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 …