Monday, September 10, 2012

The Captive MMO Audience

Roger at Contains Moderate Peril suggests that MMO players tend to forget that they are also consumers.  He notes that we are fast to blame for-profit companies that kill games for monetary reasons, but slow to hold service providers we are otherwise fond of accountable for failure to provide services.  This sounds reasonable in the aggregate, but I don't find that I have either of these problems.  I also spend almost none of my time doing social activities, like raiding or PVP, that would tie me down to a specific product.  Perhaps these things are related? 

At issue are delays to the Riders of Rohan pre-purchase compensation package.  Roger correctly notes that Turbine accepted payment in full in advance for pre-purchase of a product with a promised date that Turbine failed to meet.  This might in most other circumstances be considered breach of contract.  Instead of complaining, I and various others actually praised the move as a way to deliver a more polished product at what may also be a more strategic time.   

The guys at Penny Arcade once quipped that Blizzard had developed a business model in which they rent players' friends to them on a monthly basis.  No matter how early or late, how buggy or how polished, everyone needs to buy the new content when it is released if they are to play together.  (This part isn't unique to MMO's - I've seen friends pester each other to buy new maps for FPS's, and I don't believe any of them ever received a cut from the games' publishers for this peer pressure marketing campaign.)  A player who does, as Roger suggests, feel that they are not getting acceptable service finds their friends held hostage - there may be various alternative games on the market, but the odds of reassembling the same group are low. 

By contrast, I have the luxury of acting like a pure consumer because there's no one waiting on me to get the new content to fill out their raid group.  I never considered pre-purchasing Rohan, because I know from past experience that Turbine will offer steep discounts within a month or two (the new date is not that far from Black Friday).  I'm not thrilled with Turbine's decision to bundle in a bunch of extras I don't want to justify a higher price tag for the expansion package, but I don't need to pay the premium that will be required of the captive portion of the audience. 

Ironically, the cost of expanding the MMO demographic beyond the traditional social, group-oriented player may have been that the market actually is less tolerant of the things that studios got away with in 2005 when it was a smaller but more loyal playerbase.  For good or for ill, perhaps millions of players are now free to quit games like WoW and SWTOR precisely because less of the MMO audience are captives.


Anonymous said...

Certainly the experiments with pre-purchase have targeted the most invested players. The GW2 pre-purchase crowd weren't already playing with friends though, and I bet a lot of them are (happily) soloing now. I suppose you could argue that you also need to be in at the start if you want to share the experience online, or explore content before its thoroughly analysed and spoilered.

I do wonder how Turbine are finding charging an extra surcharge for raids/instances has been working out for them. Whether the barrier this poses to new players offsets the invested ones who will pay whatever.

I also wonder about your notion of playing solo (you don't say whether you are in guilds, I was assuming not) and not being deeply invested in games as a 'luxury'. I like the freedom of solo play, but I also think I have the luxury of having been involved in raid endgames in WoW and SWTOR (and LOTRO in the past, I guess) and despite the drawbacks, it is an exciting experience.

Bhagpuss said...

I wonder if the days of labeling MMO players as "soloists", "raiders", "casuals", "hardcore", "pvpers", "carebears" and all the rest aren't slipping into a dim-remembered past alongside "the Top 40" and "youth cults".

Society outside of MMOs has changed almost beyond recognition in the last decade. Behaviors that seemed completely normative at the end of the 20th century already look quaint and somewhat bizarre. Crossovers between groups that previously would have had little or no contact has become commonplace and all kinds of leisure and social activities that were once the exclusive province of certain age groups or cultural cliques have lost much of their exclusivity.

Who knows what the average MMO player is or what he or she does in-game? Possibly the companies who keep metrics do but they tend not to release the details. From observation and experience I get the impression that most people now do a little of everything. Where once it was common to hear people express a complete rejection of the idea of participating in PvP under any circumstances, I rarely see that view expressed nowadays. People seem willing to give it a go, here and there, now and again, just like they might do any other in-game activity. A form of Raiding, be it WoW's LFR or Rift or GW2's dynamic events and open grouping, has become an everyday activity for people who would probably never have raided under the standard systems.

And so on. The big MMOs look to attract, and are designed to please, a much more general, less specialist audience than they used to be. It makes for an easier, more comfortable, less intense experience that's probably more attractive to a wider range of customers and also less compulsive for any of them.

I prefer it this way. I come to MMOs to relax and be amused. Thrills and excitement are welcome as spice, but I don't want a steady diet of adrenaline rushes. It does also make me more laid-back as a customer that I now have so many good choices. All my MMO eggs are no longer in one or two baskets. If I don't like the way a game is going I can just go play another and that really works for me.

Anonymous said...

Bhagpuss: You may be right, but I suspect most people always did do a bit of everything. It was the hardcore raid endgames that skewed the samples and as soon as raiding became less all-intrusive, people happily started doing it with their more casual groups.

There certainly are more games around to choose from now though. But how long will they all last?

Christopher said...

I wonder if something similar was said about books, or music, or television shows. What is lost when a communication medium goes mainstream? Exclusivity, certainly. Monolithic standards and expectations, that too. Quality, though? Expression, depth of experience, engagement? Perhaps the market broadening from a narrow valley into an open plain takes away a kind of certainty, a YES this is the one for me confidence in having participated in the only thing of its kind, but in return we gain variety, niche upon niche to explore, and the freedom to invest our own resources more broadly than we could before. This turning point, from the singular to the infinitely varied, is well behind us for gaming in general, but I believe we are in the midst (mists? ha) of it, this moment, for MMOs. Perhaps (I'll be honest, for certain) I'm a starry-eyes optimist, but I see the future of MMO gaming as brighter than its past.