Friday, March 27, 2009

Crab School of Incentive Design

Pangoria let me a tip about an interesting discussion on incentives with Ghostcrawler. Some interesting tidbits:

Time Per Token
"Players say their favorite BC instances were the CoT ones. The most popular instance though (the one run the most) was Mechanar. Does that mean they were lying? Does that mean we should do more fast instances with lots of badges and fewer unique ones? .... Mechanar was popular because it was short."

Obviously, it is interesting to see the crab pulling up actual data that players like myself don't have direct access to. I'd imagine that the similar data for Wrath would show the Violet Hold, Utgarde Keep, and the Nexus out in front. VH and UK both offer 3 emblems in 30 minutes under ideal circumstances, while Nexus is relatively easy and offers a total of 5.

I don't know that the message here, as the crab's rhetorical question suggests, is that every dungeon needs to be short and yield lots of badges. However, I would think that the data calls for developers to think about the badge/time ratio. Mechanaar wasn't merely short, it was also one of the only heroics in the level 70 game to produce five badges, as two relatively trivial subbosses produced an extra badge each in an era where most dungeons produced three.

If you're going to have certain heroics that are significantly harder, perhaps those can ALSO drop more tokens to reward the increased effort. Meanwhile, if you're going to have an easier instance, like the Nexus, perhaps you should consider whether it's actually worth five emblems (again, the extra one comes from a sub-boss).

Challenge by content type
"At this point in time, offering very good gear through content other than raiding or Arenas isn't possible for us. Why? Because we don't yet have a mechanism to make the other content difficult enough to warrant that kind of reward. If we offered epics through BGs, it would basically be (right now at least) some kind of grind fest. If we offered them through 5-man heroics or quests or rep grinds or tradeskills, the requirements would have to be similarly brutal. Right now, we think only raiding and Arenas mandate the really high level of group coordination, intimate knowledge of the game and ability to make good decisions under stress that deserve the best rewards. I do think it's a weakness in the game design though, and we'd like to figure out other ways to offer those rewards....."

"We think it's great to have so many people able to raid (again assuming they want to raid, and not that they are in a raid or die mentality).

Where we did err was that some of the 10-player content proved more difficult than the 25-player content, which was not the intent. That sets a weird mindset in the community that 25-player runs are pugs, and 10-player runs aren't worth it."

I've tacked these two lengthy quotes together because they get to a fundamental issue - is the crab's assertion that only raid and arena content can truly bring out the best of the best in terms of skill?

If you look at heroics today, compared to heroics of the early TBC era (i.e. before patch 2.4, which put in incentives for players in T5+ gear to farm Mechanaar for badges), I would argue that the current heroics are substantially less difficult for their intended audience (player in non-heroic 5-man gear). The TBC heroics required crowd control at the risk of dictating group composition. Meanwhile, heroics at the time didn't really offer all that much in the way of rewards - the loot was mostly on the same tier as the non-heroic versions - to justify the increased difficulty.

In Wrath, Blizzard has been much more careful to offer a strictly tiered reward structure. This is good in some ways, but also paints them into a corner in terms of players jumping down from supposedly harder content into the supposedly less difficult content. For example, a new five-man dungeon that dropped Emblems of Valor and ilvl 213 epic gear would be a disaster with the current model; players who are working on Naxx-25 and Ulduar-10 would jump down to cherry pick out the good loot, and the crab would subsequently argue that the content needs to be tuned for raid geared players, rather than players with limited raid experience who actually will be in need of new content at some point.

Blizzard is now all-but committed, by their decision not to launch with top-end challenging stuff, to making increasingly harder raid content be the centerpiece of each patch. This leaves them the challenge of providing something for players who aren't prepared to make the jump to Ulduar and beyond to do for the next year, or longer, until the next expansion. The upcoming Argent Tournament, with a wide array of new non-combat pets, tabards, and mounts is a good start, but these cosmetic rewards are arguably already overused, and they're going to need some new tricks for patch 3.2.

Optimizing the fun out of the game
"Sadly, many players go where the loot is. Or perhaps more accurately for them getting the loot is fun, and that overwhelms where they are getting it. If we instigated another Silithus-style rep grind where you needed to kill 10,000 Tuskarr but we rewarded ilevel 232 for doing so, I promise you (and I rarely promise) that thousands of players would be doing it, cursing us all the while."

Sorry, GC. Though, if it makes you feel any better, I'm actually enjoying slaughtering Gorlocs after giving up on getting the green drake anytime soon.

Bonus Guest Appearance from Jeff Kaplan
Via Broken Toys comes an account of Tigole's talk on quest design at GDC. One segment stood out for me:
"It's a quest that starts at level 30, it spans 14 levels," he said. "And it ends with you having to kill Myzrael there, who's a level 40 elite mob. So it's basically like putting ab rick wall in front of a player. Here you go, just bang your head against the wall for a while..."

"The reason that this is bad--it's cool to have quest chains that span a lot of content, and feel kind of expansive and far-reaching. But the reason that this particular case is bad is because the player [loses trust] in the game."

Kaplan continued to say that players begin to distrust the game when being tasked with such elaborate quests, and are less likely to take on longer quests in the future."

I don't think I've ever completed that chain to the point where I hit the wall, but I have definitely noticed that Wrath solo chains tend not to hinge on large amounts of group content. It was very common in the pre-TBC and TBC eras for quests to throw in a 5-man run at some point along the chain, and I felt exactly that loss of trust in the game when this happened. There is a part of me that feels cheated when I do a questline for Akama, only to be sent into first a tough five-man and then into raid content. It really emphasized that the storyline of the expansion was not intended for me as a non-raider; when Illidan shouted that I was not prepared as I installed the expansion, he turns out to have been correct.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the remainder of the Wrath era. The famous Wrathgate questline has been described as the end of "Act 1" of the story, with two more acts to go. Though I do focus on physical incentives - pets, gear, mounts, etc - seeing the story unfold with my own eyes, rather than via a Youtube video somewhere, is an incentive as well.


  1. "is the crab's assertion that only raid and arena content can truly bring out the best of the best in terms of skill?"

    I think it's his assertion that the way WoW is designed right now, that's the case. Certainly there is no real player skill to the professions. That's what he's comparing it too, not 5 mans

    Speaking of which I am actually dreading moving up to Wrath. Overall, I think the quest structure in Classic WoW is far superior to that in TBC. Two of my all-time favorite instances are ZF and ST. And it's precisely because the quest chains are long and spread out all over the place. I really feel like I'm involved in the game. To this day I remember the first time I saved Swiftbeak or brought back the God Haakar in ST.

    I totally don't see how they would cause you to lose trust in the game. Maybe you could explain it to me because I didn't understand it in the original quote but you say GA u agree. For me, I found the experience immersive and thrilling.

  2. With regards to trust, do you think the amount of time investment players give to these games leads them to be more trustful and forgiving? After all leaving a game you've been playing for months is a wrench!

    Crappy siggy;

    My Zine Distro...

    Badges are kinda my thing...

  3. I suppose they could release future heroics that are more difficult or add in Heroic Hard Modes (like the CoS drake run). The problem is that, as the game progresses, people will be able to out-gear the content instead of showing the necessary skill. Perhaps they could implement rewards that only drop if the group's ilevel is lower than a certain point?

    Again, though, doing that breaks an unspoken promise with the playerbase. If certain loot is only accessible to someone who isn't carrying a host of epics, then anyone who has gotten those epics has already sharded or vendored their old gear.

  4. @DJ: I remember the first time I completed those two quests as well - it was last fall, three years after I abandoned them the first time, and I was level 70, looking for achievement credit.

    The problem with putting group content behind lengthy solo questlines is that it can be very difficult to find players who are at the correct stage of the quest to group with. Anyone who is eligible to save Sharpbeak has already completed and/or outleveled the rest of the zone, and therefore has nothing to do while looking for group in the literal Hinterlands. The sense of betrayal is that you've done all the work to get there and then don't get to see the payoff. It would be less of an issue if the big epic group quest came at the middle of the zone's level range, so that you would have other things to do while LFG, but these things tend to happen at the end of each zone because they are the payoff to the main storyline.

    @Andrew: It's as good a theory as any, I suppose, we do put up with some things that must not make a lot of sense to people who have not invested lots of time in a character.

    @XTian: I don't think they'd want to force players to farm and wear lower quality gear (FFXI does this, but they do a lot of things that most other games' players would never tolerate), but Blizzard could apply some sort of a debuff that caps your DPS/Healing/Aggro at the appropriate level. I haven't actually worked much with EQ2's mentoring system, but I'm pretty sure it just scales down your existing numbers to the appropriate level. One could argue that WoW is long overdue for a mentoring system anyway, and I don't see why it couldn't also deal with the overgearing issue at the same time.

  5. Here's what interests me about GC's comments: The "sadly, players go where the loot is" bit.

    "Sadly?" Why is that sad? You make a video game! Your players have told you exactly what motivates them! Now design around it!

    Seriously, Ghostcrawler's tragedy is a situation that developers of lesser games would kill for. And I think it is somewhat disingenuous - when they launched Arena and wanted to get as many players as possible involved, they gave it great gear rewards. Now the problem is that they figure it's up and running, so they've nerfed the rewards, and players have fled (great post about this last week from Honorshammer's blog, quoting Rohan).

    Also, you are so right that WoW needs a mentoring system or whatnot. I think the problem is that WoW is *so* incentive/progress based that people won't want to step off the treadmill for very long if they're not getting "paid" for it. I mean, if I could scale my character's power down to level 38 long enough to run Scarlet Monastery with a friend, I might do that once - but I wouldn't make a habit of playing that way. On the other hand, would he really want to get summoned to Northrend to fight alongside me in content he won't see for months, and will then have to repeat?

    I think there's an inherent problem with a game with so many levels. Penny Arcade did an awesome comic about it back in 2004 where two friends who play together get separated in level because one can also play during the day.


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