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MMO Weekly 30/06/09

30 Jun 2009  by   Paul Younger
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In part one of this two part series, Jeff Hollis discusses how to bring the long, slow and painful death to an MMO.  Using the most popular MMO available at the moment, Hollis draws comparisons to other, previously more successful, MMOs.

Hello there, my fellow gamebots, and welcome to the latest and greatest installment of MMO Weekly.  In this week’s article, we’re going to talk about everyone’s favorite MMO, World of Warcraft.  Specifically, we’re going to talk about how WoW is killing itself.

Yeah, that’s right, you heard me.  WoW is in the act of committing suicide, and Blizzard don’t even know it.  Now, before you get all huffy and angry with me (save that for later, you Blizzlovers, you), allow me to give you a bit of background.  And when I say background, I mean way, waaaaay back, to the games that inspired WoW in the first place, and to where these games went wrong.

First up: EverQuest.  EQ was a very, very good game.  You created a character (and they gave you a LOT of options), you formed PUGs, you went on adventures, and you delved some dungeons.  Of course, you got loot drops along the way, and your character ended up in some pretty sweet gear.  You did this for months, and when you finally reached the endgame, you did this some more.  This basic mechanic – get a group, clear a dungeon to reach a boss, kill that boss, and get some drops – was the thing that everyone found so utterly fun, so endlessly amazing, and they wanted to play EQ for years.

And that’s when the development team behind EverQuest got together and said, “Hey, guys, you know what would be a great idea?  What if we took this extremely successful, fun game, and then we changed the fundamental mechanic which makes it so much fun?  What if we change all the rules once people get to the endgame?  Wouldn’t that be just brilliant?”  And everyone on the team agreed that this would be a great idea.  And Brad McQuaid, developer-king of EverQuest, genius that he is, introduced the worst concept to ever plague an MMO: the raid.

A raid is basically a super-sized group, meant to explore a super-hard, super-long dungeon.  Instead of 5 or 6 people, a raid was comprised of forty people.   The idea is that if a group is fun, a big group raiding a big dungeon will be even more fun.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t work.  The problem is logistical: it’s hard to get 40 people to the same place at the same time, organise them into smaller groups, and then make sure there’s enough healing, nuking, tanking, etc in each group.  There also needs to be systems to handle loot drops, a waiting list when critical people drop out of the raid, and other considerations.  In EverQuest, it was all pretty darned complicated, and most people didn’t raid.  Sure, maybe they tried it once or twice, but it wasn’t fun.  It was work, and it took hours to complete a single raid.  Of course, a few guilds – really, very few – got into this concept, and they raided consistently.

There were several consequences to introducing raids to EQ.  1) Because of the epic gear that dropped in the raid dungeons, people in raid guilds became super-powered.  2) Raiders also achieved a kind of elevated status; if you needed a tank for your group, you’d naturally choose a tank in raid-quality gear over one in normal dungeon gear.  That super tank would almost ensure the success of your group, no matter what bosses your group was trying to beat.  3) People no longer enjoyed their hard-won dungeon gear; it had become second rate the moment raid gear was introduced into the game. 4) As a result of point 3, running a dungeon suddenly became a lot less fun than it used to be.  Essentially, you formed a group and cleared a dungeon and killed a boss, and your reward (when compared to raid loot) was some bland, mediocre gear.  Whoopie.
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McQuaid and his buddies never realised that raid content was wrecking their game, and they continued making more and more raid content.  Did they make more dungeons, too?  Yeah, but for every dungeon they introduced, they introduced more raid content, making that dungeon pale and undesirable by comparison.   

I was once told by an MMO developer that they had studied raids in other MMOs, and that they had discovered something extremely odd.  More than 95 percent of all players in a given MMO never, ever experience a given piece of raid content.  Less than five percent of players did.  So, in essence, MMO developers spend months designing raids that only the most elite, hardcore players will ever see.  “And what about all those other players,” I hear you asking, “the more ordinary, casual ones?”  The developers’ answer appeared to be, “Go away, kid, I’m busy designing this cool raid where the players kill a demigod and get cool loot.  It’s epic!”

Allow me, at this juncture, to shift gears a moment, and talk about the other game upon which WoW is based.  That game is Dark Age of Camelot.  DAoC follows the same mechanic as its predecessor, EverQuest.  Form a group, clear out a dungeon, kill a boss, and get some cool loot.  And, like EQ, when players reached the endgame, the developers decided to change all the rules, and do something completely different from the fun stuff that made everyone enjoy the game so much.  DAoC introduced the Realm versus Realm (RvR) combat on predetermined battlegrounds (BGs).  However, the setup essentially required you to form large, organised groups to do this successfully.  So, RvR was essentially a raid in which you killed other players on a battleground, instead of a boss in a dungeon.  If you were good at this new kind of PvP raid, and were willing to do it for hours on end, you unlocked new talents and abilities.

Now, the battlegrounds weren’t as bad as raids.  You didn’t have to get 40 people together, you could just form ordinary groups to fight in the battlegrounds.  But the battlegrounds were unbalanced.  You could show up with eight guys, and the other team would have 50.  People began to form strategies based on this.  Entire guilds would log on at 0300hrs to attempt to take battleground fortresses, knowing that no one would be on to defend them.  

Again, this whole system pretty much screwed the casual player.  Sure, you could jump into a battleground every now and then, play for a while, and then log out.  But the people who were super-hardcore about it – who joined a psychotic guild willing to wake up at 3am to win a temporary BG victory – gained more PvP experience, and unlocked more abilities faster than you could ever hope for.  They became much tougher, much stronger, much more powerful than the ordinary player.  If you weren’t part of a hardcore RvR guild, and you weren’t willing to sacrifice hour after hour doing this, you were pretty much out of luck.  The overwhelming majority of players never played that much RvR; only a small minority of folks participated at that level.  

Like EQ, there were consequences for this emphasis on RvR.  Hardcore RvR players had lots of extra abilities, could take more damage, dish out more, and were simply better than ordinary players.  They became super-powerful, and achieved a kind of elevated, preferred status.  The people that continued to clear dungeons and defeat bosses couldn’t really compete, and became second-class citizens in a game they loved.

So let me ask you, my fellow gamer, the fundamental question that these two examples bring to mind:  why did the developers of these two influential MMOs change the basic mechanic of the game when people reached the level cap?  Why did they get away from a style of play (Form a group-Clear a dungeon-Kill a boss-Get some loot) that goes back all the way to Dungeons and Dragons?  Why?  
There is no clear answer.  Both games, as influential as they were, lost their way when players reached the endgame.  When all the bosses had been defeated, players became bored.  And since the average player enjoyed, and wanted, dungeons and boss encounters more than anything else, the developers repeatedly gave them…more raids and more RvR.   

In part 2 of  “The Long, Slow Suicide of World of Warcraft”, I’ll discuss how these decisions by developers left players disillusioned by both EQ and DAoC, and made those games vulnerable the moment a new MMO came along.  In addition, I’ll discuss how WoW is doing the exact same thing.       

On that note, I must leave you until next week.  Ciao for now!

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