Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Going for the easy win

I received an interesting mail from Feanadir, in which he wonders why people in games like Team Fortress 2 or World of Warcraft are trying to avoid challenge and go for the easy win instead. He, and I agree with that, thinks that fun in a video game comes from beating a challenge. So why do people try to avoid the challenge and get the reward / win in an easier way?

I can't speak about TF2, but I think in WoW the major problem here is that the challenge is fixed, while the power of players to beat that challenge is variable. Last night I was helping out a guild group in Halls of Lightning (normal) with my priest. Said priest being in full epic gear, we did the Loken fight by just healing through his nova, and not moving at all. That kind of removes most of the challenge of one of the otherwise more difficult 5-man boss fights.

HoL, and especially Loken, on normal are very tough if you have a group of level 78 players, okay if you have a group of freshly minted level 80 players, and trivially easy with level 80 players in full Naxxramas gear. Heroic HoL is very tough with freshly minted level 80, okay with better equipped level 80s, but will probably become trivial when people start running around in Ulduar gear.

As I said, I never played Team Fortress 2. The only shooter that is currently installed on my computer is Call of Duty 2, and I have Call of Duty 4 on the shelf to play after that. Now there is no denying that I suck a shooters, due to lack of practice and maybe age. Nevertheless I can have fun playing Call of Duty, and somebody who is much better than I am can have fun too. Why does that work for Call of Duty, but not for World of Warcraft?

There are three answers to that question: The first is that Call of Duty has four selectable difficulty levels. World of Warcraft has two selectable difficulty levels for instances, none for open world content, and effectively none for raids either (as putting a raid on heroic changes the number of required participants, not just the difficulty level).

The second answer is that in Call of Duty your ability to beat the challenges of the game only goes up with your skill; in World of Warcraft both your skill and your gear goes up, and thus the difference in power level between a fresh level 80 and a level 80 who has done Naxxramas ten times in X hours tends to be greater than the difference between a new Call of Duty player and one who has played through that game for X hours.

The third answer is that Call of Duty is a single-player game, and you gain skill by playing through it all alone. In World of Warcraft there are basically no single-player challenges, all the challenging content is group content, and the bigger the group, the bigger the reward. Thus the possibility to skip the challenge, and get to the reward anyway, by joining up with more powerful players. As less than 25 players can beat Naxxramas on heroic, it is totally possible to fill the remaining spots with players that aren't geared and skilled enough, and give them the non-challenging guided tour with a bunch of free epics to boot. And that isn't limited to heroic raids: One of the big problems with 5-man heroic pickup groups is that quite often the person organizing it is undergeared, and invites only overgeared other players, hoping for a free ride.

So why do players do that, try to find an easy way to "win" and get the reward? I think what happened in the last decade or two (and video games might be partially responsible for that) is that some people started to value the reward more than the challenge. Thus if they can find a way to get the reward without really facing the challenge, they feel they "beat the system", they feel they won, and maybe even think they did it more clever than somebody who got to the same reward the hard way. "The win" isn't beating Kel'Thuzad on heroic, "the win" is having the achievement and maybe even loot that drops from Kel'Thuzad on heroic, regardless of how much you actually contributed to that.

And then of course you get the backlash from those who contributed more to beating some challenge calling the people who contributed less "morons and slackers". Which is extremely simplistic, because it groups those who have a bad attitude and want a free ride with those who have the right attitude, but contribute less because for various reasons they play less, and consequently have less gear and less skill. People like me who favor a social and friendly environment get constantly asked why we would want to boost the freeriders. Answer is: We don't. We want to get to know the people we play with better, thus preferring guild runs over PuG runs, so that ultimately we can sort out the freeriders from those who with a little help from their friends would be willing and able to contribute more. It takes a social environment to know the attitudes of those you are playing with. If you don't take the time to get to know people, and simply select the people you play with based on their Armory profile, you risk rewarding the successful freeriders again, and punish those with the right attitude but limited play time. In the long run the latter make for better guild members, because the freeriders will leave and join the next better guild as soon as they leeched of all they could from their current guild.

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