On a whim, I decided last night to roll up a new character and revisit one of the starting areas. After hearing about the revamps of both Archet and the Ered Luin starter zones (I don’t know if Turbine put the same effort towards the Hobbit areas), and being bombarded with reminders about the reworked Loremaster class, I thought it would be worth looking into all that shiny newness I’ve been neglecting while hanging out in Mirkwood.
I have to say, I’m very impressed. I decided to run through Archet, as that is the area with which I am most familiar (six out of ten of the characters I’ve played to any extent have been ‘Man’ characters – no Hobbits yet, sadly).
I know that revisiting existing content is likely beyond the abilities and budgets of most developers; on the other hand, some developers turn it into a full-blown expansion! But I can’t imaging that the effort is anything but a positive return for the game as a whole, as long as the developers factor in two things: one, what have they learned about what works and what doesn’t, and two, what their players think and feel. Both new, incoming players, and existing players alike.
The conundrum of starter areas (for themepark games, at least) is obvious for any MMO that succeeds past launch; as your existing players progress through the content they are less likely to play in the low-level zones and those players will be crying for more and more end-game content. Unless they are alt-aholics; and even then the chances that players will continually roll new characters over and over again is slim. I can’t think of any game that allows unlimited characters per server. Even if you place major hubs, with their various services, in the midst of low-level zones, the chances of high populations of players diminish as your population “ages”; take a look at Bree vs. the Twenty-First Hall.
This leads to low-level areas lacking in active players, diminishing the possibilities for socialization and for players to consume group-based content. They’ll just skip past the quests or areas they can’t complete. Additionally, when zone populations are significantly heavier in the later zones, new players only feel the need to rush towards the late game. They will blaze through all of the carefully crafted content without reading a line of story or absorbing a minute of context that gives meaning to the later zones. For a story-driven game, this could be disasterous. It pretty much ruins the whole “themepark” aspect of your MMO if your players don’t enjoy at least a portion of the first 90 percent of your content.
Major expansions (or changes to the business model) have the effect of creating “population waves”. New content draws new players, who tend to level together and progress through the content at approximately the same pace and time. But even expansions are only a temporary mitigation as new players move into the end-game. Every game has a limited number of players available to it (yes, even WoW); the stream of low level characters will eventually dwindle to a trickle. And then how do you attract and, even more important, retain new players?
Most themepark developers, Turbine included, help solve this issue through class design. If players are restricted to specific roles and abilities, they are “encouraged” to roll alts in order to access certain playstyles or to see content from a slightly different perspective. Consider it: how many classless themepark MMOs are out there? Only a few. Providing that type of flexibility is not conducive to delivering story, encouraging grouping, and ultimately player retention; its an alternate, more subtle, form of grinding.
Also, to a lesser extent, content revamps can help (when resources and budgets allow). Rework and polish the content for incoming players, give your players incentives to go back and revisit older areas, while at the same time providing more people with which those new players can interact. This is the “win-win” everyone so desperately seeks. Downloadable Content (DLC) serves the same function for “non-persistent” games, both online and offline. Encourage players to keep coming back; more time playing the game means more dollars for the devs.
All of this is the long way to making my point; Turbine has done an excellent job with the reworking of Archet. Combined with the fact that all of Volume 1 can be done solo (and perhaps Volume 2, shortly) if necessary or I so choose, and I find many, many reasons to go back and visit. And, as Syp points out in his recent article, all at a time when I’m starting to stall with my Burglar; I’m at the level cap, running instances and even some raids, but unsure of where I should focus considering upcoming changes to Radiance, Legendary Items, and the release of Isengard.