Thursday, January 21, 2010

Including: Our Destruction

Why did WoW succeed and how do other MMOs manage to fail when Blizzard has seemingly laid the path to 14 million users bare for all to see?

Look no further than community dynamics in both society and, by extension, in MMOs: you’ll see that Blizzard’s success is not a blueprint for future success, but instead a monumental step forward that can only happen once—this step forward has unalterably changed the community dynamics of MMOs by willingly including an unprecedented number of new people into the MMO gaming.

The Community: Exclusion Builds and Inclusion Destroys

[This is an introduction to community dynamics in real life. If you wish to skip this section, you can do so without missing out on anything particularly necessary, though I encourage you to read this because it may help you to understand some very important patterns in real communities.]

Without some way of effectively figuring out who you can trust, you can’t get anything substantial done aside from watching and guarding your own interests closely. We more efficiently pick who we trust through membership in social institutions, communities. We establish social institutions as a way of formalizing rules for who we can and cannot trust. If someone is in my community, it means that people (who I trust) trust that person, therefore that person is worthy of my trust. Instead of spending the significant amount of time required to personally establish a trust-bond in my relationship with a stranger, I can see that they are a part of my community, even though I don’t know them directly, and immediately begin working with them—I can safely assume a base level of trust. My trust in this stranger probably won’t be violated, because we’re both a part of this community and we both want to remain parts of this community.

Members in a community want their community to be exclusionary—people who they should not trust should not be a part; most people are not trustworthy. Members of a community know of their membership because they can tell that other people are not in the community. Strongly identifying who is not in your community gives you an identity through leaving out others. As the community grows to a sufficient size, members want membership to be more difficult to attain, more exclusive, more exclusionary; if a community is easy to join then there’s little meaning to membership. A loose community does a worse job of guaranteeing a base level of trust between its members. If a community member is not in a position of power, and therefore de facto superior, they want only people that they view as their equals or betters (i.e. people who are above-average in everything like they think they are) to be a part of their group, so they invent or improvise initiation procedures to reduce the chances of unworthy outsiders joining their clique. Rites of initiation are primarily barriers to make sure that new community members are serious about being a part of the community. Initiation raises the cost in leaving a community, because to join a new community an outcast would have to overcome initiation obstacles again instead of being productive and progressing. This higher cost of leaving incentivizes community members to continue being trustworthy.

When too many people join the clique (when the population exceeds the Dunbar’s Number for humans), it segments into several smaller communities. Each of these communities is exclusive, while the over-extended clique which birthed the smaller communities appears to be inclusive.

Community-through-Play to Community-from-Play

You used to play games with people because you knew them. Your friendship extended into playing the game, whether the game involved cooperation or competition, direct or indirect. Either way, you rarely met someone while you were playing the game unless you were in an arcade—though arcades fell out of mainstream gaming well before the gaming scene picked up mainstream appeal in the 1990s.

Think back on board games that have existed since well before the advent of the videogame. Board games were an activity used to further socialize with people you knew. They were a gathering place where already-established relationships could be molded and strengthened (or tested, in many cases).

MMOs work in reverse. They start you on wobbly legs in an unknown universe that includes thousand of people with whom you have no relationship. An oft-overlooked though crucial process in an MMO: How a new player goes from being excluded by all and unskilled to being a functioning member of a community. How do players form bonds with other players?

If the game is exclusionary by its nature, like a current-gen sandbox PvP game, the community is against the player from the outset. The new player is weak and everyone else is a potential wolf. The new player cannot be trusted, because he could be a spy, a saboteur—or maybe he’s a useless scrub and if we outfitted him we’d just be wasting our money.

But if the new player survives this hazing and becomes initiated into the group, the bond is tighter because the group actively excludes and identifies itself through that exclusion.

World of Warcraft is the opposite.

From Exclusion to Inclusion: Game Design

In the past, games brought together people with similar interests—namely, playing games. The clique of gamers was tight-nit and exclusionary. If two gamers met and could identify one another as part of the group, they would immediately have a strong rapport. Gamers looked down at non-gamers as people who “just don’t get it”.

Games were designed for gamers. They became more complex and more difficult as players and game designers learned and explored more games. In this way, games became increasingly exclusive to those who could play them, and, by extension, those who had played earlier games.

To make games into a business on a wide scale, corporations had to sell games to people who had not played games before. Console gaming’s success over the past thirties has opened the floodgates—now console gaming is mainstream. A community that used to be exclusionary is now forced to be inclusionary. Being a gamer is more nebulous than it even has been.

Blizzard’s Open Gates

We should not be surprised that Blizzard took an exclusionary and elitist MMO design paradigm and tried to make it inclusionary by removing skill tests, requiring less time, and assuming little-to-no player cooperation. Inclusive game design opens the game to millions of players who otherwise wouldn’t have the time or interest to pay for the game. Just let people play the game easily and encourage them to keep playing, and you’ll find that you’re suddenly making much more money.

But this move costs World of Warcraft in community coherency and quality. And community is a surprisingly strong factor in why people keep playing MMOs—it means more to  many players than the game mechanics themselves. By trying to include as many people in the game’s community as possible, Blizzard fractured the game’s community and made it meaningless to be a part of the WoW community, so the broader community of WoW is a dead space full of genuine trolls and normal people turned into adversarial jerks by the community-less nature of the game.

(See also Elder Game’s article, “Community Friendliness: Size Matters”.)

Letting just about anyone play WoW was a conscious decision by Blizzard: they traded community quality for profit potential. They were the first to do it and they thrive for this reason. WoW succeeds because the game design is inclusionary and people actually showed up to play.  Why did they show up? Because the other games in the market had their gates closed to all but those who knew a closely-guarded password, while WoW had theirs open to anyone who happened to wander by.

If people don’t show up to play an inclusionary game and stay, the benefit of being inclusionary evaporates. Left in the ruins are a weak community and a mediocre-at-best game.

MMO Design as Community Design

An MMO designer is a community designer. She designs an ecosystem where communities subsist, merge, diverge, devolve, and re-emerge. The MMO should be first considered as a place where communities live, and secondarily as a game. This doesn’t mean the game should be second-rate and tacked-on as it is in Second Life—I mean that MMOs should function well as community environments just as they should function well as games. When working out the basic mechanics—how the world works—designers should consider that this is a world where players should want their characters to live. The possible effects a player can have on the world should be designed with their community-wide effects in mind, not just their effects on one player.

The central question in game design, “would this be fun?”, should be augmented in MMO design with “would this contribute to the creation and maintenance of communities?”

World of Warcraft is the only MMO that can succeed on such an enormous scale by simply opening its gates to all comers. The next significant step forward in MMO design will be taken by the designers who put the community first in their minds and let the design flow from there. The pre-pubescent viral facebook games are only the first baby steps of this new design pattern in MMOs.


Anonymous said...

I think this is one of the best posts you have written. Need to think about this some more, but I think you have really nailed it.

It does make me wonder why Second Life didn't steal WoW's thunder though.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Very insightful. I think you get a lot of points correct, but there are few unanswered questions.

First, what was the effect of the power of the Blizzard and Warcraft brands? I don't think that just any game could have duplicated what WoW did and expected success. For example, I couldn't image that Funcom's Anarchy Online could have achieved WoW's numbers just by being more inclusive.

I think it was the gamers flocking to the game initially that helped it become the juggernaut it is today. The early adopters came in and drove early sales. Like The Sims, I think this initial flood of hard-core players helped ease in subsequent people who were not the typical hard-core gamers generally attracted to this game.

It's interesting to note that people consider that the game has gotten "easier" (or, more inclusive) over time. Originally a person outfitted in purple (epic) gear had to be a hard-core raider. Now the game gives out "welfare epics" to people who just run stuff often enough. As you point out, this allows more people to play the game.

Second, why WoW has achieved such longevity? According to what you wrote, WoW should have shrank after a while. The changes to make the game easier explain some of the growth (including more people), but WoW has had insanely high retention; one developer thought that the original stats published about WoW had to be false because they were unheard of for other games.

As I said, definitely insightful, but a few quirks to ponder.

Koal said...

I would like to address one point in particular. You state that the easiness of WoW has cost it in terms of community. I think this is provably false. Although the old school hard core raiding community genuinely suffered and was effectively destroyed WoW has obviously not suffered because of it.

The old raider oriented community was every bit as full of trolls and adversarial jerks as it is now, in fact I would say more so as there is less to compete over in the current environment. Raiders were in constant competition with each other for players, resources and progress. This was a constant source of negative guild, server and even game wide drama in addition to the futility of spending hundreds or thousands of development man-hours to create content that would only ever be utilized by a relatively small percentage of the player-base.

What the change did was remove one rigidly defined and relatively elitist community which truly only catered to a small minority of players and replaced it with a larger and much more inclusive community where there is less competition and more just playing the game. It is very hard to see a change like that as a bad thing and something I am fairly sure WoW has greatly profited from in terms of player retention and overall reputation (outside of the old hardcore sect which was adversely effected).

So while some of the old guard may be very (and possibly even justifiably) upset with the alternative direction WoW has taken there has been a noticeably and demonstrably positive impact on the game and its community.

evizaer said...


Second Life didn't win because it was too nebulous to be considered a game by gamers, and therefore didn't have an inherent hardcore audience. It's too free-form and ill-defined. There aren't enough game rules to make people feel like they're participating in a game worth playing.


Having a lot of people is not the same as having a good community (or any community).

Notice how obnoxious WoW's general community is to newbies. Notice how sceptical WoW players are of one another.

If the game's community was good, players would have a de facto bond simply because they are playing the same game. In Rzyom, for instance, playing with other people is usually a pleasure because almost all other players are happy to be grouped and they appreciate the mere fact that you're playing the game. They'll be helpful to one another seemingly for no reward because the community is small and good, whereas in WoW the community is so large that two people playing the game are almost at the same trust-level as two complete strangers in real life.

Kenny said...

@Brian: AO came almost 4 years before WoW, that's a long time, especially back then. Just one thing: internet-penetration. Had it come like a year before WoW, had it been more inclusive, had it have a smooth launch (lol), it might just had become "The MMO" as we know today. I think they got most of the things right, the IP is strong (well, coul've been), the game is cute but not in a pink-rainbow-pony way, not speaking about the mechanics because that's a different story.

@evi: Awesome post, it echoes some of my own thoughts. I also think there is an undeniable connection between entry requirements and quality of players, which in turn will have a huge impact on quality of community. I also think that the way to go is fostering in-game communities, in this way EVE is truly a pioneer.

But I don't think that WoW's community in a whole suffers from low entry requirements. I strongly believe it suffers from lying to players, telling them that it is a single player game that they can play with their friends. IF they chose to. And this is irrelevant of what other entry requirements you have.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Kenny wrote:
AO came almost 4 years before WoW, that's a long time, especially back then.

Yes, but I think that even if Blizzard had never existed and Funcom started working on Anarchy Online four years late and had been inclusive, they still would not have achieved the number of players that WoW did. Even if we properly ignore Asian figures. The brand names of Blizzard and Warcraft helped drive initial adoption rates tremendously and shouldn't be discounted in a conversation about how WoW grew.

Kenny said...

I don't know, Brian, while I'm not denying that the name Blizzard on the box attracts customers it's really hard to guess what could've happened. EQ didn't have any hype or brand behind it (SOE - who the hell was SOE back then?), yet it became one of the biggest success stories until WoW. And let's not forget that AO could've filled the gaping hole in the sci-fi MMO market that still exists today.

Then again I lost my virginity on AO, so I might be biased - in fact I am because everything I like(d) in AO is a stopgap hushing away true retards.

evizaer said...


"First, what was the effect of the power of the Blizzard and Warcraft brands?"

It provided a strong seed community of hardcore players. This seed community could have sustained the game indefinitely without outside help. it basically gave Blizzard the resources to open WoW's gates to more players and not fear completely bankrupting their community. As they made the game easier, they allowed such a flood of new players into the game that they didn't even need to worry about the hardcore community anymore (well, they did try to placate them with e-sports are high-end raiding, but that's negligible in terms of the rest of the game's content).

Also, everyone and their mother knew about the game because Blizzard is good at making games, apparently, and everyone--even people like me who weren't huge MMO fans and didn't particularly like Warcraft anything--got excited just because Blizzard was making a game. Do people get similarly excited because other devs are making a game? There are so few studios that regularly make good games in different genres that we forget the effect that a positive halo has on a developer's release of an MMO.

"Second, why WoW has achieved such longevity? "

Because WoW had the hardcore community to carry them until the game became inclusionary enough that it caught on and become a popular phenomena. This is primarily because of the positive halo around Blizzard and the surprisingly high quality of the game as an MMO.

Other games will not be able to do this. Blizzard was set up very well for this series of events and other developers cannot ever hope to be in such a scenario.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Kenny wrote:
(SOE - who the hell was SOE back then?)

The "S" means Sony. Keep in mind that EQ1 was released in 1999 and the PS2 was released in 2000, so there was some effort to build the Sony brand at this time. I don't think it was as driving a force the name recognition Blizzard gets, though.

But, mentioning EQ is instructive in showing that internet penetration isn't a major factor. Although I think EQ2 is a great game and is often unfairly maligned, I don't think it could have had the tremendous success that WoW enjoyed. (Some might say that EQ's brand might actually have held it back, though, given the animosity some people had for Sony and EQ1 at that time.)

The reality is that there are a lot of reasons why WoW grew big. We're arguing over which ones are the biggest. I think evizaer's thoughts about community are pretty accurate, and I think the brand name issue is big contributor, too. It's hard to do objective measurements to see who is right, though. Best we can do is look at similar factors in different conditions. Personally, I've spent a lot of time looking at the topic for obvious reasons. :)

Tesh said...

The questions then become: How do you design a new IP MMO to take advantage of some of these elements? As in, how could the pure game design work, not to duplicate WoW's magnitude of success, just the methods of success?

In other words, there are many elements of WoW's success... which ones can be duplicated?