Solutions to some problems faced by an aging game

Content aging and becoming less popular and the population of a game shifting to the “end-game”  are both problems that all MMO’s face when they follow even a loose themepark model.  In Lord of the Rings Online, this problem is exacerbated by their storylines being contingent upon completing the prior chapters.   For me, this is one of the key reasons why I do not subscribe to a game if I missed the launch by a large margin.  I don’t want to struggle to find a group to do content that was once the happenin’ place but now a ghost town.

In a design discussion blog entry, Orion of Turbine addressed the issue that they’re facing and presented a possible solution; one that I find to be a very good solution on paper.

“We have a problem. We have this glorious epic storyline that takes you throughout Eriador but requires you, at various points, to find others to assist you. This is all well and good when you are a newer game and the majority of the populace is roughly the same level and progressing at roughly the same rate. However, when you are 2+ years removed from launch and looking at the trends and notice that more and more players are abandoning that rich – focal – part of your narrative game, then there is a problem.

First and foremost we are a game driven by story. Your place in that story. How you deal with elements of that story and interact with the story. Our epic is clearly one of the most important facets of our game. Now, few people are continuing on with it post Volume 1, Book 1 and this means that we have a problem that needs a solution.

The Solution? Moments of inspiration. These are the moments when your character digs deep into their reserves and finds something more. Whether this is drawn from the people around them or from their own sense of purpose these are the moments inspiring greatness.

Starting with Volume 1, Book 2 – completely revamped and restructured in the upcoming release on December 1st, the Epic Book series will be getting treatment to identify key moments in your character’s life. These types of moments will allow your character to don the mantle or heroism and fight against far greater odds.

Inspired Greatness does the following for a player:

Increases morale and power significantly, increases in-combat and out-of-combat morale and power regeneration, increases damage output from melee, ranged and tactical sources, increases healing output for all healing skills.” [Source]

Having played through all of Eriador, I know that I would absolutely never play through it all over again in its current state.  Those story quests were hard enough when the majority of the populous was doing them.  Trying to do them now sounds like my worst nightmare come true!  However, if I were able to start a new character (even an alt) and be able to have these “moments of inspiration” and complete them by myself then suddenly it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable hurdle.

In addition to simply making your character stronger, I think that giving you some super strong NPC’s to fellowship with during these Epic Book quests would be a good idea to offset some of that “I’m all alone pwning Angmar” breaking your immersion/belief in the story/setting.

This sounds much better than giving a huge exp bonuses or simply turning a blind eye and expecting people to skip the content.  More and more games are going to start seeing these problems as many of the themepark games of this age begin to age.   Solutions like this will hopefully allow them to survive and continue to thrive as LOTRO and WoW have both illustrated.   This raises the question though: Would we even have a problem to begin with if the games were designed differently from the start?  It’s an interesting thought to turn over a few times in your head.  What are alternative methods for designing content so that it does not face this problem?  Ideally the solutions would not involve devolving content so that it is all solo-able from the start.   Worth thinking about — and in the case of developers, it’s worth thinking about before your game becomes several years old.

I like the idea a lot.  Kudos Turbine!

  • Could go on a sandbox tirade but sure someone else will prob do that.

    From what it seems the majority of games subscribers come from a slow steady stream. This is contrary to the belief that a game success is all about the launch. Eve, lotro, and wow did not get their large number from the launch. Most of those people quit.

    Because of this games should design around moderate to low populations with the flexibility for a high population.

  • I played LotRO for a couple of months and enjoyed it a fair bit. Not enough to keep playing, but there was plenty Iliked about it.

    One of the bits I really didn’t like, though, was the “storyline”. I already read Lord of the Rings. Four times. I saw all the films. The last thing I needed was to be shoved through the story again, especially with that part being three times as hard as anything else in the game.

    I think they’d have better luck with a “Middle Earth Online” approach, where they just progressively open up that familiar world and let us make our own stories within it.

    Given that they are stuck with the current story-driven approach, however, the proposed solution looks ridiculously overdesigned. Why not just slap difficulty sliders on the non-current storyline instances and let players adjust them according to taste?

  • I’m more inclined to go with Bhagpuss here. Unless they simply can’t do it, why not somehow make the Epic Story act just like the Skirmish system? Make them for solo, small group, full group, and raid size numbers? Of course, doing this would probably require just as much work as Orion’s putting into it. And I’m no designer. It just seems that they’re developing a really cool system for scalable story-encounters, and I hope future books use the Skirmish system as opposed to the now admittedly archaic Epic story system.

  • I think Blizzard are being innovated with Cataclysm and I’m really looking forward to it. Low-moderate content becoming stale is my big bugbear with MMORPGs because I enjoy rolling alts and playing new characters. Getting to experience new content that reflects an update storyline is a great idea and, I agree, one I wish more developers would contemplate from the start of their games.

  • Yes, Blizzard is indeed being very innovative with Cataclysm. I think in Blizzard’s case where their lore can be rewritten at teh drop of a hat it makes perfect sense to suddenly make the old content your new content and relevant again.

    However, LOTRO is stuck telling a story that has a beginning and an end…and their a MMO that is now over 2 years old. They have to find a way to let the new people or the people who just like to play the lower level/older content actually do it. To me it sounds easier to just boost the heck out of your stats than to redesign it to be a new system.

  • “Would we even have a problem to begin with if the games were designed differently from the start?”

    Exactly! Primary way around this is to avoid the linear story on rails approach altogether because that approach has very a very low replay factor to it. Sure you can replay it a couple of times with a new character class but after that it gets really boring.

    If you want to stick with that approach though then you’ll need something like a sidekick system that lets players of higher level play as if they were a lower level character. Thus you can have a night of nostalgia replaying an old dungeon with a new friend playing the game for the first time.

    “I think in Blizzard’s case where their lore can be rewritten at teh drop of a hat it makes perfect sense to suddenly make the old content your new content and relevant again.”

    Good approach for reusing content but it still doesn’t resolve the problem does it? I mean with Cataclysm, won’t they be using “ghosting” (if that’s what it’s called?), where a new character playing it for the first time will see it one way and you as an 80th level character will see it as another way. Thus you’re still “separated” and can’t see each other, even though you may be in the same zone and standing positionally right next to each other. Right?

  • This actually reminds me of a couple of quests in Wrath of the Lich King where you were fighting alongside a “Lore Hero”, and you basically had a God-mode buff to ensure that you wouldn’t need any player help to make it through this portion of an epic quest line. A couple of examples would be the big battle at the end of the Death Knight starter quests and the other being when you invade the opposing faction’s capital.

  • @Nollind Whachell: No they won’t be using the ghosting. From everything I have understood (Unless I have COMPLETELY misunderstood it all) the entire world will change for everyone. Ghosting will be used to show the transition while you quest your way through it. It will essentially provide them the opportunity to give EVERYONE a new experience in WoW simultaneously — new and veteran alike.

    Doesn’t resolve the problem, but solves it after ignoring it. Ideally I’d like for it not to be a problem at all. Their solution does work for them and perhaps they had it planned all along (doubtful).

    @Benden: Yep, I was reminded of the same thing.

  • Good call – I recently fired up LOTRO again during their “Welcome Back Week” and one of the most off-putting things was the sheer number of fellowship quests my (mid 20’s level) character had. I would have been happy to let them slide if nobody was doing them, if not for the fact that the epic storyline quest chain was also stuck at an LFG stage.

  • This looks good and is probably needed, but honestly I subscribe to a both LoTRO and Vanguard which have very low populations and I hardly ever have problems finding groups for the newbie content which I play quite a bit since I’m an altoholic.

    Both games have awesome communities.

    Come to think of it. It’s these type of MMO’s that have been around for 3+ years and only have a few expansions/content updates is what makes them perfect for anyone new to start. You won’t feel like you missed years of content trying to catch up to some new zone that you need uber gear to join a group with.

    This is why as much as I like EQ2’s races/classes and crafting, I simply won’t resub because of the feeling of being so far behind. Never felt that once with the two described above.

  • Guild Wars solved this problem with customizable henchmen. You can control what skills they have and items they use, and give them very basic AI commands. I’d love to see that taken further with more advanced programmable AI a la Dragon Age.

    I’m lukewarm on the “buff up to uber status” solution because in a game that is designed to rely on particular classes working together such as most MMO’s do, buffing up one a whole bunch probably won’t help. Like, if you make the healer super duper he’s still going to take forever to kill stuff by himself. You’d have to then give him a massive damage buff as well… which kind of makes you lose your class identity.

  • “It will essentially provide them the opportunity to give EVERYONE a new experience in WoW simultaneously…”

    Definitely solves it temporarily by ignoring it. So yes, most definitely, it’ll be great for six months to a year but after that, you’re back to the same problem with newer people entering the game in empty played through zones.

    They seriously need something like a sidekick system for WoW to let different players of varying levels play alongside each other. This to me is the biggest social obstacle to the game.

  • the best solution i can think of, that hasn’t already been mentioned, is from FFXI… mainly their dual class system. it encourages players to go back and lvl up another class, which keeps a pretty constant supply of players in the lower lvl zones… i didn’t start FFXI until 2 years after it was released, yet i never had trouble finding groups for the lower lvl content because there were always plenty of players out there trying to lvl a new job.