Everything I ever needed to know, I learned from World of Warcraft: Incentives and rewards

This is a linkpost for https://blog.obormot.net/Everything-I-ever-needed-to-know-I-learned-from-World-of-Warcraft-Incentives-and-rewards

This is the second in a series of posts about lessons from my experiences in World of Warcraft. I’ve been talking about this stuff for a long time—in forum comments, in IRC conversations, etc.—and this series is my attempt to make it all a bit more legible. I’ve added footnotes to explain some of the jargon, but if anything remains incomprehensible, let me know in the comments.

Previous post in series: Goodhart’s law.


“How do we split the loot?”

That was one of the biggest challenges of raiding in World of Warcraft.

We’ve gotten 40 people together; we’ve kept them focused on the task, for several hours straight; we’ve coordinated their efforts; we’ve figured out the optimal strategy and tactics for taking down the raid boss; we’ve executed flawlessly (or close enough, anyway). Now, the dragon (or demon, or sentient colossus of magically animated lava) lies dead at our feet, and we’re staring at the fabulous treasure that was his, and is now ours; and the question is: who gets it?

The problem of the indivisible

“Why not divide it 40 ways? That’s only fair!”

If only it were that easy! But the loot can’t be split 40 ways, because it’s not just a giant pile of gold coins; it’s (for instance): a magic warhammer, a magic staff, and a magic robe. Three[1] items; each quite valuable and desirable; each of which can be given to one person, and cannot be sold or traded thereafter. We have to decide, here and now, which three out of the 40 members of the raid will receive one of these rewards. The other 37 get nothing.

What to do?

It would be difficult to overstate how much thought went into answering this question, among WoW players; how much effort was spent on debating it; how much acrimony it spawned; and how critical was a good answer to it, in determining success in the most challenging endeavors in the game (high-end raiding). Disagreements in matters of loot distribution broke friendships, and ill-advised loot policies cracked guilds in half.

Nor should this be at all surprising, for World of Warcraft was human civilization in microcosm. The task of organizing and coordinating a raid was project management; figuring out how to take down a raid boss was strategic planning, and practical epistemology, and mathematics; making money at the Auction House (in order to purchase performance-enhancing potions) was economics. But the distribution of loot—that was politics.

Pie-slicing as project management

To the question of “how to split the loot”, there is at least one simple answer: a roll of the dice.[2] This method was used often—in “one-off” raids, wherein a group of players would come together, for this one occasion only, to defeat a challenge (or a connected group of challenges), and then disperse, entering into no longer-term relationship with one another, possibly never to cooperate or interact again. In such cases, it was understood that your participation comes with the promise of a chance at winning a reward. If the group happens to find some piece of treasure which you covet, you will have an opportunity to throw your name into the hat, and—should the Random Number God smile upon you—to win the prize. That’s all you can expect, and it’s no more than anyone else is getting. In a temporary collective, made up of strangers, one can hardly ask for more.

But such one-off groups are nowhere near effective enough to tackle the most difficult challenges that are available—that is, to do “progression raiding”[3]. For that, you need for the same 40 people to assemble, week after week, month after month; they must learn to work together smoothly, and they must all, together, learn the raid encounters, and the strategies and tactics for defeating them; and, just as importantly, all members of the raid must “get geared”—must acquire better and better equipment for their characters, in order to improve their performance and become better able to handle the next challenge, and the next. This is a sustained, collective effort, and it can only be managed by a persistent organization: the raid guild.

The challenges of running a raid guild are legion; there is much to say about them—enough for many more blog posts. For now, the key point is this: for a raid guild, the question of loot distribution is, at once, both a serious and thorny problem, and a powerful tool which may be applied to many other aspects of guild management.

There were many “loot systems”. Some were communistic: the raid leader (or a “Loot Council”, composed of the raid leader and a small handful of others) would simply decide which raid member would receive each piece of loot—“to each according to his need”. Others were at the opposite extreme—“free market” systems, where one accumulated “points” via raid attendance and contributions to the raid’s success, and the allocation of loot was decided via bidding.

Neither extreme ever sat well with me (for reasons that should be obvious enough to anyone with any passing familiarity with the real-world economic systems to which I alluded). When the guild to which I belonged decided to get serious about progression raiding, and it came time to formulate a policy for loot distribution, I advocated for a loot system which, to this day, I consider the most ideal, of all the systems I’ve encountered. The system was adopted, and it served us well for years to come. That system was known as the “Effort Points / Gear Points” system, or EP/GP.

Solution: EP/GP

The idea of EP/GP was simple. There are some actions/behaviors that you don’t want your members to engage in at all; those you ban outright, and set whatever punishments you see fit. Those aside, however, there are two categories of things that aren’t discouraged:

First, there are things that you want everyone to be doing as much as possible—things that are unboundedly good. Second, there are things which are good for people to be doing, healthy, expected, certainly not discouraged—but you don’t want anyone doing them too much, and you don’t want there to be a serious imbalance in who is doing those things.

The second category consists of things which people just want to do, of their own accord, and don’t really need to be incentivized to do; they’re their own incentives. The first category consists of things that you do generally need to incentivize people to do, even if people “want” (or want to want) to do them. (In WoW, the first category is “help the raid kill bosses” and the second category is “get gear, thus making your character more awesome”.)

The idea of the EP/GP distribution system is that you use the first category to rate-limit the second. Each member has two quantities associated with them: EP (effort points) and GP (gear points). Both start at 0; each goes up as a consequence of actions/behaviors in that category. Do unboundedly-good prosocial thing? Your EP goes up. Do self-incentivizing indirectly-prosocial self-benefiting thing? Your GP goes up. And whenever there is any scarce resource that people want, it is allocated according to EP/GP ratio; whoever has the highest such ratio gets the resource (and their GP goes up accordingly).

So, the more EP-generating things you do, the higher your priority in the allocation of rewards; the more GP-generating things you are allocated, the lower your priority subsequently. As long as you can define those categories, and place relevant behaviors/actions into them, EPGP works to allocate your scarce resources and incentivize members’ contributions.

The EP/GP system has a number of ancillary benefits:

First, new members immediately get the instant gratification of being top priority for resources, as soon as they contribute anything whatsoever (as EP and GP start at 0, any contribution makes EP positive, and positive/zero = infinite priority!) Having now given and gotten something of value, they are drawn in, at which point their priority goes down to below that of regulars/veterans; it fluctuates greatly at first, then stabilizes. This incentivizes early contribution, but doesn’t make people “pay dues” excessively to get anything at all.

Second, because EP can be assigned for anything, and relative values set to whatever the administration wishes, the system makes it easy to design incentive structures that encourage whatever you like

Third, there is tangible benefit to sustained contribution, without locking out newcomers.

A contrast: DKP

“Dragon Kill Points”, or “DKP”, was, once upon a time, the most popular loot system; it long predated EP/GP.[4] In DKP, each member of a raid would receive some number of points (the titular “dragon kill points”) upon successful completion of a raid encounter. To receive a piece of loot, a raid member had to spend some of his points (the amount usually determined by a bidding contest among all raid members who wanted that item).

DKP had many faults, and waned greatly in popularity as WoW aged; better systems (such as EP/GP) had come along. With DKP, if you were a newcomer, joining a raid full of veterans, the only way you were going to get anything was if no one else wanted it—otherwise you had to toil through raid after raid, contributing effort but knowing in advance that you weren’t getting anything for your efforts (except scraps from the veterans’ table, as it were).

What makes a good loot system?

The twin needs, in any group that depends, for success, on a bunch of people all contributing as much effort as possible, are:

  1. You have to pull in good people;
  2. You have to get your people to stay, and keep contributing.

DKP was bad at #1, because the prospect of slaving away for weeks or months before you had accumulated enough to have a shot at the good stuff was daunting (and then you could be outbid by a veteran who’d been hoarding his points for longer; and even if you won, you might've just spent all your points on one thing; etc.). DKP was also bad at #2, because after you had accumulated a certain large pool of points, the incentive to keep contributing dropped off.

EP/GP, on the other hand, is good at #1, because your first reward is basically guaranteed, as soon as you contribute something of value. And EP/GP is good at #2, because going up in priority is easy at the start, and bouncing back from getting some gear is easy, and as it gets harder, well, ratios equalize; and as long as you keep contributing, you stay at a good ratio, and meanwhile, the higher your EP gets (if you’re a veteran), the faster it drops when you get something.[5]

Is EP/GP really the best way?

Later in WoW’s history—when it became possible for high-end raid encounters to be tackled by smaller raid groups—there arose, within some raid guilds, the practice of having multiple raid groups, including some that were more ‘elite’/exclusive than the guild’s main raid group. (Members of such smaller groups typically participated in the sub-group’s raids in addition to taking part in the guild’s primary raiding activities.) Where a good raid guild might’ve been in the 99th percentile of competence and achievement, among the overall player population, it might have within it a smaller raid group which was much, much further toward the right tail of the raid content achievement distribution.

Such smaller sub-groups usually did not use the EP/GP or other allocation system of the main group, but had their own, separate, loot policies. These policies typically skewed closer to “managed communism” than to “regulated capitalism” on the spectrum of loot systems; and I do not think that this is a coincidence. The members of these smaller, more exclusive groups—which, in virtue of their greater selectivity for competence and performance, almost always performed better and accomplished more difficult goals than a guild’s primary raiding group—exhibited a higher degree of sublimation of personal interest to group interest, than did members of a guild’s main raid group; they were more willing to make sacrifices “for the good of the raid”.

If you’re trying to maintain a raiding guild of 100 people, keep it functioning and healthy over the course of months or years, new content, people joining and leaving, schedules and life circumstances changing, different personalities and background, etc., then it's important to maintain member satisfaction; it’s important to ensure that people feel in control and rewarded and appreciated; that they don’t burn out or develop resentments; that no one feels slighted, and no one feels that anyone is favored. You also have to recruit new members, to keep up with inevitable member turn-over. All of these things are more important than “being maximally effective at taking down this raid boss right now, and then the next five bosses this week”. If you focus on the latter and ignore the former, your guild will break and explode, and people on WoW-related news websites will place stories about your public meltdowns in the Drama section, and laugh at you.

On the other hand, if you get 10 players together, and you say: “OK, dudes—we, these particular 10 people, are going to show up every single Sunday for several months, play for 6 hours straight each time, and we will push through absolutely the most challenging content in the game, which only a small handful [or sometimes: none at all] of people in the world have done”—that is a different scenario. There’s no room for “I’m not the tank but I want that piece of tank gear”, because if you do that, you will fail.

What a group of the latter sort promises—which a larger, more skill-diverse, less elite/exclusive, group cannot promise—is the incredible rush of pushing yourself—your concentration, your skill, your endurance, your coordination, your ingenuity—to the maximum, and succeeding at something really really hard, as a result. That is the intrinsic motivation which takes the place of the extrinsic motivation of “getting loot”. As a result, the extrinsic motivation is no longer a resource which it is vitally important to allocate. In that scenario, your needs are the group’s needs; the group’s successes are your successes; there is no separation between you and the group—and consequently, the need for equity in loot allocation falls away, and everything is allocated strictly by group-level optimization.

This was evident in the reactions people had, to seeing other people get loot. In a larger, somewhat-more-casual, raid group, it went like this:

Alice gets [awesome piece of gear].

Alice: yay! :D

Bob: grats

[Bob is happy for Alice but also jealous, Bob wanted that thing too.]

In tighter-knit, more “hardcore” groups, it was more like this:

Alice gets [awesome piece of gear].

Everyone in the raid: F***| YEAH!! :D

[Everyone is ecstatic that Alice got that thing; no one is jealous.]

In the latter case, it was not only understood, but viscerally felt, that every thing that anyone in the raid gets, is increased performance for the group as a whole—which is all that matters.[6]

[1] It wasn’t always three, of course; sometimes one, sometimes four, etc.

[2] WoW came equipped with such a feature; one would type /roll 100 into the chat window, the server would generate a pseudo-random number in the range [1,100], and would output the result into the chat, for all raid members to see. Thus, everyone could roll for a piece of loot, and the person with the highest roll would receive it.

[3] See the previous post in the series for a definition of this term.

[4] DKP is one of the oldest loot systems; it was used even before World of Warcraft—in older MMORPGs like EverQuest.

[5] Most EP/GP implementations also included a “decay” feature—which periodically (every week, or every month, or similar) reduced all EP and GP values by some factor—which helped even more.

[6] Of course, that sort of thing doesn’t scale, and neither can it last, just as you cannot build a whole country like a kibbutz. But it may be entirely possible, and perfectly healthy, to occasionally cleave off subgroups who follow that model, then to meld back into the overgroup at the completion of a project (never, indeed, having truly separated from it—the sub-groups’ members continuing to participate in the overgroup, even as they throw themselves into the sub-project).

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Might be of interest to some readers:

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Spliddit's goods calculator fairly divides jewelry, artworks, electronics, toys, furniture, financial assets, or even an entire estate between two or more people. You begin by providing a list of items that you wish to divide and a list of recipients. We then send the recipients links where they specify how much they believe each item is worth. Our algorithm uses these evaluations to propose a fair division of the items among the recipients.

>>

See: http://www.spliddit.org/apps/goods

Spliddit solves a one-off fair division problem, but the problem faced by WoW guilds is importantly different because 1) it's iterated, 2) you have to sink in resources to get access to each round of the fair division problem (killing a raid boss or whatever), and 3) players can leave at any time if the rewards aren't good enough.

I'm curious but a bit confused about some of the benefits of EP/GP over the straight free-market model, but if EP/GP did indeed take over then I'm sure there's something I'm missing.

1: Presumably, in both models, in the long run it takes roughly the same average amount of time (modulated by your efficiency of pro-social activity) to get an item of quality >x, but it seems that in EP/GP you get your first almost immediately, while in DKP your timer starts from 0. Was there the issue of individuals jumping around guilds to try and get that first item?

2: Is there any system by which one can defer the receiving of items in EP/GP so that you don't end up getting something that is of low or nil value to you (especially since they can't be traded)? The main advantage of the free-market, at least in systems where individuals have similar ability to earn currency, is usually that items go to those who value them most, so you'd expect DWP to have a big efficiency advantage if you can't choose whether to accept. On the other hand, if this deferral is possible, would this degenerate into something like a free market, except where new entrants have first dibs over everything?

The power of attracting new players is a valuable advantage I'm sure but it's the only one that I really see from the 3 given above, and I can't see how this isn't possible in a similar way by, say, a free market system where a new member gets some kind of joining bonus.

Presumably, in both models, in the long run it takes roughly the same average amount of time (modulated by your efficiency of pro-social activity) to get an item of quality >x

I’m not sure this is true, and I’m not even sure this question makes sense. Are you referring to the time between when a new member joins and when he gets an item of some quality? If so, then of course that period is shorter with EP/GP—how can it be otherwise? Besides, for some values of x, the answer to the question will be modulated not just by the individual contribution of the said member, but also by the overall effectiveness of the raid—and this depends on choice of loot system, as I said.

Was there the issue of individuals jumping around guilds to try and get that first item?

Not much; such issues were handled very effectively simply by informal reputation / word-of-mouth effects.

Besides, getting into a good raiding guild wasn’t guaranteed; guilds had an application process, and recruitment was highly selective. It wasn’t to one’s benefit to leave a guild immediately after joining and receiving an item. What then? Join another guild? In the time it would take to find another guild to join, to get accepted into it, to get invited to their raid, you could just accumulate the points to get another item.

Is there any system by which one can defer the receiving of items in EP/​GP so that you don’t end up getting something that is of low or nil value to you (especially since they can’t be traded)?

… naturally, you would only get anything if you wanted it and explicitly asked for it. I suppose I didn’t say that outright, but it seemed very obvious to me!

On the other hand, if this deferral is possible, would this degenerate into something like a free market, except where new entrants have first dibs over everything?

The idea, of course, is that items go to whoever wants them, but if multiple people want an item, then the recipient is selected by EP/GP ratio priority. The differences between this system and the “free-market” systems like DKP is, in fact, exactly what I describe in the post.

The power of attracting new players is a valuable advantage I’m sure but it’s the only one that I really see from the 3 given above, and I can’t see how this isn’t possible in a similar way by, say, a free market system where a new member gets some kind of joining bonus.

If the joining bonus were large enough to give a new member enough DKP to get the choice items, then older members would (quite rightly) complain. If it were smaller, it wouldn’t work.

Thanks for replying :)

If the joining bonus were large enough to give a new member enough DKP to get the choice items, then older members would (quite rightly) complain. If it were smaller, it wouldn’t work.

I guess my central question is, a new player will have infinite EP/GP after they first receive EP. They can therefore wait until their perfect item comes up, and choose that. This to me seems extremely similar to giving an uncertain but potentially very large joining bonus. After losing this infinite ratio status, the situation then seems very similar to a free market one. In particular I don't understand why having collected lots of points (ie ability to claim future value) would lead to your incentive dropping off, while accumulating a high ratio (which you'd presumably need to 'save' for a while for really top items) doesn't have this problem.

I guess my central question is, a new player will have infinite EP/​GP after they first receive EP. They can therefore wait until their perfect item comes up, and choose that.

Sure. They can. Then they’ll have one really good item. And that’s great, but it’s not that great.

Consider this scenario:

I join a raiding guild, and I go on a raid with them. We take down a boss. Several items drop. One of them is something that would benefit me; it’s a big upgrade from what I have right now! And I can get it, guaranteed, due to my infinite EP/GP ratio. But, I don’t ask for it, because I’m looking for that really, really great item.

We take down another boss. More items drop. One of these, too, is an upgrade for me! But I decline it.

We take down another boss. And another. And another. I pass over item after item, watching other raid members take it all, because I’m waiting for us to get to the end boss, who has the really good stuff. Finally, we take down that end boss! The thing I’ve been coveting drops! I ask for it, and even though lots of other people want it, too, I’ve got that infinite ratio—so I get it. Victory!

… and now I have one really good piece of equipment, and the rest of my stuff is crap. Meanwhile, everyone else is decked out head to toe in high-quality gear. Hmm.

And then, next week, when the raid goes on to the next raid, I show up, but find that I don’t get a raid invite. “But why?!”, I exclaim. “Well,” the raid leader answers, “to be honest, Said, your performance in that last raid was really sub-par. We almost didn’t take down that end boss (you saw how close that fight was), and—I’m sorry to be so blunt—it was largely your fault. I know you’re a good player, but your equipment is lacking; you just can’t perform nearly as well as the rest of our members, with that paltry gear you’ve got. Maybe you shouldn’t’ve passed over all those drops. I’m sorry, but you’re out.”

Having hoarded that infinite ratio won’t seem like such a great idea, then.

In particular I don’t understand why collecting points (ie ability to claim future value) would lead to your incentive dropping off, while accumulating a high ratio (which you’d presumably need to ‘save’ for really top items) doesn’t have this problem.

It’s a simple matter of arithmetic.

If I have 10,000 EP and 1,000 GP, getting two 500-GP items reduces my ratio from 10 to 5, which is the same ratio as someone who has 2,500 EP and 500 GP. If I have 10,000 DKP and I spend 3,000 DKP to get an item, I still have 7,000 DKP, and am still guaranteed to vastly outbid someone with 2,500 DKP, no matter what item is being contested. In the former case, if I want to maintain my priority, I need to keep earning EP. In the latter case, I can skip a raid to go on a drunken bender, and when I come back the following week, I’m still guaranteed my choice of loot.