Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Out of Time

In the off-line world, I've been struggling with a number of deadlines, one after another, that have kept me too busy to actually update PvD. Perhaps it's ironic, then, that there's a post about running out of time near the top of my "o-blog" (that's a physical pen and paper notepad that gets used to record ideas for future blog posts when I'm offline).

People make a lot of complaints about World of Warcraft, but really, all of these complaints stem from one single problem - the developers ran out of time. A few examples:

- My two biggest complaints about TBC were lack of access to lore and lack of gear progression for solo players. The sad truth is, solo content tends not to last very long (see my devouring the better part of 6 months' worth of LOTRO patch content in 2 days). Thus, the developers want to try and entice players into harder, more time-consuming raid content, and the two biggest incentives they have in this task are cool lore encounters and gear progression.

- Travel time is unnecessarily long. Time spent traveling is time NOT spent consuming content.

- Class balance (my class isn't good enough, someone else's class is too good). These complaints exist primarily because the game switches from a leveling model where anyone who plays levels up to an endgame model where merit becomes a very pressing concern. When you need to beat that Warlock to win the match, or you need to have one of the top 5 DPS numbers to get invited to the next raid, it suddenly matters a lot if your class is at a disadvantage compared to the competition. See also, the first point.

- "Blizzard isn't releasing any info about the expansion"/"The CM's never post answers to serious threads" This is an artifact of it taking Blizzard 3-4 months per content patch. They're not releasing info because there isn't much info to release, and what little info they do have is being held back by the PR dept for later use to bribe media outlets with an exclusive sneak peek that may coincidentally happen to become the cover story. Even the info that isn't cool enough to be saved for more important outlets than the forums gets held up because no one wants to hear that there's a known and fixed bug that they're going to have to pay to live with for the next four months until the patch is ready.

Indeed, the patch cycle may be WoW's worst enemy at the moment. Relmstein recently quit WoW, specifically citing having run out of content as his reason.

That said, Blizzard is not alone. As I discussed last week, LOTRO launched unfinished and the content they've added over the last six months is stuff that was already months overdue six months ago. Cuppycake posits correctly that having a working game is worth more than having all the content ready at launch, but there's a limit to how long "at least it's not crashing" will keep you in a game. Guild Wars, Age of Conan, and the forthcoming Warhammer MMO all try to herd players in the direction of PVP because PVP is infinitely reusable content, and WoW has been following suit with their new arena tournament.

So why isn't there enough dev time to go around?

When it came to Hellgate: London, Bill Roper literally admitted that they launched with what they had at the point when they ran out of money. I'd like to feel sorry for the poor independent studio, but that doesn't mean I'm going to pay them for a buggy game. As Hellgate, and Vanguard before it, show, you don't get a free pass from your customer base for launching with an unfinished product. When it costs money to stick around, you're going to be judged on what you've got now, not what you claim you'd like to code somewhere down the line.

Perhaps some developers are simply cheap - one could certainly argue that Blizzard could afford to hire more people so they can actually add content to the world's most lucrative MMORPG more than 3 times a year. Then again, how big can a team actually get before communication, quality, and tone become issues? There is something to be said for quality over quantity.

What is to be done?

There's no easy answer to this issue. Time will pass by, no matter how many people you hire, and it's almost always going to be quicker to consume content than to design it. PVP and player created content are two options, but they don't appeal to everyone and will actively drive many people off.

One thing that could, and arguably should, change ASAP is the monthly fee. Having that looming bill date can pressure you to quit now rather than wait and see what's going into the next patch. Once you're gone, it's going to be harder on everyone for you to come back. This could mean micro-transactions (i.e. free to play, but you buy items/character slots/etc) or Guild Wars style macro-transactions (no monthly fee, but you're making your purchases in large chunks instead of a little piece at a time). Or perhaps, like iTunes is slowly teaching the recording industry that they have to sell the 2 good songs on a CD for $0.99 each instead of forcing people to buy a $15 album with 13 songs they don't want, MMORPG companies will have to break down and offer to charge via usage (e.g. 50 cents per day instead of $15 per month).

I'd like to speculate further, but A) if I had the answers, I'd have my own game studio by now and B) I'm out of time. :)

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