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The Soapbox: Eat your tanking or you won't get your ice cream

Eliot Lefebvre

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Picture this -- you're a parent of a squalling child. (For some of you, this may be a very easy picture as you sit at the dinner table.) Your child is refusing to eat his or her dinner on the basis that the broccoli doesn't taste like doughnuts covered in Skittles. Being a mature adult and realizing that a lifetime of Skittle-based food toppings is not a viable dietary choice, you are trying to patiently reason with said child despite the fact that the child assumes Kevin at school is evil incarnate because he took the good swing despite your child's having called it.

Eventually, you break down. You tell your child that a special treat awaits if he or she eats all of those vegetables. And so your child queues up for a random heroic in World of Warcraft, and -- wait, we skipped ahead of the metaphor, but that's essentially what the whole Call to Arms feature boils down to. And it brings up interesting questions of bribery, choice, and what makes a fun and functional mechanic.

The fact is what the fact is...

On the face of it, the whole feature is a brilliant way of acknowledging a problem that has long existed within World of Warcraft's dynamics. There are fewer tank players than DPS, which isn't entirely unexpected -- when 13% of your builds can tank and 74% can DPS, one of those is going to show up in much higher numbers. But tanking also requires a certain level of responsibility that DPS doesn't always match, due to the way the game's encounters are designed. Put simply, bad DPS can be "carried" in ways that bad tanks can't, and people get much more touchy about tanking.

The best part is that the feature is self-correcting. If everyone starts playing a tank instead of healing, well, the bonuses go to the underrepresented role. And if everyone starts playing the less-damaging roles, then presto, now DPS is in the catbird's seat. As populations shift with the times, so too do the incentives. And while the added bonuses aren't necessarily going to make time spent in endgame raiding any easier, they will make you feel like you really are getting a reward out of the whole procedure.

"MMOs are, by their very nature, social exercises. There does need to be a certain amount of social engineering going on."

Most tanks freely admit that they don't use the Dungeon Finder as often as other players do because the tanks just don't need it. By simple virtue of rarity, a good tank tends to be inundated with requests for runs anyhow, and very rarely does a tank have much trouble finding the chance to get equipment. Besides, any time tanks want a run, they can queue up and have it ready and waiting. Adding more rewards for players whom you want to play more is just a logical next step.

It's the same as the example we used to open off this particular article. As an adult, you understand that you need to eat things that don't necessarily taste good, because the alternative involves malnutrition and eventual death. Children don't know that, so you offer a reward for good behavior until the good behavior becomes a habit.

On the face of it, this seems like the sort of rule that just begs to be adapted for other games. It's not as if WoW is the first game to ever have a lack of tanks or healers or some other crucial role. Guild Wars 2 takes the approach of just gutting the idea of these roles altogether, but why not give players some added incentive to play a needed role? Reward the people who are on the fence and they'll come over to the side you want.

... even if it's not the fact you're stating

Here's the thing -- the similarity between a child who doesn't want to eat vegetables and a player who doesn't want to tank is only superficial. You can't design human nutrition to not require vegetables or protein. You can design a game to not have the role split we just discussed.

WoW has long had an endgame design narrowed down to just running raids or taking part in the intensely competitive high-end PvP game. But this is by design, and Cataclysm has hit the group content pretty hard. Random heroics are meant to be a gateway into raids, meaning that if you don't like raiding or can't participate, you are effectively locked at a certain tier of content. You can only get so far and then no further. But this is by design, not a natural law, and if developers wished to change it, the tools are available.

"But rather than making people want to play a tank, the Call to Arms makes players want to be a tank."

Tanks avoid queueing up for heroic runs because the runs themselves aren't fun for those tanks. And rather than adjusting something in that equation, Blizzard is choosing to adjust something external, to promise better rewards if you just suck it up and do something you don't enjoy, which is a reasonable goal if you're a parent trying to keep your five-year-old healthy and a less reasonable goal if you're a game designer telling people to play a part of your game that isn't fun.

Of course, some tanks are queueing, either because they need the extant rewards or because they find the runs fun enough after all. But there's a definite strain of thought that's been running around ever since Cataclysm was released that the endgame just isn't fun any longer, and so bribery is being offered to try to essentially trick people into playing the way developers want. It's not a fault of the Dungeon Finder system; it's due to the fact that people don't want to deal with the stress of tanking, and the runs aren't fun enough to justify that additional stress.

Why we do it...

Whether you agree with the rosier picture or the nastier picture painted above, it's hard to argue that the feature won't work. At a certain critical mass, it's easier to keep playing and roll with the changes than stop and ask whether you're still genuinely enjoying the gameplay, and so WoW soldiers on despite the fact that the game is now essentially paying people for taking on roles they don't find fun.

MMOs are, by their very nature, social exercises. There does need to be a certain amount of social engineering going on. But rather than making people want to play a tank, the Call to Arms makes players want to be a tank. You want the extra rewards and as much prestige as you can get -- you never get a genuine feeling of responsibility or bond with the other players in your group.

And the fact of the matter is that WoW went the extra step beyond just making leveling a solo experience and has made tanking a solo experience. You sit around for a minute in the queue until your instance comes up. If you're very lucky, you get a pat on the back for a job well done. Is it any wonder that healers and tanks -- classes picked by players who want to take a role in a group effort -- shy away from the most solo-friendly group mechanic in existence? If the instances themselves are more hard than fun, and you don't get the satisfaction of helping friends complete something difficult, why do it at all?

... and why we shouldn't

When RIFT was still in the beta stage, both developers and players noted that there was a distinct problem with how the dynamic rift events were taking place. In short, players were all running around without any real organization and with no incentive to work as functional parties on the fly, because making parties was time-consuming and awkward. In response, an open grouping system was put into place to make it easy for players to switch from solo mode to group mode on the fly and then disperse just as easily. There's an incentive to think of yourself as a group member, an idea that the leveling experience can be filled with friends as well.

That's not to say that a solo experience is necessarily detrimental. But if leveling and (fundamentally) most group experiences are pretty much self-motivated and centered around rewards, the game needs to provide other ways for players to connect with one another. The fault lies not with the Dungeon Finder or the Call to Arms feature but in the fact that players are strangers outside of dungeons. There's no other meaningful need or reason for two WoW players to interact.

It's a little move with a lot of takeaways for future game development. One could draw out a lesson about making the game too convenient and thus rendering players unwilling to accept any greater challenges. You could claim that it shows what happens when you take out social interaction until the endgame. There's even something to be said for the holy trinity design and what happens when one role is less fun to play.

I think it's just a kind of sad story about what happens when you confuse "good" design with fun design, when you look at your finely tuned, challenging dungeon and wonder why everyone hates it. Because of the way gamers have responded to the lack of social interaction, the lack of meaningful rewards, and the stress of a difficult dungeon added to the innate stress of tanking, the development team is bribing players to take on a vital but less than enjoyable role.

Hey, I love my vegetables. But I know when I'm being tricked into eating them.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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