Tobold's Blog
Sunday, December 30, 2007
WoW and the lowest common denominator

In other forms of media, for example books or movies, people are well aware of the difference between "good" and "popular". There are "good" books and movies that are critically acclaimed, count as literature or art, and that find their way into a typical school curriculum. And there are "popular" books and movies like Harry Potter and Spiderman, which the critics often call trash, but which make millions of dollars of profit. The reason why World of Warcraft has over 9 million subscribers and makes half a billion dollars of profit per year is that it belongs in the second category. Unlike many other MMORPGs it is made for the mass market, it is accessible for everybody, it is targeted at the lowest common denominator.

When we recently discussed losing in PvP, a reader named Xash made a very insightful comment: "Most people simply don't want to expend the effort and dedication required to become good at something. Look at guitar hero. We're swiftly entering a society where more people will know how to play a toy instrument then the real one. And its the same with competitive activities, how many pro baseball players are there? A great deal less then hohum ones. Why? Because the vast majority of people don't enjoy expending effort." I totally agree, I just don't see this as negative. Most people are good at *something*, and expend a lot of effort into their jobs, their families, or social activities. I don't blame them if for their entertainment they want to relax by doing something which requires a lot less effort. They want to play a toy guitar, or play some ball game badly with friends, or get some "welfare epics" in WoW, because all this is just for fun. Nothing would be gained if you somehow forced them to expend the effort to learn a real guitar, to play baseball at major league level, and to become experts at WoW PvP.

In fact it can be argued that MMORPGs in which you are encouraged to expend a lot of effort to achieve something are harmful. All those stories about WoW being "addictive" or people neglecting their job, family, or more often their studies are due to players having the impression that by expending effort in a game they are achieving something. Of course that is an illusion. Most of the time being on top of the game, whether having a 2000+ arena rating in PvP, or being a top raider and killing Illidan, will get you no rewards that are useful in real life. Even the guy who illegaly sold his rogue for $10,000 certainly took thousands of hours of gameplay to get that far, and thus earned less than minimum wages on the hours spent.

There are MMORPGs that are closer to literature or art, for example A Tale in the Desert, which focuses on social interaction between players. EVE Online has a strong PvP focus and is doing quite well with 200k subscribers. But developers must be aware that the choice is theirs: If they make a game which is hard, requires a lot of effort to succeed, and rewards only the best, the game might be "better", but it certainly will be less popular. If they want to make a game with millions of subscribers, they will have to go for the lowest common denominator. The game has to be accessible to everyone, require little effort, and give out plenty of rewards just for showing up. Pirates of the Burning Sea is a "good" game in many respects, but I hope the devs are aware that with their negative sum PvP system they painted themselves into the hardcore PvP niche, and will never get a million subscribers. Warhammer Online could still go either way, depending on how effort and rewards for PvP are handled. If you need to be in a top PvP guild to capture a keep in WAR and get a reward, while Joe Average gets no rewards because he isn't very good at PvP and doesn't have tons of friends, WAR won't see a million subscribers either.

And even the devs of World of Warcraft shouldn't pat themselves on the shoulder for having it done completely right. What they did get right from the start was the accessible PvE leveling game, with its excellent zones and quest system. They got the PvP system popular only two years after release, and they still have to iron out some wrinkles there (like the AV leechers). Their PvE end game originally was rather bad, got somewhat improved by TBC having more end game options for the common player, but still has large areas that are accessible only to a small elite in the form of raid content. If Blizzard wants to get even more subscribers, and reduce the churn rate, in the more valuable US and European markets they would have to go for the lowest common denominator for end game raiding as well. Investing a lot of money to create content that only single digit percentages of your subscribers are ever going to see just isn't efficient. The huge peaks of resubscriptions at every content patch and especially with expansions show that many average players grow bored due to lack of content in the end game. Creating easy mode raiding accessible for everyone wouldn't make World of Warcraft a "better" game, but it would make it more popular, and thus even more profitable. And the hardcore raiders would probably be better off with a niche raiding game, where you wouldn't be forced to level up solo for so long to reach the raid content but could start raiding right after character creation, just like you can do PvP in Guild Wars from the get go.

It is easy to criticize World of Warcraft for catering to the lowest common denominator, to be "popular" instead of "good", for being a toy guitar instead of a real instrument. But MMORPGs are still a relatively young and small market. We *need* World of Warcraft and other games like it to create and grow the market. Once there are many millions of MMORPG players, there will be enough people around to be interested in harder, niche games, catering to specialists in various areas like PvP or raiding. But the majority of average players will always stick to the games that just provide effortless fun.
I think you've hit a nail and missed another one! WoW isn't THE best MMORPG money making machine just because it's "accessible" to the masses: it's also because it's pretty darn good at what it does!

I've tried other games of the genre but can't get away from WoW, not because the others are harder, but simply because they're not as well done. In WoW you have so much attention to detail that you can even go quest for the 2nd or 3rd time on the same zone and still notice stuff you missed before. You get multiple zones where to quest for most level ranges and you're not "forced" into a particular zone (other than the startup area!) and you can choose at will.

Small details like the extra flexibility provided with 3rd party free add-ons to change your gaming experience to what YOU like, macros to automate some repetitive tasks, the 2+3 skills you can level either for profit or simply as a way of relaxing a bit, dancing and emotes, etc, etc, etc...

And that's not even speaking about how the different classes are REALLY different! Remember that this game comes from the company that delivered Starcraft! In Starcraft, you can play 1 of 3 races and, with a minor exception or two, the play style of each of those 3 races is completely different from that of the other 2!

Same happens on WoW: you don't play a mage or a warrior or a hunter or a rogue or a shamman or a druid or a priest or a warlock in the same ways... Sure, many share some characteristics, but the whole playstyle is different! That's unlike other games where you play 1 of 2 factions where you're human and pretty much do the same things regardless of side chosen... In WoW, not only you have 9 classes to choose from, you also have racial traits that make the same class different!

Take a Draenei Hunter vs a Night Elf Hunter: the former has a decent HoT that is on a 3 min CD which can allow him to either put an extra heal on his pet or even heal himself or someone else; the latter has Shadowmeld, which, coupled with a prowling kitty for pet, can result in him getting to places or skipping or escaping some mobs, which the former can't do...

So, WoW isn't just THE best money making MMORPG because it's "easy", but it's ALSO because it's PRETTY DAMN WELL DONE.

(Which is to say it doesn't have it's flaws, because it sure does!)
I think this argument is disingenous.

We are talking about a game. There are games out there which are popular and also 'good' on a level that appeals to a wide range of ability. We don't call chess a game that appeals to the lowest common denominator just because lots of people play it casually.

Same with scrabble. You can have a fun game without playing at the highest possible competitive level. That's because it's a good game, which means it hit something right in terms of game design.

So why can't mmorpgs do that?

I don't buy that playing a real guitar well is more valuable that playing a game well. They're different things, and playing a real guitar is only a valuable skill if you do it with friends or if other people listen to you.
I fear that wellfare-epics are part of what ruins WoW.
Think back: There was a time when less good (or less time spending) players were covered in greens, better (more time spending) players had blues and only the best had some epics. Later everyone had blues, better players had epics and hardcores had epics of higher tiers.
And now we are nearing the point where everyone has epics and better players have higher tiers. How long until everyone has legendarys and harcores have artefact-items? And what comes after that?
Besides, it is kind of nonsense calling blue items "rare" if everyone has dozends of them.
Like many other gamers, I'm so tired of the people belittling Guitar Hero when comparing it to playing a real guitar.

They are two separate things. Just like playing an FPS is different that training to be some Rambo-like super soldier who constantly takes part in WW2.

I'm a gamer who loves music. I love playing rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution, Karaoke Revolution, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band (especially Rock Band).

I wish all these music snobs would give it a rest.

What they did get right from the start was the accessible PvE leveling game, with its excellent zones and quest system.

This drives me crazy, because it's so damned true. What made WoW a hit is the very thing that Blizzard is now phasing out - strong solo and five man story driven PVE content.

Beta testers sampled Duskwood, and Westfall, and Barrens and were so impressed, they gave WoW the biggest opening day of any mmorpg - ever.

So naturally, the very thing that made WoW a success is now given the least amount of attention, because Blizzard feels the future of WoW is raiding and PVE.

To hell with them. When Universe of Starcraft is released, Blizzard should simply do away with PVE entirely, as it's not worth doing if it's only an afterthought.
I meant to say Blizzard feels the future of WoW is raiding and PVP, not raiding and PVE.

If anything, Blizzard acts like they regret having any PVE in Blizzard at all.

This really can't be said strongly enough, either respect PVE or eliminate it entirely.

If an mmorpg ends with raiding, then it should start with raiding - from day one.

Otherwise, it's just bait and switch.
The argument that Blizzard ignores PvE, in particular solo and 5-men content, would be a lot stronger if patch 2.3 hadn't happened, what with the improvements to levelling, but also the efforts in Dustwallow Marsh, the tweaking of quest item drop rates throughout level 1 to 60 content (which wasn't even in the patch notes), or, a bit further off, the polish and superior quality of the four new racial starter zones.

That argument reeks way too much of the old "they should stop focusing on anything but what I like" complaint which happens to be totally disjointed from reality.
I look at WoW as MMO fastfood. You have seen the Supersize Me movie right?... stay away from McWarcraft ;)
gwaendar, it took Blizzard over two years to finally add that content, and the "exp tweaking" only confirms what I said, which is that Blizzard acts as if PVE is something that must be endured (like a marathon) until you can get to the fun stuff (raiding).

That argument reeks way too much of the old "they should stop focusing on anything but what I like" complaint which happens to be totally disjointed from reality.

Not in the least. Those of us who prefer PVE have every reason to wish the distribution of content wasn't weighed so heavily in favor of raiding and battlegrounds.
= # # = is right.

WoW is born of the lore and the dev's did a great job of the quest lines and history. It will be fine for those who played the RMT and will also make players new to game fit in with history.

It is a PvE game all the way to 70... and then it is about raids and PvP. I can't get into the raids and won't play PvP.

I'm not knocking raids or PvE here, but it is still a dead end at 70 for those either can't or will not raid or take part in PvP.

Instead of token PvE daily quests for meaningless cooking recipes... more real story driven content would be nice.

At the big T.
The reason why World of Warcraft has over 9 million subscribers and makes half a billion dollars of profit per year is that it belongs in the second category. Unlike many other MMORPGs it is made for the mass market, it is accessible for everybody, it is targeted at the lowest common denominator.

Heard before and it is so not true! If it is succesful it must be trash and unworthy of being a quality product.

For it's issues WoW is a very polished game, deep in lore, multi-faceted and incredibly social (with the right players).

Is it targeted at the lowest common denominator? What are you suggesting? That WoW players are happy to take any trash and play it? That WoW players are stupid because they don't opt for a game born of art or literature?

I think you have missed something here... WoW is a game, a pastime, a device for pushing pixels around a screen, nothing more nothing less.

Creating easy mode raiding accessible for everyone wouldn't make World of Warcraft a "better" game, but it would make it more popular, and thus even more profitable.

Really? It's a game! That's like saying only good and worthy novels should be written by the likes of Huxley or DH Lawrence.


Good TV is only worthy if it is a period drama or historical in nature.

Good raid content is accessible! End of. Dev's have a job of making it open to the highest number of players possible.

The lack of players not doing end game content is not related to their intelligence or ability. It is related to the current mechanics of attunement, guild set-ups and gear checks.

Thus making raiding easier would make WoW a "better" game as more players would access this content.

The game as it is restricts end game content in two ways:

1: need of better gear from random drops in dungeons that need to be done too many times.

2: need of an organised guild to raid a minimum of 3 days a week.

The above makes end game hard? Why would that determine the game as better? And how would simplying that, or making the game more accesible make it worse?

You say "effortless fun" as if it were a bad thing!

I am at work at the moment... when I get home I want to log on and have some effortless fun.

Ask a few friends if they want to do something and kill some time for an hour or two, maybe three.

Give me a challenge not a job!

Not a 3 months a repetitive rubbish and headaches trying to find players to do it with.

I come back to this argument, it is a game! It is a social pastime and it isn't important in the real scale of things.

Heck... why not use this analogy on all pastimes, can't we come up with some kinda attunement for 'Snake n Ladders' to teach kids that it effortless fun isn't worth it in the long run.

Or next time you go to the bookshop to buy classic literature you'll be quizzed on the lifetime history of the author to get attuned to his/her literature.

In short, easy and accesible content is good so that real important things in life dont take a second billing.

But the majority of average players will always stick to the games that just provide effortless fun.

You say that as if it were a bad and dirty thing? I am a little shocked.
Is it targeted at the lowest common denominator? What are you suggesting? That WoW players are happy to take any trash and play it? That WoW players are stupid because they don't opt for a game born of art or literature?

I never called WoW trash. I am talking about accessibility and how much effort you need to enjoy the game. WoW succeeds because it is accessible even to people who never would have dreamed to play another MMORPG before, and because with casual effort you already get quite far.

Wanting WoW to be that way has nothing to do with "stupid", but everything to do with "Hey, it's a game, I'm not going to study minmaxing strategies for hours to get ahead".
I beg to differ:
QuoteIn other forms of media, for example books or movies, people are well aware of the difference between "good" and "popular". There are "good" books and movies that are critically acclaimed, count as literature or art, and that find their way into a typical school curriculum. And there are "popular" books and movies like Harry Potter and Spiderman, which the critics often call trash, but which make millions of dollars of profit. The reason why World of Warcraft has over 9 million subscribers and makes half a billion dollars of profit per year is that it belongs in the second category. Unlike many other MMORPGs it is made for the mass market, it is accessible for everybody, it is targeted at the lowest common denominator. End Quote

By your own words you stated that critics call something trash... and then proceeded to pigeon hole WoW into it.
Tobold's comment will resonate more strongly with anyone who played EQ1.

Leveling an untwinked character in EQ (especially the early days) was brutal. It's much easier today, but still vastly more difficult than WoW.
Funny how so many people seem to respond as if offended by the comment about aiming at the lowest common denominator. The fact is anything that becomes mainstream enough for the "snobby" types to begin analyzing it is a garauntee that anything popular will be labeled junk. Elitists love to push the common denominator to the ground and set themselves as the few who are better above the rest.
But far more people get rich selling things like bluejeans and Hershey's bars. The fact is one is not better than the other it is a matter of personal choice. If I like caviar and you don't only an elitist fool would try to turn that into a value judgement. (Unfortunately there are a lot of fools in the world)

Its why gold and diamonds are worth so much. Everyone can't have them. Starbucks is a perfect example. Its really average to bad coffee marketed to convince elitists that overroasted coffee that used to sell poorly is worth 5 dollars a cup.

There is no doubt that wow is mainstream. for the poster who called it the mcdonalds of games. Maybe but I think more like a Golden Corral. A good solid Buffet with a lot of options but not a 5 star restaurant.

I think the biggest problem that wow has is the fact that the devs have no desire to add the same level of detail to the PVE content they patch in. The New starting zones are great but you end up with a few hours of content and then several days worth of stuff you've already done to get to end game. If they'd redo all the starting zones so you could level every race in thier own zone to around 50 or so I'd have to say that would be wonderful.

That and they are still getting backlash from the fact that early on they gave everyone the opinion that they'd be in a dynamic changing world. That hasn't happened yet. The closest to that was the scourge invasion. One of thier most popular content patches but they refuse to do more like it. This really confuses me. In a smaller game I'd understand the argument that development bandwidth is limited and we have to make hard choices. But as big as this game is why can't they have a 3 or 4 man team that does nothing but add to and shake up the old world a bit?

Oh well I've rambled back and forth but regardless of personal opinions no game to date has launched with the same level of polish, easy to use UI,and fun story line to suck you in. With wow it starts with the intro teaser. That alone made me want to play. Not a single game in the last two years had a trailer with the same impact. And most of them have had lousy UI's and the starting zones made me feel like they'd thrown together a straw house because I wouldn't be there long.

EQ2 was only thing I've played that I thought was nearly as good but It just wasn't worth starting over and building a new group of people to play with again.

Its why gold and diamonds are worth so much. Everyone can't have them.

My understanding is that diamonds are quite common, actually. There's a lot of interesting background on the diamond industry and it's worth researching. It's a good lesson in human stupidity and the power of advertising.
The question that comes to mind is,
"What exactly IS the Lowest Common Denominator?"

I'm not convinced that the Lowest Common Denominator of WoW is that it is summed up in the phrase 'Easy for all'. I found it to be rather easy for me, but I know several people who play rabidly and yet struggle with solo play even though they are veterans of video games and/or have a college or post-graduate education. Yet they play doggedly on.

Is Outland / HP easy at level 58? Most people learn to cringe at the sound of that train-whistle as Fel Reaver approaches... :)

What in WoW appeals to retirees and women, who are well outside of the stereotypical male 18-35 segment?

What about WoW causes so many to reroll a second character and set out to 70 again, knowing that the end of that road is probably months away for the Average Joe or Jane?

When that next piece of PvP gear is another 17800+ honor and 40 marks away, what is the Lowest Common Denominator that compels one set out to devote those hours to a single item?

Is pounding your head against a stubborn raid boss almost every day for three weeks easy? Yet there are guilds in WoW doing just that.

What IS it, anyway?
He's the secret sauce. The reason why WoW is so successful is that the penalty for failure isn't as steep as EQ (for pve) or DAOC (for pvp).

As it turns out, most gamers don't like extremely difficult games.
I don't think there is a "secret" to the WoW "sauce".

Blizzard made a polished game and aimed for the lowest common denominator. That's it.

What do I mean by "Lowest Common Denominator"?

Pick any system in WoW, lets say the graphics for this example, and pretty well anyone can run it. You don't need a $1k SLI graphics system, you can run it on a basic on-board chipset and it'll run ok.

Quests. If your used to "other MMO's", WoW's questing system feels like your on rails most of the time. You always know who is offering them and they tell you exactly where to go next, there is very little for you to work out, because you just follow the "recipe book" journal. This makes questing more accessible to "Joe/Jane Average".

The same applies to every other system in WoW, Mr/Mrs Average can "just get it".

WoW is a fun game, though I didn't play it for that long. After capping a few characters within a few months of it's release I just figured it didn't offer enough to hold me...
"But as big as this game is why can't they have a 3 or 4 man team that does nothing but add to and shake up the old world a bit?"

A simple matter of business, I guess. WoW is played by many (paying) customers in its current state. So you have to weight up the costs of additional 3-4 developers against the cash flowing in from new customers that signed up exactly for the new content those 3-4 developers create.
WoW is a cash cow after all.. You don't invest too much money in a cash cow, you simply milk it until it dies and invest the money to build you a new cash cow.
In addition, as far is I have read, Blizzard is aiming at a profit of 50% which looks extreme to me.
The ones suffering from this are we players - at least as long as there is no other game with this grade of polish.
Blizzard is not making many friends since they started WoW and many old fans are disappointed. They will feel it as soon as serious competitors appear.
Tobold, you seem to be saying that Blizzard should make raiding more accessible, because that will increase the number of players. I don't agree. I think making things too easy actually diminishes the fun of the game. For example, very few people play on private servers where you can twink out your character in non-real-WoW legendary items. Why? Because there's no challenge.

When you see someone on a real WoW server in Tier6 or Season3 shoulders, you know that took some skill and effort to accomplish it. And that in itself gives the game world some *reality* and a mountain that you may or may not choose to climb. WoW has something for people of all skill levels and available time commitments, but it also provides an environment in which you can compare yourself meaningfully to others.
@ Changed

Firstly, many people don't play on private servers because most folk don't know about them, they crash every 10 to 30 minutes, impossible to build up gaming relationships... and essentially it boils down to the fact players don't want a free ride all the way.

All players want a challenge. When I see a player in Tier 6 I don't think for one minute that he/she is more skilled than any other player. What I think is that the player is in an organised guild that raids 3 times or more a week. That to me, I stress me, and millions of other players is not healthy or condusive to their lifestyle.

You say that WoW caters to players with all time commitments... where does it cater to the player in a guild of perhaps 20 dedicated players who are friends, who cannot even enter Kara?

Why can't we get to Kara? Because we are still faffing around trying to get gear for the raid. Random drops from dungeon bosses are the ultimate time sink. The game has burned our guild members out, stressed pugs, random drops we don't need to get gear from hundreds of instances and boredom from repeating the same 5 mans whenever we do get together.

Remember this, like many many players: We raid or instance about once a week.

We don't PvP and are on a RP server. So please don't suggest the so called 'welfare epics'.

I have said this before.

Where is the casual friendly raid for 10 to 15 players, with no gear checks and increases with difficulty from boss one to say boss ten. Drops perhaps on parr with heroic dungeons. Something a guild can do together instead of boring them to death with 5 mans.

If the game isn't polished at all... it is from that aspect.

Some stats defending the mess Bliz have made of this.

WoW Jutsu based:

2.2 million Players scanned. They only scan players with Kara gear or higher from the EU and US.

It is safe to assume that EU and US servers cater to at least 5 million of the touted 9.5 million accounts.

It is also safe to assume that of the 2.2 million players scanned, many scans are multiple players of the same account. However, let's take these figures as individual accounts.

Thus roughly on 5 million accounts:
--- 2.8 million accounts have not seen a Kara item drop.
--- 3.9 million accounts have not seen a single drop from the heavily touted casual Zul'Aman.
--- 4.9 million accounts have not seen Hyjal or the Black Temple.

Zul'Aman has failed its purpose. Showing that Bliz dev's still have no clue. The game caters to the extreme once you get to 70.

Either there should be more story based PvE content... or a sensible raid progression.

Your casual-friendly raid is Kara up to Curator (the first serious gear check):
Attumen, Moroes, and Maiden plus the optional beast Boss and Opera.

Run that and in a few weeks drops + badges should give your guild some gear progress.

But I'll have to say that if you refuse to use a gear upgrade path (PvP), then by your own choice you're limiting your progress.

But taking a broader look at WoW, I really can't see the problem. There are solid gear upgrade paths through crafting, reputation gear for instance-linked factions and daily-quest-linked factions, and purchases of world-drop epics off the AH. Not to mention various glyphs, enchants, and kits to enhance gear.

Frankly, there are a lot of ways to improve your gear without running a narrow set of instances until your mind is numb. Typically a bit of research will reveal that there are multiple paths to decent blues or even epics for any slot for any given class / spec.
I've seen stats that indicate there are more likely about 3.5 million or so in the US and EU. No way of knowing for sure since blizzard doesn't release those stats anymore. My guess it since they don't release them anymore the US and EU numbers aren't going up. And I think the biggest official number they ever released for EU and US is about 3.5 mill
WoW isn't the first big MMO. It wasn't even the 2nd big one. It was however, one of the most fun, due to a huge amount of

things being done right along with a nice history and story line (yes, it really did have a deep story if you followed

Warcraft III before it too). It really is a fully fleshed out "world" and has captured the aspect of having fun above and

beyond what any other MMO has been able to do. It is both popular, and good, and the rallying cry (more like rallying

wimper) of the few who hate it and rebel against it doesn't change that.

WoW is far from effortless. Fun? Yes. Effortless? Not even close. It did however break the old rules of losing a

week's worth from one death, or losing every single item you owned from one death, and I'm sorry that system doesn't agree

with you but this is entertainment for most of us and isn't supposed to be a challenge. If you want to be challenged, go

outside, don't look for a hard challenge that involves wiggling your fingers.

You seem to think that rewards should be gotten only by people in huge groups, who schedule a time to show up every night

and everybody does their "job" to work for one person getting their stuff, the old systems that so many hated where the

game was more work and more like having a job than entertainment. You think it's too easy because people can just pick up

groups to raid and randomly have a chance to get equipment rather than it being the biggest struggle in the world and a

huge headache and waste of time and more work than play. You almost seem upset that so many people are enjoying

themselves, so you have to make the excuse that it is a popular game but not a good one. You are so wrong, it IS a good

game, to many people it is absolutely the best. I know that's not "rebel" enough for you, but that's how they feel, and it

really is a darn decent MMO.

Are we sick of it after a number of years and want something different? Yes, yes of course! But it was a decent, solid

MMO that is starting to age now a little but it still has a system that is based on fun that is a perfect ballance between

work and reward (my characters never have the best gear because I don't party often, so no I can't do it all myself but I

can survive). It found that ballance that made the game more fun than work, unlike past games, and this upsets you for

some reason.

Sorry but games like "A Tale in the Desert" are just boring to most people. They aren't brilliant just because they're

unpopular. They are the type of game a few people claim is the best thing ever, and nobody else likes.

WoW isn't easy and giving away things just for showing up. It's ballanced and was one of the first games that was

ballanced for risk and effort vs. reward. Old games were just far too much work and were meant to keep you paying to play

forever because you got set backwards in your work so much. People keep paying to play WoW because it's enjoyable and is

the perfect ballance of work vs fun. You've come up with an excuse that works in your mind because you personally don't enjoy the game as much as others do. That excuse just isn't true though. The game does so much right, and it doesn't just appeal to the lowest common denominator and make things easy. Many games have come and are now gone off the map that tried to come out and be "easy" for "casual" players. They failed miserably from being too easy and too light. WoW doesn't do that, it really is just the right ballance between effort and play and that is why it succeeds so well. That contributes to why it is a great game and not just a popular one, although that's not the only reason.

Like everything else, it gets old in time and we want something new, but it was an absolutely wonderful game for a time and no other MMO has really been able to compare to it yet and do so many things all right in one package yet.
I think your basic contention, that to appeal to a large market MMOs must reward time put in quickly and reliably, is dead on. Negative sum PvP (particularly non consensual varieties), harsh grindfests, and raiding do not fit that model at all.
Yes.. but PvP, grinding, and raiding do provide an efficient "cost to timesink" value. While exploration, interesting game mechanics, excellent writing, and an advancing storyline do not. The real trick of MMO success I suspect is to balance those timesinks against the content with precision and foresight.

The content is all of the things that hooked you originally, exploration, visuals, interesting gameplay mechanics, world design, good writing, advancing storyline, etcetera.

The timesinks are the level grind, pvp, high cost items (epic mounts), travel time, low percentage drop rates on the most powerful items, high manpower requirements (for raids.), and raid cooldown time.

You need your content to be good, really good, better than any competitors' stuff. But good content is expensive and time-consuming to produce. In all likelihood it takes something like 50 times more time to create good content than it will take for the player to enjoy it and eventually become bored with it.

That's where your timesinks come in. They're a delaying tactic to keep the players waiting, ready, on standby, PAYING, for when the next shot of content is injected. Developers only have as long as their timesinks can delay the players to create new content for the next injection.

Developers can't shoot too high or take too long with expansions and content patches for fear the customer base will leave by the time they're done. However, the content obviously needs to be good enough to satisfy the players' hunger for the main course, the meat.

I think Blizzard saw the potential and read the market perfectly. They leveraged their experience with Diablo, Diablo II, and the well-worn themes of Warcraft (mostly plagiarized from Warhammer, not that it matters) into an expertly crafted tool for tapping a very large market.

Once they started pulling in non-mmorpg players they were in uncharted territory. They're having to deal with a different type of customer, and not every move they make is dead-on. They're trailblazing on that level and only a fool would expect their execution to be immaculate.
Subtly and deep character are things that're easy to transmit on a written page, but hard to transmit in the form of a movie, especially in a theatre. You can read as slow as you want. You can re-read anything and re-reading itself is made easy by page-numbers and chapters and the natural-feel of the activity. However, movies are different, especially in theatres. A movie in a theatre runs at the same pace for everybody and you cannot rewind it to re-watch certain parts. Even movies you watch at home run at the same pace unless you rewind them. Generally, this means the movie has to play at a pace that the slowest person can keep up with, if the intent is to allow everyone to follow along. This is precisely why so many critics are quick to attack movies and yet love their literature. They never seem to make this connection. They don't understand that there's not enough time to make a movie as subtle as a book, especially in a theatre. When we can all watch a movie by ourselves and re-wind whenever we want, movies become more like literature, but if the creators of the movie didn't make it specifically for this case then it's unlikely you'll get much out of it after your first sitting.

Are MMORPGs like books or like movies? Is it a shared experience or a personal experience? RPGs are more like books than MMORPGs, but MMORPGs aren't exactly like movies. WoW did something that Everquest didn't do well, for example. It allowed players to select Easy <- Hard difficulty for their instances. This meant that players could play at THEIR pace. WoW also created much more solo-content and this opened up the game to a lot of people who previously either did not have enough time for groups or did not like them. This also allowed them to play the game as slow as they wanted to. However, WoW (and other MMORPGs) aren't perfect and have some commonalities with movies. For one, when a player groups with someone else they're automatically tied with them and whatever pace the group is at they must abide by. So if you're the member of a 6-person group, the instance you're doing has to allow the slowest player to keep up with its "subtly" and its mechanics. The game cannot allow a fast-thinking group member to determine the pace for the slower-thinking member(s), either. Thus, you can see that even WoW has some things in common with movies since it has group-play and raids. If it was principally a solo-based game, it would have more in common with literature and thus players could play at their pace and not at some other pace.

It all boils down to personal experiences versus shared experiences. When we share an experience, everybody has to keep up and this is what leads to the lowest common denominator problem. This tends to dumb down the subtly and complexity of the story so that everybody knows what's going on and doesn't get left behind. But when we're alone, we can go at our own pace and absorb more complex concepts in our own time.
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