Tuesday, June 16, 2009

From Camps to Quests and Back: Building Better Treadmills

A common reaction to an exploitable or boring system is to complicate it by elaborating on its rules or adding new rules. In this post I'll discuss the evolution of the advancement treadmill or grind in MMORPGs and how I believe the machanics have gotten better, though they are still massively flawed.

Back in the iron age of MMORPGs, a common way to level in Everquest was to camp the spawn points of mobs you wanted to kill. This behavior was not seen as fun by the playerbase after a while, and future games tried different ways to discourage camping. The primordial disincentive for camping came in Dark Age of Camelot, a game on the coattails of Everquest that combated camping by implementing a system where players received bonus XP for killing mobs who had not been killed recently.

Is this a good mechanic?

Bonus XP is certainly simple and requires little work from the developers but it is very artificial. The player cannot intuit that this mechanic would exist without experience in the game or in the genre in general. This mechanic isn’t a metaphor for a real life phenomenon, so it breaks immersion and is naturally more difficult to pick up on. The XP bonus forces players to go a little bit out of their way to kill mobs in some sort of rotation to ensure everyone gets the largest bonus, but sometimes that’s not possible because a zone is crowded and there are only so many mob spawns. In the end, we have a mechanic that’s hard to intuit, and either easy to work around or completely impossible. The only positives note is the simplicity of the system and negligible developer time.

Such a hasty patch mechanic is seldom going to survive through successive generations of games. And it would soon see its death at the hands of World of Warcraft. Quest-based play was the next (and is the current) fad after the camping style.

Questing is a much more robust mechanic to prevent camping. The metaphor is solid; Players are familiar with the idea of being given jobs to do and then accomplishing them. As long as the rewards are reasonable, camping can be severely curbed by quest-based play. No real reason to kill the same monsters in the same place repeatedly if you’re not getting more out of it than you’d receive from running to town and doing a few quests.

Quests give an entire new layer of incentivized activity that makes playing an MMORPG significantly more pleasant, but this style of play has been reduced to a similar grind because of how familiar it has gotten to experienced MMORPG players. Quests also suffer from a relatively serious immersion problem: if everyone’s doing the same quests at similar points in their characters’ lives, doing the quests is just a meaningless way of advancing characters. The pretense of the story that underlies quests rapidly evaporates when you realize that everyone else is doing the same thing in the same world—the fourth-wall is paper-thin if not entirely transparent at points. This leakage of metaphor perhaps has reduced the quest to a slightly more meta version of the mob spawn/camp.

Quests also suffer from being a burden on content developers and being decidedly finite (barring some exceptions like daily quests, which are more like “camped quests”, in my opinion.)

So we’re left in the same situation we were in when camping fell out of favor. The trend became to instance more and more of MMORPGs, but that is just a thin patch of a mechanic that doesn’t actually address the problem: the quest is going the way of the camp and we need to move on to something new in order to keep people playing and playing for longer.


Green Armadillo said...

Part of the problem here is with the underlying gameplay. The only real verb available in most modern games is to kill enemies and loot their stuff. Quests do a better job at hiding that fact than chain pulling to grinding camps did, because quests motivate players to keep changing scenery. Scripted events, instanced or otherwise, do an even better job than "kill ten rats" or "loot 10 sparklies" of making it appear that something is happening, at the cost of being even more time intensive for the developers. The problem that the devs haven't solved is to actually find a fundamentally different activity.

They can add new buttons that kill the enemy in different ways, they can add new items that allow players to look cooler while killing the enemy, and they can add new enemies and new stories surrounding them, but the end result ultimately boils down to "go here, kill stuff, loot, move on". There are limits to how many times that will remain interesting before players move on. This outcome would be fine, but now the problem is that the games that players have moved onto are offering only slight variations on the theme.

evizaer said...

And what you mention is so because MMORPGs have one method of conflict resolution: a competition at poking repeatedly with swords. They just occasionally change the "poking" to "slashing" or "blasting" and "swords" to "other pointy things" or "magic".

MMORPGs that have more means of conflict resolution at different levels of abstraction will be the future and will keep players more interested for longer. I'm trying to design such a game. It's not easy, but innovating almost never is.

Green Armadillo said...

Stargate Worlds claimed that it would have some sort of diplomacy minigame that would allow non-combat characters to talk their way out of encounters with the natives. That said, I'm not sure how different it actually is if you get exp and the ability to move on to the next encounter via a conversation minigame instead of the more traditional combat not-so-mini-game.

Hex said...

How about EvE's system? Missions exist for other benefits, mobs exist for the bounty and parts, but character progression takes place through time instead of effort, changing the grind into a wait.

Although I did hate seeing a skill I really wanted completed report it would take a month to finish.