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«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»

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Designing cooperation Even though hundreds of quests exist and more are added with every patch and expansion pack, the appeal of the quest system as the basic underlying structure of instrumental play is finite. As said, after reaching the highest level (in the original World of Warcraft level 60, each expansion pack adding more levels) no more experience points can be earned. From this point on, the endgame starts, and in order to improve a character gear (and therefore stats), players often head to World of Warcraft’s many endgame dungeons (designed for small groups) and raid dungeons (designed for large groups). Within these dungeons are “bosses”, the strongest types of mobs in the game which, when defeated, yield the best rewards. Bosses form challenges unlike most of the solo content, as they require a group of players who, through an often lengthy process of trial and error, need to learn their attack and defence patterns in order to defeat them. If players want to continue advancing and improving their instrumental power, they simply must turn to others for instrumental group play. Two design mechanisms drive and control this form of instrumental group play, both imposing a certain vision of cooperative play on players: the first addresses the economics of availability of the game’s “best” rewards, the second shows how intended group configurations control collective action.

For many players with a preference for instrumental play, the leveling process, though fun, is seen as something that stands in the way of the core game experience: collecting the best gear possible in the group-based endgame phase. Even legendary weapons that should be rare or even unique according to Warcraft’s fiction can be obtained by each player who puts enough time and effort into it.

Over time, World of Warcraft also made epic items more available to players less inclined or able to join raid groups, ensuring that such players, deemed “casual” by hardcore players, never reach a point of saturation for their character. Some exceptions to the rule aside, unlimited and equal availability of items defines World of Warcraft’s internal economy. For Fine, who recognized similar economics in tabletop role-playing games, the equal availability of goods on an instrumental level makes sense, even if it is often unexplainable on a fictional level. ‘Because part ii controlling the game the rationale for the existence of the treasure is frequently left undefined’, explains Fine, ‘an unlimited supply of “good” is possible, and this maintains players’ interest in the game’ (1983: 77). In an effort to explain the appeal of the economics of MMORPGs, economist Edward Castranova lists several responses, the first of which is quite simple: consumption and acquisition is enjoyable in and

of itself (2005: 177). Other reasons Castranova gives are directly related to instrumental play. The economics are directly tied to defining elements of games:

player effort, quantifiable outcomes and systems to valorize and attach meaning to such outcomes. They include getting fair returns for work and skill, creating one’s own personal rags-to-riches story, injecting meaning and purpose into gathering gear and other virtual goods, creating competition under equal opportunity, generating risk situations, and providing the means to own property (2005: 177-179).

The way the in-game economy is set up can make a game more interesting and/ or challenging, but we should not forget that it represents a certain world view including, as Fine reminds us, an ‘implicit philosophy or ideals by which the

world operates’ which players will adopt in order to succeed and/or survive (1983:

76). According to Fine, one of the world views that has been part of the roleplaying game genre since its tabletop days is the principle of unlimited goods in American culture: ‘the structure of dungeons and fantasy worlds reflects the American image of a potentially unlimited supply of treasure’ (1983: 76).39 The unlimited availability of items implies that all players will, in the end, be wanting, wearing and wielding the same gear. This might lessen the enjoyment of being different and/or “stronger” than other players. Many items are therefore rationed through a chance-based system, leading to scarcity for the most coveted items.

The chance a boss will “drop” a certain rare sword might be designed to be only 5%. Low drop rates mean that groups of players will have to return to the same dungeon over and over again to collect all the items they want. Even if you finally obtain the rare sword you wanted, another player in the group might still be looking for his rare staff. Playing on to help friends get the item they want might be a social act but it is nonetheless driven by the way item availability is allocated.

While it might take time and effort, players almost always have access to more and better items, and are teased with these items through deferral and repetition, potentially leading to addictive levels of consumption (and, one could argue, play). Taking this one step further, new media scholar Scott Rettberg sees a MMORPG like World of Warcraft as a ‘convincing and detailed simulacrum of the process of becoming successful in capitalist society’, with playing serving as a ‘form of corporate training’ (2008: 20). We could argue whether this situation is corruptive or educational in nature. Either way, the capitalist ideology embedded in World of Warcraft’s design can cause socio-economic woes when scarce items suddenly become readily available through design changes, or through an influx of virtual money bought with real money. As I will show in chapter four, where I 66 battlefields of negotiation discuss the large-scale and mostly illegal market for the exchange of virtual money for real money, these situations lead to sometimes heated discussions about the relationship between work and play.

The second design mechanism driving and controlling instrumental group play disciplines players to play in certain styles and group compositions. As said earlier, dungeons are the places to go in order to get to the best gear improvements.

To prevent hundreds of players visiting the same dungeon at the same time, they are “instanced – automatically duplicated for every group that enters them. Several groups of players can therefore fight a boss at the same time while never meeting each other. While the existence of multiple “instances” of the same dungeon at the same time makes no sense on a fictional level, the prevalence of the term instance as an alternative for dungeon among players suggests that most do not mind this privatization of space in an otherwise shared persistent environment. In terms of instrumental game design, the instanced nature of dungeons allowed Blizzard to create a way to focus the dungeon’s challenges on a limited group of players, stimulating highly strategic instrumental group play.

Even though “doing” dungeons with a group is one of the most popular forms of instrumental group play, it limits the possibilities of group play as much as it enables. Taylor, for example, argues that ‘instancing the game world into smaller, privatized spaces limits large scale collective action on behalf of the player to explore other ways to approach challenging goals’, adding that ‘game designers are always making choices about what kinds of activities and player identities are to be supported to the exclusion of others’ (2006a). One of the major design choices made in relation to dedicated group content like dungeons concerns the way in which groups are intended to be composed within dungeons and other dedicated group situations. As I show below, some compositions are preferred, even required, to win against World of Warcraft’s computer-controlled adversaries.

It results in group action predestined by design, not choice.

In the previous chapter I introduced the fact that players must choose a class for their character; let me now briefly explain how these classes are designed to

function together in group situations. There are three basic types of classes:

tanks, healers and dps’ers (which stands for damage-per-second). A tank (for example a warrior) is built to draw a mob’s attention and prevent it from focusing on other players. Tanks have heavy armour, often carry shields to protect them and specialize in absorbing and sustaining considerable amounts of damage.

The healer type (for example a priest) keeps other classes alive with their healing powers. Their main attention is the tank, who is taking most of the hits. The dps’ers (for example a mage) are specialized in inflicting as much damage as possible to the target. This role is important, too: they must kill a mob before it kills the tank(s) and healer(s) protecting them from harm. This system only works because World of Warcraft’s mobs are designed to be deliberately dumb.

Mobs only attack the character that generates the highest “threat” (the tank’s part ii controlling the game task), whether this makes sense or not. Even supposedly intelligent adversaries go straight for these characters even though they should have “known” that killing another, weaker character (like the healer, or a dps’er) would seriously diminish the survival chances of the entire group.40 Such a basic combination of strengths and weaknesses is what game designer Harvey Smith calls ‘orthogonal unit differentiation’ (2003), a common design structure in games whether they are digital or not. Like individual class attributes, this form of unit differentiation is a leftover from the MMORPG’s historical roots in tabletop wargaming, where army units (cavalry, infantry, artillery and so on) each have their own advantages and weaknesses when used in combat. The basic combination of competences in the form of tank/healer/dps has become a “holy trinity” for many role-playing games, and World of Warcraft has designed much of its group content around it. A standard normal dungeon is designed for a group of five characters consisting of one tank, one healer and three dps’ers. Larger socalled raid dungeons are designed for groups of ten, twenty-five and forty characters, requiring a more elaborate setup of tanks, healers and dps’ers. Deviation from this requirement will more often than not lead to failure but at the same time results in interesting, strategic play situations.

To achieve better results, group composition and skills management become so important that players tend to form groups based on the characters’ class and skill setups rather than the actual players behind them, especially when groups are formed spontaneously. This, however, is not true for all forms of instrumental group play. Within hardcore raid guilds, where a greater degree of dependence on each other is needed than in more casually organized forms of group play, the emphasis is on trust and proven skill on the battlefield (Taylor 2006c). Even in the raid guilds I have participated in, however, some classes and skill setups are still preferred above others, independent of the players behind the characters.

Here, ludic role-playing is no longer a question of choice but a matter of duty.

Especially for tanks and healers, who usually form the minority of the three types, this duty can lead to peer pressure within the group. They play such key roles in the holy trinity of types that, if they do not show up for an evening of raiding, the rest of the players cannot raid either.41 The way instrumental group play is enabled and disciplined through design affordances and limitations proves to be a strong mechanism with which to steer groups in World of Warcraft into certain types of play behaviour – the larger the group-based challenge players face in the game, the less options players have for deviating from the dominant group strategies designed into the game. For dedicated raiding groups, the emphasis on highly coordinated cooperative ludic roleplaying offers substantial appeal – for them, it is what the game is all about.

Blizzard seems to think so too, as most of the best-known villains of the Warcraft universe as well as the rare and powerful items they drop are found in the most challenging dungeons. For players who wish to organize group action in order to 68 battlefields of negotiation tackle instrumental goals in more diverse ways, the options and rewards tend to be limited.

More emergent forms of instrumental (group) play based on the class system’s orthogonal unit differentiation exist in the form of player versus player or PvP combat. Since World of Warcraft’s initial release, PvP combat has evolved from a diversion (earning players no reward other than the fun of fighting each other) into a full-blown dedicated part of the instrumental game play experience with its own goals and reward structure. PvP combat requires different offensive and defensive strategies, which furthermore rely on other gear setups and (cooperative) skills. In other words, PvP combat is a very different beast altogether.

While faction choice does not have much meaning when trying to conquer a dungeon, it plays a significant role in PvP combat, as it automatically defines who your enemy is. The game is not called World of Warcraft for nothing: the division of factions is designed to infuse the game with inter-player combat. Whereas one could consider war a dedicated goal of the game, initially PvP combat was a form of free rather than instrumental play. In the first few months after the game’s release, attacking players from the other faction did not pursue or serve any particular instrumental goal, nor did it grant any rewards. PvP combat was motivated on a fictional level (the factions are at war after all) or by a personal interest in fighting other players.

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