..the progression conundrum...

This post might end up rambling over a few loosely linked areas, or at the very least be prone to some occasional digressing...you have been warned! There is however an important thought behind this one...what motivates us to play, and progress in our games? How does it effect MMO gameplay?

More importantly how does that impact the way we design content for the genre? Then perhaps more ominously, how does it impact our ability to innovate and improve upon the genre? Can we both entertain players with better stories and techniques while still not forgetting what drives players forward in these games in the first place...

Progression vs Entertainment

When you are playing through a game there are different motivations at play. Even within the same game different motivations can make us want, or not want, to do different aspects of any given gameplay experience.

We also, as players, also bring with us different motivations and desires based on the type of game activity we wish to experience.

So what motivates us as players of an MMO?
  • Sometimes we want to progress, we just want to get those +1s to whatever, be it exp, gear or any other rewards that are available.
  • Sometimes we want to achieve something or beat something because it is there, we don't always need to know why.
  • Sometimes we want to explore
  • Sometimes we want to fight
  • Sometimes we want to socialize
  • Sometimes we want to discover a story, or background elements
  • Sometimes we want to be told a story
MMOs by design, have so far been very progression focused, and I don't mean quest or linear progression focused. I mean just progression based in general. Whether your game is considered a 'theme park' or a 'sandbox', or anything in between. The inherent factor tying it all together in an MMO has generally been that your character is progressing, and getting 'better' (in whichever way the game in question defines 'better')

Progression, and the need for it is a bedrock of the expected player experience.

We also don't just progress in one way. You can see from the list above we have different motivations at different times.

Just as we do with console and single player titles we have different desires at different times. Sometimes we might want to be enthralled by a story of the designers creation that is well told with great cut-scenes and great voice acting, like playing through a game like Enslaved, or any other well told story, we are motivated to find out what happens next.

Then sometimes the gameplay and the progression motivates us, even if the task is mundane, or maybe more likely repetitive, we sometimes just want to get that next level / spell / combo / shiny or achievement.

When we have that motivation, being dragged in the first type of experience can often be frustrating. The best cut-scene in the world won't help if the player really wants to be hitting something with a stick when you decide to show it to them...

Sometimes these multiple motivations don't get acknowledged, when in fact they can be what makes a great game great.

...lets take a concrete recent example...

Personally I got completely wrapped up in the inane mini-games in the last Fable game (Fable II that is, I guess very soon that won't be the last Fable game!), by the time I had finished the story campaign I had probably spend twice as much time chopping wood and serving drinks in the mini-games (especially serving those cursed drinks!), as I had playing through the rest of the finely crafted, well paced, and interesting game-play provided by the main storyline. Why? Because at different points in the experience I had different motivations for progression.

Sometimes I was happy proceeding with the story, and focused on that.

Sometimes I just messed around and explored side quests

Sometimes I was happy enough to kill some time with the mini-games

The game allowed me the pleasure of all three due to the way it was set up, due to the way it established its rules, and was consistent throughout. Good games do that, even if we don't notice. They realize that different motivations drive different parts of gameplay...I enjoy it though when I have the choice. If the game had, for example, forced me to do mini-games at a certain point, or made progression depend or gated by something like that, I could easily come to resent it rather than enjoy it.

...so how is this relevant to MMOs? (or when are you going to get to the point Craig?? I did warn you this one rambled)

Mainly in the areas of how we try and make our games more compelling and how we try and introduce more story elements...

Progression vs Story

This can also explain why people have reservations about placing more 'story' in an MMO. People comment on it all the time, in particular now, with the heavy hitter that is The Old Republic pitching it as so integral to their experience.

Why was a 'skip quest text' the first GUI modification to be written for World of Warcraft for example?

At a fundamental level many designers and game writers bemoan this facet of players behavior, blame on the culture of immediacy and short attention spans prevalent more and more modern gaming society, and try to come up with ways to forcible change players behavior. I am not sure that we often enough ask why the players behave like that...at least seriously, rather than trying to dismiss it as some recent laziness inspired lack of interest on behalf of all the players out there.

generalization like that rarely help us get to a better understanding.

Other genres demonstrate quite ably that players are more than willing to enjoy and appreciate exposition and a good story. They even require it for a game to be elevated to the ranks of those titles considered 'classics'.

The reason why players might choose to do things like skip quest text in an MMO may be very simple, and not necessarily linked to any inherent impatience in modern culture - when users are motivated by progression for their current activity, they don't want to be 'held up' by things that prevent them reaching their specific goal at any given time. It can become a frustration because at the time it is delivered it is not the focus of the users intentions.

In effect we haven't yet found the best way to tell stories in an MMO that doesn't clash in some way with the way in which players prefer to experience the content we produce.

Now though, comes the rub...

...this doesn't mean an MMO player can't appreciate a good story element...

...likewise it doesn't mean that story can't be an important factor in the entertainment provided by a quest or encounter in an MMO...

What it does mean, is that we, as designers, have to very carefully consider where and when to introduce these elements so that they function as an entertaining element of the experience, rather than as something the players sees as 'getting in the way' of their enjoyment.

Progression vs Designers

So what do I mean by that? Essentially I think we have to think about the points I mentioned earlier about progression and the game experience, about what is motivating a player at different times in the gameplay experience, and assess how we can incorporate the elements we want to add, in order to make a game a more dynamic and interesting experience, into our MMO gameplay designs.

In many ways we have to accept the genre expectations, and work with them, but do so with an open mind so that we can find the best possible avenues for introducing more exciting and dynamic storytelling elements, but in a way that won't annoy users by interfering with the motivations of progression.

So the key is really in presenting these elements in ways, or at junctures, that won't be deemed as intrusive by the player. Finding ways and means that can be used to draw the player into the experience in the way every designer aspires to achieve.

Importantly though that also means accepting that you might have to change things up a little in order to make it work in context, and that there might be some good ways to do it and some bad ways.

Sometimes a player just wants to progress, and they will be frustrated if you don't help make that experience smooth.

Likewise sometimes players want, dare I say need, to be given some more dynamic and interesting experiences as well. It just has to be at the right moment...

...so let's take some examples...

What is important is that you don't disrupt the flow of gameplay unnecessary and place your exposition elements at places that make sense to the player.

So for example I really like the sequences in Aion, or the World of Warcraft expansions where you got cut-scenes or intros to an area the first time you visit it. Those are good examples of smart use of that kind of sequence. It helps establish a reason for the players journey, it might introduce points of interest, or give the players some helpful hints on where to travel next, or it might deliver some suitably dramatic introduction to the villain of an area, and none of those generally grate on players, because their appearance is part of a natural flow. So introduce these elements at times when the player has not yet entered that 'progression' state of mind, and they actually start to serve you well in creating a more interesting experience.

Likewise a sequence at the end of quest-line or event is great, because again, the players has completed their goal and has a lull in that progression motivation.

Those lulls in the progression motivation are the perfect point at which to energise the experience with better cut-scenes or voice work.

Even the best voice-over or cut-scene in the world won't help you if they come too quick and end up frustrating the player who wants to be spending a sustained period progressing their character. Even worse if the player can't anticipate those interruptions and

Likewise you could also remove other elements to help with the process. Move away from the traditional model and don't award exp or progression linked rewards along the way, make the rewards appear less often, but be larger at the end of an experience (as you find to an extent in a game like Dungeons and Dragons online). Then your progression becomes about completing whatever the task at hand is, and suddenly the progression motivation differs.

As a designer you want to try and make the experience as compelling as possible, most often through exposing story elements and provided meaning and context to the progression that provides the player's motivation, but you should also be careful to avoid doing it in a manner that will feel to the player like you are 'getting in the way' of their progression.

A practical example...

So lets imagine a game, a hypothetical MMO. Lets take this hypothetical MMO and see how we might add some content to it. In my imagination it shall be a wonderfully obtuse steampunk western world...because I always dream of making a game in such a setting and will probably never be allowed to craft one...anyway, I digress...back to the example. In our hypothetical MMO there is an area that we would like to populate with twenty quests...and let's be good to ourselves (since the wonderful thing about a hypothetical MMO is that it's budget is also hypothetical!) and say that we have the ability to do a decent amount of voice-work and cut-scenes in this area. How do we best make this content flow?

We have a few options here, we could either do twenty separate one-step quests, or do one really long single quest line, or several chains of different lengths, or a combination.

First up, One really long quest chain is usually a bad idea at that length. Twenty quests gives you room to make several decently sized chains, so lets say we go with that. Nice length, without being too long and drawn out.

Now you have a choice, you have to decide where and how to add the spice of the cut-scenes and voice work. Just because we could do everything, doesn't mean we should, remember what we have bee talking about in terms of progression and the players motivations, so lets look at two possible scenarios for how you could approach your twenty quests that are split into four quest chains of five quests.

Scenario One: The stop / start problem...

You could choose to voice everything, at each stage of these chains. Let's take a traditional approach and between each quest the player visits the quest-giver who speaks to them in voice-over. Your first instinct is always that this sounds great and must add quality. However you will run into a issue here. Given the length of your average quest in a MMO, this means that the players progression will be 'interrupted' by you, as a designer, imposing these dialogues on the experience when the primary motivation for the players, once they start a chain of events, is to see them through to their conclusion. If you are not careful you run the risk of disrupting the flow of the players enjoyment, of their progression, so what about looking at it a different way...

Scenario Two: A better path...

So we have our four quests chains. Each with five steps. Now to me, I want the player to be engaged in the quest, and once they are on it, I want to 'interfere' with it as little as possible. I want the player to feel that sense of progression, but first I want to give them that entertaining purpose and cool moment...so I am going to effectively 'top' and 'tail' the quests.

So first you make one of the cut scenes and introduction to the area, when the player first arrives. Pan around the location, do a nice tracking shot of the area, give a sense of scale, maybe introduce the protagonist that the player will face in that area...set the stage for what is to come.

Then the very start of a quest chain, or the entrance into the area, can be a good point for a cut-scene or some more expansive exposition. You can put more focus here, a little longer dialogue, put a little more effort into a cut scene. Likewise you can use the final 'hand-in' to close out the quest in a satisfying manner. As with the examples in the previous section, I firmly believe that players are not only ok with this, but enjoy it, as long as they know that each of these sequences is a prelude (or closure) to an uninterrupted passage of efficient game-play.

If you manage to set the player expectation, then you can use your available resources in a much smarter way. Maybe even a way that provide an even greater impact.

Then when players are actually on the quest chain, not every step has to be fully voiced. There are numerous other, more intuitive ways to provide exposition of plot of story alongside game-play. Text pop-ups, item descriptions, brief cut-scenes or boss quotes..a designer has a lot of options here. Don't make the player run back and forth between NPCs purely for a stage of the quests update, don't be afraid to have the quest unfold before the player and have them propel it forward (we do after all want our players to feel like heroes, and it has always struck me as slightly counter intuitive to that goal, that we have traditionally sent the players back to another character, on order for that character to tell them what to do! As if the player, a hero after all, isn't capable of such weighty decisions...of course it might make sense for some stories for that to be the case, but not all of them as we see nowadays..anyway...digressing again...)

An MMO might be a much more enjoyable experience if rather than having those traditional twenty diverse, unrelated sets of quests from a given location, you two ten step quest sequences that were 'topped' and 'tailed' with really good cut-scenes or dialogues that provided a context for what was happening, and then used less intrusive methods to update you on progress throughout the actual game-play, and not just sent you back and forth for instruction.

If you follow that principle consistently and effectively create a format that the player can become comfortable with then it might just be possible that you can fulfill both your storytelling desires as a designer, and not fall foul of the mentality that drives a player to want to skip quest text and the like. Don't just view the players choices as errant behavior that has to be corrected, try and understand the underlying motivations and work with that to create the best experience possible.

So while these suggestion use exactly the same mechanics, you should be able to organise ad present them in such a way that allows us, as designers, to craft a more compelling experience, while not disturbing the flow of a players game session in ways they might not appreciate.

The more traditional approach...

Lastly you could of course just do all twenty quests alone, and voice the whole thing, each and every quest gets the full voice experience, and all are independent of each other. Sounds great no? Lots of quests with great voice work, has to be good!

..or does it...

This means you go the more traditional route and had each of the twenty independent (and probably more 'filler' or standard) parts of the quest individually voiced with just an explanation of why they want you to kill x of y, fetch z, or speak to a certain NPC....sound familiar?

...is it really any better just because you voiced the NPC?

...see where I am going with this?

Again, given the length of the average quest in an MMO you will end up falling foul of the 'stop / start' problem again. Then it runs the risk of just ending up feeling a little hollow despite the mechanics being almost identical, and falls foul of the progression challenge.

Quite simply you end up interrupting the payer too often during their experience. You haven't used the potential of voice and cut-scenes to actually drive the player experience. You have just used it to fill into the traditional model in a way that your players might not even appreciate.

To compound matters, from a resource point of view, this last option might even cost far more in voice-over!

More isn't always better, the smart use of resources can often actually create a more compelling game-play experience...

...something I think that will play out a lot more as the genre continues to develop and evolve...

In Closing...

This is something that I really think designers and developers will have to really tackle as the MMO genre develops. I am not saying that my observations are the only point of view (far from it, as always), but I think it is a very interesting discussion, and one that we have all the time in development studios (often without realising we are actually talking about this issue!)

The desire of the designer to entertain and lead a player on a journey will always be slightly at odds with some of the motivations that players find in MMO gameplay. We will design better games when we acknowledge and embrace that, remembering that as a medium, these games rely on the input of the user, and in that respect it is uniquely different from a passive medium like a book or a movie. In essence we have to respect the fact that our audience interacts with our creations dynamically, and that the progression we provide has to be balanced, and be on their terms as well as ours!

I also think that ultimately our players want us to do this. They really wish we could get this right. Maybe I am wrong, and feel free to suitably scold me in the comments for speaking for the players voice, but I have always believed that players genuinely do not have anything against story being more important, or an MMO having better, more dynamic events, even if they can't happen all the time, but they also want us, as developers, to let them get on and play on occasion as well. Players want us to find that balance as well.

All too often I hear designers say 'I want the player to do...' when what we should be saying is 'I want the player to want to do...', that's a difference worth bearing in mind!

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