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.