Sunday, December 30, 2007

WoW and the lowest common denominator

In other forms of media, for example books or movies, people are well aware of the difference between "good" and "popular". There are "good" books and movies that are critically acclaimed, count as literature or art, and that find their way into a typical school curriculum. And there are "popular" books and movies like Harry Potter and Spiderman, which the critics often call trash, but which make millions of dollars of profit. The reason why World of Warcraft has over 9 million subscribers and makes half a billion dollars of profit per year is that it belongs in the second category. Unlike many other MMORPGs it is made for the mass market, it is accessible for everybody, it is targeted at the lowest common denominator.

When we recently discussed losing in PvP, a reader named Xash made a very insightful comment: "Most people simply don't want to expend the effort and dedication required to become good at something. Look at guitar hero. We're swiftly entering a society where more people will know how to play a toy instrument then the real one. And its the same with competitive activities, how many pro baseball players are there? A great deal less then hohum ones. Why? Because the vast majority of people don't enjoy expending effort." I totally agree, I just don't see this as negative. Most people are good at *something*, and expend a lot of effort into their jobs, their families, or social activities. I don't blame them if for their entertainment they want to relax by doing something which requires a lot less effort. They want to play a toy guitar, or play some ball game badly with friends, or get some "welfare epics" in WoW, because all this is just for fun. Nothing would be gained if you somehow forced them to expend the effort to learn a real guitar, to play baseball at major league level, and to become experts at WoW PvP.

In fact it can be argued that MMORPGs in which you are encouraged to expend a lot of effort to achieve something are harmful. All those stories about WoW being "addictive" or people neglecting their job, family, or more often their studies are due to players having the impression that by expending effort in a game they are achieving something. Of course that is an illusion. Most of the time being on top of the game, whether having a 2000+ arena rating in PvP, or being a top raider and killing Illidan, will get you no rewards that are useful in real life. Even the guy who illegaly sold his rogue for $10,000 certainly took thousands of hours of gameplay to get that far, and thus earned less than minimum wages on the hours spent.

There are MMORPGs that are closer to literature or art, for example A Tale in the Desert, which focuses on social interaction between players. EVE Online has a strong PvP focus and is doing quite well with 200k subscribers. But developers must be aware that the choice is theirs: If they make a game which is hard, requires a lot of effort to succeed, and rewards only the best, the game might be "better", but it certainly will be less popular. If they want to make a game with millions of subscribers, they will have to go for the lowest common denominator. The game has to be accessible to everyone, require little effort, and give out plenty of rewards just for showing up. Pirates of the Burning Sea is a "good" game in many respects, but I hope the devs are aware that with their negative sum PvP system they painted themselves into the hardcore PvP niche, and will never get a million subscribers. Warhammer Online could still go either way, depending on how effort and rewards for PvP are handled. If you need to be in a top PvP guild to capture a keep in WAR and get a reward, while Joe Average gets no rewards because he isn't very good at PvP and doesn't have tons of friends, WAR won't see a million subscribers either.

And even the devs of World of Warcraft shouldn't pat themselves on the shoulder for having it done completely right. What they did get right from the start was the accessible PvE leveling game, with its excellent zones and quest system. They got the PvP system popular only two years after release, and they still have to iron out some wrinkles there (like the AV leechers). Their PvE end game originally was rather bad, got somewhat improved by TBC having more end game options for the common player, but still has large areas that are accessible only to a small elite in the form of raid content. If Blizzard wants to get even more subscribers, and reduce the churn rate, in the more valuable US and European markets they would have to go for the lowest common denominator for end game raiding as well. Investing a lot of money to create content that only single digit percentages of your subscribers are ever going to see just isn't efficient. The huge peaks of resubscriptions at every content patch and especially with expansions show that many average players grow bored due to lack of content in the end game. Creating easy mode raiding accessible for everyone wouldn't make World of Warcraft a "better" game, but it would make it more popular, and thus even more profitable. And the hardcore raiders would probably be better off with a niche raiding game, where you wouldn't be forced to level up solo for so long to reach the raid content but could start raiding right after character creation, just like you can do PvP in Guild Wars from the get go.

It is easy to criticize World of Warcraft for catering to the lowest common denominator, to be "popular" instead of "good", for being a toy guitar instead of a real instrument. But MMORPGs are still a relatively young and small market. We *need* World of Warcraft and other games like it to create and grow the market. Once there are many millions of MMORPG players, there will be enough people around to be interested in harder, niche games, catering to specialists in various areas like PvP or raiding. But the majority of average players will always stick to the games that just provide effortless fun.

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