Steve “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:
- A newbie MMO with easy PVE leveling from 1 to 70
- A group MMO where you can PVE at the level cap and do heroic dungeons
- A group MMO where you can PVP for honor and points by doing Arenas
- 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.
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.
EvE would be a contender as an MMO you could “graduate” to.. if there was anything like it. Nothing prepares you for it, and it’s definitely not for everyone.
That said.. I’m not sure whether graduation in MMOs goes from less complex to more complex. Ultima Online is heralded as one of the first modern MMORPGs (MUDs being the “classic” MMORPGs), and had many quite ambitious features, like a working ecology, persistent world where you could trade, build and PvP freely. MUDs were even more complex, and have more game mechanics that you can shake a stick at. Everquest was less complex than UO, and WoW was less complex than Everquest. Instead of expanding the feature set, developers are working on reducing it. They’re not inventing new formulas, they’re refining the existing one into perfection.
And I’m not sure whether that in itself is bad. Blizzard is good at what it does. Just like Michael Bay is. If you want an action flick, he’s the guy to turn to. If you want an hour or two of epic music, big explosions and other eye candy, he’s the guy to make it happen. But it’s not for everyone. In a healthy MMO ecosystem, there should be room for more than ten-ton lizards. If everyone imitates WoW and then something (like burnout) happens that turns people away from WoW-style theme park games, the MMO industry is going to be devastated. Bartle’s reviled remark of shutting down WoW was an attempt to remind people of the dangers of monoculture. WoW won’t be around forever, and the sooner the industry understands it, the better.
If the MMO industry thinks they can keep making EQ/WoW clones indefinitely then there is a good chance the gaming public will reach the saturation point and stop playing MMO’s altogether.
To make an analogy, I started watching Law & Order on TV a few years ago. At first it was a great show that had all the elements that you would want in a serious drama. Eventually I got sick of it as I realized I was being “played” due to the fact that every episode followed a strict formula. After a while the only thing that changed in the show was the content: a new bad guy each week and usually a story “ripped from the headlines”.
MMO’s are like that now. We’ve all digested and comprehended the mechanics of combat and quest givers. The only thing that keeps us playing is the new content in the form of items, creatures and dungeons. Instead of go out and kill 20 boars, we must now kill 20 shoveltusks.
For me the solution is to start giving players more freedom to shape the virtual worlds that they inhabit. The WoW/Zelda system of riding the rails on a predetermined “golden path” is getting old and stale. According to Raph Koster, the reason that games like chess have survived over the years is because they keep offering players new scenarios because the game content is directly related to the personality and intellect of your opponent. He is absolutely correct. In MMO terms this means much more then just PVP content, it’s all about letting players shape their world.
However companies like Blizzard keep reducing the ways that players can affect the world. I’ve been railing about this for years as I’ve talked about the fact that mobs can’t be trained, guards can’t be attacked, etc. Morninglark made a great blog article about this very issue:
The problem is that most MMO designers don’t understand this. They do as their told and conform to the system that they are given. Expect many more WoW clones to be released in the next few years until the public finally reaches the saturation point.
Indeed! Of course, Second Life let’s players “shape their world” and while that’s had more than it’s fair share of positive press releases, I think that the formula for HOW you “shape your world” is in desperate need of revisiting and tweaking. I think THEMES are appropriate with some level of control involved as to what you’re doing, but only enough to maintain the theme. Give the player a purpose and a context, not entire god-role free reign, but plenty of color to spark their creativity! THAT, my friend, is the the “adult” MMO formula. 🙂
I agree Nick. It’s getting the balance right. Still, MMO’s need to give players more tools with which to have more of an impact on their worlds. With regard to extending freedom to players, they need to be made more accountable for their actions. This would balance things out and make for more complex and deep gameplay.
Second Life is complete freedom without context; there is no underlying premise there. The virtual worlds that I’m interested in would be “seeded” with a backstory and enough conflict to let the players take over and shape it.
When a player has the power to shape his world, he creates his own story. That is very powerful. Contrast that with the current system in WoW where the player is essentially an actor playing a part that is already pre-scripted by the MMO company. To me WoW feels like I’m riding an amusement park ride like Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyworld. Fun the first few times but doing it each day? Unacceptable.
This is not an issue of technological limitations rather it’s an issue of the limitations of the imagination and vision of the people at the top who run the MMO companies out there. Someday, someone with enough talent and money will wake up and decide that it can be done. Until then…
Well.. that’s why I play EvE in addition to WoW. Hundreds, if not thousands of years of history between four warring empires.. that are dwarfed by the megacorporations that players have created. For about 3/4 of the galaxy, players are the law.
I make no secret of my utter disdain of the ESRB notion of “mature” content. “Adult” entertainment is likewise idiotic, and about as immature as humans can aspire to; it’s the lowest common denominator in entertainment. The anonymity of the web exacerbates that problem.
You will never have truly “mature” (the dictionary definition) gameplay without the players stepping up to the responsibility inherent in such. That’s what being an adult is about; taking responsibility and doing the right thing, even if (or especially if) it’s not the first impulse.
That mini-rant aside, I completely agree that players are clamoring for the chance to affect the world, to mark the terrain, as it were. I don’t disagree with the premise, it’s just that you can’t have that realistically work without a vast majority of players who treat that power responsibly. “With great power…” and all that. Giving players power to really change the world is a heady aphrodesiac, but a dangerous one, especially if the Killers find it a fun place to play. As such, there will always have to be laws and constraints. The jerks that the internet invites will always constrain the game design.
It may be possible to have “heavily affected” instanced servers concepted as Alternate Universe sorts of experiences, but then you’d need to have several, and have free transfers, if someone wants to get away from a hostile environment. Such a multiverse may be cool; server A shows the Klingons conquering the universe, while over on server C, the Breen have absorbed the Federation into a Fascist state and use Cardassian bureaucrats to evangelize the Delta Quadrant. If a player gets tired of the politics of server C, they can migrate to server A for some mindless military conquest. Could all of those play nice in the same universe? Maybe, but having instanced “universes” can allow wilder shifts in power, and allow more people to actually make a difference. It’s a different mindset from a “mainstream MMO” with any and all in the same world, but again, there has to be a way to choke off the abuses. AU mechanics might provide that tighter level of control (jerks can’t sully the whole universe, just their Mirror, Mirror Universe)… at the obvious cost of higher maintenance overhead and GM oversight.
On the dev side, I do think that corporate interests and shareholders have game devs in uncomfortable places, and are stifling innovation. Giving players power is risky, and requires not only in-game laws and carefully considered design, but constant vigilance to keep abuses from getting out of hand. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” or something like that. Tightwad suits aren’t interested in giving the player power, they want to provide the illusion of choice and power, while limiting it as much as possible, to reduce risk. Risk is anathema to board members, especially as a company gets bigger. As I noted above, it also gets more expensive to maintain so that things don’t get out of hand, and that cuts into profits more.
Also, as time goes on, I do think that the subscription model will be a liability. Yes, it fosters addiction and a connection to the “investment” in the game, but that connection breeds a sense of entitlement that makes change harder to enact. (Must… resist… obvious… economic… parallels…)
One discussion I had over on the YPP forums posited a game world that was “instanced over time”. Periodic gameworld wipes brought everyone back to ground zero, and players would start playing as the “next generation” of the world’s inhabitants (with concurrent bonuses for subscribing through a wipe, say an heirloom weapon or a land grant, whatever). The world would be changed by the previous generation (geographically, politically, whatever), but the wipe would bring things back to a gameplay parity. The generational world lore would be effectively written by the players, but things would never be allowed to get too out of hand, since even despots can’t resist the mighty wipe. Players who got sick of Oober the Underhanded’s rule of terror could take steps to cut him off before he rose to power in the next generation.
It’s almost like playing Starcraft repeatedly on the same map, but shuffling around the starting positions and races (and even map elements), but keeping the players behind the keyboard. Each round requires new tactics from the players, and there’s not much time for someone to get too burned out by always being in a losing position. (Though the analogy is simple, it does illustrate the concept of periodic change.)
Coming back around a bit, to be pithy about it, the next step after “graduating” from an MMO is to go to that crazy ultimate MMRPG, Real Life. Truth be told, we don’t really want our games to be like real life. They would cease to be games. I know, that’s taking the concept to the extreme position, but even as WoW demonstrates, an interesting world, stylized and fun to tinker in, will generate interest. Avoiding reality is at the heart of gaming in the first place.
Likewise, we don’t really want anarchy in our games, we want carefully controlled environments where we can learn and play without dealing with the inherent stupidity of real life and the idiots that make it so bad sometimes. (Another Raph Koster premise, if memory serves: “Fun is learning in a safe environment”.) We want controlled environments, since they are more easily “learned” and mastered. We like the sense of mastery, especially as the real world comes unhinged.
…apologies for the wall of text. I’ve thought about this a lot, and the Explorer in me just isn’t satisfied with current games. I also tend to write too much… but there are a lot of tangents to explore with this one, talking about a “next generation” MMO that takes the actual core design and tries to make the heart of the experience better, not just add blood, higher res textures and a new combat system. *casts a baleful eye at AoC*
Addendum: Going with my Starcraft example, if the predominant sense of progress in an MMO is going to be the level grind (or raiding purple pixel grind, for that matter, we’re stuck with the mentality of “improve my DPS” instead of living in an interesting and vital world, perhaps affecting it. Gameplay needs to be more heavily skill based, and less “time=progress” natured. The whole gameplay of level-based gaming, while providing a sense of accomplishment, dodges any concept of making real choices with real consequences. You just run the kill-loot-ding treadmill. That “subscription money + time = progress” mentality is as much an impediment to the next generation of MMO as anything else. (Which is part of why I think that the sub model is a liability; it induces the sense of entitlement. If you give players the power to alter the gameworld, other players will inevitably dislike the changes, and will think of their money as being poorly spent, as the game world that they fell in love with changes under them.)
Certainly when you look at other online projects, such as second life, we see that online content can be developed by the users as well. How about the openness of Oblivion translated to a MMO? On the flip side, this is supposed to be a game. I work full time, am a double major in college, and I have a life outside of my WoW character. I actually stopped playing Oblivion because of the openness. That was my preference, but when crafting a MMO that needs to be considered. Personal preferences do change as we age. A few years ago I was content to endlessly grind out content. I was also happy guzzling beer and shooting pool everyday. Somewhere along the way I decided to change some of these habits. I have played several MMOs and quit and come back to some of them. They fit a need that I have at the time that I am playing them. I agree that if we could meld together the adaptability of a platform like second life with the game play of, say, WoW that would change this discussion since the world itself would be adaptable. To date though that has not happened. Maybe that is for the good as well. Remember the days of buying a video game, playing it until the “end” and moving on. Do you really WANT to play WoW, LoTR, EQ2, Vanguard, etc… forever?
Although I’m not really into sci-fi I’ve heard many good things about Eve. I really need to get out of my fantasy RPG comfort zone and give it a try. Thanks for the tip!
I don’t think that complexity is necessarily a good thing — that goes for most kinds of art. I’m a big fan of minimalism “less is more” school of thought. However, I would argue for more sophisticated MMO’s. The more I think about WoW, the more I’m convinced that it’s aimed directly at tweens and teenagers.
Good points Shalkis. After Blizzard gets done with WoW the MMO genre will not even be recognizable from the MMO’s of 10 years ago with UO/EQ/AC. I too am worried that the video game industry is putting all it’s eggs in the same basket by adopting the WoW model. It has the potential of causing mass burnout. I’m not sure how much longer people are going to tolerate the FedEx quest driven MMO gameplay.
Thanks for the mention of Richard Bartle’s comments regarding closing down WoW. There was a major MMO gaming blog site that really took umbrage at his comments a while back. Of course they failed to grasp what he was saying. We are lucky that we have a true visionary like Bartle that is like a voice in the wilderness that puts the MMO industry to shame every now and then.
Really great points Tesh. Keep that wall of text coming! Your insights are truly remarkable. I’m not sure I could add anything to what you said.
Your comments about the anonymity of the Internet and the aversion of MMO companies (investors) to the idea of risk are spot on. There are a great many ways to make MMO’s and virtual worlds more interesting and rich yet it may never happen due to the timidity of the current mindset in the industry. With the current costs of MMO’s being $50+ million dollars we may never see the MMO of our dreams come into existence. Instead we get the sanitized, safe and McHappy Meal gaming (and the game part is becoming trivial at best these days) experience of WoW. No freedom and zero accountability.
I also like your comments regarding the lack of skill that is required to succeed in a MMO like WoW. Only at the very highest levels of play is there any semblance of skill and that skill is purely one of figuring out how to max out your DPS. It’s just too bad that the skill of DPS has overshadowed all other skills that one might need in a virtual world.
Right now I think one of the most dangerous things a company like Blizzard is doing is giving players a sense of entitlement. Future MMO’s will be adversely affected by what Blizzard does as it will set up a perfect storm of expectations by future players — sadly most of them bad ones. Each day I read the official WoW forums and I read an increasing number of posts from players who feel that they should not have to even level at all and how respeccing should be free. Blizzard has caved in at almost every opportunity over the past 4 years and it’s only going to get worse in Wrath of the Lich King.
In an age of convenience-driven MMO’s, players want virtual worlds to adjust to them instead of them adjusting to virtual worlds. The importance of consistency and rules seems to be almost lost on the developers who should know better.
That’s a great question that we all need to eventually ask ourselves in the absence of any real alternatives that provide serious innovations and potential. Personally that’s where I am with WoW right now. I feel with WoW that I’m just a bystander in Chris Metzen’s grand storyline. I honestly feel no connection to the story at all. I’d much rather be part of a virtual world where I have a chance to shape it in some small way instead of indulging in the shallow achievements of geting bigger shoulders or more gold in my bank account.
Kristian I’ve been playing MMO’s for almost 10 years now and I’m thoroughly fed up and burned out by them. Eventually most people will reach that point — even those stalwart 10 million WoW subscribers out there.
MMO’s rarely challenge me nor do they inspire me anymore. I find blogs about MMO’s and game design far more stimulating and rewarding then actually playing the games themselves. That could be because I fancy myself as a creator more then a player. Good designers should never be happy playing games as that breeds complacency. Instead they should always be striving to make things better by viewing everything with a critical eye.
Since I truly hate complaining (i.e. talk is cheap) about the state of MMO’s all the time via this blog I would be willing to put my money where my mouth is to be part of the solution. Personally speaking, my only recourse has been to work in the video game industry long enough to get the credibility to get hired and work for a serious MMO — but there very few options for that in Seattle right now.
First all all, thank you to Wolfshead for the very smart post. I just saw it and haven’t had a chance to read all of the responses but you more or less said everything (and then some) that I felt about the Moorguard article. Moorguard’s post has a lot of truth to it, but I think it can be easily lost with the poor Sesame Street analogy.
I think a better analogy for MMOs would be the human relationship, whether friendly or romantic. I suspect that many of the people who struggle with finding a balance in MMOs may have the same trouble finding a balance in relationships. It’s hard to grow and accept that others may not grow in the same direction that we do. It’s hard to accept that an MMO will not always accommodate us and make us the center of the universe. We take the good with the bad, or we find another more suitable partner, or we go miserable trying to succeed in an impossible situation.
“Good designers should never be happy playing games as that breeds complacency. Instead they should always be striving to make things better by viewing everything with a critical eye.”
Indeed. Very well said. My college BFA is in computer animation, emphasizing film (Pixar is our inspiration and mentor). I have a hard time enjoying movies, since I’m always either trying to figure out how they did things or criticizing dumb choices. It’s just a reflex, born of training and a deep interest in making things better.
I’m currently working in games because I refuse to live in California (for various reasons), and I have a similar reflex for this industry. My training is merely lifelong experience as a player (I remember Pong as a child, and Atari Bowling set the hook), and a bit of common sense and observation, perhaps tempered by my film training.
My biggest complaint about games and film is that they just don’t reach for their potential, especially games. Too many developers are content to play to the GTA ADHD crowd, because that’s where the money is. I can’t pragmatically condemn them too much, as it’s notoriously hard to make money either as an artist or as someone of morals and ethics… but it is supremely disappointing. High standards in technical, artistic, moral and ethical design should be the goal, not reaching the top of the sales charts and making millions.
Even so, I do have an optimist’s eye for some things. I think that there are designers out there that do want to make amazing game worlds, and I think that given the tools, we could easily make huge strides in game design and theory. The current socioeconomic landscape is sadly more amenable to those willing to dwell in the gutters, rather than those who seek to scale the cliffs. Making truly uplifting and incredible work is fighting inertia in most cases, but especially so in entertainment. It’s possible, and I think that there are those who want to do so… it’s just difficult.
Erm… to tie this back into the topic at hand, I do think it’s healthy to “grow” out of MMOs, whether it’s specific titles or as a genre. It’s part of the maturation (again, using the proper definition) of the gaming industry and the population. It’s sort of like how people grow out of Final Fantasy and branch out into Valkyrie Profile, or grow out of science fiction into science fact. It’s part of the learning curve, and as Kristian suggests, it’s likely a good thing not to get stuck playing the same game forever. It’s also healthy for the industry, as competition can drive innovation, and deeper social integration of games (driven by gamers aging and pushing the industry to new heights) can help fight the stigma of games being puerile, shallow pursuits. Of course, designers need to make sure that their work isn’t puerile, but if they believe that there’s a market for more noble design, they will rise to the occasion.
Looking forward, I firmly believe that the “cash cow” subscription mentality of MMOs is a detriment to such progress, as it benefits most from static worlds and addicted sheeple. I expect to see innovation in the genre from the Guild Wars sector of the industry, rather than the WoW/EQ pedigree.