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Can MMOs Really Do Monthly Updates?

Columns By Jason Winter on October 15, 2014

Can MMOs Really Do Monthly Updates?

It's a simple fact that content creators can't produce content at a rate comparable to how quickly people consume it. This isn't just the case with video games: a two-hour movie took a lot longer than two hours to make, a book that takes you a week to read took a lot longer than a week to write, and so on.

MMO developers have been fighting this unwinnable war for over a decade, with some recently doubling down by producing lightning-fast updates and all but daring their customers to try and outpace them. The results have been less than stellar and any victories tend to be short-lived. Should they even bother to keep trying?


MMO: Monthly Marketing Opportunity

The most recent MMO to attempt, and give up on, monthly content is WildStar. Even though WildStar has received a ton of flak for its issues, this one isn't unique to Carbine's game. Trion and Funcom touted monthly updates to Rift and The Secret World, respectively, as big deals, until they stopped happening. ArenaNet made lots of noise about updating Guild Wars 2 every two weeks, which lasted about seven months and still comes back in spurts, broken up by long, semi-barren breaks. ZeniMax promised Elder Scrolls Online content updates would arrive every four to six weeks; with Update 4 arriving on Sept. 16, 23.5 weeks after the game's Apr. 4 launch, on average they're holding to the back end of that promise – but only barely.

The most obvious reason people come up with for why companies do this is so that, when your monthly subscription is about to run out, there needs to be something new and interesting to get you excited and make you resub. While four of the five games mentioned in the last paragraph did have subscriptions at launch, then why the six-week cycle for new TESO content? Also, after the initial launch, relatively few players get into a new game right on the monthly breaks; you'd be just as likely to buy it at any time of the month, it would seem.

While I'll agree that companies do this out of an earnest desire to produce regular content for their online game, I think trying to do it regularly every two weeks, four weeks/month, or six weeks is simply a matter of convenience to keep players easily informed as to when they can expect the content. It's similar to remembering the time of your favorite TV show and knowing you have to tune in (or used to, before DVRs and Netflix) at 8:00 on a Thursday.

It is, on some level, also a broad marketing gimmick – “Brand New Content Every Month! Buy Now! Subscribe Now!” – but I also think that developers honestly believe they can pull it off for the long term. It's little different from giving a date for a launch that seems manageable, but as it draws closer, Stuff Happens and the date is invariably pushed back. After a few months of the production grind, sometimes highlighted by feature-poor or buggy releases, MMO devs realize that they're producing a subpar product or that they still can't keep up with player demand. Soon(TM), reality sets in and we're back to a much slower release cadence.

Less than meets the eye

Even when they do keep to the release schedule, players are usually underwhelmed with the offerings. Doing larger updates every four to six months or so is still the industry norm, and those are usually major affairs that introduce whole new areas to explore, new dungeons, large chunks of story, and so on. Small, monthly updates just can't compete with that. On some level, we know this, but we still expect, when an MMO company makes a big deal out of an update, whether it's been four weeks or four months since the last, that it be, well, a BIG DEAL.

Monthly updates rarely are. People blitz through the meat of them in a few hours and after a week or so have done everything there is to be done. Is it better to get people coming back regularly for a short period of time or to get them coming back less regularly for a longer period of time? Having experienced both styles, I'm inclined to go with the latter, provided the gap in new content isn't too long – say, no more than six months or so.

Which brings us to the real question: Do players even want updates at this pace? It would be nice if we could combine the two approaches, getting big updates every month, but that's impossible. As I said at the top of the article, short of designing a game that's meant to live off player-created content – and a lot of people, myself included, still generally prefer rich content hand-crafted by professionals – it's impossible for a continuing online game to produce content at a rate equal to that which it can be consumed. But at least when you have a big, months-in-production update, it seems to take much longer to get through, as opposed to a small, push-it-out-the-door-as-quickly-as-possible update that is here and gone almost immediately.

Producing monthly (or near-monthly) content seems like engaging in a race that you can't win, setting you up for failure, at least in terms of public perception, on a regular basis. Even if it could be pulled off, there will be the (unrealistic) expectation that each installment be close in size and complexity to a “real” update. Is it worth it?

I don't think so. While it can garner short-term results and positive press, it never lasts and eventually just winds up being another broken promise that leaves a bad taste in gamers' mouths. I think that the window for major updates could stand to be shortened a bit – down to three or four months from the six-plus months we tend to get (and I won't talk about World of Warcraft's update pace) – but the next time a game hooks you with talk of rapid-fire updates, just keep in mind that it probably won't last.