Massively Overthinking: The one about MMORPG content roadmaps

    
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You know what word I love to hear from MMORPG developers? Roadmap. If you’re a millennial or older, you surely remember roadtrip life before widespread GPS – sitting in a car trying to navigate twisty dirt roads and highways with your paper atlas on your lap. I loved that to bits. Part of what I loved was that sometimes we’d drift pretty far off our planned route. But we usually got to where we were going in the end. We had a map and a plan!

A lot of video games seem to navigate without either GPS or a roadmap, and whatever plan they do have is completely opaque to the players. And this mystifies me. As MOP’s Eliot’s written before, players are extremely comforted to know a live game is going somewhere, and they’ll put up with a lot of missed turns and pure wanderlust along the way, as long as they’re confident the game will get everyone where they’re going in the end.

So for today’s Overthinking, I want to talk about MMO roadmaps, especially in light of the fact that both Black Desert and Elder Scrolls Online just revealed theirs for the next half a year. Which studios are doing this right? Is there such a thing as too much information about the developers’ long-term plans? And which games really, really need to give us more idea of where were going to end up?

Andy McAdams: Roadmaps are super important, but they are often more an Art than they are an objective thing. If you show too much data, people will get upset as things naturally shift and move and change scope during development. And too much information and you are spending all your time updating the roadmap to reflect reality, or you let it get so out of date that’s its virtually useless anyway. Couple that with the fact that people assume a roadmap is written in stone and a firm commitment on delivery timelines instead best-guess-living-document that it actually is, and providing super detailed roadmaps externally to your company is never a good idea.

On the other hand, making a super vague roadmap doesn’t help either because people will assume delivery and scope and then will hold you to their assumptions as truth, which also causes problems. So there’s a balancing act of giving enough information that people don’t make crazy assumptions and not so much information maintaining it becomes a full-time job.

What I can say is that if ZeniMax and Pearl Abyss are publicly sharing their six-month roadmaps, they are feeling pretty confident in their scope and delivery timelines for all of that. I can also guess that that they have at least another six months but more likely 18-24 months of roadmap planned. But the further out you plan from today, the less reliable and less detailed the roadmap becomes.

I can’t think of anyone who’s doing exceptionally well maintaining a roadmap outside of ESO and BDO. Star Citizen’s roadmap is enough of a mess with no clear release or well defined deliverables in sight to be virtually useless to the average player. Camelot Unchained used to give us very detailed weekly status reports, which gives a vague sense of where we are heading, but not a super clear picture. I think the one game that would benefit most from an honest-to-god roadmap would be World of Warcraft. Blizzard has done a wonderful job of making sure that no one really knows what’s coming, completely obfuscating whether it is responding to feedback, and making it crystal clear to even the most uninitiated that it has zero plans to address (or even acknowledge) the biggest complaints with the game.

Most games would really benefit from a well done roadmap, and would really be hurt by a poorly done roadmap, which is probably why so few game companies have public-facing roadmaps – too much risk and inconsistent rewards.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I’ve always loved hearing about MMO roadmaps. It gives you a sense of the ambitions, and even overall health of the studio. I can remember waiting impatiently for the LOTRO producer’s letter detailing what we could expect to see over the next several months. It’s a delicate balance for the studio, though. Share too little and shatter the community excitement. Share too much and you leave nothing for future hype, and risk players holding you to the features and timeline.

I thought ZeniMax did a nice job with that balance during the Dark Heart of Skyrim global reveal. The team shared (mostly at a high level) the themes and zones we could expect to see, without divulging every little detail and backing itself into a corner.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I am betting that a lot of people are going to point to Guild Wars 2 in this piece, and it’s for good reason: ArenaNet has been continually shrinking how much information it gives MMORPG players about the game’s future ever since the run up to Path of Fire. Even its most recent roadmap is extremely short and looked only a month and change ahead with details. It’s a massive and unnecessary problem for the game – an unforced error. Prior to the layoffs, we were able to mentally write it off as bad community management, or more specifically the belief that community managers for the game were being muzzled by execs. But the mass-layoffs last year (and the constant hum of new-game rumors) had the effect of making everyone fear the worst: that the lack of information represented a lack of content, not just a desire to control a narrative.

It’s true that too many details in a roadmap can spell doom, either because it’s too ambitious and can’t be adhered to or because it’s too granular and boring (or both – Star Citizen and Camelot Unchained fall into both of these traps). But even so, I am still confident that they have a plan, even if it’s way off track.

I do want to mention another big title that could use some roadmap injection: World of Warcraft. When WoW has a patch or expansion coming, it does usually pump out a ton of information, and we do have a rough idea when the expansion itself is launching. But almost the very minute N’Zoth hit, the words “content drought” started spilling in comments and subreddits, as it often does when players suddenly realize they’re looking at most of a year with no new stuff. It makes people worry. I wish Blizzard would be more forthcoming about content plans between now and then instead of leaving rumors to fester. Although I suppose what I’m really wishing is that Blizzard had some content plans between now and then. :P We also don’t really know anything about what WoW’s content pipeline will look like after Shadowlands, which is disturbing – again because of the layoffs last year and the supposed infusion of new development on the game that so far hasn’t produced at a more rapid pace but has produced a patch in need of serious polish.

Games like Final Fantasy XIV, Black Desert, Elder Scrolls Online, and Path of Exile keep winning awards because they’re not only getting content but giving us a clear picture of what to expect. Nobody worries about those games. They telegraph security. They generate confidence. And you can’t do that with secrecy or long gaps in content or communication, no matter how amazing the gameplay is.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): I appreciate a roadmap. It’s good to see what’s in the woodwork so you can plan the year around them. A game like Black Desert really benefits from it – it’ll give players a chance to figure out if they may want to switch mains or clear out quests to prepare for the next content drop.

More importantly, it’s proof that the money spent on the game, be it cash shop or subscriptions, is going toward developing something. I still get excited for new content and these things make me want to keep playing. On the other hand, a roadmap also tells me if it’s a good time to take a break from the game too. I wouldn’t want to burn out before the next patch comes out, so taking a break before the big content drop happens also helps me maintain my love for the game.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I, too, adore MMO roadmaps. From ESO to Black Desert to Dual Universe, I think having a rough idea of a release date plan, both for the short- and long-term, is very comforting to know. Heck, you can even dress it up as an image! Go nuts!

There is, of course, a point where too much information is a thing. Camelot Unchained has had this problem, as has Star Citizen with its monthly reports, but that was less about where things are going and more about what was previously done. I’d rather have a solid plan of what’s next, not a condensed recap of what happened before like a “show your work” math problem solution.

As for those doing it right? I gotta nod to Dual Universe’s long-reaching plan, Star Citizen’s ever-updating roadmap (for better or worse; delays happen), and Dauntless’ extremely swish content roadmap website.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): There are at this point basically two games that don’t need a content roadmap: Final Fantasy XIV and The Elder Scrolls Online. That is because both of those games are so astonishingly regular with patches that fans can pace out the next sequence of updates at the start of the year with an error bar of a couple weeks in either direction. In other words, they’ve surpassed the need for it by delivering with startling consistency. (That both of them do reliably offer some form of roadmap, albeit not in year-long chunks, is just icing on the cake.)

That’s not to say no one else is doing it right. Black Desert Online does content roadmaps right, for example. Crowfall, Camelot Unchained, and Pantheon are all deep in development, but all of them seem as if they’re making a plan and working on it rather than just wandering completely into the woods. Star Trek Online and Neverwinter both seem to give a good sense of what’s coming next on a reliable basis. Really, it’s more notable when studios do this badly, and you have teams like ArenaNet leaving you wondering what the heck is next and what the plan is or World of Warcraft facing an uncertain duration of nothing before the next expansion comes out… which is also a pretty solid wall of mystery in terms of content.

But the thing about a good roadmap is that it’s not really anything more than showing a tiny bit of the behind-the-scenes work that should be going on anyhow. It’s giving players a sense that what is happening today is going to feed into tomorrow and on from there, that all of the stuff that’s being changed and added is part of an overall picture of the game for a while. Indeed, I’d argue that a good roadmap is more of a symptom of a game with solid planning at the helm. You see a lack of roadmaps and a lack of clarity when games are flailing, without a clear unified vision that builds on the game’s current foundation instead of trying to erect an entirely new building.

Or, in some cases, trying to change the building partway through construction to keep making the dang thing bigger. (Go ahead and guess which game that applies to.)

A good roadmap isn’t really a matter of telling you what’s going to happen over the next X number of months; it’s a matter of letting you see that there is a plan, that the plan is being worked on, and that someone has an idea of what the game will look like in X months. Sure, real life always changes things, some items might not work out, and so forth. But it’s that sense of a plan and a goal that makes all the difference.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): If players have no idea what is going on development-wise in a game — or even if anything is going on — it can be very detrimental. I believe roadmaps, when done responsibly, are a great way to keep in communication with your community about a studio’s plans and goals. But the kicker is, you have to also make sure you follow up on that roadmap by keeping players regularly informed about progress, and you have to actually make progress! Wen you do that, players can trust that something is coming, and it makes it more likely they will continue to play while they wait. Say what you want about the game’s recent dramas, but Shroud of the Avatar at least at one point did well with keeping a current accounting of its plans with monthly updates laying out exactly where progress was on things. I appreciated being able to see what was being worked on, what was completed, and what had to be deferred or stricken entirely from the list.

Conversely, if you don’t deliver on anything, then your word will be worth nothing, and players will actually become even more incensed. We’ve definitely seen that happen in games where development was too open, so every missed item was another broken promise. The trick is to find the balance. Oh, and avoid hard dates if possible and stick to time frames; those are much easier to meet!

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): By the sounds of things, ESO and BDO are doing things right. I’d say a lot of the Kickstarter games do fairly well with this too.

Having a roadmap just seems like a no-brainer. I understand teams can prefer to keep things close to the chest. Something that involves specific elements that might spoil a story are certainly things that devs can keep to themselves.

However, telling players that there is a story update on the horizon and around when we can expect it is not only good for comforting your players but good for business. Players are going to be more willing to continue playing and buying when they know there is a Future to look forward to. ArenaNet is, of course, a great offender when it comes to communicating with the playerbase.

When players yell and scream in forums (usually), it actually comes from a deep desire to see the game succeed. Often times the noise can be loud and distracting, yes, but it shows that they care. And the least a gaming company can do is put a bit of an outline out there for players to have an understanding that the game is still moving forward.

Tyler Edwards: Roadmaps seem like a nice idea in theory, but in practice they almost never seem to work out to a positive. Most of the time deadlines slip, and people end up rioting. Ask Anthem how well their roadmap worked out.

To actually keep to a long-term public roadmap seems to require cutting a lot of corners. ESO is able to stick to such a predictable content schedule mainly because of the fact it’s just putting out reskinned versions of the same patches and expansions over and over again. The last time they added a major new form of content was Homestead, and that was almost three years ago. [Editor’s note: We’re pretty sure Tyler is using the word “reskinned” rhetorically here, and our readers will already know about content like the Psijic Order and antiquities.]

To be honest, whenever I hear about a game putting out an ambitious roadmap these days, I just wince.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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memitim

The reason there is no WoW roadmap release is because they don’t have one to release, it’s pretty clear they just make it up as they go along.

I feel like MMOs above all genres should have roadmaps and bloody big ones at that, if you can’t tell me what you hope your game will be like in 5 years time (and it only has to be a hope, I don’t expect you to actually stick to it for 5 years without dropping/pushing things or even changing it completely if that’s needed) then I know you’re just going to spend the next 5 years chasing your tail and then wondering how your game got stale and how it’s now unapproachable for new players and how your damage numbers got into the millions so now you have to do a statsquish…I could go on but I won’t…

We already know these games can have massive staying power and it’s about time developers started acting like it.

At the bare minimum I want to know what’s happening this year and if you can’t/won’t tell me that at this point I’ll just assume its:
Q1/2/3: Milk the player base
Q4: Shutdown game.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Nope. Not on the roadmap bandwagon. Especially as a piece of PR. They are as meaningful as cinematics without any actual gameplay footage.

As an actual guide to development, they are the devil. If a dev manages to stick to one, they get no credit. If they deviate, they are pilloried.

No development plan survives first contact with actuality.

(Apologies to Helmuth von Moltke for bastardizing his immortal words.)

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Robert Mann

Roadmaps are something I don’t care about whatsoever. Not only are they just “This is what we kinda plan on” but they are also “It might not happen depending on results and feedback and other things.”

I’d rather that the teams running MMOs keep such things internal, rather than generate the inevitable drama of having them out to the public. There are plenty of things to talk about, with regard to a game, so long as you actually are putting in effort on the title. Roadmaps are the lazy way to say “This is where we are going to go” to the public, and the details of anything being so lacking they could well say “Roadmap goal for February 2020: Combat skill updates.” What is being updated specifically? Are they good or bad for players with those skills? The results are so unknown that the roadmap essentially exists solely so people can say “You missed this date!” or “You didn’t actually do this thing here!”

No thank you. Instead of roadmaps, find any other way to discuss plans and ideas without lining them as “This is what will be” or being completely vague. Goals are important. Roadmaps are not.

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Anstalt

I used to care about roadmaps until I eventually realised that a roadmap bore no relation to my enjoyment. Even if the content and the roadmap matched each other perfectly, roadmaps never contained the level of detail necessary to make any sort of accurate predictions. Most often, new content was dumbed down compared to old content and devs never put that sort of info into their docs.

I really like what CU has been doing.

In particular, I love their Bat Shit Crazy (bsc) design docs.

These design docs, for me, give me an insight into the way the designers are thinking and what they would ideally love their game to do. I am aware of how many things will naturally change and evolve during the development of a game, but by having these design docs and having an understanding of what the devs are thinking, I can remain confident that the final game will still stick to the principles that I care about.

The BSC docs are then backed up with the Beta 1 Doc, which moves from design principles and ethos towards specific features. This is a chance to see whether the devs are sticking to their principles as well as showing me exactly what they have implemented.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this approach can be used by many studios because a lot of studios don’t have an ethos or design goals that would sit well with the players who would actually read them.

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Hikari Kenzaki

I think roadmaps (*) are a great thing for news bloggers to be able to reference back to on the hundreds of games they need to try and keep track of but don’t really have interest in.

I think roadmaps are great for those really loud members of a game community who like to talk about everything the developers have ever done wrong.

I believe they are a crutch used in the absence of constant, regular and ongoing communication of where a project is and where it is going.

*Roadmaps, as they are used by game companies, that is. Roadmaps are effectively a software production tool that has been marketed to the gaming world much like Beta, Alpha and Pre-Alpha before it. The way they are used by gaming is not how they’re used by other software development projects.

Alyn
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Alyn

Road map-uhm yep uh why not?
comment image

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Jiminy Smegit

I know some companies use roadmaps in a sensible way to let their gaming communities know what is coming ahead but to me the word is tainted now. If I hear roadmap, I think of it as a list of the things that a shitty live service game should have had at launch but instead may (or may not) arrive at some point in the next few years, depending on how bad the game tanks and how many devs are dragged off to other projects (or lose their jobs).

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Anton Mochalin

I’ve never cared about roadmaps and I now have a good example to show you why you shouldn’t care about them too.

I’m a Warframe fan and spend quite a lot of time in the game. I watch a couple of Warframe-focused Youtube channels regularly which analyze each Warframe DevStream in detail. As many of you know Warframe team is very good at roadmaps so we knew very well when the new huge Railjack content upgrade (the main part was called Empyrean update) was going to be released. We’ve seen first teasers for the update more than a year (or two?) ago and since then we had a lot of info about it provided for us in the DevStreams and other communication channels. I think DE’s PR and community relations team is really brilliant – that’s really how the communication with players should be done.

The only (non-)problem is that Empyrean update was a flop. It failed to bring new and returning players to the game, the concurrent players count on Steamcharts continued its slow decline just the way it did all these months before the update. And players could never know based on that brilliant roadmapping that the update is going to be not very fun to play. I’m still a Warframe fan and Warframe is still a very good game I still play a lot and I have no doubt DE will bring all that new Railjack gameplay to the level of the rest of the game. As I don’t care much about the roadmaps I didn’t feel any frustration because of that Railjack flop – I still have have that great game called Warframe to play. Moreover I would play the current not-very-fun Railjack content just out of the curiosity and not feel any frustration because I don’t have any overhyped expectations.

I think we have gaming media, bloggers and streamers constantly overhyping roadmaps, announcements and game updates simply because they need something to speak about, something to stream, something to discuss. Those roadmaps and updates are news so media can serve that role of “media” with those news. But an ordinary gamer shouldn’t follow all those hype cycles and stick to the actual fun in games.

Harry Koala
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Harry Koala

One game that has a roadmap in a sense but absolutely could do with a direction of travel is WoW Classic. The roadmap exists in the sense that we already know what content is forthcoming (since it is all 15 years old), and have a reasonable sense of when each piece is likely to appear.

But no-one has any idea of what direction the game is going after that. Nowhere? Start adding new fresh realms for the people who want to do it all again? Move on to TBC? Start adding to vanilla in a completely new direction that doesn’t go down the path of the original game – either just adding more new dungeons and raids in patches, or whole new expansions that go in a different direction than the retail game historically took?

*That* roadmap matters more to me than knowing the release schedule of the next 2-3 batches of raid content.

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Arnold Hendrick

The problem isn’t road-maps, it’s money talking, often at its worst.

Only the most hopelessly mismanaged dev studio lacks a roadmap. With modern SCRUM development practices, stuff for the next release (up to 3-4 months off) can be nailed down with reasonable precision. A few “nice to have” features may fall by the wayside, but managers can look at the backlog, look at the team(s) sprint velocity (i.e., recent past experience), and make pretty solid predictions about what’s likely. If they can’t, they need to retrain the management and their teams in SCRUM.

For the next 3-4 months after that, predictions can get somewhat more difficult, but usually there are higher-level priorities constantly being shuffled to maintain a decent longer-term plan.

However, what to tell customer about this is entirely a different matter.

THE GOOD: In a few rare cases, a senior producer/manager is allowed to tell the truth, usually with a marketing or PR person proof-reading things to make sure it sounds nice. This is rare, but it does happen.

THE BAD: Sometimes marketing calls the shots. Alas, left to their own devices, they mostly want to reveal cool, juicy improvements in sync with their latest marketing “beat” (i.e., promotional effort). In the process, promises may become overblown, overoptimistic, or just plain fantasy. In the worst case, they say whatever they think will make their quarterly sales goal (especially if they’re thinking of switching jobs before the lies come home to roost).

THE UGLY: Sometimes management refuses to allow good development practices, and instead tries to cram their fantasies of “what ought to be possible” down the throats of the dev teams. I call this the “management by fantasy” school. Roadmaps become fantasies of what the leadership wants, rather than what the dev teams can actually do.

These studios typically make the most exciting and interesting announcements, and just as typically, fail to deliver. A certain empire in the clouds comes to mind. Now, in the defense of “management by fantasy” CEOs, they understand what they need to promise to get more funding for their company. They often figure that without that money, they’ll die. With the money, they can dance around past promises and distract gamers with shiney new promises for the future.

THE VERY UGLY: Here studio managers must make promises to a publisher – to get the money to keep operating. Publishers are frequently clueless about good development practices, and regularly fall back on “management by fantasy” by demanding an impossible list of features in each milestone. The dev studio relies on increasingly transparent excuses and “pretty much working” milestones to survive as long as they can. But sooner or later, the publisher loses confidence in the dev studio. Depending on legal arrangements, the project and dev studio may die, or just the studio dies while the project is moved to another studio.

If a publisher controls a studio to this degree, the publisher inevitably controls the marketing. The marketing typically works from the features laid out in the milestones, and feels betrayed when deliveries fail to have all those features. To avoid egg-on-face, the publisher says the developer is/was incompetent.