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Matt Miller: Player Behavior & Fluid Dynamics

Column By Matthew Miller on December 10, 2013

One of the areas that game designers work in is how to properly reward players for the actions they perform inside an MMO. If players didn’t get any sort of compensation for their time, they would quickly tire of the game and move onto something else, and one of the major draws to the MMO genre is that you can constantly be making your character better through your own actions. This makes new challenges surmountable and older content easier. You see your character getting more powerful as they get rewarded.

Now the challenge that we designers face is that of limiting access to these rewards to performing tasks that we set forth. At first, we’d like the playerbase to fail the first few times at the attempt to receive the reward, but these would be learning experiences. After a couple failures, strategies and tactics are devised that enable a player to beat the content and receive their reward.

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Unfortunately, just like fluid dynamics (and electricity for the most part), the playerbase will seek out and exploit the path of least resistance. What actions will take the least amount of effort and the least amount of time to achieve the same goal, and receive the same reward? Given enough time (or enough people) such paths are found in most MMOs, much to the designers chagrin.

Below is a GIF I stole from Wikipedia’s entry on Fluid Dynamics, showing the potential flow of air around a wing. Using this as an example, the right side of the image is the reward and each line represents actions that a player can take. The wing in the middle is the challenge built into the content, be it a boss-battle, twitch-puzzle, brain teaser, whatever the designer came up with.

Now when the content is first encountered, the playerbase will be slamming against the wing (content) with brute force, like the lines in the middle of the GIF are doing. Eventually getting to the right side of the image and getting their reward, but possibly frustrated in doing so.

After time, the playerbase shifts up or down as new tactics are created. Likely they are the tactics intended by the developers themselves (although all too often I have seen content created with the thought of “I don’t know how this will be beaten, but I am sure the players will figure it out.”) As the players shift, they get their reward, with less resistance then they started, but there is at least a little resistance offered before the game gives up the goods.

If the dynamics could just stop there, everyone would be happy. Players would get their rewards with a minimal amount of effort, but it’s an effort that was intended by the developers. The problem is, it never does stop there. The players continue to seek out (or accidentally discover) new ways to beat the content. Ways that the developers may not have even thought possible, and then they start to take on the attributes of the lines at the top (or worse, the bottom) of the image.

Developers will use the word “exploit” to describe those lines. Players will argue that only through the use of bugs should something be called exploitive. Using the established game rules is not exploitive. (I disagree with that statement, but that’s an argument for another column).

Fluid dynamics comes into play again, as we watch over time the entire playerbase shift, like a river changing course. While a river used to butt up against a hill and then flow around it, through the process of erosion, the hill is eventually eliminated and the river just flows on through, and the old “around the hill” path dries up from lack of use. In this example, the hill is the challenge, and the river is the tactics that the players use. After a while players abandon the old tactics of going around the hill to favor a new tactic of simply going through where the hill once was. Game designers may put a new hill in its place, or even worse create a dam preventing the river artificially from going through where the hill was, and forcing it back into the “around the hill” portion.

Player behavior and fluid dynamics is something that most designers are aware of and take efforts to combat, but its obvious from some of the games I have played that some designers either don’t care enough about their work to build in challenges that prevent this from happening or think that if the players are that smart they deserve to be rewarded for their ingenuity (which is terribly bad, since eventually ALL the players will be rewarded for that one set of players’ ingenuity, once the minimal effort way of achieving the reward is well known.)

I’d love to hear your takes on how you see yourself playing content and overcoming the obstacles put forth by the developers. Do you and your group like to come up with your own strategies? Or do you wait for other people to perfect strategies and use their tactics?

Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something new every day). You can always reach him on twitter @MMODesigner.

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