Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Casual and hardcore in A Tale in the Desert

I tend to play around 20 hours per week, and that is rather constant and does not much depend on what game I’m playing at the moment, because my gaming hours depend on what goes on in my real life, and not the other way around. On the one side that is only half of what the average American spends watching TV, on the other side it is equivalent to a half-time job. So I prefer not to think in judgmental terms like “too much” or “too little”, to not fall into the trap of considering everybody who plays less than me “a slacker”, and everybody who plays more than me “a no-lifer”. Having said that, I am somewhat surprised of how much “behind the curve” I appear to be in A Tale in the Desert after playing for 10 days. Regional chat is full of talk about researching technologies using resources I’m still far from getting to, and when I visit other player’s houses they are often full of structures I don’t know how to build yet.

Now the amount of hours played is probably just one factor in this. In a building game like A Tale in the Desert progress is more visible than in a static world like Azeroth, which remains unchanged regardless of what the players do. And while I am exploring ATitD and have fun learning a lot of new activities (the Test of the Oyster Catcher has an interesting puzzle sub-game), the game world is full of veteran players who know the game already very well, and who are working hard to reach certain key technologies like mining. As in real life, technology in ATitD makes life easier in many cases, so the veterans got used to doing the same stuff in easier ways in the end-game of the last telling, and want to go back to that situation as fast as possible. Better to research chariot repair quickly than to walk through Egypt all the time, and better to get to nails and mining than to use flax structures based on thorns which constantly break. By working together in dedicated research guilds they can advance much quicker than other players could solo or in small, casual guilds.

Although I understand the veteran’s motivation, I nevertheless observe that it leads to the same splitting up of the community that games like World of Warcraft have between the “hardcore” and the “casual”. I’m not hugely motivated to contribute to the regional research while I’m still having a hard time finding out what the already researched technology does. And even if I was, many of the materials that people are collecting to open up the next research are things I’m not able to make yet. By the time I learned to make lime, the others had already finished the research for glassblowing for which the lime was needed.

On the positive side it is perfectly possible to play A Tale in the Desert in a casual way and not worry how to keep up with the latest technology, just doing your own thing. It is actually easier, because you profit from the technologies others have researched by donating materials, or because things that were very difficult at the start of the game have become much easier as certain technologies became widely available. For example one thing I do to help new players out is having public pottery wheels in my compound. So while I and other early players had to struggle with flax and clay using only the single jug we received, new players can use my pottery wheels to make a dozen jugs and have an easier time.

On the negative side the casual gameplay means you are missing out on the “Civilization”-like kind of game of pushing the regional tech tree forwards. And while using public structures makes sense for some activities, in the end you will want to build structures in your own house, and not constantly hang out at other people’s places.

So personally I am trying to follow my own private tech tree, learn skills one by one, and build structures for myself. In spite of the “half-time job” time investment, I’m still keeping the casual player mindset, and automatically do the things that spinks recommends to avoid burnout. If there is one thing a decade of playing MMORPGs has taught me, it is how to avoid the social pressure to keep up with the Joneses. I still do my bit for the regional research, e.g. participating in a dig of which the unearthed stones went towards research. But if some other players want to press ahead beyond what I am able to follow, I'll just let them go on with it; I am not going to change my play hours or play-style because of them. Now there is a skill you can learn from gaming which is useful in Real Life.
I get the impression that some of the regions in ATITD are more casual than others, too. We're in Sinai, and the research there is nowhere near what it is in your region. Maybe you automatically end up with casual and hardcore regions as the game progresses?
I think Tobold's right, but for the readers who aren't familiar with the "research progression" in ATITD, it's not like raid progression in WoW i.e. essentially a straight line.
ATITD research hits a "bloom" of sorts that occurs after you get mining and a few other technologies. You suddenly enter the "iron age" of sorts, and the different directions of advancement open up. Glassblowing takes off, agriculture becomes easier (with metal tools), and cooking really takes off with metal pots available to do meals other than "grilled -blanks-."

So right now I'm crediting the hardcore push towards mining towards getting to the first ledge where horizontal expansion becomes possible.

Time could prove me wrong.
The tech research is a classic free rider problem. Some hardcore players work hard to unlock technologies but once a technology is available at a university, everybody can learn it (even those who didn’t contribute). It’s surprising that this doesn’t create any problem. Hardcore players could consider that they deserve to be compensated by others for their hard work.
Is it surprising to be left behind playing just 20 hours/week? When WotLK came out, I averaged 40 hours/week and was only in the 70th percentile in leveling speed in my guild. That was while working full-time. MMO's, as you've pointed out, are cheap in entertainment per hour. They also provide a sense of accomplishment, making them perfect for unemployed people who can play much more than 40 hours/week.

It's interesting how in both ATitD and WoW make it easier on casuals, since they can ride on the coattails of the hardcore. In WoW, it's through boss nerfs, player buffs, and published strategies. It's very similar to the price discrimination strategy you wrote about here:

In this case, the "price" is the effort and skill put out by the players. The hardcore are willing to pay more to see content first, so the game company charges more.
"In this case, the "price" is the effort and skill put out by the players. The hardcore are willing to pay more to see content first, so the game company charges more."

Totally disagree. The perceived benefit of being first is greater than the benefit of just completing it. And the hardcore tend to play longer.

Since we all pay the same subscription fee, the hardcore get more value for their money.

It's the rest of us that pay for them to get content that isn't tuned for us until later in the game.

And I'm fine with that. I like playing a game that has a "professional" type level incorporated.
Sorry, my last line was unclear. Let me rephrase:

In this case, the "price" is the effort and skill put out by the players. The hardcore are willing to work harder (in this analogy 'pay more') to see content first, so the game company makes the newly-introduced content harder (in this analogy 'charges more').
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