Framing and World of Warcraft’s Rest System

One of my favorite things about human psychology is how a punishment can be turned into a reward just by changing the way it’s framed. A few years ago a friend of mine was serving on the board for a large conference and negotiating a contract with the hotel where the event would take place. 1 Part of the contract dealt with giving hotel room discounts to a limited number of attendees, but they were first come first served, after which the room price would go up. My friend wrestled with how to present this to attendees, grumbling about how he was having to tell people he was punishing them by raising the prices if they made last minute plans to attend the conference.

“Dude,” I said, ’cause I really do say things like that, “It’s not a penalty for late registration, it’s a reward for people who register early.” And with that, the wording on the conference registration changed from “late registration fee” to “early registration discount.” And nothing else changed, except that people probably thought it was more fair.

WoW Framing

Word of Warcraft framing. Get it? Eh? Eh? Eh, yeah, you're right, it's not that funny.

In a recent episode of the nifty Idle Thumbs podblast 2 Gamasutra’s Chris Remo articulated another great example of this kind of simple framing in how World of Warcraft’s “rest bonus” system came about:

In World of Warcraft what they did when they first designed the game was they had an experience system that would, over time, lower the amount of experience you got because [Blizzard] wanted to encourage people to play for like two hours at a time instead of twelve hours at a time. So the longer you played you’d get this experience degradation and then it would bottom out and at that point it would be a fixed rate of experience. And people just hated it.

And so they went back and [Blizzard’s Rob Pardo] was like allright, basically what we did was we made everything in the game take twice as much experience to achieve as before and then we flipped it. So actually what happens is you start getting 200% experience and eventually it goes back down to 100%. So that effectively now how they spin it is that if you log out for a while you get this 200% boost when you log back in! And then over time it goes away and you just get regular 100% experience. It’s EXACTLY the same as it was before, except NOW everyone is like “Fuck yeah, Blizzard, this is exactly what I want!”

So, in other words, people hated the system when it was presented as a penalty for playing too long at a stretch, but they loved it when it was framed as a reward for taking a break. Even though the results were exactly the same. Such is the magic of framing.

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Footnotes:

1. Hi Steve! I know you read this!
2. Wizard, bird noise, horse bag, etc.

25 thoughts on “Framing and World of Warcraft’s Rest System

  1. Pingback: World of Warcraft: Hobbs’ Blood Furnace (WOW Gameplay/Commentary)

  2. One quick editing thing, in your quote it says “…game take twice as much as much experience…” with the “as much” being repeated.

    I wonder if the people who were asked about the rest xp option were told that Blizzard would then double the amount of xp that everything required…

  3. @ Alex iirc it was a change made early in Beta. (Back in the days when Betas were Betas, not free trials). People were ok with things being toyed with.

    The vast majority of WoW players only saw the Rest exp system without knowing about the history behind it.

  4. Great essay.

    We discovered the same thing when working on FireTeam: In the Gunball mode, we initially penalized a team when any of the other teams destroyed their base. (-10 points or something.) People hated it, sometimes even logging off. We changed the rules so that *all other teams* got points except the team whose base was destroyed and players liked it suddenly.

  5. @ Harvey Smith
    Nice, another good example. Sometimes I think that you should take a low scoring sport like hockey or soccer and retool it so that each team starts with 5 points and you lose a point when the other team gets the ball/puck in your net. Game ends either when one team hits 0 or a timer runs out. My guess is that fan riots would go up by 1000%

  6. Though this is a very useful trick to know, you’re glossing over the actual history here. Players in beta were OUTRAGED about this mechanic and were DOUBLE-OUTRAGED when it was repackaged as a bonus. It was a sore spot that even affected the review score of the game from some people (admittedly, mostly bloggers).

    The game had a very rocky start for its first six months, with continuous downtime and very severe bugs. There was quite a lot of anguish going on about WoW in general, and the XP bonus was just more kindling on the fire.

    I think the REAL psychological lesson to be explored here is how quickly a few million new players will completely and utterly drown out your initial batch of naysayers, even to the point that the naysayers forget they had complaints at all. I was talking to somebody about this the other day and they had completely forgotten that WoW had once had hour-long wait queues to play, or that looting corpses had caused a delay of three or four minutes. They’d forgotten the once-famous bash posts on Penny-Arcade. All those memories seem to get papered over, and we remember a different, sunnier story. It’s very odd. I would love to know why this happens, because it certainly doesn’t always happen. Many games are remembered FOREVER for their poor launches.

  7. Great example of how brutal honesty can hurt both parties. Especially when there’s money involved.

    I feel like a chump, though, because Blizzard’s ploy certainly worked on me. When the “rested” bonus kicked off, it made me start to think about calling it a night and letting the blue bar recharge.

    Now that I know the truth, I’m still going to act the same way. I’ll just grumble a little bit. :)

  8. @ Eric Heimburg
    Really? I’d love to read some of those complaints. The interesting thing to look at, though, is if the per capita complaints about the exp degradation mechanic among players at the time were greater than the complaints about the rest bonus mechanic among players coming in after the fact. In other words, was it the lesser of two evils (if you want to call it evil) and were those “double outrages” elicited simply because there was a high profile change to the system?

  9. I remember how a similar reframing affected the new car market about 18 months ago. A car dealer was interviewed and he said he tried discounting cars to half-price, which had little affect on sales. He then changed the advertising to the original price advertising as “buy one get one free” and sold out.

  10. @ Jamie Madigan
    Looks like board discussion from that period is gone… certainly not on Blizzard’s site, but not even in the wayback machine as far as I can tell. (Of course, this also means the material Chris Remo refers to is missing. We remember the parts we want to remember?)

    To my memory, though, the rest XP “fiasco” went away sometime after launch because the developers reduced the XP curve dramatically in the days before launch, such that players could still meaningfully progress even if they were out of “rest XP”. That wasn’t nearly as true during beta. And I think Blizzard’s gambit may have failed if they had pressed ahead without reducing the XP curves. They basically made the game easy enough to advance that the bonus really was a “bonus” instead of a near-requirement.

    Unlike the events of the pre-beta period, the problems and general anger after launch are well documented, because they bled onto larger sites that are still around. The once-infamous Penny Arcade post I referred to is here: http://www.penny-arcade.com/2005/1/17/

    At the MMO company I was working for at the time, we watched with growing relief as a huge backlash seemed to boil up against WoW. But then it disappeared without a trace.

    What’s interesting here (to me, and I realize it’s derailing your thread a bit, sorry…) is that this mess didn’t become part of the common story of WoW. Prior to this, every MMO company was terrified of having a bad launch because it meant their game was doomed. Anarchy Online’s launch was so bad that it was more-or-less permanently branded as a buggy and unplayable game, even though they got better relatively quickly. Why didn’t WoW’s reputation become “buggy and unplayable”, even when important pundits were saying it?

    Perhaps it’s because the game’s initial player base came from other Blizzard games more than from other MMO’s — so the anger the MMO population felt was irrelevant to these players. Dunno. Of course, WoW’s huge size relative to other games makes it hard to compare player behaviors.

    (One of the fascinating aspects of their atypical initial audience was that most players in WoW used Warcraft 3 terms for game concepts, rather than traditional MMO terms like “mob”. Eventually those terms melted away and became the MMO terms again, for some reason.)

  11. I be part of it is that Blizzard had a lot of social currency to spend with early adopters. They have a history of supporting and fixing things long term, so players might have decided to hunker down and wait for things to get better –and expected them to.

    And also, Blizzard had REAL currency. They could keep throwing money at problems/bugs and get them fixed, moreso than a smaller company trying to start a competing MMO.

    It probably also had a lot to do with how quickly the player base grew. Where disgruntled beta testers were once the majority, new players who didn’t know any other systems now far outnumbered them.

    And isn’t it axiomatic that EVERY launch of a MMO is a clustermuck? Has there been one yet that went smoothly?

  12. I think you’re both centering on some awesome points, which as Eric said, are steering this thread down the rails of the tangent train (choo choo).

    While I think it stands true that every MMO launch is about as smooth as a Velcro bath, it seems that the gaming community has deified Blizzard allowing them to do pretty much whatever they want. I’m not saying that this is totally unfounded, they deliver quality games and support them well enough to last the greater part of a decade, if not longer. Having buckets of money doesn’t hurt either.

    What I find rather interesting is the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “It’s cool, it’s Blizzard.” Developing a game for seven years? It’s cool, it’s Blizzard. WoW balance issues? It’s cool, it’s Blizzard. Splitting a game into three which will need to be individually bought? It’s cool, it’s Blizzard. Strangely enough, it always makes me feel better…

    However, I do think that this almost religious devotion is starting to compromise the industry. Starcraft 2 has been in development for seven years now (six if you don’t include the year long break in 2005) yet our faith is never broken. Yet if any other company spent that long in development gamers wouldn’t stand for it. They’d either put the game out of their mind or use the power of the intarwebs to vent their frustrations and rally other outraged fans. Unless the game is Duke Nukem Forever, in which case it just becomes a very sad joke.

    It seems that everyone has forgotten about Starcaft 64 and Starcraft Ghost, because heaven forbid that Blizzard should fall from grace.

    I know this is off topic but the Tangential Express just can’t stop a-rollin’. If you can find a relevant point buried in here, well, then you’re far more perceptive than I am. Choo choo.

  13. I have an opinion as to why, say, Anarchy Online failed and WoW has succeeded — the design. I was an avid Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online player, but when I tried WoW, I just couldn’t go back to those start “realistic” worlds. I’m not a Fantasy fan, I’m definitely of the SciFi bent, but the WoW world is just much more attractive.

    I mean, look at the graphic you framed above. It’s iconic. It’s perfectly designed. It’s accessible — not too scary that the player can’t identify with it. It’s cute, and colorful, but definitely got attitude. That’s evident all the way through the world. Even in the early days of low-poly low-clutter environments, the attention to detail made the world more believable and attractive than long-running games like Everquest 2.

    To save money, I’ve tried Anarchy Online, I’ve tried Guildwars — I’ve tried them all (well, all of them that have free trials) and I’m still paying my $15/mo for WoW. It just feels like Blizzard care about the experience the players are having and are always innovating with design and gameplay and storyline. I never feel ripped off. Except for the whole “nobody Role Plays on the RP servers” fiasco, but that’s not Blizzard’s fault.

    Okay, I’m done. :)

  14. In another post you described that losing something generates stronger feelings than acquiring it (over simplification). I think that is at play here too. Losing the amount of XP you gain as you continue to play was generating strong emotions. When they re-framed the system with the idea of a bonus then player probably didn’t feel as though they were actually losing something.

    About Eric’s comments. I played the game during the moments during the initial troubles you’ve mentioned. However, what isn’t evident by the information you presented was the context of the general MMO environment at the time and how Blizzard reacted to those issues.

    Blizzard actively managed those issues, and while not perfect, they gave the appearance that they were doing what they could to resolve the problem. Eventually they did resolve the problems.

    As a player at the time it was frustrating to go through those issues. However, Blizzard gave me the feeling that the issues were being addressed. In addition, compared to other launches WoW’s was average to good. Context means a lot when looking back. The issues alone don’t mean much without proper framing :)

  15. And then people will figure out how to ‘game the system’ by creating multiple ALTS and letting each of them rest to that once you have reached the 100% level on one, you can simply switch over to that Rogue or Shammy you have had parked for a while and continue to play…..for hours.

    With the number of alts you can have and the different factions and realms, you can be in 200% mode forever.

    :-D

    Framing IS something that all good sales people do. I’m in a sales type of profession and am acutely aware that framing, choosing just the right words is crucial to closing the sale.

    Figuring out how to get around the rules is something that everyone will try to do.

  16. I think another huge reason why WoW has succeeded in spite of it’s early troubles is that it was one of the first MMOs that developed questing as a means of levelling. It’s a common concept these days, but back when WoW came out, if you wanted to go up to level 2, be prepared to kill nothing but rats and snakes for 15 hours a day. When you start a new character in WoW, you’re immediately given more-or-less meaningful quests that make you feel a part of the world. I remember the days of logging into WoW and going to make a sandwich, coming back and maybe getting in. I remember the horrible balance (lol warlocks, why would anyone play one of those?!). I remember quitting the game in frustration (and deleting all my toons) because I was tired of the griefing and ganking.

    And yet, here we are six years later and the game is bigger than anything else, and I’m still playing :D.

    As for “addressing the issues”, I seem to recall people making fun of Blizzard for their poor handling of the problems WoW was facing. Servers unstable? Add more! Long queue times? Moar servers! Oh shit, our entire game is crashing despite the number of servers, pull the game off store shelves! Broken classes? Working as intended.

    Getting back to the topic, the rest system as initially designed had the hardcore up in arms because it punished them for wanting to play for hours and hours and hours on end while rewarding the more casual player-base, and issue that would come up time and time again in WoW’s history.

  17. Pingback: The Lessons Blizzard Learned, Electronic Arts Forgot - People's News Network

  18. Game devs need to grow some balls imo. It’s just horrible at the motnems. They’re all out to beat WoW by being more WoW, which is ridiculous. We need more games like AO, EVE, AC, EQ etc. where the world is actually their own. Those games never felt like a copy of anything else. They made THEIR game and found a certain % of the market that liked their game.Today it seems like people look at WoW and go Whoa, we need to get those 10 mill (or whatever) subs! and that’s just wrong. People don’t want a more WoW-er WoW. They’ve already played that game.. They want something new, something interesting.If a game is good, has plenty of content and doesn’t try to suit every person on the planet and the launch isn’t rushed / screwed up, people will play it. You may not get 10 million subscribers but other games have done perfectly fine with a lot less. Setting the success-bar at WoW-numbers is ridiculous.

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