Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Going Softcore

I was reading the comment of a hardcore MMO player, who proudly declared himself to be the "core user base" of Blizzard, with the usual threats of "you piss me off, and your game will go under". And strangely that comment didn't even make me angry any more as it used to. In fact it seemed rather quaint, and a bit funny to me, ringing hollow. From the time of Everquest to the Burning Crusade I was complaining of devs designing MMOs mainly for the hardcore, but I don't think that is true any more.

What changed, I think, is scale. If you have a small, independent game, catering to your most hardcore users is probably a good idea. A game like Darkfall would be completely unknown if it wasn't for their highly dedicated fan base spreading word of mouth. But when games go mainstream, that approach stops making sense. Blizzard spends more money on a single games convention than the whole marketing budget of Aventurine. The Wrath of the Lich King expansion is discussed in the New York Times, not just on fan blogs and game forums. And the more mainstream you become, the more you have to go for your average customer, not your most extreme ones. The argument to play WoW is "everybody plays it", not "the cool people play it".

The major evidence of change is of course the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. I don't think anybody believes that this expansion is catering to the hardcore, just the opposite. In both marketing and fact the target audience for WotLK has clearly shifted away from the hardcore focus of the Burning Crusade.

But another piece of evidence is the botched and confused statements on the business model of Star Wars The Old Republic, the "next big thing" MMO from Bioware. It will probably be a "mid-session game", which is an EA term basically defined as "a game you buy more of in the middle of a play session". In other words, the more you are into the game, the more you pay. Which to anyone except MMO players makes sense. Who do you think is the preferred customer of an all-you-can-eat buffet: The guy filling his plate once and then leaving, or the guy who doesn't stop shoveling it in from opening to closing hour? Hardcore players of MMORPGs profit from the current flat monthly fee model. They pay as much as everyone else, unless they multi-box, but use more resources in terms of server capacity, bandwidth, and customer support. The more casual a player is, the less bang he gets for his buck, up to the point where for some people $15 per month just isn't good value for money, because they would play too few hours. Having a business model that scales better allows companies to grab those players who currently are reluctant to pay a monthly fee.

Early attempts of pay-per-hour MMOs have failed, but mostly because of ridiculous prices, like $9.95 per hour. World of Warcraft runs perfectly well in China on a pay-per-hour business model costing 5 cents per hour. And other forms of "pay more if you play more" are also feasible, for example giving away the game for free, but limited to some small selection of zones, and then selling access to the other zones. I don't know what business model SWTOR will end up having, but the very fact that they are obviously thinking about other models than the monthly flat fee suggests that they are thinking in mass-market terms, and not just what business model will please the hardcore most.

Of course the hardcore players will complain loudly when the design focus of a game moves away from them, when they stop being the "core user base", and if somebody would make them pay more to play more. The question is whether anyone will notice. The hardcore have been complaining loudly about everything even *when* they were the core user base. There is no indication that hardcore players drummed up a lot of business for WoW in the last four years, or that they are even widely known outside the circle of WoW players. Which is probably for the better, because the hardcore players aren't necessarily the best ambassadors for MMORPGs: They tend to be haughty and elitist, making fun of new and inexperienced players rather than helping them. Their function as a role model only existed in their own minds.

This was especially evident this year when Warhammer Online came out, followed shortly by Wrath of the Lich King. WAR had more success with hardcore players, while WotLK was a bigger hit with the casual players. In spite of all the hype on many blogs and game forums on how superior WAR impact PvP would be to the carebear version of WoW, in the end the casuals didn't follow their "role models" to WAR. They checked out WAR, found it not quite as good, and went back to WoW when the expansion came out. The opinions of the hardcore had a negligible effect on subscription numbers. Just the opposite, the news that Nihilum condemned Wrath of the Lich King as too easy only encouraged more casual players to resubscribe. If Nihilum would tomorrow announce that they will quit WoW en masse, that'll get them a headline on WoWInsider, but will not make any noticeable dent in Blizzard's subscription numbers. Hardcore players might still be in a prominent position in some cases, but they just aren't the core user base of big games like World of Warcraft any more. In the long run they'll drift towards smaller games, where they can wield more influence, happily ignored by large companies and everybody else.

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