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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Individualism and Collectivism [@SheepTheDiamond]

Edit: Had some additional thoughts, and adjusted a few things! I do apologize, the post got a bit long.

I was reading Stubborn's post at Sheep the Diamond regarding how certain games push us towards Collectivist or Individualist thinking, and it got me thinking about some of my early games and first forays into the MMO-universe. I think Stubborn's scores (at least for the games I have played from the list) are fairly accurate, but I think I will aim to add to the list in this case and offer my perspective on a few of the other games.

My first true step into the MMO world was Planetside...somewhat of a strange game by today's standards as so far no one has truly offered competition. Rather Planetside dwindled as interest moved to other games and suffered some of the "subscription model" issues when people decide the game isn't worth their $15 a month. However that aspect is the discussion for another day.

In a sense Planetside is fairly collectivist; the player was thrust into the role of a cog in their faction's war machine. Players were (at least during the main cycle of the game's life) locked to a single faction on their server, which bred a strong loyalty to your side. Furthermore, a "respecing" was limited, in that a player could only refund a single certification (think talent point) per day. Often it could take weeks to completely rebuild a character.

Add the limited respec options to a rather strict rock-paper-scissors system between certain builds and loadouts, resulted in a player in Planetside being guaranteed to occasionally end up fighting their counter....meaning more often than not, one had to rely on teammates to help defend them from those. Success in a battle often resulted in "We did it!" sort of cheers as the war machine prepared for its next target. In a sense a single player was often was almost impossible for a single-player to defeat groups larger than 2-3...unless that player hard-countered the others.

However, for each player there was that time that you were the cog that turned the tide of the battle. To take territory you had to "hack" the structure nearby. Hacking was relatively common but required the player stand by a terminal for about 30 seconds, during which time they were completely vulnerable. On occasion, a very successful (and lucky) infiltrator (people wearing camouflage) would be able to sneak to those terminals and "stealth hack" a base or tower. This often turned the tide. To that one person, it was a very individual act that turned the tide...but wait...the ability for that person to sneak in was due to the large army of his allies outside fighting the enemy and thwarting their attention.

Even though this hero would be cheered in the faction channel, there was still a strong feeling of group success. Each cog contributed in some way. Perhaps the aircraft pilot that dropped the infiltrator onto the tower so he could sneak in, or the soldiers fighting the enemy in the lower floors to buy time.

The point I aim to make, is that my memory of Planetside, and of those I stayed in touch with, is often focused on those times that our particular cog became the one that changed the fight...yet we know that typically this was because our actions occurred concurrently to those of a hundred allies.

In conclusion I would rate Planetside as a strong 5; it's lack of loot, rewarding of group activity (both in experience and success), and the way it set players into factions made the game a strong focus about the achievements of the group.

Final Fantasy XI

The game that eventually ushered me towards WoW, I find it also deserves a similar ranking. There is one key difference between it and WoW though. Fundamentally they are fantasy RPG's in which at "endgame" large groups collect to participate in the content. However, in FFXI (until relatively recently, I know much has changed since I departed) it was virtually impossible for a single-player to level. Some of the game's two dozen classes couldn't even solo after level 10 (and the game went to 75) which forced people into groups very early on. Now I combine this with all the traits of WoW. Loot was on an individual basis (as in, while you can sell much of it there were powerful items that were bound, and gaining them often felt adverse to your allies, as though you were in competition), and while it had no addons (in fact the game was designed to prevent them) it tended to be clear who had what role and whether they were being successful in it.

But I wanted to talk a little about what the "forced grouping" to level did to the game. I should mention that in FFXI death was not a simple durability loss; instead, you lost experience and possibly levels through death. Thus death has a powerful meaning to the individual because it could instantly erase HOURS of work (EQ players surely remember this). This meant that a single individual in your GROUP making a mistake could lead to your own loss, despite it being beyond your control.

Even in groups of friends, this added a level of accountability, and a player could be rather certain that by the time they reached the upper levels (50+) that the players in their group, whether random or already acquaintances, would be very proficient in their chosen class.

This added an interesting wrinkle (to me) to the grouping formula. Players who performed poorly often failed to reach the higher levels, and if they did they would quickly develop a reputation on their server. This pushed players to aim to excel (or at least meet the bar) but I found it often made players VERY protective of their role. Within even guilds it was not uncommon for players of the same class to be in direct competition because most other players wanted to eliminate as much risk as possible.  This did add a certain self-selection and enforced internal culture and minimum standards of behavior, but because there was no real benefit to being in a particular guild, it did not bring people together as much as it made it often more efficient to simply shop around as needed.

Quests added another issue; FFXI class specific quests often required killing a specific monster...the problem is they tended to require an item of which only one dropped. Meaning that if you had multiple people trying to complete the quest, you'd need to wait for respawns...many many respawns.

I find this interesting because the end result for me was actually a feeling that while this game was intended to be collectivist, it ended up pushing players towards a more individualistic mentality.

There is one place it did succeed, in that while FFXI forced grouping, it also made players much more effective and powerful as a group. Players could perform "skill chains" off the abilities of others, causing more damage. Some classes existed to "buff" other players, and others had abilities that required collaboration with one's allies. I think these were a great step on the road to collectivism. Bearing in mind that ideal of a collectivist game would be to make the group more effective than a collection of individuals.

So all in all the game earns a solid 2, despite its design goals of trying to be a very collective game (and often forcing collective behavior for success) it's consequences for failure and other attributes often pushed players towards individual achievement and focus.


I fully agree with Stubborn on this one; while WoW may require groups to do anything in the endgame, its design decisions have undermined that collectivist intent. Because loot is a competitive process, classes are highly interchangeable, and things like addons and ratings encourage a personal focus, the game actually makes each individual focus on himself than on the faction. Even a brief step into a PvP battleground would show that often players that are supposed to be allies are just as vapid towards each other as enemies ought to be (which is ironic because Battleground PvP is the least individually-competitive portion of the game).

While some guilds and communities do manage to move their group towards a collectivist style (my guild being an example), they do this through external means (my guild is mostly RL friends) rather than because the game itself eases the behavior.

How do we make things more collective?

I noticed that Stubborn's list hovered around the 2 area, meaning the majority of games (especially WoW-esque MMOs) focus on more individualism than collectivism. I think many of the keys lie in the elements that Stubborn pointed out (addons which show individual performance, loot that is adversarial and individual, systems which do not enhance loyalty to a group).

I do not mean this to be an endorsement of collectivist behavior or a recommendation thereof, simply a thought experiment on how it might be achieved.

The gist of these are that they reward the individual for mercenary behavior; rather than for benefiting the group as a whole. WoW guilds are another example. There is but one guild leader who has all the power and authority, despite many guilds moving out of game towards more democratic or alternative leadership methods. However these are not directly supported in game, and at any time that leader can exert their authority (which, with the introduction of guild perks, can have a negative effect on others). While guild perks were meant to benefit people for sticking around, their relative ease of access and power made it more efficient to "sell" guilds and instead set a bar to entry for newer guilds (members being less interested in guilds with fewer perks).

So speaking very generally, for a game to become more collectivist it would need to encourage people to work in a community, stay with this community, benefit them for doing so, and reward people for group actions rather than individual accomplishment. This might mean a move towards things like Valor points as the main means of accumulation of loot, because having individual items puts the players in the group essentially at odds with each other due to competition for said items. Furthermore, raid mechanics which require each player to succeed individually (read: dance fights) are more individualistic because they allow a single person's failure to affect the rest of the group. Instead, mechanics which focus on the aggregate of the group and its average capability become more collective, because singular failures are often compensated for by singular successes. I noticed this in 10-man raiding especially, because a single dead player could result in a wipe during many fights. Rather than requiring each individual to fail or succeed on their own (and potentially fail the group if the former) focus mechanics on requiring the groups coordinate and work together. This may still allow for individual failures but if designed correctly then another individual can compensate for that. Alternatively, make it very clear when an individual fails at their role...harsh as it may be, and try to use this to push the player towards the expected performance level. More overt indicators of someone failing the group often lead to internal self-selection in which the "right" behavior is reinforced while "wrong" behavior is punished by game mechanics. In this way it is clear who is doing the wrong thing, rather than the person feeling "guilt". In this case the shame is clear and obvious, encouraging the person to fall back in line. If we are all benefited based on aggregate performance then it behooves individuals to do better; and no one wants to be the person that prevented the group from succeeding.

One example on the right track would be Thaddius from Naxxramus (in WoW) a fight in which the players increased their raid's damage by matching like "charge" buffs. In fact doing so was critical to beating the boss. Failure to properly match often lead to death (the "shame" feelings of collectivist behavior). Mechanics who's strategy start with "We all have to..." rather than "Two people have to..." make the particular task a group effort.

In essence, design encounters to focus on making a group "greater than the sum of its parts" rather than a set of individuals all aiming to perform at a certain level. Avoid situations where a single player (or small subset) can "carry" the others and instead require the group work together with fairly equal contribution by each. Going back to my discussion of Planetside; give opportunities for heroism but make them occur because of the group's collective efforts.

When putting players in groups or factions, try to reinforce feelings of faction "identity" and push people towards like communities within that subset. I might call this the "United States" approach. Each subset is a "state" while the faction is the "country"; there should be feelings of large-scale unity, while also preserving small-scale cultures. This sort of game would reinforce being "one of us" rather than a "unique snowflake".

Lastly and perhaps most importantly is that there should be a reason to remain with a particular community. Individualist games like WoW make groups temporary and disposable. Your LFR, LFD and sometimes even guild raid groups are temporary. The culture surrounding them is more focused on "What can I get?" instead of "What can we achieve?" because the fundamental reward system reinforces individual benefit. Sometimes players have no chance to form communities, or lack the proper tools to do so. Looking for Guild in WoW is a perfect example of a poor tool; with only a handful of interest options (most of which all guilds claim to be interested in) players can't get a feel for the "culture" of a guild.

It comes down to benefit; a player has to benefit more by staying with a community than by moving on after he/she has extracted their immediate reward. Right now WoW is designed to benefit people who shop-around for guilds that suit their immediate needs. This is likely because collectivist benefits often are more long-term, and games tend to be more oriented towards short-term rewards. FFXI's culture did have one example of this in which some players realized that it was easier to find groups to level in by forming "static" groups; players who would meet to level at certain times. This eliminated the uncertainty of finding a group, and added accountability/familiarity to your leveling party. In other words, the player benefited more from remaining with this community than from leaving it. In more short-term practice, it should be of benefit to a player to join a group, but not just any group; the "right" group. For gaming, that typically means one which shares the player's intensity and goals, then benefits all of those players for working together.

To conclude and re-iterate, to succeed at making something collectivist, a game needs to aim for setting up situations where the group is "greater than the sum of its parts" just like in real life. An orchestra enchants the ears because all the pieces are working in concert (see what I did there?), not just because you have a room full of talented musicians. Forced grouping tends to do this poorly because it just puts players at odds with each other, or gives them a feeling of the group just being a means to an end.

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