Massively Overthinking: Deleting pieces of MMOs to save them


Two ideas floated across my virtual desk in recent weeks, neither directly relating to MMORPGs, but they put the nugget of an idea in my head that most definitely is. First came the press release for Someday You’ll Return, which was boasting of cutting content ahead of launch, of chopping out “hours of superfluous content, making the game better as a whole.” My gut (and probably wrong) reaction was that it seemed like nice spin for nuking unfinished launch features, but I didn’t think about it too hard – it’s not an MMO, after all.

But then a guildie linked me to this Vic Davis blog post about something even more removed from MMOs: specifically, the classic film Escape From New York. Apparently, it was supposed to have a lengthy prologue, but the director cut it because it was confusing and wrecked the lead character. In other words, it was an example of deleting something that really did improve the overall experience.

With both random ideas in my head together, it clicked for me. Not only is this something I do every day without really thinking about it (edit and curate our content), but it’s very much an MMORPG problem – or solution – after all. For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’ve asked our writers to reflect on the MMO genre and come up with an example of when an NGE actually helped – when deleting something from an MMO was or potentially could be an improvement and not just an excuse or a step backward.

Andy McAdams: I’m really struggling with this one. Features in games (or any software for that matter) are like toothpaste: really hard to put back in the tube after you get it out. It’s hard to remove features once they’ve been launched, and not just from a customer perspective. There’s often technical dependencies that are completely transparent to players. We tend to think of features like silos that we can drop in and pull back out with impacting anything around it. The reality is that systems like software don’t work that way.

In terms of things that I think could be made better – hard to say. I agree with Sam (below) that Guild Wars 2 removing or at least downplaying raids would probably be a good move for them, but they have drawn all the wrong conclusions from the “people are don’t doing raids” message players have sent them. I also think fast-travel in GW2 should be removed or rethought. The only way we really have to understand the scope of the worlds we play in is time to traverse, and I think fast travel really undermines that experience. At least, fast travel as it’s currently implemented. I think there are better ways to get to a similar outcome without the lost sense of travel and space.

For GW2/ESO, maybe re-inventing the limited action set. In theory, I really like the idea of a limited set of abilities that you can use at one time, and it makes balancing those classes much easier but it removes some of the complexity of playing the game. Granted, I might use the same eight abilities 90% of the time, but having the option to use that situational ability 10% of the time goes a long way to adding to the depth of the gameplay. Saying, “Oh, I did because I didn’t have this particular skill slotted. Let me fix that!” is a lot less gratifying than saying something like, “Oh wow, I almost missed getting off in time so I almost died, but didn’t, whew what a rush!”

I think removing the ability to use damage parsers natively in WoW would dramatically change that game for the better.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): A lot of things that I view as “nukable” due to their unnecessary complexity and/or grind are viewed by many as enhancements to immersion. Take the travel system in LOTRO, for example. Stables only have routes to certain other stables. Getting from one side of the map to the other can be akin to a tourist trying to figure out the New York public transit system. Is it realistic? Kind of. Is it a good travel mechanic for a video game in 2020? Not even close. It should be nuked, but many would miss it if it weren’t there. I’ll even go on record once again as saying that the trading guild system in ESO should be nuked, just to bring out the ESO economy purists. :)

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): This turns out to be a way harder question than I thought because now that I have to answer it myself, I realize a lot of the examples popping into my head are corner cases. Ultima Online relinquishing its early gankbox mentality. Star Wars Galaxies removing player city PvP bans. H1Z1 deleting objectionable outfits. World of Warcraft abolishing factional class restrictions. Guild Wars giving up on its prohibition on full-hero parties. City of Heroes gutting enhancements and hard-locked factions.

Here’s one almost no one will remember: Glitch actually deleted its entire housing system after launch, deleting everyone’s houses, so it could put in a completely different housing system (which turned out to be much better because it ensured everyone could actually have one and also added full customizability to the system). And more recently, the dramatic deletion of most of the content in Trove’s Shadow Tower turned out to be a net positive, too, since it was a huge drain on the technical resources of the game for everyone.

But generally, deleting large swathes of MMOs, from SWG to Aion to GW2 to Cryptic’s Foundries, is met with resistance and discontent, and that’s probably how it should be. I think I’d always rather things be retooled than removed.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): I like how FFXIV removed the redundant stat allocation; they were so pointless in the grand scheme of things when it came to that game. Removing the requirement to have a level 15 character in order for your main class to achieve unlocking its job was also a great choice. It really slowed down the pace of the leveling. While it did add some flavor for the class fantasy, it made it quite a slog. I don’t really know if that’s considered “nuking” per se, but it was a removal that was much appreciated.

I’m really struggling to find any other major “nukes” in the games I played, but most of them aren’t really nukes. They’re more along the lines of major changes to the metagame. I mained assassin in the original Guild Wars, and I wasn’t a huge fan of shadowform farming, and I felt the shadow prison assassin build attracted folks that weren’t good at being assassins. I was happy when those builds got nerfed because I didn’t like seeing assassins with shadowprison flooding Fort Aspenwood. It was a pain in the butt. The assassins who just farmed with shadow prison, to me, went against the spirit of the class. But I know I’m a major minority. The last months of Guild Wars prior to the launch of its sequel were dominated with ursanway builds that pretty much made it so that the class people picked no longer mattered. I’m pretty sure those last months helped inform the developers of Guild Wars 2 on what kind of gameplay mechanics they’d like in those games.

I guess I can say the same thing for the hard nerf to the monk’s spirit bond. It made it nearly impossible to kill anything with such a powerful healing build, and it helped move things along in the meta.

So for me, I’m just most happy about small removals rather than large scale changes.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Game developers have to acknowledge that not every new feature, system, or other piece of content is going to be a hit — and that, occasionally, it will hurt the game overall. For me, a prime example of this was the “radiance” stat in Lord of the Rings Online, which came out during Mines of Moria (way back when). This was one of those extra stats that was made solely for the purpose of grinding gear with said stat on it just so that players could run dungeons without incurring great penalties. Devs, players loathe this kind of move because it forces them down a very specific corridor of progression and removes other gear selection and prior accomplishments. After a long while, Turbine finally yanked radiance from the game and at least didn’t keep pushing it going forward. That was better than continuing to dig a deeper hole hoping to come out of it. So sometimes, yes, it’s better to cut a dead or decaying branch when it’s not working in your game for the health of the entire MMO.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I don’t think anybody but the most nostalgic misses corpse loss in EverQuest. I am not sure if that ever counted as a “feature,” though.

Sometimes devs can be led astray by listening to closely to what the community thinks it wants, but sometimes they are doing the right thing if they remove or simplify unnecessarily complicated and/or punishing features. This is twice as true in old games with a heavy accretion of systems after 10 or 20 expansions.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that nuking features would certainly be beneficial in some situations.

As a long time Guild Wars 2 player, I think that stepping back on raids would be a huge boon for the game. When they were initially announced I was actually extremely excited. I thought that it could really be a great feature. All ArenaNet had to do was put its own spin on it. Make it accessible. Make it an extension of the story that players could enjoy casually, but also allow the option to crank up the difficulty and make it a badge of honor to complete.

Instead, the devs went down the same path that the clowns at Carbine Studios went with. They decided there would be no casual mode. They locked key story elements behind it. They locked the only (for years) legendary armor set behind it. And they continue to this day not understanding why raids aren’t more popular, adding “strike missions.” I’m not saying they should remove the content. Or that it shouldn’t have existed. But they should step it back. Add a story mode that players can casually play to learn the tactics of the encounter. It’s actually not that complicated an idea.

So, while that doesn’t address removing features before they’ve seen the light of day, I do think developers can benefit their games by pulling back sometimes when an idea or feature just doesn’t work.

Tyler Edwards: As any writer will tell you, editing is important. I think almost any MMO could benefit from some trimming — it’s a genre that tends toward the bloated. But knowing what to trim, that’s the rub.

There’s no one size fits all strategy. Every feature of every game needs to be judged on its own merits. Story content, for one, should rarely if ever be removed. The obsession with temporary content early in Guild Wars 2’s life has left me feeling like there’s no hope of my ever catching up with what’s going on in the game now. On the other hand, the single best thing Blizzard could do if it wants me to return to World of Warcraft is remove the Pathfinder requirements around flying. That grind completely killed the game for me.

There’s also the tricky dichotomy between the fact players want new features and systems, but continuing to pile them on endlessly results in a bloated and confused game. WoW’s solution has been to make every new system unique to that expansion, which I will generously call a less than ideal solution. Then on the other hand you could look at a game like Star Trek Online, which subjects new players to a bombardment of convoluted, redundant, and poorly explained game systems to create a truly brutal learning curve.

I think a good compromise for a lot of these situations is making more content optional. A great example is when Star Wars: The Old Republic did its big Knights of the Fallen Empire revamp and made all the “kill ten rats” sidequests optional. They don’t even show up for you unless you toggle them on. This is a great solution because the people who really care about those quests can still access them, but those of us who don’t can completely ignore them. I can think of a lot of other MMOs I’m not currently playing that I would dive into headlong if I could get a similar “fast track” option focused only on story-relevant quests, without any filler.

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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