MMORPG are unique as a genre of projects to work on from normal RPG because they run as a service over a long period of time. They are different because there is not a definite end state, and players will always want more content and features. Of course, they are also different because of the social interactions your players can have, creating indefinite amounts of possibilities for special interactions and experiences in the world.
These 3 factors when considered into the design and development plan can create a sustainable MMORPG.
Diving into the past, most of us avid MMORPG players have encountered one of these scenarios.
Being a long time player of a game but slowly realizing its no longer the game you loved.
Being a long time player and leaving the game, coming back and seeing its no longer the game you loved.
Anticipating a game from trailers for years, forgetting about a game, and jumping in half a decade later to realize its not what the trailers portrayed it to be.
A lot of games lose sight of the original design over the years, this can be due to change in designers and people working on the game. This can be due to publisher intervention. This can be due to changes in monetization model. This can be due to a large variety of reasons that may even have been necessary for the longevity of the game. This common occurrence with MMORPG almost make it seem that this is the inevitable destination for all games in the genre. But if we look at the examples of games decades old that are still around and maintain a strong following, and the prevalence of Classic MMORPG private servers, we can see that this isn't true. There are dozens of popular Ragnarok Online private servers with thousands of daily active users while Ragnarok Online 2 is shutting down its team and the game has less active players than Nin Online which is made by mostly 2 individuals.
Changing Developers / Designers
When a game is bought by a new parent company, sometimes they come with deals where the creators or lead designers have to continue working on the game for a duration. Sometimes they replace them straight away. Whichever the case, while documentation can help, if you change the person behind the helm of a games development. You will get changes to the vision of the game. Lack of knowledge of what made the game great from a fundamental level can be detrimental, and even having that knowledge, it's still really hard to continue the develop the way it was originally intended. Obscure decisions can seem random or error-like to a person jumping in midway. Even experienced developers will struggle to weigh in everything that compromises of a game's design when suddenly thrown a giant game design document and a world filled with more different kinds of players than they've met in their lives. The way Nin Online has counteracted this problem thus far is just by keeping the same lead designer on the helm for its current lifespan. While I intend to continue being the one leading the games development in the long term, it may one day be inevitable that I will not. In such a scenario, it will be very important that whomever continues the game knows not just the decisions for the game design - but the reasons for them - by heart.
It is rare that a new designer can step into a project and make the game a better game while sticking to its original design. It's not something I've personally observed happen in all my research. I think companies undervalue the importance of keeping the individuals and overvalue the project they're buying. But besides just changing designers, I think individuals get bored of the project they were originally designing and turn their projects into something else over time, they start adopted market trends, listen to players rather than good design in areas they shouldn't have. These decisions compound into bad games and eventually cause the games to die or at least lose their initial target audiences.
Accessibility and Appeasing a Casual Playerbase Trend
This one is a very specific decision that has occurred within most of the MMORPG that we enjoyed as kids. Making a game accessible has in mine and many people's opinions been the cause of decline for many MMORPG of the past. When a game changes its design to match the player instead of making the player match the game, you end up with a game that everyone can play, but nobody wants to play. When you succumb to the notion that because you pay for something, you should have access to all its content, or that everyone should have access to everything in the game even if they don't have time to invest into it, you end up with a game where everything is worth nothing and you will never truly be proud of anything you do in-game.
This is an echo of a video you can find on YouTube that's been trending lately. You can watch it here
Power creep and updating balance https://mtg.gamepedia.com/Power_creep
Game balancing is another issue that has to be considered for the entirety of a games development. While it is important to get player feedback, it's also important to constantly refer to original design documents and use formulas, graphs and diagrams to determine what works in theory.
Determining whether something is imbalanced is hard. Personally for Nin Online, when something is deemed under powered by a group of players, I first have to consider all the variables that a single or large group of players might not notice. For example, if a Spell (Jutsu) is underpowered to a majority of level 50 players, I have to look at "what level is this jutsu" "what are the other jutsu in this kit" "what situations is this jutsu meant to be used in and not used in" "is it useful in situations are niche and/or not currently experienced In-game" "is there a combo that is not currently being used" "does the arena sizes and format of fights have anything to do with why this jutsu has been failing for these players" "are the players expecting something different than its original intention or is it simply not living up to its original intention" and more factors unique to each case.
Once I've determined that it is under powered, next I have to consider whether to buff it, nerf or re-balanced everything around it, or rework it entirely. Which in itself, comes with dozens of factors to consider. But most importantly, if I rework it, does it still play into the design of its class (mastery) , and if I change it, is it for the betterment of the class or for the short term enjoyment of the players.
When part of the designers job becomes to please the player base in the short term - it leads to decisions that don't consider longevity and long term balance. It is very easy to just buff something, most of the time, this receives the least criticism. People hate being nerfed, and love being buffed. Buffing other peoples classes doesn't hurt you as much as nerfing yours. So naturally, the easy decision is always just buffing. This leads to a common problem in MMORPG - power creep. My way to avoid this is to constantly make hard decisions, being stringent on my design is a benefit I get to enjoy by being the sole decision maker of the game. In a typical AAA company, if you make decisions that outrage players too much, you lose your job.
This leads to situations where you buff things endlessly without considering other aspects of the game.
Another hard thing to maintain is a perfect imbalance, which is the concept that having everything fair is not fun, and that every player should have something about their class they feel. Is special. Players will often take two very different things in different classes and say "why does this class have this but this class doesn't?". Sometimes the first reaction even as a designer to this is "oh yeah, you're right, that's not fair is it?" but when you take this a step further and continue to balance things in a way that makes each class a re-skin of one another, it takes away the fun people can find from being overpowered in some ways and overcoming their underpowered-ness in others. What we should be balancing is the bigger picture, and making sure each class has the opportunity to shine in their own way.
Creating content and the importance of Social experiences in MMORPG
Being able to push out content faster than it can be experienced is not just an impossibility for an MMORPG like Nin Online, which has a small team, it is simply not possible to create a quest faster than players can complete it, you can't create a boss faster than players can get bored of it. At least not in a modern game development scenario. It might be possible one day. But we've seen that games, Nin Online included, have been able to retain players for years or even decades, so we know that pushing out content is not directly equivalent to retaining your players. There are a few ways games can tackle this, first by designing your game with social experiences in mind, you create infinite possibilities for interactions.
Building systems that encourage player interaction one by one, makes a game not about what you do, but who you do it with. Each player becomes "content" because they provide a new way the game can be experienced. This should be prevalent in all MMORPG - but its not. Its one of the biggest charms and allures of the genre, but yet its so often forgotten by large studios.
Expanding the right content in the right amounts is also important for Nin Online at least. Sometimes adding a boss is top priority, but sometimes working on an entire new village is more important. Sometimes working on features for a very small group of players like imprisonment for Military Police Forces will benefit the game more than anything. Prioritising the right thing at each point the games development is key for sustaining the games enjoyment. Sometimes advertising and marketing is purely the focus of mine because I want to introduce new players to give more potential experiences to everyone else.
Game industry trends and One upping older content
Sticking to design rather than the trends of other games is important, and once core gameplay systems are in place, there's often a point where MMORPG just seem to slap in features like achievements and in the case of WoW, Garrisons. Although they seem cool initially, sometimes these features can have negative effects on the pre-existing content. Adding too many instanced content can take away from the World aspects of the MMORPG and negate the large amounts of work poured into making an expansive world. While it can be used to encourage exploration and doing more in your world, achievements can also cheapen the idea of exploration in the world by listing out exactly what people can do in your world and by rewarding certain ways to play the game, you lessen the fun in doing things players are not given rewards for.
"Quality of life" changes. While this term is actually used to describe changes that make doing menial tasks easier, like a UI change that makes inventories easier to scroll through. Sometimes developers mistake changes like adding more inventory slots as a quality of life change. While it does give players an easier time, it can also in turn make inventory management less important, which for some could be a kind of fun. Inventory management is a large part of classic RPGs and while modern RPGs tend to have limitless inventory space, I myself personally find the idea of not having infinite pockets more immersive and gives me a reason to return to world hubs to sell loot, which creates a new dynamic, which in turn increases my chances of meaningful social experiences. One of the largest parts of Nin Onlines game design is to create a large world and encourage players to never stay in the same spot too long, and encourage exploration.
Not having an easy time in achieving makes achieving more valuable.
Quality of Life is only useful to an extent, like having unintuitive UI or unintuitive systems that can be better if it had more visual cues. My point is that Quality of Life is a term thrown around everywhere and is used in out-of-context situations because of how general the term is. Eg. Increase the EXP rate because that would increase the Quality of Life of players in the game.
Content creep is not a real term, but I use it to identify the problem I see with games that focus on adding content for current player base, commonly the players who are very invested in the game and whom have maxed out their level cap. Focusing on retaining players rather than new players is important as well, and a fine balance has to be made so that you can retain your old player base while also making it increasingly more fun for new players. This will make it more likely that new players will join, which is also a good thing for the existing players, because as we established earlier, new players is in a large way, new experiences and new content in a social world. Sometimes going back to balance and ensure the old content is still viable when you've added new content is important, and I feel the biggest violation to this was Maplestory. By adding a dozen classes on top of the original 4-5, they invalidated the old classes, wasting the old content that old players loved and new players could've loved.
Increasing Limitations in Technology
Working within the limitations of your technology is also very important. A lot of older MMORPG had very great limitations on their hands, that players never even knew about. In the days of Ultima Online, they could only have a limited amount of houses before the server couldn't handle them. So they limited the amount and made them expire. In the days of World of Warcraft, they added instanced player housing, which made it so the server only loaded the data when they needed it. In the case of Nin Online, we try to stay away from instanced content because it removes the feeling of being in a perpetual world, and also because its not in our engine at the moment, but even if it was - I would struggle deciding on whether or not to use it. Because the idea of having actual property in the game sounds a lot more fun than everyone being able to own an instance that nobody else will enter. Because items are stored server side to prevent cheating, we also have a limited number of items we can create - so we have to avoid adding items, equipment or cosmetics that nobody will use. Everything has a weight on our server resources. Every cosmetic added for a small group of players is one less important equipment like a Flak Jacket or Sword. As time goes on and we improve our backend technology, it will increasingly be important to stick to the core game philosophies for design. Maplestory famously started condensing the original world that everybody loved by deleting maps and making the world smaller to make way for new content. Which is another example of forgetting how important the original design and content for new players who haven't tried the game is.
I’ve also realized that as monitor technology has increased, pixel density has increased, and it has in turn made Nin Online characters really tiny, and you see too much of the world at once. While this is temporarily helped with the “Zoom” functionality in our settings, eventually, I will have to combat this with some sort of more long term solution or the game will become so radically changed it no longer looks like what is supposed to originally look like.
Here is a video talking where they talk about the limitations of the technology back in Ultima Online and how they pushed it.
If we consider the 3 factors about MMORPG development stated at the start of this developers log, it creates a philosophy that helps make sure that the MMORPG you're designing continues to grow in size but maintains what makes it fun in the first place. This is all just a scratching the surface of a very large market trend that I've noticed over the past decade since my days playing MMORPGs like Maplestory, Ragnarok Online, MU Online, World of Warcraft when I was a kid, playing private servers of these games, and playing modern MMORPGs. If you search YouTube, you will find a larger movement of players of classic MMORPG or new players anticipating Classic WoWs release. This is also to explain to the players who are willing to listen that as a designer with the freedom to make difficult choices for the benefit of the game, instead of just pleasing people, I am going to make these decisions that will piss people off a lot, but it’s going to be for the sake of the games longevity to the best of my knowledge. And even though sometimes it seems like common sense that we should buff this or nerf that, sometimes - you just have to trust that the people making the game knows what best in a broad picture. Sometimes the players are right, and I’ve had so much changes to the original design made because of player suggestions, as well as minor changes like balancing based on what players have suggested. But I still do have to consider a myriad of things before just copy pasting ideas for balance changes, and it’s not an easy job when balancing for the future and what’s to come and not just for short term pleasing.
Thanks for taking your time to read this wall of text!
Inb4 nerf tai