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 …

16 thoughts on “The Tourist Trap

  1. “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.”

    When VG came out, I saw a lot of hardcore guilds leave EQ2 for it because for everything it offered. No surprise, they were back a month later. I wouldn’t call that sort of mass migration ‘tourism’, I think it’s something else.

    I honestly reckon that most full time MMO players are pretty jaded by the game they play and get genuinelly excited about something new. Toruist as an apt phrase to cover the briefity of a change but I don’t think it covers the purpose. I reckon players want to honestly move onto another game for a long period of time but just find that it’s not everything they thought it would be so decide to move back to what they lasted played.

  2. I have yet to be a tourist in another MMO. There is still so much to do for me in this game that I can’t seem to move on. I did get excited about Pirates of the Burning Sea and the Star Trek MMO but these either flopped or never came to fruition. It’s inevitable that a game will come along that will yank me from WoW, but I see nothing on the horizon as of yet.

    • Oh, the next Star Trek MMO is probably coming out next year. I’m quite excited by what I have heard about it. I like the idea of steering my crew of reprobate NPCs around the final frontier in a battered old spaceship.

  3. WoW is an easy scapegoat for fanboys and armchair developers. Clearly the failure of all post WoW-MMOs was due to the popularity of WoW. /rolleyes.

    What IS a real problem that developers/publishers need to plan for is that unless they release a highly polished game (Aion soon) then a great number of initial players will not become longtime subscribers (AoC & WAR).

    I expect that you will see more companies that know they are releasing unfinished rubish taking the Darkfall approach and having a multi-phased release schedule to combat the problem.

  4. One of the first things I usually do when I play a new game is set up my keybindings to match my WoW bindings. It bugs me when the strafe keys are mapped to A and D, rather than Q and E, even though prior to WoW, I played with strafe as A and D.

    When I try a new game, I also notice little things, like how smooth the jump and run animations are, and if landscape elements have huge boxes around them. I loved WAR, but getting stuck in walls and rocks periodically was annoying.

    I’m very ready to move on though. I’m going to try Aion with my WAR guild and see how that goes.

    • I greatly dislike games that don’t let me change my keybindings. I used to play with Q and E as strafe in WoW, but then I went to play another game for a while where strafe was A and D. I got used to it that way, so I simply changed the bindings in WoW when I got back.

      But now, so many games insist on matching the WoW default binding scheme and not give me any option to switch… that’s one of the big reasons I stopped playing Free Realms.

  5. The phrase ‘WoW-tourist’ was coined by Syncaine to transfer the blame for WAR failure to WoW instead of WAR not living up to it’s hype.

    But the people buying WAR/AoC after playing WoW, did not go there with the tourist intention to stay for a month and then leave – they genuinely wanted to play something different and paid the initial investment of the new game box (in some cases even a collector’s edition), which was equal to at least 3-4 month subscription.

    • There is that, but I think he also meant that with a lot of future games, many many bored WoW players will go to check them out for a month but will then return because the game doesn’t live up to their (WoW based) expectations. So new games will have to somehow plan for an initial rush that doesn’t stay.

      • I fully agree with that – if a new MMO fails to attract the bored WoW players, it’s their own fault, and not Blizzard’s.

        In this aspects MMOs have an unique property – in other community-dependent services , like e-Bay, Facebook, Skype, etc. … it’s hard to leave your current provider for a new one, because all your friends are in the old one and you will lose your contact with them .. so it’s very hard for a new start-up service to convince you to move.
        But when new MMOs like AoC or WAR came out, a lot of people left WoW and went there … so, if the games were actually good, they would stay.

  6. One issue is that, from some developers’ points of view, WoW was supposed to expand the market and bring more people. Some went so far as to say that WoW would be a gateway drug that would then get people into “real” MMOs. The “tourist” phenomenon works against that.

    I think that’s where some of the frustration is. It’s not that WoW was successful, therefore other games can’t be, as Centuri implies that developer think. It’s more that WoW was supposed to be the rising tide that lifted all boats. Instead it’s turned into a whirlpool that has kept growing and making the waters unsafe for most other boats.

  7. “Some went so far as to say that WoW would be a gateway drug that would then get people into “real” MMOs.”

    Bless 🙂

    I miss the ‘real’ MMOs actually, there was a kind of awesome visionary thing about virtual worlds that a lot of the early MUD pioneers and players shared. But they lived in a world where it wasn’t trivial to hang out online with your mates on twitter, or googletalk, or facebook. Adopting a virtual persona and hanging out on a bboard or MUD or newsgroup was such a novel experience. Nothing else matched it. And a graphical world that you could walk around …

    (When I say they, I mean ‘we’ really.) It was just so incredibly exciting to be part of an online world with real other people in it that we never thought that in a few years time, that particular aspect might become old hat. I believe that in many ways the internet itself has become a sort of MMO. It’s certainly persistent. It has locations. People have avatars.

    I think WoW has been the rising tide. People do now understand the whole concept. But it may have risen beyond the ‘real’ MMOs and that makes me a bit sad too. And maybe the other devs forgot how attached people can get to their avatars and virtual homes. I’d love to see another successful non-PvP sandbox type game.

  8. Gosh, I barely know where to begin on this one.

    First off, I hate the term “WoW tourists”. It diminishes us MMO fans who play WoW. It’s ironic that Syncaine is now game-hopping while he waits for the US Darkfall server. Think the Van Hemlock podcast touched on the issue of Darkfall tourists.

    As Centuri says very eloquently above it lets people fail and blame WoW. When I rebuilt my PC to play AoC, cancelled WoW and began playing with RL friends I was not a tourist, I was very committed. I was extremely disappointed that the game was so unsatisfying that I (and droves of others) gave up on it.

    Most people aren’t tourists when we buy new games. We’re actually open to finding a new home should the game draw us in sufficiently.

    The reason WOW keeps pulling them back is mainly because the games are obviously deficient in fundamental areas. Both War and AoC offered a massively multiplayer pvp experience without solving the lag problem. Interestingly WoW offered a spoiler massive pvp experience, Wintergrasp, as almost a throwaway extra and still did it better. If devs can’t achieve what their basic game raison d’etre is intended to do please don’t excuse them by pretending the millions of people cancelling wow, upgrading their pcs, buying the box, subscribing were just tourists visiting for a week.

    In a new game we’re all tourists
    – no we’re not. If we intend to make our home there we’re emigrants. Tourists are people who know they will be leaving soon.

    Are WoW players different?
    – no but our impact is different. If 25% of the Darkfall players check out a new release for a month then cancel it won’t hurt it. If 25% of WoW players try Warhammer for a month then cancel they have to close a hundred servers starting a failure cascade.

    I do think developers must plan for the WoW tourist effect but they should be doing their utmost to make sure their game keeps potential emigrants rather than hold to the placebo that they were tourists who never wanted to stay anyway.

  9. That’s why I feel so at home and on board with what Runes of Magic has done.

    There not afraid to brave the storm of everyone shouting “WoW Clone” because there mechanics are similar.

    On console RPGs, player perception is very different and absent from the game to game fanboyism, preferring to stick to console wars, While on computers MMO’s face this fanboyism on a per game level.

    But if you look at console RPG’s no one is shouting XXX-Clone loud enough to be heard. Yet, most RPG’s, on consoles share very similar mechanics.

    Runes of Magic isn’t a clone, they have original(if not currently lacking in content) World Lore, and many cool elements(including the aggregator which allows you to take the stats of one piece of gear and transfer it to another- Which I think ALL MMO’s should adopt)

    Of course there is a whole different attitude between subscriber based players and F2P players.

  10. Pingback: /AFK – July 5 « Bio Break

  11. As I already told you, I am now going to try AION. I am not convinced that I am going to stay, but I won’t go back to WoW. I will rather rant about it on blogs and preach the necessity of a “MMO revolution”. 🙂

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