[Solving the Content Problem] The Smörgåsbord: Adding different subgames for different playstyles

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MMOs have always given players some freedom to pick what activity they prefer to do when they log in. This is one of the aspects that makes them so different from other types of games. For sure, themepark games tend to adhere to the RPG model and prod people in the direction of levelling, or at least in the direction of whatever the other players are probably doing, but players do expect to have some standard options.

For these to make sense as addressing the content problem, these subgames need to have completely separate progression mechanics from each other. I’m not talking here about adding achievements to existing content, but about offering something for totally separate playing styles. You could think of it as being a way to attract more players to the same game, by catering for different gaming tastes.

For example, MMOs often include an economic simulation. Players progress by making gold via trade (or other in game activities). A player who chooses to focus on this subgame can do it largely independently of (for example) endgame raiding or PvP. There can be plenty of depth in a good economic simulation – you only need to look at the sheer number of gold making WoW blogs to see how many different markets and approaches there are to playing this subgame. While the economy can be connected to every other part of the game, in a separated presentation (like WoW), you never actually need to play the economy beyond selling loot that you picked up while levelling. You could happily ignore it.

Crafting  can also be a separate minigame of its own. Players progress by learning tradeskills (maybe multiple tradeskills on multiple alts) and figuring out how to acquire the materials and make the items that they want. Plenty of players enjoy crafting who never have any intention of spending much time trading. It can be separate.

PvP is another very common playing style that is offered as a separate minigame by themepark MMOs. Separate again means a completely separate progression and gearing path. Players who enjoy PvP can often do this without ever touching PvE (after they have levelled).

So: separating playing styles? Is it a good or a bad thing

There are two ways to look at this.

1. The first is that the ideal MMO (probably a sandbox) should have an integrated playerbase. It should be focussed on its niche, and every part of the game should feed into every other part to encourage players to interact. For example, there should not be artificial boundaries preventing PvPers from dominating some aspect of the economy (maybe by annexing some area where rare drops can be found) and at the same time, a player who participates in all aspects of the game (or is in a guild which does) should be able to dominate a player who doesn’t. If the game is large enough and the separate activities have enough depth, it won’t be possible for a single player or guild to dominate every aspect so there will be plenty of room for players  to specialise and co-operate. So there will still be plenty of choice for players, they can still pick which aspects of the game they prefer to focus on. They will just have to live with the consequences.

Note: this ideal would require quite a large, active sandbox game to really work. (This is the problem with a lot of the early ideas about ideal MMOs.)

2. The second is the buffet or smorgasbord approach. The game is like a buffet table, players can pick and choose which activities they want to do. More importantly, they can pick the activities which they want to avoid. There will be communities in game which focus on different activities and that’s fine. The game can never be as integrated as a type 1 MMO, the separate gaming bubbles won’t really affect each other. But if people want to PvP all the time then they can, and if they want to never PvP then they don’t have to.

It is true that there are many ways for players to cooperate or compete in MMOs that don’t involve beating the tar out of each other in PvP. You can argue that the economic game is a form of PvP also, which is true. But from a gameplay perspective, it’s a very different way of getting players to interact. There is plenty of competition but the raw aggression (and bad behaviour) that is so intimidating to so many players just isn’t as great an issue. It also can be slower paced and put more emphasis on strategic thinking.

Over time, players have seemed to prefer type 2 games. Even though type 1 games are probably more immersive and function better as integrated worlds. It might be fairer to say that either Type 1 favours a niche audience, or else that devs could do a better job with Type 1 if they stopped trying to shoehorn PvP into every game, since PvP tends to dominate games where it is not kept totally separate.

Introducing new minigames

I want to give some examples of separated minigames in MMOs, to show how different devs have used this as a way to solve the content problem.

  • Skirmishes in LOTRO. This is fairly brilliant design. The skirmishes are PvE instances that can scale from single player up to 12 people. They have their own queue. When running skirmishes you can progress your own skirmish soldier (a companion NPC who can be tank/ healer/ ranged or melee dps/ etc) via skirmish points. So there is a completely separate progression mechanic. You can also use skirmish points to buy levelling gear, cosmetic gear, and reputation items. Plus the skirmishes have their own achievements. Although skirmishes are integrated into some of the legendary book quests (and it would be an advantage to have a levelled skirmish soldier for these), they aren’t required outside this.
  • Pet battles in WoW. Another fairly brilliant design. It’s pokemon, in warcraft. You can go catch wild pets, have them fight other pets or other trainers. I’m not sure what you really get from pet battles other than the thrill of collecting more pets, or the occasional lucky battlestone drop that you can use to upgrade pets. But it’s fun, there’s some depth to it, and it’s very separate from the main game.
  • PvP in Warhammer Online. This is a fairly typical example of themepark PvP. You earn your progression points and gear by engaging in PvP. You may have special PvP abilities that you can buy with PvP points. While you can use your PvE gear in PvP, it isn’t optimal because the PvP gear has specialised stats.
  • Housing in EQ2. You get a house fairly early on in EQ2, and there is a huge array of housing items to collect and place. Fitting out and decorating both individual houses and guildhalls has pretty much become a separated minigame of its own.
  • Wormholes in EVE. EVE isn’t my speciality, but this is syncaine’s description. The reason I count this as a separated game is that it seems perfectly possible for people who enjoy wormhole play to focus on them and for people who don’t to never feel the need to go near them.
  • Space battles in SWTOR. A set of graded on rails space missions, with their own daily quests, tokens, and ship related loot. Bioware never really felt very committed to space battles, they’re fun but limited.

Raiding in WoW used to be a very separated game. The only way to get raid gear was to raid. As time goes on, players are now far more encouraged to dip into raiding as part of a general PvE playing style via LFR (ie. much easier to get into random raids), and have a much wider range of gear available for raiding.

Wildstar is touting separate player paths, and no doubt we’ll get to hear more about how those work out in practice as the game lurches towards release. My personal doubt is how well this caters for players who might be in a mood to fight/soldier one day and feel more like exploring the next. I don’t personally want to be forced to commit to one primary playstyle at the start of a new game and then be told I need to roll a new alt if I want to try something else. There’s separated and then there’s separated.

Separated minigames as content solution?

Both the good and bad sides about separated games is that they are all optional. It is possible for a dev to put a lot of effort into creating a new minigame and for the player base to collectively say meh. (PvP in City of Heroes is an example of a separated game that never really took off, the majority of players just weren’t that interested.)

It is also possible for devs to put a lot of effort into developing a minigame and then to abandon it to its own devices and not add any interesting new tweaks or content in future expansions. Housing in LOTRO feels a bit stagnant for that reason. The houses are nice, decorating them is cool, but there’s not really much to do with your house and it feels like abandoned content.

At its best though, separate minigames do give players a much wider choice of in game activities. And minigames with good depth can potentially add a lot of depth and replayability to the game world. On the downside, they can make a game feel far more complex, and it isn’t always clear to new players which content is optional, and how optional it really is.

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13 thoughts on “[Solving the Content Problem] The Smörgåsbord: Adding different subgames for different playstyles

  1. Pingback: Separated content and dev focus | GamingSF

  2. Very good. Great reflections on several related issues with specific citations. I need to forward this to some devs and say, “This, but what about THIS?”

  3. My issue about “end game” in every single MMO I have played, and I have played many, is the drying up of tactical variety. In short: at max level you have all the skills your class can have. Even with a few new ones added here and there through alternative levelling (levelling pas level cap) the game still stays the same: same skills used the same way, all the time. The Secret World allowed for a great method of progression for this since you are able to acquire every single skill that every other “class” has too but the problem here is that the skills are not all that different.

    I have no answers on how this can be solved but I am still waiting on an MMO that either allows me to use my skills in new ways or lets me acquire new and radically different skills, allowing me tactical variety. Why would I go and step on the gear grinding stone to get better gear to use in the same old way, over and over again? Some people do, I am not one of them.

    So in the end I become an ardent MMO tourist with severe altitis. I return to MMOs I have played when some new expansion comes out or some radical change has taken place and play a new character, something I have not played before.

    Here is to hoping that future MMOs will solve this issue and keep me in one place with what I need.

  4. One thing you don’t really talk about is how the affects burnout. I think Type 1 games only offer one single integrated “experience.” Once you tire of that, there is nothing else the game can offer you.

    For instance, let’s say you had a game where you must PvP to gain access to the best crafting materials. Now imagine you grew tired of doing PvP (which you may never have really wanted to do in the first place). But if you stop doing PvP, you can’t get the best crafting materials, so that means you can’t craft anymore either.

    Meanwhile, Type 2 games will only have burnout on specific minigames. You may tire of crafting, or PvP, etc., but that simply means you will quit that specific activity, not the game.

  5. >the ideal MMO (probably a sandbox) should have an integrated playerbase. It should be focussed on its niche, and every part of the game should feed into every other part to encourage players to interact.

    I’ve never understood why people push for ever more player interaction. In real life I probably spend 2/3′s of my time either by myself at work or with one other person at home. The rest of the time in small groups picked out of maybe 10-12 people, and that set of people hasn’t changed much in several years. I expect most people have something very similar, especially we gamer types who are the target audience.

    So why do people feel it would be good for games to constantly force you into competition or dependence on other random players in the game? It makes me think of having to watch a movie or something with a group of random strangers I’ve never met before, with all sorts of conflicting cultural and ideological beliefs, and every 15 minutes the movie stops and we all have to chat about it and decide if the past 15 min was good or not. This does not make for a good movie-watching experience!

    Playing in a game where other players constantly view you as prey, or fear you see them that way, like EVE, is just as bad as a game where progressing is about sucking up to other players for approval and popularity contests, like ATitD. Most of the worst experiences I’ve had in games are focused around the forced integration of the playerbase. Playing politics to get raid spots and that sinking feeling when you sometimes lose that spot, dealing with unpleasant and rude people in dungeon-finder, someone destroying my house because they think that sort of thing is hilarious for some reason. Most of the best times I either did alone or as a couple. Exploring weird out-of-the-way areas of the game map like the upside-down sinners hall in wow, completing my personal story in swtor or books in lotro, expanding my relto in uru and building my own little manor-home in wurm.

    These type 2 games are good not _despite_ “function[ing] better as integrated worlds”, but because they intentionally avoid that. They reject the whole integrated playerbase idea and just let people dwell in the world and have fun, instead of smooshing players together until one pops.

    • Why more player interaction? Because it leads to deeper connections in the game. The people who played M59 10+ years after it launched were people who had made friends in the game. In EQ1, the common refrain heard was, “I still play the game because my friends are there.” So, people are generally more satisfied with a game if they make social connections, which is helped by encouraging social activity within the game.

      One problem is that you’re trying to take your experiences, only desiring to interact with a limited number of people, and trying to universalize the experience. In the past, many people socialized with more than a single digit number of people: they knew their neighbors, joined clubs, volunteered in their community, and were part of the social fabric. This isn’t just an introvert thing, either; I’m a pretty serious introvert myself, but I like meeting people and exchanging ideas online.

      It’s also worth pointing out that historically (as in, prior to computers), games were mostly multiplayer. Solitaire games were exceptions, and most of them were simple time-wasters instead of complex activities. The computer made games into single-player pursuits by having the computer play the part of the opponent.

      However, don’t fret. If you want to play by yourself there are plenty of games out there that cater to your playstyle. A plethora of single-player games, but if you still want to play MMOs WoW and GW2 are both games that can be played almost entirely solo. For some of the rest of us, we’re looking for a game we can sink our teeth into for a long time. For us, that means making deeper connections in the game.

      • The player interaction is a classic example of where what players want doesn’t always match how they behave. People will always tend to say they prefer to be autonomous and not to need other players around, but if they are dumped into the middle of a helpful, friendly community where it isn’t too difficult to find other players/ guilds, many of them will like it AND tend to stay with the game for longer.

        I suspect it may be truer to say that a lot of people don’t really enjoy the process of social interaction but do enjoy being part of a solid community after it has all happened.

        I also would take the point about games traditionally being a social activity. To a gamer like me, who was brought up on card games, board games and pen and paper RPGs, it’s a real struggle to see a game as not involving a social element. Sure, I play single player games, but I’m not sure they are really real games to me in the same way as a game I play with my sister/s and friends would be.

  6. The issue with separate paths with separate rewards is that if not careful, they force players who WANT to try all the smorgasbord into having to choose where to focus their energies. WoW and WoW-alike games reward raiding with gear that makes you better at raiding, and PvP with gear that makes you better at PvP – but if I want to raid one night a week, run a couple of dungeons with mates and do a few battlegrounds then I find I’m not making sufficient progress in any one of those fields.
    I’m not sure what the best way forward is with that, because if you DON’T reward the most dedicated players on a path then they’re going to feel neglected and many will drop away without the promise of extrinsic rewards. I would have said don’t use increased power as a reward – however GW2 tried that path and is now having to pay at least lip service to having a reward power curve due to player pressure.

  7. @kiantremayne: The reason why non-power progression in GW2 isn’t working is because their system for using and switching between cosmetic gear sets is not very good. Collecting and maintaining multiple sets of gear is a nightmare because they’ve got no way to save sets, and that’s just for the purposes of having, say, a dungeon set vs. a WvW set. When you mix in transmutation stones, it gets so tediously complex that you mostly see people only bothering to collect and use one cosmetic set because its such a pain to do it.

    Compare that to say, WoW’s challenge mode rewards, which are pretty much all titles, achievements and cosmetic gear. Even though not everyone bothers with challenge modes, the rewards for it seem to be pretty satisfying to those who are interested, and I often hear people hoping that the challenge mode system will expand to include more dungeons over time, and possibly even some old raids.

    The real truth is that if you want to reward people for going hardcore in one aspect of the game, you can’t just throw a mound of gear or cosmetic sets or whatever at them. The reward has to be awesome (but not TOO awesome), and using or displaying the reward has to be a quick, easy process.

    @Samus, Michael: I agree that the type 2 games are definitely superior. I much prefer being able to change up what I’m doing in-game when I get bored, or when my time commitments change.

    And of course there’s the fact that in a more integrated, type 1 game, if you’re bad at the most important subgame, you’re always going to feel like you’re behind or dragging down your groups or whatever, and you won’t progress as far because of poor performance in that one area keeping you back. And since you’ll never get away from that, you’ll probably end up quitting the game far earlier than you would have if you didn’t have to bother with that area again.

    All this is not to say that less integrated games don’t have the same exact problem– just look at WoW and how hard the developers have been working to to keep PVE and pvp gear from crossing over too much and thereby forcing players to do both for optimal progression. They just have a less severe version of it because of the work they’ve put in to separate the two subgames.

  8. Excellent article, one of your best.
    The thing for me about smorgasbord style is that you may as well go that step further and alt tab to a different game if there’s no synergy at all. While I see the virtue of multiple minigames it is just an extension of on soloing together.
    Now I rather like soloing and certainly want it as an option for when I just want to log in and tick some numbers up higher without talking to anyone but for me all the most memorable times in MMOs have been cooperative. You can’t be glorious without an audience.
    And I really do think there’s a killing to be made in finding the niche between Eve, a sandbox where everyone is ultra competitive, and ATITD, a sandbox where everyone is so laid back that it’s hard to get excited about anything. With several sandboxes on the horizon maybe we’ll see someone get it right – I can’t imagine EQ Next wants to be as famous for corp theft and douchebaggery as Eve has become.

    • Thanks. I have a post I’m sort of working on about player power in MMOs (will probably roll it into the one I write about PvP as a content solution), but basically you have to ask why is it that PvP and griefers in particular tend to dominate sandbox games where it’s available? And it is because developers encourage it to do so. And they do it for cultural reasons, they want to build Gang War Sim, not ‘build a functional society Sim’. Same reason that you can get a higher score in Civ by dominating militarily than by building a peaceful trading empire and pushing your research (even though logic might say that building a peaceful and successful empire is far more civilised).

      ATITD is far more hardcore than most people give it credit for (and can be very socially competitive), but doesn’t have the huge griefer component of PvP sandboxes which is why it’s so much more civilised on the surface.

      And while it sounds great in theory to find a niche between ultra competitive empire building MMOs and a more ATITD setup, I don’t know that it’s possible UNLESS you can monitor players coming in to make sure they’re down with the general aim and goals and squash griefers really hard.

      Goons are a really interesting grouping in EVE because whilst a lot of their hype is about how they want to ruin the game for other players, they probably don’t really want to ruin EVE because there won’t BE any other games that suit their playstyle quite so well. They may inadvertently do it anyway, but by then it will be too late.

      • Absolutely right about Goons. They want to be top predators on a Serengeti amply stocked with prey.

        Look forward to the next articles in this very well-considered series.

  9. Pingback: [WS] Arkship 2013Kill Ten Rats | Kill Ten Rats

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