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A Treatise on Episodic Gameplay, Part Two

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Yesterday I ranted on and on about the downside of the new, overhyped concept of games as "episodes" in a larger series rather than self-contained games which receive expansion packs based on both feedback and popularity. Throughout that article I put a blatant focus on Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and SiN: Emergence; in other words, I dealt solely with the first-person shooter genre of episodic gameplay. I believe the principles presented there would apply to any kind of action/adventure game, so for this article there's going to be a switching of gears to a genre which is far removed from the fast-paced, frantic nature of shooters: the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.

The Unnecessary Preface
The fact that MMORPGs have completely oversaturated the retail shelves with clone-after-clone of the same game with a slightly different color palette is something that has no real place in this article. Pretty charts simply serve no role in this entry. I understand the necessity for all of these carbon copy pieces of role-playing crack, though. I do. We really need to find that one game to bring the genre to the mainstream. Don't despair, gamers, though. I have a good feeling that RF Online will be the title which the world has been craving for in this time of persistent world depravity.

The MMORPG Example
The massively-multiplayer demographic must be more varied than an auditorium at the United Nations given just how many titles exist in the genre. Covering them all would be a task of epic proportions, so I'm going to focus on four particular titles: World of Warcraft, City of Heroes/Villains, and Guild Wars (Original and Factions) Each of these titles, as would be expected, has added on content throughout the life of the game starting either immediately after launch or further down the line, it's happened. Each of these games, save Guild Wars, charges some sort of subscription fee on top of the purchase of the base game package. For instance, when I bought World of Warcraft on the first day of its release, I paid $49.99 for it (which included the first thirty days of gameplay). If you pay on a per-month basis after that, you're looking at about $14/month -- though the value decreases if you pay in greater month intervals at a time. Some games vary on the monthly subscription fee, but other than Guild Wars, they all require these fees in order to actually play. Given this kind of monthly fee, it's essentially required by the player-base of these titles that the developers go above and beyond the necessary balancing, bug-fixing, and server maintenance to provide that something extra to the game.

Before I begin what will likely be an incredibly long, incredibly verbose, and incredibly poorly-organized tirade on the topic at hand, let me restate something I added into a later version of Part One: when you add 'episodic' content to an online-only game, the debate takes an unfair turn. The examples I used in Part 1 were of the single-player variety (SiN: Emergence and Half-Life 2: Episode 1) and then a short contrast to an FPS of a far more multiplayer-focused variety (Battlefield 2). A multiplayer game needs to do three things well:
  • Ensure that every player has the same opportunity to have fun -- ie, kick every other player's ass.

  • Ensure that any content just continually extends the life of the game.

  • Make additions to the base game that do not require every player to purchase it... But just enough to keep the incentive to purchase alive.
An episode focused on single-player experiences has a far more difficult job, as I detailed in Part One. That said, a vast majority of the ideas I presented before still hold truth here, and it's not like multiplayer content developers have it easier. Single-player episodes do actually have the luxury that the developers don't need to try and appeal to a "base case" gamer who doesn't purchase an episode like, say, an MMORPG needs to. So, it's a give-and-take relationship in both cases.

That said; let's get to the case study which proves I have too much time on my hands.

The Warcraft Behemoth
Since it's, without a doubt, the most popular MMORPG by a landslide, let's open the discussion with World of Warcraft. To this day, Blizzard still has login queues for some servers and numerous server issues (whether it's with login/authentication or general server lag)... But in the grand scheme of things, the game is pretty damn good. Upon release, it was the most enjoyable MMORPG that I've ever played. I started an Undead Mage when it came out (roughly the same character I played in the beta), got that bad boy up to level 28, and then realized I was really tired of playing not only a mage in general but what was, at the time, the most uninteresting and weakest class in the game. I then switched to a Tauren Shaman and, lo and behold, it's like a whole new game was set in front of me. I played this game for about a month and a half (maybe two months) before I finally called it quits. This makes my time with WoW more than triple the time I have spent with any other MMORPG at the time.

The reason I relay this long and, up until now, unnecessary history is because I want people to understand the kind of game that I found when I returned to WoW one year after my initial time with it. When I came back in November of 2005, what I found was a far more balanced game, with several new features which may have seemed incredibly small at their induction but make for a far more accessible game on the whole. I also found a very well-done player-vs.-player "battleground" system in place which had previously been nothing more than rumors which traveled on the wings of ghosts. A whole bunch of new items were in-place, namely some spectacular-looking epic sets, as were some new talents and skills. And, most importantly, Blizzard added and improved all these aspects of their game without requiring the player to pay anything aside from the monthly subscription. And maybe a marriage or a job or a house or something.

World of Warcraft has one of them legitimate expansion packs coming out at the end of this year which, although not specified, will probably cost somewhere in the realm of thirty to forty bucks. This may seem like a hefty price to ask players to pay for atop of their normal fees and such, but the pure scope of this expansion needs to be taken into account. First, there are two completely new races (one for each side, Horde and Alliance) with their own unique starting areas, abilities, and quests and the like. Then there are the huge bulk of items, armors, areas, dungeons, instances, quests, and so on and so forth that will be added. There are the new flying mounts which, for the uninitiated, mean that players will have new animaltastic mountable creatures which, get this, fly -- like, in the air. And I'm sure there's more, but also of note is that the official level cap in the game will be raised from level sixty to seventy. This time necessary to take a level sixty character to seventy will, as noted by Blizzard at some obscure corner of the Intarweb, take players almost as long as it took them to get a new character to sixty.

The Tale of Two Cities
I still can't believe it myself, but City of Heroes ended up being a damn fun MMORPG. When I read the first preview about what I felt was essentially an online superhero, pay-to-play, RPG I was... Well, I scoffed and laughed and wondered where NCSoft was pulling some kind of massive prank on the game's developers. Eventually, though, I bought the game online, downloaded it, and was playing my very first superhero RPG within an hour (NCSoft is a company that truly knows how to leverage the power of digital distribution -- quick, painless, and no overhead). To my surprise, City of Heroes was actually a damn fun game. The game was well-polished, was a lot of fun to play, and, if nothing else, the character creation allowed my imagination to create whatever humanoid superhero I could dream. I mean, I could've done with some kind of option to play as a kitten that could turn into a giant, robotic death ray within a single keystroke... But hey, if wishes were horses, we'd all be eatin' steak.

I don't have quite the same experience with City of Heroes as I do World of Warcraft, but what I do know is that Cryptic did a whole hell of a lot of work on the game throughout its expansion-less life. They released bug-fixes and general balancing patches on an as-needed basis, sure. More importantly (well, maybe not, but definitely more enjoyably) they released huge "content drops" in what they called issues. A list of these issues can be found through the drop-box here, but even on a quick glance, it can be seen the extent to which Cryptic has worked to provide content for all of its players. In some issues, entirely new zones are added. In others, new player classes ("epic archetypes"), in others there are new spell sets entirely. In another there is the entire player-vs.-player section of the game is unveiled (The Colosseum).

Eventually, somebody at NCSoft or Cryptic decided that an expansion to the underrated MMORPG was necessary, though. And out of this came what seems like the most obvious of choices for an expansion to a game about superheroes: City of Villains. The immediate downside is that this is a full-priced retail game, which means about forty or fifty dollars for the package. The nice thing, though, is that this is also a completely separate game from City of Heroes. As I understand it, player A can be a superhero with City of Heroes, player B can be the Lex Luthor to A's Superman in City of Villains, and the two could go at it on the streets of a quasi-Metropolis without ever having to actually own the same game. There are different classes, different spells/abilities, different zones, and so on and so forth between the two games.

A splendiferous idea if I do say so myself. And I do.

The War. Of Guilds.
Hey, screw you, ArenaNet didn't give me a whole lot of material with their MMORPG Guild Wars... Though, in all honesty, it's more of a Diet MMORPG. A quasi-MMORPG. Players can buy their own copies of the game and play with all of their buddies under persistent online characters... But there really is no persistent world to speak of in the game. Every town, mission, and outdoor area is instanced for you (and/or your party of other characters or AI NPCs). Why would someone choose this over, say, an entirely persistent and shared world like in the last two examples? The answer is simple: no monthly fee. You buy Guild Wars, and you can play the game to your heart's content without so much as another dime being thrown in ArenaNet's general direction.

One of the great parts about this whole ordeal is that ArenaNet still actively updates the game with new features and areas frequently. The fact that every area of the game is instanced really frees up a lot of server memory and processing from the entirely-persistent game worlds of World of Warcraft or your other standard MMORPG (this is hypothetical; I have yet to get a confirmation from the ArenaNet employee tied to a post in my basement). So while ArenaNet still has to fund servers for players to play the game, I would think that it would be to a far lesser degree than Blizzard does.

In order to fund the costs of development and the servers that they do have to keep and maintain like a sea of mechanized pets, ArenaNet takes an approach similar to Cryptic's treatment of City of Heroes/Villains: full-priced "expansions." With the original Guild Wars, ArenaNet had six character classes, with a world filled with quests and campaign missions. With the 'expansion," Guild Wars: Factions, there are eight classes in an entirely new world filled with quests and campaign missions. I'm not entirely sure on the legitimacy of my following claims, but as I understand it, players between the two games can coexist only in a select few realms of the game (primarily for player-vs.-player segments, which are the heart of Guild Wars in the first place). Other than that, both Guild Wars Original and Factions are almost two entirely different games that neither require nor demand the purchase of their counterpart. It's an interesting business model to say the least, but I'm still not quite sold on the whole concept (though I'm a big fan of the general model that was started with the original game).

The Conclusion, Part Two
Above are three examples of the ways in which three of the more popular MMORPGs handle episodic content. Each of these three games -- World of Warcraft, City of Heroes/Villains, and Guild Wars -- handle things completely differently... And although World of Warcraft certainly has the largest player base, I wouldn't go nearly as far to say that any of these methods are wrong by any stretch of the imagination. For an example of a method which I feel is simply horrible, take a look at Everquest 2. EQ2 charges for both the retail game (though this may not be true anymore), the monthly subscription, and an expansion pack. Sure the expansion isn't necessary, but if Sony Online Entertainment keeps things up, EQ2 is going to be one damn expensive hobby for all its "need all the content" players (which, given the size of the game's player base... Won't be many).

I don't really have any grand conclusions for this two-part series. It was really started on a whim as I realized that more and more games seem to be relying on the idea of the "episode" as a way to add on to the base game package. From a single-player aspect, I think that episodic gaming has a long way to travel before it becomes an economically or even practically viable alternative to the traditional "expansion pack." For multiplayer gaming, though, episodic content has always been a standard way to extend the life of a title. Given the three titles I looked at in this article, I think that if developers continue to try and veer away from the necessity of a traditional expansion pack, the future of the ever-so-crowded online arena is a bright one.
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