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Should MMOs have sequels?

From movies and books to computer games, the concept of the sequel is firmly embedded in the entertainment industry. It's usually a much safer bet to make a new part to an existing successful intellectual property than it is to back an untested product. In the games industry, sequels are a great way to make more money from the same game concept but as usual MMOs have proven to be something of a different animal. Subscription MMOs don't conform to the same rules as non-subscription games, favouring recurring orders and longer-term customer commitment over single purchases. While development studios often take sequels for granted, I'm forced to ask whether MMOs should have sequels at all or if a different paradigm is more appropriate.

In this article, I explore the games industry's obsession with repetition as I ask the question "Should MMOs have sequels?"

False economy:
From a common sense point of view, a sequel to an existing popular game is a sure bet. As long as the factors that made the first game a success can be replicated, the sequel offers a high chance that fans of the old game will buy the new one. But in a subscription MMO, the factors that made it succeed are often rooted in the player-base and therefore incredibly difficult to replicate. EVE Online, for example, may have crashed and burned by now if not for the various in-game communities and organisations that players have built up within it.

By their very nature, subscription MMOs are entirely reliant on regular subscribers and long-term players. When a sequel is released, players are faced with the prospect of continuing to play an old version of an MMO or starting from scratch in an unfamiliar new generation of the game. It's easy to understand why people can then feel like they've been cheated for supporting the original game. MMO sequels tend not to be as popular as their original counterparts and the mere presence of a sequel may actually deter people from playing the original. Another important factor is that players tend to subscribe to only a few MMOs at once. Subscribers to a sequel MMO that were fans of the previous game may actually be cancelling their current subscription to do so.

In a nutshell, even a successful MMO sequel may pull large numbers of players from the previous version rather than bringing a lot of new players into the market. The sequel ends up competing with the original and that's bad for business. There is compelling evidence indicating that this has occurred in several previous MMOs. Lineage, for example, went from a peak of over three million subscribers just prior to Lineage II's release to under two million a year later. Although Lineage II had gained 2 million subscribers at that point, up to a million of them may have been previous players of the first game. While it's not possible to verify this supposition and the release of World of Warcraft did change the market significantly, the correlation in their subscriber timelines is hard to ignore.

Iterative development:
The alternative to the sequel is to use an iterative development strategy to keep the current game up to date. This works extremely well for games with a high rate of player retention and consistent subscriber growth as they have a high rate of long-term customer loyalty. EVE Online is one game that follows this strategy, having gone through several complete rewrites of every part of the game over the years. A massive overhaul of the game's graphics is also currently still underway using a staged delivery approach. Ship graphics were the first to be updated with the release of the premium graphics client in the Trinity expansion. Since then, the effects and weapon graphics have been remastered and asteroids have been redesigned to awesome effect.
Iterative development (continued):
Another game which has used this strategy is Runescape. At one point in Runescape's history, the game was completely rewritten and a new true-3D client with basic models was released. Since then, they've gone on to improve the engine and the graphics whenever possible while ensuring that the game can run on older computers. Coupled with the constant release of new content, this strategy of constantly updating the game is a key factor in long-term player retention. In that sense, games which employ the strategy well would never need a sequel. Instead, the main game will continually grow and adapt, removing unpopular or largely unused avenues of gameplay and improving popular ones.

Revisiting gameplay:
Iterative development isn't just about keeping the graphics up to date. Part of the strategy is a commitment to redeveloping old content and game mechanics. Rather than releasing expansions or sequels in which a different approach to the same core game elements can be taken, all changes the developers want to make are made to the current game. This often results in avenues of gameplay being changed or removed over time. While this may irritate some who have lost their favourite part of the game, EVE Online with its player's solid "adapt or die" attitude has been very successful using this strategy. It's often said that EVE is "a new game every six months" and while the reality isn't as extreme as that, the sentiment is definitely true. Constant redevelopment of the game world and mechanics is a key factor in EVE's successful development strategy.

This is in stark contrast to the normal state of affairs in which companies opt to play it safe and avoid upsetting their current playerbase with big changes. Everquest developer Chris Hoover exemplified the standard attitude when he said "Sometimes there will be things that are broken the entire history of the game and have affected gameplay so much that they simply can't be fixed because of the resulting change to gameplay.". While companies like CCP Games and Jagex have clearly proven that this isn't an absolute rule, there is merit to Hoover's words. There are several famous cases of major changes to an MMO causing widespread uproar and even decimating subscription levels. The most notable example is perhaps Star Wars Galaxies, which faced this problem when its "New Game Enhancements" update radically altered the game for the worse.

Given that accomplishments in an MMO represent a long-term achievement, it's understandable that people might feel cheated when their favourite MMO is shadowed over by a sequel. With good software design processes, it's been proven that an MMO can be kept updated without requiring a sequel. This often means making large changes to the game over time, significantly redesigning its gameplay every few years. Strong developers who understand the nuances of their game's design on their playerbase can take care to improve rather than harm the player's game experiences with each major update. With the problems associated with MMO sequels and iterative development strategies proving their effectiveness in the market, I'm forced to seriously doubt whether MMOs should ever have sequels.
Категория: MMOG articles | Добавил: Khazad (30.07.2009) | Автор: by Brendan Drain Jun 11th 2009
Просмотров: 1502 | Комментарии: 1 | Теги: eng-article | Рейтинг: 0.0/0 |
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