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Creating Effective Groups and Group Roles in MMP Games
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Creating Effective Groups and Group Roles in MMP Games

September 16, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Massively multiplayer (MMP) games are built on a social foundation. They differ from other games in that they encourage people to do fun things (adventure!) as part of a group, and to keep up their group ties over months and years. These games lure players in with visions of heroic battles and individual character advancement, but ultimately succeed when they provide meaningful, interdependent roles for people to play as part of a group.

In this article, I'll provide some design principles to follow based on how current MMP games are encouraging (or not) players to be part of groups within and around the game. In particular, we'll look at temporary and permanent groups, designed and emergent roles within groups, and where this might lead in the future.

The core idea is that anything you can do as a designer to encourage players to form groups and take on meaningful roles within them will increase the likelihood that those players will enjoy themselves enough to play your game for months or years to come. Conversely, anything your game does that makes it more difficult for people to get together or form social bonds will drive players away: For most people, the only thing lonelier than playing a game by yourself is playing by yourself while surrounded by a virtual world full of other people.

Support Temporary Groups

Temporary groups -- adventuring parties in most games (fellowships in Asheron's Call) -- are the most common catalyst for making friends in the game, and in many ways form the social backbone of MMP games. Players need to be able to find each other easily and quickly, "buddy up" to go out into the dangerous world, and complement each others' characters' abilities. Adventuring parties throw players together in a low-commitment context, setting the stage for more permanent connections later on.

Finding Others
Before players can get together to go adventuring, they have to be able to find each other and decide whether they want to join up. The first obstacle here can be simply geographic: most MMPs have large worlds to explore. Unfortunately, this can make it much more difficult to find people to explore it with. In Asheron's Call, the time it takes to run from one city to another has been a persistent problem, especially for low-level characters -- the ones who most need the help getting together with others. If you have only an hour or so to play and it takes half that time to reach your friends, you can very quickly become frustrated.

The next problem is knowing who else is open to being in a group. Dark Age of Camelot addresses this by allowing players to flag themselves as looking for a party or not, and to automatically look for others nearby of approximately the same level. Even with this, many new players find it difficult to locate others with whom to form a party, but at least they aren't reduced to shouting that they're "looking for a 3rd level fighter" as in other games.

There are many potential solutions to the issue of players having trouble finding others to group with. The best of these make it as easy as possible on the players -- help them find others with complementary characters who are nearby and who are also looking for a group. Ideally, players should be able to find out this information before logging in to the game and running around. Asheron's Call provides ‘lobby' chat rooms for players, but this seems to be insufficient to help players get together. Among other things, you can still log in and find yourself across the continent from the person with whom you were just chatting. A better solution would be the ability for players to state where (i.e., what city) their character starts play in for this session. To avoid cheating, the game could allow an expanding list of session-starting cities based on how long the player had been logged out (that is, how far could your character have traveled during the time you weren't playing). There are many other possible solutions, all having the common thread of making it as easy as possible for players to find each other and form a temporary adventuring group.

Once two or more players have found each others' characters, it's typically easy for them to chat about where they want to go, where they think some good treasure is, what quests they have to complete, etc. This is a process of the players evaluating each other's character and whether their abilities are complementary. There's typically little cost in forming a party though, so most people aren't too picky unless they have a specific, difficult goal in mind. However, it is important that players be able to uniquely identify other characters not just by name, but also by ability and even reputation. Players want to know that the others in their party aren't going to take them out into the wilderness and leave them for dead (a popular tactic early in Ultima Online's history), and that in general the other character approximately matches their own play style. Games that flag characters as good or evil, or that have a more fine-tuned reputation system, help players decide whether another character is someone they want to join up with or not. (A full discussion of robust reputation systems is beyond the scope of this article, but this is something to consider seriously in any game where people interact closely.) After a player has identified others with whom they enjoy playing, being able to place their name (character or player) in a buddy list helps make future connections easier and more likely.

Group Communication
When the party's been formed, one central but easily overlooked aspect of their play together is the ability for the party to communicate privately. Most games today have private chat channels for temporary groups. Providing this enables the party members to talk amongst themselves without worrying about extraneous chatter around them. In socially active areas this can make it easier for the players to keep up their conversation, and provides a sense of solidarity within the group.

In addition to chat communication, most current MMP games enable party members to see each others' health and other vital statistics. This makes it easier for players to help each other out (with a timely healing spell, for example). In addition to increasing the party's efficiency in combat, this also creates social bonds between party members who save each other in the nick of time. But if your game allows player-vs-player combat, one member of a party should not able to harm another when operating together as a party. This is the mechanical implementation of "all for one and one for all," whereby no one character can -- mistakenly or not -- harm another party member. This helps reduce tension when fighting monsters in close quarters, and prevents party-destroying sneak attacks between party members.

Complementary Roles
In every MMP game, players create characters that specialize in some way. Building on now-classic fantasy character archetypes, you're typically a fighter, wizard, healer, or some variation on those (including science fiction and other genre variations). Each character fills a specialized role from the beginning. Put a few different character types together, and you have an effective adventuring group -- a fighter or two to whack things and absorb monster damage, a wizard to provide high-damage attacks, and a healer to keep everyone alive. In some games such as Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot, these roles are not only well-defined, but accepted to the point that coordination occurs via highly condensed jargon. For example, a statement like this would not be unusual and would be understood by everyone in the party: "Thane pull, tanks rotate aggro, runemaster nuke but do not draw aggro, watch out for adds. Protect healer; rezz only after fight over." These are battle orders issued just before the fight begins that give everyone their part: the thane (a specialized fighter-mage) makes sure that only one monster out of a group ‘goes aggro' (aggressive) and approaches the party; the damage-absorbing fighters work to split the monsters' attacks; the spell-caster does as much damage as possible without having the monsters target him; and everyone protects the healer (the only one who can bring those who die in battle back to life by resurrecting or rezzing them after it's all over).

Such characters' abilities are useful on their own, but when paired up with other members of a party they become part of an overall strategy available only to diverse groups. These strategies act as a multiplier, increasing the effectiveness and benefit of being in a group. Players have been quick to explore and exercise these game mechanics, and to assemble groups of complementary character types where each player understands their role. By creating such complementary roles in the game mechanics, you give people multiple ways to group together effectively. Each character type handles situations the others can't. Of course, this means that the world has to support these roles: not every monster can be killed by whacking it; some have to be dispatched with magic, or have a rogue sneak up on them.

If in the rest of the game you provide opportunities for each character type to shine, you'll keep the players satisfied and feeling like their character is a vital part of whatever mission or adventure they attempt. This extends beyond just fighting styles too. Characters with crafting skills should find that they are able to produce higher quality items when they combine their abilities together rather than trying to do everything themselves. For example, blacksmiths can make basic swords and armor, but require the services of carpenters and leatherworkers to make higher quality items. These kinds of interdependencies can also extend beyond crafting to other types of group efforts as well (see the discussion on New Types of Groups below).

Rewarding Players in Groups
Even though people will naturally want to adventure together, enhancing this experience will encourage them to do so. Everquest encourages players to form parties by basically making the game too difficult to play otherwise. While some parts of your game should be difficult enough that they require a group effort, this is more of a ‘stick' than a ‘carrot' approach. Asheron's Call introduced the novel approach of rewarding players in fellowships by increasing the experience points earned when fighting together. This is a positive-sum rather than zero-sum approach that promotes working together as part of a fellowship; that is, instead of me earning 200 points for killing a monster, or each of us earning 100 points, we might each earn 150 points if we kill the monster while grouped together. This encourages players to take on greater challenges as part of a group, and has proved to be an effective reward for adventuring together.

Other games such as Diablo II provide examples of other forms of rewards for playing as part of a group. In that game, both the number of monsters being fought and the amount of treasure gained increases with the number of people playing together. More interestingly, this game also scales the type of treasure gained to how many people are playing together, so that the rarest items are available only if you are playing with others. This kind of gameplay would no doubt be welcomed by the players in traditional MMP games, and would further encourage them to form temporary groups.

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