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.