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I recently activated a subscription to Champions Online. Champions, of course, is the new massively multiplayer game by Cryptic Studios in which you create a highly-customizable superhero to fight crime in an enormous persistent world straight out of the comic books. It is thus strikingly similar to City of Heroes, the old massively multiplayer game by Cryptic Studios in which you create a highly-customizable superhero to fight crime in an enormous persistent world straight out of the comic books. Champions Online is a sequel in all but name, and it made me wonder, “Why do we create sequels for persistent worlds?”

None of the obvious answers – to update the graphics, to market a product – make sense. It’s not graphics. City of Heroes has graphics that are arguably as good as Champions Online, and numerous MMOs have shown you can update graphics over time. It’s not marketing. The need for a marketable SKU has long been solved by expansion packs like World of Warcraft’s Burning Crusade.

I believe the answer lies in an obscure concept known as database deflation, first (and apparently exclusively) discussed in a ten-year old series of Usenet posts by Raph Koster. The theory of database deflation is very simple: Over time the capability of opponents in an MMO drops relative to the capability of the players, because over time players develop better tactics and accumulate better gear. The “database” (numerical power of the opponents) thus “deflates” (grows less). When a currency deflates, prices drop; when a database deflates, challenge drops.

What makes the theory interesting is the behavior it explains. Developers respond to database deflation by adding newer and tougher opponents to maintain the challenge. The deflation is most evident at the top, where player power is supposed to cap. So over time, more and more new opponents are added at the high end of the scale. The greater the extent of database deflation (that is, the more powerful the characters have become relative to the existing content), the more powerful the new opponents must be.

But increasingly powerful opponents are always accompanied by increasing rewards, to justify the nominal (although not real) increase in risk. Over time, this process unbalances the entire economy. Higher level areas add higher level wealth, which then filters down (as items or cash) into the lower economy. When prices drop, this increases the consumer’s buying power. Database deflation likewise increases the player’s “gaming power” – he can more easily get wealth with less effort. That, in turn, deflates the value of the wealth. Gold becomes as common as silver. Items that were epic are considered second-rate. Areas that were difficult when the game launched become easy as players tackle them with “twinked” characters using optimized tactics. Given that challenge is what makes a game interesting, that’s a bad thing.

As the challenge of the new player experience declines, the very process of leveling up is seen as a prelude to the “real game.” The leveling curve is compressed; the time investment that was once required to get one level now yields ten levels. Huge zones that were once filled with players become ghost lands, as the playerbase congregates in an increasingly narrow nexus of high-end territory. Eventually, what was originally considered the end game becomes merely the “real” starting point. This reduces the advancement ladder, increasing the speed with which players reach the end game – the point where new content is being added. The reality of database deflation can be seen in World of Warcraft. With each expansion, Blizzard has tweaked WoW’s leveling curve such that new players today are rushed upwards through level 60; and the last ten levels take more time than the first sixty or even seventy.

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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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