Monday, January 15, 2007
You might have noticed that in these pre-BC days I've written a lot about other games, both specific reviews and generalizations. While the question "what makes a good MMORPG?" isn't going away, there is an obvious risk that starting from tomorrow I'll be too busy with the Burning Crusade expansion of World of Warcraft to think about other games. Experience of fun beats theory of fun. :) But before the focus of this blog shifts once again, I'd like to talk about one major success factor of modern MMOGs: Accessibility.
The best games are easy to learn, but difficult to master. But often MMORPGs fail on the "easy to learn" part. You are given endless freedom, and too few clues what to do next. You leave the newbie area, come to a crossroad, and find yourself confronted with roads in three different directions, without any hint in which of these directions there are quests and monsters you could do at your level. As one of the directions leads into much higher level monsters that will kill you with a single hit, and another is leading you into a dead end or a lower level area, having the freedom to choose then often ends in frustration.
Now single-player games often have invisible walls or something blocking the "wrong" ways, forcing you into a linear gameplay, which isn't so much fun either. But WoW pioneered the idea to have a NPC with a big yellow exclamation mark standing at the crossroads, who miraculously detects that you are of the level likely to come out of the newbie zone, and gives you a quest to carry a parcel into the area where the next levels of quests and monsters are. You still have the total freedom to go wherever you want, but you also get guidance towards the direction where you are most likely to want to go. This concept of guidance has made World of Warcraft a lot more accessible to a lot of people who previously wouldn't have played a MMORPG, and thus increased the total market size for these games.
But accessibility doesn't begin or end with just quests. Another major element is the user-interface. And there we still have a long way to go. MMOG user interfaces have improved over the years, but still are far from perfect. In many games there are still quite a number of actions which you can only perform by typing a /command in the command line. Which over 10 years after the death of MSDOS is an anachronism, and is only serving to scare people away. Luckily in World of Warcraft the use of /commands and macros is mostly optional. But having observed newbies panic on receiving a tell, because there is no reply button, and you have to know how to start a reply (press R, or type /reply, or left-click on the name of the sender), I can see that there is room for improvement.
Once beyond the learning phase, accessibility doesn't end to be important. While a game should be difficult to master, it shouldn't be impossible to finish or to progress in. With progressing being probably the more important part. Again World of Warcraft made big progress in accessibility by lowering the bar of how many hours are required to level up. Also important is that WoW allowed people to progress while playing solo. The lowered time requirement and soloability enabled people who don't have a lot of leisure time to still log on, play an hour, and make some visible progress towards the next level. No xp loss or xp debt on death means that you *always* progress, you can't get stuck in an endless loop.
All of this broadened the potential user base. If you need to be an expert in gaming and computer programming, and have 4+ consecutive hours available to play a game, that eliminates already quite a lot of people from playing. World of Warcraft showed that the number of people who *would* play a MMORPG if they *could* was a lot bigger than the previous existing number of online roleplayers.
Accessibility means more players, which results in more profit for the company, which results in more money available for re-investing, and that is generally a good thing. There are some elitist purists, who prefer MMOGs to be arcane and difficult, only accessible for the hardcore elite of gamers. But economically that doesn't make much sense. Some game developers have understood that, but others still think that for some reason of purity online role-playing games should be highly complex and require endless amounts of time and dedication. The inherent Darwinism of the capitalist system will weed them out over time. But the 2007 crops of new games still has too many games that will fail to grab a major market share simply because they aren't accessible enough.