Will You Grow Out of Your MMO?

Sesame StreetSteve “Moorgard” Danuser brought up a thought provoking point on his blog this week. He contends that MMO’s focus on a certain type of demographic. He used the analogy of Sesame Street — a very successful and long running children’s TV show to make a point that MMO’s are targeted at one type of audience. Just as TV viewers grow out of kids shows, so to do players grow out of their favorite MMO. After learning to play and deconstructing the mechanics of the game the challenge is gone and they get bored. Steve seems to be saying that instead of hanging around and voicing your displeasure at the company, perhaps players that need to realize it’s time to leave. Just as we as children outgrow TV show’s like Sesame Street, we too outgrow MMO’s like WoW.

So is WoW a beginner’s MMO? Could it be that it’s a MMO directed at teens? Is WoW a rite of passage that players will eventually grow out of?

Here’s a snippet of his article that best illustrates his contention:

Despite the complaints from certain veterans about how WoW isn’t doing enough to satisfy them, the subscriber base keeps growing. Players leave WoW just like they do any other game, but the subscriber base keeps soaring. Why? At least in part, it’s because the game stays true to what it is and maintains its core focus, even as it tries to find new ways to embellish and expand the ways it does so.

Significantly revising WoW in an effort to hold onto a single generation of veteran players would be like evolving Sesame Street to keep a single audience for decades. It might work to some extent, but doing so would change the core of what brought people to the experience in the first place. The farther you get from that core, the greater the chance that you’ll lose the people who originally bought into the vision.

That is a really good observation. If Blizzard were to radically change WoW to accommodate the veteran WoW players it could turn into a MMO like EverQuest where the developers are trying to keep the existing subscribers happy at the expense of trying to bring newer players into the fold. Well, it’s already happening with WoW. Blizzard is starting to dumb down WoW in order to keep their core subscribers happy. For example: the time it takes to level has been decreased, new classes now start at level 55, players can use mounts at level 30 instead of level 40 and raid content in the new expansion will be targeted at 10 man and 25 man raids.

One of the points I would contest in Steve’s article is this: Sesame Street is aimed at transitory demographic — children. People don’t stay children forever. Whereas a TV show like Lost with more sophisticated subject matter is aimed primarily at adults — last time I checked most adults stay adults forever. Of course there are various stages of adulthood and people naturally evolve their tastes for things as they grow older. I used to love watching the A-Team back in the 1980’s. Today the show seems rather sophomoric to me as I feel I have hopefully matured in my taste.

Explaining Why MMO Players Are So Passionate: Passive vs. Active Entertainment Models

I agree with Steve that players seem to get exasperated as they spend more time in an MMO. Rightly or wrongly they tend to focus on the shortcomings of their MMO and eventually turn their rage toward the devs as the source of their problems. As a former community manager for EQ2 I’m sure Steve can attest to that. I think part of the reason is that players feel they have invested a tremendous amount of time and effort into their characters. By becoming vocal and critical of the MMO’s developers they feel they are simply protecting their “investment”.

It’s also worth noting that many players feel a sense of passion for their MMO. They feel inextricably linked to their characters and the world in which they play in. I doubt that anyone feels like they made an investment (both time and money) into Sesame Street or the A-Team TV shows. I think the difference between TV shows and MMO’s is one is a passive form of entertainment and the other is an active form of entertainment. This explains why the bond of a player to their MMO is so sticky and strong.

Where Are Those MMO’s That We Can Graduate To?

Now let’s get back to MMO’s. If WoW is the Sesame Street of MMO’s, then where is the Law & Order of MMO’s? Where is the Masterpiece Theater of MMO’s? Where is the evolved mature MMO that I as an adult should be migrating to? Where are we supposed to go? Should we stop playing MMO’s? Can the MMO industry really afford to lose me as a customer because they refuse to evolve?

If anything we are seeing that MMO’s are getting easier and more accessible as time goes on. WoW is far easier to play then its predecessor EverQuest ever was. One can only imagine how accessible the next monster MMO will be compared to WoW. If WoW is Sesame Street then the next big MMO will be Barney the Dinosaur —  which was aimed at preschoolers I believe.

With the exception of a few titles like Lord of the Rings Online (which could be viewed as Middle-earth with a WoW skin) there are no real alternatives that we can graduate to that are of the same caliber of WoW. So all we can do is lobby our current MMO’s for some kind of change or evolution. Sure that may be futile but that’s precisely why MMO vets like myself keep chastising Blizzard — we feel trapped. It’s like we are stuck in a bad marriage and we can’t get out. It’s easy to say that we should quit and move on to some other type of entertainment but just where do we go? I think this is exactly the point Richard Bartle was making in his recent comments which were directed at the MMO industry’s complacency and lack of innovation.

I would have left WoW years ago if there was an equivalent MMO directed at an a mature sophisticated adult audience rather then the teen audience that WoW was seemingly made for. When we see evidence of bona fide MMO’s out there that aren’t trying to be EQ/WoW clones that offer something new and fresh — then Steve’s analogy will bear fruit. I honestly hope that day will come.

WoW’s Unsustainable Growth

Regarding the continued growth of WoW, I don’t believe that it can continue that pace indefinitely. Blizzard has inflated their 10 million subscribers numbers based on a different business model that they use in the orient in countries such as Korea and China. Also, many servers are dying with low populations. Blizzard is now offering free server transfers to those servers in an attempt to save them. Blizzard also refuses to publish real data on population their servers. It’s also worth mentioning that much of their growth is the expansion of WoW into foreign language markets such as Russia and Latin America. No MMO company has ever ventured into those kinds of markets before. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Eventually Blizzard will run out of countries where they can expand which will put a sad end to their self-congratulatory press releases.

MMO’s That Cater To Multiple Demographics

Nick McLaren over at My 2 Coppers commenting on Steve’s article makes a good point about MMO’s focusing on their target audience:

If you want to keep your MMO successful for many years, you have to continue to focus on the experience of that market, keeping it fresh, even if veteran gamers have left your game due to lost interest.

This is a very valid point but it does get a bit more complicated when you consider that some MMO’s like WoW cater to a few demographics all at once. WoW could be easily viewed as four MMO’s in one:

  1. A newbie MMO with easy PVE leveling from 1 to 70
  2. A group MMO where you can PVE at the level cap and do heroic dungeons
  3. A group MMO where you can PVP for honor and points by doing Arenas
  4. A raid MMO where you can do 10-25 person dungeon content

The flexibility of this system is great if it’s designed and implemented properly. Players can go in up or down by migrating from being a soloer to a grouper or being a hardcore raider back to being a soloer. This is essentially the famous donut theory of MMO game design which was described by Blizzard VP Rob Pardo at his Austin Gamers Conference keynote speech in 2006.

Conclusion

One of the most fascinating things I’ve read about game design is what Raph Koster said in his book a Theory of Fun for Game Design. I was something to the effect that the human brain actively seeks to learn and deconstruct game mechanics so that ultimately that game will be boring. Fun is the result of the brain learning. When the brain masters something the learning stops; the game then ceases to be fun. Paradoxically your brain is working to kill your fun! So it is too with MMO’s. We crave new things and new mechanics. We take our frustration out on the MMO companies but the truth is we have mastered this genre but we lack the courage to move on. Then if we find that courage, we soon realize there are no MMO’s worth migrating to.

Steve has certainly brought up some excellent things for us all to ponder but I think underneath it all there’s a caveat for the industry. Saying that MMO’s are transitory should not be an excuse for failing to sufficiently innovate and evolve MMO’s. You can’t keep making the same MMO over and over again without incurring a sense of fatigue among the player base. If MMO’s are more then just a fad then they need to stop feeding us the same crap. After all, we’re not kids anymore.

-Wolfshead

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