Category Archives: MMO Design

Expecting Too Much from New Eden

Last Tuesday afternoon, just after I got home from work, I brought up the launcher for EVE Online.  I did so by accident, as I meant to bring up the Blizzard launched to play WoW Classic.  But I let it patch and run up just to keep it current.

Then I looked at the online player count and was a bit surprised to find it below the 15K mark, and you know what came to my mind right away.

First known occurrence of “EVE is Dying”

I realize that a weekday afternoon, and one after a three day weekend in the US, isn’t necessarily a peak time, but 15K seemed pretty low.

For the past year or so I have come home in the afternoon to find the count between 20-22K most weekdays and, as I have written in the past, I generally consider low ebb later in the evenings, when the Euros have gone to bed and it is safer to move things around, to be about 18K players online.

I had heard The Mittani talking about diminishing peak numbers on consecutive Sundays since the start of the Chaos Era, but that seemed premature to me.  That was two weeks ago.  You could chart small declines, but I thought you really needed to get past the login bonuses and free SP event before the numbers would start to really be telling.

Well, here we are, Chaos Era in full swing, more nerfs on the way with the September update, and no promotions or events in progress.  So Goons are working on gloomy charts (with some add on charts in the comments), Nosy Gamer is having a look at NPC and player destruction that doesn’t bode well, the MER has NPC commodities as the new biggest ISK faucet, and my own anecdotal evidence all seem to add up to something being amiss, manifested in the concurrent player count numbers, which you can see over at EVE Offline.

I realize that CCP doesn’t mention concurrent player count anymore, preferring the trend towards daily and monthly active users, the darling metrics of the mobile domain where ads are often part of the revenue stream. (Have you seen Candy Crush Saga lately? There has been a pretty big swing towards “watch an ad video, get a booster!” in their model.)  But the concurrent player count feels more like the reality we play in, so a dip is not good news.

This has, naturally enough, led to a cottage industry over on /r/eve and in the forums and wherever else about what CCP needs to do to fix this.

What I find interesting is how many people can move straight from the stance that CCP is both slow and incompetent to a grand master plan for fixing EVE Online that pretty much demands that the company be both quick and excellent at their craft.

My poster child right now is this post, which is a master class in glossing over reality.  The premise is that CCP should add back walking in stations, shove whatever Project: Nova is right now into the mix, and try to turn the game into what Star Citizen aspires to be some day.

Leaving aside my myriad objections to avatar play in EVE Online (summed up as: You have to build a whole different game to support it), the very easy jokes to be made at the expense of Chris Roberts, and the completely half-assed, evidence free, changing horses mid-stream vision being espoused, what in the last sixteen years could lead anybody to believe that CCP has the capability of doing this in any time frame that doesn’t include the heat death of the universe as a benchmark measurement?

I remain convinced that people outside software development think that just because it is easy to describe something it must therefore be easy to develop.

That is not the way of the world.

Just last week I suggested that CCP wasn’t going to be able to fix the new player experience in any meaningful way that would have even the slightest impact on new player retention.  I mean, I wrote “point and laugh” as my possible response to whatever they come up with, but that was what I meant.  And I say that because of CCP’s history.

It is like when people say that CCP should make things like level 4 missions more fun… something else I have seen come up as part of this… and I again wonder what people think has been going on since 2003.  Do you think that CCP has not tried?  Also, your idea on how to do this is badly considered garbage that won’t work.  Just accept it.

The game is what it is, having grown and developed almost spasmodically over the last decade and a half.  It hangs together on social bonds, vengeance fantasies, pretty screen shots, angry memes, and the sunk cost fallacy, and anything that CCP could do to “fix” the game has a pretty good chance of upsetting that balance.  I swear the corporate motto ought to be, “We did not see that coming!”

Which isn’t to say that I don’t think CCP can do things to help the game along, and even make the NPE better.  There are lots of ways the game could be made better.  But what CCP needs to do is way down in the fundamentals, blocking and tackling level stuff.  There is no room for Jesus features any more as there are too many balls for CCP to keep in the air as it is.  That one labelled “faction warfare” rolled under the couch a couple of years ago.

But what you don’t do is mask things with uncertainty.  Chaos is not a viable business strategy unless you’re selling safety from it.  Rational people, when faced with chaos, tend to try and find a safe place to weather the storm.

Anyway, we’ll see what comes to pass.  I fear that the Chaos Era may have officially pushed me into the bitter vet status, so i’ll probably just go play some more WoW Classic.

Others on the Chaos Era:

Quote of the Day – How to get Your Industry Regulated

A Kinder Surprise Egg does not collect your data. The Kinder Egg does not learn more about the person buying and opening the Egg, such as his or her preferences for its contents. The Kinder Egg does not adjust its contents according to an algorithm based on population data. People do not link their credit cards to Kinder Egg vendors. Kinder Eggs are physical and can be given away or traded, unlike virtual items.

-Dr Daniel King, quoted at GameIndustry.biz

I like this quote because it gets to something I think people miss when it comes to the lockbox debate.  I often see people go straight for the idea that randomness equals gambling and therefore lockboxes should be banned.

Not gambling

And, while randomness is an element of gambling, it is not the sole defining factor.  That something like Kinder Surprise Eggs exist and are sold legally in many countries tends to indicate that randomness is not the only thing we should be considering.

Randomness is not necessarily bad.  And while I tend to discount when devs tell us people enjoy opening up lockboxes… I am sure the payday loan industry would tells us that people like getting money from them as well… you can find players who enjoy the randomness of loot drops and such.  Bhagpuss, one of the sources that pointed this quote towards me, is on that team.

This makes the gambling argument feels like a dead end to me.  You either have to change the laws to widen the definition of gambling (wait for the push back on that) or go the Belgium route and make a special exception for a specific set of circumstances, which leaves people with the question about why this one outlier is special.

Fortunately, the quote nicely brings up how randomness isn’t the sole factor that makes lockboxes odious to so many people.  There is the virtual nature of any prizes, the persistent reminders and offers from the cash shop, the fact that you have to pay to for a random chance to get things otherwise not obtainable in game, the manipulative practices, and the suspicion that the whole thing is rigged just to get you to spend more money.  Another quote:

“The ‘not forcing anyone’ argument is undermined by the fact that many of these games appear to employ systems that are designed to present constant in-game purchasing opportunities,” says Dr King. “The promotions and solicitations are unavoidable in some cases, and the game may have design elements that make it very frustrating to players unless they spend money.

“Our review suggests that there are some emerging designs that aim to capitalise on player data to present individualised offers that the system ‘knows’ the player is more likely to accept. So it’s not about being ‘forced’ — it’s about the game anticipating or making the best judgement about what the player is likely to accept.”

And while some people would be on board with the suspicion that things are rigged no matter what, the game companies have helped feed that paranoia themselves.  Further down in the article there are some patents game companies have filed for mechanics designed to get people to spend more.

Activision had an especially good filing back in 2017 for a system that would deliberately match players with people have superior gear from lockboxes to make you feel you need the same gear in order to compete.

Randomness is not bad in and of itself and we appear, as a society, to be okay with gambling, but when you start targeting people based on their behavior and rigging the system against them on the fly, all algorithmically and invisibly behind the scenes, we have strayed into what some might label as predatory practices that strikes against a basic sense of fairness.

Going down that path in pursuit of the most effective lockbox scheme is how you end up with legislators and regulators taking a close and person interest in your industry.  It has all been rather haphazard up to now, but momentum is building.

So it was probably no coincidence that there was a press release from the ESA about how various companies are now committed to displaying the odds of obtaining items from lockboxes on the very day that the US Federal Trade Commission was holding a workshop about industry practices around lockboxes.

The ESA isn’t dumb.  They know they need to do something as any regulation is going to hurt them.  They know they need to get in front of this issue and make some concessions before laws or regulations force them to back off their lucrative lockbox schemes.   And so they have a grand announcement.

And posting the odds somewhere would be a big step forward.

Of course, the ESA isn’t saying where the odds have to be posted, if they have to be in-game, or even linked to in game.  Posting them on some dead end path on their web site might be what they have in mind.  And how often do the odds have to be brought up to date?

This is the problem with something as empty as a “commitment” to something like the ESA has announced.  They want to sound like they are doing something good for the consumer without actually being bound to follow through in any reasonable fashion.  With no laws or regulations in place, what are you going to do if half of those committed platforms fail to follow through while the other half does so in the least helpful way possible?

Companies don’t go out of their way unless it is in their best interest.  Right now I am sure the ESA sees their problem as a few loudmouths that need to be appeased so they can go back to business as usual.  There will need to be a lot more government scrutiny before the ESA follows through.  But follow through they will, if the pressure gets high enough.  I remain convinced that the ESA will do the minimum amount needed… pinkie swear promises and strategic campaign contributions… to stave off regulation at least in the US.

And, in a final twist to the comparison in the initial quote, Kinder Surprise Eggs are not allowed in the US.  It has nothing to do with gambling or manipulation and everything to do with the FDA not allowing you to sell candy with toys embedded inside.  So we only get the Kinder Joy eggs, sans surprise… and given how rare they are here, few seem to buy them just to eat.

That EVE Online Starter Pack Controversy

So as not to bury the lede (one of my favorite things) the title refers to the updated Starter Pack which you can get from CCP’s EVE Online DLC page.  It includes one million skill points and runs just $4.99 currently.

There are, and have been for ages, some reasonably priced packs you can buy to give yourself a leg up on the game.  They have come in assorted flavors.  In the past they were sometimes related to professions like mining or exploring or even combat.  Now they are more generic.

The reasonably priced packs

And then, of course, there is the Galaxy Pack, for the more whale-ish of customers.

The Galaxy Pack!

The theme of these packs has been pretty consistent over the years since Alpha clones showed up.  You get some Omega time, to get you a taste of being a subscriber, you get some PLEX so you can buy something in the cash shop, and you get a some cosmetics, something nice to wear and/or a ship SKIN.  Maybe there is an implant or a multiple character training cert, but that was about it.

Even the Starter Pack used to be mostly that.  It’s previous payload was:

  • 7 days of Omega, ensuring Double Training and many more benefits
  • 250,000 Skill Points, giving you a head start in skill training
  • Skill and Damage Booster (Cerebral Accelerator)
  • A stunning bundle of starter ship SKINs
  • Blood Raider apparel

For no doubt emotional reasons, 250K SP as part of the bundle wasn’t viewed as a betrayal by CCP.  That much was available via a friend referral.

However, CCP changed the Starter Pack so, as the screen shot above indicates, it includes:

  • 1,000,000 Skill Points
  • Skill and Damage Booster
  • A stunning bundle of starter ship SKINs
  • Blood Raider apparel

No more Omega time and 4x the skill points now.

And some people are quite angry about that change; specifically the move to handing out a million skill points.  That crossed an emotional barrier.  And I can see why.

In the three years since what I called the Mardi Gras Release in February of 2016, which brought Skill Extractors and Skill Injectors into the game, the whole skill point market has put a lot of players on edge as they have expected CCP to step over the line and start injecting skill points into the game for cash.

Skill Injectors have also been blamed, and not without merit, for ruining the game already, for specific definitions of “ruin.”

The intentions were, if not pure, at least not straight up evil as presented.  With a then 13 year old game based on the skill training queue, there was a large negative perception that new players could never “catch up,” could never be on an equal footing with those who started before them.

The long held vet opinion that this meant players had to learn the game and that newbies have a place in fleets in things tackle frigates and should work their way up the ladder the same way we did back in the day fell on deaf ears.  Nobody wants to be told to do it the hard way, they want to fly a titan today.

And with PLEX able to turn real world money into ISK and then with ISK able to buy Skill Injectors, anybody with enough cash could fly a titan today.  New players could catch up.  Problem solved.

Well, sort of.  The more likely scenario was this.

Iron Bank buys ALL THE SKILLS

More so than new player, old hands ended up buying Skill Injectors to boost up titan alts and now we have more titan pilots in the game than CCP ever imagined would be possible.

But this did not lead to a wide player revolt like Incarna for a couple of mitigating reasons.

First, you had always been able to buy characters in EVE Online, so technically you could buy your way into a titan pilot before, though getting the ISK was for it was a challenge.

Second, this was not introducing new skill points into the game.  All of the skill points would be extracted from the current player base.  In fact, because of the diminishing returns of Skill Injectors… somebody like me only gets 150K or the 500K skill points an injector contains… it was actually removing skill points from the game.

350K SP go to waste for me…

But most important was what the dev blog about Skill Injectors stated:

It’s very important to note here that this means all the skillpoints available to buy on the market in EVE will have originated on other characters where they were trained at the normal rate.  Player driven economies are key to EVE design and we want you to decide the value of traded skillpoints while we make sure there is one single mechanism that brings new skillpoints in to the system – training.

The mob was mollified, if still wary.

And then CCP started straight up selling skill points they injected into the game.

The daily Alpha Clone injector

This was the daily Alpha Clone injector, which came into the game back in November of 2017.  I thought surely this would be the breaking point, that the mob would come unglued and that there would be rioting in Jita and so forth.

But there wasn’t.  The Alpha Clone injector had just enough limitations to be mostly palatable, or at least not worth an insurrection.   Those limitations were:

  • Only one Daily Alpha Injector may be used per day, per character [not account] (resets at downtime)
  • May only be used by characters in the Alpha Clone State
  • Can be purchased in the NES for PLEX or purchased for your regions real money currency via secure.eveonline.com
  • Can be activated to immediately to add 50,000 skill points to your character’s unallocated skill pool (roughly one day worth of Omega training)
  • Can be traded on the in-game market
  • Does not award Omega Status

Still, the seal was broken, CCP was just injecting skill points into the game for cash.

I guess CCP had been generating them on occasion before, giving out skill points as compensation for game problems.  But the lid was well and truly off last November when they added in the login reward mechanism, and gave us some skill points just to test it out.

And then came the 16th anniversary where any Omega logging in for 16 days got ONE MILLION skill points.  At that point you could argue that CCP was just printing skill points for cash… cash via Omega subscriptions, but cash none the less.  CCP created skill points were now the norm.

Which brings us to today and the Starter Pack and the straight up “give me five dollars and I’ll give you a million skill points” deal.

Things have moved along incrementally.  If you have accepted everything CCP has done up to this point it is a tough be taken seriously if you argue that this is the breaking point, that CCP has gone beyond the pale, that CCP has broken faith with players, that the Pearl Abyss cash shop gold ammo power selling apocalypse is upon us, because we were practically there already.  Why didn’t you say something before?

And, Jin’taan’s unlikely work-around aside, you can only apply one Starter Pack per accoun., (Along with some other fresh restrictions, threw in only after people began to object loudly.)  So what is the big deal?

The flip side of that is how the incremental changes have continued on, which means that they will likely continue on going forward.

Today is it just the Starter Pack, which you can only use once per account.  But if that is okay, if we accept that, then how soon until skill points are part of the Meteor Pack or the Star Pack?  How soon until that $99 Galaxy Pack comes with a Skill Injector or three filled up with skill points CCP created just for that purpose?

That is not at all a stretch.  CCP has been close to this in the past.  They used to sell industry packs that came with Aurum, the old cash shop currency.  At one point Green Man Gaming was selling those for a dollar each (they were normally $10) and there was no limited per account.  So seeing that happen with skill points is very easy to imagine.  After all, CCP didn’t add them to the Starter Pack by accident.  Somebody thought that was a good idea, and nobody objected to it.  Somebody within CCP will always be looking for ways to boost revenue, and skill points are always going to be there as a temptation.  CCP edged back some when it got push back, but the company is certainly looking for that next step forward.

It is hard to stand up to any incremental change because it can be argued away as not being radically different from what you had accepted before.  But in the face of an ongoing march of incremental changes that set a pattern that appears to lead to an unhappy conclusion, it doesn’t seem exactly radical to reach a point where you can see the pattern and feel the need to push back on it.  At some point the frog realizes that boiling is in its future.

So I get why somebody like Manic Velocity, a passionate member of the community, has found his breaking point with this move. (I wonder what would have happened had he made it onto the CSM.)  It isn’t that the move is so radical, it is that it appears to be yet another step on the path towards a game we won’t like.  Sometimes you reach a point where you just can’t go along with it any more.

Most people won’t mind though.  Some people will complain.  On Reddit there will be threads about betrayal, predictions about the next steps, and calls for protest that will be ignored by the vast majority of the community.

I’m aware of the situation, but I am unlikely to walk away from the game.  I see the path being trod, but I am of a fatalist bent and cannot see CCP deviating far from that path as time goes forward.  We can perhaps slow their pace, but in the end they will get there.  CCP will continue on down this trail.  They pretty much have to.  The game isn’t growing, they have no other products, past attempts at other products have failed, so what is left?  Monetize harder!

Meanwhile, the retention rate of new players will remain weak.  I don’t think CCP is capable of addressing that, and I am skeptical that there is anything they could do in any case.  And as time goes forward the older player base will erode… from tiring of the game or from whatever outrage comes along… which will also hurt new player retention… until the population hits a tipping point and the economy starts to collapse.

Then there will be huge inflation as the endless ISK from NPC bounties chases the dwindling PLEX supply while the Jita market deflates otherwise as fewer and fewer players buy ships and modules and ammo and what not.

CCP will step into try and stabilize things.  They’ll hit NPC bounties hard, but that will just drive more players away by then.  They will setup NPCs to sell things again, putting an effective floor on the price of minerals the way shuttles used to, but driving out miners and industrialists.  Pockets of null sec that can maintain self-sufficiency will keep fighting, throwing excess titans at each other and dropping low power Keepstars with abandon as the PCU dwindles.  It will be hilarity, a Mad Max post-apocalyptic spaceship demolition derby, in the midst of tragedy.

The last gasp will be CCP putting out a fresh server so people can start anew.  That will be fun for a bit, but it will kill TQ and signal the beginning of the end.  CCP won’t change their ways and all the old problems will crop up, in weeks or months this time rather than years.  We have seen that in every retro server.  The go back in time only accelerate it.

Eventually a few old players will be sitting around chatting in local about what a great game it was.  What other online game let you do even half of what EVE Online did?  What a wild ride it was while it lasted. And then Sadus will remind us that WoW was the first MMO.

Or maybe it will all work out.  We’ll see.  Either way, CCP has a PLEX sale going, because of course they do.  It is the end of the fiscal quarter and CCP has to make Pearl Abyss happy with their numbers.

The Triglavian’s only known weakness: PLEX

Because if they don’t make Pearl Abyss happy… well… buy some PLEX today or we’ll be buying skill injectors and gold ammo tomorrow.

Other coverage:

Is New Player Retention Fixable in EVE Online

At EVE North CCP dropped some tidbits of information on us.  They’re going to rework the Vexor Navy Issue.  Pirate faction implant changes are coming.  And the new UI pointer feature has reached meme status with the undock button.

[Addendum: Nosy Gamer has a better summary of things CCP brought up at EVE North]

Things you see in local in Tribute a lot

I think it is great that how to use the new UI pointer feature was the second most created UI pointer, but this is also a good tool for helping people new to the game.

There was also a slide about new player retention that looked pretty grim.

How many new players log back in as time passes

Hilmar previously assured us that EVE Online was still getting plenty of new players… or new accounts created in any case…  seeing about 10K such every week in the game.  They just don’t stick around.

This is not a particularly new bit of information.  We saw a similar chart back at EVE Fanfest in 2014, a little over five years back, which laid out what happens with new players.

New Player Trajectory – May 2014

That chart actually looks better, but ignores a big chunk of new players as it only counts those who opted to pay the then mandatory subscription fee.  Of those who stepped up to that level, half left after their first subscription period ran out, 40% ran down the solo mission path and left once they had essentially leveled up their Ravens to do level 4 missions, and 10% found a home and stuck with the game.  When those who didn’t bother to subscribe were included, these three groups were a much smaller percentage of the pie.

Of course, when this sort of information comes up people immediately assail CCP for having a bad new player experience, an unintuitive UI, and a horrible and unhelpful player base that abuses newbies.  Somebody will eventually claim that Goons are ganking new players on the undock of the tutorial or some similar fantasy.

And CCP has tried to address this retention issue pretty much constantly throughout my tenure in New Eden.  The horrible tutorial that I went through in 2006, which was a motivator to start this blog, has been revamped half a dozen times since then, but things haven’t really changed.

The EVE North chart starts off with half the people who register not even logging into the game.  I guess you cannot blame the NPE or the UI or Goons for that.  Probably bots doing that I guess.

Of the 10K that make it into the game, by the 30 day mark less than 500 are still logging in.  That is just about 4.4% given the numbers on the chart.  That seems like a horrible retention rate.  How can that seem to be anything else?  At least to you and I and any other outsider.

But knocking around in the back of my head for some time has been the question of context.  I dislike numbers and statistics without context.  4.4% seems bad, but without being able to compare it to other MMORPGs it is difficult to say whether it really is bad.

Unfortunately, most game developers are not as forthcoming as CCP.  Almost nobody gets out in front of the players and gives us as much information as CCP does.  Can you imagine Blizzard or EA or NCsoft doing this?  So CCP tells us something and we assume the information for the rest of the industry, guessing that it must be better than this.

So I decided to poke around to see if I could find any information about this, prodded by a comment on Twitter than linked to something akin to what I was looking for.  However, that wasn’t the meat I wanted.

Fortunately, somebody has done some work on this front.  As it turns out SuperData Research did a study titled Understanding Free-to-Play MMO Retention.  This seemed quite relevant, since there is no subscription barrier to playing EVE Online any more.

The study looks into player retention and compares players who jump on the game at launch versus those who come in after the game has been established.  People who join as soon as it goes live have higher retention rate.  Those who come in later don’t stay, though after some time goes by that gets a bit better because new players after the two year mark tend to come more by word-of-mouth, and thus likely have friends that play, a significant factor in retention.

Of those who show up late to the party… and given its recent Sweet 16 birthday party, anybody showing up to EVE Online now has missed quite a few parties… only 2% of those who register and log into the game will still be around 30 days later.

While EVE Online‘s retention after the first day is much lower than what SuperData reported… 40% of the word of mouth crowed logs in after the first day while only 28% of CCP’s sample did… but with 4.4% retention at the 30 day mark EVE Online is doing pretty well compared to the study where post-launch players peaked at 3% and settled down to 2% even with word of mouth.

Which is not to say that EVE Online doesn’t have problems and couldn’t do better.  The game has some pretty big factors working against it.  But the angry player insults about CCP being exceptionally bad/stupid/ignorant/greedy seem to be, at best, off base.  And anybody who shouts “marketing” needs to just shut up.  The company seems to be in the same boat as other MMOs, and revamping the new player experience yet again probably isn’t going to change that in a drastic way.

Short of teaching people how to form social bonds in their game, a key factor in retention (I don’t think a How to Find Friends video quite cuts it, but nice try I guess), I am not sure there is any easy answer to getting people to stick with the game, mostly because people don’t seem to stick around with most MMOs they try.

Raph Koster wrote a piece earlier this year about various methods that can be applied to user retention.  There are probably a few suggestions in that worth pursing, though CCP is already on to some of them.

The Alleged Purity of Leveling

More carping about levels and the problems they bring.

Only, this time I think there is some question as to whether or not there is really a problem.  At least in my mind there is a question.

The problem, as laid out, is people leveling up the “wrong” way, be it favoring a specific form of game play or using an exploit in the game or finding special gear.  Sometimes called “twinking,” it makes some people very, very angry.

In this case, as mentioned over at Massively OP, Blizzard has decided to close a loophole in XP gain that allows player to turn off their XP to boost other players with whom they are grouped.  Brought up by Blizzard back in December, a change for this is now in the WoW 8.2 PTR, found by Warcraft Secrets, whose image I am going to use.

Loophole closed, go level up the right way!

Given that we now know that the WoW 8.2 pact drops this coming Tuesday we will probably see an upswing in this behavior over the weekend.  Blizzard Watch even put it on their list of things to get done before the patch drops.

Twinking is as old as online games.  Handing alts gear they couldn’t possibly obtain on their own in order to speed up the leveling process was well established when I stared playing TorilMUD (or Sojourn MUD as it was named at the time) back in 1993.

It carried on in EverQuest, where I can recall low level paladins wandering around with Ghoulbanes to smite undead to hasten their way forward, among other twinks.  It was also popular to get a friendly high level druid or cleric to buff your alt so they could run around and solo mobs that would otherwise be well beyond your capability.

This behavior has always made some people angry, with “fairness” being the general argument.  It isn’t fair that somebody has an advantage in leveling up faster than you.  I remember somebody being angry at me because I leveled up a warrior in TorilMUD from creation to level 40 in just over 8 hours of play time due to twinking him with gear I had collected over time.  They complained about it on the forums.

Over time some things were put in place to stop this sort of thing.  Gear got level requirements and was made bind on equip most places so you couldn’t dump things on your alt for power leveling.

Some games went a little too crazy.  EverQuest II at launch wouldn’t even let you buff people outside of your party and had strict rules about level differentials in a group lest you be trying to help somebody along.  I remember those calculations keeping people out of groups, especially at lower levels where the ratios made the level gaps allowed much smaller.

I have always assumed that this was very much a response to the free and easy twinking available in EverQuest, about which people would howl in the forums.

But should the developers be listening to this sort of thing?  People complain about literally everything in the forums.  Start a thread about people undercutting your sell price on the market and just watch how many people join in on complaining.

Does having some sort of advantage in leveling up hurt anybody else?  Is twinking a problem that needs to be solved?  Should developers be preventing players from leveling up the wrong way?

I am generally of the opinion that the answer to all of that is “no.”

In a game like World of Warcraft where, in the current expansion, the mobs scale with you all the way to level 120, so that one might question why there are levels at all, and where you have things like heirloom gear, it seems debatable that Blizzard should be worried about people leveling up faster than them.  And all the more so when they’re going on about a level squish, though that is another tale altogether.

Sure, there are situations where this might be bad.

I would probably agree that any path that took players out of the visible world is probably bad.  At least if you have something like a world in your game.  In EverQuest II they felt they had to remove exp from the player made dungeons feature largely because the most popular such dungeons were exp generating machines of no obvious merit otherwise.

And any time PvP is involved letting people boost up quickly, or lock levels and build a super-optimum gear set for battlegrounds, is going to end badly.

And, then there was the tale of Warhammer Online, where one theory of the failure of the game lays the blame on battlegrounds, which were the optimum method to level up.  Why would you spend time doing open world PvP content… which was what the game was supposed to be about, and was honestly a lot more fun when it happened… when instanced battleground were ready for you right now?

But that wasn’t really twinking so much as incentivizing the wrong path forward.  But PvP depends on the other side showing up when you’re ready to play, which is the main downfall of open world PvP in every game that hosts it.  Battlegrounds, with their jump in, fight, be done mechanics are not so hampered by that, so they will tend to draw people away from the open world in any case, and when they are replacing the PvP that is supposed to be the core of your game, you have at a minimum incentivized them badly.

However, short some specific situations where the path being used to level up is taking people out of the game, I am not sure that twinking is something to get all that worked up about.  I thought we’re long past the age of draconian responses to people not playing the game correctly.  But that Blizzard has now decreed that if you group with somebody who has XP turned off your own XP gain will now be “vastly reduced,” I guess I am wrong.

Three Problems MMORPGs are Never Going to Solve

Three things that fans of the genre complain about all the time, and even the developers acknowledge as issued now and then, which are just never going to be “solved” in any acceptable way.

Levels

World of Warcraft has been getting some heat for this one of late, both because the level scaling in Battle for Azeroth practically punishes you for leveling up and because they gave us access to a whole bunch of allied races which, if you want to play them, you have to level up. (Or pay for a race change for a current character, or pay for a level boost I guess.)

The moment hits at last

The problem is that levels are an easy solution to issues like gating content and giving characters a sense of progression, the latter being critical for an MMORPG.  The alternatives, like skill based systems, just don’t cover things as well or as obviously.

In fact, levels are so sublime that even systems that ostensibly do not have levels end up effectively having levels.  Take EVE Online, once an outlier with its skill learning system.  Your skills level up, even when you are offline, something viewed as a boon.  Skills gated content, in that you needed the skills to use various ships and equipment.   But skills continued on at the same pace, offline or on, with no way to speed them up, which many people found frustrating.  Flying a titan, for example, was just going to take you a couple of years.

And then skill injectors came along and suddenly the in-game currency, ISK, always something of a success measure, effectively became levels.  With enough ISK you can unlock all the content.  65 skill injectors gets you a titan pilot.  With enough ISK you can “win” EVE Online almost immediately.

They had all the skills… and lots of ISK… before they were banned

Meanwhile, back in level based gamed like WoW and EverQuest, the developers found ways to add another layer of levels.  Item levels gates content in Azeroth and stand as the thing for players to obsess about, while over in Norrath a whole vast and complex Alternate Advancement tree exists to absorb your experience once you’ve hit level cap, if not before.

The main problem with levels is that they reach a point of absurdity if you’re not careful and act as a deterrent to new players.  It doesn’t matter how easy the climb to level cap is… and it is arguably worse if it is too easy… if a new player sees they are level one and the cap is a three digit number.  And once you’ve arrive at that point there is no easy way out.  A level squish is madness, but so is carrying on as before.

But getting to a point where too many levels is a problem is generally a sign that you’ve succeeded so far, so how do you quit them once they’ve built your empire?

Grind

It is fun to listen to somebody complain about grind one day then wax poetically about the good old days of experience groups in EverQuest.  It helps settle in your mind that grind has no realistic definition.

Grind is basically something you don’t like doing at that moment.  The problem is that what is grind for one person is fun for another and the same person may enjoy something one day and feel like it is grind the next.

Some days just reading the quest tracker feels like a grind

I cannot name an MMORPG where things do not eventually feel like a grind if you do them often enough.

In EVE Online missions are one of the basic PvE activities and people complain about them being grindy and boring all the time.  People are always asking CCP to add more missions or to make them more interesting.  However, CCP said at some point last year that there are over 4,000 missions in the game, so it feels like the “adding more” check box has been checked repeatedly.  And when CCP adds missions that are more interesting, like burner missions, people complain that they are too hard if they get blown up or that they are a grind once the player solves the mission and getting blown up is removed as a risk.

So CCP added abyssal deadspace missions, which have a random element to them, which appealed to some people, but which drove the risk averse away.

Somebody… maybe Scott Jennings… wrote once that there is a fine line to making a quest or event interesting.  It cannot be too easy, lest it feel like no gain at all, but it also cannot be too difficult, or it will drive people away who fail at it.  A quest has to be both easy enough to knock off and hard enough to feel like you’ve accomplished something, otherwise it can feel like a grind.  And even a mission or quest that is perfectly tuned for your skill and level can feel like a grind if you’re not in the mood or you’ve done it many times before.

Grind is just the dark side of advancement/progression, and advancement is the reward drip that keeps us going.  Basically, if you want some form of progression you’re probably going to feel like you’re grinding at some point.

Which isn’t to say that some quests… or some game designs… don’t just suck.  But you can find grind in your most favorite game ever if you hang around long enough.

Login Problems at Launch

Unlike the first two, this is one that a game company probably could fix.  They just won’t.

Just last week at the WoW Classic stress test

If you’ve played a popular MMORPG you’ve probably run into login and server queues at launch or when expansions land or when updates hit or when they launch a special server or at some other time.

Just keep waiting, just keep waiting…

You want to log in and play but so do a lot of other people, so the login server is struggling and the game server if full and you’ve been put in a line outside and given a number that may or may not dynamically update as time passes.

Even LOTRO had a queue for Legendary

This makes people angry.  Very angry at times.  You’ve paid to play this game.  You want to play this game.  And here it is, peak game playing time for you and you are being prevented from playing the game.

Back in March, during the 20 year EverQuest anniversary, I saw somebody on Twitter raging about Daybreak having had two decades to fix they game and that it was completely unacceptable that they should have to wait in a queue.  Daybreak had failed completely.

Leaving aside the whole “20 year old game launches a new server and is popular enough to attract a queue,” the team at Daybreak has actually spent quite a bit of time working on its server capacity.  The servers hold more people.  They now have the ability to spawn multiple versions of zones to alleviate crowding.  They even have a server queue, which wasn’t a thing… or even a thing they felt they needed… until a couple of years back.  Daybreak, relative to its size, has actually done considerable work on this front.

Likewise, last week… and the week before… Blizzard held WoW Classic beta stress tests to simulate the loading that the WoW Classic servers will likely see when the launch in August.  Blizzard has a whole new layering system for the launch of WoW Classic that one hopes will keep down the total number of servers… or half the people you know will end up on different servers… while keeping the crowding and queuing problem from getting out of control.

And yet I expect that there will be queues, even horrendous queues, at the launch of WoW Classic.  I expect the first night to be a rush to get in.  People will want to get started, do server firsts, and whatever else.  It will be a spectacle, and people who play the live game will try to log in, even if they don’t plan on playing.

There will be queues, we should expect it, and Blizzard shouldn’t spend a bunch of time or money trying to fix that.

Why?

Because it is a temporary problem.  We have seen it in the past.  LOTRO Legendary, EverQuest progression servers, any give WoW expansion launch, the queues are minimal in a few days and gone in a couple of weeks.  It just isn’t worth the investment for such a transitory issue.

Yes, there are always those few WoW servers that have a queue six months after an expansion launches.  But that is a different problem.  When there is a long list of low population servers available Blizzard should be offering free transfers for people to move.  That is the fix.  Use the capacity that already exists.

I am sure there are other things that won’t get fixed… I had “old content” scratched in my notes for this, but forgot what I was going to say… but these three, we will be complaining about them for years to come because they won’t ever go away.

Where Would a Level Squish Get Us?

Leveling needs help.

Ion Hazzikostas, Blizzard Twitch Stream

Levels can be both boon and bane for MMORPGs.

On the boon side, they are an easy way to dole new skills at a reasonable pace, they are useful for gating content, and they give players both a sense of progress as they level up as well as a benchmark for where they stand in the game.

Hitting level cap is still an achievement

The downside is that when a game is a success and the company wants to sell more content to players, the go-to approach has been to simply add more levels. If some levels are good, then more levels must be better!  But after a few rounds that leads to the huge gap between new players starting out and the main mass of players, which is usually concentrated in the current high level content.  That can discourage new players and make alt creation a chore.

That has led to some of the work around to which we have become accustomed.  There is the simply expedient of reducing the level curve, allowing players to zip up in levels and through content quickly.  When that isn’t enough, there is the insta-levels plan, where you give out and/or sell level boost that bring you into the current content.  That has become fairly common as some core MMORPGs have passed the level 100 mark.

There have been some attempts in the past to find alternatives to character levels.  EverQuest introduced Alternative Advancement as an option back in 2001 with the The Shadows of Luclin expansion. (Proving that this is hardly a new issue I guess.)  But even with that, EverQuest has crept up in levels, and plans to continue to do so according to a recent quote:

Every three years we do a level increase, and we have changed the way some things work.

Increasing the level cap is just in the DNA of the genre it seems.

And then there is World of Warcraft, which is as locked into levels as any of the genre, but which has also been trying all the options to try and break the curse of the intimidating level cap, which currently stands at 120 after seven expansions. (EverQuest is still only at 110 after 25 expansions, but there is another tale in that.)

Over the years Blizzard has reduced the experience curve for leveling, added classes that start levels into the game (Death Knight and Demon Hunter), offered level boosts, and played with level scaling in older zones in order to make the climb to the level cap less of a barrier.

Last week Blizzard held one of their regular info broadcasts about WoW, and among the items discussed during that broadcast was the possibility of a “level squish.”

That seemed radical enough that I went to go listen to the broadcast over at Twitch, just to make sure I heard exactly what was said.  The question that brought it up is at the 53 minute mark of the replay.  This link should bring you right to it.

The question that brought this up

With that teeing things up, Ion Hazzikostas and Josh Allen went into a brief but serious talk on the problems with levels in the game.  120 is a very big number.  With the current talent system you no longer earn points for your spec tree every level like you used to in the past, so that most level up moments don’t bring much to the player.  And this is especially true in the current Battle for Azeroth content where everything in the zone levels up with you, so you don’t feel any more powerful and, in some cases, weaker.  That situation led me to ask why they bothered with levels in this expansion.

So I suppose it is unsurprising to hear that the WoW dev team has seriously considered a level squish.

The idea sketched out was to take the current 120 levels and squish them back down to the original 60, thus setting the new player just half the distance from the level cap that they were before.  With the work they have done to make zones scale over a broader range of levels, and the stat and ilevel squishes they have done before, the climb to 60 could be quite viable.

Well, technically feasible anyway.

But it would be strange.  Going to Outland at level 30, Northrend at 35, Pandaria at… 42.5 I guess… and so on.  And I guess your fresh death knight would be a level 28 character now?  At what level can I go back and solo old raid now?  In a year when they are releasing WoW Classic I have to imagine they realize the nostalgia impact of certain level ranges.

That is only where the issues begin.  The optics are bad, with everybody losing half their levels… even if levels are meaningless taking things away from players is always a bad draw… and all of the data on the internet about the game being made irrelevant… or at least incorrect… in a flash.

And, of course, the real blocker to my mind is that it doesn’t actually solve the problem.  Not by itself anyway.  The problem is that most of the player base is at the level cap and new players have to walk a long path to get there.  Changing how you measure that path doesn’t actually change the distance one needs to travel.

I get that, in the scope of the talk, they were speaking of more than just a level squish.  This would be a full redesign with probably yet another skill spec plan so that individual levels would feel more meaningful.  That is a noble idea, and I expect we’ll get many more class overhauls and specialization reworks over the years.

But what happens with the next expansion?  And there will always be a next expansion coming, at least every other year for some time to come.  Unless Blizz has something in mind for an alternate advancement path ala EverQuest, they are going to slap 5 or 10 more levels on top of and we’re back to climbing the level ladder again.  With that expansion will have to come a new insta-level booster as well as a further reduction in the experience curve needed to get new characters more quickly into the latest content.

Oh, and by tradition, the next expansion has to break, invalidate, or trivialize the previous content anyway.  New spec changes, new gear, new stats, new whatever… it is just what happens when you heap a pile of new content on top of the old.

All of which is why I was on that no good expansions thing a while back.  We love expansions, because we love the game and just want more of it.  But they inevitable stretch the game out beyond reasonable dimensions and lead to a focus on the new over the past.

Still, I appreciate Blizzard talking about this sort of thing in a frank way and letting us know that they are as aware of the problem as we are and have been exploring even some rather radical solutions.  In the end, however, they are stuck with the system they went with and there are no easy solutions.  If there were, we would have heard about them by now.

Of course, that won’t stop the Monday morning quarterbacks from throwing stones.  Calling Blizzard lazy and stupid for not having a magic solution to a problem that nobody else has solved is the norm.  This is why I am a bit surprised about Blizzard being this frank at times.  We want the company to give us more info, then turn into petulant children when they do, expressing mock outrage as though Blizzard has just now realized that this might be an issue.

In any case, we won’t see a level squish.  It just changes too much for too little benefit.  But I am glad to see they are serious enough about the issue that they would discuss that level of change.  I suspect, in the end, we’ll see focus on making each level in the next expansion seem more meaningful.  But reworking everything… be it 60 or 120 levels… to make each and every one meaningful seems unlikely.

Addendum: A Related post from about five years ago.  This has been a thing for a while.