The Catch-22 of MMO Design

There has been a lot of armchair game design in the MMO blog community over the last week or two. Some folks have tried to figure out exactly what the “next generation” MMO will entail, while others just want to talk about their idea of a good game. However, despite the different inspirations for all this design talk everyone seems to have one thing in common: adding difficulty and removing transparency from MMOs. But is it possible for an MMO to add complexity and still be successful?

Earlier this week Blessing of Kings posited that a huge factor in making a virtual world more “real” is inconvenience. Your big name WoWlike MMOs have been moving away from inconvenience — automated group finders and teleports and what have you — and in turn a large number of people have become dissatisfied with the lack of story, player impact on the world, and immersiveness in recent games. In fact, there’s been a groundswell in the MMO navel-gazing community lately towards sandbox games like Wurm Online where livin’ ain’t easy and as a noob you are likely to be eaten almost immediately by a small woodland creature. (I tried Wurm once and after 45 minutes I was still in the tutorial trying to figure out how to rub two sticks together for fire. It is the definition of Serious Business!)

This kind of inconvenient game isn’t for everyone, of course. There is a reason that World of Warcraft hit 11 million subscribers, and it’s not because we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow to keep from being eaten by a rabbit. People — arguably the majority of people, based on past industry analysis — shy away from inconvenience in their MMO. Putting aside whether this is yet another symptom of our impatient living and missing sense of community in the real world (hint: it is :P ) the fact is that thus far the subscriptions have demanded convenience.

So what if a game developer decides to go their own way and create a challenging sandbox that will appeal to 10% of the current MMO playerbase? I’ve spent most of my life arguing that “popular” does not equal “good”. I could talk all day about unpopular-yet-amazing indie games and movies and art. The hitch, though, is that these things are a single-player experience. The most perfectly designed MMO in the world would be an abject failure if only 10 people ever played it. The whole point of the genre is to be Massively Multiplayer!

The MMO industry is by its very nature beholden to popularity and getting the widest audience possible. More people = more multiplayer. It means a more lively economy, more community, and a larger collective experience. Even as an experienced MMO player I find myself gravitating towards whatever game has the most people, and I really should know better by now! (I hear that Vanguard, for example, is actually pretty cool for old school players but my first thought when considering it is always, “Yeah, but does anyone play that?”.)

For an MMO to be considered good by it must by its very nature be popular, and for it to be popular it (arguably) has to be convenient. Ultimate convenience, in turn, is considered by many to be the sign of a bad game. We can’t win!

The phrase “paradigm shift” is cliché by now but… it seems to me that the MMO industry and those who love it could use one right now.

Author: Jessica Cook

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11 Comments

  1. Good post, and I see where you are coming from, however, I don’t draw the same conclusions.

    There is a reason that World of Warcraft hit 11 million subscribers
    The era of WoW’s growth can be attributed to the time when it was the most ‘inconvenient’ of any of its iterations. Stagnation occurred during the time when ‘convenience’ became le mot du jour from the designers. Bringing the lens to bear across genre offerings at the time would indicate that it wasn’t the most ‘convenient’ either, albeit it did to that side of the scale for that given era.

    People — arguably the majority of people, based on past industry analysis — shy away from inconvenience in their MMO
    This might be true on a general scale, but when viewing MMOs in particular, the games with ‘difficulty’ and ‘inconvenience’ are the ones that see growth. FFXI (pre-FFXIV debacle), EvE (still now), WoW (previously mentioned era), … the list goes on.

    Granted, and as BoK says in her post, inconvenience must have a purpose and it must be done right. Simply placing a merchant 2 miles outside of town for the sake of ‘inconvenience’ isn’t going to win anyone over!

    subscriptions have demanded convenience
    This I think is a great topic for blogging: exploring how the business models will split the MMO playerbase. I’d venture a guess that F2P titles and their ilk will trend towards being convenient games. Easy come, easy go especially if gameplay isn’t handed to me on a silver platter. Subscription models and those ressembling it (anything with a ‘buy in’ to play) will have a playerbase with vested interest, and inconvenience done right will can (and does: EvE) prosper.
    Ahtchu´s last post: A Trend Takes Root?

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  2. Thanks for the comment!

    The era of WoW’s growth can be attributed to the time when it was the most ‘inconvenient’ of any of its iterations.

    I disagree, although for what it’s worth I used to think this as well and on a personal level TBC was my favorite expansion. However, the more I look at it, particularly in light of the failure of Cataclysm, the more I think it’s really difficult to NOT call WotLK the most successful and the most convenient expansion. I know that technically the game added more subscribers during TBC but I suspect more people were concurrently playing in WotLK. Here’s a “peak concurrent users” chart: http://users.telenet.be/mmodata/Charts/PCU-1.png but who knows how accurate that is.

    FFXI has had a stable or dropping population since 2005. EvE Online is a very interesting case and they have indeed slowly been gaining subs, but they also had a terrible year last year to the point where the CEO had to write a public apology because so many people were quitting over a bad expansion. Parent company CCP had to completely stop development on Dust 514 because EvE Online was getting so far into debt! And, of course, the number of subscribers and concurrent users paled in comarison to the more convenient WoW.

    I dunno, I hope you’re right because I like immersive, challenging games, but for me when I look out at the current MMO landscape I have the sinking feeling that developers/publishers are just racing for the widest audience, which means total accessibility to all users, which means ultra convenience. Which means Sad Liore. :)

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  3. Back in the day … “We had to walk 5 minutes uphill to Molten Core after every wipe”. It seemed a fair and reasonable consequence for wiping.

    Move on to SW:TOR and the multi step process to move between planets and mandatory dialogue to do your dailies gets really old. I’m fine with inconvenience that makes sense. Put my dailies far enough away from shuttle points that a level 3 speeder seems worth the price.I enjoy the choices and dialogue; but not the 10th time I’ve done a daily.

    It seems a fine balance that no one has right, at the moment. It also seems that too inconvenient (and too hard) is preferable to too convenient (or easy). Once things are easy, you can’t go back.

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  4. I sit with about the same seat as Ahtchu on this one, Liore, though I definitely see your angle and appreciate the thoughtful article. All things being equal, you might be right. As players we just don’t have the data to go on much else than experience and observance.

    The return on marketing/advertising works like this: an ad is put out there and AFTER it is received, sales go up. The point here is that WoTLK saw almost no growth in that regard–even if it did, it never saw as much growth as vanilla or BC. What this seems to indicate is that advertising during those eras attracted customers like never before. The game was top notch.Convenience hasn’t sold the game all that well as you point out (when you state that Wotlk was the most convenient).

    Players love *quality* games. They love immersive games. A well designed game has no inconveniences the player isn’t glad to suffer. These inconveniences show that the design process is what will determine what the player accepts or rejects.

    EVE is a great example of 2 things I want to add to this discussion: 1) quality game with many “inconveniences” (especially if the player comes from WoW) and 2) a game that knows it’s playerbase. This is a game in which players will experience real losses to their character, which is a feature absent in all currently popular MMOs. The second point is about how developers are trying to rope in as many players as possible, which necessarily leads to a level of mediocrity; it’s not possible to pander to all tastes. CCP knows this. And they don’t try to. As a result, they see constant growth. Yet this is possibly the most “inconvenient” MMO on market. Convenience doesn’t sell better afterall it would seem.
    Doone´s last post: Pineapple Smash Crew Review

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    • Yet this is possibly the most “inconvenient” MMO on market. Convenience doesn’t sell better afterall it would seem.

      Except: WoW is more convenient than EvE, even in the TBC era, and also sold 10 million more copies.

      Appreciate the comment though! I wrote this article thinking that “convenience = sales” was a given, and you and Ahtchu have certainly given me lots to think about!

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  5. Very true about WoW and TBC, and that just proves the correlative: that WoW’s more “inconvenient” design had never served it better than in that era.

    I’m also not convinced that the genre naturally or is other beholden to popularity. I would say thats probably true for fee based games, but overall it’s these companies who go out to clone the industries greatest successes …and fail. Repeatedly. It’s not the genre that’s beholden or anyone really. It’s companies trying to shake some of that money out of the tree as well as Blizzard did.

    And that will almost never be the kind of thing that creates a great game, as Blizzard did. I don’t see the catch 22.

    I’m willing to be convinced otherwise and I like the topic put on the table here.
    Doone´s last post: Pineapple Smash Crew Review

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    • It’s very difficult to “prove” anything without numbers from publishers, unfortunately. My reasoning includes:

      * Cataclysm was a return to inconvenience (having to discover instance portals before you could random them, for example) and also heralded a huge drop in subscriptions. This was due to a variety of reasons, of course, but losing a million subs is a pretty serious comment on the game.

      * Heck, why did WotLK become more convenient? Because Activision/Blizzard’s league of analysts thought it would appeal to more people, and I suspect they had the research to back that decision up.

      * The drubbing that SWTOR received and continues to receive on blogs and forums is heavily focused on the lack of convenience — long travel times, no automatic cross-server LFD, heroic content that requires grouping, and the Battlemaster grind. Bugs and performance also caused concerns, but these are the issues that people get the most upset about in my experience and observation.

      * Convenient single player content, something that WoW and WotLK in particular brought into focus in MMOs, is now a huge element of subsequent AAA titles (SWTOR, GW2, etc).

      I know a lot of these are more social elements, but since I don’t have hard sub numbers all I can really go on is what the companies and their big-dollar analysts are saying, and what the players are saying. I wish we had real numbers for discussions like this. =\

      Disagree on the popularity thing as well. Why would I play an MMO with few or no people? I play MMOs to be social, so I go where the social is! Not only that, but we, the players, have set up this insane standard of “success” for future games. SWTOR sold 2 million copies at launch and retained half of those as on-going subs, and was still pronounced a huge failure that would “be dead in six months” by the playerbase and pundits. In the post-WoW era, any game that doesn’t hit WoW numbers is declared to be a waste of development time.

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      • Cataclysm wasn’t a *return* to anything that the game has ever done. It was a very ill executed redo of the game. The drop in subs speaks more to that point I think. But you’re right we don’t have numbers. Still, we do have our experiences, observations, and the collective player data that the community has created on it’s own. That’s definitely worth something in the absence of Blizzard’s transparency on these kinds of statistics.

        The idea of discovering a dungeon before you can have it show up in the finder was a legacy from WotLK (don’t forget the heroic 5-mans that launched with Icecrown). That particular issue speaks more to the cluelessness of Ghostcrawler and crew in not recognizing why that would never be acceptable as it was in 2.0 and prior. They simply didn’t seem to understand how all those features fit together. That’s why all of the new features for the longest time gave an extremely disjointed experience. The designers of the time couldn’t really grasp the social dynamics that allowed certain features to shine.

        Lich King became more convenient because the transition from A to B team became complete at Blizzard. This is witnessed by the drastic shift in dungeon and raid design philosophy from 3.0 to 3.3. This is precisely why Ulduar is an enigma in the whole expansion; it was perfectly designed just as all the raids before it in BC. None of the raids going forward even remotely resembled the design direction of Ulduar. It was the last well done raid ever designed in Lich King. Everyone spoke to how underwhelming Icecrown was, whose only saving grace seemed to be that the Arthas fight was sufficiently complex to get a nod from the top raiding guilds.

        As to SWTOR, it apparently didn’t get the launch features right but I think it’s something it will recover from. I no longer played it after the free month. The game simply wasn’t interesting for me.

        Heh, it’s always interesting to see how different people can view the same thing in very different ways :) I agree that MMOs need a critical mass of players *on the same shard* for create a meaningful experience. I think it’s being judged on the fact that it spent quite a few millions of dollars–2 million boxes sold *is* underwhelming in light of the money they blew on development and unless they can maintain good long term retention rates, that low amount of subs will put the game underwater in terms of ROI.
        Doone´s last post: Pineapple Smash Crew Review

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  6. @ Loire
    Consider your resources? Here again, I think we look at the same data and pull different conclusions.
    The link you provided gives a ‘concurrent users’ graph. This has no indication whatsoever of total players but rather a specific trend of said gamers. If you have a large gaming population that is spread out globally, as an example, you will fail to match any sort of record that a smaller, geographically condensed base will set for concurrence.
    A more appropriate graph might show precisely ‘total gamers’ inside of a game. At best, we can consider ‘active subscriptions’ as ‘actively logging in subscribers’ aren’t numbers that are available.
    Using the same sites’ resources:
    http://users.telenet.be/mmodata/Charts/Subs-2.png
    FFXI peaks and holds steady until 2009 (9 years without downturn). EvE, despite (as you’ve pointed out) a recent fluctuation, continues to trend upwards to this day.

    http://users.telenet.be/mmodata/Charts/WoW.png
    WoW has its most aggressive slope from launch to 2006, with a healthy growth continuing to 2007 (BC launch). This same slope persists until 2009 where it plateaus (WotLK launched very end of 2008). It is then met with its first decline (discounting the suspension of service in the East). As we all know, in the past year, the slope has been decreasing, and badly in the West. We know from blue posts/earning calls that West numbers have really been offset by the way subs are counted in the East. These evaluations ignore the localized upshoots in numbers immediately surrounding the periods of expansions coming out: no need to explain the implicit.

    I am with you in that I’d be saddened greatly if the trend indicated that immersive and challenging games are what bring in the dollars, and hence were going the way of the velociraptors. I believe that this to be a hypothetical :)
    Ahtchu´s last post: A Trend Takes Root?

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    • I certainly hope you’re right, Ahtchu! As a social/achiever MMO player I have been feeling a bit like a dinosaur lately. :)

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  7. I agree that the object is to be massively multiplayer. So its hard to break away from the pack. good read.
    Howie S´s last post: long island family lawyer

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