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.

Give us this day our daily quest

wow_dragondaily

Next, attach a heart shaped balloon to your dragon … (the heart does remind me of GW2)

We are all creatures of routines. In any MMO you play regularly, there are routines you get into when you log in or out for a session. Maybe you check the auction house, send some materials between alts, check bank/guild logs to see what has happened while you were away, make sure you get your character somewhere ‘safe’ to log out, make a to-do list for what you want to do in this session, and so on. We can call this housekeeping, meaning habits you get into which will maintain your character/account the way you like it.

It’s in the interest of any MMO designer that players build regular habits around the game. For subscription games, it encourages you to keep subbing. F2P games may not charge subscriptions, but they benefit from having regular players if only for the content and marketing they provide for the people who do pay. Also players who log in regularly are more likely to form communities; when you see or hear the same people around every night, you will eventually feel that you are getting to know them even if you never stop to chat.

Daily quests are pretty clever, because they can slot neatly into this need for routine. So you log in and instead of the dailies being part of ‘what shall I do this evening?’ they are part of the housekeeping instead that you want to finish before you get some ‘me time.’ I have a good tolerance for daily quests (as long as they don’t expect me to do something I really hate) and if nothing else you will become really expert in the geography and spawn patterns of the daily quest areas of WoW. Pandaria has gone rather whole hog with the dailies, of which there are many and for multiple different factions. Which does lead to the risk that if people focus on dailies, they might not have enough time to do anything else.

I like to think people can sort out their own playing schedule, but the lure of ‘must complete dailies’ can be very strong. Not only that but it’s very easy to “log in quickly, just to check auctions” and end up with “while I’m here, might as well play a bit” and daily quests are an easily quantifiable unit of gameplay to plan. So “might as well play a bit” could become “might as well do the cloud serpent dailies.”

GW2 takes a very different approach, where the daily appears much more freeform and wrapped up in the sorts of PvE activity people tend to do anyway. Harvest X materials, kill Y mobs, kill Z different types of mobs, complete ZZ dynamic events. I love the requirement to kill lots of different types of mobs – it rewards you for knowing roughly where to find them and encourages you to move around. I am less fond of the dynamic event requirement, because those are random elements and hunting round for DEs can be tedious. So basically, although the daily appears more freeform, if you want to complete it you might have to fit it into your closing set of housekeeping routines (ie. things you need to do before you log off : complete daily quest).

In many ways, the best daily at the moment is the farming one in WoW. You log in and harvest your crops, then plant some more. It doesn’t involve fighting other players for scarce mobs, or doing anything onerous (like logging in your lowbie alt on GW2 so you can do lowbie DEs), but there’s a routine you can get into. It’s no accident that Farmville style games took off in such quantities, they’re really good at getting players into habits. It’s a lightly gamified version of the crafting/ AH housekeeping that a lot of people do and mostly you’re just being trained to log in every day.

It would be stretching things to say that daily quests help games to become more than 3 monthers, and really its better if you can set up your own habits,  but getting people into the idea of logging in regularly might play a role in building a more longterm mindset.

[WoW] Bits and pieces about MoP: Future of raiding, dailies all the way down, pay for more powerful pets

Mists of Pandaria looks set to offer a very different style of endgame to Cataclysm. While the traditional raid and instance setup will still be present, along with a group/raid finder to let players jump into a PUG, Blizzard look to be making a definite push to provide more content and options for non-raiders and soloers. For example, there will be:

  • Many more daily quests
  • More factions to grind (rather than being able to earn faction points while running instances via tabards)
  • A farmville setup
  • Pet battles, including being able to tame pets from the wild
  • Scenarios (like mini instances/ events that only require 3 players, all of whom can be dps)
  • Challenge modes for regular instances (ie. more loot if you complete the instance more quickly)

And those are just the gameplay mechanics that someone who hasn’t  been following the beta closely has picked off the top of their head, I have no idea what the PvP plans will be. This could be an incredibly successful expansion for Blizzard if they can attract those more casual or solo focussed players with an ‘endgame’ balanced for their interests. Ignore the panda haters, there’s some genuinely new direction here.

Whither raiding?

Raiding, I think, in the sense of dedicated raid groups, will suffer more in this expansion than it ever has before. Players have pondered whether the relative popularity of 10 man raids over 25 man ones is purely due to ease of organisation of smaller groups. If the rewards (and difficulties) from gold level challenge modes are in any way comparable to hard mode raids, we may see whether 5 man instances will be preferred over 10 man raids by a hardcore PvE crowd.

Casual raid groups who got trashed by Cataclysm – and they did — may find a resurgence. (Although not as much as if Blizzard relaxed the 10/25 man raid locks.) There will be plenty of players who are happy to do a weekly 10 man run with the friendly guild and spend the rest of their time pursuing less directed, more solo focussed, or more casual play which lets them chat while they work on the pet collecting or faction grind.

There was a sad thread on the official boards that caught my eye called “Don’t let the 25 man raids die” which asked whether Blizzard was planning any changes to the 10/25 man setup, rewards etc in response to how much 25 man raiding has dropped off in Cataclysm. The CM answered:

The devs don’t have, at this time, any plans to incentivize 25-man raiding. They want to make 10 and 25-man raids close enough, so that you choose whatever you find more fun.

The thread is quite poignant if you like that sort of thing, with lots of reflection from people who preferred 25 man raiding but now feel 10 man is their only choice.

I’ve come to the conclusion that 10 man raiding is too small to sustain a healthy guild. Having multiple 10 man teams leads to the formation of cliques, and having a single 10 man team doesn’t have enough people to be able to support a pool of substitutes who’ll be there when you need them.

…not everybody who wants to raid 25-man rather than 10-man will be able to do so… not even remotely. If I think back to WotLK, when my guild was born… I came from a guild that raided 25-man on a rather casual level. You won’t find that anymore. It’s all or nothing with 25-man raiding nowadays, because players in general tend to choose the easiest way they can.

I liked doing 10man with guild and pug 25man in wowlk it was soooo fun. Now we can only do 1 or the other there is no choice in doing both before the 1 week reset.

10-man rosters are a nightmare… if you have 10 people that show up 95% of the time you get floored when 1 person can’t show up. People just leave if they get put on backup so rotating is almost impossible (unless you have a very casual / forgiving players).

I’ve seen that phenomenon, people who would rather quit than be put on backup even for just one night.

The real problem in Cataclysm is the survival of semi-hardcore or semi-casual 25 man raiding guilds. There were a lot of them and in the advent of Cataclysm they were the guilds that suffered the most. … With this system, Blizzard are killing off a specific breed of guilds. The semi-hardcore 25 man guilds that were so prevalent in TBC and WotLK, and that makes me really sad. That was the kind of guild many players liked to join, they knew they weren’t the best of the best, but I bet they had a hell of a lot of fun before Cataclysm came around.

I’ve ran and led 25man raids in WoTLK, and that’s something I know I’ll never get back to. The ingame rewards don’t override the out-of-playing hassle for me, not at all. Even if 25man had 50ilvls better gear, I wouldn’t bother with 25man if I had to be the one taking care of most organization.

So maybe there are plenty of players who would prefer 25 man raids in a semi-casual environment to 10 man raids, but can’t find those raids any more. (I think part of the problem was that officers/ raid leaders always had to be pretty hardcore in 25 man guilds, even if the rest of the guild was semi-casual.) Anyhow, Blizzard has no plans to tweak this or add any incentives for 25 man raiding. Expect to see 25 mans continue to die out.

Yo dawg! We heard you like dailies so we put dailies in your dailies …

So, daily quest lovers, in MoP you will be able to run about 48 daily quests per day should you so wish. There’s actually no limit so you can always do some lower level dailies from previous expansions if you finish all of those and are still bored.

Vaneras comments:

Mists of Pandaria is actually the expansion where we have emphasized dailies the most… ever!

I don’t have any issues with this myself. At that point in the game, people just want to log in and do something fun that will progress their character in some way. Assuming dailies are at least as fun as normal quests and that people who like PvE are happy with normal quests, the only issue is whether players get bored and how many dailies you have to do to get whichever reward you are aiming for. I’d assume players will be less bored when they have a wider variety of daily quests to choose from, so this is probably a good change.

This is also likely to provide quite an influx of gold into the economy, with the usual inflationary effect. People who play the AH will no doubt profit greatly. There will be a new gold sink in the black market.

Olivia@WoW Insider worries that players will feel forced to do as many dailies as possible. I don’t think anyone is ever actually forced to get in game rewards as fast as is humanly possible and maybe the people who do feel that pressure just need to chill and let the people who can control their own playing times enjoy the extra choice.

I find it quite tiresome when choices in games are deliberately restricted because ‘hardcore players would feel forced to do everything.’ Well sucks to be them then.

Cash shop pets to be more powerful in pet battles

Ah, you probably saw this one coming as soon as Blizzard announced that some pets would be considered ‘rare quality’ (ie. more powerful in pet battles) and they would add some non-capture pets to this list. Non-capture means pre-existing pets as opposed to ones that are captured from the wild in MoP.

The full list is here and it does include many of the previous pets that were rare drops in the game. It also includes pets bought from the in game shop.

Blizzard comment:

We decided which pets to change based on how difficult they are to obtain. This approach makes sense since it means that more time was put into getting these particular pets than other ones.

It did not take much time to click ‘buy’ on the cash shop, just saying. Still, I did get warm fuzzies when I saw my crimson whelpling on the list – that pet was given to me by Arb during Vanilla WoW Smile Happy days.