Pick-up Groups and MMOs
Star Trek Online has recently revamped group PVE activities and rebranded them Task Force Operations. These are just instanced events designed for five players, that have a handful of objectives and a boss fight at the end. Players can group with friends or use the auto-grouping tool that is available, to play through TFO of their own choosing. Alternatively, there is the option to join a pick-up group and play a random TFO for greater rewards. Now although not unduly complex, TFOs usually have a basic set of rules to follow if you want to complete them quickly and efficiently. For example, closing dimensional portals reduces the number of trash mobs joining the TFO, so it makes sense for at least one of the five players to focus on this activity. However, PUGs are open to all players and therefore there is always a chance that you may group with an inexperienced player or someone who wants to do things “their way”. Either way, if you are seeking optimal gameplay, then PUGs may not be the best place to look.
Now, you may well ask “why are you stating the bleedin’ obvious about PUGs?” Well the reason I’ve chosen to succinctly distil and reiterate their respective pros and cons is because I continuously come across gamers regularly lamenting the iniquities of PUGs, as if they’re supposed to function in a fashion that is contrary to their nature. It’s a bit like complaining about a compass for pointing north or a politician for lying. Joking aside, pick-up groups are not intended to be efficient. They are designed to facilitate group play in an expedient manner. Many MMOs have players who either cannot find a guild, do not want to be in a guild or simply have time restrictions that impede grouping with regular friends and online colleagues. PUGs and auto grouping tools are a means to facilitate such players in accessing instances and other content designed to be played as a group. It’s not as if game developers are oblivious to the potential shortcomings of such systems. Hence in STO and other MMOs, players will receive a bonus reward for playing via auto grouping.
The key to successfully using any PUG mechanic in an MMO is to greatly temper your expectations and to use auto grouping tactically. For example, I recently used LFF chat in LOTRO to run a particular 6-man instance. I did not expect to successfully complete everything but was simply tagging along to see if we could defeat the first boss, which I needed for a deed. The group performed poorly, and it was a struggle to progress, but we did get to the end. Not only did I complete the deed, but I also got the benefit of some loot that I wasn’t anticipating on getting. For me this was an added bonus, so I was not discouraged by the multiple wipes that the group endured. Where some players felt we’d performed poorly, I was pleasantly surprised because I had been realistic about what we could achieve as a group, right from the start.
PUGs are not always a bad experience and there are many factors that determine their outcome. Some groups in certain games require very little direct interaction. The TFOs in Star Trek Online can be undertaken without any need for chat. I personally always say “hello” and “good game” but it’s not essential. Quitting a group for whatever reason usually doesn’t involve too big a penalty. It may result in a thirty-minute sanction or reduced rewards but nothing more. Depending on the game, some will offer rewards even if the primary goals of an instance aren’t even achieved. This alone can make the use of auto grouping viable for some players. As the MMO genre has been around for over two decades, it has developed several universal foibles. One of these is the capricious nature of collaborating with random strangers. Would you expect five random people in the real world to work extremely efficiently together after just meeting? Of course not. So why should something as frivolous as a game be any different? Frankly excessive criticism of the PUG system with regard to MMOs is redundant. PUGs in other genres of games is a separate matter.