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 …

The Four Year Itch

When I was playing MUDs/ MUSHes I had a theory that after about 3-4 years, a game would have to fundamentally change or else it would inevitably die.

There were/ are two main types of reason for MUDs to start flailing after a few years. The first is down to game mechanics; more complex systems have been added to keep current players occupied, it’s harder and harder for a new player to catch up with people who have already played for awhile, help files and tutorials fall hopelessly out of date. The second is down to the player community; existing players already have their cliques and are unwelcoming, key people who shaped the community have gotten bored and left an unfilled vacuum, staff who helped make the game have moved on.

I think the 4 year mark just tended to be a perfect storm for all of these things coming to a head at once. The community turned in on itself, all the main evangelists had moved on, and the game itself became less friendly to newbies. And the result was that people looking for a new game would find one with fewer barriers.

You could tell when a game was in its death throes – you’d log in, there wouldn’t be many people around and they would mostly be talking about how great things used to be. Staff would be miserable and frustrated. Player communities would be cliquey and unwelcoming to newbies. Whole areas of the grid (i.e.. the game world) would be empty, some of them would obviously have belonged to players who once put lots of time and energy into running them but now were derelict wastelands.

I was very curious when I began playing MMOs about how these huge, commercial, graphically rich games would get past the 4 year hump, or whether it was simply some peculiar law of virtual worlds and virtual communities that no game could deny. This came to mind recently because a few popular WoW bloggers have hung up their virtual pens this year. And it does happen to be at around the four year mark.

Despite all that is said about MUDs vs MMOs, the MMOs have genuinely brought something new and special to a moribund genre. The factors that might send a MUD into decline may not affect an MMO in the same way. But I thought it was a good opportunity to go through the list and see whether our MMOs are aging gracefully and if so, how.

Bear in mind, the sole reason for a game to close is because there are more players leaving than joining, and therefore the people running the game no longer find it viable. Because MUDs were generally non-commercial, staff tended to let them run until the community fell below critical mass. An MMO will have commercial constraints (ie. may be forced to close when it stops turning a profit.)

What can happen to a game after 3/4 years?

Mudflation: I love the word mudflation. Basically it represents what happens when people keep wanting their characters to progress via gear). You get to a point where old players have several years of progression represented by their character, which may have all the latest gear. And new players can’t compete, and can’t really catch up either. The old gear (which new players can get) becomes worthless. It has become totally outclassed by something else.

Using expansions to reset the end game will let newer players catch up to the original ones, but the old gear and mobs who dropped it still remain as a relic of the past.

In some ways it’s interesting that games keep these relics in place. It means you can embark on your own virtual archaeology dig. But it’s likely to be difficult to persuade anyone else to come with you.

Even though games like Everquest are still going, can you imagine recommending a new player to start with them? Can you imagine playing it now, if you didn’t know a single other person in the game? But if you did, imagine what you could unearth as your own personal relic of one of the original MMOs.

Increased complexity: Games tend to start small and focussed. As time goes on, more and more complex subsystems are added to keep players amused. Think of all the new reputation grinds, different types of advancement experience, dual spec capabilities, cosmetic gear, etc.

If you are there from the beginning, you’ll experience the game as it grows organically. You can grow with it. You can see easily what it adds to what you already know. But as a new player in an old game, you can be faced with a mountain of complex sub games and no easy way to know which ones came later and are more significant. When help files or breadcrumb quests are written, it’s usually with existing players in mind, not people in a year’s time who can’t be assumed to automatically have the same base knowledge,

Outdated tutorials and in-game help: It is a basic rule of software development that no one ever remembers to update the help files unless they are forced with FIRE!

And this is also why although player-generated websites and tutorials are brilliant, they’re not the automatic answer. People get bored of websites. They stop updating guides. Worse still, it may be difficult to tell when information is out of date.

And even if they do, are those help files aimed at new players, or at people who had been playing for a year, or at people who had been playing for two or more years? The older the game, the tougher this problem becomes.

Outdated graphics/ technology: The game just looks or feels dated. Maybe this goes beyond the looks to the actual design. Modern MMOs don’t require players to spend hours camping a rare spawn any more, it’s considered old fashioned (and not very fun).

Stratified (mature?) community: When a game is new, people are very focussed on forming social connections. Guilds are made, people group with each other for the first time, the community on a server develops. As the game gets older and players settle into their community, the drive to keep recruiting tends to fade. After all, the whole point of having a settled guild is that you no longer need to look outside.

As a new player, you’re looking to break into an established community. It’s not impossible, but on WoW, for example, the only guilds who regularly recruit are tradechat guilds who will take anyone and focussed raid guilds who need hardcore recruits. If you’re looking for a friendly social guild it may not be so easy to find any more. I know we only recruit people who are friends of current guild members, for example, and that’s quite common.

Other games won’t have the same issues. But still, the focus of the community does shift away from meeting and training new players as the game gets older.

Player turnover: I don’t know what the average length of a subscription is these days. Players who try a game and don’t like it will stay for a month. Players who do like it will stay for a few (call it 6 months). More hardcore players or those who make strong social ties will stay even longer.

But in any case, after the initial social rush of people meeting for the first time in a new game, things settle down, and then you have the first proper wave of player turnover. This is where people who made significant communal ties start to leave. And if, for example, a guild leader or raid leader leaves and cannot be replaced then that guild or raid struggles to keep going.

A new player will notice that people in older guilds will spend more time talking about people they’ve never met and probably never will meet. You may get a sense of ‘the good old days’ from about six months into the game.

And if any of these older players come back, they may be treated better than newer ones, for no real reason other than that they were there at the start. So as a new player, it’s easy to get the impression that not only is it hard to catch up in the game, it’s also hard to catch up socially.

Of course, guilds split and reform all the time. And forming a new guild gives newer players a chance to get in at a community from the beginning. This is where MMOs, with their vastly higher numbers of players, can really win out over MUDs. If a community becomes too moribund, too unwelcoming, there’s a good chance that newer players have other options.

Staff turnover: As well as players drifting in and out of the game, staff also burn out or find other jobs. So eventually you will end up with a development team who had almost no input into the original game. They may not share the same vision. They don’t share the same sense of creative ownership. They may implement new features that don’t really fit the original game.

The game drifts.

How MMOs have approached these problems

My original question has been answered many times over. Successful MMOs have found ways to address all of these issues.

Often, this kind of longevity wasn’t designed in from the start. For a start, your game has to survive 4 years in the first place before this is even an issue. For example, I remember being shocked when WoW announced their first expansion. Stupid as it sounds now, we hadn’t seen that as being inevitable.

Expansions: Love them or hate them, being able to reset the endgame opens up the game to people who weren’t there from the beginning. There’s also a risk that a new expansion makes all previous content obsolete and moves the game away from the themes and playing styles that people have learned to like. But them’s the breaks.

I was particularly impressed that EVE revamped the starting experience recently. This is the kind of thing you really have to do to help new players get off the starting blocks.

Massive games: The more players in the game, the more chance a new player has to find either other newbies or a newbie-friendly guild to hook up with. If one guild breaks up, players have more opportunities to move on and keep going.

In a MUD which had maybe 30 people online as a max, that wasn’t so much of an option.

Player driven support: There are a lot of help files and websites provided by other players. There’s no guarantee that these will be kept up to date, of course, but they’re likely more reliable than buying books.

Some games do seem to generate more helpful communities. I guess this is partly a function of the game being complex anyway and also whether it benefits old guilds to have new players. For example, EVE has an awesome amount of player-generated help available. People have written helpful programs, people run guilds/ corps designed purely to help newbies, etc. And it’s amusing that this is the same game which also contains some of the most cutthroat play in the business.

WAR was also fairly newbie friendly. Bringing more people to a PvP raid was always helpful so guilds and public warbands were motivated to help newer players because they needed the manpower.

Tale in the Desert rewarded players for mentoring newbies.

City of Heroes makes it easy for players to group with higher level people. I’m not entirely sure how the rewards work out but certainly they removed barriers that might have stopped people from doing it.

In MUSHes, we encouraged faction based play so that players in a faction would be motivated to help others new players in the same faction. This actually did work quite well. We even flagged new players at one point so that older ones could see who might need help. But those were profoundly social games, so we could make some assumptions about player behaviour.

Breaking the four year mark!

Eventually, the game will stop being so appealing to newbies and most new players will either have friends in the game or will have picked it because they had no better choices. And that presents a different set of challenges.

But in any case, many of the original players will no longer be there. If they are even still playing MMOs, chances are they will be playing something else. Others will have moved on – four years is a long time, their lives will have changed. People may have gotten married, gone abroad, had babies. A lot can happen in four years and no game is forever.

At that point, the game needs to cater for the longterm players who do stay on, or else it will die. So devs need to really listen to what current players want, and watch what they are actually doing, and respond appropriately.

If WoW is changing, becoming more casual friendly, becoming more accessible, becoming more funnelled, then it’s because this is what devs perceive that players want. It may not be what the original players wanted, but they had their fun.

So it’s OK if people decide that they’ve had enough, the game is no longer the one they loved, and they want to move on.

Everything changes in life. Virtual worlds too. Is it arrogant to design for this from the beginning? Look at WAR, they originally spoke about a 5 year plan. They may well still be on course for it. Now all they have to do is to survive for 5 years …