MMOs are somewhat unique in that they are, by nature, persistent and ever changing and expanding. Single player games may come out with a few expansions or DLCs, but other than that, the developers generally scrap everything and create a sequel. In MMOs, however, you can’t really scrap anything, you have to constantly add new content if you want to keep players happy and coming back for more. This is one of the things that I love about the genre, but it also creates a problem. Sooner or later, the game gets bogged down in so many things–progression systems, extra gear slots, gear augmentation, etc.–that, at some point, it really starts to overwhelm new and returning players–sometimes even consistent players who don’t spend a lot of time reading forums and wikis and the like–and it really needs and overhaul. Marvel Heroes’ new 2.0 update (“Biggest Update Ever”) got me thinking about this. I had a big post written about the update that I never posted, partly because, to talk about all of the changes, it ended up being a mile long, but also because it ended up sounding more like a review, and there are people out there who can do that a lot better than I can. To summarize, I really like the update as a whole, I can also see where it went wrong in a few places, but most of all, this was a totally necessary change that, aside from a few hiccups, was handled more or less in the best way possible. So, I’ll be using Marvel Heroes as a case study to talk about overhauls in general.
If at all possible, updates should be done a little at a time. Overhaul one system, then, when that’s settled down, overhaul another. Marvel Heroes, for example, reviewed and overhauled one older hero a month for years. This approach is great because it allows the team to focus on one thing at a time, and it keeps panic down in the community. Speaking of community, they often know the state of the gameplay better than its developers do, so involving them as much as possible as early as reasonably possible is ideal. From what I’ve heard, this is something Marvel Heroes didn’t do so great at with 2.0, but hopefully they’ll take feedback into consideration for future updates. Sometimes, as is the case in Marvel Heroes’ most recent update, you really have to overhaul everything at once (you can’t just rework the whole way power work one hero at a time, and while you’re shaking up hero’s powers is the only really good time to redo the rather arcane and convoluted Omega system), and, when that’s the case, it needs to be communicated early and often.
When a massive update needs to happen all at once, the developers need to sit down and figure out what needs changed, what needs streamlined, and what needs removed altogether, and focus on that alone. I like that Marvel Heroes didn’t pair this update with a new content expansion; they just worked on streamlining the game and balancing all of the classes, and that’s pretty much it. Not only does it allow more crucial manpower to go into the overhaul part, but it also disassociates the overhaul from any other added content. For instance, I heard a lot of negativity about WoW Cataclysm, not because the endgame content was bad, but because it streamlined and accelerated the leveling process, removing and changing a lot of content from the beginning of the game that people knew and loved. As a non-WoW player who knows several WoW players, I don’t really know a whole lot about what Cataclysm added; I mainly know about what it took away.
At the end of the day, no matter what you do, someone’s going to hate it. It’s best to just resign yourself to that fact, both as a developer, and as a player. People who are content don’t tend to get on forums and write lengthy posts about how the update is nice, or at least marginally better than what we had before. It’s the people who are upset that their favorite class isn’t as OP as it used to be, or who have some reason why they liked the game better when it was inaccessible to new players, that will stamp their feet and threaten to leave the game forever if something isn’t done about it by next patch.
I know all of this is much easier said than done. I’m actually in the process of developing a single-player RPG with a friend right now, and just balancing that is hard enough, I can’t imagine a game with sixty classes that’s constantly being picked apart by min/maxers. I know video games are made by companies with higher-ups that aren’t always as interested in what’s best for the game so much as what’s best for the bottom line, and sometimes the only way you’re going to get funding approved for a major systems overhaul is if you bundle it with a paid expansion or other major content drop. But overall, I think Marvel Heroes has done a good job managing this update, and I’ve been really enjoying it so far.