Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Why do we play? - Rewards

When looking at the motivational power of rewards as reason why we play MMORPGs, it is easy to think that this is the same subject as the previously covered character development. A lot of rewards in an MMORPG are related to character development, be it quest rewards or epics dropping from raid bosses. So if we want to know whether the act of being rewarded by itself drives motivation, we need to look at those instances where the reward does not help character development.

End of last year a profound transformation hit the World of Warcraft: Blizzard introduced a system of achievements. You would do something, like beat a dungeon, or explore every corner of a zone, and you would get an achievement displayed, complete with some achievement points. In the context of our discussion, achievements are very interesting, because they are completely useless rewards. There is no way to make your character even a tiny bit stronger by collecting achievements. You can gather all the achievement points you want, but you cannot exchange them for anything useful for character development, and Blizzard even announced that they have no plans to ever allow you to buy anything with these points. The best you can get from achievements is pure fluff, like titles, tabards, or non-combat pets.

Nevertheless achievements changed the way many people played World of Warcraft. Suddenly high-level characters were visiting forgotten corners of low-level zones, doing grey quests by the thousands, or even made life more difficult for themselves by doing certain dungeon encounters in non-optimal ways, because some achievement asked for playing it deliberately stupid. Achievements turned out to be immensely popular rewards, in spite of not aiding character development. Receiving a reward by itself appears to be motivating, even if the reward isn't useful. In a recent discussion on this blog there was even speculation that people would pay for a race change when the next WoW expansion comes out, just to get the "first Worgen / Goblin to level 80" achievement.

A few weeks ago the news made the round that the first player passed the incredibly high barrier of 10,000 achievement points in WoW. That isn't the maximum you can have, but as you can't get all the holiday achievements before a full year has passed, 10,000 achievement points is pretty close to the maximum. But when the news were presented in the form of Is this man the best WoW player in the world?, people scoffed at the idea. Getting achievement points is in fact not much of an achievement. Getting a lot of them certainly takes hundreds of hours, but most of these hours are spent in completely trivial pursuits, visiting low-level places, and fighting low-level monsters. So people like their own achievements, but if somebody else has more of them, the old "if somebody plays more than me, he is a no-lifer" instinct kicks in, so achievements aren't even much good as status symbols.

In Warhammer Online, which is full of a distinctively British type of humor, there were a bunch of achievements you could gain by doing things naked, removing all your gear. That tended to annoy other people, because it is frustrating if you lose a battle because some people on your side are doing it naked. But it serves to illustrate that developers can make players do just about anything if they just give out a useless reward for it. Now making players make an ass out of themselves isn't very useful. But of course developers can do better.

World of Warcraft is a game which offers a variety of activities. For example there is PvE, fighting against monsters, and PvP, fighting against other players. Now some people prefer the one, and other people prefer the other, and one would think that everybody would tend towards doing the activity he likes most. That turns out to be not the case. Somewhat ironically for a game which is based on the lore of a RTS series, and is supposedly about the war between Alliance and Horde, the PvP part of WoW was decidedly underdeveloped when the game came out in 2004. So over the years PvP changed a lot, systems were introduced, then removed again, and replaced by other systems. And it was shocking to observe how much the popularity of PvP depended on the rewards given out for it. Give out epics for PvP, and suddenly a lot of people who never liked PvP before will start to do it. In Warhammer Online arguably PvP scenarios (battlegrounds) gave out too good rewards when the game was released, and some scenarios had a better reward per time ratio than others. And suddenly everybody did always only the same few scenarios, and great other game features like public quests were underpopulated. Mythic had to tinker with the relative rewards of different game activities to get people to play what they were supposed to do.

I'm not sure if he really said it, because I can't find the original source, but Raph Koster is often quoted as having said, "people optimize the fun out of games". They tend to maximize rewards and minimize effort, even if that means doing something which isn't inherently fun, then complain about the treadmill and burn out. You can't just look at what your players are doing in your game, and conclude that the most popular activity is the one that is the most fun. Given how powerful rewards are as a reason of why we play, and what we play, developers have to use the power of giving out rewards wisely, to direct players towards the fun. That is a notion which used to be common, with the developers of Everquest calling it "the Vision", but which got increasingly lost over the decade since. Developers often simply don't *know* what is fun to the players, and end up giving them whatever they ask for, which isn't always the wisest course of action. For example Everquest overdid it when trying to direct people towards group play, effectively introducing "forced grouping" by giving out rewards *only* for group play, and some players hated it. So some people concluded that solo play is more fun than group play, World of Warcraft from the start had a system where soloing gave you better xp per hour than grouping, and now we are at the other extreme, with the reward structure positively discouraging grouping. So people are playing alone together, effectively negating one of the major advantages of massively multiplayer gaming. I'm sure there is an optimum somewhere in the middle, where grouping gives better rewards than soloing, but not so much as to make soloing impracticable. And that is just one example. Developers would need to test out various gameplay systems without rewards, see what players inherently like or dislike, and use rewards carefully as incentives to overcome barriers to entry.

In summary, rewards are one of the strongest reasons of why we play, and what specific gameplay activities we do in MMORPGs. Developers can control player actions to a large degree by giving out rewards. Good game design uses that power to steer players toward the fun. Bad game design hands out rewards in unbalanced ways, enabling the players to optimize the fun out of the game.
Great entry - I have almost nothing to add. Just one example I used before:

In MMOs people tend to argue that if something is not hard, it is not a challenge and not really an achievment.

But that is just wrong.

Take for example fitness:
It is not hard to do fitness. Everybody can. You don't even need to pay for it - you can do it on your own in your own room if you want. The reward is a better looking body, more expected life time and several other advantages.

Over all: You feel better after you did it.

It makes you 'happy' and it is absolutely trivial to do it.
10 Push-ups every morning before breakfast are a trivial challenge. Everybody could do this. It just consumes a little bit time. It also has a reward and still: Almost nobody does it.

Therefore complaining that gaining those 'trivial' achievments in WoW is not a challenge, because everybody could do it (but almost nobody does) is wrong.

There is no difference between the discipline required for fitness and the discipline required for stupid achievents.

You could argue that the results of fitness are worth something, while the virtual rewards of WoW are meaningless - but this obviously doesn't apply to any WoW player.
My wife would get on her warrior and mount up, she would start being chased by a huge group of mobs as she ran through the wilds of Warcraft. She'd then swing her camera around and snap a screencapture. That was her reward.

Achievements is taking that reward, and putting a "ding" on it. That ding is the kind of reward that sucked us into playing WoW to begin with. Reward is not necessarily something that your character gets, simply receiving that golden ding when you do something is reward.

Example, Legend of Zelda. When you find a treasure, or hell, even a key, you get a resounding dun-dun-dun-daaa! with a zoom to the item, while you hold it over your head like a trophy. Or you find a secret passage and get rewarded with it's unique sound. These rewards drive you to keep playing just as much as purple pixels, and these rewards don't actually give your character more power per se.

We're talking about just a noise playing, and you feel good.

Try getting someone to do pushups every morning, and everytime they do, play the zelda you got an item sound. See how often they do it....
I think its a matter of achievement design. In order for achievements to be respected they need to mean that the player has achieved something out of the ordinary.

Guild Wars has titles which are hard to get and as a consequence they are genuinely respected. Even the novelty titles like "drunkard" require serious concentrated effort. The pursuit of titles has become a valid end game for many players.

LOTRO on the other hand gives out titles for everything. Kill ten wargs get another title. As a consequence all titles in that game have in my opinion become devalued even though some of them can only be got from genuinely heroic actions like overcoming a Raid boss.
YAGTA: yet another great Tobold article^^.

I think achievements are defined socially. So, if Blizzard says it's good - it's good.

People used to collect stamps. Stupid, that, no? Nobody does it anymore. But what if the "I-adore-stamp-collectors" group on facebook got 40 million members or if Obama revealed his hidden stamp addiction?
The greatest reward I receive from MMOs is learning how to beat the guy that just stomped me in PvP.

I guess that's why I have a higher tolerance for getting ganked in PvP games... because every time it's just another name to add to the "revenge" list.

I guess that list would be my achievements. I beat someone that bested me before, and I feel I achieved something.
As to doing what we enjoy most versus rewards, i'm torn. I prefer to solo in every game i play, i know it fights the massively multiplayer part, but my strong social anxiety makes grouping difficult, but all the rewards are from grouping and raids (which i hate more than just grouping, as i haven't had a good experience with one yet). WoW used to reward the quick pvp of battlegrounds decently, and that i enjoyed more than regular grouping, but they seem to think that isn't a good style of play that should be rewarded.
I've been asked why i don't just play single player games, and while grouping kicks the anxiety in high gear, i do like "being part of the world" of the game.
Sometimes there are unanticipated second-order effects to the phenomenon of rewards driving player behavior. For example, when Blizzard re-tuned the Arena reward structure to require rankings, over 75% of the population stopped playing arena. The result was a much higher barrier to entry, as the remaining players were on average much better and much more serious. Suddenly teams that were above average became below average, and quit, leading to more population decline. The end effect was that the tuning was amplified by the combination of percentile-based relative ranking and the shift in player population.
Tobold, have you ever considered that players were doing these things long before achievements were ever introduced?

I remember a few years ago you had a discussion about meta-activities and things that players would do in the game that Blizzard just did not forsee from a design perspective.

The top guilds on my server were doing 30-man clears of Molten Core when 40 people were still considered needed to clear the content, and this was over 4 years ago now. The bragging rights associated with doing something like that were extremely gratifying and kept the top guilds engaged in these "meta-games" as a form of competition long before achievements hit the scene.

I think Blizzard saw these activities, recognized the value they had on maintaining player interest, along with the long term effects they would have on maintaining subscriptions, and decided to incorporate these meta-activities into tangible design elements of the game through the use of a rewards system.

A good portion of players were doing these activities already and enjoyed them without the rewards that players now get through the achievement system, so fluff or not, I think you're being slightly overcritical of achievements in this case.

The fact that more players are now doing these meta-activities(achievements), simply because there is now a reward in place, just reinforces the principles of the different Bartle types...and I think we can both agree that's not Blizzards fault =)
Nice post.

I agree with the need to balance rewards for different activities. In EVE, I was impressed by the number of different activities available and the fact that they were all rewarding in their own way. Even at an early level you could run missions, hunt pirates for bounties, mine, haul, craft, etc., and it's all lucrative.

I heard through the grapevine that EVE uses some sort of auto-balancing mechanism to determine quest rewards. It would be interesting to know how they do that.
The "optimize out the fun" stuff is part of my Theory of Fun presentation/book.

And yes, players tend to do what they are rewarded for, not what they find fun. Another way this has been expressed is "The journey is the reward is a f****** lie. People would rather have the princess."

This isn't about looking down on players, but more about working within the bounds of human psychology. When we design a game, we're shaping how people behave whether we want to or not.
I heard through the grapevine that EVE uses some sort of auto-balancing mechanism to determine quest rewards. It would be interesting to know how they do that.
Basically, every NPC-owned space station has several agents who semi-randomly pick missions from a large pool. CCP tracks the popularity, success rate and time taken for each mission from each agent.

The exact formula is not known, but the overall effect of the system is that popular missions given by agents in high-population systems give less rewards than unpopular missions given by agents in mostly deserted systems.

Like Left4Dead's Director system, this auto-balancing system is a great boon for developers, because it saves them from the micromanagement of risk/reward ratios. It's also a load balancing system, because it provides an incentive for players to spread around instead of congregating into a few optimal systems. At least in theory, that is.

In practice, the system has several shortcomings. First, it only affects the base reward, the bonus reward (awarded if the mission was completed before the time limit expires) and the loyalty point reward. However, for certain missions with lots of enemies, these pale in comparison with the loot and salvage materials acquired from dead enemies. If the mission provides great loot and salvage, it's going to be milked relentlessly no matter how low the other rewards are.

Secondly, due to non-instant travel and transportation of goods, good logistics are priceless when compared to the mission rewards. Being able to quickly sell loot and salvage and buy resupplies allows the mission runner to back to completing more missions. Conversely, if one completes missions in a remote system, they'll eventually have to waste some time hauling all that loot and salvage back to the high-population trading systems, accept that their goods will be sold more slowly (or at a lower price) due to low demand in low-population systems or just skip collecting that loot and salvage altogether.
Everyone likes the "Atta-boy" in the game. Whether it is the "Ding" or anything that tells us we have done a good job, yea we love it!

We go through our daily lives being under-appreciated, and not always being told "hey man, nice job on the (insert job here)". It is nice that you can do things and be told "Grats" without wondering if any other guild mates are on to see it.

Now, WoW may be a little bit over the top on acheivements, but I will tell ya that I personally have had a better experience playing low levels since their introduction.

I get dings and congrats left and right with the lowbies, and when my level 80's get one that is usually something good that I couldn't have done before. It is just a really good thing.

Yes, we are all reward whores, but if you look what we don't have in our real lives, you can see why this is so important to us. We can't go out in the real world and just run a few dailies a day to get that new house. In WoW we can do it, and we can do it at our own pace.

It's kind of nice. I hope they continue to fine tune this concept, because it is working.

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