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Widespread Marketing

Nathan Knaack Posted:
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Widespread Marketing is Nathan's focus this week

I touched upon the subject briefly in my last column, but for this week, I’d like to really focus on how to bring the MMORPG market to the world at large, spreading beyond the hardcore gaming nerds (including myself), even beyond the casual console gamers that most MMO companies are currently trying to absorb. As they dumb down their gameplay options, oversimplify each activity, and blow 99% of their budget on flashy eye candy, these companies are trying to appeal to the least common denominator of people who could potentially be interested in online games, trying to draw them in with an overly basic experience full of shiny objects. For some reason, I always imagine that to be the kind of plan Wile E. Coyote would dream up, ordering the latest, obnoxiously system-intensive shaders and renderers from ACME, then setting them out in the desert to try and capture the elusive potential MMORPG gamer. Reducing your product to a meaningless waste of time with pretty visuals is like trying to get someone to fall in love with a clinically brain-dead supermodel. Not only are you going to get more long-term enjoyment out of an average-looking person with full mental faculties, but there are plenty of supermodels out there with functioning minds as well.

For those of us that experimented with cigarettes, alcohol, driving, R rated movies, and/or any of the other aspects of modern life that have an age limit tagged onto them, try hard to remember exactly why you were so overpoweringly attracted to those activities. Was it because there’s a cute little camel on packs of cigarettes, beer ads make it look like it tastes better than Cool-Aid, cars seemed like big Transformers, or all your favorite Saturday morning cartoons were in the R-rated movies? Of course not. What you subconsciously found appealing was that all of the adults in your life were doing these things. Who do you like better, Batman or Robin? Everybody likes Batman better, even though Robin is much closer to the age of the average comic book collector. But if you watch the interviews with the creators of the comic book, you’ll hear that they originally put Robin in to try and make Batman appeal to a younger audience. How ridiculous is that? Have you seen what Robin has turned into over the years in the comics? Now suddenly he’s a vengeful, bad-ass adult with a troubled past in a black outfit. Hmm, remind you of anyone? My point with all of this is that you don’t have fill something with childish traits to make it appeal to kids, and likewise you don’t have to chop your MMORPG into a linear piece of instant gratification crap to attract more customers. Do what Garriott, Meier, and Wright did and make games that set high standards for players so that achievement means something.

What’s that? Making games more involving, complex, and difficult will attract customers? Not exactly, but having all of that in the game somewhere is what’s going to keep customers subscribing. Any game should accommodate newbies with a baby step program to get them familiar with what’s going on, but after that, an online video game should absolutely explode with gameplay options. After all, we’re hoping to attract monthly subscribers, not just one-time customers, right? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (see picture) to figure out that a one-trick pony of a game isn’t going to hold someone’s attention for very long when there are plenty of other options out there on the market. Here are a few ways the MMORPG industry could really make their products reach widespread appeal:

First of all, they need to find a way to make current gamers feel welcome, while simultaneously abandoning the “lonely nerd” image most of their marketing ploys cling to. Put more non-combat activities in games and they’ll attract more females. Add more logistical (and leadership) activities and you’ll attract people in their 30’s and over. Try genres outside of the standard high fantasy setting; there are millions of people in this world that are borderline obsessed with some science fiction TV show or movie series that have never even played an RGP or MMORPG yet, but would love any well-done game that incorporates their favorite sci-fi world. It’s still a mystery how SOE managed to take world renowned science fiction franchise, develop it into the most addictive type of video game, and somehow end up with a product that’s barely clinging to life among overwhelmingly negative reviews. That’s like trying to sell pot at a Grateful Dead concert, but lacing it with artificial broccoli flavoring. The trick is to keep the existing combat activities while adding enough versatility to cater to those who fall outside of the 15-25 year old hack ‘n slash junkie.

I have some older friends (mid 40’s) that I’ve previously tried to explain MMORPGs to, but any negative comments they express are usually the same. “What is a level?” “Why can’t my class use swords?” “What the hell is a minotaur?” “What does dexterity mean?” “Why do I start glowing every time I shoot an arrow?” And these are vastly intelligent people with master’s and PhD college degrees in engineering, computer science, education, and public administration, they just haven’t had the over saturated exposure to the fantasy element most current gamers have. Some of these people blow hundreds of dollars a year on PlayStation games, NetFlix, or online poker, too, so they’re clearly alright with making regular payments for their recreation. Next consider this: World of Warcraft is considered the most successful MMORPG of all time, with total sales recently exceeding 5 million units over a year and a half. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas sold that many in its first two months of release, bringing the GTA franchise to over 32 million units worldwide. It kind of makes you wonder why current MMORPG companies are so fixated on the swords and sorcery model, doesn’t it? These companies are all sitting there wondering how they can attract a wider audience of gamers as they pump out fantasy level grind after fantasy level grind (that’s you I’m talking about, Turbine, with four very similar games so far: AC, AC2, LotRO, and DDO). Maybe it’s because there are tens of millions of people out there who are more interested in GTA type games than J.R.R. type games.

To that extent, MMORPGs that hope to attract anyone outside of the lonely fantasy nerd need to start constructing worlds to be massive shared environments full of options, not linear theme parks built to cater specifically to swords and sorcery combat. Once again, after a player completes the introductory phase, learning the basic controls and building blocks, they should have almost too many options instead of just a single direction to go (in both physical exploration and character development). Is someone who’s never played Dungeons and Dragons or EverQuest going to know that goblins are a good challenge for a new character, but that ogres are usually a bit more powerful? To the average person on the street, they’re both just critters from fairy tales, not carefully designed NPCs with different numerical statistics. Also, the average person isn’t going to understand why ordinary wooden doors are completely indestructible, why they have to hit a bandit with a few dozen arrows to kill him, or why the game say “you are not high enough level to enter this area” when they try to follow their friends into a dungeon. These online worlds need to be designed more like actual worlds if they’re going to attract people that happen to be more familiar with actual worlds than online worlds, if that makes any sense.

Though many smaller companies have at least made the effort to outgrow the tired old fantasy class/level grind mold, we still see at least 75% of the industry focusing on their current fantasy titles or intensely laboring to produce new ones. How long can that many companies battle over the same crowd of a few million subscribers? How about different MMORPG worlds? Aside from a scattered few low-budget (sometimes text-only) titles, where are the inner city gang warfare MMOs? How about one focusing on the cutthroat world of international business, including all of the seedier aspects of hostile takeovers, real estate, corporate intimidation, and everything down to the physical violence that sometimes accompanies it? Where is the classic cops vs. robbers online game, or one that pits secret agents against each other during the cold war era? How about something in the flavor of modern warfare, like World War 3? While most average people aren’t very well versed in fantasy or science fiction, they do know quite a bit about recent history and they can extrapolate from modern themes what the next few decades are going to be like. That being the case, how about a 1930’s gangster/exploration MMORPG with elements of the Godfather and Indiana Jones all mixed together? How about relatively low-technology space exploration on par with the movies 2010 or Aliens? These games would technically be science fiction, but they don’t necessitate any knowledge of the existing terminology or technology; they’re not banking on a potential subscriber already knowing what a Sith or a Klingon are. In Star Wars or Star Trek, it’s definitely an X-Wing or a Galaxy class starship, but in 2010 or Aliens, who cares what kind it is? It’s a space ship; now get on with the story. Average people can easily catch onto that and go with the flow, and any game that can attract average people with ideas that they can understand, yet can still offer versatility and challenge, will rise up to rule the MMORPG industry in the future.

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Nathan Knaack