People interested in game design, product management, the (un)intended effects of incentives, internet app scalability, co-design between companies and customers, and online social behavior, could do a lot worse than to research the effects of Blizzard’s latest "Honor" patch to World of Warcraft. You can read threads such as this one, or better, go directly experience the wild wild west (and 10-second lag anytime a battle turns massive) on PVP (Player vs. Player) servers. In a nutshell, Blizzard changed the rules more than three months after launch to incentivize player killing without the disincentives described in the manual that comes with the game. Almost as soon as that happened, I think it’s fair to say (as I’ve experienced it myself) that all hell broke loose!
I believe Blizzard has studied their user base demographics and reached the conclusion they could milk the product even more by rewarding hardcore players and immature people who enjoy aggravating others, than by providing a competitive but fair environment to all, including casual gamers. This is intriguing because the game was definitely successful at reaching out beyond the hardcore. I’d love to see the stats on customer support requests and subscription cancels. After you’ve spend literally days building up a character in a game with great underlying characteristics, it’s hard to suddenly let go, but people could put their accounts on hold to wait for a better day.
It’s also interesting to look at how people have adapted and will continue to adapt their in-game attitude (for those who will stick to it). I’m sure there’s already more defensive grouping going on among people who want to complete quests without looking like gank bait. Instances (tougher environments where small groups of players are isolated from the rest of the world and which require better coordinated tactical skills) are probably becoming even more popular.
This might actually be a devious plan to strong-arm soloers into grouping: Blizzard could be forcing people into leaving now, or actually sticking to the game for much longer because of increased social activity. They know they won’t get people to stay for several years if all they do is complete quests by themselves with the occasional small-group instance. This sounds like a huge gambit so I doubt my conspiracy theory has much truth in it, but I entertain the idea and I’m sure the company is disingenuous. At the very least, Blizzard is trying to tip the long term interest of its game towards user-generated content (i.e. PVP) since it’s of course much more profitable and potentially self-sustained.
Me? I’m having too much fun making a killing doing arbitrage at the auction house to stop. I have more mana and hit points than some characters 4-5 levels above mine thanks to the better gear I can afford, enough money to buy a mount (a treat available at level 40 which I’ll reach within a couple days) and enough aside to keep funding my "savings account", thanks to information asymmetry and a customized version of Auctioneer. 1-2% of the items on sale at any time (at least on my server) can be bought and instantly sold at a guaranteed price with unlimited demand! I’d really like to see some data comparing player behavior in auctions on US and European savers. I’m the only one playing my little games on a busy server in France, while those same tricks are discussed in several US forums. The language and cultural barriers (“English? Price arbitrage? Mais c’est ultra lib