Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Themepark MMO Triviality and Meaninglessness (Pt. 2)

Last post I wrote about two design pitfalls that can trivialize themepark MMOs and render play meaningless. Today, I’ll finish that article with the third point: relative power’s stagnation.

The Relative Power Quagmire

The relative difficulty of content should actually increase as the character advances. More abilities to use means more combinations of abilities that can be more effective. The relationship between usable abilities and character power is better than additive. Players will use more complex combinations of complementary abilities to achieve significant power increases level-over-level. The character’s power not only gains the added bonus of having one more spell, but also the upside of all the combinations that amplify or are amplified by that new spell.

To keep players interested in the game, the game should push the player towards learning more about game systems. This push doesn’t need to be forceful—a small increase in relative difficulty would incentivize learning without frustration. If there is no relative difficulty increase, the player will probably enjoy the game at first, feeling that the relative weakness of enemies is a reward for their advancement, but in the near future difficulty stagnation trivializes the content and, by extension, the game as a whole.

When I played Lord of the Rings Online a year or so ago, the Minstrel class became surprisingly powerful at mid-levels because the class accumulates a group of synergistic abilities that feed into one another to create supremely powerful soloing combinations. The time it takes to kill a mob solo are reduced by half—the games become significantly easier in the span of 5 levels, even when fighting even-level opponents! The non-linear leap in character power trivializes all content that is linearly more difficult than last level’s. I rapidly become bored with the game because trivial content gave me a clear view of the grind and led to disinterest.

Strategic Blandness –> Artificial Difficulty –> Player Frustration

Themepark MMOs have very little strategic depth, which means that the game is only fun until you run out of static content to complete. The game must fall apart within a certain number of hours because it's just an elongated series of relatively boring trivially easy tasks that grow your character through solely the investment of time. (See also: my posts on the content problem, and why themepark MMOs are easy.)

The developer has two options to keep monthly subscribers playing:

  1. Make more content. Don’t let players go without new content for too long or they’ll leave.
  2. Because sufficiency skill tests are not feasible, implement means of artificial difficulty. Increase the length of the leveling curve, the gear grinds at level cap, make quests repeatable and put rewards at the end of a larger number of repetitions, etc.

We generally do not see (2) directly; we see a combination of (1) and (2). More content is added and that content is artificially made more difficult through requiring steep time investments in order to get certain desirable rewards. Daily quests and instances are examples of this design methodology. The content, in either case, is strategically bland, so once the change of scenery loses its appeal, players will feel that the content is trivial and grindy.

Strategic Blandness –> Content Exhaustion –> Player Boredom

This progression is common among achievers and powergamers. Players are good enough to complete the strategically bland content quickly and climb the reward ladders easily. They reach the end of the reward ladders that they find worth climbing and find themselves confronted with nothing interesting left to do. The pattern of content exhaustion continues until the player understand the pattern and tires of gear- and reward-reset cycles.


Tolthir said...

Great post, and from a gameplay perspective I totally agree.

Here the problem though: Some players aren't interested in MMOs as "games" in the traditional sense and don't want to be challenged. So how do you design a game to appeal both to players who like increasing challenge and to those who don't?

I think ultimately the solution is to relax constraints like level requirements (so players have the freedom to take on challenges if they want to) and to change the risk-reward structure (so players have an incentive to take on challenges). So far themepark MMOs haven't managed to do this well.

Kenny said...

What Tolthir said: many times it's not the designers who limit content or challenge ('tho unfortunatelly it happens more and more) but _players_ themselves for going the max xp/rep/gear / hr invested route.

I see the root of the problem in the level-based systems used in the majority of the games. Only if designers would get rid of this extremely flawed and rigid system and implement non-linear character progression then we could at least enable those players to set challenges for themselves what and when they deem appropriate without bounding them in an artificial structure.

Dblade said...

There's a big problem with this. Eventually, you cannot increase relative difficulty to force players to engage deeper into the mechanics. It may be because of two factors:

1. The game isn't robust enough to have endless permutations or tactical play.

2. The players as a majority plateau way below the ability to engage in it.

2 is the more important one. If you keep increasing the relative difficulty, and your game system is complex, very few people will reach high levels of play. This can work in some games played idly-chess is one where most players suck at it, and are happy at engaging it at a basic or intermediate level. But it's not those players who pay monthly fees for online chess.

Strategic Richness-Genuine Difficulty-Player Skill Exhaustion-Game abandonment/Shift to Idle Play.

To borrow your usage. Most sub-based games aren't willing to accept that.

evizaer said...

Themepark MMOs can't have substantial difficulty. Substantial difficulty would drive away players. There is no real solution to the problems I'm pointing out--the only thing devs can do is find ways to make better content faster. This could mean partial procedural generation. This could also mean content that seems to effect the world directly.

I'm not asking for substantial difficulty in themepark MMOs. I'm exploring the results of this limitation. The results are not good.

I'm not trying to create a game that will be infinitely playable and I'm certainly not holding themepark MMOs to such a ridiculous standard. No matter what you do, a game will wear. There is only so much a player can learn in any given game; there is only so much fun a player can extract from a game. Once they've learned everything, they're going to grow bored and leave--it's a matter of finding better ways to generate interesting stuff for the player to learn. The themepark model is not as good at this as sandboxes could potentially be.

Kenny said...

Evi, suppose you nail procedural content generation and it is genuinely engaging and interesting content - still how do you combat content evasion that's practiced by many on a daily basis?

I think going back to player motivation and getting that sorted out is much more important in the first place.

Tolthir said...

Themepark MMOs can't have substantial difficulty.

But they already do, don't they? WoW had very difficult high end raids at launch. Guild Wars has always had skill-based PvP. Puzzle Pirates has mini-games that are very much a test of skill, and I believe you have to be pretty good at them to achieve the highest ranking. Even Wizard 101 has some difficult content.

I know there is a popular trend right now toward skill-free MMOs, but it's not clear that themeparks *have* to be that way.