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.