Apparently I was too busy messing with alts in GW2 so now Heart of Thorns is out and my highest character is level 37. Thankfully, there are other people to share their impressions, and upon reading that (for some reason I can’t find out how to comment there) I want to say: oh snap. Progression in the form of hour-long random events? Count me out. I definitely prefer bite-sized and controlled by me, as in started when I feel like it. Oh well, I expect to have more fun messing with alts and the “old content” and by the time (in the distant future) I am done with that hopefully something changes.

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RuneScape’s Barbarian Assault: a minigame done right

As I wrote previously, RuneScape’s core gameplay is incredibly monotonous (even though it is alleviated by the variation of skills and processes required to train them), road-of-thousand-miles-one-step-at-a-time style. Distraction from The Grind is provided by quests (and those aren’t of the “kill 10 wildlife” variety – stories! puzzles! limited amount of hand-holding, so you can be genuinely stuck unless you listen carefully to the dialogue and search every corner en route) and so called minigames. A minigame is an instance, most often with limited time and typically with a limited or preset number of players, where you pursue minigame-specific goals and, again typically, get some kind of points for it that can be exchanged for useful stuff. Some of these are PvP, some are PvE, and some are non-combat entirely.

I want to talk about one of them, called Barbarian Assault. It is a PvE minigame for a team of 5 players, and it provides what Syl of mmogypsy.com demanded here: an activity where every player has a strictly set role and certain tasks that can’t be covered by the others. The roles aren’t the traditional trinity though; nevertheless, in order for the team to progress and get decent rewards, everyone should honestly and diligently do their highly specific job. There are, however, two other points about that minigame that Syl doesn’t mention, but I feel they are highly relevant to the traditional trinity problem as well (and it would do the trinity games quite well to make some motion in that direction).

  1. Communication is enforced. Not quite the chat-based communication (I, for one, find it hard to type long sentences while playing. I’ve seen people who are much better at it than I though), rather a kind of signals through the interface, but still. In short, each role has 3 or 4 ways to perform it, and at every moment only one of them is the “right” way which gives you points, and the other “wrong” ways make you lose points instead. This changes at random every 30 seconds, and the current “right” way for every role is not revealed to the players performing that role, but to another player instead, who then has to use the interface to communicate it. So, you have to be aware of that 30 second interval, and every 30 seconds you see the change, signal another player, and receive a signal that tells you what you should be doing next. This alone makes it feel like a team game rather than 5 people happening to do their separate things in the same room, which it very well could have been with all the specialization.
  2. Personal rewards are tied to performance. Your reward from the game is points, and the points you get depend on the team’s overall performance, but on your individual performance too. The way it works, if you fail at what you should be doing, you harm everyone’s score, but before that, your own score is utterly destroyed. If you slack or troll, you don’t get anything at all out of it (except entertainment? maybe? but it seems like entertainment alone is not worth the time spent). As a result, there are clueless players (the minigame has its ropes to learn), and there are leavers who abandon mid-run so the team has to disband, but I have not seen a griefer there, not once. Granted, there is not a whole lot of players doing the activity, but still – not once.

If I were asked how to improve any kind of pick-up group content, I’d probably name these two things, the second one being higher priority. And this is not exactly a “what if”: as I said, there is at least one example of it working, to a satisfactory (at least to me) result.

Time as gating mechanic

I have met recently with an opinion that in MMOs, in particular WoW, time equals difficulty, so an activity that takes a lot of time equals challenge, any mechanic that makes something take less time is dumbing down the game, and anyone who thinks that doing the same thing over and again for hours is boring just wants to have everything easy, and also should get their business somewhere else. Well the last part makes sense – I did quit WoW after all. I was running out of new things to learn (all the zones, all the quests, old dungeons and raids, different classes and crafting professions – I didn’t cover 100% of all that, but I was approaching saturation), and the things that seem to constitute the core of the gameplay these days I find either annoying (dungeons with PuGs) or boring (killing trash mobs by hundreds) or both (camping rare spawns). Puny me, shirking away from the challenge of pressing the same buttons in the same sequence for hours in a row. Thinking about this however I realized that I do play (and enjoy!) a game where time is the utmost gating mechanic (it takes years of continuous play to max out), and the grind (doing thousands of repetitions of the same simple thing) does not just “happen”, it is omnipresent.

This game is called RuneScape.

And the difference between the two games that makes WoW “boring” for me and RuneScape “playable” is that RuneScape does not attempt to make the grindy parts “challenging” by demanding the player’s undivided attention. Instead, it is enough to check the game screen every minute or so – dump the items you crafted into the bank and take a fresh batch of raw material, or move to the next tree or fishing spot, or eat a piece of food and attack another mob. I usually do this while reading or writing in another window, for the same reason people fiddle with things or doodle when their brain is working. Another important distinction is that in RuneScape I always have a variety of things to grind (think couple dozen options instead of 2-3), and it takes minimal time to switch to a different activity. So is time spent playing the game a gate to higher level/more gameplay options? Absolutely. Do I feel that time spent doing the grind is a toll I have to pay that has been taken away from my life? No, because the game allowed me to share this time between itself and some other process.

I get the point about an “immersive gameplay” (that’s from a completely different blog post), but for me, according to my personal preferences about a game I want to play, this shouldn’t ever go together with “mindless repetitive gameplay”. And any game has its dynamic parts (PvP; in PvE WoW, quests and group content; in RuneScape, quests, Dungeoneering skill, and minigames about which I am tempted to write another post). It is the love for immersive fully engaging grind that I personally find hard to understand.