MMO Barrier to Entry vs. Barrier to Commitment

MMOs currently have the lowest barrier to entry of all time. The overwhelming majority are free-to-play without even a box price. Plenty of them are browser-based, so they don’t even require a major client installation. City of Steam doesn’t even require an account, letting you log in with just your Facebook account. The barrier to entry is basically ground level.

The barrier to commitment, however, is much higher. Consider a free-to-play title. Even though you can try out the world, and essentially start the game without the slightest obstacle, think about the time commitment it would take to “get to the real game” starting from scratch. When most MMOs were subscription-based, once you payed for it, you had essentially committed fully. Since the switch, the expression of commitment is rather vague.

Now that money is no longer an issue, I find that MMO players today have to carefully budget their time between the myriad of massive titles. Even if a new game is totally free, people may still not pick it up simply because there’s no more time for it. You may try out the first few levels, but do you really want to dedicate all that time to throw yourself into the game with wanton abandon?

For most titles, the answer is NO. Sure, it may have almost as much fun stuff as whatever else you’re playing has. But unless it’s overwhelmingly better, and your friends are willing to move with you, you won’t make it past the “trying it out” phase.

We no longer ask, “Is it worth subscribing to?” but, “Is it worth committing myself to?” instead.



Case Study: My Wife Tries WoW

My wife recently started playing WoW as her very first MMO (she’s already a gamer, just not an MMO gamer). To be honest, I’m rather envious of the pure wonder that she feels as she explores a brand new world for the first time. What’s especially interesting though, is what she did when the trial account capped her at level 20.

All the way up to level 20, she followed the quest hubs and did the standard progression. I was surprised at how she ascribed much more magic to the game then there actually was. For example, when she realized that hunters could tame animals, she immediately tried to tame a Moongraze Stag to be her mount. She was rather put out when she discovered that she couldn’t tame animals as mounts, and the Moongraze Stag wasn’t even tamable as a pet.

But then something happened I didn’t expect when she hit the trial cap at level 20.

I expected her to finish up a few quests until she’d done all the level 20 ones, get bored, and be done with the game. But such was not the case. She went exploring. For DAYS. She visited all the areas that she could safely travel to, and all the major capital cities. And when those ran out, she started peeking at higher-level areas, sneaking around enemies. Eventually she stumbled on the Borean Tundra (68-72) on accident, and loved the colors and theme of the zone so much that she had to try exploring it.

After a while, I asked her which experience she preferred. The “1-20” experience, or the “stuck at 20” experience.

No contest. She liked the latter.



Blizzard Titan’s “Iterative Process”

The game industry doesn’t really follow software development process like other markets. I’m not sure that Blizzard can really claim an “iterative” or “agile” methodology in the business sense, when that usually implies rapid prototyping and feedback from customers.

“We’ve always had a highly iterative development process, and the unannounced MMO is no exception. We’ve come to a point where we need to make some large design and technology changes to the game. We’re using this opportunity to shift some of our resources to assist with other projects while the core team adapts our technology and tools to accommodate these new changes. Note that we haven’t announced any dates for the MMO.”

Love, Blizzard.

Perhaps it’s just my knee-jerk reaction to having the tiny scraps of hints I have gathered about Titan invalidated, but I don’t think you can count 6 years as an iteration. Iterative development by its nature is meant to avoid perpetuated error and massive “back-to-the-drawing-board” scenarios.

Not bitter at all 🙂




Least Wanted MMO Features in 2013

As part of my little “sentiment gathering” experiment, I’ve made a list of the Least Wanted MMO features to go with last post’s Most Wanted. It’s a summary of the most complained about aspects, taken from various forum threads and blog comments.

So far, here’s what I’ve heard, in order of loudness:

  1. Boring
  2. Infinite gear grind (better gear to kill better mosters to get better gear to kill…)
  3. Infinite quest/level grind (kill things, get reward, kill more things, get reward, kill…)
  4. 50 thousand skill buttons (primarily targeted at WoW-alikes)
  5. Flying, teleportation, and quicktravel (loudly proclaimed as ‘ruining the experience’)
  6. Tank’n’Spank style combat (tank, healer, damage-dealer)
  7. Skill rotation combat
  8. Useless junk (vendor trash such as “ruined pelt”, or “broken bone fragment”)
  9. Zerg guilds, Zerging in PvP, Zerging in general
  10. Spam. Commercial spam (advertisements) + Game spam (mass invites).

While this little bit of research is nowhere near professional or complete, I’m still surprised at what types of rage floated to the top. First and foremost, I’m surprised that not one complaint surfaced about cash-shops, or more notably the blatant ubiquitous advertisements for in-game cash items. That’s on my personal top ten.

What’s sad is that the worst offenders (for this sample) happen to make up about 85% of all game-time (gear grind, and quest/level grinding). Unfortunately, it’s easy to make extremely vague complaints, and  it was no different in the threads I observed. Among the vocal crowd, there’s clearly huge dissatisfaction with the leveling process, as well as combat. Pretty much the loudest players would like a significant move away from WoW’s mechanics in whatever new game they play. As of 2013, I believe that those dreams will continue to be realized. Ever since breakthroughs like The Secret World and Guild Wars 2, we’ve moved on a little farther.

Also the rallying cry for “No Quicktravel” was surprising. I wonder if people would still be in favor if they actually had quicktravel removed, or if this is more of a knee-jerk injustice.



Top 20 Ideal MMO Features of 2013

After much arduous digging through the interweb, I’ve read through ten threads and over 1000 comments of MMO wishlists from players. I’ve also interviewed a few friends. This list represents the deepest desires of the most vocal MMO players as of 2013. Mind you, I discovered about 100 different features voiced, but these are the top 20 most frequent, and most passionately argued (ordered by loudness). Some of them are pie in the sky, but most are well within reach, if only someone would listen. Enjoy! Also, check out the 10 Least Wanted Features that I found.

Priority 1: Deafening

  • Vast, open world to explore with no instancing, no loading screens.

Leaps and bounds ahead of the pack, “open world” easily took top priority over any other feature. Isn’t this a reason why each of us enjoyed our very first MMO to some extent? The sense of boundless freedom, or even just the illusionary perception of it is gripping. Studios considering a heavily-instanced MMO, beware; it defies the heart’s desire of your average player.

Priority 2: Cacophonous

  • Character customization
    • “to make my character unique … from the crowds of other players”
  • Player impact
    • “… If I burn down a building I want other players to see it burned down and then if some farmer rebuilds it later, I want the NPCs to remember that it was burned down. I don’t want everything to reset…” [by jreyst].
  • Non-combat classes: Alternate progression
    • “let me increase my level entirely as a baker”, “I want to exclusively play an explorer, a politician, an assassin, a merchant…”

The next most common requests were driven by character and progression. If you’re going to invest 1000 hours in an online world, who wouldn’t want it to add up to something? You’d better be able to define your character how you like… to be more than yet another avatar. Your actions ought to matter in the world, and be able to alter it for better or for worse.

Priority 3: Clamorous

  • Player-made shops
  • Player-made quests
  • Reasonable crafting (not insanely complex, but not “wait for a bar” simple)
  • Casual friendly
  • Travel has meaning (no teleporting, quick-travel, or flying mounts)
  • Simple yet strategic, action-oriented combat
  • Subclassing/changing classes
  • Classless

It’s curios to see that there were, in fact, outcries for more convenient travel options. However the requests for less travel quickly overtook them in numbers.

Priority 4: Insistent

  • Skill-based crafting
    • “I want to be able to make sword X better than anyone else, and become known for it…”
  • Player-made buildings, towns, cities… (interesting note: not “player housing”)
  • Encourages multiplayer and grouping
  • Weather System

Priority 5: Emphatic

  • Permadeath (or meaningful consequences)
  • Focus on exploration
  • Easy to group (if you want)
  • Easy to solo (if you want)

And there you have it. If I were designing an MMO from scratch, I’d want to sit down and listen to the deafening peals of players wants and needs first. It might just help create something that would hook people for longer than 6 months.

That said, there’s some issues with this style of listening. This list came from forum posts, blogs, and comments, which means that only the most vocal players are represented. I have no idea what the true average player desires. But I’d guess that  the online groups are at least somewhat representative. There’s also the old saying that “People don’t know what they want until they see it.”

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.”

Attributed to Henry Ford.

Perhaps we’ll not know what magic sauce we want until someone invents it. At any rate, there’s few markets as turbulent, and unexpectedly backstabbing as the MMO market. Time will tell.



Unlevel RPG

Continuing the discussion, are levels really necessary? Just how much value do they add to an RPG, or particularly an MMORPG?

In a classic MMO the ideal monsters have a certain, predictable difficulty, while ‘special’ mobs and bosses should be significantly harder. This is usually identified by combat levels. But because the player usually only fights monsters around the same level range as themselves, no matter how strong the player gets the monsters are similarly matched. It’s almost as if you’re only truly fighting 3 kinds of monsters: easy, normal, and boss.

This topic’s been ranted about plenty of times before, but in terms of combat, I’d like to suggest an alternative.

What if an enemy’s combat level was instead determined by their intelligence?


Level 0: Zombie (blindly heads towards you and will attack if in range)

Level 1: Animal (wanders around the world, will attack you if you enter it’s range). This is actually the AI for 90% of all MMO monsters.

Level 2: Scout (follows some pre-set path that it walks, attacks if you enter it’s range). The other 5%.

Level 3: Actual Fighter (basic combat skills, like knowing when to run away or stay out of the fight, when to run and get help).

Level 4: Adept Fighter (can try and hide from you, stalk you, hunt you)

Level 5: Commander (can orchestrate battle on a 5-10 NPC scale, setting up ambushes, planning ahead)


It seems that ‘difficulty’ in the modern MMO means how many hit points your current ‘sack of potatoes’ (NPC target) has, plus perhaps a frustrating ability or stun. So what do you think? Would the combat level system for NPCs be better off being intelligence?




Grinding to a Halt

In my woefully small sample of pen-and-paper games, I’ve only managed to play a single style. It was a customized set of rules based far more on story than mechanics. In fact, we rarely rolled any dice, and the focus was on dialogue.

I started to see a disconnect between pen-and-paper games and MMORPGs. MMOs are typically approached in a quest-based manner, where you play errand-runner rather than hero. You kill things, deliver letters, investigate strange happenings, and kill more things. But in campaigns (at least the ones I’ve seen firsthand), you’re actually participating in a story and making choices that matter.

So why are we using quest-driven story, when it’s a poor medium for storytelling? The best stories we can get in MMOs are basically action-based dungeons or particularly interesting quest chains, but those are few and far between. If we’re going to suspend our disbelief anyways by having long quest chains that don’t actually influence or have impact on the world, why can’t we just have full-on high-quality campaigns instead of quests?

I suppose this would dispel the illusion that MMOs are multiplayer, and further enforce the fact that our stories are entirely single-player. We can only truly participate in these MMO stories as “sideline heroes,” who have the “honor” of watching a famous NPC accomplish everything of significance. Not to say that everyone can be, or even should be the chosen one who saves the world. Just that everyone needs to be an important character in their own story. Kind of like real life, don’t you think?