Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Have WoW Players Solved the Effort-Reward Curve?

Tobold appears to have boiled down the point of my lengthy post on the solo grinds at WoW's endgame to a single line. (This isn't necessarily hard to do - I have the time to either write about everything I want to cover OR write about less and spend more time distilling posts down to the minimum, and I tend to prefer the former.) In a post on the economy at level 80, Tobold observes:
"If you can reach your goal with a reasonable effort, why would you want to make an exceptional effort, and grind money for hours for a small incremental effect?"
Citing my example of ilvl 200 epic robes, he notes that he can sell the epic BOE robe he had crafted for his mage/tailor and wait out the raidID resets for a few weeks to get equivalent gear from drops.

Difficulty versus accessibility
There are two main variables the Developers have to consider in designing content that they hope will occupy players for X months until the next patch comes out.

One the one hand, the content needs to be accessible. With respect to those of you who routinely cleared the toughest raids in 1.0/TBC, the devs' time is not being well spent if 90% of players don't make it in the front door due to the attunement requirement and another 5% can't make any meaningful progress if they do get in.

Case in point, my old 40-man raiding guild (which once ranked in the top 10 on our server) never saw any 25-man TBC dungeons. Tired of slow progress through Karazhan, about a third of the guild broke off to form a successful 25-man raiding guild of their own. Another third eventually raided with other guilds, and the rest of us either quit or rode out the rest of the expansion cycle in non-raid content. This would be fine if there was enough non-raid content to go around, but Blizzard is clearly struggling to keep up in all aspects of the game.

Lowering difficulty to increase accessibility
To address this problem, or perhaps over-react to it, Blizzard went the opposite direction in Wrath. Every raid (well, the one legitimate dungeon and two one-off encounters currently in the game) is now available in 10-man flavors, and the content has been tuned to allow groups to "bring the player, not the class". This motto means that, instead of requiring 100% efficiency at the risk of dictating what classes must be in the raid to provide the requisite combination of buffs/debuffs, Blizzard is allowing more flexibility (say, for the sake of argument, 86% efficiency).

The catch is that, with easier content, there are less in the way of incentives to go all out with the best gear/enhancements that money can buy. It also paved the way for guilds - and not just the ones who push the envelope to 100+% efficiency - to clear all the raids in the game with the next major content patch nowhere in sight. (3.0.8 will need to wrap its test cycle before 3.1 and Ulduar can even hit the test realms, and, given the combination of Christmas and New Year's, somehow I doubt that 3.0.8 is going live before January 6th.)

How do players make their cost-benefit decisions?
The central design of MMORPG is that time spent playing leads to greater power for your character. The rate at which characters improve slows over time as players get closer to running out of content - a level 1 WoW character gains level 2 after a mere 8 mob kills (before they can complete their very first quest), while later levels can take hours, and rep/token grinds for gear at the level cap take days. Eventually, a player is going to hit the point at which the effort needed to reach the next minor upgrade is more trouble than it's worth. The tweaks the devs make to try and convince most players that the next minor upgrade really IS worth the time is the nuts and bolts of what I call the player vs developer process.

If Tobold is right, and it's definitely a reasonable theory, the difficulty of raiding zones created an artificial incentive to push the envelope. Players didn't WANT to spend time farming gold to pay for consumables, and guilds didn't WANT to tell their off-specs they weren't welcome in raids, they just HAD to in order to complete the content. Blizzard nerfs raids to improve accessibility, and, as an unintended consequence, players no longer care about the highest of the incremental upgrades.

The consequences of living the easy life?
What I find fascinating about this unfolding story is what it says about the way the playerbase makes its cost-benefit decisions.

I suspect that I'm probably on the extreme end of the curve in terms of evaluating these things - case in point, I wrote up probably 1000 words evaluating heirloom items to determine which ones I'd get the most milage from, where a normal player would just trust their gut and buy whatever their most recent alt wanted. When I complain about an incentive question, that should probably carry less weight because I think too much on these topics. On the other hand, we may now have reached the point where the majority of the playerbase (or, at least, the portion of the playerbase that would ever consider raiding) can tell by trusting their guts that the top of the line is more trouble than it's worth to them.

That's fascinating and potentially dangerous for Blizzard - people who are out of content right now might have some less than kind words to say about the difficulty of the expansion, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be thrilled to go back to a grind that they have realized that they would, given the choice, prefer not to do.

For example, Blizzard defended the concept of the "resist check" fight at a Blizzcon raid design panel over boo's from the crowd. From the developer standpoint, resist fights represent a tactical tradeoff between optimal damage and mitigating the incoming attacks on the entire group. From the player side of the equation, resist fights are often hated because they require large amounts of time farming gear and consumables (in the process delaying their progress) to overcome an artificial barrier imposed by the devs. How will a generation of raiders who have grown accustomed to bringing the player, rather than the class, not needing top of the line everything, etc, react if the next dungeon implements a truly challenging resist check?

Player/Developer cooperation?
I'm not - though others might, and it's certainly their perogative - arguing that the changes to raiding in Wrath are bad. I call the process "player versus developer" but the devs (hopefully) would prefer happy players to players reluctantly jumping through hoops. It would certainly seem like the new regime would allow greater participation and less burnout, and I believe Blizzard when they say that they don't intend to make raids as difficult as Sunwell/Naxx1.0 in the future (though time will tell how that holds up).

The real bottom line, though, is that more accessible content places added pressure on Blizzard to deliver content at a greater rate than they managed during the TBC era. I'm not sure that anything other than time can actually derail WoW's success in the near future, but, if you asked for a guess, I'd say that Blizzard's glacial patch cycle (especially if resources start shifting to mystery project number 4 as it nears completion) is probably the biggest threat to this brave new World (of Warcraft).


Klepsacovic said...

We'd always solved it, or least as much as you can solve something without a solution.

I've not been into Naxx. Well, I have, but it was one boss and then I had to leave for RL reasons (and before anyone goes off on me for ditching my guild, I found a replacement and gave him gold for a respec to and from tanking). So, there are my credentials as someone with no credentials.

Naxx should have been nerfed, but not anywhere near as much. Is it ridiculous to expect an average guild to clear the old Naxx in a week? Yes. So why not give them two weeks? I've been advocating variable raid resets for a while, but sadly Blizzard refuses to listen to my wisdom. I think I'd have more fun spending two weeks to clear a really hard place than spending a few days to burn through easy content. Variable resets would allow high difficulty without significantly reducing accessibility.

I remember a Blue saying that BC had been designed to have gear for 'casuals' (heroics), raiders (raids), and farmers (crafted BoPs). That didn't really work out, instead the raiders made the crafted gear and the farmers got insanely rich. Then the farmers bought gigantic bags. I forgot why this was relevant.

When raids were harder, the reward was shifted the other way. The BoEs were terrible in comparison, but when a raid took a week of farmer for an hour of raiding, was the additional reward worth it?

As for the new regime, I don't know how long you've been around, but apparently you can see well enough that GC is really new, and a major change from the past interaction with the devs.

*vlad* said...

I think one of the problems is not with the content per se, but the ease in which players have by-passed it all on the rush to 80 and the raids.
Once people have cleared Naxx and whatever else, all that levelling content in Northrend is pretty much useless.
Whereas Blizzard used to devote (anecdotally) a huge amount of recources into raid design, they put it this time into quest design, making quests more interesting and fun, but people have opted to race through that content as fast as possible, skipping a large part of it, and now at lv 80 have 'nothing' to do.

Michael said...

The only problem with the reward curve right now is that it's not tall enough.

If there was very difficult raid-zone available now, I.e. if Uldar was available and tuned for people with mostly Naxx-25 gear, then the hardcore would have something to do, and the casuals would have something to look forward to.

Having entry-level raids is a great idea, it get more people involved in the idea of large-group-content, and pushes people to improve their game.

We just need more endgame. There's far too many players that have beaten all of WoW right now.