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The Slow Seduction of Gameplay
by Ken Williamson on 03/18/14 12:15:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It was a casual status update, or so I thought.

Blizzard had just announced players could pay to boost a newly created character to level 90 – the starting point for content in their upcoming World of Warcraft expansion. I had linked to the offer with a sardonic “Oh Blizzard”.

Within minutes there was a 200-comment thread cascading down my Facebook page.

The core of the fuss was that I viewed the move as the inevitable final step in a long devaluing of gameplay. I and my friends had jokingly predicted it years before, and here it was. The significance of playing a character to endgame had been so diminished that it was finally discarded. For a fee, you could jump straight to the end “where the real game began”.

What others saw as a reasonable convenience we felt to be the last act in a slow tragedy - one whose real drama had played out long before. It was as if a forest which had been reduced to acres of lifeless land through environmental abuse was being bulldozed to make way for a parking lot.

Sure the parking lot made sense now. The trees were already dead.



“Levels” as an approximation for power and achievement began with the granddaddy of all role playing games – Dungeons & Dragons – and turned out to be an enduringly elegant construct. Gary Gygax, the game’s creator, made a remarkably intuitive leap when he came up with them.

Levels suit the nature of computer games beautifully. Games are software, and software works with numbers. Levels provide those numbers in a robust form. Anyone who has tried to build an RPG knows what I’m talking about. A system without levels ends up with things that are called by other names but which serve precisely the same purpose, only usually not as well.

Levels are also useful in communicating game information to players, being at once clear and easy to understand. If levels aren’t used, something else must be contrived to fill the same role. In the end it often makes sense to just stick with levels.


If the effort is reduced, so is the value. One does not exist without the other

This isn’t simple theory crafting. I worked on a game whose leaders nursed a hatred of RPG systems, and were fanatical about removing all the trappings of them. They were going to create a bold new age of numberless RPGs, and issued design mandates ensuring that happened.

The first thing outlawed was levels. So off we trudged with shoulders back and jaws set to build a leveless RPG world. Years of fruitless iteration and downward spiraling later, they came to the bitter conclusion that levels would be needed after all. Right before crunch they switched to a half-baked level system. It was all too late to save the game, but the failure was a compelling argument for the value of levels.

That value is something that extends well beyond technical convenience. There is an intrinsic link between levels and gameplay that is treacherous to disturb. The value players place upon a high level, for instance, is dependent upon the effort required to get there. If the effort is reduced, so is the value. One does not exist without the other.

This isn’t a function of levels per se of course. At the very least it’s the way human beings are wired psychologically. There may be (and probably are) more profound reasons for it, but the link between effort and value cannot be avoided. This seems obvious but judging by the number of games that ignore it, it musn't be.

Good games play upon and develop this value. Those who have played a lot of games, and especially a lot of good games, have this sense of value honed to a razor’s edge. That is why players will react immediately and passionately to any change that they feel does even subtle violence to the integrity of game achievement. Such changes threaten to undermine the meaning of their entire experience.


...easy rewards were only effective in motivating people to pursue easy rewards


Several studies undertaken by educators in the 1990’s showed that when people were offered easy rewards, they developed the habit of choosing the easiest possible task in any scenario. Rather than progressing to overcome more difficult tasks, people motivated with rewards began avoiding difficult tasks altogether. The surprising conclusion was that easy rewards were really only effective in motivating people to pursue easy rewards.

This use of continual reward to motivate behaviour has been termed control through seduction. And it just doesn’t work. It is also disturbingly familiar for anyone who plays games.

It has become a mantra of modern game design to reward early and often. When RPG’s first began, maximum level was around 10. Leveling as a result was meaningful. Gaining a single new level brought with it significant gains. Levels weren’t just milestones, they were pillars of achievement and represented substantial effort on behalf of a player.

In the modern paradigm of easy rewards, this was too hard and too slow. So the positive feedback loop was boosted by increasing the frequency of leveling. The number of levels was increased to match, with some systems going into the hundreds. Eventually the act of going up levels was so common and easy it became meaningless or worse – it became a chore. The journey which levels represented had been deconstructed so entirely it had effectively been usurped by its own rewards program. Just as the studies predicted, rewards became their own end. And so here we are.

The truth is levels are not really the point. Despite the passion on my Facebook page, they never were the point. It is that their slow devaluing is indicative of a much deeper trivialization of gameplay. When in a final act of deconstruction the journey they represent is discarded altogether, games haven’t just been made easier or more accessible; they have been changed into something else entirely.

For many of us, that something else no longer has value.

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Je Ho
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"Gary Gygax, the game’s creator, made a remarkably intuitive leap when he came up with them."

Well, he may have been the first to put them into a game but he didn't come up with the concept of levels representing the experience and power of a character. If you read Jack Vance's Dying Earth or Elder Isles series you can see exactly where Gygax (or Arneson) got a heck of a lot of his material from.

Not that I'm complaining.

Ken Williamson
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I just knew I was going to picked up on something like that! Thanks, I'll check those out (I don't remember reading them).

Je Ho
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You are in for a treat, I just recently found out about them.

Andrew Cheung
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Not sure this is about Blizzard devaluing gameplay for the sake of a quick buck - I'm sure that if they could get away with it, they would *not* sell the level 90 bundle and instead have any new player grind their way through all the content (they would make more money that way)

The analogous scenario in a tabletop RPG is this: you and your friends have played a campaign for oh, let's say, 10 years, and everyone's at level 90. A new friend wants to join your group, and you want to play with them too, but it would clearly be no fun for you or them if you started them out at level 1. So what do you do? You of course create a level 90 character and retcon them into the campaign. Does it devalue the time you and initial group have already spent playing your characters to level 90? I think not.

The level 90 packs are really about being as attractive as possible to brand new players (or long lapsed players) to bring them into a 10-year-running social game - without it, very few new/lapsed players would join/rejoin the game. And as a social game, the more people who can actively play the game, the better for everyone. While some older players would disagree and would rather that their 10 years and 90 levels of effort were somehow 'protected', this would only accelerate the decline and eventual shutdown of WoW altogether - they need to support their decreasing subscriber base somehow ... any other bright ideas? :-)

What *would* devalue the grind of leveling up, and both a bad gaming and business decision, would be if Blizzard sold packs to get you automatically to the end of their *new* content (e.g. jumping straight to level 100)

Ken Williamson
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To reiterate my original analogy, what you have actually done is argue for the value and logic of the car park. It makes some sense, I don't deny that. But only because the abuse of the previous years has already killed all the "trees". Appealing to the poor quality of the land as the basis for the new construction when it is you who have created the land's decline in the first place is pretty rude ("you" being Blizzard in this case, though they are hardly alone in that).

All the damage has already been done because of the slow devaluing of gameplay that the thousands of deconstructive design changes over the past 10 years have wrought. However, I know many people don't agree, and we'll have to just leave it there. As one friend said during the continuation of the same discussion, most of the RPGers have already left WoW. In fact, they left years ago. Those playing it now are playing what is essentially a different game, and good luck to them. I don't begrudge any gamer joy wherever they find it.

Those of us who love and want an authentic RPG experience are elsewhere.

Lance Thornblad
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Not sure I agree with your analogy. It's more like a new amusement park with modern attractions being built next to the old one with its wooden coasters and nickel arcades. The people who enjoyed the old park still have their memories of that experience - and it's still there.

In your analogy, the trees are just gone.

However, I do agree with your sentiment. Lack of emphasis on gameplay seems to be here to stay, at least among the big players.

Ricky Bankemper
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@Andrew Cheung

It should be stated that in your specific scenario, bringing your friend into your DnD campaign at everyone else level is exactly what blizzard is doing here. However, they are charging your friend 60 dollars to do it.

You probably won't get a new player to join the DnD group unless everyone starts a new campaign or he/she joins the current one with an on par character.

If you started a new campaign, you would probably come up with new stories, characters, and maybe a different GM. Most players probably wouldn't want to play through the same story that had evolved before your friend join.

Players grow attached to their characters as well. Some of your group would want to continue on with them. However, You probably wouldn't give your friend a story log and tell him to go through it with a new character. "After you catch up, then you can join us"

The solution is often to just roll the new player a character at everyone else level. However, you are also not likely to give your friend the choice of the story log or a charge of 60 bucks.

DnD doesn't work that way. You can incorporate your old players with new players any way you can think of. In Warcraft, there is only 1 solution: Level up a character.

How do you think players would response to a level slider from 1 to 90 at character creation in Wow?

Ken Williamson
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@ Lance, you made me think pretty hard with this, and it's a good challenge. However, I think your analogy misses the fundamental level of extraction that has happened. In your analogy, the new amusement park no longer has wooden coasters and real nickels in real machines with moving parts, but people play similar depictions of the games on video screens. The physical games have become virtual versions without connection to the reality of the originals. What once happened with our bodies and hands now happens in our heads for the most part. The nuts and bolts have all gone. The amusement park has become an arcade - which is a very apt description, actually.

Daniel Nissenfeld
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The ultimate ruse here is Blizz has been long devaluing the numerical level in favor of other progression systems. The "real game" as it is usually referred to is the gear progression through end game PvP and/or Raids.

There's also the end game faction rep progression. And the pet battles progression and the professions progression and the soon to be released Stronghold progression.

It'd be nice if they upended it all and just eliminated the numerical level because it's essentially just a time investment gating system coupled with a pseudo-tutorial at this point which they've clearly acknowledged is a waste of people's time.

Leveling up indoctrinates you into their systems and lore but it becomes tiresome very quickly which is why there's all kinds of xp boosts available and now a straight shot to 90.

You can't reasonably have a discourse, though, on this issue unless you recognize the fact that the game has innumerable progression systems that exist aside from leveling and attack it from that angle. Comparing WoW to most mmorpgs and D&D fails to acknowledge the fact that if you remove the level progression there's still other systems in place, most of which actually do start at the end of the levels.

WoW has a lot of design faults and a lot of poor decision making over the years but it's disingenuous to make fun of the "the game begins at max level" without actually acknowledging that progression doesn't end there.

Dane MacMahon
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I can't tell you how much the demphasis on gameplay infuriates me in many modern titles. I constantly say to myself "what are they thinking?"

However it's important to note than almost purely gameplay-driven experiences like Minecraft still sell extraordinarily well. The idea that consumers want to skip the gameplay sections to see more story, assets, loot, etc, is largely a publisher or developer creation, in my opinion.

Isaac Knowles
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How then do you explain the broad participation of MMO players in markets for RMT? It seems to me that there is ample evidence of players desire to skip gameplay to see more story, loot, etc. Otherwise, there'd be no such thing as gold farmers and power leveling services.

Ian Richard
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I agree with both you you. I fall firmly into the hate modern lack of gameplay group.

But we can't break everything into what the "Consumers Want" because there are many groups of consumers. Most of the players I know play games because they want to watch a movie. It's about story and voice acting and watching the game beat itself.

Many people use MMO's as a fancy IM service and many more feel that "The Endgame where things really begin". Personally, I don't get it.

But there are many groups of players. The game companies are offering these services is that it makes money. If people are willing to pay for skipping levels... apparently they enjoy a different part of the game.

Ricky Bankemper
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Diversity of quality and broad entertainment value are the causing factors in my opinion.

I can recall plenty of scenarios and reasons I have wanted to skip some aspect of a game in favor of another. In most cases, it was one aspect lagged in quality compared to the other. In my case that is usually the story, but I remember times when I just wanted to get through the rest of the game to finish a story.

Another reason for skipping content is that games offer such a broad scope of entertainment. Certain aspects appeal differently. Some games are too broad for their own good and everything suffers.

Joshua McDonald
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Good article. I think the parking lot analogy works really well when describing things like paying to jump to 90.

I think it was actually a major Blizzard designer who essentially said that if there's a fun, difficult way to get a reward and an easy, boring one, most players will choose the second option then complain that your game is boring (though I question how well Blizzard applies this knowledge).

I'm a big believer in rewarding based on accomplishment, but it definitely doesn't seem to fit modern game design theory.

Anonymous Designer
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I have no idea what you're talking about. Levels 1-90 represent old content that new players are clearly not interested in if they haven't completed them already. Because level 90 is a blocker to the new content, this represents a dilemma of acquiring new players. It's inherent to the model of a persistent world with expansions - you can't just buy "WoW 2". When sequels come out, does it make sense to decry the developers for not forcing players to play through all the prior entries in the franchise? If players want to go back and play them to experience them, GO AHEAD! But don't force your players to.

Sure you lose some perceived "value", but the actual value there is extremely overstated. You can't force people to care. And the whole point is to bring players up to speed so that they can experience the latest and greatest GAMEPLAY that happens to be level gated. Does level gated gameplay not count as gameplay that is valued? Obviously not for the invested WoW players. They are not going to care about level 1 content.

Blizzard aren't the ones who decided "Hey let's de-value the gameplay of the game world as it has existed for the past 10 years". Players don't value it anymore, and you can't force them to. Blizzard is trying to work with that. Way to call them out, really insightful.

Ken Williamson
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I obviously disagree strongly, and believe you've missed the point. I don't know that I can say it any better than I have already, but you are making the assumption that the only way to extend content is to create a situation where you completely invalidate everything that has gone before. That's a Blizzard design ethic (they've just done it with Diablo 3: RoS as well) and it's not the only way to go. It's the result of thousands of design decisions big and small, and they all extend from an over-riding design paradigm that does not value the thing I'm talking about. I'm singling out Blizzard only because their game created the discussion, but as I've said they are hardly alone in doing this. It's been happening progressively across the board for years.

EverQuest's early levels and areas, as an example, never became pointless (though it was uneven admittedly) because there were experiences and items there that still mattered in endgame, and endgame meant something because of the effort required to get there. A max level character in a game like EQ meant much more than it ever did in WoW - even in vanilla - for the reason I've tried to articulate in the article. That changed with the Luclin expansion, because it did the very thing I'm describing here, resulting in massive stat inflation and the subsequent devaluing of previous content.

WoW is a different game, yes. It has become something completely different to what it was when it began. If you enjoy it now, great. Play on. But over the course of its life it has fundamentally morphed into something else, of which the level boost is amusingly indicative. That many don't see or won't acknowledge that and what it represents is in itself testimony to how much has changed.

I understand the whys, I really do. I could hardly do otherwise when I've been forced into designing that way most of my career by necessity. I understand the forces that push things there, and I've listened to the voices that reason it's the only way for years - and for years they have been the only voices being heard. I just believe strongly there are other ways to go, and I'm not alone.

Troy Walker
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in mass markets, you have to design for the lowest common denominator... and their product shows it in the iteration of changes to accommodate this.