Part 2: The Top Tier Problem
So, we've talked about what exactly "player investment rewards" are. Now, we're going to get into some of the current problems with prominent implementations of the feature. In this case, we're going to focus on rewards that aren't merely commendations, but rather tangible benefits within the game - ie: equipment and abilities.
In short, rewards designed to be the absolute best in their class pit players’ desire for uniqueness against their desire to accomplish and have their accomplishments recognized. This discourages customization for some and achievement for others. A title’s degree of variety and individual expression online is directly proportional to the number of equally valued customization options provided to players.
Prominent examples of this problem include Halo 3’s "hayabusa" & "recon" helmets, Modern Warfare’s weapon camouflage, and World of Warcraft's equipment.
Halo 3, for example, features 11 online armor variants available to most players. These variants are designed to provide players with a sense of individuality as they mix and match them, color them, and otherwise use them to form a unique persona online. Theoretically, this emphasis on individuality and the wide variety of tastes amongst the player base should result in a fairly even distribution of armor variants throughout the community.
This is, however, not the case. The “recon” and “hayabusa” variants, especially their helmets, seem to be far more common amongst those players who have unlocked them. The same is true of the other armor variants to degrees in direct proportion to the amount of work necessary to unlock them.This presents a problem, as the variety and individuality intended by the developer has been overshadowed by a second well intentioned feature, player investment rewards.
The same problem can be seen in many other titles, most notably those which make heavy use of such player investment rewards. World of Warcraft, for example, features thousands of weapons, but only a very small fraction of those are actually desired by its most committed players. When new and better items are introduced, they do not increase variety but rather replace others as the now most desirable "top tier" options. Players invest a great deal of time in order to receive these rewards, only to be forced to sacrifice their avatar’s individuality for the ability to display them.
High level mages, or roving Warriors style street gang?
This problem is compounded by the fact that when a large portion of players display the same rewards, desiring recognition for their achievements, they, in fact, become less recognizable amongst the crowd of similarly outfitted characters. Thus, some may choose to forgo such challenges all together, knowing that they will not wish to display their rewards. Allowing the majority of the developer’s efforts to fall into such disuse seems not only to be contrary to the original design intent, but to also be poor financial investment.
The simplest solution to this problem might seem to be the elimination of “top tier” rewards all together. This, however, inherently depreciates their value as player investment rewards.
A better solution, it seems, is to eliminate the singular nature of the highest tier options. The Halo 3 armor variants, for example, might have been unlocked via multiple separate but equal progressions. Some armor variants might be unlocked by campaign player progress and achievements, while others would be unlocked by multi-player progress and achievements. This would result in two top tier armor variants, doubling variety while both equally rewarding player investment and providing more opportunities for such investment. A form of this strategy can be seen in World of Warcraft, in which players may gain the game’s highest tier armors either from raids or arena combat. These two alternative paths provide equal statistical reward to players who choose either rout, yet also present aesthetic differences from one another. Thus, players are able to feel as if they are displaying their prowess, while not necessarily becoming identical. Further, the more specific nature of these rewards more accurately portrays the nature of the player’s excellence.
Another option, and one which can be combined with other solutions, is to provide variety within a single reward. Halo 3’s armor system does, for example, allow players to mix and match amongst their armor variants and choose a unique color scheme. Thus, two individuals may have very different character models, despite sharing the same helmet. The problem this raises, however, is that the head, and face more specifically, is a physical feature very closely linked to identity. There is a biological tendency to notice a person’s face before examining them as a whole which extends to online avatars. Even if two character models are different in every other way, similar faces, or helmets in the case of Halo 3, can reduce the sense of variety. Variety could be added to individual helmets, however, by allowing players to further customize the helmet. This could include multiple visor colors, textures, the ability to choose glossy or matte finishes, smaller accessories such as antennae or eye pieces, what have you. In Modern Warfare, players could be rewarded not with “Red Tiger” and “Blue Tiger” camouflage, but with “Tiger” camouflage which they could set the tint of as they wish. Simply put, granularity increases variety.
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