Thinking back to my experience with MMORPGs, I’ve wondered about the factors that really aid player retention. What are the things that really keep people attached to a game? What do the biggest successes of the genre have that other games don’t?
First let’s look at what MMORPGs are centered around – enhancing your character. You roll up your character, and from that moment on you’re improving them. This can be done in a variety of ways, most obviously from the gaining levels and gear progression while level capped; however, character improvement is not limited to simply increases in power. Recent entrants to the genre have experimented with the re-emergence of horizontal progression, allowing players to continually improve their character by providing more avenues with which to access power, and not just increases in power itself (the ranks of which The Elder Scrolls Online will soon be joining).
Character enhancement through improvements in power, however, are not what I’d like to focus on, as ultimately, all of these benefits are only temporary. By necessity, gear progression MMORPGs periodically raise the level cap, allowing newer or less skilled players to enter the game’s latest content on equal footing with the veterans, but also negating the progress those veterans had already achieved. While I don’t think this is a bad thing, I do think it seriously undermines the combat-related avenues of character advancement as a serious way of keeping players attached to their characters.
So what permanent avenues of character advancement does that leave us with? Collectible crap! I know, it seems silly to me too. However, the more I have thought on it, the more it rings true. Many, many people work towards obtaining collectibles in other games, and they serve to provide incentive to both casual and hardcore players alike. Here are some examples of popular collectible systems from other games:
The above systems all provide players with ways to earn advancements that persist through expansions and level-cap raises. In certain implementations, the level-cap raise and progression of time may even make the accomplishments more valuable, cementing the players’ attachments to their characters and the game world. So let’s take a moment to look at these features and see how they relate to TESO specifically.
The two most common and beloved forms of collectibles in modern MMOs. Unfortunately, these are also the least appropriate for The Elder Scrolls Online. It is confirmed that Horses will be the only mounts available at launch, and to be honest, having many more types just wouldn’t fit in Tamriel. Additionally, the feeding system is a serious disincentive to owning and switching between multiple mounts, due to the substantial amount of time and money involved with leveling them up.
The image of everyone standing around in town, followed by cutesy pets seems even more incongruous with the Tamriel we know and love. Vanity pets have been confirmed in TESO through the preorder and Imperial Edition rewards (as well as the beta testing monkey reward), but the extent to which they will be available is still in question. There is no pet manager in game to help reduce inventory clutter, which, combined with the above, make me believe it’s unlikely that we’ll see either of these make appearances as a serious collectible system in TESO.
Transmogrification, or the ability to create an item with the stats of one of your items and the appearance of another, is a great way to make the gear itself a form of collectible content. Better yet, it’s a simple system that drastically increases the appeal of the content developers are already creating. Weapon and armor skins offer players a sense of visual progression, and make gear relevant even after the content has become old.
In The Elder Scrolls Online, such a system would most likely be tied into the game’s already extensive crafting. The specifics of the crafting system are a bit outside of the scope of this article, so if you’re not familiar with it, I would encourage you to find a crafting overview or visit ESOHead’s crafting simulator, which currently will allow you to play around with the three armor crafting professions. The most important aspect of crafting, for the purposes of discussion, is that crafters are able to learn a variety of styles that govern the appearance of items they create.
This system could easily be expanded to a full-blown system by adding the ability for crafters to reforge an item into a new appearance, either by changing it into a style they have already learned, or by transferring the stats of one item to the appearance of another (which would be necessary for unique dropped skins).
To some extent, TESO‘s costume system will provide a similar, but greatly diminished in effect, benefit to the game. I would still hope to see a full blown transmogrification system added due to its superior customization and the continued relevance of older content through it.
Probably the biggest no-brainer when it comes to collectible systems that should be included in TESO due to its prominence in the single-player franchise entrants, housing is nonetheless confirmed to not be in the game at launch. Always a popular feature, housing connects player to the game world in a way no other system can by giving them their own plot of the world. Housing items can be linked into all other facets in the game as drops, crafted items, or other rewards. It can even be implemented in ways that offer practical advantages to the player, as Wildstar’s developers are currently working on. Hopefully an in-depth housing system will make an appearance in TESO eventually, bringing with it a dense system of collectible content.
A rares market is throwback to the days of Ultima Online, Runescape, and other old-school MMOs in which rare items were sought after and traded for immense amounts of money by wealthier players. They give a way for the economically elite to flaunt their party hats, or other prestigious items, and bring an entirely new level of depth to collectibles by offering market-based options. A rares market could conceivably tie in with all other collectible systems, simply by offering some rare, tradeable options for players to hoard.
Another simple implementation, and one that already has a presence in The Elder Scrolls Online. The best title systems are in games where they are earned through a significant amount of effort, making players of great accomplishment easy to distinguish when they choose to display their reward. However, the lack of nameplates in TESO will significantly diminish the benefits of this system.
Achievements are also already included in The Elder Scrolls Online, which is good news. To me, the main strength of achievements is as a supplement to other, independent collectible systems. World of Warcraft implemented this synergy perfectly, using achievements to give players access to mounts, pets, and titles as rewards – and the system could be further expanded to provide players with weapon and armor skins, housing items, and more if the developers wanted to. A well implemented achievement system can powerfully bolster a game with already strong non-combat progression.
As mentioned earlier, mounts are currently limited to horses, and frankly, in the interest of staying true to the TES feel, I wouldn’t want to see them much expanded beyond that. While TES lore certainly allows for some rare and exotics mounts even within the restriction of horses, I don’t think this variation alone will be enough to make it a true collection system. However, the fact that all mounts are essentially using one skeleton (though there may be some variation on the dimensions of that skeleton) does present us with a new and exciting opportunity for collection: Horse Armor.
Jokes about a specific DLC aside, I think a collection system revolving around horse armor would be an amazing way of offering visually unique mounts, non-combat progression, and a collection activity that people could really get into. Armor could be rewarded through achievements, boss kills, long crafting grinds, and of course any source that other games have used to reward players with mounts in the past.
This of course ties in well with what we already know about mount customization via feeds in The Elder Scrolls Online. The armor system could be implemented as either something that’s completely visual, or one that actually conveys benefits to the rider. While the latter would be interesting, I believe I would prefer a completely cosmetic implementation, as this would allow for far greater visual customization. Alternatively, different armors could convey different benefits, with the skins being switchable via a transmog system, and we’d have the best of both worlds.
Unfortunately, we have been informed that The Elder Scrolls Online will be implementing a subscription model and a cash shop simultaneously, offering an unpleasant pairing for the future of collectible systems in TESO, where the game both depends on them for sustained population, and their efficacy suffers from the presence of the store.
One of the common complaints and praises of the subscription model is that it makes players feel compelled to play the game more than they would play a game without one. Detractors label this as forcing you to play, whereas proponents refer to it as fostering a persistent community of players. Regardless of which side you fall on, the fact is that they’re both right, and whether you label it as a negative or a feature is irrelevant.
With that in mind, subscription games have to offer both the most and the largest variety of content of all MMORPGs. While having good and plentiful progression content for both PvP and PvE is immeasurably important, the decision to implement a subscription based payment model means that these cannot be your sole focuses for content. This is where collectibles come in.
For the best implementations of collectible systems, look no further than World of Warcraft and the upcoming Wildstar MMO. They both have a lot of progression content – both PvE and PvP – but neither have stopped there. In WoW you have pets, mounts, achievements, and vanity gear, while Wildstar has taken it a step further by adding housing into the mix. These two games are undoubtedly doing it right when it comes to implementing collectible systems to bolster their subscription model.
This brings us to the cash shop. Different payment models warrant different levels of cash shops, and personally, I don’t find anything beyond services such as name changes and server transfers to be acceptable in a subscription MMORPG. Many people are fine with cosmetic item skins, vanity pets, and mounts being sold in the cash shop, drawing the line at what they define as pay-to-win items; in other words, powerful gear, and maybe XP or currency boosters. I agree with this position in F2P and B2P games, but P2P games are different.
As discussed above, collection systems border on becoming a core system of subscription based games, and can play a huge role in their success at player retention if implemented correctly. Having a cash shop selling collectibles is essentially making the collectibles side of the game pay-to-win, and while this isn’t an offense on the same level as selling gear, it can severely undermine any benefits the game would have reaped from a well implemented collectibles system.
It is possible to have limited cash shop offerings with a good collectibles system, and this something WoW has seen success with so far. If you have 2 mounts in the cash shop, and 250 obtainable in game, most of which are equally as cool as those in the cash shop – does it really detract that much from the collectibles system? No, it doesn’t, but you have begun to tread a very slippery slope towards doing so.
In his recent interview with ZAM, The Elder Scrolls Online Game Director Matt Firor revealed that the game will be launching with a store selling a Palomino Horse. While hardly a deal breaker, this news sheds a lot of doubt on the ability for collectible systems to truly thrive within the game, and its future success as a subscription MMORPG. At this point though, there are a myriad of reasons that any MMO could fail at launch, and this is hardly the greatest of those reasons. We’ll have to see how these systems develop as The Elder Scrolls Online moves past beta and into launch, and whether or not it has what it takes to survive in the harsh market it is entering.