Who Has Successfully Changed Horses Midstream?

To start this off, I feel like I first have to address my own point of view on the topic to be covered, so you see where I am coming from.

I actually played right field, but that isn't a metaphor

I actually played right field, but that isn’t a metaphor

I tend to be something of a fatalist in many things, but in video games especially.

For me that means I come to a video game with the view that it is a series of rules and constraints that I have to work within in order to win, progress, succeed, or whatever, and that the idea that the developer ought to change them just to suit me rarely enters my head.  There is more than a bit of the rule following engineer in me.  I take what I am given and try to make it work.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t kvetch about the details of various games.  This blog is a testament to that.  If there is a mechanic that is awkward or horribly inefficient, I will complain about that or suggest improvements.  But that is mostly for myself, to record how I feel about a game at a given moment, and my comments tend to be about tactical issues rather than strategic vision.  I do not expect anybody to be paying attention and I am generally surprised when anything I think might be a good idea actually comes to pass through whatever means. If something changes, I can almost guarantee it had nothing to do with me.

But to suggest that a developer change what is the driving philosophy or core game play elements title to accommodate my tastes would be bizarro world strange.

As an example for illustration, I do not enjoy League of Legends, so I simply do not play the game.  The complete lack of LoL posts here attests to that.  I do enjoy five person PvE dungeons.  Again, plenty of posts to back that up.  But the idea that I should start pestering Riot to make a five person PvE dungeon version of LoL would only occur to me in the context of listing out things I would likely never do.  Despite the fact that their engine could probably handle it, five person dungeons isn’t what LoL is about.  So I don’t post about how they should accommodate my vision here, on their forums, on Reddit, or anyplace else.

And I realize that might just be me, given how often I see people suggest that if only game X had feature/aspect/mini-game Y, then they and thousands to millions of like minded individuals would rush to the game, bringing success.  Many an arm chair developer has a plan to save a given game or even the whole industry based suspiciously on their own tastes in video games.

This all comes to mind because of the persistence of the “walking in stations” idea in EVE Online.  Kirith Kodachi wrote a great post on the topic, a “what if” scenario, where walking in stations becomes a success, which illustrates the whole problem I have with the idea.  The feature essentially requires CCP to develop a new game, distinct from the space focused current game, in order to make walking in stations anything beyond a gimmick.

Whatever you think about it, you cannot deny that walking in stations would require fundamentally different game play than what is the focus of EVE Online today.

However, I don’t want to get into the holy war over whether or not walking in stations would be a good thing though.  And believe me, my own relationship with the idea isn’t as cut and dried as you might think.

Instead, I am looking for examples from other games, especially MMORPGs, where the developer has, after launch, departed from their core philosophy or game play plan, and achieved success beyond what they had previously seen.

When has the idea that more people would play a game if it changed fundamentally actually come to pass?

I can only come up with examples where greater success did not follow.

I think of Trammel and consensual PvP in Ultima Online, or Star Wars Galaxies and the NGE, or that “fine, we’ll give you a PvE progression experience” expansion for Dark Age of Camelot that I cannot remember the name of right now, or the distraction of PvP in EverQuest II.

Which is not to say somebody didn’t like all of those things.  One of the lessons you learn from blogging is that any feature, no matter how bad or annoying it is, will have somebody stand up for it and declare it their favorite thing ever.

But none of these led to greater success.

Even World of Warcraft, which is, as always, the outlier in this, having the budget to add in all sorts of non-core features, still lives and dies on their core PvE content.  Five million people did not drop out of the game last year because of problems with battlegrounds, arena combat, or pet battles, they dropped out because they didn’t like, or too quickly consumed, the overland, dungeon, and raid PvE content.

So plenty of negatives, and I didn’t even start down the path of gaming franchises that remain successful year after year despite offering up nothing substantially different in core game play.  Everything from Pokemon to Civilization to Call of Duty that goes from success to success with only minor variations seems to argue against changing horses midstream.  Find your rut and stick with it forever!

But just because I can’t come up with an example of success in this regard doesn’t mean there haven’t been any.  There are more things in online gaming than are dreamt of in my rather limited philosophy.

Who has done it?  Who has made a success of a fundamental change of game play or philosophy on a live game?  There has to be some example out there, even if it is a special case that worked only because the conditions were just right.  I would prefer an MMO example, but something MMO-ish would suffice.

26 thoughts on “Who Has Successfully Changed Horses Midstream?

  1. gruffertus

    Well, World of Warcraft has, but only slowly – the original game was so massively grind-based (including getting to level cap!) that most of the current players would probably find it unrecognisable.

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  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @gruffertus – I would agree that the core has evolved, perhaps even considerably. But to use the the word “unrecognisable” is only going to get an Inigo Montoya quote back from me. The essence of PvE from 2004 is still there and very, very recognizable; quest, kill, level up, get new gear, and so on. Everything else has been nailed onto that.

    The kind of change Blizz would have to make to qualify would involve replacing their core PvE with something completely different like, say, full loot PvP as a default mode of play.

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  3. Krumm

    Ouch, ouch, ouch…….we had just talked about that the other day,. I have to agree with you that trammel was the greater half of the deathknell to Ultima Online. The other being the introduction of the Age of Shadows item changes. Specifically with that the magic item list which had very limited number of variables and set power levels was replaced with a diablo look per critter model that flooded the game with cheap magic items. …Anyway. The only example I can think of is when SWTOR introduced star fighter battles which is much like wow battlegrounds in how you sign up for each battle. I know that is a backwards example of what you are talking about but its the closest example of something that has worked. Although again that is pvp and not the main stream mission/pve experience.

    Sense I am fairly new to EVE, I’ve only known it as it currently is. When did it change to its current graphical platform. I seem to see older graphic models about here or there that show that it had a major change. My point is when that happed how major of an effort was it to convert over? Any change of the game on the level of walking into stations would most likely dwarf that original effort in reality.

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  4. Jenks

    I don’t think this is the answer you’re looking for, but according to disreputable shysters like Damon Schubert, SWTOR was much more successful after converting to F2P.

    On a non MMO and non single game front, I just read an article on Gamasutra of someone lamenting Telltale’s shift from adventure games to interactive stories. While it ruined Telltale games for him, there’s really no denying that it’s been a wildly successful. Here’s that article: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JoshBycer/20160810/278999/Tracing_my_Troubles_with_Telltale_Games.php

    Totally agree that the bulk of WoW subs lost were due to PVE, but WoD was also possibly the most panned expansion for PVP in WoW’s history, and that definitely did contribute to the subpacolypse.

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  5. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Krumm – EVE Online has been through a few graphical evolutions. The biggest was probably the swap from what is generally referred to as “classic graphics.” (I have a collection of screen shots from those days on my other blog.) But that did not change actual game play mechanics. Flying in space was still the games focus, and the changes were done largely in order to support that. (New full body avatars were clearly done in anticipation of walking in stations.) Walking in stations would, as you note, dwarf any of those efforts as it would required the creation of graphical assets and game play mechanics from scratch. It is, in essence, making a whole new game inside of EVE Online.

    @Jenks – I thought about the whole F2P thing, especially with LOTRO and how it became more obsessively focused with putting “buy now!” things everywhere in the UI as an example. But in the end, while the business model clearly affects players and how they play (and anybody who dismisses that is full of shit) the core game play was still essentially the same. Giving it away for free just validates some things I learned in Economics 1A back in the early 80s.

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  6. Isey

    The DAOC killer was Trials of Atlantis. That was when most of my friends quit playing. Myself too, eventually.

    I can’t think of one either.

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  7. Kjeldth

    What about GW2 and Anets teaming up with ESL in late 2015 to form a ProLeague in eSports?
    I’m not quite sure about their success at this point, but at least they are keeping at it.

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  8. Rohan

    I’m trying to think if current SWTOR meets your requirements. It went from a fairly normal PvE MMO with a fair amount of group content and raids to a game which is almost entirely episodic single-player story in a multiplayer environment. Is this a changing of horses? Or is it merely doubling down and focusing on the core gameplay of the original class stories?

    I quit SWTOR because it became too different from the game I enjoyed, so maybe that’s evidence that it was a real change. But even then, I don’t know how successful this change/pivot actually was for SWTOR. MMOs have become a lot more opaque than they were a decade ago.

    Even WoW, I think there’s a fair argument that it went from an “extended” endgame, where you joined a guild and worked on content with the same people, to a “transient” endgame, where you do content with random different people each time. Is that enough of a shift to qualify as a major change?

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  9. SynCaine

    Only items that come up for me are MMOs going from a PvP-focus to a PvE focus. UO with Trammel, but also titles like Age of Conan perhaps? Haven’t played AoC in forever, but from news I see about it, it seems the focus is pretty heavy on PvE these days. It originally was pushed pretty hard as a PvP MMO.

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  10. Po Huit

    I think the point of WIS isn’t new gameplay: it’s allowing players more humanized social interactions. Right now, in a game that bills itself as “the best ship is…friendship” most interaction between players is done either in a tiny text window straight out of 1980 or using out-of-game tools. I think most folks would be fine with WIS never introducing any kind of gameplay beyond F2F chat.

    I don’t really believe that WIS would provide any noticeable boost to CCP revenues. In 2016, I also don’t believe it should be terribly hard to do. It might keep me in-game and playing more if I could walk my avatar down to the corp Common Room and say hi, rather than getting on some toxic jabber channel. Or it might not: it might be even more off-putting to deal with autistic avatars.

    I do have this vision of sitting in a virtual War Room with 500 other nerds watching my Dear Leader’s latest rant. It sounds cool, if frivolous. But I’d settle for a Svipul nerf. :-)

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  11. bhagpuss

    Hmmm. I would say that Scott Hartsman’s revamp of EQ2 both comes close to a re-modelling of most of the game’s core concepts into a new form AND it saved the game from what would probably have been complete failure in a couple of years.

    Pre-Hartsman the game required a group for almost all content and crafting was built around mandatory interdisciplinary co-operation between classes. Post-Hartsman the game became primarily solo-oriented at all but the highest levels and crafting also became entirely soloable. Granted the gameplay remained focused on PvE but outside of that it was all but unrecognizeable and the game went on to many more years of (relative) success.

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  12. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @bhagpuss – Heh, as with FFXIV 1.0 vs 2.0, does fixing a bunch of mistakes made at launch count if you only end up where you should have been in the first place?

    Also, while those changes… and there were a mind boggling amount of changes to the game over the first couple of years… likely ensured the longer term survival of the title, the peak of subscriptions for the game were at launch and it has been mostly down hill since then. There was a nice little pop at the end of 2006, but nowhere close to the peak in early 2005. (I am using those old MMOdata.net subscription charts from a while back for reference. The site is gone, but I saved off the final charts.)

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  13. Catalina de Erauso

    I don’t see WiS as “changing horses”, specially if it was a purely cosmetic feature. Maybe at some point some people would play EVE as their space doll house and would never undock, but those would be people who anyway wouldn’t be undocking for PvP…

    And, pecunia non odet.

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  14. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Catalina de Erauso – Money may not stink, but how much money do you spend on this cosmetic feature to ensure you get any profit from it at all? You want to ensure some chance to tell how money smells.

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  15. Catalina de Erauso

    With WiS or new PvE we are in “woulda coulda shoulda” land. Yet what CCP has done, it’s done. Server population is dwindling as EVE grows old. Maybe would be worse, maybe could be better, maybe should be different…

    But what it is, it is; CCP haves a plan and can not change it, just tweak it.

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  16. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Catalina de Erauso – You’re the one that wrote “pecunia non odet,” implying there was money to be made on it. I’d rather see the dev time spent on PvE, which at least has an installed base in the game.

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  17. Jeromai

    I think the most resounding example that comes to mind are MMOs that switch from monthly subscription only to F2P/B2P and microtransactions or premium+ subs. DDO, LOTRO, SWTOR, Rift and TSW were all revived or are managing to hang on a lot longer than they otherwise would have.

    Evolve Stage 2 is a non-MMO example, going from fairly cutthroat prices and DLC to essentially free-to-play and is enjoying a resurgence as a result.

    Evolve also made somewhat significant changes to its gameplay, tweaking the feel from “hide and seek” hunting to a sequence of dome “combat” arena fights, by allowing all hunters to launch the dome and the dome centering around the monster, thus making it much harder for the monster to evade the dome. I’d say the punctuated fights model is more appealing to a larger majority (though a few oldschool ones might disagree.)

    I also don’t know if it can be termed success, but Natural Selection also experienced a significantly larger population preferring to play the more actiony “combat” game mode they introduced later in the game, as contrasted with the more strategic RTS-FPS hybrid that was the original game advertised. That led to some frustration between camps. NS2 went back to the strategic mode, but can’t really be said to be enjoying much attention or success.

    I’ll have to think more deeply to come up with any other examples. Generally players don’t like their games shifting directions post-launch, but success can come if it shifts in a minority-preferring to majority-preferring direction.

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  18. Chris

    Googling “10 best reboots in gaming history” yields a few franchises I am unfamiliar with and zero MMOs.

    I suspect the Subscription -> F2P model shift is the closest we can manage, but it was an industry-wide shift, rather than a game shifting horse midstream.

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  19. Jeromai

    Oh, oh! Would you say that Final Fantasy 14’s initial launch and then them falling on their swords and releasing A Realm Reborn was a significant enough direction change that led to success?

    (I know very little about the actual details of pre- and post-, surely someone here is better informed about FF14.)

    Then there’s Diablo 3’s Auction House change that seems fairly significant a mid-stream horse change, though I don’t know if removing them added to greater success for D3 and Blizzard.

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  20. Mailvaltar

    I started playing Everquest II shortly after launch and loved it…until I left the Isle of refuge.
    Then I had to realize that, no, I can’t just play on my own when none of my mates are online, and no, I can’t “just” catch up when they had outleveled me a bit during time constraints on my part.
    The game was, at least in my eyes and those of many others, unplayable solo.

    I couldn’t play in a regular group because of working shifts, and the pugging experience was, at least to me, horrible. So I quit.
    Because I really liked the game despite this, I gave it another shot a couple months later. I quit again.
    The third time was, as the saying goes, the charm. It was during the Echoes of Faydwer expansion that I returned for the second time, and boy, did I love the game from then on for about two years straight. Not only had they added a dizzying amount of content (to a game that already had lots from the start), most importantly, dungeons and raids aside, there was solo content in abundance. It could still be quite challenging, which is good imo, but you weren’t forced to group for anything and everything anymore.

    I talked to a lot of players about this, and there are many who say that they only started to play the game or returned after quitting because of this. So I’d say the change turned into a success.

    Now, I guess it can be debated if this actually was a change of horses, because pretty much everything else about the game stayed basically the same.
    For me, though, it totally was. Before, I still somehow loved the game, but couldn’t actually play it. After, it became my favourite and most played game (almost 2k hours on my main alone), probably forever.

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  21. Sunrise Aigele

    Trammel was not a failure. It is written off as a failure by the passionate and highly vocal players it alienated, but new player retention shot upward, the overall player base doubled, the developer who made the change became a highly desirable talent in the industry, and by the starkest and most objective measure, UO has done itself proud: sixteen years after Trammel, the game is still a going concern.

    It was not an unambiguous success, either. Gordon Walton, the developer who made the decision to do Trammel, said as much on the Crowfall forums (he is a developer for that game): http://community.crowfall.com/index.php?/topic/102-gordon-walton-are-you-the-one-who-brought-us-trammel/#entry1610

    In particular, he directly addressed the question posed in this blog: “I also learned from my UO experience that it’s really hard to change a brand. Inherent in the UO brand was the fact it was a gritty, hard core world of danger. We were not successful in bringing back the (literally)100’s of thousands of players who had quit due to the unbridled PvP in the world (~5% of former customers came back to try the new UO, but very few of them stayed). We discovered that people didn’t just quit UO, they divorced it in a very emotional way. But we did keep more of the new players that came in by a large margin, significantly more than than the PvP players we lost[.]”

    I believe Po Huit is essentially correct about WiS: It would be easiest to see it (and to develope it) as downtime socialization, of which there is plenty in EVE. It would be a reason to stay in the client while waiting for a fleet, or while hellcamped, or just to get to know corpmates. One poster on the official forums even suggested that WiS be free to play, extending the subscription-as-pilot’s license metaphor to say that if you aren’t subscribed, you can’t fly. Maybe the FTP players could hitch rides on capsuleer ships to get to other stations and systems. What could possibly go wrong? ^^’ Adding a PVP element would greatly increase the development cost.

    But the technology that promises to humanize our online interactions, for better and for worse, is VR. It is no accident that CCP is so heavily invested. VR is the obvious next step for their grand sociological experiment.

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  22. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Sunrise Aigele – Not having played UO, I suppose I have bought into the very loud narrative that Trammel killed UO. I blame SynCaine.

    But looking at the subscriber charts, to which I alluded to in a previous comment (chart here) it does look like UO didn’t peak until well after Trammel and kept pretty stable numbers for quite a stretch. So I guess we have a solid example.

    But your Gordon Walton reference reinforces something else I have brought up from time to time when it comes to EVE Online, which is that its “brand,” to use his term, is already well and truly set. People who hate EVE now… who seem to populate the comment section at Massively OP… will hate it no matter what CCP does to it. And It has had a long time to build up that hate; 13 years versus the 2.5 years UO had before Trammel.

    The problem with WIS as socialization is that if, as somebody noted, you think your corp/alliance/coalition voice coms are toxic, then you probably already think local, corp, alliance, and whatever chat channels are toxic as well, so why would one expect toxicity to change with the introduction of full body avatar interaction.

    In the end, I think the EVE user base fixates a little too much on the PCU as the metric to be sweated, especially in a game that rewards logging in, setting your training queue, and logging out for a while until you can fly what you intend. But, as with WoW, in the absence of subscription number you end up with stuff like PCUs or MAUs to fret about.

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  23. Jenks

    I was calmly looking at that chart while eating my breakfast, and then I saw Rift and spit coffee on my keyboard laughing. Thanks a lot! I suspect SWTOR looks very similar, just on a much bigger scale.

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  24. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Jenks – It doesn’t look as dramatic because it is on the “over 1 million” chart. WAR, Rift, and Age of Conan look more harsh due to being bigger fish in a smaller pond. And by that point we were well into the era of subscription numbers being treated as topic secrets and not being shared with employees who might leak them.

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  25. Sunrise Aigele

    @Wilhelm Arcturus: Yes, precisely, and in fact your metaphor is perfect. The game developer is changing horses, not straddling two horses. The first horse is left behind and unhappy about being left in the middle of a stream, and after it is done, the developer is still where the first horse took them. They have to hope that the new horse is at least as worthy a steed.

    Given that CCP’s entire goal with EVE was to find a way to rediscover the original feel of UO, I see no rebranding in their future. They want to find a way to avoid both Trammel and the situation in UO that led to it, and there are a number of ways to do that (it is why the EVE cluster is so large, for one thing). The thread I linked and its followup thread include a number of ideas to prevent griefing from being too easy by designing the rules and the world in clever ways, rather than by falling back on the EULA/TOS. In that way, they are treading a similar path to CCP (but CCP welcomes the players who just want to harass other players and deny them fun; Crowfall, explicitly, does not).

    The experience of VR tends to be more personal in the sense that you really are your character. It is much harder to be detached, or to see your avatar as eye candy (which is encouraged by trailing-camera third-person view). I have read further (and I will hunt for links, promise!) that gore can be greatly reduced and enemy size can be dialed down to a near-human scale because of that. I have read that even Minecraft mobs, square heads and all, become scary when they are as big as you are and coming at *you*, not your avatar.

    Of course it is possible to treat other people unsympathetically, by exactly the same means that people treat each other unsympathetically in real life. There will still be much information missing relative to the sensory richness of contact with a person in reality, and that will allow for more detachment than we may otherwise have. VR will not turn us all into a big, happy commune. But insofar as the player becomes the character, immersed in the game world at full scale, it will remove a few levels of detachment.

    I am looking forward to the day when I can see this all for myself, instead of reading about it.

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