The Issues Of An Ever Evolving MMO Universe (Part 2/3) - How It Affects Players
A MMORPG is usually set in a persistent universe, which means that it evolves even when you're offline. More than that, the MMO offers a world that must evolve over time to simply be coherent as a universe. And to evolve, developers frequently add new content to their game, through extensions, DLC’s or even free patches. This evolution can be classified in two easily identified categories.
Updates that do not affect existing content
Most of the time, developers offer new content, without affecting the existing ones. Take the example of a traditional MMO. You have a map, classes and a level cap. The classic extension does not touch the basics (with the exception of balancing changes), but adds something new through new classes, new skills, new races or even a raised level cap.
However, if the basic universe remains as it was at launch, it no longer has the same flavor. The new regions are usually the epicenter of new max levels. While it is still possible to walk around the older maps, or run the previous dungeons, things are just not the same anymore. They become obsolete and too easy/uninteresting considering the new level cap. For example, a level 50 dungeon will, in most cases, be a walk through the park if you're at level 60. And since leveling up is not optional in most cases, these old challenges are nothing more than shells emptied of their substance. Farewell the difficult dungeons that gave you a hard time, in short, farewell the game you bought. Of course you can always create your own challenges, such as running these low level dungeons with a smaller party, or without using consumables of healing spells/skills. But again, its different.
Nevertheless, this method has an advantage: a region that was present in the basic game is not changing. The races and classes you like are the same as always. The region you enjoyed traveling through are still here, unchanged. Thus, it is possible to return to explore reviving the nostalgia, or better, to create a new character to enjoy the game as it was at release.
Updates that redefine existing content.
But sometimes, it can happen that the universe of a MMO, or at least part of it, is completely crushed by an update or extension. Classes are changed or removed, maps are edited or deleted, drop rates altered for better or worse, crafting professions are rendered obsolete for the benefit of cash shops, and so on. Put simply, the more you explore the game to recall good memories in places or with classes that have marked you, the more unfamiliar it all seems. Everything changes and there is no turning back, if not through private servers, as is the case Nostalrius. To explain it, we'll take two specific examples of games that have evolved in two specific contexts.
The first example is the most obvious: World of Warcraft. In 2010, the third expansion of the game, Cataclysm, was released in stores. The premise is simple: a huge dragon ravaged the world and caused irreparable damage. Areas disappeared, some were entirely disfigured, and others showed up in expected areas. In addition, Blizzard had reworked quests to make the progression from level 1 to 60 more modern and pleasant. However, this had a cost: the end of the universe as the players knew it since 2004.
Cataclysm brought new, and undoubtedly good, ideas. However, it poses an archiving problems: how to preserve the world of Azeroth if it no longer exists? With this update, Blizzard did indeed offer more in terms of gameplay and content than it did in 2004. But what about players who did not want these changes? They must adapt. Of course, Blizzard still has the archives (hopefully), copies of the old world, and some fans have been providing private servers free of charge, but the average player that still wants to subscribe to play the official game has to adapt and accept the cataclysm. The purpose of Cataclysm was to make the players understand the impact of such disasters on the universe. This, however, remains a video game. While not entitled to it, players will want to revisit old areas where they spent hours and hours enjoying themselves with others.
To a lesser extent, Blizzard reiterated this when releasing Mist of Pandaria. Garrosh, the villain of the moment, devastated the beautiful area of Vale of Eternal Blossoms Since then, players have been unable to survey the area as it was.
Nobuaki Komoto resumed the project and promised to save the title. In 2013, the game is released again as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. And the result was well worth the time, the title being one of the most popular MMORPGs on the market even now.
Like WoW, FFXIV has used the medium of a cataclysm to reshape its world, making it more coherent, more complete. The message is clear in this case: the first iteration of the game was a mistake, one that has been corrected. A change welcomed by the players, attracted by this new experience. Square-Enix even seems to deny the existence of this previous iteration completely.
Changes in Economic Models
A MMO is evolving constantly, either over the patches or extensions. Developments often leave the basics of the game unaffected, but not always. And even updates that do not affect these basics will still affect the whole experience in some way or another. Nevertheless, we are talking about the gameplay side of things, the game design side. But now let's talk about something more mundane: money. Many MMOs have indeed changed their business model to survive. In this case, the archiving of the universe poses no problem (except in case of closure, a topic that we’ll tackle later), but another issue is created: how to manage the transition for the players that were present from the beginning and have always been faithful to the game?
And many MMOs have been forced to evolve, with being shut down as the only alternative. The scheme is almost always the same: A subscription MMO comes out, it does not enjoy the expected success and turns to a free-to-play model to avoid closure. A classic pattern, so classic in fact that upon the release of The Elder Scrolls Online in 2014, the forums were full of people claiming that they would wait for the game to go free-to-play to try it... something that happened a mere year later (sort of, since players were still required to purchase the game).
And most of the time, the change in business model represents a healthy reaction to the market. Many MMO's on the down slope have managed to escape disaster thanks to this change. However, there is the art and the way to do it.
A free-to-play, as the name suggests, is a game that can be played for free. But, some have taken this expression literally by allowing F2P players to wander the world, certainly, but in an extremely limited way. This is the case of LOTRO, a game was much criticized during its passage to F2P for a flagrant misuse of micro-transactions. For example, travels over the map were a paid feature. Note that since then, the game has been offering more and more freedom to free-to-play players.
A number of games from the WoW era passed to Free-to-play and still exist today. This is the case of the excellent Age of Conan (now playable for free) or even Rift, both offering an online store that is profitable enough to warrant the server costs. Moreover note that many MMO’s offer a free experience, but have still not denied the subscription system, ArcheAge being a prime example of this (as well as an example of how bad it can go).
It is also good to know that the free-to-play model is not king in the world of MMOs. There is also the buy-to-play model. These games require a one time purchase. Then, no limits are set in regards to the experience, although an online store (cosmetics, mostly) is often (always?) proposed.
This is the case of The Elder Scrolls Online, which adopted this system a year after its release, in 2015. No difference in experience between the players in this case. Same for Black Desert Online that works on the same system. All gameplay aspects are available to the players following that one-time purchase, although you have to pay for all that is cosmetic.
But while the switch to free-to-play is a saving grace for old subscription games, the old players may feel betrayed by this turn of events. Indeed, if most free-to-play MMO still offer a subscription system or special status to reward them, it's always hard to see a game that you are loyal to buckle under the weight of financial pressure. And let's be honest, a lot don't want other having a free access to what they had to pay for. In the worse cases, they end up having to spend more because of this switch.
Because yes, the switch to free-to-play often means that the veterans have to pay for some of the game experiences they are (were?) entitled to. The loyal player may feel cheated by such manipulation, even if they somewhat find it necessary to continue to play. In addition to paying for some new content that could have been free before, the subscriber sees a lot of new players, not necessarily inclined to stay indefinitely on the game, and affecting the game negatively.