Monday, March 23, 2015

The Widening Gyre: GW2, FFXIV, Everquest

When the weather improves and it's pleasant enough to leave the house for more than just the essentials chances are we'll all still be shut up indoors. FFXIV, very evidently the MMO of choice for an increasing number of MMO bloggers, including but not limited to Isey, Aywren, J3w3l, Syl, GamingSF and even SynCaine, releases its first expansion, Heavensward, in June. The release date for GW2's Heart of Thorns hasn't been announced but the smart money is on a summer release for that one too.

As we saw from the huge spike in WoW subscriptions late last year, a meaty expansion that you can buy, at the store, in a box, really does get the attention of both current and lapsed players, much more so than any drip-feed of regular, free updates. On the other hand, in the weeks and months between announcement and release, just knowing there's an expansion pending can have quite the opposite effect.

For players who feel they've let themselves fall behind the curve or for latecomers who only recently jumped the train, the pre-expansion period can be frenzied. No-one wants to be left behind, lonely and forgotten, trudging through old content no-one cares about any more. Or so the story goes.

I don't believe it myself but there are certainly plenty of people who buy into that myth. They're the ones you see, grinding away, trying to catch up with that ever-receding vanishing point, the End Game. Ironically, it's only when an expansion is in the offing that that mystical, mythical finish line comes into view. In the preceding year, or two or three, it would be very hard to point at a character and say "Look - Done!" but suddenly everyone seems to know just what they need to have completed to be ready for the next phase of their imaginary existence.

Smart developers increasingly strive to minimize the finality of the expansion cycle. Instead of shuffling everyone onto a ferry sailing to the new Promised Land of Opportunity, Gear Upgrades and Ten More Levels, leaving the cheapskates who can't or won't stump up the fare behind to stare despondently at the forbidden horizon, they try to integrate at least part of the new world into the old.

If wishes were horses Asuras would ride. Not glide.

There's an ever-increasing focus on re-using existing assets. The ever-popular addition of a new class, race or job with no concomitant new starting area to level it up in is almost a given. That fills the low and mid-level zones for a few weeks after release. Then there's the clever trick of allowing characters to scale back down to the level of the zones they would in former days simply have outgrown and of course there's the seeding of content needed by characters working towards the new level cap throughout older areas of the game. The mainstreaming of large-scale public events that include and reward all levels appropriately is perhaps the most elegant solution of them all.

Nevertheless, no matter how hard designers try to ensure that all assets stay in use, in a mature or maturing MMO the focus of activity is always on whatever arrived most recently. Short of producing an expansion with no new playable areas at all, as EQ2 did with Age of Discovery), it's all but impossible to keep the bubble from floating to the top.

Expansions with no new territory just don't sit well with customers though. AoD was probably EQ2's least-popular expansion ever. It was finally broken up for parts and sold separately in the Station Cash store, as many players suggested it always should have been.  

Cataclysm, the expansion in which Blizzard chose to remake, remodel and re-purpose a large number of older overland zones rather than add any new ones, while critically well-received and financially successful (it sold 4.7m copies in the first month of release), ended up taking much of the blame for the subsequent subscription slump that saw WoW reduced to a mere 9 million subscribers eighteen months later.

When it comes to reusing old art assets I prefer the way EQ does it. Copy and paste into a new zone and chunk the levels up to the current cap.

With 2015 shaping up to be a year with few major MMO releases to look forward to, expansions for games that the Western gaming media recognize and relate to are bound to receive more attention than usual. No-one wants to release anything that divides or disappoints the playerbase, naturally, but squaring that noble intention with satisfying the players' justifiable demand for substantial new areas to explore and content to consume, while at the same time keeping all the old plates up and spinning, well that's no easier a task than it sounds.

Having all the world constantly in play does sound wonderful. Back playing Everquest as I am, an ancient game some 21 expansions rich, I can attest that the reality of "more than 500 zones to explore" needs to be glossed: "with almost no risk of meeting anyone else". The continuing health of the game is evidenced by the "too many results" response to a /who in Plane of knowledge or the Guild Lobby and the constant churn of chatter in General but out in the wilds of Old Commonlands or Field of Scale, zones now half a dozen expansions adrift, it's just me, my merc and my air elemental.

The flip side of that coin, though, surely has to be smaller worlds. GW2 and FFXIV are only now taking their first steps on the wider journey. They've rolled along for a couple of years with not much more than the land they started with and if they both stick to a bi- or tri-annual expansion schedule they may be able to stave off the bloat and the stretch for a good long while.

At its peak, Everquest was releasing an expansion every six months, most with at least a dozen new zones and often twice that. I don't believe we yet know how many maps HoT will bring but from everything that's been said it won't be many. The buzzword is verticality. Don't spread out, spread up. We'll see how that works out but dense, convoluted three-dimensional spaces wouldn't be my personal choice. In most MMOs my favorite zones are flat, open plains.

Verticality's not so bad if you can cancel it with a quick cast of Levitation.

I haven't been following the announcements on the FFXIV expansion as closely but it seems from the wiki that it will add a modest seven new playable areas. They do look a lot more interesting and varied than the dense jungles of Maguuma but it's certainly a case of quality over quantity.

There's probably no right way to do this. Over timescales that look increasingly as though they may need to be measured in decades the goals of constant expansion and zero redundancy may be irreconcilable. Given my druthers I'd take a new continent every six to twelve months over a new province every two to three years but, like most life experiences, that's probably something I'll never get to relive and I can see good reasons why.

Meanwhile, we wait, and those of us not bitten by the completionist bug find other things to do. I sat down this morning intending to run through the list of MMOs I'm currently playing or planning to play, only to realize that the reason this much-wished-for diversification has finally come to pass is in no small part due to the window of opportunity this pre-expansion hiatus has opened. When HoT arrives I'm sure that, like everyone else who isn't staring fixatedly Heavensward, all these other wonderful MMOs will take a back seat as I winge, whine and complain but above all play the heck out of whatever it is that Anet see fit to give us.

All the more reason, then, to make the most of the time in hand. Here's hoping for a cold, wet spring.

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