Friday, November 27, 2009

Goal Generation in MMOs: The Problem

treadmillGoal generation is fundamentally a social endeavor. In real life, a person’s goals are largely  dictated by the people with which that person socializes. Your friends relate their goals to you and you, to stay friends with them, align your goals; or, if you don’t particularly favor the friendship, you can find other friends onto whom you can project your own goals. Similarly, successful products in market economies manipulate how consumers generate goals so that the goals of the consumer appear to align with (and cooperate with) the goals of the producer. Goal generation is central to the way we live our lives; many philosophers have dedicated themselves to defining the process of goal generation and validating the processes we use and should use to prioritize goals.

Goal generation is as crucial to games as it is to real life. Understanding how games generate goals for players can help us to see better ways to make goal generation a natural and self-perpetuating process that can lead to games with significant staying-power.

MMOs fail at goal generation, a failure that leads to a soul-sucking emptiness that has driven me from almost every MMO I have played.

The player’s obvious long-term goal in an MMO: to reach the end of whatever content is provided. Here we see the root of the theme-park model. The player is conditioned to get from the start to the end by society and prior games. Limited linear static goal design is a carry-over from single-player games—it follows directly from single-player game design where game designers and game writers create goals for the player based on the motivations that the player’s character should have. The story (and, perhaps, game mechanics) supply these motivations to the player’s character and these motivations are portrayed to the player through cutscenes, dialog, and character behavior. In great single-player games, the motivations of the player’s character are so well-portrayed that the player’s own motivations in the game align with the character’s. This is rarely the case in MMOs.

Character motivation in MMOs is a thin veneer at best—it’s usually completely absent. Because of the broken symbiosis of character advancement and storytelling, character motivation is relegated to a minor role if any. The PC is not considered a unique element of the world that pushes the story forward. MMO design treats each PC the same as every other PC (although sometimes only so far as the PC is a certain race or class). Content is static, simple, and manually designed. Any motivation that the player concocts in an attempt to roleplay is a handicap against character advancement because the only power the player has over his character’s motivation is manifested in avoiding certain pieces of content. The choice isn’t between ways to effect the world—the choice is deciding whether to participate. This choice can be valid, but it represents very few of the choices a hero would feasibly make.

In a single-player game, static linear content makes sense. The player can assume the role of a character who changes the world, and those changes can be relayed back to the player through story events. Limiting the goals of the player’s character works within the framework of the character’s motivations.

In an MMO, using static linear content does not make sense. Designs can use this approach and most theme-park games do, but these designs need to work around the fundamental disconnect between static content and a world that should be changing as players grow their characters. The player’s character moves through physical locations as she advances, progressing towards the eng-game, but those locations are not actually changed. Physical space in MMOs is used to act like the progression of time and events in a single-player game.

Goal generation in theme-park MMOs places the player on a treadmill. This must happen in order to have a world that does not change due to characters’ actions. Goal generation in theme-park MMOs will always be reduced to a grind because it does not demonstrate actual progress. The player maneuvers his character through content to reach whatever advancement goals she might have, but she will ultimately be inhabiting the exact same immutable and unchanging world at every second. When the scenery moves but you’re actually still in the exact same place, the feeling of progress changes to disillusionment. The facade is clear; only our innocence protected us from this understanding when we first entered, wide-eyed, into MMORPG worlds. We can never get our innocence back, regardless of how a game like Aion makes it tantalizing. No matter how fancy a treadmill may be, running on it will never get you to a new destination.

What is the solution? Clearly we must explore dynamic world design. My articles on accountability and simulationism provide clues at where I’d like to go here. I will explore my ideas for dynamic, self-renewing goal generation systems in a future post.


Drevarius said...

You expressed my concerns quite accurately with this post. I too believe that MMOs should be more dynamic. I would like to further speculate that in order to inspire goals you must first create player motives.

Some of the traditional goals in MMOs are monetary acquisition, equipment acquisition, increased social standing and content availability and completion. Most of these goals are driven by the desire to improve oneself and to fulfill a form of belonging and self actualization, (Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs), compared to single player RPG's where the main goal is to see what happens next and continue the series of events.

This creates somewhat of a paradox, the character is a direct representation of the player in the virtual setting as opposed to a denizen of the virtual environment.

In order to create goals seperate from self actualization, it would be be necessary to seperate the player from the character by given the character an identity of it's own in the virtual world.

Whether the characters traits are to be defined by the players choice or upon character creation are up to debate and personal preference.

Great article!

UnSub said...

"Goal generation is fundamentally a social endeavor."

The immediate problem I run into is that goal-setting isn't a social endeavour. It's a personal choice and doesn't essentially require others to create that goal for you. There can be a social component to a goal, or social impact that might help / hinder achievement of that goal, but a social element is hardly essential to goal generation.

Very hard to take the rest of the article seriously when I disagree with the first statement.

DJ_NVee said...

Goal generation is derived from two sources. Internally "I want to do X", and externally "Will you do Y for me?"

In a game setting, most goal setting defaults to the second, the external, and does not often provide tools to support the internal (beyond combat at least). There has been some movement in the direction of internal goal setting via Achievements (WoW, CoX as specific examples), but again this seems more of a treat for players jumping through hoops.

Eve Online has a bit of a step in the right direction with their contract systems, in that you can create a 'job' for another player to accomplish, but those mainly stay within the routine. Both parties know how it will end up and so, does little to deviate from the FedEx and other similar varieties.

I think a major step would be to go back to the root of MMO's, being the old school Pen and Paper RPG's and allow players to tell the system what needs to be accomplished, while at the same time making players dependent on one another outside of the typical "team up to beat the big boss". Dependency does not have to mean being in a team.

As an example; say I have a character in a game that is a musician. I want to play at a particular club, but the current headliner's popularity means the club owner won't even hear my bands demo. Not much I can do about it myself, but if I hired someone to take care of it in some manner (assassination, slander, street team promotion, strong arm tactics, etc), then I have moved towards my goal while providing another goal for another player, or group. This in turn, creates a more dynamic world, without having to overly tax the server which becomes more of a record keeper and rules referee than a storyteller in it's own right.

evizaer said...

Unsub: No. I know for a fact that you are wrong. Some critical thought or a cursory study of psychology and sociology will show you that most of the goals we have in our lives exist (at the very least) within a social framework. The reactions of others to our actions impact our goal generation significantly. How we interact with other people and our environment gives us boundaries in our goal generation process and sometimes very strictly keeps us to certain goals.

Without the input of a society, you would not even be able to grasp language. Without language and the abstract tools to reason, generating goals becomes dead simple (basically, your goal is survival and the subgoals directly proceed for that).

Even on the stupidly and uselessly vague level of "I want to be happy", there is not a strong case for that goal being sourced entirely from the individual.

Drevarius said...

I think Unsub was perfectly reasonable in stating that he disagrees with you because of his personal experience.

It's another thing to call someone wrong and completely dismiss all of their ideas and input.

I am not a fan of subjectivity or romanticism, but I believe both of your views are valid. evizaer, your logic was flawed by stating that the whole of goal generation is a social endeavor. Such all inclusive statements can get you into trouble. I think that's all that he was trying to say.

evizaer said...

"Fundamental" is not "all."

Society is fundamental in goal generation because the society in which you belong provides the framework for (and a lot of very strong hints at) what goals you will seek to achieve in your life.

The individual has some say in his own goal generation, certainly, but that doesn't mean that society's role is not fundamental.

Drevarius said...

Let me clarify, you say that society provides the framework for goal generation. I somewhat agree with this statement; however, I feel that statement undermines the importance of subconcious drive in the goal generation process. The concious mind generates goals based on the subconscious desire.

I think the key to goal generation in games is to realize that the player generates his or her own goals internally, while the game provides the framework on which goals are made by the player. MMOs have a trend to make the goal the acquisition of power, which could be tied to the need of self actualization according to Maslow's Hierarchy.

Game societies influence goal generation, but it is also a collective quest of self actualization.

I apologize for meandering in the last few posts, but your original post was a tad verbose and did not have a singular thesis other than MMOs need reform in the area of player motivation.

If the point was that motivating players can be better done in MMOs by focusing on social aspects of a game, I wholeheartedly agree with you.

I agree that story elements in single player games do a much better job of motivating players than the existing story elements in MMOs. I think that is because in most single player RPGs the player empathizes with the protagonist, and the protagonist has goals/drives seperate from the player (which influences player choice). There is no distinction between an MMO avatar's desires and the player's desires.

evizaer said...

"I feel that statement undermines the importance of subconcious drive in the goal generation process. The concious mind generates goals based on the subconscious desire."

And what shapes the subconscious? The environment as well as genetics. Some of the most powerful environmental shapers are other people with whom you communicate.

This is a needless debate, though, because we're getting too far away from what we actually know.

"I apologize for meandering in the last few posts, but your original post was a tad verbose and did not have a singular thesis other than MMOs need reform in the area of player motivation"

My article showed the way that single-player game goal generation has effected MMO goal generation. Then I pointed out how it's easy to shoehorn goal systems from single-player games into MMOs, but it leads to grindiness, treadmills, and general burn-out and bitterness.

This point is still debated and not understood by most of the people I read. I've written on it before but I thought this formulation of my argument was interesting and worth sharing.

Nick Carraway said...

"MMOs fail at goal generation"

So many people recognize that Dynamic world generation is the next step. Or possibly a few steps ahead.

Can't wait to see it realized. That's my goal.