Thursday, March 28, 2013

Mysterious Motivations of Players

Are players that hard to understand?  Two talks at this year's Game Developer's Conference, given by directors of high profile online games, suggest that we are still a mystery to people who spend tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars making products to sell to us. 
  • Former Diablo III director Jay Wilson stated that Blizzard dramatically underestimated how many players would use the game's auction house feature, how frequently they would use that feature, and what impact this would have on the game's gear incentive curve.  As Wilhelm notes, the game's loot table generally drops random junk under your level, while the auction houses allow players to get optimized loot for their level (the junk gets vendored) for affordable quantities of in-game gold (or cash if you're really so inclined). 
  • Bioware's Creative Director on SWTOR James Ohlen indicated that they dramatically underestimated the speed with which players would consume content multiple times over.  He claims this crucial misjudgement led them to feel that they had more time work on endgame content than they had in reality.  The team was not prepared for the possibility of half a million players at endgame within the first month.  
I can understand when bugs/exploits or poorly thought design choices creep through the testing process.  The crowdsourced efforts of hundreds of thousands of players will inevitably find something that internal quality assurance could not, no matter how much time you have.  It's a bit harder to understand why, eight and a half years into the World of Warcraft era, developers are still underestimating player dedication in this way. 

The reality is we do exactly what the incentives tell us to do.  If grinding out gear is long and tedious and there is a way to skip to the end - Blizzard's motivation for the real money auction house in the first place was recognizing that this would occur and thinking it would be better to cut out the illicit middleman - players will go that route.  If the single biggest selling point of your product is the story, and the only way to get the next chapter of the story is to continue playing, players will continue to play (in the same way you might stay up all night watching a full season of a TV show or reading a good book). 

Perhaps the real failing in both designs is that the primary incentive - chasing gear or story - is so inherently limited in terms of time.  Once that time has run out, players apparently did not feel that the underlying game was worth continuing.  As we've learned time and time again, incentives are very effective at changing player behavior, especially in the short term, but they are very ineffective in changing player preferences in the long term. 


Wilhelm Arcturus said...

I realize that there is hindsight on our side and all, but I am still in disbelief that Blizz could make the D3 loot table run like it did, with drops 5-10 levels below the player/zone level, while adding in an auction house and not see the end result. I made that jump of logic after a few days of play.

But he said they had an idea for a fix. Maybe they will bump the loot table so you get stuff closer to your own level. That would go a long way in my opinion.

Yeebo said...

I can't believe that commentary about DIII is honest. Even as an outsider that never played the game, it seemed pretty damn obvious to me that letting players buy whatever they want from higher level players that are getting gear drops they (the lower level players)don't have access to would utterly gut the gear incentive.

Imagine if in Rogue (or Moria or Angband or Nethack) you could buy gear from dungeons ten levels lower than ones that are safe for you to traverse for trivial amounts of in-game gold. You'd end up not giving the first crap about gear you see as you level. It would also gut the challenge of the game. This is pretty damn obvious shit to anyone that has ever played any rogue-alike. I find it impossible to believe that the head of such a big team was that clueless.

My take is that Blizzard expected to make a ton of cash from real world sales. Instead, they haven't made as much as they hoped and it is now clear that they broke their game by including auction houses. They are heading towards a fix that will piss off a lot of the players that enjoy their current (fundamentally flawed) game, and this is the beginning of some preemptive PR damage control.

Derrill Guilbert said...

I'm going to have to join Wilhelm and Yeebo and call BS regarding those claims.

Blizzard - through WoW - knows that efficiency trumps ... EVERYTHING, almost, for a large portion of their (and I suspect many) playerbases. They've acknowledged this multiple times through the life of WoW, and to state they are surprised that people want useful drops is straight disingenuous.

Video Game Philosopher said...

Given the mistakes Blizzard has made and the poor state of SWTOR's freemium system, these comments dont surprise me.

Psychochild said...

Yeah, sorry, I'm smelling BS here as well. I specifically know the SW:tOR team had people who know how voracious players are. So, the knowledge was there, but someone decided to ignore it.

Pretty much every company spins it as "oh, we didn't know this would be SOOOOO popular!" Didn't know people would buy stuff from the new feature. Didn't know players would play obsessively.

Didn't pay attention when this happened dozens of times before, even within their own games.

Fog said...

Agreed, BS alert - more likely about to make a change and softening everyone up for it as Yeebo says