Vague Patch Notes: MMO events are not for the high-level playerbase


Let me start with a statement of fact: I actually really like limited-time events in MMORPGs. I don’t like them as a means of conveying major story beats (looking at you, Guild Wars 2; it took you way too long to correct that error). But as a chance to give you something to different to do for a while? I’m down. I love it. It’s a nice chance to mix up what can otherwise become a kind of stale routine, and when done right, it can be really fun as a deviation from the game’s normal content.

And some games are really, really bad at it and treat limited-time events as a thing that should be done only by people at the level cap. That’s just plain wrong.

This feels like one of those things that is so obvious I shouldn’t even need to point out, like saying that MMORPGs should run without deleting your system files or that you should have backups so you don’t accidentally delete an MMO when you take it down for maintenance. But apparently it does need to be said. Your limited-time events are not, in fact, the place to put your high-level content, and the very idea is, in fact, not great.

Of course, a lot of games figured this out a long time ago. You don’t have to exactly dig deep into obscure MMOs no one played to find games that freely employ level scaling and similar tricks to give you events that scale down to a certain level so that lower-level players can participate and earn all of the relevant rewards without fear that they’ll be utterly cooked unless a high-level player shows up. And that’s assuming your event has to be combat-related, which in and of itself is a fallacy; most good events aren’t, at least not solely.

The reason for that is pretty obvious. If I am playing and enjoying Final Fantasy XIV or World of Warcraft or even GW2, I have got loads of stuff on a regular basis that employs the game’s core combat mechanics. Sure, it is conceptually nice to get to fight the Mad King on Halloween, but not only is that set up so you can be at almost any level to do so, it’s not even the only way to celebrate the season. You can just go racing or play strange little minigames if you’d rather. The game does not care.

Yes, I’m aware that hitting max level in GW2 is so trivial that I’ve done so twice on characters I wasn’t even playing in the time it took me to write the first four paragraphs of this article. That’s not the point.

Oh, right. Mad king. Should get on that.

Between level scaling, minigames, and the like, a lot of MMOs have solved the problem of making sure that players of all levels can play together ages ago. And maybe you don’t want that; maybe the main thing you want is to fight the super-hard Christmas Boss that’s made out of two dozen reindeer and a pine tree and will truly be a test of your elite gamer skills. Why is that such a bad idea?

A few reasons. For the first, it tells players who are not currently at the level cap that they exist functionally at the sufferance of high-level players. That’s not something that encourages you to keep playing, and it creates an ultimately weird incentive set. Trying to level up to the cap in order to take advantage of a very limited window to get something you want is the sort of thing that throws the rest of the game into stark relief, and it can often make players who start falling behind or just running out of steam wonder why on Earth they’re even bothering.

Second, it means that your new content comes with an expiration date. Yes, there’s always going to be a sense that new content isn’t new forever, but as a general rule high-level content takes a lot more balancing effort than, say, a new jumping puzzles. If your high-level content is challenging for high-level players, it excludes anyone else in the playerbase; if it’s so easy anyone can take it on, it’s basically just hitting a piƱata until it explodes with loot.

And if it’s so easy to take on that even low-level players can theoretically participate because high-level players are taking it one, well, you’re right back to the first problem: that this content exists only as long as the people at the cap throw you a bone.

But most important is the third point: Your high-level players are already your enfranchised population. And MMOs are like fandoms, in a way. Once you stop drawing in new blood, once you no longer have new people entering the system… you’re dying. It might not happen right away, but it will happen. And fun little ongoing events that are accessible and friendly to newer players are what will encourage newer players to participate and maybe get a fun cosmetic, especially if they have to get only a couple levels to take part.

Ogre, without layers

You might think that sounds alarmist, but just think about it for a moment. If a new event starts up that has a cool cosmetic armor set and you have to get to level 10 out of 80 to earn it, well, that’s not so bad. You can probably do that pretty quickly! And then you’ll have a cool armor set, and now you’re more connected to the character and the world. Hey, you might as well stick around, right?

By contrast, if you have to be at level 80… you can’t get there in a short span of time. Even if it’s possible to get to max level while playing sub-optimally well before the event actually ends, the impression that someone new is going to have isn’t “this will be a fun romp to get something I want.” It’s “here’s something I might be able to do if I devote my playtime to it for the next couple of weeks.” And let’s not forget you have to compete against whatever game people are already playing, or even just boredom and not wanting to play on a specific night.

It is entirely fair to recognize that we live in a post-WoW landscape of MMOs where things have changed since the days when reaching max level was a long-term time investment. Active and steady play means that realistically, you’re hitting max level pretty easily and with a minimum of overall friction. Outside of very specific projects meant to be a throwback to days gone by, this is just not the MMO landscape we live in any longer.

However, the philosophy remains the same. If your MMO’s big events are accessible only to the people who are already committed, it indicates that the developers have given up on growing the pool of people who are committed to the game. And once you start down that spiral, you are acknowledging that you have little to offer to new players and have doomed yourself to the same slow demise countless games have sunk into, with a base that dwindles faster than it grows, and new players eventually living in an empty world where no one cares that they’re there.

At which point they will leave without so much as a goodbye – because they never said hello.

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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