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.
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 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.