[Solving the Content Problem] Enter Sandbox

sandbox

andrewmalone @ flickr

This is the second in a series of posts about various attempts to solve ‘the content problem’ in MMOs.

A Sandbox MMO is a game where the devs create the gameworld/ sandbox, and then players jump in and do pretty much whatever they want with the tools they are given. It’s a very different style from the more guided themepark MMO where the game encourages people to play in a more directed way. Sandbox MMOs seem to be coming back into vogue, partly because of the content problem. EQ Next and Pathfinder are among two upcoming games which adhere to this design.

If we imagine a continuum between MMOs as virtual worlds/simulations and MMOs as games, then the sandbox falls squarely in the virtual world side of the equation.

A true sandbox game would have no NPCs at all, those roles would all be filled by players. So if players decided they wanted to give out quests, then you could have a quest based game. There would be no NPC vendors, you’d have to buy items from other players. If players decided that they wanted to PvP, you could have a PvP based game. But also, if players decided they wanted minimal PvP, to patrol the game with hardcore roaming bands of judges, and to implement their own system of crime and punishment to ‘punish’ PvPers (however they could do this within the bounds of the game) , then it could pretty much be a non PvP game. Different groups of players could run their own ‘mini states’ within the game.

Read that last paragraph and think about the possibilities.

In practice, game design pushes players strongly towards different sandbox playstyles. A game like EVE in which player corps can hold territory and gain economic advantage from doing so is going to encourage corps vs corps PvP, at least until the holding corps/alliances get so large and assertive that no one dares attack.

The way a sandbox game tackles the content problem is by encouraging players to create content for each other. (By content, I mean goals, organisations to join/oppose, and just ‘stuff to do’ in general.)

You may be thinking “but we have player run events and organisations in WoW too” which is true. Most MMOs have some sandbox elements, and it’s a core feature of the genre. But an actual sandbox game is going to have a different kind of feel for players, with more pressure on bored players to make their own amusement rather than waiting for the next patch.

Also, in a sandbox game, things in the game can change radically between one logon and the next depending on what player organisations have done in the meantime. You can’t plan your gameplay around dailies or raid lockouts, or you can try but other player actions might affect everything. It’s not actually necessary for a sandbox game to feature PvP, A Tale in the Desert is an example of a game that doesn’t do this. However, when devs talk about sandbox games, they often have PvP in mind.

Good Sides to the Sandbox

  • Sandbox games can have an incredible sense of meaningfulness and depth. Everything that happens, many of the things that exist in the game world,  are because another player/s caused it. Because of this, they attract a very invested fanbase.
  • In particular, they can offer a meaningful sense for PvP.
  • Sandbox games offer a lot of power to players, in terms of being able to direct and influence the game world.
  • Sandbox games encourage social play, you can simply accomplish more as part of a group than you can alone.
  • There is huge freedom in a true sandbox game for players to pick their own roles, playstyle, and goals. If you want to set up an in game business delivering in-game food to player groups in far off locations, you could do it. If you wanted to specialise in helping other player businesses advertise their goods and services, you could do that. If instead you want to be an adventurer and go fight dragons, you can do that. If you want to be a crafter, you could do that. None of these roles is more important than any other. There is no ‘right way’ to play a sandbox. However, you probably can’t do all of those things and will have to choose.
  • The ideal of the sandbox involves actual in game player run communities. Probably Second Life illustrates this better than EVE, simply by being a more diverse environment.
  • Sandbox games typically place a high value on player crafting as a way to let players a) drive the economy and b) contribute creatively.

Downsides to the Sandbox

  • Sandbox games need a certain amount of active players to really work (the actual number varies depending on the type of game and how it is designed). If the playerbase falls below this number, the sandbox pretty much fails.
  • Sandboxes are not always good simulations. This is for many reasons including 24/7 access (what does it mean if players from another timezone can wander in and destroy what you have built up while you and your guild are asleep?) and players in general finding it easier and more fun to cause havoc than try to keep the peace.
  • But a more focussed sandbox game (or a more varied one like Second Life) could try gatekeep for players who are already in agreement with the themes of the sandbox. For example, if someone wanted to run a sandbox based on RP in 18th century Paris, and monitored new players to check there were on board with that, you could probably minimise the griefers.
  • Sandbox games can be quite socially unstable, because they’re dependent on players. They don’t have the checks and balances that a themepark game does to keep the game fun for everyone. They are particularly subject to griefers.
  • On the other hand, Sandbox games can be socially way too stable. If a PvP game settles into a state where large player organisations own all the land and have minimal motivation to PvP, then a PvP minded player could find themselves with nothing to do.
  • Similarly, you can spend hours sitting around in game waiting for something to happen. Sandbox games can be very dull.
  • This all means that Sandbox games are tricky to set up and run.
  • Sandbox games are really susceptible to accusations of devs getting personally involved and tweaking things to favour their own characters. I don’t entirely know why this is but we used to see it a lot on MU*s too.

Mark Jacobs to kickstart Camelot Unchained

HolyGrail034

Well, that’s a turnup for the books. Read the press release here. I’m sure there will be a press blitz shortly.

The core concept for the new MMORPG focuses tightly on three key elements, RvR, housing and a true player-owned economy.

“We believe there’s a small yet viable audience of fans who are very keen to play this type of MMORPG,” stated Mark Jacobs. “However, tightly focused niche games don’t necessarily hold great appeal for traditional publishers who are looking toward the mass market. We see Kickstarter as the best way to reach out directly to the people who will actually play our game for help in funding its creation.”

Also, no one is counting but that means at least one of my annual predictions for 2013 is actually going to be true! Win.

[Links] Gaming news: Sony due to reveal next gen playstation in Feb, Hartsman leaves Trion, gPotato gets sold to company with less daft name

My aim with the links posts this year is to separate out gaming news (which I’ll post about once a month) from links to other gaming blogs or links that caught my eye. So this is a news focussed post, with some blog posts to illustrate how bloggers have reacted to some of the games/news! Feel free to send or tweet me links to interesting gaming related news for inclusion in future posts.

playstation

seanmasn @ flickr

The biggest gaming news of January is that Sony are implying that they are going to reveal the next Playstation on February 20th. This is big for obvious reasons, we’re at the end of a console cycle and games companies turning in poor figures have been blaming them on the console cycle for most of last year. There have also been rumours that Microsoft also plan to announce their next generation console  this year, so expect to see a lot of gaming press on the issue.

Sony posted a trailer on their blog which ended with the date: February 20th, 2013. The Wall Street Journal discusses the new console in context of the ailing video game market (I hesitate to say ailing, maybe changing would be closer to the truth.)

Gala Net (aka gPotato portals), publishers of Allods amongst other F2P titles, has been bought by Webzen, another F2P publisher. Take this as another date point on the “maybe F2P isn’t the answer for MMOs” graph. It seems from the financials that Gala Net had been well into the red for all of last year.

Wizardry Online, a new F2P MMO noted largely for a hardcore death penalty, released this month. When you are marketing your game as “the most hardcore fantasy MMO ever created”, it is a fair bet that you are aiming at a fairly specific audience. Still, Dark Souls sold well on a “this game is really hard and unforgiving” tagline so  the players are out there. Stropp gives his first impressions of the game:

The game promises a hardcore level of difficulty, and yep it is hard. Nearly every modern MMORPG tries to insulate its new and low level players from death. You’d have to be playing pretty badly to die to a mob under level 20 in WoW, even a mob 2 levels above player level. In WO, I died a few times early on.

Brian Reynolds resigned from Zynga, where he held the post of Chief Game Designer. It’s another very high profile flight from Zynga, which has been bleeding senior executives over the last few months. He wrote a blog post for GamesBeat talking about the decision to leave and what he plans to do next. And it sounds as though what he plans to do next involves starting a new game studio, this could be very good news indeed for strategy fans (as long as they don’t hold shares in Zynga).

I want to experiment more than might be appropriate for a publicly traded company, and I might want to do something that would be “off strategy” for Zynga or otherwise too risky. ((…))  I suspect that “starting a little studio with a few wingmen” — for the fourth time in my career — is likely to be on the menu.

CCP is working hard on getting Dust 514 ready for release. The game, which will be F2P for PS3 only,  is in beta at the moment. MMO Melting Pot sums up some bloggers’ thoughts on the beta and none of the people they quote actually like the game or seemed inclined to want to play it on release. That could be really bad news for CCP, these are people who were already invested in the genre and probably also play EVE and have Playstations: ie. their target audience. Stabs has some nicer things to say about the game. I predict that we’ll get to know how Dust is faring in the market by how keen CCP is to add more cash spending ‘opportunities’ to their cashcow, EVE later in the year.

Scott Hartsman announced that he is leaving Trion Worlds, where he has been the executive producer on Rift. I think this came as a surprise to observers and players, especially as the influence he has had on Rift has been so widely praised. Two questions left to answer are “How will this affect Rift?” and “What is Hartsman planning to do next?” Rift bloggers ponder whether his departure clears the way for a transition to F2P for the game, although the devs haven’t made any formal announcements to that end. I also wonder quite how financially successful Rift has actually been with its current model, a lot of bloggers have been keen to give it as an example that subscriptions can still work in the current market. But what if the financials aren’t actually in that great a shape?

Trion also have their hands full with releasing ArcheAge (F2P fantasy MMO) later this year, and Warface (a F2P MMOish shooter) as well. Not to mention Defiance (multi platform shooter MMO, that will tie in with a Syfy TV series).

Jay Wilson (Diablo 3 lead designer) has moved on to another role within Blizzard. Posters on the official forum have been so arsey about the poor guy that Rob Pardo commented on the thread, defending him. I quite enjoyed Diablo 3 and have no regrets about buying and playing, it’s not going to be my go-to game for the next three years (in fact I dunno if it will be my go-to game ever) but I’m interested enough to pick up the inevitable expansion at some point. Wilson is very low down on the list of game designers I’d like to have a quiet word with. Tipa has had at least 230 hours of entertainment from the game and it sounds as though she isn’t done yet.

Even though we played this game for half a year, it didn’t overstay its welcome. It’s time to move on while we’re still having fun with the game. I don’t think it will be leaving any of our hard drives any time soon.

Gas Powered games set off a new kickstarter for Wildman, an action RPG and then announced a few days later that they were sacking most of their development team in a round of layoffs, leaving people to wonder exactly who was going to make this new game if it did get funded. Unsubject, as usual, does a great evidence based takedown of Gas Powered, and notes that the state of the company’s financies is the sort of risk that investors should have been told about in advance. I doubt the game is going to reach its target, but it’s worth noting as an example to kickstarter funders of caveat emptor.

Leigh Alexander writes about the kickstarter fad for gaming, and wonders whether letting your fans be your publisher is a good idea. She has a point, we know how ‘reasonable’ fans can be when a game doesn’t meet their expectations.

Curt Schilling is selling one of his socks to raise funds to pay debts owing due to the failure of Amalur. Apparently it’s expected to fetch at least $100k. Who knows what he might have earned if he’d sold the other one too.

Bioware announced that planet Makeb, star of the next paid DLC for SWTOR  (I hesitate to say expansion) will feature same sex relationships. Naturally the non-gaming media siezed on this to report on the gay planet. Whilst it would be way preferable to adjust all the existing in game content to include same sex relationships, it’s easy enough to see that this is a) a cheaper way and b) probably technically easier than altering all the existing romances to include same sex options. I understand the criticisms but if it’s this or nothing, surely this is better.

Anna Anthropy also released an adventure called Hunt for the Gay Planet as a commentary. It’s probably NSFW.

Tera, a MMO known mainly for the decent combat and lasciviously clad characters, has gone F2P – it’s nine months after launch, if anyone is counting. j3w3l argues the case for why you should give it a go. Keen has some issues with the spin on their announcement (but really, can you imagine a dev ever saying “we’re going F2P because we suck”?)

Obviously they have to somehow make the best out of a situation where they change or die.  Just don’t believe for a second that they’re changing because things are going really well for them.

zomboobies

Racing ahead of the pack for “most tasteless special edition of the year” are Deep Silver for the bloodied female torso (with perky boobs) model they are giving away with preorders for Dead Island Riptide.  Conveniently Placed Exhaust Port is not impressed (nor is anyone else, to be honest, even people who like schlock horror.) I’m not even going to start on the sexism angle.

What Deep Silver has done here goes far beyond just creating something horrible. Lots of people have done that (there’s a sequel to The Human Centipede.) I’m sure somewhere out there is an entire line of photo-realistic busts of bloody nude torsos that enthusiasts of such things can fawn over. No, what Deep Silver has done is so much worse. It made such a thing and then, with a wink and a nudge, said “Dude, you’d love this.”

Solving the content problem: where have all the MMO players gone (longterm passing?)

“Mom, did Grandpa serve in the war?” ” No honey, he played World of Warcraft for 10 years.”

– UrbanGimli, “it’ll never be the same thread” on reddit

I’ve seen a lot of talk over the past few months about the content problem in MMOs, and how current devs hope to solve it.

This is going to be one of a series of posts looking at the issue and at some proposed solutions (which will include sandboxes, adding subgames for different playstyles,  blending mobile and fixed gaming, livening up the grind, events, giving players a stake in the world, harnessing player creativity, RP MMOs, and the game as a social network.)

What it is not is about how WoW is declining, because I’m not honestly sure that it is.

What is “the content problem” in MMOs?

  • It is when players work through content faster than developers can keep up with them.
  • It is when a game can’t seem to entice new players to stick around and form a longterm community, instead of moving on en masse when they’re done with the content.
  • It is when the sandbox content that exists seems to drive away more people than it attracts, due to griefing. And player generated content gets optimised quickly for maximal xp/exploiting/ dick pictures.
  • It is when all the methods that seem to have worked in the past to attract players to a game and make it sticky for them don’t seem to work any more.

So there’s an underlying assumption that MMOs, being permanent virtual worlds, should be attracting players who want a permanent presence. An onine ‘home’ if you like. They should be fundamentally different from single player games which you play through and then set aside.  Or play through, set aside, and come back when the next DLC is released.

There is also an implication that a successful MMO should have an in game (and out of game) community associated with it. These might be formal organisations like guilds or raid groups, or loosely associated groups who PvP with each other, keep the in game economy rolling, and create content for each other. Also bloggers and addon writers,  forum communities on fansites, groups on Facebook, and whatever other social media is hot at the moment. All of these player associations are assumed to be fairly stable for the longterm; a guild which breaks up after a month isn’t really a functional guild for example. A blogger who writes a couple of posts and then goes dark isn’t really helping the in game community establish itself either.

Or to put this another way, many commenters and longterm players feel that an MMO should be greater than its content. There is a virtual world and community involved, after all. This is important because if there’s a bad patch, then players will keep playing until the next one (at least) if the game is greater than its content.

As with all things gamery, people tend to assume that the standard ways of playing 2-3 years ago are some kind of writ-in-stone baseline to which all future gamers should adhere. But maybe, just maybe, the reason early MMO players liked to treat the games as their virtual home and build strong communities was just a part of the era. We know the internet has been great at bringing together communities of interest who might not otherwise meet. MMOs were how a lot of RPG computer gamers first met other hobbyists. Also, gamers at the time were early(ish) internet adopters and tended to come from similar geeky backgrounds, and be of similar ages. Maybe they just tended to have more in common.

What if today’s players aren’t interested in making that sort of commitment?

So how do people play MMOs now?

  • World of Warcraft – No one plays anymore
  • SWotOR – They only played for about a month
  • (insert countless other online games here)
  • Minecraft – Everyone built their cool house and left

The only things that most social groups I find want to play anymore are the simple, repetitive, FPS games like Team Fortress or other games like League of Legends.

thadrine, rpg.net

So what’s a typical gaming evening? Maybe it involves hanging out on voice chat with some other gamers who  met (and got on with) via different games, blogs, RL, mutual friends and social media. There will be smutty jokes, chat about people’s work and families, and at some point a bit of negotiation about what games people feel like playing tonight. Torchlight 2? Don’t mind if I do.

The space in which a lot of my gaming friends move is that of a loose cloud of people who play a portfolio of current and old games. There may be some regular ‘game nights’ or they might decide jointly what to play based on who is around, or people might just talk on voice chat while playing various different (including single player) games and not be playing together in-game at all. The community isn’t tied to a game, although people will tend to enjoy trying betas and new games out together and forming an in game guild to do so. They probably aren’t motivated to recruit in game, although might do if they run into someone who might fit in well. There may be some light raiding, although by the time you get that far, other players in the group will be itching to move to a different game.

I’m also in a couple of more established guilds, like my WoW guild which we started on Day 1 (the day the EU servers first went live). Over time, we’ve settled into something more than just a guild, but that is very clearly based around a specific game. Sometimes groups of people do play other games but they never have seemed to really ‘take’ longterm.

So I’m going to extrapolate wildly from my own experience and say there are two main forms of player community going on at the moment. The oldschool guild/community which does emphasise commitment to a game, and the newer social group which assumes that most players will not settle in a game for more than  few months at most.

I suspect that the newer group is growing more quickly. Why? Well, have you tried recently to find a good oldschool guild in your game of choice? If you have done so successfully then well done. It was never easy at the best of times, and I suspect it’s even harder now unless you network really hard. It’s tough because ideally you want a match for your playing style, timezone, gaming interests, social culture, and one that has room for your class/spec of choice. Plus they have to be longterm gamers. And once you have found them, they will expect a regular commitment. After all, that’s what you joined for.

It’s likely easier to find a solid guild in a game that is over six months old – that’s long enough for the more transient guilds to have broken up or stopped recruiting. Which is another way of saying that if you (as a player) have a longterm mindset, then the longer you play your game of choice, the more likely you are to find other players/ guilds with that mindset.

The newer type of more transient community is more like an extended friends network, and they are much less demanding in some ways. It’s unlikely that there will be an onerous application process. But also no guarantee that anyone in the group will want to play the game and/or content you’re currently jonesing for either. Although they’re probably open to persuasion.  You might also find group members are part of longterm guilds in at least one of the games they play, which will help you find a guild like that if you end up really enamoured of that game and wanting to commit to it.

The notion that we are growing communities of ‘play the content, then move on’ gamers has got to be worrying for MMO designers. It used to be the case that enticing existing guilds to your beta was a really good way to jumpstart an in-game community. These days, if you attract a transient guild, it will be great for your initial numbers but when they’re bored (in a month or two), they will probably all move on together. It’s harsh being a member of a group like this when the rest of the group wants to move on before you do, or if something comes up iRL so you fall behind the rest in levels in whatever game they’re into at the moment  – but you can always find another in game guild, right? If there is one.

Only 24 hours in a day

In WoW, I remember making friends with strangers. I easily met a lot of people in vanilla going through lowbie instances while levelling, 40man raids, then doing tons of Heroic runs in BC and Kara raids. Those were really good times coz you could just sit around Orgrimmar/Shattrath City and chat with your guildies/friends. I don’t know the state of WoW nowadays, but in newer MMOs, I just can’t seem to be able to do this anymore.

Klat93, reddit

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and obviously this is a rose tinted memory, but there are a lot more MMOs out there now to compete for players’ time than there used to be. There are also a lot more multiplayer games which you can play while chatting to your existing friends, rather than always having to go in blind and make new ones.

I think that for a lot of more experienced players, however much they might have enjoyed the social side of MMOs, they didn’t want to keep repeating the newbie social experience over and over again. It’s hard work, making friends with strangers. Plus they now had already met other gamers who they wanted to play with in newer games as well as the old one. And once you have a taste for achievement, it’s hard to go back and be an ignorant newbie. Also, hanging out and meeting people is very time consuming, and there are only 24 hours in a day.

As it happens ‘time consuming activities’ are one of the solutions to the content problem. An MMO that could encourage players to relive the whole ‘hanging out in Orgrimmar and chatting with guildies’ or ‘making friends with strangers’ behaviour would probably be great at retaining players. It just isn’t great gameplay – in fact, if you are able to hang out and chat with your guildies while playing a game, there probably isn’t much else going on at the time. (I’ll come back to the great gameplay concept later, because just as a good MMO is greater than its content, it may also be greater than its gameplay.)

But the baseline is that communities of players who drift together from game to game are very well suited to a lot of players. You get most of the social upsides of multiplayer/MMO gaming with less of the boring grind/endgame. But when the more vocal members get bored and move on, the rest probably follow.

  • So maybe if new games want to build their own longterm core player base, the best place to start is NOT with existing guilds.
  • And many players simply aren’t interested in committing longterm to a single game. In the past they didn’t have as many choices as they do now.
  • And the million dollar question: how do new players who might want to play a game longterm link in with the in game community?

It came from the PUG

My experiences in random instances and raids in WoW has been pretty positive recently. I’ve been in groups with some people who weren’t good players but haven’t seen any of the type of bad behaviour that makes for amusing blog posts. That’s a good thing, although sad for the blog posts.

Still, here are a couple of PUG stories.

Suddenly, RP

wow_redshirt

The instance is “Gate of the Setting Sun”, set on a wall-top garrison that is under siege by the mantid hordes. My group had been competent but silent, making our way through the various trash and boss spawns in a business like way.

Then we get to the section (shown above) where the soldiers are trying to fight through enemy ranks so that they can light a signal fire to raise the alert.  One NPC offers to try to run the gauntlet.

Suddenly one of my group pipes up on group chat: He was going to retire in two weeks time

Another player adds: And his girlfriend is pregnant

Then someone else adds: they just got engaged to be married

And that was it for group communication for the whole of the instance. I like to think everyone found it as engaging as I did.

Apparently anti-magic shield prevents magic

In another group, LFR this time, I was healing in a fight where there are a lot of enemies, and several of the mobs can  buff all the NPC to make them do more damage (Wind Lord Mel’jarak). So it’s down to healers (and anyone else) to debuff them, and priests have an AE debuff which makes them quite handy in this fight.

Anyhow, after the first wipe, the tanks were complaining about lazy priests because the debuff hadn’t been dispelled. I thought this was odd because I knew I’d been casting it and seen it not taking. Then I realised both the tanks were death knights, which means they both had an AE anti magic shield which had probably been covering the NPCs as well as the players.

“It will work better if you don’t put up anti magic shield,” I said.

There was silence. We killed him next try. (Note: I don’t know for sure that I was right, but I think it’s quite likely.)

Gaming Ethics: Can it ever be fun to do things that aren’t fun?

Towards the end of last year, I read several carefully argued (or passionately argued) blog posts about the ethics of daily quests.  In particular:

Doone had concerns about ethics of game design. He starts by discussing dailies but he has wider concerns.

We’ve got a lot of unethical game design going on. It’s bad. It’s contributing to bad ideas and promoting unhealthy communities of gamers. It’s making otherwise immoral acts normative and therefore acceptable to gamers.

If a game is based on Skinner techniques in it’s core design, it’s not a game. It’s a software device developers have created to keep you playing, often because the model is profitable. It’s like tricking the rat in the box into thinking they are winning a game. In fact, they are being controlled in an environment they’re barely aware of.

Saxsy has a strong rebuttal to this, and particularly the idea that ‘psychological manipulation’ is always unethical. (I think she’s wrong btw to keep accusing Doone of White Knight Syndrome, that actually wasn’t something I read in his argument.)

I seriously doubt Blizzard is putting non-fun things in the game for the purpose of getting people to continue to play the game. ((…)) Having people do not fun things make them less likely to continue giving Blizzard their money. It isn’t evil. It’s just stupid.

So, I have a few points to make here. This post isn’t really an essay with an argument and conclusions, more some thoughts on the topic.

I don’t think it has to be unethical per se to create fun games that people like to play and will want to pay for, or to recognise that some people enjoy having organised habits. Or even that many MMO players enjoy the process of grinding towards progress or an achievement.  I also think Blizzard cops a lot of bad press in the blogosphere for this, where actually they seem (via designer blogposts) aware of players’ wellbeing and try to design away from things that would harm it.

I also think that the best defence against accusations of unethical design are to be really up front with how this behavioural stuff works, and empower players to make informed decisions about how often they want to play and to set their own boundaries. This is social worker-y language, but you get the jist.  Have fun, but it’s down to you to take care of yourself. Don’t say ‘I was forced to play,’ because no one stopped you logging off when you’d had enough and it makes you sound a) whiny and b) unable to manage your own time.

But some people are genuinely vulnerable – in the same way that some people are vulnerable to online gambling (which is also a form of gaming that makes heavy use of behavioural mechanisms to keep people playing and coming back.) It likely is unethical to encourage them to play MMOs, but it’s not really clear what devs can do about that, or is it? Maybe mechanisms that do encourage players to take regular breaks are more ethical, it’s food for thought at any rate.

Ethics and Behavioural Psychology

I’m not saying behaviouralism is ethically dubious, but every famous psychology experiment I can think of in that field has been criticised for being unethical. At the same time, it spawned a raft of techniques that have given real help and real hope to many people with depression, helped people to make positive changes in their lives, and in other ways helped to make people happier and healthier. It is a powerful tool, and one which has been widely co opted.

Fact is, there are lots of organisations in this world that use behavioural psychology to try to influence people’s behaviour and opinions. Pretty much all marketing and advertising, for example. Psychological torture. Also many activist campaigns, and lots of educational initiatives. There is a big overlap between gaming and learning, which Raph Koster theorises about in A Theory of Fun (his idea is that games are fun because learning things is fun, basically.)

I think that the ethical side arises from questions this raises about free will. Is it possible to make someone do something that isn’t in their best interests without holding a gun to their head? Do we assume people aren’t able to decide what their best interests are if they’re subject to psychological manipulation? Can building these types of habits into games make them more fun for players? These are big questions. But the cat is out of the bag now.

We do know that traditional MMOs use a lot of operant conditioning. It’s all about the tasks and the rewards. And what players actually do in these games has been very dependent on this balance. Or in other words, when you log into your MMO of choice, how do you decide what you are going to do that session? A lot of the time, it will be based on some goal or reward.

Goals are used in other games too, it’s just that the relationship between grind and reward is very up front in MMOs. I also note that players will also often learn things that the designers never intended – such as being wildly elitist in PUGs. There’s no option for players not to learn something from their games and online communities, as a human being this is how your brain works … always learning. It’s just a question of how much of that learning should be designed, and whether its ok for there to be commercial elements present.

Some history of daily quests

Any old dinos who remember when daily quests were first introduced to WoW may also remembered that the player base welcomed them fervently. This was during TBC, with the Isle of Quel’Danas. They were welcomed, in part, because they were felt to be more ethical and less demanding than previous rep grinds.

It used to be the case that rep grinds were based on killing mobs and repeatable quests. So if you were hardcore, you went off and camped in the appropriate place for ages and kept at it until you were done. The daily quests offered a natural break; once you had done your dailies, that was it for the day.

Now later on, the whole idea of daily tasks was completely co-opted by social/ facebook games as a way to encourage players to keep coming back. I’m sure that was part of the idea behind daily quests too, but mostly it was to find a way to give players longer term goals which they didn’t immediately burn out on. And lets also remember that this was a time when players liked to feel attached to their MMO of choice, so having reasons to keep coming back could have made the game more fun. Many players still do. And also, the sense of working at the game to earn an achievement or reward may be behaviouralism in action, but it can also be fun. Players were doing this anyway before daily quests.

Ted A gives an example:

Between the lore, and the gear rewards, these dailies have not felt like a grind. I’ve wanted to do them and as a bonus I’ve kept playing my main and thoroughly enjoying the class.

 

Being open about the design

I find that the more unethical side to this type of design is where it’s not clear what the player is being manipulated to do, or where it’s made deliberately difficult for players to set upper bounds on either their play time or spending. F2P games with complex payment models can edge close to this.

The other questionable thing to me is about design by metric, especially where game designers assume that if a lot of players do something, that means they liked that content. I understand why you’d assume that — after all, why would so many people do it if they didn’t like it. But then I remember spending a weekend in PvP during TBC to get decent weapons for my Fury Warrior and I did not like it AT ALL. I did it. For the rewards. But I had a big grudge on Blizzard for years afterwards.

So my view: it’s all good, as long as it’s clear up front what you need to do to get your reward so you can make an informed choice. I also like games that offer clear breaks to players; dailies actually do this. I really get tired of people complaining that they were forced to do XYZ in a game when they clearly weren’t – if you do feel forced, it’s a wake up call to step back and look at the psychological manipulation.

And suddenly … combat!

I have noticed in MMOs these days, it is quite common in cut scenes or instances for devs to think it would be cool to have the character/s ambushed, or have an NPC you are talking to suddenly attack. For sure, it is cool and dramatic to be attacked out of nowhere, but depending on class you can be at a disadvantage if you can’t use your opening move. I noticed this a lot in SWTOR, for example.

In other words, there are two types of MMO character classes.

  1. Those who prefer to set up their combat in advance.
  2. Those who can just whale in.

For example, any class that relies on stealth or crowd control (where the stealth or crowd control has to be applied before you get into combat), or has a move like charge (nb. you can now charge in combat, they changed it because it was annoying) where you get some extra damage and resources if you use it to enter combat would be type 1. Any class who starts on full resources (like a full mana bar), can use CC in combat/or and doesn’t have a special move with which to enter combat would be type 2.

Open world solo PvE is typically much friendlier to type 1 classes, where you are  in control of when the combat begins so you can take your time to set things up.  (SWTOR does this a lot too, so I can’t really fault Bioware for not being even handed.) For sure, people complain about lack of immersion when mobs are standing around in small groups waiting to be pulled and killed, but it’s great if you are trying to sneak up on them and CC one before backstabbing one of the others.

I also remember liking the old solo crafting instances in LOTRO (they are in Moria) with my burglar because I had all the time in the world to sneak through, pay attention to patrols, and carefully set up every fight. It was fun and quite engaging, given that the instances themselves weren’t too exciting. You see this playing style also when people are soloing high level instances in WoW, where you need to plan out every pull.

Truth is, I kind of like the excitement of having mobs jump out at me. Even if I’m on a class that would prefer to control the start of the fight, it’s a fun challenge to figure things out on the fly and see how good your survival instincts really are. (Obv if I was a PvP player this would be more de rigeur).

What I don’t like so much are mobs like the challengers at the temple of the red crane (WoW) where you first talk to them, then there is a 5s wait, and then they suddenly enter combat and attack you. I wish they either went red instantly or else allowed enough time for you to back off and get out of range before they go aggro, so that you can then use your combat setups.