World of Warcraft has steadily been moving towards an automated playgroup generation system. I’m not sure if that’s a technical term or not, but it’s a fairly accurate description.
The game has always been a social-based game, meaning that you had to interact with others in at least some capacity to advance in the game world. There have been server-wide events like the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj and the Sunwell events that required the cooperation of everyone on the server to collect items to unlock new parts of the game world. These are rare events, though — social interaction and cooperation is built into the most mundane of activities in the game. Whether it’s seeking out an alchemist to make you a potion or grouping up with other players in your area to complete a group quest, the game has an intricately-woven system of social interaction.
In the latest expansions, though, there have been in-game mechanics to facilitate this cooperation. When I first started playing (not to be one of those “GET OFF MY LAWN!” old players), if you wanted to do a dungeon, you had to advertise for it in chat channels to the people on your server. Getting a five-person group with the right composition together to run Sethekk Halls was an hours-long affair. People would add competent players to their friends lists and wait for them to log on, and small groups became a test of social networks. The question was, inevitably, “Does anyone know a tank?”, and everyone would consult their friends list to see if one was online. Tanks (this is a jargon term for a player who occupies a particular role in a group, that is the one who distracts all the enemy creatures while the other players kill them) are a rare commodity on the server I study, since tanking generally requires a fair amount of skill and knowledge of game mechanics. Having an active tank player as a friend was a great blessing. (Healers, too, are in great demand, but since I regularly play a healer-class character, I’m never looking for one!)
The first game-based modification to this was a proto-dungeon finder tool, which I’ll call LFG (Looking For Group). A player could list themselves in LFG and what dungeons (or raids) they were looking to do. This was a way to meet random players, but you never knew the skill level, and it still required sending a message to the player asking if they were available and whether they were a tank or not.
The second modification was a more advanced dungeon-finder tool for five-man dungeons, which I call LFD (Looking For Dungeon). In this system, you list yourself (“queue”) as the role you play (tank, healer, or DPS [damage-dealer]), and then wait for the system to automatically match you up with other players. These other players may not even be from your server, and you can’t interact with them ever again once the dungeon is over (unless you go to their home server). Social interaction is gone – the game puts you in a group with four random players, and everybody has their roles assigned. With expert groups, sometimes you can go through the entire dungeon without exchanging any talk at all. This randomness seems to encourage (or bring out) the aggressive players. Every player has a story about “some asshole” they encounter in LFD, usually involving someone either not knowing how to play their character, or purposefully acting in an inflammatory way. My stories usually involve people with offensive names, or those who degrade players by comparing them to women – the “get back in the kitchen” insult. These stories are for another blog entry, though.
The newest modification is a raid-finder tool, LFR (Looking For Raid). Raids are large dungeons, and in this particular incarnation, the tool matches you up in a group of 25 to take on raid bosses. (Note that LFR raids are an “easier” version of what I might call guild-raids, that is the raids that guilds will attempt as a group. The guild-raids are harder and have better rewards for players.) Raids were once the pinnacle of World of Warcraft gameplay, accessible only to elite players. Now, most players raid at least part of the time, and with the new LFR tool, raiding is incredibly accessible and doesn’t require membership in a guild (although you still need that to get to the most difficult level of content). The thing that I have noticed about LFR is that nearly every time I have done it, some drama has happened. Usually someone will suggest that the group kick out the person doing the least amount of damage or someone who died. Sometimes these people deserve it — there certainly are many unskilled players who enter the LFR system who aren’t of the skill or gear level to be there — but more often than not, it’s about other players not wanting to have to bother explaining the mechanics of the fight. Nobody wants to take the time to stop and explain what players have to do during a fight in order to avoid death. They want to just cruise through the raid with everybody knowing what’s happening, and nobody having to talk to each other.
Increasingly, raids and dungeons aren’t about working together as a group, but about quickly going through the content to get the rewards. Anything that gets in the way of that — whether it’s a player who doesn’t know the mechanics of a fight, or someone who doesn’t play their character very well — can be a cause for verbal aggression. Players who don’t know what to do are afraid to speak up, because they’ll be called a “noob” and removed from the group. There is an experience barrier quite evident in the game now, moreso than it ever was; if a player doesn’t have raiding experience, few will want to “carry” them along and teach them. LFR was intended to be a “raiding light” experience to allow more players to access the raiding experience, but it’s been subject to the same problems.
From what I can tell from talking to other folks in other guilds, this mentality is carrying across to the guild-based raiding system as well. Since the guild raids are generally more difficult, players are getting upset when a boss does not die on the first try, or even in the first week or attempts. Players are becoming used to “easy” raids, to working together wordlessly with strangers, and some may think that guild raiding is an extension of this. That is not the case — guild raiding requires cooperation and communication between players, something that many people seem to be less interested in doing as the game’s grouping mechanics change.
As a social scientist, I wonder – is this change in mentality being pushed onto the player base by the developers with the mechanics of the game, or are the mechanics being created to reflect the mentality of the players? Do people really want to play a game where you work together wordlessly with strangers, assuming that everybody knows what they’re doing? What’s the real game, for the people who thrive in this system?