Take back the [mmos]

I heard mention of the Firefox Kill Bill's Browser campaign this morning, and found myself pontificating on the whole "Take back the web" campaign during my walk to work. The train of thought seemed oddly familiar, strangely reminiscent of the situation in the MMO gaming industry…

I know a fair few web designers, many of them have no problem with IE, but some of them call it the bane of their lives. The former group tend to use IE as their work browser, the others use some other browser but have to support IE since most of their users use it.

Some folks see Firefox as the apostle of standards, adhering strictly to only what is in the official description of the web. Other folks see Internet Explorer as a mixture of standards and the more important 'standard' – the way in which the ordinary end user has come to abuse the web.

If you look more carefully at Firefox, though, it's not absolutely 100% standards compliant. There are some areas where it allows a little flexibility for IE support. And then there are areas where it brutally resists. Any attempt at inquiry into those is met with angry responses of "IE is wrong".

It strikes me that Firefox is a great browser to back if you believe IE is a bad or broken browser. But if you are in the "mainstream" of users who could care less as long as it draws web pages then IE is a fine browser, and Firefox is just an extra nuisance for web designers. Obviously if everyone conformed to the standards, this would be a non-issue, and if Firefox can drive that to become true, well good luck on that.

Unfortunately that will never be true because standards evolve and different browsers will always support different combinations of standards – HTTP/1.1a here, HTTP/1.b and JavaScript 1.3 there. And you are always going to have corporations, small businesses and individuals who avoid major software upgrades and favor stability.

But I'm not trying to evoke a debate on Firefox or IE – my point is that they both have merrits that can be viable if you're willing to accept individuals have their own perspectives. How do I think this relates to MMOs?

Well, one segment of the industry has continually developed towards a particular goal, that of being mainstream. Their concept of improving games has been to find what makes people not play, and strip it away. And they've been successful. Lineage, WoW, some of the massive games taking over in the east…

The rest of the industry has focused on making games "better": either believing that making them more real or more sophisticated or more detailed would, or else just seeking to make what the authors believe is the perfect game.

Those of us who loved UO, EQ1, DAoC, WWII Online or etc on day 1… We aren't mainstream, no matter how we think we are. A couple of hundred thousand players? Single player games for the ZX Spectrum shipped more units than that in the mid 80s.

I have no problem with someone like Brad McQuaid wanting to make a "better" MMO according to niche values – as long as he realizes that's what he's doing. Vanguard: Saga of Heroes doesn't hold a mainstream-candle to WoW: It's complex, time consuming and requires investment. WoW, on the other hand, doesn't hold a niche-candle to V:SoH: It's simplistic, trivial, accessible and the biggest commitment it requires is a willingness to grind those high-end raids for the good lewtz.

I think Dan Rubenfield has failed to understand the gamer. When WoW players spin out, they'll be looking for more of the same. I hold up the sickeningly over-saturated WWII game genre as sample evidence. You can see where his mistake comes from in his followup:

We deliver a bullshit, abstracted, shallow experience to a hardcore and obsessively dedicated playerbase.

He's right (and I accept a place in that 'We', Dan), but that's not the mainstream audience that WoW or its clones are targeting.

It means maximizing your customer base. It does NOT mean sacrificing any semblance of depth, complexity or gameplay dynamic to appeal to all 6 billion members of the human race. Pick a demographic and stick to it. And for fucks sake, pick a demographic that likes games if you’re going to spend a massive amount of money.

He makes a lucid and valid point here. It means maximizing your customer base pick a demographic that likes games.

Targeting the mainstream means targeting gamers in general – a very large demographic. That means going through your vision for your game and rooting out the stuff that will alienate large segments of your potential customers. Much of the stuff that makes niche MMOs so cool – i.e. depth, complexity and gameplay dynamic – will alienate various subsets of your target demographic.

We could probably sell WWII Online to a lot more players, simply by keeping people in game longer, if you didn't have to actually obey the laws of physics to kill an enemy.

Given how popular the WWII genre has been lately, how have we managed to persistently keep less players than PlanetSide? Ok, lousy workmanship inherited from day 1 helps, but our attempts to immerse you in a theoretically hyper-cool "Band of Brothers" experience suck donkey balls as far as the mainstream is concerned. We lost subscribers when we gave our players a map – niche players felt that it was unrealistic, maps were rare, generally only in the possession of officers. Our troopers now get a full satellite quality map to work from. That's not very WWII ish, its gamey. But, uh, gamers seem to like it.

Dan makes another valid point against his own argument:

Player’s have a dream of play. They want to fly spaceships, they want to shoot dinosaurs, they want to save humanity.

They don't dream of the engines breaking down and having to wait for a tow-ship to take them back to starbase at Warp 1. They don't dream of being eaten by the dinosaur if they miss and then having to go back naked and recover their corpse.

Some players dream of being ships engineer, valiantly responding to desperate calls from the ships captain: "We need shields", "Phasers!", "Seal the bulkheads!". They don't spend an entire dream sitting in a starbase because they started their dream late and missed the launch of their ship.

Actually, they probably do dream those things, but it generally fails to stimulate their brains enough to be remembered.

I disagree with his notion that dream-based game development is the way to build better mainstream MMOs. But I agree with his conclusion:

Some might say things like “First Person Shooters/Action Games/Action alienate the casual gamer”.

To that I say “Bullshit”

You know what alienates the casual gamer far more? Massively Multiplayer games. And it’s our fault.

Our "better" isn't mainstream. Why do people talk about WoW as a failure? Because it doesn't meet our standards. Well, 6 million purchases says that their definition of "mainstream" is a whole lot more main than ours. If we can't understand that, who are we to be telling people how to build better mainstream games?

Why care? Because what we're seeing is a recurring pattern in the gaming industry. A genre evolves out of nichedom but the folks who start out birthing the genre wind up being prophets in the desert of "how to do it right". Meanwhile, big money takes its approach of rinse & repeat and says "Well, I'm making 3:1 on my investments. This works for me".

From single player games to MUDs, to multiplayer quakes, to MMOs… With each iteration a wave or even generation of expertise falls to the side because they fail to recognize that serving the mainstream means finding a lowest-common-denominator of goop. Then the real challenge would be to apply their creative genius to adding texture and flavor to that goop.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present you MMO goop – aka WoW. Here is a template for success with the mainstream. If your objective is truly the mainstream, you need to work out how to build your dream out of or at least on top of goop. And I truly hope that some of our great niche minds will take that challenge, so that when the money starts to dry up for games that would consider 100k subscribers 'acceptable', those minds are there to bring inspiration and creativity into the mainstream.

But the first challenge is to learn to look at WoW and see something that many seem not to be seeing right now: Elegance. It may not be your vision of beauty, but they made all of our years of experimentation come together in something that six million people will pay to play. Its failure to achieve your idea of success only means that you aren't in their target demographic.

Watching adverts on TV is good for the shows you watch, and some would argue that watching the ads is part of the experience. Hands up TiVo (or HDR/clone) owners? You do realize that you people have all helped to dumb down TV over the last few years, right?

10 Comments

But the first challenge is to learn to look at WoW and see something that many seem not to be seeing right now: Elegance.

Nail, head. IMHO a big part of the success of WoW is the elegance of the UI. I remember the first comments from a friend of mine, who jumped into WoW right at the start, just as the “big” open Betas were rolling out. At the time he said he loved the UI because everything you think you need, or want to change, it’s right there in the UI. The developers have had all those little “aha, wouldn’t it be good if” moments for you, and stuck them in the UI somewhere, or just done them the right way in the first place.[1]

The extensive post-release UI customisation efforts suggest that what he said isn’t 100% true – but compared to the competition (he’d come from playing Earth & Beyond and a few months giving WWIIOL a go) the WoW user experience is pretty damn good. And the incredible thing is that despite the glossy, easy to use finish, there’s a powerful customisable engine underneath to keep the true geeks happy.

I think anyone who plays WoW for more than 5 minutes forgets that the UI is really good simply because it is – you remember the frustrations, not the things that work (relatively) seamlessly.

PS: It’s completely unrelated, but guess what one thing this friend of mine would want to see comprehensively “fixed” before he’d return to WWIIOL? And not as a result of indoctrination by me or anything like that? :)

[1] obviously it’s really “developers + beta testers” and “first place” is really “beta patch #205”. But if you sign up in the 2 weeks of Open Beta prior to the full release, those things are invisible.

forgot MMOs…check out the link in his later post!

Another World remake

Evidence:

1. “We lost subscribers when we gave our players a map…”

2. “…niche players felt that it was unrealistic…”

3. “…gamers seem to like it.”

Ipso facto:

A majority of the customer base must be niche players.

Conclusion:

To increase subscribers, make design choices that niche players like.

Or, of course, you could discard the existing project definition, with its appeal to niche players, and start over with the goal of making a mass-appeal gamer’s game.

What you can’t do is make one game for both groups. Niche players have effective radar for detecting gamey-ness, and gamers are repulsed or confused by the stuff that niche players crave.

That (catering to the niche) would be fine, Jwilly, if the niche players all agreed. They don’t. They’ve each got their own personal favorite thing that they care about to the exclusion of almost everything else.

I think the best thing to do is please yourself when it comes to creating entertainment. If you can write a book that entertains you, there will be a lot of people who are also entertained by it. There aren’t that many types of people. The hard part is finding the people, after you’ve created something that satisfies you.

So what does that make Eve? A nitch game thats gotten bigger that it should be, or a mass market game thats not dumbed down enough?

“A majority of the customer base must be niche players.

Conclusion:

To increase subscribers, make design choices that niche players like.”

Ah… That’s a faulty assumption. Just because the majority of a customer base is niche players, does not mean that to increase the subscriber base you should make design choices to support those niche players. That is exactly how to keep your current subscriber level, and it should be obvious: If you have a super high percentage of niche players, to keep those players you make design decisions to support those players.

The problem is, as most niche-market-targeted projects quickly discover, is that the niche is small. If it is not small it is not a niche (be definition). If you want to grow your population beyond the niche, you need to either redefine the niche (there-by breaking it’s boundries and including additional players from outside the niche) or attempt to grow the niche. I would argue that additions such as the satelite map, ammo counters and even tags is an attempt to redefine the WWII Online niche and include more players (or potential players) into the target audience.

Supporting the current audience or niche is exactly the way to maintain the status quo and/or slowly die of attrition to the playerbase.

Even ignoring the fact that a small wargame niche is full of grognards who can not agree on anything.

First of all – note the fact that I am specifically drawing a distinction between creating a niche game and creating a mainstream game. Gnasche has the jist of it:

I think the best thing to do is please yourself when it comes to creating entertainment. If you can write a book that entertains you, there will be a lot of people who are also entertained by it. There aren’t that many types of people. The hard part is finding the people, after you’ve created something that satisfies you.

That’s important, and its sort of what Dan Rubensfield was saying – you don’t have to target all 6 billion people on the planet. But if you do, like WoW does, then you have to face a far more complex set of challenges – catering to the mainstream. You have to take into account that some people are alergic to peanuts, that some people can’t eat gluten, etc.

Each time we’ve lost niche customers to the addition of a “gamey” feature, we’ve replaced them with a more stable set of customers accepting (demanding) of a broader set of gameplay features. The guys who quit over the addition of a map would have had seizures at mobile spawning.

So what does that make Eve? A nitch game thats gotten bigger that it should be, or a mass market game thats not dumbed down enough?

I haven’t played EVE since the early days, so I can’t comment. Generic space trading games have always been a very large genre though. I can’t even remember what my analysis of EVE was back when I tried it, so I really couldn’t comment on how I think it has improved its situation.

WWII Online didn’t think it was targetting a niche market. Infantry, tanks, planes? That’s gotta be hot. Everyone will want to play. And we’ll make it cool by making it very difficult and entirely skill based (where usually skill based games have relatively ‘easy’ game mechanics), we’ll use extreme realism so that its just-like-life.

I could go on, but there are just two core principles that are each not entirely compatible niches. Mouse-based rifle skills aren’t “extreme realism” from a tankers perspective, the way that one guy getting a whole tank to himself and being totally invulnerable to anything a rifleman can do isn’t “extreme realism” to an infantry… If we’re drawing venn diagrams of the audience here, you need to set 100x magnification to see the resulting subset.

Oh, and at first, everyone did want to play, everyone saw their niche touched on if not included. But the implementations were opaque, so while there was overlap, it was destructive – see the above realism/skill example, or consider the incompatible extremes (planes/tanks, infantry) that the graphics engine has to accomodate.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

[…] Not wanting to repeat myself, but I think that's a matter of perspective. Several instancing games don't fit my niche, i.e. I'm not crazy on them. So I can't say "they did instancing wrong". WoW uses instancing, but I don't dislike WoW because of its instancing, infact I'd say it does its instancing fairly well. But I'm in that minority of non-WoW players too. […]

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