Thursday, May 7, 2009

Why Is It So Hard To Get PVP Incentives Right?

It's been a busy week at Player Vs Developer productions, which has been holding up this post for a few days now. Despite the late arrival, I'd like to get back to discussion of the Children's Week Achievements because there's an interesting incentive design question at hand.

Euripedes seconds the complaints made by Scott Jennings - that the PVP achievement for the holiday encourages individual players to pursue selfish activities in a group battleground, thereby screwing over players who actually want to fight battles instead of work on holiday achievements.

Why are PVP incentives constantly causing so many problems in games?

Absolute versus Relative Merit
Players who are attempting to tackle group PVE content, such as raids, have to meet an absolute progress standard. The raid must be able to deal X damage before everyone dies. There are ways of reaching that goal - increasing the raid's DPS so that the boss dies faster, or learning to avoid attacks so that the raid takes less damage and lives longer - but victory or defeat is ultimately an absolute question. Either the raid got the job done or they did not, and the value of their victory depends on how hard the boss was to kill.

By contrast, the value of a victory in PVP depends entirely on the quality of your opponents. Blizzard can try to generate better match-making algorithms (and apparently failed at that task yet again for the current arena season), but there is much less of an absolute standard. A poorly rated team might beat a much better opponent because of a favorable matchup, or an untimely disconnect.

This distinction gives rise to a second difference between PVP and PVE rewards.

Incremental progress versus all or nothing
That PVE raid encounter is all or nothing. Either you beat the boss, or you did not. Perhaps you learned something from the loss that will help you win the next time, but there is no explicit, in-game incentive for trying and failing.

Unfortunately, when players fight other players, half of the players are going to lose. As a result, developers HAVE to include some rewards to compensate the LOSING players for their time if they want to attract a large chunk of their players into PVP. If there is no reward for failure, the worst players will never win, never get rewards, and therefore quit playing. Then there will be no one that the second worst tier of players can beat, so they will cease to be able to win and earn rewards, and they too will quit. In the end, there can be only one.

(This might sound like a good deal if you think you can be that last one standing, until you realize that the resources your developer can afford to spend improving your experience are going to be cut drastically if no one else is using the content.)

Sharing one goal
As a result of the first two points, there is relatively little incentive for an individual member of a raid to act against the raid's best interest in pursuit of a selfish achievement. If the raid wipes because someone was tanking with no pants, EVERYONE misses out on loot. Sometimes the entire raid might decide to behave sub-optimally in pursuit of an optional achievement (e.g. sitting several raiders outside the zone to get credit for beating the bosses with a non-full raid), but, in the end, the boss still has to die or no one gets anything.

By contrast, your PUG battleground group is full of players who have differing goals. Some players are chasing achievements and don't care if the team wins or loses (and, in fact, may prefer to sabotage their own team by failing to defend flags so they can get more chances to recapture them). Meanwhile, by putting a value on failure, the devs invite each and every player to make their own personal game theory decision on when to give up. All of which is a disaster if you were actually there because you wanted to fight and win the match. This is NOT a new problem for Children's Week, the achievements merely make the issue more obvious.

Your timesink or your game
In the end, this is one of those places where the developers face a conflict between the quality of their game and its ability to occupy players' time. The Children's Week achievement had to be what it was, rather than a requirement for helping players' sides to victory in the actually battleground match, because otherwise players would have attempted to claim the required victories while AFK.

In a perfect world, there's enough new content to keep players entertained so that you don't have to try and bribe them into grinding battleground content that they don't want to be doing. The issue is that Blizzard doesn't have the capacity to create enough other content (nor, in fairness, does anyone else). Not only that, they especially cannot afford to spend precious time developing content that some of their players will not use (/gasp).

As a result, they MUST try and lure non-PVP players into PVP (with selfish personal incentives), they MUST try and lure raiders into solo daily quests (with money to pay repair bills and cosmetic rewards), etc. And so, instead of rewarding the one part of PVP that actually matters - who got the win or the loss - we get selfish and detrimental incentives. A true PVP meritocracy, no matter how well it functions, simply will not be enough to convince players to continue reusing battleground content from 2005 on a regular basis.

And now, if Tom Chilton is to be believed, we get a new battleground in patch 3.2 with all of the same incentive holes that are attached to the five current ones.

Too bad that player created content thing didn't work out, because the problem is, as it always has been, that Content Is King and there just isn't enough content.


DeftyJames said...

There is a lot in that post I disagree with but let me make just two points.

(1) I don't consider BG to be PvP. It isn't player vs player so much as playerS vs playerS. I think that the terminology is part of the problem. To me, true PvP is either Arenas or dueling. And dueling is out because Bliz has already made it clear that they have no intention of balancing individual classes. So the only real PvP is Arena. And to me that is the heart of the problem. You keep calling BGs PvP when they are not.

(2) I think it is imperative that Bliz create content that most players won't ever see. I think that Blizzard has made a fundamental miscalculation in trying to lure players into doing anything (raider into dailies, etc.) What driving this is not genuine customer demand but developer ego. Content is king but choice is queen. The problem with providing external incentives is that you don't allow players to incentivize themselves.

Klepsacovic said...

PvE can afford to be all or nothing because you can outgear it. If you're failing, get more gear and it will be easier, with a very few exceptions which tend to be hated such as Oculus. PvP can't be outgeared the same way since better teams are rewarded more, so if you're on the low end of ability you end up on the low end of gear. How do you fix this? I have many ideas, but few goods ones, which I suspect is a common affliction.

1) Arenas have multiple players in them too, so they're not player vs. player either. You're falling into the trap of defining PvP as whatever type of PvP you enjoy.

2) Devs should make content most will see and should not encourage people to see it? That's absurd. It's a waste of resources and alienating to customers.

Rohan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rohan said...

Blizzard can try to generate better match-making algorithms (and apparently failed at that task yet again for the current arena season).
As an aside, this is not correct. The match-making algorithm is fine. The purpose of this fix was different. Because more people play 2v2, the number of teams X standard deviations above the mean is higher than in the other brackets. The percentages are the same, but the absolute numbers are higher. They're just adding an inflationary factor to compensate the brackets with less people, and push people towards those brackets. If the top 100 teams can get a rating higher than 2200 in 2v2, but only the top 10 teams in 5v5, that just drives more people away from 5v5.

Green Armadillo said...

@DJ: That was kind of the point from my last section - doing things the way Blizzard is right now is NOT the best for the game, but players will cancel their subscriptions if Blizzard does not provide something for them to do. That aside, I'm with Klep on his comment (thanks for saving me some typing, K!).

@Rohan: Huh. It hadn't occurred to me that the system was heavily dependent on the total number of teams in each bracket. But now, if I understand it correctly, it sounds like the "fix" is doing exactly what you're describing. Isn't Blizzard screwing over 3's and 5's by balancing the rating requirement around a number that's more easily obtained in the more populous 2's bracket in order to combat weapon inflation?

Rohan said...

The bump to 2350 is a temporary measure to prevent the game from being flooded with PvP weapons. I imagine it does temporarily hurt 3v3 and 5v5.

However, patch 3.1.2 will come fairly quickly, and that patch will make it easier to obtain higher ratings in the larger brackets. At that point the ratings requirements will come back down.

Essentially what they're going for is that larger brackets will be somewhat easier to get higher ratings and will provide more honor. However, 2v2 will be the easiest to organize and least complex.

Green Armadillo said...

@Rohan: 3.1.2 is fixing the tooltip on the weapons, which requires a client update since that info is stored locally. The blue post says the rating requirement is in for the entire rest of the season. That's a pretty long time to have the rating requirements that far out of reach for the larger brackets just to maintain the balance of power by keeping those weapons out of circlation - meanwhile, didn't they just make the corresponding PVE weapons easier to get? I just feel like something doesn't add up.

Dink said...

BG's is pvp if you want to enjoy the game. Arena is pvp if you want a time sink and grind.

1v1 is not balanced, as stated by Blizzard. Blizzard also stated 2v2 isn't balanced. Who in their right mind thinks 3v3 is balanced?

Arena is not pvp. It's FOTM.

Anonymous said...

I feel they're way too worried about the possibility that people might AFK their way to stuff and it drives them to make stupid achievements that reward odd play.

Sometimes you have to just live with the fact that some people will cheese an achievement if it means that the majority will have more fun with it.

It's not like the achievements are game breaking.

And the only achievement that makes sense in a bg is helping your team to win. Possibly in smart ways (I like the most of the existing bg achievements, they're quite interesting).

Anonymous said...

You mention that a game developer has a responsibility to reward loosing players for their time. You actually feel that a player who goes out and looses all the time deserves to be rewarded?

To the victor goes the spoils.

A game should train and encourage players to get better. A game should not reward complacent incompetence.

Someone who is “playing with friends for fun” (as you often hear the sub 1500 crowd claim) should be willing to accept playing with his/her friends for fun as the reward. If they want tangible in game rewards then they need to learn to play.

So I guess the answer to your question is that it is hard to get PVP incentives because there is only one winning team in PVP and you can’t reward the loosing side too much or you end up with the people that spent all of season one and two loosing 10 games a week by dancing naked. ~Centuri

Green Armadillo said...

@Spinks: I think you're correct, but tying the achievement to a PUG actually winning all five battlegrounds in a week would be absolutely brutal for many players. (Also, from a technical standpoint, dead players don't have their orphans out, and therefore wouldn't get credit, so there'd be a strong incentive to go hide when your side was about to win.) I'm not sure it would have been a good idea to go there.

@ Centuri: I didn't say that devs have a responsibility to reward failure. I said that players will not use the content if they don't reward failure. If you look at recent WoW PVP history, we've seen that time and time again. There needs to be some low level of advancement for each and every match or the incentive/time curve becomes too unfavorable. You can raise the argument that it's okay for the devs to make content that most players won't use (as DJ did above), you just have to be prepared to have the amount of dev resources Blizzard can afford to spend on the content be proportional to the number of players actually using it.

Klepsacovic said...

@seriouslycasual: Winners need losers. They can't win without them. If losers get nothing ever, they will leave. Then the slightly better, but still bad group takes over and starts losing over and over. Eventually all the consistent losers leave because there's nothing for them. And there you go, what could have been an aspect of the game for everyone is now being used by 1% of the population and is no longer worth the resources to even maintain.

No one is suggesting throwing the best rewards at losers, but there needs to be incentive to stay and repeatedly dying is not it.

Anonymous said...

The problem with wow is that fun is not incentive enough. That is all.