Tobold's Blog
Thursday, November 03, 2011
 
Is World of Warcraft a casual game?

Keen is writing about Richard Garriott, who is writing about companies like EA and Blizzard having missed the boat on casual games. Richard Garriott thinks: “The only reason Zynga exists is because people like EA, people like Blizzard, failed to step in.” Keen on the other hand thinks: "Blizzard has done more for the casual movement than any other company with any sort of interest vested in MMOs. Blizzard managed to take what was originally, for years, a “hardcore” genre of complex mechanics and reduce it to the least common denominator. World of Warcraft is the definition of accessibility and as close to a casual friendly experience as it gets."

Me, I do think that many bloggers have a rather unrealistically high expectation of where exactly the "least common denominator" is. The most simple Zynga games, like Farmville, are probably very close to this imaginary "least common denominator". World of Warcraft is several orders of magnitude more complex. There are thousands of games which are more complex than Farmville but less complex than World of Warcraft in between these two. Thus I don't agree that WoW today is "as close to a casual friendly experience as it gets". Case in point, the general assumption is that Mists of Pandaria will make WoW *more* casual friendly, which wouldn't be possible if it was already as casual friendly as possible.

That is not to say that Keen and all the people complaining about the next WoW expansion don't have a point. What is certainly true is that if you draw a line from Everquest to WoW 2004 to WoW 2011 (and SWTOR 2011) there is a clear and steady trend away from hardcore. The only mistake is to think that we are for some reason already at the bottom of this trend, and it won't continue from here on. There is no reason whatsoever which would prevent Blizzard from continuing this trend with *every* future patch and expansion, making World of Warcraft even easier and less hardcore every year. Just look at games like Free Realms to see how much less complex and more casual friendly a MMORPG still can become.

Where will that end? Unfortunately for the hardcore, they do not play Zynga games. I believe that to understand trends in gaming, you need to be open enough to try everything. Which is why I play everything from hardcore PvP games to Farmville, even if many of the games I try out turn out to be not to my liking. Because in this case Zynga games, unexpectedly, offer a message of hope for the hardcore gamers: The trend for Zynga games, and other Facebook and browser games, is to get *more* complex on average every year. It turned out that Farmville was *too* simple, and while easy enough for everybody to learn wasn't interesting enough to keep people playing. The much maligned casual gamer and Zynga games customer demanded something more complex. Which means the long-term trend points not towards a bottomless pit of zero complexity, but towards a compromise somewhere half way between Farmville and World of Warcraft.

While I find that good to know, I don't think this will make the hardcore players happy. We still have many years ahead of us before games reach that compromise. And during that time the "l33t skillz" of the hardcore players will go up, while the challenge on offer will go down. These are very simple market forces at work here. You don't need to be an economics major to understand that hoping for a game which has the level of quality which requires a hundred million dollars to realize, and at the same time is inaccessible to anybody but the most hardcore elite player, is likely to end up in disappointment. The only financially viable solutions are accessible big budget games, or low budget hardcore games. This isn't the result of some evil conspiracy of game developers to make players dumber. It is the inevitable result of a market in which prices are effectively capped, and making an online game for the maximum number of players possible is always more profitable than making a game for a select elite.

Richard Garriott is right in saying that World of Warcraft isn't a casual game yet, but Keen is right in saying that WoW is getting ever more casual, and other games will follow in that direction. As much as some people would like to see online games as a lifestyle, the truth is that these games are products, and are subject to market forces. As a business decision, Mists of Pandaria is brilliant. Even if that means that the genre is moving away from what their most avid fans wish. History has a tendency to repeat itself, and what happened to movies since Jaws is going to happen to games as well.

Comments:
WoW can be played by casual AND hardcore gamers, that's why it's a winning game. I've invited few friends over time and everyone loved Azeroth, exploring, questing and so on.

No one of them ever reached the raiding-zone though, someone just stepped into few heroics but nothing more.

They're still actively playing in a casual way, meaning they love questing, exploring places, collecting stuff, doing achievements and seasonal events... and so on.

WoW offers a LOT of stuff to do/see/accomplish. There is plenty of space for casuals. I would say that playing it "casually" could even offer more fun, compared to the high-end content.
 
I don't think WoW became more casual at all with Cataclysm, or even WotLK.

Heroics and raids became playgrounds of those who played for the external reward, not content for players who played for fun. The leveling game was not simplified to appeal to casuals - it does not, as you know, Tobold. It was simplified to appeal to hardcore players who wanted another twink and didn't care about how boring it is. There is a difference between boring an simple.

The open world, which used to be a fun game full of instant action, was turned into a dailies-only minigame, which was so repetitive that only the hardcore, who did it for the external reward, ended up doing.

Low level battlegrounds were left in an extreme unpolished state. Clearly not something that appeals to new players. The entire leveling experience is unpolished. Have a look at professions.

Heirlooms were very effective at catering to hardcore players, not new players.

WoW's capability to draw new players into communities was severely diminished by introducing, for all practical purposes, forced anonymous grouping, which replaced all other grouping except for raids.

Finally, even if Blizzard tried to make WoW more 'casual', they failed. Since the start of WotLK, the 2 mio-subs-per-year growth has suddenly stopped. Playing WoW today you will not find more casuals - you will find more hardcore. Make a new toon if you want to see yourself.
 
Frankly, I don't think hardcore gamers should go all chicken little over the prospects of the casualization of all games.

As major games like WoW become less complex, it opens more and more space at the very top for a hardcore niche to develop. At some point, the gap will get big enough that it will reach critical mass of potential players, and produce a brand new niche hardcore game.
 
"You don't need to be an economics major to understand that hoping for a game which has the level of quality which requires a hundred million dollars to realize, and at the same time is inaccessible to anybody but the most hardcore elite player, is likely to end up in disappointment."

Call of Duty cost a hundred million dollars to make and it's made for a hardcore gaming public: XBox360 & PS3 fans. It's the kind of game that garners to young male adults, not a broad audience.
 
Call of Duty is made for the hardcore? That is news to me. I played several Call of Duty games, and breezed through them in spite of generally sucking at shooter games.

I'd go as far as saying that the strong focus on scripted sequences and the limited enemy AI makes the Call of Duty series one of the most casual and accessible series in the shooter genre. FPS shooters like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series are a lot more hardcore.
 
After reading this I feel so confused with the terminology.

I've been brought up to believe that the terms 'hardcore' and 'casual' have nothing to do with the player's skill, but rather the time investment.

Thing that makes WoW a hardcore game, by design, is the subscription fee model. Blizzard wants to keep that business model lucrative, so they introduced this inflation of power through clvl and ilvl.

1) If you stop playing for a month or two, you can be sure you're at least a tier behind in item levels. And that makes a gargantuan difference in performance as skills are deliberately designed to scale so well with gear.

2) Most of the activities in this game that reward you something of value are designed around forced grouping. If you drop out from the scene/group for a month or two, it's increasingly hard to step back in with the the gear disadvantage that you now have. You're not such a prospect to arena teams or raid groups anymore, and will get replaced by someone who's been busy farming.

This is further amplified by the class simplifications of Cataclysm, gear matters more, skill matters less. This helps hardcore players to get an advantage over casuals.

I also feel weirded out about calling Farmville a casual game. Isn't that actually something that also rewards time investment? A casual game to me is something like Starcraft, in which you can drop out of the scene for half a year, but then come back and be on an equal footing with everyone else.

I feel like I just got dumber.
 
I've been brought up to believe that the terms 'hardcore' and 'casual' have nothing to do with the player's skill, but rather the time investment.

I have yet to meet a hardcore player who isn't convinced that the increased time investment has a positive effect on his player's skill.
 
I agree with Tobold. There is a very strong correlation between time investment and growing player skill.

In fact, if little time investment was needed to increase your skill, the game would rightfully be called too easy.
 
I have yet to meet a hardcore player who isn't convinced that the increased time investment has a positive effect on his player's skill.

I have yet to meet anybody who isn't convinced that the increased time investment has a positive effect on a skill...

@Ledger: For the most part anyways, hardcore vs. casual are mostly just image terms, where hardcore invokes fat nerds of playing 24/7, living and breathing serious gameplay, while casual invokes silliness, farming daisies, and light hearted gameplay. They're broad and general terms in the first place.

@Nils: This is why I think WoW has become more casual over the past expansions. The core gameplay may have changed to better appeal to hardcore players, but the imagery invoked inside the hardcore player's mind is that the game has become more casual. It's not necessarily a rational image, but that's what people have come to believe, and emotions are hardly ever rational.

Ironically, on your own blog, Nils, you also have comments that show that casual players believe that WoW is only getting more hardcore.
 
It all comes down to how you define a casual game. For me it comes down to your target audience: do you want everyone to play your game, ranging from young females to retirees? Games like tetris, farmville, Wii sports and peggle fit in here. Simply put: do your wife or parents play it? For WoW, that might be a yes. For CoD, it's a lot less likely.

But yes, within the shooter genre you can specialize even more. Games like STALKER and Red Orchestra aim at an even smaller part of the audience: young, male gamers who enjoy PC shooters with a bigger sense of realism. These can be made with a smaller budget.

Starcraft 2 cost a hundred million dollars to create. Would you consider that a casual game?
 
Starcraft II sold 5 million copies. Would you say that these are all hardcore players?
 
I sure see the argument, but I'm not convinced it's a good one.

I think one caps skill much faster than gear in these games. Consider the amount of time it takes to learn something like WoW's combat system and a class to play with, and then compare that to the time one has to invest to it to keep the gear level competitive.

And skills don't inflate the same way. One could compete at top arena level, skip a whole expansion and come back and just need gear to compete up there again.

This is why I think it's logical to say that the less the game is based on gear, the more it caters to casuals.
 
I think the problem lies with different definitions of "skill". If learning every boss encounter by heart is a skill, then skill goes up with gear. If the skill is only learning how to play the game and your class well, it caps quickly.
 
What happened to Movies since Jaws? Did I miss a memo?

And yes, many bloggers certainly do have "a rather unrealistically high expectation of where exactly the "least common denominator" is".
 
You can find the memo here.
 
@Ledger: That makes very little sense. Chess requires zero "gear" to play, but I wouldn't say it caters to casuals.

@Tobold: I think skill vs gear has been clearly delinated on this site already, where skill pertains to only a player's ability and personal prowess that is independent of the character that he is playing, whereas gear is only an arbitrary restriction imposed by the game on the player that is improved over time (e.g. getting better gear, levelling up, etc.).

That said, I don't think player skill caps out quickly at all. What caps out is player skill reaching the required level of skill to surpass a predetermined skill level (e.g. any raid encounter), but that doesn't mean that player skill can still yet surpass these minimum requirements.
 
If you look at just the game WOW it is not the most casual friendly game out there obviously, but you have to think about the proliferation of WOW. If you have a question about something in WOW you Google it and there are 20 pages of links and probably 5 YouTube videos showing you exactly what to do and the fastest way to do it. No other game has the huge resources of wikis, blogs, libraries, videos ratings and resources available, nothing even comes close. Anyone that can Google can find any answer about WOW they want know other game can give you that kind of customized and honestly friendly support in seconds. There are so many blogs out there dedicated to being quality WOW resources it blows any other game away. That is what makes it the most accessible game today
 
I don't think it's a question of casual v hardcore but rather single player v multiplayer.

The older a mmog gets, the harder it is to sustain multiplayer. Blizzard is trying to figure it out as it goes along and credit to them for trying new things...but it might just be the nature of the genre.

As it turns out, our virtual lives have lifespans as well. And the issues we have with WoW mirror concerns we have about our own mortality.

Fun stuff :)
 
"@Ledger: That makes very little sense. Chess requires zero "gear" to play, but I wouldn't say it caters to casuals."

It does cater to casuals. Me and my brother pulled that game out the first time when I was 10 years old. Was I bad? Yes. But so was my brother, and so the game produced even and exciting matches.

It would be different if Chess had a ladder system that rewarded players more pieces on the board the higher ranking they have, giving an real measurable advantage to players who play competitively/spend time on it over players who don't.

Starcraft is a casual friendly game too. The tiered ladder system is designed so that you will always be matched against equal opponents with equal chances to win the match. It doesn't matter if you take a year long break from it as when you come back, you're instantly ready for action and on an equal footing with your opponent.

--

In WoW, you have mechanics/game designs that make it hard for you to enter the endgame if you take a few months break and drop a tier behind in item levels. In PvE and Arenas, team/raid leaders prefer to bring people along that have higher gearscore.

Back in Wrath you could hop back in to Arena scene if people knew you by reputation, as skill had a good effect on the outcome of the arena matches, even if you were severely undergeared. Cataclysm simplified classes too much, and so the hardcore players who don't drop their subscriptions have a measurable advantage over casuals who take frequent long breaks from the game.

--

But back on topic. I don't think it's useful to weigh between extremes, especially when it comes to MMOs. A perfect MMO would use both types of gamers to strengthen the game, rather than making them fight for the some limited section of content.

WoW is more casual friendly than most of the previous MMOs, but it's still not a casual game. And as long as Blizzard wants to keep the subscription fee model, it will never become a truly casual friendly, skill based game.
 
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