Friday, December 2, 2011

Mind Scooting Over?

Ever wonder why there's a shortage of a given role in your group makeup? Ever wonder why you rolled a hybrid at character creation but never able to actually use your hybridiness?

Class design is a wonderful thing. Built in niches of gameplay, various combat mechanics... it can be a wonderful thing indeed. But when design happens in a vacuum, all that effort is for naught. Sometimes, the simplest of sins sits right before the designer's eye.

Not Sufficient For Wiggling

So you enjoy the leveling game, and have embraced gaming with PvE instances. Or perhaps world spawns (before they became a relic of what-once-was) as well. You enjoy a good social experience and partake in group activities.

Then it hits you. You're never able to breath, wiggle, stretch. You always find yourself in a given role, or your group is always short a given role.

Take a cursory glance at the class options and what their dedicated roles are. Perform a quick tally. Now match that tally against the content that is created: what ratio of  # of a role : group total  exists? Ever notice they don't match up?

According to the tools in the 800lb MMORPG (always a great guinea pig candidate), we would be expected to field a 5 man group of 1 tank 3 damage 1 healer. If we assumed a perfectly distributed playerbase across all classes and specs, we would find a 4:21:5 tally. We'll just say 5:20:5 for simplicity's sake. This means that for every 1 tank there is 1 healer but 4 dps. That's a 33% overstaffing of the role according to the content created. That's pretty significant. These numbers, when scaled to 25 man raids factoring in the expectations of x tanks y damage z healers, become even more skewed.

Now, we can't expect that [AAA] designers should play a strict math game when creating a game, and there will most definitely be a human element to the number distribution. Consider, however, that it is not the task of the player to make a role interesting; it is that of the designer. Designers can indeed influence the human element. It is not just possible but should be expected that designers make roles interesting enough that the population spreads semi-evenly. Consider also that the math game can (and should!) be used as an entry point into design, you won't herd cattle very well if you don't begin with direction.

There's a second consideration here as well...  ...with regards to making roles interesting. Clearly, designers are more interested in making damage interesting as the number of different specs for damage outweigh those for tanking or healing. This is according to the ratio set forth by the content created, explicitly so according to various ingame tools. This means that designers aren't interested in balancing the population across the roles that their own content asks for! Boot up your favorite [group focused, class based] MMORPG and perform this little tally test. I think you'll be surprised to learn it holds true for your own beloved.

Social Osmosis

Quick class: substance wanting to move to a location with higher concentration. Well, as we've just learnt, designers actually want population to drift towards damage: more specs, more variety, more designer interest. And as you sit there in a group, especially if you are a tank or healer, waiting on the other 'needed' role, you begin to wonder:

I could sit here, waiting on the other 'needed' role to arrive, or I could be out doing things. Doing things involves interaction with a foe. As I can't tank things to death, and I can't heal things to death, I will shift into the demographic that is able to achieve things solo, which is already the highest concentration of players in the playerbase. It doesn't hurt, either, that I'll chose to spec in a way that the designers themselves find more interesting. Why else would they have come up with 4x as many designs for the role than the other two keynotes?

As an afterthought; as math would have it, two groups would be formed to achieve numerical insight to how this situation plays out: one group with 1 tank and 4 damage (1 damage occupying the slot intended for the healer), one group with 1 healer and 4 damage (1 damage occupying the slot intended for the tank). The guy you need to achieve group ends is tied up in the same position you are! What a terrible design!

Squad Tactical Exercise

There's a reason why the military trains all their personnel on squad-level tactics. It is the lowest element of combat. All other forms of land warfare involve a direct scaling up of the concept.

Why haven't [AAA] designers taken notes from the systems that surround us everyday? Design group content in direct relation to the role breakdowns inherent to the game: design raid role numbers as a direct scaling to the group numbers. Watch as a gaming population no longer suffers through finding the right class/role/spec for a job. This can only result in more player interaction, and player interaction is the lifeline to your online game.

Myopic Vision: A Plague

It's all fine and dandy that creating niches is fun. But don't allow your vision to be cut short by the focus on all the ways you want to make a specific role 'fun'. Zoom out from your project, take a lesson from those who have gone before, and apply gameplay content directly scaled to the roles you've generated. A little bit of iterative process for good measure, as the content requirements and roles available can influence each other during the initial design phase. But still, no big deal.

Can't influence the gaming population via intriguing gameplay alone? Tweak the 1's and 0's to make underplayed roles literally more powerful, proactively influencing the population spread for those who are interested in min-maxing and not the gameplay itself. Only if you truly enjoy a given race/class/spec/gear setup will you continue to play if the odds are stacked against you. Influence the 'swing voters' of the playerbase- the FotM players will always exist, might as well get them to work for you, and for the benefit of the population as a whole.

Epilogue: Hybrids

So you rolled a hybrid, eager to perform a myriad of roles at the need of the group. If group design calls for 2 tanks 2 damage 2 healers, and all specs (excluding your own) provide a ratio of 2 tanks 2 damage 1 healer... guess what role you will routinely perform inside of a group setting?

The only way to free up the hybrids inside of a group setting to embrace their hybrid nature is to accommodate all the purebred classes with various offspecs into the core content design, ignoring the presence of the hybrids. Then, factor all hybrids together so that their ratios across all roles do not upset the balance created in the first place.

It's not hard- not rocket science here! It's simple balance done at the game's onset. And this sort of balance is what is longer lasting, and needed, compared to many month-after-month class resets.

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