Category Archives: MMO Design

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.

What is a Niche MMORPG?

A Massively Overthinking topic came up at Massively OP last week that struck me as… well… a bit silly.  Not that every post has to be razor sharp intellectually, but this one was almost the straw man fallacy illustrated, as the staff was asked whether they would prefer a niche MMORPG that focused just on on a couple of strengths or an all-in-one MMORPG that covered all the bases.  Somehow, that became a measure of features as everybody weighed in.

Unsurprisingly, the entire staff decided that they would prefer an MMORPG that had it all.  It was like asking somebody if they preferred a lover who only satisfied some of their needs or one who satisfied them all.  Absent any other details, why wouldn’t you choose the latter.

Left completely out of the post, except in the minds of those opining on the topic (something I wouldn’t swear to even that in court given some of the responses), was any sort of attempt to define what niche vs. all-in-one comparison even looks like.  You know, some details that might serve as illustration.

It is very easy to say that you’d prefer an MMORPG that did 10 things pretty well than one that did 2 things better than anybody else, or that you’d trade graphical fidelity for features (Is graphical fidelity even something niche MMORPGs offer as a comparative feature?), but what does that look like in the real world?  Where is the comparison?  Show me that niche MMORPG that does 2 things so well and compare and contrast it to you favored jack of all trades.

Sure, World of Warcraft, the one live MMORPG that gets a mention,  can stand in for the “does everything” title I suppose.  But what about the niche side of things?  Where is that?

My first thought went to Project: Gorgon.  That is as niche as it gets in the MMORPG world, right?

But I would be hard pressed to declare that Project: Gorgon has focused on doing anything “better” than the rest of the genre, unless you count being weird and quirky.  I mean, graphic fidelity certainly isn’t on the list.  And it does a whole bunch of things… whether they are better or worse than you want seems to be pretty much up to you.

Basically, its niche status is set more by its low production values and departure from the beaten path than anything the MOP staff was railing against.  Maybe of its 10 things, some are you wouldn’t suspect, but it does them.

Then there is Pantheon: Shadows of the Past.  But that hasn’t shipped yet, so while it has been declared niche, we cannot really be sure what that means.  Given Brad McQuaid’s enthusiasm in embracing any feature that gets brought up, I wouldn’t bet on the focus aspect.  And, in any case, I think its niche status is less about features and more about being old school, for whatever value you care to assign to that.  Is walking to school uphill, in the snow, both ways a feature?

Likewise, Camelot Unchained is still under wraps.  It could be the chosen niche game, being focused on RvR and crafting… and building… and housing… and a few other things I think.  Can it be more than 2 but less than 10 features?  Anyway, it isn’t an option yet, so it doesn’t count to my mind.

Shroud of the Avatar came to mind as well, but that doesn’t fit the bill either.  It is niche in its approach I suppose, but it does many things… many of them badly… does being bad make you niche?

Anyway, as I trotted down the list I started to suspect that you couldn’t really be an MMORPG… and my definition of such means worldly online games like EverQuest or World of Warcraft or EVE Online or Star Wars Galaxies, and not instanced lobby games like Diablo III or World of Tanks or whatever… without focusing on more than a couple of features.  Being a two feature MMORPG is like being a two legged tripod, something that just doesn’t work out well in the real world.

In the end, I couldn’t really come up with a live niche MMORPG that met the seeming criteria of the post.  I could, however, come up with examples of MMORPGs that went too far with features, to the detriment of the game.

So I am left with some questions.

What is a niche MMORPG?  Is it something defined only by features?

What defines an all-in-one MMORPG?  I mean, WoW is the easy answer.  But is it?  I suspect that people on that panel would argue against it because it lacks some feature they feel a “real” MMORPG needs, like player housing.

When does an MMORPG have to have all those features?  The response “at launch,” or even “on a detailed roadmap at launch,” seems unrealistic.  EverQuest, which I dare anybody to tell me isn’t as full features as they come, shipped with a feature set that would probably be considered inadequate in the context of “all-in-one.”  But it grew with expansions.  Then again, it also came from an era where MMORPGs didn’t peak on launch day and fall off after that.

Finally, what counts as a feature in any case?  Seriously, how granular can one go before things count or do not count?

In the end I remain unconvinced that features are the defining benchmark that post suggests.  There are plenty of MMORPGs out there with a lot of features that do nothing for me.  I certainly go back to WoW time and again in part because of the feature set it offers.  But there is more to my affinity for the game than that.

Of course, we could dial this back another step and start in on what an MMORPG really is.  I may be defining that more narrowly than others.  But, then again, I am not sure comparing and contrasting World of Warcraft against something like Occupy White Walls leads us anywhere fruitful either.

No Good Expansions*

*Some expansions excepted

A post somewhat sparked by what Kaylriene wrote, though I have been harboring bits and pieces of this for ages now.  Ready for a Friday ramble?  Here we go.

I suppose that EverQuest needs to take some of the heat on this.  Coming up to its 20th anniversary it already has 25 expansions past the base game that launched back in 1999.  While expansions and updates and sequels and such were clearly a thing long before EverQuest came along, the success of EverQuest in the then burgeoning MMORPG space made it a standard bearer and template for games that came later, including World of Warcraft.

EverQuest went more than a year before launching the first expansion for the game, Ruins of Kunark, which I sometimes refer to as “the only good expansion,” and then embarked on a quest to launch two expansions a year in order to keep the community engaged and happy with new content.

Maybe the only fully good MMO expansion ever

That kept that money machine printing, but brought with it a series of problems like keeping people up to date, rolling past expansions up into consolidated, all-in-one packages like EverQuest Platinum, and what often felt like an exchange of quality in the name of getting another expansion out.  And some expansions barely felt like expansions at all.

SOE eased up on that plan in 2007, opting to dial back to just one expansion a year for both EverQuest and EverQuest II, which also launched with similar expansion plans.

So, if nothing else, EverQuest solidified the norm that expansions are a requirement, something the players expect.  That we complain about Blizzard only being able to crank out a WoW expansion every other year is directly related to the pace set by SOE.  Sort of.

But the one thing we know about expansions, that we complain about yet never think all that deeply about, is how they undue what has come before.

An expansion to a live MMORPG, by its very nature, changes the overall game.  And change always alienates somebody.  As I have often said, every feature, every aspect, no matter how trivial or generally despised, is somebody’s favorite part of that game.

MMORPG players also represent a dichotomy.  If they’ve played through the current content, it is likely because they have enjoyed it as it was laid out.  They’ve reached the end, they’re happy, and they want more of the same.  Mostly.  Some played through and were unhappy about some things, but happy overall.  Ideally an expansion will give players more of what made them happy, plus adjusting the things that made people unhappy.

Adjusting, of course, will make other player unhappy, as you’re pretty much guaranteed to be changing somebody’s favorite thing.  And every expansion brings change to the world, on top of the usual restart of the gear and level grind which, as people often point out, replaces their top end raid gear with better quest drop greens almost immediately.

Just handing out more of the same when it comes to content can feel repetitive and uninspired, but changing things makes people angry, because change makes people angry.  But leaving everything as it is means people finish the content and eventually stop giving you money via their monthly subscription.  The theoretical best path forward is the one that engages the most people while angering the fewest.

I refer to Ruins of Kunark as the one good expansion because it seemed to thread the needle almost exactly right.  I delivered more of what people were into, more content, more levels, more races, more dragons, more gear, all without having a huge impact on the game as it already stood.

Ruins of Kunark isn’t really the “one good expansion,” if only because “good” is very subjective.  And there are other expansions I have enjoyed.  It is more that it represents an expansion that did more to expand the game than annoy the installed base.  But first expansions can be like that.  Or they used to be like that.  Desert of Flames was like that for EverQuest II in many ways, and certainly The Burning Crusade had that first expansion magic for WoW.  I’d even argue that WoW, ever more fortunate than one would expect, got a double dip at that well, as Wrath of the Lich King continued on and did very well without disrupting the apple cart.

Eventually though, expansions begin to work against the game.  There is always a core group that keeps up, both others fall behind.  For EverQuest, the every six month pace meant a lot of people falling behind.  Expansions also put a gap between new players and the bulk of the player base.  That’s not so bad after one expansion, but each new expansion makes it worse.  And then there are the changes that anger the core fan base.

That leads us to Cataclysm.  The team at SOE, in their attempt to crank out new content, often neglected the old.  If I go back to Qeynos today it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1999.  There are a few new items, some new vendors scattered about, and the new mechanics added in to the game over the years.  But I can still stand out in front of the gates and fight beetles, skeletons, kicking snakes, and the occasional Fippy Darkpaw.  Yes, they redid Freeport, much to the chagrin of many, and the Commonlands and the Desert of Ro, but they have mostly left the old world looking like it did back in the day.  Enough has changed over the years that can’t go back and relive the game as it was at launch, which brought out the Project 1999 effort, but at least  I can still go bask in the eerie green glow of the chessboard in Butcherblock if I want.

Cataclysm though… well, it had a number of strikes against it from the get go, not the least of which was following on after two successful and popular expansions, which together played out the Warcraft lore as we knew it.  So Cataclysm had to break new ground on the lore front.

Cataclysm also only offered us five additional levels, a break with the pattern so far.  We also didn’t get a new world or continent, with the five new leveling zones being integrated into the old world.  We also got flying in old Azeroth right away, a feature that can start an argument faster than most.  I suspect flying is something Blizzard regrets in hindsight, but once they gave it to us they had to keep on  finding ways to make us unlock it all over again.

But most of all, Cataclysm redid the old world.  Zones were redone, new quest lines were created, and the 1-60 leveling experience became a completely different beast.

Arguably, it is a better experience.  I have run all of the redone zones.  I have the achievements to prove it. (Another divisive feature.)  And the zones all now have a story through which you can progress rather than the, at times, haphazard quest hubs which had you killing and collecting and killing some more over and over, often without rhyme or reason.

To give J. Allen Brack his due, for a specific set of circumstances, you don’t want the old game.

The rework, which was also necessitated by the need to give us flying throughout Azeroth, save for in the Blood Elf and Draenei starter zones, was spoiled by a couple of things.  First, the level curve had been cut back, so that the pacing of the new zones was off.  You would easily end up with quests so low level that they went gray if you chased down every quest in a zone.  And second, the rework of the 1-60 instances made them all short and easy and the optimum path for leveling using the dungeon finder.  You could run three an hour easy, even queuing as DPS, so you could, and probably did, bypass all that reworked content.

But, bigger than that, at least over the long haul, the removal of the old content led to something we might now call the WoW Classic movement.  There was already a nascent force in action on that, since the first two expansions reworked classes and talents, so you couldn’t really play the old content the way you did in 2005.  Vanilla servers were already a thing.  But they became a much bigger deal when Blizzard changed the old world.

Overall though, Cataclysm wasn’t a bad expansion.  It took me a while to get to that conclusion, because I did not like it at first, to the point of walking away from the game for a year.

The new races were fine.  The 80-85 zones were good.  Val’shir might be the prettiest zone in the game.  It is like playing in the most beautiful aquarium ever.  (A pity about the motion sickness thing.)  I ran and enjoyed all of the instances, with the reworked Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub raids being particularly good.  Being at level and doing the content was a decent experience.  I still use my camel mount regularly in no-fly areas.  Regardless though, the changes burned.  They were divisive. Blizz pissed off a lot of the core player base, even if the whole thing ended up getting us WoW Classic.

I think, even if Blizz hadn’t done all of those changes… which I guess would have meant calling it something other than Cataclysm… that it would have been a let down of an expansion.  Having to follow on after TBC and WotLK was a big ask.  How do you follow up Ice Crown Citadel?

Mists of Pandaria revived things a bit, though I think that was as much by being a really solid expansion as it was that expectations were low after Cataclysm.  But Warlords of Draenor?  Doomed.  The expectations set by reviving the themes from TBC meant eventual disappointment.  Garrisons were not great.  They were not the housing people wanted.  They took people out of the world, just like Blizz said housing would, without being a place people cared about and could make their own.  But I think the fact that it wasn’t the return of Outland and the excitement of 2007 was what led to the eventual drop in subscriptions.  People realized there was no going back to their memories of the old game.

As every feature is somebody’s favorite feature, the thing that keeps them in the game, every expansion is somebody’s breaking point, the thing that gets them to walk away.  The more expansions that come along, the more people end up dropping out.  Or, if they don’t drop out, they return to play casually, as much out of habit as anything.  The investment in the game isn’t as deep.  You play for a bit, see the sights, do the tourist thing, get the achievements, then unsubscribe until the next expansion.

Eventually there is an equilibrium it seems.  EverQuest and EverQuest II seemed to have found it.  They still do an expansion every year that plays to the installed base, that gives them just enough of what they want… be they invested or tourist… to buy-in and spend some time with the game.

Basically, expansions are change, and change has a habit of breaking the bonds players have with your game.  However, if you sit still and have no expansions then people will leave over time anyway, so you cannot simply avoid expansions and change either.  It is probably better to move forward in the end, make the changes, earn a bit of extra money, and carry on.

Just don’t expect everybody to thank you for it.