Content and Accessibility

Today I read Tobold (http://tobolds.blogspot.com/2011/06/syncaine-on-accessibility.html) and Syncaine (http://syncaine.com/2011/06/16/accessibility-killed-rift/) talking about accessibility in MMOs. It’s a neat series of reads on both sides of the issue, and I feel like they’re both touching on a big issue in MMO development that’s been going on basically since WoW brought in a massive influx of new players (thanks to being highly accessible, even in Vanilla) – not enough content.

It has nothing to do with how ‘casual’ or ‘hardcore’ or ‘accessible’ the content is, and everything to do with whether or not the existing content in the game satisfies the demands of the various players. WoW only has one content path. You level, you do dungeons, you do heroic dungeons, you do raids, you do heroic raids. These five experiences are different in a lot of ways; the number of players you have being the most obvious one, but the approach to playing and the kind of players each pursuit attracts is quite different. However, it’s a linear path. Syncaine hits the nail on the head in his post when it mentions that players are satisfied and at their best when they have content to play that challenges them and can look forward to more content ahead of them. It’s an idea spread out across quite a bit of the argument, but to me it’s the underlying thread that separates him from the usual “games should be harder” hardcore crowd.

Something for Everyone

In most of the major MMO releases, including both the successful and the unsuccessful, there’s a single, brutally defined and linear path of content. You level until you can do small-group content, you do small group content and level until you reach max level, you do max-level dungeons, and then you raid. When you have exhausted one of the pre-raid forms of content, you’re done with it; you will rarely if ever see more of that content that’s meaningful to you.

I have a theory about MMO content: If you, as a development studio, had an infinite amount of time and resources to create an endless stream of content for every type of player, you would see a few paths that were highly favored. You’d see solo content, small group (4-6 players), small raid (10-15 players), and massive raid (50-100+ players) standing far and away ahead of the rest as favored types of content. WoW proved that 25-man content was more popular than 40-man content, and furthermore that 10 was at least as popular if not more popular than 25-man. The inevitable argument is that it’s easier to put together the smaller groups, so they’re naturally more popular, which I absolutely agree with. People are more inclined to play when playing is less onerous, and more inclined to do content when the barrier to entry is low. Accessibility is one thing—but accessibility need not mean “easy”, which is the mistake both Tobold and Syncaine point out in their articles.

Imagine if an MMO devotedly created endgame content for the solo player, the small group player, and the raider simultaneously, where you could realistically progress your character via any of those means without being forced to do the others. “Yeah, that’d be great, Ariad, but it’s totally unreasonable—WoW can barely keep up with player progression through content NOW, much less if they supported three or more different paths.” I can hear you thinking it.

Doing the Impossible

Looking at the way WoW and Rift and other MMOs are built, it’s really easy to scoff at the idea of continual content for everyone. Let’s look at the accessibility issue from a fresh slate, though, throw out everything we know about MMO progression, and break the problem down into parts.

1.) We should have enough content for the solo player, the small group player, and the raider to feel satisfied.

2.) We need to be able to expand all of those lines of content in a way that makes sense.

3.) We want content that is challenging to people at various skill levels, without artificial-feeling “modes”.

4.) We need to be able to build all of this without breaking the bank in terms of time or resources.

One of the things that takes a massive amount of time in the production of an MMO is the leveling process. It takes more time than any other form of content, arguably all other forms of content combined. Given this, it should come as no surprise that things suddenly change when players are finished with the leveling process—it’s basically impossible to keep up, especially because players are trained to burn through “leveling” as fast as possible.

So, let’s remove it.

An MMO Without Levels

Defining what content is available by levels causes a number of problems. For players who enjoy the soloing game, when they hit max level the game is functionally over for them—they have no reason to keep playing because the content that they enjoy is now over. They can roll a new character, but a lot of times, the new character is going to be playing through the same content. Not exactly ideal. For players who enjoy raiding, nothing before hitting max level is meaningful in the slightest—they care about raiding and are forced to slog through content for quite some time (days? weeks? months?) before getting to the content they want to play.

Why not cut out the concept of levels entirely, and let people do what they like best immediately upon playing? A short tutorial area may be helpful, but from a development standpoint you’re creating content that’s relevant for every player in your game, theoretically, and this content can be tuned to be quite difficult, because there are *always* alternatives (because you’ve spent the entire leveling-process budget on content that people find useful at max level). Without the artificial constraints of level, advancement becomes a question of resources (money), gear, and unlocked skills and abilities, all of which can be safely unhooked from something like levels. An established raiding guild can start the game and immediately start raiding, with content that’s meaningful to them and worth their while, without any of the intermediate content that they have no interest in.

The nice thing about a setup like this is that you can tune your content to be as difficult as you like—players are always accomplishing something meaningful so making your leveling content easy (so that raiders can get to raid content) or your raiding content easy (so that players who have finished leveling and need something to do don’t get crushed by hard raid content that they aren’t interested in) is entirely unnecessary—players can find the challenges best suited to their skills, without an artificial enforced hierarchy determining what they can and can’t do, and without a need to homogenize difficulty so that people with differing interests can all play.

You don’t need to make raid content for non-raiders, or leveling content for people who hate leveling. Instead, you just have content, and players play what they like.

2 thoughts on “Content and Accessibility

  1. It’s certainly a very real concern. From a pure “success” standpoint, most MMOs don’t need anywhere near as many subscribers as many people suspect, so playing conservatively isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

    That being said, I think there’s a very real possibility that MMOs are going to see that the existing model isn’t going to work the way they expect, because copying WoW isn’t going to suffice. There will probably be another generation or so of WoW-style MMOs, but look at the speed with which people are reaching max level and exhausting all of the content in a new MMO.

    In Everquest, this was a process that took months or years. In WoW, it was months, now we’re down to days or in some cases even hours. Players snapping up content that quickly rapidly makes WoW-style MMOs not profitable– if your most dedicated players are completing all or most of the content in the game before their free month is up, you’re not going to see subscribers for long.

    I don’t think that you’re going to see innovation like what I describe en masse, but I also don’t think the Next Big Thing is going to be a WoW-clone any more than WoW was a straight EQ clone, unless WoW shoots itself grievously in the foot sometime soon.

  2. Mu husband said this would be the way to go a couple years ago – but devs aren’t going to do anything that won’t automatically make money. It’s an ideal that sounds excellent to those of us suffering from MMO ennui — but after the deep and long-lasting success of WoW I highly doubt that any game company is going to be able to turn away from the money they can possibly make by copying WoW. There are suits that make sure that innovation like that doesn’t hurt their bottom line.

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