10 Apr 2011

Bribes, Karma and Recommendations

Patch 4.1 is approaching, although when it’ll actually arrive is currently anyone’s guess. Content and changes are being crammed in on a regular basis, making predicting the arrival date sheer guesswork at the moment.

Call to Arms is one of the latest features to be squeezed into the patch. Essentially the change amounts to a bribe to persuade tanks (and occasionally healers) to queue by themselves for heroic groups by offering them an additional reward when they complete the dungeon.

The rewards on offer to those that respond to the Call are a mix of the following:

  • More gold
  • A chance of a rare gem, flasks or potions (basically more gold)
  • A good chance of a dungeon drop only non-combat pet
  • A rare chance of a dungeon drop only mount

Although the Call to Arms can in theory be triggered for any role, it’ll always go for the one that’s needed most. In the majority of cases this will be the tank, although occasionally it’ll be healers that are most in need. It is highly unlikely that this will trigger for DPS roles.

The goal is that this will reduce the queue times for DPS, providing them with a better LFD experience.

It will not work.

Firstly, the benefit (if there is any) is likely to be short-lived. Once a tank has stocked up on the rare items they want, they no longer have an incentive to queue. There will be faster ways to make gold – just look at the number of blogs offering solid gold-making strategies and advice. If Blizzard want to avoid tanks tailing off again then they’ll need to either increase the size of the bribe or continually swap it around to lure people back. Have a look at research on demand decay and demand stimulation for more information on this phenomenon.

Secondly, the difference will likely be insignificant. Due to the relationship between the tanks and the group (you need one tank per group), it’s really easy to calculate the effect that increasing the number of tanks in the queue will have. If the current rate of tanks joining LFD results in a queue time of x for DPS, twice the number of tanks will result in half the queue time. If we want to get to queue times of x/y minutes for DPS then we’ll need y times as many tanks joining the LFD queue. And that’s assuming the healers are there to meet demand as well.

To put that in numbers, going from a 60 minute queue to 6 minutes for DPS will need ten times as many tanks joining up.

I’m happy to be charitable to Blizzard and assume that they might, if they’re lucky, pull off a tenfold increase in the number of tanks entering LFD on their own. But I promise you that it won’t sustain itself longer than a few weeks. If more DPS start signing up to take advantage of shorter queues then the whole effect counterbalances.

Thirdly, as put so eloquently by The Daily Blink, the change will attract the wrong sort of tank. The tank who’s mostly in his greens, or DPS blues, or PVP gear just to fudge the iLevel hurdle. The kind of tank that’s squishier than a plushie and sends the healer into meltdown. This isn’t about tanks that want to do a good job, it’s about players that aren’t really interested in tanking and are only there to milk the bribe.

The comments on various forums are littered with players saying that this will give them a reason to tank on their alt, or to use their healing offspec more. The mainspec tanks and healers seem to be mysteriously quiet, yet it’s these folks that are the ones you want to encourage the most.

And that’s just the start of it.

The Community Effect

Bribing someone to complete a particular task isn’t something that sits well with everyone. There are tanks out there who don’t like the idea of being bribed, while some others feel that the price isn’t high enough for them to enter LFD. That said, it might result in the end of the current (although rare) situation where players pay a tank in gold to run a heroic instance with them.

There’s also resentment from within the DPS community that they’re being relegated to third class citizens in the game through the creation of a reward that they are highly unlikely to obtain. Add to that the idea that 1) the tank gets the reward but the queue time doesn’t significantly drop and 2) that you get a tank who can’t tell his sword from his shield and is just there for the “phat loots” and you get DPS that wonder what the whole point of Call to Arms was anyway. You can see it happen.

There’s also the feeling that DPS will have paid for the right to be abusive because they’re not getting the special goody bag. By throwing a sweetner to those in demand, Blizzard seem to be silently acknowledging that the LFD experience can be abusive, and that there’s not much they’re either willing or able to do about it. Such tacit approval of players’ willingness to don the asshat will only make community divisions worse. You think things are bad as a tank in Pugs now? Wait till you’re getting paid by Blizzard to be there.

The Root Problem

Let’s be honest, tanks and healers don’t want to use LFD because of the amount of abusive behaviour they get dealt with. It’s not so much that the job they perform is hard but that they have responsibility heaped on them – pulls, mob marking, tactics and pacing are usually placed on the tank’s shoulders. Get it wrong and watch the muck-flinging commence as the DPS try to cover up that they can’t watch their aggro, can’t crowd control and can’t follow target assignment.

In fact, with each LFD pool now covering an entire region (US, Europe, etc) it’s fair to say that you’re so unlikely to come into contact with the same group of players again that you might as well be anonymous. It’s as if the tool spawned a version of Gabriel’s Greater Internet Asshat Theory. These people are so unlikely to have an effect on your continued gaming that you might as well treat them however you like.The lack of consequences to their actions mean that players can (and frequently do) behave as they please.

Back in the early days of Warcraft this whole culture of player abuse was much less of a problem. Levelling was a much longer process, meaning that characters were less disposable. If you earned a reputation for being a bad or abusive player word would get around quickly and you’d find it hard if not impossible to get pick-up-groups. Being found out as a ninja was pretty much a kiss of death.

Faction changes, server transfers and renames eroded this. A reputation could be wiped clean with a new identity, but you’d have to pay cash to get it. Only the biggest scams were worth paying that kind of money for.

LFD removed the final barrier to paying for the consequences of your actions. There’s now no consequential obligation to be reasonable to other players through LFD, so why bother? You’re unlikely to meet them again and they’re unlikely to impinge on your game once the dungeon is finished.

The problem isn’t how to persuade tanks and healers to use LFD more in it’s current form, or to shoehorn more DPS into a group. It’s not even that players don’t like to tank or heal. It’s about how to remove the negative aspects of a system that’s so random as to be virtually anonymous.

The Karma Alternative

A frequently suggested enhancement to LFD is to introduce some kind of karma or reputation based system in order to prioritise players that work well in LFD groups. On the face of it this sounds great – just rate your fellow group members at the end of the run and the high scorers get shorter queue times as a result.

Unfortunately there’s a few problems with a straight karma system like this:

  • There’s no “agreed definition” on what makes a good player
  • There’s a perception that the system can be “gamed” through player responses, such as organised or block voting.

One suggestion is to go back to server-bounded queues to enforce reputation, but is that practical when looking at the vast imbalances in population that we’ve seen? It’s likely that LFD and accessible server transfers are the only thing preventing wholesale realm mergers.

Stealing Netflix’s Playbook

So if we can’t agree on what we like in a LFD player and yet still want a better form of group matching than straightforward “time in queue”, what other options are out there? It just so happens that there’s a form of selection and suggestion algorithms tailored to do this very job.

If you’ve bought anything online then you’ve probably come across a box on a website that suggests other things you might be interested in to go along with your past or current purchases. Sometimes these are pretty basic, based on what other people bought to go with the thing you’re purchasing. Sometimes they’re a bit smarter and based on the things that you’ve bought or browsed. Amazon’s great at doing this.

The smartest ones not only look at the things you’ve said you like, but also what other people with similar interests to you also like. And from these heavy-duty recommendation engines, Netflix is the one people point to.

For Amazon the reason for having the engine is obvious – they want to sell you more stuff. For Netflix it’s more about keeping you as a subscriber, so it’s in their interest to feed you with a steady stream of movies that it’s likely that you’ll enjoy.

The great thing is that the ability to game the system is much more limited. Since you’re tracking a network of preferences (both explicit and implied) across a number of relationships the ability to influence one single ‘popularity’ figure is diminished. Besides, the only person you’d be gaming is yourself by reducing the cluster of people you would be grouped with.

How would you go about building a recommendation engine? Ask a simple question at the end of each dungeon group:

“Would you group with this player (in this role) in the future?”

Why is this relevant? Well, Warcraft is also subscription based, with a goal is to keep you playing your $15 or £9 a month. At endgame, there’s little content to choose from except raiding and heroic instances. And just as with Netflix giving you films you’ll enjoy, it’s in Blizzard’s interest to put you in dungeon groups that you’ll have fun in. If you’ve got a guild that you can regularly do that with then fantastic. If on the other hand you’re reliant on LFD because outside of raid days your guild is like the Mary Celeste, this is going to be a huge bonus.

The challenge for Warcraft is in creating multi-way recommendation in the same way, and that’s going to be a challenge. Netflix solved the problem back in 2009 by offering a million dollar prize for the best solution. If Blizzard are going to start offering incentives, wouldn’t it be better for them to ask on ways to improve the game rather than bribing us to play a broken system?

The Need for Solutions

There’s a simple reason why Blizzard need to solve this problem – subscriber churn rates. In order to grow the number of subscribers playing a game, you need more people joining up than you have leaving.

Cataclysm was deliberately designed to stimulate the number of new subscribers by improving all the old-world content. What it didn’t do to a huge extent was look at the reasons why people leave, namely burnout with endgame content. As the number of new joiners slows it’ll become more important for Blizzard to focus on this in order to avoid a dip in subscriber numbers.

In the longer term, it’s important for MMO developers to examine this problem as it’s a serious wrinkle in the gameplay experience that they’re currently unable to control. By solving this problem, they gain the ability to deliver more rewarding co-operative group challenges that can be spontaneously or dynamically assembled.

In other words, you get the groups you like. Surely that’s worth something?

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16 Responses to Bribes, Karma and Recommendations

  1. Pingback: Roundup: Better LFD Solutions Than Call To Bandaid | MMO Melting Pot