Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why scaling may not be such a brilliant idea

It’s time to start scaling encounters in MMOs!

The sender of this message is no less than Wolfshead, who in an – as always – very well written blog post argues for a flexible raid design, where the encounters scale seamlessly. According to Wolfshead, it shouldn’t matter if you are 9, 11 or 12 players who want to kill a certain boss. Let the hp and damage change with the numbers and don’t force people into fixed sets of 5, 10 or 25.

When I first read his article I was all on his line. How many times haven’t I been in a situation where we’ve cursed the current model for raid design. If you’re the 11th or 26th person who has signed up for a raid and it’s your turn to sit out, I assure you you’re all up for scaling!

But after thinking about it a bit closer I can also see another side of it. Not everyone would benefit from scaling, and I thought I could as well share this perspective with you. Not because I disagree completely with Wolfshead, but after all – it takes two for a discussion, and hopefully it can help Wolfshead sharpening his arguments even more.

Giving odd players a chance
So why doesn’t Larísa think that every raid encounter in WoW should be flexible?

Well, one thing is because it might work the opposite way to what Wolfshead suggests. He wants to make sure that no one is left out, that everyone who wants to raid will have a chance to do so. And if you’re only seeing raiding as something done in close knitted guilds, this may be true. But how about the newcomers? How about the guildless, the lone wolfs, the players who can’t quite fit into the regular guild raiding schedule because of job or family?

Today those players can get their raiding fix by PUGing it. Sometimes you can find a pure-from-the-scratch PUG. At least ToC and Onyxia are PUGed these days at 10 as well as 25 man on normal mode (hardmodes is another story). But there is also the option to grab one of the last few spots in a semi-PUG. You can benefit from those guilds who manage to get 8 players together but not 10 and be a “filler”. The entrance level won’t be astronomically high. They’ll be happy with whatever additional contribution you can make, since the alternative had to do it with too few people, something that could award honor and achievements, but not any additional loot. This is a wonderful chance. And if you grab it and prove yourself a good player, it may even be your entrance ticket to apply to the guild.

What would happen if they scaled the encounters? Would those 9 friends find it worth it to open up and let an outsider join their party if the only reward is slightly better loot? I don’t think so.

More room for goblinism
I also think this system could risk to create a very unforgiving environment, where everyone is required to carry exactly his own weight in every single situation, or else they’ll be kicked from the raid.

There wouldn’t be any room for people who are slightly further down on the learning curve or gearing process than the rest of the party. Just by their added number they’ll burden the rest of the raid with increased difficulty. The benefit of adding them won’t outweight the cost and then you could as well kick them.

Mind you, of course I too embrace the principle that everyone must do their share of the job in the raid, that there shouldn’t be any people getting free rides. But there will always be people who are slightly worse than others and I think the scaling principle risk to be pretty harsh for them.

Lack of flexibility
Another worry about the flexible scaling encounters is actually the lack of flexibility they provide. If the resistance and difficulties you’ll encounter will decrease and increase with the number of players you have, there’s no way for you to increase the challenge by your own initiative by undermanning an instance. Today you can 8-man for instance the 10-man Naxx, enjoying the difficulty and the small room there is for mistakes. It takes some thinking tweak the strategies and think of the best way to compose a party when you’re doing it on fewer people. This possibility will be gone.

My final objection is that it will be harder for guilds to benchmark themselves to others. Yeah, I know, it’s politically correct to say that we’re only competing with ourselves, and if you’re in a very casual guild that is also the truth. But I think most guilds that are somewhat serious in their raiding are at least a little bit competitive in this. This doesn’t mean that topping the progression lists of our realms is our main goal, absolutely not, but it’s quite common practice that raiders throw a curious glance at the list from time to time. When we climb a few steps on the ranking after a new boss kills it makes us proud, especially when we know that we have a lighter raiding schedule than some of the guilds below us.

But how do you benchmarks guilds that have done the encounter in different scales? Wolfshead suggests that the encounter should be slightly more difficult the bigger it gets - more difficult than the calculated added strength because of more players would be. How long would that curve be stretched? Would the guild with the biggest raiding force get the highest ranking?

I’m not convinced that a not settled amount of players for an encounter is desirable, in spite of the good arguments that Wolfshead puts up. However I think it would be interesting to see more of it in some sort of non-instanced raid encounters. Once upon a time there were outdoor world bosses in WoW (well, technically I think they're still hanging around, but they're doomed to oblivion). I never experienced it myself, but it sounds like fun.

And I can’t help being tickled at the thought of the EverQuest event that Wolfshead describes, when 200 players defeated a supposedly unkillable dragon. I definitely would like to experience something like that – provided that they found a way to keep server stability up and lag at a reasonable level. It could give us back some of the adventure feeling we're missing, to quote another great post from Psychochild.


Klepsacovic said...

Scaling means nihilism with invites: no reason to exclude, but no reason to invite either. Or if there are reasons, they are to keep people out. The person who is good enough but lower than the raid becomes dead weight on the raid.

In the current system there's room to take people who aren't quite there yet, but since they're better than an empty raid slot, it's advantageous to take them.

This also seems open to exploitation: hire people to pass on gear and fill raid slots to drive up the drop quality/quantity.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of gear quality... if you one-man it, is the gear scale worth 1/10 or 1/25

Do you assume that because only one person is doing a 25 person raid that they get the same iLevel gear?

Will we have 25 raids occurring so that the 25 man raid group can all ensure they get a (many) drops?

What if the optimal number for an encounter is (let's say) 7. Will there ever be bigger or smaller raids on it?

Shintar said...

The "goblinism" argument was the first thing I thought of when reading that article too. Struggling to kill the boss? Kick the guy with the worst dps and suddenly you'll find it considerably easier, with the loot level being only marginally lower. It would be an extremely unforgiving system IMO, more so than the fixed-numbers-encounters are now.

Kromus said...

Your right, it would seem awesome at first, But also technical implications stop it from working too.

Look at Grull the Dragonkiller- The whole point of that fight is there to be a lot of panic created from the adds--

a 10 man version would make sense, remove two adds, after that it just would be nerf'ed compleately and become a tank and spank unless they beefed up Gruul instead, but then it'd be too hard on the main tank.

Its a bit of a grey-area I think.

Also some people get that first invite by "oh we have one spot left might aswell fill it". But that will vanish :(

Dàchéng said...

One big problem with scaling is that to implement it would inevitably involve diverting manpower from what I really would like to see: new and challenging quests that have a great storyline.

I've been suffering exactly the problem alluded to by Psychochild. I'm in Northrend at the airstrip doing supposedly level-appropriate quests that in fact can be completed with your eyes closed. You already know the sort: deliver a message from A to B, 10 yards away, for 10,000XP; kill 10 koboldoids that are 20 yards away and can be three-shotted. At least the Kobolds in Elwynn forest managed to take me out a few times, and thrilled me while I fought them.

Without the sense of danger, the risk that you might die horribly, there's no sense of achievement in completing these quests.

Rather than scaling raid encounters, I'd rather Blizzard developers made the average PvE mob a bit smarter. How often have you seen enemy NPCs standing ther like Eloi watching you kill their comrade without lifting a finger to help? Even when it's obvious that they're next on the list! No wonder people get bored with world of warcraft.

Carra said...

The rewards would have to scale as people always take the path of less resistance.

Getting a 25 men raid to work is harder then getting 5 men together. So if the rewards is the same people would just 5 men it. If the rewards are seriously better in 25 men raid people wouldn't bother with the 5 men raid.

Blizzard has already added scaling to their instances. 25 men raids and 10 men raids. It's a big step up from the older instances.

Elnia said...

I too think the "goblin" argument is the biggest problem. It seems counter-intuitive to have a game that the developers want to encourage grouping implement something that would obviously discourage it.

Carrying people is part of what groups do under the theory that one day you might just need to be carried yourself.

Anonymous said...

Scaling enocunters. Is this the latest politically correct term?

How do you scale an encounter designed for a 10-man raid when you bring 11-man?

Does the boss dishes 10 or 20% more damage? No? Then, depending on the encounter, adding additional DPS may trivialize the encounter while rewarding the raid with better loot. Yes, and the tank may be one-shotted.

Is the number of adds set? If the encounter is currently designed for 3 adds in 10-man, how large does the raid need to be before a fourth add is spawned? I will bring that number minus one to the raid.

Does the boss has an additional 10 to 20% hit points? Depending on whether the enrage timer is a factor, an extra healer (in survival encounters) or DPS (in DPS races) may trivialize the encounter.

I am sure additional testing could help find whatever scaling values are appropriate for specific encounters.

But why would Blizzard pursue such a goal?

It seems to me the costs of balancing an encounter to a variable party size are significant and offer very little value in return (how many players will never see content because of the raid size)?

Hugmenot of Suramar

Stupid Mage said...

I believe it is already an issue balancing an encounter for 5/10/25 people. It takes months of testing to get those done let alone create variables dependent on the number of people showing up.

I also feel that there would be much less room for walk-ons. Few people would want an extra body that may not make up for the increase in difficulty.

Larísa said...

@Klepsacovic: Yep, the exploit is definitely possible as well. I really don’t like the elitist side of the scaling system (which I don’t think was Wolfshead’s intention.)

@Gnomeaggedon: I can’t help thinking that the scaling gear quality of the drops will be rather complicated to settle, as well as how to increase the difficulty appropriately. I don’t know anything about programming, but it certainly sounds like a lot of work…

@Shintar: Yep. People would be more obsessed with the meters than they are now.

@Kromus: Yeah, some encounters are constructed in a way that they aren’t easily scalable. Think of 4 horsemen in Naxx. They had to exclude that one out of the 8 man achievement since there wasn’t any reasonable way to change the encounter to make it doable on 8.

@Dáchéng: well… they do pull each others from time to time, don’t they? I think your need for it depends a bit on where you are in progression. Now with a full-epic lvl 80 I’m overgeared for any non-elite mob. But when I was freshly dinged 80 they gave me at least a little more of a challenge if I recall it correctly.
What I’d like to see btw is more intelligent NPCs who are on my side as well. Some questgivers will come and help you if you’re attacked by a mob very close to them. But some just don’t care at all. And that bugs me a bit. It doesn’t make sense.

@Carra: Actually that’s true. We already HAVE scales in one way now. Hey, even the same things drop sometimes, although with slightly different stats…

@Elnia: yeah, without any sort of carrying ever, the game will be quite hard played. How can there ever be any kind of learning and progression on a personal (not gear) level?

@Hugmenot of Suramar: I agree. I think the changes and challenges in making a raid design that works with different amount of players are more complicated than we think at first.

@Stupid Mage: Yeah, the testing. What a nightmare! Will you have to test an encounter at every possible setup from 1 to 99 or whatever limit (if there would be one) you put up?

Wolfshead said...

Thanks for the interesting counterpoints to my scaling proposal. However, what is missing here is some sense of appreciation for the fundamental right of players to assemble in groupings of their choice to defeat content.

Scaling encounters would provide players with emancipation from the slavery of rigid, artificial and arbitrary groupings that serve only the developers instead of the players.

PUGS are brought up as a possible reason that scaling wouldn't work due to other players not being sure of the unknown player's abilities (tanking, healing and dps skills).

Those concerns have *always* been the big problem with PUGS. It seems to me that the real problem with this system is that it might prevent "farming" which is currently done with heroics in WoW.

Instead of wanting challenge and adventure many players resort to farming badges (or whatever they are called now). Farming something implies a lack of challenge and "easy" mode where you trade your time for a set amount of badges. In other words what PUGS are about is a transaction NOT adventure. Let's be honest here, PUGS = farming.

How did we as MMO enthusiasts lose our lust for adventure and instead opted to choose for the "safe" route of farming for our loot?

I think farming and other rote activities such as daily quests are precisely what's wrong with modern day MMOs like WoW. They are antithetical to the notion of adventure, risk/reward and challenge.

Back to PUGS briely, aren't players currently being discriminated by the lack of good gear and class they have chosen right now for PUGS? Let's not even mention PVP here.

As far as helping players get geared up and using exceptional players to power-level less skilled players through instances wouldn't scaling prevent these problems from the outset of the MMO if they were introduced from day one instead of months later at level 80?

Also, if this system is so unfair to players in PUGS wouldn't this promote excellence and competency among the playerbase more than is the case now? Players would not be able to get away with not pulling their weight.

There will always be players with varying degrees of skill and gear. I'm not convinced that PUGS would be discouraged because of a system like this.

This system would also make guild membership more desirable and improve the social cohesion among players by again have a system where players *must* play well and become more sociable to make a respectable name for themselves.

Good points have been made that scaling may break many heavily-scripted encounters. If anything this shows how fragile MMO is that relies far too much on theatrics and scripting.

Let me pose this question in rebuttal:

Wouldn't scaling encounters provide players with new and fresh experiences each time they attempt the same dungeon?

Maybe some players don't want adventure. Maybe we've become brainwashed into learning encounters from websites and forums, then defeating them and going into "farm" mode.

I think we really need to step back and take a long hard look at how predictable and formulaic that dungeon crawls in MMOs have become.

Aren't we all tired of experiencing the same old content? Scaling would breathe fresh life into MMOs and increase the playability of older content as well. That is development money well spent which keeps the MMO fresh and retains subscribers.

Larísa said...

@Wolfshead: You've got many good points. I'm all on your side when it comes to my views on farming and predictible encounters. I too embrace the concept of adventure. And for me it's the journey that is the goal - the raiding as such - not the epic loot in the end.
I'm all with you. BUT. I can't come away from that your system will be very harsh towards newer players or players like me and Tobold who don't have imba-quick reflexes and might have a bit longer learning curve for the gimmick oriented fights. Yeah, groups of friends would have the right to form raids and not take any risks bringing along outsiders. Fine. But would that be good in the long run? How many new players would just have a look at the game and then give it up since they won't get a chance in the first place? And like it or not - you need the money from those players as well if you want more development to be done. Else you'll find yourself with a shrinking playerbase and eventually a dying game.