Reward Progression in MMOs
Well, Guild Wars 2 is out. And it’s masterfully designed. Seriously. So much, actually, that I can’t stop thinking about MMO mechanics.
Badges, gear, XP, money, pets, titles, vanity items, house decorations, mounts, achievements, modern MMOs often deliver a slew of new rewards, but they also suffer from the dichotomy of having to provide an enticing single player approach while delivering appropriate multiplayer rewards.
This being said, not all rewards are equal.
Since the WoW era, there’s been a steady ongoing trend in MMOs to reward players rather than their characters.
Rewarding characters is any RPG game’s bread and butter. It’s primal, players love it. They start weak, grow up, become strong and beat all the challenges you throw at them. You give them something to help with their progression, be it gear, money, XP, etc. During the whole path to endgame, most rewards you get are actually of this kind. Every new item, skillpoint, quest unlock… you get helps you to move on and develop your character or his story.
Rewarding players is a bit different though, it may consist in new gameplay options or ways to interact with other people. Achievements, vanity items, titles, anything that doesn’t actually help your character to progress can fall in this category. This has several advantages, as if players focus on player rewards more than character rewards, the actual character progression can be slowed down. It is easier to fulfill their collection mania or fame crave than to create an endless flow of items, especially when reaching the endgame levels.
In the beginner levels, most MMOs are mostly a singleplayer experience with a slight competing bias between equal-footed same-origin players. This period of gameplay is fast-paced; with a high amount of progression rewards (read: character rewards) that enforces a particular rhythm on players. Once leaving the starting area though, there are usually two case figures:
After having been accustomed a constant flow of rewards, players can perceive this off-beat rhythm as unsatisfactory, and actually leave before things intensify again.
b) The game keeps dishing out solo rewards at the same rhythm, usually transforming the MMO in a massively-multiplayer singleplayer game, as players barely feel the need to cooperate in order to progress. They basically burn through content at an alarming speed, and while this delivers constant player stimulation while it lasts, this basically “spoils” players; as they resent any change of rhythm as an inconvenience. They need to be “fed” to avoid player bleed, a process that is costly in terms of development and cost.
Endgame-wise, most MMOs cater to rewards by shifting their focus from Character Rewards to Player Rewards. Less costly in development resources, they’re also virtually endless time sinks that can help to make up for the loss of character progression, since that once the leveling has ended, Character Rewards depreciates. It’s just another day, another piece of loot.
There’s an obvious tradeoff, though.
By rewarding the player, you hurt player-character identification and create a form of metagaming where characters’ history is less important, which in turn renders your game’s story less meaningful, and so on.
That’s were GW2 actually shines, by blending together player and characters, it manages to achieve a greater sense of fulfillment and progression.
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