Incentivizing vs Limiting

As I see things, when designing games, systems, or anything that involves human interaction and choice, you are always trying to get certain outcomes or results. With games and MMOs in particular, we usually like to have options on how to go about doing various tasks we want to do, and we want to be successful at it. Lately, it seems I’ve been having a lot of conversations about how to get players to act as desired after. In WAR, this is healers who DPS, or Tanks who DPS, or players who solo queue for scenarios, or ignore other players who need help. But this activity happens in all games, it was the Dirge/Troub in EQ2 who wanted to do more dps and neglect their debuffs. In WoW it (perceived) to be Shamans and Paladins who wanted to DPS instead of heal. Sometimes the games change to accommodate these other desired playstyles, making all paths viable, other times, games cut divergent players off by hard-limiting possibilities. Of the two choices, I always prefer the former.

As a player who loves freedom and choice in his games, I never like to see absolutes dictated to its players. Oddly enough, most Westerner’s are the same. It’s why open-ended, non-linear games like the Fallout, Fable, and others along the same line are being released more commonly from game-studios based in the Americas and Europe, while linear Final Fantasy and other JRPGs continue to come out of the East (and anyone who play FFXIII knows it went even further that way). I dislike artificial zone walls and invisible barriers around ledges, I want to stand on the edge of the stone bridge in Kadrin Valley’s Iceheart BO, and know if I take another step, I’ll plummet to my death. It defies the logic of the situation, breaks immersion, and detracts from the virtual world as a whole.

Similarly, I don’t like to see what a player can and cannot due dictated in absolutes based on some current status. It’s part of why I dislike the stance mechanics for Shadow Warriors and Marauders so much, and also why I dislike the shield/two-hander requirements you see on tanks. These are all forms of limiting game design, where instead of creating a situation that the player would seek to optimize and use the best tool for their situation, they are left with less choice. I prefer the route of incentivization.

For instance, Shadow Warriors have three stances, one based on long-range shooting, one on mid-range shooting, and another on melee abilities. In stead of creating hard limitations that don’t seem to make sense based on the needs of the career, create adjustments to each of the stances to make the player want to use them for different situations. When I want to shoot someone from far away, I want to make sure they keep their distance, so why not give a chance to proc a snare in the stance? When I’m using my mid range stance, I want to be able to stay mobile and quick, so why not give me reduced CC times and a speed increase? When I’m using my melee stance, I want to be able to take a hit and not melt when something looks at me cross. Oddly enough, this is the stance in-game that has come the closest to providing a proper incentive to be used, if more of the stances were to follow the pattern of Assault, there would be a lot more freedom in choice and variability in play.

I don’t mean to come off as railing on about Shadow Warriors in particular, it’s just a good example of the design philosophy, and I’m very familiar with the situation. You could look at Iron Breakers and have the same realization. They have a number of abilities that require two-handers, Cave-in is the most often lauded foul ability, but the Blackguard Spiteful Slam ability is just as guilty. The first requires a two-hander the second requires block (thus a shield), instead of creating abilities that ONLY function based on a certain item used, why not scale it to be more favorable to that item instead? So, instead of the knockdown on Spiteful Slam scaling with hate, cause the damage to scale, and knockdown to last 3 seconds if a shield is equipped, or the full 5 seconds if not.

Changes like the above create variability in the career, without denying a class of a useful skill. It also gives players something to really think about when they decide how to play their class. Do I want to use my two-hander and be far more open to damage and more of a drain on my group, but be able to really take someone out of the fight for a good while, or do I wear my shield, giving my healers more time to focus on the rest of my team, but be less of an asset in controlling the enemy? The reverse of the situation could be just as well determined to be the better set of choices to make, but the key is that nothing is artificially denied to a player, and that instead, they have to make earnest decisions about how they want to play.

The more decisions a player needs to make, the better off a game will become, as it will lead to less predictability and repetition. The idea is very similar to that of those often presented in sandbox v. themepark discussions. Increasing freedom gives the players more control, but potentially more difficulty. Limiting options makes things easier, but takes away from the players decision-making process.

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5 Responses to Incentivizing vs Limiting

  1. Sylow says:

    While i fully agree that i prefer more options, i find that in this case you are applying criticism where it is not justified. Comparing it to other games, Warhammer gives us way more options. The “defensive” DD is viable up to some degree, so are the DD-tanks and DD-healers.

    Also, your Shadow Warrior or Marauder example is not the dramatic limitation you claim it to be. Both of the classes can still use all abilities available to them, they only have to switch stance or mutation. With no AP cost and no GCD on them any more (as i was told), this is not so severe a limitation. A Swordmaster or Blackorc is more restricted in his options at any time, and still i don’t consider those classes to be badly restricted. (Only the Engineer and Magus, if the proposed changes come true, will be tied to a pole with limited movement range in the future, but that’s a different topic. )

    Considering that WAR is a class based system, it gives us a lot of options. Since it has several classes, it also needs different class mechanics, and i agree that some mechanics deliver a much higher benefit than others. (Combustion vs. stance dancing, the one makes you stronger, the other requires you to work harder to hang on. ) Thus yes, from a balance point of view, the rewards of the stance mechanic should be much higher, but that was not what you were aiming for.

    Thus within a class based system WAR gives us as much freedom as possible, i see little options to allow players even more freedom without breaking up the classes. Doing that would also require to remove some class mechanics. (Who’d want to stand against a fireball throwing melee healer with axe, shield and heavy armour? ) So as long as we’re speaking of classes, balance might be an issue, freedom is not.

    Despite all of this, i can agree that you have limited freedom in WAR. But this is not due to the classes. When you play WAR, what options do you have? Basically they are:
    – running a PvE instance (if you still need gear from one)
    – doing Scenarios (if you still need tokens for scenario weapons)
    – joining RvR (if you still need renown)

    Every player basically is in the same rat race. Make renown, get better gear. (When done with one char, rinse and repeat on your twink. ) With WAR being PvP oriented, you’re forced to improve to stay in the competition, and with RR80 taking ages to achieve and the corresponding gear even longer, the rat race is a very long one. Do anything else than the given options and you’re basically falling behind.

    This is actually where WAR, just like most other MMOGs fails. The same old cycle, grind to get a higher rank to be able to wear better gear so you can grind to have a higher level so you can again get better gear. And all of this just not to fall behind other players. Any freedom you try to take for yourself weakens you and thus is disregarded by most players.

    That’s the beauty of good old Guild Wars. Within days you are max level and have gear of the same properties as the oldest veterans. You can PvP with the best of them without having to face unfair odds, win and loose fully depends on how clever you set your character up and how well you play him. You sure can also grind for hours, but all the grind won’t make your char any stronger, all you gain from it will be better looking equipment. (Which indeed is a good reason for many players to do it. Your spectral transparent sword might not be any stronger than the shoddy bent sword of the guy next to you, the same applies for your crown and his dented helmet, but all the bragging rights are on you, especially when wearing gear which is well known to be very hard to acquire and thus proving that you’ve beat challenges where others fail. )

    This concept basically doesn’t force you to do anything. Enter the game, level your char in little time, do whatever you like to do afterwards. Unfortunately it seems like many players by now have a problem with that. They want to be taken by the hand, they want to be told each and any step to take. Thus, the demand and expectations of the audience demands less freedom in the games. (From all i know, Guild Wars 2 will be much closer to “present” MMOGs, means more guidance, more grind, less freedom. )

    The players looking for actual freedom are rare and getting fewer every day. While those who want rails to move upon and nice colors to cover their daily grind (but please don’t remove the grind, they wouldn’t know what do to without it) are getting more any more. You can blame WAR for offering content for exactly this audience. But you’ll have to blame almost any MMOG on the market then.

    • shadowwar says:

      I think you missed by point a bit. Like I said it’s similar to the sandbox/themepark discussion that is so popular among those in the hobby, but the application is different. And your response, while clearly passionate and considered from your end, doesn’t really apply specifically what I was talking about.

      Perhaps another way of phrasing it would be this: I want an employee to finish their portion of a job. I’ve budgeted 40 hours of his man-hours to this, I could tell him that he HAS to finish it by then, but if he gets it done 8 hours early, he can do whatever he wants with those 8 hours. OR I can not tell him, and when he’s done, I give him a new probject, but if he goes over the 40 hours, I discipline/fire him. The first instance is incentivation, the second is limiting with negative stimulus.

      The same concept can be seen in the Shadow Warrior/Marauder stance systems. Instead of providing bonuses for wanting to use the stances that make the decision more impactful, it’s an all or nothing boolean type result. Creating a system of gated abilities that are necessary in various situations. Regardless of the difficulty of particular mechanic, the design limits the capabilities of the player at a moment instead of providing different incentives OR disencentives.

  2. Sylow says:

    I am well aware of your point of view. I know what you mean, the SW is harder to play, so playing it well should pay off. Or at least not punish you for choosing this class over an easier to play one. But that’s not a matter of freedom but of balance.

    • shadowwar says:

      Perhaps I’m focusing too much on the example of the Shadow Warrior.

      Forget the mechanic. The situation is, when something that a career has available to it is, is denied wholesale by another factor, that is a limiting design choice. The complete negation of access to the ability go perform something based on an external factor, is one I do not like. Take reactionary abilities compared to positional-variant abilities in WAR.

      As an example, the Blackguard has an on-block Knockdown and WH have an ability that lets them make an anytime attack, except that if it’s used from behind, it ignores armor. Design wise, the WH ability has FAR greater freedom of use (as it’s never restricted), but it becomes optimal when used intelligently. So, instead of restricting the use of an ability through artificial means, instead create incentives to use said ability when those conditions are met.

      I’m not trying to talk about the SW/Mara careers in particular. I’m not trying to talk about any career in particular. What I’m trying to focus on here is the advantages of creating freedom in playstyle over arbitrary design elements that inhibit choice.

      • Sylow says:

        Then again, is it really this kind of freedom we want? Anything can be used any time, only when used at the right situation it’s a bit better? I consider both variants allright. The WH thingie gives him a bit more damage when he’s positioning him correctly. (Or rather: works at reduced efficiency when not used properly. ) The BG can knock down when he reacts in time, which can be deadly when used properly. (A knocked down healer doesn’t heal and dies, for an example. ) That the knockdown too often fails due to one or another immunity still sticking around is a different issue.

        This is simply a matter of variety. Else i could ask, why can’t my WP use the attack which deals damage and removes a buff when the target is not buffed? (But using this ability is rewarding, removing a shield of heal effect equals several times the damage of a simple attack. )

        We both are looking for more freedom in the games, but while i am looking for it in terms of in game activity, you’re taking a look at the abilities. And with those i have little problems, in my eyes it makes very much sense that many abilities are situational and can’t be used or have reduced effectivity when the necessary conditions are not met. If the reward for those conditions is adequate to the conditions is quite a different matter again. If you have an ability which can only be used within a short timeframe after a condition is met, then the reward for using the ability within the timeframe should be adequate. But this again is a balance issue, in my eyes.

        So i guess, our point of view is just too different here.

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