Tuesday, August 04, 2009

the thrill of victory

Jason repeats a common criticism of MMOs post-Everquest. He thinks they need harsher penalties for failure in order to make victory feeling like a bigger accomplishment.

I would deepen the thrill of accomplishment another way. Instead of making penalties harsher -- and I've written before on that subject -- make challenges more difficult. And make some so difficult that those victories are not inevitable.

I'm not against player setbacks. In fact, I wrote another article about getting players to accept setbacks. Of particular importance is the section on power:

....The other ingredient, keeping the gameplay fun despite the loss, is more difficult, largely because of an inherent importance of optimization in current MMO models. In the player's eyes, it's not the character's circumstances which have been reduced; it's the character. If the player's character is merely a medium of power, then the loss of power is a loss of identity. The character is diminished, rather than the same character having to approach challenges in a different way.

Think about running out of ammo for your favorite gun in Halo, Goldeneye or some other first-person shooter. You probably cursed your luck and thought about how much more difficult the gameplay was going to be without that weapon. Maybe you were even asking yourself how long you'd have to fight with an inferior weapon before regaining your prized instrument of destruction. But you didn't turn off the console. Why? Because the weapon was just something your character was using...it was not representative of your character. Bond loves his PP7, but he's still James Bond without it. The Master Chief is equally the Master Chief with an assault rifle, pistol or needler.

Whether or not the penalties for failure in combat should be more severe than merely respawning depends largely on other systems in a specific game, as demonstrated above. There are also many penalty systems, like this, which haven't been explored deeply.

In other words, the question "Should a game/MMO have penalties for failure beyond death?" is not a simple yes/no question. But, generally speaking, I still believe in two basic principles: (1) players should experience low moments as well as high moments; (2) the main penalty for failure should be a player's disappointment in him or her self, rather than a judgment made on the player by the game.


  1. The first of your principles gets to the heart of the matter. Current games have tried very hard to eliminate "low points" in favor of trying to be "up all the time", but just like people develop tolerances to drugs or tune out a droning noise, eventually people get to the point where the highs don't feel high. If you are winning all the time, you lose your appreciation for winning. That doesn't mean people HAVE to fail, but it does mean that potential for failure, potential for "low points" has to exist. Achieving the high has to have meaning, it can't be the accepted inevitable outcome.

    The second principle you have is far more nebulous. People get disappointed for different reasons. For me, I hate losing at all, which is why WoW was so frustrating as other people accepting losing, they'd just give up and die and I didn't want to. If you strive to make the highs higher by making the challenges more difficult, you will run into the problem that things like sports have. If you couldn't just watch baseball, but had to play to see it, baseball would be less popular because so many people can't play it. If your game is too challenging, you run the risk not of having people be disappointed and try again, but of having them feel stupid, unskilled and unable to win. Maybe there is nothing wrong with that, but it is something you have to consider in your design.

  2. Agreed, the second factor is hard to control since gamers vary so much.

    As usual, I believe dynamics play a pivotal role. Current MMO raids mimic Nintendo-style boss encounters, where the NPCs act essentially the same every time you fight them and combat boils down to puzzle-solving and execution of the solution. If more dynamics were involved and each encounter with any NPC was significantly different, then it wouldn't feel like just solving the same puzzle a hundred gamers before you solved.

    Part of that's just my personal preference as a gamer, but I believe MMOs emphasize achievement too the expense of the experience. Some predictability is necessary to enable strategy, but dynamics make experiences more memorable. Defeating an enemy is more fun when not every factor is under your control.


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