Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

21 September, 2009

Designing for the team instead of for the loot
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:00 PM

This is a collaborative post with Ferrel over at Epic Slant. We worked on writing articles from different perspectives: he wrote from the guild leader’s perspective, and I wrote this from a game designer’s perspective. We hope you enjoy reading this. (If you write a blog or articles and would like to do the same thing with me, send me an email.)

Ferrel and I, by very happy coincidence, happen to play on the same server in LotRO. As he posted, we had a good discussion about loot and guild leadership. His post focuses on the trials and tribulations of a guild leader, but how does the issue of loot affect a game developer and the game they are designing?

What is our goal?

I think MMO design needs to focus on the accomplishment of the group rather than selfish motivations of loot. Fighting together as part of a team and finally conquering a tough encounter is amazing. But, the post-victory glow could be tarnished by loot squabbling. Or, if people get frustrated with losses and wipes because they just want the loot, it can take away from the fun of learning the encounter.

Why should games focus on the group instead of the individual? As Jonathan Baron said in his wonderful article Glory and Shame, our games will only truly advance once we focus on community Development over individual Achievement. Games still haven’t achieved this goal, and if anything have gotten further away as games have made soloing much more efficient while still requiring group-based gameplay at the higher levels.

Players do what?

The first truth to realize is that we encourage what we reward. As Ferrel points out, we reward the win more than learning, so the focus is put on winning the encounter. Learning the encounter is seen as an obstacle, something that results only in repair bills and not on getting sweet loot. People go look up strategies and videos of how to conquer an encounter and follow it to the letter in order to get the
loot more efficiently.

So, the design question is how do we reward the learning process? And, how to we keep it so that people don’t abuse the system to get “free loot”? One suggestion Ferrel had for a typical game was to have vendors spawn at certain points. If the team manages to get the boss down to 75% health (or perhaps past the “first stage” of a multi-stage boss), then a repair vendor spawns who gives cheaper repairs. That way players can continue to learn and even wipe for a much lowered cost. Other vendors that sell special consumables or buffs might appear. One solution to make sure people don’t just wipe intentionally to get cheap goodies? Give an achievement for not spawning any vendors and give a special bit of loot at the end. With less penalty, players may be more willing to play and learn rather than wait and then mimic someone else “doing it the right way”.

Be certain of your focus

When designing your game, consider what the focus of the game is. Is it about increasing numbers through in-game activities? Is it about collecting items through various means? Is it about tackling challenges? Tackling those challenges with friends?

What if you put loot as a focus in a game? Originally, gear was a stepping stone to new content. You need to upgrade your sword +50 to a sword +51 because the next biggest monster had 2% more hit points and you needed that extra damage to keep up. Conquering one raid boss meant you could then try the next bigger one. With recent MMO design, the move has been away from numeric advantages to learning a strategy or pattern. Some go so far to say that gear doesn’t matter, and an encounter is mostly about learning the correct steps. So, gear is no longer strictly needed for progression like in the old days. But, yet, players still see a focus on loot as important to improving a character.

What about tackling challenges? I mentioned before that a lot of games put a heavy focus on raiding as the primary end game. But, even if someone has no interest in raiding, if he or she wants to improve a character at max level he or she has to get involved in end game raiding. People who don’t find raiding all that interesting may still take it up if they don’t feel like playing with alts. This type of person is going to be more interested in the loot than actually participating as a team. This attitude can be frustrating to the rest of the guild. Someone willing to put in the time to achieve a win may be frustrated if the person who couldn’t make the progression attempts suddenly shows up and expects the experienced raiders to drag him or her through farm status bosses to get the gear he or she wants.

As designers, we need to look at what we are rewarding in the game, and where the focus is.

Don’t ignore reality

One thing you can’t do is just ignore player expectations. As I mentioned, gear used to be a gating mechanism for getting to harder content. Even though this is no longer strictly the case, it is still deeply ingrained in many player’s minds: Kill boss, get reward, be able to do next boss. Changing these perceptions must happen over time; trying to radically change a system will more likely end up alienating people.

The first step is to start shifting the focus, however. Start rewarding the group instead of individual advancement. Reward people who don’t just chase after gear; an achievement for being “undergeared” might encourage people to stop simply chasing loot upgrades for the sake of upgrading. On the other hand, without the constant carrot just out of reach, you have to keep players interested in the game some other way.

So, what do you think? Can a game take the focus off of individual achievement? Can you truly reward group success? Would this improve games as Ferrel and I think it would?

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  2. It’s not just about what you’re rewarding the players with, it’s what is rewarding for the business model. That’s one reason why soloing is possible; it’s proven profitable.

    Of course, game design can encourage grouping, but that’s only one goal, and perhaps not even the most profitable one. Just sayin’…

    Other than that, yes, the current loot systems in place are very selfish beasties. Maybe that’s because the actual learning and gameplay is rather shallow? The best way to motivate people to keep paying to play is to encourage bellying up to the one armed bandit (a loot lottery), and the best way to encourage that is to tell them there are gold nuggets in there, if you just play enough. (Oh, and that they are special if they find the nuggets. Can’t forget psychology.)

    I’m all for something less loot-centric and selfish, but of necessity, it has to focus on solid and fun gameplay, and that’s expensive content to generate and keep ahead of the content locusts. (Or you go the Team Fortress 2 route and make players the content and drop the DIKU grind.)

    I understand that solid teamwork can be a heady aphrodesiac and great fun, so I’m not pooh-poohing the notion. I just don’t see it as a priority… and yes, that’s unfortunate.

    Comment by Tesh — 21 September, 2009 @ 5:17 PM

  3. I think you have to be a bit cautious with rewarding groups as to who is really being rewarded and what they’re being rewarded for. It is very easy for ‘reward the guild’ to end up meaning ‘reward the guild leader’ (because they ‘own’ the guild). Guild leaders typically also are in favour of incentives that force people to raid even when they clearly don’t enjoy it (some people just don’t like progression raids but can still be good to have around) and that put barriers into them leaving a guild.

    Is it important to reward people for being part of a fixed group? What about loose alliances, or PUGs? How about people who are members of one guild for social reasons but raid with another group? By deciding which group to reward, you’re limiting people’s social options.

    Comment by Spinks — 21 September, 2009 @ 9:38 PM

  4. We see more and more “SOLO” content for MMO players, and LOTRO’s Siege of Mirkwood and other games like Guild Wars show a trend towards “buddy” gaming – I do the same exactly right now in Aion, I usually play together with one/two friends and do not look for more group members. Not because it is not profitable to play with more, but at times we just like to stay among us. Even in a massive MO game.

    LOTRO-SoM features 6 man and 3 man instances. Yes, Dol Guldur is a 6 man instance:
    Calling this a “raid” would be rather odd. “The boss raid takes place on the top of the Tower of Col Guldur, a 12-man instance where players get to take down a Nazgul mounted on his Felbeast.” – a small raid. Notice that raid sizes get progressively smaller, see WoW, 40, 25, now even 10 at times.
    -> TL;DR: I do not see much LARGE GROUP content in future MMOs. I rather see more WAR public quest style group stuff or Aion style open mass pvp & pve boss raids.

    OK, this was a bit long and borderline off-topic. But I needed to point that out to make my point: I do not think that spawning vendors to help people master a raid or reward them for doing them perfectly will really be rewarding. It sounds a bit like WoW’s “do the raid that way for a bonus” achievements. Personally, it feels not so epic to me if game mechanics and a “game” feeling manifest themselves so much in my virtual world of choice.

    I am very welcoming to the thought to reward group efforts and get away from individual loot carrots as driving force. But how to do it? Rewarding me with a repair vendor spawn and extra loot DOES NOT EXCITE ME at all. It probably does not excite a whole group of people either.

    Guild Wars 2 supposedly has a mechanic called “Events”: Stuff happens, a dragon is attacking a bridge near a village or possibly the village, too. People band together on the fly to to fight back the menace. Then they can also repair the bridge or stop the fires in the village. IF they are able to see the results, dragon dead, check, bridge is getting repaired/is repaired, and I participated, check, village was burning, but we stopped the fire by forming a water bucket line, check.

    The individual feeling of being important and having participated is also some kind of “group” reward. Your were one of many, but you felt important. In many raids I often felt I was second class to the important players like the Main Tank. Just another silly DPS guy. But give many people many different roles in a raid and well, people will complain about it and only the best organized guilds will make it. Furthermore raids do not reward doing things right so much, they rather PUNISH players and the whole raid for MY personal mistake, aka wipe.

    This concept of public quests/events is looming at the horizon, I think it could be an alternative endgame besides the usual raiding. And it does this very cool thing: It noticeably rewards the individual in an group effort. In a much more casual and accessible way than the classic boss-raids.

    Comment by Longasc — 22 September, 2009 @ 4:02 AM

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  6. I think first you need to stop and look at exactly what kind of game you have in your hands. Group rewards in a gear-centric, mostly individualistic game like WoW would feel out of place and would inevitably be irrelevant. They’re not what the game is about, everybody knows it (even if they can’t articulate it) and you’d just be dressing a monkey in silk clothing; it’s still a monkey.

    Less gear-centric games (like, say, GW) can get away with pseudo group rewards (re: alliance and guild “points”, etc.), while pushing individual rewards to something cosmetic more often than not (silly custom titles).

    There are tons of little things you can do in terms of group and individual rewards, but you can’t apply all of them at the same time in any given game. I’d say first look at the game, see what vibes well with it, and go with that. Trying to change the nature of the game in terms of rewards will definitely feel artificial.

    I’ve been saying it for quite a while and I’m actually very happy that now we’re beginning to see it: The move from large group content to small group content. I think (I hope at least) devs are realizing we could -never- tame the problem of large group logistics no matter what we threw at it, and we’re trying to sidestep the issue completely. The recent, and near future emergence of predominantly solo and small-group content is no coincidence. Could it be that we’re finally realizing that having 40 or 10 people attempting one piece of content has no influence on the fun of the content itself? Have we learned that 40+ people does not make it “epic”? It’s all about individual response to that content.

    I saw a screenshot the other day (I think it was one from WoW. I could be wrong) which showed a 40-man raid attempting something. You could not -see- the content. You could not see the enemies, you could not see your allies, you could barely see the environment right in front of the player; it was all covered with 39 other avatars, their accompanying names and guild tag and however many spell effects going off. How is it epic when you can’t see what’s going on? It’s like the shaky cam in movies like the Bourne series.

    I’m very, very glad large-group content is dying, or at least being relegated to where it makes sense which is large-scale PvP engagements in large, slower-paced environments designed to contain that number of players.

    Soloing is the new king. Duoing is the new grouping. Grouping is the new raiding. Raiding is dead. And about time too.

    Comment by Julian — 22 September, 2009 @ 8:24 AM

  7. Julian, I agree, and wholeheartedly embrace smaller groups… but at the same time, that could very easily be done without the MMO overhead. That’s effectively what Diablo 2 was; a small group multiplayer optional game. *There is no reason for constant internet connection to a master server or the subscription model upkeep in small group games.*

    Comment by Tesh — 22 September, 2009 @ 11:11 AM

  8. The concept of “learning” an encounter, where “learning” means repeating the same encounter ad infinitum until a strategy is defined, then practicing that strategy ad infinitum until it is refined, then repeating the encounter perfectly ad infinitum until all have received everything they need is an anathaema to me. No amount of loot could ever compensate for that degree of tedium.

    Also, perhaps oddly, “learning” wasn’t one of the things I had in mind when I took up MMOs as a hobby. I was mostly hoping to be amused and entertained. Inevitably I need to accept a modicum of learning in order to be able to play at all, but to have learning as any part of the provided entertainment strikes me as an unattractive offer. I love learning and have been doing it all my life, but when I consider the amount of time and effort required to break, practice, perfect and execute raid strategies I would find it more worthwhile, and entertaining, instead to apply myself to something that was really worth learning, like a language, a craft or an art.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 22 September, 2009 @ 1:47 PM

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  10. Some people seem to be missing the point here. This isn’t about adding more raids to WoW or anything like that. Everyone can go solo in WoW to their heart’s content.

    I’m trying to look at group/raid content and see how it can be made less painful for people. But, looking at what Ferrel and I discussed, I set about trying to figure out how to make progression raiding a bit less painful. How can you put the fun back in learning an encounter so it doesn’t simply become “go to website X, watch video, do exactly that or we yell at you for messing things up for the rest of the group.” Or, so that the majority of the guild doesn’t just hide with the progression team learns an encounter then come along later to scoop up the loot on farm (then get bored quickly and not want to help anyone else get their gear).

    Yes, some people like bhagpuss just aren’t going to enjoy raiding no matter how much you dress it up. And soloers will not want to group because their mommies didn’t hug them enough as children or something. ;) But, just as WoW revitalized gaining levels with their gameplay, I think that raiding could be significantly improved to be a lot more fun. I enjoy trying to figure out an encounter rather than just watching a video and playing “monkey see, monkey do”. You can’t just eliminate video, so game designers should look at ways to make the process more fun for a wider range of people.

    As I’ve said before, not every game has to cater to the largest group or the lowest common denominator.

    Comment by Psychochild — 26 September, 2009 @ 3:46 PM

  11. Well how hard is it to code encounters to present random behaviors? Hold up, not random-random, but at least something that injects some variety. I think right now we have “Go to website, watch video, memorize” because that’s all the encounters really require; bosses behave the same way, always use the same skills (sometimes even on the same timers), player skills do not really change, etc…

    I guess maybe a nice first step would be an encounter which has 5-7 different behaviors upon instance creation, and you don’t know which one it is until you reach the end. Anything that breaks the monotony and keeps you on your toes a bit. Sure eventually all variations will be learned and anticipated, but it’s much better than the current state.

    Something else that could help would be a bit more latitude in loot tables. Make the loot tables for all bosses (or equivalent) deeper and wider. Right now everybody knows what (x) drops and once the one or two items you wanted are acquired, there’s no much sense in coming back. You want to move on to something else. You know (x) will always drop about 20-30 things to whatever percentage, but make it able to drop 100+ things, or even inject some lateral variety in the drops (sword, blue sword, sword with fries, sword with GPS, sword and a coupon, etc) and the things changes a bit.

    Until we can make content infinite and much better AIs… *sighs*

    Comment by Julian — 26 September, 2009 @ 4:39 PM

  12. Julian wrote:
    I think right now we have “Go to website, watch video, memorize” because that’s all the encounters really require

    I’m not sure that’s the bit developers need to focus on changing, though. You’ll probably still get the “watch the video” segment, but now people just have to remember all 5-7 behaviors. That said, I think a bit more unpredictability would be good for most encounters.

    My point was that the focus is on winning because that’s what we reward. You only get the reward (and loot) when you defeat the enemy, so the optimal solution is to figure out how to defeat the enemy most effectively. This means that part of the content, and for some people part of the fun, is eliminated when people don’t want to learn the encounter. And while getting wiped isn’t always fun, the feeling of victory when you finally do conquer an encounter is heady.

    To be honest, I’m not sure how much you can really change this with just game design, though. That’s why I was eager to talk with Ferrel about this issue, because there should also be some changes in attitude that have to happen on the guild level as well.

    Comment by Psychochild — 26 September, 2009 @ 5:14 PM

  13. I think what developers need to do is to move away from static endgame raids into more dynamic battlegrounds which don’t punish as much. If its unpredictable what you face in there, it makes it hard to have a routine. You could be fighting 6 giants, or hundreds of zerg goblins, but every encounter is new, and forces players out of the rut. If you can also do it frequent enough and its not punishing, players may try different approaches, and be willing to act more as a group, since the group play is going to be less dull.

    Endgame raiding is similar to real life work. You punch in, get tracked for attendance and productivity (parsed for dps) get paid in gear, and do the same thing every day. I think that’s why you see so little group cohesion, you see about the same in your job.

    Comment by Dblade — 26 September, 2009 @ 5:50 PM

  14. I guess the focus is on winning because encounters are not granular: You win, in which case you get the reward, or you lose in which case you don’t. We don’t really contemplate anything else. There’s a whole spectrum from defeat to victory full of events that we’re not tracking (i.e. number of deaths in the group, healing efficiency, energy/ammo conservation, most final blows, most uses of (x) skill, etc). It would be nice at some point to run an encounter in which you don’t come out victorious, but your effort is still gauged in some areas and you’re given something for your work. Maybe not the best thing, because you didn’t win, but some areas should be rewarded.

    Even in catastrophic wipes, many players are still doing things right.

    Ideally (ha, ha) we shouldn’t ask players to learn the encounters, we should ask them to learn their class, and with the tools they’re given they should be able to (ha, ha) react to whatever we throw at them. Problem is that we’ve simplified things so much (not a bad thing, mind you) that learning your class is usually trivial.

    And I think there is a lot you can change from the design. Guilds (and players) don’t exist in a vacuum. If they play a certain game is because they want to and if they play it in a certain way, it’s because the game rewards that certain way. Make your game gear-centric, with static encounters, item inflation and the like, and your players will respond to that. Players responding to that is not a failure of the players; it’s players playing that game the way the game itself is telling them to play. You’re gonna have more luck changing the game than changing the players.

    Comment by Julian — 26 September, 2009 @ 6:35 PM

  15. Julian wrote:
    I guess the focus is on winning because encounters are not granular:

    That’s one of the reasons why I thought adding perks for reaching certain milestones would be nice. Get the boss down 25% to get cheap repairs, down 50% for cheap healing potions, etc. It adds a bit of granularity to the event.

    Ideally (ha, ha) we shouldn’t ask players to learn the encounters, we should ask them to learn their class….

    I think some encounters like that would be good, but some people do like the cold comfort of some predictability. I think a variety of encounters should be available: from the learnable/predictable fights to something that throws unexpected stuff at you. There’s room for a lot of variety. The question is what makes for more fun for your core audience.

    Comment by Psychochild — 26 September, 2009 @ 9:06 PM

  16. “This means that part of the content, and for some people part of the fun, is eliminated when people don’t want to learn the encounter.”

    Part of the issue at the moment is that raids in WoW are like puzzles. And puzzles do not last on the internet. Not only that, but the raiding environment is toxically competitive — raid leaders are always struggling to keep raiders, to keep recruiting, to keep people interested. And if you are a progression guild that hits a brick wall, it won’t take long for a few of your guys to start leaving and because raid guilds don’t tend to carry a lot of slack with numbers, suddenly you desperately have to find replacements. Because it’s so competitive, they need to do everything they possibly can to progress quicker. The survival of their guild depends on it. So looking at guides is de rigeur. And it has now become ‘the way you raid’ — so it’s too late to stop that particular horse from bolting.

    Also, what motivates people to write the guides? Well, it’s one of the few ways to be a famous player outside your own server. People in my guild bboard talk about Ciderhelm (he’s a warrior on a US realm who puts out some really good raid videos) for example.

    Like I say, I think progression raiding in WoW is kind of a toxic stressful atmosphere. But if any smart game designer can think of a way to encourage people to chill out and take things more slowly, I think it’d be a great favour to that portion of the playerbase.

    Comment by Spinks — 27 September, 2009 @ 10:15 AM

  17. As long as every raid/fight is exactly the same each time you go through it, you will never be able to get rid of the “read the walkthrough, repeat step by step”

    The encounter should change to adapt to party composition and party size. Sometimes you may have to fight 2 elite-master class orcs, other times you have to fight one nemesis class warg-rider, etc. Of course, there will alway be a finite number of scenarios, so a walkthrough for every possibility would eventually be posted. However, there would be enough variety and spice that it would take much longer for that raid to be put on ‘farm mode’

    I think that LOTRO’s new skirmish system is a huge step in the right direction. The same content is available for solo, 3-man, 6-man, and 12-man groups with random objectives each time you enter. This way you can get teh challenge of a 12-man raid, but the soloer can also experience the story/content of that encounter.

    And as for loot, I dont think that a game needs to have progressively higher dps weapons available. Meridian59 had a basic set of weapons, and you used the same weapons as a relative newbie when you were a veteran. The bosses in M59 were defeated simply for the challenge and experience. The boss loot was not exceptional, and there were many ways to find the same loot elsewhere, yet the Yeti and Ghost remained popular enemies to defeat.

    Comment by Marthos — 29 September, 2009 @ 8:34 AM

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  19. Raiding and grouping are dead–fine. I can accept that soloing is here to stay. But once you take away the grouping aspect, what’s the point of it being an MMO? Play Champions online, for example. It’s a single-player game in a big virtual lobby. Why would I pay a monthly fee for that?

    Games with forced grouping hurt soloers, sure. But they also created a sense of community and shared achievement that often had nothing to do with loot. They brought players together by forcing them together. Modern games that are so solo friendly lack that community. Until developers can create a solo-friendly game that encourages players to actually play together and fosters a sense of community, then MMOs will continue to be stale, single-playeresque WoW-clones.

    Comment by Wisdomandlore — 30 September, 2009 @ 6:13 PM

  20. The solo vs. group battle is long fought and tired, really. The problem is that people on one side of the fence always seem to view those on the other side in a specific (typically negative) way. Group centric players look at solo players as loot whores in raids, solo players look at established raid groups as eliteists, etc.

    Solo play is so popular because anyone can do it. Not anyone can do group play. Myself, for example? I tend to play solo 90% of the time not because I prefer it, but because I work long and random hours. I’m utterly incapable of doing anything in my life requiring a regular schedule. So, I play in my “off time” which is completely unpredictable. I imagine a LOT of people have a similar issue, where when they play is whenever they happen to have an hour or two free. When you play like that, you cannot be a regular part of any regular-group content, and even normal “pick up group” content is difficult due to time restraints building a group.

    Thus, solo players are every type of player. They may prefer large group content, but can’t.

    If a game requires grouping – and thus inherently rewards static grouping because of team-based learning – I (and people like me) are immediately excluded.

    Now, there is an alternative. If encounters are designed, as was noted earlier, to focus on the player learning his class rather than learning the encounter, and scalable difficulty implemented, then you wouldn’t need to have a fixed raid group, and could play with a variety of different people. You may well like to have a fixed core, but instead of having to focus your guild on having (to use wow as an example) 10 or 25 people, you can bring 22, 30, 19… This doesn’t work so well when the focus is learning patterns, and a single player failing at the pattern can doom the group, but it absolutely does when the focus is knowing how to play your class.

    Comment by Derrick — 12 October, 2009 @ 9:13 AM

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