Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
 
Why do we play? - Character development

Character development, in the context of MMORPGs, unfortunately does not describe a process in which immature jerks grow up and develop some character. It only describes the process in which our playing pieces, our avatars, become numerically stronger. Note that it doesn't matter how exactly the mechanics of getting stronger are. Games where you gain experience points until you level up, and gain stats with each level, are probably the most common. But games where you gain skill points are still a form of character development. Square Enix announcing that their upcoming Final Fantasy XIV MMORPG will not have levels, but will work by you increasing the power of your weapon is also just a different guise of character development.

Character development is the defining feature of what is called role-playing games. If you read about some new real-time strategy game, "now with role-playing elements", that just means that your units will gain stats while playing, and you'll take the same units, now stronger, into the next battle. As many people remarked that there is no "role-playing" in the theatrical sense of the term in role-playing games, it would in fact be more accurate to talk of character development games, or even better, avatar development games.

As discussed in the chapter about challenge, character development creates the illusion of progress, of you getting better playing the game. There is some mob you couldn't kill before, and now, a few levels later, you can kill it. That makes character development extremely popular, and one of the major reasons of why we play.

Your stats getting higher, if seen in isolation, doesn't appear to be all that attractive. You have some value called "Strength", which went up from 110 to 120, and some value called "Damage", which went up from "93 - 123" to "101 - 134". So what? Where these stats become important is when you engage in the core gameplay, usually combat. The stats determine how likely you are to hit the enemy monster, how much damage you deal to it per hit, how much damage you can absorb, how many spells you can cast, and everything else. Your stats going up means you can more easily beat the same monster, or now beat some previously too hard challenge. Stats mean nothing in absolute terms, but are extremely important in relative terms.

Stats being relative means that there is no absolute limit. If people still will play World of Warcraft in 20 years, and Blizzard brings out a new expansion every 2 years, then in 2029 we will be playing with level 180 characters. And it is perfectly possible to predict what strength for example a level 180 warrior in WoW will have, unless Blizzard does some changes to the rules. There is nothing in the system which would make it impossible to imagine how this level 180 warrior will fight level 180 monsters, who will simply have increased stats as well. And of course in PvP he will face other level 180 characters.

Character development has different pathways. In most cases you get stronger by playing. In level-based games you earn xp by playing, which then make you level up, and your stats go up with the level. In some skill-based games your skill goes up with you using it. But there are also systems like in EVE Online, where your skills go up in real-time. Often your total stats are a combination of your base stats, plus the bonuses you get from equipment. Thus finding and equipping better gear is also a form of character development. In fact, level based games normally have a level cap, and finding better gear is the only form of character development left in the end game.

You probably thought my recent posts about microtransactions were not related to this "why do we play?" series, but in fact the comments people made about Free2Play games are extremely illuminating on the subject of character development. Two frequent complaints were A) at some point in a Free2Play game my character development in PvE slows down so much that I am "forced" to pay for items to accelerate it. And B) in a microtransaction game I can't beat people in PvP at the highest level if they outspend me. Both of these show how extremely important character development is to people. Even if it is just the leveling curve, which makes it take longer and longer before your character develops to the next level, this is already considered as being so unbearable that you *must* pay for items to develop your character faster. Simply developing slower is not considered an option. And in PvP the character that developed further will have a definitive advantage over an equally skilled but less developed character.

Note that this isn't actually a unique feature to Free2Play games; I personally did get stuck at level 42 in Everquest, and gave up after not gaining another level for over a month. A curious character and a "I wonder what happens if I do that" attitude do not mix well with a game with a harsh death penalty. And many, many players quit for example World of Warcraft after getting stuck in the end game, with their guild not advancing in the raid circuit any more, which means their character development by gear improvement had stopped. In PvP, players of Darkfall are complaining that they can't beat other players who leveled up magic by casting magic missiles at trees for hundreds of hours, before Aventurine fixed that loophole. In Dark Age of Camelot players complained that the Trials of Atlantis expansion allowed players to spend a lot of time gathering better gear there, and then beat people without Atlantis gear in PvP. Warhammer Online, regrettably, is going down the same slippery slope with the Land of the Dead. EVE is attracting new players at a slower and slower rate, because many people feel that they will never be able to catch up with the competition, who are years ahead of them in skill gains by real time. Whatever the method of character development is, be it time subscribed, time spent in game, or money spent, there is always some other player who spent more than you, developed his character further than you, and thus has an advantage over you, in PvE and PvP.

Thus some people have compared a MMORPG to a treadmill: You get the impression of constant forward motion, but as the challenges of both PvE and PvP are relative, and simply advance at the same speed as you do, you never really get ahead. Nevertheless, even as an illusion, the feeling of constant progress is a seductive one. The alternative, games in which you advance by getting better at playing the game, offer much slower progress. Character development is always pleasant, always gives you a rush, even if the reason why you gained that new skill was that you logged off and waited for a week, or the reason for your damage increase was that you bought a weapon for real money in the item shop, or you leveled up killing monsters that posed absolutely no challenge to you. Nobody ever questions whether he really deserved his character getting stronger for whatever he did to get there. But then happily moves to some game forum or blog to denounce players who chose a different way of character advancement, e.g. "welfare epics". Even if somebody else chooses exactly the same path of character development, he'll be criticized for either being more or less far on that path. Or as Rohan says, "Ever notice how anyone who plays more than you has no life? And anyone who plays less than you is not dedicated enough to deserve epics? It's amazing how you managed to hit that perfect balance."

So character development is certainly one big part of the answer of why we play. We play because playing advances our character, and then character development opens up new content to us, or gives us the illusion of having become better at beating old content. Everybody loves to win, loves success, and by introducing less strenuous pathways of winning, MMORPGs provide us with a constant high on the drugs our own brains emit to reward us for success. Character development is a key element which enables this constant stream of success.
Comments:
I really enjoyed this article you wrote here, TOBOLD. You really hit the nail on the head with it. MMORPG advancement is basically just a way to keep playing. Everything in MMORPGs is goal-driven. Maybe your goals are in the form of quests, maybe you don't have any fixed goals. Regardless, in order to improve your character, you have to do something.

Maybe it is kill 10 goblins to get a better sword, or maybe it is jump 50 times to become a Rank 2 jumper, but regardless of what it is, it is just a time investment to move to something better. Of course it is never ending cycle. Most people are probably too short-sighted to see it, so they just get trapped up in it and keep playing it. Once you accept the fact it never ends though, you can enjoy each advancement stage a little more I think, rather then trying to keep getting to the next level.

If you want though, you can try playing a MMORPG and not advancing at all. Suddenly the world gets very small and in all MMORPGs you are very limited in what you can do. In order to do more things, you have to advance in some way. This is the basic premise behind all RPGS. In order to defeat the bigger bad guy, you need a bigger sword, more potent spell, tougher armour, etc, or in order to explore the next zone, you need to fight off the enemies there.

I guess for instance in WoW you can just roleplay and interact with others as a level 1 character, but then the game just becomes a glorified chat room with some backstory thrown in.

So my final answer is you advance because you have to. In order to continue playing in the game world, you have to advance. Most games are even setup so that in order to move to the next area, you need to be higher up in order to get through it alive.

The only thing is if the game didn't keep up with your advancement, you would just slaughter everything and the game would cease to be fun, because no challenge typically means no fun. Still though, in most MMORPGS, despite the fact enemies get stronger with you, you get further ahead of them with each level (typically).
 
Character development, in the context of MMORPGs, unfortunately does not describe a process in which immature jerks grow up and develop some character.

*applaudes*
Great - just great ! ;)

Now, about the article: I miss one thing. But before I point that one out I'd like to thank you for your insights.

What I miss is gaining new skills, not just incresing numbers.
Means: While you are somehow right that it is all about numbers in the end, I know from looking at myself that gaining the new fireball rank doesn't really motivate me as much as gaining a completely new skill.

A new skill can change the way I play my character and above all makes me curious to find you what it is like to be able to cast the new spell.

Now, if you talk about a static PvE boss fight the new skill easily translates into highter dps or hps or tps or mitigation etc.. But most boss fighty nowadays aren't like that anymore and then there is a lot more to a good MMO than just 25-man PvE boss encounters.
Especially in PvP many new skills don't do any damage, but indirectly create a situation that allowes you to prevail.

That is the kind of skill that really makes you want to develop your character.
 
"EVE is attracting new players at a slower and slower rate"

Not actually true. The devs have said that the lead up to and implementation of Apocrypha in March saw subscriptions grow faster than they ever have before.

"because many people feel that they will never be able to catch up with the competition, who are years ahead of them in skill gains by real time."

While an understandable concern, the scaling factors embedded in EVE's skill-capping-by-shipclass alting mechanic and training time inflation make this concern less relevant than it might be in an MMOs with different scaling mechanics.
 
The devs have said that the lead up to and implementation of Apocrypha in March saw subscriptions grow faster than they ever have before.

I'm talking about the long term trend. Expansions causing spikes in subscription numbers in normal, but you can't extrapolate from those short term gains to the long term.

It was discussed before on this blog how much time you need to play EVE before having gained enough character skills to be able to compete reasonably well (and not just by flying a tiny ship delivering insect bites), and several people estimated that time to be between 6 and 8 months. Now we can discuss endlessly whether that is reasonable, but my point here is that it is a barrier to entry, and SOME people will decide not to play EVE because of it.

And I always claimed that EVE is a game with cleverly disguised microtransactions and RMT. That starts with you having to pay X months in which you basically wait for all your necessary skills to go up, and ends with the possibility of selling PLEXs for ISK. I'm not saying that this is bad, but we shouldn't pretend that the business model of EVE is exactly the same as that of WoW. EVE just has a slightly different way to make people pay for character development.
 

Now we can discuss endlessly whether that is reasonable, but my point here is that it is a barrier to entry, and SOME people will decide not to play EVE because of it.


This applies to me. Some months ago I tried to get into EvE after reading about the social drama that takes place there. I love politics in MMOs!

There were 2 reasons I cancled this:
1) One of the aims in EvE is to accumulate money, but I can simply buy it with €. I don't like MT at all, as you might know by now :)

2) I am not afraid of spending hundreds of hours into MMOs, to eventually be 'powerful enough' to play 'with the big guys'.
But in EvE I couldn't influence the speed at which I reached this point. There was no real point in logging in, because I was 'develpoing my charcter' also while not logged in. It destroys immersoin for me and it actually hinders my desire to log in.
 
It was discussed before on this blog how much time you need to play EVE before having gained enough character skills to be able to compete reasonably well (and not just by flying a tiny ship delivering insect bites), and several people estimated that time to be between 6 and 8 months.
I wonder that the average time from level 1 to previous-arena-season gear or to T4 RvR gear is by comparison. In any case, it's not like you'll spend that 6-8 months in the station spinning your ship around, there's plenty of other tiny ships around that you can shoot.

but my point here is that it is a barrier to entry, and SOME people will decide not to play EVE because of it.
A barrier to entry? Probably. A significant barrier to entry? That's much harder to tell. MMOGCharts.com hasn't been updated for a while, but the subscription figures from 2004 to 2008 show a slightly increasing rate of growth.
 

I wonder that the average time from level 1 to previous-arena-season gear or to T4 RvR gear is by comparison.


While that is certainly interesting, it is not the main point.

The main point is that in EVE you are unable to influence your speed. Even if it took longer in WoW to finally 'get started', the inability in EVE to actually make a difference with my actions made me lose interest very quickly.
 
I'll second that the EVE bit is a little off (As is the LotD WAR comment, since LotD gear is not top-end stuff). As EVE is the only MMO to continue growing after 5 years, it's hard to argue that it's skill system is really holding it back (especially when you also factor in how many 1yr+ players they retain).

And the whole '6-8 months' thing is a myth continued by those who quit during the 14 day trial. As many have pointed out, at most you need a week to get the skills needed to contribute to fleet battles, and less than that if you join FW. This also says nothing about day one mining/trading/exploring/PvE.

And of course beyond the initial time for new players, there is also the fact that while a 4+ year player has a ton of SP, they don't have 4+ years of power over a new character, just more options. That's a rather brilliant bit of balance that level based games just ignore by performing constant resets with expansions. How 'impressive' is it to go from killing a god (AQ40) to killing boars in the Outlands, especially since that boar has gear more powerful than the god?
 
Progression is what MMORPGs are about, but it is als their greatest Nemesis. At one point you will meet rats that are stronger than previous raid bosses. :>

I would vote for horizontal char progression. Sideways, adding more skills and power, not just improving them and the player level.

The common vertical "level model" is working very well, but it has drawbacks like making older zones useless, creating problems to group with much higher or much lower level players. Plus it has a tendency to collapse and lead to power creep after a while.

Maybe we also need to get used to "more of the same" but offer more of the "same" with better and new lore, background, story. Plus a nice innovation in every expansion.

Think about WoW, TBC had flight, WOTLK Death Knights. What will Worgen and Goblins offer to Cataclysm? Two new races could spearheard an expanded faction and allegiance system.

Maybe we will be able to build and command ships in the next WoW expansion - this would make a lot of people interested, much more so than some new skills added to 10 more levels.
 
Character advancement is principally a cheap substitute for good core gameplay. Why is Counterstrike still popular even though it was no persistent character advancement? Because the core gameplay is fantastic. It's impossible to solve CS to the point where you can no longer be more skillful in the way you play (without botting). You CAN solve max-level combat in WoW to the point where you cannot possibly play better given your character's equips and spec--and it's not too difficult to do so!

Do we play MMORPGs so that we can advance our characters?

Advancement is fun because we get new systems to learn, but that fun rapidly wears off and MUST wear off because player skill is essentially capped. Without advancement, MMORPGs would (god forbid) actually have to have combat systems that are non-trivial, fun, and enjoyable. It's far easier for designers to tack on new abilities and improve old ones over time than to design a combat system that is actually fun and deep.
 
"It was discussed before on this blog how much time you need to play EVE before having gained enough character skills to be able to compete reasonably well (and not just by flying a tiny ship delivering insect bites)"

That's a common mistake made by inexperienced players - the "rush to a battleship despite advice to the contrary". Once in one the pilots often realise battleships aren't solo pwnmobiles, that the tiny ships have plenty of uses, and often seem more "fun", and rediscover the joys of flying a tackle-frigate or frying eyeballs in an EWar boat.

And, with EVE's non-capped PvP, uses can always be found for young pilots. In short, the phrase "compete reasonably well" is totally situationally dependant.

"Now we can discuss endlessly whether that is reasonable, but my point here is that it is a barrier to entry, and SOME people will decide not to play EVE because of it."

Agree there is a perceived barrier (well, an incline rather than barrier). Teaching corps like EVE University can help over conceptual hiccups like that.

"And I always claimed that EVE is a game with cleverly disguised microtransactions and RMT."

*points at latest devblog*

*giggles*

Yes, so cleverly disguised. ;)
 
Something i've loved about DDO (i am in the minority here, i know) is that as you gain levels, your spells aren't progressing in the typical MMO form of: Fireball 1, fireball 2, etc. The spells all do pretty different things, although not to the complexity of the pen and paper game (when a computer game can do that, i will sell my soul to them, not really but you know). The spells like Magic Missile scale as you go up in level, and you get other spells too, quite a few too. Not many are direct damage either, stuff that people don't really use enough, but are damn fun like Otto's Irresistible Dance (there is a video on Youtube of a guy seeing every monster dance, pretty cute). I'd love to see more of this diversity in progression in more MMOs.
 
Tobold, I'd say one thing I enjoy is the increasing complexity and increase in options that you get as you level.

At lvl 20 or 30 a shadow or holy priest are a bit different. At 80 they could be entirely different classes.

The gradually addition of extra options is prevalent in RTS games to. When done well it adds complexity and tactical options which increases your power. When done less well it means that the new shiny unit is over-powered and the only thing you use making all previous content redundant.

The continued success of StarCraft was that the cheaper units were still useful even when you had everything available.
 
The main point is that in EVE you are unable to influence your speed. Even if it took longer in WoW to finally 'get started', the inability in EVE to actually make a difference with my actions made me lose interest very quickly.
That's somewhat unfortunate, because I feel that while the constant-speed skill training is an important factor, it's overshadowed by what you as a player learn. For example, Eve's main trade-related skills increase the number of buy and sell orders you can have active at any time.. but unless you know what to buy and sell and where, those slots are useless. Likewise, there's plenty of gunnery skills that offer a flat percentage increase to your damage.. and those bonuses are completely overshadowed by the benefit of knowing which ships you should fight and at what ranges. Learning things like that are the core of character development in EvE.

Of course, there's a downside to that. When you don't know those things, New Eden can be a very intimidating place, and the character's skills do little to dissipate that fear. Your enemies will seem to be completely untouchable, they seem to kill you effortlessly and seem to be able to strike anywhere. IMHO, that is a much more significant barrier to entry, especially when you're dumped into a designated NPC corporation when you join the game, and the other members know only a bit more than you. Eve really could use a some sort of a mentoring system. Player-run organizations like the Eve University or Seppuku Warriors are good, but they can't help everyone.
 
Character development offers us constant growth - fantastic.
But this fantastic growth feels slightly artificial. Do you want to think that you just grew in power, knowing that really it's just an illusion?

In Aldous Huxley's "brave new world" book, people use a drug called "soma" without any side-effects in order to be constantly happy. I've always asked myself whether I would take such a drug. Well, after my wow experience, my answer is: only if I can't be happy based on real-world success.

Would you take soma?
 
Aside from real world logic of hitting the books or working out allowing you to then ace an exam or beat your best time in a sprint, which is what experience gain and leveling up represent...

As others said Character development is more than upward sloping numbers, but the expansion of abilities that define a character.

Thing is how would you measure your avatar's growth in competence? I mean, we're talking about hardened warriors here. At some point your "avatar" is more capable than you are. So how do you represent that?
 
Would you take soma?

Would I want to take it? No.
Would I take it. Yes.

Humans are biochemical maschines. The mechanism of happiness served us well. We became more and more and populated the planet.

Happiness is - in the end - everything we want. It is designed (read: evolved) to be everything we want.
 
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