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Value Maximization as Player Motivation

How does the motivation to maximize value affect the way we enjoy games? How can we design to appeal to players motivated by value maximization? This article looks at this motivation and how it manifests in a number of different games.

Simon Ludgate, Blogger

October 25, 2010

16 Min Read

What motivates you to play a game? How do these motives tie in to the experience of having fun while playing a game? How can we design games that are the most fun possible to the widest range of people possible?

I'm of the opinion that players are not driven by a single motivation while the play games; rather, a wide range of motivations come into play to drive a player forward in a game. Some have a strong influence, some have a weak influence, and some even have a negative influence, demotivating a player and discouraging them from playing a particular game. Thus a player profile is more than a general tag, an "achiever" or "killer" or "socialiser".

In this article I'd like to focus on one such motivation: value maximization. Value maximization is the motive to get the most out of whatever you've got in the game. This could be selling your loot for lots of money, waiting for the perfect weapon before buying anything; holding on to those healing potions for just that critical moment, saving those three rockets for the last boss, making sure no ammo goes wasted, and so on. Basically, anytime the game gives you something, the drive to get the most value out of it influences players to a greater or lesser degree.

Personal Experience with Value Maximization

I am writing this article because value maximization is one of my stronger motivations when playing games. I remember playing early FPS games like doom and continually switching weapons to use up ammo so that when I found ammo on the ground I could pick it up. To me, walking over an ammo drop and not actually getting it because that ammo was full was a traumatic event that had to be rectified. Even if I didn't like using the shotgun, I shot things with the shotgun so I could pick up more shotgun ammo. I wanted to maximize the value of every ammo drop. In this case, value maximization was in conflict with weapon preference motivation.

In games with inventory and currency management, value maximizers generally derive a great deal of fun from the inventory and money aspects of the game, even if they are relatively marginal to the overall game experience. In System Shock 2, I would hoard everything I came across and stash it in one room. I'd truck every research canister down with me and fill the shelves so if I ever needed one I'd have them all in one room. I'd have a veritable arsenal: rows of weapons, ammos, and the like, just in case I ever wanted to switch to one of them. I was frugal when spending my nanites, but eager to train hacking so I could get more bang for my buck from vending machines. Moving from the Vaun Braun to the Rickenbaucher was a difficult moment in the game, because I had to leave my stash behind: I had to make the difficult decision about what I'd take on to the next part of the game. My value maximization motivation was in conflict with my game progress motivation. What I ended up doing was generally suppressing value maximization at this point, and simply picked the best of everything and started using it up, knowing that the end was near.

When I played World of Warcraft, I got lots of stuff while I was on my many adventures. This stuff I would either hoard (and end up rarely actually using) or sell on the AH. I ended up with plenyy of gold (over 50,000) despite never actually partaking in a sort of "gold farming" behavior. This brings up a key difference in motivations: value maximizers are not necessarily profit-driven or motivated by riches. The goal isn't to become rich; the goal is to get the most out of what the game gives you. My motivation in WoW wasn't to farm for gold or to play the AH or to do other activities that gave me money; rather, I tried to maximize the monetary value from the activities I did do. At many points of the game, a certain thing I had hoarded (and rarely used) shot up in price on the AH. I took advantage of this and sold a lot of my supply. Not because I wanted profit, but because that was extracting the maximal value from that item.

Value maximization can also be a demotivating factor, however. In playing games with skill point allocation and no respec function, I often found myself demotivated when I felt I had spent my skill points in a way that was not optimal and I had no way of changing my choices. In many such occasions, I was driven to find cheat codes or game editors so I could "fix" my mistakes and re-obtain the value I felt I had lost.

Value maximization in Online Games

MMORPGs are of particular interest to the value maximizer. They contain three key elements for extracting value: loot, market, and scope. In many MMORPGs, players get loot even when they're not trying to get loot. This could be gathering a node while you're doing a quest, getting a rare random drop, or other such chance encounters with items. Even vendor trash can be an interesting gameplay element, as players must decide which items to carry and which to throw away, determined not only by the value of the item but also whether or not it can stack and whether or not players expect to get more of it. Coming back to town and selling that vendor trash and getting more money for it can be rewarding, however minor the actual monetary amount.

The second element is market. A market allows a player to derive an actual monetary value to everything: how much money would I get if I sold it? How much money would it cost me to buy it? Thus, whenever a player gets anything, they have to decide which of three actions to take: keep it, sell it on the market or to a vendor, or discard it. A player would want to keep it if they feel that they can extract more value from the item than its monetary value alone. For example, if a player loots a herb that sells for 1 gold, but with that herb that player can make a potion worth 10 gold, then it is more valuable to keep the herb. The player might not make the potion right away if they're storing in volume (if you can stack herbs to 20 but potions to 5, then you can store 4 times more herbs than potions!), thus the player need not generate the immediate maximal value from the item. Likewise, the player might not be able to make the potion yet (just 10 more skill points!), thus the player may store it in the hopes of extracting further value in the future. Likewise, the player may be engaging in market speculation (it's only worth 1 gold now, but it will be worth 100 gold next patch), and will store the item until its market value goes up.

Of course, players generally have limited inventory space. This is where a strong market in a game determines whether value maximization becomes a motivating or demotivating factor. The stronger the market (meaning that it is easier for players to buy and sell items for as close the same price as possible, as quickly as possible), the more stable the value transaction of a market sale is. This is to say: if a player has something they want to have later, but cannot store it, can they sell it now and buy it back later? The lower the cost of this sort of market dealing, the more a player can suffer the inevitability of having their inventory filled and having to sell some of their lower value items.

The third factor is scope. By scope, I simply mean that MMORPGs are generally designed with interactions with other players as a core element of the game, and that this applies to all elements, including those that affect value maximization. For example, in many MMORPGs players cannot engage in every crafting profession. In WoW, players can only pick two. In EQ2, players can only pick one. In FFXI, players can get every craft to 60/100, but only gain 40 more points total after that (thus only get one craft to 100). The result is that players must deal with each other, either directly or through a centralized marketplace, to obtain everything that can be obtained through crafting. In EQ2, if you want a weapon and some armor, you could craft one but have to buy the other.

One of the interesting dynamics of scope is that it creates very different value levels between the first two choices (do I keep it or do I sell it). To a weapon crafter, ore is valuable for keeping, but thread is not. To a tailor, thread is valuable for keeping, but ore is not. Thus players will want to trade the components they get and cannot use for components they can use; this trade usually goes on through a market system of selling the unusable components to get money, and spending money to buy usable components.

Thus in crafting do the three value maximization elements come into play in the strongest sense: players obtain crafting components while playing the game (loot), cannot use everything they get (scope), and exchange the items they cannot use for those they can (market).

Case Study: Final Fantasy XIV

I want to apply this examination to a recent MMORPG that has given me quite a bit of frustration as a value maximization motivated player: Final Fantasy XIV. Final Fantasy XIV has one of the more interesting crafting systems, mainly because every piece of loot is a crafting component, there are so many things to craft, and many crafts require large lists of sub-components crafted by other professions. To a value maximizer, this is titillating: everything is potentially valuable to someone! As soon as you start getting random loot on your adventures, you start to wonder how much a leatherworker will pay for that sheepskin and a goldsmith will pay for that ram horn. When your inventory fills up, which do you toss? Do you think you can sell that stack of 12 moko grass to a weaver for more than you can sell that stack of 12 limonite to a blacksmith? For the first of the three key elements, loot, FFXIV shines brightly. It's loot-heaven!

But in the other two, the game falls flat.

For scope, there seems to be no limiting factor in crafting. So far, it seems like every player can take every craft to the max, given enough time and effort. Thus, for every item looted, a player has to decide whether or not they will use it themselves or sell it to others. Even with a relatively generous 160 units of storage, players quickly run out of space, particularly because very item in the game also comes in four varieties (base, +1, +2, +3) and, if you want to keep them all, they take up four times more space. You know you'll be able to use those cotton bolls in three more levels of weaver, and those dodo skins in two more levels of tanner, and those bronze nuggets in four more levels of armorer, but you can't store them all! So, you're forced to limit your crafting endeavours not by game design, but by inventory limits.

The market in FFXIV is weak, which further frustrates value maximizers. There is no centralized market in FFXIV: you have to look at each player's bazaar to see what they're selling and what price they're charging if you want to know what something is worth. If you want to sell something, you have to put it in your bazaar and hope that someone interested in that particular thing happens to look in your bazaar. With several thousand players on at any given time, the odds of having your bazaar looked at are absurdly low. Thus, even if you are selling an item at a competitive rate, it may never actually sell because no one might happen to look at your bazaar.

A further challenge is that crafts require subcomponents made by other crafters. Note that, when someone wants to sell something, they only want to sell it if there's a demand for it. However, that demand only occurs for a sub component when someone wants to craft the item that requires it. Players cannot indicate their desire for a sub component, because in FFXIV you can only place a "buy order" for an item that you already have. But if you already have it, why are you buying it?

The key part of the market from a value maximization perspective is the rate and stability of transactions: if you're selling something for the lowest price, you want your item to sell before anything else sells. In a centralized market like an auction house or broker system, where all items available are listed together and sorted by price, you are relatively assured to sell your item first (unless someone undercuts you). However, in a decentralized system your sale is not necessarily seen by every potential buyer.

The value maximizer needs to exchange goods rapidly in order to continue maximizing value of loot: they need to sell stuff at least as fast as they're getting it. If you loot 30 items to sell, you want to sell all thirty. The longer it takes to sell the items, especially if you cannot sell them all at once, the more frustration arises with the game. You want to be playing and having fun in the game, but you can't, because your bags are full.

Again, it's important to stress that the value maximizer is not necessarily profit-driven. Their goal isn't to flood the market with cheap goods, to undercut everyone else, or to make as much money as possible. Rather, they want to extract as much value as possible from every item they obtain, and this often means liquidating them for as high a price as can be obtained in as short a time frame as possible. This is to say: a value maximizer does not want to be selling items; they want their items to be sold. The time that it costs to conduct market transactions becomes lost value; to the point where the best value obtained for items actually becomes vendoring them, because that is simply so much faster and capable of handling a much larger volume.

This may lead the value-maximizing player to ask why they're even playing an online game, if they're not engaging in a market with other players. They cannot craft goods to sell, they cannot sell components, everything is just for their own use or the vendor. Decisions about value that would otherwise interest and stimulate the value maximization motivated player are nullified by an oppressive market system designed to foil any effort to actually exchange goods with others.

Designing for Value Maximizers

When developing a game, keep in mind that value maximization as one of the motivations your players may have. Stimulate this motivation. Even if you have a simple single-player game, provide your players with some sort of limited resource to manage. If you have a shooter, add some rare special ammo that makes value maximizers try to decide when the best time is to use that ammo. Add some sort of inventory or currency for players to play with: consider Capybara's Clash of Heroes and their use of unit choices and money as a minor side-element (it wasn't really gameplay limiting) that nevertheless stimulates value maximizers.

If you have an inventory system, give players interesting choices to make about what they store in that inventory. Offer them many slightly different weapons so they can chose which ones to keep and use. Present them with many different but sufficiently rare consumables so players have to decide how much inventory to put aside for those, how many to keep, and when to use them. Consumables such as potions that give a temporary boost in stats are an absolute delight for value maximizers to play with, with a generally low overhead cost in game balance (provided the boosts are sufficiently minimal).

Crafting systems are also a wonderful way to add motivation for value maximizers. By filling your game world with things that are otherwise junk but adding some crafting recipes to turn those things into valuable items, you have produced a whole landscape full of potentially interesting objects for value maximizers. However, avoid the trap of designing crafting recipes to include many extremely common items and one extremely rare item; this makes crafting an uninteresting value proposition, because the common goods are worthless without the rare good, and easily enough obtained after the rare good is obtained. Instead of assigning value to the world's goods, they're simply ignored as junk until that one rare item is obtained.

When developing an MMORPG, keep the three value maximization principles in mind: give players plenty of loot, implement a scope that makes much of that loot only valuable to other players, and implement a strong centralized market so players can exchange that loot to others. A rich crafting environment, especially one where sub-components are made by other players, is a very strong way to stimulate value maximizers; however, this only works if the market infrastructure allows players to trade those goods promptly. Consider the FFXIV problem above, and how much better things would be if players had an EVE-Online style market, where they could not only sell goods, but also indicate the desire to buy goods. Cross-crafting components are challenging to sell to an open market, but very easy to sell to a market of declared buyers.

As always, value maximization is only one of many motivations that will drive your players to play your game, but I think that by stimulating as many motivations as possible you and ensure your game will be as much fun as possible to as many players as possible (and get you as much money as possible!).

You can read more of Simon's musings on his blog at www.soulrift.com.

(edit: oops, tried to fix some typos and clicked delete instead of save. Wish there was a confirm dialogue on that button!!!)

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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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