A recent post on TMC brought this to mind. It's more of a ramble than anything, and I've deliberately tried to present opposed views for each point as I don't think these are clear-cut issues (nor have I really made my mind up about them). Thus these aren't really "my views" so much as "views I can relate to". I'd be interested to hear other views.
Here are three observations I've made (in general, not specific to any one game):
1) Many players want to reach the top level as fast as possible, and anything that gets in their way is viewed as an obstacle. Even if you lovingly hand-craft each individual piece of content, these players will just grind through it, taking shortcuts whenever possible.
2) Many players will leave once they reach the top level, regardless of end-game content. But the chance of them leaving seems to be inversely proportional to the amount of time and effort it took them to get there.
3) The main reason players seem to hang around after they've reached the top is to keep in touch with the friends they made along the way.
Here are some views related to the above:
Grinding is boring, and muds are supposed to be fun. Too much grind will cause people to give up.
Grinding is necessary, because if players reach the top level too quickly and easily they'll feel less attached to their characters, and will have made fewer friends to keep drawing them back.
You can make content more interesting, but it will always be considered 'grind' to some players, as it stands between them and their objective - reaching the top level.
Botting allows players to reach the top level faster and with less effort, reducing the chance of them hanging around once they get there. It also raises the stakes for other players, some of whom will feel the need to bot just to keep up.
Botting is very difficult to prevent, and attempting to do is both time-consuming and inevitably results in punishing the occasional innocent player. Some players enjoy the challenge of writing bots, and certain bots can actually improve a game by providing useful functions for other players.
You can improve the gameplay by observing what people do with their bots and adjusting the game accordingly. Banning the activity makes it harder to observe.
Multiplaying reduces or even removes the need for social interaction, resulting in fewer friends to keep drawing the player back. If it becomes too common, it can make it hard for other players to find people to team up with.
Multiplaying is very difficult to prevent, and attempting to do so is both time-consuming and inevitably results in punishing the occasional innocent player. If your game requires teamwork and your playerbase is small, players may need to multiplay just to get anywhere - banning multiplay in this situation is addressing the symptom rather than the problem.
You can improve the gameplay for both solo and team play by observing multiplay patterns and adjusting the game accordingly. Banning the activity makes it harder to observe.
Roleplaying, clans, and grouping all encourage social interaction, giving players stronger social ties that are likely to keep them coming back, even after they reach the top level.
Some players hate roleplaying, while others hate relying on other players just to be able to play. Forcing these choices on people will cost you players.
A middle ground seems the obvious choice. But this isn't a silver bullet - there are players who will only play one extreme or the other.
Player-generated content gives players something to do, and it's an open-ended constructive activity that can improve the game for other players. This approach can allow huge amounts of content to be produced in a very short period of time.
Player-generated content usually sucks, and will be abused as much as possible. The more flexible the tools, the more abusable they become. Badly designed content can reflect very poorly on your game.
This has potential, but it's something that needs to be designed with extreme care.
I've personally been intrigued with the "grind" aspect of most games, and am trying to come up with a system that does away with as much as possible (or, at least, make it seem as if it's not there; as you pointed out, it's somewhat necessary). This lofty goal prompted me to think about what makes "grinding" so boring for a player, to which I came up with the following two reasons:
- Repetition. This is arguably the most obvious thing that makes grinding so undesirable. Most games offer multiple ways of gaining experience to try and curb this, but in the end, it's almost always the case that one method is the most effective and that ends up being the method most players use. Some games attempt to defeat this by putting caps or limits in place, effectively forcing you to diversify. For some players this works; however, most that I've observed simply get frustrated because they can't do what they want when they want to (and this is a game; it's supposed to be fun, remember?).
So how do we remove repetition as a factor? I have several ideas, but the one I'm most seriously looking into is rewarding players with experience (or whatever your game uses to determine "level") for pretty much everything. Every action, task, quest, kill, etc. and so on. I'm sure you can immediately spot the benefits and drawbacks to such a system. The major benefit being that rather than compartmentalizing activities in your game (leveling, questing, PKing, and so forth) and forcing players to choose, you are effectively mashing them all up into simply "progressing." No matter what a player chooses to do in his time on your game, he will always be moving forward (assuming he's not simply idling and chatting, of course). The drawbacks are fairly obvious, as well - this kind of system would be incredibly hard to control and maintain. I'm sure it's also open to many more avenues of abuse. But, I remain hopeful that I can come up with something, even if I have to compromise a little in this regard.
Now, this doesn't really "solve" the problem, per se. It's easy to see that all we've done is create multiple uncapped avenues for the players. But, if a player can be progressing without actively trying to progress, I think it's less likely that he will want to grind to begin with. In other words, why do some repetitive task that I don't enjoy to get the same rewards I could get from repeatedly doing the things that I do enjoy?
- No significant intermediate goals. This can be somewhat mitigated depending on your leveling rewards, but for most games that I've played, a single level is not a significant enough goal for players to strive for. This is even more pronounced when your system is set up such that the difference in power/utility of players of different levels is large enough to make "getting to the end" the only acceptable goal. Games with remort/respec systems have intermediate goals (the end of each "class"), which seems to help a lot. I've found that many players tend to reach these goals and stick around for a while, giving themselves a break. They seem to do this because they now have a level playing field with a lot of their peers, and they feel that it's a comfortable stopping point. While I don't particularly like remort/respec systems for other, unrelated reasons, they can help alleviate this particular problem. I don't have any good ideas for how to solve this problem in any other way, and I've given it a lot of thought. The less pronounced a "level" is in your game, the less of a problem you'll have in this regard, but that's not a solution by itself.
I think, ultimately, what it boils down to is finding common ground with a group of other players. Nobody wants to be in last place in the race unless 4 or 5 others are right there with them. This prompts them to grind ahead to "catch up." So, the solution here, in my opinion, is to somehow blur the line between "last place" and surrounding "places". Perhaps each "level" is insignificant in and of itself, but smaller groups of levels (5, 10, 20?) offer larger rewards, effectively subdividing your leveling scale into bite-size chunks.
This is obviously not a comprehensive list, nor does it apply to any and all players. Really, it's just derived from my own personal experiences as well as general observations and input on the games that I've played over the years. Feel free to add to it, or pick it apart.
Edit: I should add that by rewarding experience for everything, I'm really talking about rewarding experience for time invested in the game. I've also thought about linking "level" simply to "total play-time", but then what you're doing is essentially saying "you have to play the game for X hours to reach the end" and I don't much like having a set requirement like that. It also heavily favors the players who have more time to invest. This, of course, could be mitigated in a way that WoW(I think it was them…) did, where experience rewards are increased the longer you aren't playing, but this is somewhat controversial to begin with, and probably not a good idea for games that already have trouble keeping players online.
Grinding Grinding, to me, is a thing born of efficiency - as KaVir stated, there are always people who only care about making it to the top (which is more or less fair since that's how you "win" the game, which is the ultimate point of playing a game). Those people will find it most efficient to learn and use one skillset - usually fighting - to garner experience most quickly and win the fastest.
One thing that can be done to try to keep those players around is to offer entirely separate fields of advancement. This has been done in MUD's (one of the Star Wars codebases I played) and in graphical MMO's (Star Wars Galaxies) wherein your experience for different categories of skills is entirely separated. Someone might kill stuff on infinite repeat until they reach their max combat level, but then see huge holes in their character sheet because your level in crafting items and creating your own marketplace vendor and playing the MUD's strategic mini-game are all independent from each other. This can reduce the ability to bot because each category of experience has different actions that will allow a player to advance, necessitating a new set of scripts for each set of abilities.
A modification of that idea is to use a class-based system with the ability to combine some number of abilities from different classes (I played an old single-player game called Mordor: the Depths of Dejenol that did this addictingly, the free MMORPG DOMO does this, and I presume the Final Fantasy MMO does also). The true min-maxers as well as the true completionists will thus have plenty to do without the need on your end to create content to support ever-increasing levels. You can reduce the ability to bot this way by making each class have some unique combat mechanics, necessitating a new set of scripts for increasing in each class.
I'd like to see statistics for the ratio of time played to 'stuff done' – on other words, for a given player, how much have they 'grinded' given the time they've been online? I suppose you could measure this by experience earned if that's a base enough metric on your game. Then observe where most of the players on your game fall on the curve, and compare this to other games and what types they are and so on.
I've done my share of the grind of course, but I'm pretty sure I'd be at the low end of that curve, and I'm curious about the general distribution.
In any case it seems like we're focusing a lot on the grind, but how big of a piece of the picture is that really?
Off-the-wall suggestion that I have not thought through: suppose you were to impose a time-based level cap? So, you have a relatively small number of levels - 15 or 20 perhaps. Then, no matter how much grinding you do, you can't advance more than one level per real-life fortnight, even though you can acquire the necessary XP in a day. Would that encourage players to slow down and look at the scenery?
It would obviously be problematic in a PvP situation, as you'd have no way of catching up with a higher-level player who was making your life a misery. But in a PvE MUD, with enforced anti-griefing policies…?
On the subject of player-generated content, I'd like to recycle an old suggestion I made over on TMC. The thread was about whether or not it is possible to have a MUD which runs successfully without staff - i.e. one run on a cooperative basis by the players.
In post #134, in the middle of some other stuff about decisions being taken by a quorum of active players, I said this:
Player content-creation does pose some problems, for example with game balance (how do you stop a player from introducing too many swords of uber-maximum-slayingness?) But there are ways around that too; for example, you could have a system where each individual player's realm is, by default, entirely self-contained, and nothing that happens within it can affect the state of the game or of a player's character outside it. Any given player would therefore be free to introduce super-powerful weapons because those weapons could only be used inside that player's zone, and it would be physically impossible to take them anywhere else - they would simply dissappear from the player character's inventory on leaving - and perhaps be restored if he went back inside the zone again. Similarly, the state of a player character could be restored to the same state when leaving a zone that it was in when it entered.
So each individual player's zone effectively becomes its own distinct mini-MUD with rules that aren't necessarily the same as those that apply outside it. (Within one zone you could have a whole different set of spells, for instance, that only work there). At the same time, if a majority or quorum of the community decides that a particular zone is actually compatible with the spirit and balance of the game as a whole, that zone could then become part of the "official" MUD, and would lose its isolated status; so items found within that zone could now be removed from it, and things that happen within that zone now affect the player character's status within the game as a whole.
It strikes me that this sort of system would make for quite an interesting setup even if you don't abandon the concept of staff altogether - MUDs are crying out for a way to allow player-generated content without unbalancing the game by doing it.
In post #153, I talked about the possibility of some form of semi-automated audit of a zone that was a candidate for attachment to the main game. I also said:
There are some possible compromises. For example, you could require that all objects within a zone that is connected to the main game have to fall within certain parameters, and provide mechanisms for creating objects that are guaranteed to lie within those parameters, while also providing non-standard building methods for use in isolated zones. Any given player then has a choice: he can choose to build his zone using the standard, restricted, safe mechanisms (which means, subject to audit, his zone stands a good chance of becoming an official game zone) or he can choose to use non-standard building mechanisms which allow him greater flexibility but which also inevitably doom his zone to remaining forever a self-contained world and never acquring "official game area" status. That seems like a reasonable compromise between balance and creative freedom.
(A very crude way of doing this in LPC would be to insist that all "main game" zones only ever directly instantiate approved main-game classes and configure their properties, while isolated zones also allow the creation of custom subclasses. Or, more nicely, you could define any class that either overrides certain superclass methods or invokes any method on a library class other than a defined "safe" list, as being an "unsafe" object.)