The good stuffs in the middle

Let’s talk a little about the history of the mid-game in the MMO genre.

IMO the mid-game is the time after you have learned the basics of the game (tutorial or beginning phase), and before you stop progressing or have outright ‘won’. Outside of the MMO genre, the mid-game is often 95% or more of the game. To use Skyrim as an example, the mid-game is after you finish the first, heavily scripted encounter, and lasts until you either hit the level cap or finish what content you intended to complete (be it the main quest or a set of side quests).

If we go back to 1997, one of the major appeals of UO was that it was essentially an Ultima game, but without an end. You paid more than just the box price because you got more than that over time. That was the deal. And in 1997, the mid-game in UO was 95% of the game. Getting a character maxed out took time, and was not a major ‘must have’ for many. A few skills to 100 was common, but 7xGM was something you took your time working towards, and whether you eventually got there or not was not a make or break moment.

Fast forward a bit, and at some point (not release), WoW become more about the end-game than the mid-game. The developers focused more/most of their efforts delivering content to those at the cap, and the players in turn focused more on just getting to the cap and the ‘real’ game than what came before.

As it usually does, at the other end of the spectrum sits EVE. With a built-in 15yr+ progression curve, not a single player has ‘maxed out’ a pilot. In a somewhat “only in EVE” issue, there currently exist some players who are reaching the end of worthwhile progression, having trained pilots for almost 10 years, and wondering how CCP will fix that problem. All other MMOs would love to have the ‘problem’ of someone worrying about progression after 10 years, but then EVE has always played on a different level.

I bring all of this up for a few reasons. The first is to highlight the importance of the mid-game in an MMO. Whether they are conscious of it or not, players like progression. They like it enough, in fact, to keep paying while they grow. The end of personal progression is, IMO, the single biggest cause of player loss. And it’s rarely called directly that, which is part of the problem. Players will end progression and slowly lose interest in the game, and claim ‘burn out’ as the reason for leaving without actually realizing what happened. But look back at your own personal history with the genre and see how often you ended up leaving when your own progression path either ended or become more trouble than it was worth.

Speeding players towards that dead end is a great way to tank your MMO, and the genre is littered with examples of just that. WoW once again clouds the picture because of its sheer mass, but it itself is an example. When progression was more extensive, subs grew. When it was cut or minimized, they stagnated or dropped (despite the fact that WoW has by far the largest social hooks in the genre due to its sheer size/popularity).

It’s also important to remember that not all players will reach your end-game. In EQ1, for example, most players never hit the cap back in the day. The vast majority of the community was in leveling mode, and that WAS the game. Yes, raiding and such was in the game, but it was a niche activity for the few capable of climbing the leveling mountain. Also important to note is that EQ1 expansions focused as much, if not more, on expanding the leveling game as they did on refreshing the end-game. Can the same be said for WoW expansions or the major content patches?

As a developer, it’s only natural that you will focus on the areas your players occupy, but that’s a vicious cycle. The faster you get players to the cap, the more will reach it. And taken at face value, it would be logical to assume that is where you should focus. It’s more difficult to step back and realize that, subconsciously, your players really enjoy the journey more than the destination. Raiding and other end-game activities being so cost-effective in terms of development also factor in; designing solid leveling content that will last is hard, throwing together another scripted dragon to be killed weekly is not.

Finally, a disaster like SW:TOR sets the genre back greatly because it’s a terrible example of attempting to create an interesting journey rather than a collection of end-game activities. For the clueless outsider looking in (and these are generally the people with money or the ones making the decisions, sadly), they will see that someone tried to create a great journey, failed miserable, and assume that creating said journey is the problem.

Luckily, we seem to be starting down a path where smaller, more focused products are finally being brought to the table, and their mark of success is not set to the impossible goal of WoW-killer. While certainly not all of them will succeed, they at least have a chance, which is better than the DOA expectations of titles like SW:TOR and their misguided 4th pillar or personal story.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in EQ2, EVE Online, Guild Wars, MMO design, SW:TOR, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The good stuffs in the middle

  1. John says:

    The mid-game should not be judged by how much it lasts but from quality…what you do in mid-game?is it fun?does it have any depth?any company can just add 100000000000000000000 of xp and say they achieved to have a an MMO with 95% mid-game.

    Generally I do agree with you and I favor the mid-game than the end game, but unless they provide depth and worth mid-game, I prefer to just go to the end-game. I have enjoyed wow vanilla and TBC because I enjoyed the mid-game. I never reached the end, never stepped into Naxrammas in vanilla and never completed Black temple in TBC. But it was so much fun and actually I liked it that there was content much more difficult that I didn’t managed to do.

    although the majority of the players was crying cause they never saw the end-game and they were “stuck” in mid-game…and the result of this are well known.

    But did I enjoyed the mid-game in Aion?No…it didn’t had any depth..there wasn’t enough game world for that long xp grind leveling. 3 leveling zones for so many xp grind with no depth and nothing interesting to do while you leveling..(housing, reputations, lot of dungeons, e.t.c.)

    So as I said, the first thing I care about mid-game is to have quality and depth and after that I can start care about how much it last

    • SynCaine says:

      This is a bit strawman. Of course the content has to first be decent-enough to play. Crap content is crap whether it takes an hour or a year.

      On the other hand, look at GW2. Decent content, but it lasted for all of one month. If GW2 was like most MMOs and wanted to retain people, that would be a major issue for Anet.

      So yes, the content has to be decent, but it ALSO has to last in order to make it as a solid MMO.

      • GW2 is an interesting example because it launched with a design philosophy that ‘the levelling game is the end game’. This was meant to be a realisation of what you described in your post.

        However we all know the story of what happened next…

  2. sid6.7 says:

    Quote: Fast forward a bit, and at some point (not release), WoW become more about the end-game than the mid-game. [..] It’s also important to remember that not all players will reach your end-game. In EQ1, for example, most players never hit the cap back in the day. The vast majority of the community was in leveling mode, and that WAS the game. Yes, raiding and such was in the game, but it was a niche activity for the few capable of climbing the leveling mountain.
    Your perspective of the situation is influencing your memory. Raiding in EQ1 played a much larger part of that game than you (personally) experienced. The whole concept of end-game raiding was coined out of EQ1.

    What Blizzard did, which they have always done and continue to do, is make content more accessible to more people. In EQ1, the bar was so high that obviously, for YOU, the “game” was the mid-game. Blizzard, by contrast, made the end-game accessible to more players and you were one of those players who was able to actively raid that game. However, for others yet, this end-game was still not accessible and the mid-game continued to be the “game” even for some people in WoW.

    All that said, I agree with the point. For those that never reach this end-game, the mid-game IS the game. And for others, the mid-game is something to grind through and get past as quickly as possible. That’s why developing for the mid-game is so challenging. That’s why I have always felt the mid-game should either a) never ends (i.e. EVE) or b) should be over as quickly as possible (allowing everyone to get to the end-game).

    • SynCaine says:

      About EQ1: I never played it myself. I went from UO to AC-DT. I do remember seeing stats about it however, and one that stuck with me was that the majority of EQ1 players (at the time, and I forget the year now) were not at the level cap.

    • EQ1 was built on the SojournMUD/TorilMUD template, where it was expected you would spend a long time getting to level cap, that getting to level cap would require you to group up, and that at the level cap, your groups would turn to running level cap zones and bosses, which became raids.

      Raids were hard mode challenges at first to reward those who made the climb. That everybody would make the climb was clearly not part of the plan by the very open world, contested nature of the raids. I think raids only become part of the “everybody is going to get there” plan when SOE decided they had to be instanced so more than one group could do a raid on a given night.

      Also part of the EQ story was the fact that they didn’t expect that many people to get on board for the game. Their original plan makes a lot of sense for smaller populations with a couple of groups raiding.

      All of which is not to disagree with you. Raiding was part of the plan, as it was with TorilMUD. It was just more complicated than people think.

  3. Red says:

    One thing that wow did much better than eve back in the day was the whole PvE->PvP fight experience. PvE and PvP gear was largely the same and it was easy to turn a gank into a one hell of a fight. This made the entire midgame level grind a lot more fun. I have found memories of getting attacked by rogues while fighting a ton mobs and still managing to kill them. They’ve sense destroyed this system in favor of PvP only gear.

    Eve’s PvE->PvP system is terrible. The chance of winning a gank in a PvE fit is very low.

    • Mekhios says:

      Red said:
      “Eve’s PvE->PvP system is terrible. The chance of winning a gank in a PvE fit is very low.”

      The same would apply to WoW to a certain extent. If you went into BG’s or the Arena with a PvE set you would expect to be cannon fodder for the PvP geared players.

      It works no differently to EVE. If you are missioning in EVE in a mission fit you would expect to be cannon fodder for those ships in EVE that are PvP fit if you get caught.

      It is actually easier to PvP fit a ship in EVE than it is to grind BG’s or Arena’s for PvP WoW gear. In EVE all you have to do is train a relevant set of skills and spend a bit of isk to buy the right modules.

      You may not win many early PvP battles in EVE but eventually assuming you gain some experience and learn as you go along it isn’t that much of a mountain. Of course if you are risk averse to losing ships and implants which cost ingame money then you might not enjoy EVE.

      But at the end of the day ships in EVE are merely consumables. Like any consumable they have a chance of being used up during normal gameplay.

      • sid6.7 says:

        I think what he is referring to here is what I think of as “spontaneous PvP”.

        The difference being that your out doing your own thing (PvE’ing or whatever) and then out-of-nowhere — it’s a PvP fight.

        It’s open-world PvP, yes, but it’s also something very unplanned that happens when in PvE hotspots. And yes, WoW was good at creating these (albiet unintentionally) with daily quests and other areas where factions had similiar PvE story lines. Ironically, whenever they tried to add PvP “objectives” to the open world, they always failed miserably. Go figure.

  4. SM says:

    Yes, pve progression has been trivialized in a rush to the end-game, which itself is pointless. The whole ideas of levels in an mmo now itself reeks of a dead-end game. This is why the market is so stagnant. UO was more of a virtual world than anything on the market now.

  5. bonedead says:

    2 becomes should be becames

  6. Improvavel says:

    In the early and mid-game you have the player skill learning curve.

    After that the progression mechanisms are only meaningful if you still enjoy the gameplay and you are challenged.

    The problem of SWTOR is that its game play is an inferior copy of WoW.

    It is the same reason I can’t play an ARPG since Diablo II and Titan Quest – all the ARPGs are the same game.

    It is fun you identify the cause so clearly but without naming it since gameplay is not something you would identify as the main reason for success or failure.

    Even funnier is that Blizzard games before (and after WoW) were known as “poor graphics and awesome gameplay”.

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