And why should I care what happens to you?

| Tuesday, August 21, 2012
An idea was floated by some unspeakables who suggested writing a sort of collective post, whatever that means, about individualism vs. collectivism in various games.  Bit biased from the start, don't you think?

As I see it, collective action relies on the future.  People work together for future results.  They sacrifice for the group for future results.  I give to you because at some point you will give to me.  This works best with small, tightly-knit groups, such as friends and family.  In this form it is a rational exchange.

On larger scales it gets fuzzier.  There is no guarantee of reciprocity, making the future benefit aspect unreliable.  And yet, we still act together.  Usually.  We merge on the highway in the 'zipper' formation, one from the right and one from the left and one from the right and so on.  Except that one jerk who rushes out ahead, nearly causes an accident, and then uses the shoulder of the road.  But that's why we invented police.  On the small scales, social habits will generally suffice, while on the larger scales, we need people with guns.

This was supposed to be about gaming, so fine, let's get to that bit.  The habits and instincts we have in real life also exist in games.  At least initially.  We take the habits of life and apply them as best we can in the game.  Not always consciously, but it happens.  We take turns.  We share.  Over time though, we develop new habits, habits based on the game world.  And as that game world changes, we develop even newer habits.  That's what I'm supposed to be writing about: how the changes to the game world affect collective and individual interaction.

You ain't got no life.
You ain't got no friends.
And I know you want to spend your weekend with 40 people you don't know,
And some guy named Puff telling you what to do!
- MC Raiders, Mindflame Lyrics
WoW has always been a game that you could solo to the level cap.  Certainly there was a neat feeling to seeing 60 near your name, but there's 60 and then there is 60.  The first one is merely a level higher than 59 while the second is the level where you begin to do awesome things.  In groups.  Groups which you formed yourself.

Before the dungeon finder there was the looking for group channel.  Everyone, from level [something low] to level 60 was in it, looking for groups.  You'd talk to people to form groups and then run to the instance (the latter part perhaps wasn't so good).  Then you'd spend some quality time there.  Or not.  It depended on the quality of the group and whether or not you were doing someplace good or Razorfen Kraul.

This all tended to make players more collective.  When a group took time to form, there was a strong incentive to not have to make a new one.  Quitting at the first sign of any challenge wasted more time than a bit of deadweight in the group.  So you dealt with the deadweight, trying to fix them up well enough to get through the instance.  It was to your benefit to work for the benefit of the group.  Beyond that, since groups were server-based, having a reputation as a jerk wasn't going to look good on your next guild application.

Contrast that with the current grouping system.  The queues may take time, but they take no effort, so the cost of switching groups is low.  At the first sign of a problem you can leave, without explanation, or with a bit of flaming.  The other day I ran into "learn to tank before you queue", whatever that is supposed to mean.  Since the groups are from a pool of many servers, you're not likely to see anyone again, except during some low-population leveling times, so a reputation as a jerk doesn't exist.  Even still, the most someone can do is /ignore, pushing the jerk to another group.  For the individual the problem is fixed, but not for the group.

Manually forming groups also made players more informed about the group and the needs of the players.  The player looking for a Baron 45 run (a difficult quest speed-run of Stratholme which no longer exists) was not going to be in a group with someone who wanted to farm Argent Dawn rep and needed every trash pack dead.  They knew before grouping that they had different goals.  Contrast that with a randomly-formed group where one person wants their loot bag and wants to skip everything (BRD mole machines, I'm looking at you) getting grouped with someone on their first run who wants to do the quests.

The trends are not entirely in the direction of individualism.  There is the deserter debuff, seemingly to discourage players from dropping groups too soon.  I've only experienced that debuff once, in a group where the tank wanted to skip all of BRD while I was trying to do the quests.  The vote kick system allows bad players to be removed and replaced, allowing most of the group to carry on.

However even these are somewhat individualistic.  Vote kicking just means the player requeues and ends up with another group.  Removing them benefits the individual player, but has no benefit to the pool of random runners.  It doesn't help that the vote kick message is not relayed to the kicked player.  "Keeps pulling ahead of the tank" might be useful.  But no, the kicked player has nothing.  They're just suddenly, unexpectedly not in the group anymore, for no apparent reason.  Maybe the other players were jerks, maybe they misclicked, who know?  There is little incentive for self-reflection and therefore little incentive to improve, leaving a bad player still out there, perhaps unaware of his problem.

Even fleeing disaster used to be harder.  Once upon a time you fought with every last ounce of will to prevent a wipe.  Graveyards were further away and there was no mass resurrection.  Now an imminent wipe is easily averted: drop group and you're safely far away, untouchable by NPC and PC.  I don't know about you, but I tended to bond a bit with people who had fought beside me, even if we failed, because it was the struggle that mattered; it showed the character of the player.  Maybe we'd invite that person to our guild.

That's another big thing: guild formation.  These days it seems to take place mostly through spamming invites to my unguilded alts with messages about the guild level.  I much preferred joining a guild based on having played with them, seeing how they played and interacted with others, rather than what level their guild was.  Or if they were jerks, I could yell at them in trade chat.  Then people would know, Raiders of the Twilight Latin Phrase were a bunch of jerks.

I recall an incident in which a guild member had ninjaed a BoE epic staff from a pug.  Since it was the same server there was still the ability to find them and trade it back.  We insisted on this.  We weren't going to have our guild reputation tarnished by someone stealing.  These days, would any guild care about what happens in a pug?  Even The Guild of Adorable Puppy Huggers has little ability to govern behavior in pugs.

There aren't even as many opportunities to help other players.  Once a mage portal to Orgrimmar was a great thing to have, since getting out of Maraudon was a bit of a pain and my hearthstone was set to Light's Hope Chapel.  Now I just get teleported back out to the front of the bank.  A warlock summoning or the group members getting there first meant someone was saved a potentially very long run.  There were those who refused to run, waiting for a summon, and thus did we find the lazy leeches.

All taken together this adds up to a world of individuals.  Some will prefer that.  Some will not.  Some will look at all the changes I list and insist that they are good things.  For many of those I will agree.  For example, teleporting players to the instance, while I was initially resistant, is a good thing, saving a whole lot of time.

Still, all things have costs.  We are placed in groups and lose the benefit of forming a group.  And even when nominally in a group, we are not in a group, merely a set of individuals.  Some revel in this, believing it is freedom.  I believe it is a loss of opportunity.  It is a loss of teaching and bonding, leading to fewer and fewer good players who know how to cooperate.  That's a downward cycle: with no incentive to help the group, we reject the group, acting more and more individualistically, often at the expense of the group, and as others do the same, we see the group more and more as the enemy rather than as the friend.  We comfort ourselves, and no one else, with the thought that we only need tolerate them for a short time before we roll the dice on a new random set of individuals with whom we can group alone.

The lyrics I quoted above aren't quite right.  I may have had no life, but I did have friends, and I was not with 40 people I didn't know.  Though strangely, ever single raid leader I ever had, every single group leader, every single guild leader, was named Puff.  And no one wanted vendorstrike.


Verilazic said...

This is definitely gonna be one of my favorite posts, and not just on this blog.

The question I think of at the end of this is: what to do about it? The general trend is that community is taking a nosedive. Assuming we don't want that, how do we counter the trend set up by these too-convenient systems?

Kring said...

> The player looking for a Baron 45 run was not
> going to be in a group with someone who wanted
> to farm Argent Dawn rep and needed every
> trash pack dead.

Actually, the 45 min kill rewarded a big chunk of rep - up till exalted. And everyone farming Argent Dawn rep was at the point where trash mobs no longer rewarded reputation. The 45 min run was a very efficient way to farm reputation. :)

Klepsacovic said...

@Verilazic: First thing I'd do is reanalyze the tradeoffs, to see where the convenient systems can be scaled back in a limited way. For example, the cross-realm aspect could be selectively enabled. Below-cap content is an obvious place where the cross-realm is needed, but level-capped heroics and regulars on high-pop realms should be able to support themselves. Another way to improve things would be to give a reputation bonus (or something similarly useful) when players form groups manually.

@Kring: The Baron 45 run required skipping a ton of trash and discouraged looting scourgestones. Those glorious scourgestones. I loved when other people forgot to bring their trinkets. :)

Verilazic said...

And perhaps an xp bonus for grouping when doing quests such that it gives better xp-per-hour than lvling solo.

But also, what about on an individual or guild level? Since we're not exactly running the game, what can we do about building community in spite of the game systems? Loaded question, I know.

Anonymous said...

Just a great post

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