Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dimensions of massively multiplayer games

In this post I would like to talk about massively multiplayer online roleplaying games in terms of their length, depth, and breadth. I want to define these terms of the dimensions of a MMORPGs, and explain their importance when reviewing a game. And, to spice things up, I'll then go off on a tangent and rant about the Wrath of the Lich King, the second expansion of World of Warcraft just announced last weekend.

The length of a MMORPG is probably the dimension that is most often discussed. How long does it take you from starting the game to reaching a more or less well-defined end-point, like the level cap, or the point where you are completely geared up with epics. If a game is too short, you'll "finish" it too fast and move on. If a game is too long, you get stuck for weeks in the same level, until you finally give up. The ideal length is defined by the attention span of you average player. In my opinion the original World of Warcraft got very close to the ideal length, at least for my needs. I had never reached the level cap of really long games like Everquest, and after having played MMORPGs for years, WoW was the first in which I reached the level cap. But other approaches are possible. Guild Wars for example is deliberately short, having only 20 levels, so people can concentrate on the PvP end game.

The depth of a MMORPG is harder to grasp, it is more of a gut feeling than a measurable thing. Most players just call it the "fun". I would define depth as the tactical depth of encounters, how many different viable options I have to do things. Or to cite my favorite game quote again: "A good game is a series of interesting decisions. The decisions must be both frequent and meaningful." — Sid Meier. Depth describes how interesting and meaningful the decisions are. In reviewing depth is often the first dimension we see, because the length and breadth of a game take much much time to explore. But whether for example a combat in a MMORPG is "fun" and interesting, or a boring, repetitive mashing of always the same button is quickly found out.

The breadth of a MMORPG is about it's replayability. At any given level, how much choice of content do you have? If you reached the level cap with your first character and want to play a second one, would he go through the same content again, or would you experience a completely different series of quests, zones, and mobs? This is a dimension in which the original World of Warcraft was really, really strong as well as games like runescape. WoW initially had *six* completely different newbie zones, while many other games have just one or two. And sometimes developers "cheat", offering several newbie zones, but doing a lot of copying and pasting of quests and mobs, thus only creating an illusion of choice.

The complete shape of a MMORPG is a curious one, because the depth and breadth often change over the length. A MMORPG is not a rectangular box (cuboid). For example very often at low levels the depth of the game is less, you start out with only one or two spells or abilities, and then learn more over the length of the game. The breadth can also vary a lot. Very frequently a game gets released with sufficient low level content, and has less and less breadth towards the higher levels. Lord of the Rings Online is a typical example of that. The original World of Warcraft had a lot of low level content and less mid- and high-level content too. But curiously the patches and the first expansion added both low- and high-level content, while not adding much in the middle, giving the game a really strange shape now. There are tons of quests and content level 1 to 20 with the now eight newbie zones, then it gets thinner in the 20 to 50 region, but then there are again tons of things to do between level 50 and 70.

Now if you are a game developer and plan an expansion, you have to see to which dimension you want to add of that shape. Depth is the most difficult, but for example the introduction of slotted weapons and armor in the Burning Crusade added to the depth of the game, if only at the higher levels. Adding either length or breadth is a design choice. And this is where the rant part comes in. Burning Crusade already added to the length of WoW, while adding breadth only in the level 1 to 20 part. So why on earth is Wrath of the Lich King just adding length?

Now of course there is part of the player population that are at the level cap, and who don't plan to ever play anything else but their current main character. And those players of course will like the added length. But the numbers of World of Warcraft having "9 million subscribers" hide the fact that this isn't the same 9 million people all the time. World of Warcraft is still selling very well in the shops, so the pretty much constant number of players we've seen over the last year means that there are as many people joining the game as there are leaving. Besides all those new players, there are many existing players starting alts all the time. So for everybody starting or restarting at level 1 we have to ask ourselves whether World of Warcraft isn't approaching the point where it gets *too* long. People who wanted to make an Alliance shaman or Horde paladin for raiding were already complaining how long that took to get to the level cap again. And on the "black market" of World of Warcraft you see more and more offers for powerleveling. If someone pays somebody else hundreds of dollars to skip part of the length of a game, something is wrong with the design. If after leveling your main to 80 in Wrath of the Lich King you get bored with the level 80 end game, or your guild really, really needs a priest, the decision to level up an alt is getting less and less attractive.

And it is not only the increasing length that puts people off from making alts, it is also the lack of breadth in certain levels. How many people made a Draenei or Blood Elf, but then stopped playing it after level 20 when the new Burning Crusade content ran out? Nobody wants to do Stranglethorn Vale quests again. There are areas where World of Warcraft has deficits, and the Wrath of the Lich King expansion fails to address those. A new continent with level 1 to 60, or even 20 to 60 content would have fixed problems in areas where WoW is lacking breadth.

Wrath of the Lich King shows that World of Warcraft is on a trajectory which simply isn't sustainable. You can't just make the game 10 levels longer with every expansion and ignore the other dimensions. Sooner or later you get two separate populations, one of veterans at the highest levels, and one of new players and alts at the lower levels, unable to catch up. Do we really want to have the level cap raised to 150 in the year 2015?

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