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.

thadrine, rpg.net

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?