Monday, December 10, 2007

How fast should MMO expansions be released?

The number of MMO's released is surprisingly high for a form of entertainment that is only just now approaching its ten year anniversary. Numerous and wildly differing MMO's have been produced over the past ten years but if there is one constant its been that they all offer players a persistent online world to explore. This exploration doesn't last forever though since these worlds all have finite lifespans dependent on how much content they contain. When the first MMO developers realized that their customers wanted their favorite worlds to continue forever it became apparent that expansion was needed. Thus most popular online worlds began to have teams of developers not only working at maintaining the current world but also growing it.

The problem of course was knowing how fast to grow their worlds. Quality content generation was always going to be a step behind the players especially in the early days when the vast majority were more fanatic about playing long periods of time. This resulted in some developers cutting corners in an attempt to keep up with their player's demand. Other games used a more layed back approach to expanding their worlds by offering constant free updates in hopes of keeping a stable subscriber base. Still others decided to skip the entry barrier of a subscription fee all together and just charge a one time fee for each expansion.

Out of all these methods a few proved disastrous but the majority of them had at least a minimum amount of success. Players tend to establish deep relationships with these persistent worlds and the friends they made in them. Thus the basic rule of thumb for expansions seems to be, keep a steady stream of new content incoming over time without changing the basic game play too quickly or charging too much. Of course too quickly and too much are relative terms but I'm going to give some examples of where it became obvious that companies broke this rule.

Chart of Expansion Rates and Quality

1 - Horrible (Timing: Bad, Cost: Bad, Quality: Bad)
Star Wars Galaxies

I almost hate to use SWG as the poster child for bad expansions since it gets brought up so often but there are just several factors that make it stand out. The first box expansion Jump to Lightspeed was so filled with bugs that it took months for the developers to get the major "selling points" working correctly. Later on the infamous CU patch completely rewrote the combat system of the game with very little warning to the players. If that wasn't enough the NGE patch introduced just 7 months later rewrote combat again combined with every other game system. While the overall quality of the content was okay it was effected by a very unstable player experience.

2 - Mediocre (Timing: Bad, Cost: Bad, Quality: Okay)

After the third expansion Everquest really tanked in its quality department. It soon became apparent that the expansion team was stealing developers from the maintenance teams. Bugs started taking longer to fix while expansions started being announced almost back to back. In the expansion Planes of Power a guild actually made it to the highest zone in the game only to find it only half way completed though developers originally denied this fact. It all culminated in a player organized boycott of EQ expansions until bugs were fixed.

3 - Okay (Timing: Okay, Cost: Okay, Quality: Good)
World of Warcraft, City of Heroes

It was at this point that companies started learning from the earlier SOE dominated days. World of Warcraft regularly held back specific content to make sure it was bug free before release. It was slightly annoying to buy a game that advertised Black Temple but didn't patch it in until 3 months later. Still holding back content until it was perfected is a better approach then fast tracking expansions filled with bugs.

City of Heroes never really could grow their player numbers with their constant release of small amounts of new content. City of Villains did a lot to fill out the game play by giving an opposing side and introducing PvP elements. Still in general while continuous releases every 3 months is nice its seems that its more effective have a longer production cycle which can produce more content.

4 - Good (Quickness: Okay, Cost: Good, Quality: Good)
Guild Wars

Guild Wars has followed a okay production timeline for its expansions which fall into either a 6 or 12 month cycle and reportedly contain a good deal of content even when compared with the market leader, World of Warcraft. Since the game doesn't require a monthly a fee it can even be thought of as the better deal. Unfortunately, each subsequent Guild Wars expansion has been rated less then the previous one. Reviewers have pointed out that Guild Wars is probably due for an huge overall especially in its chat system and introducing a persistent overworld. However, the box only revenue for the game has limited what the developers can afford tp do in a expansion. As a result the latest full expansion Utopia was cancelled in favor of creating a sequel to the franchise.

5 - Excellent (Quickness: Good, Cost: Good, Quality: Good)
Everquest 2

This might be a controversial choice but I believe Everquest 2 really epitomizes the perfect release schedule for an MMO expansion. They follow a steady 12 month cycle and with the last two expansions included all previous game content. Since Guild Wars is dependent on box sales they are unable to follow the same practice. Quality wise each expansion in EQ2 has introduced a sizable amount of content for solo, group, and raiding game play. In fact I believe they do a better job of balancing new content for different play styles then any other current game. So what hurts the top rated releaser of MMO expansions? Well one was first impressions since EQ2 in the style of SOE was very bug filled at the initial release. Two is definitely the UI which is still ugly and not as easily customizable as newer games such as WoW and LOTR.

6 - Godly
Theoretical Category made up of the best qualities of several games.

Quickness: Everquest 2
Cost: Either City of Heroes or Guild Wars
Quality: World of Warcraft without the wait


Viet said...

Great blog.

Tipa said...

Re: viet -- Some parts of this blog were difficult to understand, but I will do some more research. It was a great Tuesday.

Expansion rate: Well, EQ actually mixed things up by having major and mini expansions, like having Gates of Discord be book-ended by Lost Dungeons of Norrath on one side and Legacy of Ykesha on the other. Along with all the lead-up events.

Luclin (the third expansion) had some dodgy mechanics, but the long key quest for Vex Thal has become more or less standard. The raids themselves were so good that they were still done on a regular basis even for guilds in the Planes of Power.

PoP was definitely not finished at launch, but it still eventually turned out to be one of the best expansions ever, and is the new baseline for new players.

They've had some missteps, but I don't think you can easily paint all of EQ's expansions with the same brush. They weren't all of the same quality, but most were excellent, and the major-minor expansion cycle meant they could devote a fair amount of time to the larger expansions.

Relmstein said...

I played Everquest from Kunark to Omens of War. The Vex Thal Key quest was a pain in the butt though the attunement questline to get into Plane of Time was much, much, worse.

The main reasons I gave classic Everquest as the example for a Mediocre rating.

1) While some of the expansions had great content they were usually rushed before being properly tested or debugged. Thus the timing on them was bad.

2) If it takes longer then a month to fix the bugs introduced in a expansion then not only did you pay the box cost but also your monthly fee went to fixing it. This effectively raises the cost of the expansion.