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for a new player to catch up with people who have already played for awhile, help files and tutorials fall hopelessly out of date.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 …