Greedy Goblin

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The theory of MMO Trade of Fun

The rule of entertainment industry is simple: you pay money, you get fun. You pay a ticket to see a movie or sport game, you buy a book or DVD and you enjoy these entertainment services. The video game industry isn't different: you pay the developer money and he gives you access to play the game.

So far, so good in case of single-player games. But what about MMOs? Why do developers do huge extra work to make the game playable in a common space instead of on several single-player instances? "Socializing is fun" is bad answer, otherwise Facebook could charge users. The "free" nature of Facebook is the clear proof that people are unwilling to pay money for internet socialization. They are ready to pay with their private data or their time though, but game developers can't really use that.

The multi-player aspect of MMOs indeed create special sources of fun. Take two pixel dragons. They have the same movement, shape and texture mask, their only difference is that one is blue and the other is red. For a non-player having access to ride these dragons are equally fun (or equally not). For a player the difference is huge: one of them is a baseline mount provided by questline everyone can complete, while the other drops from the hard mode of the endboss. That dragon is the ultimate proof of l33tness and those who have it are showing it off front of the bank of Stormwind. However there is a catch: the source of fun of that dragon is envy. The owner bathes in the feeling of being envied but other paying customers are feeling inferior. Same thing applies to PvP: "pwning n00bs" is considered awesome, but to do so, someone must be the "pwned n00b" and that someone is a paying customer too.

I had to play (and leave) WoW, had to get to the top10 in World of Tanks and leave it in disgust, had to gather 3 titans worth of pixel money in EVE in less than a year (and almost leave it several times) to figure out how these all connect with the above pwner-pwned situation. In MMOs the developer allow players to be co-entertainers, to sell other players fun for time or money. This isn't something that MMO developers know or plan, it often happens against their will (RMT) but still, this is what makes MMOs more successful than single-player games.

Grinding is a boring, not fun activity in a game. Single player games have no grinding, every part of the game is meant to be fun. Grinding was originally put to MMOs to give people something to do without developer resources used to create good content. However this clearly bad design should have failed. It didn't because grinding is the way that players can trade time for fun. Most MMO players are young, has lot of time but no money. The ability to pay not by money but by time for their fun is very important for them. Grinding creates rarity as you can't get the reward easily. Rare things (even if totally useless) are loved by social people. Those who pay for the reward (either to the developer or to other players) can get the reward without the grind. The point is that the same pixel item would not be fun if others wouldn't have to grind for it. Riding on your mount is fun because you see the non-payers on their foot.

This trade of fun probably more clear in World of Tanks which is totally play for free. You can fully experience every piece of game content without paying a penny. However if you are paying, you get your new tank equipped faster and you can buy gold ammo. This way you can enjoy pwning the non-payers in their sub-par tanks. You fund their gaming too, in turn they provide you extra fun by blowing up. Please note that the source of fun is not something the developer could provide. They could give you weak AI tanks to slaughter but that would be "meh grinding". It is the other player who sells you the fun of slaughtering. The deal is: you pay my subscription and I let you blow me up.

World of Warcraft has playing time trade too: the hardcore player uses more server and developer resources for the same payment. It seems that casuals subsidize HCs. However the truth is that HCs provide fun to casuals. To get the best gear one must get valor points that comes from running random content with random players boosting them. So the deal is: I pay your subscription, you boost me. Again, if developers just hand these items out, they would be no-fun baseline items. Their "fun-value" comes from the fact that it is out of reach of the casual, a raid full of "casuals" would wipe even on LFR, yet the casuals gets these rewards via boosting.

Diablo III is clear money for time trade: the "fun items" are very rare and farmed by time-rich people who sell them to the money-rich ones, while Blizzard takes its cut. The PLEX trade in EVE online has similar but smaller effect as you can't get money out of the system legally.

To have a successful MMO, the game content itself must provide enough fun to make the free players or grinders to keep playing. This point is trivial: better content is better. For example a free-to-play punchbag player of World of Tanks still prefers playing World of Tanks as a punchbag than not playing at all. If the game content is dull or the free players can't access any fun at all, they'll quit and then no one will provide fun to the paying ones. Many games fail at this point. EVE Online is on the edge, being a miner/missioner-punchbag is so bad experience that most people rather not play at all than play this way for free. World of Warcraft excels here with various single-player activities. Solo-WoW would probably be a pretty successful game and wouldn't be much less profitable than MMO-WoW.

The the value add of the same content being an MMO and not single player game depends only on the freedom of the market of fun between players. World of Tanks and EVE Online are near-perfect here, you can play and access any item completely free if you spend enough time being a pounchbag and you can get instant pwnage-fun if you pay enough. While solo-WoT and solo EVE would be horrible failures, MMO-WoT and MMO-EVE are pretty successful. WoW is failing on this point and give little value add by being MMO over solo game and every patch decreases the freedom of trade. Please note that the trade must be between players! When the developer showers One Rings to everyone who cares to log in, it devalues it. The item/highscore must remain rare and valuable, the point is to allow players to buy from each other.

The third important point is win-ablity. "Winning" in an MMO can be defined as accessing fun without paying for it either by time or money, while losing is when you pay/grind and still end up with boredom or grief. In the first two criteria the bigger is always better: better solo content and more free market always increases revenues. However with win-ability there is some golden middle. World of Tanks is on the one extreme, totally non-winnable. The team-balancing equation is so perfect that the only source of difference between the results of two players is paying/grinding. No matter how good you are in playing WoT, your winrate and kill-death will be pushed near the average. Having no chance to improve your results via playing chases competitive players away. EVE Online is on the other extreme, very winnable. My in-game ISK income is around $25/hour, while the after-tax average hourly wage of my country is $3, so you can't really sell me ISK. Similarly the easiness of small-ship PvP allows a skilled player to have "pwning" fun without either paying real money to the "victim class" or having to spend significant time as grinder (member of the victim class). Having no chance to improve your results via paying (either money or time) chases away mediocre players and most people are mediocre by definition.


maxim said...

Is it at all important to an MMO designer to have ways to "win" by your definition?

A paying person gives developer coin. A griding person serves to create the sense of community that the paying people can have transactions with (satisfying his envy, pride etc.)

What does the winner give?

Gevlon said...

This will be the post in Thursday.

The "winners" are not needed in all games. For example World of Tanks actively chase them away. However games with communities will need them as "celebrities" or "leaders". EVE wouldn't be the same without The Mittani.

Anonymous said...

WoT sounds very grindy to me!

Anonymous said...

Single player games have no grinding.

Yes, they do. Single-player RPGs always had plenty of grinding, from the "Peninsula of Power" in Final Fantasy I all the way to crafting thousands of daggers to get Smithing 100 in Skyrim. And yet, people willingly did (and still do) those things, even in the absence of peers to impress.

Likewise, giving cosmetic rewards for overcoming greater challenges is not something MMO-specific. If you beat Civilization on Emperor difficulty level, you'll get the same victory screen as someone who beat it on Settler, with the only difference being a couple of lines and a number. And yet, people were (and still are) willing to take on a greater challenge, even if did not involve 'pwning' others.

Clearly, some players have a non-social motivation to do grinds and optional challenges. (The origin and nature of this motivation is a separate topic). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that at least some of MMORPG players are driven by the same non-social motivation, and not by desire to inspire envy in others.

In other words, someone grinding his 60th Exalted rep in WoW might simply be the kind of player who would grind his 600th Murphy's Ghost kill in Wizardry. Someone doing hardmode raids instead of LFR might simply be the kind of player who'd go through Doom on Nightmare rather than I'm Too Young to Die.

Not everything is about e-peen.

Anonymous said...

Why do developers do huge extra work to make the game playable in a common space instead of on several single-player instances?

Because this means that each player can make a difference. Sometimes you need a group to do it. In many games, the raid mob respawns hours or days later, so that difference isn't really "making a difference." In Eve, or A Tale In The Desert, what you make (or destroy) has an effect on other people.

After playing Eve, I assure you that ATITD will bore you to tears as there is no combat. But if you want to study games and types of gamers, or make games, it is one of games I recommend to try out.

But in general, any game has to appeal to most of the Bartle Types in order to be even remotely successful. You can make a game that appeals to a single type (most FPS appeal to the "killer" archtype), but it will generally fail to interest the other types of gamers. Because it costs so much to develop a game these days, investors want the games they're funding to appeal to as wide an audience as practical. This tends to make for some areas of games that annoy other types of players. How many of the "killer" archetype in Eve like/enjoy mining (except as a source of targets)? How many industrialists enjoy PvP (except as a source of customers)?

SiderisAnon said...

You cannot compare MMO to Facebook for one simple reason: With Facebook and Twitter, the users are not the customers, they are the content.

The advertisers are clearly the customers.

Comparing an MMO to Facebook is like comparing people who pay to go see a movie at the theater to people who drive by an interesting looking billboard on the highway they drive on while going to hang out with their friends.