Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 06, 2011
Games of Advancement

Have you ever wondered why a massively multiplayer online role-playing game has a need for “role-playing servers”? Apparently on the regular servers there is no role-playing going on, in spite of this being a RPG. The reason for this is that “role-playing” can mean two very different things, either “acting in character”, or “stat-based character development”. And it is the latter meaning which is more and more often used. I’ve seen World of Tanks described as a role-playing game, and nobody would suggest that one is acting in character as a tank in that game.

In yesterday’s thread, Angry Gamer asked ”would you classify the WoT gameplay as PvP battle centric game of advancement?”. “Game of advancement” is probably a better description than role-playing game, but I guess we’re stuck with the RPG term. The important thing to notice is that you can attach this “game of advancement” part to pretty much every sort of gameplay. Classic MMORPGs with mostly PvE and hotkey-button based combat is far from being the only possibility. I’ll just mention some games I’ve been playing this year:

World of Tanks is a game of advancement with first- or third-person shooter PvP. Age of Empires Online, currently in beta, is a game of advancement with real-time strategy PvE and PvP. Shakes & Fidget is a browser game of advancement in which the player has no influence at all on combat, he just watches his character fight, levels him up, equips him, and sends him out to battle. The Settlers Online, also in beta, is a city-building browser game of advancement. The Sims Medieval is a The Sims game of advancement. Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is a puzzle-based game of advancement. And Glitch is a social online game of advancement.

Basically games of advancement are everywhere. Levels, experience, and stat gains have been added to pretty much every game, usually labeled on the box or in the reviews as “role-playing elements”. Even the simplest Facebook game has levels these days. And every company making games that don’t have stats and levels yet is thinking about how to add them.

The reason for this is simple: Gaining power in a game is seductive, some would call it addicting. It is certainly true that by the promise of advancement you can get players to play a game beyond the point where they got bored with the actual gameplay. If a game doesn’t have some advancement system, you only get better while learning how to play; that has obvious limits and diminishing returns. By adding an advancement system, players feel they are getting more powerful even after they have stopped getting more skillful.

The downside is that there have been games created in which the actual gameplay is just boring as hell, and which are only kept alive by the advancement system. But I believe that this is only a temporary distortion of the market: A game with less good gameplay and an addictive advancement system might sell better than another game with better gameplay and no advancement. But once all games have some of those “role-playing elements” advancement systems added, the game with the better gameplay still wins out. After all, the game of advancement can be reduced ad absurdum by making a game with no gameplay at all, only character advancement, as the nearly decade-old Progress Quest so brilliantly shows.
RPG elements, or player advancement, or player power progressionm is like salt.

You can add a lot of salt to a bad tasting soup and it tastes much better.
You can still add quite some salt to a good soup and it tastes better.

But you may add just a pinch of salt to a really good soup, otherwise you spoil it.
@Nils: Definitely an apt analogy. Adding RPG (excuse me, "advancement gameplay" to be correct) elements goes well with a lot of things, and definitely artificially extends the lifetime of a game. Heck, I used to play Anti-Idle: The Game (a flash game where gameplay is mostly nothing but waving your mouse around all day and wait to level up) for nearly 4-5 months before I lost interest.

The only thing I don't like about RPG elements is when the "time = power" factor mixes too much into PVP.
I see the real problem, as in many cases, is the PvP vs PvE.

Advancement seems to be a major component of PvE games. And I just don't see how you can have much advancement in a fair zero-sum PvP game. Veterans of the game are quite comfortable with having acquired significant advantages over the newer players.
But why would a PvP game have to be zero sum (or negative sum)? I think the positive sum PvP of World of Tanks is what makes the game popular. Zero sum PvP games tend to either stall at low player numbers, or end up with the majority of the players opting out of PvP and just playing in the safe PvP-free zones. There is a lot more PvP going on in WoT than in EVE.
That's a truely revealing attitude, Tobold. Apparently if you go and play a round of chess with a friend and you lose one game and win another, then you shouldn't have played in the first place, because you have gained nothing ? ;)
Excuse me if I don't believe this to be a zero-sum scenario.
"nobody would suggest that one is acting in character as a tank in that game."

Brum brum, chugga chugga chugga pew pew!

I doubt the zero-sum part Tobold is talking about is the Win/Loss ratio. It just means that everyone goes away with a little something (credits, experience, an achievement).

A 50-50 win-loss ratio is ideal, so why would anyone thing that those rounds of chess were a waste of time?
Mention of ProgressQuest obligates me to make my traditional observation: If someone would make a AAA quality graphical version of PQ they would have made themselves a licence to print money.

Leaving that aside, the "rpg" issue is just what happens to any product or service that persists in the marketplace over time. We've had the term "rpg" for, what, four decades now? It would long since have ceased to be particularly meaningful even if it had been applied judiciously during that time, but since it has been applied profligately and carelessly , its value has been almost entirely eroded.

The term now always requires a qualifier to be meaningful.
This comment has been removed by the author.
It just means that everyone goes away with a little something

That's what I am talking about. That little something is "fun" for me. Hardly an outdated thing, is it?

A 50-50 win-loss ratio is ideal, so why would anyone thing that those rounds of chess were a waste of time?

Because there is no player progression. If you lose, you just lose. You gain nothing but fun.

And fun is exactly what you always 'gain' in good games. No character power progression required for that.
Nils, are you trolling again? Chess is NOT a game of advancement. The title of the post, and me having mentioned the term about 20 times in the post should have been a hint that I was talking about games of advancement. If you put negative advancement into a game of advancement, you are bound to fail.

World of Tanks would still be a fun game if it had no levels nor advancement at all, just like chess is a fun game without advancement. But if you put advancement into your game, you must make sure that everybody advances. Better players faster than less good players, but everybody always needs to advance to keep them playing.

If someone would make a AAA quality graphical version of PQ they would have made themselves a licence to print money.

I think a little-known company called Blizzard Entertainment already did that. It worked as you said.
Please keep it civil, Tobold. There's no need to offend me.

Allow me to (hopefully) add something to the discussion:

In some way Chess is absolutely a game of advancement. It all depends on the level at which you look:
In Chess you have the moves, the small tactical decisions, the strategy and the overall game. On all these levels, but that of the overall game, you advance or rather 'devance'.
While you play one game of Chess you can only ever lose pieces. The trick is to lose them more slowly than your enemy does. This is negative-sum according to your definition.

(This is ignoring the league level, which could be considered the next level of the overall game and is zero-sum according to your definition.)

It's is similar in games like Eve Online: On an overall level there is no advancement, everybody starts the game and, at some points ends it. At that point, he is exactly as advanced as he was when he started. You don't gain anything, but past fun and some lessons-learnt by playing Eve, or any MMORPG, as you don't get tired to point out.

But on the smaller, in-game scales, you can advance and evance, just like in chess.

But if you put advancement into your game, you must make sure that everybody advances. Better players faster than less good players, but everybody always needs to advance to keep them playing.

I disagree. And Chess is my example. Let me change my argumentation a bit here:
On a league level there is advancementin Chess, as is inside a single game of Chess. On the league level it is the kind of zero-sum game you say wouldn't work and on the in-game level it is a negative-sum game. Still, both are fun and wildly popular.

I do agree, that a little bit character power progression (CCP) is good for any game. But a really good game would become worse if the CCP were too strong. I don't need to repeat all those problems that strong CCP creates. I know you know them very well.

(last comment, *sigh*)
I love the items in Progress Quest. :)
@Nils: If you want me to remain civil, then don't use provoking personal remarks about "revealing attitudes" and strawmen arguments with examples that have nothing to do with the subject.

You are confusing the core gameplay with the added game of advancement. Chess in its basic form only has the core gameplay. If you want to compare the advancement system of a MMO with chess, you would need to compare the MMO advancement not with losing pieces, but with the ELO system of organized chess.

Of course in a PvP battle by definition there is always a loser, unless you have the world's most boring game which always ends in a draw. In World of Tanks you lose half of your games, and end up with your tank destroyed in 80% of the cases. The "positive sum" part of the game of advancement is what the CONSEQUENCES of the battle are: In WoT the losers gain xp, and the winners gain more xp. In a zero sum PvP game the winner gets what the loser loses. In a negative sum game (e.g. EVE) the loser has worse losses than the winner.

If the draw of a game is the advancement, losing advancement obviously doesn't work very well.
Re Progress Quest - haven't Zynga been making a truckload of money out of that game design for a while now?
One thing I wonder is how steep the advancement needs to be.

For example, imagine a PvP game where the grind between xp ranks is extreme and would require a large number of gameplay hours to achieve even if you are usually on a winning team. At what point does this functionally cease to be a game of advancement...? Or is it enough for players to just feel that the tokens they get are a small step on the way.
At what point does this functionally cease to be a game of advancement...?

I am pretty certain that this is highly subjective, and varies strongly with location. Lineage 1 just shut down over here due to lack of players, while being quite successful in Asia.

It probably also changes with time: Most players today would find the pace of advancement in the original Everquest to be too slow.

Having said that, I am sure that a game where the fundamental gameplay is fun can live with a slower advancement than one where the gameplay sucks and the advancement is all that keeps you playing. I'm at 1,250 battles in World of Tanks, and only reached level 6 out of 10 (although that is with lots of "alts").
There's a distinction between "advancement whilst having fun" and "advancement as fun". On the one hand - DAoC realm ranks showed experience in RvR, but I don't know many players who did RvR specifically to get realm ranks. Most of them did RvR because they enjoyed it, and the realm ranks flowed from that. On the other extreme - Progress Quest, where the actual gameplay is no fun at all but you get the satisfaction of "dinging".

Advancement (and character persistence, which I guess is necessary for advancement) makes a great retention tool for games. It keeps players there because they're hooked on "completing" their character, and because they have a measure of their "investment" in the game which they are loath to throw away by stopping playing. From a business point of view, however, this is only good if your players keep paying as long as they play - is this why Call of Duty is getting a subscription service?
I love the items in Progress Quest. :)

My shield has just been upgraded from a Pie Plate to a Garbage Can Lid.
WoW isn't an AAA version of Progress Quest. Certainly it's easy to level, but you have to do *something* to do it. And while one can make an argument that levelling does happen by default, there are also a wide variety of challenges in the game that are quite hard to achieve.

The game I would consider closest to Progress Quest is 'My Brute'. Technically you can advance slightly more rapidly by choosing opponents well, but other than that you have no gameplay-related choices to make at all.
Would it not be nice with some real MMORPG with real role playing, as in playing a character and interacting verbally and other with players. I've tried some MMORPG but it's just levelling end running around. Really boring. Actually the coolest MMO I tried was sociolotron which is kinda a sex MMO with poor graphics and poor most things. But great players where everyone is role playing. Some of it adult stuff, but not just that. We need games that do this, with or without the sex part. Where people can build businesses like pubs, or take part in society, or build a dynasty. And have fun with each other, not besides each others.
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