So after a lot of wandering the badlands of overly restrictive MMO grouping rules, we fetched up in Firefall, which I’m quite enjoying. The game itself is decent enough, a kind of jump-pack fueled riot of colours and noises and massive areas of effect. There’s some kind of plot there to do with Nantes and an alien space plague and a crashed spaceship, which found some special crystals, while carrying out the first ever FTL jump, which mutated all the wildlife in Brazil, and gave powered exoskeletons to everyone! Now I come to explain it to someone else…
There is such a thing as trying too hard, and I think the only trope from my Sci Fi Bingo Card that I didn’t see in the opening cut-scene was “They Look Like Us Now”. (They really don’t.) But who cares! It’s astonishing how easy it is to completely ignore the plot, mission texts and what passes for any kind of narrative campaign structure and just drop in there and go utterly loopy with jetpacks and a variety of satisfying and amusing class-based weapons, powers and grenades. As long as there’s a yellow arrow to follow, the rest is entirely superfluous!
So I’m enjoying the basic jumping about and shooting things, which is hugely important. If the moment-to-moment stuff works, you often don’t need the rest of the twiddley bits, which in more turgid MMOs tend to act as an incentive to slog on through the tab targeting and hotkey rotation. Firefall plays a lot like Tabula Rasa and Defiance, I’m finding, and I always liked both of those. I play a lot of other games these days, but still find time to solo about in there.
But the main reason I’m there is because it turned out to be a decent candidate for the big Static Group Nights. We don’t ask for much from our online clubhouses, only that the game has no levels, no classes and can provide meaningful and fun content for groups of 2-13 people. That’s pretty reasonable I think, but few of the usual lineup meet our needs, and it’s always been a bit of a struggle.
We can work around some of it, and several titles have done well for our nomadic selves in the past, lasting longer than the three weeks it takes us to work out why a game won’t work for us. Old timers like Warhammer Online and Guild Wars, which despite various other faults, catered to the way our gang wanted to play. We had a few good runs at Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online, and more recently Planetside 2 and Defiance have done well to cater to us. I guess EVE Online ticks most of those boxes too, but never quite gained popular traction among us. Private Server Minecraft is popular (Check the Steam Group for details of that), but I’ve never had the guts to suggest Tale in the Desert, Wurm Online or the SWGEmu! Not all our gang like Mining!
Most often we find that the Traditional Mainstream MMO is about the least well-suited to the way we want to play. World of Warcraft (and similar) have a habit of forcing us to pick specialisation roles (tank, healer, etc) which never works well for our week-by-week drop-out, drop-in attendance. Every other week, we’ll fetch up with three tanks and no healer.
They force us to play for exactly the same amount of time each week, for fear of falling behind or getting ahead, a problem further compounded by VIP/Lifetime/Founder XP Bonuses, vs F2P flat rate xp. We’re a widely varying degree of casual player, on the whole.
They force us to break up into groups of precisely five, or four, or six, or whatever arbitrary number has been picked for balancing purposes. I think it’s this last one that irks me the most, making me pick my four most favourite friends, then tell the rest to go sit on the bench. Which is frankly unacceptable, and I wonder sometimes if these games think that they are more important to me than my friends…
All of these are solved problems, by the way. City of Heroes solved levels twice; at launch with Mentoring and Sidekicking. “Have a friend who doesn’t play as much? No problem! Click here to become their level for the day. Or have them click to be your level!” They solved it a second time by extending the hijinks to the entire group. “You know what? Why don’t you just pick a level you want to be? We’re all adults here; it’ll be fine.” Many other MMOs followed suit, even including Everquest 2 of all games, so frankly if your MMO doesn’t also do this, It Is Broken.
Most MMOs have more trouble getting past the Trinity, but Rift has an admirable solution; give each class access to lots of sub-variant classes, which can carry out the different required roles as needed. My Rogue can happy flick between a Melee DPS, Support Buff/Debuff, Tank and Healer. Once I’ve set these up, I can swap them in the field with the press of a hotkey. If the roles have to be there, let anyone who is willing have a go at them, rather than forcing the same well-meaning members of the peer group to ‘take one for the team’ and be a tank or healer all the time, in every game. Dedicated players just end up grinding out one of each anyway, and likely come to resent the game for it. Yay, The Lone Lands, again!
Better yet, just get rid of them entirely. Most of the more modern MMO-ey action shooter type games tend to do this, along with Guild Wars 2. Having someone who can heal nearby is nice, but far from necessary, and other sorts of groupwork can be emphasised instead; positional play, timing, shared combos, overlapping damage types, puzzle bosses, etc. Surely we’re not still at the stage where having two team members distract the enemy while everyone wails on it (but not too much!), is still a Thing? If more than eighty percent of your players can’t get through a groupfinder queue in under two hours, It Is Broken.
But it’s the arbitrary group-sizing that I keep coming back to and swearing at. I’m a big fan of the excellent MMOsketeers Podcast, and over recent months I’ve been listening to the troubles they’ve been having trying to three-man four-man dungeons in The Elder Scolls Online. There are three of them, you see, and rather than grab some silent random Efficiency-Bot 8000 from an LFG tool, they’d rather just play among themselves. Not an unreasonable request – playing with silent random strangers in MMOs generally makes me feel uncomfortable too. But the game is punishing them for nonconformity. Very recently, they’ve found a fourth and by all counts, everything is going swimmingly. Let’s just hope they don’t have another friend turn up, or things will get awkward again!
I listen, and nod and sigh. We’ve always struggled on in a similar spirit, making life difficult for ourselves by shortmanning it, rather than abandon our own social ties in favour of what… artificial ones the game seeks to manufacture expressly for the purpose of pixel bosses and pixel loot? We’re stubborn though, and when faced with six players at a five-man instance, will usually struggle with two groups of three rather than make someone go away.
Perhaps it’s not so sinister. Perhaps making dynamically scaling content is hard. Still, there are solutions; City of Heroes (spotting a pattern here…) solved this in elegant mathematical fashion with its zone events and world bosses; no matter how many people showed up and at what level, the bosses were somehow always ‘just right’, for every participant. Rift and Defiance, with the Rift/Arkfall public quest type mini-events manage to dynamically adjust the challenge on the fly stepping up enemy numbers and stats depending how effective you all were on the preceeding phase or wave. Every now and then it would go spectacularly wrong, but mostly it works well. Lotro’s Skirmishes were cruder; simply offering many different group-sizings to choose from, leaving it to us to find something suitable. Again – the trust; “You choose – you know what you want best.”
Firefall seems to have legs. It doesn’t have mentoring or sidekicking that I’ve seen, but does provide you with five selectable batteframes, (classes), which act as in-game alts, allowing different players to drop back to a lower levelled ‘self’ on the fly, and carry on. Not ideal, but manageable. The Tank, Healer, DPS thing is sort of there, but so lightly applied as to be negligible, so we ignore it entirely! Healing is nice, but anyone can pick fallen comrades up and anyone can stock up with simple crafted health packs. The group size thing is giving us troubles though. Six is a group, and more is a Platoon, which is fine, but the usual multi-group cobblers starts to apply. Kills made by Group A don’t give xp to Group B, etc, etc. Shortsighted! We get by though, and rather than seek out actual Raids, we tend to just Platoon up and go attack the Solo Content for People Who Are Five Levels Higher than us. A compromise, but it mostly works for us.
The ideal Friday Night game is something we’ve almost found, several times, but never quite. Firefall will do for now, but I doubt we’ll stop looking any time soon. I just wished we all lived nearer – could just go down the pub!