The Content Sweet Spot

I haven’t written in this blog in a while and I won’t lie, it’s because I’m mostly out of ideas. Every now and then something will pop into my head and I’ll think to myself, “I should blog about that.” but unfortunately I’m likely in the line at the grocery store or at the bank and immediately forget. It’s very hard for me to focus on what kinds of paninis I want and video games at the same time, apparently.

Plus there are bloggers who are more cleverer than I am and post with some form of regularity. So I’ll be browsing, see something and go: “OH MY GOD. That person took my idea! From…inside my head…where it was a nebulous unformed thought in haiku form, occupying space between panini cravings and tax calculations.” Then I realize how dumb I am and how much better the idea sounds coming from someone else.

So MMO games are in a distinct and somewhat unique position where they must consistently update their content to maintain their playerbase. Compared to a console game that may have one or two DLCs or a sequel, an MMO has to release regularly to draw people in and keep them there. You’re not gonna keep going in for that bosomy hug from your auntie MMO unless she keeps candy in her house to incentive visiting. And not that crappy licorice candy. The good stuff! Otherwise the unpleasantness of sitting on the couch listening to stories about Gladys down at the church is just not worth it.

MMOs tend to struggle with the “how much content is the right amount” paradox. Too little content is bad, and too much content is bad. Too little content is obviously bad, but not for the reasons you’d expect. And how can too much content be bad? Let me put it in the form of a real-life analogy.

Raise your hand if you have, or have had a job for a long period of time.

Ha ha. I got you to raise your hand. You’re sitting at a computer desk, fool.

Anyway, so you’ve worked a job. A career, perhaps. Either way, you know what it is to experience the daily grind at work.

Think back to days where it’s slow, and you have next to nothing to do. No calls or orders are coming in so you’re sitting in the kitchen flinging tomatoes into the sink. Or you’re in an office just lazily browsing the internet. Or maybe you’re a real go-getter and begging your boss for something to do. Either way, you don’t have much to do. You’re bored.

So now a call comes in. It’s part of your job to take calls, but by now you’re so used to doing nothing that day that this one, single call after 3 hours of silence annoys you. It almost doesn’t seem worth your time to answer. You’re right in the middle of a killer minesweeper game that ABSOLUTELY cannot wait. Or you’re in the kitchen and someone finally comes in to have a late lunch and now you have to get off your panini and help. What a pain, right? You’re so  used to being bored and not doing work that now you don’t want to do what you came there to do. What you normally do every other day, even. So you flip the phone to work or make yourself look busy cutting onions so nobody makes you do it. Whereas any other day you would have just done the work because it’s your job and what you know you’re supposed to do.

doldrums

How does this apply to MMOs? Well, if there’s so little to do that you’re bored – when a small amount of content is added you fall into that same issue that you did at work and start making up excuses not to do it.

“It’s just ONE customer. I don’t want to get up for that.”

or rather: “It’s just ONE new reputation to grind. I don’t want to log in for that.”

Part of it is laziness. Part of it is being so used to not doing anything that having to log in and put effort towards something that seems so small just does not seem worth the time. Even though it’s content you might have enjoyed otherwise!

So that’s the danger of small content releases. Are players really going to think it’s worth getting off their duff to log in and fuss with a new hair style for their character? Especially now that they’ve spent months not playing? Boredom breeds boredom breeds BOREDOM. And it’s hard to break people out of those doldrums unless you have something really impressive to give them. One “customer” patch release isn’t going to do it. But if you suddenly have a line of “customers” around the block, people are going to be motivated to get back in there and work again.

So now the other issue – TOO MUCH content. What could POSSIBLY be bad about too much content?

Well, let’s go back to our work analogy. You’re at work today and it is just a humdinger of a day. Customers are walking in or calling constantly. Your email is blowing up and you think you just heard one of your coworkers crack under the pressure and run screaming from the building.

There is SO much work to do that there is no possible way you are going to get it done that day. Even if you work overtime, there are only so many hours in a day. Some of your coworkers are cool with letting it pile up and just working on it throughout the week – but you have just GOT to get it done so that you don’t get behind. My God, another email just came in. IT’S JUST TOO MUCH! You haven’t peed in like, 12 hours, because you are just so darned FOCUSED on getting to EVERYTHING.

Now you’re stressed. Every new customer, call, or email is another drop to an already overflowing glass and that annoys you because you want to do it all immediately. Oh, what’s that? Management wants to have a 3 hour meeting today too? SON OF A-

At the end of the day you go to bed unfulfilled. You know you tried your hardest to get it all done, but the nagging neurotic part of your brain just keeps whispering, “Yoooou’re beeeehiiiind.” until you fall into a dreamless sleep 10 minutes before your alarm goes off.

No amount of budgeting your time prepares you for these overload days. All you can do is ride it out until things get back into their more even pace.

In relation to MMOs – this is the HELLA ENORMOUS CONTENT PATCH or perhaps the BRAND NEW SHINY EXPANSION that drops. There is SO MUCH TO DO. You want to do ALL of it! But…now there’s just so much! You want to raid and you want to do achievements but you also want to do this outdoor content with your guild but DAILIES AND REPUTATION WON’T WAIT  and oh my God where are you going to find the time for this? And oh no, they just released ANOTHER content patch and there’s even more?! BUT YOU’RE SO BEHIND NOW. And what about your alts?!

Now you have stuff to do and you’re logging in, but it’s just too much to take in while it’s current. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being left behind because they’re not able to put in 4-6 hours of work a day.

So this. This is the conundrum. When is it too much, or too little content for an MMO playerbase to handle? You don’t want people feeling like they’re under pressure to put in too much effort but you also don’t want to leave people bored.

For example: remember the original dailies when Mists of Pandaria launched? That is a prime example of “too much.” You can tell your players to sloooow doooown and not gobble up the content, but that’s like yelling “NO STOP!” at a tornado. There are always going to be some people who want to do as much as they can or they will feel like they are being left behind. Also, telling players to essentially slow down with PLAYING a game is a terrible idea. It’s a GAME. They are SUPPOSED to be playing it. There is no such thing as consuming content too quickly because they’re still PLAYING the content. But there is such a thing as overloading the content to make both playing more and playing less not as appealing. That’s bad.

Now the latest Tanaan patch in WoW is a prime example of “too little.” Raid instances aside. (As they’ve always kind of existed on their own plane of content.) Tanaan jungle as a content zone had very little actual meat to it. You are asking your already bored players who have had nothing to do to log in and do maybe 20 minutes worth of new stuff a few times a week. Are they going to put down what they’ve been doing to relieve boredom in the meantime, or are they just going to feel annoyed at the idea of logging in to do next to nothing? My twitter feed gives me a pretty sound answer to that. And the answer is FFXIV.

So where is the content sweet spot? In this Gloria’s opinion, it’s in steady medium content releases at a regular, expected schedule. Preferably two to three months apart. Releases that players can set their watch to and that have enough meat to make playing worth it. But not so much that it becomes overwhelming.

The problem is that it’s much easier for me to sit and type up a blog entry about releases than it is for companies to actually make and schedule them. So far, no MMOs have really hit on that sweet spot that would generate a more reliable subscription or playerbase. And it’s understandable – it’s a hard thing to do. So for now, the sweet spot remains a fleeting dream in the eyes of a weary MMO world.

5 Outdated MMO Tropes That Need to Go!

MMOs are a growing and evolving genre. It’s amazing to see how well they’ve progressed in the last couple of decades. And yet, despite all the growth there are still some nagging issues built into the core idea of what an MMO “should” have. MMORPGs tend to build on the ideas of games that came before, but unfortunately sometimes that means they take the negatives along for the ride.

I wanted to write a short list of some of these features that have aged so poorly, I feel it’s about time they be retired.Some of these can be attributed to insufficient coding abilities – which I think is less of an excuse than it was 5 years ago. Others can be attributed to just plain developer stubbornness, which is ridiculous given the growing scope of the MMO playerbase. Anyway, I can’t think of a good segue so…on to the list!

1) Factions.

I HATE UOkay, I wanted to get what I figured would be the most controversial item out of the way immediately. Why do I think factions are a waste in the modern game-scape? Let me put it this way…

If a player downloads your MMO and their first thought is: “Gosh, I really want to play with my friends, but I also really want to play the race I like the most. Since they’re on opposite factions, I guess I have to choose.”

Then that is a failure right off the bat. Playing with friends, or playing a character you feel you can most identify with and potentially enjoy longer. Hmm. See the problem here? There are several inherent issues with factions but this is the biggest one. Anyone who has experienced that indecision and sadness when first playing a factional MMO can tell you how much this kind of choice sucks.

“But Gloria, factions add another layer of storyline and content!”

Actually – I would argue that they don’t. Factional content in MMOs is usually relegated to the EXACT SAME kill/fetch/gather quests on BOTH sides. It’s the same mechanics, just with a different bit of flavor text added. You’re still killing the same bosses in dungeons, you’re still exploring the same zones with the same quests. It’s all EXACTLY the same with the exception of the storyline blurbs. And it NEEDS to be exactly the same because both sides have got to maintain balance, otherwise you end up with accusations of favoritism.

Imagine if the time spent essentially copying quests for both factions in the same zone went into building a second brand new zone instead? Or a new dungeon? And you could experience it with all your friends. In fact, you’d have more access to these dungeons because an entire half of the playerbase isn’t arbitrarily blocked off from you. That means lower dungeon finder queue times.

Factions initially were a way of extending samey-content to give the game an illusion of having more depth. After years of this, I really think factions do more harm than good and any time a new MMO uses factions as a feature, I immediately drop it a peg lower on my, “I GOTTA BUY DIS!” list.

2) Ownership/Tagging Quest Mobs

WELPLet’s all fight over the same 6 spawned monsters in a starting zone at the launch of an expansion or game. Boy that sounds really fun. That’s how I want to remember my first foray into a new world. Oh and that guy who runs up and taps all of them only to just AOE each and every mob down before you can get there? That is a cool guy. Yep.

I guess I don’t really understand the point of mob “ownership.” If people are in the area, it’s reasonable to assume that everyone is trying to get the quests done. Pitting people against each other in a race to be first for what is inherently a grind just adds a layer of unnecessary frustration.

“But people will take advantage of it!”

Look, if I’m killing a quest mob and Johnny Q Magey comes up and hits it with his wand just to get credit and then afks while I do the brunt of the work…I don’t care! Because I’m still getting my quest credit! *throws confetti*

3) Lack of body shape options.

THREE WHOLE OPTIONS?!In this the year of our lord after the year of Luigi 2014 we are still experiencing MMOs that have a single body option for male and female characters. And in most cases your options are generic thin lady and hulking manbeast. Above all else I find this sad. Customization for a character can truly make it identifiable for the person playing it.

There’s nothing wrong with “pretty” models – or even the ones that are super boobalicious. What IS wrong is the lack of choice given to players. Even Nintendo Miis can have their body shapes customized – and the most you use those for are streetpasses, let alone diving into an immersive role playing game.

What’s even worse is that in a lot of these games, the NPCs have a wide range of body types. You value your NPCs enough to give them variety but you don’t value your playerbase enough to give them that same option? Come on.

4) Expansions for subscription-based games.

And you'll pay it, too.Okay, I knew this would be the other controversial one. Allow me to explain my reasoning –

If I am paying a subscription fee each month, I know that I am paying to access content. In order for me to keep my fee active, I need a steady stream of content. In my years playing MMOs I’ve found that the idea of expansions stunts the flow of content rather than improves it. You wait and wait and wait and then this huge pile of new stuff falls right into your lap for you to rush into and enjoy.

Instead of having points of small content releases like patches and then dumping a HUGE BUNDLE O’NEW’SHIT on people in the form of expansions, subscription MMOs would do better to simply stagger medium content patches throughout the lifecycle of the game. A steady stream of new content is better than nothing…nothing…nothing..LOTS OF SOMETHINGS! ESPECIALLY when people are paying MONTHLY for said content.

You cannot dump a ginormous single content patch on people and say, “Now now, this needs to last for a while so don’t go experiencing it all at once!” because…hello? Have you ever met humanity? That’s not how our species works. Even worse is dumping said large content and then gating it off just outside of reach until a designated amount of time has passed.

Spread that content out – like a nice even coating of peanut butter on PB&J. That way you don’t have people who swallow entire mouthfuls and get sick of the taste.

5) Linear leveling.

neeeiiigghhhhWhat I mean by linear leveling is essentially when your character is dropped from starting zone A to questing zone B. You then quest through B and go to questing zone C. From there it’s off to D, E, F and so on and so forth until you’ve reached level cap. Zones are usually relegated to character level. So if you’re level 4 you’re gonna stick to the level 1-5 zone because it’s a killing field anywhere else.

This means that from level 1 to whatever, our characters are put on a little quest train that follows the quest tracks and gives them a safe and properly organized tour of the leveling content. Wee.

A necessity borne from the days of coding restrictions – this is something that needs to GOOO AWAAAAYYYY. Especially with the new scaling technology most MMOs have available.

Imagine your fresh-off-the-docks lowbie arrives on a new continent and it’s time to level. And what’s this? EVERY zone is available to you because the mobs are going to scale to your level when you get there! So where do you want to go first? WHO KNOWS! The exploration potential is unlimited!

“But Gloria, how would this work with the removal of mob tagging?”

“…shut up.”

Anyway, enough prattling from me. Obviously these are just thoughts I had bouncing around in my head.  Aaand I can’t think of a way to end this soooo. Bye!