Attracting a better class of player

Raegn@EpicBook loves the LOTRO in-game community. They’re friendly, chatty, uninclined to flood the chat channels with Chuck Norris jokes (yes I know that’s very 2007/8), patient, supportive, and don’t ask him what his gear is like before he joins a group*.

In fact, he loves them so much that it was the tipping factor in his decision to take out a lifetime subscription. And he wonders what makes that game so different.

Picking the right IP

Maybe LOTRO by its very nature appeals to an older, less hardcore and more relaxed breed of gamer. Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954-5, and as Raegn says, it has long since passed into the ranks of the classic canon. It is one of the few fantasy books to have done so.

So one theory is that people who read lit-er-atch-ure are more civilised beings. There aren’t many video games based on classic literature to compare with here – the closest I can find are games like Titanquest or God of War which are themed on classical mythology. So maybe the easiest thing to do is look at other games based on Middle Earth.

It’s a long list of games, stretching back to The Hobbit in 1982 (Thorin sings about gold. You kill Thorin.) Middle Earth has featured on consoles and PCS, it has been played as action games, war games, shoot em ups, and RPGs as well as an MMO. I’m not seeing any special indication that Tolkien fans are a special breed, though. They seem to like and play the same sorts of games as everyone else.

I’ll come back to that later, but there is a point to be made that different IPs definitely appeal to different age groups. This isn’t just about kids liking Spongebob and the Tellytubbies, its about everyone having a soft spot for favourite books they read while they were in their teens/twenties even though they may later go out of fashion or out of print.

Some IPs do eventually make the leap to a more universal appeal. In a way, they become the classics of their genre. Others don’t age so well. A few years ago, everyone would have been all over a Buffy MMO (and it’s still a cool setting) – in five years time, it’s history.

So if a company wanted to make a product that was focussed on a specific age group and type of player, picking the right IP is a good place to start.

This is part of the reason that I think that the Everquest setting will be a millstone around SOEs neck if they ever did decide to make EQ3. It only appeals to people who already liked the first couple of games. To anyone else, it’s an obscure fantasy setting associated with ancient grindy MMOs and with no outstanding special appeal. Unless you like the semi naked elf chick they use on all their ads, I guess. People would buy that game in spite of the IP, not because of it.

Search or Filter?

I think there are two different approaches here. You could try to only attract the sort of players you want, and filter out the rest by making your game unappealing to their playstyle. Or just go for attracting as many players as possible, but make it easy for the friendly ones to find each other. (note: friendly probably isn’t quite the right word for what I mean here, but can’t think of a better one.)

One of these routes will generate much more cash than the other, just saying. But at the cost that the friendly players will have to deal with the rest of the playerbase. The atmosphere of the game itself will be less focussed. That’s pretty much WoW in a nutshell. There’s something for lots of different types of players, but the downside(?) is that you’ll end up mixing with lots of different types of players.

But what about the gameplay?

Gameplay has a lot more influence than IP on what type of players end up in different games. That’s not to say that IP isn’t a part of the whole experience and some IPs lend themselves better to different types of game, but it is just as possible to make a hardcore sandbox Darkfallesque game based on Lord of the Rings as it is to make a casual friendly MMO.

It is true though that the starting zones in LOTRO are slow paced, friendly, and very evocative. I still think The Shire is one of the best zones in the game purely from evoking the feeling of ‘I was there!’. They set the tone.

If a game puts in extra features for casual type players – more fluff, nice costumes, crafting, housing, places to hang out and chat, not being so driven to level and go out to the farthest reaches of the world – then it’s also not surprising if they’ll attract a friendlier type. The type of player who is happy to sit around chatting or roleplaying is probably the same type who will be friendly to newbies; ie. they are more social players. It’s not guaranteed, but in every game I’ve played the RP servers had a rep for being friendlier.

The sub model

I think that LOTRO has one interesting advantage over other games. They brought in the concept of the lifetime subscription. (We still don’t really know how that’s working out for them in terms of profits but it was an interesting experiment, so I hope it is.)

So a proportion of players are very invested in the game world. They can still leave when they get bored, but they will inevitably think differently about the game. It’s more permanent for them. They’ve already paid upfront. And maybe people who are more invested in the game are less likely to be casually rude to newbies? Maybe they’re more aware that if they can encourage newbies to stay, they’ll have more people to play with later on?

Maybe, just maybe, it encourages long term thinking among the player base. And that would drive a more civil community. The benefits of being friendly to newbies tend to be long term.

LOTRO Exceptionalism

I don’t know that the actual players are any different from any other game. I know several people who play LOTRO in addition to other games. But behaviour of players actually in the game is generally friendly and polite to newbies.

I think they do have a good number of the social player type who is more likely to want to ‘mother’ and teach new players. This is despite the fact there’s no special reward in game for doing it. No mentoring titles or achievements. No purples ‘of the teacher’. They do it because they like to hang out and chat and be supportive to each other. There are downsides to this. The game itself is achievement focussed but a lot of the players aren’t interested in that side of things. And in guilds that can be quite divisive.

Oddly enough, WoW with its increased focus on raiding and grouping seems to drift to more cohesive guilds (i.e. the sheer mass of people encourages guilds to form around people who want to do the same sorts of in game activities).

I think it’s interesting. The more filtered nature of LOTROs players does make the player community feel very different, especially to a newbie. But in a game like WoW, the players you want are probably still there … if only you can find them.

* OK, I made that one up.