Vague Patch Notes: Embracing limited-time content modes in MMOs


Today’s column was inspired by a discussion in work chat about limited-time game modes – specifically, the idea of something like that in World of Warcraft. Not something as ultimately pointless as the palimpsest paean to elitists as the whole “Season of Mastery” nonsense, but actual time-limited challenge modes. Create an alt on an ironman server, try to reach the level cap, earn rewards based on how close you get to the top over the duration of the server’s lifespan. Seems pretty straightforward, hmm?

At first blush, this seems kind of at odds with the very nature of MMOs, since the whole point there is to have a persistent character (or several persistent characters) who grow, improve, and exist as long as the game’s servers remain online. But there’s a lot of actual fun space to explore here once you think about it for a few minutes, starting with the simple reality that this is kind of how a lot of games play anyway so you might as well get something out of it.

Before I make that argument, of course, it’s worth noting that this is hardly an original concept no one has ever come up with before; we can think of implementations that go all the way back to the heights of Ultima Online. For example, RuneScape has been encouraging people to take on time-limited challenge modes in various forms for ages, and if you can ignore the self-inflicted penalty of having to play RuneScape in order to access them they’re certainly popular. The EverQuest franchise also runs multiple time-based progression servers. You don’t have to look too far to see a lot of games already employing some form of limited-time event.

And some games just naturally lend themselves to it. Case in point? City of Heroes.

You show me a CoH player who does not compulsively roll alts, and I will question your claims of this player’s history. It’s just what people do. There are lots of powers and lots of options, and even if you’ve tried Mastermind 40 times and disliked it every single time, there’s some deep-seated impulse within the playerbase of thinking that maybe this time the robots will click.

So why can’t you just… like… have a time-limited server to encourage people rolling alts and trying new stuff? I realize that the obvious answer is “because all that’s running right now are rogue servers and spinning up a new challenge like that is probably outside of the volunteer development budget,” but we’re talking as a concept here.

WoW in particular has gone all in on the idea of seasonal content, of alts sharing rewards from your main, and so forth. There’s even more precedent for WoW to directly offer challenge modes when you’re making alts – something that ties into my past column about how there are increasingly more races than there are classes to play with any given race.


“But persistence is an issue!” you cry, and to that I say… who says these things need to be at odds? Even in more open titles with a greater focus on sandbox persistence, there are still things that you could offer as a temporary challenge mode. (Again, let’s not forget that RuneScape does this stuff a lot.) You take part in a temporary challenge mode, and then when all is said and done, you have a new level-capped character that you used for this particular challenge. What you do with that character afterwards is up to you. Even if you’re talking about something like an ironman challenge in Final Fantasy XI, this is not actually an insurmountable obstacle.

Heck, if anything a more open game offers you more opportunities to make for targeted alts. Imagine the following: a time-limited challenge mode in Final Fantasy XIV wherein your characters cannot trade with other players, cannot access the market boards, and cannot pick up any new jobs. But they do start with access to all crafting and gathering jobs and all major cities, and the challenge is to master as many jobs as possible, unlock master recipes, and compete in a leaderboard for high-end crafting. More progress unlocks glamours, mounts, and crafting benefits for your entire account.

Maybe you love crafting in the game and that sounds like a blast. Maybe you’ve never tried crafting and this is what encourages you to give it a shot. Maybe you don’t really like crafting but want rewards so you’ll try it. The point is that it targets a specific style of play, and it gives you a new goal to work toward in a limited time.

Heck, I love idle games and would enjoy the idea of something akin to FFXIV‘s existing New Game Plus that kicks your character back but rewards you with special things for climbing back to the same point. It’d be a fun and different way to experience the game for veterans or new players alike.

So why don’t these things come around more often?

Again, this is RuneScape.

Obviously, I don’t work for these companies on their design teams, but I suspect I know the answer: These modes are considered when the developers want players to make alts. If a game already offers meaningful reasons for newer players and veterans to interact and help one another, the stream of alts is less necessary. Or, if I can be more cynical about it, these things are useful when you want new players to not be leveling through a dead server where everyone is at the level cap, not necessarily to just give your players something new and interesting to do.

But that, to my thinking, is squandering some of the potential that these modes have. Yes, they encourage veterans to start things anew, but they also can theoretically be a quick and easy form of content without new content. How many people are willing to make a new character to try out a new race or class? A lot. And how many people would appreciate the feeling of that new experience on said new race or class being meaningfully different compared to the first playthrough?

It’s possible to rely too heavily on time-locked servers or gimmick servers or other unique and alternate forms of progression. At a certain point there’s a sense like the designers are telling you to just have the experience you want, and while that’s a good thing, ideally a designer should have an experience in mind rather than just handing off everything to personal preference. Plus, if the entire playerbase is segmented off into weird little camps following challenges, you can wind up with all these alts still feeling rather lonely along the way.

But I still think that there’s a lot of value in the idea of time-limited modes, challenge modes, and their ilk. It can be a bit challenging to balance, it can go wrong, and it might seem to run counter to the idea of people just wanting to play one character. But more options for how people can engage with the game isn’t a bad thing, and I think it’s worth exploring the idea of letting players who have gone through the game the “intended” way try out a different method of play based on those experiences.

And if you’re going to walk all-in on the idea of seasonal content anyway, you might as well go the extra mile.

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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