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.
As far as the gear squishes in WoW and lowering of levels, it’s a stop gap measure at best. There will come a time where it just can’t work. Who will be excited to get a reward that is either the same level as what they have, or maybe a point higher. I’m sure after this expansion they will be looking at what they will need to do after the next. Gear is already climbing in value because it has to feel like a reward. I’m sure by the end of Dragonflight we will see levels pushing 600-700. And what do they do then? You can’t start the next with the first raids of the next expansion starting around 800. They need to figure out what they can do long term.
I don’t seem to find it quite as difficult to ease back into EverQuest (Or EQII) as you do but I would qualify that by saying it does require that I do a *lot* of out of game research to make myself comfortable. Anyone just trying to get by on what the game and the official Daybreak sources have to offer is absolutely doomed to failure. Whether video games should require the same level of research I used to do for essays when I was in college is an interesting question.
In terms of ageing games that remain highly accessible, Guild Wars 2 has to be one of the exemplars. By avoiding almost all level increases and gear upgrades since launch and also by rigorously keeping every single zone in relevant play all the time, no matter how old or far-flung, the game is always extremely easy to get back into after a time away. The downside, in my opinion, is it also makes the experience duller and duller as they years go on. You can go home again there but do you really want to?
On balance, I’d vote for constant change and devil take the hindmost. Stasis is to more to be feared.
@Bhagpuss – I think that is pretty much a recurring theme here, expecting the game to at least tell me what I ought to be doing at a basic level. I don’t mind doing study on more advanced topics, but if the game says “Go here” and has three different mapping systems built into it, I do kind of expect it to be helpful.
That said, I think catering to the installed base is the long term survival choice that has kept EQ and WoW and EVE alive for as long as they have run. Even the progression servers for EQ and WoW are just a variation on that.
The critical bit seems to be building that installed base initially. A new MMO needs to get as many people in and invested in its first couple of years, because after that new players will come, but your old players are who will pay the bills.
I’ve gone on about that with EVE at times because they have devoted a lot of time and effort to bringing in new players in the last five years, and it hasn’t been very successful so far as I can tell from the outside. And even with new players, the installed base is more likely to bring them there, guide them through the starting points, and get them invested.
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?
I remember listening to a Fear the Boot podcast a long time ago (maybe over a decade ago?) and Dan Repperger, the host, expounded on a belief that WoW will always dominate over newer MMOs because they have such a mountain of content for a new player to engage with. Maybe that was the case 10-12 years ago, but now it has become quite plain that WoW is anything but a mountain of content because the WoW player base –and more importantly Blizzard itself– only consider the current expansion worth playing. Sure, there’s Classic, but with each re-release of an expac in Classic there’s a reinforcement that the place to be is on the current expac. Older content is shunted aside to die on the vine from lack of use. So WoW is basically Madden or FIFA with the old releases able to be accessed by this year’s game: why would you want to play Madden 2017 when 2023 is out now?
At least with a game such as Madden, you’re basically paying for stats and rankings of players with minimal changes to the game engine itself every year. With WoW, Blizz has a tendency to blow up the classes and redo them from the ground up, like you said in your post, so there’s a bit of change to the engine itself every expac. But the reality remains the same: every couple of years the existing stuff is thrown on the scrap heap.
If Blizz had made your toon’s level (and reward stats) adjust to the zone you’re in to the extent that GW2 or ESO does (and SWTOR somewhat less successfully), the old content would remain viable. It would also encourage Blizzard to insert instances and zones and even raids for a variety of class levels, rather than simply tacking them on at the level cap.
Of course, that would result in a major upheaval in how the player base is used to playing the game, so it’s not likely to happen. Imagine finding out that your BiS list items can be obtained from not one raid but maybe a half dozen raids, and people will gravitate toward the raid they feel is easiest to loot farm, not necessarily the one that the devs most recently released. The entire concept of world first would be stood on its head as teams would farm other raids to get the loot and then attempt the current raid.
Or maybe at that point Blizzard would need to rethink the entire concept of Endgame, but I guess when it comes to that Blizz would be better off creating a new game with better monetization than what WoW is right now. (That’s sarcasm, btw.)
Still, Blizz does have to consider that long term the player base is being limited to those on the current expac and the ever increasing difficulty of a new player entering the game is going to eventually kill off the population. I was saying that’s the case back in 2014, but it’s just taken a lot longer than I expected to get to this point.
@PCRedbeard – I just wanted to say that I listed to Fear the Boot back in the day. I think I got to the end of them building the Skies of Glass RPG before I left off.
The thing with Blizz is that they just love to change things that have impacts on all the old content, which means you can never really go back and play old content the way it was originally imagined. Granted, that is true for any title with expansions due to other things I’ve mentioned, but Blizz goes the extra mile on that. Legion, and legendary weapons, is my hobby horse for that complaint. You can still go get them, but they aren’t part of your character the way they were back when it was the expansion at the top.
With level progression any game that has been out for very long is always going to be top heavy with people at the level cap I suppose.
Despite the fact that you usually can’t go home again, as stated, I will say that original classic WoW came the closest I’ve ever been. The game had a je ne c’est quios back then that they were able to replicate somehow.
I didn’t feel it as much in BC, but interestingly I realized that I dropped out at exactly the same point that I did the first time around. I guess I’m at least consistent.
I just picked up WotLK so I will see if history repeats itself again.
I quite like what WoW’s doing for levelling – rather than jump back and forwards through things, you pick an expansion and it’ll level you to just before the current one. Six months ago all of the expansions were flexible and would scale from 10 to 50, with Shadowlands taking you 50-60. Now all of them, including Shadowlands, scale 10 to 60 and Dragonflight takes you to 70.