24 February 2016

The fallacy of the treadmill and why games should learn from sports... (Part 2)

So how can all these principles that have become common in sports be merged with the emotional engagement from the hero’s journey and applied to skill-based games that currently rely on the treadmill in order to retain players?

Level Drain

You think my suit and colour scheme look good? Well, they won't for long because I have to ditch this gear to level up!

When talking about primarily skill-based games, to take Destiny as an example (because I’ve played a lot of the game), I think the starting point is to make the game mechanics – which stand out so well from the rest of the game’s features – and make those the core player retention mechanism.

This means not gating content behind artificial power levels but instead concentrating on encounter design and difficulty. In RPGs and in games like Destiny, being underlevelled in a scenario is as bad as being overlevelled – but that does not mean that the scenario itself is bad or unenjoyable. There are many missions and quests that are very popular but once the player has exceeded the requirements of that mission/quest there is no reason to play it again because the content is uninteresting and the rewards are non-existent.

Destiny exemplified this issue because it had so few story missions that were then turned into high-level, end-game content (I’m not including raid style events here because they required networking outside of the game in order to be able to perform them). In this instance, that content was worthless to the players and to the developers once the player had consumed it and even then, the high-level, end-game versions were limited to a daily or weekly event meaning that their consumption was also gated, resulting in a paucity of PvE content outside of the multiplayer-focussed Crucible modes.

As a secondary result of these mechanisms, players would focus on playing the content that maximised the experience (level gain) or currency collection rate per time period, distorting play styles in order to hit the ‘button’ in the operant conditioning chamber in order to get the cheese. This behaviour is not conducive to real player attachment to the game but instead engenders a false sense of ownership and expected rewards with regards to play time.

Without the treadmill, the level requirements are gone and thus any content can be played for pure enjoyment of the content. (We’ll get to the rewards later) Players are free to sample from whatever they choose to consume in their play time without worry of being punished for not selecting the optimal, developer sanctioned path to the next piece of cheese.

This also loosens the burden on developers by stretching content further and in having to make the difficult choices on what constitutes the correct path to sanction and thus allows them to focus on the second part of reinforcing the gameplay mechanics: giving the player autonomy.

Player Autonomy

Some of the best open-world games have learnt that allowing the players to choose what their moment-to-moment goals are can be more engaging than pushing them along a well-defined path...

One of the reasons that games like CS:GO et al. do so well isn’t only that the game is without that artificial power curve and content locked behind the treadmill, it’s that players have a certain amount of autonomy once they become familiar with the game. They are allowed to set their own objectives within a match, choose how to defend or attack, choose the maps they engage on and even which opposition they face.

The reason why running the same mission over and over again in Destiny becomes monotonous to many players is because it is rote. There is little to no variation in the mission and it is tied directly to the objectives in the story – a story which, even if it had been implemented properly in the game, became irrelevant to the end-game content because it was ‘finished’.

Destiny has a lot of tools at its disposal which, from what I experienced, where never put to good use. First off, end-game content was curated entirely by the developers meaning that, at a given player level, each mission would provide a specific challenge level. This was achieved by changing the number of enemies, the rate of spawn and the enemy level. This was a lot of work done on each mission multiple times because, in the original daily and weekly events as well as for most story missions, each one had to be balanced three times to allow three different levels of player challenge.

So for the missions that were both story and daily/weekly enabled that was six levels of balance performed and playtested by the developers. (At least I assume it was balanced and playtested!)

Either way, the developer’s adherence to the story even post-story is detrimental to allowing the players to engage with the gameplay mechanics on their own terms in the PvE portion of the game. The PvP portion of the game was not similarly tended, meaning that players who engaged and enjoyed that style of play felt rewarded for their time and efforts both on a time-based measure as well as a physical reward-based measure because every multiplayer match gave a chance of obtaining something at its end for each player – no matter where they placed in the winning or losing team.

In the PvP portion of the game players could also choose what type of gameplay mode they wished to engage with – as well as having temporary (week or weekend long) events that afforded them the chance to obtain special gear that was only available in those events. The PvE portion had almost none of this constant choice and reward folded into it.

What the PvE content needed was for each mission to have several variations coded within it – each triggering on a random number generator. For example: a different route might be taken to the objective, or spawning enemies would come from a different direction, in different waves or have different types of enemies in those waves. Players might need to be split up or kept together to achieve their objective and might have to have a running fight or to make a stand while a countdown timer ticks down in the background. The important point is that the beats of the missions are random from a known set of events per mission. This would create more variety within each mission itself without the need to manage content on varying levels and also allow the players to not know what to expect during the course of a mission and thus keep their attention focussed.

Another idea would be to use those content changing tools that were created to make the different versions of the same mission to allow players to choose which races and types of enemies would be faced in each mission.

Okay, it breaks the story to have race 2 in race 1’s missions but that’s not the point of the gameplay. The point of the gameplay is to provide an interesting challenge to the player and by limiting the enemies of the mission to those found within the story version is just doing the content a disservice. It’s boring to fight the same combination of enemies time and time again – why not mix it up and have slow enemies with fast enemies, flying enemies with shield-carrying ground enemies… etc.?

Add to this the damage modifiers (elemental damage and melee etc) in the selection and you have a large amount of customisable points for the players to engage with on each available mission.
By doing this, the player is given the chance to find their own challenge level and to set challenges for other players and themselves. Best of all, weekly and daily events could also be customised by the developers themselves allowing special rewards to be allocated to the playerbase. The worst part is that most of the tools are already present in the game (even if they are difficult to use) – they we just not utilised in this way.

One aspect of player autonomy I haven’t spoken about is the weapon choice and play style choice and that’s because I feel that Destiny, in particular, has done a pretty good job about handing the player choice when they have a decent arsenal in their inventory and letting them choose between three different classes with two different subclasses. Obviously, this is vitally important to giving players interesting decisions during gameplay and to enable different play styles.

Players that want to make the trade-off between high-powered but slow firing or limited clip size can do so and Destiny's trademark unique and legendary items with their interesting pros, cons and descriptions - not to mention their cool names - really set a high standard with respect to equipment choices.

Similarly, the classes themselves have a good trade-off between their strengths and weaknesses and the subclasses allow for personal preferences in special abilities. These choices are readily reflected in the tactics and strategies of players in the PvP portion of the game and while I would not say they are unimportant in the PvE portion of the game, player decisions in class and subclass are less important to performance.

Rewarding Gameplay

In PvP activities, anyone had a chance of getting a reward (win or lose) and, because these activities tended to be shorter than PvE activities AND had Crucible-only variants of equipment as a potential reward, this meant that players were rewarded more for playing PvP...

Finally, we get to the reward system. I mentioned above that, in Destiny, PvP activities gave out a constant stream of rewards regardless of your performance as many times as you played them whereas the PvE activities did not. First off, that should never be the case. If your game gives one set of activities the chance of getting rewards no matter how many times they are completed or the win-state then the other activities should also reflect this as well. Otherwise, you’re just punishing the players who do not like certain activities over others in your game. You’re artificially limiting the engagement of your audience.

While it may be annoying that the worst player on your losing team in PvP got a cool reward, you know that at some point that lucky bastard will be you at the end of one of these 5 minute matches. If you lose in PvE - that could be half an hour or longer down the drain. Worse, if you pick the wrong activity - you can win and get nothing. It doesn't have to be this way though.

Since there are no player levels in the game anymore (following my logic above), costumes are more cosmetically focussed in players minds. Yes, they may have those bonuses to abilities, cooldowns and ammo (or whatever) but the player can choose whether they wish to sacrifice those relatively minor bumps in allowing their character to look as they choose.

WoW did this by decoupling gear aestheticsfrom level, as did Diablo 3, but I think in a game like Destiny where the gameplay mechanics are primarily skill-driven that particular solution isn’t needed because levels aren't needed. 

Destiny has its armour shaders but the armour shape, size and type are hard-coded and require players to give up their style in order to access higher level gated content or to be more competitive in certain PvP activities. Tying armour aesthetics to content level also has the secondary effect of ensuring that a large majority of players will look the same at any given level – depending on if they’ve been lucky enough to get the loot drop in the first place (or buy it at a vendor). 

Destiny also initially made the mistake of tying class style accents (cloak for hunter, etc and also armour shaders) to factions which allowed the player to choose which one they levelled up with in order to buy better gear from that faction’s vendor. This had the unfortunate effect of sidelining most of the factions because their high level gear was not end-game gear and levelling the default faction granted the most access to vendor items in the game (in the expansions and PvP events this changed to the specific faction that was hosting the event) which undermined any development effort the studio had put into those factions and their raison d’être.

This was later fixed in The Taken King expansion update so in Destiny’s case is a moot point.

So, realistically, affiliations to a faction should also not be tied explicitly to player character appearance. The item rewards upon completion of general PvE activities should be equivalent to those granted through PvP play – even if they are not the exact same items. i.e. PvP exclusive rewards are perfectly fine, as are PvE exclusive rewards. 

Just some of the currencies (materials) available to collect in Destiny - pre-The Taken King

Currencies are also a problem. Usually they are used to gate content on the treadmill - a sort of matryoshka doll-esque recursion of limiting player advancement in a given time-unit.

In Destiny, players complained that to achieve upgrades for items, they had to farm the free-form patrol missions or just range about on the required planet to find the currency in question. Bungie tried to address this issue by basically adding materials found on the planets to the daily and weekly events, making their acquisition "free" with another activity. The problem was that players were complaining about having to collect them because the provided activities to do so weren't interesting when repeated ad nauseam - not that they did not want to have to work to get the currencies. They were bemoaning the lack of content in the game in a tangential manner. The solution did not address the real issue and actually reduced the choices for players to engage in because now their goals could be achieved by playing less game.

This was less than ideal because what this does is put more pressure for gaining advancement on the player to pursue one event – it also makes that event more valuable than others and the normal story missions were still without a point once completed except for the occasional bounty requirement.

In the same way that PvP and raiding don’t guarantee a given reward at its end, neither should daily and weekly activities – especially when that content is also gated behind buying the expansions (Bungie does not provide alternate activities for players who did not pay for expansion missions that are cycled into these activities), essentially removing content from the game a player paid for.

Ideally, this would be fixed in conjunction with providing player autonomy through mission customisation as outlined above. If this is not possible then even just allowing players to get rewards for re-completing story missions at their hardest setting would be an improvement to having no reward at all and thus no reason to play that content that took a lot of hard work to produce. It’s just dead content.

Finally, timed events are a pain in the backside for a great number of mature gamers. I’m not even going to try and pretend that I think they should be removed from a game – I think they provide a valuable excitement to players in being able to achieve objectives that aren’t normally available in the game experience.

However, I do think that their time frames should be varied. Putting a timed event always on certain days of the week or a certain week of the month is unfair to the players who are unable to dedicate those times to the game they’ve paid for. Remember, you’re supposed to be driving player engagement and increasing retention by having your player base locked into the title they want to play. Placing a timed event to always be on Friday-Sunday might seem like a fair thing (everyone has a weekend, right?) but in actuality it is not and many people will miss out on content they wish they could play – further alienating the player from the game and also causing friction between the players who can make the times and those who can’t. (Often in a community, those ‘who can’ will deride those ‘who can’t’)

I suggest that it would also help to actually provide a calendar in the same way that sports do. Fans know in advance when to be able to allocate time to their desired events. Including knowing that missing one won’t leave them high and dry for a long time before the next one comes along. Just notifying the players of the single upcoming event does not help people manage their play time anywhere near as well.

Another solution to this could be that the event is timed for the player. So it doesn’t matter when the player engages with the event activities, just that they complete it within a given time frame. This allows the player to choose the most effective time to start the event. Remember, the player paid for the game!

The Conclusion

"What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon?"

So, there you have it: my suggestions for solving the problem of the treadmill in games that have a strong player skill focus at the core of their gameplay. 
  • Remove excessive levelling or levelling entirely in order to not lock out content based on the time a player can afford to sink into the game. 
  • Increase player autonomy and trust the player to find things that they will enjoy. 
  • Reward the player for playing the game the way they want to play it. Stop punishing the player for wanting to mostly do PvE or PvP and for not having the time to dedicate to timed events.

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