Designing the Right MMO for the Right Audience

The recent news of Smed being let go lured Brad McQuaid out to drum up a little bit of noteworthy conversation. Brad wrote a few articles on his Pantheon blog (one of which he cut and paste in the comments of my Smed post) that I think are definitely worth a read.

The gist of his sudden onset of hypergraphia boils down to the very debate I have been having on this blog for the past 8 years: There are still people like me out there who want to play the same kinds of games we used to play, and our interests or tastes in MMOs haven’t changed. We aren’t too small to matter.

Brad summed up part of the problem:

Debate as to whether these newcomers are the only true audience now, or arguing that the ‘old school’ games were better, or more truly an MMO, is really unnecessary and unproductive.  There’s nothing to win here, nothing to be proven, nothing that has to be protected, and also no need to declare one style or design somehow, magically, obsolete.  Unfortunately, some behind some of the newer games that failed to retain subscribers, many of whom then intelligently switched their revenue model, have also (for whatever reason) proclaimed that their failure to retain gamers is because that gamer no longer exists, that the gamers who want to play long term, involve themselves with the community, and to work together in groups and guilds are gone now, or radically different.

I will disagree with Brad about there being nothing to prove. If there were nothing to prove then we would have MMOs being developed to match his solution (see quote coming up below). At every turn we are seeing MMOs come and go, and every time a game fails it’s because “that kind of game isn’t wanted anymore” or “people have changed.”

The problem rests with taking a business model that worked with one design targeted at a specific type of players and applying the same business model to a completely different design aimed at trying to target all sorts of different players.

The future I believe are MMOs that have identified and targeted specific audiences.  Like with any space that has grown tremendously and become much more diverse, developers need to adapt as well and make great games for these gamers but also be ok with this reality: several diverse yet successful games can co-exist, each with different mechanics and features and content.  Likewise, if you make a good game, it doesn’t mean that everyone has to like it.

That is the key right there, and that is what players like me have been trying to prove.  I’m not one of the people saying that MMOs were better and every MMO should be like the old MMOs. While I do believe that older MMOs were better, I also believe that newer MMOs offer something that tons of people enjoy.

For example, if you enjoy SWTOR or WildStar then more power to you. A game like SWTOR or WildStar exist for people who want a game like SWTOR or WildStar. To say that because these two games “failed” means that MMOs are unwanted, or that the model/design these games originally tried to follow is obsolete, is unequivocally false. I’ll refer you to my comment above about using the wrong business model and wrong design for the wrong audience.

MMOs of all types should absolutely exist. And there IS a battle to be fought here for fair representation in the marketplace. Those wanting a group-centric social virtual world with devoted crafters and some edge of difficulty shouldn’t be relegated to failed Kickstarters and small teams with barely enough funds to hire decent artists. Similarly, those wanting a themepark or something more arcade-like shouldn’t be stuck with the McMMO budget games run by poor leadership destined to go F2P.

  • I found myself nodding in agreement with most of what Brad had to say. I’m a bit puzzled by the “10 million” MMO players he repeatedly refers to though. I’d have thought there must be far more than that by now – WoW had more than that simultaneously at one point so logically over the lifetime of the game WoW alone has probably had multiples of 10m players.

    The question for me isn’t whether there’s an audience large enough to make a game like Pantheon enjoyable for the players – I’m sure that’s true. I doubt you need a critical mass of more than three to five thousand players at most to give everyone the sense that they are playing in a busy, well-populated world 24/7. The question is, can the income generated by such a small audience allow anyone to produce an MMO that meets 2015 and onwards technical and especially graphical standards for the genre at a scale that justifies the tag “virtual world” and expect to recoup the development costs and pay for the infrastructure to keep the game going, let alone build on that foundation?

    If so, then yes, we can have all the niche MMOs we need to serve a wide range of tastes and demographics. Once you scale that audience up to, say, the fifty to one hundred thousand players that I think, for example, Camelot Unchained has mooted as viable, I’d guess you’d be making substantial inroads into the potential audience for the kind of MMOs Brad wants to make. Plus, of course, the whole point of them is to pick one and stick with it, so each game that wins a player denies that player to all the others.

    I hope he’s right though. I feel he’s probably being a little over-optimistic but I definitely think he’s making some very good points. That audience definitely still does exist. The trick is to serve it effectively and satisfactorily while still making a profit.

  • Problem is the incredible scope of an MMO versus the size of the niche market. It’s one of the reasons why I am 100% behind Saga of Lucimia for their approach to making their game, and I hope their relative success can inspire many other small groups to take a stab at making their MMO and not just one that appeals to the lowest common denominator of the gaming population.

  • Here’s where I have a problem with being swept under the rug as not relevant and a niche that is from days gone by. They are wrong. So very wrong.

    Ok maybe me personally I’m irrelevant. I am getting a little old and tired of the hamster wheels. But what I found fun 10 or 20 years ago was fun. It didn’t really matter if I was playing on an iPhone or a Gateway or a dial up modem without a screen that typed words on paper and had zero graphics. Ok that was 30 years ago…

    I don’t believe new tech and platforms have made any of that unfun. More competition, faster gratification? Sure. You see where that has gotten us for the last decade. 3 monthers. Not fun.