Tobold's Blog
Monday, February 28, 2011
Are virtual rewards a trap?

Games can be won or lost, they can be challenging, they can be social, they can (or even should) be entertaining. But in most cases games don't pay you. There are exceptions in the case of gambling or professional sports, but in the huge majority of cases people didn't play for profit. But then came persistent online games with their virtual rewards, titles, and achievements, and suddenly it seems for more and more people those virtual rewards have become more important than playing the game or the other motivational factors to play.

Now in principle there is nothing wrong with handing out a virtual award in a game, as a trophy and reminder of a game well played. The problem arises when that trophy starts to dominate thinking, and influences player behavior too much. There are lots of examples for that:I'm sure you can think of lots of similar examples. Basically the problem is when people forget what they started playing for in the first place, and just do anything, however counterproductive to the initial reasons for playing, just to get virtual rewards faster.

And I would argue that this is a trap. While you *can* buy an olympic medal on EBay, or get one by other means than actually winning an olympic event, the medal by itself is meaningless. Virtual rewards are even worse, because they aren't real. One day you will stop playing, or the servers of the game will shut down, and then all those virtual rewards will evaporate into nothingness. And it is likely that the memories of how we played will last us longer than the memories of the trophy itself, and with that come possible regrets. I still remember the mammoth cloak I camped in EQ a decade ago for a grand total of 16 hours, but more because that sounds so incredibly stupid today, while I have completely forgotten what stats that cloak has. Anyone still remember the stats on his Molten Core loot? No? The memory of that time when your guild split up over that loot probably remains longer.

The danger of that trap is that companies will use virtual rewards to make us pay good money for games that aren't good, that neither challenge nor entertain. It was reported that Zynga is one of the most profitable companies ever. What message does that send to possible investors and game developers? Now it is easy to shrug that off and claim that Zynga makes its money with stupid people playing Facebook games. But there is no MMORPG, however complex and challenging, where you can't observe that same obsession with virtual rewards. If players indicate that they want virtual rewards more than they want challenge or entertainment, that is exactly what they will get. Maybe it would be better sometimes to stop and to ponder whether our current action in game are actually promoting our fun, our social ties, or our skills, or whether we just do something boring, mean, or stupid for some virtual rewards.
The carrot-on-a-stick model is really the only way you can get people to play the same game for months or years on end.
This is why I often tire of a MMO game after hitting max level. I usually don't want to start a raid treadmill after that.
When I played MajorMUD, it wasn't for cool loot or whatever. I played because I enjoyed the people I played with. I knew most everyone on the relatively small BBS (it was about 5-15 people) and I got along well with most of them. Those that I did not get along with, I fought. Literally. PVP in MajorMUD was very dynamic and sporadic and it involved real consequences. When you die, all of your items drop (unless one or two are bound to you, which was rare). In any case, the game was more about community than loot. The game was also extremely difficult and leveling up took a very long time, so the game was designed in a way that you were better off if you socialized.
Of course they are a trap. How else do you get people paying a freakin' subscription to play the same stupid raid over and over, *especially* since the loot itself is often a source of pointless drama? There's always that chance of getting the lottery win next time. Even "achievements" fit neatly into this sort of "cheap psychological trick" label.

Skinner boxes and periodic rewards work; there's plenty of evidence of that, most outside of games.
The greatest crime is that game developers can get away with delivering less compelling experiences, as long as they attach periodic rewards. What great games are we not getting, thanks to achievements and other "rewards?"
Blizzard even makes fun of how your hard-earned equipment becomes obsolete. In an early Mount Hyjal quest, you are sent to destroy some smoldering cores, with the completion text:

"There was a time when adventurers would collect these cores in order to craft mediocre fire-resistant equipment. But for now, I'm glad just to destroy these fiends once and for all."
I think the interesting question is why people so willingly fall into this "trap"?

Tishtoshtesh's skinner box model may be a good start, but it would be interesting to see it fleshed out.
The reward system is the cornerstone of MMOs. So if it's a trap, the answer may be to stop falling into it. The developers constantly include it, and seem unwilling or unable to make games fun for the long term.
Assuming you don't care about PvP, once you hit 85 and are done with heroics, you hit a complete character progression dead end. Which means you'll find people who raid for gear, people who raid to clear content and people who raid because they genuinely like raiding.

If you are in a stable friendly guild that clears content and you like raiding, gear is a non-issue, you know you'll get your gear sometimes down the line with the only issue being how much the RNG Gods hate you. Heck, assuming you're raiding with friends, progression might not even matter that much.

Unfortunately, lower progressed guilds will often sacrifice community for personal gain. Guilds will be formed of people who want to raid to get out of their character progression dead end, not because they necessarily want or like to raid. Since loot is the only way characters can progress past the level cap, greed can and will ruin the social aspect for everyone involved.

Loot isn't a trap, Loot is just a pathetic replacement for the social aspect for people who unfortunately haven't found the guild for them, or for people who do not care about anything but self character progression.
If players indicate that they want virtual rewards more than they want challenge or entertainment, that is exactly what they will get.

Tobold, why you cannot see that this is a game and in a game there are cheaters, who wanna get things easier and faster, and, if possible, without actually playing the game?

If there are players buying rewards from the cash shop it is not the players's faulty, but the company's which putted the rewards there only for making their stupid money.

This is like a corrupt guard, who got paid by a rich prisioneer, that opens the door for the criminal to escape from the prison.
The game company of course is, in this case, the corrupt guard. They corrupt and ruin the game's fun when they put every crap for sale. And of course, players will buy them -_-
While I mostly agree, the only problem I see is figuring out "what players want" as if it is just one set of preferences for everyone.

For instance, I don't always equate challenge with fun. Challenge has its place, but often I do not find the frustration to be worthwhile. From a certain perspective, Syncaine is right in that I have chosen the easy MMORPG (in most respects). I also prefer Mario Kart over other racing games, and I don't think that makes me "dumb" or "unskilled" in either instance.

But I also recognize that this is why players fear games like Farmville, even if they will never play it. They are worried for the sake of their own game, that some executive is going to see the big numbers, and step in to tell a developer "players want Farmville, make your game like that."
The thing about a skinner box is that it only works if it gives you something you want. The rat in the box hit the lever to get food, and rats want food. If the game isn't giving us a reward we actually want then we aren't going to keep pulling the lever.

I'm not sure if you mean to be implying that people don't want or don't value these virtual trophies. Sure, one day the server will be shut down and we'll be left with only memories rather than virtual rewards, but if impermanence automatically devalued things then nothing would have any value at all.

I guess I'm just trying to understand what the bottom of this is. Suppose for a moment that the reason why virtual rewards have proliferated is because people genuinely like them. Is the problem that this is a bad thing to like? Is the problem that lots of people genuinely liking virtual rewards is making games a lot worse for people who don't value them? Or are you saying that people largely only like virtual rewards because humans are notoriously bad at understanding what makes them happy, and that virtual rewards have a lot of luster but don't add to long term contentment? In that last case, how would you respond to the presumably large number of people who would say that same thing about all video gaming experiences, and how do we separate the virtual rewards given by others from those we give ourselves (sense of accomplishment, stories to tell)?
I play on Pogo a lot and mainly do so to get my virtual award of the week.

As for WoW and other games, I was just as enamored of the achievements until I realized the very thing you post here. Once I'm done playing the game, the achievement doesn't exit into the real world with me. It is basically meaningless in the larger view of things. I think that as well as the idea as people using them as gating systems is what created my annoyance. At least in LotRO I might get a trait that I can use from the achievement, in WoW I mainly just got some "points" that could be used for absolutely nothing.
@sthenno Isn't the point of a Skinner Box that eventually the rat will keep hitting the lever even when no food comes until eventually it dies of starvation? Or was that a different experiment?
Actually, gameplay-wise, randomization and generated content may defeat the carrot-on-a-stick in terms of fun quite easily. With recent advances in this area, it's not all that grim.
I have recently fallen into the trap of the luck of the draw buff to get my valor points quicker.

I just solo queue as a healer because with the buff and my shiny raid gear I can power most pugs through almost anything again just like Wrath.

Doing a random heroic every day on two toons is quite the burden and often I find that I'm not having fun, just doing it to get the points.
Virtual Rewards are nothing but a shared illusion of value.

Therefore any attribution of value from virtual game rewards is an illusion.

It is not because virtual rewards are temporary that they have no value. It is because the audience that establishes the value is transient.

But the true insidious problem with virtual markers of value is in striving for their acquisition.

Once we acquire the virtual reward we as ape-subroutine humans start attaching existential meaning to them. THEN we get people who start deluding themselves that success in gaining virtual gold translates into gaining real world gold.

People who believe that guild leadership (with guild virtual rewards) translates to real world leadership skills.

When it should be the other way around.

By the way Rift is awesome and I'm happy to say that the Virual wow rewards do not entice me anymore.

Virtual Fun > Wow tired content
I see a clear difference between blizzard and zynga's approachs. In the former, virtual bait is used to keep you interested, while in the latter, it's clearly designed to rip you off.

That said, everything is a trap if your values are skewed, it's old as humanity. Humans are lead by the nose by trick or threat since the dawn of time :D

As for rift, totally identical to wow. Only prettier, and with no addons. The content is different, the reward paradigm is clearly the same.
I swear this comment will (and perhaps should be) censored, but if you replace every reference to "virtual rewards" with something dirty, then this is a very amusing read.
"Very amusing" to the kind of people who link various talents or achievements in WoW general chat in combination with the word "anal".
You hit the nail on the head. I think the virtual rewards are indeed a trap insofar as they entice you to play way more than you originally intended to.
In the beginning, wow offered a world to explore together. Over time, (I'd say: With the expansions) it's become more of a rewards machine.

Commenters are right when they claim that it's difficult to draw the line between a trap and a game that gives you what you want. The "trap" is a relative thing: it's the way more that counts.
@Dave: You can get rats to do a lot of stupid things. You can also get people to do a lot of stupid things - though not quite as stupid as rats. But my point is that the rat never would have gotten into pressing the lever if it didn't give food (or electrodes weren't hooked to the pleasure centre of it's brain or whatever the case).

Anyway, I don't think I was really right about that, because virtual rewards probably get a lot of their value because they sort of "steal" the love we have of other parts of the game. They become the ends of little stories we tell ourselves, and the end of the story is perceived to have the value even though the reason we liked it was the gameplay. There is no need to genuinely like them in the first place to seek them out.

Anyway, my response to this got too long for a comment so I just made my own post.
"If that's true, that's an astounding 47% profit margin."

That margin is true for every successful MMO. Its a constant which has been mentioned years ago by Ultima Online and then mentioned again by other MMO's.

Thats why MMO's generally, if they work, are the biggest business in gaming these days.
I've said this before on your blog: look to the original gaming industry (casino gambling) to see where MMO gaming might go if it continues to be tailored to mass consumption and to maximize revenues.

Casinos make the majority of their money from slot machines and video poker. Very little skill required, solitary, minimal monitoring or input required by the casino. Maximal profit margin.

Next are simple dealer games: blackjack, craps, roulette, etc. More social interaction possible, but still minimal required. It does require a basic understanding of what's going on and knowledge about how to communicate to play.

The expense of providing these games is higher because you have to pay real skilled attendants/dealers, so margin lower.

Kind of like 5 mans, maybe? You can queue alone or bring a group.

The real games of skill (endgame) are the live poker tables. Very few casino goers venture into this area. Quite expensive to provide and monitor, profits typically around 1% of total casino take.

But those games play an important role; they elevate the level of mystique, perpetuate the professional gambler fantasy, and get the masses into the casino.

Is there any chance that psychological techniques learned in the casino industry are used in MMO design?
My cynical theory is that current MMO design consists of producing "differentiatingly unpleasant" gameplay. A test question that everyone gets correct or incorrect is wasted. Similarly, It's a waste to produce something [almost] nobody will do (e.g. Achievement for Insane in the Membrane on all ten character slots ) But if it's too easy or fun, then everyone does it and it's not "valuable" in game and as per the personality failings mentioned in the article.

Fishing, Mining and Herbing would not work if they were really fun. If any of them were really fun and commonplace, they would lose both prestige and value in game. They work because people find them unpleasant in varying degrees.

So your $15 a month MMO is for the privilege of doing stuff that is unpleasant enough for others not to do but not so unpleasant that you will still do it. Good designs allow many axes (really the plural of axis ) of unpleasantness so the people who lack the twitch skills to move out of fire in 87ms and the people who lack the patience of staring at a fishing bobber can each do something.


Philosophy time: I think this would be a good but very different post if you removed the word virtual.

E.g. "People doing something they consider "not fun" for long periods in a job, just to get the financial reward."

"People not playing with their friends, because they found a group of strangers to play with for faster material rewards."

"People judging the value of other human beings by the quality of their material possessions."

How much extra time should you spend at work away from family so you can afford truffles with your foie gras or a bigger house than your peers? Perhaps the problem is not with our virtual goods but our values? (Disclaimer: I am quite shallow and like foie gras and high item levels. But I think a lot of the points you raised are applicable outside the virtual world. )


I get my hackles up when there is the mainstream media ( i.e. this is not referring to you or this post ) go on about "virtual" goods so I would like to defend them.

In a world of fiat currencies and floating exchange rates, even "a dollar" is a bit less concrete than some imply. Ask Icelandic banks, Greek bond holders, ...

During the fin-de-millenium stock market, since I was renting if an earthquake destroyed every physical atom I owned - car, clothes, computers, everything - and the stock market had a very good day, I would have shown a financial gain for the day.
The reason why virtual rewards work is both psychological and biological. Obviously the rewards aren't real, BUT the endorphins that are released when you "earn" some virtual shiny or achievement are 100% real. They actually occur in your brain and many people get addicted to this feeling that they get from this and thus keep playing for it, even if the actual gameplay is boring.
Sounds a bit like Hecker's Nightmare.
Dude. How many ancient cyclops did you camp for jboots? I must have killed about 3 in South Ro and 3 in OOT. Every time, I felt like I hit a 5k jackpot on a slot machine. It really did mean something, then. Not now. It's all gone, just like everything will be gone from WoW. But a lot of these MMO nooblets have not gone through that yet. Generation after generation will learn the lesson, and try to pass down their wisdom. MMOs are going to have to evolve. Companies are going to have to learn to plan sequels, not just expansions, and also make plans for transfer of wealth to those sequels. The veil that suspension of disbelief will become thinner and thinner, and the playerbase will not be able to trick him/herself into thinking that their property and achievements are permanent.
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