Friday, June 5, 2009

The Currencies of the Realm, Part 2

Ok, so it took a little prodding, two weeks of procrastination, and a weekend obsessing over the nightmare in Iran, but here we go with part two.

In part one I made much mockery of what could be called the standard MMO formula, and especially at issue was the ever present mechanic of grind, which exists for the dual purposes of leveling the players' character and providing a method of generating income. More often than not, this income is used to purchase gear to grind more efficiently. At the center of all of this is the imperative to gain experience in order for the player to be admitted into the next major segment of the games story narrative. Yet at the end of the day, experience seems to a somewhat awkward way to measure someones inherent immersion and affluence in a MMO. Its used as a one-size fits all metric for battle-prowess, story progression, social sway, and worldliness. All its really measuring, however, is how many hoops you've jumped through thus far. But enough ranting, you get my drift.

Experience points are really a holdover from tabletop role playing, a system where the player count is inherently limited and you are constantly under the vigilant guidance (be that helpful or not) of the GM. The job of a good GM is to provide a custom tailored role play experience that fits the current skill level of their players. In a MMO, the presence of literally thousands of players makes the task of such personalized story telling at this point completely impractical. So in order to compensate, the process is abstracted into a framework of preset quests and a environment full of generic beasts and enemies which act as a proxy to the personalized experiences a GM would provide. The core difference of course is that the GM is providing you with encounters as a method of furthering the player narrative, whereas in a MMO its really just used as a placeholder. A excellent example of the kind of bland game play experience this can breed can be found here in a excellent post by Eric Heimburg. Because of this fact, something has to rise in importance to fill the holes in the narrative. It needs to be something that you are striving towards, something that comes with a promise of more. Therefore, experience and level are elevated from their simple clerical function in tabletop systems where it is used primarily by the GM as a method of scaling the difficulty of the encounters. Instead, it becomes the driving force behind player action and in doing so loses what was fun about the system to start with. In some cases it is been taken to ludicrous extremes, such as Jade Dynasty (snarkily call AFK Dynasty) in which you can literally pay real money to have the computer grind for you. Colin Brennan of has a amusing article on this, one which begs the question what is even the point of having a experience system if you are literally giving players every means possible to avoid confronting it?

So how do we create a system that meets the needs of a MMO? What would a system that promoted player interaction, the shifting needs of players, and accurately reflected all aspects of a character's influence? Ironically, the answer is to utilize some good old arbitrary metrics, but to do it more intelligently. Experience points aren't a problem because they are arbitrary, they are a problem because it is a metric ill-suited to the task at hand. So what do we want to measure? To my mind there are three metrics which really encapsulate a MMO experience: Economic Capital, Social Affluence, and Battle/Competition Effectiveness.

Economic capital is an obvious and already implemented feature in the vast majority of MMOs, be it coins, credits, very small rocks, etc. Aside from experience points, economic capital is probably the biggest motivators driving grind. However, its a essential part of any system where a capitalist framework exists. It would certainly be interesting to see a MMO or virtual world attempt to build a system without economic coinage.

Social Affluence is a feature which has at times been used by MMO's, but generally in a secondary role and most commonly only as a penalty system against greifers and trolls. However, such a metric could be used as a reward system for participation in social events, pro-social behavior, and generally any activity deemed to enrich the player community. In many ways this metric seeks to quantify a players contribute and inherent value to the continuing vitality of a community. A few posts ago I mentioned Cory Doctrow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom , a tale which featured a economy based completely of a social capital currency called "Whuffie." Whether a economy based exclusively on such a system is feasible or even desirable is a point of debate, and certainly one Doctrow explores in the book. But there is a definite utility in such a metric.

Battle or Competition Effectiveness is often the most common attribute associated with our old friend experience points. In simplest terms this is simply a metric for determining, well, your effectiveness in a competitive or combat related scenario. Often these are broken down into sub-categories of health, energy, stamina, armor, etc. There's nothing inherently wrong with this system either, but often in games there is a sense of inevitability and linearity that its association with experience imparts.

So up to this point, what's actually new? Not really that much, as all three metrics have seen some use in games. So why bother spell it all out? Because by abandoning the notion of experience points we can get to a core truism of the MMO: all three are really currencies. We don't generally think about them this way, but in fact that's what they are. The reason we don't think about them this way is with the exclusion of coinage, developers and designers tend to treat them in a very non-currency fashion. We can think of the game as a central bank with the power to print its own currency. This currency is handed put arbitrarily and incrementally to players for achieving certain goals, a meritocracy-based pay structure. Its at this point however, once the player has been given possession over their currency, that developers cease to treat it like currency. Players can seldom redeem their experience for anything aside from the promise of increased access.

So what if we did treat each as a full fledged currency from start to finish? What if a player could one day decide to cash in their battle-efficiency and purchase social affluence instead, allowing them to move from a play style centered on battle to one centered on socializing. As long as the developer finds clever and compelling services and products for each currency to be spent on, the market will for the most part balance itself. For a developer concerned about exploitation of the system, all they have to remember is that they control the spigots that allow each currency to flow into the system, and they control the cost of the goods and services. They can even control the exchange rates, should they choose to do so.

By making all these transactional, it allows developers to create activities which give rewards accurate and pertinent to the actual activity, and allows them to create self sustaining player dynamics by balancing the supply, demand, input and output of these currencies through the system. Admittedly, it seems counter intuitive to be able to trade ones physical attributes for money or social capital, but in many ways it fits better than the experience points model. For example, I could go to a blood bank tomorrow and depending on the blood bank, either donate my blood, thus gaining social capital, or sell it. Compare that to the notion that somehow by squishing 30,000 rats that a player is somehow qualified to slay demons. The only real world analogy which works here is that of muscle-building (which might as well be a form of real-world grinding).

This system need not spell doom for storytelling, which is still a vital part of any form of entertainment. Quite to the contrary it gives developers a greater power to influence player action and participation in the storyline. A story could very well roam from the battlefield to situations where social clout is necessary, to sections in which monetary wealth would be of great importance. By granting players the ability to trade between these three currencies, they are granted the flexibility for their character to evolve and grow over time. But as always, with great power comes great responsibility, and developers and storytellers will be harder pressed to create more rich and compelling worlds and story lines should they choose to use such a model. Perhaps for some developers the answer would lie in smaller linear narratives, much in the same way World of Warcraft includes new dungeons with patches. Others may be more ambitious and choose a branching open ended universe model, in which the narrative is defined by a constant set of conflicting choices presented by compelling NPC's and informed by a rich explorable world (Deus Ex was a early masterpiece in this regard). Still others may abandon developer dictated storytelling altogether in favor of creating game play mechanics which cause player-driven interactions to create stories of their own. The possibilities are nearly endless. It really boils down to the needs and desires of the developer. Some storytelling methods inherently are more developer intensive, and each carries with it a set of strengths and weaknesses which should be carefully considered.

After I wrote the first part of this article, a coworker who follows me online commented I was long winded. In retrospect I would have to agree, and hopefully this has been at least a tolerable read. I don't pretend that this system isn't without its problems, nor do I view it as a panacea to cure all the ills of MMOGs. This very well may be completely off base, but my hunch is that the MMO scene is looking for something fundamentally new, and this might be a good place to start.


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