Do people still dream of a virtual world?

RPS asked readers yesterday to describe their dream game. It’s not an unusual question, especially on a slow news day (if anyone is interested, I think Dune or Iain Banks’ Culture would be my dream MMO setting), but what surprised me was the number of commenters who asked for some kind of a virtual world.

You might be excused for not realising that the dream of a virtual world was one of the design goals behind the original MUD, and original MMOs — it’s no accident that EQ’s slogan was “you’re in our world now.”

Richard Bartle mentions this in a recent interview with Massively, where he discusses how the original MUD got ‘gamified’. More chat-focussed text games like MUSH/MOO also got gamified but in different ways (characters had stats attached to them, for example) which left them more RP oriented.

MMOs have come a long way from that, gamification having taken over the virtual world way before it stepped into the real world. And the players who cared most about virtual worlds sidestepped into fanfic and other online communities which were more about storytelling and less about xp and achievements.

So it’s strange to me that the RPS commenters (a broad spectrum of PC gamers) are still thinking about it … in their dreams.

Thoughts on Motivation, Achievements, and MMOs

There is an idea in psychology that people are motivated by two different routes:

  • Intrinsic Motivation: driven from within, driven by intrinsic fun, enjoyment, creativity, opportunity to use signature strengths (e.g. if you’re smart, you may enjoy playing games where you get to show off your smarts). Also includes the drive to master a topic, just for the sake of it.
  • Extrinsic Motivation: motivated by shinies, competition, or external threats.

Interestingly, the people with better intrinsic motivation tend to be happier. (This is debatable, incidentally, but probably depends on how you define happiness.)

In MMO terms, it’s easy to see how game designers try to design in gameplay to fit both of these moulds. Fun gameplay itself, and complex and interesting skills to master, expansive worlds and creatures to explore, and vibrant online communities to join give the intrinsically motivated guy plenty to chew over.

And for everyone else, there’s always achievements and PvP titles.

An interesting experimental result showed also that if you offer extrinsic rewards for something that an intrinsically motivated person was doing anyway, they’ll tend to do less of it. So having a reward actually negatively affects fun for some people.

So if there seems to be a tension in games between people who love achievements and people who seem to hate them irrationally, it’s because having achievements in place actually does negatively impact some people’s game.

I think these different motivations are interesting in a raid environment because ever since raiding was born, there has been an awareness that some people do it because they love it, and everyone else just wants their shinies. And as MMOs continued, I think designers became aware that whilst intrinsically motivated people may be happier, it’s much easier to keep the extrinsic types grinding/ competing indefinitely.

When I first started playing MMOs, although there were grinds, there were also a lot of elements which were just there (with no special reward) so if you thought they were fun, you focussed on those. We were very much dropped into the world and left to our own devices. Since then, I think there has been a shift towards trying to motivate gameplay totally from outside. Via epic items, titles, achievements, and so on. Bloggers tend to view this as making the games more ‘game-like’ and applaud it. Because heaven forfend any player should play a game just for fun. That would be noobish.

(Until something like Minecraft comes along and people reconnect with the actual fun in a game that has no high scores.)

And I wonder how this is affecting gamers who play these games for several years, especially if they start from a young age. What exactly are we training people to do or to be? Do people even want a multiplayer game where you are expected to do things just because they are fun?

It’s just a sausage fest

sausage

Apparently it’s British Sausage week this week (didn’t actually realise it was sponsored by pork marketers until I researched this post, guess I’m being subversive by eating beef sausages then!).

So it seemed somehow appropriate that when I logged into LOTRO last night after the F2P update had gone live, one of the many new deeds I was showered with was, “Known to the men of Bree.”

“That’s a bit cheeky”, I thought. But at least the actual title is – slightly – better…

knownthroughbree

Anyone else have any favourite embarrassing achievements, deeds, or titles?

The 5 most iconic Wrath achievements

With all the imminent Cataclysm excitement on the horizon, I thought this was a good time to start looking back over Wrath of the Lich King. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the plain crazy.

Let’s start with some achievements. I’ve picked out five that epitomise the Wrath experience to me. I don’t have all of them myself.

What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been

This is the meta-achievement for completing lots of various holiday achievements around the year. There was a time when it included pretty much all of the holidays, but Blizzard have added a few new ones without updating this achievement (on the grounds that it would be unfair to those who picked it up later.)

The achiever is rewarded with a shiny pink dragon that is not girly at all, but is very fast. And one of the interesting sides is that even though the achievement can be completed solo – at least if you don’t mind using the dungeon finder for the instance holiday bosses – it hasn’t really got easier with gear inflation. This is because most of the holiday achievements don’t require much in the way of gear anyway.

There are other meta-achievements which reward people with shiny mounts. There is one for completing achievements in instances, and also one for the Ulduar hard modes. There was one for the Naxxramas hard modes too but it was phased out to stop people trivialising it with gear. The Undying (an achievement for beating Naxxramas without anyone in the raid group dying) however, still requires people to pay attention.

Pony Up!

Everyone loves jousting, right? Right?

This is the achievement you earn when you use 150 shiny champion’s seals from the Argent Tournament and buy your squire pet a pony, which means he (and in turn you) can access your bank and mail remotely.

Jousting and the Argent Tournament itself represented a huge amount of single player content/grind that was dropped into the game after Ulduar. It’s been contentious to say the least. I quite enjoy the jousting myself, but it’s very hard to argue that putting up a huge tournament ground was a good way for the Argent Crusade to combat the scourge in their own backyard.

And if you don’t fancy the achievement you could always spend your 150 seals on one of the fanciest flying mounts in the game, the Argent Tournament Dragonhawk. That’s if you are Horde, anyhow.

Less-Rabi

The 5 man instance achievements were the first time players encountered the notion of hard modes in WoW. Whilst some of the hard modes were very contrived, others were so trivial that people knocked out the achievement every time without even meaning to.

This is one of the tougher ones, and involves a lot of interrupting, burst dps, and a bit of luck. Or at least it did when the game went live.

But oops, I actually did it on my new DK alt this morning in a pick up group. So much for hard modes and gear inflation. Speaking of pick up groups, it wouldn’t be right to mention the 5 man instances without a shout out to Looking for Multitudes, the achievement for completing enough random groups via the dungeon finder that you have grouped with 100 different people. (i.e. fixed groups won’t count for much.) The dungeon finder has been one of the great successes of the expansion, and the achievement was there to help lure people into using it when it was first introduced. You get a pet for this one, a pug with worms or something as well as a fairly appropriate title, “The Patient.”

The Twilight Zone

Now, at the beginning of the expansion, there were raid achievements to complete in Naxxramas but they were a bit hit and miss. The raid had not originally been designed to include hard modes so the achievements mostly involved either doing the encounters in a completely wrong-faced way, or beating some timer or other.

But Sartharion was a different matter. It was the first raid encounter in Wrath that was properly designed to include hard modes that both changed how the fight played and were also bitching hard. The Twilight Zone achievement is for beating Sartharion with all three drakes up. It was also the first raid achievement that neatly showed exactly how a 10 man fight can be harder than the equivalent 25 man.

And also it showed up how overpowered both druids and DKs were as tanks at the time. Something which DKs suffered for significantly during the rest of Wrath as they were repeatedly nerfed. Druids got away relatively lightly.

As with the achievement above, people now casually romp through this one in pick up groups when Sartharion is the weekly raid. It is purely due to gear inflation.

Another very iconic raid achievement is Alone in the Darkness, which requires a raid group to beat Yogg Saron (the penultimate boss in Ulduar) without any help from the keepers. It is the hardest hard mode in Ulduar, so much so that it isn’t even included in the Ulduar meta-achievement. And it also gives a title to the realm first achiever.

A Tribute to Dedicated Insanity

This is an Argent Coliseum raid achievement, awarded to 10 man raid groups who can beat the final boss on heroic mode with no wipes at all (ie. no wipes or deaths in any of the boss fights at all.)

But what makes this one different is that it requires that no one in the raid is wearing gear obtainable from the 25 man trial of the crusader (or higher). This was intended as an achievement for strict 10 man guilds – i.e. people who only raid 10 man instances.

This was not the first attempt that Blizzard made to reward the strict 10 man guilds. There was a similar achievement for Algalon in Ulduar. But although there is some genuine admiration for the strict 10 man achievers, it’s largely seen as a sideshow to the real raiding scene. In the same way that Gevlon’s guild completed Ulduar in blue gear, it’s impressive but largely pointless. This is something that Blizzard are hoping to change in the next expansion. Also, having to fuss over everyone’s gear just in case one player had hopped into a 25 man PUG one week and forgotten to change their boots is a pain in the neck.

It would also be unfair to discuss crazy Wrath achievements without mentioning  Insane in the Membrane. This achievement actually has nothing to do with Northrend, instead requiring players to become exalted with all the most annoying and difficult factions in Vanilla WoW. But it was introduced during Wrath and – for some reason I cannot comprehend – some people did it. Congrats, I guess. It does reward the most appropriate title in the game though, “The Insane.”

It came from GDC: Are achievements harmful?

Untold Entertainment posts a great roundup of some of the sessions he attended at GDC (Game Developers Conference) yesterday.

I don’t have a lot to add, but I wanted to share this particularly for his coverage of a controversial talk about Achievements. It’s about halfway down the blog post.

Chris Hecker (the speaker) questioned the conventional wisdom that achievements are the future, and wondered whether they’re actually good for games. Or whether it’s just that game developers are leaning too heavily on prodding people into repetitive dull activities via rewards (i.e. Farmville) when they could be using achievements to actually make their games more fun and engaging.

Hecker took on Jesse Schell’s oft-blogged talk from DICE 2010, where he imagined a world where everything around you gave you points – your toothbrush gave you points for brushing, the government gave you points or money for raising your kids well, etc. Hecker suggested that Schell and two other respected colleagues were talking out of their collective asses, because they haven’t looked at the research, which says (among other things) that when you pay a kid for getting good grades, the kid’s grades subsequently drop.

So if you get people into the mindset of doing an activity just to get a reward, they’re less likely to do it afterwards without the reward, or when the reward gets deprecated.

I thought it was a fascinating read, and I bet it was a cool talk also. This is a link to Gamasutra’s coverage of the same talk.

It came from the PUG: Do you want cheese with that?

Unfortunately(?), all my random groups this week have been pretty good so instead of pointing the finger at outrageous behaviour, this week we’ll have to settle for mildly annoying.

Achievements are not the Marmite of WoW, very few people actively hate them with the passion of a billion blazing suns. They are more like  Nutella. Everyone likes Nutella. (Oh no, I missed World Nutella Day! How is that even possible?)

But most of us like it in moderation, and not with every single meal. I reserve the option to say, “No thanks, I respect that your tastes differ from mine but I’ll have my steak without Nutella today.” Frankly, Nutella with steak is an experience you want to share only with very close and special friends, who will put up with experimental cooking techniques and later forgive you if it turns out to be disgusting. Now, imagine Nutella if you also won a special prize for eating a whole jar without throwing up. And if you ate every meal with people who insisted on slathering it over everything and forcing you to do that too.

Yeah, you might go off it after awhile too.

So, back to achievements. A poster on the EU boards this week suggested that the LFD tool could have an option for people to select if they wanted to do achievements on their random run.

This is actually the worst idea ever for the players who do want to do achievements on their random runs.

  • Everyone who just wants some quick badges will not select achievements.
  • Every experienced player who already has finished their dungeon achievements will not select achievements (at least not on their main).
  • Every player who hates achievements will not select achievements.
  • Every player who does not feel like talking a random group through one of the more complex achievements will not select achievements.
  • Anyone bored who wants to grief people WILL select achievements.

Nope, the best way to get dungeon achievements sorted out is either to assemble a group on your home server, or bully/ cajole a random group into doing them. Guess which of those options is easiest for most players?

Now, I don’t actually mind being asked if I want to do an achievement in a dungeon run. But I expect people to give up on it gracefully when I say no. Naturally in random groups, this often does not happen.

I was called a noob this week when I declined to attempt Oculus with 5 bronze drakes. No, the reason I don’t want to do that is because I am NOT a noob and I just want my quick and easy badges without having to care whether a random group can sort out drake cooldown rotations.

Given the reluctance of people in the group to speak up or show any other behaviour that would distinguish them in any way from a doormat, I should not have been surprised to see 4 obedient little bronze drakes, and then me on my red. I left. Perhaps they got a tank who’d put up with those demands and got the achievements for them. But I still wonder if the silent members really cared about the achievement or were just falling into line with the most shouty person in the group.

As a basic rule of politeness, I go this way:

  • If even one person in the group wants to kill an extra boss, then we go kill it.
  • If even one person in the group does not want to do the achievement, then we don’t do it.

To me, the basic assumption of LFD is that the group will clear the instance with no special achievements involved. So I think anything that differs from that needs group buy-in.

But achievement junkies are often not polite. They try to bully groups into doing their achievements. They harass and abuse anyone who does not fall into line. So I save everyone the bother these days and just leave as soon as the question even gets asked (unless it’s the sort of achievement that we were going to do just by completing the instance anyway.) No, I am not interested in helping Joe Random get his achievement. I don’t like Nutella THAT much.

Rewarding the Character vs Rewarding the Player

It’s hardly possible to move these days in an MMO without tripping over a slew of new rewards. Emblems, xp, gear, badges, pets, titles, gold, cosmetic clothes, house decorations, mounts, achievements, quest unlocks, and so on – and with every patch, the list gets longer.

And yet, not all rewards are equal. There’s been a slow and ongoing trend in MMOs to reward the player rather than the character. I’ll give some examples of what I mean by this.

Rewarding the character means that you get something that will help with character progression. When you are levelling, almost all the rewards you get in game are to do with character progression. The xp, the new gear, new abilities, talent points to spend, being high enough level to travel to more interesting places and unlock new quests, for example. All of these things are about character progression and your character’s story.

Rewarding the player is a different kettle of fish. Rewards may add extra gameplay options, or more ways to interact with other players. They might simply be avenues through which players can compare achievements or satisfy those collection itches. So achievements, cosmetic pets and clothing, fluff, fun, and anything that doesn’t really operate in the same sphere as character progression falls in here.

So far, so good. Older games also included many of these player rewards, but they tried harder to tie everything to character progression also. So for example, in City of Heroes, if you get the right set of titles, your character gets some stat bonuses. Moving away from that era is a very distinctive and definite shift in approach. And it solves a lot of problems. Because if players could be gotten to concentrate more on player rewards than character rewards, then character progression could slow right down.

The problem of character progression

Character progression has been an albatross around the neck of MMO devs back since the MUD days. It’s not an issue with single player games, but there are specific problems with multi-player games. For example:

  • How do you pace progression so that the hardcore and casual players can all be satisfied?
  • How can players interact with each other when they are at different levels of progression?
  • How can a new player cope if they come into the game a couple of years after the start? Will they be too far behind to catch up?

Interestingly, we didn’t have this problem to quite such an extent in MUSHes. But that was because they were such social games, and your character’s power level wasn’t as important as who your friends and contacts were. And that’s worth remembering, because it is one solution to progression that hasn’t really been explored.

The other problem with character progression is that players adore it.

Many many games, not just RPGs or MMOs, are based on the idea that a character starts off weak and defenceless and gradually gains more power, knowledge, and tools over time until they can defeat some kind of final challenge. Character progression is a powerful story tool, and it’s also the most basic, the most primal story in the world. It is the story of life. We are born weak, we grow up, we gain knowledge and power, we make friends and relationships. (And then grow old and die but games don’t explore that side of the story very deeply, which is a shame.)

Character progression in MMOs is painfully basic. The story is mostly killing monsters, getting loot, selling said loot on the auction house, maybe learning a tradeskill, and interacting lightly with the same quests as everyone else. And once you have finished levelling, the progression has nowhere much to go. It’s because our character’s stories are so weak that we treat the rewards as so much candy. Another day, another piece of gear. Ho hum.

So at endgame, it isn’t surprising if devs want to shift to player based rewards. Creating more character progression is hard, and although tentative steps have been made towards player driven character progression in games like EVE (I’m thinking of proper virtual politics and the player council) , that’s not really how game developers have been thinking.

The great advantage of player rewards is that they don’t affect game balance or do anything mechanically to put up extra barriers to prevent character interaction. They also foster a different type of social dynamic, and one that is potentially less character based.  And yet … yet those pesky players adore their characters and their character progression. They want to tell more stories about those characters, not just the endless ‘I did instance X 13 times last week’ or ‘I ground out Y points in battleground Z’.

So it makes perfect sense for devs to try to move away from character progression. The problem of endgame might not exist if the rest of the game wasn’t all about levelling and progression. The question is, will better designed player rewards help to dissociate players from their characters?

And next year Bioware will debut Star Wars: The Old Republic, with their emphasis on story as the fourth pillar of gameplay. Will they be able to find a way to keep telling stories after the levelling period is over? Or will their game also dissolve into a mass of achievements, cosmetic pets, and random fluff?

Gearscore, and why we need to evaluate other players

The rot set in as soon as Blizzard allowed players to check each others gear. Adding achievements to the game and then conveniently storing everyone’s statistics on the Armoury were just the icing on the cake. It was only  a matter of time before addon writers figured out ways to automate these gear checks to make it easier and simpler to give another player the thumbs up or thumbs down for whatever group content you were planning to do.

Enter Gearscore, an addon which neatly totals some arbitrary ratings for each piece of gear (probably based on item level, which is fair game since Blizzard use it too) and sums it all up into a single gear score. If you have this addon installed, all you have to do is mouse over another player or their name in a group or raid and you’ll get the gearscore number. The latest version of Gearscore also hooks into one of the popular damage meters (recount) so presumably it is also going to try to gauge dps … or something like that.

There’s nothing controversial in making up arbitrary numbers to prove how badass you are or aren’t, but naturally players are now using the gearscore as a gating mechanism for PUG invites. I haven’t seen this so much on my server but it’s right up there with ‘show your achievement’ on others. Of course the number doesn’t adequately represent a player’s skill. Of course it can be arbitrary. Of course there can be some items which work better for a spec/class than the higher gearscore ones. So the harder nosed players criticise the use of the gear score, it doesn’t tell the whole truth.

Yes, it’s unfriendly to new players who are just going to the right places to gear up. Although it’s hard to really argue this point with the influx of badges from the dungeon finder these days (pro tip: run Oculus :) ).

But there is another side to this. WoW, and MMORPGs like it, are gear based games. Part of your skill as a player is knowing what the best gear is for your class/spec and knowing how to acquire it. And sometimes, gear really is a gating factor. Given two players of similar skill, the one with the better gear will perform better; that’s hard coded into the game.

Of course looking at a single number is no substitute for checking over someone’s gear in person, if you really want to be sure that they understand their class (note: you will also need to understand their class if you hope to make any sense out of this.) And of course a poor player with badly chosen gear could still have a good gear score.

Gear Score isn’t a guaranteed way to show whether someone is a good player or not. It can be gamed in a lot of ways, and it will also miss a LOT of great players whose gear choices just aren’t recognised properly by the addon. A lot of players dislike it for that reason – Aislinana at Empowered Fire writes a spirited and well argued dismissal of the addon.

But the reason the addon has taken off is because it helps automate a task that PUG raid leaders need to do. They need to evaluate possible members before they invite them, so that they can try to put together a successful raid.Gear is a part of that, experience is a part of that (hence why people ask to see achievements), and when dealing with strangers, that’s pretty much all you have to go on. This is why in a lot of PUGs, the leader will ask existing members to ask around their guild for possible interest before they dive back into one of the world channels to look for random players.

It does feel unfair if you know perfectly well that you could perform well in that raid or group, and are being rejected because of some addon or lack of achievement. But put yourself in that raid leader’s place. Maybe you don’t want to have to explain the encounter to people who haven’t seen it before, maybe you just want a quick smooth run. The easiest way to ensure that is to take well geared people who have seen the raid before. Or poke your social network and trust your friends to recommend other people who will also perform well. The addons take the place of personal recommendations. And just as one of your friends can recommend a partner who actually turns out to be a rubbish healer (for example), the addons can make mistakes too.

One thing is for sure though, this need to evaluate random players isn’t going to go away. Raid leaders need to do this. Even the nicest players in the world can’t carry someone through a difficult raid, whether they want to or not. And if addons can make this job less onerous then people will use them even if the addon is programmed to be cautious and reject players who would be perfectly fine in the raid.

We could ask why people are so risk averse in MMOs. The answer might simply be … because they can. The great success of the random dungeon finder is simply that it is now easier to get a group and run an instance than to painstakingly evaluate four other people. ie. even if someone in the group is undergeared or underskilled, it’s quicker and easier for the others to just take them along than to be picky about looking for replacemnet.s

The only real question is what arbitrary way to evaluate their fellow players will people think of next? Nibuca writes at Mystic Chicanery about an alternative evaluation addon that she’s tried called Elitist Group (this one lets you save notes about different players after having grouped with them.)

So what can you do if you are hitting the gear score ceiling?

Firstly, don’t stress over being turned down for groups. Shrug and move on. Wish them luck if you are feeling polite. Particularly don’t stress out if their requirements were stupidly high, it’s their raid and their loss.

Secondly, work on your gear. Even if you know it isn’t necessary, you might as well collect more emblems and see if there are any easily available upgrades you might want. Don’t fool yourself that you’re such a great player that gear doesn’t matter – in a gear based game, all you are doing is making things harder for yourself.

Third, try to make some friends on your server. Maybe join a guild that does occasional raids for newer player or alts. Offer to help PUG raids that are less geared than you are.

Fourth, keep an eye open for people looking to fill PUG raids. Particularly the weekly raid quests, which are often to easier instances. When a raid is almost full, raid leaders will be more open to relaxing their initial requirements so that they can get things going. But if you do this, try to sound polite and as though you know what you are doing, and take it nicely if you are turned down.

Fifth, consider whether you want to start your own raid. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you know the raid instance, but there’s plenty of information around online if you fancy your chances.

It will work out. It just might not work out immediately.

Best WoW Player in the World redux

I wrote a few months ago about a player on the EU servers who had attained the previously almost unimaginable score of 10000 achievement points in WoW. This week, the story has been all over the WoW blogs about a player on on the Taiwanese servers who has completed every single achievement in the game (bar one holiday achievement that was added recently for the Xmas holiday event).

For those keeping score, the Taiwanese guy whose name I can’t transliterate due to my sad lack of knowledge of Chinese currently has 10850 achievement points. But Zoltan is still very much in the game with 10790; comparing  armoury pages it looks as though he was less lucky with some of the random holiday items and with the fishing.

(Edited to add: Longasc points out in comments below that Casperle on EU-Azshara has 10830 achievement points. Not sure who is the top US achiever, anyone know? And is it a coincidence that both the Europeans are on German language servers?)

Or in other words, Taiwanese and European achievement collectors are approximately as nuts as each other. But you have to respect that kind of dedication. From a safe distance.