Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 17, 2014
Fake freedom in MMORPGs

I did a direct comparison of The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar this weekend, playing the former all day Saturday, and the latter all day Sunday. And what I noticed was that ultimately the two games are very similar. Sure, there are lots of differences in the details and the style, and I prefer the better feedback of the Wildstar combat. But what I couldn't find was any significant difference in the quest and progression system. Particularly I found the claim that TESO gives you more freedom were simply not true.

What is true is that in Wildstar you would have an easier time to follow a chain of level-appropriate quests, while in The Elder Scrolls Online you constantly need to look on your compass while traveling to not miss all those hidden quest-givers. But neither game gives the option of NOT doing all those quests. You can't go out as you wish, kill mobs, earn xp and loot from those kills, and advance your character. Or rather, you can, but you would be horribly punished for doing it. Killing 100 mobs somewhere in either game gives you less xp and loot than doing one quest which requires you to kill 10 of them. So linear questing is your only sensible choice. You might be given some choice of in which order you want to tackle those linear bits, but that is all the freedom you get. It is a fake freedom.

Another option you don't really have is whether you want to play solo or in a group. Content is designed for either one or the other, and much of the leveling and questing content is designed to be soloed. Again, you have the theoretical freedom of forming a group, but in practice that freedom also turns out to be fake. Doing a quest in a group might well end up being harder or slower than soloing it, because of issues with phasing and such. And there is no advantage to grouping. Back in the days of Everquest people complained about "forced grouping", but I find "forced soloing" to be not any better.

So what you do in both games before hitting the level cap is very much the same: A long series of one quest after another, solo. You either play on those rails, or your character doesn't advance. "Exploration" has been reduced to finding predefined spots on the map on which you need to click for some achievement or bonus. There is a bit of PvP and a few group content dungeons, but otherwise the quests totally dominate these games. That gives me not much sense of a there being a living "world" in which I can adventure freely. And often the story line which declares me to be some sort of hero and savior clashes horribly with the long list of rather mundane chores I am asked to perform all day long. Not to mention all the other saviors around me, following exactly the same long list of mundane chores.

In the South Park parody Make Love not Warcraft the kids kill 65,340,285 level 1 boars, which is obviously not much fun. Nobody wants a return to the days of Evercamp, grinding mobs at the same place all day until you leveled up and moved to the next place. But quests have evolved from a useful tool of getting you to move around a bit to essentially BEING the game. And I would very much prefer a game where if you are being sent to kill goblins at a stronghold, you would actually have the freedom to stick around for a while and kill more goblins than the quest required, without that being horribly inefficient. And I would very much prefer a game in which entering that goblin stronghold alone or in a group would both make perfect sense.

And technically all that is very easy: One just needs to balance the experience points and loot that quests give against the xp and loot from killing mobs. And likewise the rewards of group play need to be balanced against the rewards of solo play, as not to totally favor one over the other in efficiency. MMORPG players are very much motivated by rewards, so if you create one way of playing the game which is obviously much more efficient than any other, you'll get a herd of lemmings trampling that path. 

"Killing 100 mobs somewhere in either game gives you less xp and loot than doing one quest which requires you to kill 10 of them. So linear questing is your only sensible choice"

Why? If you enjoy the game at lower levels, why are you in a hurry to advance?

"MMORPG players are very much motivated by rewards, so if you create one way of playing the game which is obviously much more efficient than any other, you'll get a herd of lemmings trampling that path."

Maybe that's good news for the non-lemmings.
I agree with your conclusion (that it would be nice if MMOs were designed with more forethought as to how players might prefer to play them) but not your reasoning in getting there. An awful lot of what you describe has more to do with the personality of the player than the game design. I think that, for you and for a lot of players, efficiency is a very important element of gameplay. For me it's something to be considered but by no means is it more important than many other factors.

As Gerry Quinn observes, if you're enjoying the gameplay at the lower levels why do you want to move through it at the fastest possible pace? If you enjoy killing gnolls (and, let's face it, who doesn't?) then staying on to kill another few hundred of the blighters beyond what the quest calls for is going to be good fun. When playing a game, or pursuing a hobby, or indulging in an entertainment, surely fun is its own reward.

Which brings us to motivation. Yes, I agree MMO players are "motivated by rewards" but what those rewards might be varies enormously from player to player. For me, for example, the reward might well be seeing the death animation of a particular mob or hearing the noise it makes when I set it on fire. Mrs Bhagpuss often spends whole days in specific zones doing things in a less-than-efficient manner because she likes the music or the weather effects in that location.

There comes a point where you want to get on with things and make progress in order to move to another stage and at that time efficiency does become important but I consider that to be just one of many phases within the overall gameplay and by no means is it the mode in which the majority of my time in any MMO is spent.
My preferred leveling method is to put on some hardcore beats and grind mobs that drop something useful, incrementally refining my rotation until I level up a few times then go find somewhere else to do it.

I really hate questing, it's rubbish busy-work of the worst order. So it annoyed me that to keep up with my friends for dungeons in GW2 and FFXIV I had to do 'quests'. I wonder how long it's been since an MMO dev looked the word up (sure GW2 did change the format, but it kept the running around like idiots).

Of course I'm not 'forced' and I could just take 6 months to level up which would be fantastically satisfying. If I were alone. But I'm not. And IIRC that was supposed to be the point of the whole enterprise.

Would it really hurt if grinding and questing speeds were comparable. Who exactly loses and what do they lose?

The fundamental problem with these MMOs is that you have exactly zero effect on the World. If every WoW player would decide to NOT do the Siege of Orgrimmar raid, Garrosh would still be replaced by Vol'jin.

Since you cannot shape the World even a tiny bit, your only option is to adapt to this World. As there is just one optimal solution of perfect adaptation, that one will be the Gospel and everything else is "n00b".

I'd like to point out that it's theoretically impossible for you to make meaningful choices unless your choices have effect on anyone but yourself.

Compare it with EVE Online: it's without doubt that the best way to get ISK is trading. It's without doubt that the best way of getting good killboard results is ganking miners. Yet most people don't trade and gank miners, because these actions wouldn't advance their choice: if I want to build a space-empire, killing random miners doesn't help.
The game I've seen lately which is experimenting with non-standard quest content is World of Warcraft. The content is very light and interspersed but its there.

I was doing a little exploring around Jade Forest (level 85 zone) and noticed an Elite hanging around a spot out of the way I didn't expect to see an elite. So I figured "KILL IT!". It dropped an item which was basically a map which led me to other elites all over the expansion that I had to kill for a BoP reward for a Paladin (I was a mage). I was a little annoyed at the reward. But mostly thrilled at the exploration nature of the "quest". There was no (!) or (?) anywhere to be found. Just me an my map. It wasn't designed for risk/reward. It was designed to give explorers a taste of non-standard content.

The Isle of Giants in a later patch reminded me a little of old school grouping. Although there were easy elites to solo, the giant dinos usually required a group. Non-raiding guildies hung around this place off and on for several weeks. Getting "coins" for a local vendor. I think there were rare random drops for pets/mount type stuff. The only point really was hanging out with your friends in a favorite camp for a chance at something cool but not progression.

The Timeless Isle took this a step further. Its a place where from a standard quest standpoint you do a handful of starter quests, a couple of weekly quests and few daily quests. Then they add World bosses you have a chance at decent raid gear once a week. Every else (mobs, resource gathering, random chests, etc) gives you coins and such for lower level catch up gear. Pet battles, new pets to capture, pet and mount from a Vanilla style rep grind. Its mostly about killing elites and non-elites, waiting for rares (easy and super hard are both there) to spawn, gathering Timeless Coins and gear drops to get you ready for the SoO LFR and Flex Raids. It was in your best interest to learn the map, learn the spawns. Or plop down in one spot and kill stuff all day. Lots of minor buffs abound. A few rarer ones like the helm which gives you water breathing and swimming for an hour. Easy elites, tough elites. A couple of jumping puzzles. A place for groups and solo. More distinctly WoW than Isle of Giants. But I've been having fun by myself and with my casual guild.

I doubt Blizzard will ever go back and add these type of content into previous expansions. Perhaps if they revamp earlier content they'll throw more of this in. But I expect to see more of it for people tired of being told exactly where to go and what to do. I hope other MMOs notice.
The linear "kill ten rats" questing may finally put into the closet of the past. The best character progressions systems are those in EVE, as well as in Age of Wushu which is similar to EVE in a fantasy MMO theme.

No levels, no restricted zones by level. A que system to advance your skills and a whole virtual world to do things into. Mobs should only be there for crafting purposes. I am going to kill wolves because I want their pelt to make armor, not because someone asked me to kill 10 to give me 100 xp.

Then have group content in form of dungeons, raids and most important have content in the world. Housing, Ships, exploration for treasures. You can even have quests in an adventure style(solve riddles, investigate, e.t.c.). Optional quests you do for fun, not for leveling.
This may be a bit disjointed as it is being edited on a phone. I disagree with both Gerry and Bhagpuss. Player behaviour in a game is influenced primarily by the game's design. Most people play to get somewhere based on some defined goal. This goal is shaped by what the player interprets as the primary objectives of the game's mechanics. Tobold is correct on the fake freedom observation as players see through the uselessness, linearity and banality of the questing and exploration. They cannot have any impact so they basically focus on what the game actually allows them to achieve. In most cases, better character stats, loot, gear and rewards. If you took out the rewards from most mmos, most players would not be bothered with going through the game's mechanics. It is not fun or fun that is sustainable over long periods. When players see this, they think treadmill and will then move efficiently so that they can get off the silly treadmill faster. With no real freedom, there are still players who can fool themselves and play the MMO as if it is a virtual world but that doesn't change the reality. It simply is a game on rails. Most people will not ignore that. Otherwise Swtor and countless other mmos would not be bleeding subscribers after their first two months. Also, mmo combat mechanics are pretty bare bones. There is nothing deep, fun or complex about it. Especially outside dungeons. I have met very few people who enjoy killing hundreds of gnolls because it is fun. As a matter of fact, people fast levelling your game and playing it efficiently is a clear sign that your gameplay sucks and is not fun over extended periods of time. That there is actually no real replayable value or fun except for phat lewtz. I think players would be playing these games in a less efficient manner if they had more freedom and influence in the activities that they play in MMOs. If there was a purpose behind all this questing etc. Gevlon is right otherwise why is anyone not yet whining about phat lewtz and playing efficiently in Minecraft (lots of mmo players I know play that game) or just taking the best shortcut to get ahead in Eve. It is not the players doing it wrong, it is the developers who cannot figure out how to take the genre forward and EVOLVE. Their game design shapes player behaviour.
Because killing a no threat mob hundreds of times by pressing the exact same buttons is, by any normal definition, insanely tedious. As is the majority of MMO gameplay, which is why rewards drive behavior instead of fun gameplay.

Bhagpuss, I think we've been talking about this for years. I don't want you to change, but you need to understand that you have a very unique definition of what constitutes fun. Commercially viable in the West and designed for Bhagpuss are two things that cannot exist in the same game.

In terms of video game play, I could bust out a lot of FIFA 13, which is an engaging, interesting game that is unrepeatable even under the identical start conditions. Or any number of far more engaging and interesting games.

Point being, without the reward, there's little reason for a gamer to waste time grinding mobs because it is not fun to 99% of gamers.

I'd do a few things:
-Remove overall levels.
-Skill gain by use, decay by neglect.
-Remove gold dropped by Mobs.
-All items decay over time.
-All trades use barter system
-Use influence/fame system (see link below).
When I've played in the ESO beta I did follow the quests along. But I also did a ton of gathering and exploring. There are locked chests spread all over the place which give out just as good or better gear than the quests and you can also craft everything you could possibly need. Mobs also drop items though not horribly often, but then again in those newbie levels you don't need a whole lot of loot to advance as most of the mobs are complete pushovers.
Both games are not doing anything new as "themepark" games. Isn't it kind of expected that the developer will say they are innovative? Then it will be run of the mill, and players will either become interested for a very specialised set of reasons? Or they will go away and find other fun.
This is every mmo including wow since the first ones. Killing 100 boars isnt bad, just as questing only isn't bad. Trying to have a system that rewards each on balance will be gamed by players, as that is the nature of the fun.

I don't see a big difference between killing and questing in very early mmo games and the latest and greatest.

I play them for the story, because my friends do, and because a change is sometimes as good as a holiday.
Innovative? No. Not in decades. I'm surprised you thought it would be different. To get a real depth of play you need to be doing pen and paper games, not computer themepark games.
I agree with Adrian that game design influences behaviour (otherwise why even have game design, we could in principle sit around a fire and make up adventures with no written rules - though I guess that's called story-telling). But maybe that's because a lot of players are bad at playing, and just looking for instructions telling them how to perform it. Quests in MMOs are a pretty OCR business, are they not?

I certainly don't care to aimlessly kill hundreds of mobs (though there *are* folks for whom it never gets old). When I played WoW I liked dungeons and raids, but it was never for the loot (and I often enjoyed trying dungeons in undergeared parties). And I did a lot of those odd quests that took you all over the world for something cool.

It may be that mass-market games have to be mainly designed for the lowest common gaming denominator, with a scientifically determined reward ratio between random mobs and mobs with arrows on their heads to optimise grinding quasi-satisfaction. So be it. My hope is that there will also be lots of niche games in the future that most people will hate. See you there. Or not.
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