Expansion vs New Game

So the big news this week is that Warhammer is shaping up to be a great success (EA shipped 1.5 mil boxes which is a sign of confidence any way you look at it), and WoW announced a release date for their next expansion. There are other MMO expansions coming too in November: LOTRO and EQ2 are also due to release some around that time. (EQ and AC have expansions coming up too, for the old skool players out there.)

WoW and LOTRO are both taking the same approach to their expansions. New areas that players will get excited about for thematic reasons, 10 new levels, lots of new shinies, and after that … probably more of the same as the current endgame, but shinier. They both also offer new classes to players as well.

And if you have been playing any of these games already, that means there is a choice coming up. New game vs expansion? New friends vs old ones? Is it possible to play more than one MMO without feeling shortchanged in both? And how hard is it really to dump an old character that you may have sunk months or years of work into?

Pros and Cons of Playing Expansions

The great bonus of playing an expansion when you already know the game is that you already know the game. Presumably you like it. You’ve sunk a lot of time into it, you know all the little tricks and strategies. you like the lore and the geography and know your way around. And you have friends there. Probably a guild. You have alts, and tradeskills and lots of in-game cash. You have reputation with all the important factions. These are things you worked hard on and you are reluctant to throw them away. Also being offered more of the same is great when you know you liked it in the first place.

Much as people claim not to be interested in lore, in practice it means that they don’t like reading quest text. Most players are vaguely attached to the lore, at least the bits they have personally experienced in game. Some games do better than others at immersing players into their game worlds, but a big draw of an expansion is to see what happens next, and to get involved in it.

The downside of an old game is that the player community tends to get more elitist. I remember what WoW was like when it first went live. The player community now is less welcoming, more judgemental, more likely to know how the game works and more likely to comment on when other people are ‘doing it wrong.’ How fun is it really to mess around with new classes and abilities when in the back of your mind you are worrying about whether you are good enough to play with your friends?

A sign of this is from my old WoW guild, who are great. They were involved in a casual raid alliance with no class quotas, no attendance restrictions, very basic DKP. And they’ve decided that they need to tighten up for the next expansion, and will be introducing all of those things. With a hint of ‘if you aren’t good enough or we have too many of your spec, you’ll be asked to sit out.’ Its a perfectly reasonable way to organise and I wish them luck, but if I was still playing I would be fretting over which alt to level and whether it would be a spec that could get raid spots. I personally find that stressful but I know a lot of people enjoy it. More to the point, the game encourages it. The game forces people who want to raid to get elitist, whether they want to or not. LOTRO doesn’t have quite the same issues but still … every time a game introduces a new class, people get nervous about how the play balance will work out. Will the new class replace them? How will things work out? And uncertainty of whether your friends will still want you around in game (even if it is a silly thing to worry about because, hey, they are your friends!) is not fun.

And what if you hadn’t played the game before?

An old game has huge barriers to entry. Even if the game itself is newbie friendly, the player base may not be after a few years. And each expansion introduces new complexity into the game to keep the existing players busy. In many cases, Devs try to make an easy learning path for new players with every new complex system that they introduce. It doesn’t always work. If you were new to the genre also, playing an old game could seem overwhelming. That is, if you could even find anyone to play with in the starting zones.

This is one of the great things about introducing new classes in the way that LOTRO is. A lot of old players will want to pick one up, it provides lots of press, and newbies will have more people to group with. The fact that WoW is starting the Death Knights at level 55 shows that they are not really aiming this expansion at new players. The game is about as newbie friendly as it is ever going to get, they are more about retaining existing players and getting ex-players to resub these days.

I know that a lot of people bitch about getting new levels with each expansion because it means that they have to throw away most of the achievements of the current expansion and start again. The upside is that it means that devs can keep the complexity manageable. It gives them a way to reset the endgame cleanly, give everyone an even start, and let players feel that they are on a level playing field again. For awhile at least. The alternatives are more tricky. Different advancement paths do add a layer of complexity to the game. Letting people forever build on old achievements makes the game more stratified and makes it harder for new players to catch up.

The great thing about a new game is that the in-built stratification simply isn’t there yet. Everyone starts equal. Everyone has to learn at the same time. And people are motivated to be more social in a new game because the server community is just being built. It’s a chance to be in at the ground floor. And in many ways it’s the most fun time for any game. People are less likely to have fixed ideas about classes and how to play them. Enjoy it, it won’t last long.

I’m quite intrigued about why Matt@Bloghammer decided that he preferred to play the Wrath Beta to the WAR launch. Dude, you’ll be playing it again in two months time anyway, and it’ll be less buggy then! Meanwhile, you’re missing the most fun part of any MMO.

Playing 2 MMOs Side by Side

I’ve never really been able to do this. My husband is a huge fan of CoH which does seem to be very casual friendly. He happily logs in to his one man supergroup and finds PUGs when he is bored. In many ways, it is an ideal backup game (just wish I liked it more, I love a lot of the design).

The reason I have issues is because the MMOs I like reward intensive play, both mechanically and socially. You play a game a lot, you’ll meet more people and they’ll get to know you. You’ll make more friends, get more involved in whatever is going on. Log on once a week and no one will know who you are. Mechanically, if you want the flashy gear and the great reputation, you need to put in the hours.

It’s possible, of course, to play casually, but you are going in from the start knowing that you may not be able to do some of the really cool stuff. Its not meant for players like you and that can be offputting, depending on how good you are at setting your own goals and enjoying what is available rather than fretting over what isn’t. You could instead just play a single player game where you set your own pace and can accomplish anything the game allows. Single player games don’t lock you out in the same way. It might be possible to play one game casually and one intensively, if your time management skills are very good.

There is also the possibility of playing one intensively now, and then another intensively in a few months time. Hopefully the period of intense play would let you level one character and fit it out to a point where you could then start to play casually (ie. in WoW, just log in on raid nights, etc.)

I think a lot of people will be levelling quickly in WAR with a view to doing exactly this. Hoping that by the time the new expansions come out, their WAR character will be at a point where they can log in less regularly but still keep up with friends. From what I’ve seen, the game would be quite friendly to that playstyle. You can certainly participate in guild PvP nights without too much trouble.

For me, I’m planning to play through Lich King when it comes out. But I’ll be playing casually and mostly solo (or in duos). My main goal is to try out a Death Knight and see the levelling zones because I always did think that those were the strongest aspects to WoW. Having seen WAR, I have no real interest in WoW PvP or endgame raiding. WoW for me will just be filling the gap until Diablo III comes out.

And I’ll plan to keep playing WAR — I’ll never be as hardcore as I was previously in WoW but that’s a good thing and I think the game supports it.

Advertisements

How players change over time

I remember my first MMORPG with rose coloured glasses. Being online in a world with other people and being able to team up with them to fight big monsters was exciting. I was entranced by the whole idea. In retrospect, it seems like a fluffier, happier age when everything was fun and nothing was a grind and no one ever whined at you to respec your fury warrior into protection.

This of course is not true. (Except about the warrior because it wasn’t WoW and I didn’t play one.) The games were terrifically grindy. Just I was so taken with the game that it didn’t matter to me. I remember we had some ‘endgame’ guilds on my server and found them utterly incomprehensible. It was a long grind to max level and I hadn’t thought about what might come next. We also spent a lot more time exploring and sharing what we found with our guilds.

Back then, raids weren’t in a great hurry to share their tactics, in fact keeping them secret was a big deal. You also couldn’t rely on being able to look online for quest or drop information and find a professional quality site serving up what you wanted to know. The player base, as it learned these games, has gotten more cooperative, has learned how to make money out of good quality websites, and has become more hardcore.

If you look at proto-guild adverts on the community forums, you’ll see a lot of promotional posts for hardcore endgame guilds already. Players who have already learned the genre and basic mechanics of MMORPGs know before they start a new game if they want to play hardcore or not. Even newer players are able to take a more critical eye to the different classes and dungeons and PvP scenarios, comparing them with other games they have played.

I was thinking about this when I read Massively’s interview with Richard Bartle last week, and he discussed how he decided which class to play in WoW based on a designer-type analysis (ie. what was this class designed to do? what kind of playstyle was it aimed at?). Even though we aren’t game designers, experienced players analyse classes in a similar way. Which class has the best buffs? Which class will be needed for PvE? Which class looks more simple to play? Which class is most similar to one I have had fun playing in the past?

I think it’s inevitable that the player base becomes more sophisticated. It’s not enough to just be in a persistent world. We have a better idea of what we want out of the game and actively seek guilds and characters that will let us accomplish it. We’ve learned tactics from previous games also. eg. In DaoC, everyone at the start used crowd control in PvE because that was how Everquest had played. Later on, AE pulls took over because the game and classes supported them.

And now, players will apply what they have learned in more recent games to Warhammer Online too. Some, of course, will have burned out on being hardcore and will be looking for a more laidback game experience and guild. But we can never be new to the genre again. And games have to adjust to this faster learning curve. Players do enjoy the learning curve, but that means there has to be something new out there to learn.

One thing I’m really looking forwards to in Warhammer is the sheer variety of scenarios. Why? Because each one will have its own set of tactics and …. we’ll be able to go discover them for ourselves.