There is a gaming phenomenon I have been experiencing a lot lately that sorely needs a term to describe it. The effect itself is this: the older a game gets, the less space exists for the “skill middle class,” and the less the developers seem to care about catering to said group.

Tobold has experienced this recently too:

I discovered a nice game called Cabals, which combines trading card elements with a tactical board game. But unfortunately the game was released 5 years ago in 2011. So not a lot of people are still playing, and those who do have collected cards for years. So every time I start a PvP game, first I’m waiting for a long time for an opponent, and then that opponent is far, far more powerful than I am.

And here is how I described it in a roundabout way back in 2014:

I have played a grand total of about an hour of TF2, which was long enough for me to realize I have little interest in diving into seven years of accumulated competitive minutia; learning the maps, the weapons, the classes, and strategies of each while playing against hardened veterans isn’t exactly my idea of fun.

There are a few different ways this phenomenon manifests itself. The first type is how I described Team Fortress 2 above – there being simply so many additions and considerations added to a game since launch, that it becomes difficult to imagine ever reaching a competent level of play. This isn’t to suggest it’s impossible, just that it would require a level of dedication far in excess of what was needed when the game first came out.

Another version is what I experienced with reinstalling Puzzles & Dragons on my phone: abandonment of any semblance of a newbie experience. P&D is a game about collecting and leveling up monsters, and you have a maximum “Cost Size” when constructing your team; the more powerful the monster, the higher it’s Cost. Your Cost capacity starts off low and gradually increases as you Rank up. When starting a new account, you get one free pull on the super rare monster slot machine.

Do you see where this is going? I’ve “rerolled” P&D a half dozen times, and each time I seem to get a god-level monster… that has a Cost level so far beyond my starting capacity that I’d need to grind for 20+ hours just to use it. These were new monsters added to the game to entice veterans to continue playing (and paying), but it makes a for a truly awful new-player experience as you’re left with the garbage-tier monsters for way too long.

Having a carrot on the end of a stick is good motivation… provided the stick isn’t three miles long.

There is a variation of the P&D situation when it comes to games with DLC. I reinstalled Battlefield 4 recently, for example, and I realized that I’m missing 4-5 pieces of DLC. I’m not going to go back and purchase them now – this game is really just an Overwatch substitute – but this means I’m stuck playing vanilla maps against hardened veterans who have spent the intervening years since release playing these maps thousands of times. And… you know, I already know these maps too. Had I just bought BF4 recently, I would have gotten the edition that included all the DLC, similarly to how GW2 and Destiny provide the base game “for free” these days.

The best time to play a game is always at or near launch. No time else has the greatest range of player skill. You can be better than average and have that mean something. Developers are focused on the new-player experience and encouraging newbies to transition into veterans. Everything is great… minus any bugs, of course.

After time goes by though? Churn rate stays the same but new players start drying up. Veterans accumulate. Designers add things to keep the veterans happy and paying, which makes sense, as they become the plurality (if not majority) of the remaining playerbase. But there is no longer a bridge between the new player and the veteran. The gaming middle class just evaporates.

This is part of the reason why I’m excited about Overwatch. Not necessarily because it’s better than any given FPS, but because it’s a fresh start. Virgin territory. You can be that one-eyed king ruling the blind before all the two-eyed vets show up and ruin your day with their depth perception.

In any case, I’m open to suggestions for the term in general, assuming one doesn’t already exist. I was thinking about “Veteran Accretion,” but that might be a bit too fancy. Endgame Design? Skill Gap? Too Damn Old?

Posted on March 28, 2016, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. This almost sums up what I feel is wrong with the current WoW expansion.
    It feels like its just mostly boring for veteran casual players because most content is either tedious easy “press button, receive loot” kind of uninteresting none challenging content aimed for noobs to catch up on gear? then there is raiding.
    Very little of challenging dungeons/scenarios with decent rewards, nothing like that outdoors either barely. I suppose they finally tried to do something about it by introducing mythic dungeons… witch you can’t find groups for unless you are a hardcore raiding because all groups forming are made by raiders and only want raiders for a quick heirloom farm session while being eared way over what drops there. -_-
    Well I shouldn’t complain tho, I guess I could just start my own group.


    • Yeah, I have never really experienced anything like the Wrath days. The heroics were pretty easy down towards the end there, but the slow ascent up the food chain in all aspects of the game was second to none. Then again, perhaps I am in a different place life-wise, I dunno.


  2. I can almost feel your pain trying to find out the cross-over between enjoyment-vs-time and cost-vs-time lines :)


  3. Had this exact same thought last night as I was looking at the Steam stats page. The top 2 games in terms of active and peak players (and there’s a big drop-off to 3rd place) are DOTA 2 and CS:GO. Released in 2013 and 2012, respectively. I’ve never played either, but the thought of jumping into a competitive multiplayer game years after release is just depressing. The near certainty that I’ll be nothing more than a free kill for the vets is overshadowing any curiosity I have to try out either game.


    • The worst part is how often you will be so thoroughly wrecked that you won’t have any idea what you did wrong. Sometimes in BF4 I will just keel over dead faster than I can register where the damage is coming from. It’s the difference between “Oh, I’m being shot from the roof, I better check that next time” and “Oh, I’m within 50 ft of a vet. GG.” The difficulty slope is very necessary to stave off the frustration.


  4. In answer to the question, maybe “Veteran Barrier”. In reference to the “Barrier to entry” term used in economics.


  5. Back at the dawn of time MMOs used to benefit from periodic re-starts, when expansions included new races and classes that came with their own new starting areas. In what Wilhelm of TAGN often describes as the only wholly good expansion any MMO ever had, EQ’s Ruins of Kunark effectively added a larger version of the entire original game, from top to bottom, on a fresh continent.

    I’ve always thought that’s the best solution, but then, as a dedicated leveler and player of multiple characters, I would, wouldn’t I? It clearly has its own drawbacks and developers have largely chosen to steer clear of the model in latter years. I do think those re-starts” are valuable, though. Maybe if Crowfall is a major success we might see some bleed-through of the concept.


    • Resets can help with the accumulated material advantages, absolutely. The best time to get back into an MMO is during an expansion launch, when whoever was hot shit mere weeks ago is replacing their raid gear with greens like the rest of the masses. Although I suppose these days they make the gear last longer. Whatever.

      The skills usually transfer over, but otherwise level playing fields is important to combat the veteran accretion.


      • Well, expansion remove the gear gap IN WOW, not all MMOs behave in the same way. Try to jump on a P2W Korean MMO at expansion time and you’ll see what I mean….

        The good about WoW is that big patches also tend to bring in some major class restructuring, which also means that the players have to re-learn something, making not only the gear gap null, but also reducing (a bit) the skill gap.

        I plan to jump back on WoW at Legion, BTW…..


  6. BF2142 used to have “newbie servers” where new folk can go cut their teeth.. on each other. Yeah, sometimes some mean old vets would buy a new copy of the game and roll train there (but why.. at the expense of their main?) but in the end it was a great way to get people into the game around other people relatively new.

    Of course, the longer the game went on the more useless that server became (too empty, etc.) but it was a good idea and good start.

    That is also the reason why I quit League of Legends. I had around 20 champions I was comfortable with, including build outs, etc. and took a long break. When I came back all the champs were different and all the items were different, and I had no desire to relearn the hundreds of hours I had put into that game. So now it is just a memory.

    It is fine to not be able to play a game online if you miss the launch bus or stay away too long. That is why there are other games =)


    • Yeah, but still… it’s kinda sad IMO. The MMO genre in particular is practically defined by it’s planned obsolescence, but I feel like there has to be a better solution. And certainly a better solution in the other genres like FPSs where you basically get better or get squeezed out of the game.

      Then again, maybe it is just the natural progression of things.


  7. In the case of MMOs, the phrase that’s always come into my mind is “top heavy”. That point where if you graphed the player base against the level of their highest character, virtually everybody would be at level cap. Virtually all content added is aimed at adding new things to do at level cap. Very little being added to interest new players, and lots of tumbleweeds blowing through the low-level zones.

    It’s not quite the same thing as what you’re describing, in that it’s a character power gap not a player skill/experience gap, but it is I guess a symptom of the same disparity in tenure between players.


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