The Soapbox: The counterproductiveness of limited-time content in online games

    
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While thoroughly enjoying playing Astroneer’s special event in honor of Apollo 11’s moon landing 50th anniversary that’s happening now through August 31st, I was surprised to come across grumblings about how this and the free special summer skins were offending players. Complaints about gating content behind limited-time events were driving some players to declare they will never play again, or insisting it would have dissuaded them from bothering to purchase and play the game altogether. Wait, what?

I admit, I was kind of taken aback by that. After all, this event is doing limited-time events right; Astroneer has pulled me in and I am having more fun than ever. But after that initial surprise of the statements wore off, while thinking about all the ways System Era is doing it right, I could also see the ways that limited-time events are done wrong throughout gaming. And when they are done wrong, they do dishearten, frustrate, and even chase players away. I know, I have been there. So I can better understand initial negative reaction to hearing something is for a limited time only. I’ve felt that way, too. I even discussed the topic in a previous Massively Overthinking.

So limited-time itself is not the problem. But there’s definitely a wrong way to do it. And when limited-time things are done wrong, that can be be the opposite of fun, and ultimately damaging to games.

The salesman

Too often the phrase “time-limited” appears to be used to create a false sense of urgency or scarcity meant to spur people to purchase without thinking. This is especially true when the limited-time is extremely short or supply very low. Who wouldn’t resent high-pressure sales tactics? It’s like a pushy salesman who needs an answer right now: I just say good-bye and walk right away from them. Who can’t call to mind some examples various cash shop trickeries like limited-availability items? Yes, this tactic this is bad.

If this special something is only for days or a week, chances are plenty of folks — including me — would be prevented from it by the mere existence of real life. Just drawing from a recent personal example that compounded a death in family, illness, and caring for someone with special needs, I most definitely missed out on any limited-time gaming things during my forced time offline. Add in people’s vacations, moving, or maybe, just maybe, taking a short break to enjoy that thing called life, and you could easily miss a couple weeks or a month of your favorite game. Being penalized for that makes folks less happy with a game, so why run that risk?

One example in my own experience was the land rushes of ArcheAge — most notably after server merges. If you weren’t right there at that moment with your perfect connection, you lost out. I lost my entire housing development that took me almost three years of patience and in-game gold deals to acquire. I have not been back.

The needy long-term relationship

Limited time doesn’t have to be short in duration, either. Events that force you to be there every day in order to succeed are also wrong and frustrating, even if — especially if — it is a long-term thing. Sometimes I log in and participate, and other times I simply can’t. Neither option makes me a happy player. There have been times I have come to resent a game when I felt forced to log in and grind instead of log in to play. I hate feeling forced! That already sets me on edge (if I do not outright rebel). I have done it to get something I really wanted — but not without serious consequences.

I’ve actually gotten to the point where even thinking of logging in makes me unhappy and aggravated, which drives me away from the game. I remember well (while shuddering) going for the Doomboard achievement in The Secret World and then avoiding the game for quite a spell afterward. Isn’t that the opposite of what studios want?

Other times, I have done that long term grind (or even easy daily log in like The Elder Scrolls Online) and then because of one real-life circumstance, missed that ultimate goal near the end. Oh, that’s a whole extra level of frustration! I know I have had experienced missing out by just a bit many times, but (thankfully?) my mind is protecting me from those memories. Right now, the only one I can easily recall is the whole year-long Indrik mount thing in ESO can make you just want to give up when you miss one part (though luckily it has some wiggle room to make up for some parts).

Sometimes, I just can’t do it at all. I just have to accept I know it won’t be possible and I ignore it. In fact, I pretty much ignore the game. As with a particular MapleStory 2 example recently, I very much wanted the special item offered during Duck Days: a ducky hot air balloon is just so me. But I needed to be in game grinding for that every single day for weeks. I knew that there was no way, so instead I stopped logging in altogether after the first couple of days. I haven’t been back yet. I’ll play again, but I feel no real draw to it any time soon.

The ‘in’ crowd

Additionally, I can understand the unhappiness with the idea of limited-time offers/items that end up excluding players, making an us vs. them scenario. Feeling left out, especially purposefully, is never a fun thing. Most folks should be past the whole In Crowd thing, and our games should not be fostering that kind of divide.

I understanding feeling the pride of being a part of something, or being with something for a long time, or even putting a lot of effort into earning something. But that doesn’t justify making newer players, players who missed something due to RL, or future players who are looking to join feel like less of an asset to the game. They are! Without those new folks, those folks who return, and those casual folks who are sticking with it, the game will die and be gone for everyone. There are ways to have all of this and still still include all once, now, and future players.

This does not include, however, initial founders/supporters or games. Special items given as rewards before a game launches is another topic. However, once the game is out and events are happening, they should be recurring so everyone can ultimately get the chance. One that really irritated me was the Revenant ARG rewards for Secret World Legends. A pack might be purchasable from the Steam store if you have the game on Steam; I can’t tell since I don’t have it on Steam. This leads me to being super annoyed that special exclusive packs were being given to folks if they moved their SWL account to Steam.

Missing out on story

A bit related to the In Crowd is missing out on major content, especially story content. As much as I thought I liked the idea of living, changing worlds, I have discovered that I really do not like when a world is changed to the point that I can never experience major parts of its gameplay or story. I really get turned off by missing story. For me, an example is the whole destruction of Lion’s Arch event (and loss of all the first season) in Guild Wars 2. Life prevented me from getting to experience it all and now I can never do it! That story content is dead and gone. I lost all interest in the game and never bothered to log in until I was enticed back for brief moments by the new mounts.

There’s a right way to do it

Just because there are many wrong ways to do limited-time events does not mean there are no right ways. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, Astroneer has done it quite right with the Apollo 11 event. Stay tuned to next week’s Survivalist for a even more on why limited-time doesn’t have to be a dirty word! Until then, feel free to share what your worst experiences with limited-time was.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Saying ‘You can never acquire this.’ after said period to your customer who wants to run around with X item, is essentially met with ‘Well, you can’t have my money then, b*(#@$’. That’s basically on the company for shoddy practices.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

My first introduction to this was back in Guild Wars when they were promoting Factions. They had two special quests outside of Lion’s Arch resisting to the new campaign. At the time, I had just gotten to Lion’s Arch for the first time and wanted to get the related area quests done first. However, the special quests were removed before I could do them. It left a butter taste in my mouth, because it was content I wanted to do, but now couldn’t.

The second time was when Factions released, they had a special event for the opening weekend. I was working that weekend, and had family obligations afterwards, so couldn’t play. Again more content I missed out on.

I tend to agree with a lot of what MJ says here, but I think I am also in agreement with Schmidt in that there is no good way to do this type of content. The one exception is content that repeats on a regular cycle and offers the ability to get the same rewards and such year after year – like how some MMOs do their holiday content. Even if it ends up being the kind of annoying, grindy content, at least I know I can take a break and just continue to work on it the next time the content comes around.

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Schmidt.Capela

From my point of view there is absolutely no right way to do time-limited content; if the game uses it, or used it at any time in the past, it makes me far less likely to play, or spend money on, the game. Heck, I hate time-limited content enough that I often stop playing the game altogether while the limited content is available, and leave the game permanently if any of the limited rewards is something I truly desire.

And yeah, Astroneer’s time limited event does make it very unlikely I will ever bother with the game despite loving the genre, unless someone makes it possible for me to enable the event on command on my end.

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Jeromai _

But hang on, isn’t the conceit of playing an MMO the very idea of a persistent world where things change around you and keep on going even when you’re not logged in or tuned into it?

That seems counter to the conceit that all story, content and rewards (and maybe even other players to help) should be readily available on demand, whenever one is ready to enjoy it?

;)

So we end up with a) a mountain of content and rewards that doesn’t go away, causing players to feel overwhelmed by the to-do list to catch up to current events, or b) time limited events with cosmetic or non-playing field changing rewards, causing some other players to argue that the rewards are meaningless and there’s no real need to bother participating, or c) some other permutation with its own drawbacks.

I’d go for allowing the rewards to repeat, in a semi-timely fashion, say once a quarter per year, or once a month per quarter.

And possibly making some portion of the rewards consumable or a currency (aka always a reason to get more of them).

And yet the story and world impact of the time limited events changes and is forward moving. If a player misses it due to rl constraints, that’s too bad, it’s a changing MMO world, and they weren’t there, just like I have no grasp of the story movements of WoW, EQ2 or FF14, because I didn’t play or buy all the expansions and wasn’t there experiencing the moments of change. Players can get caught up with a timeline summary and move on from there.

But they don’t miss out at a chance at the rewards (ie. not exclusive) because chances to earn the currency will recur with each event. They may have to choose and prioritize what they want, if they have less currency than the hardcore daily players, who would be able to earn it all, but they can get it eventually, over time, as each new event drops. Imo, that’s the fairest compromise possible.

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Robert Mann

I think you missed the point of the article. It was about how you can do B. very badly, by not allowing a person to have a life outside the game, or by making it a pain instead of something fun. I mean, I’m very much a virtual world constantly changing as the goal type of person, it is what really draws me toward the genre… and I’m quite on board with what was being said, because it’s true for most people (including me often enough).

The other thing is that we don’t really have any games that do this worth a darn right now.

I fail to see the harm in making it less of a hardcore “Log in each day to get the end goal item” slog. Even lawyers and politicians allow for sick days, are we really trying to one-up them there?

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TomTurtle

I thought of that about GW2 as well when I read the title of this article. It also didn’t help that much of the content in that season was poorly done.

I think one compromise for limited-time events is to either repeat them in the future or make the rewards still earnable but maybe take a while longer to complete.

Just don’t do what GW2 did where the main story and content was thrown away entirely.

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Daniel Reasor

Given how long ago I began playing Star Trek Online, I should have every limited time offer event ship in the game. I think I have two, off the top of my head, I’ve never flown either one, and I very well might not finish the grind for this summer’s Risa event ship in time to get that one. Whatever the psychological trick behind these events is, I just get bored before the payoff can arrive.

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EmberStar

Which is probably better than getting so burned out that you need to quit the game for two months after each event. People defend them because the daily task is usually “not that time consuming and super easy.” But you’re expected to do it 25 times, and at least this summer the event doesn’t last long enough for you to afford to miss many days at all. And something that “only” takes ten or so minutes per day still turns into almost four hours of your life spent flying through holographic hoops.

Depending on where the randomly selected “tracks” are for the day, I’ve had it take ten minutes or more to finish with the basic disposable jetpack you can buy with in-game credits, or the cheapest one you can purchase with event currency. The ones that actually handle better and move faster require you to spend a lot *more* time grinding for event currency. And the jetpacks are completely useless except during the event, because you can’t even activate them most anywhere else in the game.

In my opinion, Star Trek Online is definitely *not* in the category of “doing time limited events well.” :( Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to be a good little rat and fly through the holographic hoops for my cheese today.

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Anstalt

In my opinion, limited time events need to be all about the experience, and nothing to do with rewards.

By having limited-time, unique experiences that not everyone experiences, you really stimulate the notion of being in a living world. You make each player’s experiences during their game time more unique in comparison to other players, you give them unique experiences to talk about with other players who haven’t experienced it.

GM events are a perfect example of this. They aren’t repeated, there’s usually very few rewards for doing them, certainly nothing that would upset balance or progression. They are fun to experience, fun to talk about, fun to look forwards to, but you lose nothing is you happen to miss it.

On of my favourite limited-time events was Hobnanigans in LotRO (for those who haven’t played, it was basically 5v5 field hockey with chickens as the ball!). It’s a unique experience compared to the rest of the game so it’s a fun diversion. I think it arrived with the very first summer festival in 2007, but due to whatever issues it wasn’t turned on again for another 3 or more years. For those of us who were there that first year, it was a lot of fun and a unique experience compared to others. It became a talking point between players, increasing social bonds and community. Those who didn’t participate (or couldn’t for years) didn’t lose anything because there were no rewards.

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kgptzac

Apart from Guild Wars 2’s idiotic approach to abandon the replayability of early part of Living Story, I don’t think games tend to offer non-trivial content based on time-limited events. Rewards for these events are virtually all cosmetic and trivial, and they sits legitly on the “effort vs reward” scale.

The disappointment of not getting these items are exaggerated. I believe those who aren’t in the business of writing online gaming news would not play 10 F2P games simultaneously, and then have dozens more such games on back burner. These events reward commitment, and I see nothing wrong with not getting certain virtual pixels for not committing to a game.

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EmberStar

Except for Star Trek Online, which offers yearly repeating events with non-yearly, mostly never repeated unlockable ships. Usually the grind for those is both “easy” in that it only takes about ten to fifteen minutes in a single day. And insane, because you’re usually required to do that about 25 times. They also tend to happen in fixed locations, so if you want to get any other content done you’re losing at least some amount of travel time reaching the event area after every time you pause to do something else.

These ships are gameplay affecting, and to a lot of people are *very* non-trivial because they’re one of the only ways to get a Tier 6 (the highest rank) starship without paying real money for it. The only saving grace is that after the first few years(!) they switched from being something you had to unlock per character, to becoming mostly account unlocks. That’s not universal, since the Obelisk alien-themed carrier was originally an event ship tied to a storyline celebrating the return of Micheal Dorn as Worf. That ship is still only obtainable as a for-cash purchase, or a per-character in-game purchase that requires you to have access to a player guild/fleet that has spent a fairly considerable amount on raking up. (I consider Lobi crystals to be a cash-equivalent currency, because the only way to get them is via opening lockboxes. Someone, somewhere paid for the cash store coins for the keys.)

What’s worse is that the STO event ships are distributed unevenly through the year, with one in the summer, then two almost back to back for the Winter event and Anniversary event. I’m fairly sure that the Winter/Anniversary grind of logging in to do a “simple” event task basically every day for something like 40 days has burned a lot of people out so hard that they simply quit and never return. Either because of the grind itself, or from resentment that real life happened and they *couldn’t* participate.

The other problem I have with time limited events is the almost automatic stench of elitism that goes with it. Go to almost any game forum where such events have happened, and dare to make a post that you’d really like to have a chance to get an event weapon/item/ship/skin. People will appear within seconds to defend *excluding* you, because somehow their own sense of self worth is partially defined by “I have it, you don’t, nya nya nya.” Even in Warframe, a game with a fairly open and generous community, there has been repeated waves of complaints and whining over the last few years as the developers have actually made most “time limited” items available again for newer players. “The Rift Sigil used to make me feel special, but I just saw one on some MR 3 scrub and it made me feel sick.”

laelgon
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laelgon

I actually like time-limited content when there’s a good reason for it to be limited. If your game world is changing overtime as part of the world’s story, then having those had-to-be-there moments adds something to experience. Where it gets tricky is when you have personal character stories mixing in. GW2’s problem with the living world season 1 was that the rest of the story before and after focusses so heavily on you being the hero, rather than just an inhabitant of the world.

As for time-limited items from events, it depends on the event. I hate the way ESO does their events, which basically are just “Make sure you log in every day on as many characters as possible, and fill out this checklist.” And even then that’s usually just for a chance at the cosmetics you want, but they’ll dangle the cash shop option at the same time. I do like limited run cosmetics when they’re available for participating in a major event without treating it like a job.