My (Sharp’s) Feedback on the Current Direction of Neverwinter.

A huge thanks to those who helped proofread this for errors as well as the immense help provided in trying to frame this correctly. You know who you are. The quality of this piece would not be the same without you.

Disclaimer.

This post has been a long time coming and I have put off writing it for a long time – mainly because I like to take my time making my mind up about events and I don’t like jumping to conclusions. With that being said, before diving into this topic I feel it is important to state that the opinions and feedback expressed within this post are mine (Me, Sharp!) and mine alone, if you take issue with them, take issue with me and not the owner of this website, nor anyone else. I am aware that this is a sensitive topic and this article has seen many, many edits as a result of that, some of which have resulted in it being rewritten entirely, from top to bottom with no words left unchanged. I thought long and hard about how to approach writing about this topic and I hope I have managed it right. The intention of this article is to start what is (in my mind) a necessary discussion, nothing more than that. Also, please remember it is an OPINION, not fact, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. So, with the disclaimer out of the way, where shall I begin?

Introduction.

There have been a number of dramatic changes to the direction of Neverwinter over the past year or so. Some of which I think are positive, some of which I am impartial to and some of which I see as a major concern. Looking at those changes and the direction the game is heading in it is impossible to separate them from Chris’ vision and influence. After he joined the team he became, at least to us outside, both the public face and the main driving force behind the new path the game is following. While looking at these changes, I will firstly establish what has changed both in game and within the community’s perspective of the game. I will then state whether I think it is good or bad, then, where appropriate, offer some speculation over why I think that change has occurred. I hope in doing so I give both Chris and the changes he has made a fair viewing, whilst still presenting my opinion on the matter. It is important to note the intention here is not to demean or judge anyone. This is a discussion of opinions, vision, the future of the game and in some cases, the actions of a public figure of Neverwinter. I ask that anyone who decides they wish to reply to this, to please do me the courtesy of reading through the entire article before doing so and think about it a bit. I put a lot of effort into both thinking about and writing it and would really appreciate if you thought a bit before replying, to make sure that what you are pointing out is not already covered.

Initiatives Brought From GW2 to NW.

Neverwinter is not the first game Chris has worked on, he is, as he will tell you, an industry veteran. As a result of this, we can take a look at projects he has previously worked on to gain some idea of his vision, initiatives and beliefs. Fortunately, this is not the first game he has been actively outspoken on. From the various projects we can look at the most comparable to Neverwinter, in which Chris brought the same vision and the same initiatives. In this case we will mainly compare to Guild Wars 2. Chris worked on Guild Wars 2 from 2011 until 2015, where he was the Director of Design and prior to that, the Lead Producer. We will look into two initiatives that were in GW2 and moved into NW. One is the Collaborative Development Initiative (CDI) and the other was living worlds.

The CDP.

So, how well did that pan out? It depends who you ask I guess. Here is a thread after Chris’s Departure at ArenaNet about the CDI. The opening post presents the contribution in a positive light and there are commentators who are somewhat skeptical. All in all, the thread is a decently fair representation of differing opinions about the CDI. More interestingly however, there is also a thread about their CDI about the CDI, similar to our CDP about the CDP, which if you are curious about you can read here.  So, what has come of this addition to our ecosystem?

Up until this point we have had 6 different CDP topics, but only one of these has ran from its inception until its conclusion, which is the CDP on the CDP. Whilst we may see great things from those other 5, as they have not ran their full course yet there is nothing we can do except speculate on the outcome of them and thus when it comes to those remaining 5 I will remain skeptical, but hopeful. As a result of this, I will be focusing only on the CDP on the CDP, because it is the only one where we can offer feedback on the full delivery.

The thing is, you can reasonably expect actionable outcomes from a CDP about a CDP more or less immediately after it is held. This allows us to use it as a point of reference for what to expect from other proposals. There were many proposals that were made which were (more or less) agreed upon by many of the participants, which were not even considered in the wake of the CDP. For example, using alternative forum software which is better suited for that kind of discussion, like Discourse or Stack Exchange. Changes which would have had a major impact, but were completely overlooked. At the very least, they could have taken 10 minutes to obtain a quote from Vanilla asking how much it would cost to implement the various functionality they need and then come back and say, “look, we asked and we aren’t willing to pay that much.” There should have been some form of action taken as a response to the CDP, not just a lot of text with almost nothing substantive to show for it. There should have been some action list drawn up, where they said, “we will find out if its feasible for us to do this,” as well as a conclusion drawn from whatever investigation had to be done and because of the triviality of this particular topic (quite simply, the topic is the medium of discussion), that conclusion could have been reached reasonably within a week. However, nothing like this was done.

What I take from this is that it comes across like the purpose of the CDP is not to gather feedback and ideas, at least not in the sense players expect because after all, if the conclusions to topics are forgone as of topics from 7+ years ago, then it would just be a waste of developer time to do it. That leaves us with some room to speculate and as a result of that, I will put on my tinfoil hat and throw in some theories as to ulterior utility it could provide.

  1. First possibility, is the ability to gain insight and measure overall reactions to an idea before it designed. During the CDP ideas that are contentious and polarizing can signal the developers that any previous consideration of similar idea will have risks, and probably negative reception from at least portion of the player base. An easy example of where that type of feedback could have been gathered was the VIP CDP, which was a hot topic if there ever was one. This can be a tool to ensure low risk development and is not a bad thing to do. In fact it is a strong positive.
  2. Another theory is that the goal of the CDP is to provide the illusion that they are listening to player feedback. In a thread with 100 people shouting their ideas, it is likely that at the very least one poster will throw out an idea which matches the path they have already decided to take the game on. This means that in the event that they do implement something contentious, they can say, “but you asked for it, see, here’s the post!” and point to the CDP. It is very easy to push the CDP in this direction, Developers only to reply to posts which already fit with the already established path, whilst ignoring those in the thread which are not compatible with it and conversation will naturally flow towards the topics he already wants to implement. A strong argument can be made that this is happening, looking at how some posts were responded to in, for example, the game content accessibility thread. In this thread, you will see responses to many posts, but any posts which take a stance against content being accessible to everyone or cautioning to the negatives, for example, Janne’s post on Page 3, are ignored. Without us knowing up front what they are currently planning with regards to a topic, there is no way for us to know if anything has changed in response to our feedback.
  3. The third is that it is a marketing tool, which is useful for earning player trust. This feeds into all other forms of marketing. On YouTube or Twitch, they can say, “look at how awesome we are, we listen to player feedback, look here!” Due to how long the discussion topics are however, without a player actively being engaged in the CDP or the game’s community, they have no way of judging whether the communication actually bares any fruit. All they can see was that a discussion took place and have to take it on faith that the discussion was worthwhile.
  4. My final bit of speculation here is that the purpose of the CDP is to act as a distraction to prevent players from complaining about the big picture changes by making them focus on small (inconsequential) topics. Think about it, in the 6 CDP topics covered so far, we have not touched on any of the major directional changes that have been a central part of the game’s newfound vision. This vision involves broader picture changes like introducing these living worlds. This is a major paradigm shift for the game and if we had any input on the direction the game is taking, it should definitely be a topic of discussion. We should know what Living Worlds are (exactly what they are), why the change is being made and how they are going to be implemented. Instead all we know about them is essentially the marketing sales pitch. These changes will take place regardless of what we think of them.

As we saw, the CDP can provide valuable information to the development team, about polarizing topics, measure resistance or reception to ideas, and push and reinforce planned ideas. Overall those can be used positively to conserve development resources and create a better product. Yet, at the same time, those aspects should be transparent and it shouldn’t over promise agency and partnership. There are many real dangers in doing so, including the danger of creating a “friend” type relationship between the company and the player in the eyes of the player. The problem with this is that people have expectations of this type of relationship which cannot be met or provided (and nor should they) by Cryptic and when they are inevitably let down, they will be met with disappointment. It is important not to create a system which is setting people up for disappointment in the long term.

As a result of this, I personally find the CDP bittersweet. On the one hand, I enjoy writing about a game which I (evidently) care a little bit too much about and the CDP gives me an excuse to do so. On the other hand, the CDP seems to me like a sleight of hand, selling them what they believe to be a platform where the idea they thought of is being implemented into the game, when even in its idealized form, at best it only implements a developer’s interpretation of how to achieve a similar goal. We are yet to see the result of the major CDPs, – I find the hype and blind faith into them unwarranted until we see the actual results.

Living Worlds.

The idea behind the concept is that content is periodically added to the game in the form of episodes, grouped within seasons similar to shows on television. Eventually over time, some of the Living Worlds are phased out and removed. In the context of Neverwinter, these are the new “Episodes,” with The Redeemed Citadel being the new “Episode” of content which is a part of the “series” called “The Saga of Zariel.” Now the important thing to note here is that developers have a limited amount of time to make content every day, whether they release it periodically or all at once, it is not going to change how much content you receive, only the rate at which you receive it, with it being drip fed to you over time rather than as a whole. In theory it it is good for player retention, because at around about the time they are becoming tired of whatever piece of content they were playing through before, they suddenly have a new piece of content to occupy them.

My big concern with Living Worlds as a concept, is that it presupposes the idea that the pieces of content which are being doled out more frequently, can still all be checked for bugs and be delivered in a reasonable state. In my opinion, the fact that content is being cut up into smaller pieces and released more quickly means that there are shorter deadlines which leads to there being less room for checking and thus more room for errors. As a result of this, either the quality of releases drops, or the amount of content. Currently it appears that sacrifices have been made on the front of release quality, which, is still in a rocky state. Rage of Bel is a good example of this, with the entire mechanic breaking a few hours in on the first day. After that was dealt with, there was the issue of the rage meter either being filled too quickly or too slowly and on top of that there was the issue of instances not spawning monsters inside the insurgency area. This is not covering every issue with the episode release, but all in all, it highlights the fact that despite any claims otherwise, the episodic content is still having issues with release quality.

There are also some benefits to larger releases, for example, hype can be used as an advertisement tool for new content, which are lost when shifting over to an episodic content release. Neverwinter has never historically taken advantage of this very well however, so an episodic release may indeed suit the game better. My major concern here is that, when describing the system, it has been mentioned that the intention is over time to remove older content that was “no longer deemed relevant,” as episodes go by. As of now this has not happened, so it isn’t an issue yet, but it is something to be aware of in the future. It is something that could possibly be handled poorly, with achievements becoming unobtainable, or impossible to complete pages on the collections.

The argument could maybe be made though that there are too many “dead systems” clogging up the game, lots of outdated content that should be removed or revamped to make it relevant again, but at the same time, the expectation exists that an older game would have more content than a newer one. Part of the process of a game aging is it building up all of these extra systems to give it more depth. Yes, there is a lot of content to keep a new player occupied. Yes, there is a lot of catching up to do. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Isn’t it good that a game has the possibility to keep you occupied for a long while?

I am not directly opposed to having more frequent content releases, provided the releases are of a high quality. If they are not, I would personally prefer infrequent, large releases that have been thoroughly checked for problems. It can work though and would likely be beneficial for casual players who are less likely to notice these problems with release quality.

The Perception of Neverwinter.

In my opinion, one of the major drives that have been pushed recently, aside from the change in how the game is developed, is how it is perceived. This is done through influencing the various media outlets, the two major players being Twitch and YouTube. Which brings me to the next point, the increased presence on Twitch and the introduction of the Content Creator Program. First off, as I think it is only fair, I will throw in my personal biases here so that people can be aware of what they are and then I will comment further, whilst trying to keep them out of my analysis.

My Biases on the CCP.

The way I see it, the CCP should have been named differently. For something in my mind to be “content” it needs to add value aside from pure entertainment. That is, it needs to have substance. Whilst streaming to Twitch or YouTube can create content, it does not necessarily do so and I personally think that many of the people who were highlighted as content creators were not that and are instead entertainers, or influencers. Either role is important for the community, yet combining everyone under the same umbrella of content creators disregards the difference between the details of those roles, and the differences involved. With that being said, I understand the role of the CCP was not really to highlight content creators, but instead to highlight influencers, people who have influence on public opinion. I would have personally preferred however if the program was called something else, because it does at least in my opinion downplay the monumental effort put in by everyone who does actually create content.

Communication.

I think most people would find it fair to say that since Chris has joined the Neverwinter team, communication has dramatically increased. In many ways this is a good thing. The roadmap is, for example, a great step forward and something which I hope we will see further iterations of next year. We have already seen updates to it, so it definitely seems to be an ongoing project. Usually when a question is asked now, you will receive a rapid response or when a problem arises, it is addressed quickly. The increased communication on Reddit by Asterdahl for example is another good example. With that being said, I think there are still some problems, some of them being new.

For starters, I feel Chris is “too active” as it were, in terms of face time with the community. It feels in some ways like he is overshadowing what should be the Community Manager’s role and responsibility and thus undermining the position. In my opinion Chris should maybe step back a bit and allow news to go through the Community Manager, instead of bringing it to the fore himself. The manner in which some topics are addressed also acts to obfuscate or distract from existing problems, which is a downside because clarity is lost in the process. There are still bugs, it is alright to acknowledge them and we (or at least I) are more liable to trust the direction the game is heading in if it isn’t obscured by convoluted language or marketing speak.

Somewhere there has always been room to improve is with the centralization of communication. There are often situations where crucial information either for character progression, or for being aware of a bug, or an upcoming update is posted on Reddit, Twitch, YouTube, Discord or one of the other various platforms. There is no single point of contact players can go to in order to stay up to date on the game. Whilst it makes sense to promote the game on all of these different platforms, for someone who is already playing the game it makes it very difficult to keep track of important information. Even if there is just a bot that links any new YouTube videos, Twitch Livestreams and Developer comments into a subforum so that they are centralized, it would go a long way towards improving this situation.

You will notice that throughout this article, there is a lot of speculation, some positive and some negative and I think it highlights an area where Cryptic could improve on transparency. Without having any meaningful data as to why a decision was made, the door is left open to speculation. If Cryptic was more forthcoming with information in the event of major decisions, especially in the form of player statistics, it helps to better direct or in some cases curb player speculation.

With that being said, I am not necessarily advocating for less communication (although maybe some of the time spent communicating could be better used elsewhere), but for the communication to go through the appropriate channels and not only be the actions of a single person. It also should be mentioned that, whilst there is a heavy focus on Twitch, in terms of viewership Twitch is the platform where Neverwinter’s presence is felt the least, overshadowed by both Reddit and YouTube. However, taking all of this into account, it would be a shame to lose the increase in dialogue that has come about over the past year.

Twitch.

Now, on the subject of Twitch, this is where my reservations really begin to manifest themselves. First off, Chris is very active on Twitch. We can speculate a bit about why that is and there are plenty of very good reasons, for example, from the perspective of advertisement. If we assume that new players discover the game through Twitch and YouTube, if their first introduction to the game are people who are generally positive about it, then they are more likely to give the game a try. Alternatively, it could just be his fascination with Twitch as a medium. It is not exactly clear why there is such a heavy focus on Twitch itself though, considering how small a part Twitch plays in the advertisement of the game. Regardless of my reservations, my stronger concern is about the way this interaction is achieved, namely through direct subscriptions, or codes. Those are outside of clearly defined programs like the Content Creators Program (CCP) and instead done solely by personal discretion. On the one hand it’s nice to see people immediately rewarded and the medium promoted, on the other hand it creates a very strong perception of a “bribe”, where streamers are afraid to provide criticism, even constructively, and suppress it in their stream, at a fear to lose this direct line. It also creates an unbalance due to time-zones, content type, and personality types due to the subjectivity of the support. Here is an example of something which is fairly direct, giving away subs in the stream.

As it stands now, supporting influencers and content creators is a common occurrence. Both the company and the creator benefit from it. It promotes the content creator via increased viewership and through that it advertises the game. This support can come in many ways. From hosting streamers, live interviews, providing tools like media packs, early access to content, a direct point of contact to resolve issues and many others, these just to name a few. In this case, codes for items, and direct subscription. It is expected that for it to work to the mutual benefit of all parties there are some expectations about civility and conduct, however, where do we draw the line? It is enough that in many cases increased viewership creates indirect income – more viewers leads to more subscribers or more income from ads, but in many other aspects of our society when a creator receives direct contribution, in this case subscription or codes for personal use, they are required to, at the very least, disclose it. I would like to see both the community grow and the streamers praise the game by merit, and not due to undue influence, or even just the perception of one.

Shifting Perception.

There are several tools which have been used recently in order to shift the perception of the game. From the obvious like gifts which act as appeasement, to the more subtle like creating guilt within the community or assigning blame to individuals or groups. We will look over all of these here and see what kind of an impact they are having, as well as speculate a bit as to the possible reasons as to why they are being used.

Appeasement.

You may be inclined to point out that there have been many changes made recently which are friendly to more casual players, for example, the devaluing of R15 enchantments, as well as simply handing them out for free. This is where my opinion and that of many people reading this will likely differ. The purpose of R15 enchantments, or any of the other expensive items which exist, is to act as chase items. You do not need them to complete any content in the game, they exist as “the item to get.” Handing out hard to obtain items is an easy way to generate short term goodwill with large portions of the population with long term negative ramifications. By taking everything that is expensive and drive its price into the ground, it removes the reason for many people to stick around and to “keep grinding.” If everyone has everything and there is no item to get then people move on, because there is no longer a goal to occupy them. Destroying the market for items will definitely garner favor with the community in the short term but almost guarantees that it will have to be redressed again in the long term (for example, by adding another tier of enchantments). It remains to be seen if the episodic content will be enough to keep the players occupied and invested both in time and more importantly, for the ongoing sustainability of the game, monetarily. This however I will go into more depth about later in this article.

Not all forms of appeasement are negative, for example, adding extra quality of life features like if you could create custom inventory sorting lists and your inventory would sort according to those. It is important to be careful when considering quality of life changes however and draw some distinction between quality of life changes and major system changes which are thinly disguised as quality of life. One could argue for example that the legendary mount change is a quality of life change which is good for people with many characters, but upon careful inspection it is evident that it undermines long term progression.

Guilt as a tool.

Guilt is used to shift perception by bringing the image of a victim to the forefront of discussion, instead of any existing issues within the game. This is done firstly through deflection. When there is a large argument between various player groups around a contentious issue, attention is deflected away from the issue itself to the argument. The next step is to act as if in the process of trying to break up the argument, the person doing the breaking up of the argument is being harassed by people on either sides and therefor becomes the victim. A small scale example of this can be found on page two of the CDP CDP in response to @thefiresidecat.

Now it is important to note here, I am very strongly against demeaning the development team and I do not believe anyone should do so. So if anyone is actually victimizing them (and I am sure there are at least a few people), that behavior should be brought to an end. Issues can be raised in a constructive level, without deconstructing anyone in the process. There is nothing to be gained by tearing down anyone, we all have our faults and we are all only human. However having said this, just because in some situations there are people who do demean them, does not mean that this should be taken into the context of every single interaction. In my opinion, by acting like a hazmat suit is required to interact with the NW community, the goal is to earn some degree of sympathy (which to be fair, everyone deserves). This is then channeled into directing the frustration elsewhere.

Problem in the game? Its not Cryptic’s fault, they are the victim here! This victim status can be used to deflect responsibility from buggy releases or recurring long standing issues. Regardless of any community involvement, the responsibility for these decisions is still Cryptic’s. However if that is not the source of the problem, then where is it?

Assigning Blame.

Which brings me to a related point, that of the “1%.” This is something which frequently crops up in different game’s communities and is a contention between different player groups.  Unlike many other developers, who more or less just ignore the talk of 1% and up until recently Cryptic has as well, recently it appears to be a discussion which has been actively encouraged. Here is a direct quote from a recent article.

So it’s a bit of a change in direction for us on the game and it’s great because it means that we have to produce content that is really immersive, that’s really exciting, that doesn’t feel really grindy and, most importantly, doesn’t feel like it’s designed for the 1% because, moving forward, one of the big hopes we’ve got for the game is to make it so it’s something along the lines of a “Games-as-a-platform” experience.

Chris Whiteside

Now you might say that this is just one example taken out of context, but this topic has been popping up frequently within the Twitch community and recently has had some developer encouragement. The issue comes from the fact that the very purpose of these discussions is to create an enemy to begin with. Once an enemy exists, you can assign all the blame to that enemy when matters turn sour. If something goes wrong, the person who is responsible by default becomes this predefined enemy.

If you take any sufficiently large group of people, you will notice that the group is not completely uniform. Within it there will be differences of opinions, beliefs, background and more. This is true in all aspects of life, even groups on the internet. In most cases if you divide up the large group along these different lines you will find many minority sub groups and if you were to divide by all of them, you would have a group of individuals. You can do the same in NW, by dividing people based on categories like in game wealth, sociability, skill level, time investment and other factors. The important thing to note here is that none of these sub groups represent the majority and none of them is the average. Each group may have some members who believe their group to be representative of the average when in reality that is not the case. This is what is happening in NW, when people bring up the topic of the 1%.

In NW the term 1% is used to indicate an enemy. For some people it can be those who are able to complete all of the content. For others it can be those who have accumulated more in game wealth. It could even be used to indicate that someone is privileged to have a well established network in game. While players can exist in multiple 1% groups, often it is not the case and in some cases people in one group will complain about those in another. When the 1% argument is made, the implication exists that one of the groups is oppressing the others.

MMOs are built on the idea that different people enjoy different things and that you need different pieces of content to cater to these people who all have differing tastes. Trying to deny other people their fun and enforce your “fun” onto them is no different than what you accuse that player group of doing, ruining the game for someone else. In this case picking players who can finish the current content, as the targeted 1%, creates an official hate sentiment.

I will once again put on my tinfoil hat here and speculate as to why.

  • Hate is excellent at bringing people together. By creating the enemy of “the 1%” influencers divert their attention from complaining about the game to complaining about other players. This is an old concept, from major events in human history, political leaders, to very popular examples in literature, like the “two minutes hate” in 1984 By George Orwell.
  • Another reason I can think of for doing this, is because you want to create drama in streams. Drama generates views, which means that if you create it, it acts as a form of advertisement. There is a saying that, “any advertisement is good advertisement.”

Note, that these two points are not necessarily mutually exclusive from each other. By creating an angry crowd of viewers who are arguing over a contentious topic not related to the game itself you have both increased the viewership of the game and decreased the criticism of it.

If you take these two tactics (guilt as a tool and assigning blame) together, you can see how they are very effective tools for manipulating the perception of the game. You first paint yourself as the victim and then when the group of angry (now somewhat guilty feeling people) need somewhere new to place their blame, a new target is conveniently painted for them. Interestingly enough, despite the hypocrisy in both fueling the fire that is the “1%” and then complaining about having to “end fights between different player groups,” so long as the broader public don’t catch on to it, it is an effective tactic. By creating fires between player groups, he has to spend more and more time “putting fires out” which earns escalating amounts of sympathy points. It is a positive reinforcement loop.

To some extent, it is working.

Here is an example of Lord Willow complaining about “the 1%.” Please note, I am not including this to attack Willow, he has historically been one of the more moderate streamers. In fact, the only reason I included him here is because of this, because in my opinion it represents a “shifting” of the acceptable window of discussion to a more extreme point, as he is somewhere closer to the middle of it. I could have very easily included clips from other streamers who are at the extreme, but they were there already, so there is no “change” in their discourse.

The Direction of the Game.

We have seen as illustrated above that the player base can be split into many opposing groups, each with their own vision. However, there is only one entity which has the final say on where the game is heading and that is the development team. It is their vision that drives the game and it is their responsibility. The direction the game is heading in is not who wins the fight between all the different player groups, but is instead the direction chosen by Cryptic. Player feedback may play a part of their vision, but even then, it is not the entirety of it.

We cannot speak for what the development team wants for the game, only they can. All we can try to do is infer what their vision for the game is. While we only see the final set of choices that they make, it is very likely driven by a lot of internal discussions and differing opinions, which likely includes opposing views and disagreements. Player opinion may drive some of this discussion, but it is likely to be only a small part of it.

The Player Perspective.

The player perspective can be looked at from many angles. Some will be for these changes, some will be against these changes. To try and present a balanced view, here are some points from either side.

  1. Higher frequency of content releases.
  2. Removal of long term chase items.
  3. Loss of item value retention.
  4. Compressing the progression gap.
  5. Gaps in the learning curve.
  6. Rewards and Challenges.

Higher Frequency of Content Releases.

This was touched on earlier in the Living Worlds section but when dealing with it here it is worth summarizing again. As a concept, the switch to episodic content can create constant player retention by constantly keeping the players occupied. It is also able to better utilize the D&D Intellectual Property, which has a lot of appeal to some of the player base. This allows them to reinforce that it is a story driven game and not just a generic MMO.

However, there are several concerns to this change:

Enforcing shorter deadlines to meet a higher rate of release can lead to a lower release quality, which can lead to noticeable game breaking issues. Possibly bogging down the development resources with putting out immediate fires.

Story driven games are typically achieved by a mix of narrative guiding quests and side quests which expand on the characters and world, as well as cut scenes and branching decision based dialogue. As a result of this, it is mandatory to move away from the generic fetch, kill or escort quests which are a staple of MMO in order to achieve this. This takes creativity and effort, which is not cheap and takes time. There are also many players in the community who read none of the dialogues and skip all of the cut scenes, which means that potentially if this effort was put in, it might still be for nothing.

Short term episodes also create the pressure to play them on release. In theory this reduces the fluctuation in player numbers between modules and leads to a more constant player base, but there is a risk to this. More casual players who are unable to participate in all of the modules may quit due to the inability to participate in specific episodes. If you compare the episodes to episodes of a series, who wants to watch a series where you are forced to skip some episodes?

Removal of Long Term Chase Items.

In theory episodic content does provide a compelling reason for players to play long term, provided it is released in a high enough frequency. However, considering that it takes orders of magnitude more time (in terms of man-hours) to create quality content vs the time it takes to get through it, it is unpractical as a retention mechanism. This is left to triple A solo games, while MMOs must use additional mechanisms, from time gates, to long term chase items. When it takes companies 3-4 years to make 30 hour single player games with high quality narrative, it is not practical to try and do the same for an online game as a form of long term goal. This is why I consider it important for extraordinarily expensive or difficult to obtain items to exist. This is because it provides long term goals for these players to strive towards, which helps with player retention. Whilst episodic content could provide long term goals for more casual players, it fails to provide a compelling reason for a more time invested player to play for extended periods of time.

A careful balance should be maintained in the long term chase goal design. While it is essential that the items must be appealing to function as long term chase items, regardless if it is looks, titles, vanity items, or character improvement items, if players feel that they are mandatory it could cause new or more casual players to feel frustration. This could lead to them quitting the game.

The current devaluation of existing long term chase items allows new players to catch up and can make having alternate character less of a chore, opening that up as an option to more players. However, it is important to distinguish that these particular items are not required to complete any content within the game, they are optional. With the erosion of long term goals and without the introduction of new goals there is the possibility that everything becomes easy to obtain. The problem is, once people have everything they have nothing to do.

Loss of Item Value Retention.

This builds on from the previous point. Regardless of whether or not an item is a chase item, if a player invests time into acquiring an item, they tend to build up some degree of attachment towards it. As a result of that, the item needs to retain its value for an extended period of time and if it is to be replaced, it isn’t because the item became worse, but because there is some new alternative which came along which can give you a new goal to strive for. If a player has been grinding for weeks to finally save up and buy a legendary mount and then the next day its value is cut in half, it is extremely demoralizing. Players need to be able to trust that the investment they put into the game will be respected in some way and that it won’t be immediately invalidated. If you lose this player trust, then players will be unwilling to invest heavily into new exciting items, due to the perceived very big risk that their investment is invalidated.

On the flip side, the more accessible items are, the more they appeal to casual players. By increasing the accessibility of the items it might increase the level of player retention, because casuals may enjoy being able to quickly acquire new shiny items to mess around with. This could result in a bigger player base and a more successful game. The downside of this is that in a system where items can be frequently cycled through, none of them have any value assigned to them by the player. This creates a game with less interesting items, where players are less excited and don’t spend time going, “look at this amazing new item I acquired.”

Compressing the Progression Gap.

In an MMO, it is expected that there is a gap between a veteran and a new player. Like other elements within the game, this gap should be balanced carefully, make it too large or too small and it will have a detrimental impact on the player base, in terms of player retention, enjoyment of the game and acquisition of new players.

To begin with, let us look at why we do want a gap in the first place. Well, because it gives the game a sense of progression. When a player is just starting the game and is new to it compares how they are doing on day one to how they are a week or a month later, they want to see and feel a difference. They want to see progress. This is a prominent component of RPGs, we all start with nothing and end up killing gods. It is important that a player be able to feel this progress and it is not just an element of the story. A player who can slay giants should not struggle killing some rats in the sewer.

In addition to this, when balanced and implemented well it also gives the players a sense of where they could end up. This can be reinforced through leaderboards, special rewards for difficult content, titles and other vanity items. A player seeing all these fancy toys on somebody else gets the feeling of, “wow, I want that,” which creates an overall long term goal for players.

If the gap between a new player and an experienced player is too small, then the player will very quickly reach the point at which there is no more progression to be made, or it feels like their progress adds nothing to their character and then be inclined to leave. Why continue grinding if it feels like a treadmill, running in the same place and going nowhere.

A longer progress path encourages players to create long lasting social relationships within the game, and those social bonds are one of the stronger retainers of players. MMO players at large play due to friends. Having a progression gap builds into this, giving players a sense of accomplishment, thus making it more likely they will engage with the community.

However, if the gap is too large, there is the possibility that everything seems out of reach to players and then they will give up without even trying, or give in along the way. It is important to note here that the gap itself is usually not the issue, but the lack of a clear path of progression, leading to players giving up because they feel lost (for example, players calculating progress in terms of 100k AD per day, which is not correct). Sometimes, however, the gap is too large and even if a clear path does exist the goal seems unattainable, which creates frustration and prevents players from even trying.

When players are grouped together who are too far apart on the power spectrum, it could possibly result in the player on the lower end feeling inadequate, or like their contribution was meaningless, thus taking away from their fun. As a result of this, by reducing the gap between the top and the bottom, this problem is dealt with and there is less friction within the community. The gap can be reduced in multiple ways, either by reducing the number of “incorrect” choices when building a character, or by lowering the skill cap of a class, or by making gear more accessible, or by simply reducing the amount of power provided by gear.

On the other hand, this is a player problem and is not caused by the existence of the gap. The gap is neutral and can have both positive and negative things occur as a result of it being there. Similar to how nuclear research results in both nuclear power and the atom bomb. The research itself is neutral, how it is used is the issue. An alternative way to deal with this is to put systems in place to discourage it, or rework existing systems to prevent it in the first place. Many of the negative experiences which exist within the game as a result of a level gap are a direct result of the queue system forcing players with competing interests into a single group. Fix the queue system and you would have gone a long way towards solving that problem without reducing the progression gap.

Currently, we see the progression gap in Neverwinter is being reduced in a very extreme way in the name of accessibility. From the more obvious like items being given away, prices of valuable items being reduced and catch up gear handed out in straightforward ways, to the more subtle like the reducing of player choice in systems, such as the module 16 feats system. It does push up new players to end game rapidly and makes content design simpler since the entire player base is more or less at the same spot, regardless of the time played, but that leaves us with the question of why bother progressing in the game at all if taking a break and returning will progress the player more than engaging with the game. If we cannot see or feel our progress, then the story and social aspect of the game have a lot to compensate for. This is especially true given the story is about progressing and overcoming more challenging foes.

Gaps in the Learning Curve.

The more you reduce the learning curve among the starting dungeons, the larger the gap between the early game and the end game becomes and the lower the bar becomes for what is acceptable as end game content. Players progress quickly and easily and then suddenly hit a spike of difficulty, which is disconnected from their previous experience. Accelerating player progression early on sets this up as their default expectation and then leads them to be unprepared for any potential difficulty jump later on. It does not address the issue of players hitting a brick wall, it only moves where the brick wall is. A better solution is to instead smooth the learning curve by adding intermediate content which is between previous pieces in difficulty, slowly acclimatizing them to what they would encounter next.

A well balanced learning curve prevents new players from feeling like they are estranged from the community. This prevents them from feeling discouraged and quitting the game as a result of it. If they feel like they are always able to overcome the next step ahead of them, it provides them with a sense of satisfaction while building up their character whilst also preventing them from quitting before they reach the newest or hardest content. A gradual incline in challenge allows the player to adjust to it while they are progressing, without sacrificing depth within the game to achieve the result. There is a huge benefit in having learning curves in that they provide a player with a sense of accomplishment as they master the different systems within a game and by removing them, this sense is lost.

Rewards and Challenges.

There are two major changes that go hand in hand. The reduction of value of the rewards in the most challenging content and the addition of tiered versions of content. If we look at these two on their own, adding tiered content can be extremely positive. Those who only care for the story can do the easy version and those who want a challenge, whether it be for more risk and higher reward, or additional teamwork, or for a sense of achievement also have the option to do so. However, by removing rewards from challenging content, it also removes the pressure for players to participate in challenging content. From a casual perspective this can be viewed as positive because they do not feel like they are missing out, but on the flip side it also removes the incentive to progress.

By implementing both of these together, it greatly decreases the shelf life of challenging content. If we look at ToMM, it had a higher longevity than most of the content in the game. Players were putting in the effort to firstly meet the gear requirements for ToMM and secondly to learn the mechanics of the fight, because they felt that their investment would pay off. This continued well into module 18 and only died off with the advent of Rage of Bel, which essentially killed off any hope of the ToMM rings having any value again. By removing the rewards, or by offering an easier alternative progression path for them, the content loses its long term shelf life. It will only be ran by a small portion of the community and then forgotten. This fully undermines the benefit of having content like it in the first place.

The question then stands though, why should a game have challenging content to begin with? There are a few reasons why it is good to have challenging content in the game. The first is it provides players with a long term goal. Trying to overcome a piece of challenging content gives players something to strive for and, if it is team content, it is good for building up communities over a long term period of time. Furthermore, there are some players who enjoy pushing themselves and having content like that is a way to keep them engaged with the game.

There is the looming contention that the result of having rewards in difficult content is that it leads to wealth within the game falling into the hands of a disproportionately small group of players. This, however, is only a result of the fact that there is very little content in the game which is rewarding to begin with. If all the different pieces of content are rewarding, then wealth will distribute itself according to the needs of various players. Players only have so much time in the day to farm content and if there is more content in the game than one person can reasonably farm and they need items from all the various different pieces of content, then the chances are, if they have the option to, they will farm the content they do like and sell items from there and then buy items from the content they do not like. With that being said, however, even if the net result of this is that wealth flows in the direction of a small group of players, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Earning wealth is a big part of why some people play the game and for those types of players, farming content is not even the most efficient way to do so, playing the market is. That type of gameplay is not actually harmful to other players within the scope of the game, so why not just let it be?

It is true that challenging content excludes casual players on release. However, whilst casual players may not be able to run this piece of content immediately, over time with power creep and an ever more experienced player base, older content will “trickle down” and become available to these players. Having content that is currently just out of their reach provides them with something to strive towards, which keeps the player engaged. Ideally, in an MMO you want to keep players engaged for long periods of time so that they form those social bonds, as pointed out above. New players may not be able to run it, but this is not an issue. For a new player, the entire game is new content, so they have plenty of content to explore without designing new content strictly for them.

Speculation.

We have seen there are some possible positives from these changes, but also plenty of negatives. However, we have not seen any action or precaution to mitigate those negatives. So the question then is, if they have considered these points above already (and considering they have been raised many times in the past, they definitely have) then why are they making these changes? Well, here I will speculate a bit.

  1. The easiest and most obvious answer is simply that they do not agree with these risks. They do after all have access to a lot of player data that we simply do not have. If we assume that they interpret these metrics correctly, it would allow them to make much more nuanced and accurate decisions than we can. Episodic content may very well be a much better way to keep players engaged and the “brick wall” created by having to grind for chase items. Without access to these statistics, we simply cannot know.
  2. Some of the changes encourage a very strong short term positive influx of players and increase in morale, this in combination with the current world-wide pandemic situation create a very positive outlook on the changes, and in turn encourage the decision makers to green light further large scale changes, even though their long term implication is not as clear.
  3. Another consideration is perhaps a shift in target audience. The developers may take a conscious risk and decision in effort to appeal to a somewhat different mix of players, at the cost of some portion of the current player base. Overall, targeting possibly larger audience, increasing the revenue (by either larger player base, or more willing to pay players). This seems a very risky approach since the game already has a long time established image, a player mix, and competition. Sudden shifts are not guaranteed to bring more than what will be alienated, and like the saying goes, “A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush.”

Conclusion.

So in conclusion, why does all of this bother me? Well, in terms of the direction of the game’s media and the changes made in game it is very clear to me that a very particular vision is being forced upon the game. These living worlds. Having vision is a good thing, big projects need direction. My concern is, the negative aspects of this vision have not been properly accounted for. There are large scale changes to many systems which are being made, which in my opinion should for the health of the game, be adjusted with extreme care. Many of the changes go against some of the core principles of what make a current day MMO and would be better suited to a single player game.

It is important for me to say here, that I am not against all changes to the status quo. In fact, I am usually one of the community members of Neverwinter who is more receptive to change. It is essential to keep in mind, however, that not all changes are good and in my opinion many of the changes we are seeing here go against what makes Neverwinter the game it is. It is all well and good to make a new game with original ideas, it is an entirely different story to take an existing game, change it to suit your particular vision and ignore what made the game what it originally was, destroying its economy and driving away many of its old time players in the process.

I feel like something was lost within the community this past year. It seems to me like it is simultaneously filled with much more communication and yet that communication feels like a repetition of the same slogans. The volume of dialogue has increased, but transparency and meaning has been lost in the process. To end, I will leave you with a quote from Richard Bartle, one of the “Fathers” of MMOs, on what makes a stable MMO.

A stable MUD is one in which the four principal styles of player are in equilibrium. This doesn’t imply that there are the same number of players exhibiting each style; rather, it means that over time the proportion of players for each style remains roughly constant, so that the balance between the the various types remains the same.

Richard Bartle

In the process of making all of these grand changes to the direction the game is heading in, can we say that this balance is being kept the same? As we head into this game’s new future I am hesitant, very hesitant.

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Janne
Admin
Janne
1 month ago

I want to clarify that I’m not the author. It’s an opinion piece, and opinions differ, there are parts I agree with, there are parts that less so. But in any case, I think a lot is worth considering, discussing, and taking a moment to think how changes affect us not on a personal level but the overall impact on the playerbase and the game. Also perhaps something to take from this in general, is that in our age of information Critical thinking becomes more important than ever. There is a flood of information and opinions, from written media, like… Read more »

My Opinion is My Opinion
My Opinion is My Opinion
1 month ago

Neverwinter online, it’s very interesting game, not just as game, but also as object to study of western mmo rpg game developers and communities. Through time game changed a lot.. From low stats, more action combat driven, with various customization and various possible gameplays/styles. It changed to less customization and straight forward to stat/power creep’s, less team/group gameplay and more me me me. From Zen being optional to becoming necessary currency. We don’t call this game pay2win, most players goes up to line> Pay 4 Progress. Which is total illusion. In any game, if any paid service influence your combats… Read more »

Achouri1198
Achouri1198
1 month ago

First of all, let me congratulate you for the structured and well thought analysis in the post. That’s a good read. I tried to read the post thoroughly. What I got is that you are not fond of the changes as overall. I also have some concerns regarding some of the aspects, like the fast reach of end of game content. And you opened my eyes to some other concerns like the lack of long term reward (leg mounts as example) One thing I dont get is that you keep insisting that episodic releases reduce quality. I think the total… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Achouri1198
Steve_J_UK
Steve_J_UK
1 month ago

As someone who has played Neverwinter since its 2016 release on PS4 I have seen the game go through a number of highs and lows. Whilst I appreciate the time and trouble that Sharpedge has put in to writing this impassioned piece I have a slightly different view. The key problem for me has been the two tier player system that ToMM weapons have created in the game. The developers promised to keep ToMM weapons BiS for a long time, and they’ve kept that promise as the recent Mod 19 buff to the weapons has shown. However the gap between… Read more »

Daniel
Daniel
1 month ago

Wow.. I can really feel the passion and hard thought put into this. I have been playing off and on since Mod 8 on consoles. My longest break came right before Barovia dropped. I have returned again and found joy in bringing my main to endgame and have seen some positive changes, but the direction it is going, along with the still chaotic scaling as well as constant DC changes makes me feel there is still a lot needing to be ironed out. I do have a love for this game. And I hope that the developers see this and… Read more »