New Starting Zones in MMOs
This weekend and this weekend only, players can log into RIFT and claim their latest expansion for free (one character only). I reinstalled the game specifically to take advantage of this and contemplated starting over with a new character even if I couldn’t use the expansion on that new alt.
Like cholesterol, RIFT is very close to my heart. Also like cholesterol RIFT is something I’d rather avoid at this point in my life. I had played the hell out of it when it was in beta and after it launched, to the point where RIFT‘s launch day stands as my all-time longest continuous gaming session; I had taken the day off from work, and I believe I played it for 16 hours straight.
I eventually ended up with several characters on both sides of the faction fence, which meant that I’ve done and re-done all of the starting zone content many times. To this day it doesn’t take long for me to return to the game, start a new alt, and feel like I’ve fallen into a rut, regardless of how long it’s been since I last tread those Telarian boards.
Naturally, I was thinking about how cool it would be if this expansion brought with it a new starting zone that I could experience. Then I started thinking about how many MMOs have added new starting zones post-release, and the only ones I could come up with were The Elder Scrolls Online with their upcoming Morrowind expansion, and WoW (which isn’t to say that there aren’t others, just others I can’t think of).
In the past, I’ve written about expansion philosophy not jiving with my usual circumstance, but also how I understand that the point of expansions is to retain high-level players by laying down more content from those player’s current position (endgame) and stretching outward towards even higher levels or simply more content geared towards capped characters. The act of releasing an expansion isn’t a guaranteed panacea; a botched release will drive endgame players away just as quickly as no content at all, or a guild could drift away, or players could get sick of what passes for high-level content these days, or players could start to feel that having a capped character is the best time to go on an MMO walkabout.
Now, I’m just talking out of my ass, as usual, and strictly from a personal preference, but it seems to me that if a game provides a new reason to start over for the first…I dunno…twenty levels, say, then that’s an opportunity to A) reinvigorate players who might be tired of the hamster wheel that is the endgame grind by allowing them new content with the caveat that they have to shed their highest-level personas and become noobs again, B) attract existing capped or even lapsed players by providing them with new mechanics, new quests, and new rewards that are essentially what they’d experience if they did jump ship to a whole new game, C) would populate lower-level zones again which is not only good for existing or returning players, but which looks good to players who are just jumping into the game for the first time (possibly because they grew tired of their capped characters in another MMO), and D) would put the entire existing game ahead of them once more. Voila! Instant whole-game expansion!
I wonder what the logistics are of one approach over another, then, because it’s a risk-reward thing from the perspective of the devs, I’m sure. Maybe it’s a case of capped players having a higher affinity for their characters that is stronger than their desire to start over even if they get new content in doing so. Maybe it’s more costly to create a new starting zone, new content, new races, and classes compared to sticking with the same character options but just creating new landmasses, quests, and items. Maybe people actually like the thin air at the top of the level heap.
I can certainly say that from my perspective, I’d be more apt to pick up an expansion for a game that I’m either playing or have abandoned if there was a chance I could get a new experience from the get go; my playstyle makes that an attractive option. I’d be playing RIFT right now if this expansion gave me something other than the two factional starting zones that I’m still sick of. I suppose there’s some technical or financial reason behind the post-cap method of expansion compared to the new starter method, but if any company is still interested in following WoW‘s lead, this might be a good aspect of their success to emulate.