Are we experiencing another ‘Trammel’ in MMORPG design?

Richard Bartle’s compartmentalisation of MUD/MMORPG players into 4 types – Achievers, Explorers, Socialisers and Killers – is well established in the lexicon of those that take an interest in MMORPG design.

Even though every MMORPG player is most likely some sort of combination of these types – a fact seemingly acknowledged in the popular test derived from Bartle’s research – we can probably assume that a majority of players have a tendency to prefer just one type. When we talk about Achievers, we are talking about players that prefer that aspect of the MMORPG experience over the others, but who don’t necessarily dislike the others. Therefore, talking about ‘Achievers’ as a group seems to be meaningful, with the caveat that there is probably no such thing as a pure Achiever.

The perceived wisdom used to be that MMORPG designers should attempt to appeal somewhat equally to all player types, but problems inevitably arose when the enjoyment of one type infringed upon that of the others. Back in 2000, the world of Ultima Online was split in two by popular demand. The PvP-free world of Trammel emerged, and this proved to by far more popular than the PvP world of Felucca.

The legacy of that split lives on today. WoW’s PvE server population dwarfs its PvP server population, and on PvE servers it is relegated to a consensual activity of marginal impact. In LotRO, PvP is relegated to a single zone called the Ettenmoors, which a player is never obliged to visit. AoC and WAR were both heavily designed to provide a PvP-free experience on the assumption that there would be many that wanted it. In recent times, only games like Darkfall, an unashamedly niche title, have attempted to embrace non-consenual PvP as an inherent design goal. Ultimately, I don’t think many would now argue that an MMORPG needs to appeal equally to all 4 types in order to be successful.

Fast-forward several years and there are signs that another conflict between the types might be coming to the boil. Achievers and Explorers have been knocking heads together for a while now, especially with regards to gating of content (yep, if it wasn’t obvious before, this post is yet another outlet for my axe-grinding).

Achiever types traditionally thrive in content gating situations. From launch until recently, WoW contained a fairly strict raid progression requiring much content repetition in order to slowly inflate player stats to the point where higher tiers of content could be attempted. Raiding became a highly competitive activity, not just between guilds on the same server, but between guilds globally. This was all fantastic for the Achiever types, but what about the mass of players that didn’t give a damn about ‘server firsts’, and just want to experience the shiny new content that their subscription dollars had paid for? Explorers undeniably got the short end of the stick during this period of WoW’s history.

The Explorers were forced either to join the numbing grind, or to hang up their hiking boots and call it a day. Somewhere deep inside Blizzard HQ, the chief exit-questionnaire-number-cruncher must have squawked loudly that the balance was swinging too far towards the latter choice, and consequently, Wrath of the Lich King saw raiding accessibility greatly increased. Achievers must now make do with ‘hard mode’ achievements in order to distinguish themselves from the masses, and the masses get to actually see the new content. Time will tell whether this uneasy compromise will manage to appease both camps, but I’ve certainly heard plenty of rumblings from Achiever types that they now find WoW raiding too easy.

In other quarters we have Turbine’s use of Radiance to gate raiding content in LotRO. The masses have spoken out against it, rather vehemently, and it seems like Turbine have had the good sense to get the message. We have been told to expect increased accessibility sometime soon.

So, given that Achievers and Explorers both seem to enjoy raiding, can they both coexist peacefully? Or is there a fundamental conflict between what they both want from the experience? Are we hitting the point where the tide is turning against Achiever focussed content, just as it did against the Killers all those years ago? Will traditional ‘hardcore’ raiding become less and less popular, even niche, in a similar way to non-consenual PvP?

Maybe it can be explained in relation to player demography. If we assume Achiever types have a tendency to be younger, and drift more towards the Explorer temperament as they age, perhaps Blizzard’s changing raiding strategy is simply an adaptation to its changing playerbase?

And Socialisers, what do you think about all this? ;)

12 Responses to “Are we experiencing another ‘Trammel’ in MMORPG design?”

  1. Torvik Says:

    Well you kind of know my thoughts however I will indulge myself and repost some of them because this is an excellent blog post!

    Unfortunately the achievers and explorers are the two “types” that I would imagine are partially exclusive. I wouldn’t say they are mutually exclusive because as you point out the aging MMO population may supply a shift from one to the other.
    A true achiever I would imagine will feel varying degrees of achievement based upon certain factors I am sure you could list. Many of those factors impinge upon explorer activity. I see them as two sides to a set of scales which allows me to sneak in the term “balance!”

    I think that is the holy grail for any MMO designer to provide a fairly even spread for all MMO type players. As we have seen only a few companies have managed to succeed to any degree in this respect. Many choose to announce in advance their bartellian intentions and leave it at that.

    I think you have to play the demographic though and I would imagine the reality is there are more explorers/socialisers than killers/achievers. In what proportions I couldn’t say.

    All that said I am not sure you could classify players in to 4 categories because I struggle to place myself in to one. I like aspects of each. It depends on my mood ;-) I am a libra though which may explain that.

    Oh and I might be tempted to argue there is a bit of achiever in everyone. Human nature and society ensures a little achievement in all of us after all we tend to find it rewarding don’t we?

  2. spinks Says:

    Good post. I always felt that ‘achievers’ wasn’t a great name because explorers feel a sense of achievement from exploring and socialisers feel a sense of achievement from socialising and killers feel a sense of achievement from killing … but I’m pretty sure that isn’t the kind of achievement that Bartle was thinking about.

    The WoW PvP servers are way more popular than most people think. I would have said that PvP was a less popular option in most games that gave it as an option if not for that example. Many of the most hardcore PvE and raid guilds live on PvP servers, for example. They just seem to attract the more competitive players, who are also the more achievement minded. But I suspect it’s not because they all adore PvP, that’s just how it worked out.

    I think there is a shift coming though. And it is a shift to redefining achievements in a way that includes more for the casual players, the explorers and so on (not so much social players because a heavily social game would probably have its achievements based more on popularity and votes).

    You may be right about it shifting with the age of the playerbase :)

  3. Green Armadillo Says:

    Is the Radiance grind an achievement-difficulty-gating requirement, or a time-gating requirement? I had not understood the content to be challenging per se to a raiding guild, just frustratingly time-consuming.

    I do think that the reason why we’re seeing a shift is that the numbers don’t support creating exclusive difficulty-gated content anymore. Unless you genuinely believe that everything Blizzard touches turns to gold, the diffence between the size of the MMORPG market before and after WoW is because the genre now accomodates players who cannot promise to arrive on time and not go AFK in the middle of a dungeon run. The thing is, the solo-PVE questing style requires much more original content than the oldschool method of putting a bunch of mobs in a zone and figuring that players would make their own fun chain pulling them.

    Though I’m not directly familiar with LOTRO’s radiance requirements, devs feel the need to force more and more time-gating because they’ve simply run out of time to make more content. It has become obvious that certain recent incidents – e.g. LOTRO’s radiance and Warhammer’s ward system – actually pushed the time-gating far enough that players quit instead of grinding through. It’s less clear what they can offer up instead.

    • unwize Says:

      Radiance is a little bit of both. Many of the hard modes are manageable by the majority of the end-game playerbase, but one or two, notably, Gurvand in the Dark Delvings, are tuned high enough to test the most dedicated of players. Most players dissatisfied about radiance state that it is the amount of content repetition that bothers them, though I suspect that the Gurvand fight is also a skill/coordination barrier for many.

      Of course, Turbine have a habit of making hard modes more difficult after the hardcore vanguard have passed through them, meaning the slower casuals are faced with the much more daunting prospect of grinding out more difficult content. Turbine are about to repeat this by patching the new book 8 instances, proving once again that hardcore (time rich) in LotRO is actually easy mode.

      I agree that some level of content repetition is necessary in a subscription based game in order to keep people around and paying, but as Blizzard seem to be showing, it’s possible to give the majority access to the content while still finding things to challenge those that can play 50 hours per week.

      Indeed, Turbine initially seemed to be in the right track with their hard modes and instance clustering, but their big mistake was to gate a highly anticipated piece of new content behind a tedious grind. If the new raid had modest access requirements, with optional hard mode challenges, as in WoW, then they wouldn’t be in this mess.

      The question is, have Blizzard found the right balance? What do you think?

      • Green Armadillo Says:

        I think that Blizzard has managed to illustrate just how difficult it is to keep up. Wrath launched with entry level raids that were tuned perfectly as entry level raids. The issue is that they were the ONLY raids that were ready for launch, and many guilds that were NOT so time-rich ran out of stuff to do.

        It took them almost six months to roll out Ulduar, with its touted hard modes that are suddenly cropping up in all of the other group PVE-focused games. My impression was that this dungeon was in about the right place, in that the combination of hard and regular modes meant that most guilds had something they could be working on for most of the 3.1 patch cycle.

        Then 3.2 came around, and they just didn’t have time to whip up a full-sized update. So, they put a few bosses in the middle of a one-room arena “dungeon”, gave 5-man content access to loot 2-3 tiers above what had previously been available, and called it a patch.

        It will be interesting to see how this flies on the high end. For me, on the low end, the gear inflation is so precipitious that I no longer see a point in working towards upgrades. I’m going to literally fall into some of them just from doing stuff I was doing anyway, and the rest will apparently be replaced in six months anyway. I’m not sure that this was the effect that Blizzard wanted. The scary part is that Blizzard has presumably the industry’s biggest production budget. If they can’t keep up and have to just offer bigger bribes every 6-8 months to get people to keep reusing old content, that does not bode well for games with a tenth the US/EU subscribers and the same monthly fee rates.

  4. Kairos Says:

    Turbine’s gating problems are largely down to three facts. First, the absence from “Mines of Moria” for a very long time of a well-designed, multi-stage instance equivalent to the justly very popular Rift of Nurz-gashu in “Shadows of Angmar”; players of all types, particularly of course Achievers and Explorers, had been clamouring for another such instance for months. Secondly, when it did arrive in the form of Dar Narbugund, it turned out to be restricted to those with a high enough radiance count (i.e., severely gated). Third, and fatally, there is essentially only one route to achieving the necessary radiance, namely repeated runs of 3, 6 and 12-man instances, some of them prohibitively difficult even for reasonably competent groups (in particular the infamous Dark Delvings, v.3). The crucial difference between the Rift and DN is that the gateway to the former was much wider, in the sense that though reasonably high-end gear was necessary, this could be acquired in a number of ways, including crafting.

    • foolsage Says:

      Agreed.

      Any reasonably well-equipped lvl 50 could go to the Rift. Equipment could come from questing, crafting, or item drops (i.e. the auction house). Back in SoA players could explore and enjoy all the content without being forced to grind, well, anything really. The shift to raid-gating content is surprising and disappointing to me, although I do enjoy LotRO’s raids and continue to spend time in them.

  5. jdw Says:

    I don’t really buy the idea that achievement/exploration is tied to age. Myself and a number of my friends have been playing MMOs for about a decade, now; we’re all in our early-to-mid 20s, and we’ve all maintained pretty similar ideas about how to approach MMOs as time goes by. The guy who was a PvP nut in UO is still a huge fan of PvP and is definitely achievement-oriented. I was a socializer-explorer from the beginning, and I remain one; I never got last level 65 or so in Asheron’s Call, because I spent 90% of my time talking to friends or wandering around the game world. In LOTRO, I’ve run most of the rad instances once and never again — and don’t have a single piece of gear to show for it.

    As for the “solo-PVE questing style” mentioned in the previous post… well, yes, but I think some of that could be alleviated by catering to explorers. After all, those of us who want to explore game worlds are less interested in the quests than the NPCs and landscape, and a larger world with less quests is far more attractive to me than a smaller world with more quests. Of course, if you design that world, you lose people who thrive on quests and raids. I’m not so certain that’s a bad thing for the genre, though…

  6. unwize Says:

    Yeah, well there’s an exception to every rule :)

    I’d be curious to see how many achievement orientated players in their early to mid 20s are still as much so 10 years later when they have a few more real-life concerns weighing on their time.

  7. Tesh Says:

    I certainly hope we’re expecting a large scale shift in priorities. Gamers are increasingly older, more time-constrained and have different priorities. Short session gaming and the obsessive Achievement grind run in different directions. I can only hope that the DIKU DNA also changes as devs understand that people want to play, not pick up a second job that they pay for.

  8. hoodia Says:

    Nice but i think something is missing.

  9. Longasc Says:

    BTW, there are more WoW PvP than PvE servers, at least for the EU/German servers. But WoW census counts 3.2 million PvE players vs 2.2 million PvP servers.

    WoW PvP servers are actually very un-PvP – except at certain hotspots, there is not much world PvP.

    Interesting is that the Asian world never experienced this PvE/PvP split. You are right about the upcoming conflicts:

    Achievers vs Explorers
    Gated Content/Guided Bus Tour vs Free-form/Sandbox

    I wonder how it will turn out.

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