Massively Multiplayer Observations Part 4 - The DLC

So...I originally planned this as a three-part series, but before part 2 had even posted I thought up a fourth part I wanted to do.  Consider this to be like DLC dropping.

Picking up the storyline from the end of Part 3, since DCU Online wasn't working for our group, we decided to give Elder Scrolls Online a shot.  I didn't really go into it in Part 3, because frankly it didn't seem to bring anything really new to the table so far...bits and pieces from other games, a few minor "new to me" things, nothing worth writing a blog about.  But one of the others reminded me that Zero Punctuation reviewed it, so I went to watch the review again and see if there was anything trenchant I'd missed three and a half years ago due to total lack of Elder Scrolls knowledge.

Not particularly.

I can sum up the review as follows: Yahtzee doesn't like MMOs and resents when a property he likes is made into an MMO.  Yahtzee doesn't like MMOs in general, it shows whenever he reviews something that even hints at an open world with things to do other than follow the plot (he also complains about plot on rails, but he is notoriously hard to please).  It's not just the Aussie Lag, although I can certainly understand disliking MMOs in general if you live somewhere thousands of miles from any server.

But I'm not here to complain about Yahtzee, rather to consider something that his antipathy towards MMOs puts in harsh relief.  Y'see, one way to categorize any game is to ask whether it can be won.  Yahtzee prefers games that can be won, and finds things like "sandbox" experiences to be wastes of time.  Lots of people prefer games that can be won, which is why most games can be won.  Some people don't even consider something to be a game if it can't be won.  Once you win, you can try playing again in a different way, but winning ends the current game.  There's no post-Checkmate game in chess (officially) other than to reset and start over.  Even cricket tests end eventually, and a new game starts.

Okay, it's possible to LOSE a tabletop RPG.
Might even be the natural end state.
And yet, there's games out there that can't be won, at least not in the long term sense.  Tabletop Roleplaying Games are perhaps the most shining example.  Sure, you can run a closed-ended campaign or one-shot adventure, but by design you can keep playing games in the same setting for years...and some people have done just that.  MMOs ultimately follow the mold of tabletop RPGs by promising a never-ending principle.  And in the middle ground, games with definite endings may still have sandbox elements that let you goof around before or even after reaching the end.

With tabletop, as long as the players are still interested, the Gamemaster can keep creating new content, or can hand over the reins to one of the players to develop the game world in a different way, etc.  But here's where I get to my main point for this essay: MMOs do not have the luxury of always having new content for the players, and need to find other ways to maintain interest.

Sure, MMOs do add new content for as long as they stay open, but if you've played an MMO for any significant amount of time, you've met someone who made it to the level cap in the first week (or day) of release.  It's not just impossible to keep up with the "50 levels a day" players, it's inadvisable.  Too much content at once, even quality content, can be intimidating to new players, and an MMO needs new players in order to stay alive.  Feeding the hunger of the super-levelers is a bad business model.

So, as someone who has reached endgame levels in several MMOs, I have some thoughts about the various ways an MMO can try to keep people playing once they've run through all the storyline content.

Oh the weather outside is AAAAAH!
Stretch It Out - There's two main ways to say, "You may have reached the endgame, but there's still stuff you haven't done."  Both of these, however, give characters who have hit endgame something to do out of existing content, rather than requiring new content.  As such, these tactics squeeze into the "technically correct" definition of "thing to do once you've done it all."

One is the seasonal or irregular event, a lot of games do stuff that's only accessible at certain times of year, with one always corresponding to Christmas season somehow.  A new player therefore has to play for a full year before they can say they've done everything.  However, there still needs to be stuff for endgamers to do between events, otherwise players will leave for a few months and you have to hope they remember to come back for Life Day or whatnot.  There can also be non-seasonal limited-time events to fill in the gaps where there aren't major holidays, such as Double XP Weekends or "invasion" storylines where enemies spawn in places they aren't normally found, but it's hard to build enough unique content to always have some once-a-year thing going.

Rather rarer is the approach Elder Scrolls Online has taken, which was to make all PvE content scale with whatever the character's level is...if you go back to an earlier zone to do a mission you skipped, it's not boringly low level for you, it's still challenging.  Now, if you're deep enough into the endgame content, you'll probably still blow through this stuff pretty easily because you have super combo stuff built up, but it helps if you're still early in the endgame grind and want to do some things you haven't yet.  (Aside: not all lowbie content in ESO can be done later, you can't do the other factions' storylines, merely the side missions, delves, bosses, and so forth.)

Do It Again, But Harder - This is the replay model of solo games, but with the added feature of encouraging players to grind through other content in order to get good enough to beat the next harder level.  A lot of games have endgame dungeons and raids and the like which can be attempted at varying levels of one extreme I've seen, Secret World Legends has eleven levels of difficulty for many of the dungeon instances ("Story" mode, then Elite 1 through Elite 10).  So, once you've beaten Elite 3, you grind for better gear until you can beat Elite 4, etc.

This tends to change the nature of the game to the beatable model, though.  Because it's no longer about experiencing the storyline (it's the same every time, other than the boss doing slightly different and deadlier things), it's about whether you beat the dungeon, the raid, or the world boss.  So you play an open-ended game for a while, and then it turns into a set of closed-ended minigames for you to try to beat while you wait for the next content to drop.

No, not THAT PvP.
Player vs. Player (PvP) - Not all MMOs have PvP, especially not at launch, focusing instead on Player vs. Enemy (PvE, sometimes known as Player vs. Environment instead).  PvP seems simpler, but it's actually a lot harder, because you need to make sure it doesn't just become "newbies get ganked by one of three instant-win builds that otherwise play rock-paper-scissors against each other" crap.  And while there's certainly non-endgame PvP possibilities in a lot of games, it tends to end up being endgame content anyway, because no one wants to bring a lower level character into the meatgrinder.  Some games try to make PvP accessible at lower levels by making it a proxy battle where you play as a signature character rather than as your self (DCUO lets you do matches as actual DC characters), or by applying some sort of equalizing buff or debuff (City of Heroes would make everyone in a given PvP zone the same level, and would weaken a number of powers that were excessively effective in PvP), but the general rule of thumb is that characters at the level cap are going to have an advantage in PvP no matter what you do.

But if Do It Again, But Harder tends to change the nature of the game, PvP is really blatant about it.  It becomes "win the match," creating a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) with elements of the MMO stuck on it.  One thing I've seen over and over is that most players are either solely PvE or PvP with as little PvE as they can manage.  I think that's because the PvE players want an open-ended game, while the PvP players want a closed-ended game (and will only play enough storyline stuff to get the skills and gear they want for the PvP arenas).

About a third of my
City of Heroes roster
Do It Again, But Differently - Solo computer games with a lot of replay value tend to offer more than one way to play the game through, such as making the choice of character more than merely cosmetic, or having branching storylines where you can't just play everything through the first time.  MMOs do take a page from this book, at the very least offering a distinct difference between group and solo play, or between how a support class and a tanking class would experience the same storyline.  Rescuing Fusionette feels different on You're-Not-Hitting-Me-Hard-Enough Lad, who embraces all of the aggro she draws, than it does on Lurking Girl, who normally sneaks around and is very troubled by Fusionette's reckless behavior.  This does tend to overlap a little with "But Harder," since some options will be a lot harder than others, but in this case it's not that the mission itself has changed: just how you approach it.  It's player-driven rather than dev-driven.

City of Heroes was the absolute king of this sort of thing, especially once they removed the restriction that certain classes had to be heroes and others had to be villains.  Over a dozen classes, each with a broad array of power combos, meant that even by a conservative definition of "different experience," there were a lot of different ways to experience the same content.

Most games, though, are pretty limited in that respect.  Deviate too much from the expectations and the content becomes impossibly hard or boringly easy, and after three or four runs from creation through level cap you've pretty much done it all the meaningful ways it can be done.  You can get some variation by doing 16-player raids, where the interest and challenge come from all the ways your fellow players can screw up, but eventually you get experienced raid leaders who minimize even that variability.

That's a big part of why I've run through several MMOs in the same time it took me to not get bored with City of Heroes.  I ran out of different ways to play through the content, and wasn't interested in PvP or the escalating difficulty curve dungeon re-runs.

Player-Generated Content - This would seem to be the ideal way to keep things going.  Let players generate their own stories to keep each other interested in between the updates.  But aside from the "Architect Entertainment" (AE) system in City of Heroes, I really don't see it in MMOs.  Why not?

1) Huge technical hurdles.  Game design is hard on a purely procedural level, and designing an element inside the game that can itself design games is a recursive nightmare.  While ahead of its time, AE was still pretty limited in terms of the sorts of things players could do.  This may be changing, with the actual tools used by MMO designers getting more and more user-friendly, to the point that it might be possible to just let players use the same system the devs do, the long development cycle of MMOs means it's still going to be hard to find.

Okay, nothing on the original image
needed to be blurred, but you get the idea.
2) Huge legal hurdles.  Any time you give players the ability to create freely rather than picking from a menu, you have to dedicate at least some effort to clamping down on the idiots.  You can program the system to auto-reject certain character names, but it's a lot harder to implement that sort of automation on entire storylines.  For instance, every so often on City of Heroes, players would request the ability to upload their own chest symbols for costume which point, someone would explain that if they did this, half of the Freedom server would be running around with dicks drawn on their costumes.  Some segment of any playerbase is horrible, and while this usually expressed itself in AE in the form of XP farming scenarios, I'm sure the admin spent many a sleepless night making sure there weren't any villain-side adventures focused on raping Ms. Liberty.  In short, even if the technical issues get ironed out, you need to dedicate so many resources to preventing abuse of this kind of system that you probably could have used that money to put out twice as much official content.

Now, neither of these hurdles is insurmountable, especially if you're willing to place greater limits on player generated content.  One idea that might work is to require vetting of the creators: no one else (not even teammates) can see your stories until you sign a physical contract with the company in which you agree to conform to a code of conduct, grant non-exclusive license to anything you create, agree to not use any IP not belonging to the game company, etc.  You can play around with the code and see if you like the process, but if you want to actually publish adventures you need to sign on the dotted line.  By the time everything is made safe for the company, though, the amount of new content might not end up being enough to really make a dent in demand.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), long time online reviewer of comics, frequent skirter of IP theft rules on MMOs, occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.

Massively Multiplayer Observations Part 4 - The DLC Massively Multiplayer Observations Part 4 - The DLC Reviewed by Dvandom on Monday, January 01, 2018 Rating: 5
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