You can’t go home again.
-Thomas Wolfe, title of one of his posthumously published novels
That quote, expanded on at the end of the novel, is meant to warn that you cannot return to a previous time in your life, that the pull of nostalgia is a false promise tainted by the fact that memory tends to emphasize the good and diminish the bad. There is no happy past state to return to, just a different set of problems.
It is an argument against dwelling in the past. And yet here I am, headed down that path again.
Today, however, I am going to try to avoid pining for some past idyllic state of vanilla WoW or launch day EverQuest or EVE Online before warp to zero was a thing. Instead, I was thinking more about the barrier that change and progression and expansions and the long term effects of an economy of endless faucets does to a game over time.
I’ve bemoaned at times Blizzard’s inability to launch and expansion in anything less than a two year cycle, but sometimes it seems like as much a blessing as a curse.
At the end of last year WoW launched its 9th expansion. But EverQuest, which is just five and a half years older than WoW, will kick off its 30th expansion by the end of 2023.
And even though the EQ team doesn’t throw every class and mechanic in the air with every expansion the way WoW tends to, every expansion, every new layer of content, changes the game. EQ has such a giant mountain of content and such a vast world that it is difficult to even figure out where to go.
Norrath has expanded to such an extent that even the in-game guides that try to direct players where to go can barely communicate how to reach your destination. See my adventures trying to reach the Scarlet Desert a couple of years back.
Meanwhile the game has to make some concessions to new players, so the climb to level 50 or 60 or 90 no longer take as long as they did when those were the caps on the game. So the play through is… not very much like it was back in the day.
That can be both good and bad. EQ has added a tutorial for new player, which I rather enjoy when I go back to the game. The problem is that after you leave it the game doesn’t live up to the promise of the tutorial. While the experience can be much more directed than it used to be back in the day, it is still isn’t a well lit path, so it being speedier is probably something.
And, on top of all of that, there is the economy. I always laugh when I go back to EQ to try and play because you get copper coins as drops, but more than 20 years of mudflation has had its impact on the economy so it is like, say, minimum wage staying where stuck in time while prices rise constantly. The players at that end of the scale aren’t able to afford much.
Okay, EverQuest (and Ultima Online) are probably the extreme examples in this scenario, titles with more than two decades under their belts. They still carry on, but they feel like places that cater to a very specific and entrenched installed base who will stick with the games until either it or they pass away.
And WoW isn’t that far behind, coming up on 19 later this year. Standing in 2023 it is objectively not that much younger than those other two titles. And Blizzard has tried to fight that eventual barrier to entry that is created by longevity, though not always successfully.
A slower expansion cadence helps. You can take a year off and not feel completely out of touch with the game. But other things they have done… I remain mixed about the level squish that came in before Shadowlands. I will grant that it provides a less chaotic path to level cap, at least potentially, than the past need to climb through each expansion, though the constant adjusting down of the level curve meant you barely got very far in any old expansion before the next one was within range.
These are example of older titles, but no title is getting any younger. Any MMO that lasts beyond a few years seems destined to either hang on for decades, even if it means getting bought out and milked for the last few ounces of profit it can provide.
So, while I am just meandering in text at the moment, I do wonder what lessons newer titles, maybe Lost Ark or New World, if the latter can hold itself together, should learn… or probably should have learned before they launched… to be more sustainable over time.
Is there something EQ or UO or WoW could have done along the way that would have made them more approachable in their second decade? Are retro or or progression or fresh start servers the sort of renewal process that helps maintain longevity?
Or am I fighting against the quote I threw in at the top of the post? I put it there more as a warning to myself, but I always somehow manage to bypass my own advice.