Tuesday, March 23, 2010

If I want to keep people hooked, do I use barbs?

I did some consulting for some student-level game developers last year, basically coming up with the core mechanics for a post-apocalyptic browser-based MMORPG. It was awesome. I mean, I'll be absolutely shocked if the project ever gets off the ground and releases something playable, but it was great for me because it offered a chance to take on new kinds of game design challenges and thus grow as a designer. There's a ton of ways in which designing MMORPG mechanics is identical to making a tabletop RPG, and an equal number of areas where the priorities lead you in the exact opposite direction.

I came up with an awesome combat system (IMAO), worked out some original answers to core gameplay problems that plague pretty much every electronic RPG that's presently on the market, brainstormed a ton of ideas for integrating classic MMO elements like respawns and character 'reincarnation' into a grounded post-apocalyptic framework, and took some serious stabs at designing an MMO which would constantly provide internal rewards (meaning everything you do would be a decent game even if you removed any xp payoffs & so on). Today, I'm not going to talk about any of that. It'd take a while and I have work in the morning.

Instead, I'm going to give an example of how the challenge of designing a successful community-based game (one that'll shrivel up and die if it can't hold onto its player base while capitalizing on it) quickly steers a designer into ethically dodgy territory. I was chatting to my brother this evening about Prop Hunt, and he mentioned that he'd played a few rounds today with someone who could switch his prop mid-round; it was a privilege for having donated to the server. Apparently an early iteration of the game had given this ability to everyone, but they found that it made the game less fun.

"Interesting!" says I, because this presents me with a new sort of optional payment incentive- an ability that's noticeably empowering and would undermine the game if everyone had it, but is tolerable (and perhaps even beneficial) to the game experience when it's in the hands of only a privileged few. For example, Halo multiplayer matches where donating lets you spawn with a pistol and rocket launcher. If you gave it to everyone, there'd be rockets all over the place and it'd undermine the gameplay. But when one or two more guys have rocket launchers, it does little to adversely affect the game experience.

"Oh, wait," I said to my brother. "Then what if everyone donates?"

"Then you've got a lot of money?"

". . .Point." Still, your player base won't do as well if your gameplay's not good enough. Maybe you could have it be that only one or two donators get the privilege at a time, randomly reassigning it or having it transfer on death (to the person who killed you if they're a donator, otherwise to a random person who did donate). This actually still works with the Halo rocket launcher example- you just make it so that the "press Q to pick up ROCKET LAUNCHER" is replaced with something to the effect of "Only paid members can pick up this ROCKET LAUNCHER". Hey, loss aversion's a powerful thing. This setup would give an extra motive to become a paid member if you've been playing in games with few or no donators, because you'd know that you could have that shiny rocket launcher on a near-constant basis. But what about motives to donate once plenty of other players had already done so?

Then he got an idea. An awful idea. Dagda got a wonderful, *awful* idea!

"I know just what to do!" the designer exclaimed. "I'll protect the paid members from those rockets so lame! The damage they deal is divided by two- but if your account's free, then sucks to be you!"

That is to say, you tweak the values so that the element is balanced after all- against other donators. Against non-paid members, it's appropriately crushing. New players would initially play against other new/low-ranked members, then after about a week they'd be included in the normal matchmaking pool- with 4-5 days of paid member privileges at no charge.

Eesh. It's like the dark side, except you just fell into it because you couldn't stop poking around.

1 comment:

AC-Guy said...

Wow, this is the kind of thing that make you feel dirty in your soul.

Like groping an unconscious chick, NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW.

The trick would be the balance between the two extremes: You can't have the gap between pay and free so large that it's impossible for the freebies, but it has to be large enough to be worth paying for.

I believe rune-quest used a similar system.

It also might be better to do things like 'pay $5 for new weapon/map/special gear/whatever pack'.

You could argue that many MMOs such as WoW already follow such a pattern: in addition to a monthly fee, you can but 'loot' cards for more cool stuff, and have to shill out 20-50 dollars for an expansion pack.

I feel dirty.