times. Back in the days of 40-man raids, you could have a few people who were “off”, and the group as a whole could still perform fairly well. But, that was five years ago. Now you have small groups that need to be extremely tight, know what they’re doing and ultimately skilled. This is on top of the fact that Blizzard has deliberately designed heroic dungeons and raids to be more difficult in Cataclysm, where gear score means more than having fun.

It’s funny that I’ve been thinking about this for a while now (and actually had the first couple paragraphs written for weeks), because just recently on Tolbold’s MMORPG Blog he was musing about the same issue and brings up some good points, and I’m glad there’s more than myself out there who thinks the same way.

He brought up Rift, the new MMO from Tirion Worlds that just went live recently. World of Warcraft and Rift go about the social aspect of an MMO in different ways. In WoW it’s exactly what I mentioned earlier – the social aspect of the game often revolves around a person’s performance. This tends to breed a lot of elitists who seem to do their best to ruin the game for those who they deem are “inferior”. The best of the best are chosen for raids and heroics and it seems like the others get left in the dust. Sure, you can say that those who aren’t as skilled should just get better, but the point a game becomes like a job – any game, mind you – is the point in which you shouldn’t be playing anymore.

People are quick to point out that they love the challenge of the new raids and heroics, they love the requirement for the extensive learning process that comes along with new bosses, dungeons and encounters in general. That’s absolutely fine, but when it gets to the point that the game itself and this entire process is so elitist and mechanical, I fail to see the point in it anymore. This is partly Blizzard’s fault and partly the fault of the players.

Enter Rift. There are no such things in the game right now as traditional raids. All the “raids” are handled by the huge public questing system, which is built around the rifts that show up at random within the game. You can quickly and seamlessly join these large groups who are working to close the rift without any fuss, gear checks, signing away your firstborn child or anything like that. You simply walk up to the area, join the group and help kill stuff. End of story.

You know the funny thing about this? While World of Warcraft players are quick to jump on the “challenge” bandwagon, there’s no mention of it in Rift. Challenge is replaced by a free and open social structure, not the rigid, totalitarian regime that a lot of WoW guilds seem to be running. You know what else is there that replaces this “challenge” we often talk about, thus supremely lowering this need for performance justification? FUN. The simplicity of joining groups in Rift – and I’ve experienced this first hand in the beta events they held pre-launch – is not a detriment to the game but a huge boost to the game’s fun factor. Ultimately, as you read the Rift forums and just generally poke around the community, one thing is constant: no one misses the lack of “challenge”. No one cares. Why? Again, the game and the way it builds a social structure is FUN.

I truly, honestly hope Rift stays this way. I think it opens up MMOs to a whole new audience that isn’t necessarily “casual”, by many people’s definition of the term, but is simply there playing the game to have FUN, not to feel the need to justify their individual performance the entire time they’re playing. That, my friends, is not very fun, you have to admit.

While I was at PAX East a couple weekends ago, I had the pleasure to sit down with NCSoft and the team from ArenaNet who is working on Guild Wars 2. That title has dynamic questing, where large groups of people not in the same party or raid work together on quests. One of the fascinating aspects about battle, they explained to me, was that abilities that you use (primarily buffs) can help people outside of your party. Sure, you can party up, but it isn’t required. You can heal, protect and enhance the attacks and defense of other players who aren’t in your party.

And example? A mage character can cast a swath of flame on the ground, which is an attack in itself, but it lingers behind for a bit. While it’s still on the ground, an archer can fire arrows through the fire to turn them into flaming projectiles to better damage foes. Or, how about this – a healer can cast a ring on the ground which area-of-effect heals nearby friendly players, regardless of whether they are in your group or not. This greatly devalues the idea of performance justification when everyone can just work the best they can to help each other out. That’s another great example of how newer MMOs are starting to move toward a more open and accepting social structure.

Admittedly Rift and Guild Wars 2 aren’t the first to take on the public quest mechanics, but they are the most recent, which makes those game the perfect ones to insert into a discussion such as this. Should WoW move in this direction, or is its player-base so adamant about making sure everyone justifies their performance that it will never happen? I guess only time will tell.

I constantly say WoW is a great game, and it is, let’s not kid ourselves. However, Blizzard can sure learn a thing or two by looking at what other MMOs are doing, and I think it’s great that some are starting to lean in this direction – this free, open social environment that rewards having fun more than the ability to spend countless grueling hours learning encounters definitely has a future in the MMO space. I also think this aspect can be applied to traditional multiplayer games, although the implementation might be more of a challenge in itself.

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Chad Awkerman

Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.

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