Monday, February 22, 2016

Did SWG have a built in Maximum subscription time?

Well if it did, it was unintentional.

My answer is though that it did and did not have a built in subscription time.

For those players who really enjoyed being an Entertainer, Politician, Crafter, Merchant, Resource Gatherer or PvPer there really was no built in or predictable end to these gameplay activities other than players deciding to move along and stop playing. In these game aspects it is possible to define what the parameters would be for player satisfaction and dis-satisfaction but there is little that a game developer can do to change how these affect when a player leaves since that is governed more by an individuals personality than game content or mechanics.

Now for the combat characters that do not do any of these things, there is a predictable maximum subscription time. The only thing outside of the game developer's control that lengthens this maximum time is people staying subscribed to stay in touch with people that they know only through game. In this situation the game simply becomes a specialized form of twitter.

Outside of this you have the original definition of end game being the end of when players have a reason to play.

For SWG, and most games, this is when players have their character to full template and have done all of the PvE content that is in game. At this point, unless there is a social aspect to stay, there is very little for players to do and often they leave the game until something new is added.

It was widely publicized before SWG was released and in the early days that players were expected to get together and come up with things to do that were not added to the game by developers. I guess that they expected that in groups of players someone would step up and be like a table top RPG Gamemaster. This certainly would lower development costs. The problem is that most that tried to do this quickly discovered that there was very little in the ways of tools to allow them to be very imaginative. They also had to deal with the fact that they were not the only players. For example, without instancing the Gamemaster could never be sure that at the end of a days adventure that Akva Min would be at her spot when the adventurers arrived or that someone would not come in and kill her while they were there.

So while lots of people who want to keep SWG as true to Publish 14.1 as possible, many also understand that without a better way to create player content by players or more developer generated content players would run out of things to do. When this happened the question for players started becoming more and more about when they would take a break from the game. Then when they are on break it was now if and when they should return. Very often without something new being added to the game fairly quickly the time when players returned became never.

Even the SWG developers understood this and did plan expansions and free content additions to the game. Some came to be like the RotW and ToOW paid expansions and others like the capital city elections in Theed and Coronet never happened. The reality is that in the end the Developers of SWG eventually understood what was needed, but were never able to take their ideas to the maximum benefit. This is something that SWGEmu based servers will have to deal with if they want to retain populations. In fact since SWGEmu servers must be F2P it will be harder to keep players. With subscription games people, even when on break, will always look to the fact that they have $xx invested in the game and will be more reluctant to stop playing and more likely to return for new content. In a F2P there is often little or no money invested and only time. If people felt that their time in game was fun, then they got out of the game and they do not really perceive that they invested much in the game.

So let's take a look at the industry leader, the one that Koster has described as the perfect implementation of this type of MMORPG, Blizzard's World or Warcraft. Blizzard decided to take the stories that they had developed in their Warcraft strategy games and use them as the foundation for an MMORPG. This is actually not very different from LA/SOE taking the story that had developed in the first three Star Wars movies and using them as the foundation for an MMORPG. Blizzard was able to do something that the SWG team was not able to do. They took a look at all of the failed and successful MMORPGs out there, including SWG which is why the SWG team could not do this, and determined what worked, meaning kept people playing, and what did not work.

After determining this, they decided on a set of mechanics that fit with their Warcraft games. If they had been doing a Star Wars game they may have done a completely different set of mechanics. What can be used in multiple places is the concepts. And these concepts are based on what did and did not work elsewhere.

So what was Blizzard's concept when it came to dealing with the vast majority of players running out of things to do and new players coming to the game? There concept was to add new and challenging things to the game for players to do. So how does Blizzard do this and how can an SWGEmu server use this?

After looking at other games decided that players would not object to effectively buying the game again every 16 to 24 months. So this was their expansion cycle. Blizzard charged as much for the expansion as they did the original game. So they concluded that players must feel that they are getting their money's worth. So Blizzard set aside a portion of that expected influx of cash to pay for serious revisions to the game engine, both server and client side. (SWG really could have used this since they kept the same core engine on the server and client side and the CU and NGE were simply layers on top of that original engine. This was very visible with more an more lag under the same situations that caused no lag years before.) They also set out money to have an initial story added to the game and then to add to the story every so often until the conclusion was reached and the next story/expansion was added.

So what Blizzard did was to become the Gamemaster for their own MMORPG. When a new expansion comes out they have a story already written. For example, the second expansion took the villain and location of Warcraft III and basically said that the end of Warcraft III was not the end of the villain. The first part of the story is all about how the Villain has returned and players preparing to finally put an end to him. Along the way other long term stories are also covered. The players learn more about the history of Azeroth by learning more about the Dragon aspects and the Alien race that terraformed the planet into what the players know.

So with this framework and the understanding that the last part to be coded and released would be the content related to the final battle against the Villian, the developers had a clear understanding at a high level what the content to add over the next two years would be and players could figure out the theme of what to expect.

This is where LA caused real problems for SOE. When it was decided to set the game in the middle of Episodes IV through VI there was no logical way to expand the game story. Eventually SOE decided that they could do this by taking paths in the story that did not involve Luke, Leia, Han, Vader or the Emperor. SWGEmu based servers can also go down this path or they can do like one server and rework the content to move the game after Episode VI and then go from there.

OK, so now we have a concept from WoW of how to add new content that includes a phased release of the content and a mechanism to keep it on track. None of this is in conflict with the Pre-CU game mechanics of the SWGemu server and does not force a play style on players. It simply allows those that enjoy game developer originated content to have more of it. If in fact the SWGEmu servers take a lesson from SWG and WoW, then what they should do is add a planet and then add to the planet X months worth of content associated with that planet's story before repeating this with a new planet.

So with this foundation is there more in the details of what Blizzard does with WoW that can be used to implement this foundation? The short answer is yes and no.

WoW has four aspects of content that they work in. These are Location, Story, Loot and crafting.

Location is getting very close to being easy in SWGEmu as they are very close to having the tools to add new planets easily to the game. Blizzard adds new locations for both PvE and PvP with each new content addition and this can be done with the SWGEmu also. So far so good.

Story is fairly straightforward. The SWGemu development team is working diligently to add all of the Mission/Quest attributes that SWG had. This is a very strong framework for server developers to add their new story content to the new planets with a few pointer quests on the existing planets to send people there. Eventually the only constraint here is developer imagination.

But there is still an issue with this. Making it challenging and rewarding. This is where game mechanic differences between the two games are important. In SWG a character has basically the same set of stats from starting character to when all skill points have been spent. In other games, not just WoW, character stats do change as your character progresses toward "End Game" or full template. I have some ideas on how to try to do this sort of thing in SWG. Things would not change for the current system but would as you expand into an extension to the current skill system. But I need to think more about this before bringing the proposal forward. Right now servers would have to try to settle with interesting and rewarding and possibly leave out challenging.

The next way that WoW and other games add new content is through new loot. This is a big problem for SWG. A game either needs to focus on players gearing up for end game through loot or crafting. WoW sort of compromises at times by adding new schematics and required components through loot and the final items need to still be crafted. To be honest SOE did try to so something like this in SWG but never to an extent that would show us if it would or would not work in SWG. Right now my thoughts are that most new items should be added through new schematics with the possibility of looted or purchased components. The only reason that I can see to add purchased components would be if you are going to add a credit sink to try to control inflation. SWG has some credit sinks but over time these were marginalized to the point of virtual non-existence and some of the complaints that players have with inflation is tied directly to inadequate/no controls over the amount of credits in circulation. This is a real problem for the starting players, especially those that do not have a full understanding of how to minimize expenses and maximize earning. It really hits hard those that are not interested in full time mindless farming for cash at the keyboard because they are not far enough through their build to AFK farm for cash.

So while loot is a possibility, it can not be as important in SWG as it is in WoW without changing the game by marginalizing the crafting community.

So then there is crafting. In WoW crafting is a secondary profession and as such it is simplified to match the secondary nature. You can not say that it is instant gratification though in any way shape or form. My characters there have items that take 15 or even 30 days to make all of the sub-components. There is also no way to get the resources that you need without actually getting them at the keyboard. So in WoW crafting can be just as time consuming as it is in SWG. The actual crafting process in SWG is far more involved and interesting than what WoW or many other games have. But this is appropriate for it being elevated to the same level as other professions.

WoW does add crafting content with each expansion. In some cases it is "starter" equipment. In one expansion the PvP balance mechanics had changed so much that existing PvP gear would not be too useful. Blizzard's solution was to add crafted gear that was superior to all existing starter PvP gear and was made by crafters.

On top of this WoW had crafted pieces from schematics dropped in raids, that were superior to anything that could be looted at that same gear level. Thus WoW insured that there would be a reason and a place to level crafting.

Similar things could be done in SWG but in SWG it would cause problems. The problem is that it would enhance the "Pay to Win" aspect that currently exists in SWG. A starting player can be given or purchase from a crafter the gear that would make them super powerful at full template and use if from their first day of play. WoW does not have this problem since they have a system where your level controls what you can use. So gear that you must have to complete hard content at full template can also be worn to level and trivialize that leveling activity.

While Pre-CU does internally calculate player levels for many tasks it does not directly expose this to the player. So while this could be used to restrict what crafted or looted gear could be used, it is unfair to do this if players do not know the level that is calculated for them.

So while adding crafting content is trivial, doing it in a way that does not cause problems in other parts of the game is tough. The quick fix is to expose player levels and tie some equipment to needing a minimum level to use. But this is a very dramatic change to the philosophy of the pre-CU game and may not be something that players would be willing to accept.

If you paid attention to this discussion, it will be easy to see why WoW has many of the high level mechanics that it does. The mechanics support a plan to keep the end game constantly moving to avoid people reaching end game and leaving. But even WoW is not perfect. They design all the content to be exhausted after a set period of time for specific play styles. They do understand that there are those that will power through content as fast as possible but do not design the game to take that set period of time for them. If they did so most of the content would not have been completed by the average player before new content is added. So Blizzard has noticed that very often for a content package that is designed for the average player to get through in 6 months the power gamer will take 3 months and then unsubscribe for 3 months till the next content package. This can be frustration and probably did cause both SOE and LA to panic when they saw things like that in SWG. The difference is that Blizzard has a track record of adding content and they are constantly talking about new things and deliver. So even those power gamers understand that when they unsubscribe they will be back when new things are added. So the WoW haters may cheer when they see that WoW has lost 3 million subscribers. Blizzard knows that in 3-4 months they will get most of them back. It has happened so often over the years that Blizzard can bank on it happening.

So while WoW has shown us some things to consider about how to address the Maximum Subscription Time issue in SWG it does not present a complete solution. SWG not being designed in a way to have preplaned mechanisms to deal with this forces the game to either change dramatically or force the players and developers to come up with ways to address the issue that are completely new. Right now myself and the community would probably take what works without completely changing the game and work hard to come up with new ways to make extending end game a complete solution without changing the fundamental game.

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