Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why Bioware's SW:TOR will be a Success

Wall of text incoming..

As regular readers might have noticed, I just returned after a 10-day break from MMO blogging. I'd like to think of it as a constructive break. Sometimes, when you're in the center of the action, you loose perspective. It's a natural phenomenon that can easily be avoided by taking a break.
After having returned, I want to write a bit about common fallacies.

For example, the fallacy that MMORPGs are so successful, because of social aspects.

I've already written a bit about it yesterday.
Players play MMORPGs, because they offer a world. The world must not necessarily be very immersive, but it must be big and interesting to explore. This, also, doesn't necessarily mean that MMORPGs need to be sandboxes to be popular. Quite obviously, they are not. And even if you like to argue that that's because there are no AAA-sandboxes, there's still one remaining question: Why?

Most players didn't start to play a MMORPG, because they wanted to play together with friends. They might have had a friend who told them about the MMORPG, but more often than not this friend was not the one they then leveled with together. How do I know this? Well, support for leveling together has always been bad, and actually it has become worse over time. Blizzard, with all their metrics would have known better, if so many people had leveled together. How many of my readers have leveled with friends on their first character?

What lured players to MMORPGs was the same thing that lured them to open-world RPGs, like The Elder Scrolls: A living, huge fantasy world. Blizzard advertisement for WoW is still: "It's not a game. It is a world."

Of course, most bloggers, me included, laugh at this. WoW is rather a lobby-based multiplayer game that is stacked on top of shallow, linear and badly told (walls of text) stories. But there is a reason that Blizzard's marketing department does advertisements like this: The world aspect is why players start to play MMORPGs. In fact, this is the only remaining explanation for so many players reaching max-level, is it not?

Obviously, Blizzard does not think that the world aspect is what actually keeps players playing. From their point of view, the players don't really know what they want. And while this is certainly often true, in this case I think differently. But that's not the point. The point is that players don't start to play MMORPGs for the multiplayer or even the online characteristics.
They start to play for the setting, the world, the fantasy. They want to be a night elven hunter with a mighty cat at their side or a brutal warrior with a two-handed axe, or a wise mage with a staff.

Looking at MMORPGs as the successor of offline, single-player, open-world RPGs, you understand why many players ask for more sandbox elements. Max's comment on yesterdays post was very much on the point: "And MMOs seemed to be the answer - why have procedural generation of fake quests when you can have real people create real ones?"

Of course, having the possibility to play together with friends helps MMORPGs. And many players later only play out of habit and, because their friends do. The habit being more important, actually. How do I know? Even MMORPG bloggers mostly don't have close social ties in-game. And if not even the bloggers are part of vibrant communities, how can the average player be? In fact, every single one of my real life friends who ever played a MMORPG, did so on his own. Our attempts to coordinate and level together were always sabotaged by gameplay mechanisms. They might have been part of guilds or even raids, but they didn't care much for these communities.

Also, the real problem with MMORPGs is the endgame, not the early game. Blizzard almost exclusively tried to improved the endgame. Only with Cataclysm did they attend to the early game (the switch to even more linearity didn't pay off, it seems). It seems like Blizzard's metrics never indicated a problem with the early game until it was technologically no longer competitive. Apparently, too many players quit earlier than Blizzard would have liked - but not before reaching the max level!

Moreover, Blizzard tried to make the endgame ever more similar to the leveling game. How do I know? Well, you remember the switch from epic epics to throw-away epics in WotLK? They wanted to make you change your equipment more often, hoping that this would be more fun for you. Regardless of whether it was (it was terrible, imho), they tried to make the endgame more similar to the leveling game wherever they could. Remember the introduction of daily quests?

And this leveling game is probably the least social activity in WoW. In fact, Blizzard's metrics seem to have indicated that players play together so little during the leveling game that this aspect could safely be ignored; which is exactly what they did (phasing, non-shareable questlines).

Furthermore, the anonymous, teleporting dungeon finder, obviously, wasn't good for the social aspects of World of Warcraft. Blizzard isn't stupid. They must have known that the LFD would increase the disintegration of the social ties on a server. They apparently decided that it was worth it!

Remember that in a big and careful company like Blizzard, you can't change much without backup. Just stating that you think an anonymous, teleporting LFD is a good thing isn't enough. You need to prove it. And thus, we can conclude that Blizzard's metrics indicated that the social aspect of WoW wasn't the main driving force behind its success.

Now, you may want to argue that Blizzard was just terrible at interpreting their metrics, and I am inclined to agree. But it is hard to argue that their metrics were obvious, then.
The metrics most probably didn't show that most players played in a strong social context. The social context might still have been important, for example the expectation or illusion of a strong social context could be more important than the factual social context. This would be hard to see in the metrics.
But to argue that the metrics were obvious in that players cared a lot about the social aspects is not consistent with the fact that Blizzard isn't stupid.

So, what do we learn from this?
1) Advertisement of MMORPGs should focus on the world, even if the world is not the strength of the endgame! Managing expectations is important, but WoW grew to 12 million players once without caring about this particular expectation.
2) You can lure players with the world, but can totally focus on different aspects later on, like capture-the-flag minigames and repeated dungeon runs with stangers. If done well, players don't care and are thankful for the variety.
3) The social aspects are not as important as you might think. Making MMORPGs more similar to facebook games might change this. But, honestly, I'm not so sure I look forward to this.
4) The early game should indeed focus on a world. WoW proves that new players accept shallow and badly told stories as long as they are not completely linear. What really counts is that players feel like a night-elven hunter with a black tiger in an, at least superficially, credible world that they can explore. Quests are alright, as long as they do not interfere with the (illusion of) exploration.

And now to the SW:TOR *grin*.
Why do I think that it will be successful? Because it will do to story-focused RPGs, what past MMORPGs have done to open-ended RPGs. SW:TOR will be a really big story. Maybe even epic - at least in proportions.
I am, actually, pretty sure that I will have a lot of fun playing it; until I reach the end game. I, most probably, will stop playing then or make a twink. But many others may not; just as many others didn't care about that World of Warcraft stopped being a world at max level. Good story-focused RPGs are a success story and SW:TOR will be the biggest story focused RPG for a long time to come! At endgame SW:TOR will transform into a WoW clone. So, if Bioware includes battlegrounds and achievements and raids and an item progression, they have a good chance to be as succesful as WoW.

However, what I still hope for is to one day play a really, really big open-ended RPG; preferably online in a way that other players passively generate content for me. But, most importantly, the game world needs to be huge and open-ended. Blizzard didn't even try. They made a huge world, they advertised this world, they obviously thought that the leveling game was alright and they, thus, focused on improving the endgame. But what they never even dared to try was to retain the world feeling at max level. In fact, they forgot about it, and made an expansion that diminished the world in favor of a bad story-focused RPG during leveling. A grave mistake; and facts support this opinion.


  1. I don't understand
    "A grave mistake, in my opinion. And facts support me."
    While I 100% agree, I don't see the facts that support us.

    I still play WoW, but man I would love to find a new game that's more open and as you say that "other players passively generate content for me."
    Stop trying to make the game so locked in.

  2. I refer to this, PaulC.

    Blizzard lost 5% of their subscribers since Cataclysm launch. Which is firstly surprising, because you would have expected a rais in subs after an expansion, and secondly, because Blizzard never before officially reported a loss of subscribers.

  3. WoW still has a world. Players just ignore it. Perhaps they have been trained to do so, but the world is still there.

    SWTOR looks interesting, but there's just no way that I will pay a subscription for a game that should have been a standalone single-purchase RPG.

  4. Tish, you are right that the world is still there. And players don't actually need to teleport, they can always walk. And so on and so on.

    But a MMORPG that has a world that nobody (or few people) visit doesn't really have a world for all practival purposes. It's like adding a 10.000m² procedurally generated world to Dragon Age; just like that. And then claiming that Dragon Age is now an open-ended RPG, too. No, it is not. It's not that simple.

    The world is not enough - it has to be an integral part of the gameplay, too.

  5. A short term success it will be. A long term success, well, I have grave doubts.

  6. "But a MMORPG that has a world that nobody (or few people) visit doesn't really have a world for all practical purposes."

    I spent about a decade of my life traveling and loving to travel. Went to a lot of cool places in Europe and Central America.

    I no longer love to travel. Not sure why. But I like to stay home now, or take short trips closer to home.

    That has not made the world disappear, or become meaningless to me.

    I'm not sure that the analogy transfers completely, but my "sense" of the World of Warcraft from each expansion, is not about the places "I could or should still go to", it's about the places "I went".

    That sense of knowing and being familiar with the world is quite strong, and impacts my "comfort level" and eagerness to login frequently. Even if it doesn't have a "practical purpose".

    Not necessarily arguing your overall point, actually. Your post was extremely insightful and well-written. Your break served you well.

    I guess I'm saying that history and comfort are intangibles that also help make a game a world.

    That said, I am ready for a change, and look forward to a new genre like SWTOR.

  7. Very nice post.

    > Apparently, too many players quit earlier than
    > Blizzard would have liked - but not before
    > reaching the max level!

    That means they've played at least 3 hours of Cataclysm after paying 40 Euro for it? Hardly surprising. :)

    > Well, you remember the switch from epic epics to
    > throw-away epics in WotLK? They wanted to make
    > you change your equipment more often, hoping that
    > this would be more fun for you. Regardless of
    > whether it was (it was terrible, imho),

    There's a huge difference. Leveling is linear, the endgame is not. You can't skip levels, you can level your char today or next month but you have to walk the walk. With items you can just skip 6 month and immediately get the next tier for the same JP/VP.

    I think that's the main reason why it didn't work. If something can be skipped it has to be really meaningful, otherwise people tend to skip it.

    > Blizzard isn't stupid. They must have known
    > that the LFD would increase the disintegration
    > of the social ties on a server. They apparently
    > decided that it was worth it!

    Maybe it was their goal to disintegrate the social ties? Maybe they expected more gain from a weaker community?

  8. Hmm, I agree that SWTOR will probably have a good story, but a story isn't the same thing as a virtual world. In fact, I don't think scripted personal stories work all that well in shared worlds because it's impossible to ignore the fact that everyone else is doing exactly the same quests you are.

    Overall I agree with Tesh. SWTOR sounds like a good game, but I can't imagine paying a subcription fee for a single player game. If I'm paying a subscription, I want an MMO with a capital MM.

  9. Not that I don't agree with most of the post (I do), but I don't see the evidence for the relative unimportance of social factors in MMOs as clearly as you do.

    In my raiding times I knew various people who played WoW for far longer than they intended to or came back from other (in their opinions better) games simply in order to play with the friends they made WoW.

    I myself raided a lot even after getting bored by raids simply due to the social aspects and the social responsibility I had due to my raid and guild leading duties.

    Likewise, I quickly lose interests in MMOs in which I do not find access to a group of players I enjoy playing with. Even though I'm quite the die-hard achiever, MMOs would lose me completely if it wasn't for the social aspects. At least in my case, they are not only relevant but absolutely essential.

    (This goes for the leveling process too btw. Pretty much all of my leveling in the recent years has been done in a social group context when I wasn't absently grinding up an alt while watching something else on the other screen.)