Tobold's Blog
Monday, October 27, 2008
Accessibility and rewards

Keen has a post on the state of WAR, in which he blames the players for going for the reliable scenario grind instead of doing open world RvR. Quote: "This industry has been plagued by the “I want it, and I want it now” attitude. Yes, this was largely introduced when World of Warcraft gained popularity because, for the first time, developers started realizing that the majority of players want the ease of accessibility. What started out as a good idea - making things more accessible - turned into the near extinction of effort, achievement, and earning your reward." Keen thinks that this will lead to a future in which we get only games with effortless grind, because that is what the players apparently want. Not so fast! A game offering a fast, repetitive way to maximum reward will see that mode of gameplay be preferred over all alternatives. But that move is self-destructive, because quickly the players get bored. In WAR the players are trapped between repetitive scenarios giving the best rewards and more interesting content for which no groups can be found. And they are leaving WAR because of that. Yes, players want ease of accessibility, but WAR doesn't offer that; by having a "best way to level", WAR effectively makes the rest of its content inaccessible and obsolete.

It is true that MMORPGs have one fundamental problem: There is a conflict of interest between the fun of doing whatever you want to do, and the fun of advancing your character. The solution to that problem is easy to formulate, and hard to implement: Make the rewards scale proportional to the effort. Parts of the game that are high effort and give low rewards will be ignored. Blaming the players is a natural reaction, not just of Keen, but also from many game developers. But truth is that the devs are at least as guilty as the players, because they failed to scale the rewards right.

In modification of an old dictum, a good game is easy to access, but hard to master. The solution can not be to close down access to parts of the game. I don't support the proposed solution to eliminate scenarios from WAR, just as I don't support the idea of having raids in WoW be only accessible for an elite minority of players. We are talking about games here which ideally are played for several years, having a large variety of different modes of gameplay accessible to the maximum of players is essential to achieve that. But "accessible" means just that, having access, not "getting the maximum reward for minimum effort". Rewards have to be proportional to effort, and effort has to be measured including ease of setting the activity up. Scenarios in WAR are crowding open RvR and public quests out not only because of a pure measure of "xp per minute spent in a scenario", but also because they are so much more easy to set up. To organize taking a keep in open RvR, or do a public quest, you need to travel to the area, which given the annoying travel system of WAR can take a lot of time. And then you have to set up a group large enough to overcome the challenge. In comparison you can join scenarios from everywhere, and the game relieves you of all the effort of travel and getting a group together. If there was no "join scenario" button, nor automatic groups, and you would have to gather a group yourself and with the group fully preformed and present click on the portal to the scenario, which actually exists in the game world, there would be a *lot* less scenarios going on, even if we left the rewards unchanged.

And the same principles apply to WoW: There should be lots of different activities, solo and group, PvE and PvP; and each of these activities has to be accessible to everyone, but give out rewards in proportion to the effort, including the effort to set something up. For example the group xp bonus for WoW should be a lot bigger than it is now. There should be an added bonus for visiting the lower level dungeons, because previously the reward from dungeons was the gear you got there, but with the now increased leveling speed that gear isn't really worth the effort of finding a group in a low-population level bracket any more. And at the level cap, there should be "low effort" raids with low rewards. Not zero reward, like "oh why don't you just raid Molten Core", but with a reward that is well balanced between the added effort of setting up a group of 10 instead of 5, and the difficulty of the encounters. If implemented well, the idea of WotLK to then offer the same dungeon in a high effort, high reward mode is great. It worked well enough with heroic dungeons, there is no reason to assume it couldn't work with heroic raid dungeons. Nobody says there shouldn't be ultra-hard raid bosses in WoW, giving out the best possible rewards.

In a way WoW has it easier than WAR, because PvE is more predictable than PvP, and thus easier to reward in proportion to effort. So at least for PvE raids, getting the rewards right should be possible. For the PvP part of WoW, as well as for most of WAR, the problem is a lot harder. On the one extreme the reward structure of PvP can be so much in favor of gaining some objective, that players end up not actually doing any PvP at all, but doing some pseudo-PvE instead. In WoW you can see that when two groups of 40 players rush in Alterac Valley, and then pass by each other on the way to the enemy fortress to kill NPC guards there, instead of fighting each other. In WAR you can see those 3 am city raids, where the players of one faction attack at a point in time where there are the least player defenders, and they only have to deal with NPCs to take the fortresses and city. On the other extreme, if you make the rewards for killing enemy players in PvP much bigger than for achieving an objective, you end up with everyone brawling in the middle, and nobody going for the flag or whatever the objective is.

I think it was Brad McQuaid who promised for Vanguard a perfect system where what is most fun would also be most rewarded. Obviously he failed to deliver, but that doesn't invalidate the goal. Players *do* have fun when they are challenged. But they also want maximum rewards. In a perfect game the rewards be exactly in proportion to effort, and then players would automatically search for the most challenging activity they can still win, continuously pushing the envelope, and having the most fun. But it is impossible to overestimate the pull that rewards have in MMORPGs, and if there is a flaw in the system that enables people to get higher rewards for lower effort, they will go after that. It is not that they are actively avoiding the effort, or the fun, it is just that the lure of the reward is so much stronger. Blaming the players is easy, but doesn't get us anywhere, because we won't be able to change player mentality. Making the perfect game, with a constant reward to effort ratio, is hard, but in the end it is the better solution. And maybe one day developers will come up with a way to create self-balancing systems, where there is no "best way" to advance.
Blaming one's customers, even if they are at fault, isn't going to get a company very far...
When people understand that not all the fun happens at level-cap, they will not try to just min-max their way to top rank and start enjoying the stuff up to there. Playing WAR I actually enjoy all the stuff from rank1 onwards where I normally would have to wait for the so-called end-game in other titles. On the other hand the accessibility in WAR is strongly server dependent and that means that it's no fault by the dev/design, but that of the players who choose to grind scenario instead of playing a game with ORvR, PvE and scenarios.

There is some tweaking done to increase the incentive for ORvR and lets see how this is accepted before we call WAR to be doomed. Meanwhile I enjoy the ORvR fights even without any more motivation than just to be able punch some greenskins in the face.
The players are never at fault. The customer is always right. WAR has design flaws that need to be addressed, or else it may as well just get rid of the overworld and create a lobby that launches directly into Scenarios.
Well written. Players *do* optimize the fun out of (any) game(s). That somebody, who did not know this (end even denies it!), is allowed a position of power in MMO development is .. terrible. I guess that happens when you want your programers to be game developers, because you do not have enough money to pay real game developers. The collectivety of players is never guilty. Never! The collectivety of players is the only judge a game has. The more players like it, the better a game is.

I'd really like top ask the WAR devolpers why their game has character levels. I fear the only answer I'd get would be
1) "WoW had levels"
2) "All RPGs have levels"
3) "I like it."
A game developer, however, should have better answers.

Developing good games is a science and an art.
Zizlak is pretty much right, as is keen. It is the players fault. The journey should be fun, not just the rewards. if you are not enjoying the journey it is time to quit.
Well, Tobold, that is the difference between gaming and entertainment.
The ones who want to be entertained, and they are the biggest part of the millions who are pouring their wallets into Blizzard's pockets, drive the genre, and we can expect more and more game companies catering for this type of consumer.
This individual doesn't want to play a game. He wants simply to be entertained and be rewarded. So he will always choose the activity who does the biggest reward for the least effort.
Of course, if a game wants to counter this trend, it must do so with excelent design, the only problem is: who to design for?
Perhaps this is the true discussion all along... It was never a issue of hardcore vs. casuals but a issue of gamers vs. non-gamers. Gamers, even the casual ones, didn't complained that they didn't had time to go on raid. Gamers leveled more than one toon just to know other classes. Gamers understood the long and hard attunements.
But the non-gamers: “I want it, and I want it now”...
Well, my passion in life is music and i rather be in an Opeth gig than on a Madonna one, if you know what i mean. And if you do, translate it to gaming. :)
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I agree with Werit: as long as the players see MMORPG as a running competition to level cap, the games will suffer from what Tobold wrote. At the moment the development and growth of the toon and the player precedes the achievement (I beat the game-syndrome), and the content comes the king, the rewards lose their meaning as the 'only' reward.

Happened to me. Of course I do my best to optimise my gear to counter the next challenge, but I'm not willing to go through a huge grind to get it. I rather do something else to get there, maybe later, and enjoy the game while doing it.
I think this is another aspect where having such a short and level capped open beta showed Mythic to shoot themselves in the foot.

In the open beta Tier 2 was the end game. Players would hit rank 12-14 and then just slow down. Open RvR and public quest groups were everywhere as players were not concerned with character advancement and simply looked for group activites that were fun. Additionaly, without cross realm queuing for scenarios everyone gravataged to Empire vs. Chaos which made for an even higher concentration of players, thus more groups.
I wish somebody would do something really clever with the whole idea of 'rewards' as established in MMOs. The conventional carrots like xp and gear are too...linear, especially when awarded by typical quests and tank and spank raid mobs. People have gotten used to going straight for the shortcut and doing the bare minimum for maximal benefit out of reasons of efficiency - even when said process isn't quite 'fun.'

What these clever things are, I don't know offhand yet. But I can name a few experiments that have been different. City of Heroes - random 'gear' drops, trade on a reverse auction house for your desired gear augmentation or farm stuff ad nauseam. (The farming bit is not very cool, but an unfortunate property of the random drop mechanic.) Think they are going to try some sort of token buy system in the future.

I like the general idea of some sort of merit or token that one can use to build up one's gear or oneself as desired, but again we run the risk of having players find the one scenario/quest/mission that gives the best reward for the time/effort buck and doing that repeatedly.

Moria's legendary weapon system might be a variation of this, perhaps with geographically separate add-ons that will require doing different things. Maybe. Just guessing. Not read much on it as yet.

Guild Wars rewards took a spin off gear as main focus and into skills, since max gear was achieved so readily. So again you'd run around geographically separate areas collecting skills as rewards and then build your own optimal character from those.

Even then you could argue there's always going to be some sort of optimal path to follow to get the best bang for buck. Question is, how much of your populace would be inclined to follow the optimal path slavishly, and how many would try and find their own path? And how much would it cost them - would they be punished or rewarded for trying to find new optimums?

Eve's skill system if I'm not mistaken works off having humongous and complicated skill trees and limited time training, so you can't have it all, you just follow the tree to the skill that leds you do something you want. Having the most isk and biggest ship doesn't mean the ultimate progress goal has been achieved either, since you're not invulnerable to getting backstabbed. Perhaps as a result of not having one clear path to success, one tends to play Eve for other reasons than carrot-like rewards? Dunno, for those who play Eve, how do you keep score in Eve?

Wish other MMOs could slowly wean their players off from chasing a breadcrumb trail and figure out other ways to feel rewarded with satisfaction.
I agree with you tobold; ive had *this* niggling feeling about WAR for awhile; the eerily quiet chat channels was the first thing i noticed along with me excusing away similar comments read in other blogs but i think its time to look elsewhere for my style of play (it may suit others and thats fine...)
It has nothing to do with WoW, or whether WoW conditioned people to expect certain things, it's human nature. The game sets goals in front of you, achieving those goals is fun, the game sets several paths, one offers you the fun of achieving your goals with measurable progress, the other paths offer slow and hard to measure progress. What do you choose?

Working towards goals is part of the fun and what drives people to play games, exercise, do all sorts of things. It doesn't mean they want the "easy road" it means they are trying to achieve their goals.
Wish other MMOs could slowly wean their players off from chasing a breadcrumb trail and figure out other ways to feel rewarded with satisfaction.

This is how I see it as well, it seems a lot of the big problems in the big MMO's nowadays come from too much focus on reward, with developers adding lots of gear, titles, levels, etc., for players to chase, and lots of players who have become so overly focused on rewards that they miss other things that could occur in games.

I see the complaint quoted earlier in the blog post as an example of this, actually, the "turned into the near extinction of effort, achievement, and earning your reward." part of it, as well as similar complaints that I've seen on some warhammer forums. The idea of scaling back the "reward" elements of the game doesn't enter into people's minds, just different flavors of reward.
Players blaming developers can be just as wrong as developers blaming players. Some games are broken, some people are broken, it is impossible to say which is which without looking at the specifics.

Everyone plays more or less the same game of real life, but only some have something very like this problem there.
Apparently this condition is known as "anhedonia" - the inability to derive any pleasure from things that would normally be considered pleasurable. Hand someone truly anhedonic a slice of chocolate cake, and at best they'll think, "Hmm, my tastebuds indicate this cake is delicious," rather than simply enjoying it. They subject it to Spock-like analysis, swallow it, shrug, and then crap it out a few hours later, wearing a neutral, unchanging expression throughout. Well, that's me, that is.

If you have that kind of problem, changing jobs, partners or countries won't change anything relevant.

On the other hand, if job, partner, country or game _is_ the problem (say you a living in a fascist dictatorship, or playing Vanguard), changing attitude won't help much either.
A game is responsible for putting its players in to right 'frame of mind'. A game that is only fun if the players really want it to be fun, is not a good game. There are a lot of not-good games out there, btw. Most games are not-good, actually.
(A good example is to try and play a very old game hat you remember to be alot of fun. You have a high chance to be in the wrong 'frame of mind', being unable to enjoy the game. This is especially true, if the game has very bad grapfics).

This doesn't mean, however, that a game developer should try to make a not-good game.
If a majority of players don't like WAR this may be, because they didn't try hard enough to put themselves into the right 'frame of mind'. But while a reason for the dilemme can be found in the crowd of players, the RESPONSIBILITY is still that of the deveolper.
After playing for a month, WAR feels like a big scam.

The world and character models are beautiful and enticing. However, once you see the core RvR game you begin to see it is shoddy and not well thought out. To put it bluntly, the endgame is just a large group seizing a fort in 10 minutes (minimal pvp), then losing it 30 minutes later. Its less fun than tic-tac-toe.

Think of what they could have had in the RvR zones: street fighting, head on collision of warbands, economic objectives, guild ownership of sub-zones.

I mean ... for gods sake, warhammer is a board wargame.
I'd have to agree. After taking every keep in T3 and claiming one of them, my guild then sat around for two hours waiting for destro to take one of them back. They didn't show up and I eventually logged. Talk about boring. Apparently destro didn't get the memo that RvR is what the game is about.

Apparently after I logged a destro warband did show up -- but facing three warbands of order, they were quickly routed and gave up half an hour later. Scenarios seem to be the only way you can get a decent RvR encounter, but even those are taking longer and longer to pop. Either the majority of destro have all levelled to T4, or they have packed it in. I wonder which one it is.

I'd just like to say also... whoever designed the mechanics of PvE instances in WAR needs to be taken out the back and shot. Fast respawns, DCs and game crashes putting you back at the start... Every time I have tried Mount Gunbad, we would get halfway through a wing and have to go back to get someone who has DCed or crashed. A complete waste of time every time. Was this stuff tested...?
Well i play WAR as i think it should be played. I try to do all pve content with open rvr when there is an opportunity. It's extremely slow in leveling but i like it. Because scenario system is broken i don't play them at all unless there is a guild group forming. With improved chat system getting people in PQ's or group quests/tome unlocks is much easier.
But when i look at the big picture, i see false implementation of war's rvr. It is impossible to take a keep if you have two balanced opposing forces. The only way to take a keep is to outnumber defenders.
The most fun i have in war is when real open rvr happens on the battlefield. There is no lag and constant action. Mythic failed to deliver the best aspect of rvr for me. What's the point of large rvr lakes, when all the fighting is in one small pocket. If mythic would put contested PQ's in rvr lakes or non instanced large scale scenario, that would be fun.
And btw. leveling in MMO's is nothing more that a timesink to hide the lack of content(or in case of new MMO, timesink for bugfixing). Only a few cares about lore or enjoy the beauty of virtual world.
I think a lot of players joined up for the sandbox RvR that the open areas offered. Apparently all of these players joined destruction. After Order spent the first few weeks not really holding onto much of anything they quickly took advantage of the shorter scenario queue times that they enjoyed to simply RvR as much as they wanted in these extremely controlled environments with their own rules and balanced numbers.

I could further elaborate but I feel that the problems all stem from population imbalance early on. Mythic can only blame themselves for this and not the players.
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