Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
 
Mainstream and niche games

If somebody who had never played a MMORPG before came and asked me for a recommendation what would be the perfect first MMO to try, I'd send him with no hesitation to World of Warcraft. Sure, he'll probably have less fun now than we had 4 years ago when there were still people in the old world, but other than that WoW is still the most accessible game for new players. It is the most polished game. And it covers nearly every feature any other MMORPG could have, albeit often in a relatively simple and harmless way. So you can experiment with things like player economy or PvP, but they are optional, and don't have as much effect as in other games. World of Warcraft is the ultimate mainstream game, and that means if you don't know what somebody likes, the chances that he'll like WoW are greatest.

People who played World of Warcraft for 4+ years now often moved on to other games. And these other games are often a lot less mainstream than WoW. Whether that is me playing Luminary, or hardcore players enjoying EVE or Game-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named, or people with other specific preferences playing specific games that cater to those, the games we moved to are often a lot less polished. The have obvious flaws, and are neither as well-rounded nor as accessible as World of Warcraft.

And I wonder if that is not by choice. I *could* play a game that is very similar to World of Warcraft, but I feel no desire to do so. And I'm not the only one, companies now actively advertise having no elves in their game. (There are no elves in Luminary, btw.). By making a game which is strong in one area, like player economy, or PvP, but on a small budget and thus less good in other areas, you might not make the perfect game for MMO beginners. But the MMO veterans will often be able to live with the quirks and idiosyncrasies of these smaller games, as long as they are strong in some nice feature they especially like.

The thing is you can't make a game which is both mainstream and ultra-specialized. Mainstream games have to go for the lowest common denominator, and that means not requiring too much from their players, and not frustrating them too much. Thus mainstream games end up for example with PvP systems in which everyone is a winner, and there is no "impact" of player actions on the world, which could negatively affect other players. Or a player economy in which you can't actually do very much with the virtual currency you accumulated, so those who aren't that business-savy aren't disadvantaged.

So in a way a mainstream game like World of Warcraft is a game where you still have training-wheels on. Of course you can try to beat WoW, and be proud of your achievements in the arena or as a raider. But you need to be aware that there are other games out there in which these activities are a lot more challenging. Even before WotLK WoW raiding was much easier than raiding in lets say the original Everquest, where you'd lose xp for wiping, and in extreme cases all of your gear. Playing with those training-wheels can be a lot of fun, especially if you are new to the genre. But it is completely possible that at some point you know better what features you like and dislike in a MMO. And then some niche game might actually be the better choice. Even if it lacks polish, or has obvious weaknesses, as long as it is strong in your area of preference, it might end up being more fun than the mainstream fare.
Comments:
I play MMOs for the community, and not just any community, but a group of RL friends who've gamed together since we were kids. It's hard to get people to migrate to niche games, even if there are things done better. I can't get my friends to go to WAR even though the PvP is better, and we're generally PvP players. I haven't tried Darkfall, but the fact that they haven't heard of it before surely makes it that we won't move there. It's like organizing a permanent 15 man raid.

As much as I would love to find a great niche game, even if it is without the polish WoW has, I'm limited by those I prefer to game with. And in the end, I'd rather play a game I'm close to bored with as long as I get to keep up with college buddies who've moved away.

That's my reason for not falling into a niche MMO like WAR, RoM, or EVE. Heck, I've even wanted to go back to SWG, but there's no way I could convince my friends to go back.

I think SW:TOR will be my best chance of getting them to migrate to a new game we've not played for four and a half years, but I can hardly call that a niche game yet. Time will tell, though.
 
Where are these niche games, and what makes them niche games? And what makes WoW an MMO with training wheels? I find "niche" poorly defined and the MMO-lite assertion a little weak and unsubstantiated.
 
That's true now but I don't think it's been true historically.

UO and EQ were in their respective ways quite extreme. SWG for its first 18 months was both mainstream and very different from anything before or since.

TOR threatens to be both a niche storytelling game and mainstream.
 
Where are these niche games, and what makes them niche games?

Those niche games are everywhere, especially on sites offering a dozen different games at the same time, usually Free2Play. What makes the niche is a low budget, concentrating on one thing they are doing good, and being often deficient or less polished in all other areas, especially graphics.
 
"if you don't know what somebody likes, the chances that he'll like WoW are greatest"

I think that's very well put, very accurate, and often forgotten by people who don't personally like WoW.
 
Tobold this is a great post. It sums up a lot of the differences between games and also I think points to one of the reasons people move on (graduate) from WoW.

WoW is a good first MMO for people to try. It has relatively few annoying early bugs that will cause people to quit (other than getting camped on PvP server while leveling).
 
I wonder how many people there are who, like myself, quit WoW, didn't find a decent alternative after trying to find one for a couple months, and gave up on the entire mmorpg genre (at least until a new mmorpg which *is* polished and *doesn't* feature crappy gameplay like WAR, AoC, DF, etc. etc. regardless of their focus on pve, pvp, whatever). Blizzard raised the mmorpg quality standards, and to offer a decent alternative to WoW you'll have to live up to those, even if you're on a low budget.
I think the largest crowd just wants to 'keep the training-wheels on', and those moving to those 'niche' games is actually a small group.
 
Hmmm... not really convinced. I'm in a disadvantaged position, not having played WoW, but isn't the primary reason for its success that it's more entertaining than the rest?

Would you say that reading P.G.Wodehouse is "reading with the training wheels" on compared to reading Nabokov? Or watching "Gone with the Wind" is "movie-watching with the training-wheels on" compared to watching "Alphaville"?

It's possible to have depth, quality and ease of access all in the same package, and when that's achieved, people flock to it. On the evidence, WoW has managed all that while its competitors have struggled to get two out of three.

I think, though, that it is still early days. WoW has been with us for just five years and that's not much over the development schedule for MMOs. The AAA games that started in the real post-WoW environment won't be with us for a while yet.
 
People's taste becomes more refined the more they've already experienced. You might listen to teenpop when you're 12 but once you're 30 it (hopefully) bores you to tears.

The same probably applies to MMOs and makes those of us with a few games under their belt dislike cookie-cutter MMOs, or at least recognize them for what they are.

In a way, WoW is the most cookie-cutter of all MMOs in that it contains a bit of everything, like you say, so it really is a good place to start refining your taste.

And then, ten years later you end up being able to appreciate Luminary :)
 
...isn't the primary reason for its success that it's more entertaining than the rest?

The problem is that different people find different things to be "entertaining." WoW's strengths are (1) it is very accessible, even to those new to MMOs, and (2) it has a lot of different things to do (i.e. it's very broad). But none of its individual elements are very deep. The combat system doesn't allow very much tactical variety, the crafting system is shallow, and PvP is mostly confined to battlegrounds.

I think Tobold is exactly right. WoW is great for new players. But after trying WoW, many players discover that they prefer specific aspects of an MMO more than others. And for those players, a niche MMO focusing on those aspects may be better.
 
What exactly does "niche" mean in the context of MMO's?

Is Ultima now a niche game while remaining basically the same game it always has, despite being VERY popular at one point in time?

Is Darkfall a niche game because of how it was designed, or because how it was received and supported by the playerbase?

IMHO it all comes down to game design and how superficial(WoW) the game tries to be, and how well it succeeds in that attempt without failing in some areas and ending up with a "core" playerbase(EVE) who really likes the type of gameplay the game actually ends up with at release.

I also dont think that PvP is a a "niche" market, as PvP'ers arent relegated to just the MMO genre. It's a bit folly IMO to look at a games subscription numbers, compare them to those of a game such as WoW, and call it a "niche" game because it has far fewer players.

There is an interesting phenomina that I see in this debate though: Those people who play games such as WoW tend to look at less successful games as "niche" games, while players of games such as Darkfall tend to look at games like WoW and see them as "crap" that anyone could play.

I wonder what would happen if 1000 players of WoW, who had never played Darkfall, were invited to sample Darkfall's FFA PvP style of play? How long would they last?
 
Good post. And I think there is a tradeoff between width and depth in games. If you want a game with a bit of everything, it won't be as satisfying in any one niche as a specialist game. But it may still end up being the best choice.

I agree with Beej that it is really hard to get people to move to a more niche game. But you can always make new friends :)
 
Even before WotLK WoW raiding was much easier than raiding in lets say the original Everquest, where you'd lose xp for wiping, and in extreme cases all of your gear.

I still would like it if some old school EQ player could explain in which way raiding in WoW is easier compared to EQ, FFXI or whatever, apart from the above quoted reason. I mean losing XP and lengthy pre quests are simply timesinks that hinder your access to the raid content. They say nothiung about the actual complexity of the raid encounters themselves. In fact such time sinks often seems to serve as a way for developers to pad the difficulty of raids without having to resort to do something about the difficulty of the fights in themselves.

So, in what way are those old schools raids harder and morecomplex than WoW's, beside the bullshit timesinks?
 
"Would you say that reading P.G.Wodehouse is "reading with the training wheels" on compared to reading Nabokov? Or watching "Gone with the Wind" is "movie-watching with the training-wheels on" compared to watching "Alphaville"?"

Exactly! You got it mate.
 
"So, in what way are those old schools raids harder and morecomplex than WoW's, beside the bullshit timesinks?"

This is terribly funny.
After begging for nerfs, so many "raiders" (not saying you're one of them just making a point) now say it's not nerfed at all and it's still a challenge.
 
@Wyrm

My question really has little to do with nerfs and the corresponding whine festivals. I'm just interested in knowing if all those hardcore raids in older games actually were hard because of how the encounters were designed, or if they were hard because you had to camp a rare spawn for five weeks in competition with twenty other guilds every time they want to be able to zone in to the raid zone.

Because if it's the former those mechanics would probably serve to make the design of the encounters less harsh, since players would be a lot less interested of a high chance of failure if the investment to get to the raid in the first place is to high.

A system where it's easy to access the raid and thee cost of a wipe is low makes the community more accepting of harder and more complex encounters, since the price of failure on each attempt is lower. I wonder if this has turned out to have an effect on the raid encountters of WoW compared to older games.
 
I wonder how many people there are who, like myself, quit WoW, didn't find a decent alternative after trying to find one for a couple months, and gave up on the entire mmorpg genre (at least until a new mmorpg which *is* polished and *doesn't* feature crappy gameplay like WAR, AoC, DF, etc. etc. regardless of their focus on pve, pvp, whatever).

I do kind of fit this, though guild Wars was actually my first MMO, and I would prefer something more along its lines than along the WoW "level and gear treadmill" lines.



There is an interesting phenomina that I see in this debate though: Those people who play games such as WoW tend to look at less successful games as "niche" games, while players of games such as Darkfall tend to look at games like WoW and see them as "crap" that anyone could play.

This seems an issue with the gamers rather than the games, though. (One of many ways I've gotten more cynical and annoyed with a lot of other gamers.) It does fit with the general idea that WoW will be a simpler game to get into, though.



I do wonder, though, if WoW gets so much focus as an "easy" game just because it's the biggest one, and not necessarily because "niche" games are really the hardest. (A lot of these microtransaction type games seem like they will have a similar "simplicity" as WoW does, though without playing them its hard to tell.) for games mentioned here (like darkfall, EVE, etc.), they are harder in a lot of ways, but other games may not be so much.
 
I wouldn't point them to WoW. I'd actually point them to Free Realms. If they like that, then I'd point them to WoW.

--Rawr
 
The entry level game can have a negative impact on a persons perspective of the different play options in a game too.

I know several people that hate PvP because their experience was so negative in the Arena in WoW, but when I dragged them gently into a RvR lake in WAR to participate in a keep defense, they loved it. I often heard things like, "Man, this is really fun! This is not what I expected from PvP."

I'm sure crafting etc. can be the same way. If people are always having it pounded into their skulls that WoW is the best MMO out there, they often will take it as a given, that each element of the game (ie: PvP) is the best iteration out there.

Why try someone elses burger if you are told that the best burger joint in the world is McDonalds and you don't really care for their burgers all that much?
 
I do not think World of Warcraft would be an obvious initial choice for a game to start with as a recommendation - although it would be one of the top choices.

For a recommendation where a player game sort of ease into the whole multi-player aspect by just being in the same game as other players, but not necessarily interact with them - then I do believe World of Warcraft or Guild Wars would be my options.
They work well as single player environments, but where it is possible to dip into the multiplayer parts.

However, if someone really wants to explore the multiplayer part a bit more and be a newbie without getting their head bitten off I would look more on community aspects as well. In such a case I think I would rather recommend a game like City of Heroes to start with.

That is all unless the person already has some _good_ friends playing some other MMO who would be happy to play with them and explore things in a reasonable pace. I.e. _not_ someone who goes in to "powerlevel" or somehow "support" the friend to get to whatever may be considered the "real stuff".
 
But you need to be aware that there are other games out there in which these activities are a lot more challenging.

I also want to hear about other games in which raiding and PvP are much more challenging. Not that I would ever play them, but I just want to hear about them.

Endgame WoW is too difficult for me, personally. I've played video games my whole life and never been terribly good at them. My only memorable achievements were beating old-school Unix RPG's like Nethack and Moria. Anything requiring real-time action, I'm at best mediocre.

Back to endgame WoW: I quit raiding after our guild lost too many raiders to continue Ulduar-25. I was among the best players in the guild, which should tell you why we didn't get far in Ulduar. Don't even think about the hard modes -- we were fully Naxx-geared but couldn't make the transition to regular Ulduar-25.

PvP is even worse. I typically hovered around 1400 in Arena for the first 3 seasons. But after they added ratings requirements, 75% of the arena population dropped out, and the remainder were much tougher. In Season 5 (first season of WotLK), I dropped to 1200 and quit. It's inconceivable to me how some people get 2000+ ratings.

So the assertion is that somewhere there are niche games where endgame PvE and PvP are more difficult than WoW? I don't believe it. I do believe that there are games which punish failure more -- Eve comes to mind. But the actual mechanics, no. If I were to RMT-hire the world's top WoW raiders / arena gladiators and paid them to learn another MMO, I'd bet that in a few months they would be the top players in that game too.
 
WoW did A LOT of things right. I mean for every single MMO before and after WoW I can present long laundry list of what wow did better.

There are several deep design elements missing from WoW and present in a few other games- notably player driven pvp. Arguably only EvE did that part somewhat right while other (darkfall, SB) were complete and utter failure even in this single department)

Say what you want but WoW to date has THE best combat system, it is as deep as it needs to be and has very fluid mechanics and dynamics .

Arena gameplay in WoW is as high level as it gets-as its typical with popular competitive ladders,- competition drives the constant improvement and polish. No MMO to date had its tournament play as evolved as wow did

Scrubs wont understand it though, as they attribute their failure in PvP to perceived flaws in the system , not to themselves.

WoW does not have good multi group combat, nor any larger scale warfare though , but again it is better than most titles out there.

Save maybe for eve, which (in my book) did everything wrong but player driven economy and player controlled areas (even in those areas I think there is lots more room for improvement)
 
I have to agree with adingworld, City of Heroes is the better first MMORPG. I do think WoW is better overall, but at a basic level CoH is the most fun to play. The problems it has lacking in complexity/depth and end-game are what make it easier to pick up for someone new to the genre.
 
I've played for only 3 years but have tried a lot.

I've since found I love crafting.

What is the preferred game for crafters/economy types?
 
I just don't see what a game like Luminary offers, or any of the quickie MMOs out of one of the Asian MMO grindhouses such as Nexon, really offer that is missing from a mainstream title like WoW, other than a severely limited scope and a population of players willing to play around it. Is that really the direction that a "sophisticated" MMO player should take?
 
I've pointed a couple people to WoW before, and to Lotro as well. I would never think of pointing anyone at all to EvE as a first MMO although statistics show it is currently my most played game (over the past few weeks), followed by Sims III, AoC and that good old classic favourite of mine, Forza Motorsport 2.

Most people I pointed to WoW got stuck in there, the ones I pointed to Lotro, well some are still there. So I tend to agree with Tobold, people who like fantasy RPGs anyway, kick them into WoW and watch the addiction factor kick in ;)

Someone mentioned CoH/CoV as a starter MMO? Maybe that works in the States but it wouldn't in Europe. We don't have this whole superhero youth background thing that makes people want to be Batman online. I know that I won't ever try it just because I don't care one bit about playing a superhero/supervillain.
 
Tobold,
Do you have any examples of recommended MMO hubs?
 
I still would like it if some old school EQ player could explain in which way raiding in WoW is easier compared to EQ, FFXI or whatever

So would I, Nils. The stories I've heard of old-school EQ raiding seem to mostly revolve around fights so long and with so little interaction required that players would watch TV while tapping a key every few seconds.
 
I don't think the endgame in WoW is simple. It's just that longtime players understand it so well that it becomes simple to them.

Tobold, even, has talked about the need to have a certain DPS to do certain raid instances. Imagine a new player being confronted with that, trying to figure out what that means exactly and how to achieve it.

WoW is easy for someone who has been playing it for years, but it's complex for a new player. Not the 1-80 game, but the endgame. What gear to get, what enchants, what talent build, what inscriptions, what rotation to use, etc. There's a lot of Theorycraft to learn.

I also agree with some of the comments in this thread about the need for niche titles to match WoW on polish. If they don't, chances are most of us will discard them after a short time.
 
Do you have any examples of recommended MMO hubs?

Well, I'm currently playing at the Aeria Games hub. But you might try a site like MMO HUB.org to find more.

I just don't see what a game like Luminary offers, or any of the quickie MMOs out of one of the Asian MMO grindhouses such as Nexon, really offer that is missing from a mainstream title like WoW, other than a severely limited scope and a population of players willing to play around it.

I already mentioned the better economy in Luminary, where there are neither grey vendor trash items nor drops of gear, but everything that drops is a resource for crafting. Luminary also has a political system, with player-run towns and an elected town chief, even an elected server chief. Also already mentioned is that Luminary has the game database accessible *in game*, I don't need to go to Wowhead / Thottbot etc. to find out about items, or what mobs drops what resource with what probability.

And that is just a few examples from one game from the top of my head. Other games offer for example better crafting, or impact PvP, or other settings than fantasy. WoW doesn't do everything better than everyone else, they just have the best overall compromise and package.
 
"WoW doesn't do everything better than everyone else, they just have the best overall compromise and package."

I think this is a more balanced statement than in the original post, and helps to put it in a better context.

I have to admit that Luminary does seem like a pointless pursuit of money for its own means (even the political elections seem to be about making money), rather than facilitating a variety of experiences in an MMO like WoW. And it has the scent of the Asian F2P MMO grind. But you've been very positive about it, so I think that I will give it a try.
 
I'm an old-school EQ player. I've sat with a gear-less guildmate for a real week, trying to get a helpful raid to recover his gear from the Plane of Fear. I remember when you had to "break" the Plane of Hate, as in teleport a group into a room full of mobs, and kill them so the rest of the raid could come up.

Oddly enough, I think WoW is much harder than EQ. Certainly the instances are MUCH harder than EQ dungeons (people routinely soloed dungeons). The raids are harder than EQ raids. EQ wasn't harder than WoW, just less *forgiving*, and more punishing.

To use a bad analogy, WoW is like...fighting Evander Holyfield. Yeah, the boxer. EQ, on the other hand, was like tiptoeing through Mike Tyson's bedroom. If you knock a lamp over OMFG. But otherwise, careful play made it a breeze. EQ didn't require skill as much as caution.

To bring it back to the original subject, the conversation always seems to come back to "difficulty", which is not really the issue. If anything WoW is harder than EQ. Put WoW's instances into EQ and no one would ever EVER venture inside. But WoW will never make you stay up til 4am trying to get back your epics, or let a lag spike/bad pull deprive you of 3 day's worth of XP.
 
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