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Gaming Theory

Explains theory behind game design and analyzes choices made in modern MMORPGs.

Author: GamingTheory

Progression Part III: Motivation (Intrinsic and Extrinsic) and Sustainability

Posted by GamingTheory Sunday September 28 2014 at 12:45AM
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Progression Part III: Motivation (Intrinsic and Extrinsic) and Sustainability

In the first part of this series, we discussed how vitally important progression systems are to MMORPGs.  In the second part of this series, we gained an understanding of many of the different types of progression and how they relate to playstyles.

In this column, I want to conclude the topic of progression by looking at managing motivation and sustainability in an MMO.  Specifically, we will focus on how MMO progression systems can be constructive or destructive to a player's interest in a particular game, and thus predict how long a player will continue to invest resources [time, money, energy] into that game.


Motivation: The Two Types

Motivation is a fairly well-researched phenomenon, and we know quite a bit about why people do the things that do.  However, most of our modern theories of motivation also account for a certain amount of natural systems emergence... that is, people are doing things that they believe are the correct decisions, but they cannot always tell you why they believe something is the correct decision.  Humans are quite often unaware of the reasons they select for or against certain things, even though they will reliably make the same choices over and over again.

That said, there are two basic groupings of motivation that help us understand the basics, and they hold just as true for games as they do for work decisions or life choices.  The two types are extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation is more easily termed "external factors" motivation, and it is the idea that people do things to get positive rewards or avoid negative rewards.  The proverbial carrots and sticks.  In MMOs, we think of extrinsic motivators as things that the developers put in that really are not related to the progress of the event.  So, a quest reward is extrinsic motivation.  Players may complete the quest, regardless of their personal interest in, just to get the reward.  Good developers will often try to "mask" some of the obvious extrinsic motivators using the storyline of the game... help a gnome gardener chase away the celery-eating bunnies, and he gives you a flowerpot to use as a helmet by way of reward.  Unfortunately, players tend to not buy wholesale into this, as evidenced by the fact that they usually turn around and sell the flowerpot to the gnome's neighbor, as the gardener sits there slack-jawed at your crass treatment of his valuable present.

Intrinsic Motivation is the idea that some of the reason people do things is because of intangible enjoyment that come from the "doing" of the thing.  For example, a person who runs to stay in shape is extrinsically motivated... but a person who enjoys the time to think, or to listen to her IPod, with the wind in her hair and the strain of physical exertion replacing the mental stress of the rest of her day, is intrinsically motivated by running.  She enjoys the act, not the reward.  In a game example, we often think of PvP experiences as intrinsically motivated.  Few players who PvP constantly are really in it for the rewards, as evidenced by the fact that they continue to PvP long after accruing all possible rewards.  They may enjoy the challenge, or the simple act of winning, or the moments when they can shine against long odds and demonstrate considerable player skill.  Those are all intrinsic motivations that might keep somebody participating in PvP activities long after the rewards have worn out.

Now, without giving you a double dose of business management and I/O psychology literature, I am just going to say that neither system is perfect, and each has a specific place.  Avoid the judgment that intrinsic motivation is the "better" system.  It is not.  It has numerous advantages at certain times, but rarely exists without some extrinsic motivation.  A person may be strongly intrinsically motivated by their job, and really enjoy the work... but without the extrinsic motivation of a paycheck, they probably are not going to do it much longer.

One particular weakness I will point out is that extrinsic motivations are rarely sustainable when discussing teams.  This will come into play when we discuss social theories a bit down the road, but just trust me that trying to extrinsically motivate a large group of people for any sustainable period of time is difficult in any setting, and nigh impossible in a setting of voluntary participation alongside competing opportunities.  (Since I am straying from the realm of Gaming Theory, the subject of this blog, I will cut it short there.  If you want more information about these ideas in a non-gaming sense, send me a PM.)


Challenges to Creating Motivation

            As the genre of MMOs has aged, one of the challenges is that players are growing increasingly selective about the types of progression content they will pursue.  When players first discover MMOs, they will likely try whatever games or games catch their interest, and whatever activities in those games most readily present themselves.  To give a fairly common metaphor, think of discovering a new author.  You may really like that author, and go and buy five books the next day, and consume them all rapidly.  However, by the time you are six books into the collected works, you begin to discriminate a bit.  Maybe you give up on the Rincewind storyline and focus on the City Watch arc.  Maybe you start skipping all the chapters that aren't about Mat Cauthon.  The MMO consumer has, on the whole, started this process.  We have numerous people who say "I won't do crafting" in a new game before they have even tried that game's crafting system, or "I won't PK" when they have only experienced it once or twice in a completely different game with different rules.

            So, theoretically, the goal is mix and match progression types to create widespread initial participation and then widespread adoption.  I want to distinguish those two things.  You can force players to try almost anything.  [See: PvP in the Legendary Questline in Pandaria]  This is usually done by extrinsic motivation with a sufficiently lucrative reward.  The idea here is that if we can just get players to try something, our game systems are so great that while they are trying it, they will be having so much fun that intrinsic motivation will kick in, and they will become adopters of that progression path.

            Successes of this approach are fairly varied, and for some games, it has worked fairly well.  However, there is a bit of a razor's edge here.  It would be pretty difficult to convince me that one or two exposures is enough to encourage adoption in the face of high levels of anxiety about the event.  (I am using researcher terminology here... "anxiety" just means "reservations, concerns, or fears about something or someone.")  So, a person with high anxiety towards PvP is probably not going to adopt PvP after one or two exposures, or an anti-crafter is not going to become a hardcore completionist crafter after one mining mini-game.  We cannot just hope that one forced exposure will lead to adoption.  However, we always take a chance when we force players into a series of events, because if they are not enjoying them and logout, and are awaited by an anxious event upon login, that is serious disincentive to log in again, and that leads to quitting.  Likewise, if the player truly just does not enjoy the event, and we force them to repeat it fifty times because we think "50 times" is sufficient exposure for intrinsic motivation to kick in, they will quit our game after repetition twenty.


Mixing Progression Paths for Widespread Participation and Adoption

            As I mentioned in the previous column, it is much more likely that we see progression types that are hybrids rather than "pure" examples of progression.  There are usually mechanics in a game that keep a player from say, leveling without doing at least some exploring.  I want to explore some basic mixes and matches here to give you an idea of how to marry intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for initial participation and then widespread adoption.

            I am going to list some examples here for demonstrative purposes, but feel free to look back at the chart in Part II and try and combine any two or three of them, perhaps even randomly.  What would that progression hybrid look like?  What players would it appeal to, and when would it appeal to them?  Is it sustainable, and if not, how could you make it so?


Example I: Character Content + Exploration

            One of the major challenges to developers these days is what I deem the "Questhelper" problem.  For those of you who don't know, Questhelper was a WoW Addon that basically removed any sense of discovery from the questing process by instantly pointing players, in-game, to the parts of the quest they needed to attend to next.  It was fairly popular, and eventually integrated into the base system, so now players do not look at the world around them, instead, they look at "meta" items like maps with glowy circles and out-of-character arrows.

            This made the idea of Exploration take a major hit, especially as many other AAA titles followed suit with the Questhelper theory.  In this particular example, a merging of Exploration with Character Content may produce sufficient incentive to solve the Questhelper problem.  In the old MUD days [don't worry, I am not a writer who constantly pines for them], there was, inherent to almost all MUDs, the idea that advancing your character and exploring the world went hand-in-hand.  One of the neatest ways this happened was by finding NPCs that would give your character special powers.  Sometimes permanent, sometimes temporary, these were probably the forebearers of the modern MMO "Quest", though they were generally pretty sparse.  Finding one was a real treat.  Imagine trying to recapture that feel in the modern MMO... say, the mage trainer who had your next spell not only would require some sort of task from you, but even finding the trainer was part of the task.  The trainer might move between several locations, or be accessible only by using an item forged from the guys of a set of rare-spawning monsters, or be dangerously suicidal and running along cliff-edges and beneath dinosaur feet and must be caught by the player before the quest may begin.

            To make this idea somewhat intrinsically motivating, we need our base game systems to reward exploration and not unduly punish the player for not immediately completing the task.  Flat landscapes with roads are hardly intrinsically interesting to walk through.  Paths covered with elite monsters are a bit better.  Troves-of-the-Thunder-King... now you are getting the idea of intrinsically motivated exploration!  Combine that with a really unique character content bonus at the end, and you have yourself a winner.


Example II: Titles/Achievements, Unique Access, and Social Progression

            A few games have toyed with the idea of elections and other social systems that pass on a permanent, tangible benefit to a player, and I am quite interested to see how these take off.  The problem is that participation in such systems is almost entirely optional, and players tend to participate at fairly low rates.

            One of the most intriguing social reward systems I have ever seen was in the original Ragnarok.  The famed "War of Emperium" system combined, believe it or not, guild-based team PvP with rewards of opportunities to access unique PvE loot, as well as build increasing reputation on your server.  Want more guildies?  Go get yourself a keep, and it will happen.  Want to lose guildies?  Stop playing WoE.

            Now, this system was intrinsically motivating for a few reasons; first, the WoE itself was quite a bit of fun.  But more importantly, the teams that won spent hours and hours of in-game time planning their strategies, searching for just the right items, and putting together the best group of characters for maximum perceived odds of winning.  Those hours spent hunting for rare cards and rerolling different classes just to break crystals a few seconds faster were in no way matched by the extrinsic reward of access to the unique PvE content.  But they were incredibly fun hours of gaming.



            If PvP activities are the premiere example of game activities that are most often intrinsically motivated, then the example of what should be intrinsically motivating must be crafting activities.  Players who are not intrinsically motivated by crafting see it as a "chore" or something that they must do to receive a reward... that is the extrinsic-only point of view, and what we are trying to avoid.  But if you speak with players who really love crafting, they have some fairly intriguing reasons as to why they love crafting so much.  The "fun of creation" is a common one, as well as is "building process" and "customization" for their character.  To many crafters, crafting is already linked to things far on the sandbox side of the continuum because they view "exploration" and "character/costume customization" as part of the crafting process.  Successful development will incorporate that elements and make them obvious to all players.

            One aspect of crafting that often overlooked is the "own pace" nature of the progression.  Have you ever been in a raid with somebody who is trying to gather the crafting nodes around the instance?  Drives the rest of the raid bonkers, but the crafter may not even be there if they did not need the unique crafting materials.  This is an interesting part of the team-dynamic that we want so much to preserve in MMOs.  Good crafting systems will likely allow players to become parts of the team that are uniquely useful, and in a dynamic and active way.  That means that a crafter giving the raid +10 spell points passively is not going to trigger as a group reward for the crafter.  The crafter being able to use his abilities when all is lost, and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, by cleverly dropping that distraction beacon... that may be a way to give crafting some group legitimacy.

            I will likely do a separate issue on crafting at some time, so I will stop this section here, but try to think about ways to merge crafting into the multiplayer experience.  And I will say that my favorite crafting systems are non-MMO... breeding for unique monsters and skillsets in DQM2: Iru to Ruka and fossil cleaning in Fossil Fighters: Champions.  Many players also are very fond of the Monster Hunter 4 crafting system.  [If you read the end of Pourfarzaneh's recent column expressing his frustrations about MMO crafting, you will notice the last paragraph can be read as "I wish the systems were intrinsically motivating instead of only rewarding me extrinsically."  Which is probably a bit more wordy and difficult to access than what he actually says.]


What activities tend to be intrinsically motivating for you?  How do intrinsically motivating activities impact your time spent in a game?

Have you ever been"forced" to try something for an absolutely necessary reward?  Did you end up enjoying the activity, and try it again when you were not so obviously rewarded?

How might social systems impact player participation in tasks they may not be intrinsically motivated by?  How about tasks they might not be extrinsically motivated by?  Think about the willingness of a player to continually devote resources to a game.

#5 - Progression, Part II: The Continuum of Sandbox/Themepark Playstyles

Posted by GamingTheory Tuesday September 9 2014 at 9:09PM
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Three points of recap from "Progression, Part I"!

     1) The essence of storytelling is about change within a character.  Progression is how MMORPGs tell stories... so, we can also think of MMO storytelling as being about the ways that a player can make changes to their character. 

     2) At some points, players are most interested in their personal character... we call them "sandbox" players, and they are likely to select towards a certain set of activities.  At other times, players are more interested in the story of the world, this big fantasy creation of the development team.  At those times, we refer to them as "themepark" players, and they are also likely to select towards a certain set of activities.

     3) "Sandbox" and "Themepark" refer to styles of play... and trying to squash whole games underneath them is not a good use of the label.  Since players will play in different styles at different times or with different groups, it is also not very helpful to try and pidgeonhole any group of players under one or the other label.  They are playstyles, and players will move between them at different points in their interaction with any game.

Alright, so in to the ideas for today!


I cheated a little bit with that third recap point.  The last sentence of point #3 is really a segue into what the topic for today is; the sandbox/themepark continuum.

Here is the chart from last time, with an overlay of different types of progression along the continuum between sandbox and themepark.  Obviously, these are not all the types of progressions, and next week we'll delve into the really interesting part [hybrid models!], which are more realistic examples than this [mostly] theoretical chart.

Sandbox Themepark Continuum

I will spare you the point-by-point details of each of the things I have outlined here.  The most important idea is that player progression activities range between those preferred by sandbox and themepark playstyles, and that we can pretty accurately guess which activities will appeal to the largest segments of our gaming audience.  Those will be the activities that combine a large dose of storytelling from the world while allowing the player to progress their character on an individual level.


Designing Player Progression Along the Continuum

Lets take a relatively simple game... European Football [Soccer].  11 guys on each side, don't touch it with your hands, and the team that gets the ball in the other team's goal the most times wins.  Sure, there are a few rules here and there [don't mug the other guy], and some special circumstances [if the ball goes out past the backline, it is a goal kick if hit out by the attacking team, and a corner kick if hit out by the defending team], the game is a relatively simple one.  This makes it a fantastic thing to talk about when discussing gaming theory.  If you are a rules guy, the soccer rulebook is by far the thinnest of the major sports... baseball, American football, hockey, and basketball all have rulebooks between twice as long, and four times as long, as the official soccer rulebook.  Again... most popular game in the world.

But if you follow soccer, you find out very quickly that there are many different ways to play the game... in fact, MORE different ways to play the game than there are for those games with more complex rules.  A 4 - 4 - 2 formation is significantly different than a 1 - 4 - 2 - 3 formation.  You might play with a striker, or you might not.  You don't really need a central defender at all, or you might play with two of them.  You would be hard-pressed to find a baseball team that does not have a pitcher or a first baseman.

Think of designing activities along this continuum as an exercise in rulemaking.  Or, more precisely, not-rulemaking.  Your job is not to try and set the boundaries between each of those activities on the chart... it is to break them down.  You already have the basic rules of the game, that cover things like how fast players may take actions or move about the world.  Those are enough!  Don't add more rules!  The key here is to do what you can to provide the player with opportunities to play your game, as they progress through a variety of playstyles.

I give this long example about soccer to help understand a market reality; that popularity is not something to run away from, and success can and should be measured by players enjoying the game.  The key is that your job is to give them things they think are fun...

and here's the important part...

You give players games that are fun by combining multiple progression systems within the simplest possible ruleset.

This is a slightly more complex  version of the above statement, in a formula.

FUN* = [Amount of Enjoyable Activities Available] * [Time Available to Devote to Activities] / [Rules that Preclude Their Participation in Those Activities]

* = for any given player (p), given that player is aware of all (or nearly all) activities in the numerator.


Diminishing Returns and the Effect of Rules

As talked about in previous entries, there are significant diminishing returns on almost any pleasurable investment, and games are no exception.  When you are hungry, one cheeseburger is great!  Two cheeseburgers are better, but the third may not be necessary,  and the fourth is downright difficult, and nine cheeseburgers in a row... that's no good at all.

Thankfully, few MMOers pick only one type of content.  Even the most devout PvP addict may take some time to explore a new area or create a cool costume.  Players who use the MMO as a glorified chat service still may partake in some leveling or social progression paths.  For the developer, that is great!  You have options, and to be honest, to a certain extent, you can't go wrong!  If you provide content, someone will consume that content.  However, I lied two sentences ago.  You can go wrong, and that's where the rules come in.  As an excess amount of rules start to preclude player participation, then what you see is the diminishing returns curve slope significantly faster.  This means that players will grow tired of new tasks much quicker as they are forced to accommodate the new rulesets that accompany those new tasks.


Next time, I will talk about combining progression paths to lengthen the lifespans of content.


Where do you observe most players spending their time in games?  Are these the same activities that you think developers spend the most time creating?

How has a particular set of excess rules imposed on the gamespace inhibited [or enhanced!] your enjoyment of new content?

#4 - Progression, Part I: The Interactive Story

Posted by GamingTheory Thursday August 14 2014 at 2:53PM
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Progression Part I: The Interactive Story

The Theory of Why Progression Exists

I'm going to let you in on a secret.  Okay, it is not a secret, but it is not really well-known either.  Incredibly obvious, but sort of a sneaky truth... so, here it is.

Every story.  EVERY story.  Is, at its heart, about CHANGE.

The main character [the person who the story is about] should be markedly different at end of the story... because all those things that happened between the first page and the last page, or episode 1 and episode 24, or the opening credits and the ending credits... all those things that happen, mean that the person who was the main character has CHANGED.

The flipside of this is that it is fairly easy to identify bad writing; nothing changes.  If we have a series of events that people keep telling us are important, but never cause any real change... well, the events must have not been that important!

When I talk about the MMO as a story, I am referring to the journey your character takes, the things that make them noticeably different than what they were last week, last month, or the day you started the character.  If I had to nail down two reasons people play MMOs, they would be 1) Friends, and 2) Character Progression.  We LOVE to watch our characters grow, develop, and change!  Just like since the dawn of time, we've been entranced by those people that can tell us good stories...

The Interactive Story

Many people root MMOing in Gary Gygax's "Dungeons and Dragons".  That's not a bad place to begin the history, if you will, but I'll go back a little bit further.  In 1935, Parker Brothers buys a concept that had been floating around about a property-owning game, puts it on a colorful board and names the different parts after places in Atlantic City.  While Monopoly is not the first board game, it is probably the original example of the first boardgame for multi-player storytelling.  We could debate all day about whether the story starts with Chess, or Go'h, or Bridge... but I'll just stick with Monopoly.  In a few hours in a single night, somebody can go from "The same as everybody else" to a "Immensely wealthy landowner, driving all other players to bankruptcy."  That's a really cool concept!

Instead of simply watching a story being told to us, games give us a chance to take part in the story.  That's a key difference.  But remember, stories are about CHANGE, right?  While a lot of people ask the question of developers "How can we take part in the story of the game?", it is much more appropriate to ask "How can I, as a player, cause CHANGE in the game?"  That's how you participate in the game's story... you become the decision maker behind all the change in your character.

My Story or Your Story?

One of my current pet peeves is the misuse (and overuse!) of the terms "Sandbox" and "Themepark".  These terms are currently thrown around to describe games... and we know they are misused, because any time someone attempts to use either term to describe a game, they immediately launch into a series of caveats and addendums as to how the game is not really a "true" Sandbox/Themepark.

The correct use of these terms is to describe Playstyles.  In particular, whether a player is playing in a style where they are more interested in the story of the gameworld, or if they are more interested in developing their own storyline.  Neither is good or bad for developers, and how this relates to design decisions will be part of a later entry into this series.  What is important, at the moment, is to realize that players care a lot about how they participate in the story.

Think about the stories that gamers tell their friends.  Some people tell the story of the awesome weapon they forged, or the den of rabid bears in the wilderness that ate them.  That's player-driven storytelling, very "sandboxy".  Some people tell the story of the dragon that is terrorizing the village, or the incoming invasion of mind-eating brainslugs.  That's world-driven storytelling, and that's very "themeparky".  It is a very fine distinction in some cases, and that is because there is some inevitable blend.  What we want to realize is how players represent these interests.

(For those of you into statistics, a normal distribution is assumed in the following graphic.)


Players with high interest in their personal storyline, but low interest in the storyline of  the world, may be described as "Sandbox" players.  To the developer, that means there is a certain set of content [and progression paths] that will be interesting to them.

Players with low interest in their personal storyline, but high interest in the storyline of the world, may be described as "Themepark" players.  To the developer, that means there is a certain set of content [and progression paths] that will be interesting to them.


Now, my final disclaimer here is that these are not static things.  I may be very interested in the story of a world, its characters, myths, and legends, on the first character I play.  I may be following the lore, reading quest text, following a "main storyline" and be quite happy about it.  However, on my fifth leveling experience in that same game, I may adopt a very different playstyle, and choose to eschew quests in favor of other leveling strategies, or go explore odd sections of the map I have missed before, or be more interested in collecting trophies and achievements [personal story] than I am in following instructions and preset leveling strategies.  Other people may follow the exact opposite pattern, being very "explorer-y" the first playthrough, and much more straightforward on consecutive experiences.  So, it may be as much a misnomer to try and apply these terms to "players" as it is to try and categorize entire games by them... they represent playstyles, which are fluid things.


In the next segment, we will discuss how different types of progression can be matched with different types of players.


What type of stories do you and your friends tell about your gaming experiences?  Are they personal [my accomplishments] or are they about the game [this event happened]?

Have you noticed your playstyle changing over time, or as you grow more familiar with a particular gameworld?

How have your characters changed over time, and how much have you, as a player, been able to direct that change?  When you cannot direct your change [for example, a server patch or a lack of a group], how has that experience effected your gameplay?

#3 - BPS, DvBpRP, and BE-Margin

Posted by GamingTheory Saturday July 26 2014 at 8:56PM
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Last time, we discussed how playing a video game can be likened to learning to play an instrument [specifically, this piano].  When players first start, they progress very rapidly, but that learning curve starts to plateau as a player's skill increases.  MMOs are a genre where players can often reach a "skill cap" and be effectively doing everything their character can, from a physical gaming perspective [pressing all the right buttons at the right time], relatively easily... at least, no game currently requires the dedication to a series of button-presses that Ravel's J'eux Deau does.

As players increase skill in the game, they consume content faster.  If you know all the fastest ways to move around, and have used specific keyboard macros to make those movements fit your hand, it just makes sense that you will reach a target area of the world faster than someone who is, as some may say derogatively, a "Keyboard Turner".  This means that as players grow more skilled at a game, but the game does not throw greater physical challenges at them, then developers must produce content at an increasingly rapid rate to keep up with the increased fluency of skilled players.  In certain cases, this leads to unsustainable demand, where skilled players can consume content on orders of magnitude faster than it can be produced, and those players represent a large majority of the game's playerbase.


This time, we'll talk a little bit about how we can keep track of what buttons players are pushing, how often they are pushing them, and then we will examine how that might impact design decisions.


BpS - Buttons per Second

A fairly obvious acronym and statistic, BPS stands for "Buttons Per Second" and is a statistic many developers watch fairly closely.  The most obvious representation of this comes in one of two forms; either a "global cooldown" or a "cast limit". 

Global Cooldowns: Games with Global Cooldown systems allow players to only use one skill for each pre-labeled time limit.  The most familiar of these is likely WoW's 1.5 second GCD, but numbers range from .5 seconds (some Korean 2D MMOs) to 2.5 seconds (FFXIV).  Too much lower than .5 seconds, and lag becomes a strong component of gameplay.  Too much higher than 1 second, and players grow bored.  Think again of a piano.  If you have access to one, try pressing only one key every 2.5 seconds.  It is not going to be a very interesting listening experience.  Games with the Global Cooldown system tend to exclude movement from their restrictions.

In Global Cooldown systems, the formula for ideal player BPS is generally ideal BPS = c+Expected Movement Buttons, where c is calculated by [GCD*c=1].

Time-Capping Systems: Game with Time-Capping (or Cast Limit) systems put a cap on the amount of buttons a player can press in a given span of time [usually one second].  Many FPS games use this system... if a player holds down a "Fire" key, then depending upon gun scores or player statistics, the player fires a certain number of bullets or deals a certain amount of damage in a second.  Obviously, if a player could hold down a key and immediately empty a 200-round clip, there become strong balance issues to a game.  Some fantasy-themed MMOs cap player actions at 2 or 3 or 4 actions a second.  These caps may include movement actions [so if you fire off three arrows at a boss, you may be unable to use the dodge button until the current second has finished and a new second begins, awarding you three new actions].

In Time-capped systems where movement is included, the simple formula is ideal BPS = Cap.

((**There is a current argument being made by certain developers that good players should, at certain times, choose not to hit a button, and allow resources to regenerate or other gameplay mechanics to occur.  Currently, I would suggest that while a well-placed rest may be a designed part of musical piece, having each measure in 4/4 time filled with two notes and a half rest makes for an exceedingly boring piece of music... something you might expect players to graduate from within their first few months of being introduced to an instrument.))


DvBpRP - Diverse Buttons per Repeat Press

This horrible acronym [seriously, just say the words] is an attempt to quantify the player's need to press many different buttons before returning to an initial button.  Diverse Buttons per Repeat Press is calculated by [AVG Buttons pressed before Initial Button Pressed again (per sequence)] - 1, and hopefully repeated for at least three different sequences of tasks.


DPS Rotation, no Procs: Self-Buff Short (1), Mob Debuff Long (2), Mob Debuff Short (3), Builder 1  (4), Builder 2 (5), Builder 3 (6), Finisher 1 (7), repeat.  BPS = 6.

DPS Rotation, with Procs: Self-Buff Short (1), Mob Debuff Long(2), PROC #1 (3), Mob Debuff Short (4), Builder 1 (5), PROC #2 (6), Builder #any (7), Finisher #1 (8), repeat.  BPS = 7

DPS Rotation, while moving: Self-Buff Short (1), Mob Debuff Long (2), Builder #1 (3), Builder #2 (4), Finisher #2(5). BPS = 4.  Repeat, replace Mob Debuff Long with Mob Debuff Short, replace Finisher #2 with Finisher #1, BPS = 4.

Three cases: (6 + 7 + 4)/3 = ~5.6 DvBpRP.

DPS is the obvious case for example purpose, and is indeed where this statistic gets far and away the most scrutiny.  However, other roles [support roles especially] tend to not be looked at quite so stringently, and thus suffer from much lower numbers [for example the pre-expac version of Rift's Chloromancer or Bard, which generally required putting up a few buffs and then hitting the same key over and over until the fight ended.]

As with BPS, higher DvBpRP generally increases the skill threshold.


Button Error Margin

Perhaps the most interesting statistic is Button Error Margin.  This is the amount of time a player has to hit a certain button before experiencing some negative effect [or the loss of opportunity for a positive effect].  The most obvious cases are player defensive abilities.  If an enemy is bearing down on you with a rapidly spinning up railgun, you have a certain window in which to either 1) defend, or 2) leave the area.

The most obvious issue with Button Error Margin is lag.  If a designed ability gives a player a one-second window to avoid the negative effect or gain the positive effect, but the player experiences a half-second of lag on average, that player is left with only a half-second in which to press the button.  Also consider that human reaction time that does NOT involve decision-making [so the user is aware of the desired action] still takes about .2 - .3 seconds [Click here to check YOUR score!].

The second obvious issue is what we mentioned during the BPS section; the restrictions games place upon the ability of players to use abilities.  If I have an ability that requires a one-second window, a player has a half-second of lag and a fairly fast .2 second reaction time, AND knows what is required of them, they STILL must match that .3 seconds of eligible button pressing with a time when they are not capped by a global cooldown or time-capped limit on inputs.


The Context

While all of this is fairly interesting, a BPS of 1.8 does not, in and of itself, dictate whether a game is "good" or "bad".  That is dictated by relative presence of risk and rewards, which is not something that can be determined by offline calculations or 1000-hour dummy-target tests.

For example, lets say I am a designer who has created a high-risk, high-reward system for the players in my game.  If they select a spec with a high BPS and DvBperRP, they have a effect-size of roughly 160% of what someone with a low BPS and DvBperRP spec has.  However, they also have a floor around 40% [playing poorly but still GCD capping, just making bad decisions that destroy the synergy of the spec], whereas the person with the 3-button rotation would be hard pressed to fall below 80% of their potential output.

This seems like solid design, and in truth, it probably is.  Players that like to theorycraft will complain that the slow spec is uselessly unplayable due to its low relative max potential, but that is only a concern if, and only if, players can reasonably be expected to operate at levels very close to theorycrafting potential.  If an encounter requires players to be constantly on the move, or situations happen where specs with "ramp-up" time [like most PK situations] cannot complete full cycles, then the second spec looks much more attractive.

In truth, probably the best middle line to walk is to make sure that there is a wide variety of choices available to the player, as well as a wide variety of requirements... and the rewards justify meaningful choices.   If the game is so slow that all players can accomplish the most difficult sequences [imagine playing an MMO on an 8-bit Nintendo Controller], then it will be impossible to distinguish player rewards based on this type of analysis.

The goal is not to hit certain numbers or avoid certain results of formulas.  Players are amazingly skilled and dedicated, and should not be underestimated.  If we put a difficult task into a game, some of them will accomplish it, even if that task is something that looks penned by Listz.  The goal is to get a good balance going of reward for the players that undertake those challenges.  They should have higher ceilings and lower floors.  They may level twice as fast or top the Kill/Death boards if they are a skilled player, but they may risk leveling at half the speed with ten times the deaths if they have yet to master the skills required of a demanding player choice.

1) Offer the player the choice

2) Reward the player if they accomplish the requirements of that choice

3) Parcel out rewards appropriate to the difficulties of the choice


What's the fastest game you've ever played?  What is the slowest?

Do you prefer to play games where you are asked to press a few buttons rapidly, or a diverse set of buttons more leisurely?

Have you ever encountered a part of an MMO where your level of play was poorly matched to the rewards for the difficulty of the task?  What was your reaction?  [Change games, adjust character, start over, ignore, etc.?]

#2 - Player Skill Curves

Posted by GamingTheory Monday July 21 2014 at 10:42PM
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This is a keyboard.

Piano Keyboard

Full ones have 88 Keys [52 white keys and 36 black keys, but who is counting?] and this one has slightly fewer.  Still, it is a fairly standard keyboard, and can be about the equipment expected of most piano players.  If I am writing a piece of music for the piano, I can reasonably expect players to have access to this amount of equipment.

This is also a keyboard.

computer keyboard

It has an expected 108 Key-Commands in the standard system, and developers can expect gamers to have access to those 108 Inputs, as well as various combinations of them.  [Note that in the ASCII system there are not actually 108 physical keys... combinations of Shift tend to account for the other commands, like % or $ or &].


Using the first type of keyboard, with 88 keys, I can reasonably train a seven-year-old to press eight-to-ten of them in a given order, within about six months of their first encountering the tool.  Given three years, by the time that seven-year-old is ten, I can now expect him or her to be able to press 35 to 50 of the keys in a logical order, given a few weeks of practice, and including various combinations [chords].

Using the second type of keyboard, with 108 inputs, I can reasonably train a seven-year-old to press about 40 of them in the correct order, according to prompts on the screen, within six months.  Given three years of training, the student will be entering complex commands very rapidly across most of the 108 inputs, especially with consistent practice.

With adults, the learning curve tends to flatten.  While students are wildly different, if an adult has been playing a piano for about three years, I would expect them to be able to access all 88 keys at rates greater than 140 keys per minute [chords included].

So, here is my question... how many of you have been "playing" MMOs for longer than three years?


I use this roundabout example to get developers to think about what is physically happening when a player is playing a game.  Forget the big dragon breathing fire or the space-age missile launcher [which is really just a re-skinned fire-breathing dragon].  What is the player actually DOING?

The player is pushing buttons on a keyboard.

Here's the connection to the music example:  If you have been playing music for three years, but are still only allowed by your instructor to play songs with 5 - 10 notes [thumbs on Middle C!], HOW BORED ARE YOU?

As a player participates in MMOs, they become better at MMOing.  Of course, players learn at different rates and like different things, but all in all, they gain some knowledge and skills the more they play.  The problem becomes that very few games offer a skill curve that allows players to reasonably excel.  In your first MMO, this was likely accomplished through the leveling process.  You started out with only a few buttons to press, and gained more and more as your character leveled up.  Hopefully, if the experience was good one, the developers also put in reasonable challenges [harder sheet music] to encourage you to use more of those buttons.  If done well, the result is that you learned without being bored, and got much better at the game.  You may not have noticed it, but you probably type faster, and with fewer errors.  Credit MMOs.

Now, as a long-time player, you clear those skill hurdles much faster.  You probably do not even need the leveling process to guide you through them, or at least would appreciate it if you had access to a full range of skills sooner.  Those early levels can be brutally boring now, which is probably a marked difference from your first game, when they were FASCINATING!  The truth is that the levels have not really changed... you still have few skills and a very limited scope of available activities.  But as a player, you are ready to accept much greater challenges... if you can find them.


Player Learning and the Logarithmic Curve

Almost all human learning follows a logarithmic curve, where learning is graphed versus "experience" or "time spent on learning tasks".  It looks like this:

Basic Learning Curve: Log relationship between learning and time spent on learning tasks

When we first start learning something, we learn it very rapidly.  Think of a foreign language.  I could probably teach you 20 new words in a foreign language in less than an hour.  But in English, which you've likely been speaking for years and years if you are reading this blog... well, you probably don't learn 20 new words over the course of an entire month.  That's what the curve is saying.  At the start of a new learning situation, knowledge [and skill] is developed very rapidly.  Then, it starts to slow down.


So where does this tie into games?  Well, if you are a piano teacher, you know that the average student quits after about two years.  That's when the learning curve really starts to "plateau"... they must spent a lot of time on learning tasks to gain any real new progress or knowledge.

Here's the connection to gaming:

As learning rate declines, so does interest based on novelty

As players learn more about the game and the gameworld, their interest starts to drop.  One can make a fairly convincing argument that the genuine interest a player has might be, in the current MMO release cycle, peaked BEFORE a game actually releases.  This puts developers at a severe disadvantage when trying to maintain interest via novelty [or having-new-things-to-discover].

What developers often tend to underutilize is exactly what we were discussing above; interest based on novelty tied to the physical aspects of the gaming system.  It is not a very uncommon story to hear players tell how "discovering a new spec/class/playstyle" re-ignited their interest in a particular game.  This is because they have essentially reset themselves to the left side of the curve, where they had lots to learn, and the rewards for doing so very large, compared to the high skill/learning level they had achieved on a different spec/character/playstyle.

As I said, developers do not tend to provide opportunities for players to really challenge themselves, physically, at a keyboard pressing buttons.  I noted in my last blog that there is currently no game in existence or development that seeks to market itself solely to non-novice players.  In essence, in the world of MMOs, we have hundreds of games that are "Piano For Beginners : Lesson Book #1", and nobody has ever published Lesson Book #2, Lesson Book #3, or even a decent recital piece.


Next time, I will discuss two statistics that attempt to quantify the physical experience of the player [their interaction with the keyboard, not the game world], and explain how a developer might use them to appeal to different playerbases.


Have you noticed your interest in a game decrease as your skill level in that game rises?  Tell us about your experience!

Have you ever "Mastered" an MMO [or a console/PC game], and if so, what kept you interested after you attained that very high skill level?

#1 - Balance

Posted by GamingTheory Sunday July 20 2014 at 1:10AM
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It does not take very long in the preview of a new game before someone corners a developer and asks about "Balance."  To many a dev, this may be the deer-in-the-headlights moment... if you have a pre-prepared answer, then it is your chance to [mix metaphors] and knock it out of the park.  If you don't... well, the sharks begin circling the deer.


So what is "Balance"?  When it is good, when is it bad, and how have games chosen to address it?  Most importantly, as is the focus of this blog, how does a developer's choice of a type of game balance impact YOUR enjoyment of the game?



Balance refers to the idea that players have similar capabilities as other players.  The most obvious form of disruptive balance is cheating; when players do something illegal to gain an advantage over others.  Of course, players are ALWAYS trying to gain an advantage over others!  You hid your mage behind that rock so my mage could not nuke him with a fireball!  That's gaining an advantage.  Balance refers to the tools developers have to control not the outcome, but the opportunity for players to compete with other players.


Well, if you have ever played a game with a cheater, or a little brother, you know that vastly imbalanced games are rarely enjoyable.  I have no interest in watching the New York Knicks play against the local junior high girl's basketball team, and that statement is only partially due to my lack of interest in the local junior high girl's basketball team.

From a developer standpoint, one attribute we always try and keep track of is PLAYER FRUSTRATION.  Player Frustration can be thought of as a scale that slowly rises as a player encounters challenges in the game, and is graphed versus enjoyment of the game.  As frustration rises, to a certain level, we call that "Challenge", and it is enjoyable.  However, after the frustration reaches certain levels, it begins to inversely correlate to enjoyment, eventually result in the player quitting the game.

Graph of Player Enjoyment vs. Player Frustration.  As frustration rises, so does enjoyment, until a peak, when frustration continues to rise and enjoyment decreases.


Since player perception of lack of balance is often reported by players as a primary cause of frustration, balance becomes an issue for the developer.


BALANCE SOLUTION #1 - A Level Playing Field [aka: Homogenization]

The oldest solution in the book is to try to give all players equal opportunity.  This is the common model in classless FPS games; theoretically, all players have access to the same equipment and options, and the only thing that differs is player skill.


- Player Perception: Players tend to think that they love this solution.  If players perceive the game to be balanced, then that hopefully limits some frustration they experience.  Developers are not always the strongest marketers of their games [and indeed, we have recently seen numerous faux pas when developers are thrust into the marketing role that have cost their games thousands, if not millions, of dollars], and having a solution like this lessens the burden upon the developer to convince players their solution is the right one.

- Developer Ease: "If we put something it, it has to be for everybody" is a fairly easy model of decision-making.  "Hey, here's my idea."  "Does it work for everybody?"  -> If yes, Implement.  If No, Do not Implement.  Those are the types of flowcharts that corporate higher-ups love to see.

- Simplicity: A sub-corollary to both the previous two, it is also important to realize that this solution is the most time-effective.  If developers are spread between multiple projects, or even multiple games, solutions like this are very effective.


- Boredom:  This con is so big, I am going to omit the other obvious ones.  It is likely that the largest reason for player attrition is boredom, so do everything you can to keep players from being bored.  Only the largest companies with millions of players are immune to boredom attrition


BALANCE SOLUTION #2 - Separate but Equal

This is the solution many readers are familiar with, because it is employed by modern WoW.  The idea here is that Balance exists by giving everybody a roughly even shot at success, with some slight tweaks to graphics/art or skill description to give the illusion of uniqueness.  GameDevs that use this system tend to start describing their skills by categories [Builders and Spenders, or DPS Cooldowns, or Survival Cooldowns, etc.].  Then, they give each class a slightly modified version of a set number of skills in those categories ["each class will get 2 DPS Cooldowns and 1 Survival Cooldown"] and make them different via art or small personal tweaks.


- Ease of Grouping: If MMORPGs are about the "MM", then this system makes it the easiest to participate in grouping behavior, because almost everybody brings the same things to the table.  Thus, it is a matter of picking players, instead of sorting them by class, specialization, equipment, etc.

- Ease of PvE Design: PvE design begins to look very homogenized, but it is very easy to do.  Things basically sort into "We expect the players to do THIS thing at THIS time, or else the players will lose."  There is very little guesswork in PvE design with this system, but also very little variety [no matter how I try and hide the damage-dealing ability from the Dragon, the solution is always "Player X hits Survival cooldown Y at Time Z... or the players lose."  If developers are pressed for time or interested in other aspects of their game, the simplicity of this type of encounter can make it easy to churn out vast amounts of content in very short amounts of time [usually limited only by how fast the art department can produce working skins of abilities and mobs to create a sense of uniqueness].

- Beginner-Friendly: There has yet to emerge a game solely created to target gamers with previous experience.  That means that everybody is concerned with the first-time player.  While there are market consequences and market gaps developing due to this blindspot by the major studios, the truth is that this system is incredibly beginner-friendly, and accountants love that.


- Difficult for Developers to "Get Right": The seeming lure of this system to developers is the idea that it will be "Easy" for them.  I have titled this category quite deliberately, and I highly encourage you to read the Brown V. Board Supreme Court decision.  Separate is INHERENTLY unequal.  Thus, devs walk an eggshell tightrope of trying to make everything equal...-ish.  Players will never really be happy on the equality claim, because they are not all strictly the same.  Players will never really be happy on the uniqueness claim, because they are all interchangeable parts.

- No Real Distinction Between Players: This issue effects some players more than others.  The obvious Pro to this is the increased ease of grouping... but this is the downside.  Since players are basically interchangeable parts, they often feel unappreciated or unnecessary.  Thus, why makes it easy to group players... but they have no reason to group YOU over any of a dozen or a hundred others, and grouping YOU gives no real benefit to the group as a whole?  This type of "shallow-grouping" may be the cost of "easy grouping".

- Elimination of Player Choice... and usually also Player Skill: These systems eliminate player choice in the interest of "Balance", and in doing so, create boredom.  Systems also tend to eliminate interest in players in "Rerolling" or trying out other classes, since all classes are basically the same.  Leveling-based games [like Ragnarok or Diablo I] die immediately in systems that discourage rerolling.

- The Balance "Razor Edge": Developers in this system are at the mercy of theorycrafters and simulations that say that there is one ideal way to play the game.  Since they have removed so many options for the players, if the players die, it is often perceived as the fault of the developers, and not something the players themselves and improve upon.  That is frustrating, because it creates an artificial "content wall" which immediately leads  to disbanded groups and boredom.


BALANCE SOLUTION #3 - Rock-Paper-Scissors

Perhaps the most viable long-term solution for a game reliant upon grouping, the idea here is that every player has both a complement and a counter.  Many older MMORPGs took this approach.  You would see a certain class, say a Bow-based ranged class like  a Ranger, be very strong against Mages, but at the same time, very weak against Warriors.  Warriors would be weak to Mages, and strong against Rangers.  Mages would be weak to Ranger, but strong against Warriors.


- Team Gameplay: This is the model that most encourage the "MM" in "MMORPG."  Truly strong players will quickly realize that they are not invincible in isolation, and will team up with other players to create a strong team.

- Avoids drawbacks of #1 and #2 above: Avoiding the obvious drawbacks [like the endless tweaking of the "Separate but Equal" system or the Boredom of the homogenized approach] is a strong pro in and of itself, simply due to the current supply/demand cycle of MMOs.  A truly rock/paper/scissors balanced MMO

- Natural tie from PvE to PvP: In both cases, it becomes fairly easy to accomplish objectives that encourage grouping, as well as ensure that all members of the group feel valuable.

- Class Diversity: This is the system that best allows for really unique abilities between classes, and great distinction among roles.  It is also the system that allows for the most character customization on the player side, and far less on the developer side.  Since players are naturally trumped by player or enemy abilities of different classes [in both PvE and PvP], we can give them really powerful and fun abilities without worrying too much about Balance. 

- Lack of Metagamey/Testing Arguments: This system never requires a developer to post about a .5% dps differential on target dummies between Spec A and Spec B, because that is not going to be the make-or-break of an encounter.  Getting your mages to line up and nuke the enemy archers when they appear is the important part, as is bringing along a mage that can do that.  Developers do not need to walk the "Balance Razor Edge" that they do in the Separate-but-Equal system.


- Solo Players: In MMOs that are solo games thinly disguised as MMOs [like the current WoW-endgame or the leveling portions of many quest-driven games], this system can be very frustrating.  Having to turn and run every time you see [Class X] just because you are [Class Y] can be an annoying experience.

- Organized Team Triumph: In systems like this, organization tends to trump player skill.  A group of mediocre players who are coordinated, on Vent, and brought the right class combinations will easily overpower disorganized group, often regardless of player skill.  To some developers, this actually goes in the "Pro" side, because again, it encourages interaction with others.  To accountants, this is a strong "Con", because players without a reliable formal group are the vast majority of current MMOers.


BALANCE SOLUTION #4 - Invest-to-Win

Now, I should distinguish that when I say "Invest-to-Win" I do not mean "Pay MONEY to Win".  The distinction is that this type of balance strategies knows and understands that the player who puts the most into the game will be the strongest.  Most often, this investment is in TIME.  Play more, get better stuff, be stronger.  The Balance factor becomes this: if you want to be stronger, then play more.  Many Korean/Eastern MMOs are accused of having these types of systems, but you will also see them in games like Diablo/TitanQuest, Spiral Knights, and most "Small Group" MMOs where there is seldom more than 4-10 players on a screen.


- Accountability: Some developers love a system where they cannot be faulted for player loss.  This is the exact opposite of the problem in the "Separate-but-Equal" system, where the developers can constantly be found to be at fault for incredibly minor issues.

- Logical: If you do something longer, you should be better at it, right?  It does make sense.

- Puts Progression in the Player's Hands: Many of the games that use these system have a fairly low "skill" threshold in two senses; first, the player literally only uses a few character skills [2 to 5 is pretty common], and second, the a "good" player does pretty much the same thing as a "bad" player.  That means that is a player wants to get better, they can play more, get better items, and become a better player.


- Lowered Value of Skill: The good things we get by putting progression in player's hands are often balanced out by the negatives of that same act.  Certain players pride themselves on being highly skilled, and when a highly skilled player cannot succeed at the same level as a player of lower skill, but greater investment, the highly skilled player becomes frustrated.

- Eliminates Low-Investment Players: Players who do not have available access to the currency of the progression system [be it time, money, or friends with Ditto safaris] tend to become frustrated and quit the game.



What other systems have you seen developers use to try and create a sense of Balance in their game?

Have you ever quit a game because of Balance?  What was the problem, and how could it have been addressed?

What was the best balanced game you have ever played, and why did it succeed so well?

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