Monday, October 27, 2008

Accessibility and rewards

Keen has a post on the state of WAR, in which he blames the players for going for the reliable scenario grind instead of doing open world RvR. Quote: "This industry has been plagued by the “I want it, and I want it now” attitude. Yes, this was largely introduced when World of Warcraft gained popularity because, for the first time, developers started realizing that the majority of players want the ease of accessibility. What started out as a good idea - making things more accessible - turned into the near extinction of effort, achievement, and earning your reward." Keen thinks that this will lead to a future in which we get only games with effortless grind, because that is what the players apparently want. Not so fast! A game offering a fast, repetitive way to maximum reward will see that mode of gameplay be preferred over all alternatives. But that move is self-destructive, because quickly the players get bored. In WAR the players are trapped between repetitive scenarios giving the best rewards and more interesting content for which no groups can be found. And they are leaving WAR because of that. Yes, players want ease of accessibility, but WAR doesn't offer that; by having a "best way to level", WAR effectively makes the rest of its content inaccessible and obsolete.

It is true that MMORPGs have one fundamental problem: There is a conflict of interest between the fun of doing whatever you want to do, and the fun of advancing your character. The solution to that problem is easy to formulate, and hard to implement: Make the rewards scale proportional to the effort. Parts of the game that are high effort and give low rewards will be ignored. Blaming the players is a natural reaction, not just of Keen, but also from many game developers. But truth is that the devs are at least as guilty as the players, because they failed to scale the rewards right.

In modification of an old dictum, a good game is easy to access, but hard to master. The solution can not be to close down access to parts of the game. I don't support the proposed solution to eliminate scenarios from WAR, just as I don't support the idea of having raids in WoW be only accessible for an elite minority of players. We are talking about games here which ideally are played for several years, having a large variety of different modes of gameplay accessible to the maximum of players is essential to achieve that. But "accessible" means just that, having access, not "getting the maximum reward for minimum effort". Rewards have to be proportional to effort, and effort has to be measured including ease of setting the activity up. Scenarios in WAR are crowding open RvR and public quests out not only because of a pure measure of "xp per minute spent in a scenario", but also because they are so much more easy to set up. To organize taking a keep in open RvR, or do a public quest, you need to travel to the area, which given the annoying travel system of WAR can take a lot of time. And then you have to set up a group large enough to overcome the challenge. In comparison you can join scenarios from everywhere, and the game relieves you of all the effort of travel and getting a group together. If there was no "join scenario" button, nor automatic groups, and you would have to gather a group yourself and with the group fully preformed and present click on the portal to the scenario, which actually exists in the game world, there would be a *lot* less scenarios going on, even if we left the rewards unchanged.

And the same principles apply to WoW: There should be lots of different activities, solo and group, PvE and PvP; and each of these activities has to be accessible to everyone, but give out rewards in proportion to the effort, including the effort to set something up. For example the group xp bonus for WoW should be a lot bigger than it is now. There should be an added bonus for visiting the lower level dungeons, because previously the reward from dungeons was the gear you got there, but with the now increased leveling speed that gear isn't really worth the effort of finding a group in a low-population level bracket any more. And at the level cap, there should be "low effort" raids with low rewards. Not zero reward, like "oh why don't you just raid Molten Core", but with a reward that is well balanced between the added effort of setting up a group of 10 instead of 5, and the difficulty of the encounters. If implemented well, the idea of WotLK to then offer the same dungeon in a high effort, high reward mode is great. It worked well enough with heroic dungeons, there is no reason to assume it couldn't work with heroic raid dungeons. Nobody says there shouldn't be ultra-hard raid bosses in WoW, giving out the best possible rewards.

In a way WoW has it easier than WAR, because PvE is more predictable than PvP, and thus easier to reward in proportion to effort. So at least for PvE raids, getting the rewards right should be possible. For the PvP part of WoW, as well as for most of WAR, the problem is a lot harder. On the one extreme the reward structure of PvP can be so much in favor of gaining some objective, that players end up not actually doing any PvP at all, but doing some pseudo-PvE instead. In WoW you can see that when two groups of 40 players rush in Alterac Valley, and then pass by each other on the way to the enemy fortress to kill NPC guards there, instead of fighting each other. In WAR you can see those 3 am city raids, where the players of one faction attack at a point in time where there are the least player defenders, and they only have to deal with NPCs to take the fortresses and city. On the other extreme, if you make the rewards for killing enemy players in PvP much bigger than for achieving an objective, you end up with everyone brawling in the middle, and nobody going for the flag or whatever the objective is.

I think it was Brad McQuaid who promised for Vanguard a perfect system where what is most fun would also be most rewarded. Obviously he failed to deliver, but that doesn't invalidate the goal. Players *do* have fun when they are challenged. But they also want maximum rewards. In a perfect game the rewards be exactly in proportion to effort, and then players would automatically search for the most challenging activity they can still win, continuously pushing the envelope, and having the most fun. But it is impossible to overestimate the pull that rewards have in MMORPGs, and if there is a flaw in the system that enables people to get higher rewards for lower effort, they will go after that. It is not that they are actively avoiding the effort, or the fun, it is just that the lure of the reward is so much stronger. Blaming the players is easy, but doesn't get us anywhere, because we won't be able to change player mentality. Making the perfect game, with a constant reward to effort ratio, is hard, but in the end it is the better solution. And maybe one day developers will come up with a way to create self-balancing systems, where there is no "best way" to advance.

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