Monday, June 29, 2009

Quick thoughts on motivation in MMO design

I wanted to take a quick break from my talks on technology and more serious stuff to share with you a couple thoughts I've just had regarding social dynamics in MMOs, and online games in general. I hit upon them reading this article from WebWorkerDaily, which mulls the sociological and psychological consequences of looking for a job in a crowded job market. The basic thrust of the article is that as the number of potential candidates for a freelance position increases, an individual's confidence in getting that position drops dramatically. This immediately reminded me of the psychological effect know as the "Diffusion of Responsibility". This effect is tragically exemplified by the murder of Kitty Genovese, a young women who was stabbed to death on a New York street.

What makes her case noteworthy and tragic is the fact that there were dozens of people who either witnessed the murder or heard it occuring, and yet nobody took the initiative to save her or even call the police. In both cases we see a parallel behavioral trait emerging. In situations where there is a clear goal which requires a active commitment, a persons' willingness to engage is negatively impacted by the size of the crowd present. This is a important effect that designers of online games must take into consideration when crafting both collaborative and competitive scenarios. This may be one of the reasons why random matchmaking is so effective at spurring competition. By limiting the scope of competitors any one player will encounter in a play session, the concept of winning becomes psychologically acceptable.

Collaboration is a much trickier system to balance, but the basic principle still holds true. Smaller teams tend to be far better at organizing to the task at hand than larger ones. This would suggest that systems which allow for high levels of stratification in leadership would be the most successful at promoting collaborative play. The trick comes in the assignment and enforcment of tasks, something which often is a stumbling block for many systems. For instance, Planetside utilizes a highly stratified leadership structure with player groups consisting of squads, platoons, outfits, and armies in order of ascending permenance and scope. Often however, there is a serious lack of organization and discipline within these rather stratified systems because there is very little by way of carrots and sticks to encourage unit cohesion. A top level "general" can demand focus be given to a certain region until they're blue in the face, but without any adequate method of incentivizing that focus, their orders come across far more as a suggestion than a imperitive.

Another factor worth considering is the perceived cost of acting. In most online games this cost is time. If a player perceives a activity with a high desirability but a large time commitment, and another activity with a moderate or low desirability but with little or no time commitment, a large portion will inevitably go with the latter option. From a competitive side, this is one of the big drawbacks to random matchmaking, as it requires all the participants to wait long enough for a match to fill enough slots to be worthwhile. From a collaborative end, it means that when given a choice regarding several available collaborative tasks that will help the team, the trend will be for players to choose the action with the least time cost, even if it is detrimental to a teams' overall chances of success. In the case of Planetside, there very well may be incentives in place, but if it is not immediately and inutitively accesible to the commanding players in a way that encourages its use, then inevitably those palyers will take the route which requires less time and simply rage on the chat channel.

So what are the lessons here?
  1. Keep group sizes small to keep competiton and collaboration fresh and personal
  2. Create stratified levels of leadership to prevent task overload for any one player or role
  3. Be mindful of the impact of large groups and how they can effect competition and collaboration
  4. Ensure that the cost of actions, be it real or perceived is balanced in a way that promotes the kind of behavior that is desired.
  5. Create leadership functions which allow for painless task assignment and role enforcement
Ok, enough with my ramblings. Back to building characters in Flash!


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