Incentivizing Play

This topic has been stirring in my head for a very long time, and at the end of the day way more complicated than this post will do justice.  Attempts will be made!

Design of any consumable service follows the same general themes.  You want the majority of people to take a specific path, allow for some variance, and put in guardrails for the lead chip lovers.  I keep thinking of Lemmings in that sense… rarely will you hit 100%, and most realistic goals are to hit 80%.

In the game design space, this applies in the general sense, then again at the activity level.  You want people to participate along a designed path and reach a designed end point.  You build mechanisms to re-enforce that message, and try to keep people in the same general line.  You launch and use various metrics to measure the success of those mechanisms.  Then re-adjust, launch more mechanisms, and analyze FOREVER.

The trick here is the mechanisms, which typically fall into the carrot/stick archetypes.  Reward good actions and punish bad ones.  The scope of those impact the % of people who follow the line.  Most of the time.  In some games the end point is so poorly planned that players reach it early/late/never and the whole thing falls to pieces.  I can’t say I’m surprised at how quickly Ragnaros dropped in WoW Classic, but I can say I’m  disappointed that people thought that was the actual goal.

Good design has a linear path, appropriate ramps to get people on/off that path, and an end goal that players understand early on.  It appears achievable, and is desirable.  E.g. a car race and you want to be in 1st.

Great design has a non-linear path, and intersects with other systems.  It has layered goals, that are not necessarily linear in structure, but have inter-dependencies.  There’s a continuous feedback loop, and a gradual feeling of progress.  e.g. pretty much any PnP RPG is built on this model.

Content vs Consumption

A big problem as games have become services.  It always takes longer to build something than to break it down.  4 hours of baking and 15 minutes of eating.  Years of research and writing, read in a half day.  Where the wins come is from volume.  If it’s 4 hours of baking, and 20 people take 15 minutes, well that’s a decent exchange.  Sell 10,000 books, ok.  Design for 6 months and 6,000 people play it… uh, maybe not?

Game designers have learned to depend on time-gating mechanics.  Sure, the original reason was to slow down the locusts that broke other systems (gold faucet/sink economies are fragile in that respect) but as time went on, this started applying to everyone.  The fatigue mechanic in nearly all F2P games is a good example, where the drive in monetization (and in a capitalistic sense, reasonable).

The fatigue mechanic in a system that cannot be bypassed… that gets irritating.  Especially if you’re gating a high-volume/fun activity.  But how do you know if that activity is viewed as fun, rather than simply rewarding?  LFR in WoW is free epics, while the original goal was simply to expose raiding design investment to more of the population.  Take out the epics and see how many people do LFR.  I mean really, take out the epics and remove the raid lockout restrictions – see what happens.

Dauntless

It’s F2P and the monetization system is based on 2 streams: battle passes and cosmetics.  From a financial perspective, they want people to take the battle pass, so the pricing structure clearly favors that, rather than 1-off customization options.  But the design of the game is predicated almost entirely on group-based combat, so they need a lot of people to make it attractive.

So they made the battle pass work for both free players and paid players.  Paid players get extra bonuses on that track, and a miniscule amount of extra drops in a fight (you get more if you don’t get knocked out).  Progress on this bar is through 3 methods:

  1. Daily collections in town (for 100 pts)
  2. Random drops from hunts (really random…)
  3. Completing tasks (20, 40 or 100pts)

Tasks used to be assigned with 1 weekly and 3 dailies.  They could be anything – hunt with repeaters, collect flowers, stun 5 times, attack with fire.  If you got bad rolls, then you may end up with objectives you didn’t want to do.  I dislike Pikes, and I really disliked any task that deal with Pikes.  Not to mention the need to actually build a decent Pike first.

The new Bounty system provides 4 slots of tasks.  You need a token (get some per week, as battle pass reward, or random drops) and that gives a random set of 3 tasks to pick from.  In the 50 or so times I’ve done this, only once has there been 3 options I didn’t like – and it made me play the game in a fashion I disliked even more.  In 75% of the cases, it had no impact at all since it mapped to my preferred playstyle. In the rest, it was a minor tweak (e.g. swap to a fire weapon, or focus on stunning rather than breaking) that made the fight marginally more interesting.

Now, clearly there are heatmaps and metrics and data sets that will come from this.  I can’t imagine anyone purposefully selecting “collect 40 rocks” unless the other 2 options were more painful (e.g. use a grenade to stun).  There’s some tweaking that’s left.   Yet, the system itself does work.  It lets you keep playing the way you want, but opens up alternatives that you may not have considered.  It also means that multiple playstyles can all work to the same overall goal – so that a lowly Pike player can get success just as much as an Axe fanatic.

There is however a gap once people complete the battle pass.  Since there’s no real hard time gating (a bit of RNG for extra token drops), entirely possible that people get it all done in a few days of hardcore grinding.  But there’s still the long term mastery system goals, and the weekly time trials to keep folks going.  Whether those two goals are actual things people want… another discussion, for another time.

8.2.5 Where All Is As It Should (Spoilers)

The 4 cinematics (from WoWHead).  Each faction gets the first 2, then a single closing one.  About 10 minutes to get through it all…

Effectively ends the War Campaign, which was effectively the entire jumping point for this expansion.

 

So yeah.

I think the story hit all the beats that were predicted over a year ago.  This is as close to Garrosh 2.0 as you can get.  Sure, there’s a general disappointment that this story was already told, but all stories have been told by this point.  There are a thousand books that detail the Chosen One as a hook and their journey… how many of them actually were good?

In that respect, if the overall goal was to eliminate the faction divide through a common internal enemy, that goal is likely achieved.  As to why that was a goal in the first place, given the end state of Legion is a debatable point.  It seems more like the plot moved the characters, and that generally aligns with some poor storytelling at the major arc level.  So let’s hit a few of the arcs.

  • Saurfang was an old vet, tired of war.  He came to the conclusion that Honor was more than the Horde deserved, and took his own path.  He acted strategically to call out Sylvanas, knowing he would die, but also do something to break her spell on the Horde.  His death however, leaves a massive hole in the Horde with only Thrall around to fill it.  A strong arc of atonement.
  • Zekhan (zappy-boi) is the innocent’s perspective in this (like C3P0 in Star Wars).  He’s an agent of exposition, blindly following orders until he realizes there’s more.  He’s the trigger for Saurfang’s arc, and comes back into the scenes when a decision needs to be made.  He is sadly a plot device.
  • Anduin.  There is no arc here.  Anduin at the end of Legion is the same as Andiun and the end of the War Campaign.  He is a plot device for Saurfang’s redemption.
  • Tyrande.  Somehow made into a god, but apparently an exceedingly weak one.  Considering her entire arc is revenge, that she isn’t in line with this makes so very little sense.  She’s a loose thread.
  • Jaina.  A redemption arc, where internal guilt on previous decisions puts her on a path of punishment.  Her struggles are external compared to Saurfang, and she therefore pushes many of the Alliance plot points forward.  Nearly goes off the deep end, but is pulled back.  Strong arc.
  • Sylvanas.  A brooding female lich king in many respects, where others fear her more than respect her.  She wants to control death (came close!), and seems to be playing 7 dimensional chess.  Until she somehow tells the Horde that they are nothing, with the most minor of provocation.  That’s the trigger point for the Horde to abandon her?  Sylvanas was always an ends-justify-the-means character, but when you can’t see the ends, let alone the means, how do people follow along?
  • Nathanos.  I’m calling it.  He’s been replaced by something similar to an old-god and is whispering in Sylvanas’ ear for years.  There’s no other way to explain his ability to survive through all this without a scratch.  If he isn’t a super being, then he is the most overused plot device after Green Jesus in Cataclysm.

 

From the burning of Teldrassil, the mood has been negative.  Blizz has tried to spin this as a “lot of grey”, but it’s been pretty clear there was no grey here.  Sylvanas’ has had zero areas of redemption/questioning.  She’s been a hammer throughout, and that makes everything she touches turn into a nail.  If this is the end of the War Campaign, then I’m glad that both Saurfang and Jaina were able to be further developed.  Killing Saurfang without establishing a logical second Horde leader doesn’t give much wiggle room for the writing team.

At this point it’s crystal clear we’re going into an Old God expansion.  External enemies are Blizz’s strength, let’s hope there’s a rebound.

I do want to finish on some positive vibes. The cinematics, art, music, and world building team have raised the bar so very high that it’s worth some recognition.  It really does feel like another level, and an ultra-redeeming part of BfA.  The world is beautiful, haunting, and worth exploring at nearly every turn.  The multiple cinematics have amazing production values, and do an excellent job of presenting the general pathos of this expansion.

Classic Spike

I have zero interest in playing WoW Classic.  I already did that 15 years ago.  I am however interested in the nostalgia meta.  WoW is a very interesting subject given that numbers around the game have been around for so long.

Without question the launch was very popular.  Peaked at 1.1m on Twitch where the normal average is ~80k.  I’ve followed a fair chunk of news/blogs on it, all quite interesting.

Apparently Ragnaros & Onyxia are dead.  Not sure why people would rush through Classic.  Seems to defeat the point and all the selling points of “a real world”.   On the meta level, it’s interesting that the most basic dungeon in retail has more mechanics than both of these classic raids combined (also, apparently people really like farming Silithus for Hydraxian faction).

Sure, people are talking about all sorts of learning curves.  Things that people thought would work (e.g. summon stones) but didn’t get set up.  Hit chance.  It’s interesting to see that relearning curve…it’s not like people’s memories are based on patch levels after all.  Things that came in with TBC and WotLK are all blended into the pre-Cata window.  Sort of like me thinking of older Easy Bake ovens.  They were hotter than my oven, and meant for kids.  Completely different than my memories.

A more recent trend is engagement.  I’ve written at length about the impacts to retail, but here in Classic we’re a week away from the 1 month line.  My gut was telling me that it would drop by 50% in 30 days, and then down by 80% by month 2.  Not necessarily a criticism of the game, but just that in 2019 gamer’s attention and willingness for time sinks isn’t exactly massive anymore.  Twitch numbers are down by ~80% from peak but triple their average.  It’s not the best tool for measuring popularity, but it is a trending tool all the same.  The news to read from this is that the MMO-tourist still exists.

I am reading across the blogging/forum world that there’s a general drop in players.  Again, expected.  Where the floor of players ends up is the real question.  And how many people who had dropped BfA, came back for Classic and are giving BfA a new try.  The new Blizz doesn’t do anything without financial incentive, so the number crunchers over there must be doing crazy OT to see how this plays out.  I’d be somewhat surprised if the overall retention numbers increase as both BfA is much better now than even 6 months ago, and the shock of Classic/Retail will surely keep some people subbed.

Final Fantasy Series

There are lines here to read.

The first FF game launched in 1987.  FF15 in 2016, and FF14’s recent MMO expansion a few weeks ago.  We’re over 20 years in this series, with expansions/DLC/offshoots a plenty.  It’s one of the few Eastern RPGs to actually sell in the West.

Each game in the series has similar foundational elements, builds on previous systems, and takes some new twists.  Whether it’s adding classes, improving skills through use/osmosis, random battles, auto-battles, or a dozen other systems that either worked, or tanked.  Everyone has a favorite in the series (mine is FFX).  The series fans will generally try the next “main line” iteration, meaning sales are somewhat baselined.

Where this model and the MMO model differ, is that players cannot play their favorite versions, they have to play the most recent one (or play a pirate version of the old one.)  What keeps them similar is that everyone has a “perfect” version of the game, a time-boxed version where they as players, and the game meshed.

I loved Rift at launch, it was a great time in my life to play an MMO of that genre, and it hit all the right notes.  Summer vacation hit, and when I came back there were some big changes in the game that made it less attractive.  I tried the nostalgia server for a bit, and it certainly felt familiar.  As a player though, I had changed and the model just didn’t hit the same notes.

I’ve probably “finished” FFX a good 6 times now.  It’s an 18 year old game.  The first complete playthrough was something like 60 hours, and I did that as a dedicated game.  I gave it another go last fall, and got to the monster hunting phase with a couple celestial weapons.  I played it off/on for a few months, as a side project.   After a few days of not playing, I figured I’d just get it over with and take out the last boss (which is like 1 shot when you’re looking to max characters).  Didn’t take down a single Dark Aeon.  It was still good, but there were other interesting things taking my time.  I didn’t need it, but I certainly appreciated it.

Other games in the series are OK after FFX.  FF11 asked for way too much time from me.  FF12 was really impressive mechanically, but I felt it was really bloated in the middle.  FF13 looked great, and had some strong strategic options near the end… but it also had a 20 hour tutorial.  FF14 is solid, though I’m an expansion behind.  FF15 simply never clicked with me.

I’m aware that this is my perception and that other folks are fascinated by nostalgia.  I mean, war re-enactments are different level, but there’s plenty of people fascinated with 50s fashion.  Certainly enough for niche markets to develop.  And we’re in the age of remakes for movies.  I mean, I get why industry is doing this.  Past money often means future money.  Why risk a new IP that will tank, when you have an existing client base?  I can count at least 12 releases of FF6.  Chrono Trigger can probably be played on a fridge now.

Yet… selling a box and supporting a box are two different things.  Opportunity costs abound. RIFT Prime is gone.  EQ’s progression server management has generated at least 100 posts from Wilhelm alone.  UO tried and it didn’t fly (though emulation servers abound, with wildly different rulesets).  Even WoW’s classic version is full of debate of what “true” vanilla is, and there’s certainly a lot of questions on both sides about what happens once Naxx is released.

Seems like everyone’s past is for sale.

Classic Features

With the WoW Classic server coming up, I’ve been thinking more about Blizz’s method of iteration.  Credit where due, when Blizz decides a system isn’t good enough, they go to great lengths to remove it from the game (WoD housing is a prime example).  Most other games have an incremental approach, where systems are added over time.  This tends to cause a serious amount of bloat, as compared to Blizz’s more focused development.

That makes me think a fair bit about Classic.  I made a Rogue on day 1 (my main ’til MoP, and still at max level), and I did up to BWL before the cray-cray of organizing 40 people drove me to take a break.  Aside from the storyline (with minor retcons) and the general high level map, there’s not a whole lot from Classic that as survived.  Let’s take a look at some of the larger bits that simply don’t exist anymore.

  • Questing:  The largest change was in WotlK where phasing came by, but even in BC the idea that leveling through quests had taken hold.  Classic has very few quests to level with, and past level 30 it’s mostly grinding out in the wild or dungeon runs.
  • Leveling speed: I still have an old guide I wrote to optimize leveling in Classic. 5 days /played.  Today, you can level from 1-120 on 2 characters in the same time.
  • Weapon skill: To hit with a sword, you needed to swing a sword – a lot.  There were plenty of people who got great drops at 60 and simply couldn’t use them until they raised their skill in the wild.
  • Hit rating: Enemies dodged from everywhere, and riposted from the front (hit you back).  Dual wield penalties too.
  • Ranked skills: Hit every other level, go to a trainer, get a rank increase to do more damage/heal.  Down-ranking was the process of using a lower ranked skill as it was more mana efficient.
  • MP5: Mana users only regenerated mana after not casting spells for 5 seconds.  Chain pulls in dungeons were not possible, and in raids… well you had healing rotations where people just sat down until their mana came back.
  • Gold:  Getting 1 gold was a great event.  There were no daily quests, so 99% of the gold you received was from farming.  Repair costs ate most of what you had.  It felt very rewarding to have 100g.
  • Mounts: Mounts were not only slow, but they came at level 40 and cost nearly all of your gold to acquire.  There’s zero flying, and you automatically dismount in water.  (Side note: MoP’s Water Strider is/was popular for a darn good reason.)
  • Flight Points: You could only do 1 at a time, so AFK while travelling wasn’t an option.
  • Talents: Every level you got points to put into a talent tree.  Getting lower in the tree required unlocking earlier skills.  A very traditional model.  Thing is, there are many choices that are not just weak, but detrimental.  Making changes had an ever increasing cost in gold – making spec swaps very difficult.
  • Hunter pets: They were only good for DPS, and attack speed was king.  Nearly everyone had a cat for that reason.
  • Spec variety:  Nearly every class had only 1 viable spec until late into Vanilla (some waited til BC).
  • Guilds:  Tabards and guild chat.  Oh the days of DKP.
  • Soloing: Classes took forever to solo, and could only really handle one enemy at a time.  Healing outside of combat required food, and death was extremely common.
  • Grouping:   Meeting stones made groups, but didn’t summon anyone.  You need to travel there and find the entrance.
  • Dungeons:  BC had great dungeons.  Vanilla…less so.  Gnomeregan, Sunken Temple, Razorfen Downs/Kraul, Blackfathom, Mauradon were either very hard to get to, or a near maze to complete.  The good bit here is that there were 19 different dungeons, which account for ~20% of the entire game!
  • Raids: You needed to attune for a dungeon before getting access.  That was a crazy adventure!  Multiple steps, and often steps that could only be completed by 1 person at a time (imagine running a dungeon 40 times to attune an entire raid).
  • Crowd Control: You needed to sap/sheep/hex targets in order to progress with dungeons.  AE attacks were few and far between because of it. When’s the last time anyone has seen a sheep?
  • Whelps:  Leroy Jenkins was a thing because whelps were a thing.  In fact, being feared was usually a wipe in any dungeon.
  • Resistances: You couldn’t really complete MC without fire resist, or BWL without shadow.  AQ needed a ton of nature resist.  Resists don’t even exist anymore.
  • Item drops: Leveling item drops were not targeted but random across any 2 stats.  STR/SPI on a dagger?  Sure.  Made from some horribly useless bits but also one of the only ways to gear up while leveling.
  • Mods:  The big ones of the day were threat meters, titan panel, and map markers. DBM didn’t matter, since most fights were tank/spanks and all you had were raid checks.  It’s practically unheard of to play WoW today without mods, and even the base game has incorporated some into the basic UI.  (Classic will support a LOT more mods than original Vanilla.)

 

Not a single one of these systems is even remotely recognizable today.  Every one has been iterated and streamlined.  While a lot was changed in BC and WotlK, Cataclysm (9 years ago) really was the break point between the older model and the newer one.  In one way, you could say that we’re playing WoW 2+ today.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who want to see this older version, where the people connections were essential to enjoyment.  I’m just curious as to how large that audience is as compared to every other gaming option available today.

WoW Lessons Learned

Ion sat with PC gamer to talk about lessons learned from BfA, and what’s coming up.

The big take aways for me are thus:

  • The devs thought the fact that Legion artifacts were front loaded in terms of skills, then only minor increments over time was some something players disliked.  That was a mistake.  (Extrapolating here – but the enemy of legion was RNG, which BfA went all in for.)
  • Azerite gear is a large enough misstep that they are putting in a new system.  Instead of unlocking skills on gear, you unlock it on the neck (permanent item).  So they learned that they should not take stuff away from people while leveling.  Odd that was even a lesson to learn in the first place.
  • 8.2 will be akin to 7.3, in terms of horizontal features.  I liked the content in Argus, it was just unfortunate that it made everything before that completely irrelevant.  Also begs the question if this is the last patch of the expansion.  That would be pure folly, due to the next point.
  • The lack of testing and feedback collection in beta sent them down the wrong path.  While I can understand that Azerite gear was very nebulous up until the last month or so, it does bear mention that all the issues were fairly clearly stated in the beta forums before launch.  Pretty much every complaint from then grew into a wildfire.  That’s like being put between a rock and a hard place, you have a set release date and a you know a key component cannot be fixed in time.
  • If Blizz really wants longer lead time on system development, there’s no way 8.2 is the last patch… and I’d bet that there are 2 more to come.
  • Blizz has also come to realize that making decisions now to avoid an issue in 3 years isn’t practical.  Either that issue never really existed, the market will shift and it won’t matter, or the decision causes major negative feedback that you lose players.
  • Related, there are some pieces of the game that just should not be changed for the sake of change.  (I mentioned Pet Battles are relatively untouched).

 

All in all a relatively good read, and a rare occurrence of a dev admitting that their design decisions were poorly received.  I’m generally curious as to how 8.2 will be received.  A lot of the pain points from launch have been, or will be addressed.  There are some clear lessons learned from the devs, as the feedback on this particular expansion has been some of the most vocal I’ve ever seen.

Quite important to note that when the core of the content is based on a particular foundation, and that foundation is considered a flaw by the players… it is a whole world of pain to make the necessary changes without causing everything else to fall apart.  We’re about 9 months out since launch, in terms of dev work, that’s a pretty quick turnaround for such big changes.

Here’s hoping it sticks the landing.

WoW Sub Numbers

It has been many a year since WoW published subscription numbers – pretty much this time in 2015.  Since then we’ve had nothing but speculation, mostly from 3rd party sites.  It would be fair to say that the general trend has been downwards.  This is entirely subjective, based on the number of people present in any given area – or simply the number of large scale world quests available.  Dips and spikes.

WoW did let us know how many copies of BfA sold initially – 3.4 million.  The wording here is a bit suspect, as it’s unrealistic that this would be the total number of sales on day one so much as by day one.  It would be fair to argue that this number would encompass both those who were actively playing in Legion, those who stayed after the free weekend in July, and those curious about the traditional WoW expansion fever.  I was in the 2nd category.  I am certain there is a long tail when it comes to expansion purchases, but a tiny fraction of those on “day 1”.

A recent tweet from the makers of WeakAuras intimates that the subscription numbers are a tad different.

It’s an interesting bit of “news” in that it can’t really be substantiated, right?  Does it align with subjective viewpoints?  Sure.  Is it mathematically accurate?  Not so sure about that.  Is it possible Blizz exposed data that it shouldn’t have?  Yeah, 100% on that front.

 

I barely squeezed out a month out this expansion.  But that’s my experience.  Plenty of folk still having fun.  And without substantiated numbers from Blizz, human nature is to always trend towards the less pleasant of all rumors.    Doubtful that will make a difference though – they are still making money hand over fist.