Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Why the hate? - An answer
If you mentally zoom out and have a look at the situation of the MMORPG market (which isn't easy to do, because most of us are too close to some game or other), you will notice that we live in interesting times. While World of Warcraft is still dominant, it isn't completely smothering the market any more. There are more and more games coming out that are trying new things, new modes of gameplay, new business models. The market is both growing and fragmenting, with everything from hardcore PvP to pre-teen Free2Play games being released and finding an audience. After years of people complaining about there being only WoW and WoW-clones, all this novelty should be a reason to rejoice. But what do we get? An outpouring of hate on all possible game discussion channels!
This isn't just coming from one particular group. This ranges from the hardcore bashing the players of WoW and Free Realms, to the Ed Zitron 2/10 review. From one side calling the monthly subscription model "welfare for the hardcore", to the other side's vitriolic outbursts against everything RMT and microtransaction. PvE players bashing PvP, and vice versa; Everybody has his preferred way to play (and pay), but instead of just leaving everything else be, they feel the need to express a hate of everything different. MMO xenophobia at it's worst. Why the hate?
While I do prefer the Pink Pigtail Inn if Larisa posts herself, her "bartender" Elnia just pulled off a post which is both a perfect example of that hate, and manages to give a glimpse towards explaining that hate. She accuses developers of micro-transaction games to play favorites towards the 5% of players that actually pay for these games, to the detriment of the 95% of freeloaders (her term). Well, didn't we have years of discussion about how the World of Warcraft developers were playing favorites towards the 5% of players that raided, to the detriment of those who didn't? But then she offers a great insight: "When you get right down to it all people who pay to play on-line games are engaged in “rent a developer”"
And that is where the hate is coming from: There is a competition over a limited resource, developer time. None of us have $50 million+ of spare change to hire a team of developers to create our personal dream game. But we all do want a maximum number of games that cater directly to our personal preferences. And because we feel unable to move a billion-dollar market with our $15-a-month contribution, we try to influence the market by arguing for what we like, and against what we dislike.
That certainly includes me. Long-time readers certainly know my personal preferences in MMO features, even if I try to keep an open mind, and carefully balance the pro and contra arguments of everything. I don't generally "hate", but of course it happens that I rant about something I dislike from time to time. The blog would be much poorer if I didn't have an opinion. Other people express themselves with much less words, but much more forcefully. Seen as a battle for developer's time, this becomes understandable.
Part of the hate certainly comes from the market growing up. There is an old saying that every developer creates the game he would like to play most. But while that is a model that works well for smaller companies, the fact that Blizzard makes $1 billion per year from World of Warcraft doesn't quite fit with that. Once a game company becomes big enough, they won't let a handful of developers make whatever game they want. Suddenly you get people with PowerPoint slides full of bullet points about market analysis, customer satisfaction, turnover and retention rates, and so on. Whether you like it or hate it, the current trend towards accessible raiding in World of Warcraft is the direct result of such a rational market analysis. If everybody pays the same, it makes financial sense not to predominantly create content for a small subgroup, but to make content accessible to a larger audience. And on the other hand, once you know a small subgroup is much more engaged with the game than average, various business models in which not everybody pays the same aren't far off either. As a German I could observe first hand how West Germany had a car market with everything from cheap, tiny cars to expensive, big Mercedeses, while East Germany had a car market in which everybody was driving the same Trabant. Guess which business model won once the wall came down! Market stratification is just a fact of life in our capitalist society. But of course it provokes the hate of those who are best served by everybody paying a flat fee for a game that just happens to fit exactly their personal preferences. There isn't really a perfectly fair solution, and any change always provokes a negative reaction from those who are losing out from it.
I think there isn't really that much reason to get too excited about this. Microtransactions and more accessible games for wider audiences have been predicted for years, and we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg emerge now. But that doesn't mean that flat fee games and hardcore games are going to disappear from the market. Are millions of pre-teens and ultra-casual players playing Free Realms really hurting your favorite game, or this a demographic you didn't want to see playing your game anyway? As long as there is a sufficiently large number of players demanding a game with a specific focus and business model, games of that kind are going to be made. There will always be a market for more challenging, more complex, more mature games with a flat-rate subscription plan. No reason to overreact when a different style of game is being discussed or is doing well.