Blog Archives


The other day Bhagpuss was talking about the myriad reasons why Guild Wars 2 had fallen off of their radar. Of particular note was this one:

GW2 also famously has appallingly bad rewards, quite possibly the most disappointing in the genre. I nearly said the worst “risk vs reward” there but of course GW2 offers no risk whatsoever and never has, which is presumably why the rewards for doing anything have always been so abysmally poor. For most of the run of the game, ANet’s solution to this has been to emphasize quantity over quality which, for me, has just meant an unconscionable amount of time spent organizing my bags. If I can blame any one game for finally making me agree with the common consensus that inventory management is a chore not a pleasure, it’s this one.

As someone who still logs in daily to hit up static treasure chest spawns and immediately sell their contents (Jade Runestones) across four characters before logging off, I can confirm this assessment. The game felt unrewarding back in 2018 and especially so in 2012. There are dozens of Youtube guides on how to achieve 20g+/hour of farming certain things, but even the most profitable paths have you churning hundreds of low-value items through the AH in apparent fulfillment of someone’s big-box retailer fantasy.

I do want to correct one thing though: there are very clear risks in certain GW2 meta-events, e.g. the risk of it failing and resulting in nothing. I recently got involved in a Dragon’s End meta wherein we got the dragon to be ended down to 2% HP before time ran out. Poof. Zero rewards after 45 minutes of pre-events and the fight itself. In contrast, winning would have resulted in approximately 23g worth of stuff. There is a reason why this particular meta is so dead despite being one of the top earners.

Putting that aside, the question to me became: what does rewarding mean in an MMO?

Bhagpuss identified rewarding (in part) as being able to “complete an entire project in no more than one gaming session and preferably in about ten minutes.” That, of course, lends itself towards a very player-driven motivation basis. For one thing, how many 10-minute projects could you possibly generate? “Infinite!” no doubt, but seriously.

For me, tangible progress towards a discrete goal is rewarding. Which means GW2 should be right up my alley, because goddamn the game is filled to the brim with insane stretch goals in terms of achievements and Legendary items and the like. The problem is the “tangible progress” bit. The designers’ adherence to the volume-based loot system leads straight to the early Diablo 3 disaster that was “vendor everything, buy what you want.” For example, one component (of many) for the Gen3 Legendary weapons requires 100 Antique Summoning Stones. You can buy 5/week from a vendor, earn another 5/week by doing Challenge Mode Strike Missions, and 1/day from doing the Dragon’s End meta (which routinely fails, remember). That is six weeks of some hardcore grinding the most challenging content.

Or you could just buy them off the AH.

Another example: Bolt, the Legendary Gen1 sword. One component requires 100 Charged Lodestones. How do you get those? The AH, basically. Charged Lodestones are random drops across core content, although you can technically target a half-dozen drops or so on a rotating basis through specific maps. But basically you are very obviously never intended to collect them yourself. Maybe that is supposed to be a good thing? You know, to give you options to farm whatever content you want and collect gold instead of in specific areas. Somehow though, the exchange does not feel rewarding to me. Probably because gold is fungible and not specific to the thing I was working towards.

Thinking back, I would say WoW’s World Questing system was perhaps one of the more rewarding game mechanisms I have encountered in any MMO. You could view them and the rewards from the map (no randomness), completing them was easy (no grind), the rewards themselves were often direct gear upgrades that scaled all the way up to a cap (meaningful), but the incremental upgrades meant the rewards didn’t become useless for a while (longevity). Plus, it was extremely useful for your alts.

Of course, the counter-point is the derisive “log in, collect epix” charge, or perhaps the more salient “what now?” when the goals are (easily) achieved. But… is that actually a concern for anyone anymore?

My own MMO apostasy no doubt clouds my vision, but that era of ascetic toil seems over. Possibly has been for years. There are some holdovers in Classic WoW, no doubt, but is that population derived from nostalgia-hunters or actual new blood seeking flagellation? And I do not mean to imply that this is a generational issue – it is simply a rational consequence of people wanting to actually enjoy their time with games now, rather than possibly maybe after months and months of grinding.

Delayed gratification is a virtue and we desperately need more people willing to plant trees whose shade they will never enjoy. But when it comes to gaming, well, let’s just say that the Marshmallow Experiment becomes a bit moot when you can just eat the marshmallow and then enter another of the 37 rooms running the same experiment.

Marshmallow Test

I really wish game developers would just let us eat the damn marshmallows already.

If you have never heard of the test before:

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University.[1] In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (Wiki)

I have been playing Prey lately, and noticed it does something similar. Over the course of gameplay, you accumulate a number of Neuromods, which are essentially skill points. At the beginning, you can only assign these points in “traditional” skills, such as hacking, increased weapon damage, more inventory space, and so on. A few more hours of gameplay later, you will be able to invest points in “alien” skills, like Kinetic Blast, short-term mind control, flame traps, etc. The game warns you though, that if you start gaining alien skills, the security system (e.g. turrets) in the space station will start registering you as an alien. It might also affect which ending you receive, although I have resisted looking at spoilers for that.

That is basically the marshmallow test. You can either be rewarded with fun new toys now… or you can abstain and be “rewarded” with a better ending later.

Prey is nowhere near the worst offender here. I have also been playing through the DLC of Dishonored off and on, and it’s a thousand times worse. In Dishonored, killing people (instead of knocking them out) increases the “chaos” of the city, which not only leads to a bad ending, it also makes the game harder by spawning swarms of rats that attack you on sight (and are immune to typical assassination skills). Which would be somewhat fine, if it were not for the fact that damn near 95% of the abilities and skills you unlock through gameplay revolve around killing people.

Life is full of delayed gratification. Most of us spend ~40 hours a week doing something we’d prefer not doing, in order to receive money weeks from now to finance the things we actually do want to do. Delaying our already-delayed gratification is some Inception-style nonsense.

Now, I do not necessarily have an issue with the best endings being difficult to achieve, or the existence of Achievements, or even just choice in general. What I have an issue with is a game that gives you a carrot and then beats you with a stick for eating it. The original Deus Ex made you choose between invisibility to humans and invisibility to robots. That’s a good choice! Note how the designers didn’t give you access to invisibility and then tell you there would be dire consequences to using it. That would be dumb.

Do not make your players choose between Fun and No Fun. Because some of them are dumb enough to choose No Fun, even when they hate marshmallows. Save us from ourselves.