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.