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So You Want a 600lb Gorilla?

Editorials By Jeremy Star on October 18, 2006

So You Want a 600lb Gorilla?
So You Want Your Own 600lb Gorilla?

Editorial by Jeremy Starley

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of, its staff or management.

The flood of recent articles written about or by MMORPG developers on the subject of how to capture more players - and, by default, more money - has led me to believe that most developers still do not quite grasp the concepts that have driven the sales of one of the most popular MMORPGs of all time: World of Warcraft (WoW). Article after article, I read ideas that have little to nothing to do with the very simple reasons WoW is the 600lb gorilla in the mist that is the MMORPG market.

Fear not, oh lost developers. I'm going to point out three simple things you can do to have your very own gorilla.

Now, before we begin, let's make a few things crystal clear. First, I'm not a World of Warcraft fanboy. As highly as I think of the game, I know that it has many problems. Second, following these three steps doesn't guarantee you success (obviously). They will, however, give you some insight that seems to elude you, and maybe point some of the less stubborn of you in the right direction. Third, I know you don't all want to make the same game, market to the same group of players, or even get rich. Having said that, these three points will not make your game the same as World of Warcraft. They are meant to point out the things that Blizzard did amazingly right, and they are things that most games could conceivably incorporate.

Thing One
World of Warcraft is the epitome of the cliché "Easy to learn, hard to master". The easier a game is to get in to, the more people will get in to it. Once you have them hooked with the easy game play, it's much easier to get them to stick around to try to master the game. That's it. It's that simple.

Has anyone ever wondered why a game with as much critical acclaim as EVE Online failed miserably to gain a monster-sized player base? Here's your answer. Simple in Eve is the equivalent of solving algebra problems in college. It is just too complex at the very beginning for most people to jump in to. They scared off potential customers by shoving too much information at them in the beginning, rather than easing them in to it. My first thoughts when I tried the game: "Good God, this will take me forever to figure out." And I was right. As I played, I kept wondering how long it was going to take me to get to the fun part. How long was it going to take before I was even allowed to leave the space station? The answer? Too long. Eve didn't last long on my hard drive.

Conversely, the first time I played Wow, I was thinking how easy it was to get in to, how it was great that five minutes after starting I was on my way to some cave on a quest to defeat some spiders and gain some cool equipment.

But, it's not really about getting me as a player, is it? I'm already in the group that is going to be playing these games. What it is about is getting new people to join that group that buys games. My fiancée took one look at Eve and laughed at my suggestion that she try it. She looked at WoW, however, and her reaction was much better. "Hey, that doesn't look too hard." Guess which game was the first MMORPG she played? She still plays, over a year later.

Thing Two
Content. If there's not much to do in your game, how do you expect to keep people there? Raph Koster, a developer who has worked on games such as Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) and Ultima Online, made some disparaging remarks about content in a recent presentation at the Austin Games Conference. "Content is not worth a damn. What is of value is the relationship between the consumer and the producer," Raph said. My knee jerk reaction was to post a sarcastic reply in our forums: "Ah, so that's why there was no content in SWG."

Raph tried to clarify for us by posting the following:

The phrase "content is not worth a damn" in the context of the presentation meant, "Content is now worth very little on the consumer market." In other words, people are less and less willing to pay for content. For example, a given song is now worth very little. It doesn't mean content isn't important -- from an experience point of view, it is still king.

Edit: the slides for the talk are up on my blog: They may help clarify the point I am making.

I have been to Raph's site. I have looked at his presentation. I think it's safe to assume we will agree to disagree.

Comparing music to MMORPG content can be likened to another cliché: Comparing apples to oranges. People were always unwilling to pay for music content that they didn't want, it's just that in the past, it wasn't possible to get it any other way. Record companies had musicians recording one or two good songs, and then several filler songs to make up a full length album release. The consumer was pretty much forced to buy the whole album to get the songs they wanted. Now, with the advent of MP3s and I-Pods, consumers can finally pay for just the songs that they want. And that's exactly what they are doing.

In MMORPGs, most people want to have things to do. WoW has so much content, that it is impossible to see and do it all with one character. This means that even if you dislike the end game (which I do, very much), there is still plenty to do in the game by going back to the beginning with a new character and taking advantage of the content you have yet to see. By having a completely open "sandbox" game, where players are forced to make up almost all of their own content, you severely limit the re-playability, and consequently the longevity, of the game. Not to mention the fact that when players have limited content on the first run through of the game, it does not take them long to get bored and move on. On the other hand

, I have never stuck with a game just because I liked the community and the relationship with the developers. As a matter of fact, I despise a good portion of the WoW community. However, WoW keeps growing despite the fact that it has an immensely immature and unhelpful - often to the point of being downright hostile - community. I loved our server community in Star Wars Galaxies, but it didn't make me stick with the game when I was tired of having nothing to do (dancing with fat Wookies aside).

Thing Blue (er... Three. Damn you Seuss!)
Graphics. I know, I know, the battle cry of the community is usually game play over graphics. Well, we've established game play. That falls under "Easy to learn, hard to master". As long as your game play is easy to learn, and it isn't total steaming crap, you are covered there. Plus, these aren't the graphics you are thinking of.

No, when I say WoW did graphics right, I don't mean they have the best, most super-awesome visuals on the planet. They certainly don't. What they do have are appealing, interesting graphics that everyone can see. That's right, if you have a PC or a laptop, chances are pretty good that you can play WoW on it. You don't need a super computer to be able to load this game and enjoy playing it.

When Everquest II (EQII) first appeared on the market, nobody could play it well and still have enjoyable graphics. It was ugly as sin and playable, or turn up the charm and run like a slide show. You had to upgrade or buy a new PC just to be able to enjoy it. Even now, years later, it still runs like a beast on most PCs.

There is a phrase I want the developing community to unlearn. Future-proofing. You cannot future proof your graphics, it just isn't viable. You either make the game look so good it runs like a turd on wheels for years, or you include features nobody but a select few can use until the PC market advances to the point where all of the machines for sale include the needed hardware specifications. By the time everybody can run the game well, nobody cares anymore because the next big thing has come out, and your game doesn't hold up as well graphically as you thought it would. Either way, you have alienated people who can't or won't get new hardware just to play your game.

WoW succeeds with their graphics because Joe Anybody can walk in to a store, purchase the software, load it on to their PC, and actually play it. I have WoW loaded on to my laptop, which was purchased mostly for writing and surfing the Internet away from home. It runs great. Were I to try and run EQII on this laptop, I'm fairly certain it would set my pants on fire in protest.

If you want to gain a massive audience, you have to have software that will run on their machines. If a non-hardcore gamer can go out and choose between a game that she can play on her existing laptop, or one that she will have to buy a new PC just to play, which game do you think she is going to pick up? How many people is she likely to convince to also try this game if they also have to upgrade their PCs?

WoW was able to gain a massive market share by allowing anyone who heard that the game was good to run it on their existing PC. Grandpa certainly isn't going to try a game with his grandson if he has to go out and spend two-grand on a new PC, but he might be willing to try it if he can play on his three year old Dell.

Please note that I am aware of the so called "scalable graphics" that many games use. I am also sure we are all aware of exactly how bad they look on older PCs. EQII and SWG lose all visual appeal when you turn the graphics sliders all the way down, as do most games. WoW does not suffer from this affliction.

To summarize, you too can follow these simple guidelines to maximize your chances of gaining a good chunk of the MMORPG market. Make your game easy to learn to draw people in. Make it hard to master, to keep them interested after they have been drawn in. Give them content to help keep them interested and to hold their attention in game. And finally, make your game graphically appealing, but make sure that it will run well even on machines not specifically built for gamers. Build the engine for the here and now, not for some future in which you hope and pray that your game will still exist.

If you want to make money from other avenues, you have to make sure you game is up to snuff first. People buy Grateful Dead t-shirts because of the music, not despite it. I see people wearing WoW t-shirts, even in my small city. I have yet to see anybody wearing an Age of Mourning T-shirt. And remember, no matter how much you tell the community, no matter how friendly the producer and developers are with the forum dwellers, no matter how strong you think the community is, it will disappear if you release a stinker.