Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, February 09, 2010
Rewards vs. Gameplay

One thing the World of Warcraft patch 3.3 did for me, was to make clear a fundamental conflict inherent to the design of MMORPGs, between rewards and gameplay. Any MMORPG has, among others, two major factors that motivate people to keep playing. One is the gameplay itself, which ideally should be interesting and challenging. The other big factor is the rewards you get for playing, which come in the form of experience points, skill gains, or gear; anything in general that makes your character more powerful.

The conflict between the two is caused by a third factor, the incredible amount of time we spend in these games. It is simply impossible for the developers to create enough content to keep everybody playing for years without having to repeat certain content. Thus we have things like “level caps” in the game, at which point progress slows down, and we are supposed to run the same content repeatedly. Now imagine this content is designed perfectly to be interesting and challenging the first time you run through it. Even in this ideal case it is easy to see that every time you run that heroic dungeon or raid, it becomes not only a little less interesting, because you know the place better and better. It also becomes less challenging with every run because of the rewards handed out in the previous runs.

The current Dungeon Finder for heroics really drives that conflict home, because of the emblems you get as rewards. A full set of gear bought with emblems of frost costs over 400 emblems, gained at a rate of 2 per day, 19 per week if you include the weekly raid quest. Emblem of triumph gear requires a similar amount of badges, but you aren’t limited of how many you can earn per day. All this adds up to a lot of runs. I don’t think heroic dungeons are badly designed, in fact they are quite interesting and challenging when you first enter them in the kind of gear you are likely to have when hitting level 80: iLevel 187 blue gear on average. But after a few days you’ve found a lot of iLevel 200 blue and epic gear from the bosses, and started buying the first iLevel 232 or 245 pieces with emblems of triumph. After a month you are wearing full T9, with one or two pieces of iLevel 264 gear from emblems of frost. And it isn’t uncommon for people to keep on running heroics, at least once per day for the two emblems of frost.

Thus I recently was in a pickup group as a healer, and the tank had 50k health, and did 4k dps. And he wasn’t even on top of the damage meter, there were two equally overgeared dps classes above him. In total the group did over 15k damage per second. And as MMORPG combats are basically damage races of who kills whom first, it is easy to see that an encounter designed to be challenging with a combined damage output of 5k per second becomes utterly ridiculous at 15k per second. The rewards for heroics are simply far too great compared to the difficulty of the encounters. At first that feels like Christmas, getting a lot of rewards easily, but then the rewards destroy all possible challenge, and the repetition destroys all interest in the content.

Some people suggested that the difficulty of the content should scale with your gear, to keep the challenge alive. But that would only lead to the same conflict from the other side: If the content scales with the character’s power, then the rewards become less motivating; relative to the content your character’s power would always remain the same, thus why bother to gather gear to improve your character?

So either way, the two basic ideas of MMORPGs to have rewards that make your character more powerful, and to have challenging gameplay, conflict with each other. People hate it when the rewards stop coming, or if they come too slowly. But when players are rewarded with power even just a bit for every hour they spend in the game, sooner or later the content they are repeating over and over becomes too easy to be interesting.

Blizzard couldn’t escape this inherent conflict. Before patch 3.3 they were stuck with heroic dungeons that still offered some challenge for people who didn’t get epic gear from raids or crafting, but didn’t hold much interest due to lack of rewards. Then the Dungeon Finder not only made groups for heroics much easier to find, but also cranked up rewards a lot. And now many people complain that heroics are “too easy”. They aren’t for the power level they were designed for. But they sure are too easy for the kind of power group running them now. It isn’t as if Blizzard has removed functionality like crowd control or careful line-of-sight pulls from the game, but once you are completely overgeared for the content you are running, intelligent tactics become unnecessary, even slowing the run down. If you have the power to successfully pull the whole room and AoE them all dead without wiping, then you’ll do exactly that, as boring as that might be. Eyes straight on the final two frost emblem reward, our “rat in a Skinner box” instincts carry us well past the point where gameplay is still fun. And when sooner or later the rewards run out too, we suddenly realize that we are burned out.

I don’t know when patch 4.0 and then Cataclysm will come, but I’m afraid the current model isn’t going to hold up much longer. I don’t blame the Dungeon Finder, because as a tool it is just plain brilliant. But the reward structure is over the top now. I sure hope that in the next expansion the emblem rewards from the Dungeon Finder system aren’t so overpowered compared to the challenge of the content.
This is a classic problem with MMOs and I experienced it right back in the day with EQ - "leveling" through itemisation rather than actual levels.

I firmly believe that instead of increasing item power and item rewards, the devs should just keep adding more levels. Thus would mean the level cap constantly increases but it also means that item power vs level is accurate and power scales appropriately.
I share your concerns and therefore, once again, want to suggest random and player generated content as the only two tools to really solve these problems.

Maybe many people now understand, why successful raiders often only logged in for the raid. Nothing else was fun with the equip they had. And taking the equipment off was and is against human nature.

One more thing:
What drives me much more than increases in numbers is gaining new skills/abilities. The gain of the blast wave spell at level 31 fire mage is 100x as great as getting T10 instead of T7.

Maybe we could give players more skills than they can actually use? They could decide what skills to drag to the hotbar and actually use. You can even limit the number of skills on the hotbar as a tactical challenge.

Going to more divers raid encounters, where not only dps matters, but, like in PvP-like encounters - almost everything else as well - might be a good idea, too. These encounters do not need to be as fast and chaotic like faction champions, btw. They could, in fact, be quite tactical if the game wasn't as fast paced.

To make it short:
Character advancement via gaining of skills, instead of (only) items and new abilities instead of only higher numbers.
But when players are rewarded with power even just a bit for every hour they spend in the game, sooner or later the content they are repeating over and over becomes too easy to be interesting.

One more thing:
What I'd like are dungeons that are simply too hard to beat at a point in time. Such, that even the hardcore of the hardcore have no chance at all. They should give some rewards, but that's not so important.

Point is that every now and then when new content was added and you aquired new gear you went to your friends and decided to give it another try. Until - eventually - you beat the damn dungeon. I am talking about a small 5 man dungeon.

I agree, that the (impossible) balancing of 5 man groups makes this a controverse thing, which is why I do not want spectacular rewards. Perhaps only some fluff.

Very hard 5 man dungeons always were my favourite - loved the first weeks of TBC. If Blizzard set their mind to it they should be able to redesign the classes to produce a rudimentary 5 man group balance.

Even if not: To have something to look forward to and bite off your teeths is fun - in my opinion. And it solves the problem mentioned above.
I'm amazed that people fall for this.

A new patch comes? No problem, Blizzard puts one programmer on it for an hour and there, new badges in all the dungeons.

Why do people keep running the same instances over and over again for a shinier carrot?

Imo, the problem isn't that the rewards far outweigh the difficult. It's that there isn't enough new content. Ideally you'd run the old instances for a bit. Then next patch five new instances are added with a better rewards and a bigger difficulty. But this won't happen of course as long as people happily run the same treadmill all over again.
Basing everything off "reward" is doomed to failure.

Make a world and let players live in it. Or make gameplay that is eternal. Or preferably do both.

I also wholeheartedly endorse the idea that more levels is the way to go. I never get tired of levelling characters up. That, to me, is timeless gameplay. Getting better gear for a character that stays at the same level, that's more like having a job I don't get paid for.
I really believe that the WotLK dungeons were badly tuned from the beginning. If we account for the fact that with time the average gear would get a lot better (even for non-raiders) then the tuning of the BC dungeons was near perfect. There were some easier ones, and also quite difficult ones even at the end of the BC lifecycle.

I was member of a non-raiding guild where the accumulated badge gear would let you feel the harder heroic dungeons getting easier with time instead of being a pushover from the very beginning.
Even with very good gear for example you could not afford to pull a boss without killing the adds first, something which is quite common in these boring 10 min rushes through Drak-Tharon, Nexus etc.

It's true that some dungeons required excessive crowd-control and therefore Pala-Tanks were deemed almost required. But still it was possible to clear those dungeons with a warrior tanks as well and in fact it felt more rewarding. And instead of buffing the AOE tanking of every other class, they also could have decreased the effectivity of paladin aoe tanking.

For the characters that only recently got the max level the max level dungeons in normal mode should provide the gear to bridge the gap to the first raids. The heroic versions of dungeons should provide a much bigger challenge with a bigger spread in the difficulty as of now to provide for a better longevity.
Those folks, including the tank, who put out the big numbers in your heroic are more than likely raiders. Just the fact that any idiot can farm full t9 or t10 even from badges doesn't make them magically perform well. You can get someone with full t9, all the 245 epics and some frost rewards still pulling 2500 DPS, meanwhile that mage with the exalted verdict ring and a 5900 gearscore is putting out 9k on bosses and 18k on trash. There's a whole gap of players you're discussing here.

It's the same as it was in BC. Those who needed the badge gear farmed heroics, and those spending badges on gems only in Black Temple and Sunwell farmed them faster.
One idea that comes to my mind is a weekly quest to clear the Frozen Halls for some Emblems of Frost in place of the current system which awards 2 Emblems per day for a random heroic? :) This would obviously be very repetitive, but much more to scale with current gear levels.
Alternatively, how about making a few now-forgotten dailies like Troll Patrol or the Argent Tournament quests award Emblems of Frost?
And this is why, instead of running my raid tank through anything that isn't progression raids, or some fun with friends, I've been LFDing vanilla instances as a healer alt. I've averaged one EoF daily a week, this last month.

The challenge is appropriate, the rewards are meaningful (zomg! new spells!) and I don't feel like I'm on an EoF treadmill. Also, I'm learning to heal, which was my main objective.

I'm currently one piece of 264 gear behind the most obsessive in our guild. 32 whole ilevels. Yeah...
A couple of weeks back, I porposed that blizz should add a few things to spice up interest / challenge by adding an "Epic" setting to the latest 5 man. Think of it of as an heroic on steroids. It is tuned for current tier and is only available while that tier is the latest one out. (so that you can't go back and farm it once a new tier is released)

Here's the thread I posted back then :
I've always said, they should focus on horizontal content -- Make quests, achievements, and so on necessary to unlock new content. Also, learn specific skills to beat bosses rather than just more heals or more dps. Guild Wars does this well. However, the wow seems to be too brainwashed into accepting anything other than vertical progression. Once you reach the pinnacle, all content is obsolete. This is poor design.

They should have implemented a dps cap long ago to break this cycle.
I am amazed you only now discover this 'problem', Tobold. The exact same reward structure was present in Burning Crusade, down to the daily quest sending you to the same old dungeons. This is nothing new, if anything it's proved to be a successful formula that keeps players glued into the game world, for minimum development capital and time. Normal content (quests and leveling) gets gobbled up by the players so fast they don't even notice it. What other solution would you have to keep the playerbase in the game, playing?
IMHO the fundamental fallacy of all MMO developers is that people would not pay for a game that they do not play all the time. Therefore developers feel compelled to raise the *addictive* elements of their products.

I think that is all wrong. The subscription is ludicrously cheap compared to any other form of entertainment. I don't need to get large quantities of entertainment out of it to keep being subscribed. What I want is quality.

If there was a single very intense and very interesting event each month, that would keep me subscribed.

Of course I speak of myself only. It maybe that I am completely wrong.
IU was almost burned out after I ran a trillion heroics to get conquest and triumph emblems back when the daily heroic would give you 2 triumph emblems.

Then they released emblems of frost and it started all over again. I am not in a raiding guild though we 'dabble' in it and enjoy it if we can pull off enough people to go.

I haven't logged on in over a month now because I just cant do any more heroics. I also have 4 80's a 72 and several toons in the 40-60 range but i've leveled so many toons even that isnt enjoyable for me now.

I thought about leveling a horde but I cant even bring myself to log on.

I fear I am already done with WoW untill Cataclysm
As I read this I jokingly thought to myself that they need to add a third 'Super Heroic' setting. Then it occurred that joke or not, that's not a horrible idea.

The main problem is that the Heroic drops Emblems of Frost. At Wrath release, they dropped Heroism. So they increased the reward without increasing the difficulty.

What should have happened perhaps is that they added a new difficultly level for the better reward. That would change the dynamic, even if it is a bit silly.
I love the idea of random generating content. I would be really surprised if Blizzard didn't atleast try this is Catcylsm.

The problem is no matter what Blizzard does everything will eventually get old. I've been using DF to level a Warlock alt and now that I'm 71 I've more or less hit a wall. I've only seen 5 dungeons in the last 13 levels and really it has only been 3 dungeons consistently.
@AYR"What other solution would you have to keep the player base in the game, playing?"

Let levels 80's do any dungeon from RFC, SFK, ZF, to Old Hillsbrad etc at H80 level. Have the bosses change abilities randomly so you actually have to think. Don't let add-ons like Deadly Mob boss work in those runs. I want to fly by the seat of my pants and use my head for once. Instead of regular rewards how about tokens you trade in for frivolous mounts, outfits and titles. Give a reason for the Un-hardcore intelligent player to come back and play.

@Nils "Very hard 5 man dungeons always were my favorite" I couldn't agree with you more. It’s the challenge that makes a game good, not fluff badges that any boob can get with minimal effort
the problem is twofold

1) LFD works when a huge player pool is queueing. If there isn't a reason for geared players to jump in, the tool won't feel as useful.

2)LFD is also designed to gear up players behind on the gear curve but who want to join a current-tier raid guild. This was time-consuming if not impossible in vanilla/pre-badge TBC.

the problem isn't the LFD tool. The problem is only running 5-mans when this MMO is designed around end-game content.
It seems to me that lots of people have claiming that Blizzard should just add more abilities, more quests, more dungeons, more levels, more content, whatever.

Apart from the inadvisability of some of these things (we really don't need more abilities in WoW, as fun as getting new ones can be), this really ignores WoW's biggest problem: WoW simply can't produce quality content at a rate faster than their players can consume them.

Let us hypothesize, for example, that it would take a couple of weeks to produce one 5-man dungeon from scratch. How long would it take players to beat it? Probably less than an hour. The same would go for levels or quests or abilities or whatever.

Thus, Blizzard's options are along the lines of recycling old content (the new Dungeon Finder), producing new content that can't be beaten so quickly (new raids), and sometimes, motivating players to play less (the limited attempts on bosses in ICC).
We need Diablo's randomized dungeons. We also need to carefully crafted scripted ones, but randomized dungeons would be interesting.
Something to keep in mind is that we are no longer gearing for heroics by running heroics.

True, they are silly-easy these days (and the gearing process is FAST; I dinged 80 on my healer just 10 days ago and the original heroics are already a faceroll). But the point of gearing up isn't to run heroics; it's to run Icecrown Citadel. So the heroics become nothing more than a glorified daily quest.

So while my druid's mighty 2400 Wow-Heroes gearscore makes me laughably OP for the heroics that I'm running every day, it sure as hell doesn't make me OP to beat the Lich King. I'm hoping to take a whack at that soon, but I couldn't do it for ages if I had to gear the "old fashioned" way.

Though I must say I'd like the idea of a "epic" mode dungeon, something that puts the heroics on the level of the Frozen Halls ones, and offers better rewards.
I'm pretty sure that there are a whole bunch of people that won't be done collecting badges in a month. Including myself.

If you are looking for end game solutions Tobold, look to the social side. People like to talk and "hang out" together. It's too bad that we don't have any place to call our own in game where our friends could come to socialize and show off their pretty clothes and dragons, maybe have some friendly jousting or fighting competitions. The bank just isn't acceptable. Wouldn't it be nice if your entire guild had a place to hang out where people could store things and maybe even let them set up their own little mini-shops for things? I think that would be cool.

The chat and email systems could be worked on quite a bit as well.

Anyway, I wouldn't get so hung up on the badges. There are other ways they can keep us buying. If they would just get more stuff with options, I think having more then one look would be a desired thing.

People get bored for more reasons then doing dungeon runs. There are still lots of folks out there that won't even go there. Even with the easy system, many folks simply do not want to face other people or talk to them etc... I know, it's an "MMO" but it's true. I hear about this all the time in my circles.

Have a wonderful day Tobold.
Just an idea popped into my head, perhaps this over-rewarding is on purpose? think of gear as wealth, the rewards from HC help shrink the gap between the "rich" and the "poor."

Not trying to bring up economic philosophies, but there could be a reason behind reducing the disarity between those with great gear and those without.

In TBC stamina was changed, and we all remember "green is the new purple" mentality. Perhaps the LFD + emblem system is a new "soft" gear reset leading up to Cataclysm.

Instead of having 1 really high bar (gear) to try to strive for, there is still a high bar, but a slightly lower bar with a ladder to the top of it.

More players with similar ilevel gear helps even the playing field for when Cataclysm is released, which will be compounded by the complete overhaul of stat adjustment. This could have gameplay benefits for the players, as well as making designing new contect easier for developers. At the very least, Blizzard can give lip service that allowing players to have gear necessary to enter ICC, their content is accessable to anyone.

Just an idea I've been working through.

But Tobold brings to light the essential issue underlying RPGs, online or off, MMO or single player, western or japanese influenced.

The game has to be near "balanced" relative to the player's ability/gear level, without making the player bored, but still contain zones that are easy and others that are hard. A player has to have zones he is both way overpowered for and underpowered for.

This is true in most RPGs, WoW of course is included, as players can go into old areas and feel "powerful." Players like feeling powerful, but they do so simple for the sake of feeling powerful, not necessarily for rewards that make them MORE powerful. This is where Tobold makes his point about H dungeons.

Likewise there has to be areas players cannot conquer yet, but see the light at the end of the tunnel. "One day I'll be there" players say to themselves. This is the necessary goal for RPGs to include, and to constantly update.

Some RPGs have diverted from that gameplay structure, specifically games like Oblivion, in which enemies were always on par with the player's level, or even adjusted to a players skill level. For me, I discovered I couldn't get into the game because of this factor.

Difficulty is also a subliminal guide, as it leads you from one area to another. In oblivion, I just didn't know where to go, there were no "limits" in the game, be those gear, levels, skill or just content locks.

Leveling up in WoW, quests might lead you to an area, let alone the numerous "Where should I go to level 30-35?" general chat spam. Players are guided by content, and while H Dungeons arn't a very good compass, the 3 new ICC 5 mans do help guide players towards the new content, which both challenge and reward.

Perhaps it all just makes sense!
The problem blizz did was to not implement a key system like BC.

The need to run normal heroics first and to learn the run before stepping into heroics. then make heroics a bit harder.

Right now you have people hitting 80 and then 30 min later running heroics.

Not only would this help on people who have under par dps who run heroics in greens (sigh), it would also slow down the process and make t feel rewarding to get those nice drops.

(Not only should they make heroics harder, but they also need to make the gear better and not all gear be based on emblems.)
At least WoW gives you a type of endgame. I've been playing these free Korean MMOs to review on my blog. The reward vs spending the time leveling on them is about zero. You just level up to have a high number with no hope what-so-ever to be doing any sweet raids :)
If they ran a test checking whether people who thought it's 'too easy' actual leave, and if they found they don' really wouldn't matter to them.

It'd just complaining that really doesn't matter to them.

It'd be interesting if they ran that test.
Im down to 2 hours a week now, but still making progress enough to get full gear before Cataclysm. Im even having fun doing it. As for Bliz changing this, its not going to happen. Why ? Cuz of players like me playing 2-6 h a week are paying the same per month as those playing 20-30 hours a week. And Im guessing we are in greater numbers.
I agree with Shawno about horizontal content although I'm not sure there's enough depth in the current mechanics of the game to support it (& they're making it shallower!)
This does seem to be another case of Tobold taking some problem very specific to the current design of WoW, and claiming it is inevitable in any remotely WoW-like game.

When actually, the problem is not some deep philosophical issue, but simply comes from having ~80% player at the same 'tier' of progression, and having less than 10 small dungeons for them to do while there.

Of all the MMORPGs on the market, only WoW has so little usable content, such a narrow funnel. At the other extreme, EQ1 has 16 expansions, on the order of <a href=">330 dungeons</a>, and about as many again open zones. EQ2 has 5 (or 8 if you count adventure pecks) and ~80 dungeons. Even basically dead games like Vanguard, that never even released an expansion, have more than current WoW.

I don't want to search out zone lists for every MMORPG - perhaps one of the new and underpopulated games like AoC, Warhammer or Aion have less. But WoW does seem to be an outlier in how little content it has.
While the problem of the number of heroic dungeons might be specific to World of Warcraft (although I would say the comparison with non-instanced EQ1 dungeons isn't valid), the general problem of gameplay repeating itself at the level cap, and rewards making that gameplay ever easier is general. No game has infinite amount of content.

While I don't think WoW is an "outlier" compared with the majority of games, I do fully agree that SOE puts back more of their profits back into their games than Blizzard and other companies.
The philosophy of having almost all players at the same level of progression is indeed the reason for why WoW suffers more from the problem Tobold describes than other games.

However, there are also advantages that come with this philosophy. Most notably the number of players you can group with.

I can see why Blizzard wanted it this way, but I also agree that this ansatz is bad. My point, however, comes from immersion. Why should somebody who just turned 80 be as 'powerful' as somebody who played the game for 5 years? - or turned 80 shortly after WotLK was sold?

It's a trick that ignores immersion to enable players to group more. Therefore I somehow enjoy to that it comes back and kicks Blizzard in their ass ;)
Over the course of WotLK, Blizzard has been moving to a model that at any point in the expansion, a fresh 80 can gear up just via running heroics and badge farming to a level where they can start raiding the newest raid content on 10-man at least within a matter of days/weeks.

The major con to this system is it makes lower-tier raid content irrelevant. Blizzard basically killed Ulduar (as well as other raids, but I bring up Ulduar because it's arguably the best raid in WotLK) to make Icecrown Citadel more accessible, which is a real shame.

If they continue to use this model in Cataclysm, the good news is that people who re-roll won't get left behind by players that decide to focus on their existing 80's. The bad news is that they might miss out on T11 raid content if they're not fast enough leveling!
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