Saturday, May 7, 2011

We Talking About Practice?

"We're sitting here, and I'm supposed to be the franchise player, and we're talking about practice. I mean listen, we're sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, but we're talking about practice. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it's my last but we're talking about practice man. How silly is that?" -- Allen Iverson, former NBA star

I've floated this idea before, in various venues, but I thought I'd write a little piece about it here. It would be nice to have "practice instances." A version of each of the level-cap instances (dungeons and raids) that are meant only for training purposes. You can enter solo or with other people and the missing slots are filled with NPCs. A role check ensues and whatever roles you (and any friends) don't assume are assumed by the NPCs.

These practice instances would not drop any loot, any currency, any gray items...nothing. There would be no material benefits. No reputation gains, either. Perhaps no durability loss to deaths, but I can go either way on this. Blizzard has to decide whether another gold sink is needed in the game.

The purpose would be to practice either playing your class/role or handling encounter mechanics, or both. And doing so without the social pressures of wondering whether you will be attacked for a mistake and not wanting to disappoint others if you do make mistakes.

Now, obviously, if you want the rewards (valor points, purples, esteem from arrogant stone giants) of running instances, you need to accept the social pressures. Running instances is meant to be a social activity. However, it seems reasonable to allow players to practice free of social pressures. This seems especially true of someone trying to learn a new role. If you leveled up a paladin in retribution, and then later decide you'd like to try your hand at can be rather daunting to do so before the eyes of four critical strangers, over and over again.

This would be a benefit for both the learner as well as the population at large. Very few people enjoy queuing for a random and getting someone who's still learning how to tank or heal. The many, many mistakes lead to a lot of deaths. But there's no good way to learn tanking or healing outside of instances. You can understand the concept and theories quite well, but the actual execution in the dynamic heat of battle is quite different.

The idea of NPCs trying to emulate players might seem like a reach. After all, there are very few AIs that have reached human levels of intelligence, and they're all currently unemployed (it's a tough job market). However, end game content, to a large extent, has players function like robots. I don't mean that in a disparaging way, but handling encounter mechanics is a very synchronized, repeatable process and the design of DPS, tanking and even healing can be formalized into rules that would allow an NPC to do a pretty good impression of a competent human. Most of the challenge is processing information and reaction time, both of which computers do better than humans (and Blizzard would actually have to be careful not to make them overpowered).

Blizzard could even have these NPCs occasionally print Recount stats to party line, toss in a "LOL" occasionally or a "srsly blizz? omg" and it would feel just like an instance with real people. Except you'd have the comfort of knowing that there's no judgement behind those cold, dead, pixelated eyes.

I think this would go a long way to improving the skills and confidence of the player base, which would lead to improved results in the actual random dungeon finder. Plus it would just be fun. Sometimes, even when I'm not learning an encounter or a role, I just want to experiment with would be nice not to subject real people to it.

So, in conclusion, I'm very generous with Blizzard's time and resources and I encourage them to program this functionality.


  1. After reading this I stopped for a second, pondering. Could we really be replaced by NPCs? The truth is, yes we can. Most of what we do while fighting bosses is reacting to their abilities in a certain way. That could be easily programmed into an NPC. I don't really know why, but somehow that thought bothers me. :P

    I do like your idea, and I know that I would make use of it if it wasn't that I have enough good friends in the game still that will run dungeons with me and don't mind me experimenting with something, or failing badly. For people who don't have that many social contacts (yet), or whose friends don't seem to find time, it's a really good idea -- but it's just not gonna happen, for the simple reason that the majority of people wouldn't use it. A dungeon without rewards? That will just seem like a waste of time. The only people who would really dig it are competetive raiders, but I doubt Blizzard would want to give them more time to learn encounters than the time they already spend raiding in a group, since that would boil down to even more social pressure when raid leaders demand of their raiders to spend time training bosses outside of the raid times. That would contradict the whole limited time/attempts model they established to prevent people from raiding unhealthy amounts of time while progressing so quickly that they'd end up bored afterwards.

  2. Just found out about your blog a few days ago and am currently working my through the older posts, hence the date of the comment.

    Zinn at Jinxed thoughts had a similar idea to this. I thought it might be a good idea for a daily quest, so there would be some reward and it could be tailored to suit every level of character. Upon handing in the quest they quest giver may give you some pointers or tips to help out your performance. I ran across this problem with my warrior. I switched specs at end game and had no clue how the new spec worked.

    Really enjoying the posts so far.

    1. Hi, I'm glad you found my little blog and are enjoying it! Yeah, a daily quest that highlighted useful class abilities would be a great idea, too.

      It actually appears that Blizzard is going to implement something in this vein soon, called Proving Grounds. It won't be normal raids/dungeons in a "practice mode" or daily quests, but it will be more like scenarios you do solo which are designed to test you as a tank, healer or DPS. That's how Blizzard described them anyway, so I assume that it would have NPC teammates, since tanking and healing would be rather impossible to practice without them!