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?

25 thoughts on “Rewarding the Character vs Rewarding the Player

  1. One good thing is that some of the topspec mounts in Wow allow passengers (various Mamoths and the chopper).

    its actualy quite tempting to go and give low level types a lift :). I found myself hammering around the barrens after some low level thing (on my way to ratchet for some Engineering doohicky I expect) and stopped to give a lowbie a lift which…well it made me smile.

  2. I’m highly skeptical about “story” as a component in MMOs, period. If nothing else, I think “story” is one of those terms that gets bandied about so much that it’s become effectively meaningless. It tends to be used to mean “whatever happens in the game.”

    • If you’ve played KOTOR or Baldur’s Gate you know what they mean by story.

      It’s not going to be great literature but it’s pretty entertaining in a Choose My Adventure type of way.

      • I’ve played both, but that doesn’t tell me what Bioware thinks story is.

        If you restrict your definition of story to major plot events then you’ve got real problems with an MMO. It’s not like everybody in SW:O can be Darth Revan, after all. If you expand your definition of story to include all of the other things players can do in the game, it doesn’t make sense to me to call it “story” any more.

  3. Player Rewards seem to be mostly a fancy title for the char and maybe a minor benefit to the char – so it is a bit mixed. There are actually few player rewards I can think of at the moment.

    A nice player reward would be to allow players who levelled one or two chars to level 80 to start out every char at high level like a Death Knight.

    This could also help a bit to stem the tide of Death Knights. Part of the appeal is that they skip the levelling process, which is a bit sad, but given how endgame centric WoW has more and more become, it adds to the appeal of the class as alt char immensely.

    I wonder how Bioware wants to tell a story in a MMO. As much as I love Dragon Age, they can’t tell the story the same way as in a single player game – or it will become a single player game, at least for the “story” part. The problem is also to tell meaningful stories that change and impact the world and npcs and other players around us.

    Phasing is used sparingly in WoW to tell stories and show progress – but you cannot phase too many different things, it would become very complicated and the world would dissolve, if everyone had vastly different versions of the world.

    Aren’t Heirloom items not some kind of player reward, too? They are a helper for alt chars, after all.

    I could think some more about nice player rewards, but I think the greatest reward for everyone would be if our chars and we as players could interact more with the world and items in it than just in the way of combat and killing mobs. It cannot stop with crafting and harvesting resources, especially if said crafting is mostly redundant and only for enhancement than really reeded.

    More interaction with the world and a working economy could give players the opportunity to reward themselves through their own success, instead of being given a certain bonus due to completing a certain deed one can read up in the book of deeds or achievement list or wherever, whatever. 🙂

  4. TL/DR: The best reward Blizz gave me was just letting me hang out in instances with those guys on Defias EU. Hi there Defias!

    So I’d like to see dev’s address group resistance in particular. I was lvl 70 before I grouped with my first main, I was the King of the Casual (which I think is really a sly term for soloer). I rerolled last year vowing to level in instances and I had a great time, yes even with hopeless childish people, yes even in Outland. I wasted almost TWO years on my own dammit!

    /agree More meaningful crafting.

    Give us a buff for the number of people who have us on their friends list. I dunno what, not stats or XP, ermm, I know, gold on drops! yeah definitely gold 🙂

    LFD helped in theory but inexplicably groups have now become 5 people soloing an instance. Not the same as the epic lol’s that I’ll never forget, healing BRD and Slabs (this was only last year, not back in the Good Old Days I might add). I have a lot of those guys on my friends list still and check in with them from time to time. It was always the same 10 guys on LFG. Happy days. Can’t see it happening again. But hey it’s ‘convenient’ so yay! Not Blizz’s fault before anyone starts, it’s up to us to make this work.

    Damn you Spinks, you really drag it outta me 🙂

  5. > 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.

    Let’s assume you start playing WoW today. You bought your box, installed the game, create a char and log
    into the realm.

    You don’t have a RL friend who dragged you into WoW.
    You know nobody who plays WoW IRL. You’re character
    spawns at your factions start zone. Alone. With an
    abandoned /1. You start to do your quests. Know
    nothing about the game, you’ll wear spirit gear as
    warrior and might level with a shield and autoattack
    on 1.

    You probably don’t group for a dungeon, and if you
    do your experience would probably be a bad one.
    Chances are that you’ve never exchanged a sentence
    with someone when you reach level 74 and enter

    I think the hardest thing to catch up on an aged game
    are the social contacts. Finding a guild that suits
    you. Find the people to help you with your group

    That’s the nice thing, from the POV of the game
    company, of character progression. Character
    progression can easily be reset if they think it’s
    important. Player progression cannot.

  6. The thing that annoys me about the increased focus on player rewards is that you can only give them out once. When my first character stops progressing by hitting the level cap, I can create an alt and see that one get rewarded with character rewards all over again, and it will still be meaningful. (People can get very excited about gearing up alts!) Anything that is intended to reward me as the player however, can never be repeated, which is why I’m very wary of people who suggest making achievements and the like account-wide. At the moment I can at least pretend that they are part of character progression since they are tied to individual character, but once we lose that they’d just become completely uninteresting.

    • I don’t agree.

      Character housing is largely a player reward, allowing the player to decorate (depending on the game) to a greater or lesser extent, and to feel that the character has a home in the world. Yes, character housing can include character rewards like storage or once-an-hour teleports to the house, but the basic idea is that it rewards the player. You can give one out per character (as they do in EQ2) and each one remains meaningful.

      Titles are also a player reward since they have no mechanical influence on the character, yet people will still grind the titles they like on multiple characters. Players in City of Heroes and LotRO have proven this pretty conclusively.

      Likewise, noncombat pets are a player reward that people will seek to obtain more than once (assuming the players like said pets).

      • I think you’re talking at cross purposes here. Character housing rewards the player in the sense that it gives the player something they want, but the same is true of mechanical bonuses. I think Shintar is talking specifically about things that reward the player directly without being tied to a specific character. BoA items, for example, pretty much directly reward you, the player.

        Indeed I’m really not sure if “player rewards” and “character rewards” is a sensible distinction, what people seem to be talking about here is really more “mechanical bonuses” versus “vanity bonuses”.

      • In this context “player rewards” are nonmechanical benefits, which can reasonably be called “vanity bonuses”, while “character rewards” are mechanical benefits.

      • Housing is an interesting one, because it really could be implemented as character progression .. it just normally is just a box to store your decorations with a few extra bank slots thrown in.

        So for example, imagine a game where while you are levelling, you’re some kind of a questing knight. Then you reach max level and settle down, or get given a grant of land and a castle. And then a big focus of your game becomes managing your land holdings, with some adventuring thrown in.

        In something like that, housing would be more directly related to the character’s power, story, and progression. Just no games have had the balls yet to actually make housing quite that front and centre 😉

  7. Character progression does not stop or even slow much once you hit the level cap. It continues far beyond in any themepark MMO worth its salt, but XP is replaced by emblems and leveling is replaced by buying and finding new gear. The power curve continues beyond level 80.

    The “player rewards” are social tie-ins. They’re nice, but they don’t add much of substance to the game. No number of them will extricate Themepark MMOs from their design contradictions.

    • It slows hugely in story terms. You’re not longer constantly exploring new areas and quests, for a start. Also not constantly gaining levels and new abilities. (Obv this can change from game to game, one of the clever things that Guild Wars did was to incorporate gaining new abilities into endgame.) Instead, you settle into some kind of endgame routine.

      • You can view that from both sides. In guild wars you spend a few hours and reach the level 20 cap. Then, you grind out all the spells and after that you reach endgame.

        I don’t think we have to define endgame as the game when you reach the max level. I would define endgame as what starts after you’ve reached the level cap and got all the spells you need. 🙂

        Also, the path of the titans is Blizzards way of putting character rewards into endgame. We’ll see how that actually works out.

  8. Fantastic thoughts Spinks. I personally don’t think Story is “evergreen” so to speak. Its more like Content. Fun to chew through and by some slowly chewed and by others chewed through in no time flat. Adding story does add more meaning to end-game activities though. I always am more interested in fighting a big boss if I’m going to learn more about the story rather than if I’m going to get some special candy treats in pretty colors instead.

    I agree that player housing is a player reward but its a very weak one unless other players can and will see it/use it somehow. Contributing in other ways can also be a player reward, and player generated quests and content are great when pulled off well.

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  10. I particularly liked your comment on Eve, I really think player driven progression is the future of the MMO Industry. I think this is one of the few ways your actually going to get a dynamic world “feel”. For example, look at Eve, there news and politics is directly related to the players and the story they create. This really adds to the player attachment to the world and makes them feel like they can REALLY make a difference in the world. I believe this is integral and one of the few ways you’re actually going to get dynamic story that “affects the universe”

    Sorry to derail the comments a bit, but I really wanted to touch on that part of your blog. Excellent post though, I REALLY liked it.

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