The Ashran Pre-Form Argument

As the GM of Thundering Hammer Clan I’ve been leading PvP outings of every sort for over a decade now.  We host Rateds, Arenas and randoms; We’ve set up very popular Alterac Valley pre-form encounters for our guildies and associates where we ‘reset’ AV back to its classic glory – focusing on extending the killing as long as possible.  Naturally we were very excited about Ashran when Warlords began and were equally disappointed with the many difficulties the zone encountered along the way.

In all fairness, as a guild we do think some great changes have been made to help Ashran be more fun.  The best changes are probably the extension of the timers on the events and the losers buff.  (Though MQ still needs to be extended a bit more.  It is by far the shortest of the events and can still be completed in less than two minutes.)  Making the events more easily contested is essential to the health of the zone.  Capping participation at 40 each side was probably also wise – although many of us do still crave those larger encounters with hundreds of players.  One series of changes that we think are disastrous though are the recent moves to break up groups that pre-form Ashran.

Allow me to explain.  You see we have led pre-form Ashran groups from day one.  Every change that has come down the pipe has caused us to have to adapt our group forming process, but we’ve always found a way to play together.  Whether it’s just eight of us coming in and taking leadership of a disastrous pug group, or us and 40 of our closest friends having an entire instanced zone to ourselves playing together in Ashran is something we’ve loved doing every step of the way.  In spite of the rocky history of the zone, we love it because the truth is there just aren’t that many places where you can slaughter Alliance with 20 or more of your own community members.  We hate the anonymity of the random BG queue system and even though we do Rateds and love the experience, there are just times when we want to play together with more than 10 and don’t want it to be in ranked play.  Even when it is deeply flawed, Ashran meets those needs.

Over the last six months as most of you know the Hydra group has made quite a name for themselves doing the same thing with Ashran that we’ve been doing – only they’ve used Public Vent and flung the doors open wide where we’ve mostly just stuck to our local server community, providing access for friends and neighbors who frequently like to PvP with us since we are the only really organized PvP group on our server.  We also haven’t advertised as they have.  I suspect in large part that it’s the advertisement that drew the attention of the developers and led to the recent changes.

Well a few nights ago as we were seeding Ashran to get our pre-form group together we got grouped with a Hydra team that was doing the same thing.  This was the first time that we’ve been in anything with them.  We were familiar with Hydra of course and a couple of our members have run with them but most of us had never been in a Hydra group.  I spoke with their group leader and we agreed to team up.  Thundering Hammer took up about a third of the group spots that night since we had really just gone in to test a new seeding method while Hydra ran the other two thirds.

The group was great, they did mostly the same things we do.  A couple of twists here and there that are slightly different from our method, but by and large we had a great time and met some new folks we liked.  Seeing the number of groups they were running that night though, and chatting with our own gulidies on Vent I made some observations about the recent queue changes that have been made in 6.2.2 for Ashran.

The truth is that all of Blizzard’s attempts to interfere with pre-form Ashran groups haven’t really succeeded in stopping the practice.  We’ve been pre-forming Ashran since the day it opened, and of Hydra became famous for it over the last six months.  The last three weeks though seem to have demonstrated that the changes to the queue and grouping systems do nothing to stop larger organizations like Hydra or us from doing what we do.  All it takes is patience and a willingness to throw enough bodies at the problem until the dice rolls come up in our favor.  We spent about 45 minutes last night getting the right number of people into the BG and then another ten using those anchors to get the rest in.  Hydra does the same thing.

 

Larger, dedicated PvP communities who have the manpower and the drive to make pre-form Ashran happen are still going to succeed. The players who have been adversely affected by Blizzard’s Ashran queue system changes are the ones in smaller communities who just want to take eight or twelve of their friends into Ashran together. They want to play together with their existing community and Blizzard has essentially said to them, “No, you can’t do this because people who can leverage fifty players to turn Ashran into a windmill full of corpses are ‘ruining’ the experience for the single-queue players.” Only the changes they make will never actually stop the people with those sorts of resources from accomplishing their goal.

Today’s WoW players are a resourceful, highly networked, highly informed bunch. They are going to develop emergent gameplay to get around your limitations and they are going to do it quicker and more broadly than ever before. And in the mean-time the only people who are going to be hurt by the changes are the ones you’re ostensibly trying to ‘protect’: the less connected, less informed, more casual players.

In Wrath of the Lich King the Blizzard developers made a controversial design decision, placing a huge emphasis on guilds. They built systems and mechanics designed to drive players into guilds. Smaller guilds became a casualty of the process as people migrated into larger communities in order to facilitate guild-wide progress in content. Multi-guild coalitions that had been very common especially on less populous servers during Classic and BC became less and less common as the anchor guilds that supported those communities became centers of gravity that the players migrated to. There were lots of complaints and valid criticisms.

The strategy worked though. In Lich King players were more social and more engaged than ever before. Subscriptions hit their peak and player time investment was at an all time high. The complaints of the people left standing on the outside still rang in the community though and it seemed to prompt a change in design focus as the team prepared for Cataclysm and beyond.

Over the course of the next three expansions Blizzard abandoned the guild focus (no more guild levels, fewer guild achievements) and began building systems designed specifically to cater to those disconnected players who were not part of a thriving guild community. Refinements to the Dungeon queue system, the introduction of LFR, the expansion of alternate means of end game progression for those who could not find their way into a larger guild or raid – all of these systems were designed with the disconnected player in mind.

The secondary (probably unintended) consequence of the growth and enhancement of these systems over the following four years was to decrease the incentive for cooperation, for membership in a vital community. It’s easier to play solo and not have to be involved in a community – and players will do anything that’s easier. It is human nature to seek out the path of least resistance. As a result – and I admit this is anecdotal, but I believe it is representative based on conversations I have had with people on multiple servers – we have more guilds full of people who don’t actually play together than ever before.

The recent decisions of the design team regarding queue systems for Ashran are indicative to me of this new overarching paradigm that has become dominant in the cubicles at Blizzard. The focus of their thought processes has been on expanding accessibility to disconnected players, making it easier for the solo player to find his or her way into group content and progress through that content in a meaningful way regardless of their relative isolation. On the surface this sounds like a laudable and noble goal but actual experience on the ground suggests that the unintended side effects of this focus may be hurting player experiences more than they are helping.

Anonymous grouping of disconnected people results in a host of negative behaviors. (See John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Dickwad Theorem for the short form of this axiom.) The only real check for awful player behavior is the censure of other players. Online communities have demonstrated time and again that when players are empowered to deal with bad actors within the social framework they tend to police themselves relatively well. When those same communities are unable to police themselves though due to the shields of anonymity, low levels of personal cost to undesirable behavior and ease of movement between sub-units within the larger community we see the worst behaviors multiply.

This is exactly what we have watched happen in LFR groups and most notably in Ashran. Players scouting for ‘good’ Ashrans, leaving at the slightest hint of possible failure, ignoring basic mechanics and objectives while seeking the simplest path to a positive outcome, lack of concern for the gameplay experience of their own teammates – these are all behavior patterns we observe regularly in the LFR and random queued Battleground venues. These behaviors have gained special attention in Ashran.

To date Blizzard’s response has seemed to be one of catering to the lowest common denominator. They’ve taken every step possible to make encounters easier to get through and to make experiences quicker and easier to get into. The logic is easy to understand. Waiting in line to get into a BG isn’t any fun. And wiping thirty times because three members of your LFR group don’t know not to drop purple crap on the floor in the middle of healer camp wouldn’t be any fun either.

The real world results however cause many of us to question if these responses are really resulting in a better game. Surely its a more accessible game – no one argues that. Making it easier for your customers to consume your product seems like a no-brainer on the surface. But would you rather wait 30 seconds to get into a Battleground whose outcome is a foregone conclusion or wait 15 minutes to get into a Battleground whose outcome will be contested right up until the final buzzer and whose players will be forced to communicate with each other in order to succeed? In a world where you plainly cannot have both the shorter queue time and the better matched experience, which outcome would most players say is more fun?

Likewise in LFR – is the no-skill-required approach really such a good thing? I personally love that members of my guild who don’t really have any desire to be a part of our weekly raiding efforts can still pop into an LFR and see all the content. I have to question however the larger community-wide consequences of that mechanic. Are we a better community when our members can access that content for ‘free’ as it were, without having to interact with anyone else? Does that cause us to somehow be disconnected? Multiply that effect across dozens of servers and thousands of guilds just in our NA region – what is the total cost to us as a player base? I honestly have to wonder – is the reason that population numbers spike and then drastically decline really just a factor of the market moving away from MMOs and into other genres, or have the design decisions of the past four years contributed to that sea change by removing the built in incentive to connect with and be an active member of a community? Did Blizzard unintentionally short circuit the dynamo that was driving player engagement in Wrath?

Honestly I don’t know – but I do know that the idea of community, of playing WITH others instead of just being in the same space with them at the same time IS on the line in PvP right now. If Blizzard wants more PvP engagement then they should be designing interfaces and systems that drive people into long-term relationship based communities rather than erecting barriers for those that want to play together.

If coordinating 40 people on one side of Ashran is making the battleground less fun for the 40 people on the other side then we at Thundering Hammer would humbly suggest that Blizzard’s best course would be to find ways to lower the barrier to entry into community because those of us who are already in thriving communities are going to find a way over, under or around the obstacles. We log in to play together and we’re going to make it happen.

Instead of trying to short circuit that very healthy drive, Blizzard should be working to make it easier for the other 40 people on the other side of the zone to group with their friends and to make new friends. Make it easier for them to connect over voice chat. Provide interface tools to make it easier to identify objectives, communicate strategic necessities and encourage teamwork. Leverage your outstanding development team and its resources to connect people instead of trying to be the referee that comes between them; Because the moment your MMO becomes about breaking groups instead of building them, you really aren’t designing a ‘Massively Multiplayer’ game anymore. I’m not sure what it is you’re developing at that point, but it isn’t what you set out to make at the start.

As always, see you all on the field.

For our ancestors, For the Clan and For the Horde!

 

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