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New MMO Players Are Old Noobs

In doing the research for the last article, I came across this interesting August interview with Tom Chilton. It is a sort of “past 10 years, next 10 years” sort of interview, but here were the quotes I want to draw attention to:

Q. Each expansion clearly serves the game’s existing audience first, but there always appears to be a secondary goal of either driving new player sign-ups, or winning back lapsed accounts. Warlords of Draenor looks like it’s especially designed to win back lapsed players. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?

A. […] We are also trying to make things easier for new players. We have an improved tutorial. We’ve definitely found over time that the players we’re getting now are far less familiar with the standard MMO-slash-RPG mechanics than the players we got years ago were.

Frankly, that’s the biggest difference in terms of our subscribership. It’s harder to keep the funnel of people coming in to offset, inevitably, people not playing anymore.

So we’re making a lot of improvements there, teaching people how to move their characters, how to look around, and how to turn their first quest in, because we’re seeing that’s where huge amounts of people drop out.

Back in September, I posted a similar Q&A session with Ghostcrawler who basically said the exact same thing:

I’d like to know what Blizzard considers to be the big barriers.
Well *I* consider the biggest barrier being it’s a 3D WASD game with a movable camera. (Bashiok)
I agree. So does a lot of data. (Source)

Back to the Chilton interview though, he makes a point about how… well, let me just post it:

Q. Going back to the subject of 10 years, and talking about changes in the subscribership, different playstyles and different expectations, have you seen a shift in your demographics?

Chilton: We certainly have. Our demographic has gotten a lot older over time. A lot of that is because we have a lot of players who’ve been with us for 10 years, and now they’re 10 years older than when they first started playing. Our age has shifted up over the last 10 years.

That has interesting implications in that essentially the playerbase becomes more casual over time. As people get older and have kids and careers, they have less time to spend on playing the MMO.

It definitely influences how we evolve the content and trying to make sure that there are good ways to engage with the game that aren’t massively time-consuming.

Now, it is a pretty well-tread argument that players get more casual over time, for exactly the reasons mentioned: you got older, out of college, kids, more obligations, and so on. But I find it a little weird when combined with the prior quote from Chilton insofar as most of the new players coming into WoW are having issues with camera movement and turning in quests. I mean, unless WoW is literally your first RPG, you would think that most everyone coming in would have experience with similar mechanics from literally any other RPG in the last 10 years.

All of which is leading me to believe that, perhaps, most of the new players coming into WoW are precisely older people who haven’t played many (or any) RPGs prior to this. It could almost be poetic, if the players who started playing 10 years ago (and kept going) are recruiting their now-older non-gamer peers into the game because those are the only people they know. Hell, you can almost imagine this as a geologic strata forming: the MMO layer being compressed by the MOBA layer of slightly younger players, followed by the Minecraft generation.

None of that really describes what’s going on with the FPS genre or console games, but it’s a convenient narrative I’m rolling with.

Interview Overload

Ever read about an hour’s worth of interview transcripts about a game you’re not even technically playing anymore? I have! [emphasis added throughout]

  • “However, mounts are sacred–one of the only things left that’s visual prestige. So we do want to make sure we give them out for the right things, like the Challenge Mode achievements Tom spoke about.”
  • Re: Guild Leveling. Blizzard isn’t sure they will be increasing the level cap; they may just be swapping out abilities (i.e. Have Group, Will Travel is getting axed). Other big news here is that no daily/weekly XP or Reputation caps anymore.
  • “LFR has been huge for us–one of the most successful features in the game, similar to when we implemented the Dungeon Finder. We can watch the numbers exponentially grow–the number of people that are raiding now, compared to before 4.3, is incredibly dramatic–it’s so much more. We can’t tell you the exact percentage, but it’s massively larger. And not only that, they’ve continued to raid, and these are players that have never raided before.”
  • Re: Firelands dailies: “What didn’t work is that it’s staged out to take too long for the number of quests you need to do. I think that to get all the marks you needed to get was excessive amount of time.”
  • Blizzard doesn’t actually seem to know how the Beta will actually pan out, given that over 1 million people will be getting in.
  • You can (i.e. will) farm tokens to buy a consumable item that gives you, personally, an extra shot at getting gear from a boss. It works in LFR, Normal, and Heroic versions of raids. Yes, an extra shot at heroic raid loot. Yes, every heroic raiding guild will require it.
  • Blizzard nixed the whole “monks don’t auto-attack” thing. Called that one.

File under Missing the Point:

Q: In addition to the linear nature of Cataclysm questing zones, many players felt that it was hard to feel completely engaged in a zone due to heirloom/guild xp bonuses. They’d outlevel a zone before completing a lot of the major plot arcs. The revamped 1-60 content is complete, but was there anything to learn from this in designing future zones? Especially now that Pandaria has more zones than we first heard about at BlizzCon.

A: Well, actually, we are very deliberately trying to set it up so you can skip some amount of content on the way to 90. We feel those decisions make the World of Warcraft seem like a world. If you look back to original WoW, we had Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor, for players to quest in at any given time. There was an amount of choice in what you did–sometimes that choice diminished somewhat, but generally speaking, there were different options.

We’d like to capture that as much as possible, so not only is the quest flow itself a bit less linear, but also your zone choices is a bit less linear. That inherently means you won’t get to do all the quests on the way to 90, but it does mean that if you play the game on an alt, you have an option to do something new.

I think the problems you’ve described with heirlooms or guild xp bonuses and everything stacking becomes worse when it’s linear, because when you end that linear experience before you’re supposed to, it’s a lot more noticeable.

Actually… is Tom Chilton missing the point at all? Reading the response over again, it seems to me he wants WoW questing to get away from zones even having “major plot arcs” for heirlooms and leveling bonuses to trivialize. After all, isn’t the complaint that a person out-levels, say, Duskwood before finishing all the quests in the area? That is only a “problem” if one views the zone as something to be completed. If the zone is instead looked upon as a playground with different equipment – Raven Hill as a Merry-Go-Round, Darkshire as the swing-set, the southern portion as a series of muddy sandboxes – then “out-leveling” it does not make a whole lot of sense.

On the other hand, Chilton cannot have it both ways, right? Players are funneled into Duskwood from Westfall, and thus they encounter Raven Hill first; Darkshire’s issues are as much a part of Raven Hill as the other parts of the zone. Less linear is fine in theory, but there is a meta-narrative that has to glue these quests together in some way. And what about the people who come to enjoy a given zone’s zeitgeist? I love the idea of being able to skip entire zones (Wetlands and Arathi Basin are terrible for Alliance), but the issue at hand is not being able to stick with the zones you actually like. Non-linearity does not fix the issue of quests going gray.

Re: ZA/ZG

With Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub, they got a worse reputation than they deserved. A big mistake was going from a tier of content that had 9 instances to run, down to a tier of content where you only have 2 instances to run and no raids. If you run people through the grinder of the same two instances over and over, it ends up feeling much worse. If you take any instance and say ‘these are the only two instances you get to run for many months,’ then that ends up feeling pretty bad.

Re: Community

Q: Last question–about community in WoW. There’s been a lot of changes with people coming back and playing together, and using tools like Real ID and Looking for Raid across servers. How do you balance player-created communities across servers with pre-existing raiding guilds, that are facing challenges now like downsizing from 25s to 10s or dealing with real life and scheduling conflicts among older members?

A: I think that is an important balance to try to achieve. Over time, we’ve gone in the direction of making the game accessible to a lot of different people, such as queueing up for dungeons and raids with friends–which have impacted these guild ties and such. So I think that for us, one thing we’re hoping to do is get guild community back with challenge modes, without excluding your average player from content. Certainly with challenge modes, we don’t plan for you to queue up. We feel that if you queued for a challenge mode in Dungeon Finder, that would cause a lot of problems. That guy being yelled at by his wife for 15 seconds will make everyone else pull their hair out and panic that they’re going to miss a medal. It’s an interesting opportunity for us to really emphasize both playing with your guild and friends without it feeling like the average player is missing out on seeing an instance.

Re: Raiding

Q: So you are in discussions about possibly changing how the raid lockouts work?

A: Sure. I think we’re gonna look at how the 10/25 person lockout worked as a shared cooldown. Was that the right decision, or do we want to do something different? I don’t really know what the right answer is yet. We haven’t decided.

And then we get to the Ghostcrawler interview…

Q: So I was playing the Monk a little bit, and I noticed a couple things that were different from Blizzcon. There’s no more dark Chi.

A: <some debate about how to actually pronounce “Chi”>

Q: So there’s no more dark Chi…

A: Dark balls.

Q: There’s no more dark balls, yeah. What prompted that sort of change?

A: [snip]

I am not sure if I mentioned it before, but I genuinely enjoy having Ghostcrawler around. He may be the face of the B Team, he may be a straight-up design troll in some respects, but hey… at least he has a face, yeah? In a world of Bobby Koticks and David Reids and faceless community managers, I am all for more Greg Streets and Curt Schillings, even if they get things wrong.

Q: […] Glyphs was one system I was looking at and trying to wrap my head around the changes. I think you guys had said something about this somewhere, but prime glyphs are basically gone now.

A: Yeah. We apologize for prime glyphs. They were a bad idea. At the time, we were worried that, say, a Paladin who didn’t have a glyph for Crusader Strike would be like, “What the hell? This is my most important ability! I need to glyph Crusader Strike! I don’t want to glyph… I don’t know, Turn Evil or something like that, because I want a glyph for Crusader Strike.” So we did that, and it ended up just complicating everything because now we have to imagine that, “Oh yeah, everyone has stupid prime glyphs that give them 5% damage or crit or something like that.”

See? After talking about a new glyph for Prot paladins that lets you aim Consecration (ala Death & Decay, but shut up), the followup is:

Q: <grinning> See the grin on my face?

A: <laughs> The Glyph of Divine Plea, which Divine Plea is Holy only now, changes it from a “for the next X seconds you’re a bad healer” to a cast time, and then at the end of that cast time you get all the mana right away. So you have to pay the cast time, and while you’re casting you’re not doing anything, but at the end of the cast time you get all the mana and there’s no self Mortal Strike that a lot of Paladins hate.

Want some more? Here was a show-stopper of an admission, from the answer to the problems with Legendaries:

I think part of that is because almost every raiding Rogue had an expectation of getting a legendary. That’s something I’ve talked about a little bit recently. So, one dark secret that players have probably all figured out by now is that Blizzard designers tend to careen from one extreme to the other, and so, when we decide something doesn’t work out, we go to the complete opposite, illogical extreme, and then we reel it back in a little bit. So, we were kind of reacting against the Warglaives model where, “You have a tiny percent chance of getting a legendary! Congrats!” to trying to make it a little more predictable, and the way we did that was with the style where you need so many parts, and the parts have a fairly predictable droprate, and eventually you’ll have your legendary, which then led to the opposite problem of they’re super predictable, people could point to a calendar day and say, “April 20th! That’s when I get my legendary!”

What sort of designer admits that? Bad ones? Good ones? Final quote:

Q: Interesting. So you did a blog post a while ago about the “Great Item Squish (Or Not) of Mists of Pandaria.” I noticed that the combat text was popping up and saying things like “14K” instead of 14,000 or whatever. Is that the route you decided to go with, like the “mega damage” approach?

A: Yeah, we went with the “not.” Mega Damage, here to stay. So we had this all in and working. We squished everything, and it was working. We had the whole thing implemented, and we sat down and tried it out, and, you know, Mortal Strike hit for 200, and Fireball hit for 150, and we were like, “This feels wrong.” We knew exactly how it would feel like, and we knew that our damage as a percentage didn’t go down, but it felt terrible. And we were like, “Okay, this is now super risky”, because we’re going to change talent trees on players, and even though we think it’s a great design, and we think players will love it, it’s a hard sell. And to do that, and have them hit really wimpy, I think even if players understood why we did it, deep down they wouldn’t like it.

So we decided to back off of that. We’re trying the solution with commas, and K’s, and M’s, and to be honest, it helps a lot, and our hope is, by 6.0 or 7.0, players are demanding the item squish, and by then it’s not controversial at all. It’s like a celebration when we finally do it.

Okay, so that is a lot to digest.

Instead, I think I’m going to play some more Mass Effect 3 multiplayer.

Chilton and Audiences

From a NYTimes article:

What we’re trying to do now is figure out what our current audience wants,” Tom Chilton, World of Warcraft’s game director, told me by phone last week. “It became clear that it wasn’t realistic to try to get the audience back to being more hard core, as it had been in the past.”

As someone returning to World of Warcraft after a long absence, I find the current direction of the game eminently engaging. As Mr. Chilton said, “We hear from a lot people who used to play a lot that they’re just not at that point in their life anymore, and they want to play, and they want to see the content. But they can’t make the same time commitment they used to.”

What is interesting to me is how they felt that it was realistic in the first place. And the use of “current” audience, with the implication that a prior audience existed but no longer does today. The debate over whether the “more hardcore prior audience” hollowing out was due to lack of attention or was inevitable seems almost academic at this point.

The same MMO with a new community is a different MMO, period.

Saturation

There is a fascinating quote from WoW’s Tom Chilton in this IGN interview that, I believe, conclusively discredits the notion that Wrath of the Lich King (or really any expansion) was somehow responsible for the stagnation and peaking of subscriptions:

Moving forward beyond 4.3, Chilton explained the focus of the development team. “I would say that the majority of our mindshare as a team goes toward our existing player base. How do we keep them entertained and how do we keep them enjoying World of Warcraft? I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right approach as time keeps going on. If you look at, if you look at the way the population breaks down, we’re at a point in our history where there are more people that played World of Warcraft but no longer play World of Warcraft than currently play World of Warcraft. That was totally not true four or five years ago, and so in a way the demographic of the potential returning player becomes more and more important over time.”

On the one hand, some might argue that this phenomenon is not particularly noteworthy at all. If a MMO sells 100 copies and two months later only 49 are still subscribed, then more players have played that MMO and stopped than continue to play it – that does not means that there could not be another 100 potential customers who might not have known about the MMO.

The difference with WoW, of course, is one of magnitude. Depending on when Chilton looked at the population breakdown, that means WoW could have had in the neighborhood of ~24 million players overall. How much bigger can we imagine the market for a fantasy-based Warcraft IP MMO be? While we can only speculate, I think it is reasonable to assume based on Chilton’s response that the market is saturated to the point that Blizzard’s time is better spent recapturing lapsed players than it is marketing new ones. Surely they have done the market research, and if we accept them as rational businessmen, then this interview (and their actions) confirm the hypothesis of market saturation. In which case, as I argued several months ago, raid/reward philosophy shifts in Wrath of the Lich King (and Cataclysm) likely had little to nothing to do with slower subscription growth.

Beyond that, what is similarly fascinating about that interview is the very next paragraph:

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to stop feeding the beast,” said Chilton. “It’s kind of what we call trying to keep the players entertained, you know the guys bored right now and you know what are they going to do next month? But I think that for us to continue to be successful we have to think more and more about the new players that are coming into the game now and the potential returning players. What are we doing to the game that lowers those barriers to entry?”

I suppose it could be read multiple ways, but I got the impression that going forward Blizzard’s design will be less centered on keeping existing players happy and more on enticing back former players. Obviously, things like tier sets on vendors and more accessible raids make hardcore players unhappy, but this seems a confirmation that – in true triage form – the designers would rather make you (an existing customer) unhappy if they could potentially lure back two former customers. The ideal would be that they could both make you happy and former players happy simultaneously, of course. That said, this is the first time I have come across so candid a game designer.

As a former player myself, it will be interesting to see how this shakes out.