Design for unlimited lifespan

Design for unlimited lifespan.
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While most games are forgotten after a short shine, some are played for many years or even decades. With their progression mechanic, MMORPGs are not predestined for a long lifespan. What does it need to create a game with an unlimited lifespan?

Table of contents

Prerequisites for unlimited lifespan

Imagine your game is finished and runs on a healthy server population for some months. Congratulations! Only very few games ever reach that step.

However, the struggle does not end here. Ultimately, the game can flourish as long as the money flows. And the money flows when the game flourishes.

To survive your game needs to:

  • minimize operating costs
  • maximize player binding

Minimize operating costs

Maybe a strange topic for a game designer. Yet, there is no way around it. Design decisions have a major impact on operating costs. To survive as a game, you want the smallest operational footprint possible.

The biggest running expenses of an MMORPG are personal costs and spendings on server hardware.

About personal costs: I suggest having a small and efficient development team in the first place. No room for cuts there. These people are the heart and bone of your project. You should do all you can to keep them forever.

Moreover, design your game to need a minimum of game masters. Better invest some money in community managers.

About spendings on server hardware: Don´t try to top AAA games in their field. That is a massive amount of art assets and going to today’s hardware limits.

Top them in your field. That is fresh ideas and novel games. You can safely afford to build your game far within the possibilities of today’s hardware. That will give you a major advantage in the form of cheaper hardware and long breath.

Maximize player retention

Everybody wants player retention. Like with operating costs, you may think that this topic is in the field of PR and no real topic for a game designer. Well, sorry: player retention is the foundation of your game design.

Remember the first arcade games? They were short and hard. Why? Because players liked it hard and unfair? Because programmers were too dumb to build a save function? Or was it rather because you could earn more money with arcades when people had to insert coins more often.

Now, realize how payment models for MMORPGs work today. You have a monthly subscription and/or all kinds of item shops. A gamer that leaves your game for a longer time is more likely never to come back. Money is gone.

So you think that today’s players like repetitive tasks and timesinks? Do they really crave for the one hundred and first mount?

Of course, you can go without that in your game. Players will rush through your content and then complain about not having to do anything. You can set up hard tasks. They will get burnout, neglect their education, their partner, themselves.

Either way, modern MMORPGs have led their players and themselves in a drug-style payment mode.

So what devious trap we are in now? Show me the way out!

I will show you one possible way out.

The right dose of player retention

The insatiable curiosity of the human mind

So you are neither happy with arcade-style payment nor with the drug-style payment of modern MMORPGs. But what then? I suggest neither unheard arcana nor has something similar never been done before. It is an approach that might fit a game striving for immortality.

Players want to be entertained and fascinated. They want new, exciting and spectacular content. Don´t even try to feed them faster than they can eat.

There is no single source that can feed the hunger of a curious human mind.

Release tight player binding

Your game has to get away from being a jealous lover. Romances don´t last forever. They burn, and they end sooner or later. Possible with pain and tears. Get away from a hard player binding. It hurts your game as strong as it hurts the player

Moreover, your game must become a reliable and honest partner. A partner that won´t betray you the moment you turn your back to him. A partner that won´t leave you the moment you reduce your attention. Your game should strive for strong player retention. Don´t mistake that with tight player binding.

Build player retention

Consider a kind of hybrid between subscription and pay-to-play. Buying a ticket will give the player access to the game for one year. After that time, the player account is frozen until the player decides to come back.

One year is a huge time span in terms of gaming. It gives your game and the players a much more generous room to interact. Make this interaction as free as possible.

Second, the game design implications. The game has no end, yet players can finish it in one year with reasonable effort. Players can pause the game for months. Nevertheless, they can finish it. Players can start and stop whenever they want. Players’ success is not devalued, yet new players can easily catch up. Old content stays relevant, yet new content is steadily added.

Well, that sounds like a collection of contradictions. Finding a solution to these means catching infinity. Continue reading to find out how.

How to catch infinity

Out of all challenges that arise when the design cornerstones are satisfied, one contradiction stands out. It has multiple faces, yet all have the same core: Catching infinity. To understand what catching infinity means, look at some of its faces. You may also call it the list of contradictions.

  1. the game has no end, yet players can finish it in one year
  2. the player can pause for months without penalty
  3. old content stays relevant, yet new content is attractive
  4. the player wants a chance to get the best items; nevertheless, there must always be a better item.

What to learn from others

The traditional approach to catching infinity is releasing expansions with ever-increasing power. It is inevitable in this process that each expansion destroys the relevance of old items. So this is something that we don´t want because old content should stay relevant, and items must not be devalued.

The traditional approach to catching infinity is releasing expansions with ever-increasing power.

How would you catch infinity?

This approach’s variant is to introduce new game mechanics that only new items can offer. Let’s follow this idea because it moves in the right direction. We don´t want to devalue the present content with an expansion. Rather, we want to increase the number of relevant options.

In conclusion, we can´t avoid repeated resets of the game state. However, each reset should add relevant options.

What to make better than others

Present MMORPGs are so fixated on certain paradigms that they can hardly think out of their box. Furthermore, their player base expects them to stay as they are. Drastic design changes are equivalent to suicide.

It needs a naive mind and a new project to create something novel.

Break the rule of infinte progression

One way to keep old content relevant is never to increase the power limit. This limit applies to player level, item level, creature level – just everything. Within this limit, the game mechanics can unfold.

Crazy, how can you ever create meaninful expansions?

Expansions don´t increase the power limit. They may introduce new game mechanics that are equivalent in power to the existing game mechanics. Or they may add new skin content.

New game mechanics must be an addition, not a replacement.

Players should choose new game mechanics for fun. Some will, some won´t. Leave that fuddy-duddy who sticks to his old stuff alone. Don´t force anybody on something new

Examples of new game mechanics might be a new class or a new weapon category. The addition of game mechanics is limited by your ability to;

  • think of really new game mechanics
  • balance each game mechanic to be of equivalent power
  • balance the interaction of all game mechanics

The longer your game exists, the more likely you will hit the above limits. Also, old players might become more and more refusing new game mechanics.

Therefore, game mechanics are no ideal content for unlimited expansions. They are more like the salt and pepper of your expansion. So what is the soup then?

New skin content for every level range

Skin content is content that doesn´t alter the gameplay. This includes new zones, new enemies, new items, new dungeons, and so on. Imagine an icecream seller. Is there a thing as too many types of ice cream? Actually, yes. When the sheer number is so overwhelming, you cannot decide and leave.

So we must develop a mechanism that channels content selection. Nevertheless, skin content is ideal for unlimited expansions.

Create new rules

Wrap resets into something acceptable

The more often an event happens, the less important it is perceived. The reset of a game world gives new players an ideal opportunity to start. The more often it happens, the easier it is for new players to join.

However, a reset is inconceivable in a traditional MMORPG. Is it? Isn´t the creation of a twink a reset? Well, no. We still have our main character. Isn´t each expansion a reset? No, because our avatar gets better.

The truth is that players are facing resets all the time. It is just a question of perspective. So when creating something new, you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape that perspective.

So wrap resets into something acceptable to players. Make them often happen, like once every month. Build fitting game mechanics around that.

The trick is not to take everything away from players with a reset. Just enough that new players have a fair chance of leveling up. Make leveling a delightful experience. Because they have to do it repeatedly, adding new zones with each expansion is a good idea.

Let players keeping long-term achievements through resets like crafting skills, titles, and reputation.

Ideally, things that help veteran players level up faster also help new players. Crafting skills are an example of this game mechanic.

Beyond resets: create a finishing line

Because of repeated resets, your players are swimming against the stream. All of them are leveling all the time, possibly never reaching the level limit. So that´s perfect. You want to have them there.

Looking at our list of contradictions, there is only one point left:

  1. the game has no end, yet players can finish it in one year
  2. the player can pause for months without penalty
  3. old content stays relevant, new content is attractive
  4. the player wants a chance to get the best items, there must be always a better item.

Beyond all the resets, there must be something to achieve that lets players strive. In traditional MMORPGs, that might be the last boss of the last raid or having all best-in-slot items or the highest Player-versus-Player title.

So we want a game where the hardest dungeon is never entered, and the best items are possible never looted. What can be our finishing line?

Create a finishing line that may be achieved by a community effort in the payment period. That may be something that can be done within one year. Maybe it is completing a collection of all enemy heads, building a stronghold, or winning an interplanar tournament. The best finishing line is something that allows every contributing player to shine.

Don´t make it too easy. Players want a challenge, so challenge them. A variant is to create a flexible finishing line. So each server has the opportunity to set a record. Or reaching the finishing line by one server increases the challenge for future attempts.

A game to finish

After the payment interval of one year has passed, close the server completely. Players need to pay to join a new server. Give them as much as possible to take with them to the new server.

This can be anything that does not influence game mechanics like titles, mounts, bags, character appearance. Ideally, it was tough to achieve.

So, we are done with our list of contradictions. We have done the impossible and caught infinity. What´s next? You may want to look at The Vortex Worlds, an example design that catches infinity.


under construction

Game design considerations.
Design Doris

Release a game that may be small in scope yet polished. To design for unlimited lifespan, strive for strong player retention. Never stop iterating.

(Last Updated on April 1, 2021)

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