NOTE: This was originally released as a single post, but has since been split into three parts and expanded to better communicate my analysis and suggestions.
Theme park MMOs are all about the attractions. Dungeons, raids, open world, even PvP arenas are considered small pieces of the overall park. And just like real life theme parks, the attractions steadily lose their luster as time goes by, the newness fading into a sense of staleness.
Why this is can be traced to three particular elements, which when combined inevitably create staleness for the vast majority of the player base. Below, I trace these elements as they apply to the game Guild Wars 2, but the principles hold for any theme park MMO, even the behemoth World of WarCraft.
The Example of Guild Wars 2
There is one core weakness of PvE in general that prevents existing content from staying challenging. Any new content with unknown mechanics is challenging at first, but given time they fall prey to a curse brought on by the limitations of PvE’s systems. This manifests through weak AI, linear encounter approaches, and zero change to a given encounter.
Enemy attacks in Guild Wars 2 are very simplistic. Even with long move list bars, approaching a given group is a simple matter of avoiding the big attack* and nuking their hit point pool into oblivion.
*And if heavily downleveled, ignoring it, because it won’t hurt you anyhow.
Supposedly difficult bosses with multiple moves also suffer from this. More often than not, challenging mechanics are replaced by huge numbers to punish not avoiding The Big Move.
Finally, more complicated enemies (like Giganticus Lupicus and many of the Fractals and Living World bosses) have a nasty tendency to glitch out and stand there impotently while players keep wailing on them. Scads of updates have aimed to patch out the script breaking, or an edge condition the AI isn’t programmed to work around*.
*Not to mention the exploit approach that the limited AI can encourage. Utilizing terrain, pathing errors, and the like is more common than ArenaNet would prefer, if the number of exploit patches is any indicator.
Every encounter starts the same. The boss spawns in a specific location, leashes to a specific area, and utilizes specific skills (sometimes even in a specific order). Any and all variation in the vast majority of encounters is borne of the players themselves.
This means that after initial difficulty in figuring out what those specific requirements are, it’s an increasingly trivial matter of figuring out the most effective way to approach the encounter.
Barring major changes in skill functionality and balance, eventually “the best way” is figured out, spread among the community at large, and executed into ludicrous efficiency. This is the basis of the “zerker meta,” a specific approach meant to maximize damage while minimizing how much a given boss can do.
Poor AI and specific encounters wouldn’t be that big an issue, were it not for the third part of the curse: a lack of change. Dungeons have seen exactly four paths change substantially since release*. The encounter approaches are known, and except for exceptional displays of skill (a.k.a., speed runs) the amount of time it takes to do a path is more or less the same**.
*All three paths of Ascalonian Catacombs and the wholesale replacement of Twilight Arbor’s Fwd/Up with Aetherpath.
**While Fractals has seen slightly more changes, and Living World content has added new encounters, they are also stuck in the “unchanged” category at this point.
When things don’t change, and encounters play out the exact same way every time, more or less by design, people finding content stale is inevitable. Trying to beat a record in a mechanically identical encounter is a relatively niche market. Many more want to simply be challenged in new and unexpected ways on a regular basis.
These three elements work as a ticking time bomb on the “freshness” of given content. No matter how complicated an encounter is in initial conception, how unforgiving the margin of error, inevitably players will figure it out, and tell others. And in due time, even the people furthest from the cutting edge of the meta find content stale.
This is certainly not helped when the initial conditions are drastically nerfed shortly after release. The Ascalonian Catacombs revamp was tough, then downleveling math was adjusted and enemies exploded upon being sneezed on. Tequatl’s revamp was tough, then damage done to the batteries was nerfed.
Both of these cases, and others, reduce the time on the clock for content. And when it hits zero, people find it stale and boring, because everyone knows what to expect.
A Curse of Necessity
The current structure of the game “locks in” the inevitability of the trifold curse, especially with Heart of Thorns on the horizon. This is the result of several (not wrong) design decisions:
Dynamic Events: Events and encounters need to seamlessly scale to account for changes in the number of participants. Adding or deleting additional mechanics based on the number present is a QA nightmare waiting to happen. It is simpler to add or delete mob spawn numbers.
Cooperation is Paramount: The core design ethos of Guild Wars 2. If encounters get uncompromisingly harder past a certain amount of people (or jokingly easy below a certain amount), players would not want other players around to spoil their easy reward. Especially if the rewards are generally the same regardless of the number present.
Fire and Forget: With exception to a very small number of revamps, the more typical approach to game content is to create something, release it, iron out the bugs, and move on to the next thing. Granted, brand new content gets a better uptake than revamped content, but it reinforces the third part of the curse.
The Open World is Alive: Another design ethos, reinforced by the increasing push toward player-driven meta events and new mechanics. And when an open world is always moving, always triggering events, always on several dozen timers, bugs can crop up.
Stick all of these together, and short of changing the original conditions (namely, poor AI and linear encounters) that these design decisions lock in, the trifold curse is unavoidable.
What of Other MMOs?
Guild Wars 2 is an excellent direct example of the Trifold Curse because of the design decision to (for the most part) avoid artificial time gating and gear grinds (which a specific form of time gating). This means that players get to find content stale faster because they’re able to complete and master it all fairly quickly compared to most MMOs*.
*Forgive the twist. I think the relative lack of time gates is a good thing for MMOs in general, but it takes far less time for the Trifold Curse to turn content from “fresh” to “stale” for the average player.
MMOs that utilize time gates have been rightfully dinged for “padding out the content” behind artificial walls. But on the flip side, they have been better able to slow down when the Trifold Curse hits in full force, because the average player literally doesn’t run out of content, and the top 0.1% takes a really long time to do so.
However, time gate-based MMOs add in a 4th element: Forced Obsolescence.
Whenever an expansion hits, or a new content update reaches the servers, level caps get raised, higher gear tiers get introduced, and everyone gets invited to join in on The Latest and Greatest. The negative side of this is that it by design invalidates any older content unless said content is being used to reach the new content.
This forced obsolescence means that the game inflicts staleness upon any older content on its own. Because the older content is no longer “the endgame,” and something else is, there’s an inherent stigma associated with it. Worse, this inflicted staleness affects even the average player who wasn’t running out of content to play*.
*This is likely why each released expansion of World of WarCraft introduces new ways to shortcut the stale-by-definition “leveling content” that not too long ago was “endgame content.”
Worded differently, time gated MMOs tend to self-inflict the Trifold Curse, blanketing content that might not yet be stale for many players with the musty scent of out-in-the-sun sweat-coated socks.
This is itself an appeal to the 0.1% that managed to “run out” of new and interesting content to accomplish. The conventional wisdom goes that if the very top is bored, everyone is eventually going to get bored, so it’s best to put something new in front of everyone now and shove the eventually-boring stuff out of the way.
Cursed onto a Treadmill
Now switch the perspective. The problem that all theme park MMO developers have in common is, inevitably, they must create new content at a rate that keeps their players from getting too bored. Yes, there will always be relative outliers that lose interest quickly, or complete content far faster than expected, but the vast majority in the middle is what makes most of the money for MMOs anyway.
One could say that this is the promise of MMOs in general: living worlds and consistent updates to effect that feeling not just in the player base, but in the game world they occupy as well. It’s a known factor of deciding to create an MMO (or at least, the type du jour of theme park) in the first place, right?
The problem is the time limit. The Trifold Curse puts a clock on anything released, meaning that to maintain relevance, interest, and ultimately, paying customers, MMO developers must release content at about the same speed that the player base consumes it. When they fail to do so for whatever reason, players lament how boring the game has gotten, and steadily move on to the next thing.
At first, this Curse-driven treadmill isn’t that bad. Numerous things that get cut from release get repurposed into updates, quality of life fixes improve the overall experience, and there’s so much stuff in a released MMO anyway that it’ll be a while before the original content runs out of time*.
*Exceptions to this statement tend to get panned within the first couple of months of release and fade into irrelevance.
But content always takes longer to create than to consume (barring ludicrous time gates), especially as the average player improves their quality of play. Content creation is inevitably bypassed by content consumption.
Developers eventually stumble and fall off that impossibly fast treadmill, letting the Curse catch up to their content. Then people leave for elsewhere, whether that be the resident King Kong World of WarCraft*, the newest MMO, or another genre entirely.
*At least in North America and Europe. Korea and China have different giant apes.
All a Matter of Time
Between the Trifold Curse and the content creation treadmill for developers it creates, everything is a winding down clock until the theme park closes its gates forever. Even the MMOs that don’t go away end up a burnt out husk of their former glory.
This can’t possibly be good for players, developers, the MMO genre, or the gaming industry. Theme parks are fine as a design concept, but with the fixed approach to the content created within them, the entire genre is illustrating the second law of thermodynamics*.
*The one that states that heat (unusable energy) is always increasing, and along with it, entropy. Inevitably, the universe will run out of usable energy and die. Yes, I’m morbid.
But stuck with the constraints of massive processing requirements, large architectures, and the like, how can MMOs avoid the Trifold Curse, and hopefully, the content creation treadmill? How can burnt out developers and thrown aside development studios be avoided?
I think the answer is taking a page out of the sandbox book, a specific one entitled “Emergence.” Read it here!