Friday, June 17, 2011

Too much stuff to do

Rift, it seems, is starting to lose its lustre.  It was, like nearly every other MMO in the past 6 years, touted as the WOW killer and by far it seems to be the one that came the closest.  It has less than 10% of the subscribers of WOW of course so it isn't like it really had a chance but a very large chunk of that has to be due to the fact that just like Facebook people play WOW because their friends are already there.  Just because WOW is the biggest is plenty of reason to play it because you are likely to find people you know already there and being social is a huge component of the game.

One of the big things that lots of people yelled about on the forums when Rift was new was the tremendous speed of development.  New patches came out very rapidly and if I understand it right (not having actually played the game myself) there have been 3 major content patches in as many months - a release schedule drastically more rapid than the one WOW players are used to.  It has been regularly noted that Blizzard pays out enormous sums to Activision shareholders and notes that the money simply could not be put back into the game in any useful fashion.  Players complained about this because although everybody knows that if you double your production budget you don't get double the content you still get a lot more content than you had before.  It is clear that since a new company with a new game managed to put out a lot of patches that Blizzard could do the same if they wanted to since they have access to truly stupendous funding so we are left wondering why they do not.

I think we have the answer now.  Rift players are complaining that in fact the pace of new content is *too fast*.  They feel like there is no point in grinding out a dungeon when the next dungeon is going to come out in two weeks with better loot and harder challenges.  The gear grind in MMOs is a strange beast and no one can argue that it is hugely, though obviously not solely, responsible for people raiding.  Everyone wants to have the best gear and twink out their character to the max and for many people those rewards are the reason to raid.  The trouble with very rapid patching and new content is that everyone knows that their hard earned rewards will be obsoleted right away and they feel like the effort involved is simply not warranted.  This can be countered by making the content very easy such that people can get their rewards quickly but then the people that play for challenge get bored and the rewards themselves lose their shine because they were so easy to acquire.  People value that which they worked hard to acquire much higher than that which was given easily and this seems to be a powerful moving force in MMO design.  Players evidently need a certain amount of time to bask in the glory of their acquisitions before they are ready for new challenges and new goals and if forums and bloggers are to be believed Rift has gone too far in the rapid production direction and is losing a lot of players as a result.

Of course no matter what schedule a company picks lots of people are going to be bitter about it.  Companies need to figure out what the bulk of their playerbase wants and try to cater to that.  Given the relatively long life and immense success of WOW I think we can safely say that Blizzard did pretty well overall; they have made their share of big blunders for sure but there are so many people that have raided for so long they must be doing something right.  We could avoid this whole argument by losing the gear grind level cap style of fantasy MMO for some other design but I have no idea what the next big thing will be - somebody will eventually break that mold but for now every new fantasy MMO game pretty much follows in WOW's very large footprints.

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