Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Experience Points

Players of MMORPG display an extremely wide range of behavior, much of it creative, surprising, and totally unexpected. But the majority of players, most of the time, are trying to achieve maximum reward for minimum effort. And so the game design, how rewards like experience points are distributed, has a very strong influence on general behavior of players.

A prime example would be how people hunt monsters in Everquest as opposed to City of Heroes. In Everquest spawns are highly static, the same 4 orcs always spawn around the same camp fire, exactly X minutes after having been killed the last time. Furthermore, experience points in EQ are highly concentrated, it is hard to kill a mob, but you don't need to kill all that many mobs to level up. So hunting in EQ consists of a group of players "camping" such a static spawn. They first "break" the spawn, by killing the 4 orcs with a deliberate delay between the kills. From then on, the orcs will spawn one by one, and are much easier to kill. As in EQ you need a lot of downtime to rest between fights anyway, the 4 orcs are enough to keep one group of 6 players busy for hours, without ever moving away from the camp spot.

Now if you tried the same strategy in City of Heroes, it wouldn't work at all. First of all, City of Heroes does not spawn monsters when a player is standing in view range of the spawn spot, so if you just wait at one spot, you'll never see any mobs. But maybe even more important is that experience points are a lot more diluted in City of Heroes. Monsters of the same level as the player are a lot easier to kill than in EQ, but you need to kill literally hundreds of them to level up. Furthermore, while there were 2 orc camps, plus some stray orcs, in the West Commons zone in Everquest, in City of Heroes you can find a group of street thugs at every corner. So hunting by moving around makes a lot more sense in CoH than in EQ, and that completely changes the players experience of the game. Moving around to hunt is a lot more fun than camping a static spawn.

Similar example is dungeons in EQ and CoH. Dungeons in EQ were fixed, but notoriously under-utilized, even when the devs introduced xp bonuses for hunting in them. The reason for this was that if you died in EQ, your corpse with all your items stayed at the place where you had died, while you respawned naked at your last bind point. Getting back to your corpse, the dreaded "corpse runs", was already difficult in outdoor zones, but downright impossible without help in dungeons. So the risk of hunting deep in dungeons was simply too great, as losing your corpse would lose you months of achievement. Compare that to City of Heroes: There are no corpse runs, so the risk is identical to hunting outdoors. And CoH dungeons are randomly created as part of a mission, meaning that the dungeon is an ideal hunting ground filled with monsters of your level, plus you get an xp bonus for finishing the mission. No wonder mission dungeons are highly popular in CoH.

Experience points not only determine where people hunt, but also how groups are formed. I already mentioned this as the big negative point of Final Fantasy XI, where the xp given for a monster only depend on the highest level character in a group. 5 level 20 players fighting against level 20 monsters would see their experience points halved if they invited a level 21 player, and reduced to a third if they invited a level 22, so obviously they won't invite these people. They would also not invite anybody below level 18, as lower level characters would be unable to hit a level 20 mob. In comparison to that, adding a character of level 21 to a group of level 20's has an insignificant effect on the xp of a group in most other games. And City of Heroes even has the possibility to add low level characters to such a group, by making them a "sidekick" (a Robin to your Batman), temporarily making the low level character hit as if he was just 1 level below.

It is interesting how a seemingly harmless decision on how to distribute experience points in a group can have severe social consequences. In FFXI this makes groups very hard to find, and difficult to set up, which then drives away a lot of casual players, who don't want to spend one or more hours looking for a group before they can start playing.

One thing that all games get wrong is risk/reward ratio of fighting against multiple enemies at once. In most games fighting 4 orcs at once gives the same amount of experience points than fighting 4 orcs one after the other, but the risk of fighting them one after the other is obviously a lot lower. FFXI gave a tiny bonus if you killed the orcs with less than 1 minute between the kills, but that only made you want to hurry between the single fights, not fight several monsters at once. City of Heroes only offers the solution that you are still quite capable of killing 4 enemies at once, and as you need kill many of them, doing them in groups saves you some running. But in general, you won't see a large group of adventurers storm an orc village and commence a huge battle in any game, as it is a lot easier to sneak to the village and try to snipe the orcs one by one, and you get the same reward for this not-so-heroic combat. It should be possible for a game to determine how many enemies are in a combat simultaneously with a group, and give them better xp if the odds are less in their favor.
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