Not Your Target Audience

This weekend I spend a good deal of time in the car while driving up to see my mother-in-law.  This always serves as the launch pad for numerous conversations, one of which was a long winded rant stemmed from disappointment over Rage, but that in itself is better left for another blog post.  My wife lovingly listened in spite of not fully understanding a damned thing I was saying, however at the end she left me with a cogent nugget of advice.  “Sounds like you just might not be the target audience for these games anymore.”

Leave it to my wife, the math teacher, the being of logic… to cut through my rant and say something that makes sense.  Sure enough that little seed sat there the rest of the weekend sprouting. The more I thought on it the more I realized it had become true.  I think much of my growing dissatisfaction with the direction of games is due to this fact, that either through the changes in myself or changes in the market I am no longer the target for what is being built.

Aiming Down the Middle

The problem is the more I thought on it, the less and less certain I was there really was a target audience.  In this current era of the mega game, the current focus seems to be to cram as many features as possible into a game for as many different player bases as possible.  So in trying to create a game that appeals to raiders, casuals, explorers, achievers, role-players, pvpers, griefers, gold-farmers, campers, snipers, and crafters they try and walk a line where none of the groups get upset with the others.  But by the same token, none of them are ever actually happy.

Aiming down the middle gives you the widest swath of market share, but it also creates a thoroughly mediocre and shallow game play experience.  Dark Age of Camelot for example was a game of PVP brilliance at times, but offered some thoroughly mediocre and boring PVE game play.  Everquest II is one of the most detailed and intricate questing and PVE gaming experiences, by has never created any form of PVP worth mentioning. World of Warcraft…  well it has been all over the map, systematically ruining one aspect of the game to improve others at various points during its 7 year run.  Currently you have a mediocre but enjoyable leveling experience, and the only real stand out being the raid experience, but it suffers from the been there done that treadmill.

Trading Geek for Greed

So much focus has been placed over the last few years on widening the market to more than just traditional PC mmo gamers.  As a result there has been a general lowering of the “cost of entry” to the MMO game, reducing the learning curve.  This has had many effects on the community, and average skill level, but namely it has removed a good deal of the “geek” from the game.  Making everything seem a bit more simple, a bit more cookie cutter and in many ways less unique.

Learning how to play an MMO game took an act of effort on the player, it took a commitment to learn.  That was an unwritten commitment to the community, that they would learn how to become a member of it.  It could be overwhelming, and the number of new concepts and jargon mind boggling but as you began to “grok” them it quickly became intoxicating and you craved more knowledge.  Not only did you sell a gamer on your world, but you also sold them on MMOs for life.

Granted I don’t want to return to the era of Everquest, but I think we have gone too far.  I fear that we are replacing what were living breathing worlds, with a disposable experience that is easy to learn but equally easy to forget.  When you ask nothing of the user, it takes nothing for them to leave.  But when you give them something to work for, a path to follow, something they have to figure out on their own that isn’t always handed to them…  I have to think more often than not they will stay.

The Money Equation

One of the biggest disservices to the gamers has been the fact that gaming has shown up on the radar of big business.  It has taken a business that previously was “for gamers, by gamers” and laced it with easy venture capital money with many strings attached, and as a result success has become a zero sum game.  Games like World of Warcraft with it’s once vaunted 12 Million player subscriber base and Call of Duty: Black Ops and its 5 day $650 million dollar sales record have set wholly unrealistic goals for the rest of the industry to live up to.

The game industry would be so much healthier as a whole if there were 13 $50 million dollar games, than one $650 million record breaking game.  The need to chase the big dollars has made the game industry very risk adverse.  Stick to a pattern that works, market it towards the majority, and win.  But the problem is this same business instinct is causing some truly bizarre results.

I’ve been playing Everquest II for the last few months, and by all accounts I would call it a success.  It isn’t WoW, but it is still there and has had a pretty wide following for the last 7 years, that to me is a win in any book.  It has an extremely loyal fan base, almost zealously loyal at times, and are very clearly a niche.  Explain to me then, why on gods green earth they have decided to focus EQNext (EQIII) at the PVP Market?  Everquest 2 is not a pvp game, has never had a viable PVP vehicle, and in general nobody much cares about PVP other than a shortcut to easy loot. 

Why on earth would you alienate your already loyal fan base by targeting the new game at a market they do not care about?  The answer is simple and dumb.  They don’t have the PVP market, and on some moronic level they feel they can do what no one has done yet. They feel they can manage to create a game that is equally compelling to the modern PVP gamer and to the PVE gamer.  Even though WoW is hemorrhaging users still, it still has more users than any other MMO, and they still feel they have to compete with it.

Myth of the One True Game

One of the things that needs to die for us to get past this rut in gaming is the myth of the wow killer.  Right now World of Warcraft is definitely on the downward slope of relevancy, much as I have seen all the other once great games go through.  But those great old games never actually die, they just get stuffed off somewhere on life support.  What we need right now is games like World of Warcraft, Rift, The Old Republic, The Secret World, and Guild Wars 2 to each gain a comfortable and sustainable share of the MMO gaming market.  Sure ultimately someone will be on top, but for the health of the gaming market there needs to be less of a difference than there has been to date.

I still don’t think in this generation we are going to see much innovation in the realm of the AAA MMO title.  They are still going to firmly be rooted in the past, with Secret World and Guild Wars 2 being the notable “Great Hopes” at breaking the mold.  However I think that if we can reach a state of market share equilibrium we will finally start to see some indie development in the MMO sector.  I think the first few might be simplistic Minecraft style derivatives, but they will come eventually.  Especially with the plans Notch has for the Adventure update, I feel Minecraft itself will actually become more “Indie MMO” over time.  The MMO genre got its roots in the MUD, and I think it might just return that way.

I think Indie games and the ease of digital publication are ultimately going to be what pulls us out of the stagnation.  Sure not every game will end up a success and sell millions, but many will serve as examples and showcase the talents of the next generation of developers and designers.  Others will server to prove that yes, that plan that has been sitting on the shelf for years really could work on a larger scale and turn into the next blockbuster.  While I love playing those AAA titles (like Dragon Age II currently), I am also out there supporting those great Indie devs like Dusty Monk (I need to devote some blog space to Atomic City Adventures: The Case of the Black Dragon, it’s really fun ).  I really do think it is the Indie games that will change the dynamic.