Series Info...Lessons from the Live Team #5:

Efficient Additions

by Sandra Powers

One of the oft-quoted axioms of post-launch MMO development is that our audience has a rapacious appetite for new content – an appetite that no live development team can ever completely satisfy. Another axiom, less quoted but just as true, is that on a live team the work never ends. You are never done with live development; there is always something else that needs doing, another update or expansion on the way, and never enough resources to get everything done.

But just because our job is an impossible one doesn't mean we shouldn't try! We just have to be smart in how we go about it. Taking these two truisms together, it is clearly important to make sure that every change you make to the game is both effective and efficient. Changes must be effective in meeting the goal of the live team – and remember that the goal is simply to hook and keep players, nothing more. And changes must be efficient: when you don't have enough resources to keep up with the unending demands, you most certainly do not want to be wasting those resources.

Resources are wasted when you add something that you don't need, usually by duplicating something that you already have, or when you invalidate previous work without adding anything positive to the game. (The key word here is positive. Sometimes invalidating or even removing previous work is necessary. For example, we spent a lot of time revamping the newbie experience in Asheron's Call 1 until we got it right. That work technically duplicated something we already had – a newbie experience – but on another level it added something that we didn't yet have – a fun newbie experience. Of course, the best course would have been to create a properly fun newbie experience from the beginning. But you have to work with what you’ve got … and then remember to do better next time.)

In order to avoid duplicating your efforts, it helps to know the target audience of each piece of content and each feature. In the last article we talked about target audience in terms of the players, by defining the habits and motivations of the players themselves. But most live additions will also be defined in terms of the target character. For instance, a particular quest or feature might be aimed at level 20 bards, at newbie crafters, or at mid-level melee characters.

Knowing what content you have – that is, what character audiences you have covered – and what you lack can help you make additions more efficiently. You may have a sufficiency of content for levels 20-50 but be lacking content for levels 50-65. In this case, adding new content for level 30 is just inefficient. Of course, the definition of sufficient content will vary based on your game and your target player audience.

In the perfect case, your game would ship with sufficient content at all levels. But you would still want to add content and features through live development because live development isn't so much about adding things as it is about maintaining a good rate of retention. So when you are planning your MMO, you will want to make sure that your live development will not be too inefficient – that is, that you have the space to add content which does not duplicate or invalidate existing content. There are several basic ways to do this:

  • You can deliberately leave space for new content in your game when you launch.
  • You can create more space for new content by expanding the limits of the game.
  • You can make use of temporary or seasonal content additions.

In point of fact, most games never actually run into this problem, either because they don't ship with enough content at all levels, or because the content they ship with needs major revision before it is fun. For example, Asheron's Call 1 shipped with very little content; the live team spent the majority of their time trying to fill in all the holes. Another example is Star Wars Galaxies, which made major revisions to its combat experience after it launched. So far as I know, SWG is still putting a huge amount of effort into reworking the rest of the game to fit the new combat model. Even World of Warcraft, which arguably came closest to launching in a perfect content state (stability issues aside) spends a large portion of its live updates revising, polishing and balancing the classes, one at a time. While you probably don't want to launch your game with the expectation of rewriting your combat system entirely in the first year, you may be satisfied to launch with relatively little high level content and expect to fill in that gap as you go.

But if you do launch a perfect game, you can add space for new content by extending the boundaries of your game. Certain kinds of features – such as new playable races – create their own new content space that you can then work on filling up. Raising the level cap has a similar effect, as do features that expand the dimensions of the game in new ways, such as PvP or crafting in a game that didn't previously support those. All of these features tend to fit well into expansions, either boxed or downloadable. So you can use expansions to add space for upcoming live content.

The trick here, of course, is that you have to be thinking about these kinds of additions when you build your game systems. For instance, you probably want to go ahead and plan out rough progressions for levels 1 to 100, even if you only ship with levels 1 to 50. At the very least, you want to make absolutely certain that your advancement curves don't hit an inherent dead end. In Asheron's Call 1, for instance, the formula that determined how much damage armor could absorb increased asymptotically with the armor level, so that at some point adding more armor just didn't do a whole lot. Unfortunately, this meant that content designers were severely limited in how well they could increase the available range of armor rewards for higher level players.

You may also use temporary content to keep your updates flowing without worrying too much about duplicating existing content. Most of your additions will be permanent – new content and features are usually too much work to abandon them after a month of use – but you can spice these up with temporary additions. Seasonal content is an especially good choice for this. Seasonal content may be based on real holidays or in-game events, or more usually a conflation of the two, and it tends to be very popular with players. The nice thing about seasonal content is that while it's only available for a short time, you can largely re-use the same work each year with minor additions or modifications to help keep it fresh for long-term players.

Other temporary additions might be based on the ongoing story of the world. For example, a few years back in AC1 the land of Dereth was invaded by an army of elementals. We replaced almost every normal creature on the landscape with elementals for a month. The next update, players had defeated the elementals and the normal creatures returned. This kind of content can be very dramatic and immersive, but it is usually an awful lot of work. You will want to be careful to balance the amount of developer work that something like this takes versus the benefit it gives you.

So in conclusion: despite our rapacious audience, adding content to a live game is not just a matter of throwing as much content out the door as we can. It's not even a matter of creating as much good, polished content as we can. It takes a good bit more planning than that to make sure that our efforts are not being wasted; that we are efficient in covering all parts of our character audience; that we remain focused on effective content that furthers our goal of hooking and keeping players.

[ <— #4: It's All About the Audience | #6: Documenting Live Updates —> ]