Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Moving the cheese

Many years ago we used to have big discussions of whether MMORPGs should be more like games, or more like virtual worlds. Like so often when describing extremes, the optimum is somewhere in the middle. The "game" part of a MMORPG supplies us with a purpose, a way forward, a goal of the kind that pure sandbox virtual worlds are missing. But the "world" part fleshes out the MMORPG, and makes it possible to combine various different activities into one product: We can have solo quests, group dungeons, various forms of PvP, crafting, and who knows what else they'll add one day, all bundled up into one MMORPG. Instead of having one, linear game you beat and then move on, you have many games interacting with each other, offering you a wide variety, and thus potentially more fun.

Unfortunately such variety is difficult to balance. Sometimes players discover that one specific activity gives better rewards then other modes of gameplay, and a majority of players starts grinding that activity for maximum rewards, foregoing the fun of variety for the lure of faster advancement. Sometimes demographics change, often because the veteran players leveled up, and there are fewer new players, leaving the lower level zones deserted. So people might *want* to play a different mode, one that involves playing with or against other players, but are stuck in solo mode because too few other people are interested in playing with / against them.

Developers often react to imbalances with patches. Nerf some too good reward, add a 20% xp bonus to underutilized zones or servers. But the older and bigger a game gets, the harder it becomes to distribute your players evenly over all of the existing content. You can't patch nerfs and xp bonuses into your game every week. Or can you?

What you can do is to make rewards variable, which is easy in the case of numerical rewards like experience points. If you accept that a large amount of players is strongly motivated by rewards, are constantly heading towards the cheese, and you want maximum variety in your MMORPG, all you have to do is to constantly move the cheese. Not manually, but automated. Instead of assigning one fixed xp reward to any given activity, you assign a minimum and a maximum value of xp reward to it, and couple it with one or several alternatives. Then you just monitor what the players are actually doing, and whenever players accumulate in one part of the game, the rewards there slowly diminish, and the rewards for the alternatives increase. That can either be done server-wide, or on an individual basis for every character. Of course you need some good information tools to communicate where the bonuses are at any given time. The effect is that if one activity, like PvP scenarios, is overcrowded, and another activity for the same character level, like group PvE, is underutilized, the overcrowded part is being less and less rewarded, until it falls to a less attractive minimum. And the previously underutilized activity is being more and more rewarded, up to a very tempting maximum. Thus grinding the same activity over and over is never the fastest way to advance. The fastest way to level is to switch between various activities, which incidentally is also more fun, and better utilizes all that content the developers made.

Not only does such a system automatically rebalance the initial imbalances in the game, it also reacts well to changes in demographics. For example when less people are around and finding a group is harder to do, the reward for grouping automatically goes up, until players are rewarded sufficiently for overcoming the barrier to forming groups. And the system is far smoother and more flexible than adding or removing rewards by patches. You can still make manual changes, but if for example you increased PvP epic rewards and suddenly everyone is moving into battlegrounds, the system rebalances itself by slowly decreasing point gains for PvP battlegrounds and increasing point gains for alternative activities. You move from having preferred and deserted content, to a game world in which all content is equally attractive.
How would you inform the players that the activity they are pursuing suddenly gives slightly less reward than, say, the day before?

Would you imagine some kind of in game advertisement saying: "what you are doing is not anymore the best way, try this other activity.."

Or rather, do you think that the evaluation of the reward value for an activity should be left to the player scrutiny?
Nice idea. It's interesting to watch various mechanism's placed into the game. You can see they tried to do something similar with WoW with the PvP tokens for honour system. It's a good way to encourage people to try run different battlegrounds. My only problem with this is that I don't like some of the battlegrounds. WSG bleeh.

The more dynamic nature of "moving the cheese" will probably mean people doing stuff they don't necessarily like anyway but would increase variety in the same way tokens do in battlegrounds.
I hate cheese. Chocolate works for me :-)

Seriously, it's an interesting idea, but it depends if all players want that kind of variety in their game. I do like it as a concept though.
I would like to see something like wow's daily dungeon quests... log on check what the daily (most rewarded) activity is and participate in that.

If the rewards were good enough it would mean each activity is well populated (imaging a day where everyone was doing PQ's in WAR)
Years back I used to run a Counter-Strike server and built my own scoring system in response to some of the more common ones rewarding taking the easy side on maps, or sticking with the winning team.

The system would apply a modifier depending on the side you were per map to offset the disadvantage, then calculate on a round by round basis what points to give out per kill/round win.

As a team got a streak going, their points per kill/round got less and less until they got almost nothing for success, and punished heavily for any death/loss.

Once people got used to how it worked, some people would switch when their team was winning too much, some would stay, and ultimately the games got quite balanced.

I think modifying benefits on the fly of different activities is a great idea, and could possibly be done within the confines of the world without being too contrived e.g. if the reward for a collection quest is money for instance, it would make sense that the reward would drop if the NPC had been delivered a huge stash, and thus people would not grind that quest, or may come back later (assuming the reward increased again over time as people didn't do it).
I was thinking the same thing Tobold: automated weighting (heck my Masters thesis dealt with this). But I think it's way too scientific for the MMORPG industry. I have a hard enough time getting people in actual technical fields to think scientifically.

As for conveying the information to players, they will learn soon enough through experience... and possibly post the scale of the rewards ahead of time, so they can observe it like a stock market price.

And doesn't Counter-Strike vary weapon prices according to their popularity? Self-balancing.
Actually, EvE does this with it's limited PvE content. Rewards offered and time limits for missions scale according to the popularity and time spent in said missions. Where EvE's system falls flat is that on many missions the mission reward itself is pocket change compared to the value of the loot and salvage you acquire from the enemies. Some players even let the missions reset so that they can kill the enemies again and again.
I've been thinking along those lines myself and think it's a nice idea.
Seems to me that there'd be a much easier way to fix this problem:

1. Reward people with items instead of XP for doing things and have a decent enough economic system that results in prices going down when supply goes up. So if everyone is doing activity A they'd tend to get item X but then the value of item X would plummet so people would stop doing activity A.

2. With all of the instancing and mirroring going on, separating people into servers is getting more and more pointless. Just put everyone on one big server and mirror zones as needed. That way there's always plenty of people in the newbie zones.
There is one problem with this system: the introduction of new content causing players to do that activity more than they normally would.

If you release several new PvE dungeons, battlegrounds become less populated. You will then have players actively moving *away* from new content into older content, which strikes me as at best awkard, and at worst forum troll fodder.
I think if developers followed this idea it would all depend on the time in which the adjustments are made. If too many people are going scenarios and not enough people are doing PQs how long would it take for the PQs to be given a bonus. There is no way it could be instant because then everyone would instantly go to the PQs, in the end it would be a never ending see-saw with no real balance. In fact, even if it were a couple of hours, people would just change between an hour or so of scenarios and then an hour or two of PQs and this would displease many people.

For those who like PQs they could only really do that for a certain amount of time before everyone else is doing them, then they would have to wait a couple of hours before everyone was doing scenarios and the system changed back to favoring PQs, it also would be the reverse for those who like scenarios.
Its an interesting idea but I doubt it would work.
Creative idea but it leans heavily on the assumption that all players are exclusively reward driven. For me personally this isnt the case (but i might be alone in this), in a game i just want to pass the time and have fun at the same time, regardless of reward/achievement. I use those criteria IRL only, my leisure time activities tend to be pretty pointless anyway:D Also, designing and implementing functional realtime monitoring & adjusting mechanisms is resource intensive and pretty difficult too. The see-saw trap was already mentioned.
Did not DAoC have an xp-bonus when you killed a monster that had not been killed in some time? To encourage exploring the zone.
At first glance, I dislike this idea. The theory behind rewarding all of these various activities is to let players do what they want to do, and have a balanced reward for their effort. It's that balance that needs to be... balanced, not player behavior.

If you make one activity more rewarding than another, whether it's dynamic or not, you're telling players, "stop doing what you like to do, and try this instead."

Given, people who want to min-max will always take the path of least resistance, so they will probably shift with your system. That doesn't mean they'll have any more fun doing the varied activities, though, because what they're after is advancement (their "fun"), not multiple types of activities (someone else's "fun").

I understand that you're trying to protect players against themselves, but I draw the line a little further back on the beach than you do I guess. If you notice that one activity (scenarios) is too rewarding, try to match other activities (pve quests, groups, open-world rvr) up to them.
Seems like it could work very well for WAR. The longer that a PQ stands un-completed the higher chance of getting better loot bags. Stay and farm the same one and you will just keep getting 6 greens. Move around with your group and do them all and perhaps that one in the corner hasn't been beaten in a few days so you get much better drops.

It could also be applied to keeps and battle field objectives. The longer a given objective has been held the more reward you get for capturing it.
I like this concept. With a little tweaking it could be a very strong solution. It actually reminds me of the healing mechanics for Arch Mages in WAR. A sort of tipping of the scale where the benefits of doing the thing you are not doing at a given time slowly increase until the benefits encourage you to do that thing.

For those who are obsessed with efficiency, it will act as a strong balancing tool.
I think something like this would work and not be too immersion breaking for a game like WAR.

I've thought that a little nudge in a particular direction would facilitate a better sense of community in game.

The hot zone concept isn't a new one, but in the WAR context, why couldn't Karl Franz announce that he's launching an offensive in Zone X and calling all loyal citizens to take up arms and stick it to destro (with enhanced rewards).

It would almost be a short duration meta quest whereby if the faction captures, X, Y and Z within some time frame, both the participants and to a lesser extent the entire faction is rewarded.

Giving a little nudge answers that niggling question when people first log on and think, "what should I do, where should I go, is anything happening?"
"The hot zone concept isn't a new one, but in the WAR context, why couldn't Karl Franz announce that he's launching an offensive in Zone X and calling all loyal citizens to take up arms and stick it to destro (with enhanced rewards).

It would almost be a short duration meta quest whereby if the faction captures, X, Y and Z within some time frame, both the participants and to a lesser extent the entire faction is rewarded.

Giving a little nudge answers that niggling question when people first log on and think, 'what should I do, where should I go, is anything happening?'"

That's a bloody brilliant idea, P0tsh0t.

/support creative thinking

Folks are on a roll, here.
Tobold, I like your idea, as well as the appropriate title of this post.

There are two areas in WoW which already use such a system: the AH and arenas. The AH is pure economics, so people who farm popular items will find their profit margins dropping. And once they installed rating requirements on most Arena gear, it becomes a zero-sum game where the more people enter, the less chance you have of attaining a good rating and getting rewards.

The main problem I see with these systems is the basic PvE vs PvP problem you've written about before. Everyone wants to feel like they are a hero. But in reality 50% of the people are below average. If you put in a system that actively punishes people for being average (doing the popular activity), they will begin to feel like they are constantly competing against everyone, and it sucks the fun out of the game for the losers.

I suppose you can make a partial cheese-adjustment system where you only slightly change the rewards, and limit the total change.
I like your idea on general principle, and I like the idea of an ever changing world, but I worry about 2 things and they both have to do with a changing value rule-set built around reward and punishment..

First, I feel that folks should be able to play the game in the way that they find to be the most enjoyable. If the way a person enjoys playing the game ends up producing the least positive results, it would be frustrating. You have stated in the past that player behavior can be looked at as a symptom of game design, and I agree, but by "encouraging" me to move where it is most profitable you are changing my behavior to an achievement one. If you frustrate me with perceived penalties for playing the way I (and many others) want it simply becomes negative re-enforcement. I think this would also move the MMO to a more game-centric state on the Game ------- World spectrum.

Secondly, I believe that people like consistency. The unexpected is nice, but only in small doses. I think that if you change too many reward values too frequently that it will lead people into feeling unsure and insecure. The only two ways to combat this insecurity are to either master and understand the daily or hourly changes in game (programming me into an achievement mentality) or stop trying to maximize rewards in game as a player. I don't believe that either way is healthy in the long term.
I wasn't on board with the idea until Potshots last comment. Every day when player log into guild vent they ask, "whats going?" and "is anything good happening?" WAR is such a diverse game that you can have difficulty choosing the best thing to do right now.

Since we're in a WAR I don't think it would be off base to have a faction Gazette or something. Expand on the Franz announcements of campaigns to encourage participation in certain events, it would be fabulous and wonderfully engaging to read a new blurb. Things like state of the overall faction objective map, win rations in scenarios, PQ stats per tier, etc. All dressed up in WAR-speak.

You could put into on a clickable board in all the War Camps and cities for players that are interested in seeing what's going on. If they make it open via the API people would also go off and make some nice mods for it.
This is a good idea.

Guild Wars does a similar thing on the weekends, where they pick one of the activities in the game and announce that all that weekend, the rewards will be doubled.

It really helps to mix things up and get players doing things they wouldn't usually try.

You need to make it very visible to the players - I like the idea of a little 'WAR gazette' that is displayed when players log in. Guild Wars posts the announcement on the login screen.
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