Chasing a changing playbase

Discussions this weekend about how players could/ should react if a long running MMO changes in ways that they don’t like have brought one thing front and centre for me. And that is the notion of planned playerbase obsolescence.

Think of any long running TV series, comic series, long running band, or book/ film series. How many current fans have been fans since the beginning? How many for 5 years, how many for 10? I wonder how many of the long term media with long term fans have either involved the same creator all the time, or else have made a commitment to trying to keep the same fanbase. If you look at a long running game like Star Craft for example, the developer made updates have been committed to maintaining similar gameplay with tweaks intended purely to smooth gameplay for existing fans. Mods have allowed existing fans to keep turning out content for other existing fans.

But the other side of the coin is planned obsolescence. Games Workshop is the best example I can think of for a company who plans product based on this assumption. Their core playerbase is 14 year old boys. They expect a regular turnover as that playerbase grows up and discovers the opposite/ same sex. Sure, there will always be a hardcore geek element who keep playing the game into adulthood but the core model is aimed at a 2 yearly update.

And where do MMOs stand with this model? Older MMOs tended to grow with their playerbase, many of whom stuck with the games for years. Everquest is a good example, the gameplay has changed and there are tons more expansions but the core crowd is basically long term loyalists. The majority of players though probably never did have that sort of commitment; the figure I have seen quoted as average sub length was 6 months. Players did assume that the game would continue on, mostly in the same vein, ad infinitum. The strength of the classic MMO was that it provided scope for lots of different types of gameplay, often referred to as a buffet. The assumption was that as a longterm player’s tastes changed, they’d probably stick with their current game and community but switch the focus of their gameplay.

When running MU*, we always tried to grow with the existing community. We might have worked with them on figuring how to best attract and retain new people, but there would have been a reluctance to make far reaching changes. Best if people who wanted something different just went to a new game.

But now we’re seeing that publishers have their eye on that average 6 month subscription length number (which now may be lower than that and of course it’s harder to measure in F2P games anyway.) WoW in particular is shifting towards the Games Workshop model where they plan on the basis of fans growing out of the game, rather than trying to change with them. But with a twist. In recent interviews, senior designers have commented that their main target market is shifting towards players who have previously played WoW and then left. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to entertain the current players but they want to try to pick up more players who already tried the game and then left.

That’s almost backwards from Games Workshop really. How do you attract players who may have grown out of (or burned out on) your game? And how do you do so without boring the existing player base? And what if those longterm players are also the core of your community (which may or may not be an attractive factor to returning players too)?

What it does mean is that increasingly the games are likely to be changing under players’ feet in more radical ways than just adding new content and new minigames. We used to assume that if you burned out on a game, it would be because you had grown past it. Now it might easily be because the game grew past you, and probably in a way you could not have predicted. And there may not be some easily accessible alternative game that provides the experience you had previously enjoyed.  These are strange times for people who seek long term virtual homes in their MMOs. Even an old school game like LOTRO is torn between catering for their longterm players and the new F2P crowd.

I think the planned obsolescence route is playing with fire. It risks annoying the current players and not attracting the hoped for new ones.  No one really wants to throw dice to figure out if their current game of choice will still be fun next expansion. Maybe it would be better to accept that games will tend towards a small core playerbase over time, stick to a particular game’s strengths,  and just try to migrate other players to different games.