Streamlining is not a bad thing.

In response to Face Of The Ranger’s Streamlining post:

super-maglev-trainStreamlining is necessary and inevitable for an MMO to remain healthy as it ages. As content stacks up over the years, new players struggle to cross ever-widening chasms of unpopulated zones to reach the latest content, where most of the player-base already is. The probability of them sticking it out decreases. That old content strangles off the flow of new players, and the game declines as older players move on.

Let’s be honest. Much of MMO content is not really story; it’s “Kill ten rats.” It’s padding so players don’t run through content (they may have paid for) too quickly. It justifies development dollars spent with hours played. As that content ages and the endgame fencepost moves, developers can remove that padding, keeping the essence of story without slowing players down from reaching the latest content. Refactoring old content also allows developers to use techniques they’ve learned or features they’ve added to out-of-date content. It’s an opportunity for the editorial process to include player feedback and retrofit old ideas with better as the storyline evolves.

Consider Star Trek Online (STO) refactoring the old Romulan Mystery episodes. It resulted in a much better experience: less padding, better story, and better technicals. Characters introduced in later episodes were woven back into older storylines, and an absurd plot involving Undine and a pre-emptive Federation strike against the Romulans can happily be forgotten. Denise Crosby reprised her role as Sela with new voice acting. If I put aside nostalgia, if I had a choice as a first-time player between the old and new versions, it’s no contest: Newer is better.

I replayed every episode for the Delta Recruit event, and content that hasn’t been refactored was painful obvious, particularly the Cardassian arc for Federation characters. Even the Breen arc, arguably Cryptic’s turning point in honing their content creation skills, needs refactoring–more because of baked-in technical problems that caused many people to crash in one particular episode. That refactoring is in the works, although it likely has to take a back seat to the new content around the Iconian War. New content tends to trump old since it’s more likely to generate new business, but the fact that Cryptic does spend time and money on this refactoring is evidence that they see it as an important part of the business model.

Compare that to Shadows of Angmar (Volume I) in Lord Of The Rings Online (LOTRO) which desperately needs streamlining. It’s the original storyline (a.k.a. Epic Quest) from LOTRO’s release and has only had some minor touch-ups over the years. I replayed it a few months ago and though it would never end–so much padding and back-and-forth that I had to buy mithril coins for fast travel to quest givers. It wasn’t fun anymore, and the story got lost in the tedium. I would guess most new players never complete it; once the starting quest for Moria pops up, they’re almost forced to head there so they can start the legendary item grind. That’s a shame because it’s still a great story and part of LOTRO lore. Volume I needs to be shorter while preserving the essence of the story, and it needs to take advantage of all those things Turbine has learned since about creating content.

Perhaps STO has a leg up on LOTRO with streamlining because it levels its content to the player. Cryptic expects players to replay missions, even encourages it by including special rewards that are often leveled to the player. I keep a list of those missions and will go back once I’ve reached level cap on a new alt to have those items at max level. Cryptic added brand new rewards when they refactored Romulan Mystery, and they even highlighted it as new quests in the quest panel. Beyond the skill of refactoring content and the properties of STO that encourage it, Cryptic has a process for getting people to the streamlined content.

Other developers have something to learn from Cryptic on this point. As games age and accumulate content, either their creators care enough about the whole experience to go back and improve old content or they don’t. I’ll gladly trade my fond memories of old, wonky content for a commitment to maintain a great game experience through all levels of play.

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