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The F-Words of MMORPGs: Fairness
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The F-Words of MMORPGs: Fairness

July 5, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Fairness comes into play with multiplayer games. Cheating suddenly becomes frowned upon when in competition with other players. But only if some players don't agree with the cheating. When everyone agrees to a specific "cheat", it's not really cheating anymore, is it? It's changing the rules. Changing the rules is very common in multiplayer; creating mods, which are basically changes to game rules, are incredibly popular and gave birth to entire genres and franchises. But these rule changes intrinsically depend on the agreement of all participants. Everyone has to download the mod and choose to use it.

The problem is that there is no structure for change in MMORPGs. There are no cheat codes, no mods, no way to have a subset of people play by a different set of rules. There is one and only one set of rules and if anyone even slightly smudges the clear lines of those rules, all hell breaks loose about fairness.

This sense of fairness affects everything from PvP class balance to PvE raid progression. And, of course, it affects the in-game economy.

Nowhere is this economic fairness more clear in MMORPGs than in the rate of progression. MMORPGs tend to be based on a very simple formula: time = progression. Most modern MMORPGs are not particularly challenging. They're just time-consuming.

The utter distillation of ease of play in World of Warcraft gave birth to the term Faceroll, sheer numbers in EVE Online gave birth to the Blob, and all of them have given birth to a huge multi-million dollar industry of gold farming and power leveling.

The math is simple. Time = progression. Time = money. So, logically, money = progression, right? Yes. Absolutely. Anyone who tries to rationalize otherwise is just plain wrong. So why the outcry about gold farming?

On a fundamental level, it points to a major flaw in the game design. If you're willing to pay someone to skip through a game for you, that's a good sign that you're not enjoying the game, and if you're not enjoying the game, then the game is bad. To a game's developer, buying gold or leveling is akin to telling them their game is so bad, you'll actually pay money to avoid having to play it.

"In almost all RPGs these days, that grind mechanic has been repeated in every facet of your virtual life to the point of, for at least me, distress," says Richard Garriott. "Slice the game any place you want and you'll find that exact same game mechanic used over and over again. What you're really doing is having people spend time. You're making them waste time in order to level up."

So why do games keep going back to the grind? "If you look at Ultimas in general -- not just Online but Ultimas in general -- Ultimas have very customized storylines. A customized storyline is very expensive to build and takes a lot of time and effort. To do 10 more, and 10 more, and 10 more, is something you can create algorithmically, and it works very well. So as much as those hard core 'role-playing' gamers in us might complain, the level grind works astonishingly well."

So the grind is inescapable in game design, and players will pay to skip past it, but where's the unfair bit? Is it really "unfair" that some people spend months getting to level 50 and others spend money? Is it unfair only because the game doesn't officially sell you the levels and some shady third party is doing it? Or is there some inherent sense of fairness in actually doing the grinding yourself?

When Turbine brought Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online over from a traditional subscription model to a hybrid free-to-play model, the developers had to face this sense of fairness straight on. Cardell Kerr, creative director at Turbine, describes the process:

"When we did our migration, there were definitely moments of concern, on all sides. No one wants to break their baby. Each of these games is based around certain designs that were meant to go in a certain way. But one of the things that we ultimately gravitated towards was time. That was it. Pretty much everything was always about time.

"With that in mind, it's kind of us trying to give players two different sides of how they can progress in the game: either they can spend the time and go off and fight and participate in the natural game mechanics themselves, or they can spend the money in order to not spend the time doing those particular things.

"With that in mind, and applying that to what we see in each of the games, it didn't have as large an effect as you might have thought. I guess the reason for that is, under the hood, it has really always been about the amount of time that the player has available to them to participate. The difference that we really saw has been that people who didn't have the ability to participate at that level of intensity have suddenly become more competitive. Suddenly, they can make the most of what time they had to spend, as opposed to spending time gathering resources or finding weapons or gear."

Cardell has a unique insight that most designers don't have. Most designers only have a sense of how their players might react, only a few vocal forum posters to give them insight into the way their entire population feels. To most designers, selling content-skipping seems like an inevitably bad idea. But Turbine actually did it, braced for the storm, and found it never came. It turns out that most players don't actually find it unfair.

Ever since the Turbine games went free-to-play, instead of seeing the storm of blogs hailing the coming of the F2P apocalypse, I've seen just the opposite: article after article about how F2P isn't so bad after all.

So what happened? Where did the doom and gloom go?

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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