Training the Player

Hi. I play MMOs. At the moment, I”m going to take a bit of both our time to convey a concept about these colossal, yet awesome, timesinks. You have to learn how to play the game in order to excel at the game.

Right, points for the obvious, I know. Now, the usual method of training someone for doing well involves rewarding them for doing things right, and punishing them for doing things wrong. Right? Well… sort of. In order to actually learn, you would need to know what you did right, and what you had done wrong. If this were a sports game, you would see instant replay, and at the professional level, someone making more money than the average schoolteacher would patiently explain how someone on the team did something right in the heat of the moment, with imperfect information, and that the other guys weren”t ready for such a startling display of competence. MMOs lack this. Your random group of bored strangers may have simply succeeded on the 3rd try because one of the casters accidentally dispelled the enemy”s debuff… because he hit the wrong key at the right time. You did nothing different, so you don”t learn. Everybody thinks the other players game improved.

Now, it is possible to learn to play better… by listening to the advice of others. Sometimes this advice is actually good. Sometimes it is ranked slightly below frenching an electrical socket. I recall fondly my first serious group attempt in World of Warcraft, as a newbie warlock. I was repeatedly told 4 pieces of advice. I ignored half. One was to whip out the big ugly smoke pet I use as a tank when solo. I”m being told this by the tank. We have a tank and a healer. I can use my little imp to give everyone more stamina/hp, and set foes on fire. I ignore the advice.

I am told that I should not Fear an enemy in an instance. This makes sense. They run screaming for help, we get 5 guys in exchange for the 1 I sent packing. Bad news for the party. Good call. Instead, I use a power that prevents a foe from running. Curse of Recklessness. I”m told I should be using the mutually exclusive DPS power. I ignore this, because it”s a bad call. The foes aren”t living long enough to have a second tic of damage. And if they run, they tend to live just long enough to bring back grief.

The best advice I recieved was to “SS the healer”. SS turns out to mean “soulstone”. A bungee cord for the tunnel with the white light at the end. Brilliant! However, as a newb, it wasn”t “till a breather halfway down the dungeon when I was able to type out “WTF is SS?” and actually get a coherent answer. Acronyms are not your friends when you try to train another person. They are used between people who already know what they are doing. When I used the power in the most tactically advantageous method, to let the healer survive a total wipe, so she could restore all of our bleeding corpses to life… it saved us all a long walk. And I got to disappoint said healer, who hadn”t known it was only usable once every 30 min.

Now, in all of WoW, the game itself never actually tried to train me on the most effective uses of my powers. It just sat there being Darwin. If I got it right enough, I survived. If I didn”t, I got to hike back to my corpse.

These days… I play LOTRO. One thing I really love in this system are the deeds. If you”re only familiar with WoW, think of them like Talents… that don”t suck, there”s far fewer of them, and you have to earn each one before you can spec it. Earning them is the critical aspect. As a game designer, you can never truly anticipate what stratagems the player base is going to roll out to break your carefully crafted balance. This is a reason that it isn”t altogether simple to train a player in using his class effectively. Sure, in the prior example, the tactical significance of letting the player who can resurrect  the party rez himself is a bit obvious. But not using the damaging curse, or the biggest looking pet… is a bit less obvious.

LOTRO”s deed system encourages experimentation. Because it rewards experimentation directly. You don”t know which of your abilities will advance a deed until actually using it, once you”ve reached a high enough level for that particular deed. So, to unlock all of them, you must practice your abilities to see what must be done. Granted, they are all simply “use ability x a few hundred or thousand times over a few days.” There is still a mighty opportunity to learn from such rote practice. The Minstrel has one that is simply based on using healing abilities. A thousand times. No deeper meaning here, other than training the player to spam healing. The Lore-Master, however, has one for an ability that simply drains power from a foe into his own reserves. While it”s never a horrible thing to have a mid-battle recharge, running out of power is extremely rare in the early game. However, against foes with low reserves, it also functions to drain them to zero. Which denies them further use of their most powerful attacks. If I didn”t have gamer OCD towards such traits, I”d never have understood how useful this could be. I”d have saved it for long boss fights when I needed the boost. This system improved my competence in the game.

I”m quite curious what the next iteration of gaming is going to roll out to subtly train the player. Because this sort of stealth education is powerful, and molds a playerbase nicely… when it works. Now, if only we could use it to weed out side-conversations in movie theatres.

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