Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Goals and activities
Rohan from Blessing of Kings has an interesting observation on achievements: "WoW shows you all the Achievements available, while WAR hides them." Green Armadillo explains a bit more on the WAR philosophy towards achievements, being more of a history of past deeds than a guideline where to go next. For me that is just one part of a hugely complex debate on how to introduce goals into virtual worlds, and how to make pursuing these goals more interesting.
I am a strong believer in having to have goals in a MMORPG. If there are no goals, you get a non-game sandbox virtual world like Second Life. The huge success of World of Warcraft can be explained by its excellent system for the management of goals. There are short-term goals, like quests, and long-term goals, like reaching a level cap, some exalted reputation, or killing some raid boss. The new WoW achievement system adds to both sides, having some achievements you can do in a few minutes, and others which will take you days or weeks to complete. In this context it is evident that the WoW achievements have to be known to the player, he needs to be able to see what achievements there still are to do for him. That is why WoW gives you more information on achievements than WAR does.
But words like "quest", or "achievement" evoke an idea of there being some difficulty in completing them. "Fetch me a bottle of lemonade from the fridge" is not a quest, it is an errand. And when you do it, it isn't much of an achievement. So the problem for game design is to create quests and achievements which actually have some degree of challenge to them. Many quests, and some achievements, limit that challenge to the act of fighting one or several monsters. And there is a growing dissatisfaction from players towards that model, especially when that fight is a solo fight, not involving other players. The sad truth is that the fight of a solo player against monsters in a MMORPG involves little or no skill. The outcome of such a fight is to a large extent determined by your level and gear, and to a very small extent to your ability to play your class well. There are many monsters you can easily kill by just mashing buttons randomly or in always the same sequence. There are many monsters you can't kill at all. And there are very few monsters which two players having the same class, level, and gear would find the more skilled player beating the mob and the less skilled player losing to it.
Other quests are even more trivial, just involving going somewhere and clicking on something or some NPC. So to make things a bit more interesting, most quests involve a certain amount of searching and exploration. Here the different philosophies of WAR and WoW are the reverse of what they are on the achievements: WoW gives you just a general direction and description where to find your quest goal, WAR marks the place you have to go to with a red circle on your map. On achievements WoW gives you more information, on quests WAR does.
I don't want to get into an argument here which way is better, because in the end the amount of information a game gives you often is irrelevant. A big problem here is that both quests and achievements in both games (and many others) are static: Every player has to perform exactly the same task to fulfill that quest or gain that achievement. In consequence there are websites listing all quests and achievements, and players who don't want to search themselves can just look up the information. If the game doesn't show you the exact quest location, then some website, or even an addon will.
Keeping players motivated with goals to undertake interesting activities is hard. The fundamental problem is that an activity that is interesting and challenging is often not the fastest way to advance towards your goals. Why search out that mob where your skill would make the difference between winning and losing, if you can find monsters that you are sure to win against and earn xp faster? Why lose time searching that zone when you can find the information where your quest target is on the internet? I couldn't find that quote attributed to Raph Koster anywhere that "humans tend to optimize the fun out", but he did say: "What people are doing is trying to make gameplay predictable--as predictable as putting on pants. Human civilization is based on making life boring. As boring as possible. Exciting can get you killed. Predictably is, therefore, good. In other words, every game is destined to be boring."
Initially the player sits around in a virtual world without goals and doesn't know what to do. So in order to incite him to do something fun, the developers present him with goals in the form of quests and achievements. But the most fun is in the unexpected, the dangerous, and millions of years of evolution have trained our brains to seek to avoid that. It doesn't matter that virtual death doesn't hurt, and only costs us a bit of time to reverse, we still are doing our best to achieve our goals without taking much risk. At which point game design degenerates into an arms race between clever developers who want to force players to take risks, and clever players finding ways to circumvent the dangers and still arrive at the reward. But in the end we, the players, tend to have the most fun when we can't avoid the risk: In balanced PvP, in challenging raids. Multi-player games keep us playing longer, and are more fun, because playing with or against other players automatically adds the unpredictability that is so much fun, but which we are trying to avoid. We want our multi-player games to have solo content, but nobody has come up with a good way to add that fun unpredictability to the solo part of MMORPGs yet. At the very least our actions in solo combat have to have a bigger influence on the outcome of that combat. Unless there are some major changes to the system combat is handled in MMORPGs, I don't see that happen anytime soon. Our goals end up ruining our activities for us.