Early, Middle, Late

For a game that depends on a stream of income from subscribers or RMT shoppers, the first hour of play must be the top development priority. This is where you hook players. After that, the endgame is important because that is where your players will be spending time indefinitely and where your game’s chatter will come from in the long run. Next is the early game, when you build momentum. The mid-game has already fallen this far down the list, as you have certainly seen in a lot of MMOs, and frankly few care much how good the late-game is because they are already fully committed and racing for the end-game.

I stand by my repeated claim that optimizing the new player experience is of paramount importance. You must grab my attention within five minutes, and you must deliver a satisfying hour or two for my first play session. Without that, any free trial is worthless, and you may even lose some people who have thrown down $50 for a box. This is the part of the game that every single player will see on every single character, and if you cannot do a good job here, I have no hope for the rest of the game. Yes, it is hard to make things interesting while giving the player only a few buttons to play with. Suck it up, we all have hard parts in our jobs. That’s why they pay us.

In retrospect, the original Asheron’s Call tutorial dungeon was truly horrible, only tolerable because these MMO things were just so new and exciting. The Lord of the Rings Online™ does a great job with its introductory instances, basic gameplay while introducing the setting and giving you some big name characters, and you don’t realize it is foreshadowing when an NPC saves the day while you watch. City of Heroes has a weak tutorial (including a “run in a straight line for 20+ seconds” segment), which City of Villains does better. World of Warcraft makes the less common choice of opening in its main game world, with no tutorial instance, but it manages to be dull for every race. Warhammer Online makes the same choice brilliantly by immediately tossing you into a warzone (best: Dwarf versus Greenskin newbie zones). The Champions Online tutorial just feels laboriously long. The Chronicles of Spellborn has a LotRO-style opening that ends well in a big fight with chthonic horror, but the gameplay along the way manages to be tedious even while very short. I remember starting A Tale in the Desert back before there was a tutorial, just drop you in the world and go; easily the most hardcore PvP game (with permadeath!) ever made. Wizard101′s tutorial explains things very well but is painfully slow and impossible to skip or hurry on a second character.

That hurdle overcome, the next question is where the most time is going to be spent in-game. Correct me if your game’s metrics suggest otherwise, but for most MMOs, it seems to be at the level cap. If nothing else, that is where your loud community is: the hardcore, the devoted, the guild community leaders who style themselves opinion-leaders or -makers (and may be). Any sane amount of content will occupy casual players, so giving people something to do at the “end” is how you keep and mollify the hardcore. How you do this well is widely disputed and the main topic of hundreds of blogs, so I will table (American sense) that issue.

World of Warcraft does this part famously well. Even if you do not like the WoW end-game, or the current end-game at any given moment, they have done a great job of recruiting and retaining players by putting an emphasis on late-game dungeons and raids. (Personally, I heard “the game begins at 80″ so many times that it was part of the reason I quit.) City of Heroes does this part famously sparsely, launching without the last ten levels and encouraging altoholism rather than building lots of level 50 content. Years into the title, there are exactly two raids and not a whole lot of level 50 task/strike forces (we try not to count the Shadow Shard content, out of politeness). Warhammer Online seemed to collapse (still does?) horribly at the level cap. Dark Age of Camelot had excellent realm-versus-realm combat but had horrible backlash when it added alternate advancement PvE content at the cap, creating a higher effective (and therefore required for PvP) cap. Back when I played, Asheron’s Call had a soft cap that amounted to an endless late-game. EVE Online has its PvP empire wars, to which Darkfall aspires. The Lord of the Rings Online™ has the ersatz version of the WoW end-game, taking the same approach but with very little content and alternate advancement grinds. It does, however, recycle its old end-games into new late-games better than WoW as the level cap rises.

Next up is the early game. If everyone is going to see that tutorial and new player experience, this is next, where you hope they all continue. It would be #2 on the list were it not for the amount of time your players can spend at the level cap between expansions. It remains very important, especially if it will consume most or all of the average player’s first month. A good start gave you a chance, but this is where you seal the deal and get the player to subscribe past the trial week or free month.

Age of Conan excels here, with near-universal acclaim for the Tortage experience. World of Warcraft varies between races/zones; playing on the Alliance side, I found I did not much like any early zones except for humans, although I recall a fondness for some early undead content. Dark Age of Camelot was good for its time but grindy and punitive in retrospect. City of Heroes/Villains does well except for a few painfully placed missions; maybe some of those are intentional, to make the travel powers that much sweeter. Warhammer Online is exquisite in tier 1, and if you have never played, you can go player tier 1 for free right now as much as you like. This is probably the worst time for EVE Online as players reach the “now what do I do” point. I have not tried the re-done LotRO low-level experience, but I always loved the Shire.

(Cynically, we also note that this is as far as most get in beta. There will be few to judge you on anything past this at release. This makes it a high priority while downgrading the importance of anything that will therefore have a smaller effect on your box sales.)

At this point, importance tapers off until you reach that end-game. Unless there is some modal point where most players end their second and third months, you focus on building the game out linearly. That early hook gives you some momentum through the mid-game. As long as the late-game is not so horrible that it is not worth getting through, players will get through those last few levels to see the glorious level-capped wonders they have heard to much about.

(Cynically, we note that promises to work on this area will carry you a long way. Wherever the population is centered at the end of the first month, just before subscription renewal time, announce you are going to fix that point and the range just beyond it. Repeat at month two. Warhammer Online did this brilliantly with developer letters just before renewal time in the early months. It helps if you can predict this point and really have improvements coming down the line, but developers are notoriously poor at predicting how quickly players consume content.)

You can see a great many games that have already embraced this approach. Part of it is just a natural consequence of sequential development. You worked really hard on the newbie zones in early beta, you worked on the glorious end-game wonders so you could show them off for the press, and then you fill in the middle as you get a chance, ideally trying to keep just ahead of the bulk of testers and/or players.

Some games really do fall down in the mid/late-game, hard enough to start seriously losing players. I love the 30s and 40s in City of Heroes/Villains, when all your powers and slots are finally coming together, but many people find it grindy without the quick progression from the early levels. Warhammer Online was appalling in the mid-tiers at launch, with poor PvE (“and such small portions!”) while the PvP balance problems were becoming apparent as all the powers and talents finally came together.

I’m stopping that thought so we can reflect. The mid to late levels are where you character finishes getting all of its abilities, with that “complete” point varying wildly across games and classes. If your game has horrible balance problems, they may be hidden under new shininess and quick growth, but they will become apparent in the mature levels. This is where the steam runs out for we the gameplay-Explorers. It is also where Achievers can jump ship as advancement slows down. This must disappoint the Killers: the sheep leave just as the wolves get the really fun ways to kill them all.

Zubon, it is sounding a lot like you’re saying that every part is important. And yes, I would love to say that, but experience suggests a few reasons why these later (but not end-game) levels are less important for retaining subscribers.

First, I am suggesting an extreme case of the game imploding. I do not know how many people ever experienced the Age of Conan end-game because the MMO blogosphere sounded like wailing from the fiery pits of Hell as people left Tortage. It is clearly possible to do far too little in that range, but many games get to “decent” at least.

Second, many of the extreme collapses are also end-game failures. They are balance problems or flaws in the fundamental systems that are to sustain players through the rest of the game, and there is no good news to reach after suffering through a near-empty, just-after-release late-game. These problems are not apparent in the early levels or not important enough to care about, while they first become visible in the mid or late levels. The Warhammer Online problems with city sieges compounded issues with the late-game open world RvR (plus a bit more), while the game had the same balance structure as most editions of D&D: just fine early on, when the numbers are small and luck can trump design oddities, but exploding into catastrophe as you multiply those oddities over many levels.

Third, “good enough” works. I would love to say that MMO players have discriminating tastes and high standards, but that is obviously false. We will put up with a lot of crap and flame anyone who suggests that quality and professionalism are below acceptable standards. One thing that Star Wars: The Old Republic has going for it is that at least some of their developers understand that the mass market will not put up with the crap we will, so selling to all those non-MMO addicts will involve improved accessibility and functionality (whether that idea has survived the EA merger is beyond me).

Kvetching aside, think of MMO players in two categories. For newbies, it is all new and exciting. Think back to your cherished memories of early struggles in your first MMO, and realize that you would never put up with EQ-at-launch today. Many of the problems in MMOs are not so bad once, just that we keep hitting the same bugs/grinds/AARGH for years. You will deal with it to see the new shiny when everything is new and shiny. New players are also more likely to play at a sane pace, perhaps try to experience everything on a first character (they don’t realize it is “first” not “my” character yet) before moving on to the next zone, thus giving more development time for that mid-game.

For veterans, we are obviously insane enough to put up with it, and we are already thinking long-run. Hardcore players are going to blast through come Hell or high water, and if the late-game content is weak, that is just more reason to push through to the promised land of Level Cap. You know common workarounds from previous games, you are tapped into the community to get tips on what is bugged and how to circumvent it, and you are already inured from years of suffering in previous MMOs. You have a community to help see you through, a guild of people to talk to, and you are not going to abandon your guild because (a) you like them or (b) you tell yourself you are playing to spend time with these people rather than get the next Ding! pellet.

So for all those reasons, I believe that if you sink the hooks in deeply, your players will probably view their first 40 or 80 hours as an investment rather than a sunk cost, and they will keep pushing on unless the game is truly painful with little promise of improvement. Or they are the much maligned, possibly mythical “tourists” who were never going to stay anyway, so again it does not matter.

Get the first day right: bait. Get the end-game right: long-term storage in the fish tank. Get the early game right: sink the hook. They may wriggle, but you will keep quite a few on the line with even a decent mid- to late-game. Or without the horrible fish metaphor: your early word of mouth gives the game life, and the long-run word of mouth sustains it.

: Zubon

15 thoughts on “Early, Middle, Late

  1. Jezebeau

    What pushed me away from giving Champions a proper shot is that, while a time-unlimited free trial seems generous, it’s not compelling when you’re restricted to two-button combat and told you need to purchase the campaign to see any results from leveling up. Why bother advertising that it caps at 15 when that’s three times the top end of the zone?

    As for not paying for F2P, that attitude’s prevalence encourages harmful design decisions, such as those behind the recent Allods debacle.

  2. Luthion

    That is a very profound analysis of the content span in these mmo’s. Personally I don’t believe your theory about late game content not being important since every time I stop having fun, if it lasts too long I simply stop. After all, aren’t games supposed to give us fun instead of promissing to give it at a later date? Put up with this for now as you will be rewarded some days from now… I don’t agree with that but I guess that’s your point of view. My first game was Maplestory and as tough as it is for me to admit it, I actually find myself going back to it because even tough it’s pretty much an endless grind, I just like the feeling of no competetion(there’s no pvp in the game). I believe that feeling weaves a tight social fabric in the community, well, atleast some years ago since it is now mostly populated by numbnuts who have names like “Thenoobpwnzord” or “dexlessmasterofuberness” and trash talk/spam in the chat. My point is, that I think games should try to incite friendship, and not competitivity, but then again, maybe that’s because I don’t play so well. :p About Champions Online, I gave that game a try, I played it for some hours, like 10 hours, and 6 of them were spent in the editor, and playing with the various powers they offer, but in the end, the gamebreaking unbalance in pvp, the bland combat, the blatantly annoying sounds, and the poor quest story(which seemed like was thriving to be epic) just made me not put up with it. I believe cryptic has a desire for failure because instancing the game isn’t going to make the game feel epic, it’s going to make the game feel small, dead, and so not epic as a true superhero world should feel. It feels even worst since the instancing is very badly accomplished, and makes you feel like it’s advantages, just don’t make up for the astonishingly huge disadvantages. I feel sad for that game but, oh well, from what I’ve heard, they actually screwed it up even more(wow, how?) with Star Trek Online, so no cupcakes for them.

    1. Tesh

      “After all, aren’t games supposed to give us fun instead of promissing to give it at a later date”

      The subscription model banks on issuing only the barest drip feed of fun, with a promise of more to come at an unspecified “later” date. How else can you keep people playing long enough to make it a habit? If there is a sense that there is more fun always just beyond the horizon, players will stay on the treadmill, convincing themselves that they are making progress that will eventually pay off with the “good stuff”, and that their money is well spent in doing so.

      What’s the alternative? Actually make good content that’s fun to play with all the toys available up front, and continue to make new stuff somehow relevant and interesting even though the rush wears off eventually and there are no new toys, only new situations? There’s no long-term hook there, save for solid, consistently interesting (maybe even dynamic and evolving) gameplay. That’s expensive to make, and you can’t continue to monetize someone who only sees “more of the same” on the horizon… unless they have already made the game a habit and don’t really question it.

      1. Luthion

        I believe if the players had enough “toys” they would not need new ones for a long, long time. Take for an example Warcraft III. That game has survived year after year because of the modding community which is still a few thousands large. This thriving was possible because of the EDITOR. And not a lame editor like Oblivion(I know it’s a much more complex game) but instead, a full-fledged, completely user-friendly editor which had lots of limitations, but yet, it’s possibilities were endless through the hacking and reverse engineering of the community. The simplicity of the game made it so that any type of experience could be created in that editor, there were even cinematic-only maps, and we are talking about an RTS game…What I mean by this is that, by giving the players power to create, and I mean real power to create(not Darkfall’s illusion of power), I think game’s could actually be more fun, inspiring and have longer shelf-life. In the case of MMOG’s this means more subscription revenue and loads and loads of profit, + many of the content is PLAYER-MADE making it possible for the developers to actually KEEP UP with the frenzy of the hardcore players, and the rate at which they consume content. Myself, as a programmer, I know what it takes to clean up a game enough(more so a multiplayer game) to give that kind of power to the players. It’s not easy, it takes time, massive resources, and a great commitement to the project. I believe it would be worth it, if we had an online modding tool like that. That’s just my point of view. “There’s no long-term hook there, save for solid, consistently interesting (maybe even dynamic and evolving) gameplay.” I believe that is not true in this case, since through the constant addition of content(player-created) the players would be kept hooked, and more importantly, they would TRY TO LEARN HOW TO CREATE THAT CONTENT, imagine what it’s like having 50000 developers creating different maps and experiences for a game. That’s Warcraft III.

        (P.S: Sorry for some bad english, I try my best)

        1. Tesh

          Indeed, player-driven content is one valid way of getting the “dynamic” content I’m thinking of. There are a few ways to set that up, and concerns to be addressed with those who would abuse the system, which make it an expensive project, but yes, that’s one direction that I wish more devs would explore.

          It will be interesting to see what Love winds up doing, since players will have the ability to heavily modify the terrain as they play.

        2. Luthion

          Well, actually, in warcraft III they did find a bug with the engine that allowed players to write binary code(which made viruses possible) but it was fixed in about a day and the game was already 5 or 6 years old so, I think Love would be a huge factor there, it seems hard to believe but Love can actually make players not exploit the system.And also, the community built around player-content games is much more tight knit since they need each other to produce the most crazy content possible.

  3. Syncaine

    Very nice piece.

    I think some modification might be due for niche titles though. If I’m looking for a post-apoc game, my choices are FE and… FE. If I want a fantasy FFA-FPS-PVP MMO, I’m looking at DF and DF only. Given that, I think the devs would be wise to put MORE emphasis on keeping people (late to end game) than attracting them (first 5 min), since the ‘attraction’ part is already done based on setting/theme, and those draw to the title are likely their because they heard how great the crafting is (FE), or how interesting the city sieges are (DF). The expectation is a bit lower for the first 5min, if only because of the ‘it’s niche’ excuse.

    In sharp contrast, the next WoW clone CAN’T have a crappy first 5 min, because if it does everyone will simply go back to the previous WoW clone, no matter how much better your WoW-like endgame is.

    1. Tesh

      Of course, then there’s always the notion of a game that is *entirely* end-game. World of Raidcraft, as it were. No leveling grind, no “early”, “mid” or “late” game to suffer through (telling phrasing, by the way), just pure, unadulterated “this is the game” from day one.

      Why do we put up with this absolutely horrid notion that we have to somehow soldier through and qualify for the fun stuff, paying for the privilege of suffering?

      1. Yeebo

        To flip that on it’s head, why should we be happy that endgames consist almost entirely of raiding in our casual/ solo friendly PvE MMOs? I mean, if I enjoyed solo/ small party work for 80 solid levels in the first place, it stands to reason that I enjoy that style of game play. It doesn’t stand to reason that I enjoy PvP or raiding. I may or may not.

        I know that the two times I hit the endgame in WoW (60, 70), I lost interest in the game almost immediately and quit (literally within a month). The schizophrenic nature of most PvE MMOs doesn’t do anyone any favors, imo.

        1. Tesh

          Indeed, we’re really seeing different games trying to fit under the same umbrella. When you have to grind through one to get to the other, or shift from one to another to keep progressing, “exit points” naturally trip up players. Some will like everything, but others will be annoyed that there are sardines in the chocolate.

          It seems to me that the trick is to offer players which style they want at all times, and don’t make one depend on the other.

          Making the “late game” merely a time sink before players get to the “end game” annoys those who would love the leveling content in that band if it were crafted with the same care afforded the early game, and also annoys those who just want to *get on* with the game so they can raid.

  4. kmc

    I noticed, recently when I made a guardian alt, that LotRO has introduced a new option for the tutorial quest-giver, so that you can either do the tutorial or skip it. I’m not sure if that includes the level 2-5/6 part, although that’s less a tutorial than a “don’t wander past here because you’re too low-level” instance, and I don’t know if they do anything to make up for the level or two you miss out on by not doing the very first tutorial. Still seems like a good thing to do, though.

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