Solving the content problem: where have all the MMO players gone (longterm passing?)

“Mom, did Grandpa serve in the war?” ” No honey, he played World of Warcraft for 10 years.”

— UrbanGimli, “it’ll never be the same thread” on reddit

I’ve seen a lot of talk over the past few months about the content problem in MMOs, and how current devs hope to solve it.

This is going to be one of a series of posts looking at the issue and at some proposed solutions (which will include sandboxes, adding subgames for different playstyles,  blending mobile and fixed gaming, livening up the grind, events, giving players a stake in the world, harnessing player creativity, RP MMOs, and the game as a social network.)

What it is not is about how WoW is declining, because I’m not honestly sure that it is.

What is “the content problem” in MMOs?

  • It is when players work through content faster than developers can keep up with them.
  • It is when a game can’t seem to entice new players to stick around and form a longterm community, instead of moving on en masse when they’re done with the content.
  • It is when the sandbox content that exists seems to drive away more people than it attracts, due to griefing. And player generated content gets optimised quickly for maximal xp/exploiting/ dick pictures.
  • It is when all the methods that seem to have worked in the past to attract players to a game and make it sticky for them don’t seem to work any more.

So there’s an underlying assumption that MMOs, being permanent virtual worlds, should be attracting players who want a permanent presence. An onine ‘home’ if you like. They should be fundamentally different from single player games which you play through and then set aside.  Or play through, set aside, and come back when the next DLC is released.

There is also an implication that a successful MMO should have an in game (and out of game) community associated with it. These might be formal organisations like guilds or raid groups, or loosely associated groups who PvP with each other, keep the in game economy rolling, and create content for each other. Also bloggers and addon writers,  forum communities on fansites, groups on Facebook, and whatever other social media is hot at the moment. All of these player associations are assumed to be fairly stable for the longterm; a guild which breaks up after a month isn’t really a functional guild for example. A blogger who writes a couple of posts and then goes dark isn’t really helping the in game community establish itself either.

Or to put this another way, many commenters and longterm players feel that an MMO should be greater than its content. There is a virtual world and community involved, after all. This is important because if there’s a bad patch, then players will keep playing until the next one (at least) if the game is greater than its content.

As with all things gamery, people tend to assume that the standard ways of playing 2-3 years ago are some kind of writ-in-stone baseline to which all future gamers should adhere. But maybe, just maybe, the reason early MMO players liked to treat the games as their virtual home and build strong communities was just a part of the era. We know the internet has been great at bringing together communities of interest who might not otherwise meet. MMOs were how a lot of RPG computer gamers first met other hobbyists. Also, gamers at the time were early(ish) internet adopters and tended to come from similar geeky backgrounds, and be of similar ages. Maybe they just tended to have more in common.

What if today’s players aren’t interested in making that sort of commitment?

So how do people play MMOs now?

  • World of Warcraft – No one plays anymore
  • SWotOR – They only played for about a month
  • (insert countless other online games here)
  • Minecraft – Everyone built their cool house and left

The only things that most social groups I find want to play anymore are the simple, repetitive, FPS games like Team Fortress or other games like League of Legends.


So what’s a typical gaming evening? Maybe it involves hanging out on voice chat with some other gamers who  met (and got on with) via different games, blogs, RL, mutual friends and social media. There will be smutty jokes, chat about people’s work and families, and at some point a bit of negotiation about what games people feel like playing tonight. Torchlight 2? Don’t mind if I do.

The space in which a lot of my gaming friends move is that of a loose cloud of people who play a portfolio of current and old games. There may be some regular ‘game nights’ or they might decide jointly what to play based on who is around, or people might just talk on voice chat while playing various different (including single player) games and not be playing together in-game at all. The community isn’t tied to a game, although people will tend to enjoy trying betas and new games out together and forming an in game guild to do so. They probably aren’t motivated to recruit in game, although might do if they run into someone who might fit in well. There may be some light raiding, although by the time you get that far, other players in the group will be itching to move to a different game.

I’m also in a couple of more established guilds, like my WoW guild which we started on Day 1 (the day the EU servers first went live). Over time, we’ve settled into something more than just a guild, but that is very clearly based around a specific game. Sometimes groups of people do play other games but they never have seemed to really ‘take’ longterm.

So I’m going to extrapolate wildly from my own experience and say there are two main forms of player community going on at the moment. The oldschool guild/community which does emphasise commitment to a game, and the newer social group which assumes that most players will not settle in a game for more than  few months at most.

I suspect that the newer group is growing more quickly. Why? Well, have you tried recently to find a good oldschool guild in your game of choice? If you have done so successfully then well done. It was never easy at the best of times, and I suspect it’s even harder now unless you network really hard. It’s tough because ideally you want a match for your playing style, timezone, gaming interests, social culture, and one that has room for your class/spec of choice. Plus they have to be longterm gamers. And once you have found them, they will expect a regular commitment. After all, that’s what you joined for.

It’s likely easier to find a solid guild in a game that is over six months old – that’s long enough for the more transient guilds to have broken up or stopped recruiting. Which is another way of saying that if you (as a player) have a longterm mindset, then the longer you play your game of choice, the more likely you are to find other players/ guilds with that mindset.

The newer type of more transient community is more like an extended friends network, and they are much less demanding in some ways. It’s unlikely that there will be an onerous application process. But also no guarantee that anyone in the group will want to play the game and/or content you’re currently jonesing for either. Although they’re probably open to persuasion.  You might also find group members are part of longterm guilds in at least one of the games they play, which will help you find a guild like that if you end up really enamoured of that game and wanting to commit to it.

The notion that we are growing communities of ‘play the content, then move on’ gamers has got to be worrying for MMO designers. It used to be the case that enticing existing guilds to your beta was a really good way to jumpstart an in-game community. These days, if you attract a transient guild, it will be great for your initial numbers but when they’re bored (in a month or two), they will probably all move on together. It’s harsh being a member of a group like this when the rest of the group wants to move on before you do, or if something comes up iRL so you fall behind the rest in levels in whatever game they’re into at the moment  – but you can always find another in game guild, right? If there is one.

Only 24 hours in a day

In WoW, I remember making friends with strangers. I easily met a lot of people in vanilla going through lowbie instances while levelling, 40man raids, then doing tons of Heroic runs in BC and Kara raids. Those were really good times coz you could just sit around Orgrimmar/Shattrath City and chat with your guildies/friends. I don’t know the state of WoW nowadays, but in newer MMOs, I just can’t seem to be able to do this anymore.

Klat93, reddit

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and obviously this is a rose tinted memory, but there are a lot more MMOs out there now to compete for players’ time than there used to be. There are also a lot more multiplayer games which you can play while chatting to your existing friends, rather than always having to go in blind and make new ones.

I think that for a lot of more experienced players, however much they might have enjoyed the social side of MMOs, they didn’t want to keep repeating the newbie social experience over and over again. It’s hard work, making friends with strangers. Plus they now had already met other gamers who they wanted to play with in newer games as well as the old one. And once you have a taste for achievement, it’s hard to go back and be an ignorant newbie. Also, hanging out and meeting people is very time consuming, and there are only 24 hours in a day.

As it happens ‘time consuming activities’ are one of the solutions to the content problem. An MMO that could encourage players to relive the whole ‘hanging out in Orgrimmar and chatting with guildies’ or ‘making friends with strangers’ behaviour would probably be great at retaining players. It just isn’t great gameplay – in fact, if you are able to hang out and chat with your guildies while playing a game, there probably isn’t much else going on at the time. (I’ll come back to the great gameplay concept later, because just as a good MMO is greater than its content, it may also be greater than its gameplay.)

But the baseline is that communities of players who drift together from game to game are very well suited to a lot of players. You get most of the social upsides of multiplayer/MMO gaming with less of the boring grind/endgame. But when the more vocal members get bored and move on, the rest probably follow.

  • So maybe if new games want to build their own longterm core player base, the best place to start is NOT with existing guilds.
  • And many players simply aren’t interested in committing longterm to a single game. In the past they didn’t have as many choices as they do now.
  • And the million dollar question: how do new players who might want to play a game longterm link in with the in game community?

23 thoughts on “Solving the content problem: where have all the MMO players gone (longterm passing?)

  1. Another issue with longer term games, such as WoW (which I still play) is the gating issue of leveling.

    Someone like myself with friends of both factions will feel compelled to level a character on each side, to play with those friends.

    If, also like me, you are taken with the shiny new class and have a limited time to play, you rapidly fall behind.

    This leads to not being able to play with the friends that I’m there to hang with.

    It leads to a very stratified system, which I feel could be improved.

    That alone could help make future games more “sticky”.

    • This problem
      I have to agree, my wife was saying that she’d like to play WoW a bit again but she hasn’t played since the Burning Crusade expansion and didn’t fancy going through the whole levelling thing on her own again – she also didn’t want to use her old character as I’d played it a bit and it wouldn’t be the same.

      • I think this is an interesting point. Your wife has three expansions of leveling content available to do, and it’s good content besides, but because the game expects you to do the content only once on any given character, it stratifies people based on the amount of content they’ve done.

        This might be part of the appeal of TF2 and LoL over an MMO as a social game – Spinks’ newer more transient player communities won’t have any trouble playing together in those games no matter how much any member of the group plays.

  2. Your argument is interesting about World of Warcraft. There was a baseball player in the 60’s named Yogi Berra who was known for his malaprops. One of the most famous ones is about someone asking him to go to this particular restaurant. Yogi responded that “no one goes there any more, it’s too crowded.”

    That’s the fate of perception with long term successful games. World of Warcraft is still very vibrant on the servers where I play, and lots of people seem to still be playing.

    Not sure if that was meant to be a throw away comment, but lots of people (more than any other subscription game) are still playing. And personally I am having more fun with it than I have since WotLK.

    • My personal experience is similar, my server is buzzing (to be fair, it was always the busiest EU RP server anyway) and my guild is livelier than ever. Quite a few people who had left during Cataclysm have returned. So I don’t buy that WoW is dying. Although I think a lot of people did quit Cataclysm after finishing the levelling content, trying the heroics/raids and deciding it wasn’t for them.

      It just so happens that all the quotes I picked from that reddit thread were from ex-WoW players comparing their current games to vanilla WoW (I think). Probably better to read this post as applying to newer games that aren’t WoW — which I realise I have messed up by referring to it a few times as a baseline.

      But I do intend to write some more about some of the ways in which Blizzard have (successfully) extended the MoP content so far – like the stacked dailies, and drawn out storylines. I’ll be interested to see their numbers this quarter but I’d bet that they have not had as big a dropoff from expansion launch as in Cataclysm, and possibly Wrath.

      • Personally, I’m expecting a constant drop-off in WoW from here on simply due to it’s age, unless they do something *very* drastic to keep people. And I don’t mean this in a ‘wow is dying’ way. I mean it in a ‘It’s old, nothing lasts forever’ way.

        I will say this, however. I hear people talking about their bustling servers. When I played(I quit this year and honestly feel better for it, it was obvious that Blizzard was making a game that wasn’t quite for me anymore), our server was dying, and it still is. The guild I was in(whom I keep in touch with) had to go 10 man, and no one’s seen a recruit in ages. People are dropping off-and moving to these vibrant servers, keeping them vibrant. I know several who moved to AD and Silvermoon, for example-both already very vibrant and alive servers. People leave dying servers and want to join more alive ones, keeping a percentage of them very alive, but quite a few of them continue dying off. Someone on Silvermoon, for example, I don’t ever see having the problem that someone on one of the lower pop servers has. I’m pretty sure if there were hard numbers people could look at(WoWprogress is pretty good in a way, but it A. Only shows 90s that have certain achievements and B. Doesn’t account for alts), there would be a heavier weight toward certain servers these days.

        I think the ‘WoW is dying’ crowd may actually simply be from servers who are suffering enormous drops in population, and when you see more than one low-pop server continue to lose people, I’m sure if can make someone wonder.

  3. “It just isn’t great gameplay – in fact, if you are able to hang out and chat with your guildies while playing a game, there probably isn’t much else going on at the time.”

    One of the reasons I liked old EQ was that the combat was slower. I had time to chat between actions or in the little downtimes between fights. In newer games, they’ve sought to reduce downtime and to speed up fights, both shorter fights and more/quicker button pressing, so that even the few seconds between actions has vanished.

    Then, of course, you have to dicker with the phrase “great gameplay”. I felt combat in EQ and older slower games was much more thoughtful. In WoW it always felt like “run in, hit all your attacks as they refresh, collect loot”. Some people like the former, some prefer the latter.

  4. I think you are spot on here. I have tried a lot of MMOs in recent years, and the longer I play, the less social connections I have made. Especially when I tried GW2, I felt more lonely than ever playing this game, despite the ease of playing alongside other players. I really don’t think I would have found as good a match for a guild in WoW as I did when I joined your guild. It’s rare to find such a group.

    I am not really interested in being a transient player. The game I commit so much time to needs to feel like home. Just like PernMUSH was my first online home, then FiranMUX, then WoW.

  5. I think the game is not just the content… or rather it CAN be more than the content. My GW2 guild started a levelling group last weekend (more like a private mini-zerg, we had nine of us for the first run so almost two full groups), specifically with new characters. I found myself playing a norn ranger doing the initial hearts and events in Plains of Ashford… I’ve played four rangers to various levels already in beta and live, and run a number of characters through that zone, which is frankly my least favourite of the racial starting areas in this game. This is content I’ve done to death by most players’ standards, but I had a brilliant time because we had a frienddly bunch of people running around and yakking away on mumble. There I was, with the tallest norn I could find and it seemed most of my guildies had turned up as asura who came up to about knee high on this suicidal melee ranger. The difference was playing a multiplayer game with (shock, gasp) other people. It shouldn’t have been a surprise – any old school player can tell you that a good bunch of fellows could have a fun evening even though you were just grinding away at finliaths in Cursed Forest, and any new school player can tell you how little fun even the most snazzily designed dungeon is with a PuG full of asshats.

    TL;DR version – MMOs are one of those things that you CAN do by yourself but are more fun when other people are involved, and maybe we need to recognise that instead of looking for fifty shades of content to spice up our soloing 🙂

    • “yakking away on mumble.”

      This is actually one of the things I have a problem with. External 3rd party voice chat requires that you know the people somehow first and hinders casual meetings. How much will you type-chat to your group if you are voice-chatting with your guild?

      I wish more games would build in their own voice chat.

  6. I swear you and I must be on the same wavelength, Spinks. I haven’t read any of the blogs at all today, but this has been on my mind.

    I’d like to think that the transients are going to move on, but maybe the smart thing for an MMO is to not try to draw the transients into the game from the beginning. Go for the person who will stick around for the long term, and if there’s a jump in membership due to the transients moving in, don’t assume that this is normal.

    But part of it is that the people who play the game play for different reasons. Some are trying to recapture that magical moment when they first played, and others are looking for a new high like an addict. Still others simply don’t have the time to devote to gaming like they did when they were younger –real life has a way of doing that– and so they hunt for something that will fill a specific need. And probably there are those who don’t know what the hell they want, but enjoy pointing out the problems everyone else has.

    • Are you assuming that there are net new players that are not transient? Of sufficient mass to keep a game going?

      Because if a player isn’t transient and isn’t new, then they are already sticking to their exisitng game.

      Who are MMO designers aiming for exactly? Why would someone leave a 4-5 year investment for the exact same thing but with light swords or horses? The deltas in content have to be massive and then they become niche. I mean, there’s a reason vanilla ice cream outsells mocha grape donut a bajillion to one.

      • My point is that you can’t depend on transients at all to keep a game going, so a) don’t design for what they want in a game because they’ll move on anyway and b) find a niche and stick to it.

        I think there are enough players out there to enable a lot of niche MMO games. Just because there’s a “massively” in the name doesn’t mean you have to shoot for WoW numbers. Aim for a niche, whether it is SF or Swords and Sorcery or a well known intellectual property, and try to get a devoted following on that niche.

        As for game mechanics, why not play around a bit with different themes with the same underlying mechanic? There’s a reason why people loved Civ but also played Master of Orion. There is a huge market for FPS games, and the last I checked game companies are still cranking them out. I know people who don’t play WoW anymore but play AoC or LOTRO or TOR or Rift. That game scratches their itch, even though arguably they are the similar under the hood (courtesy of Gygax and Arneson).

      • Non-transient players do move, just not as much. Maybe the current game isn’t the right one for them to settle with so they do keep moving until they find the right one (as opposed to true transients who will never find a game to settle down with), or their favourite game gets shut down and they need a new home, or they make a clean break after a bad bout of guild drama. So there are players out there that a new game could attract and keep – they’re just outnumbered by the transient horde that drives the big sub numbers and the big sub drops.

  7. I’m definitely an old-school player in this regard, even though I haven’t been playing for that long. I even shy away from the “gamer” tag more and more, since it seems to imply that you must enjoy playing a bazillion different games, which I don’t.

    As such I find it frustrating when MMOs cater more and more towards cross-gaming communities (by trying hard to get you to invite your existing friends from other games for example) while at the same time making it harder to establish a long-term community inside the game itself (due to cross-server features, poor guild support etc.)

    When I’m passionate about a game I want to play it with other people who are passionate about it, not friends whom I kinda sorta dragged along and who get tired of it after two months.

    • This is my strategy now, as well. I find that my WoW guild, who are awesome folks, tend to peter out when trying other games (spreading too thin to keep a good population in multiple games is a problem I doubt is unique to us). For many of my other guildies, this means they also get disheartened at having a near-empty gchat and quit the new game eventually because they’re lonely. I think it’s a real shame that guild loyalty seems to trump making the most of a game with a different group of people who are more invested in it. I think some of us old timers get spoiled by having one great guild that we don’t reach out to new social circles in new games, which may contribute to the ‘lack of stickiness’ or feelings of isolation that contribute to us falling away.

  8. Don’t forget procedurally generated content! Computers are capable of creating content as well (but it’s just as crappy as the min/maxed player-generated content, and just as non-cohesive as sandbox story).

    But I doubt it will remain that way forever.

  9. I think MMOs need to recognise themselves as a service as well as a game.

    If am paying a monthly subscription, then I am making a decision on a monthly basis whether to play a game or not.
    What incentive do I have to stay subscribed next month? Is the game becoming more fun (new content, bug fixes, rebalancing) or less fun (burnout, stale content, imbalanced) vs the competition?

    I haven’t played GW2 in about 4 months, but I have to admit that ArenaNet has the right idea in terms of working hard to get me to log in.

  10. “It just isn’t great gameplay – in fact, if you are able to hang out and chat with your guildies while playing a game, there probably isn’t much else going on at the time.”

    This. I find I had more time and leisure to connect with other people in games that don’t require one hand on WASD and the other one controlling mouselook. MUDs and A Tale in the Desert had more downtime in which to type full sentences, in between doing achievement things in-game.

    If I’m having to situationally read ongoing combat, react appropriately, actively dodge, or focus on puzzling madly (in the case of Puzzle Pirates,) I can’t talk! Short choppy on-task phrases at best.

    Add to that the growing popularity of voicecomms, which I prefer not to use for immersion reasons. Hearing real life people voices and accents just takes me out of the game world community and into the cross-game global network of rl people (who turn out to be not as likeminded as you once thought, when you hear them discuss out-of-game things.) And I become a dinosaur that just can’t adapt to the way things are done now.

    That’s sorta led me into becoming one more of those transient players with no deep connections to any one game and thus “aren’t interested in committing longterm to a single game” any longer.

  11. Some of it has to do with instanced zones honestly – I thought the WoW version of a dungeon was a great thing at first – but there is alot to be said of the community aspect you get when your playerbase goes to one of the three or four endgame dungeons to hang out looking for a group or spot in a group that has a camp.

    It lets you get to know people on your server.

    LFD is like the 100% opposite – and while it’s awesome for a quick run – it doesn’t let you know anyone you are grouping with.

  12. To my ears, the “content problem” comes down to a question of boredom. Will players be engaged or will it feel stale and boring?

    Ask why games like go or chess or poker or soccer/football don’t need new content? The MMO content problem will be solved in the same way as other games that people play over a lifetime.

    From the player’s perspective, it’s a question of interest? Am I interested in Activty X or would I rather do laundry?

    Developers consider it from a competitve POV: what can we offer players that’s uniquely engaging compared to other games on the market? What can we offer that they can’t get elsewhere? Their answer, too often, is “community.” Of course, with the growth of MMOs, that promise of a “vibrant community” is more elusive and less unique.

    The thing about WoW is that it’s horrible at getting new players into the heart of the player community. If there were fewer roadblocks, a lot of players would qq about it pandering to casuals and devaluing the effort they already made. A new player can’t roll a new toon and be raiding within an hour. You can level together only if you do it in lock-step.

  13. Pingback: MMO commitment discussion | GamingSF

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