Thursday, May 14, 2009

Incentives to Skip Entire Expansions?

One year ago today (a coincidence I couldn't have planned if I tried), I wrote:
Allarond, Champion of Gondor, Protector of the Shire, Hero to the Lost, and, yes, Weird of Worms, eagerly awaits the forthcoming Mines of Moria expansion. I'm just going to wait for 6-12 months after it comes out for them to actually finish it.
Well, it's been the requisite six months since the expansion. In Syp's study of MMO-latecomers, I'm the rare person who actually took the "wait 6 months" advice. Meanwhile, prices have never been better - $40 will get me an expansion key AND three months' subscription. So, why am I considering throwing my hands in the air and waiting for the forthcoming Rohan expansion?

Case Study: LOTRO Moria
Zubon of Kill Ten Rats just wrote a less than flattering retrospective of the expansion, in particular its endgame. I can already hear Tipa reminding me that there is no such thing as a completely comprehensive review of an MMO, and I ordinarily would not give such weight to a single opinion. However, it isn't really just one opinion.

- Zubon's criticisms (e.g. "If you like lotteries, you will love these treadmills.") parallel comments I'm seeing elsewhere on the LOTRO blogs.

- My own experience with the game's launch was that the game's opening areas were highly polished, but that the content simply wasn't ready in the later levels.

- In particular, the endgame reputations, which were not even added until 4-5 months post launch, failed the "is the time/benefit ratio worth it to me" test - exactly what players are saying about 2nd and 1st age Legendary weapons today.

The issue, broadly, is how much longer it will take to get the content into shape. We know that a "Book 8" patch with more fixes is planned for June (i.e. 7 months post launch), that a "Book 9" patch is due at some point (no ETA), and that the next expansion (almost certainly Rohan) is due this year (not more than 6 months from now).

That $40 deal sounds great right now, but becomes less impressive if you figure that there may not actually BE three months worth of new content that I want to use (Zubon's update came on Day 61). Meanwhile, that expansion key for Moria will presumably be included for free with the Rohan expansion (I don't see a game that launched its first expansion as a "complete edition" changing the plan for expansion 2). If I wait until the next expansion, I will get the final, 100% polished version of Moria, and will have the opportunity to delve into the (possibly not-yet-finished) new expansion content as well.

Is the annual expansion model creating an incentive for me NOT to resubscribe and buy the current expansion?

Case Study: Unnamed EQ2 Expansion for 2009
The only semi-officially confirmed news we have about the new EQ2 expansion is that there will be a new good-aligned city, balancing the number at 3 for each faction. (Technically, they haven't confirmed that the city will be in the expansion, but both arrive this year, and it would make sense for the city to be a listed "major feature" on the expansion box.)

Unofficially, I would say there are a few safe bets:

- The new city will include starting area content for levels 1-20 (balances the good/evil split - several of the good races have only a single choice of starting zone, and it wouldn't make sense to implement high level content for just one of the two factions)

- An increased level cap (they're still working to tune the AA curve six months out from the last horizontal expansion, so I don't think it would make sense to leave the cap unchanged again - fresh 80's would need to work through two previous expansions just to get ready for the current expansion, at which point they'd effectively be far more powerful than level 80 in all but actual level number)

- Player crafters who have chosen Carpentry will not get new furniture recipes that are good enough to hurt the sales of RMT furniture items.

That speculation aside, I am not expecting the content that is currently in EQ2 to last me through to the expansion, even if I roll an alt in the mean time (probably an evil-aligned character, to save my other good-aligned alt plans for the hypothetical new starting areas).

Again, it seems like I am, in some ways, better off passing on the just-past-beta version of the November 2009 expansion, so I can get the expansion key and access to the fully polished version for free when I buy the November 2010 expansion. If I do indeed decide to punt on the Moria era in LOTRO, I'd have that game's first two expansions to tide me over during the time when I might otherwise be playing this year's EQ2 expansion.

Publish or Perish?
In some ways, games that have a smaller subscriber base face greater pressure to release frequent paid expansions than a Goliath like Blizzard. When you can't rely on literally hundreds of millions in fees every month, you need to think creatively about expansion box sales or RMT options (and this goes doubly for Turbine, which chose to offer lifetime subscriptions for LOTRO and therefore has a portion of its playerbase that ONLY pays when a paid expansion is launched).

On the other hand, the expansion box fee, like the all-or-nothing monthly fee, is another point at which players need to decide whether to remain customers. When expansions are a mere twelve months apart, you do end up with a perverse incentive for players to simply wait out the next expansion cycle, an incentive that gets stronger the further we get into the year. You can blunt that slightly by offering aggressive discounts as the year progresses, as Turbine has done, but you do so at the risk of convincing players that they should await the discounts.

There's also the social factor to consider. Let's assume that, if you skip the worst of the endgame grinds, you're left with 2-3 months of content per annual expansion cycle, some of which is packaged in content patches post-release. If you do two expansions worth of content in one 5-6 month stint, that's enough time to make social ties, join a guild, etc. If you split it up into multiple month-long stints as content is added, you're not going to have the chance to meet people (especially if your fellow players are doing the same game-hopping dance, and may be gone themselves when you return).

I don't know if we're actually at the point where it makes sense to play every other expansion just yet. Still, the fact that you can make a case for doing so is as strong an argument as any that we may need to consider business models - both on the billing and content generation sides of the equation - that have a bit more flexibility than the all-or-nothing buy the boxes and then subscribe or quit model.


Koal said...

Everything you said about the Moria expansion is accurate but I would recommend you get it anyway.

The elder end of the expansion may be weak but everything leading up to it is some of the best content you can get. The design and execution of Moria itself is easily the finest series of zones/instances I have ever seen in any MMO.

There really isn't much incentive to purchase it now vs waiting for the next expansion but if you want to really take the time to explore all of Moria w/o worrying about reaching the end-game so quickly now is the perfect time. When you are finally uncovering the last of Moria's dark corners the next expansion should be that much closer to release and you can skip much of the tediousness of the Legendary Lottery of if they fail to improve the system with the release of the next expansion you should at least have a few items leveled up and ready to take with you to Rohan.

Anonymous said...

Wait--so Blizzard's 18-24 month expansion schedule is actually a good thing for them?

DeftyJames said...

Perhaps it just me but that post made you sound almost impossibly cheap. You're going to wait until the next expansion with MoM included so you can save $10???!!!

Wow, and I don't mean the game. It sounds like you are actively looking for reason not to play.

P said...

@ DeftyJames

I don't think its a matter of being cheap. This blog examines the incentives developers use to get players to pay and the ways players game the system to get the most incentives with the least effort. I think the 10 dollars it self doesnt matter so much as examining the work/reward ratio of turbines plans for the expansions

Keith said...

Hey, love the blog, really wanted to finally leave a comment.

In terms of WOW, i played right at the start of BC for about a year, it was horrible. I played in raiding guilds and 3 of them broke up because of the drama caused when people couldn't clear kara / gruuls/ then SSC.

Eventually I just quit, and picked it up again almost a year later 2 months before WOTLK dropped. It was both sad and amazing. I was PUGGING the same raids that once caused drama and loot issues, having just plain fun.

Best of all, I didn't have to FARM raids for gear. I feared pvp was bad, but as long as I stayed out of arenas, pvp was awesome. The inadequacies of your class are seldom evident when it's 10 v 10 versus 2v2.

I even enjoyed it so much that I went back and did all the quests in outland and soloed some old world content.

Oh, and where were all those hardcore guild hopping loot obsessed hogs? Well they continued to guild hop looking for that next bit kill, and eventually most of them quit the game.

If you are looking to maximize your TIME, you KNOW blizzard is just going to nerf things as time goes by.

Remember all those old world reps that were so hard to grind? So easy now.

I'll join WOTLK later on, I played enough to enjoy leveling to 80, but past that, I'll wait.

Resist the gear grind, enjoy the experience of the world!

Ayr said...

One thing that I haven't seen mentioned yet is the possibility on missing out seeing current end game content. I'm not talking about grinding rep or items, but actually experiencing the Moria high end group content. You might not be able to see that when Rohan is out, simply because people will rather level up than doing raids.

Similar to WoW, if your wish was to see Illidan without going through the raiding grind, the optimum way was to buy TBC a couple months before WOTLK, not waiting until the latter was released.