Build Out, Not Up

Muckbeast’s blog post on the end of Tabula Rasa’s brief run sparked a line of thought that has been running through my mind for quite some time so I decided to lay it out. (Click here for the original article)

MMO’s now have a general cycle of releasing an “expansion” almost every two years. I use quotations around “expansion” because they are not actually expanding the games we pay money every month to play, they’re extending them.

An MMO today is almost exclusively focused on acquiring better gear to improve your character, raiding, and leveling up so you can do both of these things. There’s not a whole lot wrong with this formula on the outside- after all the most successful MMO of all time, Blizzard’s World of WarCraft, used this formula to suck in many millions of players and create potentially the most profitable video game America (the World?) has ever seen. This is fine for the monster that is Activision Blizzard, who has the money to continue creating content to keep their players happy, but the repercussions for the genre in general may be crippling.

The problem comes in the single direction of play, of player development towards one end- up. Player levels go up, player abilities and skills go up, the amount of gear available goes up. Players move up to more powerful zones, and they move up to the cities in these zones. Intrinsic to these games is the sense of advancement, this upward movement, and by the nature of advancement players are encouraged to leave everything behind, to abandon all thought of those past zones and dungeons, and only to return for the sole purpose of helping others achieve quicker and more easily.

To say that this game design is folly would be to deny its inherently attractive nature. Quite simply- it is exciting to achieve. Leveling, getting cool/good gear, discovering new places, and defeating more powerful enemies is always enjoyable, at least for a while. Once again there is not a whole lot wrong with this picture, but it is the latent functions of the “gimme-gimme” formula that give me reason to be concerned.

The “gimme-gimme” system does exactly what it’s supposed to, it gives players things, but it only works while there’s something to give. This is where we run into problems. It’s enjoyable to be raiding and getting fun new gear that blows your old stuff out of the water, but what happens when you get it all? It’s not enough to give players pseudo games and things to take up more of their time (for crafting grinding insanity see LOTRO) to distract them from the fact that they’ve “finished” your game. Eventually alternate characters will pop up and you will discover that some players have up to 5 or 6 max-level ‘toons’ they could play on any given day. If it was fun enough to achieve once then it will be fun enough to achieve again! But where does all this achieving leave us?

It leaves us with 1-dimensional game play focused on getting gear, and the best way to do that is usually by depriving other players of instance loot, at the end of the day this is not very helpful in creating a friendly and helpful community. When I log onto LOTRO or WoW I really have very few objectives that I can consider- Raise crafting skills (unless they’re maxed), Run instances for loot, or start an alt. I admit I haven’t found a game I prefer to LOTRO, but I would be remiss if I ceased my pursuit of the ultimate game.

This is the endgame. With no more levels to achieve you’re left with gear, crafting skills, and alts. Your character is more or less in a tunnel and once you reach the end and your max level, you have all the best gear, and your trade skill(s) is maxed you have nothing to do but do it all over again.

ENTER THE “EXPANSION!”

Expansions remedy the problem of “finishing” the game by adding more content!!! New places to explore! New instances to learn how to bug (err defeat)! New gear to get! New levels to attain! This all sounds and looks great, and it IS great- until it’s all gone again. Two years is really far too long for most players to acquire all of these things if they were at the maximum level before the last expansion. It would take very little playing time to not acquire most of what you want in even one year after the expansion’s release. Also, when the expansion is released the old game-world is emptied as everyone of a capable level rushes to explore and acquire in the newer, and therefore cooler, areas. In this way every expansion essentially wastes 100% of the pre-existing content. New cities (usually only one city) is added as the new center of the virtual world, and the rest of the game-world might as well be deleted except for the newer players/alts trying to catch up to the new content.

In this way “expansions” don’t truly expand the game at all, they just extend what is available to give players more things to acquire and achieve. A game is no longer viable unless the income acquired from subscriptions added to the initial box sales will be enough to continue to fund the constant creation of new content. Shadowbane is an excellent example of a game that did not rely on constant new content. It’s still around, albeit in a free form, because the focus was on the rise and fall of player-created cities. I’m not sure if there is a limit to the size of cities, but other players posing a constant risk to your city made, and still makes, for compelling game play without adding new content as players constantly vie to protect their homes and destroy their enemies’.

A lot can be learned from the ideas present in the game play of Shadowbane- that game play does not need to be reliant on new content, and failures like Tabula Rasa show us how powerful the monetary barrier created by “gimme-gimme” game design creates. RPG(single-player) games give us intriguing stories to go along with deep character development, Strategy games give us opportunities for complex strategic thinking, Action games give us exciting action-packed adventures, and MMOs should give us the opportunity for meaningful and enjoyable interaction with other players. I don’t say anything about game play in my description of MMO’s because they are their own genre in their own right, and you will never play any game that even remotely resembles an MMO that isn’t one. The gate is wide open on this genre, and they have only been developing MMOs in one direction- the direction of advancement, up. There is so much more that developers can do to make games truly expandable, or even sustainable, without relying on adding more content and raising the level cap to keep things interesting.

Expansions should be what their name implies- an expansion to the game; An increase in the depth and complexity of existing systems as well as the implementation of new systems across the board- not just at the level cap! (If your game has levels) Instead of designing a tunnel with shiny pretty things along the way to give your players immediate satisfaction work on developing how your characters can interact with others because that is at the heart of what the genre has to offer, and until players are having enjoyable interaction with other players throughout their entire game experience you don’t have an effective MMO.

Imagine an instance that you return to over and over because you want to, not because you haven’t gotten all of the best loot from it yet, and not feeling a constant push towards generic objectives like a set of gear just because your character needs it to be considered a worthwhile group-mate. I don’t believe that an enriching experience, one devoid of much of the meaningless play we see in the now standard MMO, is so far off the horizon.

Let me know what you think about game Expansion vs. Extension.

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One Response to “Build Out, Not Up”

  1. Tesh Says:

    Idle question: Why is finishing a game a bad thing?

    I submit that it’s not, and that it’s the subscription model that encourages perpetual increase that is at the heart of the problem. It overextends what starts as a set of good ideas, stretching them way past their optimal use, all for the sake of keeping people playing and paying.

    Simply, yes, I agree that expansion (horizontal worldbuilding) is far better than mere extension. Sustainable development is as crucial to making these “virtual worlds” work as it is in making the real world work.

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