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The Social Hub: Rethinking the ‘Inevitable’ Population Decline

Column By Christina Gonzalez on November 13, 2013

When it comes to MMORPGs, many players want to be in for launch day.  Despite the potential for (and often the reality of) queues, disconnects, congested servers, and other problems, there's nothing like a shiny new game.  Part of the reason that these moments are so special is not merely to be first but also to get in the full community experience.  While certain aspects of the community in a game can only develop over time, some of them are set right from the get-go.

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With all of these things being established early on this pattern is front-loaded for a couple of reasons.  Not least of them all is the assumption that population will inevitably drop.  It holds true for most games, and anyone that has played more than a couple of MMOs knows this. But some sustain better than others. The developers know and plan for it too, both economically and in terms of content. With MMO tourism and an increase in soloing, when it comes to a game's income and recouping an investment, the clock starts ticking on a game as soon as it launches. That isn't to say that games start to die as soon as they launch. There are, after all, multiple games that are sitting there still running after 5-10 years or more. Yet even those games have likely undergone significant changes on top of  decreasing populations.

If the game allows crafting or trading to have a notable impact upon the game's economy, then getting those crafting skills leveled up right away is vital.  Becoming a well-known, well-stocked seller is often going to require a lot of time investment very quickly.  If you have what people need at all levels, and do it for a good price, they'll remember you.  This can also apply to other aspects in the foundation of the community early on.  How many games have you played where notable PvPers distinguished themselves quickly?  This, likely after having sailed to cap rapidly. Who needs sleep, right?

With the exact time frame and percentage of population drop both unknown before launch and shortly afterward, these elements push people into trying to establish everything they can early.  Feeling that you can't get a toehold in the economy or even a place in the game the way you want to play it (if you are social and community-driven) is partly a reaction players have if they come to a game even just a few months after release.

It's one thing when everyone is new together, but the experience changes for those who start later, and often not for the best. Assuming lowbies are alts might cause people to be less friendly. Some of us might be familiar with a slower-moving chat box and newbie questions that go unanswered, or worse: “Google it”.

The problem with this is exactly that is is front-loaded at best with ‘endgame’ in mind. The content a game gets these days is oftentimes mostly in place at launch or shortly afterward. Updates come, but not that much changes, and while the first few months to a year might be lively and thriving, even studios slow down as they see or anticipate a dropoff.

While in the past, sometimes we had to wait a long interval between patches, it seemed (and it might be confirmation bias) that we had more robust content updates that were spread out over longer periods of time. It's like today's studios have thrown up their hands, declared population drops (AKA churn) inevitable and decided to throw as much content at people early, with a trickle off bumped up a few times over a year or two with repeatable content.

We've been down this road before in this column, but repeatable content like dungeons, raids, and PvP instances are cheap to produce and are not made with the community in mind. So the longterm in many a modern game doesn't seem to count as much because vision is seemingly narrowed. For example, the announcement of Star Wars: The Old Republic's upcoming Galactic Starfighter expansion content is PvP only. Many players of the game wanted free-moving space travel. What we're getting is a repeatable PvP instance with customization options. Whatever happened to the promised new story content? With some lingering negative views about PvP in that game (in large part due to initial execution – Ilum, anyone?), and with such a rich IP, you'd think maybe more PvE content might be a better approach for  Obviously, many will point to the initial launch's declining subscriptions and heavy budget. Fair enough for SWTOR, but this pattern isn't limited to that game.

It bears repeating that this narrow view doesn't do much to foster a game's community. With some games lacking that longterm vision out of the gate, it seems that they are seriously underestimating the value of taking the strong communities that can often form out of the gate (with the push of the new and shiny and unconquered). Providing infrastructure like housing and more content down the line can be expensive and not always utilized by those aiming to level as fast as possible and get to 'endgame', but working to sustain populations and even not giving up on their potential to grow over time might be a refreshing change of pace. Population drops are inevitable and even WoW showed that, but there’s still some greater longevity possible in the genre.

Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez

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