MMORPGs, Purple Pixels and Gamification
There is more to being social online than just Twitter and Facebook. Virtual worlds and multiplayer games are as much a social platform as a Facebook Wall is, and historically just as engaging. MMORPGs have been big business for over a decade, both in popularity and in revenue. Combining a social platform with a game is a proven business model, and it is no surprise that many startups are adding game-like elements to their products. This trend even has a name: Gamification.
A Bribe by Any Other Name
The author of a MMORPG blog called Tobold’s MMORPG Blog has covered a lot of games since he started blogging, often with a focus on social engineering and the part it plays in influencing player behaviour. In one of his recent posts, Woot! Bribery!, Tobold discussed an incoming update for World of Warcraft (WOW) which is meant to encourage players to change their behaviour to benefit the community:
“Call to Arms is meant to lower wait times by offering additional rewards for queuing as the currently least represented role. To be eligible for the additional rewards you must solo queue for a random level-85 Heroic in the role that is currently being Called to Arms, and complete the dungeon by killing the final boss.”
The developers called this bribery. Despite their use of such a pejorative word, the idea is in line with structuring gameplay and rewards to create a particular sort of community and player interactions. This theme is one of Tobold’s favourite topics to talk about on his blog. In WOW, Guild Wars, EVE Online and many other games, the best rewards and the most impressive gear can only be achieved by tackling the toughest content in groups. One of the apparent issues in WOW is some kinds of characters are rarer than others. The Call to Arms update is meant to encourage more players to play the less popular classes and allow more people to play instead of wait for a group. How this change actually affects player behaviour remains to be seen.
User behaviour is an emergent property of any software system and as such can be very unpredictable. How the players in a game react to social engineering can be unpredictable, and sometimes not what the developers intended. The space MMORPG EVE Online’s player run event, Hulkaggedon, is a good example of how players can subvert existing mechanics.
EVE Online’s existing deterrent against incidental PVP in high security space, where the aggressor loses their ship to invincible NPCs, is countered by player donated prizes and recognition, encouraging the assault and destruction of normally safe players in defenceless spaceships. In this case, a cost to an action created by the game is cancelled out by a reward created by the players, which is enough to change the behaviour of a large enough part of the community to have the event reported on Massively, a prominent MMORPG news site.
Gaming Rewards and Motivation
As different as MMORPGs can be and as varied as the risks and rewards are, they do have a few things in common, such as linear progression through skill points, or levels, or gear, or all of the above. These badges of progression have value in the game because the world is both persistent and social.
Epic items, high levels and cool Guild or Corporation titles give status in the game. It is the social benefit of these virtual goods that motivates players to acquire them. Gamers participate in boring, grinding tasks for the reward. That the word ‘grinding’ exists and is used at all indicates how effective virtual rewards are for changing behaviour.
Why the Grind, a Game as a Second Job
Rewards in the form of gear or levels work well in MMORPGs. The skills needed to play most MMORPGs is trivial compared to many other games, and the biggest factor in how much content the player can experience is tied to their avatar’s power level. Constant progression ensures that the player is almost certainly able to succeed, eventually. As a result, some content will always be unavailable until the player reaches a power level that allows them to complete it. Tying rewards to progression attaches a cost to being a part of a group. To play with a group, the player needs to be able to participate in the same content.
This motivation to ‘grind’ also drives Raid Interface Mods (to make the game easier), Real Money Trade (RMT) for in-game items, powerlevelling services, botting and many other ways to get rewards without having to play the game. Rationalisation for this behaviour ranges from wanting to keeping up with friends, not wanting to get booted from the guild, or getting to a level fast where you can have ‘fun’ at the ‘end game’. These rewards the players chase have value for a number of reasons:
- Unlocks more content
- Allows player to accomplish ingame goals
- Marks a valued acheivement
- Provides a social benefit
There are a number of moderating factors that affect the perceived value of the rewards to the players. Items that are easily lost or consumed are valued less than those that are permanent. A piece of gear in a game with permanent item loss and almost unrestricted PVP does not have the same value as one in a game where it can’t be destroyed. Rarity also counts, as well as how likely the player thinks it is that the item in question will be superceded or nerfed in the next patch or expansion.
Social Media, MMORPGs and Gamification
When even search is similar to a Skinner Box, rewards and simple game mechanics appearing in other forms of social media is unsurprising. Gamification takes many forms, from badges mirroring achievement systems from other games (most Steam games, for example) to systems of points or karma awarded by other community members or the platform, such as Reddit and Quora. Even the humble forum post count confers status in some parts of the Internet. Often social networks without a built-in game mechanic see one emerge from the community itself. Twitter has seen a few, from Klout to Littlecosm, a game-like, browser-based interface, as well as follower and list numbers.
Whatever the name, the currency that social networks use or award is ultimately tied to status. As in a MMORPG, the rewards only have value when the community agrees that they do. In a game setting, these rewards are also often tied to the capabilities of an avatar. A ‘Sword of Awesome’ lets the player experience more kinds of content, or gain access to areas most other players won’t see.
In social media, this often isn’t the case, and it does not take long for people to stop chasing coloured pixels once the novelty has gone (such as Foursquare). How well game mechanics work in social media without a clear benefit remains to be seen. The effectiveness of Gamification will be as dependent on designers and developers as on how the community reacts and chooses to respond, subvert or break the mechanics. Handing out cool pixels just for the sake of it probably won’t change user behaviour for long once the newness has worn off.
EDIT: 15th April 5:39pm – Comments attributed correctly as per Tobold’s Correction in the comments