Massively Overthinking: Deleting pieces of MMOs to save them

    
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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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Fenrir Wolf

— Heart of Thorns

With Guild Wars 2, I’d just take out Heart of Thorns and replace it with something redesigned and better.

It’s bad content, for me. I’m visually disabled and HoT has always vindictively, sadistically taken pleasure in making me feel very disabled in ways that no other region of the game ever has. There’s just so much noise and without any fading or occlusion culling that it can be hard to see. Add on top of this that I have autism and that I’m liable to get overloaded, and HoT is not a good time.

I avoid it like the plague whenever possible.

It’s funny because literally no other area of the game gives me this difficulty. HoT just feels like visual noise and shader/sparkly texture spa for the sake of it.

There’s a chunk of Maguuma in Jahai which I have no problems with. The Melandru section of Dragonfall I have no difficulty with. So they’ve clearly learned some design lessons since Heart of Thorns and the importance of making things immediately parsable. It’s important to telegraph what’s a rock you can stand on, and what’s an insta-kill zone. They don’t do that enough in HoT.

Plus, HoT is the only area in the game where I have framedrops. Ever. Which just makes me like it even less.

— Raids

In regards to raids in Guild Wars 2? I sort of agree? I mean, I don’t like them but only in the very specific sense of classic raids or even dungeons. I want content that scales, which is why I really like strike missions. I don’t want GW2 to ever really do dungeons or raids again, but I’m fine with strike missions.

With a strike mission, it scales to the amount of people entering it. If I’m playing solo, I can enter as a squad of 1 and have a little fun. If I’m with my partner, we can enter as our dynamic duo and mix stuff up. That’s fine.

I only begrudge forced grouping. If people want instanced content that can optionally be played with a large number of people? That’s completely fine! I’m all for that. I support anyone’s right to get togeher as a big group of people. It’s just that as an autistic person I can get overloaded by too much noise so sometimes I’ll just prefer not to. I like in GW2 that I’m permitted to have that choice.

Well, except in HoT. But we don’t talk about HoT. HoT almost bankrupted ArenaNet for good reason.

— “Complexity”

I really don’t agree with adding more visual noise to the UI just for the sake of having more visual noise on the UI. That really is a very shallow understanding of complexity. A real understanding of complexity is what Guild Wars 2 already is.

GW2 is nuanced and complex enough. What’s being suggested there is like saying let’s take Street Fighter 2 and turn it into Killer Instinct or Mortal Kombat. Let’s not??? SF2 doesn’t have a dearth of shiny icons to press either but there’s a great depth to its complexity. The same is true of Guild Wars 2. GW2 is complex in the real way, not “complex” in the WoW way.

True complexity is discovered by exploring something that appears simple on the surface, yet reveals its depth as you drill down into it. Faux complexity is just having a metric tonne of shiny icon buttons that do singular things.

It’s like the difference between New Vegas and Skyrim, if you will.

Skyrim, on the surface, seems “complex” because it appears to have a lot of things to do. Yet once you get into those, they’re all just bite size murder shopping lists with no real depth or consequence to any of them. They’re all the same thing with a slightly different look. New Vegas doesn’t have many places to visibly go on its desert map, but each of the places that does exist tells its own rich story that’s worth exploring on its own merits, even outside of the greater game experience.

There’s “complexity” and complexity. GW2 has the latter.

— Fast Travel

I like the teleports.

The thing is is that this idea of “roughing it” sounds fun until you actually experience it, then it’s not so fun. Another option is simply using Self-Control and not opting to fast travel! I do that every now and then. Sometimes I fly somewhere on my skyscale, sometimes I teleport. The notion that any game is better without fast travel has always been Universally wrong.

The first thing people notice when removing fast travel from Skyrim is that it’s monotonous to trek back and forth across these places they’re overly familiar with. It quickly gets sickening and those who’ve disabled fast travel soon enable it again. I mean, it’d be like removing the moon gates from the Ultima games, which would make travel so obnoxious.

It’s not a good idea. It never is.

The best way to do this is to simply have waypoints that can be teleported to at a price, and these waypoints are unlocked as the player discovers them. Which… is exactly how GW2 does it!

Honestly, I’d go in the other direction and make waypoint unlocks account-based, along with hero points. I mean, Mastery points already are so it would feel more cohesive that way.

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johnwillo

The first thing that I thought of, when I saw the headline, was something that has been discussed on the Massively OP podcast: cutting the online requirement. When an MMO is failing, and it is not based on an expensive IP, it could be released as a single-player experience. Many MMO’s would be perfectly playable as solo games. Not ideal, of course, but some people would prefer solo Wildstar to losing it forever.

Of course, an even better solution would be to allow players to host private servers for their friends, but I’m assuming that this would require more work than a failing MMO would be likely to receive in its last days.

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Covynant001

I finally came up with a good example of significant content being deleted to improve the gameplay experience.

EVE Online originally had a set of eleven different”Learning” skills which greatly reduced the time it took to train up all other skills necessary to pilot ships, mine, craft or what have you.

As skills can only be learned one at a time, new players had to choose between training up their learning vs training one which would directly improve their gameplay.

It took many months to train all 11 skills to level 5, with most players settling for level 3 or 4 until many months or even years later.

I was going through this hateful choice on my first account when three months later when I subbed a 2nd account doing nothing with it but training learning skills for many months until most were maxed, which was also a bad situation.

Around 2011 or so CCP decided to eliminate all learning skills, reimbursing players the 2M+ skill points spent on them.

Definitely a huge improvement when I later went on to buy additional subs, ended up with 6 in the final years I played.

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Robert Andle

There’s quite a bit of content in MMOs I play that I’d love to see cut. Stuff that didn’t work very well or outstayed its welcome or was just a bad idea full stop. In WoW it’d be warfronts, island expeditions and Azerite armour. All bad ideas and the sooner they’re gone, the better.

In LoTRO, epic battles and mounted combat. Every time I level up a new character, my heart sinks when I have to do any of them. Technically I don’t *have* to do them, I could always grind out skirmishes and skip them altogether, but it still feels like a drag they’re still in the game all these years later when they were never much good to begin with.

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Java Jawa

I’d have to say currency tokens, they are just an artificial and forced way to keep a player going to chase a carrot on a stick.

I would have to imagine there’s better ways and specifically more fun ways to accomplish the same thing.

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Kanbe

Doubly so when there’s also no currency bag/wallet feature and all those different currencies take up precious inventory/bank slots.

kjempff
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kjempff

Smetimes it is good to cut, sometimes it is not.

“Kill you darlings” is one of the first rules of game development, and it means that you should never get too attached to a feature or idea, because if you do you loose the ability to analyse freely and will become relunctant to change or kill it.

This also goes the other way, sometimes you think cutting something makes great sense, but the players like it. This is another way of not analysing and accepting the facts, because you are deep in the process. It is the old thing about being blind to problems when you are inside, that those on the outside, with a better view and de-attached from the process, can see clearly.

Your players are on the outside of the circle and will often see these things more clearly -BUT there is danger here, because most players are biased and does not have the knowlegde to analyse correctly. This is a real dilemma, you should def listen to your players because the have insight you do not, but also there is 99% noise to be filtered out and you can’t really be sure your filters works.

Some mmos have cut and simplified so much that they lost their original appeal (WoW did that some would argue). Others never kill anything and suffer from that (cough Path of Exile).
Warframe would be an example of a game with a culture of cutting and changing things; sometimes radically. I really like that, not that I like all the changes or miss some old stuff, but that they are willing (have the balls) to change even bigger concepts if those doesn’t work.
I guess it is also company culture and whether the developers own their mistakes or are afraid to loose their position if they admit to it. High to low, apprentice to senior, everyone makes mistakes and takes bad decisions, the only question is are you willing to admit it and try to correct it instead of just moving forward pretending there is no problems here.

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Utakata

There’s lots of superfluous and pointless stuff I like to see *pruned from the games I play…I’m not sure the respective developers would ever agree to that though. >.<

*Note: I prefer this word over "nuked".

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rafael12104

I like Tyler’s take. Once it is released in game, if you want to make a change as an “Author or Editor” it should be optional for the player.

There are players that want vanilla, there players that want the original vision, warts and all. And while I’m not for any particular flavor or wart, I can understand that. Games have character and sometimes that is tied to the unrefined.

As for the rest. Well, sure there are examples of changes for the greater good. And it varies game by game because MMOS aren’t all the same.

But Ironwu points out, often these changes are not for the greater good of players because devs face other pressures. And because freaking marketing doesn’t know the players which is freaking nuts… I better stop before I get triggered. Heh.

So there are good edits and there are bad edits. But MMOs suffer from over edits. Sometimes the best choice is to just leave things alone, but MMOs hardly ever do that.

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losludvig

may I introduce you to Everquests 1 and 2… Those two games can barely contain all of the failed experiments, out of flavor content and ability bloat from the multitude of expansions. A friend of mine wanted to try out everquest 1 for the first time with the release of Aradune, and seeing how imposing the menus in that game are due to every single long-forgotten feature having a spot there was a bit of an eye opener.

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Ironwu

I cannot think of a single instance of an MMO that deleted, or heavily redacted, it’s content (like the destruction WoW developers inflicted with the Cataclysm expansion) that has improved their game.

Usually, this type of operation is done to paper over the difficult task of making a system work that has become burdensome (looking at YOU WoW level squish and all the attendant changes THAT will bring)!

It is always easier to toss out the problems rather than try and solve them constructively. But in the end, those chickens always come home to roost.