Publisher's Note

Publisher's Note
If They Are Persistent, Why Do They Need Sequels?

Alexander Macris | 12 Oct 2009 13:00
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As more players reach the end game more quickly, the pressure to add even more powerful content increases. This only hastens the cycle of database deflation. The more developers layer on new levels of challenge at the end game, the more they hasten the inevitable degradation of all experiences prior to that point. Thus, the longer the game runs, the less time it takes for people to reach maximum level, and the less time it takes to exhaust a given content expansion. World of Warcraft lasted for 26 months between launch and its first expansion pack, but only 21 months between its first and second. The third expansion pack promises to arrive even more swiftly. (And of course this cycle has already played out with Everquest, which has now had 16 expansion packs in 10 years.)

Eventually, the developers can no longer update content fast enough. Players begin to linger in a state of perpetual boredom, halted only by occasional bursts of excitement when they consume new content, only to reach a deeper level of ennui when the new challenge is beaten. Such players are ripe for a new game where the challenge is undeflated. At this point, the developer's only choice is either to give their players a sequel, or to lose them to a competitor's new game. A sequel is the natural choice for any self-respecting developer.

Database deflation thus explains why Cryptic would pursue Champions Online while letting City of Heroes pass over to NCSoft, and why SOE launched EverQuest 2 rather than just update EverQuest. It's the obvious solution to the problem of a game whose challenge has long since deflated and whose new player experience has deeply degraded.

Database deflation is thus an unsolved problem for the persistence of massively multiplayer games. Arguably, it's the unsolvable problem, the Achilles' Heel of every cumulative advancement-based persistent world. Massively multiplayer games benefit from enormous network effects and create huge switching costs in their playerbase. Without database deflation, there's no reason a game like World of Warcraft wouldn't perpetually stay on top.

And with a proper understanding of database deflation, perhaps Blizzard can stay on top. Consider the offerings in Blizzard's upcoming expansion pack, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. What does Cataclysm offer? "New high-level zones," "more raid content than ever before," and "new PvP Zone & Rated Battlegrounds" and "Guild Advancement" are all aimed at the high-end player and perfectly mesh with what the theory of database deflation would predict for a massively multiplayer game in the late stages of deflation.

But Blizzard has made a lot of noise about "Classic Zones Remade... altered forever and updated with new content," as well as about new playable races and new race and class combinations. The changes to classic zones, in particular, suggest that Blizzard is aware of what database deflation is doing to its entire content ecosystem shy of level 70, and is looking for a way to hit the reset button. A massive revision of all the under-utilized zones, with perhaps fundamental shifts in certain game mechanics, combined with new races and classes to encourage veterans to play through the new player experience again, could do the trick. With Cataclysm, Blizzard may be attempting what no prior massively multiplayer game has attempted - creating the successor to a game within the very game it's succeeding.

One thing is certain: Neither Cryptic nor Blizzard faces any threat of database deflation from my personal gameplay. Not when time spent playing Champions Online stands at just 25% of time spent pondering the implications of the existence of Champions Online...

Alexander Macris is co-founder and publisher of The Escapist, as well as president and CEO of its parent company, Themis Media. He has also written two tabletop wargames, conceived and edited the book "MMORPGs for Dummies," and designed the award-winning web game "Heroes Mini." After hours, he serves as president of Triangle Game Initiative, the Raleigh-Durham area's game industry association, and runs a weekly tabletop roleplaying game campaign of concentrated awesomeness.

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