Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Nature of MMORPGs

MMORPGs are declining. This is a rather obvious fact.

Five years ago I was convinced that MMORPGs would grow exponentially for a long time to come. Today, I have been proven wrong. Many people argue that the market is contracting until it somehow reaches its 'natural' size - 'natural' being anything before World of Warcraft. But I don't believe in perfect storms of that size.

While WoW profited from the pre-tablet area, from existing lore and previous successful games, from enough similarity to Everquest, and from fast internet in many homes, it also did many things right. And if you do these many things right again, while remembering the differences between 2005 and 201x, you can repeat WoW's success.

Still, there is one problem today that needs to be answered before you can design a new MMORPG: What is the target audience? Ideally, the answer to that question would be everybody. But that is very difficult for one single reason:

Keen is right.

MMORPGs work because they feel like an investment. And they cannot feel like an investment if you play them like a Facebook game on your mobile. The reason people like to kill 25 pigs for a tiny reward (I once spent tens of hours for gloves with +1% crit chance) is because the more time you spend doing something the more important it becomes to you. And the more important something is, the more fun it is to do; especially if it means meeting the same people again every day.

Think about waking up in the morning and nothing special happening this day; just your normal job. In the afternoon you go home and are free to do what you want - until then, just the normal, completely predictable job. 90% of humanity like this idea. I know, you might belong to the 10% who hate it. In that case (you are either lying to yourself) or you have been a guild leader before. That's ok. There's room for you in MMORPGs – if there are enough people to be lead.

Most people, however, like to do something boring to achieve a long-term goal. It makes them feel good. It gives them a purpose. It is the reason people have 40-hour jobs and get kids.

What is your target audience? Do they have a lot of time or just 30 minutes every few days?

If it is the latter: forget trying to design a MMORPG for them. When Blizzard realized that their population got older, got jobs, got families, they tried to cater to these players: The brightest people in the industry have tried to transform WoW into a game that can be played 30 minutes every few days. They started from a point that any other developer can only dream of (10mio socially connected players). They managed to keep WoW from contracting for two years. (Compare that to Eve Online!)

Lessons learnt for a new MMORPG: Don't design a game that tries to out-WoW WoW. Don't target WoW players. Don't target 40 year olds. Yes, I know they have a lot of money. But they don't have enough time to really switch games.

There is exactly one target audience that you can target: People with lots of free time. They are the only ones who will ever kill 25 pigs for next to nothing. Because killing 25 virtual pigs is only fun if you have lots of free time! People who don't have lots of free time won't ever kill those pigs no matter how much you polish the killing – no matter how much you streamline the questing – no matter that they don't need to use a sword, but kill the pigs by throwing graphically superior über-cool bombs from the back of a fiery dragon. No matter that their balanced numbers increase by 13% instead of 3%. It doesn't matter, because there are much, much, much better things to do if you have only 30 minutes of free time!

You cannot make a better WoW by making it more like a single-player game, because the massive, and the online, make any MMORPG inferior to a virtual story, like Mass Effect. The only thing that a MMORPG has and that Mass Effect doesn't have is this: the MMORPG can be played for a long time. It achieves this by connecting a massive amount of players online. And it doesn't just connect friends and guilds. Rather, it connects hundreds of strangers who, even though they are not friends, become familiar.

Generally, you cannot make a massive online game that requires its players to be online only for 30 minutes every few days - unless you want the game to be played on mobiles. And that's not a MMORPG, in my book. It certainly isn't as profitable as a good MMORPG!

So, what is the target audience? A new MMORPG has to target people at the age 10-28. These are the people with lots of free time. Ten years forward, you can also try to target the 50+ crowd. But not today.

How do you target them? By designing not a game, but a world where each single player meets the same 100-300 strangers again, and again, and again.

Why did MMORPGS decline? Because WoW-competitors targeted the WoW audience, who had ever less time. A new MMORPG must target the young - or fail.

The more time you spend doing something the more important it becomes to you. And the more important something is, the more fun it is to do; especially if it means meeting the same people again every day.

This is the Nature of MMORPGs.

PS: I am not your target audience.


  1. But that means that there can only be one WoW-successful MMO every decade, doesn't it?

    If the answer is yes it's going to be Titan and you shouldn't even try to target the 10-28 crowd. :-)

    1. Titan - according to the latest 'leak' - uses lots of time travel. So, no, Titan is not it. ;)

  2. I completely disagree on your analysis ;-)
    On (1) : yes this is true, there is different market and you cannot aim all at the same time !

    On (2): Wrong ! Or I am in the 10%. I do not do the same work everyday in my job, and when sometimes I start to do it for more than one week, I start to complain !
    Maybe it is a matter of degree : does everyone want to do totally different things everyday and relearn everytime ? Nope ! But do they want to do exactly the same thing without any variation ? Some people, yes. Some people no. Can you target the yes ? Of course. But you can also target the other guys, those who want variation every day. and they do not want to kill 25 pigs everyday for the fun of doing it !

    On (3) : You can of course target the Casual 30min 1h guys ! They want to play. They want to pay. and some of them are scared from WoW and its hundred hours of play before "End Game".

    And so the (4) : As those players does not play long, those 300 hours of content will last for years ! Those are the player that never finish the Single Player Game because they are too long, so you do not need to create those repetitive task to artificially increase your content.
    Will they pay every months during years ? No. But will they pay once ? Yes

    ans so (5) : you shall target the numerous people that buy games, play it more or less time, but will not find interesting to pay every months.

    But there is a (6) : the population you described will create the living base of your population. It will be harder to target the casual population if there is no "hardcore" population.

    Until now, and for me, GW2 have found the good equilibrium. They succeed to attract a small hardcore-enough community to create a playfull community for the Casual big playerbase. Their model is in-line with this ! Will GW2 be still alive in 5 years ? I doubt it. But will Arena Net still alive ? I think so ! But I may be wrong !

    1. 2) I do think you are in the 10% ;)

      3) You can target the 30min-chunk guys. It's just that you will lose the 4-hour chunk guys. And the latter are willing to play the game while consuming very little, cheap content (kill 25 pigs).
      Some people, of course, play the 4hour chunk MMORPG in 30min chunks. That's great for everybody ;)

      It's going to be interesting how long GW2 is going to last, but I suspect it's going to be quite long. GW2 is just not as profitable as a real MMOROG would be; means: the players demand new content at a very high rate.
      As long as the number of players justifies this high rate, the business model works. But if GW2 falls under a critical number of players, it's going to go down very fast.

    2. Not sure about your "how long GW2 is going to last, but I suspect it's going to be quite long" => Have you forgotten the negation ? id est : it's not going to be quite long ?

      If/when the new player rate will fall too low, they can/should release a new expansion. But if they loose the 20hrs/week playerbase it will be too late.

      I should precise my thoughts : I was more thinking about the opposition between the 2-4hrs/week VS the 20-40hrs/week. 30min is quite short for any game unless mobile/flash one.

  3. The problem with building a genre around the 10-28 year old demographic is when the time comes to get money from them. They're not too stupid to notice when your real payment model is to remove the spending cap via a cash shop and thus you are really catering to (generally older) folks who actually have money.

    1. Cash shops are stupid. I agree.
      Their only use is to make money on 1% of the population while discouraging 99% of the population.

  4. I have to agree with you 100%.

    I started playing WoW just when TBC was released and had limitless time on my hands back then. In fact i was logging at least 10 hours a day online for the most part of TBC era, and the fun fact is that i was never bored. I always had something to do, either dungeons or rep farming ( i farmed skettis-shattari skyguard rep with kills and elite summons ) or the most common thing was material farming since gold was a huge issue at the time.

    When wotlk hit us i had less free time but definitely not that little that the game needed so i spent most of my online time hanging around in dalaran doing NOTHING. I even quit the game on some occasions.

    Besides wow i have spent time on most AAA titles that have come and gone but 2 years ago i got married and have kids and therefore i just like reading about the genre and watch out how it is evolving, without actually participating.

    What i object though and have a bad feeling is that i myself started WoW after so long only because of the way society judges the commitment the genre "required", and that phenomenon has actually gone now that MMORPGs require less and less time commitment. Even though i have to agree that it is the only way one can make a worthwhile MMO to be remembered.

  5. Just for clarification i am referring to time spent on the game BESIDES raiding (and it's prerequisites, potions/elixirs/enchants/attendance before...)

    1. Raiding in my opinion, isn't even the core game. Even though Blizzard tried to make it so. Once it was connected to the game (farming potions etc). Nowadays it's a seperate game - one that is going to do lots of harm to WoW via the Raid Finder.

  6. I disagree. The new gamer generation may have plenty of time but they are grown up to think that they will get rewarded even by staying afk for 10 minutes. These are the gamers that leave MMOs cause they don't have dailies and LFG tool.

    The old MMO players, even with very little time, are the players who would play an Old-school MMO even if they are progressing very very slow. Why do you think that because I have 30min-1hour to play I like to do 5 quests and get level or run 1 dungeon and get level?

    everything that can be aquired in 1 play-session is losing its value..There is 1 major difference that separate old players from new and this is not the free time they have on their disposal. The old players want to advance on their own pace(no dailies and other stupid lockouts) in a difficult/challenging game while the new players are happy with a skinner-box

    1. I disagree with this analysis. There may be a few older hardcore players - like us - who might play a game, that is meant to be played in 4 hour chunks, in 30 minute chunks. Nevermind that we can never be as powerful as 'the kids'.

      But most players would never do this. The newer generation isn't even complete yet. They are still learning. And they would like a game that requires loads of time - because they have the time.

  7. I think it's incorrect to say that MMOs are shrinking because people don't have time. MMOS are shrinking because many MMO developers have ignored what made MMOs engaging. After the runwaway success of WoW, everyone fixated on trying to get a piece of that pie by learning the wrong lessons.

    Let me put this plainly: soloing in MMOs causes people to lose interest in them faster. Yes, being able to solo gets you a larger initial audience, but people won't stick around without some compelling reason; in the case of WoW, it was a love of the world based on a decade worth of games. Otherwise, it's the social fabric that keeps people engaged in a game in the long term. This might be organized PvP, raiding, forced grouping, whatever.

    The problem is that players think they don't want this because they feel like they don't want to invest the time. But, then we wonder why people aren't sucked into the game like they used to be. It's not that everyone is somehow too busy, it's because people have specfically eschewed what made the MMOs in the past so engaging.

    1. I agree. I'd just add that for the social factor to work you either need to really want it work or have lots of time. The social fabric doesn't suck people into a game, when that game encourages playing in 30 minute chunks.

      30 minute chunks just don't work; social or solo. - in fact, especially not social. ;)

      This doesn't mean games shouldn't offer some 30 minute solo content; they should. But it must not be what the palyer does all the time. The main game must be chunks of at least two hours, better four.

      The only reason MMORPGs could provide such incredibly cheap 'content' was that people spent so much time in them that this cheap content was ultimately enough.

    2. I think people would make time for a game that really grabs them. It's popular to complain about a lack of time, but how many people do stupid things like argue politics on Facebook? :)

      I think the problem is that the games just haven't been compelling, not that people's time is too limited. But, as I said, people seem too wary about committing time to a proper game, so we developers will have to "sneak it in" with something else that sells the game rather than social fabric.

      PS Post more! :P

  8. "Don't target WoW players. Don't target 40 year olds. Yes, I know they have a lot of money. But they don't have enough time to really switch games."

    Except for yourself, your readers and the millions that have played and left WoW since 2006?

    1. No, don't target us. Read the last line of the post. We don't have the time (=will) to get into a new MMORPG . Trust me, I tried; so have others. We are called tourists because we leave after a month.

    2. So instead you target 10-28, a diverse group right now that is playing everything from Angry Birds to Call of Duty and League of Legends?

      Maybe they have the time, but do they have the desire?

      Would you really build an MMORPG for this audience, when the signs suggest that a MOBO would be a surer investment?