Friday, January 8, 2010

Themepark MMO Design: Optimizing Reward Distribution

The overarching goal of the themepark is to keep the player entertained through keeping them constantly in sight of the next goal. These goals are usually extrinsic and explicit. Themeparks rely on vertical advancement to provide a string of goals that lasts for a significant amount of time, first through levelling, then through gear and rep grinding. Once these goals are accomplished, the game is practically over, so themepark games need a reliable stream of content updates to sustain growth. Once a themepark game hits a critical mass of content, it can survive without new content for some time, though it may not grow, based on players rediscovering old content and new players occasionally signing up and enjoying old content.

The goals of the themepark model:

  1. Keep gamers occupied for some time while not requiring significant thought from designers. Adding a new dungeon is cheaper than adding new game systems, so release new ones just as players get bored with old ones.
  2. Ensure that gamers always have something to do—explicitly given to them—so that they don’t get lost while they have content yet to complete.
  3. Provide reward structures that incentivize the repeated completion of as much content as possible.
  4. Expose players to as little content as possible while still keeping their interest. Allow players access to as much content as possible provided the player spends enough time in-game. Expose them to content multiple times, but allow each occurrence to be far enough from the last that the content doesn’t get stale rapidly.
  5. Provide multi-tiered reward structures so the player receives a steady stream of rewards occasionally broken by discontinuous non-linear jumps in character power. Various currency systems that pay for different kinds of rewards can provide non-linear growth bursts that keep players interested.

All of these goals can be boiled down to one: Ensure that the player always has some new reward to gain and that the reward is obvious, desirable, and seems tantalizingly within reach.

Themepark MMOs are all about timing rewards. Well-timed rewards keep the player tickled and interested enough to continue doing otherwise repetitive actions. If the reward stream remains linear for too long and isn’t punctuated by non-linear jumps in character power, the player will become bored and be overcome by perceived “grindiness”.

Occasional jumps in progression succeed at keeping the player’s attention because people generally predict outcomes in a linear fashion based on their experiences. When factors compound to generate an exponential or logarithmic effect, the accuracy of an average person’s predictions will flag. In fact, many strategies in games are overpowered because they have some factor that exponentially relates to force effectiveness which leads to the force not only having an advantage, but having a growing advantage as the game progresses. The designer failed to see this exponential factor, because he didn’t notice that two linear factors were being multiplied into an exponential factor. Designers, just like players, will see the combination of linear factors and expect linear results—this is a flawed expectation that a good reward system will exploit.

The pacing of rewards ultimately decides the success of the themepark game. At the root of the themepark paradigm is character growth, and at the center of character growth systems are reward systems.


spinksville said...

The key with character growth is that the type of reward also matters. If you look at pen and paper RPGs, there's an assumption that the GM will reward characters by providing future challenges -- both mechanical and roleplay based -- where their newly bought abilities (from spending xp) will be useful.

One of the interesting things to me in MMOs is how far people will go for purely cosmetic rewards that have nothing to do with anything apart from a random sense of 'that looks cool'. It would be really hard to motivate players like that in a pen and paper game, they'd be more 'why would my character care about that?'

Kenny said...

Because in p&p you play with your friends and even when you're immersed deeply in a story you all are physically present and thus don't have any identity crisis. In an MMO everybody looks the same, there are gazillion clones of you running around and that's all other players, who you may or may not know, perceive. Creating an identity for your character is a major goal for all of us, whether we admit it or not.

However the assumption you mention is really interesting. As a GM I never tailored any challenge to the players' abilities - in fact the only thing I usually kept in mind is not to stand them against something that they can't solve because of game mechanics (like lack of skill). The group of people I played with had a real appreciation of their character; most of the time they didn't spend XP in a way that "powered" their characters, their decisions were based on RP and character progression (err, can't say it better than this).

However all of us more or less powergame in any and all MMOs we played. That's something interesting to think about, maybe because the lack of identity, the assembly line style of content, peer pressure or the combination of these (and maybe more)...