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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