Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
1,000 hours per year

Various surveys over the years showed that MMORPG players on average spend around 20 hours per week with their favorite game, that is 1,000 hours per year. As a consequence of the RealID debacle I turned on parental controls for my World of Warcraft account, and the weekly play time reports Blizzard sends me confirm that I too play around 20 hours per week. That makes over 6,000 hours since the game was released, so it isn't really surprising that I and many others (see comments in yesterday's thread) are somewhat burned out.

But still the question remains whether it would be possible to make a game in a way that players *don't* burn out when playing it 1,000 hours per year for several years. Basically there are two major axes along which a game can entertain for thousands of hours: Content and replayability. Of these, content is currently the focus of most game developers: Blizzard made a huge effort to tell more engaging stories in Cataclysm using a mix of quests, phasing, scripted events, and cutscenes. And Bioware promises epic storytelling as the "fourth pillar" of their upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG, with "over 50 novels worth" of voiceover text.

I have repeatedly voiced my doubts about that approach. It is not that I don't believe that games can't tell stories well. But I do believe that they usually do it well only for shorter blocks of time. If you play through lets say a Call of Duty game in 10 to 20 hours, you will have experienced a gripping story. Keeping that level of story-telling up for 1,000 hours and more is a challenge that hasn't been met yet. Even voiceover is no help when ultimately the game goes back to telling you to "kill 10 womp rats".

Replayability is about "making interesting choices", the hallmark of a good game according to Sid Meier. Unfortunately MMORPGs don't appear to have made much progress in that area in the last decade. In some areas the making of interesting choices even regressed, due to the growing popularity of MMORPGs leading to theorycrafters finding the mathematically optimal solution, thereby eliminating choice. Game developers also contributed to that, by trying to make their games more convenient, and less punishing, thereby eliminating the *need* to make a right decision. The only thing we gained since Everquest is better technology that enables us to play much faster, thus making a "do not stand in the fire" type of challenge possible. Unfortunately "not standing in the fire" is *not* an interesting choice, and ultimately boils down to reflexes and excellence of execution. It makes it possible to fill 1,000 hours of gameplay with 10 hours of wipes each for 100 different raid bosses, but that isn't everybody's idea of fun.

Replayability suffers a lot from different MMORPGs having so similar basic gameplay. An Everquest player frozen for a decade and thawed up at PAX East to play a SWTOR demo would have found the controls and combat very familiar, just prettier and faster now. If anything the choices are less interesting now, because in a modern game randomly mashing buttons has a higher likelyhood of success and a much lower penalty for failure. That carries the risk that players burn out in a new game much quicker than they burned out in the previous game. Once the player consumed all the new content of the new game, the gameplay isn't holding him, because he was already bored of that from the start.

I do believe that if MMORPGs want to ever make the next quantum leap in popularity, developers will have to come up with new forms of gameplay that offer more interesting choices, and thus better replayability. Chess has been doing quite well for hundreds of years, in spite of it having lousy story-telling. Instead of creating interactive television, which by nature is limited in the number of hours of entertainment it can provide, developers will need to remember some of the core values of game design. It is hard to fill 1,000 hours per year of gameplay if that gameplay doesn't offer interesting choices.
As an example of replayability, look at how long people have been playing Nethack, Angband and other games of the rogue genre.

Roguelikes offer little to no story, little to no graphics or sound, and some have terrible user interfaces (looking at you, Nethack).

Yet people have been playing those games for decades. Yes it's a niche market, but player retention is better there than even MMORPGs.

The main thing roguelikes offer more than other games is meaningful choices, because choices in roguelikes have consequences, up to and including permadeath (if you die, the game is over and your savefile is deleted).

The problem MMOs have is that meaningful choices require consequences for making a decision and MMOs have moved from the stick to carrot-only incentives, so the customer base expects to be spoon-fed rewards, or at least not punished.
"Once the player consumed all the new content of the new game, the gameplay isn't holding him, because he was already bored of that from the start."

This is so true. it's a fear that I have for Rift really, it's definitely a great change of scenery right now and adding its own twists, but does it really offer enough new features and mechanisms to motivate longterm play, especially for MMO veterans?
I simply don't know. thats why I hope Trion's financial standing will go well enough to allow them to improve the game and invest more time and development in things like endgame.

from what i can see right now, Guild Wars 2 will be one MMO trying to go new ways in 2012, at least enough for me to get excited about. featuring no holy trinity is a big plus for me these days - and giving active combat a go might not be the worst thing after all.
No single scripted TV show offers 20 hours a week of content, though some daily soaps approach a quarter of that. Reality TV shows like Big Brother do start to get close to that figure, if you look at the stuff on secondary channels and web streaming.

But a premium cable channel, the thing you pay a subscription for, does. You are, sadly, never going to get 20 hours of Game of Thrones a week. But you don't need to buy a new TV to watch additional shows.
How much content does chess have?
The content is a result of players playing by the rules. Chess ist 99% player-generated content.

And this is, of course, the basic idea of an MMORPG. To create fun rules that players use to generate content for themselves the same way chess, soccer, baseball and really any game that has ever existed does. Only exception would be single player computer games.

Notice that I say 'generate', not 'create'. I consider tools that allow players to design levels for others (player-created content) mostly a bad idea.
I just logged out from Everquest, a game I've been playing since 1999. I logged in this morning at around 10 am and I have finally logged out at 3.25 pm to eat.

I find EQ as compulsive and fascinating now as I did over a decade ago, and I would willingly and happily play it for 20+ hours a week in 2011 just as I have in most of the last near-dozen years. The only reason I don't play it as consistently as that is the wide range of really excellent similar, alternative MMOs.

I know what gameplay I like. These MMOs provide it. I don't need novelty or innovation per se, although good innovations are always welcome. If all the MMOs I currently enjoy stopped all new development and just kept the servers up "as is", I'd still play every evening and weekend just the same for many years to come.
Ive said this on your blog before... many moons ago... the answer is very simple.

A small patch each week, or once a month with quests going live at a certain date.

A story arc that plays out through the life of an expansion that leads to choices to be made. Depending on what options players go for (the dev's can monitor this) depends on what the next part of the story arc is.

10 Quests a week added with an epic sense of involvement and leading to a possible extra dungeon quest.

How hard is it to patch in a npc and a few quests that are relavent to world events? Having a few devs plan put a decent story on the side and making the world slightly more dynamic?

Too easy.

But bliz, and most other game dev's dont have the foresight or creativity to make their worlds dynamic on a week to week basis.
I like the concept behind that idea; I'm not sure I would want to limit it to stuff like '10 quests a week' though. What I'd love to see is a dynamic world that feels alive, either because the devs let a sort of 'script' happen to it week by week, or because players can themselves have such impact on the game's world. one example: eve online headhunter tabloids.

ideally you would have both. it would certainly be fun too, to have developers come up with new things every 1-2 weeks, be it in form of adding mini content but also events like an earthquake re-shaping parts of a map, an invasion happening somewhere etc. instead of saving up tons of new content for a whole expansion, they could work on small alterations on a week to week basis.

now I havent thought it all through or anything, but such a thing would truly be something new and refreshing. it would have to be designed in a meaningful way though. if it's just cosmetic or adding a quest to my questlog, i don't see myself going all euphoric.
I don't think burnout is as big a factor as it is getting hyped to be. At least too me, burnout implies some sort of overdose. An overdose you recover from. "I never want to eat another pizza again." after a week or two of eating nothing else. However, you'll eventually want pizza again. You just ate too much at once.

This doesn't seem like that. I played very little of the new content before I was bored of it. About half way through Hyjal I was ready to quit WoW.

Your Sid Meier quote about good games having choices is the key I think. Even Greg Street made the same claims during Cataclysm's creation. Now look at Cataclysm. The linear quests, the streamlined talent trees, even the two grouping tools (looking for dungeon and the battleground finder). No matter how you play in Cataclysm decisions are rarely made by the players. Choices were either made by the developers (questing and talents) or a computer (dungeons and PvP).

The players I talk to keep saying things like burnout when I ask why they left, but with a bit of digging the answers they give lead me to a different conclusion. Cataclysm was played by the development team before it was released to the public. Players are leaving because there is no game for them to play.

Chess is a game. Checkers is a game. Solitaire is a game. And, yes, even RIFT is a game. WoW isn't anymore. I'm kind of wondering if SW:TOR will be or won't.
My wife convinced me to try Rift - and it's fun. But!

The "but" is the same "but" I think I'll have for SWTOR or even EQ, back in the day: I don't play an MMO for the mechanics; that's only part of the picture. I play for my community, that little circle of players I hop on with and cut up with each day. That's where any and all replayability comes in for me. Lord knows these games aren't 'hard'.

So, WoW is my 'home' - because of my guild and my friends and my RL folks that play with me on the same server. Mechanically, even graphically (really), nothing differentiates one world sandbox from another after a few weeks of play. Is Battlefield 3 really that different than Halo? Is WoW really that different than Rift? Am I really logging in because I dig the game per-se, or is it because slaying internet dragons with my group of friends is fun?

I agree there could be a lot of innovation in the field, but in the end, what separates the MMO space from anything else in gaming is the social aspect. That's really what keeps people logging in - not the difficulty, not the variety of internet dragons (after all, 'tank, spank, an don't stand in the fire is the basic mechanic for everything!).. but the community.

Any gameplay that's identical that doesn't have the same community won't last. For Rift and SWTOR, the question's going to be 'are we different enough to make the effort of building community worthwhile to our players?'
Fishing, Golfing, and Racing (to mention a few), tend to lend themselves nicely to the computer game setting. Instead of dumbing down mini-games in mmos, I don't understand why they don't expand on them.
Syl, I agree... but just a suggestion.

What I would like to see is some meaning to PvP other than who has better gear and access to a given dungeon.

Introduce a new BG, say an expanse that would appear to be a siege of one of the main cities.

You either defend your factions city or become part of the siege.

If the defending faction lose the siege/bg... you lose access to the city till you regain it via the same sort of BG.

In the mean time the opposing faction get to use it.

Some minor tweaking to the mechanics... but adds a dynamic sense to the world.
Totally agree with the "dynamic world", and "feels alive" concepts. The more alive a virtual game world feels, the less we even talk about "replayability".

There should always be opportunities for original play in an MMO world, replay should always be a choice.

IMO Cata went backwards on this. Northrend seemed to have an endless world for me, while I literally feel finished with Cata.
It would be nice to have the game choices actually mean something. A great example is the quest in Hyjal called "".

After capturing Marion Wyrmwing you have a choice as to how many times you "soften her up" by hitting her, and then after she gives you the info you need, you can kill her or let her go.

None of the choices mean anything. Hit her one time or 100, kill her or let her live, it doesn't matter. No other events change as a result.

Losing some rep or not having access to a different questline as a result would make that choice mean something. That, in turn, would make re-playing the quest on a different toon a potentially different experience. Let her live once, kill her another time--and the results would be different in game.
@EpicMan: There are people who still play NetHack, for sure, but it's really not that many people. Most people who currently play MMOs would not enjoy NetHack for the decision making, they would hate it for its seemingly arbitrary cruelty.

I've played a lot of roguelikes myself, but they really aren't for everyone. Video games broke out of geek circles and became popular because people moved away from the design principles of roguelikes and early action games that just got faster and faster until you died. Games like that might be a good target for an indie developer trying to tap into nostalgia, but not for a major MMO release.

People have been asking for other things to do in WoW for years, but keep getting put down by the elites and hard-core PvPers who could care less about more options for gameplay:

Solo dungeons.

Player housing.

Tradeskills that actually make things people can use.

Storylines for their characters.

More viable specs for their characters.

WoW simply doesn't have many interesting choices for gameplay. And drastically upping the degree of difficulty of the raiding game, essentially removed that choice as an option for many many players. Big mistake there.

Screw consequences for my decisions. Last thing I want is to be punished for trying to have fun - and pay for it too. Not having it work out is punishment enough. Don't take away my stats, don't take away my experience, don't break my equipment.
If you want nearly unlimited content, you need player generated contend. Ultimately, that is what chess brings. I.e., they don't have to hire ghostcrawlers to come up with new chess games; the chess rules provide the world and humans provide the dynamics. Rollercoaster MMOs are easier to get started (Gevlon's press any key to continue) but require constant development expenditures to keep laying the new rollercoaster track.

In fact, that is the area where I think MMOs can shine: crafting. My AH/crafting experience is interesting. I can make many interesting decisions in a minute. The reaction time of my computer and myself is irrelevant. Almost all of the challenges (except for the AH response times) come from competing with a varying number of humans. I eventually need some new items/content to feel like I'm getting my money's worth, but not near as quickly as if I were consuming instance grinds or another ToC endured for this week.

EVE Online implemented by the A-team Blizzard developers with crafting somewhere between EVE and WoW and perhaps a few ideas stolen from Second Life is something I could see being a viable, ongoing game system that is not totally dependent on "when is the new raid/instance/expansion going to be developed and shipped." I think that is the best formulae for something with many long-term players. But I don't see being able to create that for the next couple of years with WoW being so dominant in the marketplace. But as WoW continues to decline and alternatives rise, I could see something like this getting to critical mass.
I blathered a while back on what I call "keeplayability" as opposed to "replayability". A living, dynamic world can be both, but if there's a significant level of player investment, it would probably function best as a keeplayable game. Replayable games specialize in dynamic player-generated play (as Nils notes, not *content*), but then, they don't tend to involve more than an hour or two for any given session.

The question them becomes, at least for me, do I want to spend 1000 hours playing the same short game over and over with different dynamics (say, Chess, Catan or even MTG) or do I want to play the same game with the same mechanics with the same character for 1000 hours? If it's the latter, I would want at least some of the spice of the former via some dynamic elements to the world and a LOT more control over my character (like full and complete free respecs, all the way down to class, if we're going class-based).
Chess is a bit of a misleading comparison.

Chess is more like a game of counterstrike/CoD/MoH/TF2.

Lobby -> Match -> win/loss -> Return to lobby or rematch.

MMOs shouldn't just be lobbies for fixed matches. APB tried this and was punished by both the matched shooter groups and the MMO market. (It was not a MMO. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.)
@Hagu - I think you're onto something there.

I would not be surprised if all the work that is being done on Titan at the moment is actually research and brainstorming on how to separate from the DIKU model and create exactly what you were talking about.

Or rather, more specifically, how to create something that doesn't fall into that 'wait until the next raid patch' rut. An entirely new paradigm, with the gloss and shine of a team of professionals who are the best at what they do, with a focus on on-the-fly content generation.

Can you imagine a game with WoW's quality that responded to player decisions with solid content that wasn't pre-planned?

Fingers crossed that Titan is exactly that kind of ground-breaking experimental innovation that completely distorts the market AGAIN, pioneering the gold-standard in whatever new paradigm they come up with. Since they've clearly dominated their current one.

I'll be very disappointed if Titan is just World of Starcraft.

...I'll still play it, though.
If an MMO could make player generated content really work, it could have exceptional replayability.
Just a few days ago, one of my guildmates made the observation that a few years back he'd have been devastated if he couldn't look forward to INDEFINITE replay value from his MMO.

These days, 3 months seems like a good run.

I think you are thinking of blowout, not burnout.

A blow-out is a tyre that explodes then becomes useless, or your overdose pizza analogy.

A burn-out is when the motor starts spluttering from continous - but not necessarily intensive - overuse and eventually starts to cough, choke, crawl to a lurch, then die. It might limp along for quite a while before it finally stops for good and cannot be restarted until repaired.
...Much like peoples' enthusiasm. You'll notice anyone who has experienced burn-out often tends to drop their hours back significantly before they finally log out one day and simply stop logging back in.


I definitely do not want to see player-influenced content referencing an individual player or guild. It is usually the same guys who don't have jobs who just play ad infinatum with the elite server-first guild who will be getting all the kudos and having their ridiculous Hunterpwnzu names rubbed in our faces.

I don't want to log in to play World of Darkpallyxxcraft. Those guys get enough e-peen waving in my face with their shiny epix in Org as it is, I don't need my quest-givers talking about them all of a sudden. I play that thing to feel like me and my friends are THE badasses, not just some of the million invisible satellites orbiting the badass.


What the heck is it with the Player Housing crowd? What on EARTH useful purpose does it serve? For every advantage you list, I can list multiple disadvantages.

Where would you put them all? Instances that make no lore sense? Break the world to insert a messy multi-thousand-person ghetto? Have top-ranking guilds competing for ownership of fixed spaces, with casuals not getting a look-in? Have a finite space which needs to be crafted over, a la minecraft, thus open to ridiculous levels of griefing?
And to what functional end? How will it be any different setting your hearth to your home as opposed to the capital city? And what will that then do to the populations in the cities which are kept crowded intentionally for social reasons? If you make houses useful by putting vendors/trainers/bank/mailbox etc in them, you empty the cities. If you make them useless but cosmetic, you squander dev resources on giving people something to touch themselves over in private that no-one else will ever see, or especially care about. Look at the bridge on STO. How often have you visited another captain's bridge to check out their crew and choice of decor? It's utterly pointless except for giving people a private place to RP. Which completely sucks any randomness out of RP for anyone else who wants to watch/join, forcing all RP to be pre-planned. Not to mention causing all sorts of pointless chaos to the system and economy for the gratification of a tiny subset of the community (sorry, RPers).

Think this through, player-housing advocates. It doesn't make sense in a game like WoW.
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Producing 1000s of hours of gripping content is next to impossible, I agree. And interesting choices are one answer to this problem.

But there are three more ways out.

1: pvp with a worldwide ranking system can motivate players in the real world (sports of all kinds). I think this also works in computer games ("e-sports"). That's not the path blizzard has chosen for wow, but they do it with starcraft.

2: change the fundamentals of the game. Things like the class system, the holy trinity, or the core graphics in wow. Problem is, from what I've read, game developers *never* change the fundamentals of a game for risk of losing the core playerbase.

3. Turn a game into the local bar/hangout. If you log in to meet your friends, they can keep you playing indefinitely.

Any game gets boring after 5000 hours /played. Can you imagine playing 1000 hours per year of anything for years on end? Chess? Card games? Soccer? I can't. Wow's no different there.
Titan will be a time-travel game imo, thats how Blizzard will attempt to capture the 1000 hours per year market going forward. The possibilities are endless - the lore will bend like rubber, multiple genres are coverable and expandable into, multiple playstyles can be catered for. If they dont do this they are missing a huge opportunity to stitch the market up completely.

I don't think you're going to see the requests for player housing going away any time soon.

Sure, there are technical/gameplay implications. But for players brought up on UO/Meridian 59, there is a distinct lack of 'World' in WoW.

Perhaps I've spent too long reading blogs, but today I feel like I'm 'consuming content' rather than logging in to be part of an online community. It seems bizarre to me that there are no group activities in the capital cities.
Player generated content is all that can hold me for more than the time it takes to finish content.

Eve-Online. Great player generated content. Wars actually have some sort of impact on the world, which makes the endgame content never-ending, and much interesting over time.
Only downfall is the sheer ammount of time one have to sink into the game to actually be able to participate in the "endgame" content in a meaningful way.
Then the hardware problems eve-online was never able to get rid of, and therefore ultimately made all their efforts useless (still played it for 5 years, until i finally had enough of 20 min serverlag)
Fingers crossed that Titan is exactly that kind of ground-breaking experimental innovation that completely distorts the market AGAIN, pioneering the gold-standard in whatever new paradigm they come up with. Since they've clearly dominated their current one.

If you look at blizzard's track record not a single game of theirs contained an ounce of innovation.

What they do well is design and polish . They know how to take already existing concept and make it more fun and polished. But they never introduced that concept themselves

I mean back when original starcraft came out I was ranting
how Blizzard never makes innovative games (starting with black thorn being a rehash of flashback afair) . and all they could do is make a better C&C while true innovative games (like total annihilation) languished in obscurity

I knew from the start wow would not contain single original idea. But given the fact that how MMO on market looked the polish was a true innovation
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