Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Incentives Driving 3-Month MMO Tourism

Psychochild has a post up suggesting that the current churn amongst MMO's can be blamed on soloing - he phrases it more diplomatically, but his identified cause of the problem is that people are not forming community "social fabric" because they are not grouping, and his suggested fix is to somehow make grouping more attractive than solo play.  There's little I could say directly on this topic that hasn't been said before (including by myself in 2009), but I think it's worth taking a minute to examine a tangent - the incentives that drive modern MMO tourism.

Incentives for and against being a tourist
My central thesis for MMO incentive analysis is that incentives can be effective in changing player behavior but are highly ineffective in changing player preferences.  What incentives are at play for and against a player's decision to depart a game after the hypothetical 90 days?
  • (Real World) Money: Unless you fall into an edge case in the business model, the amount you pay will correlate with the amount you play.  If the game has a monthly fee, that cost is obvious, with a financial incentive to quit the game as soon as possible in exchange for $15/month added back to your disposable income.  In some cases non-subscription games have a high one-time start-up cost followed by no recurring expenses, but for the most part the studio has a strong incentive to continue to get something out of people who are signed onto their servers consuming their bandwidth.  
  • Diminishing Returns for Progression: Whether the game is rewarding you with the next chapter in its story, the next increase to your character's level, or especially the addition of new abilities that significantly alter how you play the game, most key rewards in MMO's are decidedly finite.  The longer you play, the more likely that you end up on the "treadmill" of working to obtain slightly stronger gear to face slightly stronger mobs instead of more interesting rewards.  By contrast, just as your time in your existing game is getting less and less rewarding, starting over in a new game means going back to the fun end of the incentive curve. 
  • Attachment: Even a solo player is going to feel some attachment to their character after dozens of hours /played spread over weeks or months.  Here is where Psychochild has a point about "social fabric" - if you have real friends and attachment to the community, that may be an incentive not to leave a game that you would otherwise be done with.
So far, so good for Psychochild's approach - two key incentives to leave a game can potentially be offset by a social incentive to stay.  So where is the problem?

One Unwilling Raider's Tale
To draw from my personal experience - I'm a dirty soloing MMO tourist so clearly it's all about me - I can say that the incentive system worked as intended for me in World of Warcraft circa 2005-2006.  I had run out of levels to gain and quests to solo, but I had gotten to know the folks in my guild (which actually made the oft-attempted transition from relatively open recruitment of leveling players into a reasonably successful 40-man raid guild).  My choices were to quit the game or start raiding, my personal incentives at the time favored the latter.  So I changed my behavior, and off I went to kill Nefarian.

What did not change was my preferences.  I would rather be spending my gaming time working on less difficult content - the kind that can be beaten in one evening by a PUG.  Instead, I did something I fundamentally did not enjoy, that required reporting to play at fixed times and spending non-raid nights preparing - far too much like a job instead of a game for my tastes. 

As soon as there was a second MMO where soloing to the level cap (well, almost) was viable, I canceled my WoW subscription and headed off to the newly launched LOTRO.  I've returned to WoW repeatedly given the opportunity to do so on my terms - i.e. new expansion content I could solo or new easy group content that I can experience without a fixed schedule - but I've never gone back to the raiding game that I never liked and only played because that's where the incentives of that particular era lined up.

The Downside of Choice?
In addition to all the other things Blizzard did right, WoW had a key advantage - as the innovator who brought solo play to the MMO space, Blizzard had a few years in which a player like myself didn't really have meaningful alternatives, short of going back to single player console games.  Blizzard did not need to worry about losing my money after 90 days and they were able to use that dependable stream of revenue to finance a better game for everyone. (Albeit with a disproportionate focus on new raid content.)    New games today don't have this luxury. Instead, more than one game with solid potential has been gutted when its population fled early and its staff was trimmed to match. 

Philosophical questions aside, I am not a player who has a preference for the type of gameplay that fosters strong "social fabric".  Now that I have a family, I have time constraints that would prevent me from doing so even if I wanted to.  The odds that you will find some incentive so strong that I will change my behavior to something that I don't want - and may no longer be able - to do in today's crowded marketplace are near zero.

And thus my advice to Psychochild is simple - it's not 2006 anymore.  There are enough online solo-friendly options these days that it's a waste of your resources to offer a solo option and then undermine your efforts by trying to make it somehow less attractive than grouping.  If you want a niche game that focuses on grouping, don't waste your developers' resources and your players' time by offering a less attractive solo option that will ultimately lose out to all of the many games that do solo content better. 

9 comments:

Nils said...

You seem to think that "social fabric" = "raiding" = "being online at fixed times doing things I don't want".

I don't think that is necessarily the case.

Dàchéng said...

"I'm a dirty soloing MMO tourist "

I'm interested that you chose to play WoW and LotRO, rather than a single-player game. Is it that although you prefer single-player gameplay, you like the sociable nature of MMOs? Or do you, in fact, mostly play single-player games?

If you like the sociable nature of these games, do you think you could achieve that in single-player games by some other means (for instance through game forums, or - more immediately - game-related twitter, or facebook)?

Bhagpuss said...

I fall much more on your side of the argument than Psychochild's. For me the hook that keeps me coming back to MMOs is my characters. I do like meeting other players but I don't want to form any significant social connections with them, or not connections that I would categorize as "significant".

Other players in MMOs are like the people you get to know in your Local. I have had various Local Pubs over the years and while I drank in them I got to know lots of people on a trivial but enjoyable level. There were people you'd just nod to, others you'd pass the time of day with and still others you'd join for a game or three of darts or pool.

The relationships revolved around the mutual use of a shared space that belonged to none of you and especially to the activities that took place there. When I moved away or just found another pub to drink in I never thought of any of those people again, just acquired another bunch in the new place.

My characters in MMOs are much more like real-life pets. I'd say children but I think that would be going too far. Like pets I come to know their personalities and foibles and most importantly I develop a strong sense of responsibility for them. I care about their comfort, their welfare, even their happiness. I know the characters aren't real, just as I know the pets don't really have the thoughts and emotions I ascribe to them. It's what happens in my head that matters.

That's why I keep coming back to MMOs I no longer play regularly. Not to meet players, the huge majority of whom have always moved on and few of whom I'd remember anyway, but to check on my characters, see they are still safe and doing well. And once I'm there, maybe give them another little boost - a level or two, a new piece of armor, a vanity pet to keep them company.

My social ties in MMOs are primarily with my characters.

Yeebo said...

I will not play a game that forces me to spend my first 15 mins to an hour getting a group together to be able to make decent progress. I refused to do that in 1999 (I played EQ for perhaps two months), and I sure as heck would never do it now that there are so many solo friendly MMOs out there.

At the same time, the fact that there are other people running around in these worlds makes them feel so much more "real" to me. I like having the option to group up and tackle large challenges when the rare mood strikes me. I like the dynamic economic environment of a shared auction house. I like looking at everyone else's character when I'm in town shopping or crafting. I enjoy some of the conversations that unfold in zone chat while I'm running around killing things. I even enjoy being in a guild and helping out other guildies when they need it (or at least providing and receiving advice).

Psychochild said...

A lot of issues here.

First, as Nils points out, you (and others) seem to think I'm advocating raiding or other old systems. I'm not. As I said in my blog post, I am "looking at how modern games can reincorporate a multiplayer focus to bring back some of what people truly enjoyed about games." We can design new systems that encourage social fabric beyond "you gotta join a static group of 39 other people who fight bosses" or "you gotta wait around for half your playtime waiting to find a group." But, the first step is to recognize the design goal.

Second, while MMO tourism works for you, it's not working for the companies making these games. They're pouring a lot of money into these games, and your 3 months in the game isn't paying back development costs. Things have to change. Maybe they won't be the MMOs you love anymore, but unless you're willing to pay a LOT more, the MMOs you love are going to go away anyway.

You tell me it's not 2006 anymore, but I think that's a lesson you need to learn. MMO developers can't pour endless resources into a game and get that investment back because there are "no alternatives" (heh) for you to play. If the only reason you're playing is because you can solo, there are plenty of games out there for you to play... for as long as they can remain open with high churn.

Will a game that focuses on group content appeal to a smaller audience? Almost certainly. But, instead of a large amount of income for a short period and then panic about how user numbers are falling, I'd rather have a more moderate amount of income from people stick with the game for the foreseeable future. If I'm right, that second game is going to be a better business decision and a better foundation for a company.

Green Armadillo said...

@Nils: Perhaps I should have added more examples to my (already lengthy) post to clarify. I tried FFXI back in 2006, never got anywhere close to raiding level, but had even more trouble with the "forced grouping" in that game than I did with raiding in WoW. By contrast, I actually spend a fair amount of time in PUG's including raid groups, but I have never formed social ties through this sort of thing.

@Dàchéng: Scope is the biggest advantage to MMO's over single player games - larger worlds, more character options. That said, I do take part in some of group content (a feature that I suppose is becoming more feasible on consoles) and the player economy - there's no finding a bargain from an NPC vendor in a single player game, the prices are just what they are.

@Psychochild: Perhaps my failing is lack of imagination - I agree with your design goal, but no model that I've seen to date succeeds in implementing it. There are games with strong social fabrics enforced by strong forced dependency on other players (whether in raid groups or smaller sizes) and there are games with strong player independence and limited community, regardless of whether how many players the player is or is not grouped with (see auto-group/raid finder).

Speaking of lack of imagination, I'd argue that it is difficult to form a real conclusion about what the market is willing to pay because so few big budget games - GW2 is the only example I can think of - have voluntarily launched without a subscription. When you look at dollars paid per hour /played my spending on DDO is way higher than any game in my stable. All the other games on the market seem to be falling over themselves to give away things they could be charging for as loss leaders in the hopes of selling long term subscriptions. I don't think the book is closed on recouping large development budgets, but you cannot expect to do so if you base your entire business model around longterm subscriber numbers that have only been reached by a handful of games in history.

As to the state of choice circa 2006, I went to Syp's MMO history timeline to see how his narrative compares with what I remember. In 2006, a player who wanted to play a solo-friendly MMORPG that was not WoW could go to GW1, though that game had more in common with Diablo than Everquest. You could make an argument concerning Everquest 2, which started its path to its current solo-friendly status with 2006's EOF expansion (though most players consider this transition more complete with 2007's Rise of Kunark). And yes, I could always have gone back to single player console RPG's, Call of Duty, Madden, reading books, or any number of other alternatives that aren't MMORPG's. But getting back to solo-friendly MMORPG's, I'm prepared to stand by my statement that there were no viable alternatives to WoW in 2006.

Psychochild said...

Green Armadillo wrote:
Perhaps my failing is lack of imagination - I agree with your design goal, but no model that I've seen to date succeeds in implementing it.

Yeah, I don't have the answer, either. But I think identifying the problem is the first necessary step. Like discussions of permadeath, any discussions of people grouping usually devolves into people making assumptions and trying to apply changes to existing types of games. It might be that we have to go in bold new directions. But, everyone is too scared to do that yet.

Sometimes I have to use my blog as for punditry just like players do. ;)

Dalt said...

My grouping days with MMO's are pretty much over. There is no way an MMO can "incentise" me to group when what I want is a single player rpg with other people around, a dynamic economy, and regular updates and expansions.

Now that I am a parent I don't have time to invest in grouping. If an MMO dosent provide enough for me to do as a soloist then I depart - the endgame of SWtOR suffered this fate.

I am actually started playing EQ2 since I had heard it was a deep game with solo instanced content. I have been having a blast and they now get my subscription dollars.

These days what I want is a replacement for single player RPG's like Baldur's Gate and Fallout. The option to group later if I want to is just a bonus.

Tori Bergquist said...

"Even a solo player is going to feel some attachment to their character after dozens of hours /played spread over weeks or months."

You seem to be under the misimpression that soloers don't value their characters. I'd argue the reverse: without decent characters (and the stories that accompany them) soloers leave. A robust system with good story telling and compelling character mechanics will keep me for a lot longer than one with poor stories and vacuous character design. Conversely, I think most social MMOers stay for the friends and their avatar is just their vessel of interaction....not really a character to them....except perhaps among the dedicated (and highly social) RPers.