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September 24, 2007
Why does “The High End Game” Make or Break an MMO?

By Mark Arsenault

Hi, my name is Mark, and I’m an MMO-aholic. I’ve been trying to stay on the wagon for almost 10 years now, but every time something new comes along, I fall off again. They’ve told me the first step is admitting I have a problem. But I don’t, so clearly I’m not going to be able to extend this metaphor much further.

There is a problem, but I am not entirely sure it is with me. It might be with the gaming industry, it might be with gamers in general, or it might just be a differential between expectation and delivery. What is the problem you ask? Well if you have to ask, you should not have skipped past the article title! What IS the deal with the high end game?

The industry these days is very active - MMO titles seem to come and go with alarming regularity. We all know why they come, but why do they go? Why do they fall out of favor with gamers, and just … fizzle out? Some titles have amazingly stood the test of time and are still around and amusing players on a daily basis, despite their relatively simple graphics in comparison to other offerings. Everquest 1 and Dark Age of Camelot are two of the more popular examples of this phenomenon. What have they managed to do to entice players to continue paying their monthly fees, while so many others have failed? I think the answer is simple – that the developers continue to cater to players by maintaining and expanding the high end game.

You see, once a player reaches the level cap, they are typically faced with a limited number of options: 1) start another character, and do it all over again, 2) engage in some Player vs. Player content, provided the game has that option, 3) raid / explore high end content, dungeons, etc, 4) craft for a while, and wait for an expansion or level cap raise, 5) quit, and get a different game.

We’ve all been at this complicated crossroads at one point or another in our gaming career, and we’ve all found different ways to justify the logic (or sanity) of our choices. We start an alternate character with the express purpose of leveling with a certain friend. Maybe they either just got the game, or they do not have a lot of time to play which has put them behind “the pack”. Perhaps the rewards from PVP are godly in comparison to our current set of gear, and we just NEED to have it. Or hey – the expansion is coming out in a few months, I’ll craft for a while or go swimming or get a tan or .. or … quit.

OR … how about exploring the high end content that the developers have gone to so much trouble to construct? With successful, long-running MMO titles, the key to their success is that they have put as much effort and attention to detail into the content in the leveling up phase, as they have with the content in the end game phase. The MMOs that fizzle failed to realize this, and left the players that had reached the level cap one fewer option to hang around and continue playing. Obviously, there are financial components from the development side that come into play here, but more often than not I believe it’s either a lack of vision, or an underestimation of the expectations of the typical MMO gamer.

Clearly though, it’s not a coincidence that certain production houses consistently deliver games with longevity built in from square one. They understand the recipe for success, they understand their player base, and they deliver what is expected. They are rewarded with almost fanatical levels of loyalty, but more importantly, a consistent level of cash flow which they can turn right around and use for further development. That’s smart business in general, and even smarter when dealing with a group of people known for a wandering eye for pretty, shiny new games.

Titles will come and go, and players will migrate back and forth always looking to explore something new. That is the nature of our particular beast, and no 12 step program is going to change that anytime soon. When it comes right down to it, MMOs are entertainment, and gamers are paying to be entertained. Developers can do whatever they choose with our monthly fees, but if they want to keep us coming back for more, well they will have to develop more won’t they? Content is key – keep it fresh, dynamic and exciting, and people will stay longer.

It all sounds simple enough to me, but I welcome your input as well! Feel free to email me at to share your views. I don’t charge monthly fees, but I will be satisfied with fanatical levels of loyalty.


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