The Tattered Notebook: The problem with leaderboards

EQII dungeon
If there's one thing you can say about EverQuest II, it's that it has a community that's as varied as cogs in a Gnomish do-hickey. There's a substantial and long-time community of hardcore players, made up of people who must also be math majors because the number crunching that's involved is impressive. There's also a good-sized portion of the playerbase that prefers the non-combat features, like crafting, decorating, and more recently, dungeon designing. (Some players have made a fortune hiring themselves out to decorate others' homes, for example.) In a previous column, I talked about whether there will be a strain on the team to continue making quality content for the broad spectrum of players, but this week, I'd like to look at it from a different perspective.

Two of EverQuest II's newest features, the housing leaderboards and the dungeon maker leaderboards, are both designed similarly, with rankings, a hall of fame, and a voting system for various categories. But the leaderboard listings for each system look very different, and while the housing directory tends to be a good representation of EQII players' creative genius, the dungeon maker boards haven't reflected that as much. Read on to see why, and to look at what, if anything, should be done about it.

Creativity, risk, and reward

A quick and very unscientific survey on Guk showed a big difference between the housing leaderboard listings and the dungeon maker listings. When you open the housing window, the top-ranked homes all have creative titles and impressive thumbnail images. Visiting any of them leaves me wondering how the creators of these homes had the vision and eye for detail in their amazing structures. I visited one modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and couldn't believe how accurate it was. Sure, there is an occasional lemon among the gems, but if someone tries to put up a one-room home with just a table and chair, it won't get very far on the leaderboards.

On the other hand, when you open the dungeon maker, there are a lot of creative works available, but there are also plenty of dungeons designed purely for quick and easy tokens. And they don't even hide the fact that they're designed for low risk and high rewards. There are dozens of dungeons with titles like "solo, fast dungeon, 100+ tokens" or "fast marks, easy dungeon." It even seemed worse on Freeport than on Guk, and some of these have not only topped the leaderboards but made it to the hall of fame. With only the top 10 visible on the first page, it's quite possible that some highly creative dungeons are getting lost in the shuffle of the token grind-fest dungeons.

Gordian knot, meet sharp sword

The difference is that one has tangible rewards and the other doesn't. The other problem is that the tokens awarded at the end are given for the challenge rating, which doesn't really account for creativity, aesthetic value, or fun. On top of that, the items you can purchase with tokens aren't limited to dungeon maker design items. Players can also purchase mounts, armor, and even weapons from the vendor, so those who normally wouldn't be interested in the dungeon maker system end up participating for the loot. And as often happens, people will end up taking the most direct route to the reward. It reminds me of a picture from Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun, with a life-sized, convoluted Gordian knot and a smiling Alexander getting ready to cut it with one stroke instead of spending time untying it. That's why there's an abundance of min-maxing and less-than-creative dungeons available. Heck, even those players who do dungeons to build up their dungeon-making inventory will probably run a few of the "easy solo 100+ tokens" dungeons from time to time.

EQII Fallingwater
This isn't so much a "min-max" versus "decorator" conflict, but it does raise the issue of intended gameplay and whether it's wrong to build easy-mode, uninspiring dungeons specifically to farm tokens. Should a "solo easy tokens" dungeon be ranked highly for style when all it contains is rooms full of quick-kill mobs? Should it be inducted to the hall of fame? The housing leaderboards don't have these issues, but then again, you can't really have a dungeon system without some sort of reward, and once that enters the picture, things get muddy.

The other question, of course, is whether anything can or should be done to change things with the dungeon leaderboards. One possible option is to change the way the challenge rating is done, but it's hard to come up with a system that rates the actual design and creativity of the dungeon. Another is to change the voting categories and perhaps have separate rankings for creativity, action, and a risk vs. reward category that would rank the token-farm dungeons. Players could even choose to publish their dungeons in certain categories so that the more creative dungeons don't get pushed down the listings.

In the end, there's really nothing wrong with making a bland dungeon for easy tokens, but it takes away from the players who spend a lot of time and effort creating impressive and enjoyable dungeons; their creations are sometimes getting outranked by dungeons that don't deserve the style and action votes they're receiving. It would be nice to see tweaks to the system to perhaps filter things better, but in the meantime, the best option is to hope that players vote more responsibly. Given the large, and fairly tight-knit player populations on each server, I think it's definitely possible to nudge others to seek out and vote for dungeons that have had a lot of thought put into them.

From the snow-capped mountains of New Halas to the mysterious waters of the Vasty Deep, Karen Bryan explores the lands of Norrath to share her tales of adventure. Armed with just a scimitar, a quill, and a dented iron stein, she reports on all the latest news from EverQuest II in her weekly column, The Tattered Notebook. You can send feedback or elven spirits to karen@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.