The ongoing premise of this column is that strong communities are the lifeblood of MMORPGs. The more things that game developers can do to reinforce, strengthen and grow their communities the better their game will do over the long term. I also believe that communities are all about building personal relationships. Each relationship that is formed is like a strand of a spiderweb. So for this article I want to explore one possible future of MMOs (i.e. a more casual game) and whether that is a positive or a negative for communities and thus for the industry overall.
First, lets look at the question of whether or not the industry seems to be moving more casual? There is certainly a fair amount of evidence indicating a more casual gaming experience is both what players want and what the industry is seeking to figure out how to provide. The largest example of a shift in an existing game towards a more casual play experience is in WoW. There is a general consensus among players that it has become easier and more casual in the past few years. We've explored some of those ways in past columns so I won't rehash them here. When the "Big Dog" is shifting more casual that certainly makes other people turn their heads.
In the MMO Report on G4TV from July 8th, Casey talks about the recent revelation that project Titan (the code name for Blizzard's next MMO) is going to be a casual MMO. Casey isn't entirely accurate in that report but Titan will not be another WoW-like game and is more casual although not quite in the way people hearing that report think it will be. Blizzard is known for high quality products and that in turn means they cost a good deal to make. So a company sinking $100M or more into a different and perhaps more casual title means they must feel there is a strong market for that type of content even among its existing customer base. One could even speculate that the trend in WoW is as much about making the game accessible as it is about testing the market for a more casual focus on MMOs.
Other news from the week of July 8th was that KingsIsle's game Wizard 101 had reached 20M participants. While that is still "small" by F2P standards in China, it is massive when it comes to the Western Market. W101 is a casual game that, although originally targeted towards kids, has attracted a large number of adult players bringing in a large number of new consumers to the MMO space.
And finally, there was a recent interview with Richard Garriott (arguably the progenitor of the modern MMO) over at Gamasutra back on June 15th where he argues that we are entering the 3rd "Grand Era" of gaming. Specifically he said: ""To me, there have been three grand eras of games thus far, and we're just into the third one now." He believes that the 3rd era is the rise of social, casual and mobile gaming that makes titles easily accessible by removing the barriers of both driving to the store and strong up front costs. Richard believes the 2nd Age is the MMORPG era as we know it today. He espouses that the 3rd Era is one that attracts a much wider audience from all walks of life and all ages.
While no one is saying the current style of MMORPG is dead or that it doesn't have millions of players who want to pay for that kind of game, there does seem to be a growing trend towards accessibility of games to a wider audience and an understanding that the MMORPG audience is aging and thus their play styles are changing. While there are still a large number of "kids" who can play for long hours at a time, there is a very large and rapidly growing segment of "working age" gamers who play in shorter spurts but who want the same sense of achievement. That same population (that many of us fall into) is one of the hidden driving forces towards a more casual experience.
In summary, it does look as though a growing segment of the industry is shifting towards a more casual focus and that such a focus is at least partially due to changing needs and expectations of a large and growing segment of the current market coupled with a desire to grow the overall consumer base by appealing to people who previously didn't consider gaming as a hobby.
So the real question, for me, is how does this move affect communities? Without community, there is no long term game success. The answer to that question probably depends on what you feel the "right" community is. If the model of community that appeals to you is a hard-core raiding guild then there is probably a future impact to you. Your choice of titles is likely to shrink. There will be less triple-A products geared towards you and that will probably cause a number of communities to fail. That said, the stronger communities will likely continue to exist and thus is it really a bad thing that the weaker communities get culled off? That is probably a topic for another day.
In the more hard-core MMO community space; change is coming... but really, change is already here. The amount of complaining about WoW's end-game content alone is a good indicator of that. The good news is that there are still more hard-core titles in the works. 38 Studios has Project Copernicus and its well known that Curt is a hard-core raider so one can reason his game will have a strong leaning towards that end-game focus. SOE is working on a title in that game-space (other than Planetside 2) and they too have a history of that type of end-game content. So certainly the future MMO market is not barren of that content but.... what other major/triple-A titles are coming that will play in that space? SWTOR! Errr.. they haven't billed themselves as that kind of game. Its been billed as a heavily story driven game with lots of reasons to try out all the classes.. that also has PvP and some raid content... What about Guild Wars 2?... yep.. going to be epic fun for those who get involved but it is not a traditional MMO (although that model is hugely popular and very fun for the market segment it appeals to). But if you think about the history of gaming, the past five or so years have usually had quite a few titles we could point to that were coming in the next 1-4 years to play in the more 'hard core' end-game space. Right now there are really two. There are other major titles being developed but they are slanted more towards the casual side or towards other markets (like MMORTS and MMOFPS and more action oriented titles) than has historically been the case.
So again, is that a bad thing? How does that affect communities? Does it kill communities? Is the industry sealing its own fate? I would argue the answer is no, things are not doom and gloom. Communities will be evolving. There will be less need for hard-core, completely focused on raiding type of guilds. There will be more need for groups inclusive of a wider range of play styles, play times and gaming goals. In my view, that actually strengthens communities. Inclusiveness, wider appeal and a more diverse membership base are all positive attributes of a successful organization. One doesn't hear "They failed because they were inclusive!" or "They suck because they have a diverse membership!". Those areas of focus are positive attributes that promote success of communities. It certainly means less options for those who prefer a more hardcore focus but as that segment of the gaming population will remain large for years to come, there will still be some titles for it. In addition, it looks like MMOs will get more inclusive with a wider audience appeal and thus become even more main stream.
What are your thoughts? Is the trend towards more casual future titles? If so, what is the impact on the community you belong to? Is it going to survive the change as it exists today? Will it cease to exist or evolve into something new? How about you personally... how would a trend towards more casual titles affect your gaming enjoyment and thus your participation? In the end, we all vote with our pocketbook. What we pay for drives change. It seems the current belief is that more people will pay for content that is more accessible and more casual. Will you be one of them?