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People are the challenge

August 14, 2010

People play this game. It’s an MMORPG – Massively multiplayer online Role-playing Game. The Role-playing part doesn’t apply to everyone, that’s a choice made by the informed individual. The rest are inescapable. You play it online, it’s most certainly a game (and people would do well to remember this during their more extreme outbursts) but the factor I’m talking about today has a lot to do with the concept of ‘Massively Multiplayer.’

The idea of gaming is that one or more people interact with an environment, programmed to challenge them in some way. There are plenty of games that utilise co-operative modes, such as working together to infiltrate bases, complete objectives, hunt the prey, etcetera. They invariably lead to a more complex level of gameplay, because of the ever shifting factor that is another Human being playing the game. The amount of code needed to make a computer act like a player is massive. There are console games which are starting to get close to the level of complexity and random strategy that a person might think up, but WoW is not really one of them. Just take a look at the last fight in Old Kingdom, or at any Mage’s Mirror images. When the computer is trying to act like a player, it has to consider all the possibilities we do: Things like range, resistances, threat, positioning, the type of enemy being faced and how it’s likely to attack, environmental dangers or unusual scenery. Things we take in and react to, but the computer needs to be programmed to recognise. It could be coded to perfectly counter what it was facing, if both the encounter and the computer controlled character were designed with this in mind, but encounters are designed for players to fight, and computer characters that are meant to act like players are only found occasionally in the odd boss fight, PvP and quests.

This makes playing with players more interesting. Not always better, not always worse.

If you want to see what a fight is like orchestrated by the AI on both sides, go to Dalaran. If you stand in the centre of the Underbelly and look down, you will see computer controlled characters fighting it out. Guessing who wins is about as determinable as guessing the roll of a dice, thanks to the reasonably advanced AI. I have no idea if the computer says ‘Blue team is going to win this time,’ and despite a 10 minute fight that is invariably the result. Probably something like that.

Take raiding. Much of the challenge in raiding is provided by the content. Boss is attacking! Stuff is falling from the sky! Adds are spawning! Void zones! And so forth. But what people don’t tend to realise the full scale of is this – the difficulty of the content is highly modulated by your own skill and connection, and the skill and connection of everyone around you. There are things people do that a computer would never emulate. Disconnections for example, or hitting the wrong button so that you pop Hand of Freedom on the Tank instead of Hand of Sacrifice. Being so wrapped up in hammering out your rotation and squeezing out 50 more DPS that you don’t notice the void zone opening beneath your feet. Mistakes, in short. There are some encounters that would be insanely easy if a raid group could move as one oiled, controlled machine, and really, that’s what high end guilds aim for. A group of players who understand the tactics and each other so well that they will do what is required of them without prompting, acting as if they were one.

Let me give you an example of how different real life could be if machine organisation was involved:

When driving on the Motorway, it is most wise to have an appropriate stopping distance between you and the car in front. This is because you are going at a great speed, upwards of 70mph, and the faster you are going, the longer it takes you to slow down. If the car in front stops for some reason, or swerves violently, there needs to be enough distance between you and him to stop without piling into the back of him. There is only a very limited amount of communication going on between the drivers: You are watching the road and his actions, and will notice if his brake lights come on. Therefore, you have to make these allowances. If, however, all cars on a motorway were controlled by one central computer, they could all be travelling at 120mph with a millimetre distance between them. The computer would be able to slow them and speed them up at appropriate times, and there would only be accidents if there was a fault in the programming or a faulty connection. It’s a level of co-ordination that only a computer can achieve, because even if (going back to the last scenario) you were in telepathic communication with the person in front, there would still be the factors of reaction times, distractions, misunderstandings, and differing opinions on how far back from the car in front it’s safe to drive.

Back to the game.

If we were to take a 25 man raiding team around the most classic organisation bosses ever… let’s say Heigan the Unclean. I’m sure the majority of you will remember the safety dance. 90% of raid teams (incidentally, 40% of all statistics are made up on the spot) had one unfortunate individual who managed to die every time, whether it be because of his connection, him not understanding where to be and when, or not reacting in time to save his arse. Give control of all 25 members over to a computer, and they’d all be moving as one, on one spot. In that encounter, (with it’s minimal healing requirements and fairly low amount of HP) the main challenge there comes from the people.

I have noticed this more and more recently. As I have mentioned in my posts, I moved guilds. I am now in the Praetorian Guards, a 25 man Heroic raiding guild, albeit as a trialist. There is a much higher general level of class expertise, generally good performance, and so on. There is also a rise in the level of co-ordination between the raiders on the most part. On fights like Blood Queen Lana’thel, the Pact’d people move in and out within a second of receiving the debuff, giving the centre stage a near constant rippling appearance.

We are currently attempting the Heroic Professor Putricide fight, where organisation and awareness, both spatial and tactical, is absolutely essential. The difficulty of the encounter would be no harder than the normal mode, if it weren’t for the extra complication of the Unbound Plague. If you haven’t done the encounter (think yourselves lucky) Unbound Plague can be dropped onto anyone. It can be held on one person for up to around 12 seconds before that person will die, so near the end of that, they pass it onto another person. They do so by walking through them. Nothing so smooth and organised as dispelling it; it’s completely untouchable by spells – even Divine shield didn’t remove it from me. You literally have to cross the character model of the target you wish to transfer it to. Imagine that spawning in the melee. Accounting for 10 or more people’s reaction times, latency… we’ve found it’s normally jumped about five times, landing on someone who’s slightly away from the group who can then pelt over to a friendly ranged to hand it to. Every time it’s passed across, the person who had the Plague last receives a secondary debuff, increasing the damage they take from the Plague next time they pick it up – thusly it is always preferable to have as fewer people passing it round as possible. There are other things, such as Ooze variables, for the DPS to watch out for, which require even more organisation amongst the raid. To me, it looks like PP Heroic 25 needs a team of superhumans or a vast amount of luck to be pulled off correctly. I’ve been told that on the occasion I wasn’t present for the encounter, they actually got the boss to the third phase, so maybe I’m the weak link in the chain. Who knows.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that a lot of any content’s challenge is provided by the people you raid with, perhaps to a greater degree than the programming. If you’re raiding with 24 people who can’t tell a mace from a wand and have all their buttons bound to blind’n’sprint macros, you’ll probably find Naxx challenging content. I like to find content challenging for the right reasons. I think the right reasons would be striking a balance between interestingly complex fight mechanics and something that’s achievable through 25 intelligent people working fairly cohesively.

Any thoughts?


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