Vague Patch Notes: Players aren’t the only people who should prepare for their MMO to die

    
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Vague Patch Notes: Players aren’t the only people who should prepare for their MMO to die

There are certain realities that developers need to reckon with that start with acknowledging a certain degree of reality, and one of those bits of reality is acknowledging that the MMO they work on is going to reach the end of life. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the game is going to shut down, per se; it just means that at a certain point, the game is going to go into de facto maintenance mode. Guild Wars isn’t shutting down, but no one expects reliable meaty updates. Ultima Online still gets a remarkable amount of new stuff every year, but it’s sure long in the tooth after 23 years.

The thing is, though… I can’t blame developers for not planning for this, exactly. Very few MMOs seem to have planned for this. There is no real template for how “maintenance mode” is supposed to look, nor is there consensus on when a game goes into it or how long the game can persist with no new content.

Maybe I should take a step back. A while back, I wrote an article about how your favorite MMO is going to die, and…

We saved you a meme.

I stand by what I said in that column. But it’s something I still think about a lot, especially when it comes to Final Fantasy XIV.

As much as Naoki Yoshida says that he will keep working on that game as long as he can, the reality is that it feels like we’re on the back nine with the title. I think we still have a couple more expansions in the tank, of course, but it’s hard to imagine the game breaking the level 99 cap, and we’re only two expansions away from that. Not to mention the simple reality that the game’s story focus means that we are running out of big bads to defeat.

Don’t get me wrong: This is ultimately a good thing. I am happy that the game has allowed us to throw down with big villains, emerge victorious, and then do a festive jig on their graves as the world gets better through the direct actions of players. But it also means that we’re moving toward a conclusion. You can’t have a beginning and middle without having an end.

One of the main reasons I suspected Final Fantasy XVI would be an MMO (and I now suspect Final Fantasy XVII will be) was simply that Square-Enix knows pretty well how long an MMO can remain viable. How many iterations of content are worthwhile before you start hitting diminishing returns. And let’s be honest, this also comes down to understanding when it’s time to move on.

Do I necessarily want to move on? No. But the reality is that we may have already hit the high-water mark that we’re going to reach. Shadowbringers was an absolute banger of an expansion. It makes more sense to start planning for what comes next now rather than when FFXIV is no longer profitable or functional.

It seems as if there are lots of hints about this sort of thing recently (witness the potential future of the Warcraft series being brought up in the latest Activision-Blizzard earnings call), a sense that it might be time to start tying off the ends for some games. A look to the future.

Zeno's prepatch.

The obvious counter to any of this is to say that MMOs are special and don’t have the same sort of deprecation as single-player games. This is correct up to a point. An MMO doesn’t have to die. But it does reach a point where the market has been saturated and… well, we’re getting into diminishing returns and a slower path. Some gamers surely think World of Warcraft is already in this place. I about half agree with that idea, even.

And it’s not all that revolutionary of a concept. Sure, Call of Duty games have a seemingly annual re-release of existing things – same with the endless parade of football titles. But the reality is that these games only have a certain amount of time that they could remain viable even without that expiration date. It’s not that the yearly turnaround is there to create player churn; it’s that people greenlighting projects have probably figured the churn is just there after about a year.

Not that they’re exactly sad about a churn model that makes a big release happen once a year, mind you.

Consider that out of the games we currently list within the big five, only one of them is less than six years old, and that’s just in North America. There has been time for players to try many of these games, like or dislike them, and ultimately either stick with the game or move on by this point. Games can have a surprisingly long duration, but the reality is that developers and studios need new things to keep people interested. And MMOs do have a lifespan.

In other words, the fact that the game is going to die is advice to designers as much as it is to players.

Sepia.

So what can we do about this? On the one hand, nothing. We’re all the converted and are largely content with playing games for years on end. And as mentioned, while it’s difficult to accept that we are eventually going to lose our favorite games, that’s also something that has to be dealt with on a personal level.

Rather, this is a case of advice to developers to start thinking about this ahead of time.

Far too often, it feels like these concepts only occur to designers when the smart thing to do would have been planning years prior. The whole end of Guild Wars’ active expansion cycle was a matter of the developers realizing that the game had a limited amount of space for further expansion. And that’s great, but it also says to me that there wasn’t a plan for the game ahead of that point, that no one seemed to realize that this game was going to eventually be made obsolete.

I still like the original Guild Wars quite a bit. But Eye of the North is my least favorite part of it because it feels like a hasty effort to tie everything off, probably because, well, that’s sort of what it was. It’s not bad, but it has that feeling just the same.

We’ve gotten all right at saying goodbye to games that have to be shut down, even when some of those shutdowns happen for what are ultimately pretty terrible reasons. I think most players have gotten a decent amount of practice at saying farewell as needed. But designers seem to still be learning how to accept that the game which took the world by storm (or at least sold well enough to be a success story) is not actually eternal. MMOs do not launch and hit a plateau; they rise, they peak, and they start going down.

And ultimately, developers need to be ready to deal with that fact and be ready to say goodbye to a game when it’s time to go. There needs to be a plan in place for saying goodbye to a game, however successful it was at the start.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Alyn
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Alyn

There are certain realities that developers need to reckon with that start with acknowledging a certain degree of reality, and one of those bits of reality is acknowledging that the MMO they work on is going to reach the end of life

End game. Remember this? I once wrote on another forum, years ago asking why we call it “end game” if there were really no end? Now, of course, I have come to the answer, (my answer). Folks tend to want to say well it’s for the game to die, or the game is nearing a sort of death. Why death? For the stronger, more long term mmo’s such as World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy 14, I think more in terms of the conclusion of the story. I remember from my English/ Literature classes in both high school and university that stories and novels have a beginning, middle, and conclusion (end). Using both WoW and FF14 as examples, both certainly do have a story. Thus, sometime, (possibly in the near future) they will both end. This is reality. There isn’t an “end game” until we arrive in the final chapters.

Possibly it is true that the current teams of developers, designers, coders, engineers, and story/quest writers haven’t thoroughly planned for a future that brings the final chapters. However, maybe they have. It is true that at some point the “value” of the mmo begins to show some decline. Could it be then, that reality sets in? I don’t know for sure, but truthfully, I sort of hope so. Imagine, say in an rpg heavy mmo like FF14, what a well written concluding expansion would become? FF14, for me, has been one of the most intense emotional rides I have had in any of the MMORPGs I have experienced. I have considered each part of FF14; A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, Stormblood, and Shadowbringers as well written book series. Each series has its’ own unique ending and every one of these ending bring so much emotion with them. Why not, then as any of the classic series of books some of us have read over and over again, might the saga of the Warrior of Light come to a crescendo such we have never experienced in any previous mmo?

Thus when I say “maybe the story should end”, I am by NO means saying am tired of it. I have read Frank Herbert’s Dune Trilogy three times. I have read JRR Tolkien’s Fantasy classics at least that many time and watched the entire list of movies four times! Thus, I want the ending of FF14 to be as enthralling as any of the great book series I have read. I only ask for Yoshi P. to begin considering how to end a great masterpiece he toiled over to save from destruction. These endings only bring a brighter future for yet another mmo, such as a possible FF17.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
-Seneca-

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Malcolm Swoboda

Don’t worry about FFXIV.

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Zero_1_Zerum

Babylon 5 was a TV show with a plan. They’d do it for…5 years, I think… and that’s it. It had a planned beginning, middle and end.

I think MMOs should do something similar. Have a plan for the lifespan of the game.

Even stars die. But, stars don’t get to choose if they’re going to be a dwarf star, or something epic like a black hole. Video game devs can choose how their games go out, and can plan ahead for it to be as epic for the players as possible.

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Misterpiece84

I was about to mention the tv-shows analogy as well, but I’ll just hijack your post instead since I mostly agree.

TV-Shows that are produced with a plan tend to have a lot more success, even though they already know it’s going to end. I remember a looong time ago when the first season of Heroes released and they had planned to end it there, eventually have more seasons with completely different protagonists if there was demand for it. They changed their mind halfway through because the audience liked the characters too much and proceeded to make one season after the next, each one garnering less and less support, until they had to kill the show cause it was plain bad.
Not a coincidence I think that the only season I liked was the first.

I wish this aproach was more common with tv-shows, I think that their quality would improve by a lot, but I also don’t think it is viable with MMOs, not at all. How can you possibly convince the audience to spend money — be it subscription or be it cosmetic items or be it convenience like bag slots (convenience accounts for a disproportionately large slice of the pie) — if the game is going to shut down in the near future. What “near future” actually means is subjective, but more or less everyone will be less inclined to spend money at some point.

I’m not sure I can blame a publisher or developer for trying to milk their audience for a few more months even when they know the show will not go on: on one side it is unethical, but on the other side they have investors to pay and that extra milking might just be the difference between shutting down a product and declaring bankruptcy.

Turing fail
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Turing fail

Lost, the MMO? Please, just shoot me now…

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Jeffery Witman

Devs definitely need to start planning for the end game well ahead of time. It’s not like other games haven’t done this well before, but I think the business models that focus on short term gains are incapable of producing such things. People are spending their own money to run servers and play games that were shut down years ago because they see nothing else worth playing among the existing offerings that can compare. How many people are playing SWG almost 2 decades later? How many are on various CoH/CoV projects? Move of them care that the engine is older than college graduates now and none of them would blink at paying a monthly fee for one (or multiple) accounts to keep playing.

But, as I said, I don’t think the modern MMO model allows for such a long term trickle most of the time. The companies want Madden and CoD numbers because they’re cheap and easy to produce while just one of them makes more in a month than the combined MMO genre does in a year. It’s an art versus business problem, and business always wins.

Turing fail
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Turing fail

Unlikely for myriad reasons, but it’d be nice if the last patch before the servers go dark allows players to take their games with them.

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Anstalt

Fully agree with the thrust of the article.

If developers are going to keep designing their mmos around single player mechanics, i.e. your typical themepark, then an endpoint in inevitable. New players become less and less likely to join the game the older it becomes, and it’s really hard to retain players with single player mechanics as they don’t make use of the unique selling point of the genre.

So, I’m in favour of sequels.

Launch your MMO, run it for 2-4 years including 1 expansion, then put it into maintenence mode and release the sequel.

Not only will this invigorate the community and likely attract more players to the new game (compared to another expansion), it also gives the developers a chance to iterate on designs, learning from past mistakes rather than being stuck with them for years and years. The whole genre might actually start advancing!

Additionally, I think once the sequel releases, the studio should offer access to the previous game to anyone who subs to the new one, thereby increasing the value proposition of the sub and giving players who are new to the franchise a “free” opportunity to catch up on any previous story.

Finally, moving to a sequel-based business model would make it easier to preserve the original games, keeping them alive for posterity. No need to undo 1000s of patches to get to the original code if the base game is still alive in maintenance mode. For example, looking at LotRO, instead of just the one game we have, along with a shoddy progression server, we could have:

LotRO 1.0: Shadows of Angmar
LotRO 2.0: Moria, Mirkwood and Isenguard
LotRO 3.0: Rohan to Mordor
LotRO 4.0: Post-Sauron Sandbox (pure wish from me on this one!)

Allow existing players and guilds to reserve their names / characters in the sequels to allow some continuity. Perhaps even build in some cross-game guild chat.

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Furin

Guild Wars 2 can die right now and I would be all for it. It would be another chance to get a Guild Wars 3 that perhaps more closely resembles the original Guild Wars design. Although I recognize this is a long shot.

Sixuality
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Sixuality

It’s a lot cheaper to maintain an existing MMO with updates than to build and launch a new one, and given the near total lack of upcoming new titles from the major studios (at least until/unless AGS get around to actually releasing something) I don’t think there’s currently the will to think about end dates and sequels.

Final Fantasy is in an unusual, perhaps unique position in that regard. What other publisher/developer would have readily footed the bill for the complete reworking of A Realm Reborn rather than just bin it and make a MOBA or Battle Royale instead?

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Bruno Brito

Final Fantasy is in an unusual, perhaps unique position in that regard.

Square isn’t dumb. They probably saw that as a way of printing money in the long term, a good FF MMO is pretty much a goldmine.

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PanagiotisLial1

Considering FFXI is running in a maintainance better than many games non maintainance update circle, I would say you have to worry on for FFXIV for next 10 years. I may not like that mmo but SE seems to handle older products well.

Theryl
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Theryl

At some point an MMO is going to need too much work to stay financially viable and remain in the top tier – the engine gets outdated and crufty, the graphics are outdated (or “outdated”), the story has reached a logical conclusion. It makes sense to plan for maintenance mode and an eventual successor. WoW would have benefitted from this several years ago.

If FF eventually has two games in maintenance mode (XI and XIV) and one active it will be interesting to see if other studios follow this pattern. Zenimax has another MMO in early production (based on their hires) so I wonder if they’re planning for this as well.