Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Technology Barriers to Aging MMO Demographics?

Chris at Game by Night argues that the MMO demographic is getting older, and acquiring real life responsibilities that preclude the time commitment of older games.  It makes for a great quote, and I don't disagree with the sentiment - I wrote about the push for transient content last week - but I wonder about the premise. 

Those of us who have been playing MMO's for 5-15 years have obviously gotten older during that time, but has the audience as a whole?  Or, is there some other factor, such as entry barriers to even getting into an MMO, that is letting the dreaded WoW Tourists into the genre?

Getting Online 
Back in the day, even a CD-ROM's worth of data was a hefty download and a game that required an always-on internet connection was tying up the only phone (a landline) in your house.  I would suggest that there was no possible value added for the solo player demographic that justified going to this degree of trouble; the early MMO's focused on multiplayer because that was the only thing that would make it worth the bother of being online. 

Maybe the demographics of being online at all skewed against people who were 30-40+ in 1998, and this in turn kept them out of the MMO market.  Even so, I would suggest that this aspect of the audience was incidental to the era, rather than a conscious decision by people with mortgages, jobs, and families to spurn the genre. 

Flash forward to today, where it is feasible for the largest of games to be delivered digitally and for single player games to require an always-on internet connection (to the chagrin of various customers) because it's safe to assume that even your television has its own broadband connection through one or more consoles.  Today, the "cost" of a solo player going online is greatly reduced.  In 2004, this trend opened the door for Blizzard to support solo play - albeit at a much less "supportive" level than what we see today - and started the genre down the slippery slope towards including as many paying customers as possible. 

The barriers continue to come down
In some ways, the point of this point sounds self-apparent - making it easier to get into MMO's has allowed more people to get into MMO's.  Then again, it seems to have taken a while for the model to catch up.  It's now late 2011, and we have MMO vets like John Smedley and Scott Jennings proclaiming that the free to download, non-subscription model is the way to go because this is somehow still news to the people who write the business plans. 

Streaming client downloads are the new standard, until it moves even further - Runes of Magic is developing a Facebook client that runs the full game.  Companies have to be starting to hear the message that their game needs to be a special product indeed to cross the hurdle of having customers pay $50-60 for a one-month trial that lets them decide if they want to charge $15 to their credit cards every month from now til they quit. 

Did the aging of the EQ1 and WoW 1.0 players bring the age (and life/responsibility) balance of MMO players closer to the general population?  Perhaps, but those numbers are also swelled with the younger players that studios are eagerly courting.  I would argue that we have players who only want to play easier games in the market today because it is getting progressively easier to actually get those games in the first place.  Here, I agree with Chris' bottom line - this is one trend that won't be rolling back. 


Stabs said...

Are you making an assumption that people who played their first MMO during the last 5 years are generally young?

I wonder just how safe that is. I know people my age (40s) who were technophobe in their 20s but all of them have adopted the technology now. Facebook is full of grandmothers as well as teenagers. It would be interesting to see data but I expect Blizzard sees their demographic data as commercially sensitive.

Bronte said...

You raise a good point, but I think there are two factors that ensure the MMO playing population is primarily adults.

First is the entry barrier you speak of. Yes MMOs are becoming more normalized and easy to get into (hello World of Tanks), but the barriers haven't crumbled like the Berlin Wall. Even age-old behemoths like WoW are easy to start of in (spam one button) and it gets incredibly complex as you approach endgame with abilities, talents, raids, PvP, achievements, world events, transmorgification, daily quests, professions and whatnot.

Second, in order to play most MMOs (even F2P ones), you need access to cash, and unless you can swipe the credit card from your mother's purse and somehow she never notices the $15 payments on the bill, non-adults would have a tough time paying for their favored MMO.

Lexicorro said...

There seems to be more ppl on ffxi these days who are married, have kids etc.

Bhagpuss said...

Interesting. I bought Everquest for myself as a 40th birthday present in 1999. It was my first online game but I'd been playing video games for more than two decades before that and I'd been online since the mid-90s. Mrs Bhagpuss, who's a handful of years younger than me, only had to see me play EQ for an evening before she wanted to play too and we've both been playing ever since.

I think it's a common mistake to assume that only "young" people are interested in or comfortable with IT in general and video games in particular. It seems to be a rolling conceit that no-one over 30 understands video games, which makes little sense given that video games on home computers and consoles formed a major part of mass entertainment for children and teenagers from about 1980 onwards.

I believe that the change from extremely slow and quite expensive dial-up access to very fast and cheap broadband access has more to do with the opening out of the online gaming market than any change in the attitudes or interests of the audience.

hound said...

It was never the fear of technology that kept me from playing online in the nineties, it was a host of other adult issues:

-I was getting paid minimum wage.
-Cable lines were hard to find where I lived.
-My first dial-up experiences were a mess, low FPS, booted every time someone needed to make a call or a call came in (memory is a little fuzzy, but I hated dial-up)
-When cable finally came to my area, I could not afford it.
-Once I could afford cable, my computer was outdated and buggy.
-Somewhere along the way, I needed a credit card (or banking card), which I had been avoiding like a plague for a long time.

The past four years have been the best of my life where computer gaming is concerned.

But, man, it has been an expensive ride to get here.

I'll be 37 years old in March.