MMOs and target audiences

A commenter on Tobold’s recent post about the future of raiding (note to self: feminism and posts about whether raiding is dead always get lots of responses :) ) as an end game encapsulated something that has been niggling me about WoW over the past few months.

Someone (I think Krisps, sorry too tired this morning to read through comments slowly) commented that after all was said and done, the Cataclysm raid model was perfect for their guild and playing style so obviously they were pleased with it and hoped that Blizzard stuck with it.

And others commented that they had preferred Wrath because raiding in that expansion had been perfect for their guild and playing style. (This was true for me also.)

And it occurs to me that there is an element of spin the bottle in who Blizzard will decide is their target audience inbetween one expansion and the next. The game that was perfect for you in one expansion might morph into something that can’t keep your attention or your guild together in the next, and largely players accept this as the price of entry. If you don’t like it, you can always leave.

And yet, there is another view of MMOs which is that they could be providing a range of activities catering to a wider range of players and preferences. I do think Blizzard have dropped the ball on this in Cataclysm to some extent – they cater for ultra-casuals very well, and solo players who like pet collecting. Tight-knit 10 man raid guilds (or 25 man) are also catered to pretty well. I’m not sure how the PvP scene is at the moment but there are certainly options for arenas and battleground play. So there is definitely a lot there.

But there’s still the notion of the expansion having a target audience. It suits some types of players more than others, and they aren’t really fighting hard to keep ‘the others’.

Maybe it’s because Rift is so new and I’m nowhere near the level cap but the game feels more forgiving for different playing styles to me right now. There are certainly activities for casual guilds to do together, plenty for soloers, and collectors, and people who like instances. It is entirely possible that all mature MMOs tend to settle out the playerbase into something less flexible (some more hardcore, some more focussed on endgame, etc) and then devs decide which segment to focus on.

For sure there will be some kind of target audience. A military MMO like World of Tanks is looking at military buffs, probably mostly male. Lord of the Rings Online was always expecting a different type of audience.

For all that, I think I prefer MMOs when there is less notion of a target audience in terms of gameplay and more of a “something for everyone” and the simple reason  is that I might feel like doing different activities when I log in for the night. If I’m stressed, I want to do something chilled out. If I want more of a challenge, then I’d like that option too. The tyranny of WoW’s model is that endgame raiders (if they’re in the right sort of tight knit guild) will tend to log in for raids at fixed times and … that’s mostly it.

The Fluff post

It’s a given that World of Warcraft is great for fluff content; pop culture references, silly holiday costumes and devices to throw at other players, things to do in down-time, etc.

I can dress my new dwarf shaman up as a pilgrim and turn other players into turkeys – now that’s what I call fluff!

But, if they’re so great with fluff, where’s the housing, the cosmetic clothing, the trophies? Why is it so easy to give us vanity pets (which are great and strangely addictive) and not the rest. Every time I get some new cool bit of clothing or mask at a holiday, I crave cosmetic armour. I want trophies like in Warhammer Online, medals I can pin to my armour. I want a better selection of titles and for achievement points to mean something. And I’d like housing so I could have housing items. I love all these things about the MMOs I’ve played in the past and that I currently play.

And WoW is so great at so much fun content, that I feel the lack there all the more. If I couldn’t see the full pilgrim armour, or the Day of the Dead gear.. I wouldn’t care about the cosmetics. Also, the moment you see it done well in one game, you kind of realise all games could probably do it.

If there was one fluff content area you could add to WoW from another game, what would it be? I think for me it’d be housing, and all that entails.

When anecdotes attack…

I know it’s no big surprise that World of Warcraft and MMOs in general can really provide a bond between people where there really wasn’t anything much else in common.

I wrote a while ago about my boss’ young son and his little written note asking me how to get off Teldrassil. And my boss said her coolness factor with her son had gone up a couple of notches for knowing someone who could answer his questions.

Steampunk Phoenix tattooA couple of weeks ago, I went to get a tattoo I’d had planned for a while. It was a mammoth 8-hr session of tattooing (and I still need to get the background put in!). The tattooist had mentioned he was into computer games, but it was only when his girlfriend showed up towards the end of the session and he casually mentioned that both she and I played World of Warcraft that the big gaming discussion took place. She was in her early 20s, I’m 40. She’s a very hip goth chick, and I’m just an all-round geek. And yet we both play on EU roleplay servers (not the same ones, but still) and managed to have a very long and animated conversation about the game, Cataclysm, healing and roleplay in MMOs. Considering this was after around 6h of tattooing, it really helped get me through the final stages.

And then we come to last week. Just before a meal with workmates I went round to my co-workers’ house (she lives much closer to work than me, and yes, we work in a 2-person library, so it’s just us most of the time). Her 18-yr-old son came down to get some food and mentioned something about the Shattering and World of Warcraft and I discovered he’s also a healing nut (though he plays a druid to my shaman) and he ended up abandoning his sick girlfriend for 45m to have a chat with me about WoW.

It’s funny only because all these incidents all happened so close together. Normally I go through life with my gamer friends on one side and my non-gamer friends on the other. And while the non-gamers may be pretty tolerant to my explanations of these games, I don’t often have moments of connection via MMOs. (I mentioned on a very old blog once that my colleagues in the big library all knew that I went to fight a Balrog every friday night in LotRO and frequently asked how it had gone, even if they had no idea what any of the words meant ;p).

Anyway, thought I’d share because it made me feel warm and fuzzy!

Wow, I’m nearly 80!

I have been the most casual of WoW players since my return near the beginning of the year. I re-joined to try the Refer-a-Friend thing with Spinks and we zoomed through levels 1-40, the bit I was dreading from over-playing them previously.

But then I took a break, the R-A-F thing ran out, and we started getting busy in our lives. So I’ve been shambling along, doing dungeons, questing, ranting about why I couldn’t fly when I first got to Lich King content, ranting about how obtuse parts of the game seemed.. and here I am, about a thumb’s worth of xp away from level 80.

I cheated for two levels and let my husband play my char while I was at Comic Con. He always loved Shaman and has an addiction problem when it comes to MMOs, so this is about the only way he can play – for a limited period of time. But he did me proud, he levelled my first aid (which I left languishing at silk levels) and he kept my jewelcrafting appropriate to my level. He also got me (as I said initially) a couple of levels, from 75-77 – and I could fly again! Hurrah!

How’s it been? Definitely an eye-opener, coming straight from LotRO back to the fully finished Lich King. I felt rushed, not by friends and family, but by the game seemingly focusing on getting those next few levels till you got to Dalaran, the next levels to fly again, etc etc. And I felt fairly inadequate for much of it. Yes, if I’d read quests better I’d have done better, but a lot of them didn’t grab me. Until I got to Grizzly Hills, where I read them all and fell in love with the zone. Let that be a lesson to me. But I got a clue early on with each zone about whether I’d like it or not, and having such a rich choice of places to level was a little intimidating.

Of course, to Spinks, I was a bit of a burden. I’d launch into fortnightly rants about how rubbish WoW is, how hard they make it for no reason when you start Lich King, and that telling me it’d all get better doesn’t help. I didn’t really have the same negative reaction to the Burning Crusade content, probably because the dungeon finder got me through any rough points – I do remember a very negative response to my first bombing runs though, so maybe I had the odd rant then. I’d also prove how noobish I was in the middle on dungeon runs she was trying to explain for me. But she survived, I think and now has been guiding me through more obtuse bits like what the hell the tabard rep system is, why I should/might care, and what tabard I might want (to save me looking it up for myself).

And that’s probably been one of my enduring take-aways from my levelling. Having a very knowledgeable friend/sibling/guild member really made me a bit lazy, but I also didn’t ever feel the need to go read up on the minutiae of the game – but everyone I was playing with had assumed I probably would. I looked up some speccing advice and that was it. To me, it’s been a casual game, getting some cash and a feel for the world again before Cataclysm launches. It’s not really been about being the best, more about being ‘good enough’. Because of that a lot of my focus is heirlooms for alts, crafting that might be useful, getting a vague feeling about zones I like – rather than reading up on how all the systems work. In fact, if you questioned me now, I’d be pretty vague on heirlooms, PvP honor marks, tabards and rep and what the hell a heroic is (except people will inspect my gear, tell me I’m shit at everything and then I get better reward for suffering through it, if we succeed!).

Still, overall, I’ve had fun, and during my ranty times I’ve been online less, but I’ve not given up as I did with previous attempts to return to the game. I’ve plugged away at it and on sunday, I’ll have my first ever level 80 in World of Warcraft.

Thoughts on burnout in MMOs and how to avoid it

via pwnware.com I was reading about Nick Yee’s idea of the five-phase player lifecycle in a game.

This can be paraphased as:

  1. Starting out. Everything is new and exciting.
  2. Ramping up. You know the basics, now you’re setting more long term goals.
  3. Mastery. This includes being settled in a social group for endgame as well as mastering your character, for whatever type of endgame you decide to do.
  4. Burnout.
  5. Casual/ Recovery.

The first thing that strikes me is that many players (probably the majority) don’t ever go through the  mastery and burnout phases. They hop straight from ramping up to casual, possibly even skipping the ramping up phase if the game offers that option.  (There should probably be a “6. Bored/ Distracted by new game or hobby” phase too.)

This means that casual guilds potentially attract a mixture of ex-hardcore players and never-will-be-hardcore players. Or in other words, our definitions for casual need  more work because some people will play a game casually but still be far more invested in it than others who play similar hours.

The other thing that strikes me is that ramping up is often seen as a noobish phase. It’s the part which the elite players try to rush or even jump, and everyone else is encouraged to short cut it by making use of offsite guides, videos, and other player generated tutorials.

And yet, if you ask players which their personal golden age was in their favourite game, often it will be the one where they had the longest time in the first two phases. Usually the first MMO they played, or the first one they were invested enough in to master.

So the pressure to master a game quickly might actually be encouraging players to have less fun, and get them to burn out faster too.

Another thought is that if people keep playing similar games and then picking similar classes, it will mean that they master a new game more quickly. Sometimes that’s even part of the appeal. If you anticipate a lot of competition in the role or an aggressive playerbase, it’s a confidence booster to know that you have previous experience with a similar class.

Once enough people do this, there is no one for the ramping up people to play with. We see this happen in older games. Starcraft (original)  is a good example, people have been playing that competitively for over 10 years. How many of them do you think are still ramping up or might be fun to play with for a newbie? Eventually, designers don’t bother with much of a tutorial. They assume the majority of players will be familiar with the genre. You see this a lot in shooters at the moment.

And people who pick a similar class because they just love the playstyle will still master it more quickly. That means that sometimes, playing the games and classes you love is a fast track to burnout.

I suspect this is part of the reason why post-WoW style MMOs have struggled to maintain long term subscriptions. The hardcore players mastered them fast because they were so similar to existing games, and it’s very difficult for a new game to instantly ship with enough content and depth to keep the hardcore interested for several months. Yet at the same time, casual players checked the games out and decided for whatever reason that they didn’t want to make a longterm commitment.

Burnout can be a mental health issue

If you type burnout into google, you won’t get a bunch of gaming links up top. You’ll be directed to mental health websites.

Here’s a definition which I picked from one of them:

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

Being burned out on a game is very different from just being bored of it. This is why burnout is so strongly associated with hardcore players, who make the most commitments and feel the most stress.

So if you care at all about your own health, you really should act if you feel that you are burning out. Why? It will make you happier and less stressful in game and, perhaps more importantly, can show you how to cope better with burnout in real life if you should ever face that.

There are two types of player, those who burn out and those who don’t

And yet, there are players who do play similar games or similar classes for years at a time without ever seeming to get bored. They either find challenges in tweaking the playing style they love, or they enjoy the ease which familiarity gives. Or maybe they mostly know how to skip happily to the casual phase of play without ever worrying about mastery.

So what are the secrets to avoiding burn out?

  1. Recognise the signs of burnout before it hits. Unfortunately you probably need to have burned out on a game at least once to do this accurately. If you start hating the thought of logging in on a specific character or to do a specific instance or doing so puts you into a bad mood, then that’s a fairly good indicator.
  2. Is there one specific issue causing the burnout. One instance that you detest, some players in your guild who are driving you nuts? If so, can you find a way to minimise those?
  3. Diversify your game. Try a different character or a different spec. Join another guild with an alt and get to know new people. Try a different server.
  4. Play less on the character/ playstyle that is burning you out. This can be tough if you have time commitments to a raid guild, but you won’t be any benefit to anyone if you burn out. And no decent guild leadership would pressure  you to stay if that was the case.  (If they do, it’s a sign that you need to find a new guild anyway.)
  5. Diversify your hobbies. Putting all your free time into one hobby may help in mastering it, but it can help a lot with burnout to look at doing other things too. Getting more sleep also can’t hurt.
  6. Step away from or minimise stressful commitments. If being a guild leader or raid leader is stressing you out to the point of burnout, find someone to share the job or step down. Yes, it’s hard but this is a game. Also, it won’t help anyone if you burn out. It is sometimes possible to find ways to delegate or reorganise guild management so as to put less stress on one person, look into those. The bonus of recognising the signs of burnout is that you can do this before it is too late.
  7. Talk to people. Make new friends. Friends and communities in game can be surprisingly supportive, even just by being there. If your community is not supportive, it’s time to find another one. Spending more time with friends offline can help a lot too, it just resets your perspective.
  8. Know your limits. If you have X hours per week to play a game, don’t mimic a playstyle that really requires X+1. Don’t rush to be as hardcore as possible if it’s just not practical. Stress between life/ gaming balance will make burnout more likely and may make the consequences way more severe.
  9. Redefine your notion of success. In WoW at the moment, a hardcore raider might see hard mode Lich King as the only achievement worthy of note. And yet, many casual guilds are rightly proud of their normal mode kills. A casual player with no guild might be just as proud of having gotten a character to 80 and earned enough emblems to buy heirlooms for alts. So who is right?
  10. Consider whether you want to make the shift to a casual/ recovery playstyle. I’ve mentioned a couple of times the possibility of switching guilds or reducing responsibilities in game.
Enhanced by Zemanta