Rewards are a hot topic in the WARniverse at the moment, as Mythic tweak XP and renown rewards for various activities and the MMOG-o-blog-o-sphere chip in with their suggestions.
Over in my all-action day job of (to use the technical description) “software-y stuff”, one of my favourite essayists is Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software, and he’s also been looking at rewards. And that’s Quite Interesting, because Spolsky’s point (or Robert Austin’s point, that Spolsky illustrates) is:
…incentive plans based on measuring performance always backfire. Not sometimes. Always. What you measure is inevitably a proxy for the outcome you want, and even though you may think that all you have to do is tweak the incentives to boost sales, you can’t. It’s not going to work. Because people have brains and are endlessly creative when it comes to improving their personal well-being at everyone else’s expense.
Now, to massively over-simplify and generalise for a moment, the desired outcome for the MMOG company is “people giving us money so we can buy speedboats”. After the ill-fated “give us money for no reason” campaigns, I believe the generally accepted model is “keep people subscribing to our game (and therefore giving us money so we can buy speedboats)”, and the main reason people subscribe to the game is because they have “fun” when playing (I would’ve said “only reason” rather than “main reason”, but amongst others there are probably a bunch of sociologists using MMOGs as valuable study tools for various personality disorders). So the desired outcome for the MMOG company is to “make the game fun (so people keep subscribing to it (and therefore giving us money so we can buy speedboats))”. And that’s a bit of a problem, as “fun” is much like “obscenity”, in that it’s highly subjective, everyone’s opinion differs, and about the only test is “I know it when I see it” (also, obscenity can be lots of fun, but let’s not go there). Worse still in MMOGs, everyone’s fun overlaps. A frequent complaint on MMOG forums is that a change to something is a “nerf”, and causes their character to “not be fun”. Obviously this is insanity on the part of the developer, right, because no fun equals no speedboats? Except for one player “fun” is making a little bar on the screen go up as fast as possible, and for another it doesn’t matter how fast it goes up *so long as it’s faster than everybody else*, and for Geoff fun is utterly dominating in PvP, destroying all that come near without being scratched, and for Jeff fun is a long, evenly matched PvP contest where the final outcome is secondary to the struggle.
Back to the problems of measuring performance, then, the desired goal is “fun”, you can’t measure that, so incentive plans won’t work. Except, in many MMOGs, the incentive plans *are* the game, the gaining of XP, renown points, gear, loot, badges, titles. Not universally; much less so as you move towards “worlds” rather than “games”, most obviously Second Life, and EVE neatly avoids pigeonholing as it so often does (possibly because getting the players to be “… endlessly creative when it comes to improving their personal well-being at everyone else’s expense” *is* the game, not an unfortunate by-product). Back in the comfort zone of WAR and WoW and their ilk, though, the balancing act is to pitch the rewards so that they work for as many people as possible, so if Eric really likes fighting other players and Derek really likes shiny things, you hand out shiny things for fighting other players, Eric and Derek are both happy. Though Neville, who likes adventuring in PvE dungeons with other players, is miserable because everyone else is PvPing… Tobold posted an interesting moving cheese suggestion that might keep Derek moving around, with P0tsh0t adding a neat game mechanic possibility for it in the comments, though I’m not sure of the overall long term effect on Eric and Neville.
More specifically, and a clearer “incentive plan”, there are the rewards for taking part in scenarios in WAR. Desired outcome: “fun”. Very broadly, I can think of three main types of “fun” in scenarios: winning (and only winning), putting up a good fight (even if you lose), getting rewards (mostly XP and renown points). Different people value each of those more or less (or not at all), the aim of the incentive scheme is to get all three pulling in the same general direction. One possibility would be to only reward scenario wins, that would surely encourage everyone to fight as hard as they can to win, right? First problem, 50% of scenarios are instantly “not fun” for some players (unavoidable if they care only for winning, but I suspect this is a smaller factor for many people than rewards). Second problem, if a team are losing a scenario 200 – 50, you only need a couple of people to think “not going to win this, might as well lose as fast as possible to get on to the next one”, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with added bickering in scenario chat, spoiling the fun of those who want a good fight. If you really want to encourage that, you can also hand out a fixed reward for losing; “hurry up and lose I’m just here for WSG marks” anyone?
So to discourage leeching and reward people for pulling their weight, you want a system that rewards contribution, but how to measure contribution in a scenario? Worse still, a scenario in a class-based MMOG? Perhaps the best (or at least easiest to gather) metrics are healing and damage, but those are still flawed with no way to measure “good” DPS play (e.g. using your debuffs and crowd control abilities, sensibly targeting the most important enemy players) vs mindlessly spamming the nearest enemy target with whatever spell/ability comes to hand, or healers keeping an eye on the whole scenario group, carefully applying appropriate buffs and heals vs picking a tank and following them, spamming any available heal as soon as the green bar moves even slightly. Speaking of tanks, how do you quantify their performance? DPS is viable for some builds, but for others do you reward damage taken? Cue reward-driven tanks running around in their pants trying to get killed as soon as possible, as many times as possible… And of course all these measures focus solely on the other players, whereas most scenarios have goals like capturing flags, holding objectives or Killing Dudes (With The Thing). Can you reward sensible strategic scenario play? Defending a flag can be very important, maybe you should give renown points for being in the vicinity of your flag? Sure, if you want both teams to stand next to their own flag while watching telly…
I’m not sure precisely how WAR hands out XP and renown points; damage, kills and healing factor in there somewhere, but rewards are also shared with the rest of your scenario party (a sub-group of everyone in the scenario), presumably to smooth out intangibles like tanking, focusing on scenario objectives rather than just killing other players etc. This, in turn, has lead to rather a hot button issue, leaving the default party to solo in scenarios, a somewhat thorny problem. It’s not AFK-leeching or anything, you still have to heal/damage/kill to get renown, so why shouldn’t you be fully rewarded for your efforts? Well, you’re screwing over the poor tank who’s keeping your arse alive in order to do all that healing/damage in the first place. But you’re also more than justifiably not sharing rewards with some useless smeghead who’s just running around and shouting “LOL!” a lot behind you. It’s certainly galling to be stuck in a group of fluffmuppets who are getting XP and renown solely from your brilliance (though I suspect on numerous occasions, *all 12 people in a PUG scenario* think that’s the case), but in the absence of a perfectly fair reward system I prefer to err on the side of group friendliness.