Thursday, November 3, 2011

Is World of Warcraft a casual game?

Keen is writing about Richard Garriott, who is writing about companies like EA and Blizzard having missed the boat on casual games. Richard Garriott thinks: “The only reason Zynga exists is because people like EA, people like Blizzard, failed to step in.” Keen on the other hand thinks: "Blizzard has done more for the casual movement than any other company with any sort of interest vested in MMOs. Blizzard managed to take what was originally, for years, a “hardcore” genre of complex mechanics and reduce it to the least common denominator. World of Warcraft is the definition of accessibility and as close to a casual friendly experience as it gets."

Me, I do think that many bloggers have a rather unrealistically high expectation of where exactly the "least common denominator" is. The most simple Zynga games, like Farmville, are probably very close to this imaginary "least common denominator". World of Warcraft is several orders of magnitude more complex. There are thousands of games which are more complex than Farmville but less complex than World of Warcraft in between these two. Thus I don't agree that WoW today is "as close to a casual friendly experience as it gets". Case in point, the general assumption is that Mists of Pandaria will make WoW *more* casual friendly, which wouldn't be possible if it was already as casual friendly as possible.

That is not to say that Keen and all the people complaining about the next WoW expansion don't have a point. What is certainly true is that if you draw a line from Everquest to WoW 2004 to WoW 2011 (and SWTOR 2011) there is a clear and steady trend away from hardcore. The only mistake is to think that we are for some reason already at the bottom of this trend, and it won't continue from here on. There is no reason whatsoever which would prevent Blizzard from continuing this trend with *every* future patch and expansion, making World of Warcraft even easier and less hardcore every year. Just look at games like Free Realms to see how much less complex and more casual friendly a MMORPG still can become.

Where will that end? Unfortunately for the hardcore, they do not play Zynga games. I believe that to understand trends in gaming, you need to be open enough to try everything. Which is why I play everything from hardcore PvP games to Farmville, even if many of the games I try out turn out to be not to my liking. Because in this case Zynga games, unexpectedly, offer a message of hope for the hardcore gamers: The trend for Zynga games, and other Facebook and browser games, is to get *more* complex on average every year. It turned out that Farmville was *too* simple, and while easy enough for everybody to learn wasn't interesting enough to keep people playing. The much maligned casual gamer and Zynga games customer demanded something more complex. Which means the long-term trend points not towards a bottomless pit of zero complexity, but towards a compromise somewhere half way between Farmville and World of Warcraft.

While I find that good to know, I don't think this will make the hardcore players happy. We still have many years ahead of us before games reach that compromise. And during that time the "l33t skillz" of the hardcore players will go up, while the challenge on offer will go down. These are very simple market forces at work here. You don't need to be an economics major to understand that hoping for a game which has the level of quality which requires a hundred million dollars to realize, and at the same time is inaccessible to anybody but the most hardcore elite player, is likely to end up in disappointment. The only financially viable solutions are accessible big budget games, or low budget hardcore games. This isn't the result of some evil conspiracy of game developers to make players dumber. It is the inevitable result of a market in which prices are effectively capped, and making an online game for the maximum number of players possible is always more profitable than making a game for a select elite.

Richard Garriott is right in saying that World of Warcraft isn't a casual game yet, but Keen is right in saying that WoW is getting ever more casual, and other games will follow in that direction. As much as some people would like to see online games as a lifestyle, the truth is that these games are products, and are subject to market forces. As a business decision, Mists of Pandaria is brilliant. Even if that means that the genre is moving away from what their most avid fans wish. History has a tendency to repeat itself, and what happened to movies since Jaws is going to happen to games as well.

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