Of Society and Carrots

Raph Koster is still on a roll with his retrospective analysis of all things SWG. He’s written about TEFs, Dynamic Worlds, and now today he’s written about something that once again draws my commentary: Living Societies in Games.

While the entire post is enormous (only part one…), and actually worth reading, I want to focus on just one small and tiny quote. In fact, this is Raph quoting himself from well over a decade ago:

“A sad fact about you players, as a whole: you only do what you are rewarded for. You will do something less fun if you see a carrot at the end of the stick, and you will ignore something more fun if it doesn’t give you a “ding” or an XP reward or a title.” – Holocron (11-26-2002 10:55 PM)

This is why…

Battlegrounds are favored over Open-world PvP
Players endure Raiding
Exploration is dead
Combat is always king

I could go on, but I want to stop there and flip that quote upside down. Developers realize players only want to do things they are rewarded for, and despite being less fun and underwhelming/underdeveloped players continue to do so ad nauseam — and pay for it! This means that creating content that is more fun, and yes quite possibly much harder to create, is easily set aside and deemed less profitable, niche, and “not what the players want.” You see? Players seek the path of least resistance, but what they are seeking after is actually that which the developers themselves have done — the path of least resistance! It’s a vicious cycle!

The solution is, quite simply, to never have a situation wherein players are given the opportunity to chase a carrot that is contrary to a ‘fun’ and desired experience.  Yep, that’s one of those “WTF obvious” moments, I know. Yet Raph quite perfectly points out a similar phenomenon when developers come to him asking him to create a crafting system for them like that found in SWG. He has to go back to them and point out that they have already created their game, when in fact the game should have been created around crafting. This idea of working backwards or putting the cart before the horse is happening all around us every single day in game design.

As Raph says, “players flow like water around obstacles.” Yeah, but so do developers. While in the end quite true of both sides, I’m in the camp that believes it is up to the developers to take control as it is the developers who are creating the experiences through which players exercise their inherent shortcomings.

Before you think all of this sounds impossible, SWG — despite its shortcomings — managed to pull this off the best we’ve ever seen. Every activity matters. Every activity is connected to something else someone had or has to do. Everyone is tied together. It’s a world. It’s a society.

  • Your point about raiding struck home in that there was a big carrot that made me “endure” it. And this was back when you needed 72 or 54 to even attempt.

    But, oddly, the raiding is some of the most memorable now, years later. And the loot I gained has long since lost its attraction.

  • “A sad fact about you players, as a whole: you only do what you are rewarded for. You will do something less fun if you see a carrot at the end of the stick, and you will ignore something more fun if it doesn’t give you a “ding” or an XP reward or a title.” – Holocron (11-26-2002 10:55 PM)

    …this is also why they casual population plays, which in turn is where the money is at, which in turn why we will never see the “good old days” return from non-indie studios.

    When reward mechanics such as honor gained per battle is enacted people in battlegrounds start saying ugly things in chat such as “A short loss is better than a long victory” and go afk.

  • If it wasn’t obvious in my previous statement, in this chicken-egg scenario I firmly blame the studios for “fixing” something that wasn’t originally broken, in effect being the egg that created the chickens. 😉

  • It’s just like real life. If you give everybody a free, not really fast or reliable car, a crappy apartment, and a handful of not really that interesting or tasty (but nutritious!) food for doing nothing, everybody kicks back and does nothing. They don’t aspire to things that are not even possible.

    Put a few jokers out there with Porsche and other exotic cars though and SOME of us try harder. Most probably won’t get one but it gives us a reason to try. Even the casuals are tempted to work a tiny bit harder.

    Keep making the loot available to everyone after they have played 10 hours. This is where you end up.

  • You have it a bit backwards IMO.

    The older MMOs (and EVE) had better retention because the content that was in-game rewarding took a very long time, but didn’t lead to fatigue as often (mining in UO or EVE was easy, took forever, yet was a great way to progress in multiple ways). Then you had also had the fun stuff (PvP, tougher dungeons) that more often than not was neg-sum. This resulted in not only the players balancing themselves (losing stuff that they would then need to go back to mining to regain) but also the game world staying balanced (items being removed from the world, helping the economy).

    The players would bitch about mining being boring like people in the real world bitch about working. If you remove the need to work, you aren’t actually making people happy, you are just transferring the ‘get bored’ state down the line. That’s not sustainable, which is why most MMOs are short-term sprints now instead of multi-year ‘investments’.

    A common mistake junior managers make is believing that ‘listen to the customer’ means ‘do what the customer says’, when in reality its ‘take what they are saying, correctly interpret it, and provide what they need, not what they want’. Sadly most MMO devs are very green in this regard.