Chasing a changing playbase

Discussions this weekend about how players could/ should react if a long running MMO changes in ways that they don’t like have brought one thing front and centre for me. And that is the notion of planned playerbase obsolescence.

Think of any long running TV series, comic series, long running band, or book/ film series. How many current fans have been fans since the beginning? How many for 5 years, how many for 10? I wonder how many of the long term media with long term fans have either involved the same creator all the time, or else have made a commitment to trying to keep the same fanbase. If you look at a long running game like Star Craft for example, the developer made updates have been committed to maintaining similar gameplay with tweaks intended purely to smooth gameplay for existing fans. Mods have allowed existing fans to keep turning out content for other existing fans.

But the other side of the coin is planned obsolescence. Games Workshop is the best example I can think of for a company who plans product based on this assumption. Their core playerbase is 14 year old boys. They expect a regular turnover as that playerbase grows up and discovers the opposite/ same sex. Sure, there will always be a hardcore geek element who keep playing the game into adulthood but the core model is aimed at a 2 yearly update.

And where do MMOs stand with this model? Older MMOs tended to grow with their playerbase, many of whom stuck with the games for years. Everquest is a good example, the gameplay has changed and there are tons more expansions but the core crowd is basically long term loyalists. The majority of players though probably never did have that sort of commitment; the figure I have seen quoted as average sub length was 6 months. Players did assume that the game would continue on, mostly in the same vein, ad infinitum. The strength of the classic MMO was that it provided scope for lots of different types of gameplay, often referred to as a buffet. The assumption was that as a longterm player’s tastes changed, they’d probably stick with their current game and community but switch the focus of their gameplay.

When running MU*, we always tried to grow with the existing community. We might have worked with them on figuring how to best attract and retain new people, but there would have been a reluctance to make far reaching changes. Best if people who wanted something different just went to a new game.

But now we’re seeing that publishers have their eye on that average 6 month subscription length number (which now may be lower than that and of course it’s harder to measure in F2P games anyway.) WoW in particular is shifting towards the Games Workshop model where they plan on the basis of fans growing out of the game, rather than trying to change with them. But with a twist. In recent interviews, senior designers have commented that their main target market is shifting towards players who have previously played WoW and then left. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to entertain the current players but they want to try to pick up more players who already tried the game and then left.

That’s almost backwards from Games Workshop really. How do you attract players who may have grown out of (or burned out on) your game? And how do you do so without boring the existing player base? And what if those longterm players are also the core of your community (which may or may not be an attractive factor to returning players too)?

What it does mean is that increasingly the games are likely to be changing under players’ feet in more radical ways than just adding new content and new minigames. We used to assume that if you burned out on a game, it would be because you had grown past it. Now it might easily be because the game grew past you, and probably in a way you could not have predicted. And there may not be some easily accessible alternative game that provides the experience you had previously enjoyed.  These are strange times for people who seek long term virtual homes in their MMOs. Even an old school game like LOTRO is torn between catering for their longterm players and the new F2P crowd.

I think the planned obsolescence route is playing with fire. It risks annoying the current players and not attracting the hoped for new ones.  No one really wants to throw dice to figure out if their current game of choice will still be fun next expansion. Maybe it would be better to accept that games will tend towards a small core playerbase over time, stick to a particular game’s strengths,  and just try to migrate other players to different games.

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12 thoughts on “Chasing a changing playbase

  1. I like your conclusion.

    For me the obvious answer of how you manage people who get bored is to bring out new product. If Blizzard wants money from people who burned out on WoW it should be looking to other games in its catalogue.

    WoW had something of a unique history in that for a while it was the best game in every single one of a diverse collection of categories:
    - best casual pve game (solo questing pre-level cap)
    - best hardcore pve game (raiding)
    - best casual pvp game (afk valley)
    - best hardcore pvp game (arena).

    If not the best it almost certainly had the biggest following in each section. It had more hardcore pvpers than Eve.

    I think Blizzard’s philosophy is distorted by a sense that they could redesign WoW to regain that preeminence. But it’s no longer possible. Instead we’re getting to a point with WoW where every gamble loses, as we saw with the make everything harder approach in Cataclysm.

  2. In some respects, I think updating your design philosophy isn’t likely to get all that many new subs – chances are good that if someone hasn’t picked up WoW yet, harder/easier heroics or transmog are not the reason. On the other hand, I don’t think getting in bed with the vets is necessarily better either, as it encourages worse design. I still vividly remember the forum backlash, backlash, when Blizzard added quest-givers on the minimap. Besides, a game like WoW is big enough to have multiple camps of vets, so who do you even listen to?

    I’m with Stabs here: new product is king. And expansions don’t count.

    That is somewhat anathema in regards to MMOs, but I no longer find it healthy to fixate on one game for years and years anymore; we’re looking for permanence in exactly the wrong place. We don’t own these characters, we rent them. The communities are what last, and things like Battle.net/RealID are likely the future of this sort of thing.

  3. Personally, I don’t believe that any of us actually leave a (long-time) “just” because it starts to change. I used to think that, but the answer has grown more complex for me – the social factor plays such a essential role in the way we perceive a game and how much we’re enjoying it. also: how much we are willing to tolerate in terms of less favorable playstyle / content etc.
    The social factor is of course again also influenced by where the game overall is going, but also by things such as the inevitable flow of time and our personal state of mind.

    still and whether you can make everyone happy or not, I’d recommend future MMOs to strongly focus on the cooperative side of things. this is where your long-term glue still lies and it’s easy to see that WoW has cut down in this area bigtime since vanilla.

  4. There’s really only one factor that prevents me from still playing all the MMOs I have enjoyed over the years, and it’s very definitely not that the games have changed. It’s just time.

    MMOs, even casual ones, require a huge time commitment. I still have pretty much every MMO I’ve ever played installed on my PC. I’ve moved them across from every upgraded machine to the next, or re-downloaded or re-installed them. I’d *love* to be playing all of them, every day. The changes they have undergone make that even more of an attractive proposition, not less.

    But it’s just not possible. It takes hours and hours every week to be anything more than a tourist in an MMO and there simply aren’t enough hours for all the MMOs I’d love to be playing. The most I can do is pop back in once in a while and have a quick look round, which I do. The only way to stay as deeply involved with any of these games as I once was would be to forgo getting seriously involved in any new ones, and that’s just not going to happen.

    • You sound like me :) I’ve had up to 4 subs going at once at times – and they are all very much guilty of this ‘feature’.

      It’s one of the reasons I’ve hated ‘daily’ quests with a passion – I don’t need a ‘chore’ to have a reason to login – give me something interesting and fun to do.

  5. “In recent interviews, senior designers have commented that their main target market is shifting towards players who have previously played WoW and then left.”

    That would be like starting a new relationship with someone and then saying “Oh, I’m just with you until my ex come back.” Who would want to be treated like that?! I don’t know who I feel worse for – Blizzard for being so openly brazen like that or the fan base that just “takes it.” Blows my mind.

  6. “That would be like starting a new relationship with someone and then saying “Oh, I’m just with you until my ex come back.” Who would want to be treated like that?! I don’t know who I feel worse for – Blizzard for being so openly brazen like that or the fan base that just “takes it.” Blows my mind.”

    No, no it wouldn’t be like that. In fact, it’s so little like that, that I award it the title, “worst analogy ever made while discussing an MMORPG.” You had many strong contenders, but this takes the cake. In fact, it wasn’t even close.

    While it’s apparently escaped your “blown mind” until now that WoW is not only not seeking an exclusive relationship with only one customer, you, but that it is actually aiming for more subscribers than currently exist on this planet–I’m at least glad that you’re finally figuring that out. The appropriate response would be to aim for a smaller game, maybe think about a custom built single-player game, if you really stop to consider the implications of jealousy toward other customers and the intrinsic facts of the concept of MMORPG requiring, those other customers. But to flay Blizzard for their MMORPG, a game inherently designed for many customers, to not adhere to the moral strictures of monogamous relationships, developed over thousands of years and explicitly between 2 humans in a completely different context? Sure it’s insane, sure it defies explanation, but the reasonable mind still cries out for explanation. Why apply this bizarre logic only to MMO’s, why not to every other type of business aiming at serving more than one customer per corporation? I.e., almost all of them. What is it about those bunch of lovable geeks at Blizzard that arouses this kind of emotional and sexual response towards a simple game, unusual only for its polish not for innovation or intrigue? We may never know.

  7. Games Workshop is the best example I can think of for a company who plans product based on this assumption. Their core playerbase is 14 year old boys.

    I can’t help but think that Robin Williams would find that comment fascinating. Then again, when he gets manic he does sound like a fourteen year old….

    I think the planned obsolescence route is playing with fire. It risks annoying the current players and not attracting the hoped for new ones. No one really wants to throw dice to figure out if their current game of choice will still be fun next expansion.

    The most obvious example I can think of is Wizards of the Coast and their release of D&D 4E. The release of 4E and Paizo’s release of Pathfinder (aka D&D 3.75) demonstrated the danger of splitting your player base. Some went along with 4E while others –the majority of 3.x gamers, if you believe the hearsay– either stayed with 3.x or went with Pathfinder.

    Planned obsolescence could fracture a gaming community beyond repair, and a corporation that sets out to convert it’s gaming system to a planned obsolescence model will end up doing more harm than good.

  8. Planned obsolescence is always a bad idea. It might be profitable, for a while, but it’s a great way to destroy long-term customer relations.

    MMOs are weird beasts that have to either mutate or die, or just play to their strengths and resign to the fact that you’ll see players wander off. I think they should just play to their strengths and the company should make new games. Then again, that’s how games were done for a long time before subscriptions anyway, and I’m strongly biased in that direction anyway. I detest subs and they ways they warp game design. I’d much rather see a company make a game, support it through bug fixes, but largely move on to another game.

  9. The US car industry used planned obsolescence as part of their strategy. Look at how that killed the industry in the 1980′s. Not saying MMO’s are the same as cars but anytime you plan for the death of your product bad things usually result.

    Maybe the numbers are telling them that WOW is in a decline that nothing can reverse. So this might be their spin on it.

  10. The GW analogy is interesting, of course pen and paper RPG makers were also always producing new settings and ruleset upgrades to keep the money rolling in or to appeal to a new ‘generation’ of players.

    I always thought the core attraction of MMOs was the game with no end, yes we can talk about ‘end-game’ but the idea is that the story doesn’t really end. To me it’s what separates a single player RPG from an MMO – the free content updates that keep the game fresh (and help to justify the sub). If companies are now so focussed on short-term profits and player-churn then isn’t that a seismic shift in what the genre is about?

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