Monday, October 27, 2008

MMOs and Player Free Will

Imagine if you got 10 of your friends together in a room and you all brainstormed some really cool MMO ideas. Anything someone would like to see in the next major MMO game is written down on the list.

What would this list look like?

The first thing you would realize is that not all ideas are mutually exclusive. Some ideas simply wouldn’t work with other ideas. For example, it would be pretty difficult to have both a fantasy MMO and a sci-fi space exploration MMO in the same game.

The other thing is that some ideas are just plain bad ideas. After all, just because someone can think of an idea, doesn’t mean that it is a good idea. There are good chances that 1 out of the 10 would like the idea of perma-death while most would think that is insane.

From ideas to a plan
If such a game were to become a reality, it would be necessary to figure out which ideas are good ones and which ideas don’t work with other ideas. You would also want the group to rank the ideas to get a sense of which concepts are the most popular or desired.

Once you have a consensus on the core ideas, you would then work to create a raw plan with some basic structure. Of course, once that was all drawn up, you would quickly realize that there were lots of things that the group missed or didn’t even think about.

So you go back to the group with your list of needs and ask them for some more cool ideas – only this time they are more specific. And then you get good ones, bad ones, ones that don’t work together and so on. And… you sort all that out, get consensus on the best ideas again and update your project plan.

And so on and so on.

All the best planning…
The problem is that even with all the best planning in the world, it’s impossible to predict how players will adapt to your creation. And they WILL adapt to it.

Let’s say that instead of planning an MMO, you were making Ice Cream flavors. Your team didn’t come up with a bunch of MMO ideas, they came up with a bunch of Ice Cream flavors. And while all of them are good, some are definitely more popular than others.

The double chocolate fudge, in particular, is really popular. In fact, it’s so popular that no one even wants to try any of the other flavors any longer. For an Ice Cream maker, that’s not a huge problem. If anything, only needing to produce the most popular Ice Creams simplifies the manufacturing process considerably.

MMOs are not Ice Cream
For MMOs, it’s not just about how individuals adapt to your creation – but how groups of individuals adapt to the creation. In other words, an individual decision by one player affects the outcome of other players. Ten people choosing to play a DPS class and none of them deciding to play a Tank or Healer limits the overall ability of the group and the individuals in the group to do specific things.

The problem gets worse when we start to talk about the snow-ball effect that arises when the popular choice starts to influence the future decisions made by others. As individual players exercise free will in an MMO, a pattern emerges that acts as a guidebook for helping other players make decisions about the choices they will make in an MMO.

A game designer can build the toybox and fill it with toys, but he can’t control who plays with which toy or how they decide to play with them. It’s very possible, if not probable, that the game played is not the one the game designer originally envisioned.

MMO bloggers like to talk about incentives. The reason these are important is that they are seen as ways to create an artificial popularity that will steer the population back to the vision the designer originally intended. The theory being that by altering the reward, you alter the perception of what is most beneficial to the player and steer them to the desired behavior.

My biggest issue with incentives is that it encourages players not to do what is most fun, but what is most rewarding. I’m of the opinion that the “reward” should be in having fun playing the game, not the carrot I get if I perform the desired behavior.

It’s completely possible that the problem with your MMO is not the incentive, but the poor design of the activity you want to promote. Increasing the reward in that situation is the worst thing you can do. Why would anyone want to encourage their players to do something unfun merely for the reward?

I’m often critical of WoW because this is exactly how they choose to fix design problems. You don’t need to look any further than the “honor grind” in WoW to see this in action. It takes what could otherwise be an incredibly fun experience and turns it into something boring that needs to be endured for gear.

Easiest path
Players are interesting in that they all desire some challenge, but will inevitably gravitate towards the easiest path to accomplish the goal. It’s like having an easy, medium, and hard mode and then having all the players who choose easy complain that it was too easy.

Despite the contradiction, this complaint is very valid when the reward is the exact same for the easy route as it is for the hard route. After all, why make things harder for yourself when the reward is the exactly the same either way. Without even the additional reward of being able to have some bragging right, there is no real incentive to choose the more difficult path.

Ah…and there it is again. Incentives. The crown jewel of MMO design. Unfortunately, most players don’t do things without some form of incentive. Even if it’s simply in the form of we won and you didn’t, players are almost entirely motivated by the rewards activities give them.

Incentive balance
In order to achieve what I perceive to be the Holy Grail of MMO design, all desired activities should net an equal amount of reward for the amount of effort expended to get that reward. If choosing the difficult path is 20% harder, the reward should be 20% greater.

If Activity A takes 15 minutes and nets 1000XP, then Activity B which takes 30 minutes should net you 2000XP. One thing that is noteworthy here is that I’m talking about time investment as a measure of difficulty. That’s one measure, but it could just as easily be an activity that was made more difficult because it required a skilled group.

This is the Holy Grail because it’s damn near impossible to achieve and even if it is in balance, the player perception of such balance is just as important (if not more important) than the reality.

A great example of how these two can differ is the Kill X foozles quest versus the Loot X foozle ears quest. Both might take the same time investment and offer the same reward, but the foozle ear quest can appear to be more time consuming if the loot drop for ears appears to be random.

The problem with Warhammer
Almost every single problem that exists in Warhammer at the moment is player created. The devs at Warhammer sat down and thought up some really cool ideas. They put all the ideas in the toybox and now the issue is that some of the toys are really really popular and others are not popular enough.

Some people love the double-fudge chocolate and others are frustrated that's the only flavor that they can buy. In some cases, the issue is that the reward doesn’t justify the amount of effort invested. In other cases, it’s just not nearly as fun as something else in the game.

The most obvious issue is the over-popularity of certain Scenarios is problematic for other parts of the game. The main problem this causes is a lack of players in the world zones, particularly for players trying to do World RvR.

While I agree this is an issue, the constant call to nerf scenarios by other bloggers has really been bugging me. There is an issue here, but let’s try solving the effort-reward problem with PQs and World RvR before nerfing the one thing that is actually popular.

Don't force all the players who like double-fudge chocolate to eat something else just because your sick and tired of eating it.

No – I think Mythic is taking the right approach by trying to increase the XP rewards of World RvR. They DO need to take it a step further and award XP on capturing objectives and greater renown, but the solution here is in making the effort-reward ratio expended in RvR the same (or greater) as it is in Scenarios.

PQs also need to be addressed. Most of the PQs have some type of quest associated with them that is good for one turn-in. This quest needs to be made repeatable to increase the effort-reward incentive of participating in PQs. I rarely do these myself because I’m of the opinion that gear rewards alone are trivial when you outlevel them. If there was more XP gain in addition to the gear reward, I would happily do them more frequently.

The other issue facing Scenarios is that some of them are much more popular than others. This results in more people going to that zone in order to complete the scenario quests when exiting the Scenario.

In Tier 3, that can be an extra 6K of experience in quest turnins for each scenario (or an extra 40%). That’s huge and the main reason why many players only queue for one particularly popular scenario.

Part of the solution here is to offer these quests in all zones of the Tier. That way, it wouldn’t matter if you joined Tor Anroc or Doomfist Crator – either way, you could still turn in the quest easily after leaving the scenario.

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