23 February 2016

The fallacy of the treadmill and why games should learn from sports… (Part 1)

Take it easy! Have a rest from the treadmill for a while...

In many games, progression is experienced as a gradual climb of abilities, skills and power to (what developers might hope) is a climax right at, or right before the end of the game. This is colloquially known as a ‘treadmill’ or 'grind' and while games such as RPGs and MMOGs tend to utilise it to the fullest, the principle is broadly replicated across many genres (mostly in the single player environment).

Not only is it a way of the developer meting out availability of content based on level or ability requirements but it is almost exclusively used to stretch out that content in the context of RPG, MMOG and F2P games in order to keep players from completing that content in the minimal amount of time possible and thus moving on to other games made by other developers. It’s a way of padding-out the game experience in order to extract increased revenue for games that have monthly subscriptions or rely on the statistical cravings of a userbase in the latter two and a way to increase difficulty in the first (or, if a game is lacking in content, a way to pad that out to increase the play time – which can sometimes happen in RPGs though it’s more common in FPSes).

It’s no surprise that player power curves and treadmills are closely associated in gaming but what is surprising is that I believe that we do not need to rely on these mechanisms to gate content or retain players in crafted experiences. And yet there are few games in these genres that actually break out of that design mould.

You can see where the origins of the power curve and treadmill are found: storytelling.

Emotional Argument

"Okay, we found some emotion. What's next on the list for this story?"

Joseph Campbell’s ‘The hero’s journey’ is a much cited work on the typical arc of stories and their pro- and antagonists as well as a good general guide to the plot beats of introduction of ancillary characters and motivation for the primary characters involved. Sure, there are many examples where these rules are altered, ignored and even subverted to draw a consumer’s interest but, in general, you can’t go wrong if you follow these rules of thumb that are derived from analysis of many culturally historic stories and even modern tales.

Looking at those rules of thumb, you might also recognise the rhythm of the generically good story in general gameplay design philosophy – especially behind the implementation of the treadmill. The climax is always slightly before the end of the content, allowing the aftermath of that climax to be felt and explored to different degrees in the denouement.

The problem with this is that it works quite well for self-contained experiences, a book, movie, single player game all have definite starts, ends, plot-beats and progression. It doesn’t work so well for games that are less contained. Specifically, those that have expansions or are meant to be played repeatedly, like MMOs.

Often there is a talk of power-creep. Weapons, abilities and classes go through cycles of being nerfed and buffed and there is the ever-present shadow of the incremental ‘big bad’ requiring even more power and strength to overcome – let alone the new ‘big bad’ and co. themselves being ever more powerful than the previous versions.

This is problematic from a user experience because all cathartic emotions and exuberant incidences in the game become almost meaningless beyond the initial event. It’s not true that the same event or even subsequent similar events will elicit as strong a response (emotional or not) from a person. Achieving the power level required to take on ‘X’ might be a memorable event for a player or perhaps the actual beating of ‘X’ will be the main emotional trigger but then the lull after that denouement is counter to the build-up required to reach the next ‘X+1’ event.

Not only are players desensitised to the emotions that the developers wish to create and curate when a person plays their game in order to form a strong emotional attachment to it after this climax but they are also desensitised to the events that would elicit those responses in the first place (e.g. getting a new weapon, defeating a new boss, discovering more story/character development).

This desensitisation can occur more slowly and to a lesser extent even before the climax is reached just through natural play and, of course, will vary from person to person and depend on their relative connection and engagement with the game in question. One player may become burnt-out after 20 hours, another may be happy with the same content for 200 hours. This is the dread of MMOs which lack sufficient content or variation in existing play to retain players.

Destiny has been a very visible sufferer of these problems. Not only is there a relatively limited amount of content to experience compared to a more traditional MMO, lack of in-game player interaction for grouping and clan organisation, lack of in-game story-telling and world knowledge, artificial limitation on unique activities and lack of variation in content experience all play a part in causing player burnout. All of these facets of the game’s deficiencies have been called-out by both players and industry media and of course, Destiny is not alone in being in this situation.

Destiny’s saving grace has been its rock-solid core gameplay mechanics but Bungie, by locking content directly related to that gameplay behind the treadmill, has caused more frustration for the players and difficulties for themselves during the development. Not only has the studio had to re-engineer the levelling system since release – despite having known the initial levelling system was not up to scratch before release – but the new system isn’t all that different from the original in anything but name.

The game also suffers from a profusion of currencies to accrue in order to purchase upgrades or in-game items along with a reputation system (since done away with in the latest expansion) that mutually excluded progression with other factions. These mechanisms, combined with the random-number generator used for reward allocation, resulted in a game that exemplified the treadmill to the utmost level, eking out each and every last crumb of player’s time in order to stretch out the content the player had access to.

Even the modern FPSes such as Call of Duty and Battlefield suffer from this slow churn of unlocking the content of the game in their multiplayer portions – resulting in a system which punishes players who are starting the game against those who are well established. The rewards aren’t a function of player skill, they’re a function of time-inputted into the game. This is entirely backwards to how games as a medium should function but ties in nicely to a weakness in human psychology in its operant conditioning chamber-esque method of reward for the player.

Compare this to a relatively flat game system like Counter Strike, Quake 3 Arena, Unreal Tournament or Halo where player skill and interaction is the reward for time put in to the game. People have played these games for years without moving on to the next thing or keep coming back to them because the mechanism of reward is the gameplay itself – which is not tied to progression or any sort of treadmill. These games manage to retain their playerbase despite this lack of psychological ‘encouragement’ and breadcrumbing of content and experiences.

Does this mean that there is no place for the treadmill in gaming? Of course not! As always in life, things are not so simple. But can we improve on the implementation of the treadmill in order to better retain players, keep them engaged in the game and also make life easier on developers as content producers? Absolutely!

Taking a page from Sport

I don't really play sports games... Just imagine this is an American Football play...

Sports, including eSports, are hugely popular and have high fan retention rates. There are many reasons why sports are so popular but let’s just take a few examples:

  • Multiple engagement levels with the activity
  • Competition with other entities in the same activity (e.g. playing other teams in the same sport)
  • Multiple levels of support
  • Clan/group mentality reinforcement
  • Long league time frames with well-planned calendars
  • Multiple win states

Sports have multiple layers of engagement in their make-up. A person might just want to watch the occasional match from the comfort of their own home. Or they may wish to visit the pub with their regulars once a week to watch an event. Very engaged fans may pay to follow their teams or players around at both home and away events or they may just settle for those nearest to their location.

The equivalent in a game would be providing different levels of engaging with the content based on the player’s ability to dedicate time to the game. This could be perceived as the difference between a 5 minute PvP match to a multiple hour time commitment for a difficult event. However, a PvP match is not the same type of activity as PvE is. Hence, it would be more accurate to say that provision for 15 minute versus multiple hour PvE events should be made in order to engage those fans with limited time but who do not wish to play PvP.

Competition is rife in the sporting world and, in a skill-based game, this also rings doubly true compared to almost purely stats-driven affairs like RPGs. Not only is there competition between teams but also players within those teams with endless statistical comparisons of a player’s performance during the sporting activity.

Many games provide for this sort of competitive feedback by showing the stats or achievements of players similar in level of skill… or even just the top few percent in a given activity – the leaderboard, as it were. It’s a useful motivator and can often lead to stronger player engagement with an activity as long as there is not too much of a focus on this competitive angle.

Fans of sports are also able to support their team or sport in multiple ways. They may participate only mildly by buying advertised items or through providing a healthy ecosystem for other fans to engage in. Others may just buy third-party services that allow access to the sporting activity in question while some will end up supporting the sport in a more direct fashion through buying tickets to activities, sportswear or even donating or investing money in whatever personality or team the fan likes. The most important thing to take away is that the majority of the content is accessible by all fans.

Games have only started to explore this relatively recently through F2P, subscriptions and expansions with multiple types of buy-in available concurrently depending on the ability of the player to do so or on how engaged with the presented game the player is. Arguably, only F2P (with associated monetary transactions) comes the closest to the sports model as all players are able to engage with the majority of the content with a minimum of monetary investment. Games such as Destiny come a close second as all the players must purchase the primary content but the developers allow cosmetic purchases to supplement their income. Time-wise, none of the models hold up but that is easily understood to be the difference between an activity you are passive in and one you are active in.

The fan who watches a match at home misses out on the ambiance of the pub or stadium but has to invest significantly less than the cost of the ticket to the match but more than the person who visits the pub to watch it. Swings and roundabouts – every choice has an upside and downside to it but also offers a different consumption experience and opportunity. Similarly, in a F2P scenario, paying more tends to net you faster progress to achieve the goals set by the game.

Some developers have started to mix microtransactions into their paid-for games, as noted above – though developers have learnt the hard way that transactions that alter the balance of the game tend to be very unpopular in this scenario. It’s still quite a controversial move as it is clear these purchases fund more than just the creation of the items in question otherwise there would be no business sense in pursuing such a model. Players also hope that this extra money is being funnelled back into development of the game but then that raises the issue of paying twice for the same content for players who buy in to all facets of the game…

Talking of buy-in; a majority of humans tend to group together in cliques of various sorts due to our inherent psychological leanings to surround ourselves with like-minded people. Supporting a sports personality or team also can veer into this territory and adds to the engagement of the fans with the sport in question.

Mirroring this, many games have built extensive community, clan and team enabling tools into their games in order to facilitate this emergent behaviour; if a player has friends who they play the game with then they’re less likely to stop playing. This makes games that ignore and minimise these interactions but which require their existence for the players to get the most out of the gameplay activities (for example Destiny) a rarity.

Sports also have ‘definite’ calendar events, with activities planned out months or even years in advance. Many sports also have annual or bi-annual progressions, meaning that fans can manage their financial and time commitment to the sport more easily. This allows a greater enjoyment of the sport due to the increased control over fans’ involvement with the sport’s activities in their lives.

As it stands, very few games actually provide this sort of enabling structure, instead providing drip-feed status updates as to the availability of events and activities. It’s quite strange to see this happening when Blizzard have shown (through their WoW conventions and in-game itself) that player engagement is increased through involvement in ‘the plan’ the developers have for the progression of the game.

Of course, this entails a level of communication with the community of a game that most developers could only dream of, let alone aspire to.

The fact that most sports have multiple win states is an interesting phenomenon. Ignoring the fact that sponsorship, hubris and bad blood mostly contribute to the creation of new leagues, cups and competitions the fact that sports are able to accumulate and absorb so many different reasons for playing and focuses for both the team and the fans is one of the greatest aspects of the activity.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard a big fan of a team tell me that they’re not interested in such and such a game because it’s part of cup X whereas for that fan, only the team’s position in league Y is important. Similarly, I know people who aren’t much into football or rugby but who will, time and time again, trot out and engage with the sport when the competition is on the world or multinational scale.

While games already have PvE and PvP streams of content, expansions and side content tend to be directly linked to the main story or missions, meaning that players who do not pay or engage with that content miss out on important parts of the game they like. It’s alienating to players to gate engagement into the next iteration ([Game Title] 2, for example) because they didn’t buy into the optional content because they didn’t find it interesting or couldn’t afford to at the time.

So how can we provide feedback to players in order to increase their engagement and attachment to a game? I'll address those ideas in part 2.

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