Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Why are there no tanks?


So this line of thought got kicked off actually a few weeks ago, when I saw this blurb, from the letter from the producer for Final Fantasy XIV - ARR, in response to the question What can they do about the continued lack of tanks in the game?

We review player data every day, and recently there are actually a significant number of players leveling tank classes. When participating in the low level duty roulette, for example, you'll encounter players leveling their tanks and even players that just started a tank class. The number of tanks around level 40 is growing as well, and I believe this number will continue to increase. However, as you all know, there are also a number of players who are simply leveling a tank class because it's easier to queue in the duty finder, so whether or not these players will continue to play as tanks in the long term is still an issue. As things stand now, however, the number of tanks is growing, and I'm sure there are many players who will find tanking to be fun and continue leveling them up, so we're going to keep an eye on how many decide to use their tanks as their main class. If tanks are still in short supply, we would like to consider adding various bonuses such as a specialized mount.

And quite honestly this just flumoxed me.  The need for tanks is so great in Final Fantasy that the producers of the game are considering bribing people to roll up tanks with specialized mounts.  And Final Fantasy XIV certainly isn't alone in this.  WoW has stuck with a strong role combat model (that is, a model that incorporates the oft referred to trinity of tank, dps, and heals) for over a decade, and it still struggles with a lack of tanks in random group play.  And if it's not tanks, then it's healers. And it struck me - we've been doing this for over 20 years.  Why isn't this a solved problem yet?


Tanking isn't the problem
Well the answer of course, is that it's a really hard problem to solve.  It's actually a very complex problem, with many different aspects to it. And in truth, a lot of things are being tried by various  games to solve the problem in many different ways - and some have met with more success than others. But clearly the problem isn't solved for everyone, or we wouldn't be offering special mounts to people just so they'll roll a tank.

Now, as I mentioned, there are many ways to approach this problem, but to keep this from being a 30 page discussion, I'm going to narrow my focus on the topic just a bit. I'm going to start by saying I don't think the answer is as simple as "do away with the roles, or change the roles".  I certainly think that can be an answer, and there are games that are taking that exact approach.  But for many, many people, those games don't satisfy the itch of doing group content together - of having the satisfaction of keeping the party alive through a tough encounter, or holding three different mob's attention simultaneously so the people who's job it is to beat the boss down can in do their job. So let's assume for the sake of this conversation that we want to build a game with not just strong archetype roles - but the roles people are familiar with - that of tank, dps, and healing.  And to a lesser extent perhaps, control.

Pressure? Not with my warlock!
Tanking with Friends
How familiar is this scenario? You join a game at the same time as several of your friends. You all play for a few weeks, then for whatever reasons, your friends move on to another game, but you are still really interested in playing this game. So now you're soloing, but the game still expects you to do some group content to progress. Now you're left with the horror of grouping with complete strangers, or the chore of searching for and joining a guild, or just quitting the game and moving on yourself.  If grouping with strangers wasn't so terrible, or you had more friends in the game, you would probably stay. But instead, faced with terrible pugs, or the chore of finding a decent guild in a game you're not entirely sure you're going to stay yourself yet, you probably just move on.  Now exacerbate this problem with the idea that you've been tanking for your friends. Now, not only do you have to group with random strangers, but the complete burden of knowing each and every mechanic for each boss before you've ever even seen falls squarely on you. No wonder people drop tanks and switch to what we refer to as LOLDPS - who wants that kind of pressure?

Furthermore, I'm going to posit that the problem isn't tanking in and of itself. No more than it is healing. There are plenty of people for whom the mechanics of tanking are a blast.  Sure some games and some classes do better jobs of keeping it interesting than others.  And by the same token, some healing professions provide more variation and better engagement than others, but again - for the people that want to play them, they love them.  I honestly think that more people would play tanks and healers than they do now, but for the social element - the additional burden of responsibility in the group that is thrust upon them.  So instead of trying to talk about ways to fix tanking itself - which I don't think is at the root of the problem - I'm going to talk about some systems to help alleviate the social pressures of tanking.

Scaling the Content
So there are three main areas in which I think MMO's can make this better.  And the first of these areas is introducing players to instanced content really early, and easing the accessibility of that content.  I think many games are already on the right tack with this.  A big part of this I think is the making it so that the first instanced content doesn't even require strong roles.  Examples of content that is already incorporating this notion include WoW's scenarios, Neverwinter's skirmishes, and Final Fantasy's Guildhests.  These types of instanced content present really low-risk, stress free environments. If you introduce them to players early in their leveling progress, it's even better, as they can feel relatively assured that most other folks are also at least somewhat new to this content.  And because they are very low risk, even people that take on typically higher responsibility roles (like tanks) feel less pressure.  I think Final Fantasy does a pretty good job of this - introducing the player to first GuildHests, and then story Dungeons, and occasionally trials as they progress through their classes.  WoW is dipping into this secret sauce with Scenarios.  I think it's a mistake to leave Scenarios for only the high end content, but perhaps WoW can get away with it somewhat because so much of their playerbase is already at level 90.

Once players are familiar with instance groups that don't require strong roles, then you start introducing content that requires better knowledge of the roles, scaling up the difficulty.  Not only does this provide an accessible approach to instanced content, but allows people means to self-regulate to what extent they want to engage in the group content. Some folks may be content to stay with the low stress, low risk scenarios, while others may move on to content that requires greater coordination.

So as I mentioned earlier, some games are already in fact taking this approach. But in those same games, there still is a lack of tanks at the higher ends.  So clearly it's not just accessibility and education.  I think an additional factor that contributes to the pressure one feels when tanking or healing comes from the quality of the group.  And by quality I don't mean how well they play - I mean how well the group's expectations are aligned. Allow me to illustrate.

Casual Night at the Dungeon
If you and a group of your friends are tackling a dungeon together for the first time, you might have all sort of failures along the way.  Bad pulls, surprising boss mechanics.  The night could have a dozen wipes, and yet, strangely, everyone has a blast.  Why? Because everyone goes into the dungeon with the same expectations - we're all new here, we're just learning this fight, if you screw up, it's okay, we're all learning.  I can't tell you how many anecdotes I hear of "hilarious, laugh-out-loud party wipes" encountered by comrades learning together.  Now take any single person in this group, and replace them with a person that has run this dungeon five hundred times. No literally - 500 times, he's farming tokens for some exotic piece of gear he wants.  Suddenly, this guy is not having fun.  All he wants to do is finish his 501st run. He's not interested in party hi-jinks, he knows every aspect of this bosses' fights by heart, and he has no patience for those that don't. Even if he's a member of your guild and a friend, he's most likely still not having fun.  And furthermore, not only is he not having a good time, but his impatience with the rest of the group is now suddenly ruining everyone else's fun too.  So who's to blame?  It's not his fault he's done this a million times. It's not the group's fault the're all new.  The problem here is a misalignment of the group. Where the expectations for the experience for some members are completely out of line with the expectations of others. So what can we do about this?

LFG is not the Devil
A lot of people are pretty well convinced that in-game party matchmaking is to blame for all of today's PUG woes. The argument goes along the lines of "When we used to have to coordinate by hand all the people we put into a group, we knew everyone, and you talked to each other, and you had a great group! Now, with just some random group of 5 strangers, no one talks, no one communicates, and if they do, it's to tell you that you're doing it wrong!"  Well, to a certain extent, this is quite true.  But what a lot of people don't remember is that standing around coordinating a group by hand was incredibly inefficient, time consuming, and laced with all kinds of it's own pain. Like the guy that says he'll join, goes afk while the rest of the group is formed, and then when the group is ready to go, suddenly drops, requiring the entire process to start all over.  LFG tools, Duty Finders, Queues - all of the in-game matchmaking tools you see now were built specifically for the purpose of solving those problems. Providing a means for you to sign up for a group, go about your business in game, and then when a group has been found, whisking you to the beginning of the instance with your newly formed party.  And when done, returning you promptly back to exactly where you were in game.  And LFG tools do precisely that, and typically do so in a capable manner. So if in theory it's so good, why do so many people hate LFG?  It's because the LFG tool doesn't make any attempt at putting together a quality group - one in which the expectations of the party members are aligned.  And it totally could. It easily could.

Better Matchmaking
LFG tools are just matchmaking tools.  Everyone looking for a particular instance (or some set of instances) goes into a big pool. The matchmaker scans this pool continuously, prioritizing people in this pool by a variety of heuristics, such as time spent in the pool, class requirements, gear level, etc. When the matchmaker finds one of each of the class requirements for the instance, it puts them together and they are transported to the instance. Its job is done. What is needed is for instance familiarity to become one of the heuristics.  And this could be easily tracked on a per player basis, by recording how much of the dungeon the player has completed, or how many times in total the player has completed the dungeon.  We get achievements for these things already all the time, so you know it's being recorded. So, players that have never completed the dungeon are pooled with other players that have never completed the dungeon.  And at the other extreme, players that have completed the dungeon 100 times are grouped with other high completions. Suddenly now, players can have some degree of confidence that they're being grouped with similar players. Now, there are of course some wrinkles with this - mostly around narrowing your search pool down too much, potentially increasing queue times. But if you add instance familiarity to your search heuristic, while you may not get perfect groups, you'll certainly get much better groups.  I know if I was playing a  tank and was queuing for a dungeon for the first time, I'd be much more likely to do so if I had some expectation of playing with other people that were new to the dungeon.

So now we have scaled instances, and a better LFG tool. But as I mentioned earlier, the real trick is turning those strangers into friends.  Because ultimately, what's really going to keep people in your game is if they form social ties in your game.  And every single one of these grouping mechanics - every, single, one - is built with the hope that you'll eventually form social ties, and stay in the game.  So if it's so important, why in the hell aren't MMO's doing a better job of incorporating modern day social elements into their game?

Wow's "Other Raids" functionality is close, but deeply buried
Learn from Social Media
So in twitter, what do you do when you see someone talking about content that you're familiar with, want to participate in discussions with, and generally want to associate with?  You follow them.  That person, in turn, sees that you followed them, and if they thought you also provided like-minded content, might in turn follow you back. But they are under no obligation to do so.  It's a much looser social contract than friends, but provides a fantastic means of building associations.  And you could even take further social media lessons, and group the people you follow into circles.  So you might have a "crafting" circle, a "good tanks" circle, and a "roleplaying" circle.  Here's what needs to happen, and isn't happening yet, to my knowledge.  At the end of every instance you run, a popup should appear with the names of all the people in that instance.  And you could put a checkmark next to each person's name to add them to your "follow" list. They are notified you followed them, and they might follow you back, or they might not. They're under no obligation to do so.  But you now have the roots of a casually formed social network.  And you combine that with mechanics to both search your network and to broadcast status to your network. So you might update your status to read "Questing - DnD" when you just want to putter around and not group, or "Forming Celestials Raid - LFM!"  Similarly, you should be able to search your network of people you follow to see those statuses, and act upon them. It's similar to the old spamming a trade chat window to coordinate a group, but you're already coordinating with people that have indicated an interest in grouping with you!  I see some MMO's implementing some part of this - Guild Wars 2 has the notion of "followers", but it's buried deep in their social panel, and almost no one even knows about it. WoW allows you to broadcast chat messages to your Battle.net friends, but again, it's a deeply buried mechanic, and doesn't have any means of searching broadcasts, or marking yourself with particular status.  These mechanics need to be front and center, and all the pieces - from building the network to making use of it, need to be designed to work together. And the thing is, we already have some extraordinarily successful models in current day social media to draw from.

Holy Crap this is Long
So even though I tried to stay focused to solving one particular aspect of what is a many faceted and complex problem, this blog is already way longer than anyone has a right to have to read.  But  I do truly think we can do better towards solving the problem of lack of tanks.  And we do so by taking a fresh look at traditional MMO tropes, and bring them up to the 21st century.  You start by providing a variety of instance types, that scale in the role requirements, so as to provide access points for all types of players.  You follow that up with better matchmaking in LFG tools, that weight heavily on instance familiarity, so better quality of groups are formed, and player's expectations within the group are more closely aligned. And finally, you bring modern day social media elements into MMO social mechanics, allowing players to build, and make use of, followers and circles in the same way they can now with networks like twitter and G+.  I'm one of those people that have tanked, loved tanking, but almost never tank now because of the grief that comes with it. I feel fairly confident that if a game existed with all of these elements in place, there would be a lot less grief - and I would probably tank more.  In any event, share your thoughts and comments below, and hope you enjoyed!