Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Game On: The pros and cons of playing an MMO at launch

Yesterday, I covered some of the rage that has followed in the rocky launch of Final Fantasy: A Realm Reborn. Today I thought I might branch out a bit and talk about some of the pros and cons of playing an MMO at launch as opposed to picking it up a few months into the cycle.


For me, this is one of the biggest draws of playing an MMO in the first few days. Everything is new and nothing is set in stone. On a broad level, this means that quests and zones are novel and genuinely provide a sense of exploration. I am sure that developers delight in seeing players discover little nooks and crannies of the game world that they worked on and players should embrace the first experience. Further, a new MMO potentially brings a new set of systems and mechanics to the genre to be tested; applying experience from other games to a new world and meeting unexpected (but intentionally designed) results makes me feel like a child poking and prodding around my surroundings without the risk of electrocution. The fact that this experience is shared by pretty much everyone else playing at the same time makes it pretty cool too. Lining up for an early dungeon boss and realizing that no one knows the fight makes victory so much more satisfying in a ‘we figured it out together’ way. On a more granular level, information on specific quests, builds, and rotations is mostly unavailable. As such, at launch, there is no ‘wrong’ way to play a class and no recommendations on quest-lines or ‘go-to’ areas to follow. All in all, exploration is one of the main reasons people play MMOs and launch is extremely conducive to it.

Competent and Friendly Community
Early adopters in MMOs are typically the biggest fans of the genre. As such, the community, at launch, is generally competent in the face of few online resources to refer to. It is not uncommon for players passing on tips to other adventurers and players rarely misunderstand their role in parties. That said, messing up in a party is less apt to getting rage from fellow players and more likely to spur an explanation of game/role mechanics. Also, the early game is where people are generally having the most fun through exploration and this often rubs off, perhaps subconsciously, in the way they communicate. Finally, some players recognize the opportunity to shape a positive community and do their best to be friendly; general chat is much more likely to be filled with helpful advice rather than "go home noob".

As a short note, there is also a bit of joy to be had in knowing that you are a founding member of a community and can play an integral role in shaping how the game develops through your feedback.


Server Woes
As I dealt with extensively in my previous post, server instability and crowding is an all too familiar theme of MMO launches. Most games have a rough first few weeks with players waiting in long queues or dealing with excessive latency. While some launches have gone smoothly (Guild Wars 2 notably had very few issues), if you want to pick up an MMO in the first few days, it is best to be prepared for a bit of frustration. Right or wrong, expecting/demanding a smooth launch is unrealistic.

Bugs and Imbalances
Coupled with server woes are usually a collection of bugs that haven’t been stomped out. Some bugs can by minor or comical (like the infamous /getdown bug in The Old Republic which saw an iteration of the dance command doubling as an interrupt for raid bosses) but occasionally bugs can be game breaking (like an early Rift bug that caused some assets to force a crash to desktop when they were loaded). While major bugs are usually patched out quickly and often within a week of launch, a more striking problem is poor balance. It is not uncommon for a particular class to be overpowered or specific abilities to have unexpected uses that were never intended. While the leveling experience is generally not hampered by early imbalances, discovering that you have picked the 'wrong' class at the end game can be disheartening. This is especially true when one considers that class imbalances can take months or even years to rectify (the Necromancer in GW2 received a patch that, after a year, finally saw them out of the basement as by far and away the most underpowered class). Part of the difficulty in properly solving imbalances early is in determining if the issue is balance related or simply players not adapting to the new system; it takes a while before players become confident with new mechanics and balance can be measured as equally skilled players square off against each other. As an aside, I think that all the problems with imbalance are magnified in PvP elements. In the end, part of an MMO launch is rolling the dice on which class will be broken.


Distribution of Player Population
At launch, MMOs see a distribution of players heavily weighted towards early levels which is the exact opposite of how the balance looks after a few months into the life of the game. I see this as a double edged sword. On one end, low level content, which can be quite lonesome later in the MMO cycle, is a lot more lively and finding groups for specific low level encounters is much easier. Coupled with the generally competent skill of most players, early dungeons can be a breeze. On the flip side, there is that much more competition for kills in areas and kill quests can become easy bottlenecks as 20 players farm an area killing the required mob seconds after it spawns. Further, if you are a player that races to the endgame, you may end in a situation where you cannot find anyone to tackle quests with. In The Old Republic, I hit the level cap within a week (not superhuman but well above the average on my server), I found that getting a party together for top tier dungeons to be extremely difficult and PvP queues to pit me against the same people constantly which really killed variety. 

In the end, I think that each MMO is different but, when a game is reasonably stable, the pros of playing at launch far outweigh the cons. For many players the first month will represent the only play a game will get in their cycle and I do not fault them; an MMO launch can be a blast to play.