Finding of the week #44

Items – the one and only reward?

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I discuss the need for a different character progression system in MMORPGs than just rewarding the players with new items.

One of the main goals in a MMORPG is to develop the own character. At first, new players need to „level“ their characters by completing quests or killing monsters. Each action rewards the player with a certain amount of experience points. „Level ups“ are often rewarded with a new skill, the player can now use with his avatar. During the level phase, the player constantly increases the strength of the own avatar. However, after the avatar has reached the maximum character level, the progression of the character abruptly stops.

Allowing players to develop their characters beyond reaching the maximum level requires an additional game mechanic. Most MMORPGs like World of Warcraft therefore mainly rely on the items a character can wear. On Blizzcon 2013, items were characterized by the developers as the greatest gift they can give to their players.

Items are a great mechanic to progress with a character. Every character has an inventory and can equip different kinds of equipment. The inventory allows an easy exchange between different items: players can just swap out an item to upgrade their avatar.
Additionally, items can change the appearance of the own character. The character doesn’t just get stronger and can deal more damage, the character also starts to look more like an experienced hero protected with shiny armor. In the end, items are rewarding their wielder with two benefits at once.
Most of these valuable items can be looted off defeated enemies, who live in dangerous instances. However, getting the desired item isn’t granted on the first win over a strong enemy. This keeps players interested in the game, because they want to collect these items to increase the strengths of their characters to the maximum. The only way to do this, is to complete the instance over and over again in the hope to receive the desired loot. During this period, developers can create new contents and also new items to restart the whole circle.

Unfortunately, restarting the item collection process has become common among MMORPGs. Since the release of WoW 16 main content addons were released. If I just take one complete set of new items per content into account, a player would have collected about 256 items. Naturally, this is a great underestimate and players have collected even more items over their career.
256 items are already a huge number and after so many different items, they can’t be such a reward anymore. Of course, new items still improve the own avatar and provide the player with the feeling of making some progress. However, every player knows that the shiny new item will be replaced in a few month. Items aren’t that special anymore and a new way of increasing the strength of the avatar would be interesting.

Unfortunately, this isn’t very easy to achieve. Exploring the world could evoke awe for the players, but this will work only once. Same goes for the great feelings after experiencing a big moment in the game. These moments are mostly related to the achievement of completing a difficult task. Like exploring new landscapes, big moments work only once, too. Relying just on the feelings won’t keep players active after they’ve experienced all the big moments.
Rewarding players constantly with new skills won’t work either. In general, most character classes work with a maximum of 10 skills. Moreover, if the player would have too many skills, the gameplay might become to complicated. Additionally, all the skills need to be balanced, so that no combination of skills is overpowered compared to other classes.
Another idea would be the option to build an own house in the virtual world. This house could be decorated with trophies and memories from the adventures. The trophies could be rare and thus requiring the player to complete some content again to keep the player active. However, this system is almost similar to the item based progression system. Instead of equiping the avatar, the player starts to hunt for trophies for his own house.

To wrap things up, keeping players active in MMORPGs needs a simple mechanic, which can be easily updated and which provides the player with a constant feeling of making progress. Currently, no other mechanic than the item-based progress system seems to be capable of keeping players constantly playing the game.