Is Episodic Content Hurting MMO’s?

Historical Delivery of IT Services

When I entered the workforce in 1998, there was a “new way” of delivering IT functionality to an organization. In the past, specialized areas would deliver features within their areas, many times without testing or rigor. This worked pretty well when the “IT specialist” was really a business employee who did a little IT on the side, being both familiar with the business processes of his/her specific area and relying on the fact that IT could be pretty much contained within that area without affecting other parts of the business. As the need for centralized IT strategies grew, and disparate systems within the organization became more intertwined, IT departments were formed to focus on the growing information needs of the business. Since increased coordination between systems was required, and communication with business areas needed to be more intentional, the idea of project delivery was implemented. Projects brought many people from multiple areas together in order to coordinate the delivery of big, complex sets of features over a fairly lengthy timeline. It was into this “big project” era that I wandered haplessly as a fresh-out-of-university IT graduate.

I bring this up because it’s relevant to how software, and by extension video games, has been delivered to consumers over the past 20-30 years. This is the model used by Microsoft to deliver Windows and Office: huge applications that included massive system overhauls and (arguably) improvements, all while maintaining as much backwards compatibility and user familiarity as possible. The video game market was similar in that delivery of a game still consisted of a large, complete product assembled over a very long period of time.

The Rise of Rapid Development

When the Internet arrived on the scene, so did a new force in the software delivery world: Google. There were several issues with the “large project release” model. For one, it created several months or even years of “dead time” between releases. Also, once a product was released, it blasted users with a slew of new features resulting in a steep learning curve. Google tried to solve these problems by providing small, quick, incremental updates to services such as Gmail. This accomplished a couple of things. First, it kept the products fresh by constantly adding new features. Second, it gave users time to adjust to smaller, less noticeable changes. It wasn’t long before Google also realized that this approach gave them an advantage for initial service launches – they could launch a skeleton product (see: Google Music, Docs) with bare-bones features and plan to add to the initial offering over time, all while competitors were struggling to launch feature-rich products several months later. No longer was it imperative to launch with a “final product” because not only is “final product” a fallacy, but the delivery method of the Internet made fixing things in the software much quicker and easier. Faster to market is always a competitive advantage, especially if you’re the *only* one in the market for a certain period of time, and you can bring your service to the point of being on-par with those launching much later by the time their product/service actually launches.

Image by John Talbot

It wasn’t long before IT departments around the world began to mimic this method of delivery. They had to; they were now competing with external providers like Google who could promise feature delivery in a fraction of the amount of time as the traditional project environment. They had to deliver more quickly in order to survive. Thus, rapid and waterfall types of project methodologies were adopted within organizations to deliver smaller chunks of functionality and to better adjust feature deliveries as business needs changed over time.

Business, business, business. Numbers. Is this working?

OK, enough of the IT business mumbo jumbo. But let’s not forget that game studios are software development companies, so it’s easy to see how these types of trends have influenced the way we consume our games. MMO’s, specifically, face the problem of a large release of content being delayed, pushed back, and finally burned through in a matter of days once live. They’ve attempted to solve this issue by moving towards the rapid release method of content development, leading to smaller, more frequent content drops in lieu of massive expansion packs. Guild Wars 2 especially favors this type of release schedule, and has kept it up since the game’s launch. Last year, LOTRO announced that 2014 would not include an expansion, and built on that strategy this year by hinting at episodic content releases in the latest executive producer’s letter.

But is rapid delivery good for MMO’s? In a world where first impressions on Twitch and YouTube are everything, is delivery of an incomplete system with the idea of improving it over time a wise move? At first, I was a fan of episodic delivery. It seemed like a good idea to have a continual stream of content delivered to the players every couple of weeks. It would keep people from meandering away from a game during the “downtime” between content releases, and give players something to look forward to with more frequency. But some recent conversations have forced me to re-think this stance.

Mike O' Brien
Take my money, Mike O’ Brien!

First of all, the positive effects of marketing hype for large releases and expansions cannot be understated, as was demonstrated recently by Guild Wars 2’s Heart of Thrones announcement at PAX South. During the presentation from Arenanet CEO Mike O’ Brien, an eager audience member shouted “take my money!” prior to any of the expansion features even having been fully detailed. It’s just not possible to generate that level of excitement for a steady stream of content releases. Remember when you were a kid and you used to tell your parents that you wished Christmas was every day? They’d reply: “If it was every day than it wouldn’t be special!” Same thing, here. In the rapid world, players are spoiled by a constant stream of updates to the point of being unable to appreciate the amount they’ve consumed. New stuff isn’t as special as it used to be, and in a way, becomes expected instead of anticipated. How about the quality of game updates? Are smaller releases of equal or greater quality to massive expansions? I’ve read various grumblings about the quality of the writing within the living and personal stories within Guild Wars 2. The living story, at least, has been delivered in various installments to the game via smaller updates over the course of time. And while I’ve not experienced the living story yet, I can say that the dialog within my personal story has been laughable at times. I haven’t decided whether the comedy was intentional or non-intentional, but the adjective that lept to my mind was “cartoonish”. Personally, I didn’t think much of this, since I’m simultaneously reading the Guild Wars novel “The Ghosts of Ascelon” in order to polish up on my GW lore, and the quality/style between the two seems fairly consistent. I will say that I have enjoyed playing through the personal story. So, whatever the quality of the dialog, it hasn’t detracted from my enjoyment. But it does beg the question: could it be better? Does a quickened release schedule force Arenanet to make concessions for the sake of the project timeline?

Between perceived lowered quality, less hype, and diminished player excitement, I’m left to wonder if the Google “rapid release” theory applies to online games. Perhaps we should return to the days of big, hyped expansions that deliver a lot of things that work well.

 

Featured image by Matthew Hodgson on Flickr

Speed of Light image by John Talbot on Flickr

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7 thoughts on “Is Episodic Content Hurting MMO’s?

  1. Aywren January 30, 2015 / 12:44 pm

    I don’t mind episodic content as long as it doesn’t suffer in quality. I’m not sure that you can get fast and quality to go hand in hand – some part of the update (be it story, mechanics, technical difficulties) always seems to get left out in the cold. I don’t think there was a Living Story update that released without needing a fixer patch right after it… That signifies some issues there.

    I think what really hurt GW2 was the rate at which we were forced to consume content during season 1. If you didn’t jump into the content within the tiny window of two weeks, it was gone forever. And seeing that the story and some gaming/crafting elements built on previous episodes, if you missed one, it felt like you just got left behind in a major way.

    A few months of rushing to obtain all achievements at a breakneck speed and trying to shove dailies in there on the side equated to absolute burn-out. What sounded like a great way to keep players sticking around ended up overwhelming many of us. I quit playing the Living Story come that November of the first season because the story was lacking, and I was just too stressed by their content and too many achievements constantly pelting me every other week. I needed a break!

    Season 2 has improved on this quite a bit. But, once you’ve burned out your audience, it’s hard to regain that initial enthusiasm. Especially when there are other games on the horizon that allow you to play at your own pace and not feel forced to log in and rush content to get it done before it vanishes.

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    • Ben Fuller May 6, 2015 / 12:17 pm

      Personally I think this article has put to much speculation into this article regarding lotro and it’s recently announced episodic content.

      Firstly we no nothing about what it is gonna be and we also do not no if it’s a replacement for current system of updates and expansions. They didn’t release an expansion last year but as far as I’m awhere they never said there would not be one in future.

      Episodic content could just be a new system of content there going to add along side major updates or ab expansion. Or it could be a replacement to updates and expansions.

      I’d guess it would be an edition seeing as turbine killed proper end game and I think they would struggle to keep interest in long term just on episodic content releases.

      Secondly episodic content is a great idea in my opinion it means hopefully more regular content and possible something else to do in lotro as once you get to lvl 100 and complete new zones and and epic book all you have left to do is farm deeds farm for gear farm for legendary weapons and farm epic battles skims and 100 instances rinse and repeat. It’s the same stuff over and over.

      Episodic content can change that in lotro and add more things for players to do.

      Also I’m sorry but you can’t compare mmo and video games to the it buisness it is alot different

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  2. tsuhelm January 30, 2015 / 12:52 pm

    So blame GOOGLE…?
    I think if you can pull it off it works fine…(I presume GOOGLE has quite a large team generating ‘content’ at all times. I would like to think they have lots and lots of testers.)
    Smaller production units simply cannot do this and maintain quality and I think it is ‘Quality’ that suffers under this kind of regime…(Oh do I have a QC background?)
    Ever shortening deadlines is a modern day nightmare in all industries and it is driven by Customers who are impatient for their product.
    If they can learn to wait they will get a better product…but if they insist they will get what they ‘paid for’!

    So unless GOOGLE is entering the MMO market I think episodic content is ultimately another flash in the pan dead end, one that adds short term excitement in exchange for long term quality!

    Could GOOGLE afford to buy out WB and take over TURBINE?

    LOTRO’s future would be brighter…must GOOGLE that…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. C. T. Murphy January 31, 2015 / 3:19 am

    I think it does, at least to an extent.

    Unlike other genres and other games that have the luxury of a sequel, MMOs can’t be remade and re-released in a Call of Duty-esque delivery schedule. Expansions, to me, function as a pseudo-sequel that accomplishes everything a real sequel does for a bigger game.

    Expansions bring people back, give an excuse for a big marketing blitz, and generate a great sense of hype than DLC. A new content patch may get a few people to log in, but an Expansion can get people to reinvest their time into an old experience made new.

    Expansions give developers the time and resources to add new features, as well as a comprehensive suite of new content. That’s a huge factor for me. Even if you gave me a steady drip feed of dungeons, I am going to tire of playing the exact same class with the exact same abilities and mechanics over and over. A splash of new abilities gives my class a whole new feel, if only briefly.

    Personally, I would prefer a bit of both. I’d rather have bigger, bolder, better expansions infrequently, but semi-steady supply of new content to fill in the gaps and make sure I am not waiting years for new things to be added.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pasduil January 31, 2015 / 12:32 pm

    LOTRO used to have about the right rhythm for me, i.e. one expansion a year, with an extra quest pack and the odd tweak in between.

    Epsiodic content is not a big draw for me. I’ll do content at my own time and my own pace however it’s released, but the excitement that comes with an expansion does at least get my attention and make me think about joining in while everyone’s abuzz.

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  5. Hagu January 31, 2015 / 11:54 pm

    For me, there is a balance. WoW with 14 months with zero content is too long. I like smaller and more frequent, but it is hard to be excited by the GW2 2 week cadence.

    The previous CCP plan of two free expansions per year seems optimal for me. If I were the studio, I might have a paid expansion every November.

    http://massively.joystiq.com/2015/01/30/rumor-blizzard-leak-reveals-next-world-of-warcraft-expansion-to/ would be a huge change for ATVI.

    BTW, IMO, you are thinking of a Microsoft of decades past. As I look in vain for my Windows 8 Start Button I claim Microsoft is not near as committed to compatibility as they used to be.

    Like

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