The Many Faces of Live Development
by Sandra Powers
The mechanisms of live MMO development – that is, development that continues after the game is launched – are many and varied. But in the end all live teams have a fairly straightforward goal: to hook players and keep them hooked. This is often (although not always) distinct from the goals of the pre-launch team, which may additionally be aimed at more box sales or at keeping the publisher happy. But every effort we make on live – from stabilizing the servers to adding new dungeons to managing the community – are all ultimately aimed at getting players hooked on our game and then keeping them playing.
But getting and keeping players is not really a single simple goal; it has many components. I like to talk about this in terms of four complementary roles: marketing, acquisition, retention, and re-acquisition.
So in order to meet the ultimate goal of getting and keeping players, you need to figure out which of these components can give you the most bang for the buck and then focus the efforts of your live team on development that reinforces that component. Of course, in most cases you will be focusing on more than one component. But the one thing you absolutely want to avoid is wasting your precious resources. For instance, focusing on marketing when your acquisition is so bad that 90% of your new players leave within an hour is just pointless. Likewise, no matter how much you make the newbie experience shine, it’s just wasted effort if no new players will ever join up to see it.
So, let’s analyze the major ways that live development goes about fulfilling these four roles. Incidentally, I am talking specifically about what the live development team can do here. Most certainly you can have your marketing department go off and do their marketing thing – but it will probably work better if the development team is working on some sexy new feature that will reinforce the marketing goal.
Boxed expansions are probably the most familiar form of live development since the concept has been well-established with single-player games. A boxed expansion usually contains a serious chunk of new content and/or new features, and always involves a retail box on a store shelf. Sometimes the same content can also be bought online via a download, but if there’s a box involved anywhere then I count this as a boxed expansion. Some recent examples include: AC1: Throne of Destiny (which I worked on), UO: Samurai Empire, and EQ2: Kingdom of Sky (just released last month).
The reason the box itself is important here is because so much game marketing is still tied intimately to retailers. In short, a game with a new box on the shelf still gets a lot more attention than a game without a box, regardless of what that box might actually contain. (It does help, however, if the expansion contains something new for a reviewer to review.) The consumer side of the industry is largely arranged around retail box releases – which can be a problem for a live game that does much of its work outside that model. Having a box on the shelf allows the live team to tap into the retail paradigm; it means that people who have never heard of your game before may run across it, either in a store or mentioned in a gaming magazine. In addition, it reminds all your former subscribers that your game still exists. These factors together often justify the costs of a boxed expansion, especially after a long period without one. Certainly this was one of our biggest goals with AC1: Throne of Destiny.
Oddly, however, once you get past the marketing angle, boxed expansions tend to be primarily aimed at high-level player retention. Although they will often include some token new systems or content that is available to low-level characters – for instance, the ability to play Viamontian characters in AC1: Throne of Destiny, or the Achievement system in EQ2: Kingdom of Sky – the vast bulk of the content in an expansion is generally intended to extend the lifetime of existing players. In fact, a new player race is a popular choice for boxed expansions specifically because it can be used both to attract new players and to encourage long-term players to create new characters.
This is not to say that acquisition concerns are unimportant in a boxed expansion. Because these expansions are your best chance for new marketing in a live game, they also represent you largest influx of new players – which means that your game had better have a nice, smooth acquisition experience to reduce the churn of those new players. But because improving acquisition is generally not a sexy, bullet-point-on-the-box feature (for one thing, if you do put it on the box in a prominent way, it implies that you previously tortured your new players), the actual work might best be done in an update before the expansion. That way, you can concentrate expansion development on the sexy features. This also gives you the opportunity to have a smaller number of new players run through your improvements before the large influx of newbies hits.
Boxed expansions have one other important effect on retention: they reassure your subscribers that your company is still willing to invest in the game; that the game is not about to be shut down. This is especially important for older games and games with smaller player bases. (Unfortunately, the fate of Asheron’s Call 2 – which announced its impending closure scant months after its first and only expansion – may have reduced the reassurance value of a boxed expansion.)
A downloadable expansion, also called a booster or an adventure pack, is an odd entity that sits somewhere between boxed expansions and content/feature updates. In general, downloadable expansions contain a decent chunk of new content and/or features that can only be obtained by purchasing and redeeming a code online – usually directly from the company that owns the game. The best recent examples both come from EverQuest 2: "The Bloodline Chronicles" and "The Splitpaw Saga" adventure packs.
Without the retail marketing tie-ins, downloadable expansions are more obviously aimed at pure retention. They may include lower-level content, but again this is primarily for elder players who are creating and leveling new characters. You can base a marketing campaign on a downloadable expansion, but it will most often be heavily web-based – which means that it will likely be reaching a lot of lapsed subscribers who are keeping up with the MMO market. In this way, downloadable expansions can be very valuable for re-acquisition, especially if there isn’t strong competition from newly-launched games at the time.
Content and Feature Updates
Content and feature updates are the bread and butter of the live MMO. All the major players in the US MMO market right now do updates, although they may call them patches, publishes, events, props, issues, or episodes. Updates vary wildly in frequency, from every three weeks to every three months, and most MMO games do not publish their updates on a rigid schedule. Updates also vary wildly in size, from a single new quest or dungeon to new zones brimming with content.
So given this rather broad notion of an update, what distinguishes it from other categories of live development? First off, updates contain new content, systems, or features – not just tweaks to existing content. Secondly, unlike boxed or downloadable expansions, updates are free to all subscribers.
I’m probably going to be talking at length about updates in future columns: regularly scheduled monthly updates were arguably the one thing that the Asheron’s Call franchise did better than any other game to date. But for right now, I’ll just mention that these workhorses largely help retention. You can also use a particularly exciting update to recapture some lapsed players, especially in conjunction with a small marketing push. Players are ravenous for newness – new content to experience, new systems to explore – and updates are the main venue for delivering it to them (at a pace your team will likely find breakneck, and your players glacial). Yes, expansions also deliver new content, but a well-managed update process can deliver more content to players more cheaply than an expansion can. Of course, expansions have other benefits as well, which is why you’ll end up doing some of each.
In addition, updates are also the main venue for ongoing improvements in acquisition and retention. Need to rework the entire newbie experience because it’s just not fun between level 3 and level 12? Need to fix the advancement slowdown that’s causing a sharp dip in retention at level 40? This work needs to be done before you convince new players to give you a spin, and before you start working on getting your lapsed subscribers back. But this work itself isn’t sexy enough to meet those goals on its own. The best place for it is in an update. You need to get the biggest marketing value out of your boxed expansion that you can, so you don’t want to muddy your marketing message by including changes like this. Instead, schedule them for updates that launch just before the expansion.
And finally, we have live events. Different people mean different things by live events: the term can be stretched to include everything from an in-game question and answer session to a dev-controlled epic boss monster at the highlight of a story arc. In general, though, a live event involves an admin entering the game world in order to manipulate events for the entertainment of players.
The best examples I have at my disposal are all from AC1. During the first big story arc, developers entered the game as the lore characters Asheron and Bael’zharon, staging fights and interacting with players to help intensify the significance of the conflict. More recently, AC1 contracted a team of live event operators to run short, pre-scripted scenarios such as an admin-driven Mosswart who asks players for help with a task, or spontaneous town raids by ravenous Eaters.
So what are live events good for? Oddly, just about everything. They provide interesting spice for older players, and enough buzz about live events can help with re-acquisition as well. If live events are a new or irregular thing for your game, you can even use them to reach out to new audiences. And there is no action so certain to hook a new player as getting them personally involved in the story on their first day.
Unfortunately, live events are hit or miss. That is, unless you have immense resources or a very small player base, you are guaranteed to only involve a small portion of your players in any given event. The more often you run the events, the less special they feel (and the less draw they have), but a player who isn’t involved is likely to be unimpressed or even downright annoyed. In my experience, events work best as an occasional spicer to reinforce your acquisition and retention efforts.
The concepts I’ve discussed here are not a primer for live development so much as one potential framework for prioritizing your team resources. A live MMO game is a colossal octopus of conflicting interests, arms sprawling every which way. It’s especially easy to get too caught up in the demands of the moment – in an ongoing server crisis or a class balance issue or a forum revolt – and forget the underlying objective: to hook players and keep them hooked. In order to succeed, you need to regularly take a step back and carefully analyze your needs and your goals. And it pays to have one (or more) organizing principles like this to help keep your efforts coordinated.
Next time we’ll talk about the most important live factors to consider before you launch.