Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Community by Critical Mass

Out of the discussions from the last post it seemed that a lot of people thought that a strong community was one of the most important characteristics of a successful MMO. This seems to be true since there is definitely a relationship between how long people play a MMO and how many friends they have in that game. Gaming experiences usually are more rewarding when interacting with other humans rather than just a non responsive AI. Over the last 10 years we've seen a rise in games which are oriented around human interactions either by utilizing online connectivity or group game play. First person shooters now rise and fall based on their online features while games like guitar hero and Wii bowling have found their ways into bars.

MMOs seem to get the best of both worlds since they're usually structured around group game play and require an internet connection. The advantages to the genre are really only offset by the increased fees to maintain and develop the online portion of the game. Initial gamers were hesitant to pay extra fees and people who did pick up a MMO usually didn't join with a bunch of their real life friends. This is what probably lead to designers using the "group only" design philosophy which so characterized the early MMORPG market. It was thought that by making game players weak compared to mobs that it would force them to form friendships in the game to advance. In general this method worked at retaining players but did very little to attract anyone new to the genre.

As I said in the last post World of Warcraft was unique at the time of its release by being the only MMO to not force community building with harsh solo penalties. Their end game did require grouping but since every previous level was open to soloing it seemed like a much larger game to most new players. As a result players who didn't form social ties right away stuck around much longer and weren't forced out. This is what really allowed their numbers to increase over the million subscriber mark and eventually cause the game to reach critical mass. When I talk about critical mass I'm actually talking about the player base becoming so large that eventually gamers starting finding real life friends in the game.

Once that started happening it was like communities started being imported into the game. Friends would find out each other both played World of Warcraft and would start planning on bringing in more people they knew. When multiple friends started recommending a game then you can't help but be curious. This happened with the older games to a certain extent but was usually only successful with groups of friends who were already fans of the MMO genre. The older games pretty much built all of their community ties from the ground up inside their own virtual worlds which didn't branch out much into the real world.

The game Lineage did reach an earlier critical mass effect and built up probably the second strongest MMO community in existence today. However, the game was not designed for broad appeal and instead simply benefited from the government subsidies in Korea that made broadband access so cheap and prevalent. This pretty much increased the willingness of gamers to try MMOs in that country compared to the United States and Europe at that time. The game never really gained widespread popularity in the west though it’s pretty much a success story of showing how popular MMOs can become when you remove barriers of entry.

All of this becomes important when people starting talking about how another game could never beat the numbers that World of Warcraft has achieved. It’s quite possible that World of Warcraft might not be done growing for a long time especially with recent focus on other aspects of their game besides raiding. However, this growth doesn't mean there is a lock out on their subscriber numbers. In fact World of Warcraft is estimated to have a very high churn rate for a MMO which means there is a huge ready made community of ex-WoW players out in the market. If a game could tap into this community cough*** Warhammer*** we'll probably see a similar explosion in numbers and the best part is that it might not even effect WoW that much.


Captain Angry said...

The same aspect of World of Warcraft that makes it attractive to new players (solo-ability, gentle learning curve) is the same thing that turns off older gamers when these players reach max level and have no idea how to play in a group setting.

You can't expect players who have never before played an MMO, and have spent the last 70 levels basically targeting mobs and hitting the same 3 or 4 attacks until the current quest is complete to suddenly have an epiphany and become seasoned raiders, but many guilds are sick of training "nubs" how to play and behave in a raiding guild.

Relmstein said...

Yes, the difference between end game and leveling are probably one of the reasons WoW has such a high churn rate. However, recent trends in the game suggest that developers think PvP can help offset that churn. Plus it seems that while raiding isn't as popular as it used to be, a higher percentage of players are participating in it compared to old world raiding. I think they count Karazhan as a raid though.