Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 15, 2009
MMO sequels

Third and last post on questions from the open Sunday thread. But I'll tackle the question of "How do you create EQ3 with out dividing your player base by 3?" a bit wider, and will talk about MMO sequels in more general terms, so as to cover Blizzard's upcoming next MMO as well.

So you have a company that produced a popular MMO, and you want to reinvest the money into making a new game, again a MMO, because you think that is the core competency of your company. What goals would you typically set yourself?Unfortunately there are no known cases of MMO sequels that reached these goals. The sequel to Ultima Online was announced and then cancelled *twice*, for fear of destroying the original. Asheron's Call 2 was a complete flop. Everquest 2 probably has the crown of "most successful MMO sequel", but never reached the subscription numbers of the original EQ at its peak. So, what happened, and how could you do better?

The main problem is finding the balance between keeping the old and creating the new. For reasons of brand awareness as well as making the new game cheaper to produce, there is an obvious attraction of making the new game a "improved" version of the old game, using the same name, related lore, and making a world which is similar to the old one, moved a millenium into the future or the past, or struck by some cataclysm. And of course the people you have available to work on the new game are those that already worked on the old game, and are likely to retain similar game design ideas. It should be obvious that this approach can't fulfil our two goals. If the new game is just a new and improved version of the old game, it will either succeed and completely kill the old game, or it will be not quite as successful, and only split the player base. Very few people play several subscription MMOs in parallel, so if your new game is mainly attracting players of the old game, you can't possibly win.

So as strange as it might sound, your best bet is a new game which the core player base of your old game positively hates. The perfect sequel for Everquest is Free Realms, not EQ2 or EQ3. In that case the new game is more accessible to a wider audience, targets a different core player base, and has lots of unique selling points which are completely different from those of the old game. Free Realms will undoubtedly peak at a much larger number of players than Everquest, and it won't cannibalize EQ1 or EQ2. Goals fulfilled, bingo!

Of course things are never black and white, and there is a wide field between making a pure sequel and making a completely different new game. I do believe that Blizzard's new MMO will be somewhere in the middle. They recently confirmed again that yes, it will certainly be a completely new IP, not WoW2 or World of Starcraft or World of Diablo. But many of the people making the new game will be from the WoW team, including Jeff "Tigole" Kaplan. The talk on "directed gameplay" he gave at the GDC09 makes it obvious that Blizzard still strongly believes in a game design in which players are steered in the "right" direction by quests and incentives. There is some hope that the new game will be a different genre than fantasy, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had linear advancement, and the game guiding you through the content by various means, instead of giving you complete freedom.
You do win something by converting your entire playerbase form version 1 to 2. People won't keep playing version 1 forever. And then they'd better move to your version 2 and not to that shiny new mmo of the competition.

I think that ideally everyone who played version 1 plays your new game plus a number of extra people. You have to stick to your main audience but make it more appealing to people outside your main audience.

It's a bit like the Wii: nintendo fans who bought the previous versions bought it but it also opened a huge new market. Yes, people will stop buying those gamecube disks but they will buy *your* new disks. It's better that they buy yours then buy a shiny new x-box 360. Imagine if they didn't make the wii to prevent their old consoles from selling...
EQ3. It's an interesting subject. I think SoE have realised that Everquest is a hot property and want to keep milking it. I for one would love to see another Everquest game as I'm now tired of EQ2.

When I was in school, I remember being told about the life span of a product and how every product decreases in sales until temporarily boosted by a new twist. This is why we constantly see new variants of toothbrushes, cereals, drinks etc. It's about keeping the brand alive and why MMOs have expansions.

It will be very interesting to see how the new Blizzard MMO works out and what market they are targetting. They've probably forcasted that WoW will eventually decrease in popularity and want to cash in on the initial sales and subscriptions before it happens.
If you could find a way to allow players of your old MMO to port their characters (or rather, selected attributes of their characters) to the new MMO without completely disrupting the balance of power in the new game, that would have the potential to hook a lot of players.

How exactly you'd do this is open for debate. Things to consider:

1. A level 1 toon that results from a port from Old Game to New Game can be given a small head start over players who have only played New Game, but not a huge one.

2. Many players invest emotionally in their characters; if you can transport the essence of the character w/o the power that would ease the transition.

3. Of course, the game worlds have to be reasonably comparable for this to work.
Missing from your post is the entire population of players who played an MMO, got bored, and moved on. WoW has 11 million players, but the far bigger number is the amount of players who played WoW and have since quit. If Blizzard simply made WoW 2.0, not only would they get a decent chunk of that 11 million, they would also get a huge amount of those who have already moved on.
I wonder how accurate your first MMO Sequel Goal is. Or rather, maybe that is the goal of any MMO sequel, but it isn't the threshold for success. MMO2 should attract enough players such that the income from MMO1 + MMO2 - costs of MMO1 - costs of MMO2 > the same equation without the MMO2.

Really, cannibalizing some players from MMO1 is to be expected, which is why I suspect that any MMO1 is going to receive fewer resources if there's an MMO2 on the table than it would have as an only child.
It's not a true comparison, since they're not MMORPGs, but there has been at least one successful MUD sequel.

Gemstone III was a very popular Genie/AOL game, and Simutronics released a sequel called DragonRealms. Used the same world, set in a different point in history, and was a pretty different game.

Both games continued to grow and post very similar numbers, often times 2500 players playing at once. They're both still around, and doing better than you'd expect considering the lack of graphics.
Some of my favorite games from back in the old DOS and win95 days let you import your character from the old game into the new one. The characters you imported were better geared and started out a bit better. If it were wow it would be like starting out with a nice set of blue or bad set of purples.

To me that would be the ideal situation for a similar game. Notify everyone its being turned off on XX date. Import thier characters and accounts and just let them buy the new box and keep going. Then all that emotional bond they have with thier old character just moves to the new game.
The way WoW works now, each new expansion is really like a new WoW game. Players move from the old WoW into the new WoW and seldom look back.

I could see a WoW expansion at some point including a new graphics engine.

The only difficulty is that the characters get more complex with each expansion -- new talents, new abilities, etc. How long can Blizzard keep escalating that without making the game too complex for a brand new player?
Asher, I don't think complexity is the issue these days; its how a brand new WoW player is supposed to have any goddamn fun long enough to worry about getting to level 120 or whatever it ends up being. The first what, 5-10 days of playtime will be in the dead pre-WOTLK world, where he will be spit on as a noob and ignored by most.

I really can't imagine a more miserable gaming experience than novice to MMOs playing WoW for the first time.
@Toxic: If they're new to MMOs, or new to WoW, the first 3-6 months will be spent pre BC.

I say now what I've been saying, which is to raise the starting level, and rehaul all the zones to match the higher level. Progress the game. WoW2 for me, would be not a new game but an expansion that cannibalizes the old world, makes it progress into "the future" by a few years, and changes the landscape enough that people know where they're at, but it's new, and different (sort of like old stratholme or old hillsbrad is the same place you know but different).

Start everyone at 30 or 40, make the starting zones be the same level, move all other zones up in level, and make old end game zones (like silithis) equal to the new end game zones (level 90 or 120 or whatever).

Every three expansions you move the time line forward, move the game forward, and start people off at a higher level. You don't lose the old audience, you make it easier for new players, and if done well, they could easily make starting zones a tutorial zone that can teach kiting, tanking, and healing.

That's my opinion, and that would be my goal, if I ran things.
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