Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Your Eighteenth Assignment: Lessons of the Past

Control, this is Ancestor.  I've uncovered an ancient cache of information.  It seems to date back several centuries ... transmitting now.

Lock and load, agents.  Today we'll be discussing some stuff that Bioware needs to avoid when they finally dip their toes into the MMO waters.  Many companies have tried to compete in this harsh and unforgiving market, but a scant few still remain active today.  Let's talk about some landmines that Bioware should avoid at all costs.

1) Listening to the community.  So there's listening to your community and then there's listening to your community.  Bioware should solicit feedback from the community and then use that feedback to mold their game as they see fit.  What they should not do is kowtow to a vocal minority and change the entire direction of their game from one end of the difficulty spectrum to the other.  Blizzard made that mistake and it cost them 10% of their customer base right after an expansion release.  By providing a consistent product with an overall design goal, Bioware will ensure long-term success even if they have to endure short-term pain from the negative nancies on the forums.

2) Specializing.  WAR did this; hanging your hat on one game system and one game system only.  RvR was supposed to change everything but in reality it was poorly implemented and wound up costing Warhammer Online big time.  By providing a balanced, polished experience on all fronts, Bioware can ensure that every customer is satisfied (well, most customers) and also not allow the internet to deem their primary feature as a failure, killing any momentum that the game may generate.

3) Dumbing down content.  By constantly nerfing content, Blizzard has certainly alienated a portion of their playerbase.  While minor nerfs are warranted when encounters are just too dang hard, using the bat to obliterate encounters before their tiers are even over is just not the right answer.  Bioware seems to have adopted a set difficulty for operations; some will just be easier than others.  Some will be far more difficult.  By keeping the nerf bat in the closet most of the time, the playerbase can still be rewarded for doing challenging content.  And 'dumbing down' doesn't always mean nerfing certain fights; the whole philosophy of making things simpler can backfire.  Anyone remember the great talent revamp of Cataclysm?  It worked so well that they are revamping again in Pandaria.  By restricting access to certain trees, Blizzard made a major error; they destroyed fun hybrid builds and replaced them with the ultimate in cookie cutter specs.  Bioware currently allows you to put points anywhere you like in your three trees.  They offer you the chance to experiment and make mistakes which is incredibly important (at least to some).

4) Ignoring your playerbase.  While you don't want to be at mercy of your playerbase, you certainly don't want to ignore them.  The game Aion did this when it launched; the game actually did surprisingly well for a while.  But then a groundswell started on the forums about the grinding needed to progress at high levels.  NCsoft ignored the cries for help, instead choosing to stay the course.  It was disastrous for the fledgling MMO.  How many Aion players do you know now?  Yeah, that's what I thought.

5) A smooth launch.  Trion has set the gold standard for launches; Bioware will absolutely be measured against the stellar launch of RIFT.  Trion's launch was so smooth that the game never crashed.  At any time.  Trion even added dozens of servers to handle the demand with nary a problem.  It was the most impressive launch to date and established Trion as a serious player in the MMO market.  Demand for TOR will be higher than RIFT, so I expect a few problems.  That being said, the launch has to be as smooth as butter or Bioware will feel the heat from a passionate fanbase.

6) Releasing content.  Here's the bogeyman hiding in Bioware's closet.  Trion Worlds and Blizzard have set the bar for content release; Trion for the speed and quality of the updates (every month or so) and Blizzard for the amount of polish on each iteration.  I have no doubt that Bioware can match these two companies in quality, but here's the kicker: time.  Recording voice over work takes time.  Getting voice actors and getting scripts and making that all work alongside actual game development could be a total nightmare.  Bioware fans may have to face the fact that updates will be very few and very far between.  This could have a tremendous impact on the loyalty of TOR players as they see other games get more frequent updates.

That's it for today.  Fly safe, shoot straight.  For the glory of the Empire!

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