Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mass market MMORPGs and hidden gems

I'm certainly guilty of having reacted to the provocation in Richard Bartle's remark about Warhammer Online instead of the subject. From all sides there has been too much discussion about whether that provocation was intentional or unintentional, and not enough discussion about Dr. Bartle's ideas. I think lots of people reading his contributions on this blog, Brokentoys, or Waaagh would agree that there are some very valid points in his extended explanations. Or as one of his comments puts it, he comes over better when he has "a backspace key". So lets forget about the controversy, and have a look at one of the underlying issues: Mass market MMORPGs and hidden gems.

I think you'll have noticed by now that I am a fan of mass market MMORPGs, and Richard Bartle is a fan of hidden gems. If I understand his explanation correctly this is because I play for fun, and he plays to look at the underlying mechanisms and innovation. I can agree with Dr. Bartle that if you make a list of features of World of Warcraft and a list of announced features of Warhammer Online, the two lists will be largely identical. And the features WAR has that WoW hasn't, like RvR, the Tome of Knowledge, or Living Guilds, look suspiciously like old ideas from games like Dark Age of Camelot, Lord of the Rings Online, or Everquest 2.

But as I am playing for fun, I'm less concerned about whether an idea is novel, I'm more concerned with the execution of that idea. The term is overused, but "polish" is important for a mass market MMORPG. Quests certainly weren't a new idea when World of Warcraft came out, but somehow WoW made them more fun than the quests in other games. So when I am looking at WAR, I don't see a bunch of old ideas. I see a potentially fun new execution and new mix of old ideas.

Also one major interest of mine in MMORPGs has always been how players react to game design and features. And I found that the reaction very much depends on tiny details in execution. For example there are games where the looking for group feature works very well, and in World of Warcraft it simply doesn't. If I see WAR's public quest system described, I don't see a combination of old concepts, quests combined with forced cooperation. I see a potential new way of people interacting, which could lead to very interesting new social dynamics, both positive and negative. If done right, this could be a lot of fun.

I do play "hidden gem" type games sometimes. I went through several incarnations of A Tale in the Desert, I played Puzzle Pirates, and currently I'm having a lot of fun with Kingdom of Loathing. But most of that fun is of the "explorer" type, as Dr. Bartle would call it. Which is fine if you start a new game, but is running out relatively quickly. "Achiever" and "socializer" fun tends to have a longer lifetime, because achievements can be done with repetitive content, and socializing fun is endless, unless you get tired of the human race. The same is true for "killer" fun, even if I'm not into that. So while hidden gem type games are innovative, I usually don't play them for very long, because by definition innovation only lasts until you are familiar with it.

Mass market games can justifiably be accused of just being a polished version of old ideas catering to the lowest common denominator. But by doing that they attract a larger crowd of people, and that larger crowd brings certain advantages. One advantage is simply money: You can't design a niche game with a $50 million budget. So the hidden gem games have less content, less graphics, less quality control, less money invested in hardware. That might not be important if you only look for innovation, but can be important if you play for fun. The other advantage is that more people means more possibility of social interaction, although not necessarily better quality. A Tale in the Desert certainly has a better community than World of Warcraft. But as discussed in the previous article, a bigger game means a better chance to get past the critical mass needed to find groups. And some interesting social phenomena only appear in mass market games.

Finally I would argue that mass market games are more fun. Not in the sense that any one given person can not have more fun in a hidden gem game than in a mass market game. But in a sense of statistical probability. A random person is more likely to have fun in World of Warcraft than in Achaea. Because to assume otherwise you have to subscribe to a theory that players don't know what fun is, and are herded into bad games by big companies with clever marketing. I don't buy into that theory, I think most players know very well what is fun, and are rather fickle in chosing games. The decision which game to choose might be affected by other factors than game design, like cost, or where all my friends are. But subscription numbers are broadly indicative of fun, even if they tell you nothing about how innovative a game is.

New ideas are certainly important for the future of MMORPGs. If game companies would produce nothing but identical WoW clones from now on, the genre would be dead in a few years. But new ideas isn't the only important thing for the future. Money, and the social acceptance that comes from millions of players playing the same game are also a part of that future. Ideas are a great thing, but implementing ideas often costs money. If we only had lots of small games with a few thousand players and financing based on donations, the MMORPG genre would be going nowhere either. In the end, we need both: the hidden gem that serves as a testbed for new ideas, and gives home to small groups with more specific tastes; and the mass market MMORPG that "polishes" the ideas, and distributes them to millions, making enough money for investors that they are willing to finance the next big game, and driving the perception of the genre in the media.

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