Begone, Phat Lewts!

pile20of20gold31If gold selling and buying are a symptom, and the grind required to get money and/or items in game is the disease, then what would happen if we removed — or severely restricted — or changed, somehow — what is considered a “good” reward in MMOs?

Again, WoW casts a huge shadow over MMOland in this respect, but it didn’t create the shadow. Kill monster, get xp, look through its pockets for loot (even if it’s a pocketless rust monster) is several decades old and started out on paper. You could probably argue that go forth, rescue the damsel, get your proper reward (hur, hur) is pretty much the same thing. It is, and it isn’t.

Right now, in a game like WoW, you have two basic choices. You can go out and get your own phat lewtz which, if I understand it rightly, means some kind of insanely repetitive long-ass grindfest, regardless of whether you’re grinding faction or grinding an instance or grinding 18,000 foozles to get the Super Sword of Foozle Smashing — whatever its shape, it’s a grind. (Grind: any action you have to repeat so many times that that activity becomes unpleasant and tedious, and goes past the point of even remotely being “fun.”) Or, in some cases, you can buy said phat lewts off the Auction House. And aside from that, there are the various rewards you can get in-game, like mounts, that cost a quintillion gold AND an insanely ridiculous faction grindfest, so that’s twice the grind bang for your in-game buck.

That sucking sound you hear is soul and fun leaving the game. I don’t really care when or why it became all about Monty and his Haul (and if you don’t know that term, you’re too young to be reading my blog. Begone, and return only when you have played at least 5 years of bad, but ridiculously fun, beginner D&D campaigns!); fact is, it’s all about the grind. For money, for rep, for Slackassery-Tokens so you can get your Slackassery special items — whatever; it doesn’t matter what the label on the tin says, inside it’s all grind-produced spam.

I’m going to ignore the point that the grind design method and the subscription payment method go together like crack and pipe — they mostly do, but I’m concerned more with what constitutes “reward” in games than with what constitutes “gaming fun,” though I’m sure the two are probably pretty closely related and may end up dovetailing in the end. What I’m trying to ponder right now, though, is the idea that items and coins — or some recogniseable facsimile — are the only things people will recognise as rewards in MMOs (or for that matter just about any game out there right now).

Sure, money is a reward-type we all understand, and it probably makes the MMO worlds go round just as it does this one. But is it the only thing that will work, or is it the only thing we use because it’s the only thing we know? (There are pretty good barter economies out in the real world, and capitalism isn’t the only working model out there. Granted, most “working” models are much smaller-scale, but they’re there.)

This is where my own basic assumptions are holding me back, because for all that I’d like to see an alternative to money/items as rewards, everything I come up with seems to end up being a thinly-veiled variation. Hey, pay me in chickens! (Chickens becomes the new currency, so chickens = gold. No innovation there, just more feathers, and Banks would be called Coops.)

Don’t pay me in titles or other intangibles — I thought about that, and I know some people find it great, but for a fluff-lover I’m oddly cold about things like titles. They’re about as useful as those fake moles women would paste on a few centuries ago — pretty (maybe) but also pretty useless. Titles don’t give me much of a feel-good buzz; if all I ever got was titles, I’d get rather bored rather quickly. And this is my problem — stuffย tends to give me a feelgood buzz, so I’m just as bad as any other Purples-chaser and the only difference is that I’m chasing deco- and fluff-items as opposed to gear. Okay, how about… Brownie Points? But isn’t that just a thinly-veiled version of reputation? Or reputation and/or currency, whether you can clink it in your hot little hands or not?

I have a suspicion that we apes needย currency, however it’s represented, because we like to interact and trade and get stuff for giving stuff. Whether the currency is gold, chickens or some kind of non-coin brownie-points system — it’s still currency even if it clucks. And phat lewt is still phat lewt whether it’s the Ultimate Pants of Killing Doom or the Coolest Pirate Hat that Does Nothing EVAR. Maybe I’m just showing my middle-aged lassitude and wanting to change up my life of empty materialism. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with endless materialism in games, since we have a drive to acquire, provided the path to acquisition is relatively entertaining (which it isn’t, but grind-design is another issue).

Still, I’m feeling oddly unfulfilled by my MMOney and phat lewts. Maybe I should jet off to the MMO equivalent of the Seychelles and “find myself” for a few weeks till my acquisitive drive returns.

48 thoughts on “Begone, Phat Lewts!

  1. The only help I can offer comes from single-player RPGs, and in particular J-RPGs: story. A lot of JRPGs are very linear (which some people hate) because in that way they can tell a fairly complete (if often strange) story. So your reward is the next spoonful of plot-line.

    But a) those games still have loot and gear and b) in an MMO that’d really only work for a first character.

    There’s something primal about amassing that humans seem to love. Maybe it goes back to our days of hunter/GATHERERS or something. Maybe its somehow keyed in to our desire to build (in this case, building a character towards some goal, whether it be power in the case of purple gear, or towards some vision we have of the character and its environs in the case of fluff items).

    Of course ideally we’d say the reward was fun but strangely, just being fun doesn’t seem to be enough to get us to stick around.

  2. Donโ€™t pay me in titles or other intangibles

    Just don’t pay me.

    How about we ignore the rewards and I just get to tell a really good story with my character? If I could get to experience my own, genuinely interactive Lord of the Rings, The Blade Itself or The Final Empire, loot would be moot.

    Answer: Fat loot is easy, cost effective and proven to work. Story is none of these things.

    I do think that developers perhaps underestimate the replay potential of a really good story. You don’t need to rush everyone to the level cap and then make them grind for loot. There is another way, but it is hard and unproven, and hence may not be cost effective. Any company that takes the gamble would have my support though, for what it’s worth.

  3. In games, as in life – money represents value – we assign value to thing we have by putting a price on them – as in there worth in money, and other people can decide (or we can decide) whether that specific Item/experience is worth the amount of money (or holds the value assigned to it)
    Our whole thought pattern is based on it. I know a group who barters time and skill – so if you are a lawyer, and I am a baker, I can barter 1 hour of baking for 1 hour of lawyering – but you still have the same system of give and take.
    Whether it is $ or gold or phat lewts
    Same difference…. Maybe its the game that is boring you?

  4. @Mildred – I’m not bored per se, it was mostly a “thought experiment” type thing. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    But aye, whether it’s cash or barter or a gift economy, it’s still an economy and we’re still wired (hard- or soft-) to go in that direction. I was just wondering if there were other viable options. The midlife crisis stuff was mostly me being facetious.

  5. I was getting my WoW fix this weekend and was almost put off when the Trial Account process seemed determined to make me enter a Trial authorization key (that I didn’t have), but I finally got in and rolled a Mage (because I’ve did Hunters and Rogues to death when I was a subscriber).

    Around level 10 I was thinking to myself, “I really want to resubscribe.” and I was even planning what race/class I’d roll if I did renew my subscription. Then around level 14 reality hit me; WoW is nothing but an almost endless grind from 1 to 80.

    Sure, there’s the odd escort or mail run quest, but maybe 98% of the quests are a variant of a kill quest.
    Kill 10 Foozles.
    Collect 10 Foozle Horns.
    Retrieve my Golden Widget the Foozles stole…I don’t know which Foozle it was! Just kill ’em all until you find it!

    Do developers really think every single MMO Player is happy killing a gazillion foozles just to get to some arbitrary level cap just so they can team up with 4/9/24 other people and start killing groups of Elite Foozles, and maybe the Foozle Boss himself?

    Where is Harvest Moon: Online?

  6. @Capn John – Maybe developers don’t think every SINGLE MMO Player is happy killing foozles on a treadmill, but millions of them apparently are happy doing so… Maybe that’s enough for the developers.

    I’ve read many articles about how loot and killing foozles on a treadmill aren’t enough… seldom read any suggestions on what to replace them with, however. Like Melmoth, a great story might be a suitable replacement for me, but how about the masses? Common wisdom holds that “no one” reads the quest text…

    Personally, I deal with “the grind” by playing something else for awhile. If a game gets to the point where killing one more foozle is going to suck my soul right out of my body, I stop. I flit, I fly from game to game — enjoying them while they are enjoyable and then moving on, or back, to something else for awhile. In general, I love loot and I like killing foozles, but when it’s not fun anymore, no great loss.

  7. Not every MMO player. Just 11 million of them.

    I read this “kill quest” complaint a lot, but I don’t see a lot of alternate suggestions that are reasonable (given the sheer number of quests needed in an MMO, there needs to be a lot of ‘cookie cutter’ quests; hand crafting the thousands of quests in a game while remaining profitable would be impossible).

    I’m not actually defending WoW — I don’t play it. But I was just posting about Spellborn and so was thinking about this. The quests there so far are “Please find these 5 items/people” or “Please take this to person X” or “Please kill 10 rats.” and I had to immediately wonder how many people would dismiss the game because they see it as another grind.

    What isn’t a grind? Examples, please!

    Harvest Moon: Online will have a grind of growing crops, a grind of doing FedEx quests for townsfolk to get them to like you. A grind of taking your dog to the park to play frisbee…

  8. See, I still think “grind” is so subjective as to be almost impossible to define, at least given how loosely it’s used these days. In the subjective sense, grind is the point at which an activity ceases to be enjoyable but you do it anyway, for whatever reason — well, that’s my subjective take on it.

    On a slightly less subjective level, “grind” is also used to describe the rather obvious development tack some games have taken where more and more of an activity is required in order to achieve ever-decreasing reward increments — the underlying idea being that the longer something takes, the longer someone stays subscribed. The WoW-reputation grind is well known now and is apparently even worse since WOTLK — I wouldn’t know, I’m not into that kind of higher-level content. I did try to start working on rep with frost saber trainers so I could get the cool lilac mount, but it didn’t take me long to give up. The amount of effort required and the amount of repetitive tedium involved just made it not worth it, even for a “fluff” item.

  9. Hmm. I think it’s terribly difficult to disconnect items from reward expectations; everyone likes loot to some extent, and many view it as one of the most interesting/compelling parts of RPGs (as well as the action and adventure genres). If there are no items, then it’s much harder to achieve uniqueness of character build. Additionally, the intermittent reward is quite compelling in a behavioral psychology sense; thus a player is more likely to kill hundreds of orcs if each of those orcs has a small chance of dropping some epic loot. People will raid repeatedly because it’s the most efficient way to gain power for their characters (especially in the endgame – where items are often the ONLY means of advancing); not because it’s fun or exciting to kill a given boss the fifth or fiftieth time.

  10. But (yeah, I’m totally being Devil’s Advocate because I know you have no work to do today!! *ducks*)

    Let’s go back to value. People look at the reputation grind (as good an example as any) and see it as a nefarious technique for keeping players subscribed.

    But what if the developers aren’t really that evil. I’ve met a good number of game developers and none of them have seemed evil to me. They’ve all been crazy-hard-working people that love games and want to make games that are fun.

    So what if the reputation grind is a way of creating value that isn’t coin or phat loot? Yeah, it takes a *lot* of time and dedication (in the form of being willing to devote time to the game, not in terms of becoming skillful) to get the reputation to get that lilac mount. And it wasn’t worth it to *you* but clearly it is worth it to others.

    Doesn’t that build a certain level of value into that lilac mount? It makes it a more rare item, without really limiting the supply of the item. Everyone *can* get it. It isn’t a matter of lucky drops or anything. It’s a matter of being willing to put in the time for it.

    I think there’s some value in that in MMOs. For some people, the lilac mount is just cool enough that they want it. For others, it’s a matter of bragging rights. But its one more thing to work for (or to choose not to work for). An alternative to rushing to cap to raid.

    I mean, *I’m* not going to spend the kind of time it takes to get a lilac mount. But I think its cool that the option is there. And maybe grinding isn’t fun all the time, but what about the feeling of accomplishment you get when you make it? Running a marathon probably isn’t something many people feel is “fun” but I’m sure everyone that finishes one takes from it a great feeling of satisfaction.

    The absurd opposite of grinding is giving everyone everything in the game the moment they log in. It could be really fun to play with all that stuff, but would it be satisfying? Is being power-leveled or twinked satisfying? Some people don’t care: they just want to get there. But for others, that “Yay! I finished it and did it honest!!” feeling is worth the grind.

    Just food for thought. I’m not really a grinder, myself, though I do love that feeling of accomplishment when I get there.

    I read a lot of “game developers must be idiots and/or stupid” thoughts these days, and I’m not sure that’s fair… the ones I’ve met have all been enthusiast and really into making fun games.

  11. Cap’n, HM:O is percolating in Wiqd’s head. It’s something that I’ve written about and will probably help Wiqd with when I get the time. It’s definitely something I want to see happen. (Though I’m still toying with names for it… Reaping Sun? The synonym/antonym route doesn’t quite work all the time.)

    Even so, HMO would still be about shuffling around different currencies. The difference would be the method of gathering and using said currencies. In many ways, the “reward” would be the *fun* that’s unlocked by *using* currencies, rather than merely the shallow satisfaction with *having* currencies themselves.

    It’s much like the real world. It’s possible to have a great, happy life with little in the way of money, but if you have *none*, it gets a bit difficult. Also, it’s possible to get caught up in the notion that money=happiness (or stuff=happiness), but that way lies the inevitable crash that we’re now seeing in slow motion worldwide.

    There really is joy in the journey.

    To that end, I think that even some people behind WoW understand that. There are a lot of beautiful vistas and interesting places to visit. There is a lot of interesting lore. That much of the game is based almost entirely on finding new sights… and then painting them with the blood of your enemies in the quest for more *stuff* is certainly unfortunate. It’s almost like the devs didn’t trust that their world would be appreciated for itself and as a venue for fun, and felt that they needed to make the loot treadmill to hook people. Thing is, those work to counter purposes, and a lot of the great worldbuilding is being ignored because of the cheap thrill of chasing goodies.

    I do think that blame is equally shared between devs who don’t trust their own content (and take the cheap addictive treadmill route to keep people on the crack), and the players who have culturally bought into the rat race. The best WoW moments for me are those where the *world* shines, say a great sunset or players kiting a dragon to a capital city. I can get the endless loot race in nearly any game.

    Loot lust treadmills work because the audience is little better than Pavlovian Skinner monkeys, to be snarky about it. A game that was more about the journey itself would probably naturally have a smaller audience. The idea that such a game would be a failure is a meta application of the same rat race mentality that “bigger is better” and “more money=more quality”.

    We can find great journeys, we just have to look past the hamster wheels. Maybe even to smaller, less mainstream titles.

    On the dev side, we have to trust our ability to make interesting content and provide great tools for players to have fun, and not get caught in the cheap treadmill design. It may well mean not being “popular” because we’re different, trusting that our core design is of sufficient quality to grow in the face of low initial adoption numbers thanks to the perception that we’re too different. (Puzzle Pirates is a great example of this, actually.)

    This may well also mean several hard changes on the business end, anywhere from jettisoning the sub model to working modestly with as little debt as possible (and working as a private company to avoid shareholders and their ROI demands that drive treadmill adoption) to starting small and working with sustainable business models. There are a lot of small changes that would add up to a very different game, but I think that it’s well worth it.

  12. Grind is merely a tedious, repetitive action. “Tedium” and “repetitive” already have their own negative connotations, and “grind” combines them into a single word.

    We can “grind” mobs for XP, we can “grind” crafting, we can “grind” reputations, we can “grind” skill levels.

    You name it, once that fresh feeling is gone and tedium sets in, it becomes a “grind.” Our brain shuts off,we go through the motions, and we start wanting something “fresh” or “new” again.

    The drug has worn off and we need a new fix…

    One of the problems is that “fun” is nebulous. One person’s trash is another’s treasure and all that.

    We complain we need “new” or “better” quests. Like what? Even single-player RPGs use the exact same quest types that MMOs do, the difference is because they’re single-player the presentation can be so much better rather than reading poorly written and uninteresting quest dialogue.

    For that matter, pretty much any fiction or adventure in literature or cinema can be deconstructed to one of the quest types, so it’s not as if it’s only a problem for game designers or only a problem of the past 10-20 years.

    We all bitch and complain but no one — NO ONE — has ever come up with solutions.

    Let’s face it, video games in particular for the most part have not evolved since the beginning. Most have always been about solving conflict through violence, starting with Space Invaders to Asteroids, etc. until now. If it moves, kill it. MMOs just let us kill everything that moves together then add some fluffy (and usually tedious) mini-games for the non-combat down times and some chat channels to give a rudimentary feeling of “community” in the game.

  13. I haven’t read all the comments yet — though I will, I love you all and you’re all much cleverer than I deserve — but I do want to make one thing clear.

    I love devs too. They’re real people with passion and creativity and, like in every other industry, most of them are doing the best they can to produce something they can be proud of. (Ignoring the other issues the gaming industry has, that are covered by far more knowledgeable people than me — Lum and Sanya to name just a couple).

    However, I feel we all have every right to criticise their product without making any particular comment on them as people. It’s what we do when we review books and movies. I certainly don’t intend to sound like the “I hate this so I hate you devs you’re all out to get us aaargh” type of commenter.

  14. @tesh

    “I do think that blame is equally shared between devs who donโ€™t trust their own content (and take the cheap addictive treadmill route to keep people on the crack), and the players who have culturally bought into the rat race.”

    As someone who enjoys getting new loot, I’m fairly offended by your characterization of me. And then:

    “The best WoW moments for me are those where the *world* shines, say a great sunset or players kiting a dragon to a capital city. ”

    Those are my favorite moments, too. Sitting out at the Lighthouse in Westfall at 3 am, watching the light sweep across the sea, enjoying the feeling of quiet on the server. The first time I saw whatever quest it is that has that dude march into Stormwind. Finding plane crashes in the jungles, or the race track in the salt flats.

    Point is, this isn’t an either/or situation. People can enjoy both advancing their character through gear, AND experiencing the magic moments in the game. But I argue that you can’t have a game that is JUST the magic moments, because then they stop feeling special and become routine.

    I’m trying to imaging the game bloggers are describing. It has no levels, no loot, no repetition, no kill quests. I get what it *doesn’t* have, but what *does* it have?

    @Talyn — Well said!

  15. “Iโ€™m trying to imaging the game bloggers are describing. It has no levels, no loot, no repetition, no kill quests. I get what it *doesnโ€™t* have, but what *does* it have?”

    This is the problem. Maybe there is no such beast. But it’s also possible that what we’re trying to describe is a better balance between journey and reward?

    Trouble is, I’m not sure how much of that is down to design and how much of it is down to the player. (And … how much design influences player expectations, and so on into the chicken and egg debate.)

    I just like to ponder stuff like this, even if it doesn’t have an answer. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  16. @Ysh, I didn’t mean to imply that *you* were speaking ill of devs, my apologies.

    Nor was I limited my field of view to comments here at Stylish Corpse. I was thinking of the broader blogging space, where I do often read comments starting with something like “These stupid devs just care about getting our money.”

    I should’ve been more clear.

    But I do think better of the developers than that the reason they got into making games was to get players on some kind of treadmill that they find hard to jump off of (due to peer pressure or psychological profiles or whatever) so as to extract maximum money while offering minimal value. I just don’t think they’re that nefarious.

  17. I know you didn’t, Pete. Actually though, it never hurts to reiterate that one is critiquing a product and not the producer, especially for creative stuff.

    Not that we have wee vulnerable egos or anything. ๐Ÿ˜€

  18. I’m in the middle of writing a post right now lamenting what you guys have already pointed out, and that is that the WoW’s polish has worn off and has (for me at least) lost its wow factor (bad pun intended, of course ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I was also going to post about the evolution the video game industry has gone through…from Space Invaders & Asteroids to Time Crisis & Street Fighter (freaky coincidence, Talyn), but you’re right; All four of those games (& many in between) are about killing (beating up) your opponent, it’s really just the way you do it, and how it’s presented, which has changed over the years.

    In my defense I’m not a Grinding Suxxorz! whiner who doesn’t have ideas for improvement, although I will admit the definition of ‘grind’ does change depending on the game. Excellent observation about Grinding on Mobs in WoW vs Grinding on Crops in HMO, by the way. This thread & comments is pure win. And no, I’m not being sarcastic. I love reading conversations like this ๐Ÿ™‚

    So, here’s my take on Harvest Moon:Online (yes, it’s on my Blog ;):
    http://capnjohnsblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/harvest-moon-online.html

    A variant on questing, to make games more immersive, except nobody reads Quest Dialog any more ๐Ÿ™
    http://capnjohnsblog.blogspot.com/2008/07/new-way-of-questing.html

    Finally, while WoW is very much about the grind, one of my fondest memories in WoW (other than the friends I made, who I still email every now & then) involved the killing of just four Mobs (albeit unique ones):
    http://capnjohnsblog.blogspot.com/2007/03/kwazimoto-and-demon.html
    Obviously Klinfran is most vivid in my memory, but my encounters with the other three Demons are equally as memorable, if not necessarily fiction worthy ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Obviously the Epic Hunter quest was put in to keep The Hunter playing as long as possible, but IMO WoW still needs more quests like this. Maybe not quite so Epic, but at least some deviation from the standard Kill 10 Rats, Collect 10 Rat Paws, etc.

  19. My point is that someone is precisely that nefarious. At least, somewhere up the chain, somebody is. It’s usually on the shoulders of the business guys, not the actual production floor, though. The “nefariousness” may even be spread over the whole of the shareholders and board, but it’s there. It gets expressed in gamer terms to the devs as “make the game addictive” or “keep players in your game”, and devs take it and make treadmills because it’s the easy way to satisfy that demand.

    Interestingly, in that way, it’s just the notion of selfishness and greed percolating backwards from the financiers to the devs. Or perhaps it’s just that everyone is stuck in a rut.

    Perhaps there’s a case to be made that devs are just doing what is expected of them, either under protest but going along because it’s a paycheck, or because it’s a cultural thing they aren’t even really aware of, or if they are, they simply don’t care. It’s easy to settle on the *stuff* as an indicator of success. It’s obvious, it’s available to compare notes, and with the Achievement system, there are even more congratulatory moments.

    …but is it fun if the system has to keep patting you onthe head, and reminding you that you should feel special? Whether it’s an Achievement or an ever-smaller increase in DPS, aren’t we just saying that we’re easily strung along?

    Pete, I’m not seeking to offend you personally. I’m pointing out that the culture of accumulation and focus on *stuff* is banal at best, and self-destructive at worst. (Especially as it’s a major component of the current economic meltdown.) If you feel a personal stake in that, perhaps you might take offense at my challenge to the assumption that such is a desirable state of affairs, but my goal is not to give offense. My goal is to promote change to something better. I am not interested in maintaining the status quo, even if change itself offends some people. It’s nothing personal.

    Yes, it’s possible to have a game that satisfies both the journey and the rewards-driven crowds, and it’s even likely that MMOs have to make that bargain. I just see way too many games settling for the cheap thrills and “design by the numbers” rather than really trying to create a fantastic journey. Even those who try to do both still focus heavily on the treadmill. That’s a trend that I feel like challenging.

    Put another way, the best game developers I’ve had the pleasure of working with have sought to give players something to *do*, not something to *get*. I think that has been lost in the MMO mainstream, whether it’s by slow accumulation of ever-lazier design or by intentional ROI calculation. Even WAR, with a surface focus on stuff to *do*, bought into the PvE loot treadmill, and it diluted their game and fractured the user base. These are not mistakes that should be made by savvy devs.

  20. As Tesh mentioned, the idea of a Harvest Moon: Online idea has been flowing back and forth between him, myself, Capn John and a few others (I’ve even made a post about how to script the beginnings of an HM:O on Metaplace :D) for a couple months now.

    If you’d like to read up on our ideas, here’s the main 3 posts on it. I’m sure there’s more that have bits and pieces though.

    http://wiqdintentionz.com/studios/blog2/?p=289

    http://wiqdintentionz.com/studios/blog2/?p=296

    http://wiqdintentionz.com/studios/blog2/?p=301

    I think everyone is pretty clear what my ideas on grinding are and while I believe you can have “kill X amount of things” quests that don’t feel like grinds, the whole system needs to be addressed.

    Face it though: most MMOs out now dictate following some kind of war, which makes killing X mobs fit in to the story … to an extent. It can be overdone like all things (and usually is) but I think they still have a place.

  21. @wiqd I should have linked those myself, they’re very germane to the discussion.

    I’m also feeling left behind by the great stuff you guys are coming up with — curse this real life and headspace crap! ๐Ÿ˜€ That said, I’ve already admitted to being diabolically bad at that kind of mechanics thing — I can evaluate them and critique them and find holes and stuff, but I can’t make em up worth poop. They always end up ridiculously complex and very likely to not actually achieve what they’re trying to achieve.

    I’m just not methodical enough. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  22. Items generally have a better investment-reward ratio than other rewards like skills, meaning a designer can design more items with a given amount of time and assets. They’re easier to balance between players, too (which most MMO devs over-emphasize).

    Diablo 2 has a good model for loot rewards. What makes D2’s system great is that a dozen players will have a dozen different gear sets and each will have a different idea of what’s the best. In that game, players have personal preferences and, though players do focus on gear power over appearance, they don’t obsess over getting optimal gear because no item is tied to a specific quest or enemy.

    In that game, different characters of the same class have different gear and skills, yet the imbalance of power between players doesn’t prevent millions of people from enjoying the game. Frankly, the dominant MMO model has nothing to do with fun and everything to do with milking consumers.

    1. “Frankly, the dominant MMO model has nothing to do with fun and everything to do with milking consumers.”

      Assuming you mean WoW, has it WoW about milking customers and Diablo 2 all about fun?

      From what you’ve written, it sounds to me like the WoW COMMUNITY is what is milking customers. You say Diablo 2 players have an imbalance of power and can have fun, but in WoW, its the PLAYERS who insist that another player have a specific gear set before they’re allowed in the fun.

  23. @Tesh, I wasn’t offended personally… I know you weren’t singling me out. I was offended for My People!! ๐Ÿ™‚ Those who enjoy the capitalistic pursuit of drops. I choose the word “drops” carefully because I don’t just mean better swords to fight more uber-er enemies. I’m probably more happy when I get a baby panda pet to drop…one that just waddles along behind me.

    Tying the satisfaction that a lot of gamers get from monster pinatas to the current real world recession/depression is a bit of a stretch. Or maybe not so much a stretch as an awfully big burden to put on the shoulders of videogames.

    Accumulating stuff is not a bad thing. Fixating on nothing but accumulating stuff is. But we’ve been bred to store up stuff to get us through lean times; it’s hard to grow wheat for our bread in the middle of winter.

    The other thing people like (in games, anyway) is change. Unpredictable events happening. And surprises. Monster pinatas and changing gear provides that.

    I still don’t agree with you on the nefarious bit. There’s enough true evil in the world without us imagining it at some game development studio. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I mean, clearly games are made for people to play, so on some level, sure, the devs want you to keep playing, but I don’t see it the same way you do, like its some sinister plan of “Sure, we could make a fun game, but we’re going to make a shitty game with lots of grind to slow people down.” If that were truly the case, why are so many devs speeding up the leveling curve, both in new games and in older ones? WoW, EQ2, and now LOTRO have all gone back and sped up the journey through their games. Why do that if the only goal is to slow players down via the grind?

    What about CCP and Turbine with their free updates? Are they perpetuating a treadmill? Sure. A content treadmill. We’ll just keep laying down new content so people will have to keep playing. We’re evil!!

    @Capn John, thanks for the links! Just what I need, another blog for my RSS reader. ๐Ÿ™‚

    PS To Ysh and Wiqd, I think wordpress by default flags any comment with 2+ links for moderation. It should be a setting somewhere in the control panel. ๐Ÿ™‚ <– twitter lurker

  24. @Pete, I think Tesh meant nefarious in the sense that there almost certainly *are* people in games companies who don’t give a poop about players or “fun” and who care entirely about what is going to maximise revenue — even if the most efficient means of achieving that isn’t fun. Shareholders, investors, justifying, yadda yadda.

    Which is why I really, really, REALLY want little studios and indie devs and whatever else to succeed, whether I like a game or not. The more games we have and the more niches we fill, the better the industry as a whole will be, I think.

    If we can just get out from under that giant shadow. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  25. What she said. Aye, I’m not talking about some sort of shadowy Dr. Claw out to ruin gamers, just a blatant disregard for fun, often driven by the money monkeys. I consider that nefarious enough.

  26. @Tesh – great, now I’ve got images of a giant Clawed, intellectual financial wizard villain stalking the hallways of Blizzard and SoE, looking to squeeze another dollar out of the poor trembling devs.

    Then again, it beats the “We are the dead, we are the zombies” song I was writing in my head to the “We are the world” tune while I was making dinner.

    It’s that kind of a day.

  27. Yeah, I got that he meant that. I just don’t agree. When you get to the level of shareholders, they don’t care about game mechanics. Yeah, they want more customers but they’re not involved at that level of detail.

    And I don’t think we’re yet at the point where dev houses or even publishers are being formed by people outside the gaming industry.

    When Donald Trump starts a game publishing house, then yeah, I’ll get on the nefarious bandwagon. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Maybe I’m just seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Or glasses a decade old, because I’ll admit that it’s been 10+ years since I was in the back rooms of game developers.

    The problem with little studios is… erm, what’s that new full on PvP game that just released and is having 4 hour queues? Darkfall or something? That’s what you get when you have a small company trying to run an MMO.

    We can hope for Medium Multiplayer Online games, though, like A Tale in the Desert, I guess.

    Anyway, as always Ysh, thanks for hosting a wonderful conversation. I better get focused on the paying gigs now, though.

    Tesh, mental wrestling with you is always a pleasure. /salute

  28. “When Donald Trump starts a game publishing house, then yeah, Iโ€™ll get on the nefarious bandwagon”

    Oh god help us — MMO, THE APPRENTICE!

    I feel faint.

  29. Oh, I’m not saying that shareholders care about mechanics, just that the pressure they exert for the bottom line max ROI puts undue strain on the devs, and far too many of them cave in and build pretty treadmills.

    Medium Multiplayer Online games sound about right. ๐Ÿ˜€

    /salute

  30. There are a lot of great ideas on here. Unfortunately, I can’t devote a lot of time to jumping feet first into the convo.

    Unfortunately, game design faces huge problems that are not easily remedied.

    One such problem with the level of games that we play is they take huge staffs to build. You have designers, coders, builders, artists, etc. In order for them to all work together, they have to work within a defined environment (game engine).

    Part of that defined environment includes the quest systems. I think Pete scratched the surface of this, but let’s start with the simple ‘kill 10 rats’ quest. ‘kill 10 rats is easy. It could actually be defined in code speak as ‘kill x y’ X could be any number. Y can be any “thing”. With variables for those numbers and things, you can see how a coder could use the ‘kill 10 rats’ type of quest several times. The coder just created a very ambiguous, low-level quest script that could be attached to any NPC/s. You just define how many and what type of thing and BINGO…instant quest. That type of quest was not only easy to create, but easy to reuse.

    That brings up problem point number 2. Programming languages are designed so that you can easily reuse code. They are made that way and you are taught to use them that way. And with the advent of databases, reusable code and data storage are very simple.

    Problem number 3. Programming languages and databases are very limiting. But…it’s all we have and ever will have to run our video game playing machines.

    What is my point? In order to get what some of you want for systems in games won’t happen too soon simply because of the limitations of programming.

    Gamers want an infinite number of choices. Well, you need to find the programmer that can program each of those choices. Everything that happens in a game has to be coded into that game. That adventure you started that is all yours and nobody else has been on it? Wrong, someone coded every piece of it. And it was play tested.

    The good news is…gaming companies are spending millions of dollars working on new artificial intelligence methods. They realize that game AI is the future of gaming. So we should expect some good advances, even as early as this year.

  31. There’s always Lord of the Rings, which is just about the most anti-phat lewtz adventure of them all: give the noobs the most uber lewtz in the entire world and the point of their Fedex quest is to go off and destroy it!

  32. This is going to twist a lot, and may not seem to connect at some points. Just bear with me, it’ll all tie up nicely in the end I promise.

    What is it that makes an item valuable? Rather, if we know people will exchange a great deal of time, or real money for an item, what is it that makes the exchange a worthwhile exchange in their minds. Access, convenience, exclusivity? We’re dealing in the commodities of a luxury, and with a market of near infinite theoretical plasticity but has shown immense resistance to bending.

    One important property of an item though is it’s social earmark. There is a reason people pay exorbitant amounts for degrees from specific schools over others. It has a higher social earmark, a better chance of accurately reporting the knowledge level, and value of the holder as well as generally providing higher amounts of both. Gear can work this way, just as levels or more recently talent builds. It’s not the thing itself that holds the value, but the fact that the person has it.

    What the present climate presents us with is an imbalance. It’s not that what we have is bad, just disproportionate and fundamentally unstable. We have focused on progression of a character and the tether it enacts, but have missed out on many of the other possible tethers.

    Gear has eventually been appropriated to fulfill the role of personal character progression, social marker, exclusivity items, access keys, and even inflation sink. The one that causes the real problem though is that in many games it is the end. Not because having a particular piece of gear means you have seen everything and into every nook and cranny. It’s because in order to get there you already had to defeat the biggest bads, and had probably experienced the end of whatever the current major story arc is. You already had to have been something of a completionist, and from here on the challenge of the game is only going downhill.

    To some this means that removing gear sounds equivalent to removing the game entire. It isn’t, it just means that development time will be spent somewhere that devs aren’t comfortable with and players aren’t comfortable welcoming devs into, the social space. In other words, the society of the game needs to be the basis of the design rather than something the developers sit back and watch sprout up in mild amusement and/or horror. You must establish both explicit and implicit social markers, manipulate perceptions of exclusivity, and provide or remove gating options for access. If you really watch, most of what the devs are trying to accomplish with treadmill design is to subtly manipulate these factors without designing the society itself.

    Also, it isn’t bad that we’ve been hands off. A lot of early experimentation of macro society control has ended badly for early MUD wizards and MUSH gods. However, the player counts and landmass size of MMOs are large enough to make the control impersonal, distributed and palatable. On top of this we now have solid data and research to work from while creating the societal ques.

    Rather put differently, the discussion until now has been on designing the in-field time, and making the down-time palatable. The next step is to design down-time, but that isn’t where I’m going so much. Rather, I’m talking about the step afterwards, the design of the between time. Where you are designing the experience a player has while not logged in, and their initial experience when opening the game whether for the first time in their life or the first time today. It also handles the time when a player wishes to be active, but does not wish to engage in the general “in-field” activities of the game. Once you move enough out of the in-field’s indirect control, you can then change gears to designing a more diverse in-field experience.

    Of course, the reasons why we don’t see this already done are many and have little to do with any developer’s level of passion. Rather, the time needed, expertise needed, and funding styles needed are not presently held as top priorities. Perhaps that’s right perhaps that’s wrong, I can’t really say since focusing too much on the long term can mean accidentally dieing in the short term or vice versa.

    I find these discussions hard because I can see where things will eventually be changed, but that doesn’t mean I can communicate the complex differences in situation within the current paradigm. For instance, how can I describe when RMT will be positive experience in your gaming with all the current hatred around it. Most importantly, right now the placeness of an MMO is associated primarily with the activities out in the field, which is just a fundamentally different discussion than when the placeness is centered around the places currently associated with downtime or even extends to your desktop and e-mail.

  33. Makkaio, that “object oriented” bit about programming is actually something that could be leveraged better than it is. Give players the tools, and let *them* do the mixing and matching. The assumption that programmers have to foresee everything is more of a limitation than technology.

    MMOs, more than perhaps any other game genre, benefit from giving players power to change the world and create their own gameplay and stories. MMO devs should be more focused on creating a robust sandbox than the perfect roller coaster.

    Of course, giving players power has its own problems, especially considering the nature of the internet, but realistically, it’s about the only way to generate enough content. Players *are* content, as Muckbeast has asserted, and failing to leverage that properly does mean the burden gets shifted to the engineers, who will never be able to stay ahead given the dev pipeline. (As you outline.)

    As a bonus, if players are creating content via social interactions and world-alteration tools, you don’t have to sweat the gear nearly so much, because people are *doing* things, being active agents in their own story, rather than merely seeking to acquire the cheese at the end of a (repetitive) maze.

  34. Addendum, perhaps especially for Pete…

    I’m not really all that opposed to the loot grind *in general*. I do love the Final Fantasy games, and have sunk many happy hours into a good chunk of the SquareEnix lineup. I just don’t see MMOs in particular as the best venue for that sort of thing. We’re dealing with “massive” numbers of people, and the best that devs come up with is a set of treadmills?

    These MMO things are social beasties, ripe with opportunities to allow for all sorts of interesting interactions and emergent gameplay. Why are we satisfied with more DIKU romping? We can get that in a solo JRPG, or as Ysh rightly notes, a Monty Haul tabletop game.

    Put another way, it may be tasty fluff, but there’s a lot of room for something with a bit more substance.

  35. Pete, I think it’s mostly the game itself. At this point, there is definitely a general MMO culture shaped by past games that carries over into new games, but each game shapes its own player-culture to a large degree.

    When I played WoW, my only experience with Blizzard was Diablo 2. I remember being greatly disappointed at the relative lack of variety in both skills and gear. The skill trees are similar to D2, but only a shadow. There’s a wide variety of loot, but players have a means of achieving loot rather than discovering it: the auction house. And the auction house is just a symptom of a larger focus.

    The loot system in WoW and similar MMOs is inseparable from the overall design, which focuses on gradual achievement (conducive to addiction modeling — the surest, though not the only, means of retaining subscriptions) and rigidly defined roles. Gameplay is effectively like a funnel (wide to thin)… there are more gameplay options early on and the variety of viable playstyles shrinks as you level up.

    In games like Diablo 2, there is no optimal loot because gear’s efficiency is situational. Different enemies are immune to different types of attacks and inflict different sorts of damage. Some enemies evade the player, rewarding ranged attacks, while others stand there and beat on you. Whether a slow-and-heavy weapon or a fast-but-weaker weapon is best depends on how many enemies you’re fighting at any given moment.

    Diablo 2’s skills allow for so much variation within a single class that five members of a class can bear little resemblance to each other. One necromancer can focus on damage modifers, another on bone projectiles, another on elementals, another on skeletons, and there are countless combinations. A single skill can be upgraded much more than is possible in WoW. The game includes roles, but those roles are very loosely defined. Emphasis is on emergent and unique experiences, rather than a scripted avenue.

    Dynamics make personal preferences and choices relevant. Typical MMOs allow for customization, but reward choices which fit the developers’ static encounter and grouping plans. Diablo 2 players have enjoyed multiplayer for years without need of power evenly distributed between them, predictable difficulty, and uniform gear standards.

    I think I got off on a tangent…

  36. Teki,
    I’ve seen that idea floated more than once, but no, you don’t. You might see Second Life as the ultimate sandbox, but that’s about all it is. A well-designed MMORPG would be more of a sandbox than a roller coaster, yes, but that doesn’t mean throwing the gates completely open to the wolves, or being terribly bland. MMO design is as much about worldbuilding as gameplay, and a well crafted world will have lore oozing out of every nook and cranny, there to be discovered and manipulated. It would also have lore-relevant rules that players would have to play by, to keep things from getting too silly or troublesome.

    In other words, it’s not the same thing in Second Life, where players have to bring their own sand, and there isn’t significant lore or structure. Just because I’m talking about taking MMORPG design off the rails a bit, it doesn’t mean that I’m tossing the fences or the window dressing that make them unique little worlds.

  37. @ Tesh:

    “Put another way, the best game developers Iโ€™ve had the pleasure of working with have sought to give players something to *do*, not something to *get*.”

    While I don’t disagree that this is desirable, it’s also difficult to sustain a flow of such content in a static world; once you’ve done something once, assuming the experience of doing doesn’t change substantially, why repeat it? The only sustainable way I can envision to change focus from “having” to “doing” is to give players more agency in affecting the environment, which naturally opens a rather large can of worms. Several, actually.

  38. Worms, yes — but maybe desirable nonetheless. But then I am firmly (and optimistically and idealistically) convinced that player-created content is one of online gaming’s great white hopes.

    We’ll see what happens when CoX’s Mission Architect comes out — interestingly, because of the way missions are made in CoX, it should provide a relatively limited (and therefore easier, if perhaps less creative?) way to see what can be done by players for other players. If they can be arsed, of course. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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