Monday, April 10, 2006

MMORPGs Unfair!

Are MMORPGs unfair to some players?

1. Talking about "fairness" requires asking the question: fairness to whom?

Around whose idea of fairness should a MMORPG be designed? Should the game be structured to be fair to (i.e., to provide rewards to) the smart, persistent, socially connected player? Or should it be designed to be fair to the average, casual, independent player?

Political conservatives often feel that their liberal friends misunderstand the concept of fairness. Conservative theorists like to point out that there's a difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. From their perspective, defining fairness as equality of opportunity is preferable because rewarding effort yields positive results for a society; defining fairness as equality of outcome damages a society because it devalues effort.

Following this philosophy, the optimal MMORPG environment would have equality of opportunity for all players, but would not try to guarantee equality of outcome. Every player would have the same chances to create a "good" character, to fully explore the game's content, to construct high-value items, and to join a guild. And from those voluntary actions, players are free to reap the benefits of smart, persistent, and organized action. "Fairness" means that those who put in the most effort get the most rewards.

Isn't this the situation we have now in most MMORPGs?

I think a good argument could be made that it is. Unfortunately that means MMORPGs also share some of the same pathologies as unrestricted free markets. The Pareto effect, for example, shows up in many MMORPGs with strong player economies because these game economies are designed in part around the conservative "equality of opportunity" philosophy of fairness.

While this works well in the real world (or, at least, as well as any human social effect can work in the real world), MMORPGs don't allow players to circumvent someone else's approach to success by creating their own new approach. Players of a MMORPG can only create whatever kind of wealth the developers allow to be created. So as soon as someone corners the market in a game, it stays cornered until the player either gets bored and leaves the game willingly or gets forced out by divine intervention.

So MMORPGs that embrace the conservative assumption that effort should be rewarded but fail to equally embrace the policy of allowing creative individuals to generate new forms of capital wind up with power law distributions of economic assets. Such game economies are only fair to the first hard-working and highly social people to show up; they are not fair to creative or independent people who show up later.

Posted by Michael Chui:
I think we should elect game developers into positions of political leadership. Especially over the economy.
Oh, dear God, no. I'm hoping this was a joking or sarcastic comment.

The reason we have questions of fairness coming up with respect to MMORPGs is because the efforts at social engineering that constitute MMORPG design are surprisingly short-sighted. The whole idea of MMORPGs is that they're "massively multiplayer," but where's the testing that would reveal how a few smart, hard-working, and organized players can so quickly dominate an entire server's economy?

If a game's economy isn't consciously designed to produce equality of outcome, why should anyone be surprised when a relatively small number of players is able to dominate that economy? If there aren't features imposed that "punish" the hard-working players in order to flatten out the power curve, why be surprised that the average, casual, solo player complains that the game is "unfair?"

Those who practice social engineering in politics (whether from the Left or the Right) are very bad at it. But they're still demonstrably more effective than MMORPG designers, who always seem startled when a few players take over a server.

3. How much of the dramatic shape of the power curve in MMORPG economies is due primarily to their laser-like focus on Achiever gameplay?

When you design a game in which the most prevalent form of reward by far is accumulable "stuff" of one kind or another (XP, skill level or character level, money, loot, rank, badges, etc., etc.), you dramatically sharpen the shape of the power distribution curve.

If you build an accumulation game, the Achievers will come. And they will bring with them their certainty that fairness means rewarding effort and effort alone, and you will get the Pareto effect in spades.

4. Well, what about actively trying to flatten the curve?

If designers placed caps on how much and how quickly rewards could accrue from effort, or defied convention by consciously offering social and exploratory gameplay comparable in power to commercial and combat gameplay, or offered few accumulable rewards, would it work? Would it be a fun game?

Would it be a commercially successful game? Would hardcore players want to play a game where the "weak" and "lazy" and "anti-social" are rewarded?

To what degree should a game's designers stick their thumbs on the scales of justice to enforce their personal beliefs about who should win?

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