Cooperation Requires Incentives

Both Tobold and Rohan were musing about a similar issue last week: why isn’t there more cooperation in survival MMOs? Or more PvE-only survival MMOs in the first place?

Let me turn the question around: why would you cooperate? Tobold is thankful that our real-life ancestors were not as blood-thirsty as the average DayZ player, but I am not even sure whether or not that is true. Recorded history is filled with the conquest of the weaker, and who knows what happened in the darkness of the forest millennia before that?

The problem in gaming, as is often the case, comes down to incentives. Specifically, if there are no extrinsic bonuses for assisting someone in any game, I generally only do so if I happen to be in the mood and it’s easy. For example, I have no problem playing Medic classes in PlanetSide 2 or Battlefield 4 because reviving teammates A) gives me as much XP as a normal kill, and B) the revived character is likely to get me closer to the goal of winning the match/flag/etc (i.e. more XP). Guild Wars 2 also did a pretty good job in incentivising reviving other players along similar lines. Obviously 5-man dungeons and such offer similar carrots.

In the absence of the extrinsic carrot though, a game designer cedes control to the player’s own nebulous intrinsic motivations to govern behavior. Unless you are a particularly extroverted individual looking to make more internet friends, there is really no reason you would ever cooperate without the carrot. If it’s a free-for-all scenario, not killing another player on sight is a huge risk. And even if you are willing to take that gamble and it succeeds, the “reward” is generally limited to what you can accomplish within that play session… unless you go out of your way to befriend them.

What if you don’t want more friends?

For a PvE survival MMO to work, I think constructing the proper incentives for cooperation would be Priority #1, and they would need to be extrinsic incentives. I am not a huge fan of the permadeath ideas Rohan was tossing around, but imagine if permadeath were a possibility, and killing other players (without cause) increased that chance? Let’s say the odds of permadeath were 10% baseline and increased by 25% for each player you killed. Meanwhile, if you healed, revived, traded/interacted with, or perhaps simply were in X radius around another player on your friends list, the baseline permadeath chance dropped to 0%. The “stain” of unjust PvP would not diminish – unless as a result of some penance or whatever – and yet it would give both groups the relevant incentive to do stuff with others.

I do not necessarily think it is wrong for game designers to rely on players to want to make friends to enjoy their game properly, but that ship has long sailed for me. I got my ex-WoW buddies, some IRL friends, and this blog if I want to talk shop with someone; I’m not entirely in the mood for the arduous vetting process and necessary synchronized timing necessary to make new friends. Needing to join a guild or Outfit or whatever to get the “full experience” simply means I won’t ever be getting the full experience in your game.

And if your game offers nothing else, then I won’t be playing it.

Posted on October 13, 2014, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Some men aren’t looking for anything logical. Some men just want to watch the world thrive.


    • I do admit that I will get in the mood sometimes to go around buffing around people (in WoW, for example). If someone is clearly in trouble with a mob and they are just right over there and there is little risk to myself, I may go over and help. But as far as following them around and doing more things together, no thanks.


  2. I agree 100%. My biggest problem with matchmaking dungeon groups isn’t that it exists but that the features inclusion did nothing to replace the little incentive there was to meet others, group, and play the cooperative portions of a game.

    Similarly, I think when designing a MMORPG from the very start – assuming you think the genre implies an inherently social nature – how you will encourage and incentivise pleasant social experiences ought to be right up there on par with making the game fun.

    It’s not so much that I hate open PvP, but I hate how so many games often make ganking a pleasant, lucrative, and necessary experience. If you want an open PvP game, I feel like every system and subsystem ought to discourage freeform murder and criminality without necessarily making it impossible.

    I think it’s naive to rely on players to play your game the way you think they ought to, especially since that idea was disproved on Day On by people logging into Ultima Online.


  3. That’s an impressive idea about permadeath. You could tweak it to affect full loot drops instead, if you don’t want to do permadeath. You could do any number of things.

    I really like the way Mr Murph puts it: “…every system and subsystem ought to discourage freeform murder and criminality without necessarily making it impossible.” I’ve said it before, the main requirement for a sucessful implementation of an open world PvP system is the existence of appropriate consequences. We want to discourage players from ganking – or even picking fights – by having the prospect of serious repercussions, yet we also want there to be *some* reward for doing so and getting away with it.

    That’s for a purely PvP experience though. If you want a PvE survival experience, I think you need to have a massive external threat that requires everyone to contribute to the survival of the group. I think the browser game Die2Nite has a good system set up in that respect, although naturally it would need to be modified for an MMO-type game. In this instance, player killing actively reduces your chances of survival, but maybe it’s not as bad as not killing them if they are stealing resources, not contributing, sabotaging survival efforts, etc.

    Another way to make PvE survival co-op work is to go down the A Tale In The Desert route, and make it so that everyone needs to bascially specialise, and therefore rely on others, in order to survive. Maybe tasks take a lot longer than we are accustomed to in games – if you spend all your time hunting or gathering, you have no time to build shelter. If you want to build a shelter, you need someone to help provide food for you, else it will take forever and you’ll likely die from exposure.

    Just some ideas.


  4. I don’t know why, but every time I hear about game design based purely on extrinsic rewards I reach for the shotgun :P So any game about cooperation should probably not include discussion about game design and extrinsic rewards :)

    I don’t think that using this kind of approach as a main mechanic can work, even if I can believe it as a “small push” to have people try other activities (see the WoW mount given for playing HS). But as a main game mechanic?


  5. Agree with most of whats been said, especially the idea that games dont really focus on the benefits of coop, mechanically or anything else. PvE coop is extremely easy to make work. One problem for many developers is that they view cooperation as boring and they try to add “action” by creating violent conflict.

    We live in a warrior culture. It’s really not surprising that we view everything as a contest and our games reflect that.

    Azuriel hit on something: what it takes to create a cooperative environment. I just recently wrote about something similar, that it takes a lot more energy to interact with people than to interact with objects. I think this is partly why games focus on material progress so much. Thats super easy to create from a content perspective. Getting players to cooperate isnt any more difficult, but it takes a lot more time. I agree with everyone here that games dont really bother with creating incentives to cooperate and especially on cooperation that can be done quickly and which instantly break down the social barriers between two strangers (trust in a survival game).

    If we were looking for the most logical solution for cooperation in a survival game, cooperation would be a no brainer. People are never better off alone in ANY survival situation. The reason theres so many lone wolves in our games has everything to do with our competitive culture.


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