5 November, 2011
It's funny the things that developers get fixated on in games. One persistent worry is of "twinking" or "power leveling", the process of giving items or helping other people to a level beyond their own. There seems to be this irrational fear of people somehow "not earning" the stuff they get in a game. This results in a lot of strange game mechanics that may seem typical for a long-time MMO player, but that may stick out as unusual for someone not already steeped into MMOs.
Let's take a look at how it seems that some designers think sharing is a bad thing in MMOs.
Fear of communicable ideas
The main problem seems to be that developers expect players to play the game exactly as intended. Traditional subscription-based theme park MMOs pride themselves in the experience, and short-circuiting that experience outside of official designer-sanctioned ways is forbidden. This is why you can't earn experience when grouping with your high level friend, and grouping with your low-level friend is pointless for them. This inability to share xp is despite the fact that experience required for level increases each level, often exponentially as in the original D&D. The funny thing is this mechanism in the tabletop game let new characters starting at level 1 get back up near average levels quickly, but is now a way to make the player have a (some would say false) feeling of progression; the brown rat at level 1 gives 10 xp, the green rat at level 10 gives 1000 xp, so the character must be getting more powerful! (Even though characters need 100x [or more!] the xp at level 10 than the did at level 1, so nothing has really changed.)
This philosophy extends to good equipment, too. The early DIKU-inspired MMOs implemented "No Drop"/"Soulbound" items that couldn't be given to other characters (but usually could be sold to NPCs just fine). Even though power creep happens in these games all the time, the modern designer seems to believe that there must be systems in place to prevent players from giving good equipment to other players without them "earning" it through gameplay.
Share with the whole group
The obvious solution is to stop punishing grouping and let everyone benefit from participating in the same gameplay. Instead of worrying about xp splits, tagging monsters, loot rights, and all that, let all players share from the rewards of an encounter.
This is hardly a novel idea; one of the big innovations that Dark Age of Camelot introduced was the idea that everyone in the party could get a quest drop. Yeah, this lead to strange situations where all 6 people claimed some poor guy's head (he was secretly a hydra), but it made gameplay smoother. Of course, this is the same game where people complained about healers coming by and throwing a friendly heal on someone not in their party, because it would result in the person healed losing xp and the healer "leeching" those extra points. Later LotRO also had a similar system, but the "stolen" xp just went away instead of being awarded to the interloper. But, because of xp sharing rules like this we get some pretty definite (and to some convoluted) social conventions in online games regarding assistance and grouping in many games.
But, as I said in the above article, there's no reason why we have to stick to a typical party structure for rewards. Why not give bonuses to anyone who contributes to the fight. It makes the game more fun for people, it adds a cooperative element to the game, and the person who gets assistance doesn't get frustrated by others nearby.
We tell kids to share, then provide terrible examples
I'm reminded of a friend of mine who was consulting for a kids-focused MMO. The designers were discussing ways to prevent kill-stealing, and my friend explained that kill-stealing is a very adult concept. Generally kids want to jump in and help others. In fact, we tell them that it's a good thing to share with others and help others out when they need the help. It's funny, then, that the designers of a kids game were so worried about preventing this instead of looking at ways to encourage kids to share and help one another.
If games really do have a positive effect on people, then we should be looking for ways to encourage positive lessons.
Sharing done right
So, what game did sharing right? I'll pick Meridian 59 here since I'm familiar with it. Most equipment was commodity and relatively easy to get. This meant that giving items to a less experienced characters didn't give them a huge advantage. It might give them a small edge, but often a character's ability mattered much more than equipment. Truly rare items were prized by the players and treated carefully, lest they be lost in PvP combat.
The advancement rules didn't rely on an xp bar, instead you got hit points from killing things and spell percents by casting the spells. Even hitting a monster gave you a small bonus toward earning your next hp (a random chance where the chance got larger as you killed enemies). Since you were encouraged to cast spells on others to improve them, it was common to walk into a bar and come out with a fresh set of buffs. Sure, they weren't the most powerful and might not last a long time, but they were something.
Of course, the fly in the ointment here is the fact that PvP rules set this askew with how people could affect others. But, the PvP focus really meant that the cooperative PvE game didn't need any incentives to screw people over.
Sharing done right... a modern example
Okay, so what about a game that isn't over a decade old? Let me refer to my current MMO interest, Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO).
Grouping is encouraged, but not strictly required in DDO. I prefer to group, but I score high on Socializer motivations. I also think it's more interesting to do a quest with a group of other people than to run the same content repeatedly.
When a group does a quest together in DDO, nobody loses anything from others being there as long as they are all within an appropriate level range for the quest. (Okay, your group can do something stupid to cost you some of the bonus xp, such as dying or leaving and re-entering, but we'll ignore that for sake of this discussion.) Full xp is awarded to each person for completing the quest, and chests will spawn more loot for each person that opens it, so you lose nothing. In fact, if you're looking for a particular item it benefits you to take along others, since they have a chance to get the item you're looking for and might be persuaded to trade it to you. This worked to my favor in one quest, where a high level person was going through a high level quest I needed, and was offering a rich reward to pass him a specific item he needed. He was more than happy to drag along other warm bodies, particularly ones that didn't need the item, in exchange for a bigger chance to get the item. So, DDO does sharing right... for the most part.
The other side of the coin
DDO also has some special events related to holidays. Around Halloween, they have an event called The Mabar Endless Night Festival (often just called "Mabar" for short). There are two stages, one where you have to collect items to turn in to activate a raid, then a giant PUG raid where you get a special item you need to improve the event-specific loot you can acquire.
Let me touch upon the raid quickly. Okay, ignoring the fact that you could have idiots in the raid with you that mess things up and how leading a large group of unaligned people is worse than herding cats (I prefer herding the cats, really), the raid itself shares the DDO philosophy. If you kill the boss without the failure conditions coming to pass, everyone gets the special item. Imagine if the game only awarded it to the person who got the killing blow... it would be impossible to finish the raid because everyone would just be trying to kill the dragon instead of cooperating.
But, the part before the raid is where the game design breaks down. As you kill undead that spawn in a normally peaceful graveyard area, you get drops. Turn in the drops for special event currency ("motes of night") that you need to purchase the event-specific loot. The currency is not bound, so a lot of people farm it to sell to others. The problem is that only one person can get awarded the drop.
As far as I understand and have tested the rules, the first character to damage a creature gets the chance for the drop, no matter who kills the creature. Larger groups attract larger groups of enemies, and drops are shared with anyone in a group. So, one strategy is to get a large group together and kill monsters while staying together to attract large spawns. (Although it seems that people who use AoE abilities do get at least a slightly better chance to get the drops.)
But, as I said, only one person gets the chance to get a drop. That means that the best strategy for accumulating a lot of the currency is to stand near a group you're not a part of, unleash an AoE as soon as you can hit the monsters, then let the group finish it off. You get all the drops with minimal investment, the other group gets nothing. The obvious fix would be to give anyone who participated in fighting a monster the chance to get an item. Just like nearly every other element of the game, this would encourage more cooperation instead of the competition and hurt feelings that seem to happen in this event.
Why not change?
This seems like another instance where game designers fall into familiar patterns instead of really considering the effect of a game design. Even within a game that seems to emphasize people sharing and cooperating instead of competing, you still have a system like the Mabar event that has arcane rules that creates a sense of competition.
So, what do you think? Doesn't it seem obvious that we can have people working together just fine, even if not in the structure of a traditional party? Is there any reason why we need to keep around rules dealing with kill-stealing, xp splits, and all that other stuff? If so, what situations would be enhanced by these systems?