Sunday, January 13, 2008
Moroagh on game design
Moroagh has a very interesting, but long, series of posts on game design: A parable, and a discussion (part 1, with a postscript, and part II) on how game developers should learn from observed player behavior, instead of condemning it as cheating. As that text is very long, and game developers probably don't have the time to read all that, I thought I would make it a bit easier for them, by condensing the message into one single phrase:
If a large number of your players repeatedly do something that you don't want them to do, there is something wrong with your design, not with the players!
The specific problem of MMORPGs is that the developers designed something they considered to be "a challenge", but players often end up considering it as "a grind", and start looking for ways to avoid that "challenge". They buy gold to avoid the challenge / grind of farming 5,000 gold themselves, they look up quest solutions when the quest description simply wasn't clear and wandering all over the map to find the target didn't seem fun, they go afk in Alterac Valley because fighting over that battleground gets old quicker than you collect the honor you need. If the players can't find a way to avoid the challenge, they give up instead of working hard for the goal the developers want them to strive for, end huge raid dungeons end up being basically unused.
Fact is that the amount of dedication and perseverance players are willing to invest into a game varies over a wide range. One player gives up after the first wipe, another only reluctantly stops trying after the 20th wipe because it is 3 am in the morning, and vows to come back the next day. That is a design problem, because the guy giving up too fast might get frustrated and leave because he finds the game too hard, but if you made the encounter easy enough to beat on the first try, the most dedicated players might find it too easy and leave because they are bored. Moroagh makes a good point in saying that "making people spend more effort in an escapist world instead of going out and actually doing something useful for society" is not a good idea. Especially if that "more effort" consists of repeatedly doing something you already mastered, like farming one raid dungeon again and again to get the gear to be able to try the next level, or farming gold or reputation.
The current generation of game designers, WoW included, have a tendency to set the required effort level too high, presumably because they don't want to risk players "finishing" the game. A reader wrote me to point out that if the analyst claiming that World of Warcraft has a monthly churn rate of 4 to 5% is right, there are more people leaving WoW every month than visiting the Black Temple. Of course people leave WoW for all sorts of reasons, but running out of content or hitting an obstacle beyond which you feel you can't progress is certainly high up on the list of possible reasons. You can't help but ask how many people more would keep playing WoW, if this large amount of high quality raid content would be made accessible for them.
There are actually two solutions to the problem: Either lower the amount of effort required in general, or present the same content with variable degrees of difficulty. No, there is no good reason why a specific encounter, boss mob, or raid dungeon has to be exactly *this* hard for everybody. It's just a bloody game, for god's sake! Many people play it to relax after a day of productive work; designing in a way that the MMORPG takes away from productive time is asking for trouble. The more reasonable players will just refuse and leave, and the more irreasonable players will risk their job and family pursueing false achievements, until politicians come down like a ton of bricks on the genre to save them. In China they already did.