Saturday, June 18, 2011

Avoiding the Lowest Common Denominator

Transitioning back to MMORPGs in general, what do we learn from the last few posts?

There are two ways to cater to as many players as possible: First, you can design a feature in a way that it appeals to as many players as possible. This is often called "catering to the lowest common denominator". Second, you can design a feature that adjust itself to appeal to as many players as possible.

This is a very important difference. If a static feature is designed to appeal to as many players as possible, it often appeals only to a minority and at best 'satisfies' the majority. On the other hand, a feature that adjusts itself to the players, can be fun for many or even all of them, without making compromises; especially, if it is compatible with the simulation aspect.

Dungeons that allow those players, who overcome challenges faster, to face harder challenges, is such an auto-adjusting feature. Static dungeons that try to appeal to all players, on the other hand, are fun only for a minority and at best satisfy the majority.

Space Invaders is the perfect example of an addictive and for a time highly popular game that rewards players with challenge alone. Unthinkable in MMORPGs. A MMORPG designer should probably combine higher challenges with slightly faster character progression.

Maybe it is even possible to use this idea on more than just the challenge level of activities?

Have a look at the newest Extra Credits video.


  1. I think the amount of people who legitimately want a challenge in any MMORPG is vanishingly remote. There are harder games out there, and the genre is all about getting stronger without necessarily having to get better skill-wise. Nevermind the fact that PvP content and Arena ladders especially already deliver on the concept of personally adjusting difficulty, but relatively few people participant.

    Besides, adjustable difficulty sounds good for solo play... but what about groups? If Bob the Pro Gamer is invited to my raid, do things get harder for everyone or just him? Even coming up with an average based on some kind of PvE MMR will mean 50% of the raid group is merely "satisfied" at best.

  2. I agree that the amount of players who openly say that they want a challenge is small. In fact, I would never say that I play MMORPGs for challenges; I play for the simulation and for the community, in that order.

    However, I do like to min/max. Not because I think I should like to like that or because I even want to like that. It's just the way I play games: I try to get better; not only skill-wise, but in any way possible.

    Games that allow me to "optimize the fun out of it" become un-fun; even annoying. That's the case with WoW's leveling game right now. It's not that this leveling game ever was 'a challenge': it never was. But if mobs just drop dead a few seconds after you attacked them, the gameplay becomes very boring.

    Perhaps one can say that most people like the same (low) challenge level. But different people use differently effective ways to overcome these challenges. Some read up on the internet and do theory crafting, some try to press the buttons faster. As a consequence some players are more effective than others and, thus, even though they liked the same challenge level, they now face different challenges.

    About the group aspect: that's a very good point. I thought about it repeatedly the last few days. I guess there's nothing you can do in a group based game, but accept that different people make up those groups.
    If players consider themselves as part of a community, I think that they like to overcome challenges together. If, however, players think of these groups as a simple tool to progress themselves, challenge levels will rip the group apart for the reasons stated above.

    Thanks for the comment, Azuriel.

  3. The underlying mechanism of MMOs is making people feel heroic and powerful. When a game is working as intended, players' assessments of their own capabilities will tend to be inflated.

    So, when you ask one of these players if the game should be harder or more challenging (or, when they ask themselves), they may say yes even if a more challenging game really wouldn't be fun for them.

    Marketing in the presence of this effect must be difficult, even when the game designers are really trying to satisfy their customers.

  4. That's an interesting take on it, Neowolf2.
    I guess there is just an ideological divide. Some players claim to like games that are more challenging and claim the complete opposite. But what they really like is a different matter.

    On players in MMORPGs wanting to feel powerful:
    I disagree. In fact, I think this is one of the big recent fallacies in the genre. For most of RPGs history, the real fun was to start with nothing and get something. This is often extrapolated to become a god; but this part is rarely the most fun.

    The part of the game where you already have a lot up to the part where you reign the virtual universe, is usually the most boring, I think. Looking at classics, like The Count of Monte Cristo, teaches us that what's the real fun part is to become somebody important, not to be somebody important, and certainly not starting as somebody important and becoming the greatest of all.

    That's why the second part of The Count of Monte Cristo focuses on revenge, not 'achievement'.

    This, btw, is one big mistakes the GW2 team does, I think. .. I actually wanted to make a post about this for months ;)

  5. A problem with implementing variable difficulty in reward (i.e. gear reward) based games is that players tend to do the content that leads most quickly to the best rewards regardless of anything else. If the more difficult content has better rewards than the easier content, then everyone will attempt (or aspire) to do that harder content (the optimisation urge) and those who find it too hard will just be frustrated and leave the game, because they can't get the rewards they want. On the other hand if the rewards are the same for both levels of difficulty the vast majority will take the easy path, because that's the way to get the reward the quickest with the least effort. Then the harder content is irrelevant.

    Also in games that differentially rewards difficulty with better gear (which is how current MMOs mostly work) you end up with a situation where the players at the top of the tree are not only more experienced (because they have already been able to train on the high level content), but also have better gear/stats (often much better) - a double whammy that creates a divide in the player population, making it incredibly difficult for players coming up to penetrate into the endgame content. A good example of this was mentioned by Nils in an earlier post - Rift PvP at level 50, which epitomises the absurdity of this kind of design, but simlarly in PvE.

    So my contention is that it isn't really possible to create lasting (good) MMOs on the current level/gear grind blueprint, because each new level and gear tier that you add, takes you further and further away from the balance of the original design and separates the community further and further into different level/gear pockets. Hence, why the devs have to collapse the levelling game and eviscerate any challenge. IMOP current MMOS are dead men walking - it's just that people haven't jumped ships yet (to mix metaphors a little), because there isn't another ship in sight and Rift is hardly an alternative since they are replicating WoW not as it was in Vanilla, but after the decay had already started.

  6. Roq, you say that if people can choose between two challenges they will always chose the easier one, unless they are rewarded more by the more difficult one, in which case they will always chose this. I mostly agree. But that's not what the post is about.

    When the better raid advances faster to the more difficult encounters without having farmed as much gear as a more slowly advancing raid, then they weren't free to choose. Instead, they were rewarded with a higher challenge. This alone, as I pointed out, can be reward enough in games. But you can very well connect it with better gear if you want.

    On your second paragraph, I agree. Which is why I recently suggested alternative achievement systems that don't improve your character. Like ventureing into dungeons to gain resources to build a house / guild castle.

    I agree in spirit with the third paragraph, but wouldn't use such strong words. The current system works within limits. There's a reason we get a reset every expansion (whichI would very much like to avoid).

  7. leveling is a joke now and very boring..I play a priest now and I cannot use my abilities..

    2 core abilities of shadow priest , Shadow word : pain and Devouring plague are not worth to apply..
    I do a mind blast and the mob is at 20% and then I don't know what to do..I try to play smart and use a low mana ability to finish him without having problem with my mana I try to fool myself to make my game more interesting

    I play this game almost 6 years.The best time was 4 years ago when I have leveled a rogue with my friend.He also played rogue.We almost became Loremasters (without achievements being exist).. but without doing linear quests.

    There was so epic quests elites in open world, that it was very challenging and when we could do some of them only the two of us it was a very good pleasure!and if it happened to get a good piece of gear you really had it for a long you equip an epic piece at 40 level and in 5 hours you change it with a blue or even a green because you are 47-48 :(

    I still remember the epic feeling of world elites.I remember mor ladin at duskwood, you always played there and you were looking around in fear that maybe he will come out of the you accidentally pull him with other mobs and you aoe him down../fail

    only thing matters now is to go max level to start grind with asocial and anonymous people your gear every day.I am glad I have my Dragon Age origins installed on my pc to play a real rpg frequently

  8. Quite off topic, Giannis, but I agree.
    WoW is a losing the war on two fronts: endgame and leveling game.

    I focused on the endgame in recent posts that has become problematic with WotLK. But the leveling game now actually adds to that in Cataclysm.

    Ironically that is after they revamped it and added quite some good stuff. But if the core of the leveling game, combat, is so much out of balance, that's not enough.

  9. sorry for the off said "There are two ways to cater to as many players as possible"

    I found myself interesting in leveling characters, not only in wow but in every MMO I played.I know a lot of people like me, that their major fun is have in mind that there is a part of the community that is most interesting in leveling characters in combination with role play sometimes.(I play in an RP Server).And they are less interesting in high end dungeons and raids.(so you will ask why to play wow then..maybe some memories or a hope or both)

    so if the game have something to cater to me, is a more interesting leveling and more RP (outfits,remodeling,dyes,housing all games have at least one of this)

    now warcraft only had interesting leveling for the type of player like me, and destroyed it in wotlk a little but now in cataclysm killed it.

  10. "The current system works within limits. There's a reason we get a reset every expansion (whichI would very much like to avoid)."

    Instead of piling levels on top of each other, with each expansion, it might be better to have parallel levelling systems that differ in each expansion. Guild Wars does this ... to some extent. For instance, in the Nightfall expansion you get to level "Lightbringer points". Levelling this up leads to the aquisition and progression of some special skills that are somewhat useful in the Nightfall endgame (they cause extra damage against servants of Abaddon!?). Unlike dungeon/boss wards or whatever (in GW Prophecies you had to get your armor "infused"), the system is progressive. Also, because the buffs are actually quite small they aren't really strictly necessary (although that doesn't stop the PUG runners from demanding max level :)); and of course the major kicker is that in subsequent expansions there are no Servants of Abaddon, so there is no need to reset anything or kill off previous content in order to fix the levelling disparity between players.

    This system was expanded in the Eye Of The North expansion, which has 4 such levelling systems. Unfortunately, the implementation is very grindy, particularly in Eye Of The North. Still I reckon this kind of idea can give a lot of the motivation that increased level cap / gear tiers does, whilst avoiding the problems. You could apply this idea directly to gear as well, I think, with some modification, perhaps in some quite subtle ways. For instance in one expansion you might put resistance against fire on the armor and have the bosses do this type of damage, but in the next expansion the bosses might prefer lightning attacks, making a new progression in order to optimise for that expansion that doesn't invalidate the old gear for it's use in the last expansion (you might have expansion specific tabs for armor you want to use in a particular expansion with overriding cosmetic options). If you combine this with some uber titles and cosmetic rewards for completing more than one expansion you should be able to generate an endless stream of content without increasing the level cap, needing to reset gear, or making previous content redundant.

  11. Thank you for another good post.

    There is an alternative: cafeteria - let me feel good about not caring about a feature because I have alternatives. Blizzard does not have to make the tradeoffs you discussed for Arena or Fishing as nobody is going to be that worked up if they did not get to see all 525 of fishing.

    I.e., implicit in your dilemma is that people expect to do the feature. If anything before the endgame is irrelevant and there is only one PvE thing to do at endgame, then people who shall stay subscribed will expect to be able to do that to some considerable degree. Whereas EVE has less pressure to make every career accessible to every player since there are alternatives that the player and their peers see as viable.


    Let me put on my marketing hat and remind that "what people say" is not important.

    The following are three different things.

    1) "most players who care enough to post on forums want harder raids"
    2) "most players say they want more challenge"
    3) "most players want more challenge"

    #2 being true does not mean that #3 is. Just because a poll shows people saying they want sophisticated movies and healthy food does not mean that summer action moves and bacon-cheeseburgers are no longer profitable.

    After going through pages of posts and blogs from the toxic community about "morons, slackers, lazy, teribads". There is a tendency to say you want more challenging content. Which doesn't change the unsub rate upon receiving the challenge.

  12. Thanks for the post, Hagu. I agree with part 1.

    About part 2, I suggets you read this unless you already have, of course.
    It's a lot of fun - especially the comments ;)

  13. Nils: the desire to have game be harder may also be a reflection of a desire to demonstrate a superiority over others.

    This ego motivation is a very important one in MMOs, I think. I'll argue it drives most players. And it causes the fundamental dilemma facing the MMO designer, since if you have your players face off (in one way or another, either by direct combat or by racing through PvE content), most of them won't come out on top. A game that can, by design, deliver its most important value to only a minority of the customers is not going to be successful.

    In this kind of game, the lower rank players will stick around until their ignorance about their position in the pecking order is removed. At that point, they are at risk of quitting. I bet most of the churn in a game like WoW is among these non-dominating players, out of proportion to their actual number.

    I like to call this arrangement a "ponzi scheme of the ego". Everyone invests themselves in the game, but the ultimate purpose of most of the players is to transfer emotional wealth (ego gratification) to the top players. And like any ponzi scheme, it isn't sustainable.

    An MMO designer, above all else, has to keep the lesser players ignorant of their state. This means things like Armory and progression tracking sites are terribly dangerous. Carefully tuned PvE content is also bad, since your progression through it serves as a kind of rating telling one just how bad (or less likely, good) one is.

  14. Neowolf2, I don't agree, but I respect your point. In fact, you might be right, I'm not sure. If that makes sense.

    My theory is that players stay subscribed as long as they have fun when they play. If other players, whom they hardly play together with, gain more 'ego-power', that's something they cry and complain about. But as long they have fun when they play, they don't quit over it.

    I have read those forum posts. And I have read posts against Elitism (Tobold, anybody?). Players create create all kinds of conspiracy theories in their heads.

    "He's just there so that I can see his equip - was an asshole"

    "He has better equip - therefore he must think that he is so much better than me - what a dick!"

    But as loud as their complains may be, I don't think players quit over them as long as they have fun. In fact, I think they forget about it pretty fast as soon as they have fun.

  15. I was watching my son (7 yrs old) at a child's party and watching how the kids played and got to thinking (for some odd reason) about this post. Some reasonable arguments have been made if people want a challenge or different challenges and then it hit me. People just want fun, we maybe 7 or 47 it's the same.
    I'll illustrate my point using the children's party as a scenario. Say I purpose a game, a race, for the kids in which at the end they all get the same reward (Let's say a bag of candy). All they have to do is choose one of 3 ways to win it. the choices are:
    1. Start to finish line is 20 yards in a straight line, no obstacles, just walk or run to the finish line and grab the candy.
    2. same as above but in the path along the way to the finish line is 15 boxes, all the same height and width, they must jump over each one before they reach the finish line.
    3. same course but instead of boxes there are inflatable slip in slides, a ball pit, a wading pool full of inflatable sharks til the end.

    Which will most kids pick? Sure you will have a number of kids that want to "win" (even though everyone will get the same prize) and choose the 1st race. But I hazard to say (based on watching my son and kids play at the party-true scientific method I know...)will choose the 3rd option because it is fun and kids love fun. Very few I think will choose the 2nd option as this is what is equivalent to a "grind" and offers no fun, just tedious work for the same prize.

    And I think that is where WoW and a lot of games are at....jumping boxes for loot and not really offering much of option 3. See if all the loot is eventally valued the same , then it's the journey that is the reward.

  16. I agree, Wraith. Thanks for the comment.

    In MMORPGs, the difference between fun content and a grind is that fun content is encouraged and fun to do while a grind is encouraged, but boring.

    The more encouraged something is the more long-lasting fun it must be to not become a grind.

    That's why daily dungeons with badge loot are a grind, but non-daily dungeons without badge loot were fun content.