The Joy of Energy Systems

The Theory Bit

I recently watched an excellent short video on Penny Arcade about how energy systems are framed. Watch the video itself for the full 5m08s of insight, but it basically pointed out two things.

Firstly, energy systems (I included any mechanism that paces play here, from CityVille’s energy to World of Warcraft’s rest) are there for three reasons (plus one I add myself…):

  1. To make game companies money
  2. To spread out content for longer
  3. To habituate players to playing games
  4. (To distribute wealth more evenly amongst players – not something PA mention but I’ve written about it before)

Secondly, they point out that many social games don’t frame these mechanics very well, leading to player frustration and resentment.

The Good and the Bad

World of Warcraft is the exception, because instead of limiting how long players can play for, they give them a bonus for logging on after an absence. The game economy used and player behaviour resulting is identical, but the player experience is greatly improved. Players love getting a bonus, where they hated getting a penalty.

So how could we frame existing energy systems in social games to give us the benefits outlined above, but in a way that players would like?

If pacing systems can currently be divided into energy based systems (e.g. CityVille) and time based systems (e.g. War Commander), then I think the answer lies somewhere in between. How about a system where buildings, crafting and other contracts are completed over long periods (like WC), and players have a limited source of “energy” which can accelerate these and itself recharges over time (like CityVille, but inverted into a bonus)?

Reframing Social Games

The Grinns Tale currently employs something along these lines, and despite the game’s other flaws, it’s very good. In The Grinns Tale, crafting an item might take 1-2 hours for a mid-level player, and your wood and metal factories fill up ready for collection over a similar period. These contracts can be completed instantly for hard currency, but they can also be accelerated for “villager actions”.

Villager actions take 2 minutes to recharge, and accelerate contracts by 2 minutes… they are actually very similar to energy points used in other games. The number that you can have depends on the number of inhabitants your village has, but easily 30-40 for a mid-level player without using hard currency, so players have enough to complete a medium sized contract instantly, once per session.

The result is that play is paced to 1-2 hour intervals, but with each session players aren’t limited in the number of actions they can take as in CityVille. Eventually players will run out of things that they can do and be left with a time delay whilst crafting completes, factories refill etc., just as in War Commander. However, as a player you can elect to accelerate particular time delays by using your villager actions.

The resulting feeling of control gives players a satisfying rush, rather than a frustrating obstacle, and is a much more pleasant experience than either pure energy or time based pacing systems. Although as a player you are encourage into regular sessions to maximise use of your villager actions, you feel like you have a lot more control over the way that you use these to plan your production.

The Grinns Tale could probably improve this system further y adjusting the balance between the timed delays and the villager action acceleration – at the moment the former dominates and the latter feels like a bit of a bolt on. To make this system work really well the bonus needs to be significant, and I suspect that increasing the recharge rate and acceleration bonus to 5 minutes, and increasing time delays proportionately to compensate, would leave players with an even better feeling.

Wrap Up

Pacing in online games is important for a variety of different reasons:

  1. Monetization
  2. Content rationing
  3. Player habituation
  4. Distribution of virtual wealth

Framing such pacing is important to ensure that it does not adversely affect player enjoyment. This can be achieved by positioning energy as an acceleration bonus to a time based economy, rather than as a hard limit to the number of actions players can perform in a session.

Image from Monica Vidal’s Flickr stream.

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Solving distribution of wealth in digital communities

This post follows a recent conversation with 4chan’s creator Chris Poole.

Many communities and especially games use points systems to increase engagement – Foursquare shows you a rolling one week total of your points earned, compared to your friends. People have a natural inclination to accumulate as many points as possible and have more than those around them. Some communities reinforce this urge by allowing points to be traded for virtual items, used to unlock new features or otherwise giving them some value. For example, Turntable.fm’s DJ Points unlock different avatars skins.

However, as soon as points are converted in other items, distribution of wealth starts becoming a problem. Whilst new users in the community enjoy seeing other wealthier users around them to begin with, it is because they aspire to that wealth themselves. If that wealth seems unattainable, then they may well lose interest in the whole community.

Furthermore, the community dynamics can become disrupted by trading, even where this is not explicitly allowed. Users tend to find a way to reciprocate actions to effect trading very quickly. I wonder how many users on Turntable.fm are voting up songs, and thereby awarded DJ points to others, not because they like the songs they are playing, but because they want others to reciprocate this. The ecosystem can even spill out into real world currency – you can buy virtual items of other players in World of Warcraft for USD. When many people use online communities for their egalitarian nature, allowing users who are richer in real life an advantage is hugely destructive.

So how to avoid the problems of distribution of wealth, without removing the highly positive influence that a points system can have?

Make wealth less conspicuous

If it is easy to see how much wealth other users have, and how far you are behind them, then the problems associated with wealth distribution are exacerbated. Conversely by reducing how conspicuous people’s wealth is, these effects can be minimised. In many communities (as in real life), a user’s wealth of points cannot be directly observed, but the items they can purchase with these points can be.

Making items that users can buy with points exponentially more expensive for marginal gains in functionality or form can allow “richer” users to have some value to their wealth, without putting them too far ahead of less well off users. Most level systems adhere to this principle, with the first few levels easily achieved, and higher levels requiring a far great number of points to reach.

Expire points after set time

One of the simplest ways to prevent some users from getting too much richer than others is to have points expire after a certain amount of time. This way experienced players need to keep engaging with the community to maintain their wealth, and the maximum wealth that anyone can achieve is limited to the amount that they can earn in the lifetime of the points. Foursquare keeps a record of only the points you have earned in the past week, and British Airways reset their frequent flyer programme members tier points (but not the actual miles) to zero at the end of the year in this way.

Adopt a welfare system

Many community based points systems have some form of welfare system, where users are given a certain amount of points each day or week automatically, or simply for logging in. This allows users to get started immediately and taste the benefits of accumulating more points, but also means that users without the skills to accumulate huge numbers of points just need a little more patience. A welfare system alone is unlikely to be a solution, but it can be helpful in many communities to get users started.

Create seasonal virtual goods

Instead of expiring points after a certain time period, virtual goods can be given a temporary nature instead (or indeed, as well). This could either work in the sense that users pay a certain number of points to lease virtual goods for a set time period, that virtual goods only exist for a finite time period and need to be renewed, or that new virtual items are constantly being released in seasonal cycles like fashions. In this last case, the items might have different forms but identical functionalities. In any of these cases, users have to maintain their points earnings to have the latest virtual items, and new users can get up to speed quicker, by only buying the most recently released items.

Migrate more experienced users to a new area

Some games migrate more experienced, richer users away to a completely separate environment from new users. This way the environment that users interact in always has a limited variation in wealth. Call of Duty allows users access to a new set of hard core multiplayer servers in return for handing back all the weapons and virtual items they have accumulated and starting again. Many MMORPGs have a newbie town where new players are sheltered from the wealth (and dangers) of the wider, virtual world.

There is no reason that a large number of different areas cannot exist, each for a particular wealth of user. Furthermore, users don’t need know that it is possible to enter other, more advanced areas before they have accumulated enough points to enter them. Indeed, having “secret” areas that reveal themselves just as users think they are exhausting the possibilities of the original one is undoubtedly a hugely compelling feature for many.

Wrap up

Giving users in a community points has a tremendously positive effect on engagement, at least initially, and this can be amplified by allowing users to trade points for virtual items or features. However, communities with a wide distribution of wealth can quickly run into problems with new users feeling points “wealth” is unattainable, or puts them at unfair advantage. There are several ways in which the negative effects of distribution of wealth can be moderated, and these can be used in conjunction with one another if needs be. The right solution for any given community is likely to reflect that its overall value system and culture, and should augment rather than supersede this.

Image from zzzack’s Flickr photostream