In early January, experiencing the kind of doldrums that readers of an academic blog about video game research are no doubt quite familiar with, I picked up a little expansion to that one game. It took me a while to hit the new level cap of 80. After a few lucky runs, I was in a pretty good spot, and felt up to tackling some of of the end-game content. Poking around a friendly chat channel for a group, I signed up to run a dungeon I’d been through once before, only to be told I was undergeared and unknown, and was bounced from the group. A week later, I managed to connive my way back into the group to tackle a set of the toughest dungeons in the game. By the end of our run, I had managed to upgrade almost all of my equipment, including snagging some of the best gear available for Shamans who specialize in Restoration. This should make my life easier: I’ve got status, I can clear the hardest stuff in the game, right?
It might make sense to equate the gear a player has equipped with their skill level. MMO researchers Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell and Moore pointed to this in their seminal Alone Together?: “…MMORPGS are in essence reputation games. An avatar wearing powerful items, for instance, is essential to the construction of a player’s identity. It broadcasts the player’s status to others and rewards him or her with a sense of achievement”.
But the translation of gear to status is neither transparent nor a one-to-one equivalency. For that sliver of the population for whom high-end content is an acceptable way to spend a few hours on a Friday night, nothing is so simple that you can’t mock someone for getting it wrong. And, as I can demonstrate, there’s far more than just the quality of gear in determining the skill level of a player.
The main mechanical advantage to gear is better numbers- “stats”. New gear gives you faster attack speeds, or makes spells have a stronger effect, or allows you to regain energy faster. But just because gear is better, doesn’t mean it’s right for you. You could be equipped with gear intended for another class, role or activity, for instance: gear which makes my physical attacks stronger when my job is to heal the other players, and not to punch holes in undead monstrosities.
Websites like the official World of Warcraft Armory create profiles of a current character’s gear and statistics. As long as you know the name of the player and the server they play on, you can see what their last set of equipped armor is. The official site also lets you search for ‘upgrades’: gear of similar quality for each slot. But the official site doesn’t provide the sophisicated analysis that can be found on a site like be.imba.hu or lootrank, which model the game mechanics and statistics to provide weighted analysis of specific upgrades: Is a sacrifice of 30 spellpower worth a gain of 45 haste? That depends on your class, role, and, when the diminishing returns of haste are factored in, all of your other gear options available.
These kinds of optimization problems are hard, and players have developed statistical models to determine the relative value of upgrades.To make these statistical models easier, Blizzard recently introduced “Training Dummies”. In older games like Ultima Online, these would allow players to bring their character’s skills up at low risk. Now, they allow players to run the thousands of attacks necessary to build mathematically sound projections. Note, that while they have provided tools to make creating these models easier, the models themselves aren’t in the game or the official website. To find them, players have to consult unofficial sources.
KNOW YOUR ROLE
These statistical models aren’t just developed for gear, though, they are also developed for the spells and attacks of players. The practice of developing these models is called “Theorycrafting”, and is done across numerous websites and boards, public and private. One central hub for Theorycrafting is the web forum of the guild Elitist Jerks (disclosure: I’m an Elitist Jerk.) In these forums, players discuss upcoming features and changes, and optimal choices for competitive gameplay. Using tools like the mathematical notation language Latex, Open Office’s spreadsheet software Calc and a robust understanding of the calculus, theorycrafters dissect the mechanics underlying the gameplay.
Part of how they get access to the enormous piles of data required to validate their models are through the records of combat events (like hits, blocks, and heals) that Warcraft generates. Data parsers like Wow Web Stats analyze many of the quantifiable records of a player’s activities in a particular dungeon, allowing a kind of reflection and perspective that may not be appropriate when in the middle of a boss fight.
One of the advances that Blizzard brought to the MMO genre was the support for client modifications, called ‘Add-ons’. Numerous sites develop, host and review these, and the wealth of options is stunning:from additions of separate minigames, to entire suites of mapping tools and quest archives that pipe in data from other websites. Some guilds have made the use of certain add-ons mandatory for their raiders, while some players find it very difficult to perform their roles as expected without the customizations and extra information provided by the add-ons.
Alongside using a suite of addons, many players are expected to adjust the default controls and settings. The default way to manuever the character around is the typical PC WASD configuration, in which W and S and move the character forward and backward and A and D turn the character to the left and right, respectively. This is perfectly fine for most of the game, but creates a particularly slow response when a player needs to turn around and flee— say, from an incoming fireball. For situations like this, players have discovered a different configuration for movement involving the use of the mouse. Similarly, as boss fights require near-constant attention and rapid responses, many players find the use of keyboard macros very important.
Of course, once these tools are available, they too become part of the established social capital of raid groups: players may be asked to submit WWS logs or screenshots of GUI setups for entry into raiding guilds, and links to poor performances can be used to shame players who underplay.
SEE ONE, DO ONE, TEACH ONE
The most common type of challenge presented in high-end boss fights, the quadratic equation of Raiding’s SATs, are Void Zones, also known as “The Fire”, as in the common refrain “Do Not Stand In The Fire”. The way these work is as follows:
- Boss puts fire on the ground.
- Players in the fire get hurt.
Mechanics like this were introduced early on, but became more common in the previous expansion, The Burning Crusade. Videos like the Shade of Aran Chant) or the legendary Leroy Jenkins are primarily humorous,rather than tutelary for players in the know. But materials can be both funny and informative: for a significantly more complicated fight, the guild My Little Pwnies put together an extraordinary page demonstrating one strategy for taking down the boss.
Sites like Wowwiki, Bosskillers and Tankspot also contain verbose strategies and even videos of boss battles. Wowwiki’s description of the battle with the Death Knight Instructor Razuvious, for instance, includes descriptions of the fight in both simple and harder modes, and includes in-game macros (special commands) that can be prepared beforehand to handle unique mechanics of that fight.
But the tools don’t stop with these descriptions. For a fight in the previous expansion, the German guild Ferox put together a Flash game that simulated a particularly challenging mechanic in which random players were killed and turned into ghosts, the only characters . Guilds could ‘assign’ this simulation to their members, giving them a chance to practice. How many games can claim that they inspire other games as practice?
Blizzard seems to have recognized the value of practice in-game as well: many of the lower-level boss fights in WOTLK rely on mechanics similar to the later bosses, and particularly unique moments can be practiced in other events, like repeatable quests.
While players frequently talk about desiring to group with skilled players, the skill is not perfect aim or fluid arm movements, but rather the skills of knowing the fights well enough to coordinate with other players, knowing the mechanics well enough to adjust on the fly, and knowing the tools well enough to have access to critical information. But much of this knowledge is completely out of game. Does this count as meta-gaming, especially when it appears to be expected by both players and developers? Blizzard aren’t completely silent on the topics of their mechanics, as they’ll discuss changes or bugs in their forums, and explain their reasoning. This channel of communication is certainly intended for the fraction of players who raid, and at times it can be distinctly unfriendly and unwelcoming, despite the presence of the all the tools for learning and opportunities for apprenticeship.
As Mia Consalvo points out in her book Cheating, game communities are using knowledge and skill as forms of social capital. The two are frequently conflated, which makes some kind of sense. But a key skill is knowing what information is available, and how to use it; what works as a totem for displaying skill eventually gets reduced to the mere possession of the right information, and it loses some of its lustre then. As the status value of gear decreases, what other status icons might come in to replace it?
Similar to how the appearance of performance-enhancing drugs has pernicious effects on an entire sport when it appears, this edge in knowledge and status is continually shifting. It appears that there’s a form of mudflation occuring here, in which a game’s natural feedback mechanisms are outpaced by the ability of players to routinize once-challenging content and effectively disseminate that information out. If this is the case, then the competitive streak that drives these optimization efforts continually give players yet another boundary to cross to find a way to broadcast skill.