Economic and psychological consultant?

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hazek 101 Mar 28, 2011 at 20:43

I’ve signed up to this forums specifically to create this thread and ask this question:

Is it just me or do MMORPG developers usually not hire any sort of economic or psychological consultants in order to get their advice on how to design game mechanics for their game? And if they don’t, why do you think that is?

The reason I’m asking this question is because I like to think of myself as sort of a knowledgeable person on the topic of economics, psychology and online games in general. And I see so many good games that get the gameplay perfectly right, they create this beautiful game world but then they go and screw up in the most essential part of the game - the game mechanics! And by that I mean how your character progresses and what you can do in the game.

Let’s take an example. Maybe you’ve heard of DarkFall before, maybe you didn’t but it’s basically a really beautiful game with awesome FPS action packed game play MMORPG developed by a Greek indie firm Aventurine. It’s uniqueness comes from the fact that it’s a sandbox game without any linear story lines and it’s specifically intended for PVP play with full loot which means if you die, you lose everything you were carrying to whoever picks it up first. The way you character progresses is also unique. As you play and move your character around their game world you constantly use skills such as running, swinging a sword, casting a spell, crafting an armor and as you use these skills you also level them. The higher the level of your skills to better your performance. With running you run slightly faster, with swinging a sword you hit slightly harder and so fort and so on.

Now if you have no idea about human nature and you’re just basically an IT person who knows how to code such a game you could look at this description and see no apparent problem in it. And once you’d launch such a game you’d have no choice but to try and fix problems that would occur on the fly and you’d most often treat symptoms instead of the actual cause of a problem which is a core design flaw.

For instance in DarkFall players soon discovered that leveling skills gives your character a significant advantage in fights. Coupled with the fact that you lose all of your stuff if you die naturally no one would willingly fight with any disadvantage. Hence players started using AFK macroing to get an edge. Now again if you are an IT person besides not understanding why this is happening you might not see the immediate ramifications for your player base if a small groups starts to behave like this so you ignore it until it becomes a big problem. In DF eventually everyone learned that if you want to compete and basically not get slaughtered you better macro your skills. Those who refused got stomped and soon quit, those who didn’t have now 2 years after it’s release such an edge on a new player that I have a really hard time imagining their player base ever starting to grow again.

My argument is that if Aventurine had hired someone with similar or better knowledge in the before mentioned topics like me, even though I could have been of no help of actually coding the game, I could in fact have foresee these problems and suggested adjustments to game mechanics.

Of course you could try to argue that predicting how players will respond to a sandbox game is impossible and that they often behave irrational but I guarantee you they don’t. If you have the proper knowledge in human nature and economics you can fairly accurately predict how players will respond to certain game mechanics and you successfully identify game-breaking mechanics and prevent a problem before it even manifests.

Your thoughts?

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Lokked 101 Mar 28, 2011 at 21:30

The problem with Sandbox games is the whole idea of a ‘Bully’ (or a group of ‘Bullies’) who take advantage of some system to gain dominance, thereby drawing other players into their conglomerate by virtue of their power.

This ‘Bully’ becomes unstoppable. Even by limiting their growth by rejecting new members, this rejection sufficiently brakes apart opposing alliances to the point where there is no point to play against them anymore, thus also removing the purpose of the ‘Bully’.

In Sandbox PvP, disparity is created by rewarding the victors and penalizing the losers. People play these games strictly to feed their competitive nature, and their will to play is gone after several losses with little hope of victory.

Look at Perpetuum Online. One alliance discovered the key to winning the vast majority of the time, and now the game is a ghost-town, consisting mainly of this particular alliance, and a few stragglers who play off-times.

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hazek 101 Mar 28, 2011 at 21:52

It has nothing to do with the idea of a bully or a group of bullies and everything to do with the game mechanics.

Remember it’s a game. A fantasy world that you as a developer designed. You set the rules. If you make a rule that a bully can’t possibly bully someone else he can’t do it. In the real world I can buy a gun and shoot you. There’s nothing to prevent me from doing that. There might be laws but I can choose to break them. In a game if you make a law, the players can’t break them.

And my point is that if you let someone with my insights help you design the game mechanics, such behavior can be avoided through proper design and it just baffles me why it seems like no developer ever seeks such insight.

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Reedbeta 168 Mar 28, 2011 at 22:52

I don’t know about the specific example of DarkFall, but I can tell you from my own experience that in general, game designers are well aware of these issues. Not everyone at the studio is “basically an IT person”. (BTW, that phrasing sounds a little condescending. First of all, coders are not IT people - that term refers to tech support, sysadmins and the like - and second, just because we’re coders doesn’t mean we’re ignorant of human nature.)

Playtesting (with outside players who have never seen the game before) and iterating on a game design is very important to discover issues like this and fix them before the game ships, and this process is considered quite important. It’s not as if people just make up an idea, think “that sounds good”, code it up and release it without trying it out or thinking about ways the players might behave differently than expected. Studios and publishers have an entire QA department full of testers whose job is to see what happens if the player behaves differently than expected.

Thinking about what will or might happen when you let players loose on a given set of game mechanics is a fundamental game design skill. It’s not just about MMORPGs; it’s an issue for all genres of games. Again, I don’t know anything about the specific details of DarkFall or Adventurine. Maybe their studio is lacking in talented designers; maybe they were just new to the MMORPG space and made some rookie mistakes; maybe something else happened. But generally in the industry, people aren’t sticking their heads in the sand about these issues as you seem to think.

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hazek 101 Mar 29, 2011 at 00:03

I didn’t mean to sound condescending but I just wanted to make a clear distinction between those who code the game and someone like myself. And even though those who code the game might not be completely ignorant to this aspect of problems with designing a good game I have to tell you haven’t yet come across a popular MMO that wouldn’t have some major game-breaking flaw that they just flat out refuse to see and fix and if they do they often treat the symptoms instead of the actual problem which doesn’t fix anything.

I understand that every person, not just coders, knows a little something about the way human nature works and the way economies work. But I fear most of these beliefs are superficial without actual study backing them up and often turn out to be futile for the long term success of a game. You also usually can’t detect such flaws during beta testing because not enough time has passed yet for them to already manifest.

On the other hand I have spent countless of hours on self educating myself in these fields and have gained a very deep understanding about them. I’m not saying I’m the only person to do so or that there aren’t other who have an even deeper understanding, far from it, but there clearly is a huge and crucial difference between superficial knowledge and a deep understanding. I mean it’s pretty rare that you have someone that is very good in writing code and has at the same time also spent as much time or more on these other subjects. My bet is that you are either versed in one or the other and almost impossible in both.

Btw I saw that there’s a sticky thread for a guide on how to make killers MMO’s. You tell me that my argument is wrong? Then home come there isn’t a MMO out there that could reach even to WoWs knees in terms of success and popularity? I have a theory and it all has to do with a few game breaking design flaws every developer makes because they didn’t have a consultant helping them take into considerations deeper insights into human nature and economics.

And on that note I think your reply might even be the answer I was originally looking for. Despite fearing I’ll sound condescending again but I think it’s because most developers are apparently very likely ignorant to the importance of this aspect of designing a game and specifically over confident in their superficial knowledge. I bet the first developer with a decent idea with such a consultant helping them design their MMO will have a true WoW killer on their hands.

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alphadog 101 Mar 29, 2011 at 00:38

@hazek

Is it just me or do MMORPG developers usually not hire any sort of economic or psychological consultants in order to get their advice on how to design game mechanics for their game? And if they don’t, why do you think that is?

Let’s start with this. How do you know who gets hired at MMOs? Or, why do they have to be hired staff? Ever heard of consultancy? On what basis do you make this premise? How intimate are you with the org chart of, say, the top 10 MMOs? Can you assert that these MMOs have never used domain experts?

(BTW, I don’t know the answer. I’d be surprised if you do, yet you create the classic strawman anyways.)

Aside from that, humans game systems all the time, both virtual or real. Ever hear of “tax loopholes”? Ever hear of “getting off on a technicality”? What makes you think a psych consultant would create a game that would not be gamed?

There will always be those who play the system and those who play the game.

Furthermore, the more complex you make a game, the more it may turn off people. There’s a balance. There’s always people who crave excess realism, and those that just want to play without having to understand a world as complex as the one they are trying to escape from. Not all games need to cater to the former.

Lastly, “game-breaking” issues are there because MMOs that look “simplistic” to you are actually complex things to engineer.
@hazek

I bet the first developer with a decent idea with such a consultant helping them design their MMO will have a true WoW killer on their hands.

Yes! And, when that finally happens, maybe we’ll call it the “Hasek Principle” to honor the first person to have ever thought of it. Yeah, that was sarcasm. ;)

I don’t think you are condescending. I think you are naive.

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hazek 101 Mar 29, 2011 at 01:07

@alphadog

Let’s start with this. How do you know who gets hired at MMOs? Or, why do they have to be hired staff? Ever heard of consultancy? On what basis do you make this premise? How intimate are you with the org chart of, say, the top 10 MMOs? Can you assert that these MMOs have never used domain experts? (BTW, I don’t know the answer. I’d be surprised if you do, yet you create the classic strawman anyways.)

I checked the credits of several games and never saw that type of a specialists mentioned that I have in mind with this thread.

Aside from that, humans game systems all the time, both virtual or real. Ever hear of “tax loopholes”? Ever hear of “getting off on a technicality”? What makes you think a psych consultant would create a game that would not be gamed? There will always be those who play the system and those who play the game.

Sure I heard of those instances. But you missed my point here. A few individuals trying to game the system are not game breaking. It’s when a significant minority of your player base does it and causes the majority to follow suit when you have a game breaking problem.

Furthermore, the more complex you make a game, the more it may turn off people. There’s a balance. There’s always people who crave excess realism, and those that just want to play without having to understand a world as complex as the one they are trying to escape from. Not all games need to cater to the former.

Using a deep understanding of how players will respond to your game mechanics to properly design them is in no way connected to how complex the game will appear to the player.

Lastly, “game-breaking” issues are there because MMOs that look “simplistic” to you are actually complex things to engineer.

Of course they are complex things to engineer. I never claimed they weren’t. In fact it goes hand in hand with my argument that someone versed in writing such a complex code can’t possibly also have the deeper understandings in human nature and economics. And the more complex they are the easier it is for the developer to make a small but significant game-breaking mistake.

Yes! And, when that finally happens, maybe we’ll call it the “Hasek Principle” to honor the first person to have ever thought of it. Yeah, that was sarcasm. :) I don’t think you are condescending. I think you are naive.

I wish I could get hired by some team and prove you wrong. And this last little bit of your post again gives me an answer to my original question of the thread which is unfortunate.

I wish I had the money to just out right buy a project and help direct it. You might think I’m naive but even though I know MMOs are very complex to engineer I also know that the principles of human nature and economics how ever complex they may appear are very simple to apply if only you have the correct understanding of them.

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hazek 101 Mar 29, 2011 at 01:09

Basically what I’m saying is that if you explain to me the way you designed your game’s mechanics in detail I am able to accurately predict how the players will most likely respond.

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alphadog 101 Mar 29, 2011 at 01:25

@hazek

I checked the credits of several games and never saw that type of a specialists mentioned that I have in mind with this thread.

Well, off the top of my head, EVE Online has an economist by the name of Dr. Gudmundsson. He’s a dean of a school of business. I’m sure you can google the details.

Top MMO are professional productions, and like movies, they hire gobs of consultants: economists, linguists, sociologists and psychologists, amongst others.
@hasek

And this last little bit of your post again gives me an answer to my original question of the thread which is unfortunate.

You insist on thinking devs work in a vacuum when we say otherwise. And, on top of it, you paint my statements in a negative light so as to not have to give them weight… which is unfortunate.

We/they hire consultants, lots of them. If they don’t, it’s because they don’t have the budget for it anyways, else they probably would, and so they settle for more simplistic models and appeal to simpler players.

You obviously have an agenda to satisfy. You are more interested in twisting what people are saying than listening. I hope you are not a psychologist.
@hazek

the principles of human nature and economics how ever complex they may appear are very simple to apply if only you have the correct understanding of them.

Oh, I’m sorry. You are not naive at all. I misjudged you. Apparently, you understand all the “principles of human nature and economics”. Not only do you know this, but apparently you can also direct devs on how to create a simple system in an AAA title that represents those principles. I’m sure you can also do this in a timely fashion, and under budget too!

My apologies. I hope someone hires you pronto. Good luck!

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TheNut 179 Mar 29, 2011 at 02:29

Reed pretty much hit the nail on the head. I’ll only add that you have to have an understanding of software development to comprehend the magnitude of effort involved, notwithstanding both internal and external influences on a project. You could spend your entire life devoted to making the perfect game, or you could simply work with the finite resources you have.

It’s worthwhile to know that your observed behaviour has existed in gaming since its dawn. I can in fact trace that as far back as games I use to play on BBS sites (back when Internet was called Arpanet :). I can tell you from personal experience as a gamer that I have either exploited or twisted the gameplay around so much that the original developers haven’t even thought of. Just know that where there is a will, there is a way.

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fireside 141 Mar 29, 2011 at 02:54

Then home come there isn’t a MMO out there that could reach even to WoWs knees in terms of success and popularity?

That’s more of a social phenomenon. For instance, myspace and facebook got started near the same time but facebook did more right and people tend to gravitate mainly toward one thing. Google is something like that. They weren’t that much better than other search engines, but it was enough that everyone grouped on them. I’m kind of betting that Star Wars, Knights of the Old Republic is going to be very popular just because WOW is getting a little long in the tooth and they’ve got a good company that has put out some big hits and have already done a popular single player game along the same lines. It will either be a huge hit or attract a few, there really isn’t an in between.

Personally, I think it’s talent and originality mixed with luck and a person like you would have very little to do with it. WOW had a hit years back as a single player game. They had the experience and they kept working on it to perfection. It’s just the way our society functions. It has to be a great product, definitely, but it mainly needs to be somewhat new and original and be in the right place at the right time, and be the best out of the competition. I can tell you that the next big MMO won’t be like WOW. That’s been done.

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rouncer 104 Mar 29, 2011 at 04:35

I just care about game mechanics as in more animation type thinking. so I reckon we need better animation techniques and things that make objects move and collide with each other, thats what makes good action games, and action mmo’s are my favorite.

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gillvane 101 Mar 29, 2011 at 13:32

@hazek

Then home come there isn’t a MMO out there that could reach even to WoWs knees in terms of success and popularity? I have a theory and it all has to do with a few game breaking design flaws every developer makes because they didn’t have a consultant helping them take into considerations deeper insights into human nature and economics.

Making a game is more of an art than a science.

Your goal is not fairness, it is fun.

People tend to call features “design flaws” when they dont’ like them. But other people obviously find the “flaws” fun, since they like the game.

There’s plenty of ways to prototype your ideas that don’t involve complicated server architecture and 3d models.

You can do it with a MUD, or a 2d game.