AoC, APB go F2P. What happens when free isn’t enough any more?

The big MMO news yesterday (apart from Blizzard nerfing their last raid tier) is that Age of Conan will be switching to a Free to Play payment model sometime this Summer. And it’s calling itself UNRATED – which most commenters are interpreting as ‘with more boobs’ (because the world might end if they showed a naked man.) Funcom claim that Howard’s Hyperborea has always been a sexy setting … whatever turns you on, I guess.

APB, the cops and robbers co-op shooter which had previously won a name for itself as shortest lasting ‘MMO’ in existence, also gets a F2P relaunch under new owners.

But I wonder if the trend towards AAA games shifting to a F2P model to get warm bodies through the door is starting to backfire. ‘Free’ isn’t as exciting a proposition as it was a year or two ago. You only have to look at the reaction to the reparation offer that Sony made after the PSN outage to see that; many gamers complaining that they weren’t happy about being offered two free games. Free on its own was not enough to make people excited, it had to be something free which they would otherwise have wanted to buy.

Even when Bioware was giving away free copies of Mass Effect 2 to DA2 owners, there was a substantial outcry that there weren’t enough DLCs included. (It was free, remember.)

So the point to take away is that free stuff is always going to be worth more to some people than others. If you don’t want an item or already have it, then free is worthless and might even be seen as an insult.

(This is a strange concept to those of us who go to conventions with the express goal of picking up as many freebies as possible, especially if they are random things we don’t really want.)

Having said that, AoC is a solid MMO if you’re bored of whatever you are currently playing and the first 20 levels in particular have a good reputation for story and gameplay. So it’s really just a case of whether you have the time and energy to bother downloading it.

Blizzard downgrading Tier 11 raids

I do think the increasing number of F2P MMOs is affecting Blizzard’s strategy. It looks to me as though they’re seeing each content patch as a new chance to win back customers (who have drifted off, possibly to F2P games when they are done with WoW’s current content), which means that it is a priority to make sure that returning customers feel that they have a chance to see the new stuff.

Nerfing older raids so that it’s easier for people to use them and gear up via PUGs plays a part in that strategy, or in other words I agree with Rohan on where they are going with this.

I vaguely remember commenting during Wrath that I felt we were being herded through the content on Blizzard’s timescale rather than our own. So it goes. TotalBiscuit has a fairly incisive summary of how he feels things have changed since TBC. If you ignore the macho “I did this content in beta when it was harder than you can even imagine” posturing, the main complaint is that the timing of progression has been taken out of the players hands. So now if you struggle on content, the smart thing to do is not spend every minute of free time trying to get into a top guild but instead just chill out, wait for the next patch and … yeah … maybe noodle some time away in a F2P game instead.

If you are hopping back into WoW, incidentally, and wondering what class to play, a poll on MMO-Champion voted by large amounts that mages had been the most favoured class this expansion so far. Availability of a legendary caster staff certainly won’t hurt that.

Is it time to stop making MMOs for a hardcore male audience?

I’ve seen a couple of surveys on female gamers recently.

  1. The big Nielsen study, which is summarised here on RPS. This shows that female players are in a slight minority on the PC, although most of them play solo casual games like Free Cell. As it happens, the majority of male players also play solo casual games like Free Cell (so if someone invented a Free Cell dating site, it would probably be very successful!). It also shows that although more men than women play WoW, it’s not by as much as most people think. 39% women vs 61% men. So in a standard 5 person group, 2 on average will be female players.
  2. This is another survey looking at single men and women and their appliance buying habits. Yes, women buy cool and useful gadgets even when not being nagged by a partner, who’d have thought? You didn’t think that Motorola released all those gutchurningly pink mobiles because they liked the colour? But despite outnumbering the guys in their take up of digital cameras, and being within a few percent for MP3 player and DS/ PSP ownership, women do buy significantly fewer non-handheld consoles.

So, the big thing that comes out of this is yes, women do play computer games. In many cases, we even play (and presumably enjoy) the same sorts of games.

Hopefully people, and media in particularly, will stop acting like it’s actually unusual to encounter a female player. (To be honest, even when it was more unusual, I don’t remember ever finding anyone who wasn’t able to adjust after … ooo … 5s which is about as long as it takes to say, “Really? You’re a girl? Haha, never guessed.”)

The RPS article notes that women play far fewer shooters than men, a result which surprises approximately no one. And it’s for the same reason that hardcore raid guilds probably have fewer female members than the averages might suggest.

So, are women less hardcore?

When a marketer talks about selling to the hardcore, they don’t care about that time you played Tetris for 8 hours straight or were in a server first kill of Kil’Jaeden. The marketing definition of hardcore is all to do with how people consume products.

They’re usually the early adopters that want to get the latest version of something, and they’ll be the ones that put it through its paces the hardest and give us all kind of feedback and tell us what they like and don’t like.

- Charlie Scibetta, Nintendo

Hardcore gamers are people who buy a lot of games. They probably own several consoles. They are predominantly male. They like shooters and anything that references WW2. They don’t always finish the games they buy before moving on to the next one. They often buy based on hype and like to play whatever is hot (i.e.. they buy games as soon as they come out). It is not surprising that gaming companies and their marketers love the hardcore. They represent a large percent of the profit.

By this definition, women are a lot less hardcore. They make up a tiny percentage of the hardcore market.

This is an old interview with Tina Kowalewski, an executive with a vast amount of industry experience in Sony and Interplay, talking about the hardcore.

GameSpy: First off, what is your definition of a hardcore gamer?

Tina Kowalewski: Hardcore, in terms of a gamer, is typically male between the ages of 14-34 who spends most of his leisure time playing video games over any other form of entertainment or activity. Much of their expendable income is dedicated to buying the latest, greatest games and gaming technology; whether it’s the newest gaming console or upgrading their PC.

And it’s because of the ‘hardcore gamer’ that so many shooters are released into the market. But since the Wii and DS were launched, something strange happened to the gaming charts. Week after week, we see Wii Fit and Brain Training top the UK sales charts (no, I don’t know why Brain Training either, although God knows I meet enough people whose brains could use the help so I’m down with that). Occasionally a popular new shooter will take over the top spot, but that will be a flash in the pan.

And now, catering to the hardcore might not actually be the most profitable way to target new games. Or rather, we’re seeing the rise of a different type of hardcore. A more female variety.

If you market your MMO to a hardcore male audience it will fail

I noted in passing the other day that Age of Conan wasn’t targeted at women. That was an understatement. The much vaunted maturity of the title was based on the digital boobs and blood that were scattered generously throughout the game world. The boobs were very nicely rendered, I’ll give them that, and it is a very pretty game. I honestly have no objection to boobs in games, and I’m as fond of a kickass death animation as anyone.

But it is difficult when playing not to feel alienated every time the game does something to press the point home that it was designed to appeal to a market that wasn’t me. The conversation options that don’t work well for female characters. The fact that all the female characters who chat you up are gorgeous whereas the male ones are all using it as a way to threaten you.

I really don’t dislike AoC from what I’ve seen so far, it’s quite fun. But I felt the same way about Warhammer. It’s a fun game, as far as it goes, but hard to pretend you don’t notice that it is aimed squarely at guys.

Yes, of course we should just play what we like and not care about these things. But the games that show me that they were designed for me (or at least don’t actively put me off) are the ones that will win my heart. Does it really surprise anyone that the most popular MMOs are not shooters, do not particularly cater to the 14-34 hardcore male gamer audience, often feature female-friendly design features such as cute pets and pretty costumes, etc?

They do also feature lots of other types of activity. You get to kill stuff. Act like a badass hero. Be as hardcore as you like. And so on. I think that the strength of an MMO is in the variety of playing styles it supports. So a game that cuts out a lot of the social fluff is always going to be a game that lacks a piece of its heart.

It’s not because you need women to make games work, that’s silly. But in virtual societies, just like in RL ones, social players (who include both genders of course, but are often female) bring the skills and interests that knit groups together. Design your game such that they won’t want to play it, and you’ll never get the community that you need. This comes back to Dr Bartle’s work. The social players are often underrated, because they’re not hardcore (at least, not in the way hardcore is usually defined), but they are the glue that holds our virtual worlds together.

If you design your MMO for the hardcore, all you will get is just another hardcore game. And what people forget about hardcore gamers is that they shift allegiances as soon as the next hot thing comes out.

Despite all this, I’m really looking forwards to seeing Jumpgate Evolution later this year because … omg flying around in spaceships and shooting stuff!! Rar! But I don’t expect to make it any kind of a virtual home.

2 Funny Things, and 1 Sad One

1. We found out in Noblegarden that the formal clothes are not soulbound so were passing them round. Yesterday morning found Spinks, dressed in a formal shirt and trousers, kissing a male tauren in a pink dress. Fortunately there are no screenshots to celebrate this event because we were both bunnies at the time. Note: The reason is because he was really keen for me to get the achievement and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t really care.

I think with this event, WoW may have crossed some kind of surrealist event horizon.

I actually really like Noblegarden for the simple reason that I can easily avoid it. All you have to do is stay out of the starting areas. I don’t have people whining at me to go farm some dungeon boss. All the rewards are purely cosmetic. And it keeps the achievement junkies out of my hair. WIN!

2. I’ve been playing Age of Conan recently with Arb, Unwize, and some other friends (feel free to link your blogs in comments if I missed one). Aside from competing as to whose character can get the skimpiest outfit (this time the reason there are no screenies is because I haven’t figured out how to do them), it’s pretty obvious that this game was not written with female players in mind.

In one part of the epic questline, you get to talk to a (male) questgiver who needs a vial of blood from a non-virgin so he can get you to swap it with the virgin blood that the evil sorceress is using in her ritual. One of the dialogue options as a female character is, “You could use my blood?” to which he wimps out and answers that you have amnesia so you can’t be sure that you aren’t a virgin. Now, I didn’t fancy him much either but lives are at stake!!! I’ve seen The Wicker Man! I know that being a nubile virgin means that you end up getting horribly sacrificed. But no, I had to go back to town to find a friendly prostitute instead. Who wanted to chat me up, until she realised I was only after her blood.

Maybe my character is a lesbian virgin vampire. That would actually be a lot more interesting than Conan :) (Sorry, I’m just not a fan of the books.)

Sad Things

I’m not big on goodbyes but I’ll miss Out of Mana, good luck with wherever life takes you next, Megan!