Sunday, July 3, 2011

Convenience Functionalities

Lately we had several heated debates on this blog about micro-transaction-based business models for MMORPGs. My main two arguments against were these:

1) The business models corrupt players and, more importantly, the company.
2) The business models damage the "immersion" and the consistency of the simulation aspect.

During the debates the advocates tried a lot of arguments to convince me. And I like that. I may not always react in an obviously grateful manner, but I wouldn't have a blog with enabled comments if I disliked controversial conversations.

Theoretically, at least, point (1) is easy to defuse. And when it comes to point (2) commenters asked what my opinion is on convenience items. I didn't respond to that immediately which is always a sign that it is a good point.

Let's imagine a WoW-like MMORPG with a leveling game. Does a +25% experience functionality, available for micro-transactions, harm immersion? Well, a bit, sure. But if the developers hid it from me that other players use it; does it harm immersion?

What I know is that my first reaction to this functionality is strongly negative. But it isn't all that easy to find a good reason. One reason might be that other players will inevitably start to talk about it. But since the WoW-like leveling is designed to be a single player experience, that's not that much of a problem really.

Of course, the pure theoretical knowledge that such a thing exists does harm immersion for me. Circumstances matter. But is that really the biggest problem?

After thinking about it really hard I arrived at a rather surprising conclusion: The biggest problem about convenience functionalities, that you can buy for micro-transactions, aren't the micro-transactions! The problem is that they exist in the first place.

Actually, I remember that I wanted to post about this for quite some months: To offer convenience to your players is a terrible, terrible mistake; even if it doesn't cost any €. The reason is that by adding such functionalities (like heirlooms), you send a very clear message to the players.
The message is: "This activity is not meant to be fun!".

Players react to "meant to be"-messages very clearly; especially if they are convincing. For example, telling your players that you don't really care that much about balance, is powerful. It can instantly cut the balance complains in half (no, they won't go away). On the other hand, telling your players that you want to make the perfectly balanced game, will get you into trouble.

Within limits, players subconsciously trust developers. That might not be obvious and I see some developers laughing back there, but it is the truth. It's similar to a politician approaching me and telling me that I am correct about all these problems with Greece, but they thought about it extensively and what they do now is the lesser evil. It is called leadership. It's what will happen when republicans eventually tell their constituency that a small tax increase for the rich was necessary for the greater good and isn't a harbinger of Armageddon.

Players can easily become upset if developers don't meet the goals they set themselves. But we are much more tolerant when it comes to declaring the developers' goals to be wrong.

More powerful than direct messages, however, are indirect messages. The reason is that they are obviously truthful.

If you want to make a new character in WoW, you are confronted with the following question: "Do you want to experience the stories during leveling, or do you want to get it over with as fast as possible".
That's, by the way, a good example for the fact that not every interesting decision is good for your game!

As if it wasn't already bad enough, what's especially harmful is that "getting it over with" costs something. This is what very effectively convinces players that it has to be more fun. (Which it is usually not, by the way.)

This is a problem for any convenience functionality. If players can acquire convenience that is not otherwise justified by, i.e. the simulation, they subconsciously conclude that the only reason for its existence is to remedy inconvenience. And that necessarily means that the developer considers the activity in question to be inconvenient.

This not only automatically motivates the question, why the developer wants them to suffer. 25% faster is not nearly fast enough if the activity is inconvenient! It also very effectively convinces the players that something is not fun, even though they might have had fun before they knew about the convenience functionality.

Summing up: Convenience functionalities very effectively convince players that your game is meant to be inconvenient. That should get you worried.


  1. Convenience functionalities very effectively convince players that your game is meant to be inconvenient.

    That's like saying strategy guides convince players that the game is impossible to finish without help. The reality is not quite so simplistic.

    With a bit of thought, it should be obvious that games are not as easy as they could be. WoW was a fairly easy game when it launched, and by all accounts it's gotten easier. It's quite possible to become too easy. A good designer knows when to put obstacles (also known as inconveniences) to let the player figure out a good way around them.

    But, not everyone has the same tolerance for inconveniences. A hard-core EQ fan might think that spending a week to gain a level is fine, but a WoW fan might die from the mere mention of it. Letting someone who enjoys the game but would like to advance faster buy an advantage is not the same as admitting the game is too hard.

    Does it break immersion? Perhaps for you. But, I notice that the world is full of people with glowing punctuation marks over their heads, in a land where people have endless amounts of rewards to give to people who perform the same repeated chore, where there are gravestones but few people really stay dead, etc. The fact that someone might have spent $1 getting an xp potion from the item store is not exactly the first thing to make me lose my immersion....

  2. The reason is that by adding such functionalities (like heirlooms), you send a very clear message to the players.

    The message is: "This activity is not meant to be fun!".

    And what if the activity actually is not meant to be fun? Or used to be fun the first time you did it, but is no longer capable of being fun (e.g. leveling for the 3rd time)? Or is intentionally designed to be a timesink?

    MMOs are a mechanism designed to extract dollars from your wallet over a long period of time. That these games are fun at all is purely coincidental - if the developers truly cared about making great games, they would make them and not charge monthly fees thereafter. The existence of the monthly fee in the "simulation" calls into question every design decision the developers make. Why is the daily quest to kill 12 spiders instead of 10 or 8? Do the extra spiders add any value to the fun of the quest, or do little decisions like that spread over 10 quests increase the amount of time it takes to finish them each day, increasing the amount of time it takes to get the reward at the end, and then suddenly you are back at the time of month to fork over another $15.

    I would agree that convenience breaks the "4th wall" of MMOs, but it only does so to the segment of the playerbase who do not already recognize the MMO as such. To everyone else who already recognizes that the game is designed to be inconvenient (as all MMOs are), these conveniences actually do add value to the game.

  3. Good post. I agree pretty much completely. A couple of quick points:

    First, RPGs, including MMOs, have always included structured progression as a core activity. That is, players go on adventures, and in return they earn experience points and loot. The problem with being able to buy xp and loot directly is that it reduces the incentive to adventure. It's much less meaningful to quest for the holy grail when you can buy it for $1 in an item shop.

    In response to Azuriel's point, I agree that sub games sometimes include extremely boring activities, but I've always seen that as bad design. The solution is to make those activities more fun (or get rid of them). The problem with the convenience MT model is that it doesn't create an incentive to make boring parts of the game more fun. In fact, it creates an incentive to make them even more boring so that players will pay to skip them. The sub model at least gives devs an incentive to keep everything in the game fun, because bored players will eventually leave.

  4. Immersion is a tough concept to design around. Different types of games are going to create the illusion of immersion depending on the preferences of the player playing the game.

    For example, an older MMO may have had a quest chain with no help. The player would have had to read the quest, understand what it was saying, and then go about finding a location, an item, an NPC, etc. There would have been no arrows pointing the way. There would have been no highlighted area on the world map. The quest giver might not even have been easy to find. For the player that likes the challenge, it adds to the immersion. It adds to the realism of the role-play.

    But, the player that doesn't like the challenge isn't going to be as happy. That player will attempt to solve the problem, fail, and then tab out to read a guide online. The difficulty/complexity of what that player thought should have been a simple task just caused said player to break immersion.

    The player that had to tab out and read a guide complains enough that games begin implementing their own help systems. The ! over the heads of quest givers and the arrows pointing the way to the quest location are born. Now, the guy who had to tab out to get by certain aspects of the old game can chug along through the new game, reading quests (or not) and enjoying his time. Those ! are just a part of that fictional universe, so it doesn't break immersion for him/her.

    But, the person who loved the challenge of the old system now sees these shiny ! quest givers and feels like the world is broken. The realism is lost.

    It's all a matter of perspective. Something inconvenient for one player might create immersion for another.

    I think the issue lies more in consistency. If a game launches without the ! point quest givers and is received well by its player base, then adding those ! points in the future will upset a lot of people. If the game was designed to have those types of "hand-holding" features, then they shouldn't break immersion as they were there from the get-go and every player knew it and accepted it.

    As for micro-transactions, I don't have an issue with them when they're only supplying vanity/cosmetic items, but hate them if they give more power to the player who spends more money. The thing is, I avoid games with the latter type of micro-transactions and would only be upset if a game which didn't have that model decided to add it after the game had already been released.

  5. I'm reminded of a certain free to play game that makes you pay money to be able to move around the world quickly, and the travel is excruciatingly boring. It's on the tip of my tongue and I can't remember.

    Regardless, I do have some things to comment on.

    "That's like saying strategy guides convince players that the game is impossible to finish without help. The reality is not quite so simplistic."

    You would be correct, if MMORPGs were like other games. There are other benefits to being able to progress through a regular game more speedily: The story, for example, or possibly the gameplay is simply fun regardless of knowing how to progress.

    Those who choose to use convenience items are not the people who want to watch the story in your MMO. They want to enjoy the game in a certain fashion, most likely at max level with their friends in raiding, PvP, or what have you. These are either the people who have been through your game enough to not want to deal with the leveling process, or who don't care enough to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.

    And you know what? I think F2P games actually have a better model than Blizzard does to cater to these players. Blizzard let's you in permanent in-game items that let you level up faster. In my opinion, that is horribly unbalanced. Every single veteran WoW player does this, and therefore leveling alts becomes simple for them. This reduces the fun in games for them. F2P games charge for that privilege, which means that those who buy it are making an investment in the company to do so, instead of playing up to max level and then burning out because you have four max level characters with maxed professions and nothing to do.

  6. Nils wrote: If you want to make a new character in WoW, you are confronted with the following question: "Do you want to experience the stories during leveling, or do you want to get it over with as fast as possible".

    Most of the stories in WoW suck and always sucked. Except now it's worse than ever with phasing, emo cut scenes, and pop culture references at every corner.

    I leveled alts because I was addicted to running undermanned dungeons and raids for the past 5 1/2 years. Unfortunately, the challenge is gone as classes are generally so overpowered at non-cap level that 2-manning dungeons is quite easy.

    Yes, I could solo them (and I have done quite a few solo) but I prefer to play in a group and thus moved on to another more challenging game.