Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Coming late to the party

Several people commented on my recent Everquest 2 posts that yes, the game had improved since release, but starting it now wasn't so enjoyable because there were so few people playing in the low- and mid-level zones. Meanwhile my wife reached level 30 with her umpteenth alt in World of Warcraft, and is complaining that there are no mid-level items or potions to be found in the auction house. I begin to see a pattern here.

People sometimes say that MMORPGs are static. You slay the dragon, rescue the princess, and ten minutes later the dragon respawned and some other player has to rescue the same damn princess all over again. Patches and expansion sets fix bugs and add new content, but very rarely change the old content. My very first WoW character was a dwarven priest, in the September 2004 stress-test beta. His first quest was about killing some wolves, which gained him some gloves (if I remember correctly) as reward. If some new player started WoW today and made a dwarf, his first quest would be exactly the same, giving exactly the same reward. Content is more or less static.

But what changes is the player population. As I reported back then I also made a human character on the first day of the beta, and had problems doing a quest to kill kobold workers for the simple reason that every kobold worker spawn point was camped by half a dozen other players. Create a human level 1 character today, and you might find yourself all alone in that newbie zone, with plenty of kobold workers to chose from. On day 1 of a server everybody is level 1. After nearly 3 years of WoW, most players are at the level cap, and the new players and alts are stretched thinly over the other now 69 levels. Every expansion raising the level cap will stretch the lower levels even thinner. And of course it can make old content obsolete. Scholomance is still there, unchanged, but as there are much better alternatives now for getting level 60 loot than a Scholomance group, the place is deserted.

Thus although the content is static, the dynamic changes in the population change the player experience of a game. Playing your first EQ2 or WoW character now is not the same as it was playing him nearly 3 years ago, even if you would visit only content that hasn't changed since then. Finding a group at lower levels has become much more difficult, and the economy of the auction house has fundamentally changed. Joining a guild of people who know each other for years isn't the same as joining a freshly founded guild in which everybody is new to the game. That affects some people more than others. If you are a lone wolf by nature and play those games like a single-player game anyway, you might actually be happy to have so much of the content for yourself nowadays. But if you are a more social gamer, and like to group, a 3-year old game might already be way past it's prime for you. And it affects some games more than others. A more solo-friendly game survives aging better than a game in which you need a group for everything.

The original Everquest is eight and a half years old now, and chances are that it will reach it's tenth birthday. World of Warcraft will certainly survive ten years too. Even the much smaller Lord of the Rings Online might well make it for ten years. But will any of these games survive 20 years? Only in a museum or on some nostalgians private server, I'd guess. Apart from technical problems, like how to run WoW on Windows 2024, or the development of computer graphics until then, there is simply no way to have a community survive that long. The model in which MMORPGs add new content in every patch and every expansion simply collapses under it's own weight. Can you imagine WoW with 200 levels and 15 continents? How are you going to have veterans and newbies form a coherent community in such a game?

What will happen with all of these games is that the inflow of new players will slow down from year to year. Some veterans will stay on for a long time, others will leave, with every new big game provoking some kind of exodus. The game company keeps running the game as a cash cow, because all of the development cost have long since been paid, and the running costs are low. Servers will be merged. At some point the addition of new content is slowing down, then halts completely. And then some day there will be an announcement that the game will be shut down. Meanwhile the book Lord of the Rings is over 50 years old, and the brand is still going strong. Some media have a longer lifespan than others.

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