Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Stockholm syndrome and Hecker's nightmare

I recently came across a player in World of Warcraft who was wearing a guild tag of <Stockholm Syndrome>. Now the Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people held hostage develop positive feeling for their captors. As guild tag in a MMORPG it is a rather clever commentary on the psychological reactions of players towards the game they are playing. We all know situations in which players became extremely defensive towards their favorite game, or towards a specific activity in their game. Are we being held hostage by MMORPGs, and developed positive feelings towards our captors, or are we playing because we are really having fun?

Obviously nobody is forcing us at gunpoint to play MMORPGs, so how could we be held hostage? The most likely culprit here is loss aversion: Losing something hurts more than the pleasure you had by gaining it. As MMORPGs work by showering us with constant rewards to release dopamine in our brains, we end up being unable to quit out of fear to lose all these "rewards" and "achievements". That purple sword of uberness is downright useless if you don't play the MMORPG any more in which you gained it. You can't take it with you when you leave the game. The only thing that remains once you quit is the fond memories of the fun you had while playing. But are we still playing for fun, or are we just playing for the rewards?

In the recent GDC game developer Chris Hecker gave a talk which was widely reported as Hecker's nightmare: He was afraid that developers were "designing shitty games that you have to pay people to play", the pay being virtual rewards. Basically he found that players are willing to do quite dull tasks in a game if given enough virtual rewards for it. But as the reward structure determines what players will do in a game, you can't just observe players' behavior to see what they like, and what game activity is actually fun to them. Just the opposite: Players will flock to the activity with the best reward, while simultaneously losing interest more and more in the gameplay itself. In the end it is difficult to say whether players for example actually like raiding, or are just there for the epics. It is certainly true that *which* raid dungeon is popular depends on where the best achievable rewards are, which is why for example Naxxramas stands empty now.

Another example is the often quoted trend that "players prefer to solo in a MMORPG". Do they? Some certainly do, but we actually haven't got a clue what percentage of players would rather level up in group play, if the additional reward for getting a group together would compensate for the effort of doing so. World of Warcraft was often shown as prime example of how players prefer solo play over group play, but since the introduction of additional group rewards and lowering the barrier of entry to finding a group with the Dungeon Finder, the number of people forming groups while leveling up has certainly increased dramatically. Thus virtual rewards not only hold us hostage to the games we are playing, but also to the way in which we play these games. We follow the rewards instead of just playing the game in the way which is most intrinsically fun to us.

That makes you wonder what people would do in a MMORPG if there were no rewards at all, no levels, no gear, no skill increases, no virtual currency. It is hard to imagine people grinding mobs if there is no rewards. But to what extent would they do quests? Would they PvP? Would they be willing to wipe all night at some raid boss? Or would they just not play at all if it wasn't for the virtual rewards holding them hostage?
Another tool to hold us hostage would be our friends ingame, we don't want to lose those.

As for the things we would do if there were no rewards:
I think PvP would stay in some form. Early shooters didn't offer statistics, certainly also no character advancement but they still were played.
Quests could also be successful.. but only in the form of very involved and well made questlines, each questline offering the same experience as a good book. Seing the story unfold would be your reward.
I'm having a harder time to imagine how raidbosses could stay. I personally never specifically enjoyed raidbosses, I only enjoyed the feeling of working together towards a common goal until everything clicked together and the raid worked like a single seamless machine.
I don't know.

I DO know I play for fun - I've often enough given up games, be it online or offline, because they ceased to be fun. Even after putting a substantial ammount of time into them.

But in WoW I'd be sad to loose all the archivments and pets my paladin's collected, true.

On the other hand, my playstyle in WoW is rather odd - I'm voluntarly levelign in outland as far as I can and am doing alot of dungeons, but only together with one friend. Pretty much the most inefficient way to level and gear I can imagine, simply because that way a dungeon that maybe would take maybe 20 mins becomes an evening filling affair So, I don't even wipe on Raidbosses, I wipe on dungeon trash, but at least I enjoy myself. ;)

If it's not fun, I stop playing - I do have few ingame commitments though.
no rewards~ isn't that Second Life?
Good post Tobold, I find that although I do enjoy my mmo of choice, I would take long breaks between content updates if I didn't have an innate sense that I can't leave or else the game will punish me somehow.
Overcoming the challenge and completing the content is its own reward. If you remove all loot and achievements I think people would still be motivated to play a well made well scripted game ONCE just as they do with single player games.

The key word above is ONCE. Without rewards people are not going to repeatedly replay the same content over and over. Because of this I am tempted to say it will never happen but then again an awful lot of new mmorpgs attract huge number of "temporary" players who join for a month and then fail to re-sub. Could this create a business environment where a "one shot" mmorpg is possible, a game that is only intended to be played through once?
While I agree on most of what is written here, I do dare say that a reason why Naxx stands empty has a lot to do with the fact that it has been cleared so many times. I don't care what the rewards are, when I've beaten a boss so many times that the fight no longer poses any threat, I find it harder and harder to play that boss again.

Funny sidenote is that GC on many occasions have noted on how players seems to flock to certain games within the game, because that was where the best rewards where. And if I remember the quote right, he was eager to make sure that all players tried all the different mini-games (arena, bg, wg, raid, dungeons ect ect) but that is was not a long term goal to have to force players to do pvp when all they wanted was to raid. -how they manage to balance that next, will be interesting.
Let's take a look at games like Super Mario Brothers or Doom 2. Now neither game has any reward system. You simply play each level and then beat the game.

Yet both games were (and still are in some places) hugely popular. Why is this? Well the gameplay is fun. People enjoyed jumping on goombas and over pitfalls.

On the FPS side, people enjoyed killing imps with shotguns and demons with chainsaws.

Now for a WoW example! Take a look at PvP before battlegrounds. People used to fight all the day in the open world, even with no rewards at all.

Why? Because they liked it. They liked ganking or fair PvP fighting. Look at the old Southshore/Hillsbrad fights. Those times people played just for fun. No achievements.

So my theory is that people do infact play for the gameplay, otherwise they wouldn't bother with the reward systems.

What does a new sword matter if you hate the game? It just allows you to play the game better is all. I'd say rewards are like the sweet part of the game.

You are rewarded for what you like doing, urging you to keep doing it.

I suppose that some people play for rewards, but isn't it the pursuit of happiness then? The pursuit of getting a new reward? Not actually getting it?

Interesting topic nonetheless.
Though parts of the WoW dungeon finder resemble Hecker's nightmare - high end raiders bribed to do entry level 5-man content in order to fill out queues for newbies - I think the entry barrier is more significant. There are a nontrivial number of players who play games solo because their schedules do not accommodate an hour looking for group and another 2-3 hours of uninterrupted time actually doing whatever it was they were looking for. Even among raiders, four hour blocks of time are primarily for raid nights, and I haven't heard of guilds canceling raid nights to go farm badges.

Automated queues (with an incentive to pick "random" so that players all agree on letting the system pick) and public quests have so much potential for the future of group content because they can, on paper, lower the entry barrier to the point where the solo player actually can choose to group. Even an hour (15-minutes for the queue, 45 for a PUG heroic clear) is a fair chunk of uninterrupted time in a world where other forms of entertainment can be paused to accommodate kids, pets, etc. If developers can't make the games work for players on that timeframe, group content will appeal to an ever dwindling portion of the MMORPG marketplace.
The funny thing about the rewards people are working so hard to get before Cataclysm comes out is that they will become meaningless once the expansion is released, beyond making getting to level 81 a little easier. Our guild raids to have fun - yes we're in ICC, but have only gotten as far as clearing the first quarter. But when the weekly raid is Naxx or some such, we stay to clear the quarter for those newer 80s who've never done so - being in raid, in vent, and having fun with a good group of guys (and gals) is reward enough for some folks.
Online gaming is rapidly becoming a focus for all kinds of social scientists, psycholgists and even neuroscientists. Unfortunately, a good deal of this research is feeding back to the people who fund the games in the form of ways to get more and more money out of a greater number of people.

It reminds me of the growth of television and television advertising in the 1950s and the interest there was then in placing subliminals in programming. It took primary legislation to stop that taking hold.

I think the potential for bio-psychological manipulation online could slip under the legislative radar. By the time governments notice what's going on it will be very difficult for them to do much about it. Probably already is.
PVP - that's what I did in the last three years. I like being challenged by other players. And I spent a few very enjoyable months on wow test realms playing arena with all kinds of classes.

Neither past achievements, nor online friends (none of my rl friends plays), nor pve can hold my interest in wow anymore. Rewards? If I win because I played well, that's enough of a reward for me.
"Virtual rewards" is just another form of progression. Achievements, leveling, world firsts, grinding resources, playing the AH; they are all the same thing. Repetetive behavior with infrequent big rewards or frequent small rewards is a hallmark of human behavior.

Education is essentially a long grind for progression with a big payout in the end. Working and innovating is a repetetive grind with more frequent payouts, with slow progression upwards.

Technological advances, scientific research, athletic persuits, industrial innovation, cultural and artistic activities are all slow grinds within grinds which produce that slow, satisfying individual progress and often results in societal progress.

IMO the human mind is coded to respond to a slowly progressing reward system and is responsible for the amazing progression of humanity.

It might be "fight or flight" in response to immediate danger. But it's "do something over and over and over to get better/best at it" when we are well-fed, secure, and have time on our hands.
mpb, yes, you could have a "one shot" MMO that is designed to be played once. Arguably, Guild Wars is precisely that. Of course, the business model reflects the design change. You can't have a one-shot MMO and try to monetize it via subs, at least, not without some real snake oil salesmen backing you up.
Ditto on the Second Life comment.

I think people see "virtual worlds" E.g. Second Life where there are zero goals and forced paths as very different from "games" where one expects to have rules and victory conditions. (EVE Online is closer than the community would admit to the latter than the former.)

Several years ago, someone had already legally earned a million dollars selling virtual goods in SL, so that is always an option if you are in a virtual world. Games like WOW do not allow that. In SL, you can create houses, clothes, items, err "body parts". In WoW, anything you can create is just an itemid in WoWHead. (the fact that it could change when the nrefbat hits is a separate whine.)

In the grand scheme of life, replacing 264 with 277 gear is pointless. but is it any more pointless than getting a Strait-flush just because the rules of Poker say that is better than hand than 4-of-a-kind?

It is a logical position to say that no one should play games, they should be improving their financial, spiritual, or even physical health. But if you game, rules and rewards exist to define the game.

People's socialism that prevents them accepting RMT sales also incites games to be designed around grinding:

Game companies want more money,
Many customers think RMT is wrong, which leaves game developers the main tool of rewarding people who have paid more monthly subscriptions.

Arguing for a WoW model with flat subscription price and no RMT gives the game designers a clear financial incentive to design in rewards for grinding.


There is also the question of skill versus effort: the Blizzard tournaments give everyone the equal chance to choose their race, class, and BiS gear. Only skill matters; 5 minutes after joining, your pixels are as good as everyone else. OTOH, this also applies to someone who joins 2 years after you. I.e., the installed base in WoW and EVE hate it when companies make things easier for new players.

How should an ICC raider with great skills, but too lazy to endure LFD for badges and do dailies to buy BoE gear, consumables, perform relative to a less "skilled" player who works hard? There is no objective right answer, just some subjective decisions that game designers must make.

In general, I do believe that grinding is the lowest form of game design.
Whilst it isn't perfect, I think we can approximate the relative preference for group-play vs solo play: it's the ratio between the player base of pre-WOW forced-grouping MMOs and WOW.

At best these games got around 400,000 subscribers. WOW got around 12M (approximately, those numbers are from memory). This suggests that 3-4% of the population prefer grouping to soloing: similar to the number of players who like free-for-all PvP games, like EVE.

So, in big-handful terms:
4% prefer forced grouping,
4% prefer FFA PvP and
92% prefer soloing.

Now I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing for the future of MMOs, but it may be the truth.
Sven... that is by far the dumbest logic I've ever read.
Agree with Epiny... if you ever join an MMORPG in the first place, surely you must be somewhat interested in group play?
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