Saturday, January 23, 2010

Themepark MMO Triviality and Meaninglessness (Pt. 1)

This is the first article of two about what kinds of design decisions can make themepark MMOs trivial and meaningless as games. The community can provide meaning to themepark MMOs and often does much more in that area than the games themselves do, but for the sake of my continuing analysis of themepark MMOs as games, I will focus only on the game design.

I have identified three sources of triviality and meaninglessness in themepark MMOs. These sources can be treated as the reverse of what you should do in order to design a good themepark MMO.

  • The meaningful (content) is subordinated to the meaningless (rewards).
  • A more powerful character cannot effect the world more than a weaker character.
  • Unchanging or increasing character power relative to even-level encounters as character level increases.

In this article I will cover the first and second. In the next article, I will give a longer treatment to third.

The Subordination of the Meaningful to the Meaningless

Players should want to play themepark MMOs because of their content. Content is the focus of the game’s design and implementation. The game is based around setting up reward streams, the rewards allow you to advance to more content. Playing the game to receive rewards logically indicates playing the game for its content. In the player’s mind, rewards should be below content in importance. Players should want to play through a raid more than they want the rewards from that raid, because the rewards only enable them to raid further. If players don’t find raiding particularly fun, why would they raid to get rewards that would only facilitate raiding more? The design is clearly at odds with player behavior here. Players need a constant stream of rewards because the content is drab, but the rewards are only valuable insomuch as they apply to future content.

Rewards are made meaningful by the content they bookend and enable. If the content on either end of the reward is trivial or meaningless, the rewards are meaningless. If the players value the rewards over any content, the rewards are meaningless and the content is meaningless. If content is trivial, rewards are meaningless.

A game cannot long trick a player by rewarding him and building expectations without delivering on them. This is the source of burnout in MMOs. When a player burns out, she played the game to be rewarded, but the rewards didn’t build up to anything she thought was greater and worth achieving. You will find the source of bitterness and disgust among ex-MMO players comes from here, as well.

Too many (perhaps all) themepark MMOs rely on the reward expectation escalation trick to hook and keep players. It works well as long as there are fresh players to use up, but it is not sustainable. Most players will burn-out on not only a specific game that uses this trick, but on the entire genre.

Characters Powerless to Change Anything Beyond Themselves

Growth in MMOs is meaningless, or without substance, when the player cannot effect the world. In most themepark MMOs, a character can only effect himself in a significant way, and other characters by small, usually impermanent, degrees.

In real life, the concept of “power” centers on the ability to effect others. A powerful person can bring grave or wondrous events to reality that cause millions of people to instantaneously alter their behavior. When the Germany declared war on Poland to start World War II, several diplomats and world leaders instantaneously unleashed millions of soldiers onto the fields of battle, ending hundreds of thousands of lives and significantly altering the daily lives of millions of people.  Clearly, those German diplomats and leaders were powerful people.

You're only becoming more powerful in a meaningful way when you can effect the world in more significant ways through your actions. If you can't actually effect the world in any way and mob power is relatively equal with the character's, there's no meaning to the character gaining power. Gaining power doesn’t manifest itself in any meaningful way within the game.

A themepark MMO can only survive so long on the illusion of power gain.  A substantive form of power in the game world provides a source of meaning in gameplay—without power meaning something, character growth is effectively trivialized.


Kenny said...

The problem with this is that many gamers are simply incompatible with intrinsic goals. You either give these players extrinsic ones AND reward the completion or might just as well forget about them. Unfortunately as soon as you have that reward system in place it will be seen by some as "The Goal" and will be abused for minimum effort - maximum gain. This (and the bloating and namecalling and whatnot) in turn will serve as a very much explicit goal for many others to take this way as well.

You could argue that having a meaningful world with meaningful storylines could help alleviate this problem but how can you provide a personalized experience for most players? Even if it's not personalized but mass produced, how can you ensure a consistent experience for most players? And if you do, how do you avoid the "been here for x ammount of time" overpowerdness?

Also, if players have powers that have far-reaching consequences (throwing around million soldiers and such) how do you avoid the "progress by showing up" path leading to an elite-heavy game world? I mean currently all you have to do is grind content and you can be Churchill or Hitler or Roosevelt - but the rest of the world is populated Eisenhowers and Rommels and Pattons! If it's not for "sohwing up" then you have the age old problem of haves and have nots which after years and years of carebearing from studios quite a few players would simply refuse as a concept. Just take a look at WoW's direction...

Of course I know the answer is: player generated content in a sandbox but doesn't this mean that themeparks are doomed as a genre?

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Players should want to play themepark MMOs because of their content. Content is the focus of the game’s design and implementation.

To play a bit of devil's advocate here: isn't this really a conceit on the part of a designer? Content is what the designer generally provides in good games. The problem with user created content is that most of the content is crap. What makes the content more valuable than other aspects, such as all the varied and wonderful forms of social interaction?

When a player burns out, she played the game to be rewarded, but the rewards didn’t build up to anything she thought was greater and worth achieving.

I don't think this is the only case. I think that this can be one cause, but the core reason a player burns out is because some part of the game isn't living up to expectations. Maybe it's rewards, maybe it's disappointing content, or maybe it's some change in the social fabric.

When I first quit WoW, it wasn't because I wanted rewards, it was because I couldn't do anything besides get into raids that I wasn't interested in at the time. The second time I quit WoW was because the group of people I was with kind of fell apart and the content wasn't engaging enough. Neither time was it about me not getting my phat lootz fast enough.

Here's something to chew on about themeparks: What other types of games could appeal to the Achiever archetype? What would a Themepark look like if you catered to another archetype except Achievers? To me, Achievers and Themeparks go hand in hand. But, does this have to be the case?

Andrew said...

To add a burnout reason to the pair that Psychochild experienced, I burned out on WoW (and perhaps the themepark MMO subgenre) because of the constant push to reduce difficulty levels (both solo and group) to the point where advancement was no longer rewarding to me. When tangible rewards (loot, xp, etc) are "free" then they are intrinsically less valuable to me as a player, and that destroys my motivation to play. I like rewards, but I want/need to be challenged to get them - they can't just fall out of the sky.

evizaer said...


My timetravel game concept solves the problem you point to. Instancing and phasing, too, allow the player to have some visible and signficiant effect on at least THEIR world. Even that would allay the meaninglessness enough to address my concern about character power. This may be "cheating" though, because by instancing and phasing you reduce the number of players participating in the world at any given time so that anyone can be a powerful leader.

Re: the desiner's conceit

Themepark MMO design directly points to content as the most important factor because all of the reward and advancement mechanisms center on content. I'm not saying "content is paramount" because I like content in themepark MMOs--I'm saying it because the design philosophy indicates that this should be the case.

Re: burn-out

All of the other burn-out scenarios actually amount to the fact that you didn't find anything else worth achieving. The specifics are different from what I outlined, yes, but I think you point on minor variations on the theme I set forth.

Zach Sebag - MMOPulse said...

This is part of the reason why I love sand box games. I do not think it should be the developers goal to develop ALL of the content. I think they should set up a structure, and then allow players to develop the world. Through the use of politics/resources/cities/etc.

scrusi said...

While I agree with most what you said (eloquently put, as always), I don't think rewards are only valuable as content-enablers. Back when I played Diablo II, it took me little time to create a high level character with good enough equipment to defeat all challenges in the game at all difficulty levels. Still I went and visited Mephisto over and over again for better loot.

That loot didn't help me get to any more content as there wasn't any left - it just made my characters more powerful and me (virtually) rich. Admittedly this goes to your second point somewhat, since my power did in fact increase. Fact is, though, that rewards alone were reason enough for me to repeat dull content over and over again. And I know I wasn't the only one who felt that way.

Other people get off on getting achievements in games, even those that are only connected to mindless grinding. Again rewards without any content value, and people like them. Why would enjoying new content be meaningful while enjoying something else is meaningless? said...

I agree, I think the main issue however is with difficulty and risk. I think the problem is that people are so concerned with instant gratification. We live in a society that glorifies instant gratification, and unfortunately that has leaked into the MMO industry. In most mainstream games theres no risk, because people complain when the game becomes hard, and the developers make the game easier. However, it's hard to find meaning in a game after you've played a game that has risk.
The fact that there's something at risk amplifies the feeling you get when you finally get accomplish your goals.

Dblade said...

Evi, I know you are trying to define theory, but I wonder sometimes if you actually play the available sandboxes on the market. The most meaningless experience I have had was in EvE, a game people uphold as a great example of all things sandbox.

You can effect YOUR world much more in a themepark than in EvE. It doesn't matter about THE world, just what you can do personally, and in sandboxes, most people will just be grunts, or even failures. They will be fodder for the few who make content, but without any of the rewards and crafted content themeparks give. They may even have what rewards they obtain be taken away through other players interactions, like scams, PvP, and other ways.

Themeparks are not failing in the slightest-they dominate the market, and sandboxes are so trivial as to be meaningless in terms of subscriber count and player contentment. It's because it doesn't matter if you affect the greater world, but how you affect your own small world and that of your friends.

Nils said...

I generally agree, just one comment:

Rewards are part the content. IN a credible, immersive MMORPG I can travel to a dark cave, enter it, and retrieve some treasure.

If the cave is always empty or offers only useless 'rewards' it offers less immersion. That is: Less content.

Kenny said...

@evi: "My timetravel game concept solves the problem you point to. Instancing and phasing, too, allow the player to have some visible and signficiant effect on at least THEIR world."

So basically you want an open-world-you-can't-interact-with lobby based, otherwise instanced to hell game? If everyone can be kings in their own world then this is not much different than some failures we've seen recently - or will see soon (Sol system #1386 lol). If you can only affect your own world then it is just as irrelevant form the big MMO picture point of view as playing a single player game. Still going to themepark = sucks.

Maybe it's just my animosity against themeparks that clouds my mind tho. ;)

@Brian: while I don't particularly like Bartle types, this is a really good question! I think DAoC was so popular because it catered more to Killers than Achievers (who could thrive there nonetheless). But problem with catering to Explorers is you either have static rewards for certain "discoveries" then you have a problem of people finding the minmax route pretty fast and just abuse the hell out of the system. Socializers are not even worth mentioning here because unless you can model social interaction between characters at least on a rudimentary level how the hell do the game decides when to give how much xp for what action...

@Dblade: sandboxes are what you make out of them. You can be The King (err, CEO) of EVE but you have to work for that damn hard. Most players, even WoW kiddies are greedy, inpatient and lack the imagination to set intrinsic goals for themselves and thus give meaning to any sandbox. Not to mention that since UO ther was no "big name" sandbox, not a single one.

evizaer said...

"Evi, I know you are trying to define theory, but I wonder sometimes if you actually play the available sandboxes on the market. The most meaningless experience I have had was in EvE, a game people uphold as a great example of all things sandbox."

1.) I do not think that any currently existing themepark or sandbox MMORPG is worth my time as of this moment. I'm not arguing in favor of EVE or any other existing sandbox game through my analysis and critique of themepark design models. I'm only analyzing what I see and trying to provide ways of thinking about the quality of themepark MMOs.

2.) I'm not trashing every themepark MMO in this post. Notice that I do not say that all themepark MMOs make these mistakes and are meaningless/trivial; I said that themepark MMOs are susceptible to these design pitfalls--not that they all commit these sins.

3.) Even if I were an EVE fanboy, that still has nothing to do with the points I make in this post. What you view as the failings of sandbox MMOs have nothing to do with the quality or analysis of themeparks.

Then you go on to construct a strawman and attack that instead of actually addressing any of my criticism or analysis. It doesn't merit further response.


"Maybe it's just my animosity against themeparks that clouds my mind tho. ;)"

I'm trying to suggest ways to make themeparks more fun. If I can't talk credibly about themepark design, how can I claim that it's inferior with any credibility? Only trashing themeparks accomplishes nothing--at least I can offer some ways to move forward within the subgenre. If all I do is slam what exists in favor of nebulous dreams of future MMOs, it'd be pointless to write and read this blog. I'd be advocating nothing over something.

"Rewards are part the content. IN a credible, immersive MMORPG I can travel to a dark cave, enter it, and retrieve some treasure.

If the cave is always empty or offers only useless 'rewards' it offers less immersion. That is: Less content."

Good point. I generally think of content in themeparks as quests that have clear beginnings and endings with rewards tacked on consciously by designers. That definition covers most content in a themepark MMO, though the random open-world stuff still should count. I don't think it changes any of my analysis, though.

Kenny said...

I'm not trashing them either - I simply don't really like them. After burning out on AO then trying a few more I came to the same conclusion as you. However, unlike you, I don't really think the genre can be salvaged, not in it's current form at least. The conflict of interest between the (average) player wanting as little grinding* and as fast as possible and the publisher aiming for the opposite is simply too huge to gap. Based on Keen's raving about Allods the Russians might have done it right but I feel like this will be just another stopover on his quest to find The Perfect Themepark.

**and I'm not talking about vertical climbs only, horizontal spreading can become just as grindy as vertical...

foolsage said...

Interesting article, once again. :)

I definitely agree with your second point; players should be empowered to affect worlds based on their relative levels of power, where power is mechanical (i.e. supported by game mechanisms like skills and levels and gear), economic, and sociopolitical. It's extremely rare for games to allow any of these options, much less all of them.

Your first point though troubles me. I don't think all players would agree that the content is the source of all meaning in an MMO. Rather, I think that achievers value the gaining of power and the successful completion of challenges. These players might feel good about completing a quest, even if the quest is terribly written and of no objective interest. The players might be happy to grind a raid even if it's repetitive and very much like other raids they've completed before, if by doing so they're able to gain gear they could not otherwise. Again, for achievers, it's arguable that the content is by its nature secondary to the achieving; it's not the journey at all that matters but the progress towards the destination.

I agree with Brian's assessment that players can burn out for many reasons, not solely because the rewards aren't satisfying. That behaviour would make sense for most achievers, but doesn't really explain the motivations of other types of players. I don't think Brian's point was that there weren't things worth achieving, so much as that achieving isn't necessarily the only reason people play games.

I think Brian's question about whether themeparks and achievers are inextricably linked is a fascinating one. I'm still mulling that over. Certainly, one can argue that treadmills are all about achievement. Must all themepark MMOs be treadmills though? I suppose this comes back to the definition of themepark MMOs. It's a term a lot of us use but I'm unsure if I've seen a clear and concise definition with which I wholly agree. The article here on Jan 12th has some good steps in that direction but I think makes some generalizations with which I'm not wholly in agreement.

Carson 63000 said...

foolsage: "Must all themepark MMOs be treadmills though?"

I fear that yes, they probably must, for purely economic reasons. Given the time and effort required to generate content, and given the locust-like ability of heavy MMO players to consume that content, it's hard to see how a themepark can avoid treadmills and still keep the serious playerbase active.

I would say that that is one of the prime reasons behind the "like sandboxes/dislike themeparks" school of thought.

Anonymous said...

The other problem not mentioned about point #2 is that eventually, a reset in power is needed, so even if you DO manage to keep everyone on board with the current power scale and progression, you will need to reset it in order for your climb to not become a cliff for new players.

The somewhat interesting 'solution' to this problem in WoW at least is that along with the power reset, the only real major updates to content happen at the same time (paid expansion). If you are in the middle, you dislike the power reset (all that work for 'nothing'), but want to see the new stuff (in part because it's been 6+ months since anything new has been added). Once you have experienced the new stuff, you are likely hooked back into the power grind. Rinse and repeat.