Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Why Items keep players coming back

One of the primary reasons for the popularity of modern day MMOs is their heavy reliance on statistical combat and items. While its not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of your favorite game feature it has a huge impact on player involvement. In most games there is a baseline system for improvement which all players can max out on. Usually this system is comprised of experience points which are used to grant statistical improvements in the form of levels or skills. However, its after this system has been maximized that the importance of items really becomes a factor in whether players stick with a game or leave.

The truth is that even back in the days of text based dungeon games the item centric ones tended to be the most popular. Many a university computer ran a multi-user-dungeon back in the early 90's which players connected to by paying outrageous fees to their phone company. In the midst of such high prices the item (DIKU) based games emerged as the most common type since players stuck with them longer. Just ask any of the MMO old timers or MMOOTS as I like to call them and they can tell you the sordid tale of how the DIKU model took over like kudzu.

The reason items keep players in these types of games is that they form an easy reward system which can be used to reinforce a player's perception of improving at the game. Most players realize that the only reason they are hitting for 50 more damage is because they just won that new sword. However, over time that improvement becomes associated with a player's perception of how good they are in the game and not the item itself. A week after getting the item a player has mentally switched from "this sword really kicks ass" to "my warrior really kicks ass". This does a lot to keep people involved in the game since they feel they are getting better at playing it.

Games that don't allow items to influence the main game system (usually combat) have to depend on actual player skill improving at the same pace as the game's challenges. City of Heroes is a good example where their was a huge disparity between player skill and the game's challenges. At the time of the game's release most of the MMO market were from the hardcore games like Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot. Players from these games had no problems learning how to use the power set system in City of Heroes and quickly mastering it. This fact combine with how easy it was to get enhancements, the only item in the game, created a perception that the game had no challenges. In general games that have no challenges are not considered fun. Thankfully the character creation system combined with high role playing potential kept the game alive.

Ultima Online can also be used as an example though I have less experience with it then the other first generation MMOs. If you back track the history of the game though you can see Ultima Online had very little reliance on items and depended on a fluid skill system. The only real challenge in the game was staying alive since it was filled with dangerous exploits and armies of people who wanted you dead. As soon as the game allowed people to choose to get out of the PvP realm the only real challenge in the game was eliminated. The game bleed subscribers quickly after that since most people found the PvE challenges very easy compared to dealing with the sadistic player killers.

These examples show how hard it is to balance game challenges on something as ephemeral as player skill. With the amount of money MMOs take for their development cycle you can see why most developers would rather tune game challenges to something they have more control over, like item power. Luckily, while developers feel like they are locked into an item based genre they are experimenting. Games like Pirates of the Burning Sea and Tabula Rasa have introduced wildly different combat systems compared to most other games. While neither has gathered critical acclaim it at least proves that item based games don't all have to be based on sword and sorcery combat