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Weekly Musings #35 – When games attract newcomers...
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: April 4th 2005

Today, Grimwell Online rendered an Op-Ed that claims that World of Warcraft is doomed to failure. Not the simple failure of an MMORPG that didn't live up to hype, but spectacular failure of the sort that no MMORPG has seen before.

Geldonyetich, the author of the article, had one simple premise: that there are three types of MMORPG's. He put them into "Old school", "New school", and "Virtual World", which I suppose is as good a way to label them as any. In Geldonyetich's mind, "Virtual World" and "Old school" games are more likely to retain players over the long haul than the "New school" games.

The crux of Geldonyetich's premise rests upon the idea that the behavior of gamers in any given game can be predicted. According to him, "Virtual World" games attract players who want to keep playing for certain reasons of monotony/shopkeeping, and "Old school" games attract players not for the gameplay, but for the socialization factor. To a point, this is true; EQ and its brethren are built in such a way that without building up or luckily falling into a good guild, your chances of advancement become slim after the opening levels.

Geldonyetich then proposes - based on the fact that WoW and similarly-structured brethren are built so that some players can ignore the socialization factor and go play on their own, without having to wait hours to put together a hunting party - that the game's retention levels are doomed to be far less. As he puts it:

New School “Casual Friendly” Slayers
This “New School” category would not be possible were it not for the wide adaptation of broadband. These games are, at heart, just fast paced games with novel game play mechanics. Examples are Planetside, City of Heroes and World of Warcraft. Because a great deal of focus has been put on developing the game, there’s often much less attention paid to the online component. All three games heavily support soloing in the name of “casual play”, and as a result many players choose to climb their way up in levels either entirely alone or with sparse grouping. In each example, complaints are levied by some players against these types of games that they lack that “certain something” that makes them worth playing in the long term. This is partly made up for by patched content, which can never seem to come fast enough.

In short, according to Geldonyetich, the player-retention levels of City of Heroes have to do with the fact that, past a certain point, the content ran out. Absent the socialization aspect and slow-leveling treadmill of an Everquest-style game, players reached a point in City of Heroes wherein they felt they had "beaten" the game, and just moved on. It's an interesting premise, but it is a flawed one. First of all, City of Heroes is the ONLY game he can make that comparison on. In all other cases, even when designers initially set up to run a "New school" title, they eventually went to a forced-grouping approach. Whether this was by choice, or simply in a desperate attempt to make a failing product more Everquest-like in hopes that players would come back, will be left to the realms of history. His other example, "Planetside", really belongs outside of his three examples to begin with; its failure has nothing to do with what "school" it is from, but simply that it failed to find an audience.

Geldonyetich relies on one simple premise, a premise which he pushes forth blindly. He supposes that the decline of all MMORPG's of what he considers to be "New School" is based on players getting bored. In reality, all MMORPG titles have this problem retaining customers. A large number of players who initially had joined Final Fantasy XI, for instance, left after reaching a certain level because the level grind got annoying, or the quests got annoying, or the gil sellers/campers got annoying, or any other number of nuisances. In fact, it was bad enough that Square is trying to bolster their numbers by launching the Return Home to Vana'Diel Campaign next week, trying to attract back the former FFXI subscribers who left FFXI in favor of any number of new MMORPG's. New players to Everquest, as often as not, have left the game out of disgust at the sheer amount of forced grouping required.

He also fails to consider that in the case of many previous MMORPG titles, they have been cannibalized by other games. From the vaunted Everquest to Star Wars Galaxies, to lowly titles like Asheron's Call, plenty of MMORPG's have been hit in the gut when players decided that they didn't want to keep more than one or two subscriptions - and so one had to go. At least part of WoW's subscription base is made up of ex-Everquest players who'd rather play WoW than go to Everquest II; likewise, many players disgusted by SWG's inability to fix their combat systems and other annoyances jumped ship.

The larger problem in Geldonyetich's argument is that he assumes that all players of WoW will be like the players who previously abandoned other MMORPG's for it, and who in turn will abandon WoW for upcoming titles - D&D Online, Middle Earth Online, and similar. While some of this may be true, it's still and always will be a gamble to predict that. Especially since empirical evidence seems to be that WoW's big subscription numbers don't come from their taking away subscribers from other games, but instead come from the game attracting NEW players, players who had never played before.

Yes, that's right. That's Blizzard's big gamble, but also their greatest strength. In whatever they do, whatever games they put out, they attract NEW players to the genre.

Scott Kurtz's curmudgeonly father plays World of Warcraft. Over at Penny Arcade, Tycho's wife plays World of Warcraft. Your neighbors, the people you didn't even know had a computer, much less knew how to turn one on? Yeah, they play World of Warcraft.

Therein lies the true beauty of the Blizzard design. Face it: Sony's plan with Everquest II was to cannibalize the Everquest subscription base or, better yet, get them to pay out for both. Final Fantasy XI was based on the premise of getting die-hard Final Fantasy players, the kind who still refuse to admit that FF8 was a horrible game, to pony up every month. Star Wars Galaxies assumed - based on previous Star Wars buying habits - that they could put out a mediocre title and get millions of geeks to buy it because they put "Star Wars" on the box.

Blizzard did the one thing no MMORPG programmer has bothered to do yet: they went back to formula. It's what they do.

Blizzard gave us Diablo and Diablo 2. It's not that these games hadn't been done before. The Diablo series owes its life to numerous predecessors, all of which played very similarly. Blizzard gave us Starcraft and Warcraft. Before them, of course, were numerous God-games and RTS titles. After them have come numerous God-games and RTS titles. Some of them, such as Rome: Total War, have even been good. Most of them have been completely awful.

One of the things gamers have ALWAYS known is that Blizzard doesn't screw around. At the risk of offending players who are on them, City of Heroes doesn't have that Blizzard level of quality. I've seen it played. It's nice enough, and if you have a thing for blocky characters in faux-spandex then maybe it's your thing. Good for you. It's not my thing. Final Fantasy XI could have been my thing, but it's nothing but forced grouping.

Gamers will still be playing World of Warcraft a few years from now. They'll never see a huge, huge crash, though the game will eventually fall by the wayside as all games eventually do. Why will they still play, though? Because Blizzard put together a well-constructed, fun game. If it were any company other than Blizzard, or if I'd never seen the game played, I might agree with Geldonyetich's position. The fact remains, though, that Blizzard has taken what Geldonyetich calls "New school" and has done what they always do: they take a decent premise and construction, and they made it work nearly flawlessly.

Blizzard, instead of designing an MMORPG based on what others had done, turned around and asked what players would really like to see. They put in rewards such that the "casual" players wouldn't feel incredibly gimped, which is a first. They designed a nice combat system and competition system, so that players would feel more like they were part of the world. When I hear players talking of Horde vs Alliance, it's obvious that it MEANS something, even if they're talking (very passionately, I'd add) about a flaw in where safe harbors are put on the map.

Blizzard succeeded there, where others failed. Live with it.

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Musings #35: When games attract newcomers

Added:  Monday, April 04, 2005
Reviewer:  Mike Ahlf


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