Massively Overthinking: What’s the ideal content cadence for an MMORPG in 2023?


Earlier this week, Guild Wars 2 revealed a major shake-up of its content delivery cadence. Studio ArenaNet suggested that the traditional living world cadence – with an expansion coming far and few between – drained the company’s resources without providing the punch of power players really wanted. Consequently, the team is replacing the living world-expansion cycle with smaller expansions and larger, more frequent, and more consistent updates so that “the next expansion will be just around the corner.”

Two core questions immediately present themselves to the Massively Overthinkers this week. First, is this a good idea for Guild Wars 2 specifically? And second, is it a good idea for MMORPGs in general? What’s the ideal content cadence for an MMORPG in 2023?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I haven’t played GW2 in a while, but I’m a believer in having a schedule, especially for live services. While I may complain a lot about Pokemon GO, one of its strongest points is having monthly events where we have some idea of what’s coming when. It makes scheduling my life a lot easier. There’s less fear of missing out, especially in those rare moments Niantic actually gives us details up front, but more often than not, it’s because dataminers warn us.

That’s the other side of the coin: It gives devs a goal and something for the community to hold them to. It’s a big reason I loved the Asheron’s Call series. Every month we’d get something new. We didn’t have to wait until an expansion for new skills or abilities, and POGO does the same in those rare moments we get a new feature (new pokemon feel more like new gear). Even better, from a design POV, devs don’t have to plan about pushing a bunch of features out at the same time and put out fires or do rollbacks as multiple things break and make the game unplayable. You have time to plan your narrative and do the basics while (hopefully a different team) works on long-term additions that can be added when they’re ready. That means basic stuff, like story and holiday events, have a schedule everyone knows about and can prep for, but larger projects can be more flexible in their release, as players have other things that keep them around.

And that’s the final piece of the puzzle: stickiness. Blizzard, I feel, is notorious for having vague update dates, and it’s normal for people to disappear for months, even years at a time. Yes, you do have that surge of people coming back, but it can also feel like the game is almost always “dying” between those periods. I don’t get that feeling in games with quick, regularly scheduled content. Yes, maybe the holiday event is nearly the same as the last three years with one new piece of fluff gear, but that makes it easy for me to log in, get what I want, and then do whatever else I want. I’m not getting burnt out (unless the company has bad policies…). POGO is good about this, and it’s relevant as I’m packing for a major event for that game: I’ve never taken a break since the game’s release, but there are times where I’m more active, and I see it with my friends too. If you’re planning things right, that “punch of power” doesn’t need to be Ultimate-combo level finishers; it just needs to be strong special attack that brings up the tempo for a bit.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think it’s a smart plan for Guild Wars 2. There is literally zero cadence that will make the typical rusher/endgame crowd happy anyway, so may as well aim for consistency and solid performance for the majority of gamers. This is a title whose players come and go; the business model is set up to support that, so the content model should be too.

I guess that means I think it’s smart for most MMOs too. There are MMOs that push patches every week or every other week – Black Desert comes immediately to mind – but as a player, I find that a bit overwhelming. I need a smidge more time to simmer in what you pushed out the last time. Quarterly is maybe a bit too slow, however. Once a month or once every other month seems ideal to me.

Either way, finding that magic sweet spot where “consistency” doesn’t feel “boring and predictable” is going to be the hard part.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): In terms of whether this new cadence is going to work out for GW2, I suspect ANet will play wait and see once more here like it did with Living World seasons, which is a good thing because the devs seem to be willing to let an idea stew and gather as much data and input as much as they can. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out, though.

As for the second portion of this question, I’m not convinced that there is a blanket answer here. Having some sort of regular updates is nice and indicates a game is being connected to some kind of power line, but not all regular updates are equal – see Swords of Legends Online as one example where “regular update” translated into “regular cash shop postings,” or V Rising, which is hitching its wagon to the idea that people will wait for a whole year for a mega-beefy patch.

In the end, there are just too many factors a studio should consider before answering the question of what update cadence is best, making it really hard to pin down a gold standard.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): It might sound safe and boring, but the answer here is “quarterly.” Three months seems to be a decent compromise between the player desire for new content and the studio’s ability to deliver. We’ve watched so many studios flame out trying to provide content at a faster cadence (i.e., every month), which never lasts. But many studios have successfully sustained the every-three-months pattern, so I see that as the way to go.:

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I think the concept in general is going to be a good idea for GW2. Certainly the gap in content around the time of the Icebrood Saga is where my partner in GW2 and I lost steam and tapped out of the game. Had we not had a lull, I imagine we’d still be totally current and on top of most of the achievements too. However, once we bowed out, we haven’t been back.

Now, it will be interesting whether this kind of content cadence pulls us back in or further isolates us and leaves us feeling like, “Well we’re way behind the content now, so let’s just forget it.” I suppose it really depends on what kind of content comes out for whether or not it pulls or pushes more.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I know it’s a bit of a cop-out, but I think the answer is, “It depends.” Different methods are going to work for different games. A PvP sandbox doesn’t need new content as often as a PvE themepark.

I will say that I’m not sold on the idea of like-clockwork updates being the holy grail. Usually when a game commits to monthly/quarterly/whatever updates, one of two things happens. Either they fail to meet their goals and it’s a PR disaster, or they stick to the schedule, but only by making content incredibly rote and essentially giving up on ambition and innovation (see: Elder Scrolls Online).

In a world where we have so many MMOs to play and subscriptions are largely a thing of the past, I’m OK with the occasional content gap of a few months if it means we get big, exciting, ambitious updates. Quality over quantity. Of course, from a developer’s perspective, they definitely want to keep people in their game as much as possible, which is probably the real reason so many are keen to stick to consistent schedules.

I would like to see developers put a bit more effort into keeping things exciting between major content patches. Things like double XP weekends or rotating events are a low-effort way to keep people engaged in between updates.

When it comes to GW2 specifically, I think the new strategy is probably going to be a net positive, but we’ll have to wait and see. I don’t think the Living World system ever worked all that well, and having regular boxed expansions will be easier to understand and draw more eyes to the game. I am mildly concerned that there’s no mention of how new elite specs and other major features fit into this new model, but we’ll see how it goes.

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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