Massively Overthinking: Load-bearing playerbases in MMORPGs

    
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Game developer Damion Schubert is known to MMO players for his work on everything from Ultima Online to SWTOR, but as it turns out, he’s a controversial Twitter follow all ’round. He recently dropped some truths on the platform that I want us to discuss in this week’s Massively Overthinking.

“Making raid content for an MMO is making content for 1-10% of your playerbase, but it’s also the engine of aspiration, and if you make it too easy, you lose your hardest hardcore players. A playerbase is an ecosystem. One that’s up and running is incredibly delicate. It’s incredibly easy to write off a low percentage portion of the playerbase without fully realizing they’re load-bearing. It’s a pretty common mistake running MMOs, TBH.”

This whole thread is so good that I’m going to bounce back to it for a second topic in the future, but for today, I want to home in on the idea of “load-bearing” playerbases. I’ve never heard it described this way before, but it’s perfection. A part of a structure that is load-bearing is just a wall or a beam or something that is holding up so much of the structure that taking it away would eventually cause the whole thing to collapse.

That’s what Schubert is describing here: An MMO is essentially made up of a whole bunch of load-bearing playerbases, invisible to each other and to the developers in varying degrees but all essential. Raiders may not see much need for roleplayers, but roleplayers are the ones making cities feel alive. Roleplayers may not see much need for crafters, but without crafters, the economy dies. Crafters may think raiding is dumb, but raiders keep the game’s endgame pushing forward. And woe be unto the developer who cuts off a critical group, thinking they’re too small to matter.

So let’s talk about load-bearing playerbases in MMORPGs. I’m asking our writers and readers what they think about the idea and more specifically to offer an example of an MMO that’s either failed to account for a load-bearing chunk of the playerbase at its own peril or has managed to keep the entire house standing by making sure all those factions are properly catered to.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): This is dead on. I think WildStar is a good example of a game that ignored its non-raiding, non-progression-oriented players, particularly its crafters, and consequently failed. I knew a ton of people prior to the NDAs lifting who wanted to be full-time crafters in the game. The way things were revealed, I could see why people might have thought it was plausible, but I remember FAQs and dev journals saying it wouldn’t. I even remember commenting on that when I first got my hands on the game, but people around the internet often were simply upset that I wasn’t madly in love with the game.

When beta opened up, I remember seeing several posts about people feeling disappointed that they couldn’t be pure crafters. Within my own guild (who didn’t know about my gig here), many people who had been excited about the game were potential crafters, and chat about the game massively died down once those players lost interest. We didn’t even have a chapter for launch. I’m sure when other socializers were done with the game, their groups equally migrated away, especially as the team continually talked raids. I loved the world of WildStar, but the game failed to grip me, probably because outside of housing, the systems just didn’t feel like they were catering to my style at all.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I’ve recently started playing EVE Online, and while I’m only about a week into the experience, it would seem that the pure longevity and self-sufficiency of this title hint at a strong balance of all load-bearing groups. If all you want to do is mine ore and sell it on the market, that’s possible. And while seemingly insignificant, the mega corporations couldn’t wage their epic space wars without the raw materials for ships and animation. On the flip side, somebody (who doesn’t mind having a second job) has to run those influential mega corporations. Both player types pay the same amount to play, and both are essential to the sustainably of the game.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): WildStar is most definitely the game that comes to mind, but since my colleagues are already adeptly addressing that game, I want to point at… whatever Raph Koster turns out to be building. He’s basically homed in on the forgotten playerbases that are loadbearing when it comes to social glue but generally unsupported. He has said his game will raise up “the players who make the world come alive” – i.e., the strategy guide writers, roleplayers, explorers, streamers, crafters, entertainers, decorators, fixers, builders, and guild leaders. All the weirdos who make communities thrive but don’t collect experience points for their labor. That has my attention because we have so many games that cater to achievers, competitors, and murderhobos, but not a lot of MMOs that focus on the rest of the playerbase, and I think it’s why so many modern MMORPGs feel relatively shallow.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Wow, this is such a great way of looking at it as well as verbalizing the idea. “Load bearing playerbases.” Dude.

OK, word nerding aside, the immediate example that comes to mind of not cultivating a load-bearing playerbase is easily WildStar; its emphasis on the bleeding edge high-tier raiding focus was a death knell that rang long and loud in spite of the team’s efforts to course correct, which is a shame because the game could have had some staying power if it didn’t so gleefully knuckle down on the idea.

As for a game that has well-balanced beams, Final Fantasy XIV comes to mind, with updates that seem to primarily ensure many playerbases are seen to. I also feel like The Elder Scrolls Online has good focus on its load-bearing playerbase, with a whole lot of PvE-minded content that seems to speak to its majority.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): It is an interesting way to think of it and it does make a lot of sense. It’s similarly interesting to think of it from the point of asking which of the various load-bearing groups are appropriate for your MMO.

From that angle I can’t help but think about WildStar. The developers went all-in on the raiders while neglecting those other groups. Perhaps this was a case of putting too heavy an emphasis on one beam while forgetting a house is made up of many parts.

Another way of looking at it is when a developer chooses to inject a new group into an already established community. I’m thinking specifically of raiding in Guild Wars 2. This was a completely unrepresented group until the first expansion. Then for years ArenaNet slowly added content trying to entice these players to join at the expense of all their existing load-bearing groups. ArenaNet thought adding a fancy little game cave to the house would be epic, all while the floors were rotting out from under it. Since adding raids PvP is a joke, WvW has seen barely any updates and dungeons are abandoned.

Fortunately, the studio is trying to right the ship again, but it really did not consider how load-bearing the players in their game already were. Plus we don’t exactly know which of these load-bearing groups the game is even designed for anymore. We have our story content, but I have no idea if the others exist in a meaningful way.

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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Unnar Thor Thorisson

There’s probably something I’m not seeing here, but having played MMOs for most of my life, I’ve never cared in the least about raids, PvP, or the people who pursue them. For the most part I’m happy to live and let live, but it gets irritating when – as in WoW – the raiders are the only ones who get any attention at all, with occasional handouts to the PvP crowd.

I do think the “load-bearing” thing has merit, it’s interesting, but I think community organizers and roleplayers and crafters and even just active community members, those are all more meaningful than the insular-bordering-on-solipsistic raiders. And of course you can be a raider and also do those other things, but then the “raider” part isn’t what’s contributing.

Again, it’s more than possible that I’m missing something, but it’s been my experience that raiders contribute very little to the rest of the game. And they don’t HAVE to contribute, mind, I’m no more load-bearing than they are, we pay our subs and we play our games, but I don’t see any reason to glorify them.

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Anstalt

I remember talking about this exact issue over 10 years ago when I was still playing LotRO.

Mirkwood had just released with hardly any endgame PvE content and minimal updates to PvP. A lot of the community were happy with this as Turbine had previously released stats showing that only about 10% of the players who reached endgame participated in raiding.

I was very keen to point out that while the content may not be used by that many people, those endgame players were still very important:

  • Most guild leaders tended to be endgame players
  • Most community events tended to be organised by endgame players
  • Endgame players organised the most groups during the leveling process
  • A lot of the training and help offered to newbies was done by endgame players (admittedly often as a way to recruit new guild members and train new raiders, but still…..)

I think the main thing you need to consider when it comes to “load-bearing” sections of the community is their relationship to the other sections. If you can understand the relationships and what each section offers the others.

Something Raph Koster pointed out years ago (when looking back at UOs design) is that communities are often defined by what they oppose, as much as what they have in common. The best example is in games with both PvE and PvP. Even if you never participate in PvP, the mere fact of it’s existence in the game will strengthen your relationship with other PvEers. If you remove that opposition (the common enemy), then what usually happens is you’ll just find new things within your community to complain about and that community will fracture.

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Erika Do

I’m always impressed at how FFXIV constantly adds new content for player groups that would have been ignored or mocked in WoW. New hairstyles, new outfits, new emotes/dances added constantly for people who love to RP. New furniture for people who love decorating their houses (when the vast majority of the playerbase can’t even get one). New content for crafters and gatherers. Ocean fishing and the whole photo mode are great examples of this. When I played WoW, it felt like the devs only cared about raiding, PvP, and to a lesser extent dungeons, but FFXIV talks about RPers and others just as much, apologizing to them when they can’t get a requested feature in as early as they hoped. FFXIV would never have announced a dance studio and then quietly cancelled it.

I personally quit WoW because they dismissed my favorite melee Mistweaver as too difficult to balance to be worth bothering. I stop playing a lot of MMOs as soon as it’s made clear that they care about PvP over other aspects. I don’t 100% remember why I stopped playing Wildstar, because I *loved* its housing system and wish more MMOs made that a core part of the game like they did, but I think it felt like there wasn’t much to do. I was always waiting for the game to add more stuff for me, and I’m a bit sad that it shut down rather than ever reach that point.

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Motherball

Endgame is a lie. The game never ends, that is the point. I don’t like that some devs lean so heavily on the elite FoMO style of content, as it seems to bring out the worst in people online. And this attitude radiates through much of the games. Imagine a pillar that actively helps and supports the less fortunate instead of using them as a stepping stone or a doormat. Players shouldn’t aspire to be condescending jerks, imo

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Witches

Very flawed argument, regardless of how good or bad the raid is, if you want the best gear you need to keep on doing that raid, good or bad you’ll need several runs to get all the gear, that’s why tiered group content takes precedence over everything else, you can’t skip the bad raids and then jump back in to do the good ones.

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Schmidt.Capela

IMHO the flaw in the argument is that no player group is inherently “load-bearing”; everything depends on how the game is designed. For example, raiders might be essential in one game and completely unnecessary in another.

And yeah, it’s quite possible to design a game that needs a certain mix of players for it to actually work but attracts a completely different mix of players. Or even to design one where the mix of players it would need is just about impossible to get (as IMHO was the case with Wildstar; it’s original design needed hardcore players who were into both raiding and PvP in large numbers, and those players are hard to come by).

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jealouspirate

I think it’s a very interesting idea with a lot of truth. I’ve been told here that Mythic+ in WoW is a failed system because “it’s not for everyone, therefore exclusionary” and I always felt that was overly simplistic. MMOs are large and varied games and it’s good for developers to support different playstyles, even minority ones. Especially when those minorities are your most dedicated fans.

On the other hand, I am a big fan of developers having a clear vision and sticking too it. Feature and scope creep is a real thing, and studios can realistically only support so many “pillars” at the same time. So there’s a delicate balance there – pick a finite number of pillars you can actually care for, and then care for them all equally.

Stefan
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Stefan

I guess it depends, do you want to create a lobby based game or do you want to create a world, if you want to create a world that people live in so to speak, creating this dependence on others is necessary and is why some of us speak of the good ol’days of MMO’s.

That dependence did come at the cost of convenience and not being able to do everything solo.

He is right in saying it is a fragile balance, which is why i still look back at Wrath of the Lich King as a fun time.

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Bannex

I think having challenges is important. Group challenges are less important but still important. Ultimately, the developer that makes a living breathing game world that players fall in love with and feel apart of will go a lot farther than loot treadmills.

This load bearing stuff is just because we’ve all been blizzardized in believing we need some sort of loot treadmill. The content locuts and min/maxers destroy these games not hold them up.

Obviously these are my opinions so dont go blasting me with internet rhetoric. I detest raiding and running a dungeon more than once so clearly I’m biased. I also despise call of duty, madden and gta so I’m clearly not a majority gamer.

The mmo isn’t dead, devs and fans alike just haven’t let go of the Dao of WoW.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

I’m just not sure why anyone things “raiding” is a “load bearing playerbase.” The best case seems to be “designed-in benign parasites.” The worst case is games that gut every other player base to focus on raids. (Wildstar and their misguided douche-bro marketing of “Raid or GTFO!” and Guild Wars 2 and wrecking most of the rest of the game to hammer in raids well after launch come to mind.)

I suspect that MMO style games can function just *fine* without Raids as a specific form of endgame. But I’m not a skilled enough writer to articulate why, nor do I have the breadth of gaming experience to point o examples.

I can only say that personally, I’ve tried “raids.” And I can only say that in terms of “things I want to experience again,” playing any form of “raid” content ranks on the scale well below such things as “accidentally got within 20feet of an adult bear while alone in the woods,” and “nearly got attacked by a very large, very aggressive dog.” Having experienced all three, I can say definitively that I found raids to be MORE stressful than two instances where my *life was in danger.* So I can’t really pretend that I’m speaking from an unbiased position.