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Ambre's blogroom on MMORPG.com

A place to share my ideas, expectations, thoughts and impressions about my favorite gaming genre : MMORPGs. I plan to write articles about the games I play, the new MMO releases, but also some meta-theory about MMO design and virtual worlds.

Author: Ambre

How casuals have changed MMOs

Posted by Ambre Tuesday March 29 2011 at 8:53PM
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Introduction : the point of this article is not to oppose casual players versus hardcores, to argue in favor of one playstyle against the other, or isn't any kind of a rant. I should add I have myself recently become much more of a casual player than before, and could definitely fit in this category according to the article. The point here is just to state facts, and to show how the whole MMO market has shift from a 'hardcore' niche market, to appeal a much broader and casual audience, mainly for profit reasons. Thus the kind of experience those games provide has drastically changed in the last five years in a direction that reflects the playerbase change. But it also had unexpected consequences in the form of  tremendous expectations from gamers that developpers can't seem to realistically fulfill anymore.

 

The setting : MMO worlds

 

MMO games are different from single player games, in the sense they want to keep people playing as long as possible. That can be explained by financial reasons (MMO players pay a monthly subscription and not only a singletime payment), but it's also structural to what is a MMORPG :  a world to inhabit, in which you're supposed to spend a significant amount of time so that this world comes alive and a community can emerge. If players leave your world fast once they have completed basic gameplay objectives for example, then your world is probably dieing, and as a MMO your game is dieing.

 

Old MMOs were truly worlds you could spend thousands of hours into. They were designed in that way. The consequence was often you couldnt do anything meaningful in them if you didn't have alot of playtime. A single session of 1 or 2 hours had no sense : that could just be the time you spent forming a group, taking a boat, meeting with people. Your implication inside the world was proportionnal to the time you spent in, and that's perfectly natural if you think about a MMO in the sense of a 'true world'.

 

You don't really inhabit a world if you only spend a few hours per week in it, you're just a visitor, but definitely not an actor. Virtual worlds could have room for both, visitors and actors, but they can't participate in the same way. And older MMO games, based on RPG leveling mechanics, used to be frustrating for visitors because the time they spent in wasnt enough to complete the most basic tasks. They would always stay on the periphery, getting a taste of the thing, but could never eat it any of it, share it and bond with the community of actors.

 

The transition

 

As MMOs have started to become more and more 'financial products' whose goals were in the first place to make money and less 'a new alternative gaming genre' the following events successively happened in the last 5 or 6 years :

- The simplification of old mechanics started to attract a whole new audience, much less hardcore than the former one. That is the best seen in the Everquest -> WoW transition.

- The new audience plays maybe 3 or 5 times less, but it's irrelevant from a financial point of view because they pay the same monthly fee* as the older audience. And for obvious social reasons they represent a much bigger market than the few old hardcores.

- MMOs started to cater more and more to the broader audience, simplification of mechanics, faster leveling, linear questing, instances, open grouping, dungeon finders... etc. To the point they became soloable RPG games built in an environnment mimicing a massive virtual world, rather than a virtual world inhabited with characters obeying to RPG mechanics.

 

In other words MMOs have stopped to be worlds with game mechanics, and they've become more games mimicing worlds. (The difference is portreyed in the the previous games vs worlds article on this blog). They removed everything that added to the realism of what a world in a particular setting could be (exploration, danger, the need to regroup with others to complete objectives) in the favor of what is "immediately fun" in a game.

 

Those are just facts, once again not a critic of any playstyle. Simply put in caricatural terms, older MMOs were extremely immersive but could also be a real pain in the butt, newer ones provide immediate fun and no sort of pain but become much more quickly boring. The former were inaccessible to the majority of potential gamers, the later are. The majority cannot spend their life (or a large part of it) in a virtual world for very simple time constraints. As people don't inhabit those worlds anymore, they've become games you play with when that suits you, not universes you immerse yourself in and you need to get back to as often as you can.

 

The backfire

 

The funny and unexpected thing in this transformation is that it in some way backfired on the very same companies who first tried to provide fun instead of immersion for money reasons. Indeed gamers are much more exigeant than inhabitants you throw into a world. Inhabitants don't complain when you throw them in the middle of nowhere : they take time to explore discover and understand the rules and cope with them. Then they start to form true bonds, friendships, alliances and become themselves a creative force inside your world making their own stories. You as a developper are constantly adjusting the parameters of the world you created, but you don't have to tell them what to do all the time.

 

On the other hand gamers** are very exigeant customers who ask to be entertained all the way long, more like spectators watching a movie. You can't just throw them somewhere and tell them : go on now, you're on your own. You need to constantly feed them with what they call "content". If whevener on the way they run out of content, they feel the game is badly lacking and they're likely to leave it. Content in whatever form it takes (linear questing, dungeons, battlegrounds and raids usually) is always at the end you providing to them the story. They will never build their own story in your game, mostly because it was not the way you as a developper designed the MMO : you made a game to follow, not a world to explore and create in.

 

Useless to say, to provide gamers hundreds of hours of quality content, new things to do all the time so those don't feel too repetitive, holding their hand all the way long but still giving them the feeling they're achieving something on their own, is not only a huge amount of work, and a very difficult balance. It's a crazy task. You can put many years of work into it, your best ideas and efforts, and will only get at the end "bah same old thing again", or "been there, played 16 hours a day for a week, nothing to do at the endgame, bye". What can you do, seriously ? You just got trapped in your own design, trying to produce a movie-type game supposed to keep players on a rail track forever when realistic means and constraints make that this kind of thing is not supposed to hold them for that long, and finally suits much more a single RPG game model, a one-time payment game, than a massive online world with a monthly subscription.

 

The future, and I will let it for now as a question.

 

Is there a future for MMOs out of this loop of soloable RPG online games that provide immediate fun but no long term immersion ? Is there a new balance between games and worlds that can be found ? And if yes, how ? How is it possible to create worlds immersive enough for everyone without being frustrating for casual players ? What do you think ?

 

 

* That is not true in Korea for example where players pay hourly fees and not monthly fees. And it's interested to notice that accordingly to the point mentionned, korean MMOs cater more to their hardcore crowd than occidental games do.

** Here I mean gamers in the sense of MMO players looking more for a gaming RPG experience than an immersive world experience. Not gamers in the general sense.

brnmcc01 writes:

Good article, and a good read.

Pretty much sums up my current disapointment in the current crop of MMO's.  And perhaps one of the many reasons I'm currently not subbed to, or playing anything :)

+1

Tue Mar 29 2011 11:06PM Report
SodKronos writes:

For the most part I have to agree with you. But I need to point out that personally, I spend enough time in game to be a "hardcore" gamer but I don't enjoy the "hardcore" experience.

I think that a major reason playstyles have changed is largely due to the fact that the number of griefing arsehats has drastically increased. I don't really feel like grouping with a bunch of dbags. I prefer enjoying game content solo or with a friend or two.

7 years ago when someone started an MMO and asked a question they were met with an answer, not 500 snide comments from tweeny trolls.

I have hoped for a game that allowed for both playstyles for years now. Either by having seperate servers or allowing people to choose to experience the game in hardcore mode or noob friendly mode. Though as it is human nature to try and take the easy route when attempting to take over the world, I don't see a choice in modes coming anytime soon.

Games have started to merge MMO and single player games. I hope that eventually they will be merged and I can play with my friends while not being forced into dealing with the mindless majority when I don't want to.

Wed Mar 30 2011 6:40PM Report
MurlockDance writes:

This is an interesting blog post. I missed the article about this subject unfortunately. But it's something I've been thinking about a lot recently.

I guess it all boils down to expectations of the player. What does a player hope to achieve in a game? Is it to entertain one's self a little bit every week? Is it to escape from real life for long periods of time? Is it to give one's self a sense of accomplishment that might be missing in real life? Etc.

A player ends up playing a game based on his expectations. A person who merely wants to entertain himself a little bit every week is probably not going to be registering many hours in the game in comparison to someone who wants to escape real life and both of these players will have completely different goals.

How can a developper cater to both playstyles and both expectations? Is it to have a heavier-handed development approach such as a highly-structured  themepark MMO or to have a more hands-off approach? The problem is that if a developper mixes and matches game elements for both it seems to always backfire: someone somewhere invariably will be dissatisfied with the approach, spew vitriole on a forum somewhere, quit and try to bring lots of people to quit with him. Of course that means loss of revenue for the developer. And that of course is why more and more game companies are staying with what they consider the tried and true. Isn't Rift a symbol of that?

At some level, how we play a game becomes no longer an issue of developpers but of us the players. It's true that MMOs used to require at least enough time to get a group together and tackle some content of some sort and that excludes people with little time. But should a person who doesn't have a lot of time expect to be able to accomplish everything a player with lots of free time can accomplish? Should a casual be able to do everything the game has to offer in a really short time-scale?

In my opinion, the answer is no, but that doesn't mean that there should be tons of treadmills in a game that excludes casuals. There should always be a compelling reason to intice a player to a game and I think part of the problem is that so many games are only about progression treadmills and no longer about worlds. If most games weren't so treadmillish, then it wouldn't matter how much time a player can invest in a game.

Thu Mar 31 2011 4:25AM Report
daltanious writes:

Hardcores will simply have to accept fact, that times of foot or horse travels are gone for ever. For better or for worse. :-) They maybe have lost 1 customer, but gained 10.000. Nothing to question here.

Thu Mar 31 2011 6:14AM Report
willvas writes: LOL this blog is full of doo doo. first off you have it backwards. before 1994 most MMOs consisted of casuals and RPers. you ask a question most would help you. if you said a bad word in open chat, MOST online would tell you to stop swearing. if you didnt you were reported and action was taken swiftly. kill stealing was taken seriuosly etc. There was pretty much a standard "etiquette" when it came to MMOs. now the 'CROWD' you are referring to is not because of Casuals vs HardCores. Its what i call is the WOW syndrome. The cash cow(Mcdonalds) of the virtual world. WOW brought in the perpetual RTS lovers of their warcraft series and the over advertisement of the game brought in the rest. This brought about the rudest, childish, IMPATIENT, crowd to MMOs to this date. Now most companies look at WOWs model and say we want a piece. So in turn the "mcdonalds" outlook must be copied. IE blizzards theme park perfection and business model of stringing its customers along with the carrot on the stick. casuals did NOT cause this to happen. You are looking at this all wrong. Lets actually point the finger of the company that changed the way MMOs are now today. Blizzard and its beloved WOW game. I have been a casual gamer of MMOs since 2000. I have a real life. I was part of the AC, EQ, UO crowd. never can you blame the casuals for its current state of weak developed games. Point the fingers in the right direction. Fri Apr 01 2011 4:00AM Report
NBForrest1 writes:

@willvas

Your assessment of the current state of MMO`s seems to be spot on.

The rude, childish,impatient crowd that you speak of has always been a part of the gaming community,but 10+ years ago those type of gamers were found almost exclusively in FPS games.Over the past 10 years there seems to have been a mass migrating of rude,childish players away from FPS games and to MMO games.

It is the influx of these FPS players that have caused MMO developers to drastically change what MMO`s are.FPS players typically have short attention spans and require constant fast paced action from the moment they log on until the moment they log off. Unfortuneatly  childish, rude players are the very definition of FPS games.MMO developers seem to be reluctant to ban these FPS/casual players from their games, prefering instead to keep the cash cow alive for as long as possible by any means possible,even if it means sacrificing the integrity of the game. 

The atmosphere (and type of players) I am seeing in MMO`s today is a mirror image of the atmosphere (and type of players) that I saw in FPS games 10+ years ago.These FPS mentality players do absolutely nothing to enhance the enjoyability of MMO`s.Developers who cater to these FPS mentality players are padding their bank accounts with cash at the expense of the spirit and intent of a true MMO. 

Sun Apr 03 2011 3:52AM Report
Maldobar writes:

I completly agree with you, thats why i stopped subscribing.

 

I think the issue is the issue of the world.

Quaterly results, the fast money gain. If a game would consider revenue and profit in 5 years i think most MMOs would be stopped.

But its all about share holder value and the next or overnext quaterly result.

This leads to ..attract as many as possible within short term. 

I think the future of an MMO that could really own is a NPO MMO with open source and a worldwide community. You either add some code do some things for the mmo or you share some small money to pay for the plattform whatever..but this non profit MMO should not target for maximize profit..it should take what it needs to run it. It should be open source and have a worldwide development community similar to google apps.

There should be test servers anyone could add their content..their should be votings among all subscribers and developpers if this item, that content, this quest should be taken from test server to real world.

I think this would be a huge project but i think if it is started right it could really turn the MMO world.

Yes such a game needs admins and infrasctructure..thats why a small amount should be taken but it should never target for profit, for quaterly results..it should target for server its developpment community..

 

Similar to the MUDs in old times..and yes these were very successfull - not in terms of profit - in terms of content and fun.

Mon Apr 04 2011 2:10PM Report
Komar writes:

While the essence of the blog is true, the cause isnt.  Casual/hardcore and soloability had nothing to do with it. 

The drving force is an underlying believe that online I am free to do what I want.  Hence they dont want a world, where there is consequence they want a game.  This is a crossboundry function of many new players and has nothing to do with if they are casual/hardcore or like to solo. 

The older generation got involved in this because they wanted a world for their characters to live in, they expected consequences for their actions, casual or not, playing solo or not. 

The new group arent interested in a world, they just want to play and do whatever they want when they want and that is what the devs give them.

Mon Apr 04 2011 8:33PM Report

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