The Kindness of Strangers

(No, not the album by Spock’s Beard.)

eq_buff_speed Imagine this situation. You are in a somewhat old-school MMO. You are running and meeting someone else on the road. Let’s say you’re a priest or mage in WoW and meet someone in the Barrens, or a shaman in EQ and meet someone in Karana. What do you do? (PVPers who answers with “I stealth and gank them” may stop reading now). To me, the most natural thing, even before thinking of a /wave or anything, would be to target them and hit my buff button. Fortitude, Arcane Intellect, Spirit of Wolf.

wow_buff_aiI loved doing that. Just randomly be kind to other players, help them out a bit. It made the other happy, sometimes you got a “thank you”. Every now and then, it even sparked a conversation. I only realized how much I liked buffing people randomly after the ability to do so went out of fashion. Ask yourself: what was the last game you played that allowed you to buff random people on the drive-by? I thought about the games I played in the last couple of years. LotRO? Nope. EQ2? Nope. Rift? Don’t think so. TSW? Nope. EVE? Muahaha… hahaha… *gasp*… sorry. Kind to strangers? That was a trick question, of course. Vanguard? Ok, you got me there, Vanguard lets you buff strangers. But the way this game promotes the old-school vibe, it only reinforces my impression that this is something that MMOs have phased out.

eq_buff_strengthWhy do games not allow me to be kind to strangers in that way any more? OK, so there might be ways to exploit this to grief people. But you have to look really hard and really close, and even then, I can’t think of anything but rare cases. The only one I can come up with was the ever-so-popular “Zeppelin Fortitude Splat” (a name I just invented) in WoW. I’ll segue for a second, just because the thing makes me smile even now.

wow_buff_fortitudeSo, Undercity and Orgrimmar were (and still are, I think) connected by a Zeppelin line. When you arrived, you could jump off before it moored, and save some time. You’d take falling damage, sure. Lots of falling damage (easily 90% of your health). But you didn’t die, because it was always a percentage of your maximum health (unless you jumped off too early and straight up died from the fall). Fortitude, on the other hand, increased your maximum health. It didn’t increase your current health, though. So let’s say your “victim” had 1000 maximum health before buffing. Fortitude increased that to 1200 maximum health, but the current health was still 1000, slowly regenerating. Buffing someone right when they jumped off… Well, 90% of 1200 is more than 1000… I’m guilty of doing that a couple of times. I always offered a rez afterwards though, and apologized.

eq_buff_concentrationAnyway, I digress. So, why did games stop doing that? These days, buffs area almost always group-only, so you have to form a group with people before you can buff them. Which kind of works ass-backwards considering so many games try to lower the barrier to interaction by doing informal grouping with transient groups, or with kill-sharing without joining any group at all. What are developers afraid of that they took those tools away from players? Are they worried about balance? That people will either be way too powerful with buffs, or not powerful enough without them to progress in the game? That doesn’t make sense to me, because in-the-world events are typically not carefully balanced anyway. The only serious balancing seems to be done to group and raid dungeons, and if the buffs are group-only, you still have them there.

wow_buff_motwAre they worried most people might not be able to manage buffs properly? That they forget to renew buffs, buff new group members, forget to buff altogether? In that case, the developers at least chose an effective solution. These days, most buffs I can think of are fire-and-forget. Like an aura, they apply to yourself, are eternally in effect until cancelled (sometimes even persist through death), and automatically apply to your group members as long as they stay in your group. On the other hand, that also makes such buffs immensely boring. It takes away the gratification you get from buffing someone and see health, run speed, or whatever, increase. Would anybody design all damage spells to be auras that automatically apply to close enemies, without any interaction? Of course not, that would be silly! So why are buffs treated that way?

11 thoughts on “The Kindness of Strangers

  1. Eh? I thought my Rift buffs were working on strangers. I certainly hit them with one often enough lol.

    This was the reason I loved the Chaos Zealot/Dwarf Runepriest in WAR and the Magician in EQ/EQOA – abilities that not only gave buffs, but gave other players temporary abilities. It was like the next iteration of the kindness tree, and I wish devs would put more of it in games.

    1. You’re probably right. It’s been a year since I last played Rift, and I wasn’t sure, that’s why I didn’t write “nope”, though “don’t think so” is probably not a lot less assertive. 😉

      I never heard of that kind of ability, giving others temporary abilities. It sounds like a lot of fun! The closest I’ve ever seen to that are the baubles that a healer can summon into other people’s inventories in EQ2 and Vanguard, and that can be consumed to resurrect the healer. That’s limited enough, though, that I never thought of it as a temporary ability and more as a protection against premature ends to dungeon runs because your healer died, can’t run back, and nobody can rez him.

      1. The abilities in WAR basically gave a buff that added a little pop up box on your toolbar that allowed (for a limited time) that player to use a small nuke. I’m sure they are a pain to balance but it was a great feature.

        The Magician class in EQ and EQOA could actually summon all manner of items from gear (in case no repair shop was nearby) to my personal favorite, magic gems. The gems were to be given to a player and had three charges, each of which cast the previous tier power level of one of the Magician’s primary nukes. They worked off of global cooldown, which made for a nice little perk in gameplay or burst DPS for a group.

        1. Interesting. I never played much EQ, so all I knew about magicians was that they could do some funky stuff with gear.

          WAR was released during a time when I exclusively lived off a WoW diet (quite successfully, as a matter of fact). The last game before WAR’s release I had looked at was Vanguard. That didn’t endear me to playing games at release. And if you didn’t play WAR at release, you probably never played it. And if you did play it at release, you probably also didn’t play it for long… 😉

          1. Re: War…yes, both very true statements. I was in the latter category. The funny thing is that it was fun enough that I would go back in a heartbeat if it were F2P. I love the IP and the classes and such. But its being held hostage by the one company that just doesn’t do F2P, period. :-p

  2. I think it’s a corner-case of the way buffs are now implemented. Before, you had to target the person you buffed, so you buffed each of your group mates one by one. In an effort to streamline that process, buffs were changed to click-once to buff the entire group. Buffing someone outside your group might have gotten lost in that process.

    I know both WoW and SWTOR both allow you to buff outside your group. In fact, when WoW changed how their buffs worked, I actually noted that they kept this functionality:

    “The thing I like best about the new Blessings is that they retain the ability to do “drive-by” buffing. It’s odd, but I enjoy casting Blessings on random people who pass by, especially when out leveling, or when you come across a lowbie questing. One of the best changes in recent memory was when buffs were changed to automatically cast the correct version on lower level characters. I was a bit concerned that in order to get one-click Blessings we would have to give up the ability to buff random strangers. I’m happy to see that this is not the case. Excellent work by the dev team to recognize this corner case.”

    1. Ah, it might be streamlining. My old arch nemesis! Right next to homogenization…

      Nevertheless, it’s probably easy enough to have group buffs and still allow drive-by buffing. As you say, WoW had single-target and group versions of its major buffs for many years before they rolled both into one, while keeping both functionalities. I can’t believe it’s simply laziness on the developers’ or designers’ part that one version is getting phased out more and more.

      Also, it’s great to see others enjoy this as well. There’s nothing odd about it! It’s great fun helping others with so little work on your own part.

      1. It’s not so much laziness as … only seeing the most common case. I actually see this a lot in my day job as a software developer. You ask someone, “How should X work?”.

        Most people will tell you the most common way X works. They won’t tell you about the unusual interactions, or the rare cases. If you ask them what to do in unusual circumstances, they’ll tell you the right way to handle it, but it doesn’t occur to them to tell you that the unusual circumstances can occur.

        Similarly, if the programmer asks how the designer wants buffing to work, it’s very easy to say, “I want to press the button, and myself and everyone in my group gets the buff”. If the programmer stops there and implements, the game won’t have drive-by buffing.

        However, if the programmer asks, “What should I do if the player targets someone outside the group?”, the designer will go, “Oh yeah, in that case if the target is friendly, it should get the buff.”

        But the programmer has to take that extra step and ask about the edge case. Sometimes the programmer won’t even realize that the edge case exists, if she is not familiar with the domain. Requirements gathering is a lot more complex than it can seem at first, and can be a bit of art at times.

        1. I see what you mean. I’m pretty sure that’s how it often goes in many projects.

          The thing I wonder though, is: is it really just rough requirements being sketched out, without thinking of the corner cases, and then letting the programmers loose? Aren’t many of those game multi-million dollar enterprises; shouldn’t they have capable game designers working on them? People whose job it is, at least in part, to look at other games, analyze how the different parts in those games work: spells, enemies, group dynamics, world layout, etc., and then make well-founded decisions how their game should look like? And, since it’s a computer game, who have at least a basic understanding of how the technical building blocks of software and communication work, so they can gauge what should work and what’s pretty much out of the question, technically. It just feels like a conscious decision to do buffs either way, if only because there is such a large difference between the extremes of “buff whoever you want, as long as they’re not hostile to you” and “your buff is an always-on aura that only extends to people as long as they’re in your group”, and the alternatives are so clearly laid out by prior examples from other games.

          Coming back to your example, I expect requirements gathering to be a very complicated job if you have to extract the requirements out of people outside of your own domain. (Hell, I have a hard enough time understanding electrical engineers at work, and vice versa, and you’d think we’d be at least somewhat close, all working on networks in some way or another.) But in this case, I somehow expected to have professionals doing the design decisions, who are trained in doing exactly that: designing, and communicating their designs.

          Maybe I’m overestimating the thought process that goes into a game, and the money spent on thoughtful design, instead of blingy graphics and voice acting…

  3. In GW2 and NWO (both relatively new) you can freely buff / aid anyone you come across which is exactly how it should be. Of course I don’t actually run with a character who has any buffing abilities, but I certainly enjoy the kindness of strangers that do. 😉

    Thanks for listing out the games that don’t do this as it just adds more reasons for me not to waste my time on them.

    1. Good to know about GW2. The game never interested me even a lick, so I had no idea how stuff worked there. Since the game sounded mostly like an “alone together” style of play to me, I would’ve guessed (if pressed for an answer) that it doesn’t have free buffs.

      Your reply (and Harbinger Zero’s farther up) convinces me that I was wrong, and that free buffing vs. group-only buffing is not a question of game age. Even today, both forms coexist.

      I still wonder why you would ever want to limit buffing to your own group. It seems like such a no-brainer and wasted opportunity: buffing is a low-effort, low-key, benevolent interaction between people. Shouldn’t MMOs grasp at every straw to foster interactions?

Leave a Reply