Tobold's Blog
Monday, August 06, 2007
Dimensions of a MMORPG

In this post I would like to talk about massively multiplayer online roleplaying games in terms of their length, depth, and breadth. I want to define these terms of the dimensions of a MMORPG, and explain their importance when reviewing a game. And, to spice things up, I'll then go off on a tangent and rant about the Wrath of the Lich King, the second expansion of World of Warcraft just announced last weekend.

The length of a MMORPG is probably the dimension that is most often discussed. How long does it take you from starting the game to reaching a more or less well-defined end-point, like the level cap, or the point where you are completely geared up with epics. If a game is too short, you'll "finish" it too fast and move on. If a game is too long, you get stuck for weeks in the same level, until you finally give up. The ideal length is defined by the attention span of you average player. In my opinion the original World of Warcraft got very close to the ideal length, at least for my needs. I had never reached the level cap of really long games like Everquest, and after having played MMORPGs for years, WoW was the first in which I reached the level cap. But other approaches are possible. Guild Wars for example is deliberately short, having only 20 levels, so people can concentrate on the PvP end game.

The depth of a MMORPG is harder to grasp, it is more of a gut feeling than a measurable thing. Most players just call it the "fun". I would define depth as the tactical depth of encounters, how many different viable options I have to do things. Or to cite my favorite game quote again: “A good game is a series of interesting decisions. The decisions must be both frequent and meaningful.” — Sid Meier. Depth describes how interesting and meaningful the decisions are. In reviewing depth is often the first dimension we see, because the length and breadth of a game take much much time to explore. But whether for example a combat in a MMORPG is "fun" and interesting, or a boring, repetitive mashing of always the same button is quickly found out.

The breadth of a MMORPG is about it's replayability. At any given level, how much choice of content do you have? If you reached the level cap with your first character and want to play a second one, would he go through the same content again, or would you experience a completely different series of quests, zones, and mobs? This is a dimension in which the original World of Warcraft was really, really strong. WoW initially had *six* completely different newbie zones, while many other games have just one or two. And sometimes developers "cheat", offering several newbie zones, but doing a lot of copying and pasting of quests and mobs, thus only creating an illusion of choice.

The complete shape of a MMORPG is a curious one, because the depth and breadth often change over the length. A MMORPG is not a rectangular box (cuboid). For example very often at low levels the depth of the game is less, you start out with only one or two spells or abilities, and then learn more over the length of the game. The breadth can also vary a lot. Very frequently a game gets released with sufficient low level content, and has less and less breadth towards the higher levels. Lord of the Rings Online is a typical example of that. The original World of Warcraft had a lot of low level content and less mid- and high-level content too. But curiously the patches and the first expansion added both low- and high-level content, while not adding much in the middle, giving the game a really strange shape now. There are tons of quests and content level 1 to 20 with the now eight newbie zones, then it gets thinner in the 20 to 50 region, but then there are again tons of things to do between level 50 and 70.

Now if you are a game developer and plan an expansion, you have to see to which dimension you want to add of that shape. Depth is the most difficult, but for example the introduction of slotted weapons and armor in the Burning Crusade added to the depth of the game, if only at the higher levels. Adding either length or breadth is a design choice. And this is where the rant part comes in. Burning Crusade already added to the length of WoW, while adding breadth only in the level 1 to 20 part. So why on earth is Wrath of the Lich King just adding length?

Now of course there is part of the player population that are at the level cap, and who don't plan to ever play anything else but their current main character. And those players of course will like the added length. But the numbers of World of Warcraft having "9 million subscribers" hide the fact that this isn't the same 9 million people all the time. World of Warcraft is still selling very well in the shops, so the pretty much constant number of players we've seen over the last year means that there are as many people joining the game as there are leaving. Besides all those new players, there are many existing players starting alts all the time. So for everybody starting or restarting at level 1 we have to ask ourselves whether World of Warcraft isn't approaching the point where it gets *too* long. People who wanted to make an Alliance shaman or Horde paladin for raiding were already complaining how long that took to get to the level cap again. And on the "black market" of World of Warcraft you see more and more offers for powerleveling. If someone pays somebody else hundreds of dollars to skip part of the length of a game, something is wrong with the design. If after leveling your main to 80 in Wrath of the Lich King you get bored with the level 80 end game, or your guild really, really needs a priest, the decision to level up an alt is getting less and less attractive.

And it is not only the increasing length that puts people off from making alts, it is also the lack of breadth in certain levels. How many people made a Draenei or Blood Elf, but then stopped playing it after level 20 when the new Burning Crusade content ran out? Nobody wants to do Stranglethorn Vale quests again. There are areas where World of Warcraft has deficits, and the Wrath of the Lich King expansion fails to address those. A new continent with level 1 to 60, or even 20 to 60 content would have fixed problems in areas where WoW is lacking breadth.

Wrath of the Lich King shows that World of Warcraft is on a trajectory which simply isn't sustainable. You can't just make the game 10 levels longer with every expansion and ignore the other dimensions. Sooner or later you get two separate populations, one of veterans at the highest levels, and one of new players and alts at the lower levels, unable to catch up. Do we really want to have the level cap raised to 150 in the year 2015?
> Or to cite my favorite game quote
> again: “A good game is a series of
> interesting decisions. The
> decisions must be both frequent and
> meaningful.” — Sid Meier

Oh, so WoW is not a good game? (i refer to it often to a pseudo-game or a work with a game around) and i agree :-PP
At one of the Panels at Blizzcon, they mentioned that before Wrath of the Lich King they would be making improvements and changes to the 20-60 game to make the levelling curve alot more natural and less of a painful grind.
I stumbled across a quote, and now I can't find it. Basically, a Blizzard exec simply acknowledged the obvious; that it's better to put resources into higher level content than lower level content.

I passionately disagree with this, but it's hard to argue with the numbers. TBC sold like hotcakes, and it completely ignored the mid level game, so Blizzard's obviously taking the "if it's not broke, don't fix it approach".

Now, there was some talk about adding a few mid level quest to existing zones - or maybe turning some outdated high level zones into some mid level 5 mans, but who knows at this point.

Personally, I think Blizzard seems hellbent on doing to WoW what SOE did to EQ.

But subscribers who don't agree with this approach can speak with their dollars; refuse to buy the new expansion and email Blizzard with a polite note that explains why.
As for anyone having hopes in Blizzard modifying old content, let me give you an rough schedule of things to come. All the released concept art for Wrath was dated april to july 2007. So artwise this beast in still in pre-production. I estimate 10% is done on the grand scale. Besides spreadsheets, this expansion has just started its development.

Zul'Aman, a small 10 man zone is still far from finished, encounterwise and itemwise. They also claim to release a new highend 25 instance (so these 0.1% finished in BT do not get bored!) before Wrath ships and on top of that they promise to realign old content, turning Naxx into a new 25isn MC 2.0 kinda thing. Everyone at this point laying any truthfull value in such claims is sniffing the wrong kind of drug.

So right now Blizzard has a very big expansion in the making, around 10% done with big balance issues ahead. They already work on two raid instances to be release in the next 6 months and somehow between all of this, they need to redesign encounters in Naxx and itemize the whole zone again. If we see 20% of what they promised at Blizzcon still in 2007, i'm impressed. My sixth sense tells me, that we see an unfinished Wrath at the Blizzcon 08, if they really want to ship everything they promised.

As for the actual topic: well games progress and so does content. If they stick to the DK concept as they showed at Blizzcon, we will see nothing else than the ability to swich classes in the long run, so the twink problem will be solved.
To be honest my bigger problem with midlevel content is the lack of players rather than content. True, doing STV quests yet another time isn't much fun at all, but what I find worse is spending 2 hours trying to get a group for Scarlet Monastery and eventually giving up and asking a friend to take me through with his lvl70 character. Besides not being fun, it doesn't give me an opportunity to play the new class in a group environment until I hit the level cap and I can do end game instances.

With regards to end game content, the small group content is going towards more and more reputation grind. We were promised that reputation would be easier to get in TBC. They did deliver that promise, it took me much less time to hit revered with all factions than it did with Cenarion Circle before TBC. What they never said was that there'd be 10 factions to farm reputation with instead a couple, and it's much less optional to the reputation grind now, I've lost count of the group invitations I had to turn down because I don't have the heroic key for the particular instance. I won't have time to visit all the 5-man instances in heroic setting, let alone see any raid past Gruul (due to RL limitations I can't commit to raiding days regularly and only join if I'm available and they need replacements).

I guess we need to look forward to all the rep grind we've been doing this year to be useless next year, and start farming rep with 10 new factions they'll come up with.
Blizzard has the luxury of taking their sweet time because LOTRO had know obvious impact on their subscription numbers and WAR, TR, AoC, and PotBS all have issues that will keep them from being mainstream hits.

The only thing that worries Blizzard is Star Trek Online and whatever Bioware has up their sleeve; both years away.

Another point to consider; if WoW's slow decline is both obvious and inevitable, why invest heavy time in it? I'm hearing more players say they're going to abandon raiding, since the writing is on the wall.
Er, I mean no obvious impact, not know obvious impact )
A very interesting and insightful post, Tobold!

It’s been some time since I stopped playing with my main character at Level 60 in WoW, but I do remember that one of the things that kept me from bringing alts up to 60 was that, after the initial zones, the path narrows, with less varied content. As I am mostly an “explorer” type of player, that doesn’t attract me at all. In general, I think that’s a stumbling block for most players, as seeing and experiencing new things helps keeping a game “fresh”. It’s not just that the path narrows within the factions, there’s also overlap between the two factions. The illusion of freedom – and of moving in a “world” - evaporates.

I think it will be very hard to remedy that now in WoW. The problems for “widening” the game can, I think, be categorized as such:

Internal organization of the quests and quest-chains

Geography first. One of the things I wondered rather early on was why WoW started with no less than three major land-masses at once. Perhaps this was because Warcaft III’s storyline introduced Kalimdor and placed several memorable races and settlements there, but it seemed a stupid decision to me. The eastern kingdoms were large enough, and (potentially) rich enough in lore, to be a perfectly good starting area, with races such as various nations of Humans, High Elves (the uncorrupted ones who got “edited out” by TBC, not to mention the Half-Elves), Dwarves, Gnomes, Orcs, Trolls, Goblins and Forsaken. In practice, they could have developed ALL of the eastern kingdoms, including the areas that are still closed or were introduced in TBC, with a total land surface that, game-wise and quest-wise, would have been as rich and varied as the original WoW’s three landmasses.
Kalimdor could have been introduced later on, with some new races (Tauren, Centaurs, Night Elves, Pandaren J?), and a similar ton of content. Heck, considering the time they spent on developing TBC, I don’t see why not.

Instead, they largely, but not entirely, completed the world right at the start. That gave Blizzard very little expansion room on Azeroth itself; there are only so many expansions you can squeeze out of Silvermoon, Kul Tiras, Dalaran and Northrend.
That also means that, at least on Azeroth, there is almost no room for mid-level content ( or additional content of ANY level, for that matter) left; it is possible to squeeze in something in certain areas (like the several scattered unused dungeon locations) but it ain’t much.

Over time, a character population on a server seems to take on a “hourglass” shape, with the top part bigger than the bottom part. This is because high-level characters accumulate at the top. New characters are still being created in the newbie zones (both as alts and as main characters of new players), but not all of these new players will go through the mid-level content; some will race through, heading for the high-level content, other character will simply be abandoned. That means that when there is rich and varied mid-level content, but a relatively small and scattered mid-level character population, life will seem pretty lonely. Never mind finding a group to take on that glorious mid-level dungeon and its denizens…

This is linked with what I wrote about Azeroth’s geography. In terms of pre-existing lore, too, Blizz did far too much at once. Adding lore and knitting it into the existing story fabric is hard work. If I remember correctly, Blizz did some major rewriting of the lore for TBC, editing out (most of) the uncorrupted High Elves and suddenly turning the Draenei from founding members of the Burning Legion into victims…
I don’t think that was just because they wanted to, I think they were forced to do this because, well, there wasn’t much more to be told about Azeroth itself. Too many regions, local histories and races had been put into the original game. I predict that future expansions will do the same thing, just add more and more weird areas and races to the game, effectively “lengthening” the lore, but not “deepening” it.
Not that most players will really care, apart from fantasy buffs and roleplayers…L

Internal organization:
If I am understanding you correctly, you mourn the absence of completely different routes of advancing your characters. A lot of the quests I remember from WoW (not the FedEx stuff) are either linked mechanically (do quest X before you can do Y, or get equipment items XYZ before you have a chance of surviving the Dungeon of the Soul-Sucking Overfiend) or lorewise with other quests. Creating entirely new “leveling tracks” would require a lot of work connecting them with the pre-existing quests. Probably making extensive modifications to the old quests (and how about balancing the equipment that drops from them?).
Not that it can’t be done, it’s just a lot of work.

Frankly, this is mostly guesswork as I’m not that technically inclined.
But I am wondering whether Blizz made some assumptions about the maximum world size they could squeeze in, and the number of players they could accommodate on a single server. Let’s assume you aim for, say, a very high level of replayability with a total of 12 possible, completely or largely separate leveling tracks. You don’t have to introduce this at once, but it is what you’re aiming for including 3 annual expansions. That means you need a huge volume of “playing space” (land masses, dungeons etc.) AND you have to be able to have a lot of players playing at once. The latter is very important so that each stage of each leveling track has enough active characters, making sure players can group at each stage, and also to make the world feel alive. That is quite a technological load there…
For the record, there's a huge empty space somewhat south of the Dwarven noobie zone and north of Stormwind. It use to be easy to visit this area, but Blizzard eventually sealed off the path.

The entire space was a huge grid of nothingness. There weren't even any tiles.

It would be the perfect location for a new zone; possibly 20-30th level.
At Blizzcon, they announced that Death Knights (unlocked through an epic quest that anyone can do at level 80) will start off at a high level, around 55 or so. That solves your leveling problem, but it doesn't solve the problem of not having enough endgame healers. :-)
While I think that adding say, a new mid-lvl (35-50ish) zone with good xp & quest rewards would be a nice boost and change of pace, I really must ask, is it that important to add content when the point is to get past it as quickly as possible? It's like putting a really expensive enchant on that new lvl 30 sword/axe, unless you're twinking, why would you bother?

New people have existing zones they haven't seen already. We all went through them, so it's not like they don't exist, granted it could be improved, especially when compared with the questing from 60-70.

But honestly, the point of lower level stuff, is to get past it. It's not like leveling is hard to begin with, and I'm sure most people went back, rolled one of the new races and did the entire 1-20 zones in approx. 1 day, maybe 2. That's an entire 2 zones worth of newbie content, and everybody who's played the game before is able to blow through it.

While mid-level content would take longer to go through considering the xp needed for each level is greater, is it really worth the time/effort to produce, when the only real benefactors are for people who are working on alts, or power leveling a class for their guild?
While I think that adding say, a new mid-lvl (35-50ish) zone with good xp & quest rewards would be a nice boost and change of pace, I really must ask, is it that important to add content when the point is to get past it as quickly as possible?

Who says that everyone rushes though low level content "as quickly as possible"?

This is the power gamer's mentality; the idea that anyone wouldn't rush to the end of a mmorpg is incomprehensible to them.

I'd like to level up a Druid and Shaman, but I'll be damned if I slog though those mid level zones again. The idea of revisiting STV or RRM or Un'Goro Crater simply has no appeal to me. I'll suffer though ZF just to get the carrot, but that's about all I could stomach of the old world.
But honestly, the point of lower level stuff, is to get past it. It's not like leveling is hard to begin with, and I'm sure most people went back, rolled one of the new races and did the entire 1-20 zones in approx. 1 day, maybe 2. That's an entire 2 zones worth of newbie content, and everybody who's played the game before is able to blow through it.

I have to agree with =##=. Believe it or not, there is a large population of people who don't share your mindset about blowing through lvling as fast as possible.

I do agree that 1-20 in the new Blood Elf zone felt rather fast. But that was also because the quests were fun, flowed together in a logical progression, and made me feel like I was making real progress, not just grinding in order to level. Blizzard gave other things to progress in besides just XP. Such as Tranquilien rep. Tranquilien is the one faction that I actually enjoyed getting rep with. While you don't have to do all the quests in the zone to get to 20ish, the rep gives an excellent incentive to do just that.

The fact that lvling to 20 in Ghostlands feels so fast is due to the excellent pacing and enjoyability of the quests, not just because it's actually quicker. The quickness is just another result of Blizzard improving the pacing. If there was no Tranquilien rep, and all the quests were boring "kill 10 floozles" quests with nothing but a little silver for reward I am quite sure lvling to 20 would be just as much a grind as it was before TBC. Regardless of speed.
Heh, I have a level 52, a level 45 and some lowbies. I'm obviously not in a hurry to get to end-game :p and I'd *love* some more mid-level content. Still and all, I can usually find something to do that's relatively new to me. Though I do miss that about both EQ and EQ2-- they have a ton of mid-level content in comparison to WoW, in my opinion.

I'm already noticing the lack of 'breadth' in LotRO -- the starter areas only go to 15 or so, after that there seems to be only one path though, starting in Bree/Low Lands. Still, leveling is relatively fast, enough so that I think it is possible to do different quests lines in those regions, to some extent.
Ghostlands is brilliant. It's the most perfect WoW zone that I've ever had the pleasure of leveling up in. I like it even more than Duskwood or Westfall. It's the excellence of that zone that makes going back to Hillsbrad at 20th so painful.

And the ending - being able to meet all the rulers, the mini opera from the Banshee Queen, the faction vendor with really nice goodies for anyone who actually does every quest in the zone, the nice quest rewards at the end, such as the Magical staff.

The people who designed Ghostlands should leave Blizzard and start their own studio. They're simply amazingly talented game designers.
I have to say, in all of my WoW experience I didn't run into too many people that found much enjoyment in levelling past about level 20, after having done so once. Nearly everyone I knew (in and outside of the guilds I was in) had the attitude of levelling being a mostly unenjoyable grind. I think they *should* make more 20 - 60 content just because of that reason. Myself and many, many others I knew couldn't seriously level an alt because we couldn't force ourselves to go through the same old stuff again. Many of us remarked that if there were completely different areas to see most of the way through leveling, we'd probably do it. Instead, often if someone was making an alt we all rotated dragging the person through different dungeons with our level 60 or 70 main to make it a little less painful. I know this has been argued before, but a /level command would be great for that.
To be honest my bigger problem with midlevel content is the lack of players rather than content. True, doing STV quests yet another time isn't much fun at all, but what I find worse is spending 2 hours trying to get a group for Scarlet Monastery and eventually giving up and asking a friend to take me through with his lvl70 character. Besides not being fun, it doesn't give me an opportunity to play the new class in a group environment until I hit the level cap and I can do end game instances.

Agreed! For me this is one of the worst problems with levelling alts. To be honest, I think that most of the lower level dungeons are very fun, and is a good place to learn to group while playing a new class. Problem is that is not fun to have a level 70 run you thru them. I started playing WoW on a brand new server, so I was fortunate to be able to run on my main toon the lower level instances with groups of more or less the right levels. But as the server matures, my alts had a very difficult time doing the same.

There is one possible solution which is almost certainly technically feasible - cross-realms instances. Basically, you can join a queue for an instance (say Scarlet Monastery Instance 253, that sort of thing), and other people can look at what spots are filled in that instance (say they can see your class, spec and level), and they can choose to join you and other people already in queue for that particular instance if they are comfortable. I say technically feasible because battlegrounds are instances too, so if cross-realms achievable for BGs, it is certainly achievable for instances. The key thing to making it work is to have a good interface to search for the instances, the automated sort of way for cross-realms BGs is not viable. I have to know before joining what roles are still needed, and what classes are already in queue etc, and I must be able to get this info and search/filter based on some criteria in a clean and effective interface.
To be fair blizz did a few things to increase the leveling speed. Main mechanism for that is added flight paths and shortened flight times. When I originally leveled, Un'goro had no flight path for example.

The trouble here is that it doesn't make the content more varied and it actually doesn't shave off enough time. My guess is (from my own leveling) is that save no more than 15% leveling time due to the changed connectivity situation and the few extra quests (and it's very few).

Really ultimately leveling to level cap should at worst remain constant, at best get somewhat shorter (the flight path effect).

But there are segments of MMO design where lots of lessons are still learned as we speak.

Keeping the leveling game replayable is one of them. Keeping solo endgame replayable is another (kind of amazing that the notion of repeatable quests only so recently got introduced).

Supporting group formation is another (Warhammer may give a stab at this by having this zone based grouping quests).

Overall WoW is very good at keeping the end-game raiding and PVP alive. For the rest a few things got neglected and are only at times being patched up.

But here is a general problem to consider, the way Blizz adds content: Dilution. With people spread about a wider level range, fewer people (except at level cap) fall into the same level range that can quest together (roughly +/-2 levels). In order for the level cap not hurting the sociability while leveling, that bracket would need to increase as well, because just by arithmatic you are less likely to meet people in your range. Paradoxically whole new mid-level zone would make this worse spreading people of the same level out over more area.

I really thought the right move would have been to significantly increase the quest density in existing zones, and in fact keep adding quests as you expand. This naturally keeps people together, increases leveling speed with more quest XP and gives people new things to explore. Trouble is that the visual doesn't change...

Outland has a much better quest density than Azeroth, and is for that reason already much better. The new starter zones also have that feature. Just bringing Azeroth to the same quest density would have helped loads.

Lowering access to mounts would too, first mount at 30, epic at 50 and the tedium of traveling is helped. There are many ways things can be improved with minimal effort actually. Increase the exp gained from kills in the 20-55 range by 10% and those from quests by 15%+. Etc. At least the pain is less even if it looks the same.

All these should be fairly trivial changes that can go on a server in any given patch and don't involve content design. But Blizz really has show to react to not working situations too slow. Just look at the span between TBC launch and 2.1, which is when the raiding game got in any way bearable for the vast majority of veteran raiders.
You really can't have people sitting around in that this long, and the same goes for not fixing the mid-level situation. Alting is at a similar decline as raiding was and probably still is.
In my opinion, you don't really need to add new content to the 20-58 level range.
Maybe the way would be lowering the leveling curve making it faster to level through the said range.
One can understand Blizzard, the more time you spend playing the better, but there's only so much you can do with your main before you grow tired of it.
Leveling an alt would be the way, but the sheer amount of time it would take for you to level it is quite discouraging. I'm leveling an alt priest and it really feels like a chore until i get the final candy which is going with it to the Outlands.
What i can say is that i'm growing more and more annoyed with the fact that the only way Blizzard tries to keep casual and semi-casual players around is by providing mindless grinds.
Why not accelerating the leveling process making it feasible to have multiple alts? That would keep players busy and everyone would have a class to any given role. That would improve the grouping and would keep players happy with a host of alts to choose from at any given time.
You mention power levelling. You also mention people leaving and new people coming into the game. Both these ideas coalesce into something that I only noticed recently, thought may have been around quite awhile for all I know. That is, that many players leaving the game simply sell off their accounts to players coming in. I have teenage sons and this is something I see among the kids, with accounts sales posted on several local-country versions of e-bay.
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