The Four Year Itch

When I was playing MUDs/ MUSHes I had a theory that after about 3-4 years, a game would have to fundamentally change or else it would inevitably die.

There were/ are two main types of reason for MUDs to start flailing after a few years. The first is down to game mechanics; more complex systems have been added to keep current players occupied, it’s harder and harder for a new player to catch up with people who have already played for awhile, help files and tutorials fall hopelessly out of date. The second is down to the player community; existing players already have their cliques and are unwelcoming, key people who shaped the community have gotten bored and left an unfilled vacuum, staff who helped make the game have moved on.

I think the 4 year mark just tended to be a perfect storm for all of these things coming to a head at once. The community turned in on itself, all the main evangelists had moved on, and the game itself became less friendly to newbies. And the result was that people looking for a new game would find one with fewer barriers.

You could tell when a game was in its death throes – you’d log in, there wouldn’t be many people around and they would mostly be talking about how great things used to be. Staff would be miserable and frustrated. Player communities would be cliquey and unwelcoming to newbies. Whole areas of the grid (i.e.. the game world) would be empty, some of them would obviously have belonged to players who once put lots of time and energy into running them but now were derelict wastelands.

I was very curious when I began playing MMOs about how these huge, commercial, graphically rich games would get past the 4 year hump, or whether it was simply some peculiar law of virtual worlds and virtual communities that no game could deny. This came to mind recently because a few popular WoW bloggers have hung up their virtual pens this year. And it does happen to be at around the four year mark.

Despite all that is said about MUDs vs MMOs, the MMOs have genuinely brought something new and special to a moribund genre. The factors that might send a MUD into decline may not affect an MMO in the same way. But I thought it was a good opportunity to go through the list and see whether our MMOs are aging gracefully and if so, how.

Bear in mind, the sole reason for a game to close is because there are more players leaving than joining, and therefore the people running the game no longer find it viable. Because MUDs were generally non-commercial, staff tended to let them run until the community fell below critical mass. An MMO will have commercial constraints (ie. may be forced to close when it stops turning a profit.)

What can happen to a game after 3/4 years?

Mudflation: I love the word mudflation. Basically it represents what happens when people keep wanting their characters to progress via gear). You get to a point where old players have several years of progression represented by their character, which may have all the latest gear. And new players can’t compete, and can’t really catch up either. The old gear (which new players can get) becomes worthless. It has become totally outclassed by something else.

Using expansions to reset the end game will let newer players catch up to the original ones, but the old gear and mobs who dropped it still remain as a relic of the past.

In some ways it’s interesting that games keep these relics in place. It means you can embark on your own virtual archaeology dig. But it’s likely to be difficult to persuade anyone else to come with you.

Even though games like Everquest are still going, can you imagine recommending a new player to start with them? Can you imagine playing it now, if you didn’t know a single other person in the game? But if you did, imagine what you could unearth as your own personal relic of one of the original MMOs.

Increased complexity: Games tend to start small and focussed. As time goes on, more and more complex subsystems are added to keep players amused. Think of all the new reputation grinds, different types of advancement experience, dual spec capabilities, cosmetic gear, etc.

If you are there from the beginning, you’ll experience the game as it grows organically. You can grow with it. You can see easily what it adds to what you already know. But as a new player in an old game, you can be faced with a mountain of complex sub games and no easy way to know which ones came later and are more significant. When help files or breadcrumb quests are written, it’s usually with existing players in mind, not people in a year’s time who can’t be assumed to automatically have the same base knowledge,

Outdated tutorials and in-game help: It is a basic rule of software development that no one ever remembers to update the help files unless they are forced with FIRE!

And this is also why although player-generated websites and tutorials are brilliant, they’re not the automatic answer. People get bored of websites. They stop updating guides. Worse still, it may be difficult to tell when information is out of date.

And even if they do, are those help files aimed at new players, or at people who had been playing for a year, or at people who had been playing for two or more years? The older the game, the tougher this problem becomes.

Outdated graphics/ technology: The game just looks or feels dated. Maybe this goes beyond the looks to the actual design. Modern MMOs don’t require players to spend hours camping a rare spawn any more, it’s considered old fashioned (and not very fun).

Stratified (mature?) community: When a game is new, people are very focussed on forming social connections. Guilds are made, people group with each other for the first time, the community on a server develops. As the game gets older and players settle into their community, the drive to keep recruiting tends to fade. After all, the whole point of having a settled guild is that you no longer need to look outside.

As a new player, you’re looking to break into an established community. It’s not impossible, but on WoW, for example, the only guilds who regularly recruit are tradechat guilds who will take anyone and focussed raid guilds who need hardcore recruits. If you’re looking for a friendly social guild it may not be so easy to find any more. I know we only recruit people who are friends of current guild members, for example, and that’s quite common.

Other games won’t have the same issues. But still, the focus of the community does shift away from meeting and training new players as the game gets older.

Player turnover: I don’t know what the average length of a subscription is these days. Players who try a game and don’t like it will stay for a month. Players who do like it will stay for a few (call it 6 months). More hardcore players or those who make strong social ties will stay even longer.

But in any case, after the initial social rush of people meeting for the first time in a new game, things settle down, and then you have the first proper wave of player turnover. This is where people who made significant communal ties start to leave. And if, for example, a guild leader or raid leader leaves and cannot be replaced then that guild or raid struggles to keep going.

A new player will notice that people in older guilds will spend more time talking about people they’ve never met and probably never will meet. You may get a sense of ‘the good old days’ from about six months into the game.

And if any of these older players come back, they may be treated better than newer ones, for no real reason other than that they were there at the start. So as a new player, it’s easy to get the impression that not only is it hard to catch up in the game, it’s also hard to catch up socially.

Of course, guilds split and reform all the time. And forming a new guild gives newer players a chance to get in at a community from the beginning. This is where MMOs, with their vastly higher numbers of players, can really win out over MUDs. If a community becomes too moribund, too unwelcoming, there’s a good chance that newer players have other options.

Staff turnover: As well as players drifting in and out of the game, staff also burn out or find other jobs. So eventually you will end up with a development team who had almost no input into the original game. They may not share the same vision. They don’t share the same sense of creative ownership. They may implement new features that don’t really fit the original game.

The game drifts.

How MMOs have approached these problems

My original question has been answered many times over. Successful MMOs have found ways to address all of these issues.

Often, this kind of longevity wasn’t designed in from the start. For a start, your game has to survive 4 years in the first place before this is even an issue. For example, I remember being shocked when WoW announced their first expansion. Stupid as it sounds now, we hadn’t seen that as being inevitable.

Expansions: Love them or hate them, being able to reset the endgame opens up the game to people who weren’t there from the beginning. There’s also a risk that a new expansion makes all previous content obsolete and moves the game away from the themes and playing styles that people have learned to like. But them’s the breaks.

I was particularly impressed that EVE revamped the starting experience recently. This is the kind of thing you really have to do to help new players get off the starting blocks.

Massive games: The more players in the game, the more chance a new player has to find either other newbies or a newbie-friendly guild to hook up with. If one guild breaks up, players have more opportunities to move on and keep going.

In a MUD which had maybe 30 people online as a max, that wasn’t so much of an option.

Player driven support: There are a lot of help files and websites provided by other players. There’s no guarantee that these will be kept up to date, of course, but they’re likely more reliable than buying books.

Some games do seem to generate more helpful communities. I guess this is partly a function of the game being complex anyway and also whether it benefits old guilds to have new players. For example, EVE has an awesome amount of player-generated help available. People have written helpful programs, people run guilds/ corps designed purely to help newbies, etc. And it’s amusing that this is the same game which also contains some of the most cutthroat play in the business.

WAR was also fairly newbie friendly. Bringing more people to a PvP raid was always helpful so guilds and public warbands were motivated to help newer players because they needed the manpower.

Tale in the Desert rewarded players for mentoring newbies.

City of Heroes makes it easy for players to group with higher level people. I’m not entirely sure how the rewards work out but certainly they removed barriers that might have stopped people from doing it.

In MUSHes, we encouraged faction based play so that players in a faction would be motivated to help others new players in the same faction. This actually did work quite well. We even flagged new players at one point so that older ones could see who might need help. But those were profoundly social games, so we could make some assumptions about player behaviour.

Breaking the four year mark!

Eventually, the game will stop being so appealing to newbies and most new players will either have friends in the game or will have picked it because they had no better choices. And that presents a different set of challenges.

But in any case, many of the original players will no longer be there. If they are even still playing MMOs, chances are they will be playing something else. Others will have moved on – four years is a long time, their lives will have changed. People may have gotten married, gone abroad, had babies. A lot can happen in four years and no game is forever.

At that point, the game needs to cater for the longterm players who do stay on, or else it will die. So devs need to really listen to what current players want, and watch what they are actually doing, and respond appropriately.

If WoW is changing, becoming more casual friendly, becoming more accessible, becoming more funnelled, then it’s because this is what devs perceive that players want. It may not be what the original players wanted, but they had their fun.

So it’s OK if people decide that they’ve had enough, the game is no longer the one they loved, and they want to move on.

Everything changes in life. Virtual worlds too. Is it arrogant to design for this from the beginning? Look at WAR, they originally spoke about a 5 year plan. They may well still be on course for it. Now all they have to do is to survive for 5 years …

17 thoughts on “The Four Year Itch

  1. I don’t think WoW is dying. I think it is moving towards becoming a cyclical game where people are very active after an expansion or a content patch then log in less frequently after shiny new content has been devoured.

    It is a shame that they have evolved from lengthy 5 man instances that were quite challenging (BRD, Strat etc) to 5 mans that are only really for getting green geared new 80s started prior to their first week or two in Naxx. I rather miss the 5 man game ( a challenging game with rewards that is, not empty content we’ve outgrown).

    The problem with the raid game of course is lockouts. £10 a month is less good value when you only have 12-20 hours a week when you can do anything meaningful.

    I can see why they went down the everyone is a raider, everyone has epics, route but it does seem for many of the reasons you have mentioned that the world is ripe for another Blizzard game. I’m free trialling Eve at the moment and would drop WoW in a flash for Diablo 3. There’s just not enough to WoW to keep one as engrossed as in the past.

    • Something actually recently struck me about the older content.

      It wasn’t very hard.

      I mean, it was time consuming and so on because of the need to gear and find 40 people who could grasp basic tactics. But if you go back into it with knowledge learnt from fights in BC and WotLK? Most of the fights consist of what we’ve come to regard as fairly elementry mechanics. There’s a couple of places like BWL, where it can take a moment to grasp it and some of them a take a party balance that no longer really exists. But most of them consist of tactics that are just part of something I’ve been required to do in a 5 man.

      • It’s quite interesting to look back.

        I think some of it was genuinely hard at the time (I remember our hunters kiting stuff all through BWL, I remember the struggle we had with Razorgore, I remember learning the Twin Emps, I remember when we had to kite Anub’rekhan with a hunter to help rather than just tanking him in the doorway) and its hard to compare because characters have all been so beefed up since then.

        But yup, I agree, a lot of the challenge wasn’t in the fights. It was the hassle of getting everyone to go farm maraudon for nature resist gear, it was needing 100 arcanite bars to make your guild’s main tank a thunderfury at a time when thorium was very heavily farmed (mostly by bots), it was grinding out thorium brotherhood rep so that you could make fire resist gear, and so on.

  2. Oh, I don’t think it’s dying at all. But I do think it had to change and it’s probably not surprising if players who started at the beginning either find that their lives have changed so they don’t have time any more, or else that the game is changing in ways that they don’t like.

  3. It definitely changed into something I don’t like (on the verge of hate) after 3 or so years. WotLK revived my interested for a little bit, but after I saw it was the same ol’ song and dance, after we cleared the Ulduar bosses on hard mode after 2 weeks of trying … it was just bleh.

    The problem with other MMOs coming out or that have come out recently is that they all try to follow WoW in design on various levels and WoW is getting dated. The industry needs something new, innovative and revolutionary and people are afraid to experiment.

  4. Good article Spinks! I agree that it seems that 4 years is the point where a MMO starts to go into decline.

    I wanted to point out the famous Mudwimping article which explains how a MUD ages and eventually dies:

    There are a multitude of factors that contribute to this which you have done a great job of explaining. MMOs don’t usually die for one reason, rather it’s a death of a thousand cuts.

    If I were to pick one reason it would be the exit of long term veteran players who leave because they are bored. These are the elders of the community and when they leave who’s left to teach the new players?

    Not only that it’s the fact is that players love to deconstruct the gameplay and MMO mechanics to the point that they unwittingly kill the fun for themselves. This is the point that Raph Koster makes in his Theory of Fun book.

    The short version is that the magic is gone.

    Since MMOs like WoW appeal to achievers it’s only natural that their penchant for min/maxing means that they get to figure out the game much faster then explorers and socializers.

    What troubles me is that like Wiqd, I find myself holding a lot of contempt for Blizzard right now. It’s a feeling of deja vu as I felt the same way about SOE when EverQuest was dying.

    Perhaps we are out of the honeymoon phase with WoW and into the “familiarity breeds contempt” phase. Suddenly even small faults and foibles seem extremely distasteful and repugnant to us.

    One more thing…I think that as the MMO genre ages the life cycle is getting shorter and shorter. We’ve seen a few MMOs released last year that crashed and burned within a few months.

    Personally speaking MMOs are starting to bore me. I’m reading more and doing other things right now. And it’s not only me others are leaving MMOs — good people, smart people, cultured people. We have a brain drain on our hands and all we have left are young jaded kids raised on Gears of War that are now playing MMOs.

    Let me say this, in 10 years you will not recognize MMOs from what we see today. I’m not even sure if this genre is going to last given all of the negative trends I’m seeing right now.

    • I agree with so much of what you are saying here. I also wonder if having more choices of MMOs to play is actually bad for the genre in a sense — eg. when it was EQ or nothing then people would be more likely to put up with the artificial challenges of grinding and waiting around … which actually were the same things that bound raids and communities together. Now they’d write a pithy blog post and go play something else (or wait for the next MMO to get released).

      I don’t feel any contempt for Blizzard though, not compared to how I felt in TBC where I felt forced to PvP for raid gear or when they overtuned the raid instances so loads of raids and guilds broke up messily (I left the game for about 8 months after that). At least now I feel they know where they’re going with WoW and although I may not agree with it, it feels more consistent.

      I do think it’s sad that they’re killing off the exploring side of the game (even little things like being able to go to remote towns to pick up rare recipes from vendors aren’t in Wrath), but they have put some great work into the current expansion that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

      But yes, MMOs absolutely have to stop copying WoW and find their own way. And I agree that wherever the genre is going, in a couple of years time all these posts about raids and grind will seem very antique. I don’t know if it’ll last either but I don’t think virtual worlds themselves are going away.

      Maybe that the internet itself becomes the virtual world. Twitter and Facebook become the new social MMOs. Videogames get more divorced from virtual avatars and notions of permanence. I don’t know, but I’m going to be interested in staying along for the ride!

  5. Pingback: /AFK – May 24 « Bio Break

  6. Pingback: Game Gumbo « Tish Tosh Tesh

  7. Pingback: Is Alexa Charting the Decline of WoW? | Wolfshead Online

  8. Pingback: The Death of WoW « WoWenomics

  9. I agree strongly with the notion that wow is on a decline. Certainly now, people are logging in less, and many of the people who started are gone. However, our guild seems to be going strong. The key is turnover. If you aren’t bringing new people in to the game or guild, then that community dies because output overwealms input. From my guild’s perspective, I know it’s harder and harder for me to find a reason to login and do things. My best friend left the game and I (willingly) became guild leader. Now I have more ‘work’ and less ‘fun’ to do in the guild, and often I just do other things. When I’m insanely busy like I am now its hard to justify spending huge time blocks which WoW absolutely demands.

    I know I am glad I stopped raiding and spent more time with my wife in the evenings. If/when I get laid off I may go back to raiding but for now there is no way I want to spend all that time doing what it takes to do progression raiding. I think fundamentally its just not interesting to me any more.

    Naxx is more of the same, its like kara but without the lore, rep, etc. Plus it’s extremely long and really the only game in town for most of us. Ulduar is going good but we’re not good enough to see it yet. Actually we don’t really focus on raiding as a guild; but as a player raiding/instances are the main reason I play.

    For explorers, once you get to the end, then there is no reason to go further. I think the achievements help, but unfortunately with WoW they have made so much of their content worthless by design. I’d love to run AQ and gain rep for..whoever it is, but what is the point, the gear is level 60.

    I think blizz really shot themselves in the foot when they made a design decision to make all their old content obsolete and ensured that nobody would run it any more.

  10. Pingback: WoW in 3.2 – more game, less MMO « Welcome to Spinksville!

  11. Pingback: Blizzard Reboots WoW with the Cataclysm Expansion | Wolfshead Online

  12. Pingback: How to fail! And 20 ways to fail at tanking! « Welcome to Spinksville!

  13. Pingback: A holiday, a holiday, the first one of the year! Best of 2009. « Welcome to Spinksville!

  14. Pingback: Deja Vue. Haven’t I seen this content somewhere before? « Welcome to Spinksville!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s