Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Player agency and what they do with it

In the original Everquest, despite its name suggesting otherwise, players were not doing quests all the time. There weren't all that many quests. Most of the time a player had nobody who told him what to do, he was free to pursue whatever goal he wanted, wherever he wanted (as long as the zone was level appropriate). The consequence of that wasn't pretty, it led to what people called Evercamp: Players were most interested in gaining experience as efficiently as possible, and the most efficient method was to "camp" one location of monsters. The initial pull was the hardest, as afterwards the mobs respawned not as a group but one by one. So the most efficient way to gain experience and levels was to stay at the same spot and kill the same group of monsters over and over and over. As level gaining was much slower than in modern games, it wasn't unheard of a player staying at one spot for weeks, moving on only once he outleveled the monsters and needed a new spot.

When games like World of Warcraft moved to a system where players were always on a quest, and the quests made them move all over the zone instead of sticking to one spot, that was considered a big improvement. Only those "quests" weren't quests in the Wikipedia sense of the word. Sir Galahad is famous for having completed one quest in his lifetime, World of Warcraft has achievements for doing 3,000 quests, or worse 10,000 daily quests. Instead of finding the holy grail, a quest often doesn't involve more than walking 10 meters and clicking on something. At most you need to run to the other end of the zone and kill 10 monsters. So by now everybody is thoroughly bored of doing thousands of minor chores, and is clamoring for sandbox games.

But the initial problem still hasn't been solved: If you give players a huge world filled with interesting stuff, how do you ensure that they actually go out adventuring and do dangerous and interesting stuff? A great majority of players is more interested in the rewards than in the adventure, and prefers the path of least resistance, even if that path is rather boring.

The problem isn't unique to MMORPGs. Besides the D&D campaign were I am the DM, I now found another group where I could play instead. But in the first session I felt the group was never in any situation of their own chosing, but was being led by the nose through a scripted story. Putting my DM hat back on, I am not sure my players don't feel the same about my game. For example in the latest session of my campaign my players came upon a troll shaman with a bear pet. They clearly had at least two options, ignoring him or fighting him, and they never thought of other possibilities like talking to him. But in any case the situation itself was one created by me, the DM (or the author of the adventure I was playing). Like a dungeon in World of Warcraft the dungeon in a D&D adventure is a collection of possible encounters, and the only freedom the players have is to choose their path through that collection, and how to deal with each situation. They rarely *create* the situation they need to deal with.

Just like with MMORPG players, people playing tabletop roleplaying games of clamor for sandbox games instead. I have a strong suspicion that those clamoring the loudest are those that don't actually play or lead a game, but talk out of a purely theoretical armchair position. The previous adventure of my D&D campaign before the current dungeon was a more sandboxy city adventure, and that ended with the group walking away and deciding not to confront the archvillain, in spite of having a strong possible motive of revenge. If as a DM you give players a strong motive to do something, they feel railroaded. If you don't give them a strong motive to do something, they won't do it. And most players you can't rely on to create their own strong motivation beyond gaining experience points and treasure. In a completely sandbox world of D&D, players would probably end up "camping" mobs. A generic fantasy world without DM-designed stories is a bland and boring place, but every story you do tell creates at least the impression of you leading the players.

I'm still experimenting with my tabletop roleplaying games, and I'm still waiting for a MMORPG to come up with a better solution. I'm not sure there is a perfect solution for either case, we might need to settle for the least bad compromise.

The thought of a "true sandbox" D&D campaign is intriguing. I think if I told my players where they were and left it at, "okay now where do you want to go?," they would just stare at me blankly.
This is one of the reasons why a sandbox game must be PvP: If another player can attack you, then spreading out and going less visited places has the advantage of not being killed.

Players are present in every system in EVE Online instead of camping one "Good Spot".

Players are present in every highsec system as well, despite being perfectly safe. In fact, if they all went to the same area, their sheer numbers would make them even safer from ganks.

Resource limitations make them spread out, not the PvP.
The quests I enjoy most are really long series that span over different continents and are meant to be played over several days if not weeks.

In classic the series to upgrade D1 set to D2 was great content. I completed the whole set on two characters, even though I didn't really need the items on the first because I was decked out in T2.5 at the time.

I enjoyed all the attunement series, although these were problematic when doing them month later before dungeon browser.

Best quests in WotLK were all the troll quests for/against my buddy Drakuru and the Crusader Bridenbrad series.

Cataclysm tryed to make every area a grand adventure with a storyline from start to end. Good in theory but IMO also problematic because most of the time you outgrow the area before you quested through all of it. So you feel like being inefficent in leveling or missing out on story. But all in all great story telling in Cataclysm.

In Pandaria I liked Operation: Shieldwall most. Gating it behind dailies isn't that ideal but with the 50% buff on twinks the quest flow was nice.

WoD doesn't really have a "must play" series for me.

The classic dungeon set upgrade series was the best in all WoW, I really hope they make something like that again. Btw I really don't understand why there are no dungeon sets anymore. Set looks are already there, just slap on some set boni like 20 run speed. Doesn't even have to be a meaningful amount just let me collect real blue sets on twinks.
Tobold, you ought to explore some of the sandbox/hexcrawl resources out there to get an idea of how to do this sort of game. It's quite do-able, and will give you the sort of umbrella under which to provide stories via DM while still maximizing player agency. It does require buy-in from the players however (like Scott said above) or it fails miserably. I was fortunate to have a motivated group of players for better than a decade, and these guys effectively went where they wanted and did what they was an amazing ten year campaign of exploration and player-driven stories. My current group is a mix...they like going odd places, but also get swept up in the story arcs and like to "stay on track," so its sort of a blend. But I have never seen a D&D group degenerate into spawn camping, ever. Probably because DMs don't allow it, and the slow mechanical pace of D&D makes such an action insanely boring and unproductive in tabletop terms, whereas the same action in an MMO can be a mindless but expedient way to level.
@Scott: Thats because they are missing clues. In a real world, you see, smell and hear stuff. You might notice that you are hungry and decide to get food. You might hear a ruckus from the next alley and decide to investigate it.

In D&D you are missing all those clues unless the DM decides to give them to you. If you give your players nothing, they have no motivations, no reasons to do anything at all.

Of course, since you can't give them a thousand little clues (of which 99% are perfectly ordinary) like our senses do, you will only give your players important clues - and railroading happens. Not sure if that can be prevented.
Part of the problem in most table top games I've seen and practically every MMO with leveling, is that the only thing that gives you progression is killing things. Games that have alternate paths of progression you'll have players take those paths, EVE and SWG both have or had viable paths of progression that didn't involve the wholesale slaughter of endlessly spawning enemies. In tabletop games the mechanics don't usually lend themselves to camping, as there is no reason for a cleared out cave of trolls to respawn every few minutes. Respawns happen in MMO's and computerized RPG's because killing things is usually the only path to advancement and there are too many players for things to not respawn rapidly.
I completely disagree with "So by now everybody is thoroughly bored of doing thousands of minor chores, and is clamoring for sandbox games."

I would say that all the cognoscenti who frequent enthusiast blogs are way too hip to like anything as popular and profitable as themeparks and are clamoring for sandboxes. And that the majority of paying MMO customers do not know the difference between sandbox and themepark.

I also disagree with Gevlon. In a safe world, people can run around at will. When they are things trying to kill you, you pick a religion, ethnicity, nation or leader and join up and group up. Whether it is castles and moats or GW2 zergs or EVE blue doughnuts, IMO threats tend to encourage grouping/discourage wanderlust.

This is one of the reasons I hated that EQN & Storybricks failed; better AI could help.
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