What’s Old is Sort of New Again – On Revamping Old Content in MMOs

Adding new content to a game is a no-brainer. Adding features designed to attract new players to what is an old game is a very different gambit.

In a recent post, I discussed the weird, piecework nature of MMOs. The content which new players often interface with first is often the oldest and the most digitally dilipidated. It may not be “bad” content, for however you individually define that, but it often is vastly different in design terms than what exists later.

It becomes more pronounced the longer a game has been out, and the end result is that even when a new player does not know the lines between the base game and an expansion, they can feel it in the content. In WoW up until Wrath of the Lich King, the early questing sends you all over the world, only for Outland to begin pinning you to a given zone, with much less travel back and forth and more hub-and-spoke styled gameplay. Final Fantasy XIV has a similar shift – A Realm Reborn has a lot of content where the quest chains are bookend with the memetastic dreaded “return to the Waking Sands” and then the 2.x quests often focus on towns in Coerthas, before Heavensward begins to vary the approach and does end up reaching something closer to the hub-and-spoke style design.

As an MMO reaches a point of playerbase stagnation, it becomes seemingly worthwhile for a developer to consider measures to pull in new players, and the easiest way to do so is to revamp the content those players first interact with.

WoW has a…”storied” history of doing this, as they’ve made a handful of changes all designed to smooth over unnecessary friction for new players to jump into the game faster than than a greased slip and slide. First, with Cataclysm, restructing all the old zones to focus questing on a hub-and-spoke model, with newer, higher fidelity landscape modeling and buildings. It served to tell the story of Cataclysm (and allow the new zones to be bound to Azeroth without having to pull another “magically appearing/discovered landmasses” trick), but the primary purpose was to address the weird disconnect in style between 1-60 and the rest of the game. It ultimately was a mixed bag, though – while the 1-60 revamped content is pretty good, it marks a point where WoW completely changed – and early Cataclysm is a peak in playerbase the game has never exceeded since.

We’ve also had further revamps with Legion patch 7.3.5, introducing world scaling to the rest of the game, rebalancing world enemies to be more resilient so that players took longer to kill them (in the name of learning and enjoying a fuller toolkit, supposedly), and building the full game around the current model of quest experience serving as the primary source of experience gains, with mob farming serving a far more reduced role.

With all of these changes, the game’s leveling is fundamentally different than it was before, which is in part the reason why the push to WoW Classic is strong for some in the community.

Likewise, the recent Producer Letter Live for Final Fantasy XIV discussed possible changes and “streamlining” to the A Realm Reborn content, the original 1-50 content of the relaunched FFXIV. What this will entail is hard to say, but FFXIV has been through a similar cycle to WoW in the era of The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King – as new expansion launch, the main scenario quests are boosted in XP rewards, making the process of leveling a new character through the game’s content much easier than it was in the original launch, where you might often save side quests in order to secure the additional XP needed to breakthrough the XP roadblocks the game puts in your way.

Now, one of the things worth discussing is the value of these changes. For new players, these changes can often mean the difference between staying or leaving. For existing players, there is a mix of response – some who enjoy playing alts may love the changes, while others will see them as a waste of time.

However, if we are to treat the investment a company makes into an MMO seriously, playerbase growth and new player acquisition is a key duty of that investment. MMOs depend on players being present in the game to enable the core gameplay loops. Raids need raiders, quests need heroes, dungeons need dungeoneers, PvP needs salty jerks, and trade chat needs trolls that don’t know how to keep their worst thoughts to themselves.

Jokes aside, an MMO withers on the vine without players, and revamps to old content is often required to expand the scope of potential audience available to an MMO. However, there are also points in a game’s lifecycle where players may not be attracted to a game, regardless of the changes.

A problem WoW perpetually faces is that the level cap of the game has grown so large over time that a player’s first time through the journey will, inevitably, scare them off. The free trial allows you to level far enough to get a feel for the process, and for many players taking their first trip through the content, the time spent to just get to level 20 can feel too long when mentally extrapolated to 120.

Blizzard has a solution for this though – the boost! Introduced in Warlords of Draenor, the boost constantly upgrades to the prior expansion’s level cap, and becomes available with each expansion’s pre-order window. Buying an expansion gets you one for free as an included part of the box package, meaning that a new player buying the Battle Chest bundle and BfA can boost to 110 right out of the gate, pushing them into new content immediately. This has pros and cons for the new player as well.

On the pro side, if you are playing to join a friend, you’ll have some access to help – tutoring, group mates, and gold/resources. You can jump right in to the current content of the game, drastically reducing the time spent getting there.

On the con side, the information given to a boosting player is dreadful. The initial experience had nearly NO tutorial, with the only thing it offered being the slow unlocking of abilities as you completed the introductory quests. My girlfriend, in the beginning of our relationship, tried this experience with a rogue, and it was an immediate turn-off. She made it to maybe 91 before bailing and never logged in again. The current starter experience is a custom quest chain by specialization that offers a basic tutorial with specific abilities and tries to build the idea of a rotation into the game. It is better than the Warlords of Draenor-era boost start, but it is still not great and fails to teach much outside of the Blizzard-intended design of the rotation. It also only teaches you the spec you chose when boosting – if you pick, say, a Paladin, and roll with Retribution, you’ll get pushed in that direction, but then you decide to tank as Protection, and…the game doesn’t offer anything for that. You could, in theory, opt to roll a class trial per spec, but that process is clumsy.

In a similar fashion, FFXIV does offer character boosts as well. However, there are major differences – first, the boosts are done per job rather than on a character basis, so they are cheaper – coming in at $25 versus WoW’s $60. This, however, only covers the actual job level, and does not include story quest progression. There is a separate boost potion for that, which costs much less – you can buy the A Realm Reborn only MSQ for $11, the ARR and Heavensward MSQ for $18, and everything through Stormblood for $25. You would only need this once per character, but you could also opt to simply boost a single job to 70 and then play through the MSQ anyways.

Now, the point that started this whole educational tangent – while the boost is how both Blizzard and Square Enix attempt to combat the level bloat being scary, both have flaws. Boosting past old content often feels less worth the investment. For WoW, you get a boost included and would only need to buy BfA and subscribe to the base game. You’d miss out on 1-110 content, but you can get up to speed quick, and the current endgame content has rapid catchup mechanisms to get you playing with friends. In FFXIV, a new player who just wants to get to the Shadowbringers content ASAP would need to spend $60 on the Complete Edition with all of the content access, $25 on a job boost, and $25 on a story boost – a total of $110. If you opt to only do a job level, great – it will still set you back $85 however.

Now, the thing about this investment is that it is a mixed blessing for the developers. Yes, building better content for new players can help keep the game stocked with fellow travelers who will participate in dungeons, raids, and group quests. However, it can also signal to existing players that they won’t have as much to do. Look at WoW’s Cataclysm expansion – the expansion featured only 5 leveling zones for 80-85, was the first expansion to use a cut-down 5 level cap extension, and had the content spread through the existing continents of Azeroth. However, it also featured a comprehensive overhaul of the 1-60 content, which enabled flying in Azeroth’s original continents. The expansion’s biggest flaw in retrospect is a lack of endgame content. For the era, it actually wasn’t all that bad – it had a healthy rollout of new dungeons and raids, the excellent Firelands incursion, and a fair amount of different things to do on a regular basis. There were tons of daily quests, and in something that we would probably love today, the Cataclysm iteration of the Dungeon Finder daily bonus was on a 7x per week basis, rather than 1x per day. It ends up meaning the same amount of rewards, but if your schedule prohibited you from doing a 30-60 minute dungeon queue/run every day, you could stack run them on a day off from work, arrange a group activity to run 7 random dungeons, or spread them out such that you do a few a day for a few days rather than being bound to once a day.

Likewise, Legion’s rollout of the revamped, scaled leveling experience came with a lot of accusations of time sinkery. Legion had maintained a rock-solid 77 day pacing on patches, but we all knew the end of the expansion would be a bit drawn out. Blizzard’s answer was to offer the leveling revamp in conjunction with pre-order bonus Allied Races as the means to expand the available content for players in the waning days of Legion. It was met with heavy skepticism, as it felt like leveling was unnecessarily drawn out, which Blizzard later changed by flattening the experience curve out to improve the time spent per level.

There is a lot of skepticism when existing players see the developers of their core games tinkering with content they may not engage with. They may feel they’ll lose out on content – the time spent there could be spent on my things, after all! Likewise, players who feel a sense of accomplishment may feel like that effort and value has been diminished. New players may not be attracted to the core offer of the game, which doesn’t often change when new content rolls out. If you look at the marketing around most MMOs of the age of the two referenced here, they are nearly always talking about the new content. Messaging around the revamp of the older content is difficult to speak to for an audience who isn’t already engaged with the game, so this investment may not have any real payoff outside of people recruiting their friends. That leads to yet another issue, which is simple – all my friends have played WoW, and they either like it or don’t. New content or changes will often not change their mind – in fact, it is more common to see people in my friend circle leave the game than return to it to try again, or to be newly recruited.

For FFXIV, all of this remains highly unknown. We have only conjecture based on what we can see in other games and what the developers say to go off of.

So, is revamping old content worth it?

Ultimately, I believe it is. New players are needed, and old players need changes to offer them something fresh to be able to play through. Most times that Blizzard has done it, it has been accompanied by a sufficient amount of content to make me feel alright with the compromise. Sure, perhaps Cataclysm could have had more endgame content, and maybe Legion’s ending could have had a better bridge – that is all true. However, I think that a game needs that freshness to remain successful.

Plus, the launch of Classic will let us old hands play around in the experience we find familiar!

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6 thoughts on “What’s Old is Sort of New Again – On Revamping Old Content in MMOs

  1. The problem with revamping old content is that it frequently fails to attract genuine new customers while putting off both existing players and returning ex-players. For games that have been around for a decade and more the potential demographic from which they look to recruit is increasingly the millions of people who used to play the game then stopped. That’s clearly why resources have finally been put into Classic, because the example form other MMOs of a similar or older vintages sugggests it’s a successful approach to increasing subs.

    Those returning players, even if they come back intending to jump to current content, tend not to like their nostalgic memories being messed with. They may not want to use the old content but they like to know that, if they did, they’d recognize it. Genuine new players, conversely, don’t know what was there before so have no point of comparison to believe the new content is better. They’re as likely to take agsainst it for any number of reasons as they would have been had it not been changed.

    It’s a very difficult balancing act and I’m not sure any developers have completely cracked it, although they are certainly learning. I would have thought that by now any new MMORPG that hopes to be around for ten years or more should be in a position to front-load content in such a way as to avoid many of these issues. The data is certainly out there by now. I’ve aways advocated a step-ladder structure, whereby each expansion is effectively siloed off as a seperate game. All expansions would be open to everyone who owned them but there would a portal process, possibly associated with in-game character or account-based requirements, meaning that each era of the game could remain intact. It would require that each expansion did not inclue features or landmasses that impinged on previous eras but that should be easy enough to do.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. This is something that really got me thinking.

      A lot of MMOs tend to try to evenly pace skills and then backload with additional advancement mechanisms (talents, the Jobs in FFXIV, etc), but I wonder what it would look like if you started with a fuller toolkit and had a greater sense of what a class would play like. WoW and FFXIV are both scared to give you more than 1-2 main rotation abilities to start and slowly ramp them up, but I bet it would be interesting and only modestly harder to learn if you got more.

      It’d be great to see better content tranches too – rather than the initial game being a race to a much higher endcap and then most of the real content lies there, it would be nice to have content sprinkled more regularly. What would be the harm in having a small raid at level 20 in WoW, or a full party 8-player trial in FFXIV by level 18ish instead of the stripped down version of Ifrit they give there? They don’t have to be big or farmable things, just a bit of content to do that brings people together and showcases depth in gameplay earlier on.

      I may have to break out my thoughts into another post on this topic alone, so thank you for that!

      Like

  2. You know what I liked most about MoP? The Proving Grounds. The concept is absolutely fantastic, and it’s been left to rot for nearly 7 years. That is training wheels on steroids as an option to help any boosted character learn how to play the class and if the class has some interest.

    I would be hard pressed to imagine it hard to move the proving grounds into an AI generated 10 minute dungeon. Heck, the artifact weapons of Legion had some cases where they could only be beat if you used the class toolkit. Ignore the 1-20 trial… put them in that sucker and have them a) test out a class/spec to see if they like it and b) require a silver medal in order to do any randomized group content.

    Related, after watching FF14 put all their dungeons into level scaled LFG, it makes you wonder why WoW can’t do the same. There’s 100 dungeons in-game now, and an “easy” way to get people to group up from the get go. (I know there’s months of design work required to make this work, ability pruning, level scaling, toolkit management, new enemy sets…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great points! I really do wish they had doubled-down on Proving Grounds and maybe even built raid-level versions of them. That sliver of WoD where you needed a PG Silver to queue for Heroics was…well, it didn’t fix everything, but it did feel like there was a higher base level of competence.

      Also agreed on the scaling point – the scaling tech is pretty robust now and applied across the board, so I don’t see why we couldn’t have a Random Dungeon: Leveling option with a daily reward alongside a Heroic queue.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I also forgot the best part of the dungeon scaling idea – they’re building the tech for just that in 8.2.5, so it would literally just be making a queue for it. Hopefully they take that step!

        Like

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