Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

11 February, 2010

MMOs change over time
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:40 AM

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?

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  1. I think for the majority of players non-silly change is either something they don’t notice or something they like. Let us pass over the SWG CU/NGE in silence.

    The players that don’t like change are often the very vocal players playing at the limits of the game in one way or another. Tiny changes seem massive when on the edge and big changes are enough for quitting in a big huff.

    I would have welcomed more change in AC1 to fix the stupid grind over level 60. That encouraged explotation of the notorious pyramid-guild scheme which left a bad taste in my mouth as people’s friendships were broken up for phat XP gain. I supposed the almost-top players would have screamed as they actually had to go out and bring home the rat tails for their XP. I quit at level 68, maybe they did fix it eventually!

    WoW has possibly made stuff a little easy recently, especially since the next xpack is a way off with supposedly no patches in between, but I stll like my welfare-queen ass being able to see the top raid instances.

    Comment by Dominic Fitzpatrick — 11 February, 2010 @ 8:49 AM

  2. I think so much depends on your pre-existing life experience and attitudes.

    I’m not just a reader of fiction, I’m a re-reader. Same with films. And music. If I like something, I generally will continue to like it pretty much forever. I’m still re-reading, re-watching and re-listening to many, many things I first encountered ten, twenty, thirty and even forty years ago.

    It’s not surprising, then, that the same is true of MMOs. I am currently levelling up half a dozen characters in Everquest that I originally created between 1999 and 2001. I’ve put several levels on each of them this week, and a dozen AAs on the highest level, my level 60 Druid. I’ve benn back to EQ so many times now I can’t really recall – this must be at least the sixth or seventh visit. Mrs Bhagpuss and I are back playing EQ2 for what is, I think, the fourth time. I’m also playing Vanguard for the third time.

    In essence, I never stop playing any of these MMOs. The focus moves from one to another, but as long as the characters remain it’s almost inevitable that I will return to play them some more. I played WoW for 6 months last year and chances are I will dip in and out for years to come. As I will with many other MMOs.

    Yes, they change. But more importantly I change. I see new things in them and get new things out of them every time I come back. Which is just how novels work, and poems and plays and film. Indeed it’s not just how narrative forms work, but how life itself works. Why would MMOs be any different?

    Comment by bhagpuss — 11 February, 2010 @ 9:03 AM

  3. I do keep asking for change, but I’d rather it be driven at least partially by the players directly.

    I do see these MMO things as being living, changing worlds; that’s sort of what happens with a live game. Inevitably, some changes I like, others I don’t. If the bad starts to outweigh the good, I tuck away my good memories and move on. I see no shame in that; life *is* change, as Remy might note, and it’s actually OK to move on to different games, or entirely different ways to pass the time. Much better to move on while the memories are good, at any rate.

    Comment by Tesh — 11 February, 2010 @ 11:06 AM

  4. I enjoy change. The problem that crops up the most – IMHO anyways – is that players feel the recent changes have somehow wrecked the game for them but in many cases they’ve simply gotten bored with the game itself. Not many people actually want to play a game exactly as it is for years consecutively.

    Without change, you run out of new things to see and do, and without new things to see and do the game will stagnate.

    Comment by Derrick — 11 February, 2010 @ 11:50 AM

  5. Someone once told me when I was working in sales at a “gaming” shop that change is what kept games alive. That without it your game is bound to die. So far it’s been mostly true. I mean no matter how great your design is at some point you’ve done enough of dungeon #132 and you move on to something else.

    So yeah I do love change when it keeps things fresh. If it wasn’t for change I’d have never would have been playing WoW for as long.

    Comment by lonomonkey — 11 February, 2010 @ 1:46 PM

  6. i’m all for change… but it needs to be in the right direction… changes that make a game less complex or less interesting seem like a step backward in my opinion… change is fine but it should always be in the direction of more complex and more interesting… you need to give players MORE things to master, not take away or make obsolete the things they’ve already mastered.

    but then again, i’m not part of WoW’s target audience anymore…

    Comment by Logan — 11 February, 2010 @ 5:10 PM

  7. “you need to give players MORE things to master, not take away or make obsolete the things they’ve already mastered.”

    Personally, I suspect this is an important distinction… very well put, Logan.

    When people say they want change, they want some new mobs to test their skills against, a new area to explore… not a change from breathing oxygen to argon. The introduction of depleted-uranium-core ammo to a setting where steel armor was previously near-invulnerable is unlikely to please everyone (or even many). In general, I suspect players want expansions, not re-writes/re-designs… which is far easier said than done.

    Comment by DamianoV — 12 February, 2010 @ 3:15 PM

  8. I think positive change in MMOs is very important in order to keep up the momentum of the game. Adding new content and fixing bugs are the obvious ones but also general improvements and tweaks to customise the game further to the demographic it’s targetting is also important.

    You mentioned 2 great examples, EQ2 and WoW.

    I love EQ2 and played it for years and even though I’m burnt out now I still maintain that it’s been the best MMORPG I’ve ever played and that’s really been down to the hard work of the developers. They had a vision for the game which wasn’t properly materialised at launch and they spent the next few years working their butts off to make the game they always intended to release.

    WoW, on the other hand, is slightly different because I think the game was so well realised right from when it was released. It undoubtably received more success than even Blizzard envisaged though and they’ve then had to focus their energies on catering to the market they broke open. I think WoW is a slave to it’s audience and the more data Blizzard gather, the more the find out that a huge percentage of their players are super casual, non-traditional MMO gamers. I’d bet that fact is quite a contrast to EQ2 though in which a lot of the players are MMO veterans.

    Of course then you get games like SW:G which radically changed everything in one patch and pissed everyone off. That was just dumb move and goes to show that you should never veer too far away from what people know in one swoop.

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 13 February, 2010 @ 4:10 AM

  9. Great article and thank you for the mention!

    Isn’t it interesting that just as change is facet of the real world so too does change characterize virtual worlds and MMOs? The key issues is whether the change is good or bad. If it’s bad then established players leave, if the change is good then more players flock to the MMO and established players keep on playing.

    With regard to immersion, I think it’s a quality that definitely is very important initially. I think this is why Blizzard put an overabundance of immersiveness into WoW when it was released. It’s very important to make a good first impression on prospective players and copious amounts of immersion is one way to do just that.

    But eventually a MMO becomes like an old sweater. It feels comfortable and familiar. You stop noticing the pattern and all the cool things about it that attracted it to you in the first place. Another analogy is moving into a new house. It’s amazing for the first few years then you stop noticing all of those cool things you initially liked about it and it becomes plain. At some point though enough things may go wrong or you end up running out of space, that you finally decide to move to a new house.

    I think MMOs are like this too. Expansions are like adding a new room to your house. MMO companies release just enough new content to keep you happy and content, while older parts of the MMO seem to fall into disrepair and disuse.

    On a related note, I just read the latest Activision/Blizzard quarterly financial news and they are trying to increase their profit margins while increasing productivity. This can only mean that they are going to put the least amount of effort into WoW for the maximum amount of profit. I believe this has been going on since Activision took over which confirms some of my observations made in that article on my blog.

    Comment by Wolfshead — 14 February, 2010 @ 1:12 AM

  10. Wolfshead wrote:
    The key issues is whether the change is good or bad.

    Yeah, but it’s hard to measure that absolutely. Are people sticking around because they like the new changes, or out of nostalgia? Are they complaining because the changes are bad or because it’s a way to fit in with the community? Did the change make subscriber numbers fall, or were they falling already? Did the change, in fact, slow down the descent?

    When you to to a personal level, it’s obvious easier to make a judgment call. Obviously WoW’s move away from immersion is a bad one for you; personally, I tend to agree. But, our feelings don’t make the reasoning universal even if we are awesome game designers. :)

    But eventually a MMO becomes like an old sweater.

    Yeah, that’s a really good analogy if you think about it. The sweater feels worn in and comfortable. But, once you wear out the elbow and it looks a bit shabby, you’re faced with a choice: get a new sweater even if it feels a bit scratchy, or just wear the old one and feel comfortable. The analogy falls apart in that there’s nobody to complain to if you grow to dislike the sweater’s color (or something else) over time. Whereas there’s always a developer to complain about with an MMO.

    This can only mean that they are going to put the least amount of effort into WoW for the maximum amount of profit.

    I think this was the main point behind Eric Heimburg’s infamous posting on the B Squad. It’s become painfully obvious that Activision Blizzard sees more profit opportunity in the upcoming game rather than in the existing WoW audience. We’ll see if they are right or not.

    Comment by Psychochild — 14 February, 2010 @ 4:42 AM

  11. /AFK – Macarena Edition

    [...] Psychochild reveals the TERRIBLE TRUTH: That MMOs do, in fact, change [...]

    Pingback by Bio Break — 14 February, 2010 @ 7:20 AM

  12. Thanks again Brian for referencing Eric’s brilliant article! I read it when it first came out but re-read it again. :)

    Comment by Wolfshead — 15 February, 2010 @ 2:20 AM

  13. Unhappily, my MMORPG experiences since EQ have led me to the opposite conclusion: as a gamer, I’m just not interested in playing any of these games any more because my perception is that they have *ceased* to change in any meaningful way.

    I find it terrifically frustrating to consider the fact that these games, as forms of virtual worlds, could be about anything… and yet the best that their designers today can do is copy existing mechanics. I recently helped beta test an online game based on a well-known IP, and I was shocked to see that many of the mechanics, far from being designed fresh to fit the IP, were not merely copied from existing MMORPGs — they were actually called by exactly the same names: root, buff, aggro. But this game’s designers are not alone in seeming to believe that these arbitrary mechanics have become non-negotiable requirements. So does everyone else.

    Even at the next level up, every MMORPG designer seems obsessively fixated on delivering only one kind of entertainment experience: kill mobs and take their stuff. Ask today’s typical MMORPG player to define “MMORPG,” and that’s how they’ll describe the whole genre: combat and loot.

    Change? What change?

    When I see game after game aping their predecessors (while ads proclaim them to be “revolutionary”), and then think about the possibilities of MMORPG play that are bounded only by human imagination… yes. It’s infuriating.

    Why are so many designers willing to put up with such limits to creative expression?

    Why are so many gamers willing to tolerate such an unnecessary lack of choice in entertainment experiences?

    From my perspective, the problem with MMORPGs is not that there is too much change — it’s that the genre has already gone into creative rigor mortis long before its time. Whatever changes we perceive are merely various stages of decay and rot.

    At this point I’m about ready to declare that monolithic MMORPGs are the shambling dead, and that social games on networks like FaceBook will soon rule the Earth as our new overlords.

    Is there any cause to think I’m wrong in that forecast? Is there any hope for the MMORPG?

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 18 February, 2010 @ 3:26 PM

  14. Live Team Drift

    [...] Last week, Brian Green wrote about how individual worlds change over time, specifically using WoW and Meridian 59 as examples about how various rebalancing and bugfixes change the dynamics of the world (e.g. with ranged weapons in M59) [...]

    Pingback by Dancing Elephants — 19 February, 2010 @ 5:03 AM

  15. I think MMO developers should look at what social gaming developers are doing right in terms building better games and re-engaging users a bit better. Here’s a good read on it

    Comment by Randy — 16 March, 2010 @ 12:19 AM

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