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It's not you, It's me...

It probably wouldn't happen today...some years ago I was sat at my computer patiently waiting for a zone to load. I had just bought the retail version of an MMO of which I had been in the beta. It was actually the sixth or seventh time I had tried to load that zone...I had gone for dinner at one point and returned to find it still hadn't finished loading. I had been met with crash after crash and for the rest of that month my attempts to play were generally an exercise in frustration, but for some reason I kept trying. I put up with the bugs and issues because I saw a great game trying to get out from beneath all the issues. That game was Anarchy Online, and it is probably why I am here today, and why I have the job that I have...

...but if that were to happen today I am not sure that I would have shown that patience...

Why is that?

...So as an extension of that the question for this post is about how you approach your games, and your MMOs...how much of a chance do you give a new game and what do you expect from it?

Disclaimer time...

Firstly, and perhaps most important to say ahead of the rest of this post, a disclaimer. I am not in any way saying I miss the days of buggy and unstable MMO releases! The one major thing we all have to aspire to in this day and age, regardless of style, game-play or approach is to have a stable launch and for users not to have performance issues. My example above was from days when we didn't have expectations, we kind of felt like pioneers, and we were willing to put up with some rough edges...that has changed, and most of that change is for the better.

We should expect, nay demand, that our modern MMO titles aren't plagued by technical issues, because we should be judging them based on their game-play, and that is the real meat of what I wanted to explore today...

...it starts with a question for all of you...

How much of a chance do you give an MMO?

When you make the decision to try a new MMO how long does it have to captivate you?

We all generally get a free month to try the game included in the purchase of the game. That is more than enough time for most to make a decisions, and we see most players make the decision faster than that. So how long do you give it?

What does a new MMO game have to do to capture your imagination?

What are the factors that you look for when assessing whether this is a game you want to keep playing? Is it the early content that needs to really grab you, or is it what you have heard about the end-game, is it the setting and the atmosphere, or the need for something new?

There are a lot of factors that can be at play while you are trying out a new MMO.

I want you to want me...

From observation one of the major differences here tends to be whether any given player enjoys the journey of a game, or is primarily driven by the need to get 'to the end'. Ignoring the fact that 'the end' is somewhat of a misnomer in terms of an MMO, this is an interesting distinction.

From chatting to many, may MMO players down the years, 'Journey' type players seem to have a much greater tolerance for trying a new game, and since they aren't in a rush to get to the end game they will judge a game on the content and diversions they find along the way. They don't see the progression as a barrier to them getting to the part they enjoy, they see it as the enjoyment. In many ways this group of players is both easier and harder to please.

Why harder you say?

Well, because they want everything to great along the way. If you get the wrong balance between the easy common quests, or the 'filler' quests, which have always tended to exist in the current and previous generation of MMOs, and the more involved complex quests with cool encounter, then this type of player will notice that discrepancy. Since they don't see anything as needing to be 'filler', because they don't see it as a means to an end in the way same other players can, then they can expect more from each individual element.

This effects how they judge the content. It is also why it is important to 'pace' your content. What do I mean by that? I mean that you have to ensure there are interesting things along the way. Players should get to do cool dungeons along the way for example. They should have plenty of interesting and involved quests to do alongside the more straight forward ones.

'Goal orientated' players on the other hand do see the content as a means to an end. They want to get to the end game, as that is where they consider 'the fun starts'. They base that on their experiences with previous MMOs and that is an important aspect we will get back to in a little bit.

This difference is one of the considerations and challenges we face with making these games...

...you see part of the challenge is that we, as developers, generally have far more communication from the 'goal orientated' type of gamer. While they don't necessarily make up a majority of a games player base they usually do make up a majority of those active in the feedback channels. They are more vocal on forums, they are more involved in providing feedback, and generally have more to say about your designs because they take it seriously and want to discuss things like class balance, encounter mechanics, reward progression and such like.

Which is great for feedback on those areas...but it also means that we run the risk, as designers, of getting slanted towards that viewpoint. That the end-game is all important and the journey is just a tool for getting players there. We run the risk of buying into that and you might forget that people need to have their imaginations fired along the way. You run the risk of forgetting the things I mentioned above that might disillusion certain types of player.

Now the end-game of any MMO is undeniably vitally important, but it also isn't all that a game is, or should be about. The bulk of the content as an MMO matures will for sure focus on the high level players, as that is where most players graduate towards over time. However the best MMO titles also remember that you have to have cool stuff happen along the way, the clever ones will also use those experiences to provide you a little insight into the cool stuff you can expect at the higher levels. So while we do, and should, focus ongoing development towards where the bulk of your players are, the original game, what it starts with, has a completely different set of considerations...

...because here is the real meat of the issue at hand. I asked at the start how much of a chance you give an MMO when you start it. However an equally important, and possibly more telling, question is what standards do you judge it by?

New kids on the block...

A new MMO, by definition, will not have as much content, as may options, as strong a feature set, as your current game that has been out for two, three, five or ten years. That will play a part when we start to play a new game. Do we actually remember what our expectations were for a new game, or have they been raised by the post-release updates for the existing games?

Do you tend to find yourself judging it based on the amount of content choice you have in say World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, or as an extreme example for the old timers, Everquest (and its dozen or so expansions).

Yes, we all try a new MMO because it has something that we think we might get from it. That something will vary from player to player. We all have different motivations when it comes to our MMO play styles.

...but does our previous experiences with an MMO improve or taint our ability to enjoy a new MMO?

For example you might have really enjoyed the journey through a given MMO, but then found the end game content was what truly excited you. That was where you had the best, and most recent, experiences of the game. For you, that has become 'where the fun is'. You then try a new MMO, and since you know how fun the end-game can be, you now aren't so keen on repeating the journey...even if the journey was as good as the one that was found in your original game that got you there in the first place.

Do you then approach the content differently and have a compulsion to rush through to get to an end-game that might not be as fully featured as the end game of an older, and more content matured game?

Might we actually be doing ourselves a disservice as players?

Or do us developer types have to adjust and adapt and maybe think of games that have a different kind of journey? Should we look to different forms of a journey that don't obsess about progression in a linear fashion? Will it drive some very different forms of MMOs to come, or are people more at home with the familiar?

These are very important questions for developers, and ones that will drive a lot of the decisions about how to structure the next generation of online titles.

So what do you think?

How much of a chance do you give a new MMO and what standards do you judge it by?
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16 comments

Mafti said...

Installation, Fail-chance 100%
The installation has to go smoothly, not "fast", because I reckon there is much to be done, so I don't worry about that. It does annoy when it requires a lot of restarts. If it crashes there,
chances are 100% I will not even start up the game ever.

Start a new Character, 2 seconds chance.
Don't care about personalization.
I prefer that to be done on a later stage, I want to play, not fiddle with my hair.
Hit randomize and go!

The first steps, 2 seconds again.
If it looks too much like another big MMO -> fail
If it surprises me in a new way -> kudos, i will continue
If none of the above, I will try out some quests and decide then.
If I even suspect an old MMO in a new jacket, or even worse in a crap jacket, FAIL.

Burning Souls said...

Not quite as extreme as the previous user but I can also say that I am tired of generic rehases of the same content. Maybe you are right, we have doe it before and now we have different appetites. Most of all I think I want something that feels new!

Leanne said...

That is exactly why I think games like TOR will ultimately fail to reach the heights of WoW, because despite the cool factor we have done it all before.

The only MMO game that sounds to me like it might take a different approach is GW2.

I also want something different and you have to get my attention fairly early on.

James said...

I am usually willing to give a game a few sessions, probably five to ten hours. The only exception would be if it doesnt work and is buggy. That is the deal breaker for me.

I would probably play a WoW clone (or an anything else clone) if I thought it was fun enough to keep me occupied or I liked the world it was based in.

Quasigrue said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lemur said...

I am with Quasigrue there. I think you identified the issue i your post well. We have done all this stuff before and the same in different clothes just doesnt do it for us anymore :(

For some it is EQ, some it is WOW, it doesn't matter what gave you that thrill, it just isn't the same the next time around so for me the ext thing to blow me away will probably be very different.

I have not played any of the current crop of MMOs past the first month, and sorry Craig, your game included!!

SA_Avenger said...

Usually I know if the game is for me or not in two-three weeks. (not really an hardcore player).

The journey is very important to me, having something to do at the end game as well but to me if there was a never ending journey it'd be better than having an end game.
The atmosphear is very important, I need my character to look good and evolve (especially gear wise) then it depends on the combat system, the quests (having the feeling to do something and for a reason or and a worthy reward).
I wouldn't mind having a gameplay that is alike in a different setting or even a game picking the best gameplays from different MMO and make one with all this. (ala Lotro Housing, AoC Combat and graphics, Wow seamless world, Horizons crafting, EQ2 amount of races and classes, DDO dungeons with traps, etc.)

The problem is that as we played other games who have been running for a while we want the new game to have as much as the older with something more. Which with the budget constraints of most studios can't happen.
(would be nice if companies started to make modules that can be reusable undepending of the game so players could have the housing, interface they want and only the texture above would change)

So we, journey players, can sort of accept that it takes time to add content but not that it takes too long because we are less interested in end game and repeatable content doesn't really do the trick either, so I'll often stop an MMO and come back later until the MMO is too outdated graphically for me to be immersed enough.

ProtosSlayer said...

I am also one of those really wanting something new. I play WOW, I play WOW a LOT in fact, and I just cant see myself doing exactly the same thing over again when I already play something that does it well, and has a mountain of content that always keeps me occupied.

Only way I would move is if all my friends did, maybe that will happen with TOR, maybe not, but I am definitely NOT going to move to another generic fantasy MMO with levels and a traditional end-game.

Lincoln said...

For me it's about the quality of the experience. I will play through a level progression as long as the game is polished and the progression is rewarding. I have had max level characters in over a dozen MMOs so my decision is based purely on the content and the rewards for the content. The games I keep playing are those that have the best polished content. I recent times that has been WOW and Aion.

Lightning said...

A week usually for me. I will know then whether a game has legs with me or otherwise. Then if I stay for the long haul is purely down to how much content they can add.

Lokkor said...

I will play for the free month and probably log five to ten hours a week in it.

Then it will be down to the following factors:

- Polish, animations, art style
- Performance
- Content

As long as it looks good, runs smoothly and has stuff do to i will play it for a while to see how the community develops.

Kendrick said...

Generally an MMO (or any game) captivates me on the announcement. If it's something new and fresh (i.e. TSW) versus something old and done (i.e. any fantasy hack and slash), I'm more likely to register and take part in the community. This then gets me personally vested due to the relationships I build during the pre-release.

How long I stay after release (or even beta) depends on a few things. Is the gameplay fun and perform as advertised? Is it nice to look at? If I'm supposed to be the hero, why am I struggling to kill a damn rat? Is there more for me to do than practice genocidal warfare or animal extinction techniques? Do I have to *wait* to do something that involves more than killing stuff such as crafting or other social metagames? Can I still engage in the content even though my friends may progress faster or slower than me?

I have long been a staunch proponent that a shorter leveling curve with more endgame content the better off an MMO would be. This is in direct contrast to two archaic ways of thinking:
First, popularized by EQ, making players 'wait for the fun' was viewed as driving player retention.
Second, that making players wait and making progression insanely difficult somehow made them appreciate the content/game more and they would be less likely to cancel because of attachment to the effort put in to get there.

Can we agree that levels are exclusionary in practice because they effectively remove the ability of players to group together? Sidekicking has been a decent attempt at removing this facet, but the truth is the person that is getting mentored up is still handicapped by virtue of not having all their abilities fleshed out - and this is made worse by any game with talents.

Can we also agree that eventually, given enough time, all players reach max level?

I don't know if you've ever done a specific exit survey on the reason for account cancellation is that they gave up on not being able to play with their friends; how many quit because the time to get to the proverbial end game took too long.

If the end game is where the fun is, why make players wait to get there? Why put a gate in the way of fun?

Anyway, if you take the assumption that all players reach max level eventually (if given enough time), and if you had a shorter leveling curve you could instead focus on teaching the player the basics of their class and also focus on maximizing end game content. Imagine if you could radically speed up AoC leveling progression, and move 60 percent (arbitrary number) of the 1-75 content to 76-80. Hell, lower the max level to 50, reshuffle the deck and have a huge amount of content to play once you got to the 'end'. The criticisms at launch that AoC had no end game would likely disappear.

Additionally, if your 1-50 (or whatever) content is solid and without holes, it allows you to focus on the max level "sideways" content. It encourages alts because the 'grind' to get to the fun is reduced , allow you to create true class specific content quicker and make it more diverse because you have to effectively create less of it on the way. The 1-whatever could/should be the intro to the content that begins at max level.

I guess the question to ask is "How much development dollar is spent of content that will be consumed and never used again once it is obsolesced by players dinging the next level?".

For me personally, end game begins the minute I name my character. The journey is it's own end game. I suppose most players get far too wrapped up by what number is beside their avatar's name. And this is something that seems to be addressed by the upcoming The Secret World - the entire game is endgame, from the character creator onward - as it should be.

I can't help but think that the faster you get all your customers/players on the same content level playing field, the better the game would be.

bandytaz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bandytaz said...

I used to play EVERY single new MMO - just to know what's going on etc. It has changed since I settle in one specific game.

Ofc I m still signing up for betas, testing, reading, I m trying to give some feedback etc.
But the truth is that I hardly decide to pay sub or even buy new mmo (for at least 30 "free" days). You may ask: "why?". The reason is simple: I m just sick when I start playing (let's say) in beta and first impression is like "I have been there".

I know that beta is not final product, but from my own experience I also know that mmo's hardly changes from (even) closed beta to retail. I don't care about bugs, crashes, exploits (and other usual beta stuff) when I see that game got some potential and developers got fresh ideas and open minds. I just can't stand the same old and boring ideas.

I feel all the time like, why should I change mmo if every single new game is copy of old ones. Sometimes friends who want to play together might be argument to give a chance, but...I have also learnt that you can't count that your friends will stay with you in game later just because you like it. Sad but true.

What I m looking forward to now? I would say TSW (sounds really promising), maybe GW2 (I played GW and it was kinda fun) and Dark Millenium Online (looks promising, first impression = win).

What about other "big" comming mmos? They just don't want to come up with something new, so screw them :)

Craig Morrison said...

@Kendrick

"I guess the question to ask is "How much development dollar is spent of content that will be consumed and never used again once it is obsolesced by players dinging the next level?"

That is indeed a very good question, and a balance I think all developers struggle with on any major MMO project. It is an interesting balance, players want unique experiences, but they also play for many weeks, months or years, so will repeat content, so finding the right balance there is very hard indeed.

Left4Dead said...

Interesting read! Always good to hear the dev side of the story.

Personally I tend to play my old favorites and not skip between games. I still play EQ (with a little DDO on the side since it is free)

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