Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Do Incentives for Victory Break the Learning Curve?

"So the less players are driven by the motivation to see new content, the more you need to motivate them by something else: Rewards."

- Tobold, writing on reward distribution in WoW today.

Underlying yesterday's discussion of PUG's is a bit of a philsophical divide.

In one camp, perhaps spear-headed by Larisa, are players for whom the experience of doing the content is its own reward - as she put it in the comments, there are precious moments that make you forget all about the past failed runs.

In the other, we have players for whom the content would NOT be worth doing more than once on its own merits. Players like, well, myself, who size up the incentives for doing the content, weigh them against the cost (in time, frustration, effort, whatever), and make a cost-benefit decision on whether the content is worth doing.

Developers target players in the incentive-driven camp with the (hopefully) careful balance of reward structures that I refer to as the Player Vs Developer game. This time around, I'd argue that Blizzard has done an excellent job in crafting incentives that encourage players to use the content.

Solo vs group?
Let's say that I have 90 minutes or so to play this evening. I can:

A) Solo daily quests and walk away with 2-3K in various relevant daily quest reputations (spread out over various factions based on what quests are available), maybe 6-7 Stone Keeper Shards and 5K honor points if Wintergrasp happens during the window, and something like 200 gold.

B) Do a PUG heroic. If the group is a success, this will yield 1500-2000 rep in the championed faction of my choice, 3-5 Emblems of Heroism, 12+ Stone Keeper Shards if the Alliance owns Wintergrasp, and possibly a shot at immediate loot that I would use right away if it dropped. (Unless it's a flawless run, there will probably be some net cost in gold for repair bills etc, but that's relatively trivial from where I sit.) A failure of a heroic group, which happens in my experience maybe 10-20% of the time, can still often down at least one boss, walking away with a few hundred rep and an Emblem (+4 shards w/Wintergrasp), albeit at a higher price in repair cash.

This spread of rewards is no accident. The 5-man content offers substantially greater rewards over the same window of time, even after deducting time spent looking for groups (during which you can be doing the solo dailies if you want to) and a reasonable rate of groups failing. If the rewards had been the other way around, I might still have done all the dungeons once each for the Dungeonmaster achievement, but I would probably never set foot in another Wrath 5-man again. With the rewards, the 5-man content is typically going to be my first choice when my schedule permits.

Shifting the community
I'm not alone - many players, who might not have felt the rewards were worth the effort in TBC, are hitting the LFG channel and joining PUG's, precisely because the rewards for 5-man content have never been better. We're doing content - and, for me at least, having fun doing that content 90% of the time - that we would not otherwise be doing. It's a textbook case of a Player Vs Developer encounter where both sides come out with a win.

The catch is a shift in player attitudes - Klep has a discussion on this topic today - that is driving to the great PUG divide. If you're doing group content for incentives, it's much more important that the group be able to complete the content. An unsuccessful group actually does ruin your day if you're planning your time investment around the expectation of success.

Ultimately, the devs have to reward success over failure if they expect players to attempt to succeed. Much of intentional bad behaviour on the part of players, such as AFK'ing, ninja looting, etc, happens because the incentives reward players for doing it, rather than because they're actively out to grief their teammates. It is much better to reward players for good behaviour, which should, if the game is designed properly, lead to success in instances.

The real question is whether the learning curve is set in the right place. As Klep points out, everyone had to learn how to play at some point. There needs to be room in the system for enough leeway to let players learn from their mistakes, rather than brutally wiping the floor with them; the latter leads players to be insular and distrustful of anyone who might slow them down. Time will tell whether that part of the learning curve is in the right place.

Virtual Materialism?
At the end of the day, am I on the wrong side of this argument? Valuing camraderie and overcoming adversity certainly sounds like the "good" side, while striving for loot (which exists only as abstract and arbitrary pixels and bits on a server) seems like the materialistic perspective of the "bad" guys.

For myself personally, though, I view gearing up as an intellectual exercise. I know that I'm neither willing nor able to clock the hours raiding, farming, studying strats, etc needed to beat the top encounters in the game. The challenge, for me, is finding the sweet spot on that cost benefit curve, where I can get ever so much closer to where the more dedicated players are on my own terms. From that perspective, things have never been better than they are in Wrath.


  1. I wouldn't say that you're on the wrong side of the argument, there's no reason not to have fun and camaraderie at the same time as you get your badges/rep/ etc.

    One of the problems with the learning curve now is that all the rewards are stacked in heroics. So naturally everyone wants to get into those asap. There's no real reward for gearing up via normal instances first, other than social ones of people knowing you are a better player/better geared/ more reliable/ etc.

    I wonder if there is ever any way that when you have 2 tiers of difficulty, to encourage people to take it at their own pace and not all pile into heroics before they are ready.

  2. One of the comments on the post that you linked was really telling to me and I think helped me understand the mindset of some of these players that are new to MMOs.
    The comment was "who cares if we kill the boss or not", "big deal".

    Therein lies the problem. I tend to take the game more seriously. Perhaps it is because I'm an old school EQ player, I learned early on that if you wanted to accomplish anything in the game you had better have your act together. Working in synchronicity with your group was so important, because one little mistake meant you had a long naked corpse run back.

    This is why I expect so much out of the people I'm pugging with. I have no problem with teaching others, but they typically don't want to listen. I don't know how many times I've told people not to stand in the black stuff in Drak'Tharon Keep, but they proceed to stand in it anyway.

    Yes this is a game, but it is also dependent on teamwork sometimes. With all the solo content becoming more and more popular in games, I'm afraid people aren't learning the importance of working together, and the reward of working hard for what you want.

    It was so apparent in Naxx last night, seeing everyone chattering in general chat constantly. I'm thinking, how are these people having time to type all this crap, aren't they supposed to be killing bosses? Is it all just fun and games for them while they wait for the boss to magically die so they can get their purples? Am I a dying breed of gamer?

  3. @Spinks: Blizzard tried to delay players entry into heroics with the Revered rep requirement for the original iteration of heroics in TBC.

    Part of the reason why it fell on its face was the fact that the factions they used were all obtainable by solo quests. If they'd used clean factions, they could have set the number of dungeon runs to some reasonable level (perhaps once through each dungeon, or slightly more). Because you could get through honored (with a revered exception, if you brought the Cenarions 360 plant parts before you started questing) through non-group content, they had to set the bar at revered, which was too high to leave it in the long run when you consider that there were four separate factions to juggle.

    The bigger issue, though, was that it's too easy to be carried through a small number of non-heroic dungeons by overleveled/geared groups. Even PUG's seem to destroy non-heroic instances these days, and you don't really learn much if your strategy is to aggro the whole room and AOE down everything. I don't think that players would gain appreciable skill/gear from a requirement that they do a few non-heroics for attunement purposes, and I'm guessing that Blizzard agrees since they didn't include one.

    @Daria: The transition from solo leveling to group teamwork is definitely one that has been problematic for Blizzard since the beginning. One of the reasons why Warhammer's open group/public quest system got so much hype prior to the game's launch was because - on paper - it really sounded like a way to teach grouping skills in context of solo leveling. I don't know if the problem is with the players themselves though (say what you want, but their subscription fees fund the entire game's production values), or just that no one has come up with a better way to integrate the playstyles.

  4. @Daria. I don't think you are a dying bread of gamer so much that as the game expands it is by definition going to attract a different element than the original "hard core" gamers. The game as you knew it four years ago doesn't exist anymore, not only in terms of content but in terms of its player base. And if that expansion of the player base is going to succeed, then I think it's imperatives that both sides bend a little.

    However, as a newbie with a different perspective, I don't see that flexibility in-game. I often hear that the old hands are willing to teach but what I see is that when the kid is crying and you have to be at work in an hour what comes out is that the new games sucks and why can't life be like it was in some non-existent golden day back when only real people played. I don't mean to be cold but the game has moved on and either you move adapt to it or you move on to some other game. And what I think you will find is that if you are willing to adapt and willing to bend then in the long run you will not only see the value that the new people bring to the game, they will see in turn the wisdom you have to offer as well.

    @green. I think that part of building a community just is accepting the fact that you will never get all raiders to like solo or solos to like raiding. People will always want different things out of the game. I think the key, however, is to (1) make sure that both sides have their place (2) make it possible for those who want to transition in either direction.

    The problem as I see it is really attitudinal. The economics behind MMO is that you need to grow your player base. And the thinking has always been that the way you grow the player base is by getting people to group so that they stay in the game and bring their RL friends with them. My position is that this theory only takes you so far. It's a great theory for a MMO when its trying to get a toehold in the market but a very bad theory when you are dealing with a mature game like WoW. IMHO, if Blizzard was smart they would change the focus of the game now that it has 11 million members away from groups and focus more on community building. They idea of player housing has potential in this regard.


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