Continuous Improvement and Settling Down

Darren over at the Common Sense Gamer mentions today that Turbine is going back and revamping Bree. He says it’s a good thing, and of course he’s right, but he also notes that:

Turbine is totally on the right track by revisiting the starting towns and making them hubs for players to visit. Most MMOs, such as WoW and EQ2, have seemed to be resistant to revisit starting towns and usually just opt to create new ones instead of re-imaging the old ones. Qeynos, Freeport, Orgrimmar, Stormwind…all of them have not even seen so much as a new paintjob since being released…

In fairness, I must note that Blizzard added a whole new wing to Stormwind prior to WotLK’s arrival – but it’s not like much happens in Stormwind Harbor other than boats arriving and departing. Although the aerial tour of the harbor is quite a neat feature. And SOE has gone in and made some significant changes to mid-level EQ2 zones like Everfrost and Lavastorm. But still, it’s a valid point.

The great lesson here is that MMOs make money by keeping subscribers, but there’s always going to be attrition as players lose interest, get jobs, or are stuffed into wood chippers. Losses to attrition should ideally be made up by new people coming in, but if new people arrive to find low-level ghost towns, much of the charm of playing an MMO goes away, and thus the less-apparent charm of paying a monthly subscription fee.

It’s thus vital, for the long-term health of any MMO, not just to to keep as many new people coming in as is made possible by marketing, but by keeping the veteran players around in areas where they have reasons to interact with the clueless noobs. For quite a while, I couldn’t tell that Blizzard was aware of this, since all of their new content was aimed squarely at veterans in the endgame – or maybe word of mouth on WoW was so strong that they didn’t need to, or felt that their low-level game was perfection itself and needed no improvement.

The mount changes incoming and the leveling speed adjustments made over the last year or so imply that Blizzard has gotten the message, no doubt shown them by the game’s growth flattening out. Turbine seems to grasp this as well. But then, Turbine seems to offer the best ongoing support and expansion of any MMO provider anyway. The amount and quality of free stuff added to LotRO is second to none, and that includes inbound content for EQ2 and EVE Online, also very well-supported titles. Anbd there’s DDO, which everyone agrees has improved a great deal since its launch 3.5 years ago.

The annoying thing for me was that, until relatively recently, I couldn’t bring myself to like Tubine’s games, depite my great respect for the company and this practice in particular. My brief trial of Asheron’s Call (a game which will be included in the next round of examination of Xfire numbers,) did not help.

But for whatever reason, the last couple of times, both LotRO and DDO have worked for me, whereas neither did before. I have no explanation for this other than to wonder if I’m starting to settle down and feel less need to try everything out there, and more desire to settle down and stick with a couple of games for a longer time. Thus 5+ months in WoW, which is a record for me, almost twice over, and ends with me having a gaggle of characters very securely into the middle levels, where before level 20 was a big achievement.

I admit that I’m curious to see whether this is a one-time anomaly or a permanent trend. I suppose that it would help for a chosen game to be free-to-play, but thus far I have also had largely negative experiences with such beasts as those. DDO has always seemed to be beter-suited to something along the lines of the Guild Wars model, but designed as well as one might design a subscription MMO. Thus it’s not that DDO wasn’t worth paying a subscription fee for – it’s that the subscription model doesn’t fit all that well with DDO approached as it should be, like one would approach the tabletop game.

Let’s say you play one night a week with a set group of friends, for four, maybe five hours. Is that worth $15 a month? I suspect that for many people it’s not, even though it terms of one’s entertainment dollar it’s a much better deal than, say, going to the movies or to (heaven forbid) rock concerts. People playing MMOs have expectations about time commitments and progress, and most people are going to want levels to climb quickly, at least in the beginning. And they will expect to be able to play, in all probability, more than four hours a week, and be able to solo when they do.

DDO’s design defies a lot of these expectations, and I suggest that it’s a reason it hasn’t been more popular than it is. It’s not supoposed to be an MMO seen through the lens of D&D (which might well be a very attractive title in its own right,) but the exact opposite: D&D played in the MMO arena instead of at a table in Mom’s basement. And thus is seems like a bad deal in MMO terms, even though there’s very little actually wrong with the game itself, played in the proper frame of mind.

D&D Online going free to play (I refuse to use the childish leetspeak version of that…) could shake up that market considerably, because the fact is that most free-to-play titles are designed for people who are a) cheap, b) undiscerning or c) broke, including children in the latter category. In simplest terms, you get what you pay for, and while DDO may not have appeared to be a good value in comparison with the subscription competition, because nobody was likely to put subscrition-type time into it, it’ll be spectacularly good compared to most free-to-play titles.

This move is like a big reset button for DDO. Its numbers under the subscription model were not strong, as we’ve examined recently, but if Turbine can keep supporting an Asheron’s Call that pulls in far fewer people, I doubt it was in danger of cancellation. I’m hoping that a lot more people will try out DDO when the free option actually launches, and will appreciate the game for its own merits rather than seeing it through the lens of the WoWs and EQs.

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