Lasting Appeal and Scope

Reading about the sixth expansion for Everquest II made me reflect once again on the lack of games with staying power.  There really aren’t many games that have been able to hold people for a long period of time.  Everquest 2, WoW, and EVE are a few and LotRO is probably worthy of being added to the list too.  Many games reach a point, often only months after release, where the general public widely acknowledges them as a flop, dead, dying, or in some way finished.  This is usually because the games just aren’t any good to begin with and they’re facing bigger problems than staying power.  If it’s a case of the good games lasting a long time and the sucky ones being put down, which it very well may be, then there isn’t much to dwell on here.  Perhaps it is only a small part of a bigger problem, but there is something in common with all the games that fizzle out quickly.

I think Scott Jennings did a fine job of summing up the main problem: scope.  Going back to about 2006 we can identify a long chain of MMO’s suffering from problems with scope.  In some cases it was the primary issue they were facing and in other cases it was only very small piece of a rather large puzzle.  The problem is present in all of them though.

Dungeons and Dragons Online – Too narrow a scope.  The game pidgeonholed players and promptly flopped.
Vanguard – Such an immense scope that the game buckled underneath the pressure.
Pirates of the Burning Sea – Needed Vanguard’s delusions of grandeur. This game needed the scope but sorely lacked it in every area.
Age of Conan – I think it suffered from both a lack of scope and biting off more than they could chew. It felt so one-track while somehow managing to promise the moon.
Warhammer Online – When you show people the potential of RvR in DAOC but then fail so miserably in delivering anywhere near the scope… expect a kick in the e-nads.
Darkfall – Attempted way too much and in order to deliver it all they neglected it all at the same time.
Champions Online – The scope of this game was so narrow water could not pass through. Felt like the entire game was being presented a spoonful at a time.
Aion – Skirted the line just a tad too far on the wrong side. Tough to pin scope as a big problem though when it had other more glaring issues.
Global Agenda – Not a MMO, but I’ll use it to provide an example. When asked why you didn’t do anything with the enormous amount of potential and instead chose to lock yourself in a box, the right answer is never “We didn’t want to go that route”.  Reality is that they went with a realistic scope and underachieved.  I’m willing to bet they were trying to play it safe.

Setting a realistic scope is important. However, from the games above we see that 2/3 had serious issues with the scope of their project being too narrow.  I don’t know about any of you, but I want my MMORPG’s (and even my MMOG’s) to be beyond my ability to perceive in their entirety.  I want to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the game.  There needs to be a lot of content – a lot!  I need to feel like I have options and I should definitely not be pigeonholed. I think erring on the side of overdoing it is probably better.

Getting your scope right probably means the rest of your game is in good shape.  It’s at this point that I think a game has the potential for lasting appeal.  I say potential because a game like SWG or DAOC, which both nailed their scope, doomed themselves after the fact.   It only makes sense to me that if a game is going to last me many years that there would be a lot to do in the game and that it would be about more than logging in the chop wood or compete in repeating scenarios.

This is where the end-game often comes in for most games.  Usually this is the opportunity to artificially extend the scope of a game through repetition.  It works.  It works really, really well.  There are better ways though and they involve designing the game so that it doesn’t have such a cut and dry line separating the end-game from the rest.  Sandbox games have the easiest time accomplishing this goal, but games like DAOC were able to capture the end-game feel as early as level five.

While it is definitely not enough to have a large scope, a game isn’t going to last without one.   The games with a huge scope, or at least the promise of one, are always the ones we imagine being the best.  They’re the ones we see ourselves settling in for years.  There are a few of you out there who know what I’m talking about.  It’s the feeling you had when Vanguard launched or maybe even Darkfall.  As I’m writing this I’ve just caught something that I did.  I used the word ‘settling’.   (btw, I know I’m talking to myself.)  Interesting how that word ‘settling’ is only used in conjunction with a certain type of game.  Perhaps that says it all.

  • Vanguard was the first mmo to really break my heart, having never played EQ1 or anything really before COH the depth of that the game promised was amazing to me. I played the beta and even bought the game knowing what I was getting into. I stayed a long time with it before I finally pulled the plug.

    Warhammer really suffered from a lack of a third faction by all accounts, couple that with no real incentive to do RVR for a long time and it just lost a lot of us.

    AOC is another to break my heart, so many broken promises and a game that ended up very shallow. Here’s to hoping the secret world isn’t the same way.

    I am enough of a carebear that the full loot in Darkfall chases me away, but I have heard good things about it’s recent patches.

  • Not sure if you ever caught wind of the canceled MMOG project known as “The Settlers”. Grimwell used to have them at his site, but I don’t know if they are archived somewhere or not now that he swapped over to a traditional blog.

    The way the designers talked about the failed project really gave me hope that future MMOGs were shooting for the right scope. Essentially players were sent to settle an uninhabited land mass. The world was persistent and meant to allow players to build everything. Great ideas wasted. Ah well.

  • I actually think you are putting too much emphasis on scope here. While I like a game with both breadth and depth, what matters most in terms of a game succeeding is whether or not people enjoy being logged into the game (notice I didn’t use the words “fun to play” because thats a little too general).

    Look at something like the shooter genre, people play those games for years and they have basically no scope (breadth), but plenty of depth and are generally enjoyable and replayable (multiplayer shooters mostly). My point being, developers need to make sure they get a solid group of core mechanics that are enjoyable together before they need to start worrying about “scope” per se.

    Global Agenda (an example you used) might not be the next planetside, but the game seems to have fairly favorable reviews for the out of the box version, and with that solid set of core mechanics I think they have a shot of settling in as a nice little MMO once they get their subscription features into a more complete state. Sure, the scope isn’t big, and it is barely an MMO, but the game seems fun to play from what I’ve heard/seen, and thats going to be enough to build on.

    My point being, scope is secondary to your actual gameplay (whether that be crafting, combat, or whatever).

  • Scope addict?
    Seriously? Knowing that most devs are using SCRUM project management, you get smaller smaller scope with each shippable increment. Good luck to you finding HUGE Scope games in the future. Noone is going to spend 100% budget on scope without knowing which features will work or not. After warhammer you will have small narrow starts like eve and then gradual expansions based on what customers want like (or dislike)

    battlefield beta got 2 mil downloads with 1 map and 3 weapons for each class. Scope is promised but it is not here. there is 1 map and everyone loves it.

    Forget scope – and look for great gameplay – scope can be easily improved, while gameplay is very hard

  • If you think Vanguard had the scope set too wide when it launched, you should read about what they had in mind before they scaled it back!

    Despite all its failings, Vanguard’s still my second-favorite MMO of all time and I am still playing it, although not as my primary game.

    Speaking of games that have lasted and are still getting expansions, my favorite ever MMO got its 16th expansion just before Christmas. I’m still playing that too, and so are lots of people. Servers are quieter than in their heyday (I have characters I’m playing on six servers right now), but they’re still a deal busier than the servers of some recent MMOs have been just a few months after launch 🙂

  • I might have mentioned that it’s Everquest, although if there’s another MMO with 16 expansions under its belt I’d struggle to think of it…

  • Bhagpuss beat me to it — I’m surprised you mentioned EQII when EQ1 is still out there and kicking … and surprisingly (or not?), still a lot of fun.

    EQ was the first MMO I put a lot of time into. For me, they nailed the “level up”-type MMO. Nothing else in that genre has ever quite satisfied the same.

  • Was thinking along the same lines as Maxim Z. It is all good fun to talk about ivory tower MMO, but it is so much mental masturbation. The expectations are too high for gamers (unlimited content for $15 or less a month) and stockholders (financial limitations in a timely manner), but they aren’t shooting for the same goal. “Scope” seems like a euphemism for wanting virtually unlimited gaming possibilities, but even the confines of virtual reality are constrained by rl $’s.

    “Setting a realistic scope is important”, but how likely is a dev team going to be able to achieve this at launch working under rl time and financial constraints when the gaming community isn’t satisfied unless the game is “beyond ability to perceive in their entirety”?

    A dev team is tasked to populate a 3-D VR space with visually, emotionally, and intellectually appealing content. Imagine trying to do that for a 10 foot radius vr space and stay terrestrial, setting a 10 ft ceiling; 3140 sq feet of satisfying content that we can interact with. Now design a 10 mile radius space; this works out to 8.8 billion sq feet of content. Increase the radius by a factor of 5280 and you have increased this space by a factor of 2.8 million. Now try designing a space that is beyond a player’s ability to perceive in its entirety, and not populate it solely with scrub brush and murlocks.

    While gamer’s imaginations may expand at an exponential rate over the years, financial support has more rigid rl limitations. So if one expects an entertaining finished game at launch then perhaps they might have to accept their perception of limitations of scope initially (instancing might be necessary), and wait for the world to expand upon future expansions.

  • With an as objective mindset as possible there is nothing in this post I would disagree with. That said, on a more personal perspective, I am at the moment very much enjoying Global Agenda. Yes, the AvA at this time is definitely not worth the subscription. But the core gameplay of the game is such a polished and enjoyable third/first person shooter that I just don’t care.

    I suppose my point here is that scope is one of those things where prior expectations make all the difference. I went to Global Agenda expecting just what it is: a room based FPS game.

    It’s unfortunate that the game was marketed as an MMO when it clearly is not. I have more than once seen players asking how to leave dome city to do some adventuring.

  • I think scope is an important factor with MMOs and I reckon the problem is actually that most games have too limited a scope. Pretty much everyone on your list there suffers from that accept from perhaps Vanguard.

    Of course, the other key factor, I reckon, is also execution. Even if your MMO has a large scope but fails to execute it perfectly (a la VG) then it will still fail.

    I think a big problem is that after the success of WoW and th failure of Vanguard, developers wanted to limit the scope of their games and focus on making them refined and polished experiences. Those two factors are important, no doubt, but mean nothing if the game has no ambition.

  • Well a definition of scope would be welcome. 🙂

    I think that recent games are failing in the number of complete and polished features present at launch. Using WAR as an example:
    – It’s PvE was disapointing despite the innovations with PQs and ToK,
    – It barely has a crafting system,
    – It sorely lacks in the animation and emotes department,
    – Doesn’t has a housing system like DAoC did (never played that one though).

    MMO developers nowadays seem to focus on getting the barebone of the game to function, tack on the other features in a half-assed way and rush the game to launch before it is ready. They don’t care anymore in introducing the traditional features of other MMOs with the depth that those features had in most of the older generation MMOs.

    This leads to the new MMOs coming out being more discardable and being less capable of maintaining a stable or growing playerbase. If the game i am playing only allows me to feel fullfilled by doing the same thing over and over then i will quit from it faster than if it gives me the chance of doing more activities in a rewarding way.
    WoW is the prime example of this: there’s people who play it because of the PvE and the raids, others because of the PvP and you can jump and do whichever you want to. Alongside with that it also has an enormous variety of crafting professions. So you end up having a multitude of things to do in that game all the time.

    If there’s more to do in a game then i will probably settle on it for the long term, if it provides me with pleasant experiences.

    One of the few games that came out this year that i think have accomplished in the scope of the game it is Fallen Earth.

  • Scope – “what you’re aiming to accomplish with your project”.

    A quick way to illustrate both extremes would be Global Agenda vs. Vanguard. Another example would be to compare the AAA MMO market with the F2P market where, in most cases, the F2P model has a much more narrow scope of design.

  • I think recent games such as Fallen Earth and Alganon approach scope appropriately. Lay the foundations and expand from there.

  • I think, most of the old-school MMOers or at least the MMOers who are used to games that are more than theme-parks should start looking with new eyes to games released by small devs.

    The big ones are only releasing more basic stuff all the time. I will just hold my hope for Bioware.

  • War did most everything wrong. They had no crafting, they wanted no gold sellers so they took out the entire economy of the game, there was little sense of community through little barriers to grouping (which are good) but what comes easy also goes away extremely easy – it was the first game where I entered a group and left it without chatting with anyone, something that seems to be normal now.

    The one game that broke my heart is the one that was never release. Middle Earth Online promised to be the sandbox on the IP we all love – though when it got turned to LOTRO it did define its scope enough to acheive lasting power – storytelling in a MMO, but it leaves me thinking of what could have been.

  • Wow, someone else who was looking forward to Middle Earth Online! I remember dreaming about all the possibilities. Your character would actually age and eventually die.

  • I recently subscribed to WAR and all I can say is that I’ve never had so much fun playing a game in my entire life.

  • @15; Pretty easy for Alganon to lay the foundation, when said foundation is lifted entirely from somewhere else no?

  • (Deleted the ranty version)

    Speaking of scope:
    And the people playing virtual worlds might say that Counterstrike is pointless.

  • tl;dr: I just don’t care.

    Fuck any grammar police on the post above.

    Anyways, people playing one game might say the other sucks, and the people playing the other game would say the first game sucks, although there are many people who either don’t have this dialogue, or they are playing both games. However, if the game hasn’t flopped, it’s not a flop.

    On another note about scope, maybe these companies should lose the MMO drive, and put their scope on, and market their game towards, a different audience that just wants a singleplayer/multiplayer game. I’ve been hankering for another great pirate game (maybe along the lines of Counterstrike: Pirates Vs. Royal Navy ^_^).

    It reminds me of anyone who bashes MMOs to be a grindy piece of garbage, well, maybe they shouldn’t be playing them. They just shouldn’t pay for the persistence just as the company shouldn’t. Think of it this way:

    The game the companies should make wouldn’t have crafting or at least wouldn’t have a persistent economy, unless some modders wanted one, or if these multiplayer games could be made persistent on a user’s personal server with like 32 players at one time. They also wouldn’t have a virtual world community. Maybe they’d have a community, but it’d be centered on the singleplayer/multiplayer gaming, and not like a virtual world’s community. Is there a difference between these two communities?

    Companies should find a more efficient way of spending fucktons of money, and maybe make less massively multiplayer games. I hate saying it on an MMO community site, and I understand there may be backlash to stating that these MMOS shoulda been less multiplayer. I do understand you can salvage these MMORPGs and I get to that in this post.

    I’m obviously just theorycrafting here (hope that term isn’t already ingrained somehow). In Counterstrike, you roleplay a terrorist or a counter-terrorist. You start off with a pistol which can kill enemies efficiently enough. In other shooters, you can actually craft defensive guns. The typical objective of the terrorists is to plant a bomb, and the counter-objective is to defuse the bomb. The universal objective is to kill all of the other side’s players.

    Yes in CS, you roleplay. The objectives in CS are different than in a “Typical RPG” where the objective is to get to the top level and play the endgame. Maybe when MMORPGers think a game isn’t fun, it’s because the objectives, and how to get there, aren’t very fun. I understand that maybe these poor MMOs could change the way the players get to the top level and endgame, but I don’t think their designers were/are experienced enough. Instead, the developers ought to just change the objectives to something lower level :P, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Then they can focus on the tried and true when they design a system for the players to get to the objective.

    (Regretting posting this, probably off point or w/e, but at least it’s not a rant now)