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?

Kickstarter, older games, and the packaging up of gaming nostalgia

kotor2

KOTOR2 featured in the Steam Autumn Sale this week for the grand sum of £1.74. And you know what? I realise I never stopped loving this style of RPG.

Let it be widely known that the long-awaited Kickstarter gaming backlash has officially kicked off!

Oh, there had been stirrings in the blogosphere previously. People wondering if punters really thought about projects before they hit ‘donate’, projects that collected money for ‘tech demos’  or ‘demo videos’ on the backs of a zealous fanbase, projects that raised their funding but failed, projects that simply failed to raise the funding required (maybe the fanbase just wasn’t zealous enough.)

None of that indicates a broken system. When you throw money at a kickstarter you are taking a risk. And it is the nature of crowdfunding to favour creators with an established fanbase.

But the more recent trend is for old designers to come out of the woodwork with a shiny new kickstarter to produce some updated version of a nostalgic fan favourite. It worked when Double Fine reminded people that actually they did like point and click adventure games, or Jane Jensen reminded them that she was still writing and still liking these games too. Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen, aside from showing convincing video, reminded people that they liked open world space sims.

I’m an old enough gamer to have loved all those genres too the first time around, and to miss the lack of those genres in the current scene, so I wish the devs and backers all the best of luck.

But then we move to the pitches that just failed to convince. Brenda Romero and Tom Halls ‘Old School RPG’ kickstarter seemed to just remind people of all the things they didn’t like about old school RPGs. For once, even having big name designers didn’t stop punters from murmuring (check the comments on this thread) that it looked like a half thought out cash grab, not a fully realised project. David Braben’s Elite Kickstarter (currently just under halfway to its $1.25m goal)  made people wonder why someone with a successful studio behind them couldn’t get some funding together without going to the fans – or maybe Star Citizen just got to those fans first. And now Peter Molyneux is proposing a God Game kickstarter (aka Populous remake).

I liked all of these games back in the day – apart possibly from the old school RPGs which could get pretty tedious. There are genres that could use a remake with a modern sensibility for gamers who never played the classics of yore. Particularly because some of these games, being designed for old slow hardware, don’t require heavy twitch skills. And they date from before the era of everyone-has-internet, compulsory multiplayer features. (Obviously both of these features will probably get designed out to match more current trends.)

But I am down with letting the teams actually build and release the games before I buy them now. Some of these projects are way too ambitious in scope for my taste. By all means be ambitious, but when Tim Schafer says he’s going to build a single player adventure game in the style of the old adventure games he became known for, I believe him.  When Chris Roberts says he’s going to build a new Wing Commander with a huge sandbox online component as well as a single player game, I think “Good luck, I’ll believe it when I see it. And I’ll happily buy in once its done.”

Also the amounts being asked for don’t bear much resemblance to costs so much as a ‘how much can we get?’ approach. Kickstarters were once seen as a way for indies with good ideas to get some backing from people who liked those ideas too, and now we’re looking at some kind of nostalgia cash grab. Not only that, but as backers get bored of the endless stream of ‘hey pay us money to remake XYZ, we have a sketchy outline and we’re working on a demo’, other creators are going to find themselves on the downturn of a trend that once offered them an airing and a genuinely innovative way to do business.

Jeff Minter  (icon of my gaming childhhod!) commented on twitter that he’d love money to do a T2K remake but that people who are already rich have taken the wind out of the kickstarter sails.

Matt Barton has a particularly good analysis of kickstarter and gaming. I’m just not sure whether I agree with his conclusion that everyone who cares about games should be supporting kickstarters. I’m through that phase now, and would rather wait for a demo.

As an alternative, how about playing the actual older games?

As you can see from the screenie at the top, I’ve been playing KOTOR2 this week ( I’m using the restored content mod,  if anyone is interested). It cost a pittance, and I’m really enjoying it. I like story heavy RPGs, especially if they have combat that lets you pause. And while the graphics are dated, it makes surprisingly little difference to the basic fun of the game. Having good voiceover work and/or music is particularly effective at making an older game feel more convincing. That game is 7 years old, which makes it a spring chicken compared to Elite or even Day of the Tentacle, but the core gameplay is fine. It isn’t fine due to nostalgia or my memories of an earlier era, it’s fine because I was playing it this morning and thinking ‘this feels a bit old school but still pretty fun.’ (Although wtf with having  my character run around in her undies for the first hour or so, Obsidian?)

Older games have never been more accessible to gamers, via Steam Sales, GoG,et al. Even my local library has a load of PS2 games amongst its collection to be borrowed. Some of the older games date horribly. I picked up Ultima: Martian Dreams when it was a free download from GOG earlier this year. I know it’s a really cool game, I loved the steampunk setting back in the day. I couldn’t play it for more than 5 minutes before sadly laying that piece of nostalgia to rest. I’m pretty sure I would do the same with Elite.

An alternative – maybe even a happy medium — is the Balders Gate approach, where an enhanced version is offered. Not a complete overhaul and upgrade, but some new characters, a graphics update, and tweaks.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go sort my characters out for raiding in another game I’m still playing and enjoying that is 8 years old.

The Power of Memory in an MMO

graveyard in brillThere’s no place like home

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been helping to clear out my father’s flat. I have spent quiet hours sitting on trains*.  I have walked many miles to and from the train station; retracing the same path that I travelled every time I went to visit him. The same path that very soon I will never need to walk again. I find myself taking more notice of the details of the journey. The uneven pavements, pigeons crowded outside the supermarket, the roar of traffic, the cafe that replaced the other cafe that replaced the other cafe, the huddled bus stops, the noises, the sights, the smells, the feel. And already, the familiar route brings back vivid and familiar memories.

I have seen designers discuss how to bring more emotion into computer games. We see games inducing excitement, elation, disappointment and wonder if they will ever inspire the whole range of feelings that we get from good literature, films, or music. And yet, I haven’t seen many of them talk about nostalgia – the one bittersweet emotion that games reliably do conjure up. It isn’t just the nostalgia of looking at games that we played ten or twenty years ago and wondering at how much technology has changed, that’s true of anything in life. It is the nostalgia of being able to go back and play the early levels again, capture again the feeling of being so new,  and see how much you have changed (or not) and how many of your initial assumptions were right or wrong.

In a typical MMO, your character goes through some kind of starting area and then spends some time around a major city or village. For the rest of that character’s ‘life’ that starting area will carry with it a sense of home. It will carry with it the memories of the very beginning of the in-game experience. This is a very deliberate design decision, and subsequent quests and events send you back there to evoke precisely that reaction. Games that lack this layout (like WAR) feel as though something is missing to me – I never made that connection with the game world.

If I take Mrs Spinks back to Brill (the undead starting area in WoW), I feel some watered down sense of how I feel travelling to my father’s flat. I know the area, I know the NPCs, and simply walking around there brings back vivid memories of my early WoW days. I felt the same in LOTRO when walking about Michel Delving as a hobbit – however far from the Shire you roam, whenever you go back, you are going home.

Of course, the main difference in an MMO is that the NPCs and home area never change. Shops don’t close. Houses don’t get pulled down. NPCs don’t retire or win the lottery or die in tragic boating accidents. So your home is always preserved, exactly the way that you remember it.

I noticed that quite a few bloggers marked the recent Cataclysm announcement by returning to WoW, however briefly. I believe that this is all about recapturing the memories while those starting zones are still poised in their eternal time vacuum. In the same way that walking the route to my father’s house now cements the memories of all the times I have done that in the past, playing through the old zones brings memories to life for players too. If retracing our steps in the real world helps to relive memories, then it should be no surprise that virtually retracing our steps in a virtual world has the same effect.

I will not miss the old zones. I enjoyed them, but you can never really go back. Even if you rerun the quests, it isn’t the same without the other people around. Looking at them now, I keep thinking how badly they need the update and how much they will benefit from being taken out of their time bubble, at least for a little while.

And after all, we’ll always have our memories. We’ll always have Brill.

* sitting on trains … with my DS :P

Wherever I lay my hat …

I love my hearthstone. Every MMO I have played has its own version. Wherever I am in the world, whatever I am doing, I am always just one click away from teleporting my character back to its home.

(Note: in MUSH terms, the command for doing the same thing was @home. So we’ve had this notion of your character’s home location for years.)

Home may be temporary, a location near to wherever I am questing at the moment. It may be a city, somewhere with lots of shops and facilities. It may be a travel hub, somewhere from where I can get easily to the rest of the game world. It may even be my character’s house (or guildhall), a building which I ‘own’.

So I will always pick a bindspot for convenience, but I still get a feeling of being home again when I port back there and appear in the same spot as usual.

There are other places that feel like ‘home’ too. Sometimes a low level town, maybe even the first town your character ever encounters in its game life, can feel homely. When you go back there now, you get a sense of nostalgia similar to revisiting a childhood home in real life. You know the streets. Walking through them brings back memories. Old quests, old glories.

Some games find excuses to keep sending you back to these lowbie towns. Maybe in-game festivals or higher level dungeon quests are given out there. However much people complain about the travel, the odd sense of nostalgia is quite fun.

Others like WAR keep you moving on, never staying in any lowbie zone long enough to form an attachment to it.

Is there a location that feels like home to you? And if you do have an in game house, does it feel like home or is it just a place to store your stuff when you aren’t adventuring? (Admission: I liked the LOTRO housing but I never had much reason to hang around in mine, it was just an extra bank vault with some decoration attached.)