Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Players only care about their character progression

The most common form of causing an attribution error is to create circumstances where the other actor is forced to act one way, then explain his action by his own personality.

The most obvious example is the "players only care about their character progression", which is an easily disprovable nonsense. Try to imagine a marketing campaign to any computer game, focusing on "what players really want". Imagine the television or even internet trailer which contains nothing but a character interface where numbers are rolling up. Or try to imagine a direct marketer approaching a guy: "Good morning Sir, would you like to try out our game X? X is much better than any other games. You can get ilvl 9999 items faster in our game than in any other game, making sure that your character will always have top stats". Or rather imagine the face of the non-player who hears this nonsense.

Game trailers have no hint about character progression. They show majestic dragons and armies, epic battles and such. That's what players want, being part of something epic.

The "players care about their character progression" is a side-effect of the lousy early MMO design. Mobs are standing in one place or patrolling on a fixed path, respawning after a time if killed. In this environment you have nothing else changes than your own character. The player might want to save the starter village from quilboars. But after grinding them for an hour without any effect he gives up. He either quits the game considering it idiotic or focuses on its only changing aspect: his improving character.

Players don't read the quest texts because they are lies. The daughter of the farmer, kidnapped by cannibalistic trolls will not be eaten even if no "hero" comes around. She will just stand next to the pot and the allegedly murderous trolls till the end of times. Also, if all the players will focus on saving her, she will still find her way back to the trolls.

After creating a lousy game where no actions have any effect and players are forced to focus on their character or leave the game, the game developers observe the players and see that they are not reading quest texts, not seeking epic battles, ignore faction "war" and just improve their characters. So they design the new games or expansions that "streamline" questing and make raiding "accessible", to allow players focus on what they "want", progressing their characters.

So despite now the game developers have the tools to create engaging and epic games, they make even lousier games than they did when they had no tools. Ragefire chasm, the earliest dungeon a horde player entered in the 1.0 more than half decade ago is more complex than any of the 4.0 instances, which are linear, having no patrols and just mocks to get the loot in 20 mins. I don't even dare to mention BFD, Maraudon, Dire Maul or BRD.

Funnily the players jump on every possible way to play not improving their character. They gather vanity stuff, hold events. Even the lolkid who ganks for no reason is above the "ideal" player, who goes for character improvement. While I don't question that there are really pathetic morons who enjoy watching a number grow, they must be a tiny minority.

The reason why computer game subscription numbers are stagnating can easily be that all games are WoW clones in their main concept: you have no effect on the World, you just grind gear/stats. The amount of players who like, or even content with that very shallow gameplay is already reached.

I'm 100% sure that SWTOR won't get the wished 2M subscribers, nor any other WoW-clones. The next blockbuster game will be a PvE game (PvP is always a niche) where players have an effect on the World. Of course you should not think about single-player RPG effect where you are the hero, but rather where you are one soldier of the army. One player won't make much difference, but the coordinated effort of players could turn a zone upside down.

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

guild wars 2 in a few years perhaps.
then again it's probably too soon to say anything about it yet.
besides that, ultima online or any other sand box game gives the ability to influence the world. but they are niche products too.

Jason Starstone said...

Guild Wars 2 looks the most promising of the current crop of up-and-coming MMO's. But yeah, a bit soon to actually tell. I guess most companies (at least the ones making the big multi-million AAA games) play it "safe", and go for the next WoW clone. Not realising how tired that model of gameplay is getting.

Even roleplaying (as in "other things you can do in game") seems more quiet these days.

Was/is Ultima not a PvP game? Never actually played it.

Botter said...

Phasing.

The solution is phasing.

The place is a mess, kill the invaders, help the innocent, then watch the place in peace. You have made a difference.

Anonymous said...

One only needs to look at the success of Minecraft to see that there is demand for a game where the player can make changes to the world.

Such a game seems to be too open to griefing though.

If the actions of players could really change the world then the farmers daughter would be killed for lawls in the first five minutes, never to respawn and the landscape would quickly transform into a sea of phallic shaped monuments.

Steel said...

Thanks Gevlon, You've articulated many of the thoughs I've been having for a long time. The constant "streamlining" is cutting deep into game context and immersion. Starting with Cata (I started playing in Wrath 3.3), the "game" feels more and more thin (also, the fact that the main team moved to other projects is bleeding through every aspect of the game, but thats a different topic). I actually started questing on a 85 alt, in Northrend, and soon Outland - doing and reading every quest, playing at total leisure, with music soundtrack on... I crave some form immersion and connection. I flew through Shadowmoon Valley yesterday (almost never quested there), and flying over the Black Temple - the vast scale, the armies training over the teraces, the richness of artistic detail in every form - you surely don't get that in front of... Blackwing Descent entrance, or BoT, or anywhere in Cata pretty much. And then you go read the WoW Archivist column at joystiq.com, about the old Dire Maul, the open world events, the Onyxia chain and final event, and then there's The Gates of AQ... I'll stop here, before this turns into a chinese wall o'text.

Now, to give Blizz credit, I think Firelands is a step in the right direction. There is a proper lore questline where you meet characters, you EXPERIENCE a storyline, see history in flashbacks, all voice acted and stuff. I also get it that Ragnaros has a goal, a domain filled with minions, and a proper fortress, instead of just sitting on his ass on a platform in the sky staring at the clouds... Still I get the feeling that more could have been done, if the Ulduar crew was still around - you'd have had some proper 12 bosses, the keep would have been x times bigger and hold a full tier of boses, more fire stuff (an industrial wing with furnaces and goblins and fire dwarves - how cool is that, or a temple of flame, some council encounters, etc), and the molten front would have been bigger, and have more events and action going on (not necessarily more grinding stuff).

Anyway, some reading of the old times:
http://wow.joystiq.com/2011/06/14/wow-archivist-memories-of-dire-maul/
http://wow.joystiq.com/2011/04/19/wow-archivist-the-gates-of-ahnqiraj/

Grim said...

SWTOR is pushing the story part really hard, so atm I hope that it will make good on that. Bioware is good at stories. Perhaps even better than Blizzard used to be before WoW.
Also, voiced dialog is very important for immersion (for me anyway).

The problem with having a real impact on the world is the way popular games get deconstructed. Remember when WoW just launched? You went into RC with little to no idea what to expect. Now you see loot lists, read strats and watch kill videos before ever going near the new content.
Knowing exactly what everyone will do and what will change kills immersion and makes players care more about the technicalities (no not the "my number is bigger", but "i killed the hardest boss").

Not to mention that creating a game where a player can notice that he has some effect (if it takes 10k player to change something, they will not really feel like contributing anything meaningful to the world) and the game is still balanced and durable. Durable in the sense that a few resident nolifers on each server finish the story in 2 weeks, while the rest are barely out of the newbie zones.

Carson 63000 said...

I've always told anyone who cares to listen that a shrewd idea would be to try to glue a PvE MMO together with a city-building endgame, a la a medieval Sim City. Send the players out to grind money and raw materials to build bigger buildings for their guild town and I think you'll see some genuinely dedicated efforts. Then make them fight raid bosses that come stomping in to try to destroy it.

Azuriel said...

Do you even understand this genre? RPGs are defined by character progression. When a shooter claims to have "RPG elements" they mean experience points and/or upgrades like Bioshock's plasmids going from Rank 1 Flame to Rank 2 Flame. A game with a story and exploration but no character progression is an adventure game - in such games your skill at twitch reflexes and muscle memory replace the metered stats increases of RPGs.

Game trailers don't mention the character progression because that is implied by saying the game is an RPG. It would be like an advertisement for a Sushi place wasting space by mentioning they sell raw fish. Similarly, direct marketers don't advertise "leveling up is faster than any other game" because that is the same as advertising a game by saying "it only takes 15 minutes to beat." It misses the point. If your progression happens all at once, the time you put into it is devalued; it is the same reason why people bitch & moan about tier gear on the vendors.

The self-test here is simple. Just imagine you had BoA gear in every slot that automatically scaled all the way to 85 and there was nothing better. How long do you keep playing WoW? Until you finish all the quests? Until you clear all the raids? How many times? However epic the Deathwing fight may end up being, there is probably a zero percent chance it will epic the 2nd time you do it.

chewy said...

A very good post and I agree with the short comings of the current game as you've described them.

I think the difficulty with building a game where players directly influence the world is that it has to be able to account for and react to anything, which is infinitely difficult.

The developers could create an environment where there is a very minimal starting world but how do they design for what they don't know will happen from there ? You may have some ideas to address this problem.

Nin said...

I actually think that this is an accurate description of what the future MMOs will look like. Consider developments like Storybricks. Or this developer's thought process: http://www.eldergame.com/2011/08/npcs-as-systems-nexus/

Kurt said...

@Azuriel:

"Do you even understand this genre? RPGs are defined by character progression."

Do you even understand this language? The entire point of the article was why that is a bad thing. You're 3 or 4 steps behind, here.

"Game trailers don't mention the character progression because that is implied by saying the game is an RPG. It would be like an advertisement for a Sushi place wasting space by mentioning they sell raw fish."

I googled 5 Sushi commercials, they all consisted primarily of pictures/video of raw fish and descriptions of said fish. Do you even understand advertising?

"The self-test here is simple. Just imagine you had BoA gear in every slot that automatically scaled all the way to 85 and there was nothing better. How long do you keep playing WoW? "

You're missing the point completely. Your "self-test" tests nothing. Everyone agrees that WoW as currently constituted is about gear progression. The point is that people want something more. Your "self-test" doesn't test that idea. Do you even understand testing?

Fidtz said...

@Azuriel - RPGs are defined by character progression.

This a very sad point that should be made wrong again and why Gevlon's post is spot on.

It didn't used to be this way. Role Playing Games used to be defined by actually suspending disbelief and pretending to be the character you are playing, not necessarily the hero. Some world even came with resets so you could role-play again but as a more experienced player instead of a new player.

Getting a +1 sword was a big deal because you had probably earned it over many weeks. Your gear was not that important in your overall progression because the enjoyment of the game was not proportional to your characters raw power.

Obviously playing this way required players who are willing to play the game, not just process it.

Artavur said...

What about events such as the war effort for the Ahn'Qiraj gates or the progressive unlocking of the isle of ?
I believe players felt involved in these tasks and I personally wold love to see this concept come back.

Grim said...

Azuriel, RPG means Role Playing Game. Character power increases have become nearly ubiquitous in the genre, but they are not necessary at all.

There are PnP RPG systems that do not have character power increases and work great.

LARPGs with emphasis on WYSIWYG often do away with any levels and most (sometimes all) stats.

RPG elements is mostly a misnomer. Actual RPG elements are the ability to make meaningful choices.

Anonymous said...

I would love to get a group together and help the dwarfs push up the statue in sw....
Think the game needs more of things like the "war effort" but in all sorts of categorys. If this issent in the next "Titan" then i will be dissapointed.

Anonymous said...

Well, at least WoW has the AH the state of which is 100% defined by actions of players.

Anonymous said...

in regards to swtor: from what i've read, it's separated into 3 'chapters' like a trilogy of movies with epic finales etc.
the important part is that it seems like chapter 2 reflects your decisions from chapter 1. the trooper can side with a fraction and thus change the situation of a planet in the next chapter.

Tonus said...

I think that games promote character progression not as a statistic, but as an extension of the player and his experiences. For example, Blizzard won't say "slay this dragon, and you'll get an awesome spear with 350 attack power!" Instead, they'll say "slay this dragon and gain fame and glory and riches!"

Most games will promote that they are lots of fun, or that they allow you to immerse yourself in the role of the main character. If you look at the interaction your character has with NPCs, it is along the lines of how you are this great and epic hero.*

*I do agree that in WOW, this part tends to clash with what the player can see happening around him. When the NPC is saying that YOU are the great hero of the alliance/horde but you know that the person standing next to you also killed the latest boss (in fact, he did so three times already) it ruins the experience that the game is trying to present.

I would much rather that the game treated us as part of a much larger effort to battle the opposing side. But that might not sell very well to players at large. "Play World of Warcraft, where you can be another cog in the alliance war machine!"

Anonymous said...

I think the main problem with "players can really change the world" gameplay is that player time investment significantly changes how much effect you can have on the world.

So the player who only has, say, 4 hours a week that they can play will end up finding the world dominated by the actions of the players who are prepared to devote 40+ hours a week to the game. And the 4 hour players will get discouraged and stop playing.

You can see this now. There are MMOs out there where the players can influence the game world significantly. But they remain niche games because only a small hardcore player base who can devote long hours to the game stick with it.

Maybe there's a clever trick to get around this issue. But that's the main problem with "player can change the world games": how do you keep the 40+ hour guy from feeling like he's wasting his time, yet still allow the 4 hour guy to feel like he's making a difference in the world.

Jumina said...

In Warhammer players could change the world by capturing zones and moving the front from zone to zone. Yet this did not work. As soon as it was possible to obtain a reward (marks tradeable for gear) just by standing in the zone camp when the zone was captured lot of people were just standing there waiting and doing nothing.

I think you underestimate the players need for a character progression. And you also overestimate the possibilities to create changing world. The technology is not so good and to create zones and animations is extremely demanding for human resources.

There is many single player games where you can change the world and live the story but the most successfull ones have the element where you can shape you characters abilities and skills. Players simply want to fight with their characters and improve them over time.

Kurt said...

@ Jumina:

"In Warhammer players could change the world by capturing zones and moving the front from zone to zone. Yet this did not work."

Moving the front from zone to zone doesn't sound very interesting. Was there any reason to care which zone the front was in? If not, this is an irrelevant example. You might as well say "the players could change the world by influencing whether the BG NPCs are called widgets or widgots." Uninteresting.


"As soon as it was possible to obtain a reward (marks tradeable for gear) just by standing in the zone camp when the zone was captured lot of people were just standing there waiting and doing nothing."

When a game as marketed as a PVP game, and the gear is tiered and nondegradable, people see the best gear possible as the requirement. Again, this is not surprising, and not all that relevant.

Anonymous said...

In response to one of your last comments that PVP is always a niche, I feel that this is only true in MMO's thus far. People love PVP games, this is shown in the success of games like Halo, COD and Team Fortress. I feel their really is a market for a PVP based MMO, but because developers focus on PVP only as a niche it is always extremely flawed (as in WoW). Creating a game that does not benefit players in the proper ways to allow for sustained interest and progression.

I feel that if MMO's took the model used by popular console FPS's and made it a much larger focus of the game then it could become widely successful.

Anonymous said...

From the start, WoW has always had a static world where the mobs respawn. Real change was always the exception. Quests have always been a lie. Farming resistance gear made progression raiding possible in vanilla. And yet the game was fun and engaging despite this "lousy" design.

RFC wasn't/isn't more complex than many of the 4.0 instances. Stonecore and Grim Batol are linear but Throne of Tides, Halls of Origination and Lost City all involve backtracking to clear. If you want to claim that you can reach the end linearly, skipping the rest, you can say the same about RFC and many other instances.

Each of the Cata instances have mechanics that are interesting if you don't massively outgear them. They were challenging and fun at first; Blizzard did a good job with them. Persistent change might or might not be what kills WoW but it became the king of MMOs with that shallow game design. The problem with the level 85 instances, as with any end-game content, is over-exposure. There just isn't enough variety in content or mechanics to hold interest over months and months of grinding them. It's the same with WoW as a whole: there isn't enough variety in the game to hold interest over years and years of play. After a while, it all seems like the same old grind but that's not a fault of deciding to rely on respawning mobs v.s. persistent change; it would be the same no matter how the game worked. Play any game obsessively for 5 years and any design will seem tired and old.

Anonymous said...

Good post. Choices are always a good thing in game design, and lately the choices are becoming less and less. For example: you have 2 choices of dungeons to run: ZA / ZG. Linearity in questing as well as dungeon layout is not a good thing. Sure, it's easy enough because you cannot do anything wrong - but another part of fundamental game design is then missing: danger.

Grim said...

@Anonymous
A good game can last way longer than 5 years of obsessive play. Counter Strike, Starcraft and DotA are all examples of that.

Note the common thing though - they are all PvP games. They lived that long with minimal content updates because they are basically sports.

People can regularly play basketball or football their whole lives without becoming bored - a computer game just have to capture the same simplicity of concept and possibility of depth and skill in execution and a competitive scene will form that will egg itself on until something else comes along.

Note that none of my examples just died out because people lost interest.
CS is almost replaced by CoD, Starcraft by Starcraft 2, DotA created a whole genre pretty much just to do away with limitations imposed by Warcraft 3. If the alternatives had never come along, those people would still be playing CS 1.5, Starcraft 1 and some DotA version respectively.

Hagu said...

EVE Online is about the closest thing at the moment. So many great ideas, but the PvP and griefing focus keep it very much a niche game. Someone recently scammed players out of $51,000 worth of in game currency (88,000 days of game time) which quite obviously changed the world.

Sandbox games scale better as well since the users and their actions help define your experience instead of waiting for Tier 13 to be released.

Yes to the idea of the WoW AH as user driven content.

No to phasing where my alts and friends all see s different world than I do; might as well play single user games.

Azuriel said...

Do you even understand this language? The entire point of the article was why that is a bad thing. You're 3 or 4 steps behind, here.

I am "3 or 4 steps behind" because the steps Gevlon skipped over are factually incorrect premises. For example, he attributes "players care about character progression" as a side-effect of early MMO design, in apparent defiance of 25+ years of single-player RPG design. Did all of those designer's get it wrong too? Diablo 3 will sell millions of boxes in the next year damn near entirely based on cheesing the Skinner Box reaction of character progression via gear. The gameplay/story will undoubtedly be entertaining too, but see how long that game would last without gear bursting from every corpse. Hell, what purpose is the RMAH (or an AH at all) if not for that?

I would actually agree with Gevlon that Blizzard has clearly been using gear progression as a crutch too hard lately to hide the talent drain of their other properties (e.g. best designers are working on Titan, etc). What I won't agree with is the assertion that "designers have the tools to build engaging and epic [MMOs]." They technically can build such things (in single-player games), but they cannot build them to last how long a MMO has to last justify the expense. People skip quest text not because "it's lies," but because the quest is boring. The quest isn't boring because what you do doesn't have a permanent effect (killing rats isn't exciting just because the rats stay dead forever); it is boring because you don't do/see something exciting. Blizzard proved they can make questlines like Wrathgate or DK starting area or [insert your favorite questline here]. But they cannot possibly make 100% of the quests epic like that - it would take absurd, unprofitable amounts of development time.

And even if they did make every single quest an epic tear-jerker... what then? You play through them all, hit level cap, unsub, go play another game.

P.S. Laying the blame on sub number stagnation across the entire genre on WoW-clones is asinine. Stat sites like MMOData show stagnation, but they do not show FP2 games like League of Legends, World of Tanks, (etc) which compete with the subscription MMO market. And guess what? Both games have heavy character/gear progression aspects.

WorldofBlizzard said...

As others have stated I believe the answer is phasing. Brill is burning down? Quick dowse the flames with water and see the town saved and buildings salvaged. If you don't, the town burns down permanently and you are unable to complete quests there. Although this may cause problems for players who skip quests and are unable to go back and do them. I think there could be some work around's created such as a phase reset or the like.

----------------------------------------------
My Blog: http://world-of-blizzard.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

You sir are describing guildwars 2. Except the pvp part, guildwars 2 pvp looks really solid.

Jumina said...

@Kurt

In Warhammer you could move the front all the way to the capital city and atack it. This was the ultimate goal. I would definitely call it the possibility to change the world (or war at least).

Players could get their five marks for capturing the zone by:

1) Fighting in the zone and keeping their objectives
2) Standing in the zone camp where no enemy could get

Guess which way players choosed.

Kurt said...

@azuriel: I'm sorry, but your response to misunderstanding the argument is to invent 3-4 completely false statements and insert them into the debate, then exclaim "Oh no, look at these false statements."

There's no reasonable response to make but to inform you that you have completely misunderstood everything that you have read. Everything that you have written is nonsense.

Single player games actually support Gevlon's argument perfectly. When people talk about them years later, they mention which ones were epic or had a great story. No one brags about how progressed their characters were, that would come off as missing the point. Why did those single player rpgs have character progression? Why does the standard heroic myth involve character progression? Perhaps because people learn skills in real life in a progressive fashion. The skinner box reaction to beating a new boss is much more powerful than for getting a piece of loot, just like the skinner box reaction to learning some difficult task in real life is much more powerful than getting a candy bar. Unless one is often hungry, of course, but there's no need to break out Maslow's hierarchy to debunk your faulty understanding of video games, is there?

"Diablo 3 will sell millions of boxes in the next year damn near entirely based on cheesing the Skinner Box reaction of character progression via gear."

If it's so easy, then you do it too. I expect you to do so in the next 3 months, or you will be revealed as a fraud.

People skip quest text not because "it's lies," but because the quest is boring. The quest isn't boring because what you do doesn't have a permanent effect (killing rats isn't exciting just because the rats stay dead forever); it is boring because you don't do/see something exciting. Blizzard proved they can make questlines like Wrathgate or DK starting area or [insert your favorite questline here]."

The Wrathgate was the most boring questline I've ever seen. If that's something you think games should aspire to, then you are a lost cause, sir. I know that for me, I skip quest text because it's lies. I wish you an eternity of what you consider gaming heaven, following behind giant NPC's, watching them battle endless hordes of enemies in a predetermined and repetitive script, all the while exclaiming how epic this is. May God have mercy on your soul.

Kurt said...

@jumina:

"
In Warhammer you could move the front all the way to the capital city and atack it. This was the ultimate goal. I would definitely call it the possibility to change the world (or war at least)."

If you successfully attacked that capital city, could players no longer create characters of that race? Or did it reset back to the default position, with absolutely nothing changed?

Still, even a small temporary change is farther along than no change possible at all. Still, like I said before, the post was explicitly not about pvp games, something Azuriel also missed with his references to WoT and LoL, so you're still off target.

Jumina said...

@Kurt

"If you successfully attacked that capital city, could players no longer create characters of that race? Or did it reset back to the default position, with absolutely nothing changed?"

Nice idea, it proves nobody has solution how to "change the world" and not to destroy it during the process.

To say I am off target by pointing out the Warhammer is about PvP just says you do not want to adress my main argument.

Players simply want characters progression. They want new gear, they want their character "became stronger". And many are ready even to abandon the playing if they can get it this way.

Blizzard grasped this idea and introduced achievments. And its funny how many players visit old raids just to get those useless points.

Anonymous said...

Simple solution:
refugee camp somewhere else where people spawn while capital is under foreign control

though in reality noone will code such content as it costs too much time with little reward as you need to provide content for everyone
and the time this would cost could always spend better with content that everyone can experience

Anonymous said...

Affect the World?
ArcheAge Online.
Guild Wars 2 too, though it's a bit scripted, but if scripted right you won't notice it.
ArcheAge now you have an actual real effect on the world.
So those two games.

To the one saying RPGs are defined by Character progression... well that is one of the major aspects of RPGs but it is not what DEFINES IT. A changing world that you have an effect on is JUST as if not more important. You can't leave one off, both have to be in the mix.

Lise said...

Yes, "those two games" - BRILLIANT! Let's list two games in alpha or beta currently as the two games that do what you ask for sure, because they're released and have been tested and have delivered on promises. *sigh*

There have been (small, niche) MMOs which involved world building/community collaboration for nearly everything build and done, but they have other problems and didn't exactly fit the "rpg" genre.

Something like DAoC's RvR (or RvRvR) that is completely PvE (plays against one or more AI factions/cities/etc) with legit choices acted out, resulting in actual differences between servers due to community choices or actions taken would probably be along the lines of what this post was thinking of, I bet. Less small scale choices and more community/world wide changes.

Do quest path X vs Y vs Z up to a certain point, and they're exclusive, and that casts your characters 'vote' in some large scale server wide event (which players can take part in - and reverse or rebuild or reform if power swings the other way). Alternatively and/or in addition, some sort of community collaborative structures, or modular main cities with player named roads, etc. - make each server unique.

Aryss said...

Please stop focusing on themepark MMORPGs.

Anyone ever played Minecraft? BUILD your own house. Village. Town. World. Be scared of night, as creatures come to you and eat you alive in the night. Hundreds of addons allow the owner of server (realm, heh) to shape the rules of the world to his/her own needs.

It's you who create the world in Minecraft, not some cold distant company.

Maybe that's the reason why the game has already over 1 mil buyers, in beta version...

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