Dealing with MMO feature bloat, pruning, and obsolescence

Today I’m going to combine a few rants/whines about MMO systems and look at it as a combined, rather than separate, issue. There are two situations that particularly bother me about developing live MMORPGs, and I’m starting to think that they’re related.

The first issue that I have are games that introduce new systems and then either fail to support them or end up deleting them in the future entirely. World of Warcraft is downright notorious for doing this. Blizzard is forever introducing expansion-selling features — glyphs, jewelcrafting, garrisons, artifact weapons, order halls — and then downplaying them or outright eliminating them come the next expansion.

This frustrates me because it creates an environment where nothing can be depended on to last. You get super-invested in these systems because the studio is pushing them hard, and then you’re left holding nothing for all of your hard work and effort. Star Wars Galaxies’ Creature Handlers know of which I speak. It’s also frustrating because then it develops an inner attitude of mistrust, of thinking “well, why get invested in this, it won’t last!” And that’s not the attitude I want to have when playing a game. I want to get excited about it, I want to revel in it, and I want to play with the reasonable expectation of feature stability as long as that game lasts.

The second issue I have are with MMORPGs that, over the course of time, have introduced so many additional systems that they are now bloated and incomprehensible to the newcomer. Long-time players (and developers!) who have been with the game through the introduction of each of these systems don’t notice the bloat, as they’ve gradually grown accustomed to them. But too much in the way of systems can be a barrier to anyone coming into the game who now has to read enormous guides, anyone who wants to come back after a long absence, or anyone who would like to roll a new character and has to navigate all of these systems to build up a proper toon.

Marvel Heroes, pre-shutdown, is a good example of this. That game was forever adding new systems and stats and various ways to develop characters to the point where it gave me a headache to try to figure out everything that had to be done in order to properly build a superhero. And that was a game where your primary interaction was fast mouse button mashing!

As I said, the more I thought about both of these situations, the more I realized that they really are two sides to the same coin. MMOs should and do add features over time. That’s just part of live game growth, and it can be really exciting for players. But MMOs do have issues with too many systems and unsupported systems that ruin the quality of play for newcomers and experienced vets alike.

There’s no miracle cure for this but rather a sensible middle ground. As MMOs introduce new systems, they have to commit to fully supporting them going forward. These new systems should integrate well with previous systems and not overpower, overwrite, or clash with preexisting features. And MMO studios should always be evaluating the number of systems and how they work together — and guard against bloat. They should consider streamlining obtuse systems and even combine two or more related systems together in an improved fashion.

And if a system really won’t be supported, it should be cut — but that should be the final resort rather than a regular habit.

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7 thoughts on “Dealing with MMO feature bloat, pruning, and obsolescence

  1. Asmiroth September 11, 2018 / 9:27 am

    I think Warframe would like to have a chat with you. It is the most complicated, convoluted, and obtuse MMO I have ever played. It is also amazing.

  2. Bhagpuss September 11, 2018 / 11:23 am

    In a reversal of normal practice, I was going to respond to this with a blog post but it didn’t happen so here I am with a comment.

    I’m one hundred percent against removing or tidying up old systems that have outlived their usefulness. It’s like closing old MMOs just because no-one plays them any more. I agree entirely, though, that dogpiled legacy systems are offputting and confusing for new players- and indeed for veterans who don’t make the game their life’s work. I spent half an hour last night trying to figure out how adornments work in EQ2 nowadays and in the end I gave up.

    Smarter design would help but so would siloing. Instead of retrofitting the entire game every time, perhaps each expansion and its associated content could be made discrete, with its rules applying to the zones and instances that were introduced with it. That would also neatly allow for retro-nostalgia within the Live game. A technical challenge, perhaps, but with instancing technology it could surely be done.

  3. Wilhelm Arcturus September 11, 2018 / 5:16 pm

    Unfortunately in software there is the concept of “technical debt” where every feature you implement has to be maintained and updated over time. (Yes, I know “technical debt” gets used as a term for a few concepts, this is what it tends to mean in my industry.) After you add a feature you are never done with it because you constantly need to update underlying systems that touch about everything. This ends up being a lot more work than you probably think. It is like roads in SimCity. Building the road costs, but then you have to pay to maintain them as well.

    This is manageable when you’re growing or expanding or if you have a huge staff like Blizzard. But when you’ve peaked or, worse, when you need to cut back because your MMO is past its prime, all those features come back to haunt you. This is made worse if the person who wrote the code has left.

    So sometimes behind the scenes cutting a feature isn’t just because nobody is using it, but because the work to keep it updated is way beyond its importance to the overall game. You do end up with situations where the choice is improving the overall game or keeping an old feature. No dev wants to dump features, but reality just gets in the way.

    On the other item, like Blizz having expansion-only feature, I have mixed feelings. Yes, every WoW expansion is like a game reset and everything you walk in with needs to be replaced right away, which makes your life feel like a pointless treadmill… as if playing an MMO didn’t already. But then I think of LOTRO and the simply awful legendary weapon system they added with Mines of Moria. I would have been very happy if they had shed that albatross with Mirkwood rather than dragging it forward with every update.

  4. kiantremayne September 12, 2018 / 6:17 am

    @Wilhelm – I agree about the technical debt, there’s also a kind of ‘user experience debt’ that Syp and Bhagpuss allude to where the game becomes more and more obtuse and difficult to get into. Technical debt can be kept under control by making sure your code is properly documented, designed to be easy to maintain and adheres to industry standards. Games companies really need to do the same on the user experience side – keep the tutorials and user guides on their website up to date with the game as it is now rather than when it was launched, for example.

    WoW is also a special case – it’s like the Doctor Who of MMOs. every few years it regenerates with a new face, a new wardrobe and some fresh personality quirks, even though it’s still recognisably the same game at heart. Most other MMOs just accrete systems rather than do this – then again, apart from the EQ franchise not many other MMOs get to see more than a couple of expansions in their lifetime.

  5. Chordian September 12, 2018 / 7:44 am

    Totally agree with Wilhelm about the legendary weapons in LOTRO. I would have written a comment about it if you hadn’t. The past years I have sometimes installed LOTRO, logged in and started riding around wondering if I should continue playing again. Then I remember the awful legendary weapon system and see that unfortunately it’s still there.

    Never mind then.

  6. Wilhelm Arcturus September 13, 2018 / 9:54 am

    @kiantremayne – Indeed. Part of my point is that it requires work and planning to keep up with technical debt in an environment where there is a lot of pressure to get things done and get them out the door. Planning is often very short term for dev teams.

    I once worked for a VP whose motto to his group was to get features out as fast as possible and we would go back and fix them later. As it turned out, we never had time to go back and re-do any feature “right” and that whole idea was an anchor of bad code hung around our neck. I have spent the last 15 years telling people about that every time we get into a “just ship something that works” mode. But the now is always more important than the future… until we get to the future.

    Then when your product isn’t selling as much anymore and the dev team gets cut in half all you sins get revealed.

    And even WoW isn’t immune from being bad at new features. In BfA they changed how trade skills worked, but broke Darkmoon Faire quests. They no longer give you +5 to your trade skills (unless your skill is under 300) but still show that as a reward without caveat in all of those quests.

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