Friday, July 25, 2008

Slash Content or Release with Bugs?

There's a long standing theory that World of Warcraft has changed the MMO market because of the high degree of polished it had upon release. While it wasn't 100% bug free, it did have a lot of content which was surprisingly stable and fun to play. It was a sharp contrast to EverQuest 2 which was going through a tough regiment of constant patches at the time. It sort of reminds me how Age of Conan is currently going through it's own weekly patch cycle. It's almost like Funcom had it's head in the sand and missed the epic battle between SOE and Blizzard in 2004.

It's not like Funcom is the only developer to ignore MMO history. The way Sigil handled the release of Vanguard has made it the poster child for incomplete and buggy games. Then again it's not like Pirates of the Burning Sea or Tabula Rasa were shinning examples of polished MMO design either. Even the successful Lord of the Rings only managed to match Blizzard's polish by leaving large stretches of their game barren of content. More content was patched in eventually, but it didn't stop their initial subscription numbers from quickly going downhill. It's funny, but the most complete and polished game after World of Warcraft might actually be Guild Wars.

I have to wonder if ArenaNet had a better idea of how much content they needed to develop for their game compared to other MMOs. Since they were only focused on box sales I bet their development cycle was tighter and had more in common with console games. It seems a weakness of MMO developers is under estimating how much time it will take to finish content. They have a habit of spending way too much time on one part of the game and then having to knock their timeline back. Eventually, they start to run out of money and they make the decision to release with bugs like Funcom/Sigil or slash content like LOTR/Warhammer.

So how the hell did World of Warcraft managed to release with so few bugs and a decent amount of content? Well quite frankly, I think Blizzard had a lot of experienced people working on the game and Vivendi did authorize around 50 million dollars for its development. It may not be necessary to spend that much, but if you want a game with complete and bug free content that might be the cost. It'll be interesting to see how much Mythic has invested into Warhammer when they finally release the numbers. I'm willing to bet it will be under what Blizzard spent but then again I think they are trying to do it in three years instead of four. At the very least Mythic didn't slash any content required for leveling so they are one step ahead of Lord of the Rings.

It's quite obvious that while World of Warcraft raised the bar for MMOs, it's set it way too high for most development studios. I know a couple games like Tabula Rasa and Vanguard cost almost as much money as World of Warcraft and still produced crappy games at release. I think the missing ingredient might be an experienced team combined with ungodly sums of money. I know Tabula Rasa suffered from a lot of hands stirring the pot as people left and came onto the project. Sigil on the other hand was a brand new company and had a lot of ex-developers trying to do project management. Luckily, I think Mythic has the right combination of experience and money. In fact the only reason they probably had to cut any content was that they spent so much time advertising/hyping their game.


Spinks said...

Didn't Warcraft have a really really long beta, like over a year?

Sithlet said...

If you release a good game with few to no bugs, that's fun, then it will only make people more likely to come back when you patch in content you had to cut.

If you release a game with lots of content that no one can see due to crashes, black boxes over their screens, etc -- people are likely to cancel and never come back.

That's what I think, at least.

Openedge1 said...

What is funny is Funcom should have known better.
AO should have been on their minds as AoC was forced out.

What is really incredibly sad is the game has a good bit of content...

Until Level 50-60.

They should have taken the loss, cut out the sieges, and delayed PvP. Concentrated on a more focused "story" based game, which they have...until level 50-60.

The "older" more "mature" audience they were seeking would have come in droves if they would have went for the "Casuals" (who happen to be the ones who enjoy the game the most), and tried not to do a "Jack of all trades, Master of none" MMO.

Relmstein said...

I'm not sure how much difference a long beta cycle makes or not. I was in the Vanguard beta almost 7 months before they released and I believe I was in one of the later phases. I only could put up with it for about 3 weeks though.

I rather have slashed content then buggy content. But there is a point where you can slash too much and you have big empty parts of your game. Also based on previous behavior once a MMO starts losing subscriptions it never goes back. Thus you can rely on many people coming back after you've fixed things in patches.

Funcom released buggy and incomplete content which is why so many people are bad mouthing it across the internet. In my mind its improving a lot with every patch, but I think they've lost a lot of their spectacular 700k accounts created. I think there down to the 200k range now. We'll have to see how Age of Conan weathers the War and WoW releases this year. I could stay around 200k or drop down to Tabula Rasa levels.

Anonymous said...

I keep seeing this myth repeated, and I have to point out that it IS a myth. The WoW launch was not the lovely thing it's being remembered as.

They did, yes, have a long beta (we were in it for nearly a year prior to release). Beta was small in terms of concurrent users. This helped them playtest questing, and combat, leveling and geography, and ensure that the things people hated about EQ were not in WoW (slow leveling; non-solo; spellbook meditation; no privately instanced content; named mob camping; I could go on but you get the idea). Blizzard set out to steal a good portion of the existing Western MMO market by making the anti-EQ, and they pulled it off.

But Blizzard completely failed to test the server-side infrastructure until it was far, far too late to redesign the internal clockwork of the game before release. They had gone gold before they knew what kind of trouble they were in for.

A couple of weeks before release, Blizzard finally opened up a beta phase to a decent number of people. They gave 50,000 keys to Fileplanet, who released those beta keys to their subscribers (the ones who pay $80 a year). And it was an unmitigated disaster. It quickly became evident that they had not properly designed their infrastructure to handle the number of transactions the players were attempting. (Everytime you loot something, for example, there's a transaction with the database going on that handles putting that "item" into your "inventory" - multiply that by every player interacting with any object or changing any attribute about themselves, and you quickly see the millions of things going on every minute even on a single server, yes? And every one of these things is a transaction that has to be made in the background.) Waiting 1-2 minutes to loot a single item from a monster was common. And if it had never been "attached" to your character before, add an extra minute. We used to be giddy if the mob only dropped gold because gold did not take as long to pick up.

Because it was so close to release there was nothing that could be done to fix it, other than control player numbers. So Blizzard shipped limited copies. They put up their live servers, but had to cap capacity on them to keep it barely playable (the terms "loot lag" and "crashed and rolled back" were constant back then). Even people who managed to buy a copy found themselves waiting in login queues a LOT. Nothing could be done for it because raising the concurrency cap generated even more server crashes, and rollbacks (they either were not keeping transaction logs to re-apply, or they simply were not taking time to do it when they restarted servers/db instances), and that really made people angry.

It took them nearly a full year to redesign and upgrade their infrastructure, during which they discovered they'd designed a game that simply had a fairly low concurrency capability. So in order to sell more boxes they had to continue to add lots of servers (not because of overcrowding in terms of "too many players in one area", but overcrowding as in "we have to limit the number of players making transactions on this server with this database and on this segment of the network"). New software boxes were shipped on a very limited basis for some 6-8 months. For awhile it was like trying to buy a Wii! It was news when they shipped a new batch of CDs and stood up the servers to support another batch of players, all while desperately redesigning and rebuilding the original servers to try and make them more playable.

The servers crashed a lot. When they crashed you generally lost anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour or more of played time, including your experience, gold and items. During prime time, even when the servers were up, play was quite slow (you could go make a sandwich while you waited for your character to loot a mob, heh!). Playing early morning to midafternoon was the best way to keep the leveling up.

Even in mid-late 2005 when we started seriously doing raids, and going forward well into 2006, there were still relatively low concurrency caps in place because the infrastructure they had simply could not handle things well. And if you disconnected, welcome to the 90 minute login queue!

Additionally, beyond the hardware and server design problems they encountered, the game itself underwent weekly patching and frequent hotfixing to correct game design issues their beta was not big enough or played enough to find. The nerf bats and buffing cloths swung endlessly that first year, in particular. By the end of 2005, multiple classes played almost nothing like they had when the game went live. (In this one area I am impressed with Mythic. By requiring beta testers to play in certain areas with certain classes depending on the phase, they have ensured that much more of their content got some real dedicated playtesting, instead of being ignored for something "sexier". It is a nice approach to enforce thoroughness.)

WoW had an okay launch - but it was definitely nowhere near as perfect as everyone seems to remember it being. Quite honestly many of the people making the claim that WoW had a picture perfect first year were people who just didn't PLAY the game the first year, and certainly were not NDA'd beta testers.

At any rate :) Please do not fall into the common trap of comparing a 4 year old, spit-shined and analyzed-to-death WoW to anything newly released. If you MUST compare them to something new, then do the hard core research necessary to find the news and blogs and posts about what was really going on in November and December 2004.

LoTRO and AoC both had better first launch months than WoW did, even if you simply measure it in terms of (1) did everyone who want to buy the game get to do so without being commonly shut outside in lengthy queues, and (2) were the servers up for play 99% of the time (outside weekly scheduled maintenance). WoW didn't come anywhere close to meeting those two qualifications.

The primary Western game it had to compete with at the time was EQ, and we all know they were having the same kinds of server stability problems WoW had - plus many people disliked EQ's play style. Simply by designing an MMO game with the deliberate opposite qualities of EQ, WoW sucked in a lot of people. So you could go queue up and/or sit in the EQ chat rooms while your server was down 2-3 hours a couple nights a week, or you could go play WoW which was fresh and new content but deal with constant crashes and rollbacks and queues.

They've said themselves they had no idea what they were doing, and that they were quite naive. And I think they were the last MMO release to get away with that kind of behavior - nobody has any tolerance for such poor foresight anymore.

I expect WAR will comparatively exceed WoW's first month "quality". It will also exceed AoC's, which has had stable servers but been riddled with the kind of rookie design mistakes that hundreds of freaky screenshots are made of. WAR's release may or may not exceed LoTRO's, which was an almost picture perfect launch. It would be hard for anybody to do any better than Turbine's first month. Turbine just about got it perfect.

Drop those rose-colored WoW-lurve glasses! :)

Regis said...

But didn't Funcom run out of money somewhere in the long process and just had to ship if they didn't want to shut down? Or so I think I heard, from Funcom and others.

It's not a perfect excuse, because if they had a great product they shouldn't really have problems getting sponsors. People have seen how big the MMO scene can be, but the failures of recent MMOs in comparison to WoW maybe is a bit discouraging.

Saylah said...

@Anon - brought back memories. I hadn't forgotten the queues and lag but the roll-backs had skipped my mind. Whoa, what a nightmare that was. I recall stomping offline a few times when the rollback lost me loot. Nevertheless I came back every nite for a very long time because even with crap performance back in the day, when logging on to raids meant queue up 1.5 hrs in advance so you got on in time, when Illidan was called Illidown and more than 3 guilds in MC meant you were screwed, because it was hella fun! Players will forgive quite a bit for a stellar game and WOW was nothing if not that.

Mallika said...

"In fact the only reason they probably had to cut any content was that they spent so much time advertising/hyping their game."

Haha, I think I love you. Thanks for the laugh!

Openedge1 said...

I had almost forgotten to add regarding your comment for Arena Net.
Playing Guild Wars now it always amazes me how polished it is. And has been...

All I remember from launch was some rubberbanding issues, but ZERO game breaking bugs, and the game could be completed. (though difficult to do)
As the game progressed the maturity of how the game was approached was made by the players, not dictated by the Devs, and this still shows to this day.

Who would have thought such a weird build of making a Monk have 55HP and use skills to keep themselves alive would have been created.
And this is the key.
A developer should have their mechanics in place at launch (looks at Funcom and the constant meddling since launch), the game able to be completed in a sense in a modest amount of time, and then let the player create the rest of the world.
What is the purpose of a world but to live in it, whether real or virtual.

This is what Arena Net realized.

JoBildo said...

Slash content, definitely.

If Conan had launched with 50 levels but a working siege system and PvP system, people would be a lot happier with it than they are.

I think Mythic even stated that they learned from Conan's launch quite a bit. I bet the cuts were finally decided to be made after Conan launched and received backlash due to incomplete content.

I'm very looking forward to WAR from what I've seen of it, and I doubt I'll be missing cities and classes when the time comes. I think they did the right thing.

Anonymous said...

WoW's beta we were only able to take characters to lvl 55 and that was just a few weeks before open beta.

Then upon release there was no PVP system other than ganking in the world.

Sure they released with minimal bugs but had a long way to go before all the content was in the game.