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The Free Zone: The Rising Influence of Casual and Social

By Richard Aihoshi on July 12, 2010 | Columns | Comments

The Rising Influence of Casual and Social

Last week, one of the reasons I noted for the free to play's current good health was that as a whole, the category tends to be more accessible, partly due to "the greater presence of casual and quasi-MMOGs". Some dispute their inclusion, most often using some variant of the argument they're not "real" MMOGs. They are, of course, entitled to their opinion. I simply choose to adopt a broader point of view that also encompasses another important, growing sub-type I didn't explicitly name, social.

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It can sometimes be easier to treat casual, advanced casual, social et al as separate varieties of games, but doing so isn't entirely accurate. There are no hard and fast categorization rules, and even if there were, that wouldn't rule out hybridization. And what do we do then? Create more and more sub-types? Using a comparatively straightforward and familiar example, is Atlantica Online an MMORPG or a strategy MMOG? And if it's the latter, do we continue by differentiating between real-time and turn-based, or lump them together?

The more different any two games are, the easier it is to put them into separate groupings. However, as the degree of similarity rises, this approach gradually breaks down. So right now, it's not difficult to put many games into sub-types. But the lines are blurring, and I see no reason to think this won't continue. While I certainly don't expect sub-categorization to disappear - I do it myself - both casual and social influences are increasingly affecting the entire range of MMOGs.

The former is probably easier to see since it has been around longer, and has thus had more time to spread across the entire spectrum. As a result, even the hardcore end isn't what it once was. If we glance back 10 to 12 years ago, it wasn't very practical to play games like UO, EQ, AC or Lineage unless we were ready to put in an hour, and preferably more. But this time barrier has eroded considerably. Now, even in releases that are undeniably serious MMOGs, we can generally accomplish something small by logging in for 15 minutes or less. If that's not evidence of a casual influence at work, I'm hard-pressed to know what is.

As for social, my expectation is that can expect it to follow a similar path. Of course, MMOGs have always had social elements built into their designs. No surprise there since it's pretty much universally taken for granted that playing with others is a cornerstone of the category's appeal. Looking into the past again, this was once even taken to what would be widely considered an extreme now. As characters advanced through the middle and higher levels, it became more and more difficult to solo them. This strongly encouraged - some would say forced - people to group.

To varying degrees, not everyone liked this, myself included. Consequently, developers started to make their games more soloable. World of Warcraft gave this direction a lot of impetus. But perhaps inadvertently, this led to a style of play that is less social, one I sometimes refer to as massively single-player. In my case, I usually adventure alone because I prefer doing so to pick-up groups. I'd rather group with friends, but for a variety of reasons, this isn't practical most of the time, and my second choice tends to be going it on my own rather than with strangers.

But what about other forms of interaction where friends can cooperate and help each other? This, I believe, is an area where MMOGs have substantial potential to do more. Yes, we can communicate as well as send items and gold via in-game mail. But I've long felt we should be able to do more... a lot more. I don't have the imagination or design sense to come up with bunches of good ideas, but some developers do. And since it's obvious that fostering more and better contact with friends is highly appealing, I'm eager to see how we'll move forward in this regard. And I doubt I'll have long to wait.

This week's MMOG trivia

From memory, name at least six commercial MMOGs that have pirate themes. Any revenue model is fine. Different regional titles only count as one game, but sequels are separate.

Answer

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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