Today’s MMO economics lesson is about “relationship-specific investments.” These are investments made to satisfy the requirements of a particular customer. Examples might include a skill or spell you learn for a specific friend, a company that makes parts for one auto company, or getting your hair cut the way your significant other prefers. In MMOs, the most common example is that of support classes, those who advance by investing in others.
Should you play a dedicated healer or support class? Should you include them in your game design? Conveniently, people have been thinking through these issues in other contexts for decades, so let’s apply their work to our hobby/industry.
Let us start by defining our topic. Sometimes, you make a permanent investment for the sake of others. This is something by which you cannot benefit directly, but which facilitates a relationship with someone else. Any heal or buff you cannot use on yourself falls into this category. Any class that is built around those heals and buffs is what I will consider a support class.
Basically, these are classes or builds that shine in groups but do poorly on their own, or at least are far more valuable in a group. Healers, buffers, tanks, and crowd controllers with little damage are all very valuable for a group, but they tend to solo very poorly.
Everyone loves these classes. More specifically, everyone loves for someone else to play these classes. My Thermal Corruptor can give you armor, heals, increased damage output, protection against crowd control, and a rez if all else fails. This is great for you, but 2/3 of my powers are completely useless if I solo. Damage output is sexy; damage mitigation is tedious.
The first lesson of relationship-specific investments is that they create a weak bargaining position. If you are built around helping Bob, you cannot do much without Bob. You are Bob’s bitch. Bob can set terms, and either you take them or you don’t play.
The primary method of getting around this is the long-term contract. If I am going to make a substantial investment on your behalf, I want it defined up front what I am getting out of this. If I am going to heal and rez your stealther through fifty levels of PvE, I want to know that you are not going to abandon me once we hit the PvP zones. Promise me that we will go to places with good priest loot. Get it in writing.
Of course, that does not happen in MMOs. People quit every month. Even if they are still there, you are not getting a long-term contract. You are relying entirely on trust and the goodwill of others. Assuming that no one plans to eBay, that actually works pretty well in our games. We have a sense of fairness, and we are friends not just business partners.
What happens in the absence of a long-term contract? You see fewer relationship-specific investments, even where they might be valuable. That friendship mutes this effect in MMOs does not mean that you do not see it. There are too few support characters out there. You could spend a long while looking for a priest or tank, while there are dozens of damage-dealers looking for a group.
You can see this as a continuum. The purer the support role, the fewer people that play it. Hybrid support classes are common. If a class cannot solo greens, you will see very few of them. No one wants to be Bob’s bitch.
Economically, this is the problem of hold-outs. If you know that you have someone over a barrel, you can hold out indefinitely to extract as much value as possible from the relationship. If that priest really needs a group to level, he will take whatever group he can find. No one wants to be that priest, so you see fewer priests.
Ah, now you have a problem because you need a healer? Sucks to be you, since you were a jerk to the last one and no one made a commitment to supporting them. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
Because let’s be honest, it can be very painful to play a support class. As painful as a bikini wax? Couldn’t say, but it is an investment you make for others’ enjoyment more than your own (directly). You get your enjoyment from theirs, and you can work out the particulars on your own.
Another lesson we have is that exclusivity favors relationship-specific investments. The best example is when you have a character you only play with a specific group of people. In that case, you can skip powers that would otherwise be deemed essential because you know that a teammate can better cover that insufficiency. For example, if you always play with a good healer, taking your piddly self-heal is no longer essential. If you have a duo of Kinetics Defenders in City of Heroes, each can take Speed Boost rather than the chain of powers that leads to Stamina; you can take three other powers, but you are out of luck without your endurance-boosting partner.
The fact of such specialization can encourage commitment and specialization from partners. Once you strongly signal that you are committed to the support track, your allies can take that into account. They can alter their builds in the expectation of such support. You will be more likely to be invited to group because everyone knows that you are devoted to doing that role excellently instead of doing a few poorly.
An interesting but contrarian argument is that partial relationship-specificity encourages over-investment, not under-investment. That is, if I can do something theoretically for your benefit but then apply it elsewhere, I will do more of it than is socially optimal. This ability to re-purpose investments reduces the relationship-specificity, so you will expect a glut of a theoretically group-centered classes if they solo well.
I assume that WoW has more Shamans and Shadow Priests than groups looking for them. Correct me if I am wrong there.
Again, you are left to your own devices to contemplate whether bikini waxes can be re-purposed beyond one relationship and if there is therefore a resultant glut of them. My data-collection is ongoing.
Practically, over-investment means wasted resources. There are a lot of healers lying fallow. The guild needs one, and even though you don’t really want to play one, you take one for the team and level one up. It mostly sits as an unused alt, and your heart is not really in it when you take him out of mothballs. You also see a feast-or-famine pattern where there are either twenty or zero tanks LFT.
In City of Villains, this has worked out brilliantly. Lord Recluse’s Strike Force is a mass of big boss fights, something that favors tanks and support classes. Stalkers and Dominators cannot do much, but Brutes and Corruptors shine. Both of them, however, are primary damage classes, with defense as secondaries. Brutes SMASH! There are no Empathy Corruptors — every one of them does mean things to the enemy. You commonly see teams where more than half are Corruptors, and people are finding that they really like the class. Even if you are the most defensive, group-oriented Corruptor possible (mine), you get to blow things up all the time, and nothing makes a Corruptor shine better than another Corruptor.
So what if you like playing a support class? Advertising that fact is probably easier than advertising a fondness for bikini waxes. Having unusual preferences can be a very valuable thing, since you can do cheaply that for which others will pay dearly. If you want to be a demanding prima donna priest, I would advertising that you do play a healer and that you do it well, rather than your fondness for doing so. After all, why pay someone to do what he would do anyway?
Should your game have support classes? Not pure ones. Since your game will not have long-term contracts, there will be an under-investment in pure support classes. If they are not required, very few will play them: spend your design time on something more popular. If they are required, you will still see relatively few, but now people will be angry about that. Non-healers will be angry about forced grouping, how hard it is to find a healer, and how demanding they are; healers will be angry about forced grouping, how boring it is to play a healer, and how demanding the non-healers are.
Hybrid support classes, however, are a hoot. I have written several times of my fondness for the City of Villains class design: everyone has offense and defense, just of different kinds. Give me a tool that lets me solo but gets a force multiplier in groups.
The best example of this in City of Heroes/Villains is called Fulcrum Shift, an AE damage buff/debuff. You target an enemy; that enemy and every enemy around him gets a damage debuff; every ally around each of those enemies gets a damage buff for each enemy; and a damage buff surrounds you. If you are soloing two enemies, you get your three doses of damage buff and have a lovely little time. If you are in a group of eight fighting sixteen enemies, your entire team can get seventeen damage buffs and become gods of destruction. Conveniently, Brutes have an extra-high damage cap, so the more enemies they have pounding on them when Fulcrum Shift hits, the better.
I suddenly have the urge to go make a villain named Bikini Wax. Most women would agree that they are pretty villainous, I think.
PS – That “bikini wax” link is safe for work, and it was the inspiration for this post.