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The Soapbox: Can we reward fun over persistence?

Eliot Lefebvre

MMOs are games of repetition. Advancing past a certain point is always a matter of doing the same thing over and over, whether it's repeating raids in World of Warcraft, playing the market in EVE Online, or taking part in the same event to clear daily achievements in Guild Wars 2. Whether or not you enjoy these repeat performances can make the difference between the grind from hell and a pleasant upward climb, but it's still a game of repetition.

It's not exactly the ideal state of being. Nearly every new game seems to recognize this and advertise itself as free from grinding, which at best is true in a very narrow sense. You won't be grinding daily quests, but you'll be grinding events or PvP maps or dungeons. So why don't we have a game out there that rewards fun instead of persistence? Is it possible to create a game that's free of repetition and focused on enjoyable experiences?

I'm more of a Darius fan myself, but I think only one person in the world cares about that.Right away we run into an obvious problem because for some things, repetition either doesn't hurt fun or is part of the enjoyment. Playing an old-school side-scrolling shooter like Gradius is enhanced by the fact that enemies will always come at you in the same patterns, so you can practice and improve given a constant challenge.

So if you want to reward fun over simple persistence, you have to keep in mind that for some players, the two are not at odds. You can't assume that everyone wants to do a dungeon just once and then leave it behind forever, but you also can't assume that people want to run that dungeon over and over until the end of time. For some people, novelty is fun and repetition is death unless that repetition is masked so that it doesn't feel like repetition.

This is already getting complicated, clearly.

Still, this is manageable thus far. The important point is giving players multiple paths when they reach the endgame of a given game, and that's not so different from what games already do, right?

The problem isn't just repetition, though. It's time. And this is a much trickier prospect to balance.

No matter what game you're talking about, there's a point at which a character is effectively the best. If you've got a gear-based progression system like World of Warcraft, you can have best-in-slot everything. Skill-based systems like The Secret World can have every relevant skill unlocked and improved for a given build. It might require insane amounts of work (such as Final Fantasy XI's year-long endgame weapon projects), but there is an end. Your character can be so good that he or she can't get any better.

Years of officer training, and he's back down to grunt work because of one stupid storyline.Now, let's assume that you're balancing a game just for fun so that players don't have to repeat anything they don't want to. That means making sure that every path to this end point is balanced to take pretty much the same amount of time.

This can be problematic, as players will immediately find the most efficient path to doing something and latch on to it. If there's no difference in time taken, players will find the easiest route and often assume that this is clearly what the developers intended, then loudly whine about how terrible it is to keep repeating the same super-efficient method over and over instead of doing anything else.

So some people ruin their own fun, but it's still something to consider. How do you balance methods when more difficult content is just as efficient as easier content? You can try flattening the difficulty curve, but that removes an aspect of fun from the equation, since some people really prefer challenges that will kick them around until they get better.

But even when you find a solution to all of that, time is still bringing in another important factor.

Classic subscription models want you to keep playing a game as long as possible. It's in the studio's best interests to make sure that your long-term goals will take a long while without making you feel that they're unattainable because that keeps you playing and giving them money. At the same time, we as players tend to think we want everything delivered to us pretty much yesterday.

I say we think we want that because if you actually logged in and instantly had all of the awesome stuff you wanted right off the bat, there would be no reason to keep playing. The whole purpose of the game is to place obstacles that are enjoyable to overcome. But that's another discussion.

Let's say that it takes a month to maximize yourself no matter what path you choose. Some players are not going to be happy with that. Some are going to think that it's ridiculous that you have to stick with this for a whole month to be the best of the best. Others are going to think it's ridiculous that it's only a month before you are literally as good as you can get in the game.

There seems to be no happy medium here. Especially given differing playtimes, styles, experience, and how long the players think the optimal progression curve should be, you're going to make someone unhappy.

For some people, this is always going to be fun.  For some people it never will.  EVE Online is like that.So let's do away with time entirely, right? You don't have to do X; you just have to reach Y. If you perform this list of tasks, you'll be at the apex of ability and then you'll be good. Wait, that penalizes people who do want to repeat content. Maybe if you just clear a certain type of content enough times... but that leads to problems with people finding the most efficient model instead of just having fun. And so on.

This should really be simpler, right? Just balance the game to reward when you're having fun instead of repeating something, yes? It should just be a matter of not doing one thing or another.

Unfortunately, MMOs are complex beasts. You can tell a lot of people to shut up because they're completely off-base, but you need to try and design something that's going to achieve a lot of different goals in the smallest space.

I'll be the first to say that I'm tired of reaching the level cap and having nothing to do but run dungeons until my eyes bleed. If I never see the inside of the Crusader's Coliseum again I will still have seen it far too often. Nor do I like the idea of reaching a point when my day devolves into "harvest crafting materials, grind out potions, place on auction block, wait for profit." There are a lot of things I am tired of doing.

And there are definitely things that can be done to alleviate some of the major problems. If we're stuck with persistence as the dominant model, it can at least be minimized or downplayed. Designers can put in a multitude of things to do at endgame and even reason to vary your overall goals, possibly giving divergent options that obviate the concept of "best." (You might have the best armor or skills or whatever for PvP but not for dungeons or soloing or ad hoc group content or many other things.)

But despite what I thought when I started writing this, rewarding strictly for fun instead of rewarding persistence is really tricky because you have to hit a sweet spot combining several factors that don't like to play nicely with one another. You need to have a game wherein the designers don't care how long you play with something tuned just right for your personal tolerance of time taken compared to goals achieved.

That's not to say that games can't be balanced to err on the side of fun, nor does it mean that games are as close to that sweet spot as they can get. But as simple as it sounds to just focus on rewarding players having fun, it gets complicated fast.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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