Vague Patch Notes: Sub-optimal play vs. just plain bad play in MMORPGs

There's bad play and then there are bad players

    
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Be better.

Something we need to start reckoning with when it comes to MMOs is the fact that it really is a problem when you’re playing badly in group content.

This is one of the things that the community, as a whole, has a difficult time with simply because we don’t establish very solid boundaries. For a certain slice of the player population, bad play is a synonym for anything sub-optimal. The boundary between optimal and sub-optimal play varies for each individual player, but it’s generally accepted to be elitist nonsense if, say, you’re going to call a Scholar garbage in Final Fantasy XIV if you get a single unnecessary heal cast on you.

But there’s a world of difference between the Scholar who uses Adloquium when perhaps she doesn’t need to and the one who casts no spells other than Physick and never touches his faerie. Both of those are, in the broadest sense, bad play, but one of them is really not worth getting upset about, while the other one is literally making it unlikely to impossible to get through actual content. So let’s talk about that space between sub-optimal and just plain bad because it is a deep and uncomfortable well to explore.

It’s not exactly hard to understand why people started getting bent out of shape over being called “bad” for anything sub-optimal. This is one of those things that’s been in existence as long as there have been role-playing games of any sort. One set of options is always going to produce better results than another set, and there are always going to be people who see the best options and want to play with those.

The tier system for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition tends to illustrate how this can be a real problem rather than just an elitist power trip thing. If you’re playing a Cleric in that version of the game, you have an enormous amount of raw power and options. If the rest of your party consists of a Fighter, a Monk, a Rogue, and a Barbarian, your GM can either create challenges appropriate for the rest of the party that you defeat handily without breaking a sweat, or create challenges appropriate for you wherein the rest of your party is functionally just a cheering section.

Of course, the differences are rarely so stark in most video games. Once you get past the jankiest and oldest games, you can make a lot of sub-optimal choices, but very few of them are actively bad and unplayable. Yes, your Retribution Paladin in The Burning Crusade would not be tearing up the World of Warcraft damage charts, but you were still functional and still had the ability to help your party. It was a sub-optimal choice, not a non-functional one.

YOU SHOULD BE RESTO NOOB

As a community, we’ve long accepted as an aggregate that shaming people for deliberately made sub-optimal is generally not a good look outside of being an elitist jerk. Thus, outside of elitist jerks, criticizing people for things like that has become socially unacceptable. You don’t do that.

Unfortunately, “bad player” is not actually synecdoche for “sub-optimal player.” There are players who aren’t just making sub-optimal choices but are actively crippling their characters, not because of decisions as much as because of a failure of skill.

We’ve all met these people. The dude who can’t stay out of the fire. The DPS pulling things ahead of the tank after being asked to stop. The tank with all the defense of wet tissue paper. The Guild Wars 2 dungeoneer who treats the rest of the party like his personal minions. People deep in the Dunning-Kruger abyss, unable or unwilling to realize how bad they are and able to rationalize away feedback by claiming that the source is being elitist.

None of this is a problem if the person in question is playing solo, of course. If someone’s own incompetence turns the early levels of Star Wars: The Old Republic into a death march, that’s that player’s problem. But if that player then queues up to join you in a flashpoint without a trace of situational awareness, you are now paying the price for it.

The bright side, of course, is that the modern age of design means this sort of situation is at least less crippling than it used to be. There was a time in WoW, for example, when my wife and I spent the better part of an hour assembling a full party and filling in the tank and two DPS spots we needed, only to find out once we were in the dungeon that our tank did not actually have the gear or knowledge necessary for tanking and wasn’t actually all that good at the DPS thing, either. Given the choice, I far prefer “that’s five minutes of my life I won’t get back” to “that’s an hour and a half of my life I won’t get back.”

Heck, it wasn’t even unheard of in Final Fantasy XI to have players everyone knew was garbage but leveled up because they were playing a job that you could safely shove into “we need a sixth” slots. A friend of mine was even in a linkshell with a notoriously awful player who kept going because, well… you needed six people to grind and sometimes he was there. It was apparently worth it.

Yes, very impressive.

But the real question isn’t how these players manage to get up to higher levels; it’s how they keep managing to play without someone pointing out along the way that they are terrible at what they’re trying to do. These are people who barely grasp the basic mechanics of the game and still somehow manage to fail through the game, never really understanding that the chief reasons for being unwanted in groups is due to truly awful play.

Because we do, rightly, reject elitist chest-pounding as a valid reason to criticize someone in the middle of group content, but in doing so we’ve also created a space wherein people are reluctant to criticize others at all. It’s better to just suffer through it and just never group with that person alone. There’s no way to kick someone from a dungeon group for being bad because that’s a culture ripe for abuse by the elitist segment.

And this is, to be fair, really difficult to balance just right. You want a cultural setup wherein people aren’t afraid to play sub-optimally but are also pressured to at least be capable of putting forth appropriate effort into playing decently with others. It’s a tightrope act of balancing outside pressures, and I don’t have an actual good answer because as much as I dislike someone playing Black Mage and just casting Blizzard over and over, I likewise dislike someone trying to vote-kick another Black Mage who’s keeping up her rotation but prioritizes dodging a little more than she does.

But I do know that at least some of it starts with understanding that the two things are not commensurate and shouldn’t be directly compared. There’s a difference between playing sub-optimally and just being terrible at the game, and we need to acknowledge that making a talent choice considered less than ideal but that you find fun is not the same as running forward and dying to the first boss mechanic.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Rodrigo Dias Costa

I love Retrib pally so much… yeah, I’ll not defend it. :p

smuggler-in-a-yt
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smuggler-in-a-yt

I give you the Pareto Principle

oldandgrumpy
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oldandgrumpy

I guess Elliot that you haven’t every seen/heard the call for a warm body then just to fill the group.

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TomTurtle

How you say something can be just as important if not more important than what you say.

The language you use to address someone who is playing poorly can make a big difference for many of those players in how they respond to critique. It’s not an applicable strategy for every player, but it’s worth trying to avoid outright initial hostility. Patience and respect goes a long way.

I totally get why people get worn down and lose any semblance of patience, but it’s still not a justification for giving up and adding to the problem. Luckily there are ways to minimize that stress by finding like-minded players or, if necessary, abstaining from content that sets you off.

As mentioned by others, it’s also important for a game to teach you its mechanics, something which many MMOs do not do a good enough job at. That should also be paired with requiring a level of basic proficiency throughout the game rather than a one and done tutorial experience.

Does that mean every part of a game needs to constantly push a player’s skills to the max? No, but there should be an appropriate balance that doesn’t lead to an abrupt spike in difficulty that the game didn’t prepare a player for well enough.

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Schmidt.Capela

This is why I really wish MMOs had tutorials on how to play each role, coupled with automated tests to verify if the player has at least the minimum proficiency (and gear) required to clear group content before being allowed to use automated LFG tools. while player that passes one such test isn’t guaranteed to be a good group player, one that is incapable of even that is guaranteed to not be up for the task, and removing those from the random queues would reduce a lot of the frustration in using LFG tools.

oldandgrumpy
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oldandgrumpy

I have often wished for the first run flag for myself as despite youtube etc first time in a new dungeon is always a challenge. Not the least as to which way to go if it is not linear.

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Anstalt

I really like this idea!

Like, putting a fresh level-capped tank into a solo instance. There are 5 enemies and 4 npc allies. Tank has to keep aggro from all 5 enemies for minimum 95% of the time and not die to pass the test, proving that they can handle aggro and mitigate enough damage.

Or, a healer challenge where they have to keep the AI group alive through some tough encounters. Perhaps it could be deliberately be set so that the new healer has to make a choice between the tank and a DPS – if they try to keep both alive they’ll fail, if they focus on the DPS theyll fail, thus teaching them to prioritise healing?

Enemies would be scaled to your stats/level/gearscore or whatever to ensure you couldn’t just cheese the tests with superior gear.

Alternatively, just don’t put an LFG tool in the game at all. Works out better for the community in the long run :-)

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athiev

The Secret World had something almost exactly like this with the Gatekeeper. It was fun content and taught key tactics pretty well. It also had no LFG tool at launch. Which… wasn’t as great. The game’s progression was basically about dungeons but the lack of a group finder dissuaded a lot of players from spending the often huge time to find a group. So it was a big source of population decline and really hurt the community.

laelgon
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laelgon

I’m not one to worry about whether myself or others are doing the meta-approved rotation or have the min-maxed gear, but I have little patience for playing with people who are just plain bad. I won’t scream at them or anything, I will just quietly just drop group and re-queue. I’m not looking to coach people on basic game mechanics while I’m playing and spend two hours on a dungeon run that should take less than 30 minutes because I’m putting out more DPS while tanking and they can’t figure out that standing in the glowing orange circle is bad even after dying to it ten times.

Games are largely to blame for this. Often they make it possible to breeze to endgame without ever grouping with another player, explaining what stats complement your class/build, or even basic skill rotations. So people have plenty of time to form bad habits and assume that they’re playing correctly. Why should anyone expect them to know that their gear is wrong and they are going to be less than useless to a group? After all, what they’ve been doing up until now has worked fine.

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Anstalt

Really good article and subject matter.

As a former guild- and raid-leader, this is a problem I had to deal with a lot. In my experience, bad players tended to fall into three distinct groups:

1) Bad players who know they’re bad who didn’t want to improve – these tended to be quite casual players, mostly playing solo and had decided to enter group content. Upon starting the group content, everyone would realise the player was bad, including the player themselves. I would offer advice and coaching, but the player would decide that it simply wasn’t worth the effort to get better. These players were playing to relax, rather than to have fun or to be engaged. They weren’t a problem socially, everyone just accepted they couldn’t participate in anything challenging.

2) Bad players who know they’re bad and want to improve – these tended to be casual players who are starting to get into the game. They’re having a lot of fun, because (according to raph..) fun is learning and they want to continue learning. Some of these were just newbies, but some had been bad for ages but only now deciding to improve. Honest conversations and offers of advice were great for this group of players. These players were playing for fun.

3) Bad players who don’t know they’re bad and won’t admit it – these were the most problematic people for me. These players couldn’t distinguish between themselves and their character: if their character was capped and had good gear, the player thought that meant they were good too. They tended to be very elitist, despite not being elite themselves. They wouldn’t accept criticism or advice and would stubbornly insist they were good. My solution was to turn to data and rules. For example, we’d use the combat parser in SWTOR to demonstrate that a player was significantly worse than everyone around them. Faced with hard data, most of these players would still be in denial and would just quit the guild, but maybe 5% of them would suddenly “get it” and start to improve.

On the rules front, I would come up with guild rules to try to protect everyone from the bad player. It was rare I’d ever actually kick someone from the guild, but creating clear rules made it easier for everyone to understand their place. Things like proving you can hit DPS targets, or gear scores, or clearing a raid on easymode with the guild 3 times before being allowed into hardmode. I did have some bad player in my guild who somehow managed to find every loophole in every rule I ever came up with (like gaming a dkp system with his alts) but it did mean, eventually, we ended up with some airtight rules and guidelines.

In my experience, these types of players were not playing to relax or to have fun, they were playing for their ego, which is why they couldn’t accept any challenges to that ego.

Nephele
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Nephele

None of what you have written is wrong, but I also think truly bad players are very, very rare. I also think there is a difference between someone who is objectively bad and someone who is simply struggling to learn.

However, one way games can help prevent player toxicity around this is simply to challenge their players early on. Don’t wait until the level 50 group dungeon to teach people to heal effectively or not stand in stuff. Make them learn to do that as they’re leveling up. Even in solo content, if possible. Many games never really challenge their players until the so-called endgame and that only fuels this social problem and makes it worse than it needs to be, imo.

quark1020
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quark1020

This is very true. Not many games put endgame style challenges in their leveling content. Hell, most games don’t even recommend playing anything except damage classes or specs while leveling, so it doesn’t surprise when a true *new* player has problems initially with healing and situational awareness.

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Bryan Correll

never touches his faerie

………………………m’kay

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Baemir

lol faeries are made for touching. they let you do anything!

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jc518x

Sometimes people also say others are bad due to their own mistakes. One guy, let’s call him Craven, decided to pull a mob about 10 levels above us in one of the Desert of Ro zones in Everquest when we were newbies. After we all died he decided to blame me for not healing good enough before bailing on the group. He would later become a guildmate, but he did not see another heal from me until Everquest II when I decided to wipe his slate clean due to my good-hearted healer nature.
F*&#@!g Shadowknights, I swear.