Friday, September 4, 2009

MMOs for Gamers: My Approach

Designers face a unique design hurdle in mass market MMOs: they have to make a game that isn’t relying on gamers for its chief source of subscribers and sales. I know many people who play MMOs but do not play games in general. They are drawn to the genre because it offers a social playground. The game mechanics are interchangeable and unimportant to them because they are just a side show to a game of social maneuvering, friend making, and accomplishing arbitrary goals cooperatively. If the game is popular enough to draw their friends in, the non-gamer will jump in and mass-market games are forced to make the landing comfortable. MMOs provide a microcosm of a meaningful life: you learn the game in your youth, you build trust and form relationships with others, you exploit those relationships and the dynamics of life in the world to do what you want to do and enjoy yourself.

It appears to me that most MMOs are produced with the goal of appealing to both the non-gamers and gamers equally (or appealing to primarily non-gamers in truth but appealing to gamers with marketing speak). I don’t think this is a productive approach. Non-gamers will not be interested in a game that forces them to play frequently and assumes they have some kind of skill and care about the outcomes of gameplay. They want a platform for social interaction. Gamers want the game to bind the players together into a de facto community—gamers do not want the community to draw the players. This naturally creates a situation that Gevlon likes to draw in stark relief: non-gamers who don’t really play the game intermingling with gamers who are primarily in the game to play it. To judge one group by the other’s standards, as Gevlon does to much controversy and dramatic effect, is foolish—it’s a variety of ethnocentrism akin in kind, but by no means in significance, to the ethnocentrism that mars many pieces of historical work regarding Asian and Middle Eastern cultures written by Western authors of the past thousand years. It’s easy to believe something is better just because it is your belief—it is not easy to come to grips with the complex reality of a multi-dimensional and multi-faceting picture of goals and motivations.

I approach MMO design as a gamer. I’ve played many games in nearly every genre. I don’t rely on the mainstream to supply games—I play and love games like Armageddon Empires, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (X and XI, primarily), Front Office Football, AI War, Dwarf Fortress, Europa Universalis 3, and ADOM. I seek to find the games that I will have fun playing, and play them until I no longer find them fun. I’m accustomed to learning difficult and opaque games; they often give me the greatest amount of concentrated fun. Blundering through difficult games for hours in order to learn even the simplest uses of their mechanics doesn’t faze me. In this, I’m a rare type of gamer and I’m indelibly a gamer.

I am the diametric opposite of a non-gamer, and understanding that will allow you to see where I come from with my design ideas and my exhortations towards a revolution in MMOs. Any MMO can rise and fall on the waves of social fancy among their players, but the ones that stay big seem to have good games locked within them. I want to design and play MMOs that are sound games around which strong communities can flourish. That is the most sensible and least trend-dependent (and therefore more stable) way of achieving success.


Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

The problem comes when money rears its ugly head.

Current games are bound to the subscription model. This means that more players = more money. So, you make the maximum revenue when you pander to a wider audience. Intentionally ignoring part of the audience means you're going to be "leaving money on the table" as they say. Having more players also means you can send out press releases bragging about your big numbers.

A game that focuses on a niche has to find a way to make more money, though. As I've pointed out several times before, my game with 1000 enthusiastic players is going to have less money to work with than WoW with it's millions of players paying per month. To the end user, it looks like they're paying the same amount of money for a vastly different experience.

This is changing. People are beginning to warm to the microtransaction model, finally. But, you still see some people stubbornly wanting to stick to the subscription model. We'll keep getting games that pander to the widest audience as long as they stick to that business model, though.

evizaer said...

Not every game needs to be a blockbuster AAA release with lots of fanfare and millions of expected subscribers. I fully expect the kind of game that I want to be made by dedicated, brilliant designers and developers who are working primarily out of love. The production values won't be there, but the games made out of love will be able to survive and show new ways to make MMOs work. Through a period of trial among smaller, cheaper-to-develop MMOs, the ideas can prove themselves marketable and fun. Once the little guys have done the proving, the big ones can do the polishing.

The way the market looks now and the way people try to ddesign and make MMOs now could not tolerate the approach I'm suggesting. With better procedural content and dynamic worlds, though, no longer does the majority of the time need to be spent on content--it'll probably cut the time and cost down a good bit with some smart designers and developers working on such systems.

Anonymous said...

roleplayers are also gamers. I think part of the problem is that your definition of gamer is very narrow.

evizaer said...

Roleplayers and immersionists (perhaps a new word?) can become gamers, yes, but the motivation isn't the same as the motivation I'm outlining. This article is not an attempt to point out what a gamer is--that's a difficult task and one I don't wish to attempt. I was only trying to illustrate the kind of player I am and how that affects my habits when I play games and my ideals as a designer, not define who a gamer is.

Roleplayers are storytellers who use game mechanics as independent conflict resolution tools. To a good roleplayer, a game is enjoyable if it leaves them room to be their character and offers sufficient systems for resolving the kind of conflicts their characters are bound to get into. Roleplayers wouldn't sit down and play a complex but strategically deep card game, neither would social/non-gamers, because the mechanics aren't a motivating force for playing the game, the mechanics are a sideshow or helpful component in roleplay, just as for the socialite the game is a platform for social endeavors that offers them tools to engage in relationships with other playres (chat systems, mail systems, guilds, etc).

In a most pure sense, a gamer is a person who plays games for the game mechanics. Once you start going beyond that definition and play games for non-game-related reasons, it becomes difficult to show where being a gamer ends and being a non-gamer begins. Not even my simple definition is good enough to draw a line, anyway. It may merit a more detailed look.

I only play games (except for rare cases, like my current stint in WoW, though the rare cases don't last long) for as long as I find their mechanics entertaining and fun. I think that it should be a central aim to make games entertaining and fun as games alone first, then toss in the social candy that will hook people in. Without a strong game, though, the candy guarantees nothing.

Tesh said...

I've played these before. They were called "PC games with optional online multiplayer", like Diablo 2. :P

Pith aside, I think Brian's spot on in that once you go "massive" and "mainstream", you're not really making games for gamers any more. You can't afford such a narrow clientele.