On the face of it an Olympic medal isn't worth much, about €83 according to this web page .Yet people who win one often consider it to be the greatest achievement of their lives. To a small nation like my own even a single gold medal is a cause for national celebration. The real value of a gold medal comes from the difficulty of getting it. In fact the medal itself is only a symbol of the heroic achievement that getting it entailed. If Mark Spitz threw away all seven of the medals he won in Munich people would still remember his achievement in winning them.
Computer games strive to create this sort of value all the time. Most single player games reward you with a fairly inane final cinematic after downing the last boss. The cinematic itself is pretty worthless but the pride and satisfaction you get from overcoming the challenge of the game is certainly not. It is often possible to enable cheats and get to the end of the game that way. Fine if you really want to see the end credits but a considerably less fulfilling experience. However this is after all a form of entertainment and different people have different levels of ability, dexterity and above all time. I may lack the nimble fingers of a 15 year old and I certainly have many more competing demands on my time but I still want to get the the end of this game I bought. Thankfully most single player games offer a variety of difficulty settings. The quick fingered 15 year old can vanquish the game on nightmare setting while I get similar enjoyment out of playing through on normal difficulty mode. I have found that playing the game at too easy or too hard a setting greatly diminishes my enjoyment. On a curious side note: A few years back I used to play most games on the second hardest difficulty mode (the old ultraviolence setting from Doom). Recently I have started shifting the difficulty back to normal. Perhaps I am getting older but this also reflects the fact that I play more games now and I find my time is getting ever more precious.
MMORPGs really go to town in creating this type of value. There is no such thing as "finishing the game" so dedicated players strive for rewards along the way. This may be the attainment of levels, the learning of new skills and perhaps most significantly the acquiring of powerful items. Since such things are in reality no more than a few pixels on the screen the game makers go to great lengths to create value by making them hard to achieve requiring many hours of gameplay, perhaps entailing co-operation of many fellow gamers and also needing a modicum of luck in getting the correct drops. Having created this value the game makers then go to great lengths to ensure that this value is not diluted through the discovery of an easier method of obtaining the goal. This gives the players who have invested so much time and effort some comfort in knowing that their achievement will not be devalued.
I realise that my analogy with the Olympic medal winner breaks down somewhat when you look at value as perceived by society at large. The Olympic medal winner is lauded as a hero / heroine and can probably make substantial earnings from their fame. The wearer of a complete set of World of Warcraft Tier 3 armour is regarded as sad individual who has no life. Nevertheless we cannot ignore the fundamentals of the human spirit. The best answer ever given for why one should want to climb a mountain was George Mallory's "Because it is there". The wearer of the tier 3 armour knows himself the magnitude of his achievement even if his mother despairs at his ever getting a girlfriend.
Yet this raises extra difficulties in a multiplayer on-line game because different players come with different levels of ability and different levels of commitment yet all come expecting (and paying for) entertainment. If a casual player can obtain the gilded sword of uberness in 10 hours on easy setting while the hard core player spends 100 hours on high difficulty to get the same piece then the more committed player can feel quite rightly that their efforts have been devalued. For this reason it is rare to find adjustable difficulty levels in MMORPGs and cheat modes are completely outlawed. Unfortunately this then puts the casual player at a disadvantage. They will never get to own the gilded sword of uberness and experience the added gameplay that it permits despite paying the same price for the game as the hard core player. This of course is the age old "casuals versus hard core" debate and I do not propose to solve it here. I do want to comment on a couple of models for dealing with these issues that I have experienced.
Pre-Burning Crusade World of Warcraft set up powerful items (armour and weapons) as the most valuable rewards in the game. The only way to obtain these powerful items was to invest enormous amounts of time in end game activities such as raiding, grinding faction or pvp play. Of these methods raiding was probably the quickest in terms of reward versus time invested but it also required the most co-operation with other so was not amenable to solo player or players who could not commit regularly to group play. This scheme certainly created value and Blizzard took strong steps to ensure that value was conserved even to the extent to banning several long term players who were caught using exploits to speed up the route to rewards. In my opinion it is unfortunate that these items were not just symbols of achievement but actually gave boosts to player capabilities as well. This put the more casual player at an ever increasing disadvantage and effectively shut them out from large sections of gameplay. Encounters that are designed for players kitted out in uber gear are just not accessible to more casual players. The problem kept getting worse as each new tranche of high end content was added. One feels compelled to ask why Blizzard even bothered to add the Naxramas dungeon for example when such a small percentage of their player base will ever get to experience it.
Blizzard are playing a balancing game between the needs of casual and hardcore players and they have responded by levelling the field for players in the new Burning Crusade expansion, making easy to get items in the expansion as powerful as uber leet gear from before. They have taken even more drastic steps with PVP changing the reward structure so totally that pvp now looks like the easiest method of getting high end rewards whereas previously it was the hardest. These steps should certainly please casual players but the hard core may well feel aggrieved that their past efforts have been devalued.
Guild wars adopts a somewhat different approach. I know Guild Wars is not a true MMORPG but there are so many similarities that the comparison is still valid. In it's Player versus environment game Guild Wars does not invest so much value in rare items. A casual player working through the story line can fairly quickly get themselves outfitted in the best armour in the game. There are special skills to capture and rare green drops to be collected but these do not require the gargantuan levels of effort demanded in a game like WOW. In any case the increase in abilities provided is not so great as to imbalance the whole game. Where then are the rewards that encourage people to invest thousands of hours in the game? Most of these rewards might be called "Vanity" rewards. A set of armour for example that actually has the same specifications as default armour but looks prettier. Also there are Titles that may be earned for achieving certain feats: "Explorer" for exploring every corner of the map, "Survivor" for getting to a high level without dying and so on. Some of the titles are quite humorous for example "Drunkard" for excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages and "Unlucky" for losing at games of chance. People do seem committed to strive for these vanity rewards even though they convey little or no advantage in gameplay. In the PVP game Guild Wars used to require that players first unlock skills by playing through the PVE game but NCsoft have since introduced the ability to buy all the skills you need for PVP. At first glance this appears to devalue the efforts put in by players who have already earned all their skills the hard way but I haven't heard too many complaints about it.
Personally I prefer Guild Wars way of doing things. Rewards are mainly symbolic much in the way an Olympic medal is but that does not undermine their value. I know that I will probably never earn the survivor title but I do admire those who have done. I like playing a game where I know that all regions of the game are accessible even to a casual player like myself. And if I do happen to meet a multi titled hard core player in a pvp arena they will still probably wipe the floor with me but it will be due to their playing skill and not because of the +20 PWN NOOB gear they are wearing. Guild wars is a much less popular game than World of Warcraft but I do not think that the reward system is at fault for this. I think it would be possible to build a fully fledged social MMORPG with all of the beauty and diversity of WOW but with a reward system closer to the honorary titles of Guild Wars.