Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Rewards vs. Gameplay

One thing the World of Warcraft patch 3.3 did for me, was to make clear a fundamental conflict inherent to the design of MMORPGs, between rewards and gameplay. Any MMORPG has, among others, two major factors that motivate people to keep playing. One is the gameplay itself, which ideally should be interesting and challenging. The other big factor is the rewards you get for playing, which come in the form of experience points, skill gains, or gear; anything in general that makes your character more powerful.

The conflict between the two is caused by a third factor, the incredible amount of time we spend in these games. It is simply impossible for the developers to create enough content to keep everybody playing for years without having to repeat certain content. Thus we have things like “level caps” in the game, at which point progress slows down, and we are supposed to run the same content repeatedly. Now imagine this content is designed perfectly to be interesting and challenging the first time you run through it. Even in this ideal case it is easy to see that every time you run that heroic dungeon or raid, it becomes not only a little less interesting, because you know the place better and better. It also becomes less challenging with every run because of the rewards handed out in the previous runs.

The current Dungeon Finder for heroics really drives that conflict home, because of the emblems you get as rewards. A full set of gear bought with emblems of frost costs over 400 emblems, gained at a rate of 2 per day, 19 per week if you include the weekly raid quest. Emblem of triumph gear requires a similar amount of badges, but you aren’t limited of how many you can earn per day. All this adds up to a lot of runs. I don’t think heroic dungeons are badly designed, in fact they are quite interesting and challenging when you first enter them in the kind of gear you are likely to have when hitting level 80: iLevel 187 blue gear on average. But after a few days you’ve found a lot of iLevel 200 blue and epic gear from the bosses, and started buying the first iLevel 232 or 245 pieces with emblems of triumph. After a month you are wearing full T9, with one or two pieces of iLevel 264 gear from emblems of frost. And it isn’t uncommon for people to keep on running heroics, at least once per day for the two emblems of frost.

Thus I recently was in a pickup group as a healer, and the tank had 50k health, and did 4k dps. And he wasn’t even on top of the damage meter, there were two equally overgeared dps classes above him. In total the group did over 15k damage per second. And as MMORPG combats are basically damage races of who kills whom first, it is easy to see that an encounter designed to be challenging with a combined damage output of 5k per second becomes utterly ridiculous at 15k per second. The rewards for heroics are simply far too great compared to the difficulty of the encounters. At first that feels like Christmas, getting a lot of rewards easily, but then the rewards destroy all possible challenge, and the repetition destroys all interest in the content.

Some people suggested that the difficulty of the content should scale with your gear, to keep the challenge alive. But that would only lead to the same conflict from the other side: If the content scales with the character’s power, then the rewards become less motivating; relative to the content your character’s power would always remain the same, thus why bother to gather gear to improve your character?

So either way, the two basic ideas of MMORPGs to have rewards that make your character more powerful, and to have challenging gameplay, conflict with each other. People hate it when the rewards stop coming, or if they come too slowly. But when players are rewarded with power even just a bit for every hour they spend in the game, sooner or later the content they are repeating over and over becomes too easy to be interesting.

Blizzard couldn’t escape this inherent conflict. Before patch 3.3 they were stuck with heroic dungeons that still offered some challenge for people who didn’t get epic gear from raids or crafting, but didn’t hold much interest due to lack of rewards. Then the Dungeon Finder not only made groups for heroics much easier to find, but also cranked up rewards a lot. And now many people complain that heroics are “too easy”. They aren’t for the power level they were designed for. But they sure are too easy for the kind of power group running them now. It isn’t as if Blizzard has removed functionality like crowd control or careful line-of-sight pulls from the game, but once you are completely overgeared for the content you are running, intelligent tactics become unnecessary, even slowing the run down. If you have the power to successfully pull the whole room and AoE them all dead without wiping, then you’ll do exactly that, as boring as that might be. Eyes straight on the final two frost emblem reward, our “rat in a Skinner box” instincts carry us well past the point where gameplay is still fun. And when sooner or later the rewards run out too, we suddenly realize that we are burned out.

I don’t know when patch 4.0 and then Cataclysm will come, but I’m afraid the current model isn’t going to hold up much longer. I don’t blame the Dungeon Finder, because as a tool it is just plain brilliant. But the reward structure is over the top now. I sure hope that in the next expansion the emblem rewards from the Dungeon Finder system aren’t so overpowered compared to the challenge of the content.

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