Vague Patch Notes: Finding motivation within MMOs

I'm doing this why, exactly?

Here’s a fun question to ask yourself when you’re doing basically anything in an MMO: Why am I doing this? It’s usually at once a very easy question to answer and a very difficult one.

In one sense, for example, it’s very easy to understand why you’re in this Flashpoint in Star Wars: The Old Republic. In character terms, a guy told you to go blow these people up, and that’s a thing your character cares about. In the immediate sense, there’s experience and credits for doing that. And in the broader sense you do this to get items and experience and other progress rewards, which will help you on this character, which contributes to your Legacy and gets you closer to unlocking this thing, and so on.

But why are you doing this? That’s a bit of a broader question, and it’s also a more important one. It might be that you’re actually doing it for bad reasons.

Intrinsic can mean lots of things.

Let’s consider the following three statements. We’re just going to leave this here for the moment and come back to them later, but for now, let’s just think about them.

  1. “Cool, that was a great run of that dungeon! Got some more stuff than I was expecting, got my weekly rewards, and now I’m on track for the rest of the week.”
  2. “Well, that run went all right. I got what I really needed, though; now I don’t have to worry about it until next week.”
  3. “Ugh, I hate doing these runs. But I have to do this or there’s no other way to get the armor to look pretty.”

We’ve all probably expressed similar sentiments at varying points during our MMO careers. So now that you have those things in mind, let’s talk about motivation. Specifically, let’s talk about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, especially as it pertains to MMOs.

Intrinsic motivation is motivation contained within the game itself. Your reward for clearing this dungeon is clearing the dungeon, so to speak. What do you get as a reward for this Fortnite match? You’re not here for that; you’re here for a fun time with this Fortnite match. The idea here is that you’re having a fun time doing this thing, not having a fun time planning for the rewards for when you have finished doing the thing.

Extrinsic motivation, as you likely gathered, is the inverse of this. In online games, this most often does take the form of rewards; playing this Overwatch match can push you over to get the next lootbox which might have the skin you actually want. It isn’t strictly limited to that, though, and it can also include things like your friends expecting you to level up so that you can all play together to the social cachet that comes from having a high-level in Destiny 2.

I don’t know what that sort of social circle looks like, but I assume it exists.

Neither of these motives is inherently bad; to a certain extent, a balance of the two is almost mandatory. In a platforming game, there are lots of times when you can make the effort to get to a more difficult route and pick up powerups, which combines both intrinsic rewards (proving my skill, which is fun) and extrinsic rewards (there’s stuff here that’s worth getting). This is all totally fine.

Someone must have had fun with this at some point, right?

More to the point, past a certain amount of time spent in a game, the intrinsic rewards are going to start being lesser as the extrinsic rewards remain similar or identical. In Destiny 2, your first experience shooting wizards from space will be pretty novel and hopefully fun. (Does that game still have wizards from space? Let’s assume so.) Your hundredth such wizard, though, will no longer have that rush of novelty. You are now familiar with space wizards and the shooting thereof. Heck, eventually it’ll prompt a yawn and a “ho hum, here’s another wizard, he’s from space, I ought to shoot him.”

As is frequently the case in this column, the idea of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is not about “thing good” or “thing bad,” just “thing exists.” What gets insidious is that games can be designed not just to keep you playing as your intrinsic motivation decreases but to actually avoid intrinsic motivation altogether.

Let’s go back to those first statements from above. In the first one, it’s obvious that your intrinsic motivation is high. You’re enjoying playing! The rewards are nice, but they’re not your sole motivator. In the second, your intrinsic motivation has decreased; you didn’t have as much fun just for the deed, but you’re still fundamentally having fun. While the rewards might be more motivating than the thing itself, you still enjoy the thing.

But in the third? Your intrinsic motivation is actively gone. You’re not having fun doing this. You specifically do not want to do this, but you’re doing it anyway because of the rewards. That’s a sign that you should probably stop.

There are always going to be times in games when your intrinsic motivation is low to nonexistent, yes. Inventory management is not considered much fun by a lot of gamers, for example. Nobody really has fun dying unless you’re playing Dwarf Fortress. Bad things happen, you hit setbacks, and so forth. It’s very possible to hit something difficult and push through despite not having fun because it’s buffered by things you are intrinsically motivated by.

Oh, we haven't forgotten you.

What can easily happen, though, is that a game keeps you playing on the basis of those extrinsic rewards when you’re no longer having intrinsic fun. You want your Allied Races in World of Warcraft, for example, so you spend your time working on reputations you don’t care about with world quests you don’t find fun, running dungeons you don’t enjoy, and completing stories you don’t read just to unlock these new races… to go back and do all that stuff again.

That’s the really insidious part. You start chasing rewards instead of fun, and the rewards are useful only for things you don’t find fun when you do them now.

Some games rely more on this idea than others. The shooty-looty-box genre that includes the aforementioned Destiny 2 as well as games like Anthem tends to lean hard on the idea that you want to keep playing to get more rewards, allowing you to coast past “I’m not having fun with this shooting” to “I have to get my Weekly Rewards even though I’m not enjoying any of this.” Games with endgames that have sudden swerves (per the column a couple of weeks back) are prone to this as well.

But it’s not always the fault of the game. Predatory tricks of lootboxes and the like are bad, but they’re also helped by our tendency to get into ruts and keep chasing the rewards without noticing that we now hate the chase. And the only person who can actually step back and examine why you’re doing this is you.

So that’s your thing to chew on at this point, and for the future. Ask yourself why you’re doing the gaming things you’re doing, and be cognizant if the answer is just about rewards instead of fun within the thing itself. There’s no hard-and-fast rule; it’s just something you have to think about and learn from.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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