MMOmentum & the MMOnopoly problem

June 20, 2009

It’s unfortunate that World of Warcraft has reached quite the level of success it’s reported to have achieved, because now there’s rather a large number of executives out there who think they also need to produce their own version of this mythical ‘big thing’. Of course, despite it being 4 years since WoW began reaching towards it’s stratospheric heights, no one has successfully displaced WoW from it’s mantle, but why?

Well, firstly, World of Warcraft is based off of the Warcraft game world, which meant that the game already had a potential userbase of active gamers in the form of the RTS players (Note that, as time has gone on, RTS games have fallen out of favour with many publishers which means there’s been a relative shortage of those kinds of game to keep them in the RTS gameplay genre, so it’s not hard to believe they would try a different kind of game to continue to experience a lore set they were already comfortable with). Meanwhile, games like Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan are based on successful book series which have strong readerships but with people who may not be inclined to spend lots of time on a game.

However, the main reason for World of Warcraft’s success isn’t what they have done, but rather, what they haven’t done, which is to lose momentum. How? Well, firstly Blizzard had an unfair advantage, in that when the game was released the vast majority of players who were picking up didn’t really know what they were getting into and didn’t have expectations of some kind of ‘end game’ scenario to keep players going after reaching their maximum character level. They do now, which was unfortunate for Age of Conan, whose players were reaching the maximum level of 80 a mere month into the games release, but the game wasn’t ready to meet a core player expectation which is to have something to occupy their time after reaching the maximum level. Age of Conan had the potential to be hugely successful with initial sales proving to be very encouraging… Unfortunately Funcom lost momentum a mere month after the games release, though it has held onto a good number of players it lost more to a broken expectation of there being significant end game content, than it kept.

Another problem that will often be encountered is that many MMOs too often try to duplicate many of the core design elements of World of Warcraft, the problem being that there isn’t much point playing a new MMO if the gameplay of it is going to be exactly the same as an existing MMO that the player already has a moderate to high level character on it. You have to differentiate, possibly significantly.

Another issue relates to the visual style, people are far too quick to judge other MMO’s as looking like World of Warcraft (Sometimes even to the point of it not being a fair or accurate comparison), perhaps the best way of avoiding this is to avoid the fantasy setting alltogether, or reinvent it significantly by removing Elves with stupid pointy over-long ears (Ok, thats a personal gripe on a visual style I absolutely *hate*) and Dwarves with stupidly long beards, go back to the original myths and legends and re-invent it all, step away from the obvious.

Overall, you’ll have to face up to the issue of player expectations for an MMO. Firstly, you’ll need to communicate to potential players (Even long before release) what is and isn’t going to be in the game and then make sure players are hearing the communication and understanding of it. Secondly, listen to the expectations of the players and do some analysis of it and do your best to meet those expectations. It’s a balancing act between listening to players in order to adjust the game mechanics and listening to players and explaining that “No, we can’t put in Elves because thats what every other fricken fantasy MMO already has and we want to give you, the players, a fresh game experience”.

Another issue which I can’t stress enough – Make the game stable, if players are logging out because a quest didn’t work or because players didn’t know what they were getting into you again lose momentum. All quests should work at release or be left out of the release candidate altogether until they do work so that the player doesn’t run into bugs unnecessarily. Also on the subject of quest design, borrow a page from the design of Left 4 Dead – Try to break the quests into relatively short discreet segments and then build a quest system that makes it extremely easy to pick up where you left off, so that part time players are able to join in with even the most hard-core of quests. Boss encounters should probably just be given their own access point from the quest entrance so that as long as the previous quest tasks are complete the player doesn’t necessarily need to go through the whole quest all over again if they got to the boss but weren’t prepared for that particular encounter yet. In otherwords try not to force your player to do something they don’t want to do.

Avoid the problem of farming ultra rare items, a drop chance on an object production item (Like for a weapon, or armour or whatever) should NEVER be less than 2% if it’s just the one instance of that production item they need. Players don’t generally like wasting time grinding for gear, so don’t force them to, please. If you really must require players to put in effort, keep the drop chance relatively high and the number of units required higher instead. A drop chance of 1% may only drop once in 500 or a 1000 times for someone who is really unlucky (I’ve seen it happen in Age of Conan for example). EG instead of a drop chance of 1% for that 1 item you need, make it 3% for 3 units, it’s better that way as it limits frustration and can aid in satisfaction because even though the first drop is a mere third of the way, at least you’ve made some progress.

Perform analysis of which quests players complete, how many times and in relation to changes made to those quests. Perhaps more importantly, track which quests are cancelled or still sitting uncompleted in the quest logs of players who have unsubscribed, if you find that certain quests show up more often as incomplete or cancelled find out why and either change or remove the offending quest. For instance theres one or two quest chains in Lord of the Rings Online which are unpopular and difficult to find group members for and thats one reason why my subcription to the game lapsed.

Make sure the core gameplay is fun or thrilling, perhaps exciting to watch. Folks may disagree with me on this, but the core combat gameplay of most MMOs, including World of Warcraft is actually kind of boring, it would be nice for example if you could actually see your avatar properly fighting other avatars/mobs, hearing the clang of weapons as they actually make contact with eachother (Yeah, that system presents all sorts of potential implementation issues but it’s worth trying to do in my opinion). Also, a battle where the outcome can always be predicted should be avoided, I’d like to be able to pick a fight with a mob where my chances of winning are a bit low, but it’s still doable through skill or what-have-you. An interesting case study is Auto Assault, originally I was hearing good, positive buzz for the game until it was decided by someone that the game needed to copy the principles of item farming and levelling, a decision that destroyed the chances of the game with positive buzz quickly turning negative.

So that’s a bunch of the issues involved in making an MMO and why many MMOG’s suffer at launch. Overall, control and adapt to the expectations of your players – Obviously there is a balance to be struck, but you are serving the players, not the other way around.

Honestly though, I have an issue with the idea of trying to be as big as World of Warcraft (With WoW itself as well as pretenders to the throne). Make no mistake about it, World of Warcraft is operating a monopoly that is harmful to the games industry, I’d much rather see 10 MMOG’s with a million players each than one MMO with 10 million players – it means the players get more choice and it means there are more game developers and support staff with a day job, less people claiming income support or whatever. As WoW is so successful people treat the bally thing as a bench mark, with immature comparisons being made to it for every new MMO released whilst also forcing games development into being constrained down very narrow design routes because apparently you have to copy WoW’s gameplay in order to be successful (If you ask the people with the money, that is). Ok, I’m griping again.

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