Tobold's Blog
Thursday, February 28, 2008
 
Chief Social Engineer

Sometimes people ask me whether I wanted to pursue a career in game development or journalism. No thanks! It is not just that I like to keep my hobbies apart from my job, but also some basic financial considerations. I have a good job with a six-figure salary (in US dollars), while the median income for a game developer is $73,000, and that is for working far longer hours than me. Sure, Richard Garriott is earning more than me, not quite sure about Tigole, but in general I'm better off in my current job than in most game development or journalism positions. As Darren, the Common Sense Gamer, recently noticed, there are a lot of kids applying for game development jobs wearing tattered blue jeans and a Half-Life head crab hat. And the industry reacts in a logical way to having lots of eager, technologically savy, but not wise in the ways of the world applicants: it exploits them by paying them less than they could earn if they worked in serious engineering or finance, and by having them work extremely long hours. Thus the EA widow and similar stories.

But even if I plan to stick with my current career, not believing in predictions that I will become the boss of Blizzard, I can dream about what job I would love to have at Blizzard, if I could set my own salary and job description: Chief Social Engineer. Because I believe that player behavior is very much influenced by game design, especially by rewards. And I am sick and tired of game developers stating that they wanted players to do one thing, and were surprised how most players instead did things the developers didn't want.

If a large number of players in your game does something you didn't want them to do, it is your fault, you designed the challenges and incentives badly.

Humans as individuals are unpredictable, able to perform acts ranging from saintly goodness to abominable evil. But get a large number of them together into the same environment, and their behavior becomes predictable. Whole sciences, like economics for example, are based on that. People react in predictable ways to obstacles and incentives, usually following the path of least resistance towards the biggest possible reward. If you have complete control of the environment, as a developer of a virtual world has, you can steer people in the right direction by simply setting up the obstacles and rewards in a clever way.

If you observed World of Warcraft over the past 3 years, it is actually a very good example how changing incentives changes people's behavior. If you had a graph that showed for every day since the start of the game how many people were busy doing PvP, solo PvE, group PvE, and raids, you would notice big movements linked to the big changes of how PvP works and is rewarded. There were times where you needed to play 15 hours a day of PvP for months to get an epic, and unsurprisingly not all that many people did so. When just before TBC the PvP reward system was changed to become cumulative instead of relative, a lot more players started doing PvP. When TBC came out, everybody was busy leveling to 70, and PvP declined a bit. But then every new arena season gave out better rewards than the previous one, also increasing the rewards you could get just for honor points, and nowadays the raiders are complaining that nobody wants to play with them any more, and everybody is in the battlegrounds and arena. The relative popularity of PvP changed significantly over time, and all because of how the incentives changed. And of course the popularity of PvP was also influenced by changes in obstacles. When Blizzard linked groups of servers together in battlegroups, it significantly cut the time people had to wait in queue to get into a battleground, and that made PvP more popular.

Now maybe Blizzard *wants* PvP to be the most popular activity in WoW. Having a strong PvP in WoW diminishes the competitive advantage of upcoming MMORPGs, which are mostly PvP-centric. And the earlier PvP weakness of WoW clashed somewhat with the lore of Warcraft as a series of RTS games. And maybe Blizzard *wants* WoW to be strong in solo PvE gameplay, because that certainly helped their sales. But as Chief Social Engineer I can't help but notice that there are problems with how WoW develops towards solo and competitive gameplay, and away from cooperative gameplay: it diminishes social contacts in the game, and that has a strong influence on churn rate and longevity. If all you do in the game is either solo or jump-in battlegrounds for which you don't need to form groups and guilds, then there are no social ties that keep you logging on after you ran out of content. There are a lot of games which you can play alone, and there are a lot of games where you can log on, frag a couple of random strangers, and log off again. It is social interaction and cooperative gameplay which make MMORPGs special, and ultimately justify paying a monthly fee.

Blizzard would be wise to hire if not me then somebody else as Chief Social Engineer, to have somebody to look at whether World of Warcraft's incentives are steering people in the right direction. Relatively simple changes, like increasing the group xp bonus, could already have a big influence on how much people play together and how much they play apart. It is a fallacy to think that "lots of people solo in WoW, this must be what they want". Some people want to solo, some people want to group, but many would do either, depending on what is more efficient. WoW's bad LFG system, level demographic development, and insufficient incentives for grouping makes soloing appear far more popular than it really is. If groups were easier to set up and more rewarding, more people would play together. The WoW devs correctly identified forced grouping as a weakness of games like Everquest, but then overcompensated and created a game which is already close to forced soloing. And if new players wander around Azeroth alone, can't find any new friends, and stop playing after a while because they feel lonely, Blizzard developers only have themselves to blame. If their previously most pampered class of customers, the raiders, starts posting "does Blizzard hate us?" articles, then maybe something went wrong with the design of incentives.
Comments:
The problem with that job is that you would be fighting the other section heads and until you gained credibility, you would lose. They won’t create a new position and implement massive changes that contradict the direction they think they should be going. Often times, personnel in a position are blamed for some decision with people not realizing they were overruled by a high authority.

I personally thing blizz knows that the pvp classes cannot be balance so they have a timeline and adjustments they make to allow each class some time on the top. Rogues used to rule over locks, BAM patchtime, now locks are top of the chain…bam patch, no warriors are on top…bam patch…etc.. you get it. I know they have a revolving system. People think they are trying to make it even but in reality they just rotate each class to the top or near the top for a time and then move another there. They know that stringing along the lemmings will keep them from cancelling.
 
While I understand your motivation of course, myself I'd happily take a lower-paying job that allows me to do what I really want (which is, creating games) over something that I merely do because it's there and somebody has to do it (like the database work I currently do).

I don't say I don't enjoy what I'm doing now, in fact I do a lot and I'm very happy in the company I'm in, but crafting worlds for others to play in is something that would make me drop many other things instead :)

And I'm in the happy position that my fiancé would move with me to another country for that dream of mine too...

Now only to finally finish my studies first, that has priority :P
 
I’m probably one of the few people that have been in both situations – a well paid traditional role within a huge financial institution, versus a much more average paid role but within a AAA game development studio. The game dev job wins hands down…here’s why, in a nutshell - a game dev studio is at heart, about two things - art/design and technology. Dev studios are REAL technology companies. If I could give one piece of advice to any guy that likes to code, it's this - work somewhere where coding or technology is the core competency of the business, where software is at the heart of the entire model. Working for a bank, or at in-house I.T. for a non-tech company will always mean you are a side-function of the company, and that has lots of disadvantages (not necessarily pay, of course!). If you are a tech guy, working at a hardcore tech company, then...

- the work is a million times more challenging, and more interesting.
- you work with some of the brightest people around. Game dev technology (especially in these next-gen and MMO-heavy times) is difficult, it takes bright people to do it.
- It is creative. Not only do you have influence over creative decisions, but dev studios have a fairly strong engineering ethos that means technical decision making is a huge part of the job. My experience in banking was very different - dilbert cliches unfortunately apply.

Anyway, not for everyone, but I thought I'd offer my perspective. It has its downsides, but for many of us in game development it actually IS as good as we'd hoped it was :)
 
What is your job, Tobold?
 
There is currently little to no social infastructure in wow currently.

Guilds still remain undeveloped. I just don't understand there should be more reasons that a guild should work together besides raiding in 5 hour chunks.

I cannot nearly voice the opinion in my head properly, but the social structures in wow need to be developed quite badly. Although the devs have done very little to do this.

Look at Ragnarok online for example. Your guild can actually level up and gain benefits depending on the level of the guild. The guild works together to level up the guild.

Its a simple example, but its an example of how one can make their guild theirs. The only way you can do that now is maybe trying to get renown through server firsts and that really wears thin.

I really hope the social structure in wow is developed soon. That people are encouraged to work together to build community.

Because 5 hour raiding alone just isn't doing it in my opinion.
 
"Humans as individuals are unpredictable, able to perform acts ranging from saintly goodness to abominable evil. But get a large number of them together into the same environment, and their behavior becomes predictable. Whole sciences, like economics for example, are based on that."

It's worth noting, if you're going to use economics as an example, that the economists haven't done a bang-up job of predicting human behaviour - look at the move towards happiness economics for proof. Expecting game designers to fare better than a field which has a significantly higher number of very bright people, and still can't get it right, is perhaps asking too much.
 
Expecting game designers to fare better than a field which has a significantly higher number of very bright people, and still can't get it right, is perhaps asking too much.

Well, economists have a more complex system and less means to influence it. A game environment is considerably less complicated than real economy, and game developers have a much bigger influence on incentives.

What is your job, Tobold?

I'm a Ph.D. scientist in a research center. Not giving any details, but I'm not just doing it for the money. Crafting a virtual world might be nice, but I prefer to have an (admittably much smaller) impact on the future technology of the real world. I mentioned it before, the reason why I'm never using my real name when discussing games is that if you Google my real name, you come up with all my patents.
 
"If a large number of players in your game does something you didn't want them to do, it is your fault, you designed the challenges and incentives badly."

On a side note, SWG's customer service department just recently threw up their collective hands and said "AFK combat isn't illegal anymore because so many people are doing it we can't possibly stop them all."
Recursive macros ftw.
 
If the video game industry hits the mainstream, and follows the pattern of the rest of the entertainment and sports industries, I suppose that WoW "world-first" raiders and top Arena players will eventually be making multi-million-dollar incomes to play WoW...
 
Tobold, what would you do to build the social infastructure in wow currently?
 
Tobold, what would you do to build the social infastructure in wow currently?

Well, I'd start by significantly increasing the xp bonus you get when in a group, so that soloing isn't faster than grouping any more for leveling. Then I'd completely overhaul the LFG system.

And then I'd introduce a system of guild achievements, where depending on the "rank" of your guild, and your "reputation" with it you'd get access to rewards. Goal would be to give guilds a purpose beyond "we organize raids and we have a tabard", and to reward loyalty instead of guild-hopping.
 
tobold I totally agree with this post. It has always been one of my biggest frustrations to see the devs make statements that show they are confused by the actions of players that any commonsense person could have predicted based on thier changes.

I've said for 3 years now they should hire a team of sociologists to help them create a better game community.

The sad truth is they'll probably never consider such a thing till the game hits a major decline.
 
I like those ideas. But I'd like to see a penalty to the guild as well as the player if they leave. The player would obviously be punished by losing the guild status if they left. But I'd like the guild to take a small status hit if players leave. Then both side of the equation would have more incentive to work things out if possible.
 
amen to all of that
 
"Having a strong PvP in WoW diminishes the competitive advantage of upcoming MMORPGs, which are mostly PvP-centric."

I'm not sure about that. This thought is bugging me for quite some time now:
There is a bunch of people who never liked PvP very much, they probably tried once, got slaughtered and reacted like a child who touched the fire. Those people would never play Warhammer Online or something like that, right? They would stay in cozy WoW, where they can do PvM.
And now Blizzard is luring those players into PvP using the mechanics you described. They probably discover that PvP isn't all bad and can be quite interesting if its done well.
What prevents those people now from switching to Warhammer? They now consider PvP a viable alternative. Perhaps they like it even better than PvE now, who knows.
I think Blizzard is catering Warhammer when they try to concentrate on PvP. I'm playing Blizzard games since Warcraft 2, but nevertheless I think Mythic can do PvP better than Blizzard. WoW will never overcome the flaw that its a PvE-Game with an PvP-Overlay instead of otherway round.
 
Tobold wrote:
And then I'd introduce a system of guild achievements, where depending on the "rank" of your guild, and your "reputation" with it you'd get access to rewards. Goal would be to give guilds a purpose beyond "we organize raids and we have a tabard", and to reward loyalty instead of guild-hopping.

I'd be very leery of gear or comparable rewards. The reason to this is that I have seen evident distrust, or sometimes uttely misantrophic hostility, towards fellow players amongst many WoWers. Typical expression of this sentiment would be: "PUGing is from hell, and I'll only do instances with my guildies". In other words, lots of people tend to gather in their small little circles, and shut themselves off from the rest of the server. When there is tangible benefits on stake, this comes worse, and even within those small circles you begin see all sorts problematic social behaviour.

Which is why I'd prefer vanity achivements (ala Team Forteress 2 or Portal) over ones affecting player stats. You do want to complete them due pride and human competetiveness, but if you fail to get them, it won't keep you behind other players nor will it be as discouraging. It would also keep barriers of entry for new players in check. Yes, I know it is against what WoW is ATM.


Anyway, Mr Chief Social Engineer, I want give you your first task in your new job:

Identify main forms anti-social behaviour/attitude in WoW and the reasons for them. After that, suggest ways of preventing such behaviours/attitudes.
 
@Tobold: "There are a lot of games which you can play alone, and there are a lot of games where you can log on, frag a couple of random strangers, and log off again."

I *wish* there were a lot of single player games out there, but unfortunately *everything* is becoming an MMO lately. You give me 2 or 3 single-player PC games of WoW/Oblivion quality, and I might drop MMO's altogether. As it stands, in order to get the sort of immersive gameplay I used to get from Wizardry/Might and Magic - I have to play an MMO.

I mean think about it - City of Heroes could have been an amazing SP game, but that didn't happen. AoC would be a stellar SP game, but no. Hellgate London offers a decent singleplayer mode, but most of the content and game direction is headed towards being "multi". Remember your question about playing WoW in SP mode - quite a few people said they would.

I think MMOs are becoming the defacto RPG platform. They are moving towards becoming single-player/optionally multi-player games with a subscription. If you played any Guild Wars Nightfall (where you get your own NPC group), I challenge you to differentiate that from a single player RPG.

My point is, social structures USED to be the core mechanic of an MMOG. But now, the core mechanic is the ease of a SP game, with the evolution and breath of an online game. People get to play an evolving SP-ish game, perhaps with a wife or a handful of good friends. A handful, not 90. The Everquest model of 200 person guilds is dying off, especially as the game continues to evolve towards a more and more casual base.
 
Wow this is getting too weird.

About a year ago I took a course in Design of Experiments as applied to to the Biotech industry in San Diego, CA. The guy I sat next to was a Ph.D scientist from Belgium.

He was very bright, and had a habit of looking at things with an Economist's mindset, incentives driving human behavior etc.

I'm sure the probability of Tobold being that same person are very remote, but the parallels do exist.

This has bounced around in the back of my mind since I started reading this blog about a year ago. I chalked all up to the human habit of finding patterns were none exist, but now that you mention that you have Ph.D and work at research center makes me wonder.

Hmmmm...

Great game blog by the way very insightful and informative.
 
I just threw together my own thoughts on the subject on my own site, and it seems I'm not alone in believing that WoW's poor guild structure is in great part to blame for the "decline" in grouping.
 
"Humans as individuals are unpredictable, able to perform acts ranging from saintly goodness to abominable evil. But get a large number of them together into the same environment, and their behavior becomes predictable. Whole sciences, like economics for example, are based on that."

Or Psychohistory, for example...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychohistory_(fictional)
 
I agree to "rewards access" to guilds that have accomplished something in terms of raiding. This would make them feel that they really did achieve something that other players would also know and recognize.
 
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