Publisher's Note

Publisher's Note
If They Are Persistent, Why Do They Need Sequels?

Alexander Macris | 12 Oct 2009 09:00
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I recently activated a subscription to Champions Online. Champions, of course, is the new massively multiplayer game by Cryptic Studios in which you create a highly-customizable superhero to fight crime in an enormous persistent world straight out of the comic books. It is thus strikingly similar to City of Heroes, the old massively multiplayer game by Cryptic Studios in which you create a highly-customizable superhero to fight crime in an enormous persistent world straight out of the comic books. Champions Online is a sequel in all but name, and it made me wonder, "Why do we create sequels for persistent worlds?"

None of the obvious answers - to update the graphics, to market a product - make sense. It's not graphics. City of Heroes has graphics that are arguably as good as Champions Online, and numerous MMOs have shown you can update graphics over time. It's not marketing. The need for a marketable SKU has long been solved by expansion packs like World of Warcraft's Burning Crusade.

I believe the answer lies in an obscure concept known as database deflation, first (and apparently exclusively) discussed in a ten-year old series of Usenet posts by Raph Koster. The theory of database deflation is very simple: Over time the capability of opponents in an MMO drops relative to the capability of the players, because over time players develop better tactics and accumulate better gear. The "database" (numerical power of the opponents) thus "deflates" (grows less). When a currency deflates, prices drop; when a database deflates, challenge drops.

What makes the theory interesting is the behavior it explains. Developers respond to database deflation by adding newer and tougher opponents to maintain the challenge. The deflation is most evident at the top, where player power is supposed to cap. So over time, more and more new opponents are added at the high end of the scale. The greater the extent of database deflation (that is, the more powerful the characters have become relative to the existing content), the more powerful the new opponents must be.

But increasingly powerful opponents are always accompanied by increasing rewards, to justify the nominal (although not real) increase in risk. Over time, this process unbalances the entire economy. Higher level areas add higher level wealth, which then filters down (as items or cash) into the lower economy. When prices drop, this increases the consumer's buying power. Database deflation likewise increases the player's "gaming power" - he can more easily get wealth with less effort. That, in turn, deflates the value of the wealth. Gold becomes as common as silver. Items that were epic are considered second-rate. Areas that were difficult when the game launched become easy as players tackle them with "twinked" characters using optimized tactics. Given that challenge is what makes a game interesting, that's a bad thing.

As the challenge of the new player experience declines, the very process of leveling up is seen as a prelude to the "real game." The leveling curve is compressed; the time investment that was once required to get one level now yields ten levels. Huge zones that were once filled with players become ghost lands, as the playerbase congregates in an increasingly narrow nexus of high-end territory. Eventually, what was originally considered the end game becomes merely the "real" starting point. This reduces the advancement ladder, increasing the speed with which players reach the end game - the point where new content is being added. The reality of database deflation can be seen in World of Warcraft. With each expansion, Blizzard has tweaked WoW's leveling curve such that new players today are rushed upwards through level 60; and the last ten levels take more time than the first sixty or even seventy.

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