The Tourist Trap

I think it was Syncaine who coined the expression ‘a WoW tourist’ to mean someone who tries a new game for a month, doesn’t like it because it isn’t WoW, and goes back to WoW. I love the expression, it carries the implication that you’re just slumming it for a month. As if to say, “Yeah, I’ll just go check out this crappy new game to see how the other half live. Haha, they really pay for THAT? OK, back to Ogrimmar now for some real civilisation. Damn I missed those Violet Hold PUGs and Sons of Hodir dailies.”

I’ve done this several times myself, except I often stayed for more than a month. I’m just a tourist who tends to overstay on their visa.

I’m intrigued by the tourist metaphor because it implies that there are two types of player. Those who are resident in a virtual world, and others who are just itinerant visitors who don’t put down roots. I think there’s something in this. And I think it also relates to a different angle on the hardcore/ casual divide in MMOs. A hardcore player makes a big investment of time and energy into a game, so maybe in a way they do settle down. They’re rewarded with gear and progression for their character, all things that help to root them in the setting.

A casual player is more of  a tourist, they’re there for laughs, to hang out in the cool nightspots, and to see the sights. Permanent progression is fun but it’s not really their main goal, after all they’re not intending to put down roots. They don’t really care about the consequences of what they do in game, or planning rep grinds that might give their character a small advantage in 6 months time. They don’t think of themselves as permanent residents.

In a new game, we’re all tourists

I’m not sure I really buy the WoW tourist specifically because when a new game comes out, all the players are tourists. Sure, you can take a leap of faith and buy a long subscription and aim to put roots down right from the start. But it is a leap of faith because you might not even like it there. I’m remembering my guild master from LOTRO who started a guild in beta, bought a lifetime sub, and … discovered later that he didn’t really like the game.

Compared to that, it seems fairly sensible to sub for a month and see how it goes first. Check out the sights, see the dancing girls, lounge on the beach, soak up the atmosphere. And decide after that if you want to stay for longer.

For me personally, I know I’m thinking about staying if I go look for a guild. For me, that’s a commitment and if I’m spending time to hang out with strangers and get to know them, it’s a sure sign that I’m planning to stay for more than a month. I simply wouldn’t bother otherwise.

I have occasionally taken out a long sub for a new game or found a guild before the game went live. But only when I had a chance to play it in beta – I think this is why the PR beta ‘tests’ are important. If they can convince just a few tourists to plan for a long stay (i.e. more than a month) then they have the basis for a community. But if the beta impressed me and (especially) if I like the idea of what they are doing, I’ll take a risk on a longer subscription, if only to support games that I like.

Coming back to the hardcore/ casual divide, you’ll often see the guys who decided to put roots down very early on become the first wave of hardcore players. Because they’re already committed, they’ve put in the time to learn the game lore and mechanics, they’re getting their heads down and levelling fast because they don’t need to smell the flowers. They already know they plan to stay.

So naturally the hardcore feel superior to the tourists, even though the tourists are taking a much more sensible approach to parting with their hard earned cash.

Are WoW players different?

The difficulty with attracting WoW players to settle in a new game is exactly the same problem that Mac face with getting people to switch from PCs and that every RPG publisher faces with getting people to switch from D&D.  (Feel free to insert your own metaphor here.)

Yes, many WoW players have no interest in playing other games. That’s fine, they aren’t your tourists anyway because they wouldn’t even try it for a month unless under duress from friends. They are not the people who swamp your game in its first month and then abandon it.

However, if you get a load of people and persuade them to learn some complex system for doing things, they will be resistant to change. After all, they’ve already sunk a lot of time into learning how their favourite computer/MMO/ruleset works so what is the new guy going to offer that makes it worth the extra effort?

Brief anecdote: Back in the MUSH days, a new platform was released called MUX (I know, they’re not really very catchy names). Coders adored it, it was much cleaner code and easier to work with. I never figured out the details but I do remember that it was technically far superior. Players bitched like crazy when their favourite games were updated to the new platform. Some of their old commands had been changed. Eventually the MUX maintainers put in some aliases so that you could use MUSH commands in MUX. And then people stopped whining and accepted the changes quietly (mostly).

Anecdote 2: Before Word reigned supreme as the queen of word processors, there were several popular word processing programs. I used to work at a company that basically let us use whichever we wanted (ie. Wordstar, Wordperfect, Amipro, whatever). And then a diktat came from above that we had to standardise our word processing software. Even though all of these programs did mostly the same things in similar ways, you cannot imagine the amount of bitching that occurred when people were forced to use a different word processor.

That is the barrier that games need to overcome if they want to lure WoW tourists into becoming residents. But there’s some solutions hidden in the anecdotes also:

  1. Design your game specifically to make it easy for a WoW player to pick up how to play. If that means giving the option for a WoW-like UI, do that. If it means focus testing the starting area to death to make sure that every WoW-player question about how something works gets answered before they ask, do that. It’s not about players being morons or lazy, it’s about making it easy for them to accept other changes. Because as soon as someone stops to think, ‘How do I do X? Oh this sucks, I know how to do it in WoW’ then they’re one step closer to not resubbing.
  2. They’ll play if you force them. Obviously you don’t have a hotline to their boss at work to make them do it, but if there’s some benefit to the game that they really really want, then they’ll do it.
  3. People hate change. There’s no special answer to this. Except that a lot of gamers enjoy change and enjoy new challenges. So your game has to be presented as a challenge they can easily understand. This means not having stupid control mechanisms or non-obvious mechanics thrown at people at the start. But well designed puzzles that players can figure out early on and feel good about themselves – those would be good. Remember, a lot of people feel that WoW lacks challenge. A game that could provide that in a non-frustrating way has a hook.
  4. People hate things that are the same. If people end up saying ‘huh, this is just like WoW’ it’s not going to win them over. Because you might have emulated the things they hated about it as well as the things they liked.

And the other thing is that WoW is a genuinely good game. If people tried your game for a month and didn’t like it, well at least they tried it. What more can you ask? You had your chance to win them over.

The newbie experience vs the tourist experience

A tourist is not actually a newbie. They’ve already played at least one similar game. They’ll be off and rolling as soon as they can figure out how to move, where their hotbars are, and where to find something to kill. A newbie is another matter. They’re a stranger in paradise, probably overwhelmed by the world going on around them. They don’t see an exclamation mark and immediately think ‘that must be a quest.’

So perhaps when you log into a starting area, the game could ask whether you’ve played any MMOs before or if this is your first one. That way, the tourists can have the speed tour before being thrown out into the world, and the newbies can have their questions answered at a more reasonable pace. Tourists need to be convinced that they want to stay and settle, newbies need to be eased into the genre.

And just to add, there’s nothing really wrong with being an eternal tourist. It’s not really what the game companies would want but that’s not their call. Life is a game. Why not travel and see as much as possible. Settling down in an MMO usually means grind, possibly endgame, and other mildly tedious activities (much like real life, actually). Being a tourist means simple no strings attached fun.

And after all, when WoW went live, a lot of us were EQ or DaoC tourists at the beginning …

Attracting a better class of player

Raegn@EpicBook loves the LOTRO in-game community. They’re friendly, chatty, uninclined to flood the chat channels with Chuck Norris jokes (yes I know that’s very 2007/8), patient, supportive, and don’t ask him what his gear is like before he joins a group*.

In fact, he loves them so much that it was the tipping factor in his decision to take out a lifetime subscription. And he wonders what makes that game so different.

Picking the right IP

Maybe LOTRO by its very nature appeals to an older, less hardcore and more relaxed breed of gamer. Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954-5, and as Raegn says, it has long since passed into the ranks of the classic canon. It is one of the few fantasy books to have done so.

So one theory is that people who read lit-er-atch-ure are more civilised beings. There aren’t many video games based on classic literature to compare with here – the closest I can find are games like Titanquest or God of War which are themed on classical mythology. So maybe the easiest thing to do is look at other games based on Middle Earth.

It’s a long list of games, stretching back to The Hobbit in 1982 (Thorin sings about gold. You kill Thorin.) Middle Earth has featured on consoles and PCS, it has been played as action games, war games, shoot em ups, and RPGs as well as an MMO. I’m not seeing any special indication that Tolkien fans are a special breed, though. They seem to like and play the same sorts of games as everyone else.

I’ll come back to that later, but there is a point to be made that different IPs definitely appeal to different age groups. This isn’t just about kids liking Spongebob and the Tellytubbies, its about everyone having a soft spot for favourite books they read while they were in their teens/twenties even though they may later go out of fashion or out of print.

Some IPs do eventually make the leap to a more universal appeal. In a way, they become the classics of their genre. Others don’t age so well. A few years ago, everyone would have been all over a Buffy MMO (and it’s still a cool setting) – in five years time, it’s history.

So if a company wanted to make a product that was focussed on a specific age group and type of player, picking the right IP is a good place to start.

This is part of the reason that I think that the Everquest setting will be a millstone around SOEs neck if they ever did decide to make EQ3. It only appeals to people who already liked the first couple of games. To anyone else, it’s an obscure fantasy setting associated with ancient grindy MMOs and with no outstanding special appeal. Unless you like the semi naked elf chick they use on all their ads, I guess. People would buy that game in spite of the IP, not because of it.

Search or Filter?

I think there are two different approaches here. You could try to only attract the sort of players you want, and filter out the rest by making your game unappealing to their playstyle. Or just go for attracting as many players as possible, but make it easy for the friendly ones to find each other. (note: friendly probably isn’t quite the right word for what I mean here, but can’t think of a better one.)

One of these routes will generate much more cash than the other, just saying. But at the cost that the friendly players will have to deal with the rest of the playerbase. The atmosphere of the game itself will be less focussed. That’s pretty much WoW in a nutshell. There’s something for lots of different types of players, but the downside(?) is that you’ll end up mixing with lots of different types of players.

But what about the gameplay?

Gameplay has a lot more influence than IP on what type of players end up in different games. That’s not to say that IP isn’t a part of the whole experience and some IPs lend themselves better to different types of game, but it is just as possible to make a hardcore sandbox Darkfallesque game based on Lord of the Rings as it is to make a casual friendly MMO.

It is true though that the starting zones in LOTRO are slow paced, friendly, and very evocative. I still think The Shire is one of the best zones in the game purely from evoking the feeling of ‘I was there!’. They set the tone.

If a game puts in extra features for casual type players – more fluff, nice costumes, crafting, housing, places to hang out and chat, not being so driven to level and go out to the farthest reaches of the world – then it’s also not surprising if they’ll attract a friendlier type. The type of player who is happy to sit around chatting or roleplaying is probably the same type who will be friendly to newbies; ie. they are more social players. It’s not guaranteed, but in every game I’ve played the RP servers had a rep for being friendlier.

The sub model

I think that LOTRO has one interesting advantage over other games. They brought in the concept of the lifetime subscription. (We still don’t really know how that’s working out for them in terms of profits but it was an interesting experiment, so I hope it is.)

So a proportion of players are very invested in the game world. They can still leave when they get bored, but they will inevitably think differently about the game. It’s more permanent for them. They’ve already paid upfront. And maybe people who are more invested in the game are less likely to be casually rude to newbies? Maybe they’re more aware that if they can encourage newbies to stay, they’ll have more people to play with later on?

Maybe, just maybe, it encourages long term thinking among the player base. And that would drive a more civil community. The benefits of being friendly to newbies tend to be long term.

LOTRO Exceptionalism

I don’t know that the actual players are any different from any other game. I know several people who play LOTRO in addition to other games. But behaviour of players actually in the game is generally friendly and polite to newbies.

I think they do have a good number of the social player type who is more likely to want to ‘mother’ and teach new players. This is despite the fact there’s no special reward in game for doing it. No mentoring titles or achievements. No purples ‘of the teacher’. They do it because they like to hang out and chat and be supportive to each other. There are downsides to this. The game itself is achievement focussed but a lot of the players aren’t interested in that side of things. And in guilds that can be quite divisive.

Oddly enough, WoW with its increased focus on raiding and grouping seems to drift to more cohesive guilds (i.e. the sheer mass of people encourages guilds to form around people who want to do the same sorts of in game activities).

I think it’s interesting. The more filtered nature of LOTROs players does make the player community feel very different, especially to a newbie. But in a game like WoW, the players you want are probably still there … if only you can find them.

* OK, I made that one up.