Impressing guilds as a tank, failing to impress PUGs as a tank, and what is difficulty anyway

This is a switch and bait post in which I attempt to cover my lack of a Star Trek Online beta review this week (my excuse is that they dropped a new patch on Wednesday and I need more time to explore and remove whines which have already been addressed – an occupational hazard of reviewing betas) by pointing at some great posts written by other people. Enjoy!

Impressing guilds with your tankitude

Rage Quit Jane (awesome handle) writes on The Nomadic Gamer about the expectations people have of tanks. And the very first expectation is that … you will actually tank stuff.

She’s coming from an EQ2 perspective, which is a game where classes have more fixed roles than they do in WoW. Or in other words, your EQ2 tank shouldn’t expect to be able to grab a couple of two handed weapons and out-dps the rogues if they don’t like tanking.

If you apply to a raid guild as an off tank then the first thing you should be doing is proving that you can actually tank. Show everyone that you enjoy the character, want to actually play the character, and make yourself available to your guild mates.

No matter what game you are playing, if you apply to a guild which uses role quotas (ie. you apply as a tank or a healer for example) then they are hoping to find players who enjoy the role in which they have applied. No one wants a grouchy tank who spends all the time complaining that they’d rather be on their warlock. If they open a spot for a tank, they want to see a happy tank who enjoys their class and their role.  That’s rather the point.

This doesn’t force you to be the guild slave. You can perfectly well say ‘Sorry, I’m up to my neck in instances this week and I need a break.’ But at least while you are on trial, try to sound and act as though you are enjoying the game and the role you are playing. Although non-hardcore players sometimes get the idea that the hardcore turn the game into a job, it’s actually more important in a hardcore guild to show how much you love your class and role. Because they’re looking for people who love it so much they won’t mind putting in the extra time and effort.

This is true of many RL jobs as well.

‘Abusing’ the LFG Tool

Relmstein writes about people who abuse the LFG tool, whereas Gevlon positively encourages people to use it to their own advantage.

Wherever you fall on this spectrum, a few things are becoming clearer to me:

  1. You cannot prevent people from leaving groups whenever they want. If they can’t do it in game, then they’ll either just log out or not join the group in the first place.
  2. LFG may end up being good for server socialising in the longer term. The more that random people ‘abuse’ the tool, the greater the incentive to actually talk to people on your own realm before queuing. Whether this means paying tanks to come tank for you, or just asking around on trade chat for people who you KNOW will want to finish the run—it’s all about the social contract.  Or in other words, social behaviour is rewarded.
  3. People will drop groups for the weirdest reasons.

Would we like more difficulty in our MMOs? And if so, how?

Tobold asks for some design help on behalf of the Blizzard team.

We have some ideas, based on our experience as serious Everquest raiders, on how to make a MMORPG really hard. But some of the team say that certain features of Everquest wouldn’t be acceptable any more for our Rise of the Leet King MMORPG.

So what ideas do you have to make the game harder, if you think it isn’t challenging enough right now? Go join in the conversation. (I am also surprised at how many people thought this was a genuine letter; it is however a great blog post.)

When expectations change

Tobold wrote about a week ago about players and their sense of entitlement. Do players have a right to feel entitled to easy levelling, easy loot, and accessible raiding, or is it just as much a sense of entitlement if the hardcore feel entitled to always be a quantum leap ahead of the rest?

The word entitlement implies a sense of  rights. For example,  I have statutory rights as an employee, as a consumer, and as a British citizen. Those rights are enshrined in (local) law. So as a consumer, I’m entitled to buy items that are fit for purpose – and if they aren’t, I can go argue my case in court and the state will back me up if I’m right.

In a computer game, we don’t  have rights in the same sense.  No one is entitled to anything beyond their standard consumer rights when they buy a game. What we do have, however, is a sense of expectation. If I buy a book and I don’t like it, my consumer rights aren’t breached because the book being fit for purpose doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be a cult classic. It just means that it has pages with words/ pictures on them and can be read (note: insert legal definition of book here if you are feeling pedantic). If the book radically fails to  fit the description on the jacket then maybe, just maybe, I have a case. But if my expectations are shattered then I won’t buy another book by the same author (unless they are shattered in a good way.)

But what expectation do players have from MMOs? The box and advertising will tell you a lot about what it is possible to do in the game, but cannot guarantee that you will be able to do those things, because many of them require the cooperation of other players. That’s  the one thing that no one can sell you, unless the box specifically states, “bring some friends.”

So maybe you go in, sold on the idea that you can create a character of your own to explore and adventure in the virtual world, and meet other people. Those are reasonable expectations. Everyone will be able to do that. But what then? Will the game allow you to finish all of its content, or will some be locked to specific groups of people or need commitments of time or money? If you see someone wearing a cool outfit, will your character also be able to get one? If you read about something fun that another player did, will you be able to do that also?

In a single player game, the answer may well be ‘yes,’ depending on the difficulty and time required. In an MMO, it may also be ‘yes,’ depending on the difficulty, time required, and other players required. But the ‘other players may be required’ is part and parcel of having massive games.

Still, where do the expectations come from of:

  1. Hardcore raiders will become the nobility of the game?
  2. All players will be able to do everything?

The answer is, those expectations come from within the game itself. No one went into their first MMO with any assumptions beyond, “Cool! I can create a character and go explore this virtual world with other people in it.” The assumption that people who put more work into their virtual characters will become more powerful in the virtual world is just a case of people mirroring real world assumptions – that’s not really surprising in itself, but it is the game play that determines what forms of  ‘virtual work’ are most valuable in the game. In a strongly social game, that would mean time and effort spent in politicking and socialising. In a WoW-type MMO it could mean hardcore raiding, or beating the economy.

Expectations can change, or be changed. In Warcraft, each patch has changed the expectations of the player base for the future of the game. If casual players feel more entitled to raids, loot, and achievements, that’s because Blizzard has indicated that this is how the game is now played. It isn’t a sense of entitlement that came out of nowhere. Back in the days of Vanilla WoW there were complaints about raid inaccessibility, but I don’t recall anyone ever expecting that the majority of the player base should or could raid. Similarly, if the hardcore players feel a sense of entitlement, that didn’t come out of nowhere either. The first few years of the game indicated that Blizzard intended a class based playerbase with hardcore at the top. They put dedicated hours into the game on that understanding. Both parties have good reasons for their expectations, but they cannot both be met at the same time.

The developers decide what players are or aren’t entitled to. So when a game changes to the extent that Warcraft has, it isn’t surprising that everyone is on edge. No one knows what their assumptions should be any more. People cling to the last patch as either an aberration that will be fixed in the future, or the shape of things to come. And so we pick apart the discarded musings of the blue posters (official Blizzard posters) as if we could divine the future from their entrails. Our rights in the game may depend upon it.

Thought of the Day: How we define challenge

I’ve read a few bloggers recently commenting about how challenges change in MMOs. Tobold joked that hunters were changing to FPS gameplay, as a way of talking about how WoW is tending towards twitch based challenge and away from knowledge/ puzzle solving — granted it wasn’t ever very puzzle based but it’s clear that designers now assume everyone will look the strategies up and are trying to find other ways to challenge players.

Gevlon has been thinking about why hardcore players complain about nerfs. Looking at the marathon example, the hardcore don’t ever have to be in contact with the casuals so why would it matter what they do? Again, it’s to do with the perception of the challenge and people being concerned that their previous achievements will be less ‘valuable,’ especially in a game where people often define their self-worth by what challenges they have beaten. (Sure, there are other reasons to complain about nerfs, I remember being sad when Ulduar was first nerfed because I was enjoying the original difficulty.)

This all reminded me of a wise comment I read recently on a bboard. From an rpg.net post by David J Prokopetz:

The ready availability of strategy guides and online FAQs seems to have lead many hardcore gamers to conclude that the only “real” challenges are those that test your reflexes, and those that test your patience.

Exploration-based challenges are deemed worthless because you can just look up where to go next; likewise reasoning-based challenges, because you can look up the solution; resource-based challenges are out because you can look up the optimal distributions; strategy and tactics disdained because you can look up an algorithm and apply it by rote; and so forth.

Ultimately, any challenge that doesn’t boil down to pure twitch or interminable grind will be dismissed out of hand.

So maybe it all does come down to spoilers in the end. But it speaks to something in player mentality where someone who levels naked (in game) or beats Ulduar in blue gear will be widely respected, whereas a group who go into a raid instance ‘blind’ so that they can figure out the strategy themselves will be mocked for not looking it up like everyone else. The player base values some challenges more than others.

It doesn’t look good for the non-achievers or people who prefer puzzle based play to twitch. But at least we still have single player games. And of course social players face the biggest challenges of all: running a successful guild or raid group.

And because it’s still being great, here’s the obligatory Torchlight screenie. My vanquisher at level 12 with a new gun. Why is it that I hate the thigh boots and miniskirt look in Aion but really like it here, I wonder?

Vanquisher with gun

Applying for more powerful characters

Imagine an MMO where instead of starting at low level and working your way up slowly to godkiller levels, there was provision for character types with very different tiers of power. (Maybe peasants and crafters just have a wildly different endgame to landowning nobles or successful adventurers.) Instead of always progressing the same character from low level to godkiller, you would just apply for a higher level character slot if you wanted to play one.

And maybe requirements for getting a powerful character might include some or all of these:

  • brief interview with a GM or staffer
  • showing that you play a minimum number of hours a week to prove that the character would be active
  • showing that you can afford to spend more money on the game
  • show that you are competent at playing the game
  • experience at playing similar types of character/ role in the past
  • show that you have connections in the community (maybe that you’ve been in a guild for awhile or run some kind of social network in the game)
  • show that you know your way around the gameworld, even the obscure parts
  • show that you are able and interested in organising the community (maybe you’ve been a raid leader, organised successful RP events, or PUGs)
  • show intimate knowledge of game mechanics
  • show that you know the lore
  • show that you can speak good english (or whatever the server language is)
  • show that you can write good english (ditto)

Would you end up with very different games to the types we have now? What qualities would you ask for? Do hardcore players ‘deserve’ more powerful characters if they fulfil some or all of these criteria?

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 …

When good players aren’t

lantanasham made a comment on one of my posts this weekend which really struck home.

“Call me naive, but it’s recently been sinking in that a tremendous number of people who play WoW do so while: a) watching TV; b) tipsy, drunk, or really drunk; c) high as a kite; d) reading/watching videos/posting online; or e) all of the above.

In my tiny, tiny experience (~.000043% of all WoW players is my calculation), those who do so are usually the ‘hardcore’ – and frequently behave like morons.”

And I was thinking, yes I’ve seen this type of behaviour. You invite someone to a PUG or raid, you see that they’re a member of a hardcore guild or maybe recognise their name, and you think it’s going to be a great help and a smooth run. But no. They screw around. They act like a total noob. They go pull extra patrols just for the hell of it. The run is actually ten times harder because of having them there. You think, “Wow, these hardcore players are total jerks, and they’re not even all that good. They’re used to being dragged through content by having overpowered dps.”

These things are actually all true. Except that they may well be good players. Just:

  1. many of them care so little what anyone thinks outside their social group that they won’t even try
  2. some are just used to running instances in a very different way and can’t or won’t adjust. if you’re used to overpowered tanks and dps, you’re going to approach an encounter differently. A good player will adjust to whoever is in the group, a hardcore one may or may not be able to adjust. It’s simply not a skill they need to use a lot in raids.

When I was a class officer in a hardcoreish raid guild, I used to avoid running 5 mans with our guys. I often had more luck and more fun in PUGs. Because the guys from my guild would just mess around and not take the instance seriously. They got bored, so they made things more interesting for themselves. They broke crowd control because they were careless – they just didn’t care. They knew we’d handle it. As a healer, sometimes I just wanted a nice easy run without me having to think too much and not bored tanks seeing how much they could pull so they could boast about it in guild chat.

I remember running ZA back in the day with a friend who is a priest in a hardcore raid guild. He singlehandedly screwed up our run. And I know he’s a good player. It was at the point where I wondered if someone else was playing his toon (hardcore players let others do this a lot, by the way, so be careful). But no, it was just his ‘evening off’ and he couldn’t be bothered to try, just for us.

It’s not everyone by any means. Some people are just fantastic players, they’ll adjust how they behave to the level of the group. And any group taking them WILL have a smoother run. You’ll end up with an incredible impression both of the player and of their guild.

So I’m not saying never group with anyone from a more hardcore guild. Just that … you’ll often find in PUGs that you end up with people who have different playing styles. Don’t assume that because someone wears a hardcore guild tag it means that they’ll be good at playing at your level.

Soloing, going casual, and the tragedy of the commons

People talk about soloing in MMOs as if having the option to solo to the level cap was a recent innovation. Actually I remember playing MUDs mostly solo. As long as there have been virtual worlds, there have been both players who just wanted to quietly get on with their own thing and those who wanted to play with others.

However it’s the players who want to play with others who create the in game community.

MMOs are all about options. You can have soloers, raiders, hardcore, casual, explorers, achievers, et al all playing in the same virtual world. And that means you can play different sides of the game depending on how you feel.  I used to be in a guild with a Finnish guy who occasionally would /gquit for a couple of weeks to get away from the world (including guild chat). He referred to this as ‘going on holiday to his virtual log cabin’. He could have just not logged in but that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to be alone in the virtual world.

Sometimes you’ve had a rough day at work and don’t want to be hassled. Other times you really want to be around other people, and I love that the game provides these options.

But, aside from the regular flow of people who switch between soloing and grouping as their mood dictates, there are a lot of players who never have any intention of grouping with anyone they don’t know. I’ve always felt that they were a large but mostly invisible segment of the population. You don’t ‘see’ them because they don’t talk, they don’t join guilds. I remember being surprised when a guy joined our WAR guild and commented that although he’d played MMOs for years, this was the first time he had ever joined a guild. He’d just been playing with friends and never needed nor wanted the guild.

So who needs who, really?

A soloer, or a small group of RL friends who only ever group with each other, is a self contained unit. They don’t need anyone else to play in their preferred way. They don’t really need access to a guild bank or guild crafters because there are Auction Houses and trade channels.

Some may choose to join guilds because they like to be in a friendly atmosphere, and to share information, loot, and skills. But it isn’t really clear what the guild gets from having soloers as members.

Players who like to group, on the other hand, need to be around other social players. You can’t run group content on your own, by definition. And so social players tend to cluster into guilds because they like to be in a friendly atmosphere and to share information, loot, and skills, and also so that they can more easily find people to group with.

There are two types of successful guild, really. One is the very focussed one in which every member wants to do the same type of activity in game. These would be like raiding or endgame guilds. Over time they may ease the focus, let in more alts and social members, and evolve a more casual tier alongside the hardcore centre.

You can have a guild that is focussed on supporting casual members who are mostly soloers. But it’s very difficult to keep that kind of community together unless there’s a core of the guild who is a little less casual than the rest or unless you prearrange set times to play.

The other type is a larger social type of guild which is more of a broad umbrella under which members do what they like. And this kind of guild can carry a few soloers, maybe even a lot, but it absolutely must also have a critical mass of members who like to group because otherwise the guys who want to group won’t be able to find guild groups.

This isn’t just about grouping for instances or raids or PvP. I’ve been in RP guilds where we organised little RP events and were struggling to get people to come to them, while seeing half the guild online but off soloing somewhere else. Those are players who went to the effort of joining a RP guild but then when it actually tried to organise something that they could easily have joined in, they preferred to keep farming. They didn’t really want to be part of the guild or interact in any way beyond the chat channel.

And let me tell you, when you are trying to organise anything in guild and people flip you off for no real reason other than that they can’t be bothered, even though they are online and not busy, it will quickly put you off trying to organise anything else in future. This is why social guilds need to keep the number of soloers down and the number of social members up.

If the number of social members falls too low, then the rest MUST leave too for a guild with better grouping opportunities or else they’ll be very very miserable. And you can guarantee it’ll be the guys who mostly solo who will be tutting and complaining that people aren’t loyal to their guilds any more these days when they go.

The only guild that truly benefits from soloers is the solo-centric guild, made by and for other soloers. And ironically, most soloers who want to join a guild for the chat channel and crafters are not looking for that kind of guild.

Note: Yes, when I say soloers I mean people who have no intention of ever grouping with anything they don’t know iRL. I don’t have a problem with the playstyle. I still think it’s great that MMOs can cater to all sorts. And I do have friends in my guild who mostly solo because of RL issues, and we love having them around. But don’t join a guild just for its chat channel without telling them that’s all you want.

Just bear in mind that if I want to group, I need to have people around who want to do the same thing. If I want to solo (or play with a partner or fixed group), I don’t need anyone or anything. And a social player can provide all the same things as a soloer, but they’re also helping to build the community.

So why are you soloing in an MMO anyway?

Syp is tired of being asked why he would want to solo in a multi-player game. That’s a fair point, it’s no-one’s business what you do in the game as long as you aren’t harassing anyone (and by definition, soloers are very unlikely to be in this situation).

But he then goes on to explain that soloers may not really want to be alone, and thinks it’s reasonable to join a guild anyway. I beg to differ. It MAY be reasonable to join a guild, if you can find one that it copacetic with your playstyle.

He also comments that solo players may appreciate the support network that other players can provide. And they’ll provide you with this for no return why exactly? How is that not leeching? And why do you need a support network anyway if you are soloing?

But if you join a social guild, every time you are online when someone is trying to organise a guild activity and you could have taken part but you decided not to bother, you are breaking a piece of someone’s heart. But of course, you’re solo, so you’re not interested in being anyone else’s support network. Why should you care? Why should you help to support the guild, you’re only there for the chat channels? Maybe they’re the ones who  should  chill out and remember it’s just a game.

(I’m not convinced that MMOs offer more bang for your buck than single player games, though. I suppose it depends which single player games and which MMOs.)

Relying on the more hardcore

Actually, a lot of players do rely on more hardcore people to provide their player-generated entertainment. A guild leader or raid leader puts much more time and effort into the game than a rank or file member. Both types of player need each other, but one is definitely working harder.

So maybe a casual player wants to not be tied to a schedule, but still be able to log into a friendly guild and find competent groups whenever they want. In order for a guild to provide that, they need to have a core of more hardcore players who will be around more often, will play enough to become competent, and will want to group whenever the casual player logs in.

I don’t think people always see that side of things. In order for me to have my great casual friendly guild, officers and raid leaders need to want to put in a lot more work than I do. It isn’t that I’m not valuable, but I am relying on some people being more hardcore.

So … tragedy of the commons?

What happens if MMOs develop along lines such that most people are soloing most of the time? There’s no downtime built in where you might have to talk to people you didn’t know? There may not be enough of the more hardcore to form all the guilds those people might want to join? The people who would have been running those guilds are all going casual/ solo/ in small groups of RL friends instead?

Would a game like that really have much of a community at all? Is there any support network left for anyone at all?

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.

Gossip! How are easy raids affecting servers?

I was writing last week about keeping in touch with server news, but I did miss out one way that I track guild moves on my server.

I check bboards of other guilds.

I can never decide if this is fair game or whether it is just one step up from cyber-stalking. In either case, it’s a habit I got into back in the days when I was the priest officer in a 40 man guild. The guild leaders used to get on my back any time we weren’t able to field five priests on a raid night so I spent a fair amount of time trying to second guess how many I needed to recruit and who might be planning on leaving and need to be replaced.

You can see where this is going. Initially I tracked the application boards of more progressed raid guilds so that if a good priest applied to them and was rejected, I could contact the player in game and ask if they were interested in a tryout with us.

But sometimes what you found was that a player from your guild had applied to ‘move up’ without letting anyone know. We were never a guild who took punitive measures when this happened. It sounds wacky to read now but some guilds would boot a player just for applying to another guild. Maybe some still do. If you do, you’re a bunch of nutters by the way …. just saying. Anyway, we didn’t boot people for that, but I took it as a sign to start looking for a replacement.

It was quite common for officers to scan other guilds’ public bboards at the time. ie. not just my freaky gossip-herding habits. So word got around. A lot of the more hardcore guilds started to take private applications – they knew that some of the players they’d want to recruit didn’t want to risk punitive action from their own guilds if they applied and were rejected. But fortunately, on my server this was not the norm so I was able to enjoy keeping tabs on guild movements in peace.

From the non-officer point of view, keeping an eye on the public forums of guilds which you aspire to join can also give you an insight into what they are like, and what they look for in recruitment posts. eg. If guild officers mock applicants who don’t write in full sentences and use good grammar, it’s a very different type of guild from one where everyone uses txtspk.

It isn’t just a WoW phenomenon either. Scanning guild boards in other games is just as useful a way to keep up with what’s going on. If nothing else, it’ll tell you whether the guild tends to use its public boards or not.

That was then, this is now

These days, we care less about the application boards. Also, there are more raid guilds around in WoW. It’s harder to know who the more influential guilds are. People in general fuss less about ‘server firsts’ and more about who runs raids on their preferred schedule, or which guild likes or dislikes achievements,  because they assume that most raids will be running most content. Sarth+3, whilst the hardest encounter in game at the moment, is not one that everyone cares about.

And even just scanning bboards from the older hardcore guilds, you can see this in the applications that they receive. There was a time when a server first guild never had a shortage of applicants for any class. That time is gone, at least on my server.

Partly I think most people don’t know or care which of the various raid guilds is better or worse. This comes down to Blizzard having scaled the Wrath raids such that most organised raid groups blitzed through them.

But I know what I’m seeing is guilds listing which classes they are looking for, and getting some … unimpressive applications. I’m not talking about hilariously bad here. Just people who wouldn’t normally be applying to high end guilds — new 80s, people with no previous raid experience. The kind of people we’d take if they had friends in our guilds! And I mean no disrespect to my alliance (who rock), but one of our strengths has always been in teaching new people how to raid. It’s not so much what I expect to see from the more hardcore groups.

So my scuttlebutt at the moment is that easing the difficulty of raiding has smashed server coherence. There are very few gradations between a hardcore and a midrange raid guild right now. And no reason at all for anyone to be raiding more than 2-3 days a week (I see people advertise 5 raid nights – WHAT DO THEY DO ON THOSE 5 NIGHTS? I really want to know! Or maybe I don’t.).

What’s worse for the hardcore guys is that because they have fewer ways to demonstrate their skill/organisation, regular players cease to care. And without any external pressure to funnel more hardcore players into those guilds (why bother, when you can raid all the content in your current guild), they’re struggling to replace turnover. This may be healthier for individual midrange guilds. I know it is more comfortable for us to not be losing our best raiders at a continual drip. It’s probably also a much better situation for individual raiders. It’s nice to be able to raid with friends and not be frustrated because they don’t progress as fast as you’d like.

But if Ulduar isn’t hard enough to let the hardcore guilds pull ahead, expect them to start dying.