Tobold's Blog
Monday, August 17, 2009
Why do we play? - Learning

According to Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, learning is one of the major motivational factors in games. We play until we learned how a game works, then we get bored and stop. Theoretically. It certainly is fun to learn a new MMORPG, especially if it is somewhat different from what one played before. New games get a substantial amount of sales from the simple fact that they are new, thus promising a learning experience. But when we consider why we play the same MMORPG for thousands of hours, the "fun through learning" explanation appears rather weak.

Look at some of the more complicated single-player role-playing games, like the Final Fantasy games, or even Final Fantasy Tactics. They are good value for money, because the learning experience is a long one. But long in the context of a single-player games means something in the vicinity of one hundred hours. By the time they played the game through once in one hundred hours, most people completely grasped even the details of a complicated Final Fantasy game. Now compare that to a MMORPG like World of Warcraft, and you'll immediately see that WoW is a lot less complicated, but takes much longer. Nobody needs thousands of hours to learn how to play World of Warcraft well.

That does not mean that after having played thousands of hours, everyone is playing World of Warcraft well. That is because most of those hours are spent doing things that don't teach you anything. This is easy to see with the example of the Death Knight: The average player of a level 60 Death Knight knows his character as well as the average player of any other level 60 character. Only that the Death Knight player completed this learning experience in a condensed 5 levels, while the players of the other classes had to play for the full 60 levels. Thus the other player obviously wasted a lot of his time with activities that didn't teach him any better than the accelerated Death Knight tutorial.

Also the time to level 60 is getting shorter and shorter. When WoW came out, the average player needed 500 hours to reach level 60. Nowadays even a completely new player will level to 60 in less than half that time, without that having any negative consequence on his mastery of the class he is playing. The reason is that the amount of time needed to get to the next level is completely artificial, and is not at all related to the time it takes to understand the spells and abilities of the previous level. Character levels up, gets a new spell, and completely grasps all the uses of that spell in a few fights; but then he still needs to do another hundred fights or more before getting the next new spell or ability to learn. The learning experience is artificially diluted.

The famous archetypical player who bought a level-capped character on Ebay will have difficulties playing this character well right away, but he *will* learn how to handle that character much faster than it would take to level a character to the cap himself. That is the reason why there is demand for means to accelerate the leveling process: Power-leveling services, twinking, getting boosted through dungeons, or even paying with microtransactions for some scroll of fast leveling. People are able to learn and master MMORPGs a lot faster than the game actually lets them advance.

Even worse, in the specific case of World of Warcraft, what the game teaches you during the leveling period has very, very little relation to the skills you need to succeed in the end game. By making the leveling process completely solo-able, and not even offering NPC groups that would teach you basic group tactics, it is completely possible to reach level 80 with a warrior without ever having used the taunt ability. What would you have used it for in solo play? It does nothing there!

The learning period when you start grouping can be fun, but can also be extremely frustrating. Not because the basics of heroics or raiding would actually be hard, but because the game is designed to be as unfriendly as possible towards people who learn. Players able and willing to explain well what to do to another player are few and far between. And the learning by trial and error method usually gets your whole group wiped, and the new player kicked from the group. It is one of the consequences of having a game with so many players, but one which isn't very social: It becomes easier to kick a player out and replace him by somebody else, than to teach him anything.

Raids in World of Warcraft are considered "difficult". That would imply that it would be fun to learn and master them. In reality that is often not the case. Factors like having to get 25 players together at the same time and place, raid lockouts, tedious trash on the way to the boss, and long recovery times from wipes limit how often a raid group can try a specific encounter. As frequently explained, the main "difficulty" of a large raid encounter is that it can fail even if the large majority of participants executed their part perfectly well. And as the interactions are often complex, in many cases the persons responsible for the wipe aren't even aware that it was their fault, and learn nothing. Even at their best, raids are all about a perfect synchronous execution of rather trivial moves, and not very intellectually challenging.

What little opportunity there is to learn something in World of Warcraft, players regularly circumvent. They prefer predictable daily quests to new ones. The use of addons like Questhelper became so common, that Blizzard now introduced it into the standard client. Nobody works out boss strategies by himself, or with his guild, as the perfect solution is found on Youtube and other sites. Experimenting with talent builds etc. is strongly discouraged, instead players are directed to sites like Elitist Jerks to get the cookie cutter build of the month. I'm sure the theorycrafters there have a lot of fun to work out the mathematical optimum after every patch, but the regular player just copies the result. As all game systems, and all challenges, are static, there is no need to think on your feet. Somebody else already beat exactly the same challenge, and can tell you all about it.

In summary, I can only accept the theory that we play for the fun of learning for the limited case of starting a new game. Why we play the same game for years and thousands of hours is beyond this motivation factor. MMORPGs are better seen as an interesting exception to Raph's Theory of Fun, where you have to explain why people keep playing after they obviously stopped learning.
Actually I absolutely love it when a player in my group gets invited and then states that he doesn't know something yet. In most cases its fairly easy to teach him what he needs to know and people who really want to learn seem to be rare nowadays. Most people simply don't say anything, fail miserably, in case of achievements even make sure that the whole group completely fails and then feel mistreated if everone is mad.

I never saw anyone get kicked out of a group when he said he was new to the game, but I often saw those person literally getting flooded with good advice, so I really recommend that course of action.
I agree completely: MMOs don't teach us how to play well, they just teach us how to play a lot. It's why I'm always suspicious when developers say that their main goal is fun, when it's so blatant that their main goal is to keep us subscribed for the minimum amount of design work.
I couldn't agree more. When I get a new MMO, I tend to play all the different classes to mid-early level (30-40) then move on to a different game. The learning curve is very fast, but once it's over, the game can just as quickly become redudant and frankly boring...even while leveling.
I think you discovered the new way to play - sans wowhead. After playing Aion this weekend, I enjoyed it, and I was frustrated a few times that I couldn't find things - simply because sometimes the quest helper told you exactly where to go, but then you'd have to find a head of a statue other hint. I do have to say, though, that when I was able to find those for myself, it was fun. I just hope that people can get out of the WoW I won't help you mentality.
I'll second Jormundgard (I love the Repent gnome avatar picture, by the way), and add that this is a key quote for me:

"People are able to learn and master MMORPGs a lot faster than the game actually lets them advance."

The hundreds or thousands of hours in an MMO aren't about learning, or even necessarily "fun", they are about keeping players paying (not even necessarily playing).

Oh, and even in something like FFT or my current TRPG, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, it takes *at most* a few hours to master the tactics and mechanics of the game. The rest is just tinkering with known tools in mildly variable situations.

Indeed, mastering new "tools" in WoW is a matter of very little time compared to the time it takes to advance.

Tangentially, Diablo and its ilk are in the same boat. I recently picked up Titan Quest again, and while it's a fun game, it's also slow, padded out with a lot of tangential dungeon crawling for the sake of leveling. Character advancement is slow (a few Attribute points and Skill points per level), and any gear worth buying has insanely high prices. (And since there's a cap on how much vendors will spend on any one item, even super rare valuable loot drops don't accelerate the accumulation process all that much.) There's a literal "level up button" in the TQ Defiler program, and it makes the game a lot more fun, since you can bypass all of the obvious grindy time sinks and get on with following the narrative flow of the game by leveling up when necessary, rather than grinding away for permission to proceed.

...all of which makes me suggest that the "loot lottery" and the psychology of gambling is a huge factor in retention. Not so much the gear itself (though shinies and the incremental upgrades are significant as well), but the pure lottery mechanics of hoping for that one "best in slot" loot drop, and hammering away at the game until the loot deities agree the time is right.
I agree that I initially play most games for the fun of learning, but I would have to say that MMOs keep me hooked because of the social aspect.

I know that I would have probably quit EQ1 after only 3-4 months and was seriously considering it at that time, but I joined a guild and got sucked in for years. The same goes for WoW these days. If I'm not having fun in the guild that I'm in then I either have to quit and find a new guild or stop playing for a few months.

I would also say this is the main reason why I quit so many other MMOs after only 2-3 months. If I haven't found an enjoyable social experience in the game after I have finished learning the the fundamentals of the gameplay then I won't stick around.

I also think this is one of the biggest pitfalls of MMOs these days. They really should try to make it as easy as possible to find, join, recruit and manage guilds. Guilds are the social villages where people create friendships and bonds with each other. And that more then any other part of the game will keep people playing and paying.
Would you happen to have any examples of games that do get learning right? I remember Van Hemlock talking about A Tale in the Desert, but I haven't tried it myself.
The most fun I had playing Warcraft was right when WotLK was launched. And a few guildies and I went into all the level 70-75 instances with no idea what to expect. So much fun seeing new stuff without any spoilers, or guides, or hints. Unfortunately it wasn't much of a learning challenge because we were all epicced out and the instances were pretty easy.

I also had a lot of fun the first couple of weeks in Ulduar before the guides were available. We worked together as a guild to figure stuff out. It was frustrating at times, and demanding, but it was fun. Unfortunately at some point the guides got ahead of us and as raid lead everyone expected me to know what to do, so I read all the spoilers and linked the videos to the guild and explained all the fights. And it was still fun, but not quite as much. --Flyv
After a while you shift from learning about the game mechanics to learning about other things. An MMO (or even a multiplayer boardgame, or a team sport, etc) offers you a great opportunity missing in single-player games: to learn about other people, and to learn about yourself. These are definitely fun challenges, and extremely difficult to master.

The fact that WoW shifts you awkwardly from one type of learning to another could be described as a plain old user flow issue... plenty of multiplayer activities integrate the two sorts of learning better.
Actually, they haven't added QuestHelper into the game, I hear they had to scrap it because it was taking too long to test.

I personally add "learning about the lore/world" in there too, because learning the game is not entirely about learning your class. I like learning about the factions, the backstory, the geography, not just how my class functions in combat.

Even those "complicated" Final Fantasy games you mention don't take the whole hundred hours just to learn the combat system. The majority of that time is following the storyline, while being slowed down by boring random monster battles.

I continue learning things through quests, which keeps me entertained between the times I'm learning new abilities. Leveling is too fast to visit every zone and do every quest by the time you hit the level cap, so I make a new character and learn a new class while questing through different zones. And then do it again, mastering a new class while learning about the game world from the other faction's perspective.

If there were fewer zones, such that I would be doing the same exact quests again every time I level a new character, I'm not sure I would have been playing this long.
As stated before, learning about how to play the game isn't all there is to learn. Games have intricate stories and new environments to experience. Gaining an understanding of a story is learning as much as coming to grips with a new ability. Learning how zones are laid out is also certainly learning.

If WoW literally had no new environment for you to play in as you levelled from 1 to 60, then you could justify "learning isn't the core of fun in MMOs". If you didn't actually learn anything in that time between levels, you'd probably stop playing. The downtime between learning things in RPGs is key to making the rewards all the more rewarding. You look forward to learning new things and mastering new combat techniques as you level--even though the game is going to be tedious for a little bit, if you keep playing it may be worth the tedium.

Even considering all of these ways of learning as you play, I still think that MMOs aren't good games in that they offer less fun in a same amount of play time than almost any other genre of game does. MMOs get away with this not because they are good games, but because social aspects of the game give people that little bit of motivation they need to continue playing a mediocre-at-best game. If you aren't having fun, at least you aren't doing it alone--we underestimate the power of the shared experience, even if that experience isn't particularly good.
I've learned a lot just from reading this blog entry and the first 10 comments. :) Now I see WoW as three different types of casino games:

1) Leveling = slot machines (no skill, pull a lever and get levels and shinies). I suppose a skilled person with a system of inserting coins and a large bladder can pull more levers/hour than a novice.

2) Raiding = blackjack (both skill and luck required, eventual goal of shinies).

3) PvP = poker (except that persistent play gives you better cards).
When I read characterizations of current WoW raids as trivial and often monotonous executions of someonelse's strategy, I wonder if I'm playing the same game as those making them. Whether the point is made to denigrate the raid encounters in general or the "easy-mode" encounters of the present content, the people positing it don't seem to be actually playing WoW and are instead relying on past experience and an echo chamber of generalizations that have formed about the topic.

As a relatively new player to the game,I've found the raids of WoW to be consistently interesting and challenging. Even once you master the major mechanics of each individual encounter, there are always little tricks that you will discover in subsequent attempts that might increase your dps slightly, help mitigate raid damage, etc. A guide might tell you about core mechanics for a fight, and the outline of how one might execute it, but adapting those strategies is not a 1-1 translation. Part of the fun of learning for me has been learning how to work with the players in my guild and applying that to encounters whether we have an outside strategy in hand or not.
I'm really excited playing new games as i get started, but after learning the curve it gets boring specially if there's no other player helping you about the game...

Until now I keep searching for good MMOs out there... Hmmm...
In MMO-s, the main learning subject is not some game mechanics, but "people's mechanincs". How people react to situations, how can they be motivated, what "makes them work".

Mastering the AH having nothing to any game mechanics, it's about economics and understanding mass behavior.

In an MMO you can learn about the same people who are around you with very high error tolerance. If something goes wrong and someone gets REALLY mad at you after some social experiment, he is just an /ignore away. In the worst case you can always change your name.
As a min maxer, learning remains fun. Finding out the best gear you can get. The best build. The ideal rotation. All takes quite a bit of time to learn it right.
I don't think you play to learn at all, you play to advance. You only get bored when you stop advancing, whether its because you beat the game, it's too hard and you can't advance, or each new stage isn't that much of an advancement.

If it were the case, why doesn't everyone love endgame raiding in an MMO? Endgame is where the game provides often a completely new learning experience. But people don't like it because it's usually where advancement slows to a crawl or stops.
'I personally add "learning about the lore/world" in there too'

Same here. It's not just about the mechanics - that's the smallest part in fact.

The analogy i'd make is learning how to read versus reading a book. The game mechanics are the equivalent to learning to read and to me every race / class / tradeskill combo was a new book.

Every little quest, every odd secret in a zone, every rare spawn - to me learning all of that is fun.

It's hard to know how many people play like that because we're usually quietly enjoying ourselves ;)
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