Tobold's Blog
Monday, September 29, 2014
My subculture is better than your subculture

The truly amazing thing about role-playing games and virtual worlds is that there are so many different ways to experience them. People might think they play the same game, but in reality they don't. You can have World of Warcraft players all with the same game on their computer, but one of them is raiding, another spends most of his time fishing, another plays the auction house to get the maximum amount of gold, and another is using WoW to hang out with his friends. The same is true for Dungeons & Dragons, which can be a base for anything from improvised theater to hack'n'slash dungeon crawling.

A surprising number of people fail to see that this is a strength of those systems.

What happens instead is that some people who prefer a certain sub-game of the larger system declare their subculture to be the "true", "real", "old school", or whatever other attribute you can use to express superiority. The message is always the same: "We are playing this right, you are playing this wrong". There is also a surprising amount of history falsification à la 1984 going on, you know, "Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.". For example people pretend that a certain play style of Dungeons & Dragons is superior and call it Old School Renaissance, but nobody agrees what OSR really is, because in reality there is no such thing as a unified "old school" way of playing D&D. I'm not saying an OSR is in any way a bad way to play D&D, but pretending that this was the way everybody played in the old days is as false as it is presumptuous. It is just another label used to express superiority of a specific subculture by pretending that "this is how Gary Gygax wanted us to play".

As mbp mentioned in a recent comment and then on his blog, Edward Castronova mentioned the splintering of MMORPGs into subcultures as part of the reason for their decline: "For a time in the last decade, there was a sense that an immersive 3D communal place was a substantial thing unto itself, and likely to become an important media offering. That has not happened. Instead, we've seen an unbundling of the parts of virtual worlds. Sociality went to Facebook. Complex heroic stories went to single-player games. Multiplayer combat went to places like DOTA and Clash of Clans. Economy games went to Farmville and the F2P clones. Virtual currency went to Bitcoin.".

Narrower games appeal to a narrower part of the customer base. That is quite okay too, if by making the game narrower you can manage to make it cheaper to produce. But, as the developers of Wildstar discovered, if you make a game that is both broad in the list of features and narrow in its appeal, you get an expensive game with few customers, which is not a recipe for financial success. Maybe a pure raiding game without all the rest of a MMORPG attached would have been the better plan if you think that raiding is the essential part of the MMORPG experience.

I believe that if we want to see games that are huge successes in the future, these games need to be broader and not focus on any of the small subcultures in them. That is the one thing I like the most about Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, that it is a broader game that will appeal to more different groups of D&D players. (4E is better for the specific subculture of tactical players). I believe the same would be possible in the online space of role-playing games. But as that would be a rather expensive venture, I am not sure anybody will even try it. EQ Next to me appears more to be about catering to a different subculture than about bringing us a new MMORPG that everybody can enjoy.

As I get further out from the staring areas I noticed for the first time how different Archeage feels from most MMOs I've played for a long time. Because of the multiple tracks for progression and activity all taking place in a shared, non-instanced space and happening over time (no instant travel and some travel actually slowed down) it does really feel like you are in some kind of, oh I don't know, virtual world.

Riding down a road on the way to a quest location passing pack-laden travelers on slow donkeys, reigning in your own mount to pull aside to avoid a carriage carrying players heading in the opposite direction and seeing players working in the farms along the roadside while airships and gliders pass feels like being somewhere.

It's really quite odd.
I think that social media was the biggest reason why Castranova's vision of culturally significant immersive 3D social spaces didn't happen. Social media rendered the social aspect of mmorpgs redundant and therefore removed the glue that held all the disparate playstyles together.

This evolution is not necessarily all bad. Facebook's purchase of Occulus Rift suggests a possible future where social media itself evolves into an immersive 3D form. It could deliver everything that we thought mmorpgs might deliver.
I was so interested in EQN for a number of reasons but especially StoryBricks. Alas, I won't be playing due to that combat.

AA is more different than most but I sure don't see owpvp sandboxes as "mainstream" (with customers if not bloggers.)

It is worse than the vocal commentators that glorify one subsegment. It is the developers (e.g. Wildstar and latest WoW) who are "too elite" of gamers and too incompetent of business persons to treat all segments as equal.

The only hopeful sign I have seen recently was from Rift "According the Bill Fisher (Daglar), the reason is that the vast majority of RIFT players dabble in different things. The subtext (in my opinion) is that not enough people are getting to raiding. They'd rather do a little of this and that -– in other words, have fun. Going forward, whatever activity you choose will contribute to a background feeling of progress. This helps the raiding agenda while also helping casuals have a progression track."

I don't know.. I won't go so far as to say that sub-cultures don't play a part in declining MMOs, but I think the root cause is more easily defined.

Shorter attention spans.

For the 20-year olds, that's IMO caused by too many games with quick hit rewards. You do a thing, get a shiny immediately. Many parts of an MMOs work best when the shinies are spaced out a bit (i.e. grindy) but the last decade of games has taught us not to wait.

For the 30+ crowd, lack of time in our real lives provides less time for gaming. This group doesn't want to spend all day doing X when they only get an hour to play games.

That said, 100% agree with mbp's above observation on social networking. This has largely replaced whatever 'need' that socializing was filling for some people in MMOs. Combined with the above, it's no wonder MMOs are in decline.
staring areas

I assume that is a typo, although it might be a Freudian slip. :)

While your quote is somewhat hopeful that developers are at least paying attention, I find this part worrisome:

"The subtext (in my opinion) is that not enough people are getting to raiding.

This is an attitude I see in way too many developers, and I think is one of the biggest factors in the slow decline of WoW. A vast majority of players show they don't want to raid, and the developer response is simply, "how do we force them to raid anyway?"
Well Samus, isn't every discussion of MMO mechanics "How do we force people to behave the way we want them to behave?" It's always incentivize this, penalize that. Buff this, nerf that.

It's never "Let's get people to do what we want by making it fun."

Without some kind of activity to provide purpose for guilds, some way to let people create socioeconomic classes the whole enterprise is nothing more than a massively mediocre late 90s RPG. You don't subscribe for years to that. I get that some people are into exploration or crafting, but Tales in the Desert has peak subscriber numbers that would get a WoW server merged in a heartbeat.
Except that the vast majority of WoW players don't raid (to say nothing for the players who raid because it's the only way to progress in the end game, but would rather not), and 10 years later they are still on top by a huge margin.

I keep seeing that same old assumption that hardcore players are the only ones worth trying to keep, but the dozens of games that tried that have all been massive flops. The AAA MMORPGs which have been most successful at retaining players in the last 10 years have been WoW, SWTOR, GW2 and EVE, all games which provide lots of non-raiding content.
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