Friday, January 27, 2012

The Nature of MMO Gaming

A friend of mine recently read this post by Raph Koster.  He suggested (perhaps "demanded" would be a better word) that I write a blog post about it, and give my opinion.  Well, he's sort of going to get what he asked, but not really, because instead of analyzing and/or discussing Raph's post, I'm going to describe how what Raph wrote (which I agree with, by the way) applies to MMO gaming, and why it clearly illuminates one of the fundamental problems with current MMO design.  First up though, I'm going to further discuss "feedback" as described by Raph, and how feedback affects us as gamers.  Here is what Raph has to say:
Ah, but the feedback for even a trivial action is very important. It matters that we hear the sound when we click the mouse. And should the designer choose, they can make the feedback be hugely disproportionate to the problem solved. Feedback serves the purpose of cueing the user whether or not they are being successful in figuring out the black box. So we provide feedback each time an input is made, and the feedback is intended to help guide the user as to whether they are doing the right thing.
In short, feedback is any sort of response that occurs as a result of player action.  That could be pressing a button on a mouse to get a "click", tripping a lever in the game and having a door visibly open with an audible rumble, or clicking on the "fireball" icon and killing an enemy.  Through this feedback you learn that levers open doors that might be blocking your progress, and fireballs will defeat an opponent that would otherwise kill you. The lever opening a door you can't see or hear would be an example of bad feedback -- you don't know whether your action accomplished anything at all, let alone the thing you were trying to accomplish.

Game rewards are also a type of feedback (and indeed, as Raph notes feedback is itself a reward), earning experience, gold, items, levels, etc., are all feedback that lets you know you're doing the right thing, but they also serve as rewards that trigger the chemical responses in the brain that react to accomplishments and acquisition (typically dopamine I believe).  Leveling up or acquiring that great item you wanted can provide an actual rush, a burst of pleasant chemicals in the brain, albiet one that diminishes with repetition (an issue I will discuss later).

So what's my point?  That you can essentially change Raph's problem --> black box --> feedback paradigm to problem --> black box --> reward.
Totally ripped from Raph's post.  Please don't SOPA me!
Sometimes that reward is feedback that you're on the right path, and sometimes that reward is an actual reward, it all depends on the context and scale of the problem --> black box --> reward/feedback.  A quest in an MMO consists of multiple levels of these paradigms, everything from "how to get there --> use the griffin --> flight cutscene" and "defeat enemy orc --> use abilities --> xp/loot" to "kill 10 orcs --> repeat defeat enemy orc 10x --> quest reward".  Within those are even smaller ones, such as how to use abilities, or how to walk to the griffin.  An insane person could draw out a nested diagram showing all the problem interactions and it would be enormous.  I'm not that insane, sorry.

Point, Warsyde, got one?  Ok ok, I'm getting to it.

The point is that there are diminishing returns on the enjoyment of rewards.  The more, and bigger, rewards you get, and the faster they come, the less you enjoy any particular reward.  Humans have the remarkable ability to become accustomed to almost anything if exposed to it enough.  This is part of what makes addiction so dangerous, as an addicted person gradually needs more and more of whatever they're addicted to in order to achieve the same sensations they started with.

This has two effects.  The first is in a game situation like Raph describes:
Disproportionate feedback
If the game offers huge feedback all the time, it's likely to rapidly become tiresome as the constant barrage of feedback causes each additional instance to have less impact than the one that came before.  Not right away of course, but eventually it would happen.  Because so many games are using the model above it's a good thing they're short - a 50 hour game like the one above would burn a player out, but an 8 hour game might be able to get away with it.

What I'm really interested in though, is how this applies to MMOs.  MMOs are games intended to be played for hundreds of hours.  They simply, absolutely, cannot use the model above, as the reward structure would result in burned out players wandering off after a week or two at most.  Instead, the MMO model looks more like:
Large number of small interactions, one large reward


Large number of small interactions, large number of small rewards
Additionally, you can have a combination of the two that gives small rewards on the way and a big reward at the end.  The first method is the Everquest method, the second method is that used by most modern MMOs. Both methods are designed with the intent of keeping you playing for as long as possible.  The Everquest model did it by giving you really big rewards (class epic, omg!) for a large number of tasks spread over a long period of time.  The more modern method does it by giving you a lot of little rewards, hoping to both keep you going with the rewards while not overstimulating your brain and diminishing your appreciation of the rewards.  Both methods only delay the inevitable, but delay it they do.  It should be noted that raiding, even modern raiding, essentially follows the EQ model, though World of Warcraft is trying to make raiding fit the second model with their raid finder tool.

These models combined with how humans react to rewards accurately describes player behaviors in MMOs over the long term, and explains why casual players tend to be the happiest and hardcore players the most likely to burn out.  Someone who only plays an MMO for a couple of hours a week is unlikely to become inured to the reward structure as they get rewarded infrequently enough to not build up much resistance.  Compare that to a hardcore player who burns through two months worth of content in a week.  Not only is he or she now bored with nothing to do, the rewards they accumulated through the course of playing came so hard and fast that additional rewards will trigger almost no response in their brains.  At this point, they're either addicted and clamoring for another, bigger fix, or burned out and leave for a new game, or a new hobby entirely.

Is there a solution to this?  For MMOs, I'm not sure that there is.  The need to make the games essentially endless means that content needs to be designed a certain way, and excessive activation of reward mechanics is effectively in the hands of the player, the one thing the developer can't control.  A game that is perfectly balanced for someone who plays 10 hours a week could quickly bore someone who plays 50 hours a week.  It does suggest though, that the greatest potential for long term retention of players could be found by catering actively to the casual player.  The biggest issue is attracting the casual player to your game in the first place, as while the hardcore/burned out player will always try something new, the truly casual player is generally happy with what they've got.  Blizzard has clearly profited from this as the more casual World of Warcraft became the larger their subscriber base grew, and the fluctuations in their subscriber base can generally be attributed to the more active players leaving for new games and coming back again.

I think in the long run there will be two types of MMOs - casual MMOs, and niche MMOs.  World of Warcraft is very casual friendly, while EVE Online fits a very specific niche.  A generic fantasy MMO that is not casual friendly, however, probably doesn't have much long term potential.  I'll be interested to see how The Old Republic does in the long term, as the dialogue and cutscenes provide large amounts of feedback for small amounts of input, which suggests players should eventually reach the point where they become bored and skip through the dialog even if they haven't heard it before, but the game is also fairly casual friendly, and those players could consume the content at a slow enough pace that they don't reach the spacebar-spacebar-spacebar stage.  Time will tell.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article sir.
    I've never heard of this blog before, but I'm glad I stumbled onto it.