The Catch-22 of Content in new MMOs

Reminiscing about TSW there, and how it was a great game, just far too short.

Reminiscing also about these last 3 big MMOs and how so much of the game forum chat has been about “nothing to do at cap”.

It seems to me that with the elephant in the room, players are so used to having a humungous amount of content that if a new game doesn’t have that amount of content, it’s deemed a failure.

In the forums, this point is often wrangled. The counter-argument is obviously that you can’t reasonably expect an MMO with 8 years of development to have the same amount of content as an MMO that’s just been released. But yet, from the player’s point of view, this is irrelevant: they’re just a punter with some money to burn, and they’re simply not going to burn it on something that doesn’t have as much content as they’re used to, regardless of the whys and wherefors.

So is the genre just totally fucked? If no new MMO is ever going to satisfy ex-WoW-ers in terms of content (which it never will, unless unheard-of amounts of money are spent on it), then no new MMO is ever going to be deemed good enough, and players are always going to GB2WoW. (In fact, it may even be worse than that, because going back is a viable alternative once you’ve had a refreshing break - even if you were bored of WoW before, playing another game for a while will make WoW fresh when you go back to it.)

I don’t know if ‘content’ is what’s needed as much as fun, deep, difficult PvP. Although I get my dose of that from MOBAs so I guess I’m not the target audience.

Honestly, yes, I think the genre as we know it (WoW and all the games that take their cues from WoW) is pretty much fucked.

That’s how I play WoW. I play, get tired of it, unsub, and then after awhile (often playing a new MMO), I get the itch to play again. I don’t really expect any new MMO to hold me for six months. I’m happy if I get three months out of one.

In terms of a new MMO what I want isn’t eight years of content but content that seems fresh, that feels different than the content I’ve been playing since 1999 when EverQuest launched. That’s what the MMO developers have trouble delivering.

This is me, and the ones that have come closest to nailing this are varied.

The Secret World comes close, and I like it reasonably well, but it just misses the mark somehow that I can’t fully explain.

EVE Online and Perpetuum totally nail the pvp side and having players’ actions matter in terms of the political situation and world economy. However, they’re still quite grindy.

Fallen Earth came close to hitting the modern equivalent of Ultima Online with more of an action game element, but really needs more polish and a better UI & documentation.

Guild Wars 2 has some outstanding exploration and puzzle elements, and some really fun pvp in the form of world versus world.

Yeah, I wouldn’t insist that a new MMO have just as much content as EQ or WoW. It just has to have enough that I won’t burn through all of it in a week and get bored. If that happens anyway because I spent 16 hours a day in the game as soon as it launched, I’m willing to admit that’s more of a problem with me than the game.

What I don’t really like is how MMOs now just shepherd you through areas from point to point, doing a small handful of quests in a spot and then moving on, never to return again. I like moving around and seeing the whole world, so give me a reason to come back to areas, even if it’s some ‘find an X and give it to Y over in Z’ randomly-generated daily quest.

I’m also kind of uncomfortable with how 99% of the new content winds up being soloable zone quests, and then the main group content is the endgame instances and raids. I wind up soloing through most of the content in an MMO and then feeling completely unprepared for actual group content, that winds up being repetitive enough that I get bored of it quickly anyway. You don’t really want a return to the good ol’ mandatory-grouping days either though, so some kind of better balance is needed, but damned if I know how to achieve it.

I don’t think it is possible to produce 8 years worth of “guided ride” PvE content, not even for casual audience. TOR tried, spent astronomical sums of money on it, and still had what, 6 months at most?

So what can you do as a designer? Status quo was to turn everything into a grind, you take some content and make players repeat it until they are all but can’t stand it anymore. This was overdone to the point that a significant part of MMO target audience has “not another grinder” low tolerance for this.

Alternatives? Well, self-generating content. Sandboxes. Give players tools to have fun. PvP is traditionally one example of self-generating content. In about every MMO that supported it PvP was most efficient “development resources spent/hours played”, surprisingly not many developers take PvP seriously.

Another outlet for self-generating context is housing - UO (in 97!!) had this, but this innovation was largely abandoned. F2P Facebook titles picked on this. Interestingly, WoW with recent expansion, gave this a chance.

EQ was a frustrating game but it forced players to be social and group. Somehow an MMO needs to replicate that without making players resent that they don’t have a lot of content to solo or that soloing is the slow way to progress compared to grouping. I think this would really drive retention if someone could pull it off.

Really, player-generated content is the key. Players in conflict or players working together generate content that’s more interesting than the majority of the PvE content.

I’d like to see one that limited you to only playing X hours a day/week.

It’d extend the games’ lifetime nicely and keep people from becoming crazy addicts. A middling amount of content usually isn’t the problem – people playing them so freaking much is the real issue.

Indeed! I especially hate it when those quests you were able to (usually easily) solo take you through a story that only finishes in the hardcore group content…

I really like how LOTRO handled it in their latest “Rise of Isengard” expansion. Soloers got a huge story that takes you on a tour through all the locations. Groupers can completely ignore that and go straight into Isengard’s dungeons and fight Saruman or something.

Yep. Ironically WoW with the option of doing easy group finder groups for pretty much the entire levelling experience if you want comes closest. Unfortunately the downside of the group finder is that you never meet the same people again.

The main problem is that you need to decide whom you want to cater for in your MMO. End-game raiding, people who solo, hardcore PVPers etc.
The days of being able to satisfy everyone are over.

If you want to cater to hardcore raiders for example you better have a raid ready when they hit max level + geared their characters mere days after release. Otherwise they will start bitching.

Even WoW can’t do it anymore (they nailed it in vanilla, BC and WoTLK in my opinion). The raiders simply got too good (through years of practise).
Hardcore raiders left before Pandaria and the remaining ones tear through the content already again.

This time solo players are back in the focus (normal dungeons are easy and aoe everything lol again), tons of daily quests and achievements.

So unless you focus on one group you will be doomed.
Sure some will bitch that are left out but well you need to concentrate on the silent majority then.

EQ was a frustrating game but it forced players to be social and group. Somehow an MMO needs to replicate that without making players resent that they don’t have a lot of content to solo or that soloing is the slow way to progress compared to grouping. I think this would really drive retention if someone could pull it off.

Agree with both of these. I’d also add I think the trend to keep making these games easier and more solo friendly is in part responsible for their shorter and shorter retention problems. When a game is difficult, and you have to enlist other people to help you, it forms very strong bonds. This is what’s missing from every MMO I’ve played since EQ…

No amount of content is going to keep me coming back to a game the way a great group of friends is. I still play Halo with my brothers at Christmas, not because it’s the greatest game ever made, or we all don’t know the content a billion times over, it’s because of the interaction in a familiar setting. If a dev can figure out how to foster that interaction, they will end up with an MMO that has legs, providing the content is at least competent.

No, making games punishing so people bond together is wrong conclusion. Just look at how many ex-UO players still are PTSD about whole PK issue, and UO wasn’t even nearly as hard as some MUDs it was based on.

I strongly believe that stick should never be used in MMOs, carrots-only! Forced grouping or solo-unfriendly design is absolutely wrong way to go.

GW2 got something right - while it doesn’t make you group, designers went to a great length to remove any and all barriers to player cooperation. Tagging kills? Gone. Credit only going to some participants? Gone. Then they added a bunch of group events, and guess what, in GW2 random solo players “group up” all on their own to take up on group challenges! Unfortunately, this method does not exactly encourages interaction outside of the event.

Random dungeon finder is/was a good tool for WoW, yet I agree it makes whole experience feel like a production line of single-use friends. Very few people want to play logistics, automating this process is the right call. What they haven’t done is added social aspect, something “I liked these players, would play again” and “Never put me in a group with this guy again”. This combined with preference for same-server groups would have made random dungeon finder a lot less impersonal.

I think people expect way too much from MMO’s. “I don’t want a grind ever! No grind! proceeds to bitch at endgame when there is nothing to work for I don’t want to only work in a group! proceeds to bitch when there is a lot of solo content”. Even if these aren’t the best examples, the idea is true. I’ve never played WoW, and when I play an mmo, I enjoy the grind they give. If they didn’t have a grind / reward system I would not play them.

MMORPG is not really a genre, but one game. Is the same problem has bananas.

All bananas in the world are clones*, so if you don’t like a banana, you probably don’t want another banana.
People never get tired of FPS or RPG games.

This is bad, but is not the only problem… also not all mmorpg are all that similar, some deviate from the formula enough to feel fresh again.

Another problem with mmos, on top of the “I did this already” is investing months of time to get to cap, or near cap, and them getting frustrated because the game has become worse, not better. Then abandoning the game without any resemblance of closure. MMO’s are like these TV series that get worse every episode.
. With a TV serie you can get a friend to recommend you “the good parts”, but on a mmo you can’t skip the bad parts, you are forced to eat the whole thing, sometimes again and again

I could probably talk a whole week, without pauses, about all the things that make MMOS dysfunctional games**.

  • Some people may disagree.
    ** I have no idea what I am talking about

I actually like a good grind. Basically I enjoy going around beating stuff up and collecting things, but it helps immensely to have a reward to be working towards while doing that.

Guild Wars 2 (so far) really gets this and does a great job of it. WoW has typically had this as a strong point. EQ “got it” and instituted AA points, which more mmo’s need to do (not AA’s specifically, but that kind of excuse for long-term sticking with the basic gameplay).

If the key is making it tough enough to need groups, then Vanguard should’ve sold gangbusters, but that game was practically dead on arrival (and I’m actually one of the people who liked it).

How large is the audience for a more “simulationist/immersive” approach to a virtual world?

I’m nearing the end of my first playthrough of Skyrim (waited 6 months for the work schedule to ease up and all the mods to be released), and I’m having a great time. It’s an amazing world when you’re outside the cities, particularly with mods like Frostbite which add hypothermia and other survival challenges.

Yet it sometimes feels a bit sterile compared to journeying across Middle Earth in LOTRO, when I’d come across another player struggling with grizzly bears or trolls and I’d jump in to help. Or when I’d walk up to the Prancing Pony and pause to enjoy the pickup bands playing tunes together outside. I don’t need to be the “Chosen One” with the whole game centered around My Destiny, just let me be a halfway capable adventurer trying to struggle to survive and succeed in a tough challenging world.

I’d love a “virtual world” with the environmental challenges and simulation aspects of Skyrim, but populated with other players for co-op quests, social interactions in towns, etc. Basically, let me get as close as possible to immersing in a different world with other people.

Current MMORPGs that I’ve tried seem to be weighted heavily towards the “game” and less about the “immersion”. When the game mechanics are too obvious and artificial, I start to lose interest. The best experiences I’ve had in LOTRO are the emergent ones of being in Tolkien’s world and encountering “realistic” challenges and overcoming them with the help of others.

Is there a market for this kind of game? The last MMORPG I’ve tried was SWTOR and that went in exactly the opposite direction. My experience up to Level 18 (when I quit) was a series of tired Bioware “mazes” (that make no sense as “lived spaces”) with clumps of mobs scattered as roadbumps, all leading up to a single boss just waiting for you to show up and grab his McGuffin. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Chris

P.S. Yes, I’m aware of the Elder Scrolls MMO, but based on the brief previews I’ve seen so far, it looks like it’s going to be far more WoW and SWTOR than Skyrim/STALKER.

Apple bananas are tastier than the big yellow ones anyway.

I think that’s why I don’t care to play MMO’s much. To me, immersion and gameplay/worlds that feel realistic is priority number one. If I like the experience of just being in the game, I don’t need to constantly be bribed with experience, cash and loot as much. Not feeling the constant drive to be grinding or else feel like you’re wasting time would be pretty liberating. There’s something really nice about watching a siege play out in Warband, or a dogfight happen in WarThunder from afar, and just appreciating what’s happening without needing to be actively whacking something.

Yeah, and there’s very little, if any, chatting going on. You might as well be playing with a bunch of bots. It’s really a bunch of players soloing the same quest at the same time. WoW dungeon finder runs are sort of like this too. Players fall into their roles and burn through the dungeon as quickly as possible and no one talks. There’s not even really enough time to loot trash mobs in a WoW five-man run.

So neither game has managed the social side all that well. MMOs today are designed to be fast-paced and soloable now. That social stickiness that results in retention isn’t built-in. It can exist via guilds but the game doesn’t encourage it by design.

Is this the MMOs or the culture of the players who have focused on speed runs and maximizing xp/loot per second?