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MMOs: Just a Matter of Time?

This week's Game Design Challenge is to create a time-limited MMO, but just what are the reasons to limit time spent in an MMO? There's more at stake than you might think.

Simon Ludgate, Blogger

September 2, 2010

9 Min Read

Today's blog is inspired by the Game Design Challenge about time-limited MMO design. The challenge focuses on the issue of MMO addictiveness and people spending too much time playing online games, challenging designers to create a game that limits the time users play.

However, the challenge presents, as an example of this sort of design, a link to a Final Fantasy XIV blog post about that game's XP limiting system. The shocking thing is that FFXIV's XP limiting scheme has NOTHING to do with limiting the hours people spend playing the game! So what's going on?

Before I take some time to talk about the issue in the design challenge, I need to step back and take a larger look at a relevant topic: how to measure player success in games. You might be thinking I'm going way off on a tangent, but it's actually quite relevant. How relevant? Well, take a look at Simon's Hirearchy of Success in Games:

Simon's Heirarchy of Success in Games

(most respected means to success)






(least respected means to success)

My theory is simple: if you have to measure "success" among different players, you basically do it with one or more of these five measures. The higher up the list, the more other players respect that achivement of success.

To achieve success through skill, players must themselves be better than others. Skill is generally the measure of most competition-based success, such as the fastest runner or the best chess player. Players in most video games are also measured in skill, such as first-person shooters and real-time strategy games. Skill even plays an important role in MMOs, such as the best PVP teams or the top raiders. Players can generally improve their skill levels by practicing a game - that is, spending time on it without a strict in-game reward for that time (such as XP).

To achieve success through time, players must simply invest time in the game. In most games, this means putting real life time into a game by playing it. The more time a player spends playing, the more they succeed. There are alternatives, of course: accumulating skill points in EVE Online obfuscates time-based success as players don't have to be online to gain points; however, it does have time-based success in so far as the longer a player plays (and pays) the more skill points they accumulate.

Ultimately, the basic principle of "leveling up" is exemplified in Progress Quest. In PQ, you set up a character (much like in any traditional MMORPG) and... that's it. The "game" plays itself and you level up just by running it for a longer period of time. Ultimately, most MMOs have a strong time-based component: everyone can viably level up to the maximum level just by spending time playing the game.

Luck, Money, and Cheating are other ways to achieve success, but they aren't really relevant to my post, so I won't really pay any attention to them.

Playing Fair with Time

Anyways, this long tangent is meant to let me talk about Time as a measure of success. Time is a crucial measure in MMOs when it comes to leveling up. In order to balance the game and make it feel a bit more "fair" to all players, some games limit the amount of time you can spend progressing, or otherwise tweak the progression rate to give a bonus to players with less time to invest in the game.

And so we finally get back to the topic of the MMO Game Design Challenge: the examples of time-limited gameplay presented in the challenge are designed to level the time-based success playing field and have NOTHING to do with limiting people from playing the game itself. To think that players of FFXIV will stop playing just because they can't earn experience points anymore is ludicrous. Earning XP is only a small portion of the actual game: there's a ton more for players to do. Be it crafting, harvesting, looting, questing, socializing, or just meandering about, players who want to stay online won't log off.

I'm not going to stop at arguing that MMOs aren't limiting players play time, I'm going to argue that MMOs actually encourage spending more time playing. From a business standpoint, an MMO wants its players to spend as much time as possible playing.

Click Here to Keep Playing

MMOs are inherantly social games, and as has been argued previously, social bonds are far stronger at retaining players than anything designed in the game itself. The longer a player plays, the more likely they are to build stronger social bonds with other players in the game, especially if they aren't building social bonds outside the game. Likewise, the more a player spends in a game, the more likely they are to require out-of-game friends to have to play the game in order to spend time with their "addicted" friends.

I dropped in the a-word here in scare-quotes because it's not really a relevant issue to this particular discussion. A game that is designed to be consumed continuously - as most MMOs are - do not have to be addictive in order to feature players who spend every free moment playing the game. I won't argue that some players do become addicted to online games, however they seem to be very few and very far between and often affected by other psychological or social problems. The point, however, is that playing a game for many hours a day does not necessarily indicate addiction.

Seeing as most MMOs are designed by profit-seeking companies, they have to be designed with money-making in mind. Limiting the time that players can invest in becoming successful helps make money by pacing players and forcing them to spend a longer period of time in order to achieve success. Likewise, trying to enforce time-based fairness helps encourage more players to take part and play the game. However, trying to limit the time a player actually plays a game, as is suggested by the Game Design Challenge, is counter-productive to the goal of MMO design.

Case Study: World of Warcraft

Since I'm making bold statements about profitability in MMO, it seems worthwhile to examine the obvious example of a profitable MMO: World of Warcraft. The Game Design Challenge instructions do happen to mention WoW's rested-XP system, how it used to be a penalty (you start with 100% XP gain and it drops to 50% after a time) and got replaced with a bonus (you start with 200% XP gain and it drops to 100% after a time). Does this limit gameplay? Nope. Actually it doesn't really acomplish much of anything at all, because it only applies to the XP you get from killing monsters, which becomes irrelelvantly small at higher levels compared to the XP you get from completing quests.

There's another case of imposed limits in WoW: dungeon lockout timers. Players are prevented from doing the same heroic dungeon more than once per day, or the same raid more than once per week. Is this here to prevent players from being addicted to dungeons an raiding? Hardly. It's a mechanic designed to artificially slow down the rate of loot acquisition from dungeons and raids to keep players playing for a longer period of time, just like systems that slow down the rate of XP gain. It's also in place to gate player progress to make it feel fair, give everyone a chance to advance at the same pace. This was particularly noticible when Icecrown Citadel was added, as each wing (a set of 2-4 bosses) was unlocked after a few weeks, in the hope that every player would have a chance to see the new content at the same time.

So why isn't World of Warcraft blasted for being a horrific source of addiction, compared to many other MMOs (eg: Evercrack)? It's because of its strictly limited use of the luck-based success indicator. WoW certainly has a few luck-based successes (eg: is anyone lucky enough to get the phoenix mount from Kael'Thas?) but they are few and far between and generally limited by other long lockout timers (eg: the week-long raid timer). In contrast, many other MMOs employ a variable interval reward schedule and competition to compound the addictive variable ratio schedule found in WoW.

A Bit of Psychology to Wrap it Up

In Psychology, a reinforcement schedule is a description of the conditions that lead to the reward from performing some behavior. Basically, the variable ratio schedule, whereby some random amount of actions are required to recieve the reward, creates the most high rate of activity and the strongest reinforcement. Variable Ratio is the basis for gambling, where there is a random number of attempts between each win. This same principle is employed in WoW to determine loot drops from bosses. However, bosses themselves are on a fixed interval schedule: you can only fight them once per day or week. So it's like gambling, but you can only place a single bet once per day or week, just like playing the lottery: generally, not considered a harmful addiction because the fixed interval prevents the behavior from denying other behavior.

On the other hand, many other MMOs do not have the fixed interval between attempts. If you can keep killing the boss over and over again, you might keep thinking "I'll get it next time!" and keep playing to kill again and again until you get the item you want. This gets even more problematic when the boss is on a variable interval: a random respawn timer means you can't just log in once a day or hour or however long to kill it, but you have to stay online, watching, waiting for the boss to spawn. This is even further compounded by competition: if multiple players can kill the same boss on a variable interval spawn timer with a random chance of dropping loot, you've got one massive addictive brew (or, as FFXI has found, a massive problem for hacks, bots, and other issues).

Interestingly, the key to keeping addiction down is to keep fairness up: fixed intervals for attempts, non-competition for attempts, and other balancing design can let players feel "secure" that their efforts will be fairly rewarded without having to over-invest time and effort in the game to feel like they have a chance at success.

So! Moral of the Story? Keep your MMO fair and you won't have to worry about limiting the time your players spend playing it!

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Simon Ludgate


Simon Ludgate has worked at numerous game companies, including Strategy First, Electronic Arts, and Gameloft, as well as a journalist and radio personality with GameSHOUT Radio. He recently obtained his Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto iSchool, with a focus on Knowledge and Information Management. His areas of expertise are broad, though he has a particular interest in massively multiplayer online games, both subscription- and microtransaction-based. He currently maintains a blog at soulrift.com and can be contacted through that site. Twitter: @SimonLudgate

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