Lifetap Volume 1, Issue 22 – How Many Licks to the Center of an MMO?
Halloween is my favorite holiday. While most mass marketed decorations found in department stores these days tend to lack character, I still enjoy seeing the seasonal transformation on my scavenging runs for supplies nonetheless. Learn the chilling details of how one such trip inspired some deeper thoughts on the future of MMOGs in today’s issue of Lifetap.
Navigating the terrifying labyrinth known as my local Target store and avoiding direct confrontation with roving packs of bandits and mutant android bounty hunters, I took a moment to assess the assortment of seasonal offerings. Halloween being my favorite holiday, I’m bound by duty and a fierce moral code to traverse the treacherous corridors of such places on an annual basis in hopes of finding new additions to the décor of my secret underground laboratory.
As expected, the horrific sight of this year’s Halloween offerings hasn’t changed all that much from previous years. Ignoring the fact that the Christmas isles are already threatening to swallow Halloween whole for a moment, it hastily jotted down notes into a torn and tattered notebook on the secret formula for these poor excuses for decorations.
At that point, my notes looked something like this:
Before I realized what was happening, a rabid pack of vomit monsters disguised as frat boys was heading in my direction. At this point normal thought processes ceased and years of video game training took over. With swift parkour-like movements I evaded the beasts and slipped into the shadows of the neighboring Candyland.
Candyland makes up roughly one third of the overall square footage of the allotted space for Halloween displays. While not exactly the safest of locations to hide, years of experience have proven that vomit monsters, by nature, can sense the presence of alcohol no matter how faint. Like clockwork, the vomit monsters nearly entered Candyland, but quickly changed course in favor of the fine assortment of cheap beers and wine a few isles down.
Slipping between shadows, I began plotting my exit strategy. That’s when a seemingly innocent looking package caught my attention. At that moment, a misplaced bag Tootsie Pops began playing tricks upon the perception of my immediate surroundings. Eyes closed and head tipped to one side, I could have sworn I heard someone ask, “Mr. Owl, how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?”
That’s when it hit me. This garishly animated commercial from my youth is the perfect metaphor for how video gamers consume MMOs.
One, Two, Three, Crunch
MMOs take a hefty amount of time and money to create. Developers are faced with two main challenges, and must be successful in designing solutions for both in order for their game to be successful.
First you have the hard outer shell. The gameplay activities and supporting systems of an MMO have to be both accessible and fun in order to draw people into the experience. This is a universal concept that applies to the overwhelming majority of titles, regardless of being categorized as theme park or sandbox games.
Then you have the prize waiting for you at the center. This is your endgame content, or what you hope players will sink their teeth into once they’ve finished consuming the outer shell. Once you get there, the payoff has to be worthwhile, or else all you’re left with is a stick with no carrot attached.
The problem is, just like Mr. Owl in the Tootsie Pop commercial, gamers tend to be an impatient bunch. Most will take a few licks of your game’s expertly crafted (and expensive to create) content before deciding it’s time to bite down and get to the endgame waiting at the center as quickly as possible.
For quite some time, this was considered to be perfectly acceptable due to the advent of raiding at the core of endgame activities. However, MMO raids can be a double-edged sword. If you err too much on the side of inclusion and accessibility, players quickly become bored having mastered what should be the most difficult or challenging content in your game. If you cater raids to the bleeding edge hardcore, you alienate the vast majority of your player base.
To quote a wise old goblin disguised as a Jedi master, once you start down the dark path of raids as the focus of your endgame content, forever will it dominate your destiny.
At this point, we’ve seen far too many Tootsie Pop MMOs. What players really want (and developers are growing ever more desperate to design) is the equivalent of an Everlasting Gobstopper. In other words, a game that provides a level of instant gratification, but combines it with gameplay activities and systems that are worth consuming over an indefinite period.
I suspect that this is basis for a number of in-development titles, most notably games like EverQuest Next. SOE has gone to great lengths to help drive MMOs in a more sustainable and cost-effective direction with this newest incarnation of the EverQuest franchise. Many gamers look to Landmark to provide some of the answers to how EQ Next will make that goal a reality.
Lately though, I’ve been eyeballing a very different bit of inspirational source material: progression servers. The systems SOE devised to support individual servers that progress at differing paces by tethering the experience to player actions are still unparalleled within the MMO industry. While I’m all but certain that server-level progression in EverQuest Next won’t play out exactly the same way, SOE has learned some critical insights having experimented in a similar direction before.
Can EverQuest Next become an Everlasting MMO Gobstopper? By my estimation, progression servers hold the answer to that question, so expect some additional research on the subject to come out of my secret underground laboratory in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, be sure to visit our franchise site, EQHammer.com, for some of the best and most relevant discussions on Landmark and EverQuest Next on the planet.