Fairness in MMOs

Simon Ludgate posted an interesting article on Gamasutra about fairness in MMOs.

He talks about the illusion of fairness (whether it’s more important that players believe a game is fair than whether it is), dynamic content scaling, challenge, and grinding. I’m going to excerpt some quotes, as I haven’t decided yet how far I agree with him.

If you are too low — if the challenge is too hard — the usual player response is to backtrack and “level up” by completing easier challenges. <…> However, if you are too high and the challenge is too easy (and you haven’t been grinding all that much), the game just feels poorly designed. Shouldn’t the developer have expected me to be level 15 by this point in the game?

This is the precise issue that WoW has with levelling content at the moment. You can easily outlevel earlier zones just by questing through them.

Fairness is a very important concept in developing MMORPGs. That’s because fairness doesn’t exist in their single-player predecessors. “Cheating” and other forms of rule-changing in single-player games is not only acceptable, it’s encouraged. <…> Does it really matter that you beat the game on easy instead of hard? Only to you.

So how much of the hardcore mentality comes from people who cut their teeth on single player games, where exploits are practically part of the landscape. No wonder old MUD/MUSH/ RPG/ boardgame players, whose first experiences may have been with more social games, see things differently. (I suspect the latter is more likely to metagame in different ways, rather than being immune to the lure of cheating.)

Changing the rules is very common in multiplayer; creating mods, which are basically changes to game rules, are incredibly popular and gave birth to entire genres and franchises. But these rule changes intrinsically depend on the agreement of all participants. Everyone has to download the mod and choose to use it.

And of course once the majority have chosen to use a helpful mod, there are huge social barriers against NOT using it.

To a game’s developer, buying gold or leveling is akin to telling them their game is so bad, you’ll actually pay money to avoid having to play it.

He then goes on to talk about F2P games, and revisits this assumption.

To most designers, selling content-skipping seems like an inevitably bad idea. But Turbine actually did it, braced for the storm, and found it never came. It turns out that most players don’t actually find it unfair.

So if most players don’t actually find it unfair, what’s the concern? Why monocalypse?

Players have developed a strong sense of unjust game development due to free-to-play game designers who produce barbaric “games” in the hopes that players will pay to avoid having to play them.

OK, doesn’t quite explain monocalypse but this isn’t a million miles away from the fear that designers will produce PvP-winning items that players can pay to use.

He then goes on to talk about WoW, and how (some) players responded when raiding was made more accessible during Wrath.

Players were justifiably upset: why raid at all if you can just wait for the next set of raids and buy your way through the previous tier of content? What did that accomplishment mean when Blizzard would hand it out to everyone a month or two later?

As I said, SOME players were upset. Others happily got on and enjoyed the content without fretting over what was fair in other people’s eyes and what was not.

Anyhow, it’s a good article. His conclusions are fairly anodyne (it’s good to have lots of different types of achievement) without really addressing non-achievers or why people enjoy things that aren’t marked by achievements in games.

16 thoughts on “Fairness in MMOs

  1. “Others happily got on and enjoyed the content without fretting over what was fair in other people’s eyes and what was not.”

    Which is how it should be. If the only reason someone raids is to feel superior to other people, then they deserve to get upset.

    • If it’s the only reason, sure.

      But I do think there’s a strong and valid argument to be made that raiding has lost some of its appeal (at least for me) if you do it in the knowledge that you’ll get things “early” rather than just get them full stop. Certainly, it creates an even stronger sense in the players that “well, if it’s too hard, I can always wait” because, frankly, current-tier raiding is no longer the accomplishment is used to be.

      I got immense satisfaction from my first ever “real” raid (Kara) because it was sort of like saying “you’ve made it. You’ve bested all the solo and small-group stuff, and now it’s time to move on to the real, final confrontation.”

      And I honestly can’t see the appeal of playing watered-down content. Nor can I see the logic in leaving the rewards as they are. But it’s been a while since I’ve genuinely understood Blizzard’s decisions.

      I genuinely cannot understand why they don’t just make a progression curve, rather than a 3-tier system. That would bring back the feeling of worth, keep content relevant for an entire expansion and allow people who find normal raiding too hard to at least achieve something.

      • I think you’re right, and one of the effects of the change is people re-evaluating how much effort they feel it’s ‘worth’ putting into raiding.

      • The thing is that older tier raiding was more about accessibility than skill. If we’re going to be honest about it, the actual boss fights people are complaining about being watered down are far harder and more complex than the vanilla or BC ones, where the big issue was as much about being lucky enough to get to them as doing them. And if we’re equating accessibility with difficulty or worthiness, that’s problem.

        The issue with progression curve content is that It tends to die off hard. If you ain’t in the right place at the right time, no matter how good you are you are never, ever going to see that high level content because the people who can’t get past the start are all that’s going to be at the start and if you come in new, you’re going to be stuck with them.

  2. From your excerpts, it sounds like Ludgate’s using “fairness” to describe goldilocks content tuning (not too hard, not too easy but just right) and the mods that allow players to adjust that tuning. But this is quite unrelated to design decisions which offend one’s sense of fair play, equity and just rewards.

  3. @Andy
    Indeed, if you only win for the sense of accomplishment you are a horrible person whom should be hated by everyone. o.O

    Nothing in that article can explain Monocalypse because it was a case of hysteria. You’d need something more focused on group psychology and communications not fairness. Hell, most of the people getting up in arms didn’t actually know what CCP had really done or not done, they merely assumed since others were getting upset they should too. I like this quote from The Mitanni via PCGamer ‘most of the controversy would have “vanished in a puff of logic.”’ source.

    • That’s not what I meant. It’s perfectly fine to feel a sense of accomplishment, that’s kind of the point. PvE is about tackling the environment, i.e. raid bosses. If you want to feel like you’re better than other people, play PvP.

      This doesn’t mean I agree with nerfing content; quite the opposite. I, too, like the feeling of accomplishment when my raid group downs a boss, but if we do it easily and knowing the boss has 20% less health I feel somewhat cheated.

      However, if we struggle for weeks and still only just manage to do it even with the nerf, that’s fine – we overcame a challenge that was difficult for us, and I don’t care if ‘hardcore’ raiders would find it trivial.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is: raiding, for me, is about the sense of *personal* accomplishment, not relative to the WoW population as whole.

      “I genuinely cannot understand why they don’t just make a progression curve, rather than a 3-tier system.”

      Because the ‘M&S’ would bitch and moan that they never get to do the latest raid content and are stuck forever doing the ‘easy’ raids. Blizzard clearly want to make all raid content accessible to all people, and the only way they can do that (so far) is to let anyone get current-tier gear with little effort, which obviously has the unfortunate side-effect of making older-tier raids obsolete in terms of challenge.

      • Ah, but the infamous M&S mostly bitch and moan about time and how it’s so hard to find 2 hours in a week (I’d have trouble *not* finding 2 hours) to do a raid.

        If they had a progression curve that had nice, easy, accessible wing-based raids but simply increased in difficulty the further you went, Blizzard could point out that:

        a) you’re not good enough to do them, and

        b) that’s the norm in games. In the real world.

        I really don’t understand the “I deserve to see all this shit either.” Just because you pay for gym membership doesn’t mean you can instantly waltz in and lift 100kg…why is it somehow different here?

  4. Re: players out-levelling challenges. I think developers are damned whatever they do.

    Build a game with not enough quest content to level up on (e.g. DAoC) – players will be forced to grind for some of their advancement. Some will complain about this.

    Build a game with exactly enough quest content to level up on – players who miss finding one or more quest givers will be forced to grind for some of their advancement. Some will complain about this.

    Build a game with more than enough quest content to level up on (e.g. WoW, LotRO) – players find all of the quest givers and insist on doing all of the quests will outlevel some of the quests before they do them. Some will complain about this.

    I have very little sympathy with the last point of view. It’s like walking into an all you can eat buffet and moaning that there’s too much choice, and if you eat everything you’ll be sick.

    • “Build a game with more than enough quest content to level up on (e.g. WoW, LotRO) – players find all of the quest givers and insist on doing all of the quests will outlevel some of the quests before they do them. Some will complain about this.”

      The reason players try to find all the quest givers and insist on doing all of the quests is because Blizzard put a lot of effort into making them do exactly that, what with the much more strongly story-based quests. If all the quests were unrelated and mostly meaningless, there wouldn’t be a problem, but that’s not the case. Take the dwarf clan questline in Twilight Highlands – if you start the zone, you’ll most likely hit 85 before you’re halfway done with the story, which is just silly. Are you supposed to carry on with it *just* for the story? That seems to be what Blizzard are suggesting.

      • With their new storyline based questing, WoW really should be able to build exactly enough quests to get one through each zone/level/whatnot. (Well, all right, to take into account rest bonus or lack-there-of, they’d have to have a few extra quests, but they could do exactly that.)

        Though as to whether carrying on with quest chains after 85 makes sense or not depends rather on what one’s playing the game for. If the storylines are the game, then level really doesn’t matter. If leveling up to do the end game is the game, then the storylines don’t matter. Fortunately, one can view it either way in WoW.

        I still think they could do a better job of matching questlines to leveling, though.

      • Oh yeah, I completely agree that it’s Blizzards fault players feel they’re out-levelling the zones 🙂 I wasn’t trying to defend them, quite the opposite.

        I’m not sure that they can build exactly enough quests, however, as players who do instances or even just gather herbs or ore will still level up ‘too quickly’. An alternative might be to have the story quests not provide enough XP to level, then have some non-story quests as ‘filler’ for those who don’t gather or do instances, but that seems a bit… cheap, I guess, like doing chores.

      • I think the reason people comment about the lower level WoW zones now is that even if all you do is follow the main questline and do other quests which turn up along the way (with no heirlooms or guild xp bonuses), you can still outlevel the zone before you’ve gotten to the end of that storyline.

        It’s not that bad in all of them, but is quite noticeable in some of the early zones.

  5. I’m so poor and bad player that I am still to find a raid – or any group endeavour – which requires only the couple of hours of the actual raiding. The mere time spent in raiding isn’t all, and in all honesty, if you can squeeze all the – currently – required strat reading, min-maxing and all into that two hour slot, you are certainly a genius, sir.

    I don’t know whom that was pointed at, quit reading at one point or another. Fairness would be design based equality of content: the more you do, the more you get. But it should also be by design so that the more you use the content, the more you pay. I – casual leveller type – pay for the hc raiding people who complain how the content is used up so fast, and I never even get to see that content because I cannot fit all the requirements into that two hours I spend playing.

    Sorry. I’ll go back home and play the way I like, grumbling about the unfair system and flaws in design.

    C out

    • You’re right, most people can’t complete a raid instance in 2 hours.

      That’s why Blizzard invented this really neat system called “raid IDs.” They (get this) save your progress so you can come back another time! How handy is that? I mean, it’s like Blizzard sat down long and hard, realised that people actually don’t have eight hours or so to raid in one sitting, and designed a system that allows people to go in and try a few times in a week!

      How nifty eh?

      Better yet, they allowed people to go into these raid instances *any time they want.* How awesome is that? It means you could spend one day watching the boss strategy (15 minutes) and reading talent/gearing guides (10 minutes) and applying that to your character (15 minutes) and then the next day you could go in and use all those 2 hours on the raid. How awesome is that? I mean, it’s like Blizzard went out of their way to make raiding extremely accessible compared to other incarnations. But that can’t have happened surely; I mean, raiding is just for no-lifers.

      And I certainly get where your coming from with the content complaints. Blizzard had the nerve, THE NERVE, to ship with THREE raids, and they only shipped with five new levelling zones and complete revamp of virtually every levelling area. SO unfair to levellers!

      And don’t get me STARTED on fees. £8.99 per month? I could buy 1.5 fillet tower meals at KFC for that. Outrageous! It’s shockingly expensive, and, worse yet, they don’t even give me ANY new solo daily content to do in their big, fire-based patches.

      I mean, I could’ve said all this without being a snarky bastard, but then when you can’t even be bothered to scroll up and find out my name. Please, do go ahead and grumble. I’ve had fun here.

  6. “(I suspect the latter is more likely to metagame in different ways, rather than being immune to the lure of cheating.)”

    Oh, heck yes. Old PnP RPG players tend to divide into two equally annoying camps – Munchkins and Rules Lawyers. The arguments about what constituted cheating were legendary. (“Aha! Page 151 says equipped daggers can be used to parry with feat X, and page 223 of the third supplement says I can equip up to six extra daggers by strapping three daggers to each arm! I AM IMMUNE TO EVERYTHING!”)

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