It’s easy to look at the graphs of MMO growth over the last few years and think that it’s a game category that will continue to grow exponentially. In fact, I have often said that since games have always been largely social (and single player gaming an anomaly that resulted largely from technological limitations), that once people have a taste of gaming with others few will choose to go back to solo play. And I do believe that. Other players represent that sort of super sophisticated AI that no NPC can begin to approach. And for me, the only thing that makes the average MMO grind at all fun, for instance, is the chaos and uncertainty brought forth by other random players. Social structures make games more complex and interesting, to be sure. But is that always a good thing?
I think we are at an interesting crossroads with regard to the continuing appeal of the types of MMOs we are currently seeing in the marketplace. If there isn't some significant diversification soon, I fear that the whole MMO category is in jeopardy of plateauing or even seeing numbers drop off, due to various negative impressions that are circulating about the game environments and the ongoing commitments (financial, social and time) necessary to experience them. Marketers often refer to negative brand equity to describe what happens when a product (or category) develops a reputation that is not desired. For instance, no one involved in its development or distribution wanted people to think of the Yugo as a crappy car from some obscure country in Eastern Europe. However it didn’t take long for stories (worse yet, jokes!) to emerge that belied whatever messages the marketers were concocting.
Similarly, I think MMOs, at least in the West, are developing some seriously negative brand equity.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to
some non-MMO gamers about why they haven’t been bitten by the MMO bug and have
been surprised by how passionately some of them feel that MMOs aren’t for
them. Here are some of the reasons that have been cited:
- Some people simply refuse to play a monthly fee on top of paying for a game. This seems to be a matter of principle for many, but is often related to the fact that they feel trapped into one game environment if they are paying the fee. They don’t feel that they can pick up a game, drop it for a while, then pick it up again later if the mood strikes them. (the Asian predilection for item-supported models, etc. seems to be a decent way to deal with this issue)
- The second most common thing I hear is that
people don’t feel like they have the time for an MMO, even if they spend lots
of time playing videogames otherwise. The perception that one has to play
upwards of 30 hours a week in order to play properly is a huge barrier to a lot
of people who perceive themselves as more casual gamers. (Jim Rossignol wrote a great piece about this in a recent issue of the Escapist).
- Tied to the previous issue is the idea that one’s time is not one’s own in an MMO. For a lot of people, having to adhere to a guild’s schedule or priorities is a responsibility they are unwilling to take on. They hear stories about mandatory raids and other prescribed activity and think (rightly so, perhaps) that it sounds an awful lot like a job. And unless you don't have a job already (the core MMO audience of university students, it would seem), then who needs a job that doesn't pay some real cash?
- A lot of people complain that it is too hard to just jump into an MMO and start playing. There are complex social rules to be learned, grouping can be tricky and time-consuming, and navigating huge worlds can take a ton of time just in terms of travel. I have heard lots of stories about people logging on at lunchtime to play, but not even being able to prep and find playmates in that time. And I have heard other stories about people joining a game to play with friends, yet being unable to meet up with them in a reasonable timeframe.
- Although it’s appealing to play with others, it is a double-edged sword in a level-based system where people have to play at a similar rate in order to be able to continue to play with each other. WoW is particularly problematic in this regard (to the point that people have to work hard to synchronize quest chains, etc.), but CoX is somewhat better with its side-kicking/exemplaring system. Still, it’s a big problem for those buddies who want to invest significantly different amounts of time in the game.
- Many standard videogame players, especially those attracted to adventure/RPG genres, perceive that MMO gameplay is extremely non-linear with too few concrete goals (yes, yes, even with WoW's linear questing system - just having more than one path or option, or a whole world that one could explore, is overwhelming to the gamer brought up in the Myst-like box-to-box environment progression). For them, there is too much freedom of choice, making play difficult and diminishing the satisfaction of progress (aside from leveling, which while pleasurable in that Skinnerian/dopamine unleashing sense, may not be so appealing to those who look for more complex challenges).
- A LOT of people fear becoming addicted, even people I work with in the game industry. Nearly every person I have talked to has some terrible story to tell of someone they know who knows someone who locked themselves in their room for a year or two and completely forgot the real world after getting sucked in by some MMO. And then there are the stories of silly Koreans falling over dead or Chinese gamers killing each other for virtual swords which make people think that MMOs are like some kind of crack that makes completely normal people go crazy (not to mention the possibly apocryphal stories about people wearing Depends so they don't have to afk for their bio breaks).
- Finally, many non-MMO gamers think that MMOs mean, by definition, PvP, or more accuratel,y open PK-ing. And no one wants to pop into a game world a n00b and get killed right off the bat. (this happened to me, btw – I played UO very briefly back in the beginning, was repeatedly ganked within 5 minutes of entering the game, and as a result I didn’t play another MMO for years).
So what does this all mean for the burgeoning (?) MMO marketplace? Is there still an untapped audience for MMOs? Maybe, but maybe just about everyone who might be compelled to play an MMO has already been tapped by WoW? And if so, what effects are those experiences having on both those gamers and those who observe their infatuation? It seems to me that MMOs frighten a lot of people, even relatively hard core gamers - and that can't be a good thing.
Parodies like the recent South Park episode inspired by WoW have alerted mainstream non-gamers to the darker side of the MMO compulsion (at least those who watch South Park – your Grandma is still probably in the dark about this, unless she reads Slate or the NY Times regularly…). In fact, the Everquest Widows list was in a gleeful frenzy after the episode: they viewed it as a sort of unintentional PSA for the perils of online gaming. Yet it’s easy to look at that sort of thing and think, wow, MMOs have really arrived. They’ve been parodied on South Park, written up in the mainstream media -- all we need is Britney Spears to write a song about her hawt night elf and we’ll know that the tipping point is nigh.
But we could be wrong.
The thing is that WoW could well be an aberration, a red herring that makes us think that MMOs are really taking off
when it might in fact be the only MMO that several million of those players
ever play. For a lot of people (in the U.S. anyway- I'm painfully aware that Asia is a whole different ball of wax), WoW is their first MMO – and the reason
they started playing was either a) they simply thought it was the next
installment in the Warcraft franchise and didn’t give much thought to the MMO
aspect or b) they got nagged by friends to play it and flocked to it in the
same way they all rushed to set up their MySpace pages (and as uncommitted Web 2.0 types will all follow sheeplike the inevitable diaspora, as well). They may decide that the
investment/pay-off equation just doesn’t add up, or just experience boredom
with the whole repetitive experience (WoW-nnui, as our own Mike Sellers calls
it) – not all of us can possibly find the grind to be a delightful experience
in Zen, after all.
So my question is this… how can MMOs evolve to combat these perception problems and barriers to entry/continued participation? Or will they continue to remain a niche activity for those who have the time and inclination to make the necessary investments?