Risky Business

Today I take inspiration from Brian “Psychochild” Green’s latest post and from a pickup group I ran in Veksar last night.

Psychochild starts by citing some train nostalgia in a post by Gordon of We Fly Spitfires. From there he points out the the fun part of trains was the spice:

But, I suspect this is one of the reasons why Gordon remembers trains fondly: because they were a disruption. As some of the comments on my previous post indicate, some people want a little spice to the encounter. Going in and simply doing the memorized pattern gets boring. Trains were definitely an unpredictable element, since they were based on other players’ behaviors.

I think this is basically correct. I certainly have some train nostalgia. Once I was in Karnor’s Castle with some friends near the entrance when a big old train comes screaming out of the castle and running down the other side of the big hall. I didn’t feel like running, but there were too many to mez. Pretty much on a lark I decided to charm one. As soon as whoever they were chasing zoned out, they all turned on my charmed mob. This being Everquest, it took maybe 8-10 seconds to kill it, at which point I charmed another. They all turned on him. I thought, “Hey, I’m on to something”. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’m washed that train right out of my beautiful red hair. Fun times.

Then there was the time we were working on a friends epic in Rathe Mountains and the mob turned out to be a chained spawn. You know, kill one and the next one spawns instantly on the spot. Well, we ran, and another guy in the zone got the aggro. He was mad, and trained us with other giants. I asked him what that was about, and when he said we had trained him, I explained that no, we were just clueless. At which point he changed his attitude and helped us kill the mobs we needed.

Lobilya, my RL spouse, loves to tell of the time she knocked a gnoll into the big pit up at the top of Blackburrow, and listened to the shouts from below of “train to zone”, and watching the gnolls boil out. Some higher level players would deliberately do and wait at the zone line to battle large numbers of gnolls at once. Very memorable, and fairly manageable. If you didn’t want to deal with the trains in Blackburrow, you went somewhere else.

Psychochild goes on to say:

To put it in more basic game design terms, we’re looking at risk as an enhancement to fun. Risk means that there’s a chance for something good or something bad to happen. If you manage to overcome the obstacle and get the good result, it can feel great!

I’d just like to point out that there’s plenty of risk in EQ2, and it’s still due to player interaction. My PUG in Veksar last night is a case in point. Most of the others in the group were mythical wielders and competent players. Good attitudes, too. Unfortunately for us, the tank was not at that level, and clearly did not have much experience tanking for that level of play. I expect most of his game experience was soloing. We had a rough start, and the other players had to tell him to put Amends on the wizard. Once that was done, things settled down a bit with the Mystic pet pulling. It also developed that the Paladin didn’t have a good concept of holding aggro on a group via wards, heals and blue AE’s. So we wiped on the group just before the climb down.

But the worst was the final boss. We tried that pull many times and it just wasn’t working. It developed that the tank was in offensive stance. And not using a shield. And having trouble keeping aggro on the adds. The leadership of the group had promised a very fast run, and was feeling impatient, so there wasn’t a lot of instruction or communication. They were used to just blasting through a dungeon with minimal chatter. Eventually, the leader kicked the tank and two-boxed his own guardian to finish the dungeon. I felt a bit soiled, but I stayed. Another group member left before the finish, claiming it was raid time.

My point is this: There’s still risk in the game, risk attributable to players. The game design set up this paladin for this fall. EQ2 is basically a two-track game: You can level up to 80 soloing and doing quests and feel like you have done well in the game and still be woefully unprepared for dungeons like Veksar. You don’t know the tactics, you don’t know expectations, and you don’t have the gear. There are some very tough dungeons out there, and people still don’t like dying a lot, because it represents Failure, and they have been trained by the solo game to expect Success.

When it comes to player-created risk, the critical thing is whether the players have chosen to accept that sort of risk. For example, consider recent posts of Tipa’s about PvP in Eve Online. Or one of the first writings about PvP in Everquest, which I have thought of ever after as “You Came Here to Kill People”.

Not everyone is going to choose these risks, and game companies naturally want to serve as large a population as they can. So they make two-tracked games, or games where players find it difficult to give other players grief. PvE risks are known and very controllable. PvP risks are not.

Another aspect of Blackburrow trains is that they encouraged cooperation across groups. The train is a threat to everyone, so it makes the players natural, spontaneous, allies. Even shouting “Train!!!” is a cooperative act.

I’ve long been an advocate for game designs that allow spontaneous socially-positive acts. Driveby buffing, etc. Much of that has been relaxed from launch, and that’s good. But the opportunity to do this is greatly reduced, since most of the fighting now takes place in instances rather than dungeons.

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