How long should MMOs last? It’s a question that splits communities and confuses publishers. Some enthusiasts believe an MMO should persist in perpetuum, continuously getting updates, never ending. Others think they should be able to complete the content of a new MMO within a few months, maybe even weeks, of it launching. The recent implementation of Patch 1.2 on Trion World’s ArcheAge alpha servers brought this topic to the forefront of discussion among fans of the game.
The ArcheAge fan community had a strong reaction to the alpha Patch 1.2, having just gotten used to the previous version of the game. Additionally, Trion Worlds set up a second alpha server and linked the two separate auction houses, connecting the economies. Some players pleaded for the patch to be rolled back while another (less vocal) set celebrated the changes. The issue that had most players up in arms was the increase in labor point cost to craft and gather materials coupled with new materials required to craft items that once much simpler to produce. Intercontinental open ocean trade runs that were once common became rare compared to safer land routes. Inflation also became an issue with some crafting materials doubling in cost overnight. For some fans, ArcheAge felt like an entirely different game: one with artificial problems designed for only time or a cash shop to solve. Is this how Trion Worlds and XLGAMES intended to extend the ArcheAge’s profitable lifetime?
It already takes a long time to acquire the materials necessary to craft some of the higher-end vehicles or equipment in ArcheAge. Trion could decide to sell these same vehicles or reasonable facsimiles for real money but they would run the risk of alienating both existing and prospective players. ArcheAge fans like myself are more than willing to put many hours into gathering materials and crafting armor, weapons, boats, houses, tractors, gliders, cars, submarines and even silly skateboards until Trion decides to sell similar versions of them in the cash shop. At that point all bets are off: players will have to decide if the time and energy required to produce a given item is fair when compared to the price of its cash shop clone. This is the true sandbox conundrum: what goals should be difficult to achieve and how long should they take to accomplish? What is the relationship between the player’s time and his money?
With ArcheAge, development studio XLGAMES seems to have prioritized long-term mechanics over short-term satisfaction, a practice that few MMOs follow these days. In themepark-style games, when the studio-developed content is exhausted players often lose interest and distract themselves with other forms of entertainment. While Guild Wars 2 and Wildstar are fun experiences, they’re built around a gameplay loop that focuses primarily on content generated by a developer sitting at a desk somewhere in Washington or California. Development studios quick enough to release content expansions in lock-step with average player progression are few and far between. Stopgap solutions like hard modes, procedural generation and artificial dynamic content are sometimes implemented in themepark MMOs to buy a studio enough time for the development of genuinely new content or mechanics for top-level players.
Sandbox MMOs like ArcheAge and EVE don’t normally have endgame problems. Players don’t depend upon the developers for continuous engagement and entertainment; they generate intercontinental or intergalactic conflict just fine on their own. Artificial dynamic content isn’t necessary when spontaneous naval or space battles can break out at a moment’s notice over natural resources. Instead, sandbox MMOs have a different problem: perspective. Gamers love the stories that come out of EVE’s massive celestial battles, but their eyes glaze over when they look at time-dilated Youtube clips. It’s difficult for some MMO fans to wrap their minds around exactly how much time and money went into each of the warships exploding one by one on their monitor. “How many days did it take to acquire the raw materials to manufacture these ships? How many hours were spent training their pilot skills? The men and women in these battles must have the patience of saints!”
The MMORPG community has its fair share of nomadic players: guilds or groups of friends who attempt to exhaust the entertainment potential of a game within the shortest amount of time possible. Triple-A videogames have been dealing with this hyperactive demographic for a while. Their solution was to add multiplayer to their singleplayer experiences. MMOs don’t have that kind of luxury, they’re already multiplayer from the get-go and adding singleplayer content is normally viewed as a sign of weakness. So how can an MMO hope to retain players? Themepark games have been stumbling over this problem for the past decade or more and still haven’t found an answer. Sandbox games avoid answering the question entirely by passing the buck to their players: you want to have fun? Set goals for yourself, spark some conflicts and get rich or conquer the world. It’s a difficult message to convey, which leaves some players out in the cold at the end of their storyline quests wondering what to do next.
ArcheAge’s design often propels players towards conflict with fellow humans. Quests and dungeons definitely exist and are sometimes quite challenging, but they are not the game’s main focus. Competition between players for natural resources and economic prosperity is ArcheAge’s foundation. When Trion Worlds implemented Patch 1.2 on the game’s alpha servers a week ago, this foundation was thrown into question. Suddenly there were new systems to consider, new content to farm, new materials to craft with and old materials that were suddenly worthless. The patch did not include some special changes that Trion Worlds promised, though the publisher says the beta release candidate should hopefully implement the requested customizations.
How long ArcheAge survives in the current MMO market depends on what changes XLGAMES makes to the game, what Trion Worlds puts in the cash shop and how sandbox MMO enthusiasts decide to play with all the tools they’ve been given. Will it last a decade and spawn a fan convention or will it end up like the lost city of Delphinad, broken and scattered? We’ll have to find out together.