Monday, May 11, 2009

The 800lb Content Gorilla Attacks Middle Earth

Let's talk about a major MMORPG that launched an expansion back in November. Since the expansion launch, players have complained about an increasing focus on solo content (evidenced in part by the lack of a new, multi-boss raid dungeon), and a general push towards accessibility at the expense of immersion (in the process removing the challenge of low level content in the name of streamlining the leveling experience for new players). Those of you who didn't read the title of this post might be thinking that I'm referring to Blizzard and WoW, but those accounts, courtesy of the LOTRO Combo Blog, are actually talking about Turbine and LOTRO.

Different game, same problems
Turbine is widely praised for the frequency with which it produces patches that add content to the game. Personally, I feel that this reputation is exaggerated; Turbine had to add a tremendous amount of content to the 30-50 game in the first year after its launch because the game was MISSING a tremendous amount of content in those level tiers at launch, and the "book" patches generally have not been as large as the Blizzard twice-a-year megapatches. However one feels about the past, though, it appears that Turbine's reputation will be put to a true test in the present.

The challenge here is the 800 lb gorilla in the room that no one really liked to talk about because they weren't able to fix it; players consume content far more quickly than developers can produce it. (Blizzard has since decided that their patch cycle is so notoriously slow that they might as well give up and talk about it in public.)

This challenge is magnified in the expansion era; when a game launches, it's usually in the neighborhood of 40+ levels, with large numbers of zones to support that leveling process. Even if there is a lot of room for improvement at launch, that content provides a scaffold on which to build (and potentially lure players into underutilized pre-existing content).

By contrast, an expansion generally adds no more than 10 levels and a handful of zones. If, for example, your expansion consists of Moria and Lothlorien, and Lothlorien is really only being added into the game piece by piece during book patches, that's going to be much more noticeable simply because it represents a larger chunk of the game as a whole. Perhaps the expansion took only a fraction of the time that the base game did to develop, but players aren't really going to care about that - they weren't being charged a monthly fee to sit, bored and out of content, at the level cap when the original game was two years from being released.

Consequences for everyone
The consequences for the top end raiding guilds are obvious - unless you add some sort of time-limit gimmick, the best guilds will beat all the content in the game within a matter of weeks and be left waiting months for more.

The effects on other players are more subtle. The developers, or at least the publishers, have a strong incentive to keep players from running out of content. Instead of letting players use up the very last of the content and inviting them to cancel their subscriptions until the next patch, we get increasingly grindy mechanisms like daily quests (which I'm told are in Moria, though I haven't seen them for myself), reputation grinds, and cosmetic reward hunts.

For one example, take a look at LOTRO's expansion "Legendary item system". Unwize has a lengthy critique of the randomness in the system. These flaws are not accidental, though. Rather, Turbine has made a deliberate effort to ensure that players will NOT obtain a perfectly ideal weapon, in the hopes that players will grind out the advancement for the best weapon they have and then go through the entire process a second time if they find a better one. If, by some chance, players DO eventually obtain the best possible combination of traits, Turbine's backup plan is raising the level cap in the next expansion, sometime by the end of the year, to render that weapon obsolete.

The ironic part is that having a system that requires players to discard their weapons frequently is the exact opposite of having a character stick with a single, named legendary weapon. The system was advertised as a way for players to get their own named weapons - treasures like Sting, Glamdring and Anduril that were wielded by the members of the Fellowship. The entire point of the system from a lore perspective gets kicked to the curb in the hopes that they can convince players to spend yet more time leveling up yet another slightly better weapon instead of canceling their subscription.

In short, the problem with the content gorilla is not merely that players can expect to run out of content, but that the content that does get added to the game will be made less fun and more repetitive in the hopes that it will occupy more of the player's time.


unwize said...

The problem with the legendary item system in LotRO is that many players are forgoing the grind exactly because they know it is a fool's errand. Rather than chase the white rabbit, I instead chose to take a few months away from the game and play other MMOs.

Ok, I'm a lifetime subscriber, so Turbine don't lose money by my absence, but if I made that decision, why not monthly subscribers?

Unless they make the system a good deal friendlier, the grumbles will get louder, and they'll find it much more difficult to sell it to us again after the next level cap increase.

DeftyJames said...

GA. That was one of the best post you have done. I agree with just about everything in it.

My own opinion is that there are two answers to this problem.

The first is to do more phasing events like Wintergrasp. No WG is not perfect, but it's on the right track.

And the second is to do more LIVE events. I think that is really where the future lies. After all, $15 for a weekend is still a great deal.

Lurker said...

Speaking of Wintergrasp, there's a lovely bit of incentive management taking place: the daily quests are announced to become weekly.

arbitrary said...

I'm doing the LI grind. In this way I'm totally different from Unwize despite spending every evening with him on teamspeak ;p

I've been lucky with LIs, I was given most of mine because Captains are still rare-ish. But those I have I love and I'm determined to get them to 50, and to search for better LIs. I don't stress about it, I just get on with it...

And the system is as imperfect as you all state. it really is. I want a great sword and have never found one I liked yet.

All games run out of content at the pace I play them. In Dark Age of Camelot and WoW, I went to grind when that happened and did stuff with friends. In LotRO there's stuff I still haven't done. It may not be fun, but if I wanted to complete all my deeds it'd probably take me till Book 8 ;p

And we all find our fun in different ways!