Sunday, February 14, 2021

Why do MMO developers keep taking our toys away? On MMO content amputations

A recent post over at "24 Hours In . . ." got my gears turning.  In it Sixuality complains about about an upcoming expansion for Neverwinter in which a whole set of zones are being removed from the game.  An entire module released in 2013, Fury of the Feywild, is being retired to make way for new zones in the same location.   I don't follow the Neverwinter community very closely.  However, in the commentary I could find players seem less than thrilled with the change.  Sixuality remarks:

"No MMO is so inexhaustibly rich in content that the dev team can afford to throw away entire zones."

I couldn't agree more.  Yet, for no sane seeming reason, MMO developers do this all the time.  Forget about the old, in with the new!  

Take the Catacombs in Dark Age of Camelot.  It used to be some of my favorite content when I was playing in the early 2000s. When I returned to DAoC a few years ago, I found a PvE game that was much richer than I remembered from the previous decade.  There were two entirely different chains of PvE quests, a new one running through the main zones of the game and another much older series of quests that ran through the Catacombs.  About six months after I started playing, Mythic effectively amputated Catacombs. All of content in the zones was cut out so the zones could be repurposed for raids. In the process, the amount of solo PvE content in the game got cut by nearly half.

I don't like raiding, so it was a net loss for me.  I also never understood why Mythic couldn't have created duplicates of the zones and left the old quests in place in the original zones.  Adding insult to injury, the gear that you earn in those raids is now much easier to earn with bounty points (which can be obtained solo) than by running the raids.  The raids have very little reason to exists now, and all the quests I remember with rosy nostalgia from when I used to play in the 00s are still gone.  

Mythic is far from alone.  The most recent large update to Destiny 2, Beyond Light, removed entire planets. I had only been playing the game for a little over a month at the time.  The update removed Mercury, Mars, Titan and several other whole large areas from the game.  Most of what they removed I had yet to even set foot on, and it absolutely killed my enthusiasm.  Instead of being excited about all the new content being added, all I could do was mourn the loss of zones I would never get to explore.  Destiny is another game community I don't really follow.  However, in general players don't seem all that enamored by the shakeup, with current Steam reviews of Beyond Light trending "Mostly Negative."

Other notable examples include the Cataclysm expansion in WoW, which set all the old levelling zones on fire (in some cases literally) to make room for revamped zones.  At the time I enjoyed the changes, but hindsight has not been kind to the expansion.  It's now widely considered the expansion where Blizzard started to lose their way.  There was also something called the NGE, where an entire game was pretty much ripped out and replaced with some other game using the same setting and art assets.  Players were not amused.    

I can see why developers amputate systems.  In many cases the only way to implement a new system, like switching character development from skill lines to classes, is to remove and replace it. What really baffles me are designers that seem eager to remove entire zones, with all of their content.  Play zones are an absolutely enormous amount of work to produce. The art, the writing, the items that you can earn; game designers put their hearts and souls into all of it.  When you remove a zone from a game you are likely removing thousands of person hours of work from a product.  In a series of offline game players can always load up older editions of the game if they want to.  Not so in a MMO.  If you close off areas they are simply gone, and all the work from that designers put into them has basically vanished.

Losing explorable content hurts especially hard in a MMO. One of the main reasons I love MMOs so much is because they give me the illusion of exploring a living breathing world.  There are two things that really make MMOs pop for me.  Other players, the knowledge that there is a real person behind so many of the digital avatars I encounter, are a big part of it.  However that's not enough by itself.  The other half of the equation for me is the places themselves, how enormous they tend to be and how permanent they feel. The feeling that I could spend months there seeing new sights and having unexpected new adventures. The knowledge that like any real place, things still happen and change when I'm not around.  

When developers decide to rip content out of game, that sense of endless possibilities is diminished.  Of course it makes the game smaller in a literal sense of diminished virtual real-estate.  However, it also reminds me that the game is not a real place, and that ultimately MMOs are as impermanent as any other game that ceases to exist when you shut off your PC.  Further, if the developers don't care enough about the content they build to even bother to keep it around when they add newer content, why should I get invested in any of it?   

Now of course there are a lot of very good, or at least explicable, reasons for developers to retire zones.  To keep players from getting too spread out as the geography of a game expands.  To reduce the footprint of a game on storage devices.  To stop players from wandering into older areas that no-longer meet expectations for design quality.   So that the lore of the game makes mores sense, and players aren't wandering between zones with story lines that obviously take them back and forth in time.  I could go on.

Yet all too often it doesn't feel like these or similar sensible reasons to me.  Frequently it feels like zone amputations happen for some combination of one of two reasons: (1) To force players to buy new content by removing old content that competes with it or  (2) New designers want to put their stamp on a game, and place little value on the things that designers before them built.  Rather than a a reluctant choice forced by the holistic needs of the game and the player base, too often content removal feels like greed or hubris.   

If you aren't sure whether to leave a zone in or take it out, maybe it's better to err on the side of making your game a bigger, better value for players.  More importantly, maybe it's better to err on the side of not ticking off everyone that likes the zones.   Sure some players won't care much one way or another.  But in a MMO, the ones that do care will likely care deeply.


  1. I blame WoW, for too many things perhaps but certainly Cataclysm seemed to start something of a trend. I loved the idea of the old world being reworked to move the story along - still do - but the execution left a lot to be desired.

    You touch on a lot of the reasons why developers might do this. I do think there's an unfortunate tendency for MMO devs to be dismissive of older content, especially if there's a prevalent 'the game starts at end-game' philosophy. In the case of Neverwinter I suspect it's to do with recycling content, which also rather sounds like what you describe in DAoC.

    1. I think it's that dismissiveness of older content that comes across as most out of touch to me. You could see it very clearly in the famous "You think you want it but you don't" comment. Nostalgia is one of the most valuable assets an old MMO has going for it. How could an developer running a MMO that has been out for years not be aware of that?

  2. The problem is that no feature is an island. Once you put in a feature or system, it has to be updated and maintained. Even if nothing is added, it still takes dev and test time to make sure it is still working when other things are updated. Every feature is a tax on dev time no matter how it may seem to be unchanged from the outside. And sometimes the team has to make hard choices, often when back end systems are updated, invisible to the user, that require fixes for compatibility. Or sometimes the dev who built the system leaves and the team decides it isn't worth diverting somebody else to learn it all.

    Basically, I don't think any MMO dev team yanks features out because they want to. But sometimes the level of technical debt... the old stuff you need to maintain... becomes too big and the team ends up having to spend too much time on it rather than new things. And new things are what keep a lot of players coming back. So tough choices have to be made.

    1. You raise a good point. In many cases some system under the hood may get changed that we can't see, and it just costs too much to keep old content functional under the new system. However, if that is what's going on I'd love for developers to actually tell us so that we aren't left with the impression that they have decided to set half their game on fire on a whim.

      In the examples I led with, the reasons that the developers gave were 1. lore reasons (NW), 2. We don't want players getting too spread out (DAoC), and 3. We want you to play the new stuff, maybe we'll bring the old stuff back one day (D2). I personally did not find any of those reasons sufficiently compelling to justify the content losses.

  3. It's funny you start out with Neverwinter since that game had the largest selling point of it's launch, the unique player created content system called Foundry, completely removed years ago.

    1. Oh yeah, I had completely forgotten about that. I can see where that might be one of those systems that is a huge headache to maintain that Wilhelm is talking about. But man, you want to talk content amputation...that can be enormous.

      Further, I feel terrible for players that put their hearts into some of that stuff. What are they supposed to do, release a novella?

  4. I meant to comment when the post first went up but I missed the window. Then it got linked on Global Chat and today Shintar posted about Neverwinter removing another set of zones...

    I'd make a big differentiation between things like the NGE or Cataclysm, which I see as part and parcel of the mmo experience. Mmorpgs have two major variations from single player or co-op rpgs: firstly they have to cater for very large and ever-changing audiences and secondly they remain in a perpetual state of continual development. The whole "virtual worlds" trope may have receded from the center of the offer but these are still games that live in real time, not slices of history. Yes, those kinds of changes are often deeply uncomfortable (virtually every EQ player still loathes what SOE did to Freeport, for example) but even that discomfort becomes part of the ongoing history of the game.

    Ripping content out completely rather than revamping or revising it is another matter entirely. Wilhelm's comment clarifies why something like Neverwinter's Forge might become to difficult and expensive to sustain but there's unlikely to be such a technical explanation for junking whole zones that are functionally identical to others that get to stay.

    The fact that everything in these games changes, one way or another, is, of course, what drives the increasingly lucrative market for "Classic" servers. It seems to me that we're already well past the point where any rational developer with a moderately successful mmorpg in their portfolio should be planning for retro and classic servers as part of their long-term growth for the game. With that in mind there could be much less trauma involved in content leaving the mainstream offer since everyone would know it would come back in due course in "Classic".

    1. I completely agree that there is a big difference between a Cataclysm and a NGE and simply removing a zone that apparently doesn't interact with any other part of the game. I was cheating a bit by throwing those examples in. However I do think a big part of why they upset some players so much is that stuff they liked got taken away.

      Every team has their own style when it comes to these decisions.
      If I have to pick, my personal preference is for games like EQ and EQ II that seem to view removing content as a last resort. However, you can also see the advantages and disadvantages of the resulting sprawl in those games (lots of content to explore, but confusing to new players).