Games as a Substitue Social Contract.

Stubborn asked a question of the blogging community on Individualist vs. Collectivist style in MMOs.  My initial impression, mostly technical, is on the blog.  This is the much too long response.  It seems the only purpose I have for this blog, other than having a handle to answer other people.

First, the disclaimer.  I will freely admit to being an individualist and an introvert.  I am not really comfortable in participating in a ‘chatty’ guild, I’m honestly not that interested in the moment-to-moment dialog of twitter, IM, or game chat.  If someone I know wants to grab lunch some Saturday and actually talk or exchange letters (even email), that’s great.  Lower the rate of exchange, improve the signal-to-noise ratio, and I’m calm enough to actually participate in a dialog.  Note that this does not imply that I want to be outside society, just that I interact with society differently than the extroverts.  And, despite the presumptions of most Americans, introversion is not a disease and it does not need to be fixed.  This is a personality style, not a personality defect, and is just as valid as extroversion.

Having had time to think this through I find that I need to question the general premise of the discussion.  The distinction between the Individualist and Collectivist, as a game description, seems to be a false dichotomy.  Why?  Because unlike an actual society a game is an elective and part-time activity.

If you consider utopian communes in the US through the centuries they demanded that members make actual sacrifices and significant changes to their lives to participate.  You could not simply dabble in the activity, you needed to commit yourself to the lifestyle.  Violating the precepts of the community carried significant social, psychological, and potentially physical ramifications.  This is also, to a much lesser extent, true in a traditional neighborhood.  As we’ve become a more mobile society that focuses on television rather than community activities that truism has faded.  I’m old enough to remember when things worked this way and how they changed.  When I was a child it did actually matter what people in the neighborhood thought, now I can’t even name most of my neighbors.

None of this is true in any game and it likely never will be.  If you really screw things up, go to another server or even another game.  As players we always have an escape clause that most people in actual collectivist communities lack.   It is also true that a game, no matter how immersive, is not reality. The character is not the player and never will be.  That in itself stresses the social contract in ways that would destroy any actual collectivist community.  If people could simply change gender, race, or any other physical identifier – go from a marathoner to body builder in the blink of an eye – it would be just about impossible to form a stable expectation of other members of the community.  Add in that real communities take time to develop, not the minutes of an MMO.  The old jokes about still being the ‘new comer’ 20 years after moving into a small town are based in reality and that reality will never translate to an MMO.

Let’s consider a truly collectivist game. Perhaps you can have one character on a server, that would certainly cause you to vest more concern in that avatar.  There is no name change, race change, faction change, or server change.  All good ideas, actually.  Your character can have one spec, selected either at creation or within a few levels of creation.  To succeed in any dungeon, raid, or other definitively group content you will require players in multiple roles.  Many of those roles will not be very viable or useful outside of that content.  There will not be class equality.  Some classes will just be better at some things but you will need diversity to get required buffs, debuffs, or capabilities (battle rez for example).  Most quests, even most experience-granting enemies, will be too difficult for a solo player to handle.

That structure would mandate that the first thing you want to do on creating a character is to find people to work with toward just surviving the newbie experience.  It is a game I would avoid like a plague-sick rat but that’s, again, personal bias.

So, why is the blogsphere seemingly set on collectivist gaming as the superior model?  I’d argue it comes down to the bloggers largely being extroverts who want highly social gaming and the false label tossed on LFD griefers and Trade chat idiots as individualists.  Think about it – if you are engaging in a social activity to gain notoriety, even infamy, you are not likely to be an individualist.  We just don’t care enough about what you think to put in that kind of effort.

In the end I am arguing that we cannot truly apply the “Individualist” or “Collectivist” label because player populations, investment in characters, and penalties for breaking social conventions will never be strong enough to compel obedience.  And that is a good thing indeed.

Warlocks: the evil that we do.

This started as a reply to Cynwise’s latest post on Warlocks and grew far too long.  So rather than clog his comments, I’ll work through my thoughts here.

“Evil” is a very slippery concept in WoW.

The only class that really has any intersection with evil in game is the DK, who spends the introductory section being about as nasty as Blizz could make them without risking a higher rating for the game.  The interest point in playing the DK, if you RP at all, is understanding how your character deals with the past.  What do you do to redeem yourself, or do you think that you are blameless as it wasn’t your fault and they deserved it anyway?

And that is probably the key – evil is only important if you have some RP sentiment.  I do, and that was one of the things that drew me to a Warlock in vanilla.  I knew why he turned from being a Mage training in the Dalaran tradition to the Dark Arts.  He despised Orcs (not the Horde, just Orcs) as the force that unleashed the Scourge and led to his fall.  He’s not so sure about the Dragons – shouldn’t they have done something to prevent this disaster?  The Draenei were an interesting problem – these are Eriador even if they aren’t showing their true colors.  The ‘tinge’ of evil wasn’t an RP detraction, it added to the characterization.

But does that matter for the vast majority of WoW players?  I would say no, not in the least.  Players need to be grouped into two broad categories – newbies and veterans.  The veterans may never have played WoW before but either know people who do or are willing to do some research before hitting the character selection screen.  The newbie does not and comes in blind.  I’d argue that the newbie needs to be excluded from consideration; there are too many random points to provide any kind of analysis.  That leaves us with the veterans, who are basing decisions on personal or provided experience.  If we assume that the decisions are not strongly influenced by RP considerations, which seems fairly certain for WoW, then it comes to utility, perceived power, and play style.

Utility is subjective.  Do you intend to PvP, Raid, LFD, solo, or some combination?  Making that calculation assumes a fairly complex understanding of end-game content and how the classes interact.  You need to predict how the class will play, how desirable it will be for raid, Arena, or RBG leaders.  It also requires weighing each of those desirability factors and deciding which is more important.  That is not an easy process and many people get it wrong in the business world, where there are much better analysis tools.  For a game, I think that this becomes a self-reinforcing process.  I see Paladin’s succeeding at all aspects of the game therefor they have high utility.  I don’t see Warlocks (because there aren’t that many of them) so they must not be desirable.

Buff collapse adds to this process.  Speaking from the PvE perspective, a Warlock is just another ranged caster like the Mage, Shadow Priest, Elemental Shaman, and Balance Druid.  If I need RDPS, and I want it to be magical (ruling out Hunters) does it really matter which of them I take?  But consider some of the non-buff benefits of the caster classes.  Mages create food and can port to most major hubs.  Priests can change to healing if they desire.  Shaman and Druids are even more flexible.  There is something to be said for “if you get bored, add a spec” instead of “go re-roll”.  Mages, like Warlocks, can’t change roll but they have much more player utility and it’s interesting utility.  I found that using Slow Fall or Blink at the very last moment was a huge fun add for the Mage.

Bring the player is a valid concept and was needed but it does mean that the perception of power is based on Flavor of the Month classes and not an institutional view of a class.  Anyone from the old days remembers the jokes about Warlock power, it was a part of the class feel.  Yes, everyone hates us and they hated for a reason.  Duel a Warlock and you are bringing a knife to gun fight.  That was also true in PvE.  Warlocks were champions at soloing tough opponents.  Unless it was immune to fear there was nothing we wouldn’t fight.  The modern Warlock is not the fear-kiting or drain-tanking beast of vanilla or TBC and everyone knows it.  The class is really a Mage with a different flavor.

So, if there is no perceived utility or power benefit to rolling a Warlock, we are left with play style.  This is the decider for most players – do I want to spend the next 85, soon 90, levels doing this?  Am I going to be happy in a raid, BG, or just out grinding dailies with the tools this class offers?  WoW is a game so this should be the most important factor.  If you aren’t going to enjoy the experience you aren’t going to spend discretionary time on the activity.

The Warlock has always been perceived as a ‘finicky’ class.  There are a lot of buttons to press, you have to watch DoTs, and there are some arcane concepts like clipping and soul shard management.  It wasn’t the class for everyone and that wasn’t a problem.  If you wanted to do more than spam Frostbolt (back in the vanilla end game) this was the class for you.  It was a good model, though it needed refinement.  As the concept that there shouldn’t be a wrong choice for character spec (Paladin?  Roll Holy, everything else is nonsense.) there has been work to add damage mechanics to other classes that often infringed on the Warlock play style.  Over time the other classes have become more complex and the Warlock has become radically more complex.

It can be argued that the model for the Shadow Priest in WotLK was the Affliction Warlock.  The Priest DPS spec was based on DoTs and drains.  It’s a good, fun model.  Many Warlocks did it for years.  And that seems to have been a problem for Blizzard.  If the SP was going to use this style the Warlock needed to change.  Cast time DoTs were added.  Shadowbolt spam was added as a required mechanic.  The mana and health management features were reduced.  A stable play style was basically yanked out and given to another class.  The traditional mana management techniques were removed from the game.  The Imp was now the Destruction pet of choice, Affliction was not going to have it out as mana battery because they removed the required talent.

Cynwise has analyzed the priority system and the inherit intelligence of the current implementation and I’m not going to paraphrase.  I will say that there is a line between complex and difficult that Blizzard has not really hit for the Warlock.  The class is difficult, not because you need to understand mechanics and react accordingly but because you have to do a constant multitasking operation.  That is too much like work for me to find it enjoyable.

So what does our veteran player decide at the character select screen?  Let’s assume the desire is to roll a magic-using ranged class.  That leaves the Mage, Priest, Druid, Shaman, and Warlock.  Half the available classes.  The Priest, Druid, and Shaman have the advantage of multiple roles.  For some people that is a benefit but for others it is a detriment.  I’ve heard more than one person say something to the effect of “I don’t want to be told to switch to healing” as a reason not to roll a Priest, Shaman, or Druid.  Let’s further assume that’s true here.  The choice becomes Mage or Warlock and in the subjective ideal world the division is even.  In the real world, it isn’t even close.  What the class designers at Blizzard need to answer is “why should I choose the Warlock”.