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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 4 of 4

In Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard had the goal of making raiding more accessible to more players. One of the big difficulties, however, was in the nature of gear progression. If you needed Tier 2 gear to go on Tier 3 raids, but no one was doing Tier 2 raids anymore because they were all doing Tier 3, how could you get caught up? Blizzard added the ability to gather tokens from much easier 5-man dungeons -- trivially difficult challenges that merely required a whole lot of time spent farming tokens -- and added merchants that sold gear equivalent to the previous Tier of the current raid zone.

When Tier 4 raids were introduced, Tier 3 gear showed up on merchants, and within days players who had never set foot in a raid instance were as well geared as those who had toiled for months facing the game's toughest challenges.

Players were justifiably upset: why raid at all if you can just wait for the next set of raids and buy your way through the previous tier of content? What did that accomplishment mean when Blizzard would hand it out to everyone a month or two later?

Blizzard faced a fairness dilemma: the new system wasn't fair to the raiders who worked hard on raiding, but the old system wasn't fair to the casual players who didn't or couldn't spend the time and effort raiding.

The problem was that the raid gear progression in WoW used to be skill-based, rather than time-based, progression. Having a full set of raid gear didn't just mean you had invested the time in raiding, it meant that you were good enough a player to overcome those raid bosses.

It was also a huge mark of social status: it meant you were a part of a group that was capable of working together to overcome those challenges. Throughout Vanilla WoW and, arguably, most of Burning Crusade, raid gear was a very impressive status symbol.

Status symbols are valuable specifically because they are difficult to obtain. If you could go online and buy a knighthood for $15, the title "Sir" would no longer be a status symbol.

What Blizzard was doing was thinking that everyone should have the opportunity to have this status symbol and thereby destroyed the very value the status symbol carried. It's basically the Queen going on international TV and announcing "Knighthoods for everybody!"

Still, raid content was very expensive to produce, and arguably some of the most fun content in any MMORPG. It makes perfect sense for Blizzard to want more of their players to be able to enjoy raiding. Blizzard tried to retain the sense of status in a different way: instead of tying it to gear, they tied it to achievements. Blizzard added "normal" and "hard" modes to raid encounters and rewarded players who completed all the hard challenges with rare mounts, titles, and cosmetic achievements.

In theory, this should have worked. In practice, perhaps it did. I was certainly pleased with my Ironbound Proto-Drake. At the same time, I found myself extremely aggravated with "hard" modes after Ulduar, and quit WoW after beating the Lich King on normal. The fact was that I enjoyed playing role-playing games for the role-playing aspect, the excitement of adventure, not the convoluted and bizarre challenges contrived for "hard" modes of boss fights. Although the new achievement-based rewards were fair, they weren't ones I was interested in achieving.

What En Masse faces with TERA is quite another beast from WoW, however. What it faces is the possibility that, rather than simply handing gear out to everyone, making the gear tradable. WoW is not a good example of what happens when rare goods can be traded, since everything of value in WoW is untradeable. Instead, another Asian MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI, can shed some insights on the fairness of trading.

Final Fantasy XI featured "notorious monsters" which rarely appeared in certain locations and had a slim chance of dropping some very rare and valuable gear or crafting material when they were slain.

Notably, gear in Final Fantasy XI did not "bind", so not only could it be traded, it could be used and traded many times, potentially used and reused by many players. FFXI happened to suffer when the gold farmers exploited hacks to gain a monopoly over these rare goods, something I touch on in the next installment, but here I want to talk about the fairness of the circulation of these rare pieces of gear.

If a player wanted one of these rare items, they basically had two options: they could kill the monster and get it themselves or they could save up enough money to buy it. The interesting thing is that, because there were so many possible valuable items for sale, money in FFXI was extremely valuable and meaningful.

Actually earning enough money to buy one of these items was no trivial task; it might actually be more challenging than killing the monster and getting it yourself. So, no matter which route you took to obtain the item, it was an accomplishment. And both routes were inherently fair (disregarding the manipulation by RMT activities).

So when Brian Knox is worried about a player's sense of accomplishment, the worry should come from how these items are introduced to the market, not whether or not they can be bought. If they are flooded into the market to the point of triviality, like they are in WoW, then players will likely not feel any sense of accomplishment in buying them and it will further destroy the sense of accomplishment from those players that do earn them.

On the other hand, if they are carefully introduced into the market through player accomplishment rather than NPC vendors, I think the sense of accomplishment will be maintained because the player who sells the item sets the price; and the price will likely reflect the challenge, thereby maintaining its value.

To summarize the notion of fairness in MMORPGs: grinding and other purely time-based progression mechanics trivialize the value of progression and the sense of achievement from progression; in these cases, the notion of fairness is fairly meaningless and no one really minds when people spend money rather than time in progressing. However, when accomplishments are skill-based, such skipping ahead is very much frowned upon. In order to best maintain fairness, avoid stacking skill-based progression, lest you fall into the trap of no-win WoW raiding.

Fairness is best maintained in a "wide and flat" game design: allow players as wide as possible a set of challenges to tackle and keep each of these challenges as self-contained as possible. Allowing players to "trade" challenge accomplishment, through the exchange of rewards in an open market, is perfectly fair and acceptable so long as many challenges as possible are accessible to as many players as possible, ensuring that everyone has the chance to complete the ones they wish to complete and trade for the ones they don't want to do.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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