Thursday, August 26, 2010

Limiting experience points per week

Final Fantasy XIV, to be released in a month, caused some furore among gamers by announcing their "fatigue" system: Any character gets full experience points only for 8 hours per week, plus diminished experience points for another 7 hours. If you play a character for more than 15 hours a week, you don't get any experience points at all any more.

Some commenters pointed out that the same discussion took place before World of Warcraft was released, only that WoW cleverly transformed their planned "xp penalty after playing too much" into an "xp bonus if you haven't played a lot lately", with identical effect but better publicity. Unfortunately that won't work for Final Fantasy XIV: The WoW system has no hard cap at all; while you get *more* xp after resting, you always get the basic xp, even after playing for 100 hours in a week. In Final Fantasy XIV, even if you declare the first 8 hours to be "bonus double xp", you still run into the problem of the hard cap of xp being totally turned off after 15 hours.

Limiting experience points rewards per week might be a legal requirement in China, at least there were lots of news stories about that law some years ago. IANACL (I am not a Chinese lawyer), so I don't know if that law is actually in effect and enforced in China at the moment. What I do know is that Final Fantasy XI had international servers, where Asian players mingled with European and American players. So if FFXIV uses that same server setup, we might simply be affected by Chinese law here.

There are also some details still not clear about the fatigue system, with some sources saying that non-xp activities don't count. If that were true, you could easily be playing Final Fantasy XIV for 30 hours a week and still gain xp, if half of that time is spent out of combat. Such a solution would actually not be much of a penalty to the average player, who according to different surveys tends to spend around 20 hours per week in an MMO. And with a "per character" xp penalty one can always switch to an alt if one wants to play more.

I would say that there is *some* level at which playing a MMO can be considered unhealthy and obsessive. Media regularly have stories about players dropping dead from exhaustion after marathon playing sessions, or letting their baby starve while playing excessively. Frequently commenters put part of the blame on the game companies, for making "addictive" games that lead to that sort of unhealthy excessive playing. Thus if we hold game companies responsible for some players engaging in excessive gaming sessions, we can't complain if those game companies do something to prevent those excesses. Of course the other point of view is that players should be free to decide on their own what amount of time spent in a game is healthy, but then we must absolve game companies from blame if a player gets that decision wrong. We can't have it both, blame companies for "addictive" games, and complain if they introduce anti-addiction measures.

The final point to consider here is the hard to define notion of "fairness". MMORPGs are probably the least fair games that exist: Progress very much depends on time spent in game, and a player starting a MMORPG on release day and playing a lot will always be ahead of another player who starts much later and plays much less, regardless of "skill". That effect is somewhat dampened in games where players reach the level cap quickly, and gear is reset through expansions, but it exists even there. So it can be argued that the fatigue system makes Final Fantasy XIV "more fair", because now your progress per week depends on how efficient you play, and not on how much time you have. The downside of that is that "playing inefficiently" is often a lot of fun, and that a system that rewards players for efficiency in xp gathering risks to turn them into soulless automatons with no time for social interaction and an extreme dislike for grouping with strangers. Oh, wait, that already happened in games without an xp per week cap.

I reserve judgment on the Final Fantasy XIV fatigue system until I actually played it and can tell how much of an obstacle it is. But I would be interested in your opinions on systems that limit experience gain per week in general. Is that an idea which can have merit in some cases, if set up right? Or is a game without limits always better?

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