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Quote of the Day – MMO Content Delivery Pacing May 2, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online, EverQuest, Guild Wars 2, World of Warcraft.
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Every patch has tons of content for nearly every aspect of the game. It’s exciting — there’s almost too much to do. When a new patch releases, we’re in WoW heaven.

Then months go by and that content grows stale. Blizzard doesn’t give us new content at that point, but peeks at future content. We’re starving for a delicious content meal, but we can only look at pictures of the food.

-Scott Andrew, article Blizzard should rethink their content release model

I know that being in WoW right now, this is something that a lot of people are probably mulling over.  The Siege of Orgrimmar update came out way back in September and players are not set to get anything new until the patch that will precede the Warlords of Draenor expansion sometime this fall.

See you guys in the fall?

Lazy Warlords!

Blizzard gets its share of flak for its long expansion cycle.  Ironing things out to smooth averages, we’ll see the 5th WoW expansion around the 10th anniversary of the game, so we get one about every other year.  This is actually kind of amazing when you consider how much Blizzard studied EverQuest during WoW’s development, because SOE appeared to be convinced that they needed to ship two expansions a year to keep subscribers happy and paying the bills.

Even after watching WoW in return for a few years, SOE felt that they could only relax their pace to an expansion a year.  So we are at 20 EverQuest expansions in just over 15 years, but I may not live long enough to see 20 WoW expansions at their current pace.

The flip side of this has been GuildWars 2, which went through a long stretch of dropping new content every two weeks.  I have no first hand experience as to how that felt as a player, but a number of bloggers writing about it managed to transmit a sense of frenzied exhaustion that I am not sure that ANet’s solution was the best of all possible worlds.  If fans seemed a bit frazzled, I can only imagine how the devs felt working at that pace.  And, in the end, a select group of players experienced a lot of one-time content that is likely never to be seen again.

They could run something like Super Adventure Box again I suppose, but storyline stuff that comes to a resolution would be jarring under all but the most specific circumstances, so becomes throw away content.  And you won’t find many devs who like to write throw away code, so I am going to guess the attitude about throw away content would run about as strong amongst game designers.

And then there is what is going on with EVE Online and expansions.

With all the talk about players being content, you might not think that expansions are all that important.  But, if you go look at the population graphs, subscriptions always surge after an expansion.  It turns out we like new stuff and the promise of such will get us to spend money.

CCP is going from their “every six month” content vehicles to what I have always called the “train” method.  Basically, you lay out a series of delivery vehicles… trains if you will… and as teams finish up features, they just assign them to whatever train is leaving the station next.

The CCP Train Schedule

The CCP Train Schedule

I have work with this system before.  We failed badly at it, but that was primarily because the product group that was told they needed to adopt this method was responsible for software that was wholly unsuited to it.  Enterprise software costing hundreds of thousands of dollars does not need six distinct releases a year.  No IT department I have ever encountered wants to roll an update to anything more than once a year.

Were that not enough, we also managed to shoot ourselves in the foot repeatedly.  We would have a big feature that would span many departing trains in progress, and some small features going out, but the big feature would depend on aspects of the product that the smaller features would end up changing every freaking time, thus making it nearly impossible to ship a feature that couldn’t be done in under six weeks.  You need strong leadership, discipline, and good communication for that. (As opposed to my project, which was an acquisition into our group and then had most of the team laid off. We were a mess.)

And then there is still the content question.  The train schedule sounds great in theory, but what happens if you end up with a delivery vehicle where no features are ready?  I am going to predict that there are going to be some uneven releases here, with some seeming amazing and some having us asking why they bothered to have a release at all.  As any child who has gotten a filler gift like pencils for one of the days of Hanukkah can tell you, sometimes it seems like a good idea to save everything up for one big surprise.

Add in how CCP generally handles content releases… which from the outside looks like three months of development followed by three months of fixing what they just shipped… and it will be interesting to see how their new plan plays out.

In the end, I am not sure which one of these methods is the “best,” or even if any of them are optimum in any way for the company using them.  All I can guarantee is that we’ll complain about them all no matter what.

Back to looking at pictures of food.

Comments»

1. spinks - May 2, 2014

I used to work as a software engineer at a company where we did the train delivery thing, and the train left every 2 weeks. So we had to have a customer ready build able to go every 2 weeks. Really interesting set of processes that need to be in place to make that happen.

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2. bhagpuss - May 2, 2014

Of all the variations I’ve seen and experienced I liked Everquest’s six-monthly full expansions the best. Yes, some of them were buggy, but with the exception of Gates of Discord, about which there is a hell of a back-story, few were buggier than expansions that appear in other games at 12, 18 or 24 month intervals.

Six months seemed just about right for me to have gotten the flavor, come to terms with the changes and begun to feel a little itchy for novelty. Moreover, SOE still added plenty of free content between those expansions. We used to get a lot of patches and a lot of them had new stuff in. That was the golden age for me. I never understood why people complained it was to fast, but then I probably never used more than 25-35% of the content in any expansion during it’s lifetime since most of every expansion was inaccessible to me by dint of being raid-gated. Not surprising that I was able to do most things that interested me before the next one arrived.

GW2’s bi-weekly snack with never a full meal is just annoying. I’d take the Living Story AND an annual expansion – that would be nice. As a substitute for an expansion, though, it stinks. One variation that never caught on was EQ2’s “Adventure Packs” that were supposed to come out quarterly and be about a quarter the size of an expansion. I liked that idea but they dropped it after two packs so I imagine it didn’t sell well.

In the end, I so actually like to BUY something. Drip-feed free content via patches and updates is all very well but I get more pleasure out of making a purchase. I really liked it best when I could go to a store and pick the expansion box off the shelf but I realize those days are gone. I’d still prefer a money-changes-hand direct download purchase of traditional expansion size and content over a “living story” and I’d like it more often than once a year.

I fear that, in this regard at least, I will be disappointed in most MMOs from now on. As for WoW’s bi-annual schedule – there are reasons I don;t play WoW and that would certainly be among them.

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3. Shintar - May 2, 2014

I think that SWTOR’s current content release cycle of every two months hits a pretty sweet spot (for me anyway). It gives you enough time to play around with the new stuff at a leisurely pace but not enough to get bored of it.

Of course that system’s not perfect either, as unlike WoW’s “mega patches” not every release covers all the bases (e.g. the last new raid came out in October, so the raiding part of the playerbase is getting quite fidgety by now).

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4. Ald Shot First - May 2, 2014

A 6 month content cycle seems just about perfect to me. Long enough to see everything without stretching content out too thin.

WoW goes far too long between updates and i’m amazed players allow them to get away with it. There would be mass cancellation in any other game.

GW2 went the entire other end of the spectrum and to me did no better. The content they released was all temporary and made me feel rushed to get it done before it went away.

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5. Ming - May 3, 2014

Reading a couple of these comments, I think we should be clear that, while we currently are in a content drought between expansions in WoW, WoW does not actually only release content every two years.

The actual WoW content release model is to release an flashy paid expansion, then free patches every three months or so give or take, then a period of drought (which we are currently in) lasting the better part of a year at least until the new expansion is out.

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6. qyte - May 3, 2014

Regarding to WoW release cycle the is an anomally that they themselves have fallen victims to.
I cannot remember a single soul being bored during vanilla and/or tbc era. I would even want more “drought”, so did every single person i knew at the time, either IRL or in game.
For some strange reason Wotlk experienced some drought but it was bearable and was rather small.
The major issue has risen since raids kept people’s interest for fewer and fewer periods of time. Especially after LFR was introduced.

TL;DR
It is not always the release cycle that matters, but also the rate at which people devour the content being released :)
You need to know both variables to establish an “optimal”.

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7. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 3, 2014

@qyte – Well, Vanilla WoW was a thing apart from any expansion. It was 60 levels deep to start with. Leveling was much slower. I remember being able to do both the Dwarf and Human low level areas until they merged around level 40, without out-leveling any that content. There was that content gap in the 40s that slowed a lot of people down. And new people were pouring in until WotLK, so there were always a lot of people in the game who were nowhere close to done.

But those days are over. And even during the big growth days, there were plenty of people who ran out of steam. I had some friends from EQ who were just dying after 18 months in Vanilla and couldn’t understand how Blizzard could go more than two years without an expansion.

And if you’re not a raider, you haven’t traditionally gotten much love in the way of content. TBC dailies, Argent Tournament, and Timeless Isle spring to mind. Not bad additions, but they are no substitute for more zones and levels. And when, on top of that, an expansion is only five levels deep, things can start to feel a bit thin. (Unless you take the “If you don’t raid, you don’t matter” point of view, which isn’t exactly uncommon amongst the breed.)

I found Pandaria to be a nice, rich expansion, especially compared to Cataclysm. But if it wasn’t for the instance group… and the fact that there isn’t another MMO out there I am dying to play… I would be about done. And I only started in on it back in September.

As to your TL:DR, we’re past the era of new people coming into the game en masse, so what we end up with vets who tend to consume content at a much quicker rate. Knowing your player base is what matters, and we are now at a point where an every two year cycle is starting to feel really slow.

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8. gwjanimej - May 3, 2014

The thing about the spot where Blizzard is now isn’t so much an issue of getting patches out, but that they’re not starting the expansions early enough. I’m fine with their patch timing; in fact, I’d say with MoP they could easily have pushed some of them back a few weeks, maybe spread an extra 2 months give or take in between the patches.

With other MMOs, I think that some have gotten it right(EQ and EVE), and some have gotten it wrong the other way(GW2). With the first two, I agree that the pacing is good; EVE however suffers from being a sandbox, and since there’s not as much new to do compared to a themepark, they tend to churn subs more frequently. With EQ, 6 months per expansion is more than adequate, simply due to the structure. GW2 however, I’m not such a fan of, particularly since so much of that content is disposable. In for two weeks or so, then it’s gone and largely unaccessible.

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9. C. T. Murphy - May 4, 2014

I enjoy WoW’s approach, but I think it could do with a smaller, digital-only content pack in there somewhere or something. It does seem like some of their content patches throughout expansions can be a bit light.

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10. Catalina de Erauso - May 4, 2014

Regarding EVE Online, I think they’re taking a gamble -yet another one- as in my experience, expansions were used as anchors to stay subscribbed. “Let’s hope this next summer/winter will bring something worth staying”, to say so.

Now it looks as if EVE development just became a series of unrelated patches; a couple ships now, a new mechanic next month, like a “ride of the month” for themepark MMOs.

On the other hand, it suits to a model in which expansions were becoming glorified patches, with little ground-breaking content and just iteration upon iteration of present content. As large as is the industry rework, it adds nothing to the game. First you crafted doing A + B and now you’ll craft doing C + D + E… so what if I never cared about crafting in a single MMO in 10 years?

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11. SK - May 15, 2014

What you call the train model – it’s agile development (e.g. SCRUM) ;-) And you are right: it requires (and enforces) discipline and communication. But when done right, you CAN deploy another working release after every sprint – but you’re NOT obliged to do so.

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12. Wilhelm Arcturus - May 15, 2014

@SK – You might assume that such a schedule implies agile development, but I can assure you I have seen it tried by groups who wouldn’t know agile if you had a stand up meeting to explain it to them.

My own example involved a spin-off from the phone company that bought a hardware company that had a software group who could barely manage their ISO documented waterfall process that was basically told one day, “Hey, this agile thing sounds neat! Go be agile as of… right now! Here’s your release schedule!” by a VP who left shortly thereafter. I suspect he was paid to sabotage the company.

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