11 February, 2010
The title is funny because it seems like a tautology. Of course MMOs change over time! That's part of what makes them so damned appealing to a lot of people. It's why many MMOs survive for a decade or more whereas traditional games are lucky to still see active play for even half that long. This is why a "sequel" to an existing MMO doesn't seem too bright.
But, this fact does seem to take some people by surprise. They go along and then suddenly they realize that this isn't the game game the were playing years ago. They wonder what happened to the elements that made them fall in love.
The demographic shifts
Wolfshead has a really insightful post about WoW's Growing Immersion Deficit. In this post he points out how an immersive world sucked people like him into the world. The attention to detail like how critters interact or how the ample decorations around the world that serve no purpose but to look pretty show a lot of care went into building the world to feel like a world. Yet, times have changed and the development has focused more on gameplay elements. One example discussed is the lack of weather effects in the new expansion areas compared to the original zones. There seems to be more of a focus on playing the game and less on exploring a world.
I posted a comment about how I feel this is a reflection of the changing audience for WoW:
Initially the game was a deep world full of mystery for gamers to explore. As WoW has penetrated into more of the mainstream, they have to appeal to a different type of person. The geeks who want to live in a fantasy world are being displaced by people who see WoW as something a lot more social to do with others. It’s like playing golf or shooting pool: you play the game and bullshit with your friends. Getting immersed into the world isn’t important to WoW’s current audience.
People don't realize that WoW is five years old now. This not only means that the once "ageless" graphics are now starting to show age, it also means that a different group may now be playing the game who weren't playing at launch. As the game as gotten more widespread appeal, the audience has shifted. It's not the same RPG geeks like us who initially took to the game.
Of course, one could also argue that immersion has never been a big part of these games. There are a lot of little inconsistencies in how a game presents the world, and it's required a lot of active willing suspension of disbelief to see a game world as a real world. After all, how long have the Defias been terrorizing Westfall now? Couldn't some level 80 Death Knight just go suck their souls already?
This is not the same game you were playing a month ago...
It's also interesting how the gameplay can change so often in games. Taking WoW as an example again, the end game was originally a very abrupt change; you could solo much of the game and could go from first level to max level without needing the help from anyone else. Yet, once you were at the level cap most of the content was not intended for solo characters. My group of friends who often tackled 5-man content hit a brick wall when our only option forward was to join a large guild and be only 12.5% of the force required. That wasn't a leap we wanted to make, so we quit the game for a while. During this time, a person decked out in epic purple equipment was either really lucky, really persistent, or a really hard-core raider.
When the first expansion came out, we went back and had a lot of fun again. We fell in with a bad crowd, though, and started raiding. Blizzard made the transition a bit smoother: the introductory raid was intended for 10 characters rather than 40. The biggest raids only required 20 people. I had a lot of fun with the raids at the time. Getting decked out in epics wasn't quite so uncommon, but it was achievable with a persistent group of people.
But, then the second expansion came out and things changed again. The general feeling was that much of the game turned more "casual". The final raid of the Burning Crusade era was a punishing instance that even the elite guilds had troubles with. As a result, few people ever saw much of the Magister's Terrace raid instance. Northrend was different, and soon raiding became a lot more accessible to people. Older players who wanted to feel special for raiding were called elitist for calling the new raids too easy. But, then again, people started referring to "item level" (ilvl) in order to distinguish between different potencies for epic equipment that a player could have.
It may be interesting to consider how the changing demographics of the game has changed the raiding aspect of WoW. Now, consider that this is the trajectory of one aspect of one game as its changed over the years. Just as raiding in WoW has changed, so do a lot of other features in other games change.
The business changes
I've talked about MMOs moving away from subscriptions for a while now, usually pointing out that the other business models might work better for smaller games. It's one thing to advocate it, but another to see it up close and personal. The gradual acceptance of microtransactions has had an undeniable impact on games. From the launch of Blizzard's new pet store (a harbinger of things to come, undoubtedly) to Turbine charging for a download-only "mini-expansion" (allowing half a dozen ways to get the expansion for free... this time) and charging for conveniences like shared storage and more character slots, subscription-based games are starting to look for new ways to make more money.
It's interesting, because this is pretty much what people seemed to fear would happen. Yet, there has been surprisingly little outrage so far. Maybe some people quit, maybe some people steadfastly refuse to be tempted by the goodies, maybe people really don't care. But, the business models are changing, even if its slow at first. Or, I guess you can argue that SOE already paved the way by making millions on name and server changes.
Never get a second chance to make a first impression
Of course, some people refuse to acknowledge that games can change. My favorite example is, of course, EQ2. Upon launch, it was seen as a weak game that was quickly overwhelmed by the impending launch of WoW. Even my hard-core EQ fanatic friends who bought EQ2 at launch couldn't resist the siren's song of the shiny new game. In the eyes of the MMO audience, EQ2 had "failed" and WoW had "won".
But, EQ2 didn't just roll over and die. The dedicated developers on the team worked hard to improve the game. Yes, some of what they did was to copy the better parts of WoW, but the game improved tremendously. The game a few years after launch was vastly improved from when the game launched. My friends who had bought the game when it was released went back when we took a break from WoW and got some of the rest of us into the game as well. It was a fun game, one I enjoyed a lot more than the original WoW to be honest.
The frustrating part is that a lot of EQ2's innovations go unnoticed because it's still perceived as an "inferior" game. While the active crafting system has some flaws, no developer has been keen to copy the system and try to improve upon it. Other features like guilds that level up have been completely ignored.
Old games never die, they just develop new cheats
I've been lucky to have been involved with a long standing game, Meridian 59. While I wasn't with M59 from the start, I was involved with it for over a decade. The game had changed radically before I worked on it, and changed radically as I continued to work on it over the years.
One example I've used before talks about how the game changed when a fix to a cheat make ranged weapons more powerful in M59. This was a necessary step to protect the game from cheaters, but this doesn't stop people from waxing nostalgic about the "good old days" when using a ranged weapon "took skill".
Another problem is an aging system becomes a bigger hassle to maintain. By the time I started working on M59, over a year after launch, the developers were doing things with the system that was never intended to be done. Although some of the "hacks" worked, it could have caused other problems with the game. Sometimes fixing one problem lead to the introduction (or reintroduction) of a few other bugs. Working with the system was cranky, so a supposedly "easy" fix took a surprising amount of work.
The more things change...
It's funny how there's a simultaneous expectation that games will change to stay fresh but that they won't change because the game is fine as it currently is. When I was at 3DO, one of my co-workers joked that the cry of the player was, "Make things better, but don't change anything!" A seemingly impossible task if you think about it, but understandable given the mixed messages a community will often give.
So, what do you think? Do you embrace change and generally enjoy it? Or, are you tired of your favorite MMO becoming the game you merely tolerate because your friends are still there? Do you think your favorite MMO has lost that spark that made you love it to deal originally?