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Expansions are Barriers to Entry

There’s an interesting quote floating around from Blizz dev Tom Chilton. “By building expansions, you are effectively building up barriers to people coming back. But by including the level 90 character with this expansion, it gives people the opportunity to jump right into the new content.”

On one level I completely agree. I know the feeling of wanting to go back and play a game but feeling too overwhelmed by what I’ve missed in the past. I absolutely love(d) EverQuest 2. Wonderful, wonderful MMORPG. I’ve wanted to go back so much, but every time I download the trial I feel completely lost. A few years ago (gosh probably 4+ now) I went back for the Kunark launch and leveled a Sarnak from 1-65. As I worked through previous expansions, I felt lonely and never saw anyone around. I needed to do that content to level up to see the latest expansion, but ultimately never made it there.

On a different level, I don’t necessarily agree that this is an expansion’s fault or intrinsic to the idea of an expansion. I think vertical progression / development are the issue. If anything, an expansion can be an enticement for players to enter a game or for someone who has been gone for a while to re-enter because there’s more to do and see — essentially the value offering has hopefully increased. This is also because of the problematic nature of focusing on an end-game rather than an entire game or a “living world.”

Offering an instant level 90 in World of Warcraft is a bandaid fix to the problem of having the 1-89 gameplay be worthless. This is a case where we see the symptoms being treated and not the cause. Does this work for WoW? Yeah, it probably does and in fact it’s actually reducing their particular barrier to entry, but not fixing the core issue.

It’s not easy. Balancing character progression while still creating a world that expands the possibilities more horizontally, without boring people from a lack of “things to do,” is one of the most complex and difficult to achieve designs — that’s why we almost never see it happen.

Why level so quickly?

I was writing an entirely different post this morning and stumbled upon this rather interesting idea that forced me to stop and think: Why do players always want to level so quickly? If you think about it, that’s really a great question that singlehandedly carries massive influence in a game’s design.

There have been times in the past when I actually wished I could level slower. That seems counter intuitive because we’re conditioned so strongly to want to advance, become more powerful, gain new abilities, and see new locations. We want to chase the carrot. But do we really? I can remember how I felt leaving a dungeon after spending 10 levels there; It’s that pulling feeling attached to that pit in your stomach that longs for you to be able to just stay one more level.

Can MMOs be designed to encourage players to want to slow down? Key there is the ‘want’ since we recently explored ways that developers can force a slower experience. Can there be multiple carrots and the player be allowed to catch one carrot every day and enjoy?

I’m thinking back again to my experiences where I actually didn’t want to level and I think it was because I didn’t want to have to leave what became comfortable and familiar. I like the idea of coming to know a place well and staying there for a period of time. I liked the loot (rare items or currency) and maybe the spot where my group pulled monsters. I think the settings were always nice as well. Perhaps most of all I was scared of moving on. I didn’t know what came next and the comfort I felt was from already having my current situation ‘figured out’.

Old school MMO vets will really ‘get me’ here.  Remember when you leveled in a place and were getting great experience? I can think of a perfect example: Unrest. I stayed there from 16-24. When the moment to grew close and I started thinking about leaving I realized I didn’t know where to go or who I would group with or how quickly I could settle into my new routine. I didn’t want to leave. I wished I could stay there forever. That is the magic.

Moving beyond the ‘feeling’ and psychological side of this discussion, the biggest reason people want to move on so quickly is that MMOs today aren’t designed to really ‘begin’ until the max level. Simple solution: Make the game start at level 1.  Have the game actually be about the leveling. Kids today will probably look at me like I’m trippin on something wack (do kids still say that?). Yep, I’m trippin on the best wack there is: The journey. Leveling should be fun and you should be sad when it ends and want to start a new character or wait until the journey is extended once again.

I’ll continue this discussion in my next entry.

Time Frames

This world we live in — the real one, not your virtual world of choice — is one in which we value time over anything else.  We’re constantly trying to make things faster because faster is ‘better’. The same principle appears to apply to MMOs.

Time frames for just about everything used to be very different in MMOs.  Leveling used to take years, then it went to months, now it’s as low as weeks or even days. Finding a group used to take days or hours, and now it’s instantaneous.  Obtaining the gear you wanted could take months and months, but now if you take longer than a few weeks or even days to gear up you must be a filthy casual who clearly isn’t as good as the guys getting their gear to drop on the first run.

Everything is speeding up, and as a result everything is getting more shallow. People care less about the moment, less about the experience, and more about getting to the next activity as quickly as possible. Developers are spending less time building quality experiences and focusing more on quantity.

So the question now becomes how do you slow things down, or should you slow things down?  I am clearly in the camp of people who believe MMOs shouldn’t be about ‘racing through’ but ‘living in’ the world. So with that said, I’m going to focus on the how. Some of these ideas work well together, and others do not. I’m just going to take inventory of the first 4 or so ideas that come to mind as I write this out.

Remove levels
Leveling creates a virtual finish line. There’s a desire to push toward reaching level 50 because that’s the perceived point of victory.  If that’s gone, you’ll take a vertical environment and almost flatline it completely from the start.  People will look around and say, “well, what do I do?” That’s when you can turn their attention to other activities meant to cultivate a virtual world. You actually want that moment to occur where they pause and think.

Increase the scope of character development
Characters have devolved into three things: (1) Levels, (2) Ability, and (3) Gear.  There are so many other opportunities available for customization. Characters should be able to develop social identities and/or a role in their virtual society. I can remember an experience I had in SWG where I had tapped a resource node and was harvesting amazing resources. I supplied those resources to dozens of other crafters and become a supplier. I spent a week doing nothing but trading commodities.  I had other activities I could do, but I put them off to take advantage of this opportunity.

Expand the world
Easy one. Make the dang world a whole lot bigger. I want the world to be so big that I can’t even possible comprehend its magnitude.  That feeling of not even realizing how big the world is and how far I have to travel, or how far others players are from me, is such an amazing sensation. It will eventually fade, but it should take months, not says, to have that illusion at least come into perspective. Traveling should take time and players should be spread out.

Increase the difficulty
I won’t soap box this topic or wax poetic about the old days, but realistically things just aren’t dangerous anymore.  I’m not saying you should die every time you walk outside a town or that you should lose your gear or experience. I’m also not saying fights should take longer or that combat should be twitch based.  I’m simply remembering a day when danger existed and how danger made me think before acting. That pause was important and slowed everyone down.

Instead of logging in and thinking I need to gain ten levels to feel accomplished, I just want to log in and have moved the mark ahead a tiny bit or had a fun enough experience that it doesn’t matter — perhaps I even lost progress. That mindset can still be present in today’s burn ‘n’ churn MMO, but it’s not at all supported by the game.

I want MMO time frames to once again be months rather than days. I want the experiences to last and the scope of every day activities to grow. I want a richer, fuller, and … I want MMOs to present an opportunity to build a ‘life’ once again.

I Hate Mounts

Here’s a random topic for you today: I hate mounts in MMOs. I was watching a video of Camelot Unchained where Mark Jacobs was fielding questions and two of them dealt with speed: (1) How quickly can players get into RvR, and (2) Will there be classes with speed buffs. For some reason I thought of mounts; My mind stopped listening to the video and went back into the depths of my memory where I recall how wonderful it was when MMOs were mount free.

I can remember how long it took to run places in EverQuest. Grouping with a Bard brought this feeling of pure ecstasy as the speed song kicked in and I felt so fast and free. I remember trying to get back to the RvR fight in DAoC and how crucial it was to group with a Bard, Skald, or Minstrel to have that run buff.  Without it you were so much slower, and without it you wouldn’t get back to the fight quickly — or you’d be left behind and ganked.

Not having speed or access to speed made having it better.  Again I find myself going back to that feeling of opposition and deprivation adding so much value to the experience. Classes with speed had something to offer and filled a key role.  That role existed because there weren’t prolific speed increases.

Mounts make everyone fast, shrink the world, and remove a huge dynamic layer from many systems. Mounts have become zany and an out-of-control arcade element.  Mounts are something sold in cash shops, earned with achievements, and akin to the prize you get with your tickets at the arcade.  They are an accessory yet can influence so much of a game’s design.

If the decision were mine to make in the future… I wouldn’t include mounts in my game.

Choices Should Matter

“…Choices matter – even bad ones.”  That’s a quote from our interview with Mark Jacobs in response to whether or not players should be allowed to “gimp” themselves at character creation. I’ve thought a lot on the subject over the past week as I once again dabble into older MMOs seeking that feeling brought on by making meaningful choices. I keep going back to what types of choices there are in MMOs and how they should matter.

We make choices every day in MMOs — easily hundreds of them. What class we want to play, where we want to hunt, which items to use, what to vendor or store in our bank, who to group with, what or who to attack, etc. We used to, and sometimes rarely do make choices about which stats to increase or what factions to gain favor and disdain.

Modern MMOs would have players make these decisions in seconds or without cognition. These types of decisions scare developers. Players thinkings about these things start to look at the big picture –they become aware of the experience. A player who has to think is a player who can become unhappy or even unmanageable. But a player who has to make choices that matter can also be one who becomes invested in the experience.  That same player can grow to love the growth and richness of choice. A game capable of providing such an experience is one that keeps people playing for years. Such a game is typically more than a shallow experience but indeed a virtual world.

People need the ability to make mistakes. I do not feel a mistake that renders someone worthless is ever truly an option, but the choices should carry such weight that choosing one path radically alters the experience. Let’s use stats as an example.  If I am a Ranger I should be able to play as a melee character, a bow user, and be able to use nature magic. If I highly favor strength then my bow and magic should be hindered greatly; If I spread evenly across them all then I should be that jack of all trades. No one path should gimp me, but all paths should be unique.

The mistake to make is when other stats are thrown in like stamina or charisma. How much stamina is needed to be “good?” These types of decisions should not gimp a player if the rest of the game is designed with that same level of decision making. Perhaps I can craft gear to offset the stats. Another ranger who went into strength or dex might have to put more stamina on her gear instead. Methods to correct a mistake in stats should be available, but not readily.

I want to start thinking again in MMOs. Great rewards and/or a sense of accomplishment have always followed meaningful choices. Likewise, failure can come too. Without that opposition, no reward will ever seem sweet enough.  It’s the classic argument that you can not know light without darkness. Without failure, success means less.  Without a potential negative or unexpected outcome, a choice is just an option or a preference.