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.