21 September, 2009
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?