In his most recent post my friend Pentane raised some interesting points about the state of roleplaying, or the lack of it, in the current crop of MMO’s. As someone that hopes to one day work in the MMO genre there is a lot of food for thought in there but the main point I want to address today is one that he kind of glossed over, the conservative player syndrome.
As the 800 pound gorilla of the genre, EQ has, sometimes unfairly, been blamed for many of the ills that plague MMO’s to this day but this one falls on their shoulders fair and square. You combine the harsh death penalties with a dependence on groups to advance and the fact that certain classes are more “group friendly” than others and you get a player base that is trained to create the “optimum group” and that refuses to even consider attempting anything beyond the simpilist of tasks without that group. When you come out with your first expansion and the players quickly learn that the most successful groups consist of a Warrior, a Cleric and an Enchanter, you’re once again reinforcing that “perfect group” concept and marginalizing most of the rest of the classes in the process.
But if EQ created this problem and everyone knows about it why hasn’t one of the other games stepped up and tried to eliminate it? I think that many have tried but the combination of player habit and the mechanics of computer gaming in general have conspired against them.
In every new game that’s come out I see the players start out by forming the Tank, Healer, Crowd Control based group. Over time they learn whether or not that is the optimum and once they determine the optimum group make up thats what they go looking for. The mechanics of computer games are such that there will always be a path of least resistance and if you’ve balanced your classes around people being in groups and tried to give everyone a role in the group then you end up with these “optimum groups”.
Once you’ve started down the “every class has a purpose in the group” path your players will find this optimum and you either have to live with it or you get on the continual class balancing treadmill.
In his post Pentane concludes that the technology isn’t there to prevent this kind of group min/maxing from occuring but I disagree, especially with the increased focus on instanced areas.In Neverwinter Nights you can create an encounter trigger that contains a lookup table that generates the type and number of creatures spawned based on the average level of your group. Why can’t similar technology be used to create an instance that’s not only tailored to be level appropriate but also group makeup appropriate. A group enters the instance that consists of mostly melee types with a few nuking casters but no healer or crowd control, create encounters that have only 1 or 2 enemies that have a lot of hit points and can hit fairly frequently but don’t hit all that hard. The group has a healer with them make the monsters hit a little harder to give the healer something to do. They’ve got some sort of crowd control, then make it a swarm of weaker monsters, kind of a monster zerg rush of the players.
This would mean that the level designers for these instances would have to put a little thought into not only the layout of their level but also into how various groups make ups will handle the encounters. You need to leave the group with crowd control enough room for the crowd control person to work while also providing spots for healers and nuker types to be back out of the way and possibly something to hide behind to slow down anything that comes after them. You’ll also want to give some thought to the monster tables to try and keep the encounters interesting but not impossible.
Of course even if some game does implement a kind of encounter generation system you’ll still face the problem of player habit. If your new MMO is going to attract players from the previous generation of games you’re going to have to somehow overcome this tendancy to do what worked before. Sadly, short of a baseball bat, I don’t see any way of keeping your players from trying to form the “optimum group”, at least initially. The only thing you can do is not cave in to the “my class is weak and class x is to powerful” ranting that will appear from a small minority of your players. If you do that and if you’ve done your job designing the content to allow for challenging gameplay no matter what the group makeup the majority of your player base will eventually learn that it’s not what classes you have in the group but what players you have. There will be a minority that will want to change your gameplay so that it matches what they already know but if you ignore them you’ll have a much larger percentage that will love you for it.