Hardcore MMOs, a response.

Syp at Biobreak quoted a Systematic Babble post here about why targeting an MMO to hardcore people wont work, even if they charged double the cost. Problem is the post is wrong on a lot of points, too many to comment on so I’ll write my rebuttal here. After the break because I wrote a novel, though.

His first point is that niche games designed for the hardcore fail because the small audience you target for nails production values bad enough to turn even hardcore people off. Quoting him:

While Darkfall has proven that it is technically possible to create an MMO that caters to an exclusive crowd – and Mortal Online is following in their footsteps – frankly, the results are not pretty.  Neither of these hardcore-centric games has high production value, and both feature a grinds a play mechanics that are more mind-numbing than your typical casual-friendly title.  Regardless of what a hardcore player may state, graphics do matter, and if all your niche market budget can muster is a game engine that looks like it fell out of 2002 then you will be putting off potential customers on first impressions alone.

This is wrong both specifically for Darkfall and in general. For Darkfall its wrong because the graphics aren’t the main reason people would try it, and increasing them would do little for that reason: people want FFA, full loot PvP. No matter how nice it looks the core gameplay will be what puts off people or subs them.

Also look at Fallen Earth. It also has the same graphical problem, while not specifically catering to the hardcore. Small developers will not have AAA graphics, regardless of game style.

In general though, if the game is specifically targeted to hardcore players, they are more likely to be realistic about graphical polish and more forgiving of flaws. It’s the casual gamer, not the hardcore, that would quit over graphics, lack of polish and UI quirks.

He goes on:

That all said, the proof of the business model Scrusi proposes will be in the subscription numbers:  Darkfall had a measly (by MMO standards) 20,000 subscribers in December 2009.  Even if each of those subscribers was willing to pay a $30/month subscriptions, that’s still only equivalent to 40,000 subscribers in a “typical” MMO, (and to be sure there would not be 100% retention if the price point was double the standard rate).

Experience has shown that even when maintaining a $15/month fee a niche game can survive, but even doubling monthly user fees will not magically make a tiny game capable of competing with a MMO with a real budget and, subsequently, an infinitely higher production value.

This is true, but this is not a specific to a niche game catering hardcore players. Any MMO with a small development budget will have problems competing with the bigger devs. If anything, a game that targets a specific niche, like hardcore FFA PvP, MMORTS, or sandbox play will have a better chance than trying to compete with the general WoW model.

His next argument is cost, and it’s silly. Quoting:

Just because Scrusi is happy to double his MMO subscription costs does not mean that every hardcore player will be willing or able to do the same.  Simply put:  cost is the single largest barrier to entry when it comes to video gaming, and MMOs are not cheap to begin with.  A year’s subscription to most titles costs $180, which works well for single-game players but is painful for people who like to indulge in multiple titles.

Two points here in rebuttal:

1. A hardcore player of an MMO is a single game player. It’s a matter of time: it’s very hard to impossible to progress in almost any MMO at a high level without a tremendous time investment. The hardcore player is not juggling 3 MMOs at once: scheduling and time restraints make doing so a pain.

2. Even granting multiple games, lets look at cost. 60 bucks a month is 4 current sub model games: that is also buying one new console game. The cost is incredibly low for an MMO for the amount of value it brings even compared to other forms of entertainment.

As for his point, look at F2P games. The average a monetized player pays there is…$28 a month. So already people are paying double sub fees or more for games which don’t specifically cater to the hardcore.

His next point is this, that players don’t start hardcore:

he vast majority of MMO players come to the games after hearing about them from friends or gaming news sites, and start off their online careers as unwashed newbies incapable of min-maxing their way out of a wet paper bag.  These new players often approach MMOs with a naive mix of curiosity and wonder which, in many cases, nurtures a budding passion.

This is also true, but not relevant, because the topic of discussion is a hardcore MMO specifically targeting hardcore gamers, and whether or not they would pay more. Any newbie coming in would have at least a basic idea of the game, and would accept its hardcore nature. Look at it this way: I don’t play Demon Souls for the PS3, but if I chose to, I would be a newbie knowing full well its a hardcore, unforgiving game.

I think the only problem would be the game not communicating its hardcore status. FFXI was like that, because console players aren’t MMO vets, and the FF name is not associated with hardcore play: yet when they made an MMO, they made a deep, classic EQ grind.

Another point he makes is this:

Not only that, causal players act to fill up a world, and make it seem massive.  While hardcore players are often grinding as fast as possible and trying to maximize their playtime, casual players can be seen filling up the landscape…An MMO without a casual base would be much different beast from a game where all types of player is welcomed; casual-friendly games feel alive.

This is a point, but it is not so much hardcore/casual as it is poor game design in general:

-raids are often in instanced areas apart from the open world, sealing players off from each other.

-worlds are made much too large for expected population, leading to a lot of empty space and travel times. Sometimes this is done on purpose to boost immersion, but Fallen Earth had the same empty feel.

-progression is quest-based and centered around hubs that disperse players across many quest locations instead of central exp areas.

Most of these I think can be dealt with by planning for a specific game population and designing for people to stay together. Again, not a casual/hardcore issue: casual players can be just as isolated if they long on once a week just to run instances, hardcore players can be highly visible if the game involves open-world raiding in traveled areas.

I’m going to quote his conclusion in full:

Throwing up artificial barriers to entry in an attempt to create an exclusive hardcore club is likely to lead to a failed, boring game devoid of its soul.  While it is tempting to make the claim that hardcore players should be able to pay for the privilege of a game that caters only to their wants and desires, that game will lack the quality – both technically and socially – of more open games that aim to be inclusive.

As much as I mourn the continued trend towards dumbing down games, I will not throw my support behind any game that attempts to shut out one segment of the gaming population through disingenuous financial disincentives that are just as likely to turn away hardcore players as their casual brethren.

Instead, MMO players should be cambering for the industry to create titles that are more inclusive of both the super casual and the super hardcore.  The next big game will be one that nurtures new players and gently shepherds them towards a play style that is more in line with what a core gamer enjoys.  The next big MMO, like the World of Warcraft of old, will create hardcore gamers out of newbies.  Unlike old school WoW, this theoretic successor will be a game where you can use training wheels if you want, but nothing will prevent you from taking those crutches off and riding like a big boy.

None of this is guaranteed at all. There is no real reason as I have shown to assume that solely targeting hardcores will cause a game to be boring and devoid of soul. He hasn’t even shown it, because many of the examples he cites have nothing to do with a hardcore game specifically: they are mistakes any game can make. Champions Onlne is incredibly casual friendly and suffers a lot of the problems he lists: EvE is very hardcore beyond anything but a cursory playing.

His main argument here is that the cost shuts out players. I don’t think it does if its targeted to the hardcore: a lot of us would prefer that to f2p costs or subs with item shops.

The final point needs the most attention. You can make a game that creates a hardcore gamer out of a newbie: however you cannot make one that creates a hardcore player out of a casual one. All newbies are not casual players: it is possible to be newb to a game and MMOs in general yet be hardcore in life or in other games.

It’s just a matter of targeting and vision: do you want a large population, casual friendly game? Can you compete with bigger developers doing the same? Developer Atlus has made tons of money by catering to the hardcore player in its games, so it’s not impossible to do so. There’s nothing wrong with being accessible and trying to build a large casual base while offering hardcore options. But there also is nothing wrong by trying to be good at a small niche, like providing a small, hardcore MMO. If anything the new World of Tanks game is a good example. How welcoming can a WW2 clan-based PvP game be?

In conclusion, most of the article doesn’t give good reasons why a game targeting hardcore players at a higher price point doesn’t work. The reasons he does give are specific to any type of MMO, casual or hardcore, F2p, sub, or premium sub. While his end is good, a healthy MMO market needs those niche games.

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One Response to Hardcore MMOs, a response.

  1. Andrew says:

    Thanks for the rebuttal.

    I agree with your general conclusion (a healthy MMO market needs those niche games) but I don’t believe that the niche games should be going out of there way to shut out casuals through a method that will probably not work anyways (cost).

    Regarding your assertion that hardcore players are single game players, that is often the case, but not always. When I was playing WoW hardcore I oscillated between only playing WoW, and dabbling with other games (single player, MMO, whatever); an increased cost for WoW would have shut that dabbling down, and perhaps initiated my burnout earlier.

    Even granting multiple games, lets look at cost. 60 bucks a month is 4 current sub model games: that is also buying one new console game. The cost is incredibly low for an MMO for the amount of value it brings even compared to other forms of entertainment.

    You’re comparing apples to oranges. Not everyone who plays consoles pays day one prices, and what about the PC gamers (I’m one) who get amazing Steam deals on triple A titles?

    Also look at Fallen Earth. It also has the same graphical problem, while not specifically catering to the hardcore. Small developers will not have AAA graphics, regardless of game style.

    I agree, and good counter example. Some people who are hardcore (i.e. me) will find that off putting as well. The Fallen Earth beta turned me away with it’s terrible graphics, and so did Mortal Online. In the case of the latter, I logged on, was horrified with how bad the game looked on my gaming rig, and promptly quit). Graphics do matter to many hardcore gamers.

    Anyhow – thanks for joining the conversation!

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