Monday, June 19, 2017

The Concept of Soft Time Gating

A year ago, I published an article discussing the concept of time gating that resulted from reviewing my experience with some games at the time, including the Warlords of Draenor expansion. In this article, I specified a certain type of time gating and how the method intentionally creates something of a content drought, often to control the rate at which players participate to prolong the longevity of the content itself. This type of time gate, which I now call a "hard time gate", is a concept I argued was harmful to the game since if it is used liberally, players can be left disinterested due to a lack of activities to do, reducing player retention. The result of researching and analyzing time gating led me to consider the concept of gameplay loops more seriously, greatly altering my perspective as an armchair game designer.

I then proceeded to provide examples, including a chart comparing a player's active time based on the time-gated content. After stating how Legion was likely to increase a player's active time due to its content and systems, which I proceeded to review later on. I touched on the concept of the "soft time gate" by pointing out that there's limited rewards that are in themselves gated but the content itself, which would usually provide diminished rewards, is not limited. In this article, I will delve into soft time gating further by explaining how it can be used to appeal to multiple types of players. I will then evaluate some WoW-related examples to determine how effective they are at maintaining such appeal.

Guidelines of Soft Time Gating

As I described above, a soft time gate is not intended to limit access to the content itself by locking players out of it. Instead, it provides an incentive for players to participate in certain content by offering a greater reward initially that diminishes as participation time increases. By frontloading a more enticing reward, players with less free time will be able to get more out of the little time they have. However, the "diminished" reward should still be enticing enough to be worthwhile to earn for players with more free time. Ideally, this system would have no detriment on the gameplay either.

To accomplish all these goals, I think working on base rewards initially is important since starting with a generous base reward should ideally make rewards behind a soft time gate feel more like a bonus. To further ensure the base reward feels worthwhile to acquire, the bonus reward should only be a few times more generous at most or offer some sort of secondary benefit when acquired that's not related to the base reward.

Another point to consider is how periodic a time-gated reward should be. From my experience, many games tend to lock such rewards behind a daily timer but that isn't necessarily the only way. For example, some rewards are given multiple times over a week, which is an effective way to reward less regular players who might have larger blocks of free time available a few times a week. In fact, I think many daily rewards could be reworked to be awarded multiple times over many days to maximize the players who benefit. Conversely, in the case of rewards that can be earned every few hours, the rewards should be less generous compared to a daily equivalent when summed up since free time can be difficult to spread out over the day for some players.

Ultimately, while there may be other ways to create and use a soft time gate, I think focusing on and balancing a reward system is a highly effective way since reward systems in themselves tend to serve as an incentive for players to participate in content.

Analyzing Soft Time Gate Examples

Soft time gates are nothing new, though they may not have been conceptualized as such. Because of this, the success at mass appeal can vary wildly. Let's consider a few examples:
Daily heroic rewards
When it initially debuted in the Burning Crusade, the rewards were relatively small, equalling to about 50% of the currency one earned from doing the Heroic dungeon. This was also implemented into the Dungeon Finder system and eventually streamlined to grant bonus currency for the first seven Heroic dungeon clears within a week, but this was reverted to a degree later on. The reward system then regressed back to a Burning Crusade-like daily heroic quest system due to the removal of Justice and Valor Points but the rewards were relatively lousy and required a specific Garrison building. Valor was eventually added back as a daily heroic reward but Mythic dungeons, among other sources, were a far superior method to earn the currency by that point. As of this writing, there is not much in the way of currency award but bonus Artifact Power is awarded instead, but compared to content like Mythic dungeons it's likely not a strong enough incentive.

Overall, I think the Cataclysm (first seven clears per week) and Mists of Pandaria (first clear, but consistent bonus rewards for each clear afterwards) were the best iterations since they're both a little more flexible with player schedules.
Emissary quests
I've already mentioned this to a degree elsewhere but emissary quests serve as a bonus for completing four world quests of a specific type. The reward consisted of a high amount of reputation with the faction associated with the emissary quest, some gold or Order Resources, and gear. While the reputation award was immense compared to the amount world quests gave, the other rewards were about the equivalent of completing a single world quest excluding the fact emissary quests can potentially award legendary gear. Players have three days to complete an emissary quest from when they first appear.

Overall, I think this is one of the better soft time gates in World of Warcraft. While the reputation reward isn't as significant as it was earlier in the expansion, the other rewards from an emissary quest cache feel like a bonus and the unique chance to get a legendary serves as an incentive of sorts, even though there's other, superior ways.
Mythic+ weekly chest
Mythic+ dungeons in general award a fair amount of loot and Artifact Power even after the 7.2.5 changes. However, some players may focus on the contents of the weekly chest that awards loot based on the highest Mythic+ dungeon completed by a character in a given week. The gear earned from the chest can be a substantially higher item level than gear earned from completing Mythic+ dungeons. However, since it is one piece of random gear and the Titanforging system allows players to potentially earn better gear, the weekly chest rewards serve as something of a bonus, making it a decent, if arguably modest, soft time gate.
Bonus rolls
Bonus rolls, which are used to potentially earn extra gear off of a raid of Mythic dungeon boss, are purchased through the use of various currencies depending on the bonus roll currency in question. The currency needed to purchase bonus rolls was farmed from various sources and as the system aged, the methods to acquire them expanded to options such as gold and Honor (and now Marks of Honor). More bonus roll sources have been added recently, such as through the Nether Disruptor building and Order Hall missions.

Bonus rolls serve as a flexible soft time gate since there's multiple ways to earn them. However, its effectiveness is limited since gear from a bonus roll is not guaranteed and its secondary rewards may not be useful to some. Furthermore, one can only acquire a few bonus rolls each week, after which there may be no tangible reward for farming more of the currency needed to purchase a bonus roll aside from preparing for upcoming weeks, diminishing the effect of bonus rolls as an incentive to participate in content that eventually awards it further.

Final Statements

While I think the soft time gate is a good compromise for the varying amounts of free time a player may have, that doesn't mean there can't be other types of content. Some content, as I mentioned above, may need a hard time gate to prevent players from participating in the content too much, which ensures its longevity. In the case of other content, adding any sort of time gating may be unnecessary since the content and reward can be consistent but still have strong appeal. Regardless, I hope this article will lead to thoughts about what sort of soft time gates might be in any given game.

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