Thursday, May 8, 2008

Games for non-gamers

Looking a bit beyond the horizon of MMORPGs, I find that there are two games coming out this summer that I would like to play and which aren't online roleplaying games, at least not in the traditional sense: Battlefield Heroes and Spore. And comparing those to Age of Conan, I can't help but think that these games are going in a completely different direction than AoC is. Age of Conan is a game for gamers. You need a gamers PC to run it, the controls are complicated and button-intensive, and gameplay is only intuitive to people who have played similar games before, there isn't even a tutorial yet. Plus some financial dedication is required too to play Age of Conan, as you have to not only buy the game, but also pay a monthly fee.

We don't know exact system requirements for Battlefield Heroes and Spore yet, but they will definitely be lower than those of Age of Conan. Gameplay for both games with be comparatively simple, Battlefield Heroes officially announced in their trailer that this game is about "not getting shot in the fae repeatedly by a swearing, ultra skilled 15 year old boy who plays the game every day for 8 hours", and early reviewers found it to be very accessible. Spore is likewise said to be very simple, with no way to actually lose the game, just a fun collection of mini-games. And Battlefield Heroes will be free-to-download, free-to-play, while Spore only costs you the price of the box, no monthly fee required. Nevertheless both games offer extensive online services, Battlefield Heroes is a pure online game, and Spore will have an online community exchanging creations.

Especially important is that both Battlefield Heroes and Spore are designed to minimize player frustration. Yes, Battlefield Heroes is "PvP", an online multiplayer shooter. But it works with a ladder system, so if you keep losing, you'll get paired against lesser skilled players in your next game. That is a feature that is sadly missing in MMORPG PvP, where you can lose constantly for various reasons like the enemy being more numerous (outside battlegrounds), higher in level, better equipped, or more skilled. The swearing, ultra-skilled 15 year old boy who plays the game every day for 8 hours WILL kick your ass in Age of Conan; not only because he is higher skilled, but also because he will have better gear, and a better-organized guild. Obviously the ultra-skilled with too much time on their hand will be thrilled by that, but for the regular and casual players Age of Conan PvP will be incredibly frustrating. A game like Spore is much more suited for a casual player, who just wants to have some fun after a hard day at work, and who doesn't operate under the illusion that beating other people in an online game makes him a superior person.

So I'm calling games like Battlefield Heroes and Spore games for non-gamers. With of course non-gamer not being somebody who never plays games, but somebody who plays games less regularly, less intensely, and more for fun than achievement. While these people don't rate high in "street cred" with the gamers, there happen to be much more non-gamers around than gamers. Raph Koster doesn't tire of pointing out that more people play online games like Club Penguin or Habbo Hotel than are playing WoW. While I don't think that is a valid point for WoW, which is nevertheless still the most user-friendly MMORPG and makes tons of money, I do think he has a point when looking at games like Age of Conan. There is no doubt that Spore will sell much better than Age of Conan, and even Battlefield Heroes might make more money with advertising revenues and selling fluff by microtransactions than Age of Conan ends up making. And I believe that the success of Warhammer Online in terms of subscription numbers will ultimately depend on how non-gamer friendly WAR will be.

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