Sunday, May 29, 2011

Character Audits

Lisa: Well, I know. But as the employer, it is your job to make your employees feel that they are part of the decision-making process.
Dave: Is this something you learned from that stupid book on Japanese management techniques?
Lisa: You don't actually have to LISTEN to them. Just pretend to. It helps to create a more harmonious group energy.
Dave: Again, is this from that stupid book on Japanese management techniques?
Lisa: This is just a standard management technique that has been used by personnel supervisors since the days of Ho Lu, grand emperor of the Wu dynasty. 


An idea that I have been kicking around is a "guild character audit" system. It's similar in philosophy to co-worker evaluations that some companies experiment with, wherein employees are (generally) randomly assigned a fellow co-worker and they provide evaluations of that person once a year or several times a year or what-have-you. Generally, the person you evaluate is not the one evaluating you (reducing though not eliminating the chances of collusion). It can be a secret as to whom is doing who's evaluation or, on the other end of the spectrum, the person does the evaluation (after some prep time) in a session with the co-worker they are evaluating (and the manager, usually).

I am not here to laud or condemn the practice in the workplace. However, I think this could be a valuable tool within a guild to keep everyone accountable for being up to par for raiding while distributing the work to ensure that everyone is held so accountable.

The idea is not that guild members will critique each other's game play. One could do this, but I am not suggesting it and I think it probably is a poor idea, for reasons which I'll go into briefly at the end. What I am suggesting is that each guild member is randomly assigned another guild member to evaluate the night before, or two nights before, a guild raid. The evaluation will essentially be a character audit...checking that gear is gemmed and enchanted, all glyph slots are being used and that spec-appropriate gear, gems, enchants and glyphs are being used.

Now, let me quickly clarify something. This is not supposed to be a discussion or debate on the best way to gear/gemchant. This is supposed to be a cursory pass to ensure your evaluation target is not doing anything grossly wrong. If your evaluation target is a mage and he/she has stamina gems or a dodge enchant...that should be red flag. If a prime or major glyph slot has been left empty, that should be a red flag. If he/she is a plate-wearing DPS but has equipped an epic with parry on it, red flag. This is purely meant as a way for the "collective" of the guild to be aware of all potential issues that could hamper the guild in a raid. Perhaps the person has a good reason for doing something that most would view as completely wrong. At least it's a known issue and they can explain to the raid leadership what they're doing and the raid leadership can approve it or not.

Of course, the guild master or raid leader or an officer could do all of the character audits. However, that could be extremely time-consuming. Especially when it comes to something like a DPS using a glyph that boosts an ability that his/her spec does not even use in their rotation. Such a mistake is clearly as bad as overlooking an empty gem slot, but it wouldn't be obvious to someone who doesn't know much about that class. This is the second aspect of such a system. If the person you draw to audit is a hunter, for example, you should check what spec(s) he/she is using and get a minimal understanding of how that class-spec works.

Let's be clear: the idea is not that you have to become an expert with the class. But knowing that the survival spec uses Cobra Shot instead of Steady Shot to regain focus and therefore a survival hunter glyphing Steady Shot (a shot never used by survival) is essentially the same as an empty glyph slot would be a good idea. Whether they are using the optimal glyphs should not be your concern. This allows for rather sophisticated parses of basic competence (not theorycrafting debates) while not requiring one or a few people to understand every class.

The reasons I do not think it is wise to let this turn into an evaluation of game play/raid performance are two-fold:

One, it puts the focus of individual raiders in the wrong place during raids. The only way to even remotely be able to critique the play of a fellow raider is to watch them play, consistently. You may get flashes of other people in your raid while you're killing dragons, but your focus should be very much focused on your own play, not on evaluating another person.

Secondly, and more importantly, not everyone is good at or interested in communication. To put it more frankly, a lot of people are jerks. Giving them the sanctioned ability to tear into someone else is a bad idea. Gameplay is to some extent opinion-based, and everyone has an opinion---and many people express their opinions in a non-ideal way. The character audit is not meant to be opinion-based. It's meant to be largely a question of facts: either a piece of gear is gemmed and enchanted or it isn't. Either the glyphs empower abilities that that spec uses, or they don't (again, no comments on whether they are the "right" glyphs...only whether all the glyph spots are used and pertain to the abilities that spec uses). It probably could be boiled down to a checklist, and it removes opinion from the equation. Leave overall performance evaluation (in the numbers and in handling mechanics) to the raid leadership--hopefully individuals chosen because they have good communication skills among other things. 

The main idea behind this system is that a raid is a collective endeavour and everyone "owes" doing their best, within their time constraints, to make it successful. This system should not be uncovering failures every week. That is not what it is about. It's about recognizing that everyone has a responsibility to everyone else, that the raid group is always fully aware of all matters relevant to the raid group and therefore each individual is accountable for carrying out that responsibility. Ideally, this system will encourage people to ensure that their gear/glyphs/gemchants are always in good shape, so that they don't get red flagged by their auditor, and the audits are passed week after week...leading to a smooth raid week after week.

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.