Priests and Bikini Waxes

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 advertise 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.

: Zubon

PS – That “bikini wax” link is safe for work, and it was the inspiration for this post.

13 thoughts on “Priests and Bikini Waxes”

  1. I’ve thought about this a lot. I like playing Warriors in WoW and Tankers in CoH, but not because I like the support role: I like hitting someone in the face with a goddamned axe/super strength endowed fists. Of course, the axe/fists, do tiny amounts of damage compared to what the Rogue/Stalker can do with his little sword. So I’m stuck with the quandry: build like a damage dealer/soloer and be automatically sub-par, or build like a support class and be bored to tears? It’s a terrible choice.

    Every MMO designer is terrified now of making a tank/mage, for fear that the players won’t need each other for anything anymore, and will quit playing their game. In my opinion, they’re looking at it the wrong way. Let people build tank mages, but include a little catch: yeah, you’re a tank mage for maybe half the content, but something out there will totally fuck you up. Let’s look at it CoH style. Get rid of the ATs, they’re not necessary in this system. Everyone gets a primary set of melee attacks/ranged attacks/mix, depending on their preference. They get some sort of personal defense as their secondary. Get rid of defense as a concept, everything is resistance. There’s still a chance of missing/being mixed, but not soemthing the players can directly influence on the defensive side, altho they can still slot for accuracy. That, by itself, gets rid of one of the current major balance issues, the interlocking of defense and resistance to be greater than the sum of its parts.

    Anyway, if people want buffs, they’re in the power pools. You want empathy powers? Empathy pool. Radiation emission? Radiation emission pool. And so on and so on. This is sort of a hybrid between how the game is now and how it was during alpha/early beta.

    Here’s where it becomes okay to make a tank mage. Every one of the defense pools has a major hole in it. The Cold defense’s hole is fire. The Energy defense’s hole is cold. The Darkness defense’s hole is energy. The psionic defense’s hole is darkness. And so on and so on.

    It’s even possible to make multiple sets that are different, as long as you keep this simple rule in mind: every defense has a hole, and that hole always stays the same. The Electricity, Energy, and Radiation defense sets are all “Energy” sets, and they all have the Cold hole, but they each have different other characteristics: Radiation has a self heal and +hit points power, for example, Energy has no heal, but it’s defenses are largely passive, so they’re harder to detoggle, Electricity has a number of endurance draining/endurance restoring powers.

    Same thing with the Fire/Heat/Plasma defense sets: They’re all “Fire” sets, so they have the same basic hole. However, for example, Fire has a bunch of utility powers, Plasma is a straight, strong armor set, that even has a very slight resistance to its damage hole, but no heals/endurance buffs, and Heat… does something else. Whatever. You get the idea. Another important point is that they’re each strong against their damage type, so Fire sets are strong against Fire, etc. They’re also strong against the next type of damage in the “damage wheel.” Therefore, Fire armors are strong against cold, energy armors are strong against darkness, etc.

    Of course, the damage sets each give off (primarily) Cold or Toxic or Energy or whatever. There may be a little flavoring in there, with, for example, a Fire Blade doing a little lethal along with its Fire damage, but only very small amounts. So, in PvP, There’s always someone out there that you can hit very hard, two people that you have trouble hurting, and a bunch of people you stack up against in an average way. In the same way, each enemy type has someone that can throw each type of damage. Taking Longbow as an example, there would be:

    Longbow Flamethrower (fire)
    Longbow Brawler (smashing)
    Longbow Taser (energy)
    Longbow Rifle (lethal)
    Longbow Psionicist (psionics)
    Longbow Mage (darkness)
    Longbow Chemical Specialist (toxic)
    Longbow Cryo (cold)

    And similar things in other groups. Maybe some damage types would be rarer than others in a given enemy group, but there’s always the chance to have a damage type show up in a given spawn.

    With this, there’s always a danger when soloing. It’s possible to do, but if you’re got Energy Armor and you end up running into a spawn of three Longbow Cryo’s, it’s going to be a painful experience. However, if you run with a friend with Fire Armors, he can go in and dismantle that group while you provide fire support.

    As far as buffs and such, the people that want to make dedicated buffing/healing machines can. However, it’s no longer as necessary. This system would allow for strong team dynamics without the need for the healer/tank/DPS style of gameplay. There would definitely need to be more fleshing out of this idea, especially to make sure that there’s not an uber set of pools that someone can take to make themselves godlike, but that should be largely as simple as making buffs work off of a percentage base, rather than straight adds. For example, if you take “Resistance Buffs” as a power, then, when slotted, your +Fire Resistance power will give the person 1.1 times their base personal fire resistance, rather than giving a flat +15% resistance to fire. That should help make buffs useful, but not necessarily so much for shoring up weaknesses. Instead, it makes someone better at their damage-specific role.

  2. Interesting analogy, and it works for the unattached player. But in the business world, an entity cares only for itself. In MMO’s, I care about the welfare/success of my group (guild). The success of that group gives me pleasure. Therefore, I roll support classes to please myself.

    Having said that, it is nice when architects realize that even the most dedicated group-oriented player will occasionally want some me-time. Solo play is an important part of any class. WoW got this pretty well nailed down, better than any game before it. Unfortunately, it kind of falls apart in the 60 raiding end-game.

  3. I agree with Joe. The whole concept of having classes that are boring to play comes about because of the strict class limitations. Give players a more open skill/advancement system so that everyone can be a hybrid if they want. The trick is to balance it so that those who stay more focused on a particular set of skills get some very nice powers and bonuses that would be unavailable to those who play the tank-mage or jack-of-all-trades type characters.

  4. “In MMO’s, I care about the welfare/success of my group (guild). The success of that group gives me pleasure. Therefore, I roll support classes to please myself.”

    Not really, it’s not much different. People do it for the group to succeed, but only so they themselves can succeed. It’s no different than when your manager asks you to take over some system or process that you don’t want. You do it anyway not because you love your company and want it to succeed, but because those in authority said they needed it, and you thought it would help you get head. It’s the same in wow. You do it for the group, you might want to help out the group because it’s fun .. but it’s ultimately to help yourself. To see the rest of the game, and to get more dkp to spend on either character.

  5. “People do it for the group to succeed, but only so they themselves can succeed.”

    I’d say we really do some things altruistically. I do things for my friends for their benefit without long-term benefit to myself or even an expectation of reciprocity. When someone wants a purely decorative badge or shiny, and you can get it for him quickly, you just do. I get 0xp, he gets something that will never help me. Maybe that is contributing to an ethic of mutual aid that ultimately works to my benefit, but mostly I’m helping my friend there.

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