Tobold's Blog
Friday, June 25, 2004
More equal than others

At first glance, MMORPG are very egalitarian. Everybody starts out from the same base, and your achievements are solely depending on your actions. Everybody is equal. But like in George Orwells Animal Farm, a closer look reveals than some players are "more equal than others", and you always find the same people in the top positions.

Now some of this is unavoidable, and actually positive. Different players have different skills, and it is good if skill makes a difference and the more skilled players advance faster. Different players also spend different amounts of time in the game, and in a game where people generally get richer and more powerful with time, the people spending the most time end up the most powerful.

It starts getting problematic as soon as a game has resources that are strictly limited. A typical example is housing in some games, where the number of plots on which a house can be built is far smaller than the number of players. Ultima Online was the first example, but Horizons seems to have the identical problem. From my own experience I know how frustrating it can be to have saved up the virtual money for a house deed in UO, and then be unable to place the house, because all spots are taken. In that case a player who plays more slowly than others, or has joined the game later than others, is not just reaching his goal later, he is not reaching it at all. Although he was able to reach the in-game threshold, the gold pieces required to buy the house deed, he is then excluded from the content by out-of-game facts on which he has no control, competition by other players.

A more frequent case is resources that are not limited absolutely, but that are very rare and for which the supply is far smaller than the demand. A dragon that only once per day drops the highly desirable sword of uberness. Again in that case the difficulty is not in-game, slaying the dragon, but out-of-game, other players having slain the dragon first. Again a huge source of player frustration, they know they could have slain the dragon, if only the others would let them. Final Fantasy XI drove that problem to extremes, by having very low level named monsters drop very valuable items very rarely. If you see players earnestly discussing on message boards how unfair it is that the servers are in Japan and Japanese players have 200 milliseconds faster reaction time, thereby always being faster in claiming the named monsters and getting the valuable loot, you know the game has a problem. And Everquest servers player communities organizing calendars where guilds have to book a time when they are allowed to go on a raid to kill a dragon are equally silly.

In these cases, the reward usually goes to the most dedicated people, the ones that don't mind camping the same spot for 12 hours. A bit like people camping a cinema 12 hours before the premiere of a new movie. Now that is okay if the reward (like in the cinema case) is that the more dedicated people get the content first. But the cinema will always schedule performances after that, making sure that the less dedicated people will be able at least to see the movie, even if they miss out on the premiere. In MMORPG the less dedicated people are often simply totally excluded. If you don't have the 12 hours to camp the dragon, you will never get the sword of uberness.

In a vicious circle, the frustration of being prevented from reaching an in-game goal by the competition from more dedicated players makes the casual player buy the sword of uberness for $50 on EBay. And the fact that you can sell the sword of uberness for $50 on EBay makes more people want to camp it for 12 hours, further preventing any casual players of ever reaching it by in-game means.

Another bad idea of game design is having different ranks, independant from experience points, where only the higher ranks have access to some of the games content. Biggest example are the Jedi in Star Wars Galaxies, already discussed. The game I'm currently playing, Puzzle Pirates, has captains, officers, and normal pirates. But the problem is always the same: If the highest rank has any advantage, everybody wants to be the higher rank, nobody wants to play the humble worker. Fortunately many games only have guild ranks, with higher ranks there often just meaning more responsability, with no added advantage. But as soon as the higher rank offers advantages, the problems begin.

In SWG the developers tried (and failed) to find a system where the Jedi rank could be reached by everybody in a fair manner, without everybody ending up as Jedi. In Puzzle Pirates the developers also made a mess out of ranks: Captains and officers are the only ones having access to the 2 navigation puzzles, and they determine how loot is distributed. A normal pirate often ends up with less than his fair share of the loot, for the same contribution to success, and he is possibly more bored because he can only access 4 of the 6 different games on a ship. The saving grace is that a good captain can distribute loot fairly and enable his pirates to navigate the ship at some occasions. But in general every pirate would much prefer to be captain himself, buys a ship at the earliest opportunity (which is not that hard), and you end up with a game in which there are too many too small crews, "too many chiefs, not enough indians". I never played Asherons Call 1, but it was said to have a vassal system which wasn't all that bad, so it seems possible to create ranks in a way that works.

Whether it is limited resources, rare items, or ranks, this is something developers will have to improve. I'll talk about instancing, tailoring a part of the game for individual players, in a future blog entry, but that is just one of the possible solutions. The basic principle is that it is better for a game if every player has the impression that he COULD reach all the content in the game, if he just played long enough. That makes the best business sense, driving people to stay in the game to achieve their goals. If, on the other hand, the casual players think they will never reach a certain goal, because it is reserved for the "more equal" players, they will either give up, or use out-of-game shortcuts like EBay to get where they want.
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