Note: an essay I wrote about reward in MMORPGs – this was around the time I was discovering my research interest in online communities, and beginning to lean into it. Enjoy! PDF is attached.
When Blizzard announced their newest World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) expansion at this years Blizzcon 2019, discussion from the already established playerbase quickly turned to the kinds of rewards they can expect from content. “The main rewards will also be items [to] let us craft legendaries,” one pointed out. “I didn’t have doubts about that but more about the difficulty scaling and relevance of the content/rewards throughout the expansion!” said another. This is because in an MMO environment, players are always looking forward to the next reward; the next mount, the next skin, the next rare weapon drop. To someone who has invested thousands of hours in a single game, these small scale and consistent goals are what keep them coming back. The MMO has psychologically conditioned them, for better or worse, into interacting with reward in a way that benefits the developer. This essay will discuss the Reward in MMO games, and some examples of the way a community interacts with reward structure.
To understand their application in an MMO environment, we should first understand basic notion of reward in video games.As discussed by Jakobbson (2011) in Special Issue – Game Reward Systems, “reward systems have always, and always will be, an integral core component of games”. If you were to take this statement at face value, and assume that by a reward system Jakobbson is referring to an actualized achievement, trophy, or ‘score’ feature, then it would be easy to take issue with the assumption; as many games lack this. Although a system of reward does not have to be a tangible feature of a game for it to function; for reward can be something self-imposed by the player. Intrinsic reward in games is just as important as extrinsic and can function as a system alone with the absence of notable extrinsic reward. Vriend (2017) even goes as far as to classify games focusing on Intrinsic reward as their own category; Intrinsically motivative games, experiences that are without any goal or punishment, saying “there is no pressure and there are no rewards or punishment for participating or not.” The function of MMOs relies on a combination of both extrinsic and intrinsic reward to engage players. For example, Final Fantasy XIV Online (Square Enix, 2015) contains an exhaustive achievement list, spanning multiple categories, but most players will not complete even a half of this before considering themselves personally enriched – activities that players engage in without extrinsic reward include being the first on the server to level a class, or all classes or engaging in roleplay.
However in some cases, players may engage in an activity that does promise a notable extrinsic reward, but without regard for that – wishing to complete the activity to gain personal satisfaction instead. FFXIV introduces quarterly content dubbed ‘Ultimates’, 8 player challenges that are greatly above the usual difficulty of content in the game. Upon beating this fight players are awarded with a title, and a token that can be exchanged for a special weapon of their choice. The fights easily lend themselves to the name ‘Ultimate’, because according to player ferro_maljin speaking on Twitter, “15 hr days (100+ hr weeks) is expected”. Considering that the latest of the fights was beaten in 6 days, this adds up to 90 hours of constant progression on a single fight. To an outsider, its difficult to see why the Ultimate content is appealing, if you were to simply see it for the physical (or well, virtual) reward. However many players see it as the only rewarding content for their playstle. MaidGunner of reddit says that ultimate fights are
“The only content that’s remotely difficult in this game that doesn’t require just an afternoon of practice. Ignoring outside information, it’s also the only piece of content that has actual exploration and discovery on how every step needs to be performed.”
Intrinsic reward is also linked to the social aspects of an MMO. According to Py687 of reddit, ultimate is “Chasing the “next high” I suppose. It’s just new difficult content for our static.”In the context of a game, a static is a group of 8 players who clear most content in the game together on a consistent basis. Finally, putting it all quite succinctly is user bidoofguy of reddit – “I think it’d be like climbing a really hard mountain together with friends? Just a super hard test of endurance and teamwork.”
An interesting take on intrinsic reward is that it is part and parcel with a games design. According to Jackson (2016), “when players first start, they are naturally focused on the obvious: the visuals, the world, the controls, the gameplay – intrinsic rewards”. There is some truth in this, as players, especially those identifying with the explorer type outlined by Bartle (1996), will feel especially rewarded by the level of immersion a world offers. Many MMOs are often lauded for their focus on immersion and world design; and developers often choose to focus on this due to MMOs, MMORPGs especially, attracting a large cohort of casual players and role-players. These players do not engage in aspects such as challenging PvP and PvE and will focus on exploring and story. Green (2018) writes in ‘Why RPers matter for MMOS’,
“I think the most interesting thing about [roleplayers] is that they create content. By acting out stories in your game, they can make the world seem more alive…If a player is an RPer, they this content can be another thing they participate in,”.
Roleplayers find their own reward in MMOs, separate from any content that the MMO world provides to them – as long as the graphics are of a high calibre, the world is interesting and immersive, and they are allowed a large deal of freedom in how they customize their character, an MMO is a prime candidate for role-players, and allows them to glean intrinsic rewards from it in what some may see as an unconventional way.
The culture of an MMO plays a large part in the rewards one may associate with the game; and this community perception may not align with the developer’s intention. Bartle (2016) in MMOs From the Outside In notes that “As a rule of thumb, I’d say that 20% of the culture of an MMO is defined by the designer, and 80% comes from the players.” He goes on to say that a slow paced MMO will have a much different community to a rapid ‘hack n slash’ title – not because they attract different types of people, but because “the physics of each game world and the goals it implicitly embodies call for different human responses”.This seems to suggest that players will adjust their behaviour to the rewards that a game offers them; for example, not expecting to be rewarded with cosmetic items from a progression and combat focused MMORPG, such as Rusty Hearts (Windysoft, 2011). In the context of those seeking intrinsic rewards from a game, i.e exploration and roleplay, the culture of an MMO may turn them off from it entirely – such is the case with Black Desert Online (Pearl Abyss, 2015).
Black Desert is an open world MMORPG, with a character creator that Luke Plunkett of Kotaku dubbed as “the world’s coolest character creation system”. This, combined with some impressive cosmetic items, that admittedly are mostly confined to a cash shop, indicates that the game is a prime location for roleplayers and casual players – but this demographic has been driven from the game due to its extrinsic and alternative intrinsic rewards. Black Desert is a very heavy PvP MMO, so much so that it has open world PvP enabled – meaning that any player can be killed by another, with no warning and for no reason. The game attempts to penalize player killers with a karma system for killing players unprovoked, but this does little other than make NPCs aggressive to the killer; and does not stop them from continuing. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue alone, as of course players are free to play as aggressively or passively as they wish. Despite it being done to death already this is probably a prime time to mention Bartle’s (1996) player types; MMORPGS attract the range from Killers to Explorers, and each has the right to experience a game in any way they choose. But no, there is a problem with Black Deserts culture of reward that community veterans have noticed and discussed on forums – user Grehm of the official forums responded to the question, “Roleplay: where has it gone?” with the following:
“It’s probably because Rp’ers are normally hunted down and killed.”
Perhaps this is the case because Black Deserts developers, Kakao games, have implicitly implied that the goals and rewards of the game are focused around PvP – and going back to what Bartle said, allowed players to adjust their expectations around this, and create a culture where working toward the next PvP goal is the norm. Basic sociology dictates that deviation from the norm is punished and in extreme cases labelled as crime. In words of Becker (1973), “Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders” – and it would be remiss to not give MMO communities the credibility they deserve and deny them the moniker of a ‘social group’. It’s worth asking exactly who decided that intrinsic reward seekers in Black Desert Online did not deserve to be part of the ‘norm’ – was it the PvP focused community, or was it the PvP focused developer? Which came first? And is one exemplified due to the other? Intentional or not, the reward structure of Black Desert has had a direct effect on its player base.
Despite overall being a negative interaction, and a purposeful discrimination of a subset of players, the interaction between Black Desert and players can be viewed as positive; as players reacted in a positive way towards, and actively engaged in, the games reward structure. However, the opposite is absolutely possible – due to a change in rewards, or a community becoming stagnated with a cycle of grind, a community can react negatively to MMO reward structure. A recent example is with World of Warcrafts most recent expansion; Battle for Azeroth (Blizzard, 2018). As is normal with an MMO expansion, players have new content and therefore new rewards to look forward to – but with Battle for Azeroth, players were upset by what the expansion offered; or in some cases, didn’t offer. An article from PCGamer by Steven Messner (2018) sums it all up quite succinctly in the title: “World of Warcraft players are sick of how shitty Battle for Azeroth’s gear system is”. Simply, Battle for Azeroth introduces the Heart of Azerite, a necklace that is integral to gear progression at max level. Many players detested the grind required to get the necklace to its peak attributes, and even moreso detested the fact that a lot of it was based on random luck. And that which isn’t based as much on random luck, such as the Island Expeditions, are “pointless, unfun busy work” (user Qwell on the official WoW US forums).
Island expeditions are boring, but they also provide a guaranteed reward of Azerite at the end. And despite players complaints, as says Bartle (2017) in MMOs from the Inside Out: “Players cant have both excitement and low risk; if they insist on low risk, they’ll pay for it in excitement”.If content was fun, and provided a sizeable reward, then there would be no need for any other content to be in the game. Which would A) lead to an eventual stagnation, and people becoming bored, and B) no alternative for players who do not like this amazing, exciting way of grinding. Kuchlich (2005) refers to ‘playbour’, wherein “in the entertainment industries, the relationship between work and play is changing”. Player choice is essential in creating effective reward, because essentially, rewarding content is subjective.
In conclusion, reward in MMOs is often split between the extrinsic and the intrinsic – the former of which may even influence the latter. It’s been proven that the most effective way to create rewarding content is to engage with the community, who at the end of the day will be the ones engaging.
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