Friday, August 14, 2009

Is Accessibility Really A Choice?

Via Scott Jennings is yet another "Why was WoW a Success?" interview at Eurogamer. We've seen dozens of these things, but this particular one helped me put my finger on something that I've been trying to express for a while now. Here are some edited snippets from an extended exchange with Tom Chilton:
"One of the core philosophies for the game was that World of Warcraft was going to be more accessible....

There wasn't going to be experience loss on death - that sort of thing. ...

We actually originally expected the game to go into more of an EverQuest-style free-form, where you go out there and you fight monsters until you get to the next level.

"What we found was that all the feedback that we got from our alpha testers was that once they ran out of quests, the game got boring. They were like, 'I don't know what to do any more, and I don't really feel like playing any more once I run out of quests'. We came to that realisation that, wow, this quest thing really works. We need to do this throughout the entire game!"

The Linear World of Quests
That quest system is exactly what is drawing so much criticism from oldschool players today, be they EQ1 vets or WoW players who thought the game was better back in 2004.

Keen complains (amongst other things) about the linearity of the modern MMORPG. This linearity makes Stargrace write that, after a solo-quest focused EQ2 expansion, "I pretty much never wanted to touch another quest again." Tipa writes that "These days, I tend to regard games that don’t force you into certain paths as more of an RPG that on-rails MMOs like WoW."

So why, then, has the "on-rails" model grown to overtake basically the entire AAA MMORPG genre?

The impact of accessibility
The reason the quote from Blizzard jumps out at me is that it offers an explanation for the numbers. MMOG-Chart believes that EQ1 and FFXI both peaked in the 500-600K subscriber range. It's difficult to get a precise apples to apples comparison since Blizzard doesn't like to release the portion of WoW's numbers that are paying trivial amounts on Chinese servers, but the estimate is 4.5 million US and EU subscribers as of January 2008.

For the sake of argument, let's call the difference roughly 5-fold. (This rounds up substantially for the older games, and probably disregards some of WoW's non-China markets, but WoW has the advantages of greater prevalence of gaming-capable machines with internet connections, and more players already in the genre recruiting by word of mouth compared to a decade ago.)

As those of you who played back in 2004 may remember, WoW was hardly the most stable game on the planet at its launch. Five years later, they're still working to dig the level 40-58 content out from the backlog that resulted from their late decision to switch to the pure solo quest model. In short, I would argue that the roughly 5-fold difference in subscribers is not beacuse of the mythical Blizzard polish, massive budgets made possible by sales of 10-year old RTS games, or anyone's dratted little dog. WoW got five times as many subscribers because players who were not able to play EQ1 and FFXI due to the lack of accessibility were able to play - and prosper - in WoW.

To restate the number slightly, I would argue that as much as 80% (4/5) of the modern MMORPG market is playing MMORPG's because the genre now offers accessibility. (Heck, even FFXI has solo players these days.)

A Choice That Isn't
Unwize suggests that the shift to accessibility at the expense of difficulty represents a new "Trammel" in MMORPG development. Ultima Online developers famously offered the option of not being killed and looted by other players, and the community overwhelmingly chose that road. Spinks stirred up a 55-comment hornet's nest back in May by arguing that a player who is online soloing and ignores their guildies' cries for group members causing a "tragedy of the commons", failing to foster the guild community. Both of these views imply choice.

Of course, there's always a choice. Perhaps I could cut a deal with my wife where I'm free to raid two nights a week in exchange for my covering the household stuff on two nights so she can do something else of her choosing. It's just not much of a GOOD choice. Two nights a week would still be under 50% attendence in a guild that raids four nights a week, and this would not leave me time to farm for consumables or gear improvements needed to actually contribute during that time. Meanwhile, the result would almost certainly be less time spent gaming and blogging than I currently enjoy at the end of the night after splitting the housework evenly.

Technically, I'm making a "selfish" choice that gets me what I want (more time online) rather than what Spinks wants (warm bodies for group content). Still, where Spinks sees me selfishly ignoring her pleas for a mage, in reality I may need to sign off in 30 minutes, or I might be online but called away half a dozen times to take the dog out, put away the dishes, and start the laundry. (EQ2 allows you to auto-consume food and drink when your buffs run out, and I've actually had to make a point of equipping these items in stacks of 1-2 to make sure that I don't waste too many of them due to being AFK.)

Perhaps I could, in the right guild context, contribute more as a half-time raider than as a full-time non-raider. Given where I am in life right now, though, my "choice" to be a solo player instead of a more group or raid focused player is about as meaningful as my "choice" not to try and become the starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. It doesn't make sense for me to pay - both with money and with my limited gaming time - for a game that does not support my playstyle.

The road forward
Though I don't agree with Keen on issues like in-game travel, he's not entirely wrong. There are things in games that have lost some of their meaning over time, and the pressure for accessibility will only continue. There are, simply put, more players who need accessibility than players who would like the accessibility bar set at the toughest level that doesn't actually kick them personally out of the game.

As Eric of Elder Game (a former AC2 dev) puts it in a discussion on the psychology of punishment as a game incentive, players put up with the state of things in years gone by because "players didn’t know of any other game they could go to". In 2004, WoW's travel was along the least punishing out there. The game is even larger now that it was in 2004 precisely because they realized that the old games were actually occupying a niche - for social gamers with low AFK needs - in a yet-to-be-discovered genre of virtual world MMORPG's.

Perhaps developers, even Blizzard, have implemented the choice to add accessibility poorly. However, the alternative - not making the choice and writing off 80% of the potential market - is not much of a choice at all.


Tesh said...

When a game respects that I have a life outside of the game, it earns bonus points. Atlantica Online's Autorun feature is one such brownie-earning nugget of design. WoW's increasing "accessibility" (including low system specs for the baseline) also earns brownie points.

Of course, in my casual world, a subscription is one of the biggest barriers to accessibility, which is why I'll play (and pay for) Wizard 101, Guild Wars and Puzzle Pirates over WoW. I suspect that it's just this "accessibility choice" for casual schedules that will see microtransaction systems becoming more prominent in the next few years. Subscriptions are great for the addict who plays 40 hours a week, but not for those of us who have other commitments.

WoW is pretty good with accessibility, but the subscription is still a significant barrier. They may like it that way (rationalizing that it keeps the barbarians out), but it has kept me from giving them money, and I'm probably not the only one. Of course, maybe I'm a barbarian or one of those vilified gold farmers...

Anonymous said...

The reason I called it 'tragedy of the commons' is that it's fine if one (or a few people) make the decision to play solo (for whatever reason. But if the majority do then the basic way people expect to play the game will evolve, and it may cut out people who like to group because they need a critical mass of people to group with.

So we need to watch out for if that critical mass looks likely to disappear is all.

Green Armadillo said...

@Tesh, indeed, accessibility can mean a whole bundle of things, and a monthly fee does have the effect of forcing a choice. I don't agree at all that the fee "keeps the barbarians out" - if anything, the more elite players would prefer to exclude the guy with money but not enough time to learn to play and farm up the appropriate gear and consumables, rather than the student with a poor concept of spelling and grammar but a solid grasp on the gameplay.

I can't speak to Puzzle Pirates, but Wizard 101's pay-by-the-zone plan (up to $3 per zone) sure looks like it becomes prohibitively expensive compared to their subscription fee ($5 per month). If you have to break down and subscribe as you get to more expensive content, your subscription includes paying a second time for content that you already bought.

@Spinks: My question is what do you do if it turns out that the majority of players CANNOT make the choice to group? My experience from having been forced to leave groups that ran long has been that it is irresponsible to join a WoW 5-man with less than 90 minutes of uninterrupted time in front of you.

Even if the group game is on the verge of collapse due to lack of critical mass, there is a demographic - in my view a very large one - that does not actually have the ability to responsibly choose to group. No game, not even one with as much revenue as WoW, would be better off if it lost 80%, 50%, or even 25% of its current subscribers, even if that did help focus the game's critical mass in the "correct" direction. Perhaps that is going to shape the direction of player behavior and perhaps that is a tragedy, but someone has to pay the bills.

Tesh said...

Oh, I don't agree with the barbarian thoughts, either. That mentality is just what I see often when defending subscriptions, and it's a ridiculous argument, especially when the "barbarians" have money that they are willing to spend.

With W101, you never have to purchase a subscription, so that's a nonissue, but yes, someone who buys a sub later on top of the Access Passes is paying double in a way, but note a couple of things:

One, you've already played that older content, so you're paying a subscription for the newer stuff you haven't played. Saying you're paying double for content you're not using anyway is a bit disingenuous. Yes, a subscription is paying for everything in the game (or more accurately, "access" to everything for a window of time), but the player who "shifts gears" as you suppose will be paying very specifically for that late game content, not to start a new character from the ground up (which they could do without paying for more, which is the point of the perpetual access of Access Passes).

Two, even that gear shifted player will retain access to the Access Pass content after the sub runs out. They don't lose access to the content they paid initially for.

In short, you're manufacturing a reason to be grumpy on that count. It's true that a player who finds their schedule changing (or their aptitude in-game changing) may be on the bubble between Access Pass and Subscription valuation, but ultimately, it's their call on how to use the options that KI has provided. Perhaps the valuations could be closer together (though such would require an assumption of how much the "ideal" player plays per month, and that they have a consistent pace of consumption), but it's remarkable that such options exist at all, side by side.

As for whether or not the Access Passes are a better deal, it depends entirely on how much you play per month. For some, a sub most certainly will be a better deal. For others, buying the equivalent of small Guild Wars packages will be a better deal. That's my point; different people have different budgets (time and money), and offering choices for both (one definition of "accessibility") is a wise business move. It's up to each customer to make the choice that is right for them, but with W101, they have more than a binary sub/nosub choice, and that's a good thing. It opens up the market segmentation curve.

Green Armadillo said...

@Tesh: There certainly is a very specific type of very infrequent game who gets significantly better value out of the access plan, so it's not a bad thing that they're offering it. It's less laudable that they escalate the zone prices such that a player who consumes a constant amount of content will end up paying an increasing amount over time, possibly passing the point where they would have paid less had they been on the subscription continuously. Now the access player does have the option to return to the old stuff they had previously purchased, but, as you point out, that's only value if you actually choose to use that option.

Also, don't they offer some insane bulk discount like double the crowns for purchases of $80 at a time? (I can't verify this information because they don't publish it on any public portion of their website - it's as if they don't want parents to have access to that knowledge when deciding whether to let junior make an account.) "Pay us $80 non-refundable up front or everything will cost you twice as much in the long run" is hardly what I think of when I think of low commitment.

Tesh said...

Agreed, the bulk discount for the $80 purchase is messed up. Notably, it's not too far removed from a "lifetime subscription" plan from other guys (especially the Champions Online "buy now, sight unseen, or forfeit the right to a lifetime sub")... but then, I'm not too fond of those either.

Still, the onus is on the consumer to pay attention and make choices that make the most sense for them. Those who want their hand held will always have subscriptions.

You're right, the options that KI offers really could and should be better, and they could do more to inform potential customers (though registration is free, so it's not like you have to make a purchase to get the information), but at least it's a step in the right direction. It's not a perfect system, no, but it's a lot better than others.

Spinks said...

"My question is what do you do if it turns out that the majority of players CANNOT make the choice to group?"

Then you will trend towards a game that favours small groups, quick groups, ad hoc groups, groups that only form at primetime and solo play.

It's not a tragedy for you, but a good thing. It may gut the gameplay that was the reason I got into MMOs though.

Alternatively, it will still be worth making group content for the minority of players (because it might be cheaper in terms of cost to entertain each player, and because grouping players may tend to be your hardcore) and players will have to not expect to be able to do everything in game and accept that it's more of a smorgasbord.

Spinks said...

Tesh: I'm sensing an air of eliteness about F2P, do you really think people prefer subscriptions because they like to have their hands held? Maybe it's just genuinely more convenient and easier to budget for.

Tesh said...

Spinks, all of them, absolutely not. Many that I've spoken to? Yes. That's a selling point; they don't have to think about it. It's a recurring argument; people don't want to make the choices that come with microtransactions, and would rather just toss out $15/month. They don't even look at how much they actually play per month and wonder if they might get a better deal with other plans, they just go with what they know and never question it. I can't help but think that, considering the friends that I have playing the game and how many are in this camp, that it's not an uncommon situation. (Though I may be wrong in this, and would love to see some numbers from studies on it.) I will always fight that sense of inertia, in all sorts of things. It's reflexive. (And note, I agree with GA that King's Isle could and should do better to make their price sheet open, and that it's priced wonkily.)

You're right that for some, it's easier to budget subscriptions for things with recurring costs. That's true in a lot of consumer goods, from magazines to TV to housing. In fact, providers *count on that* to keep people paying longer than the service or goods actually offer good value for the price. (See also: housing and the insane focus on the monthly bill, say, the subprime mess.) Just because it's easier doesn't mean it's wiser.

Though even there, yes, sometimes it is, as in the case of a player who would go ballistic on microtransactions. A subscription is perfect for that consumer in that case, and there's nothing "inferior" about that. On the flipside, though, that customer would be more valuable *to the provider* under an MT system. It's the inverse of the dreaded freeloader player that subscription systems either capture or ignore (though mostly ignore at the current price point), but are a drain on the F2P or MT models. I've seen more than a little antagonism toward that player, which might be termed "elitism".

Perhaps I overreact to GA's obvious antagonism towards the F2P and MT models, though. *shrug*

They all have their place, and each will be superior for any given player's budget. Different strokes and such.

In an article about accessibility, though, the business plan really does need to be a part of the analysis. It's another potential barrier to entry and sustainability. If short session, low monthly play time, casual, "accessible" gaming is to be the mainstream of MMO play in the near future, subscriptions may well not be the best fit. (Though should be retained as an option for those who *do* calculate it as the best for them.)