Pick a group, design for it, don’t get greedy

When I see people write that no MMO can hope to retain people beyond 3 months now, like they did back in the big 3 days, I can only shake my head, laugh, and think about my recent two years with Darkfall, my almost three with EVE, and the infinite amount of time I’m about to spend with MMO baby jesus DF:UW.

Snark aside, the reality is that most MMOs after 2004 are designed, either intentionally (GW2) or not (SW:TOR), to be short. The first time I heard EAWare mention the 4th pillar is the first time I said SW:TOR is going to fail (look it up kids). That one single design decision is all I needed to know about the game, because NOTHING could have saved SW:TOR from being a short-burst game after the 4th pillar was announced. (Short of going in the total opposite direction after the story end. Gee I wonder what EAWare is focusing on of late?)

Consider these two stark contrasts. In GW2 you have access to EVERYTHING your character can do combat-wise at level 30, which lets be really kind and say takes 30 days to reach. In EVE, you won’t be able to sit (forget flying well) in one of the biggest ships (Titan) in the first 177 days, assuming you do NOTHING but straight train towards that (and completely ignoring how you would actually acquire one).

The question at hand is not which method you would prefer, or which one is more ‘fun’. The question is simply this: out of the two options above, which one sounds like it’s designed for a game that the devs expect you to play long-term, and which one is designed to be played in a short burst?

Of course for the 177 day training to be found worthwhile, everything else around it must also work to some extent, and in EVE it does. I’m by no means saying that long-term retention is as simple as extending the ‘grind’ and calling it a day. As I’ve said thousands of times now, long-term retention design is HARD. Really, really hard. But hard does not mean impossible, and under the right conditions, long-term retention done well can yield WoW (12m subs). Most likely it yields EVE (400k subs). Maybe if you really go niche it yields Darkfall (100b subs). So long as you properly identify your market size and deliver something for it, you can be successful on a variety of levels. Not everyone (anyone?) can be WoW, and that’s ok.

And it’s important to remember that much of the current MMO population is not interested in long-term retention. Whether someone outright states they don’t want to play something longer than a month, or has a playstyle that reflects it (solo), these people are not looking for the same thing people interested in living in a virtual world are. They might drop in and visit (tourists), but regardless of the design, you just can’t retain them. (WoW is the MMO first-love for many, which is why it draws them back time and time again. It’s another perfect-storm situation that can’t be repeated. It’s also dying and something like 5 people bought into Panda-time and 3 of them have already quit, so whatever).

The mistake so many devs have made is believing that they CAN retain them, if only they tweak the design and add more solo PvE content to a PvP game (WAR), or put in a 20 level pre-game to the core game (AoC), or spend a billion dollars on one-off voice acting (SW:TOR). These design decisions sacrifice the long-term for a quick burst, and the expected result happens; you get your short burst at the expense of your long-term. It’s why MMO release after MMO release looks exactly the same, and why it has convinced some that that’s just how things are today.

The reason I cheer for games like SW:TOR to fail is because, hopefully at some point, developers will wake up and realize you can’t attract the millions of short-burst players AND retain them by trying to design for both.

If you want to make a short-burst MMO like GW2, go for it. Sell the box and don’t expect more after, have a business plan that supports that expectation, and make the best one-months-worth of content you possibly can. If you do it right you will sell a whole lot of boxes and people will move on happily a month later. Just don’t do PR where you proclaim to have ‘fixed’ the MMO genre and all will be good.

And if you want to get $15 a month from a few hundred thousand people, please design accordingly as well. That group has shown a willingness to deal with valleys if the peaks are worthwhile, but they better have something to do in six months, and that something better not be the exact same thing just reskinned from the first month. Plan your business model accordingly, figure out a way to handle the tourists initially, and don’t get fooled into thinking you have something bigger than you actually do. Long-term retention MMOs are a niche. It’s a pretty sizable niche, and $15 a month for 6 months is more than $60 once, but yea, it’s hard to get right.

As players, we have to be honest with ourselves. You can’t expect the highs of long-term moments to fit into your ultra-casual schedule. The peaks and valleys will be more muted because in the MMO genre, you get what you put in. That said, it’s not nearly as hard to be part of something big as some make it out to be. World-first raiding and the time/dedication it requires is not the only way to get a huge high from an MMO. Just being a regular member of a guild doing something big/cool might be enough.

Of course, that guild can’t do something really cool if everyone moves to the next game in a month, but that’s the tradeoff you accept when deciding between the two styles.

21 Responses to Pick a group, design for it, don’t get greedy

  1. [...] Pick a Group, Design for it, Don’t Get Greedy [...]

  2. There is a history to certain games in the genre that did well in that they were designed because it was the sort of game the team wanted to play.

    Lord British’s team wanted Britannia with a live population and created UO. Brad McQuaid’s team wanted an epic, 3D version of TorilMUD and thus EQ was born. Mark Jacobs’ team wanted meaningful PvP in an EQ-like world and we got DAoC. Even WoW was pitched as remaking EQ because the dev team wanted to play a better version of that game.

    I would guess that EVE is what Hilmar’s crew at CCP wanted to play, and likewise I get the feeling that Darkfall reflects the desires of the Aventurine crew.

    Oh, and most of those games had very modest expectations that were wildly surpassed.

    And therein lies another factor, belief that what is being shipped is not just a good game, but one that is good enough the dev team wants to play.

    SWTOR never gave me that vibe. I felt a lot more of “We are BioWare, and we have some special magic that has worked in the past that we will call “fourth pillar.” We will just pour this into the MMO mold and money will roll in.

  3. bhagpuss says:

    What Wilhelm said!

    And what you said as well, mostly. If someone would care to make virtual worlds convincing enough and compelling enough to be worth spending more than three months in, I’ll be more than happy to make time in my busy schedule.

    I played nothing but Vanguard for 9 months straight from launch, nothing but Rift for six. Three months as Keen likes to set the bar is very much at the low end of what I’d call a good run. GW2 is probably going to get 3-6 months from me this time round although there’s some stiff competition on the way.

    Where I differ from you I think is that I expect and want to have more than one run of 6 months or more in every MMO that holds me for that long the first time round. I still play EQ, EQ2, Vanguard, and lots more. I still buy expansions if they have them, or go back for special events. Good MMOs are like good friends – you don’t need to see them every day or even every month, you just need to know that whenever you do make time to see them again you’ll always be glad to see them and you’ll get along with them just as well as you always did.

  4. Ahtchu says:

    MMORPGs are 100% progression, 0% arrival. Failures are hardcoded with emphasis on the latter.
    Only now is the genre seeing the results of a froglike effect of the ‘endgame’ shift in gameplay.

  5. Gorbag says:

    When people talk about the raiding grind they miss the part that is rewarding. It’s not killing the same boss over and over for that one item, it’s overcoming challenges as a team and working through new content. Farming loot is work, not fun, but having to put in that work to advance makes success more rewarding.

    GW2 got it exactly backwards. Progression is the reward, gear is the grind. By removing the gear grind they eliminated the stepped challenge of progression. Those steps make the gear meaningful, not the other way around.

    • kalex716 says:

      They built a game with the assumed expectation that they could make the content fun enough so that it would be worth repeating, in and of itself, for fun (like a MOBA game or something).

      Verdict? Not even close…

      • Mekhios says:

        In your opinion. Many would not agree.

        • Xyloxan says:

          Mekhios, please come back here in 3 months and tell us how much you’re still enjoying playing GW2, ok?

        • Dril says:

          Yet, curiously, most of the WoW and LoL playerbases would very much agree that either a carrot or genuinely good gameplay is a necessity for retention (incidentally, both games have these two aspects to some degree.)

          GW2 does not.

  6. kalex716 says:

    I’d buy you a beer if i could.

  7. Youngblood says:

    Didn’t a crap-ton of people play GW1 for years and years?

    • wloire says:

      Very few people played GW1 non-stop for years and years. Most people played GW1 in 3 months spurts around the release of each expansion.That would be because A) Each expansion was like a brand new game in itself with just as much content as the last and B) The PVP was actually pretty good if you’re into arena style PVP, so it would keep you hunting for that +1 equipment and for the best skills.

      One thing GW’s PVP did really well was the skill bar. There were loads of class configurations and loads of skill bar mixes you could use after that. Classes within GW1 were a little bit like ship fitting in EVE. Just because you had two WAR/MO going against each other didn’t mean they were fitted the same way. This style of customization kept people coming back to the arena’s/GvG and Heroes Accent etc etc, day after day.

  8. dirtysouth says:

    great couple of posts. i was a wow noob so the only other game to hold me 6+ months was RIFT. after i hit rank 8 i said F this, never again. so gw2 was a welcome change. they did fix mmo’s for me.

    i understand the frustration of someone who wants a sandbox / virtual world, so few options. do you think adding ffa style pvp to almost every sandbox keeps them niche? or is this something that is necessary for that style of game?

    • Nat says:

      The problem is that in sandbox there is not as much developer-generated grind (new dungeons, raids, raid progession) and players need a reason why to log in. And one of the strongest motivations is to win, to make a difference, the feeling of belonging to a faction, of “them vs. us” feeling.

      For me the tight knit guilds and memorable experience are the main attractor, and you will not get these without FFA PvP. For instance I am playing GW2 with my DF clan and it is a completely different experience – many people just do not give a damn as they do not HAVE to band together.

  9. Keen says:

    Once again we are saying similar if not the same things, SynCaine.

    MMORPG’s can be designed to last, or not. Lately, they’re not.

    I’ve pointed out the ‘live in the world’ vs. the ‘beat the game’ angle and the uniqueness (how ‘different’ the game is from other offerings). SWTOR and GW2 are ‘beat the game’ angles with relatively little uniqueness.

    Designing for a group, picking that group, and making the best game you can is a very good addition to the list. I think that’s what every previous long-term and/or successful MMORPG did.

  10. [...] Let’s add SynCaine’s ‘Pick a group and design for it‘ angle to the [...]

  11. [...] Pick a group, design for it, don’t get greedy (syncaine.com) [...]

  12. Jenks says:

    Loving these recent articles. Keep fighting the good fight.

  13. Moon Monster says:

    The games that were long-term games in the past were not that different from games today. Those games and these games all run out of things to do after 6 months aside from the same things you’ve already been doing, only reskinned. Do you honestly think if EQ was released today with awesomesauce graphics and a easy to use UI and whatnot that everyone would play it and stick with it? Why not? It’s designed for long term play, isn’t it?

    The problem is that the population of people willing to do the same thing over and over for 3 years has not grown nearly as fast as all the games they can now play. Back when your choice was limited to one of 5 MMOs, of course they all had lasting power. There was nowhere else to go.

    The fault is with companies that think that it’s even feasible to attract a large number of people who will stick around for years and years. And with players that think that ‘if only the games were designed like in Ye Olde Days, then these companies would succeed’.

    Unless you offer something that is both unique and compelling (MMOs are no longer the former, and for most players, no longer the latter), it just won’t happen.

    • Shadow says:

      UO is JUST like WoW.
      EVE is JUST like SW:tOR.
      DAoC is JUST like GW2.

      Lets use specifics instead of vague, ambiguous terms, like “…large number of people…” I don’t think it’s anywhere outside of the realm of contention that a company could attract 200,000 players with a NEW game and retain them for years. Even blatant knock-offs of niche titles can last, be profitable, and continue on if planned for correctly (*cough* http://www.perpetuum-online.com/ *cough*).

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