The Lessons of Bill the Pony

After taking pretty much the whole month of August off from blogging, I make a couple of posts and Shazzam!, people I read and regard highly are dropping interesting comments on them. I’m feeling humble and grateful to find that there are people I respect who read my blog and are interested enough to comment. It als makes me feel, umm, chatty!

Brian “Psychochild” Green had this to say about “Intrinsic Motivation in MMO’s”:

I think one of the problems here is that for whatever reason, even though people do better in autonomous situations, a lot of people like structure. Many people want to go into a quest hub, grab a bunch of quests, and then follow the instructions (or Questhelper arrows) and then get the reward. They like building a character in the proscribed way.

I think “Psycho” (Cue Bernard Hermann’s violins) is exactly right. People don’t like sandboxes, they want something fun to do. At a minimum, they want to know what buttons there are to push.

But I think that structure can be successfully separated from extrinsic rewards. Or mostly so. Last night on LOTRO has a case in point. I rescued Bill the Pony. I feel great about that, and not because of the quest item I got. I vendored it anyway and got maybe 10sp for it. Not exactly something that makes leaves fall off off trees.

I found out that Bill was out roaming around and needed help from a quest node. But dang, the reward at that point was irrelevant, I would have paid to rescue Bill. In a way, I did, in fact, pay.

Once you’ve found Bill, you need to escort him to safety. And he is pretty much a warg magnet. Classic escort quest, Turbine-style. Bill wanders all around taking nothing even remotely resembling a straight line to the target, all the while popping his own tormenters to add to whatever happens to be spawning at the moment.

I was really glad to be a mezzer, but about 50 feet from “safe” it was too much, and I died. But the quest wasn’t over. I sat there and watched one of the mobs run off, and another chew on Bill, who seems to be rather indigestible. The third still had the heavy damage I’d put on him before keeling over.

So I hit the “revive” button to revive on the spot, and mezzed the healthy one immediately, and then killed the damaged one with what little mana I revived with. I sat around a bit, waiting for some mana and health to regen. Damage the remaining warg, then mez. Stun, damage, mez. Repeat until dead. Once the combat ends, resummon my pet. Bill walks the last 50 feet to the road and I’m done. Wow, what a great experience.

Part of what made that great was the structure. The quest pointing to Bill, the actual escort quest itself, the popping mobs as part of that quest, and so on. (By the way, we had a great guild discussion afterward about which was the best escort quest in LOTRO.) Part of the fun was me doing something that’s off the beaten track. When LOTRO added the ability to revive on the spot (with a cooldown of 2 hours), I doubt they were thinking that anyone would be able to use it in this way. So, I have the extra satisfaction of knowing I pulled something off that is unusual and kind of hard to do.

So, good times.

Was this an exploit? It’s hard to see how, I used the feature to do exactly what its supposed to do. Does it ruin the story? Not really, since in LOTRO terms, I didn’t die, I just got afeard. This time, I pulled it back together and saved Bill. Other times, I pull it back together only to die, I mean run away, again. And dying still incurs repair costs. So it isn’t exactly a strategy.

Ok, can this be packaged in a way that will revitalize MMO’s and make millions of dollars, and have people talking about wanting to copy your game instead of WoW? I kind of doubt that. One phrase I use a lot is, “I’m not normal”. And I mean it. Stuff I like isn’t necessarily mainstream. Game companies have got so good at evoking a Pavlovian response they know which kind of bell goes with which breed of dog. It gets them the big surge of cash, too.

People might start playing because its fun, but they keep playing for other reasons: social connections, social status, and simple force of habit. A good raid loot grind can keep people subscribed for months after they’ve figured out and beat all the raid encounters. That’s money in the bank, under the subscription model, I don’t really expect people to walk away from it.

The fundamental issue is this: It takes a game designer a lot longer to come up with interesting and fun things to do than it takes a player to play through it. When you can get a million or so people to all play it, then you’re getting a good payback, but any reasonable investment is going to have a years worth of game design played out in about 3-4 months.

A lot of the fun of saving Bill the Pony comes from the fact that I know who Bill is, because of the licensing tie-in. LOTRO game devs didn’t have to first explain to me who Bill the Pony is, then let me rescue him.

The other trouble with a very open design is that this is the internet age. Anything that one person is successful with will get imitated 10 million times. We used to call imitation “aping”, but I’m convinced it ought to be called “humaning”. We do it a lot more than monkeys. So what starts out as a clever strategy becomes a killing tsunami.

But the point is that intrinsic motivation (rescuing Bill!) was far more important than extrinsic (the reward that I couldn’t use and wasn’t probably any better than what I have). Here’s a question to ponder. Was Mario64 more tilted to extrinsic or intrinsic motivation? What you got for finishing levels were stars. And satisfaction. Lots of satisfaction. Jumping stuff, sliding down slides. Fun. I’m thinking it weighted heavily to intrinsic. What do you think?

3 thoughts on “The Lessons of Bill the Pony

  1. Aw, shucks. ;) You've posted on my blog often enough, and you don't write too many posts to flood my RSS reader.I don't think you really abused the revive ability there. In fact, I'd bet that Turbine probably did anticipate that type of behavior. I imagine they put it in to avoid those, “Damn it, now I'm nowhere near where I wanted to be!” moments. Admittedly, it's easier for a Loremaster to get back in the action since you can mez an enemy. My poor Champion has to hope nothing notices while I hide after reviving.Your story about Bill the Pony is also very interesting. The associations from the stories make it a lot more interesting for people who are fans. It's an interesting design consideration to figure out how to get that intrinsic motivation without having to rely on a license. Storytelling is probably a big part of it, of course.

  2. On the topic of this int/ext-rinsic motivation:I constantly find myself struggling against the extrinsic reward system. One of my major goals is to turn Norrath into my sandbox, despite the ever-tightening grip of the prescribed quest-grind.One example of a great victory, to my mind, is the time I had Mil, Jio, and company believing a lizardman mob had decided to follow them around and help them battle pirates in Moors. Meanwhile, I remained hidden just over the nearby ridge, or around the corner of some ruins, telepathically commanding my pet to follow and assist them.The ruse finally ended when someone noticed, via the guild window, that I was present in Moors. That episode made for a few heartily embarassed adventurers and a great story. And THAT, in my book, was a far more satisfying night than one spent grinding quests or raiding.

  3. Another thought:Look at the popularity of Second Life! Here we have a TOTAL sandbox which caters to more of a social, non-gamer crowd.If an MMORPG were to incorporate even half as much freedom for individual creativity as 2nd Life does, in addition to the combat system and dangerous beasties, do you think we could afford to cut back on prescribed advancement while still maintaining a sizable audience? Do you think there's a strong enough cross-section of people who would like to play a game like that? Just a musing. I only thought of it 5 minutes ago. Something to ponder though ;)

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