Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Goals and activities

Rohan from Blessing of Kings has an interesting observation on achievements: "WoW shows you all the Achievements available, while WAR hides them." Green Armadillo explains a bit more on the WAR philosophy towards achievements, being more of a history of past deeds than a guideline where to go next. For me that is just one part of a hugely complex debate on how to introduce goals into virtual worlds, and how to make pursuing these goals more interesting.

I am a strong believer in having to have goals in a MMORPG. If there are no goals, you get a non-game sandbox virtual world like Second Life. The huge success of World of Warcraft can be explained by its excellent system for the management of goals. There are short-term goals, like quests, and long-term goals, like reaching a level cap, some exalted reputation, or killing some raid boss. The new WoW achievement system adds to both sides, having some achievements you can do in a few minutes, and others which will take you days or weeks to complete. In this context it is evident that the WoW achievements have to be known to the player, he needs to be able to see what achievements there still are to do for him. That is why WoW gives you more information on achievements than WAR does.

But words like "quest", or "achievement" evoke an idea of there being some difficulty in completing them. "Fetch me a bottle of lemonade from the fridge" is not a quest, it is an errand. And when you do it, it isn't much of an achievement. So the problem for game design is to create quests and achievements which actually have some degree of challenge to them. Many quests, and some achievements, limit that challenge to the act of fighting one or several monsters. And there is a growing dissatisfaction from players towards that model, especially when that fight is a solo fight, not involving other players. The sad truth is that the fight of a solo player against monsters in a MMORPG involves little or no skill. The outcome of such a fight is to a large extent determined by your level and gear, and to a very small extent to your ability to play your class well. There are many monsters you can easily kill by just mashing buttons randomly or in always the same sequence. There are many monsters you can't kill at all. And there are very few monsters which two players having the same class, level, and gear would find the more skilled player beating the mob and the less skilled player losing to it.

Other quests are even more trivial, just involving going somewhere and clicking on something or some NPC. So to make things a bit more interesting, most quests involve a certain amount of searching and exploration. Here the different philosophies of WAR and WoW are the reverse of what they are on the achievements: WoW gives you just a general direction and description where to find your quest goal, WAR marks the place you have to go to with a red circle on your map. On achievements WoW gives you more information, on quests WAR does.

I don't want to get into an argument here which way is better, because in the end the amount of information a game gives you often is irrelevant. A big problem here is that both quests and achievements in both games (and many others) are static: Every player has to perform exactly the same task to fulfill that quest or gain that achievement. In consequence there are websites listing all quests and achievements, and players who don't want to search themselves can just look up the information. If the game doesn't show you the exact quest location, then some website, or even an addon will.

Keeping players motivated with goals to undertake interesting activities is hard. The fundamental problem is that an activity that is interesting and challenging is often not the fastest way to advance towards your goals. Why search out that mob where your skill would make the difference between winning and losing, if you can find monsters that you are sure to win against and earn xp faster? Why lose time searching that zone when you can find the information where your quest target is on the internet? I couldn't find that quote attributed to Raph Koster anywhere that "humans tend to optimize the fun out", but he did say: "What people are doing is trying to make gameplay predictable--as predictable as putting on pants. Human civilization is based on making life boring. As boring as possible. Exciting can get you killed. Predictably is, therefore, good. In other words, every game is destined to be boring."

Initially the player sits around in a virtual world without goals and doesn't know what to do. So in order to incite him to do something fun, the developers present him with goals in the form of quests and achievements. But the most fun is in the unexpected, the dangerous, and millions of years of evolution have trained our brains to seek to avoid that. It doesn't matter that virtual death doesn't hurt, and only costs us a bit of time to reverse, we still are doing our best to achieve our goals without taking much risk. At which point game design degenerates into an arms race between clever developers who want to force players to take risks, and clever players finding ways to circumvent the dangers and still arrive at the reward. But in the end we, the players, tend to have the most fun when we can't avoid the risk: In balanced PvP, in challenging raids. Multi-player games keep us playing longer, and are more fun, because playing with or against other players automatically adds the unpredictability that is so much fun, but which we are trying to avoid. We want our multi-player games to have solo content, but nobody has come up with a good way to add that fun unpredictability to the solo part of MMORPGs yet. At the very least our actions in solo combat have to have a bigger influence on the outcome of that combat. Unless there are some major changes to the system combat is handled in MMORPGs, I don't see that happen anytime soon. Our goals end up ruining our activities for us.
But the most fun is in the unexpected, the dangerous, and millions of years of evolution have trained our brains to seek to avoid that.
..which is why I've started to like EvE more and more. Although..

nobody has come up with a good way to add that fun unpredictability to the solo part of MMORPGs yet.
..EvE is no exception in this regard, as Yahtzee's review shows.

IMHO, one major reason is that NPCs in MMOs are very, very stupid. One excuse for that stupidity is purely practical. Good AI is expensive CPU-wise. Single-player and small-scale multiplayer games can handle the requirements, but MMOs with tens of thousands of NPCs active at any time cannot. But the main reason is mostly traditional. The emphasis of the holy trinity of tank-healer-dps means that things break down rapidly if the NPCs are free to choose their targets. Or communicate. Seeing the soldiers in Half-Life work together and try to get you into crossfire was one of those genius moments: "Why hasn't anyone done this before?!"

Of course.. smart NPCs would require a complete redesign of an MMO, and the whole concept of soloing would have to be rethought. Just imagine how hard your standard Kill Ten Rats quest would be if the other nine rats attacked you when you started fighting the first one. But that's assuming that the rats have a comparable power level to your own. Having one player character defeat ten enemies might be all well and good in a superhero/one man army game like City of Heroes, but less so if you're trying to portray the player characters as being footsoldiers in an army like in Warhammer.
When playing WoW, I'm a solo kind of guy, and my favourite thing was being able to take out elite mobs/bosses solo. Sure, I might have had to be a level or two above the mob, but I always found it fun. Dodge/stun with my rogue, kite with my mage, tank/heal with my druid or pala etc.
Keeping games challenging was always the main characteristic of any good game.

Everybody can just tilt over the opposing king when playing chess - the fun of the rules is to make it harder, while still possible.

Besides there is always the hunter and the collector in each of us. Many people like to farm herbs in an MMO although it is not challenging at all.

And grinding Mobs in an AoC way may not be challening, but too tedious to do for more than an hour.

Finally the WAR approach to the achievments really doesn't work. I don't know single person that runs around in a lvl 20 zone with a lvl 20 character and tries to click at every piece of the environment, just to find out achievments. This kind of thing only really works in an offline Single player game, as long as there is no internet available.

It may be fun if you get an achievment suddenly - without having worked for it.
But the reality is that people visit the WWW after lvl 40 and then get one achievment after the other. Until they have them all.
Some rules of an MMO are just not made by the designer.
Like the availablility of the WWW.

That doesn't mean that these rules do not apply or could be ignored.
Unpredictability in solo games or solo content in mmos can only come from far more advanced AI then is implemented at the moment. Maybe through genetic algorithms, these can provide adaptibility in mobs, standalone or groupwise. Problem would be the precise definition of the optimal state of the mob/group (towards which the GA will work) and the course of action after reaching that goal (which should of course be very long term, because in effect this would mean a stagnant world, Game Over). In short it would mean mobs will learn & level too, depending on the player actions against that mob (a mob which is never killed or otherwise influenced by players will not develop).

I dont see this happening any time soon though since developping such an algorithm for each mob type would be an enormous undertaking and need a whole new level of computing in both server and home hardware. Also retaining some kind of balance (player-mob) would be difficult. But the resulting playing world will be unpredictable and brutal.
MMOs have a difficulty slider in the level of mobs and quests you choose to tackle. If you want a more challenging game you can always tackle mobs and quests that are way above your level. The problem at the moment is that the rewards for doing this are minimal. In almost every game you can make more money and gain experience at a faster rate by slaughtering easy mobs that are just below your own level. Why? Why not adjust the reward system so that it is actually worth while spending hours to take down one mob 10 levels above your own?

Here is a thought - why not create a whole system of vanity rewards (titles, tatoos, medals, cool looking apparel, stuff like that) that are only available to players who overcome challenges at a much higher levels than themselves. This could be one solution to the issue of obsolescence of content. Player might play the game at normal difficulty first time around but might then be motivated to replay old content at harder difficulty levels in order to get the cool stuff.
The real question is not whether one system is right or wrong, but which one provides focus for the game you are playing, and which one is a distraction that just fills peoples empty space with something to do?
"... game design degenerates into an arms race between clever developers who want to force players to take risks, and clever players ..."

That is so true! Nice analysis, and quoteworthy to boot.

I think your points touch upon what is sorely lacking in existing MMOs - intelligent and changing content. Payers, particularly seasoned ones, want challenge and new experiences. Random events, player-built or player-affected content, IMO, needs to be the main feature in a true Next Generation of MMOs.
I don’t find this analysis of human beings to be accurate. It is all put down to some sort of evolutionary imperative when we have long and complex histories of many different cultures in which some form of warrior ethos or chivalry motivated people and entire societies to behave completely contrary to this. Of all things, the idea of honor, and the preservation of it above all else, speaks contrary to the very notion, for it is willing to sacrifice body, family, and in some cases an entire nation.
Our grandparents and parents can still remember a time when Japanese pilots were willingly crashing their planes into our ships and would rather have seen their nation burn than give up their emperor. There were times before that when the words "death before dishonor" were said and meant with every fiber of a man's being. There were women who slew themselves for love, and there were knights who, to quote Tennyson, "Crowned a happy life with a fair death." This still goes on today, where men and women take the hard road and walk into the fire, rather than away from it or around it.
Men are not purely animals, and survival is not the only (or even strongest) motivator. Honor, justice, Love, Greed, Lust, and quite especially "Fun" are often higher motivators than safety. Greed has made men brave and fearless as much as honor, and that is very apparent in how many people who play PvP or Raid that don’t actually like to, but want the gear. A sky diver is definitely more interested in having fun than being in perfect safety.
The gaming culture might very well be about the easy road, but then this very blog contradicts that notion with the number of people who talk about liking a challenging end game.
We are not compelled purely by nature to attack the weakest foe in a game anymore than we are compelled by nature to look up the answer to a difficult quest. It has everything to do with the character of the individual performing the act, as it always has throughout history.
A samurai or knight who went out of their way to strike down a weak or unworthy foe would be considered caitiff and lower than a churl. There were some that did so, and others who did not.
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