Saturday, December 22, 2012

My MMManifesto - Character Advancement

"What is happiness? It is the feeling that power is increasing and resistance is being overcome."

Games sell by making players happy. This deceptively simplistic goal varies with those players' mental level. The moronic masses are easily pleased. They will play for the endless repetition of 'kill ten rats' quests, because they're being told they've 'won' something, ignoring the banality of the action. They're like babies playing peek-a-boo, cheering themselves on every time they make the world re-appear. This is basic emotional happiness, barely the tiniest step above the physical demand for feed an' fuckin'. It appeals to our instinctive social-ape demand for power over others, for social influence, political clout or peer approval. It appeals to our pathetic need for validation.

To some extent any game will try to provide this. The instinctive, limbic, animalistic payoff for attempting a task, even a virtual one, is the feeling of accomplishment in the case of success. The sick development of the past decade in games however has been the trivialization and near-elimination of the task and the focus on only giving players a feeling of accomplishment. It's the idea of simply giving players something at every step of the way, of guaranteed success. Combined with the same operant conditioning principle which results in gambling addiction, irregular positive reinforcement, this has resulted in a business model which despite providing less and less quality has resulted in larger and larger numbers of customers. The player started to be rewarded in games like Everquest or Diablo 2 for sheer repetition. Kill that boss-monster x number of times and the law of averages all but guarantees you a shiny item to show off to others. It's social status based on the pretense of ability (you vanquished the dragon, noble hero, huzzah!) which turns out upon even the most straightforward analysis to be nothing but the repetition of a mindlessly simple task - given that both you and the dragon are level sixty-seven, it's no more difficult a task than killing a rat at level ten, and given that you're killed that dragon once already, killing it sixty-seven times proves nothing. Concomitantly, developers also started to remove any possible sources of frustration, since they were becoming dependent on customers who were so emotionally frail as to be thought to leave the game at the slightest frustration, at the slightest threat of being denied the automatic 'win' they began to see as their due. Players could never be threatened with losing anything, so everything from small instances to world events to raids and especially PvP had to be stripped of any challenge. Ironically since games began to offer less and less actual quality, players really did start to leave as soon as anything frustrated them. The problem isn't just that they might not get their next little endorphin fix, it's that there really is nothing else to hold one's interest in WoW-clones.

This is entirely incompatible with the actual concept of an MMO. A living, breathing virtual world cannot exist solely to constantly pat players on the back and tell them how great they are. It includes the possibility, even likelihood, of loss and frustration. It will appeal to a smaller audience, those who play for more than just the constant endorphin boost of making themselves feel big, who want to play a game, a contest, a challenge, not just go through the motions in something predictable for a free win. We must fall back to a focus on the game world itself, not individual self-aggrandizement. Much of this revolves around the feeling of progress, of advancement, and the difficulty is in shifting the focus from the illusion of individual growth in power to world events. 

Character advancement in most games (the bad ones) means letting players 'level up' and making them farm for more powerful items, or making them farm thousands of mobs so they can get an in-game title.
In contrast, a persistent world's advancement is not a continual illusion of increasing power. You have to abandon the treadmill and take the focus off individual loot-mongering. The feeling of progress must be made dependent on the creation of contrast during the player's in-game experience and on making all participants feel a part of larger happenings. Instead of continually levelling characters, players should get to compare their proficiency in various skill builds, adapting to the needs of the moment. Don't make players farm the same instance over and over again for a single item they can show off, but putting a new batch of mithril-edged axes to use is all the more gratifying when most loot is plain iron and any item can be lost in PvP at any time. A guild's home town should run the risk of  getting destroyed at any time, by other players or a world event, but this makes the achievement of having kept that town for any amount of time all the more memorable.

The key to keeping players' interest in the absence of levelling or named loot drops or legitimized cheating is keeping them engaged in the affairs of the world at large. I have stated time and again that a bad MMO tries to make its customers feel big, while a good MMO makes them feel small. The unspoken basic assumption in that statement is that feeling small is still better than feeling nothing, which is the sad state of affairs in current MMOs where players' action simply have no effect whatsoever on the game as a whole. In a true persistent world, even if your house is the smallest in the valley, even if it gets burned down by a marauding horde of leet-kiddies after a week or a month, it is more satisfying and memorable because it was actually there. For a week or month, your little cottage changed the face of the game world. The same dragon flew over your head and destroyed your neighbour's house and the same ravaging horde passed by your neighbour but burned your house. You share in the events of the world around you. When you kill another player you should be able to think of that action as part of a greater conflict, an attempt maybe to secure territory for your clan or to defend your resource gatherers as they in turn assure that your clan's crafters will have materials with which to build you more weapons with which to slay your foes. I am repeating here various things i have already said in previous posts about the importance of interconnecting player actions in regards to PvP or PvE mainly to reinforce my point that this idea that meaningful gameplay is fundamentally unmarketable is simply false. Players, even relatively stupid ones, are capable of creating meaning without being explicitly told they're winners in gigantic flaming letters through "Quest Completed !" popups.

If this idea of shared experience providing meaning, of involvement in the affairs of the larger community seems familiar, it's because, it, just like slot-machine gameplay and individual greed, has a quite verifiable psychological basis in the real world. Much of the effort in the many poverty-stricken communities of the U.S. against gangs and random violence and vandalism for instance focuses on exactly that tagline: "getting people involved in the community." I am not proposing to completely remove the instinctive appeal of playing a game, but merely to balance instinctive sadism and self-gratification with instinctive altruism. Players don't just feel big about themselves when they get loot, but also when they can play the stalwart hero and die defending their clan. It is insane that the same force which has built nations and religions all throughout history, the struggle for one's in-group against the out-group, is now completely ignored by game designers as a driving force.

Make sure that when players go to the auction house, they don't just see whether their auction has sold or not, but also how that particular item has been selling lately. Make their action meaningful as part of that marketplace. Make killing a mob meaningful by letting players see how that mobs' body parts shift in price at the market according to supply and demand. Make fighting another player meaningful by tying fights into a larger player conflict which decides the look of the land around for days or weeks to come. Tie every player action into the world at large and you can harness the same force which makes secret service agents take a bullet for the president. Pit that self-sacrifice against basic instinctive sadism. Pit greed against the social reward of providing one's clan with necessary resources. Player advancement in a virtual world must include some measure of individual success like accumulating items in a bank or a slight increase in the size of the fireball you shoot, but also the involvement of the player in larger events. You have to make room for old-timer stories. Players must be able to say "oh man, i was there when we lost the old fort up on the hill, where they built that stone keep now, that was some fight, but we're getting some mithril now from the mines to infuse our catapult ammunition, we'll knock it down next month" etc., etc.

It's the balance between those driving forces of primate behavior, between personal ambition and altruism, between immediate gratification and grandiose dedication to a cause which leaves room for actual quality, for creativity, complexity and nuance. MMOs cannot rise to their potential as virtual worlds until they stop marketing nothing but instant gratification.

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