Massively Overthinking: The minority playerbases inside MMORPGs
Earlier this week, World of Warcraft Lead Game Designer Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas weighed in on a player thread about Legion’s in-game prices in a way the original poster probably didn’t expect: Hazzikostas penned a veritable essay on the nature of MMO playerbase feedback.
“Almost every facet of WoW is an activity that caters to a minority of the playerbase. That may sound odd at first blush, but it’s true. In a sense, that’s part of the magic of WoW. It is not a narrow game, but rather one that can be enjoyed in numerous different ways, by people with hugely diverse playstyles. A minority of players raid. A minority of players participate in PvP. A tiny minority touch Mythic raiding. A tiny minority of players do rated PvP. A minority of players have several max-level alts. A minority of players do pet battles, roleplay, list things for sale on the auction house, do Challenge Mode dungeons, and the list goes on. Virtually the only activity that a clear majority of players participate in is questing and level-up dungeons, but even then there’s a sizeable group that views those activities as a nuisance that they have to get through in order to reach their preferred endgame. And yet, taken together, that collection of minority groups literally IS the World of Warcraft.”
Consequently, he argues, any decision Blizzard makes that favors one minority is naturally going to find a majority of the others against it, meaning Blizzard must carefully navigate the feedback waters. “Ultimately, the approach we take is usually to tailor different content and rewards that can feel special to different groups, rather than trying to come up with a lowest common denominator that isn’t special to anyone,” he writes.
Let’s talk about Blizzard’s point of view. Is it right? Does it work in every MMO or just WoW? How does it apply to other MMOs, old or up-and-coming? Is there a better way to handle all the constituencies offering feedback in an MMO? Let’s hash it out in this week’s Massively Overthinking.
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Bree’s kind of discussed this in the past as an “everything box,” so I’m going to use that as a starting point. I feel like an MMO that can offer a little bit to everyone kind of embraces the original nature of the genre. When your game only focuses on territorial warfare or end game raiding, it’s got niche appeal. Including other types helps, but only if they are seen as viable play options. This is important because I rarely feel like I can “be the hero” in MMOs unless I do the central activity. For example, I wasn’t in a cutting edge exploration monarchy in Asheron’s Call, but since some gear was totally random, I had other ways of finding really nice gear that could compete with those players in terms of being cool. In WoW, if I wasn’t funneled into whatever the latest push was (usually raiding and arenas), I felt like a second banana, even if I was playing as much as other people and mastering the tactics of my chosen activity (BGs with pugs, as, admittedly, a lot of my friends aren’t good on a competitive level and I don’t want to leave them behind or frustrate them with ranked BGs).
While the “everything box” is kind of a dream (I’m watching you, Star Citizen!), in modern MMOs, I’ve yet to feel it work very well as a generally hardcore gamer. Maybe Star Wars Galaxies was the last time I felt comfortable sticking with my preferred gaming habits rather than joining the rat race, though I’ve admittedly failed to make time for Project Gorgon (sorry Citan, but your AC2 work at least ensures that I keep paying attention!). Part of the problem is that my gaming habits require more bite-sized gaming time but I don’t have the fortitude to go into an MMO and “half ass it” (as my teenage self probably would have accused me of doing if I weren’t aiming for part of the end-game scene). In some ways, I feel games are sometimes becoming more bite-sized while staying connected through networks that share something, such as a launcher, currency, and/or IP (Steam, Battle.net, Nintendo’s new thing). I don’t know if the expanding of IPs across smaller games is “better” than shoving everything into the same game, but I’m finding it harder to resist than I’d care to admit.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Hazzikostas surprised me; that’s more honesty about the playerbase from Blizzard than I have seen in a long time. I think it’s clear he does understand at least the variety of playstyles in WoW that Blizzard should be serving.
Where I disagree with him (and agree with Eliot below me) is on the idea of opposing playstyles. Very few WoW players are likely to fit neatly into one of those minorities with no overlap with any other minority. Most people do a little bit of a lot playstyles, and the task of pleasing all of those people isn’t nearly as complicated as Hazzikostas is making it sound, even — especially — in WoW, which is significantly more narrow than Hazzikostas seems to think when it’s held up next to many other MMORPGs.
I also don’t think Blizzard’s history in regard to “tailor[ing] different content and rewards that can feel special to different groups” is one I’d want to be bragging about. I like that ideal, but as someone who fits into basically all of the minorities except “modern raider,” I am confident when I say that this is not an ideal Blizzard itself has even remotely upheld since Wrath of the Lich King.
Hazzikostas’ method might be applicable on the forums and on social media, however, where playstyle factions arm themselves with virtual torches and pitchforks and exaggerate all claims in an effort to be the squeakiest wheel and “make like an army.” Let’s hope Blizzard gets back to ignoring that.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): There are a lot of things at play with this statement, and I’m going to be honest, I think that by and large it’s kind of nonsense. First of all, there’s the simple reality that if you look at Blizzard’s track record with World of Warcraft, they have been favoring one minority pretty consistently for years now; you don’t really get to say that you can’t serve every minority whilst at the same time creating a game that caters to an extreme minority in and of itself.
But even if you put that to one side, this is built upon the idea that if a change is made to improve life for Minority A, every other group would be opposed to it. That the act of balancing is appeasing several completely separate groups in constant opposition to one another, as if the game itself was some sort of zero-sum equation wherein anything one group gets has to be taken away from someone else. Certainly there are elements of that – every one person assigned to developing battlegrounds is one less person developing dungeons, for example – but that doesn’t mean that everything is a matter of one group getting what they want while every other group must wail outside of the gates.
That’s neglecting the idea that “everything is a minority” makes little to no sense in statistics. If, for example, 40% of the playerbase does not PvP, 30% participates primarily in unrated battlegrounds, 20% participates primarily in arenas, and 10% participates primarily in rated battlegrounds? You have a majority there. And it’s ignoring the reasons why people may or may not participate, to boot. It’s quite possible that minority participation in an activity has less to do with the activity itself and more to do with perceived rewards for effort. I certainly don’t do heroic dungeons these days, but it’s not because I don’t like heroic dungeons, it’s because the rewards for them are verging on useless for the amount of effort required. Go back to the reward structure of WOTLK, with badges and buyable armor, and I bet that you’d find a significant upswing in Heroic runs and a significant downswing in some raid participation. By viewing each group as a separate minority with very little connection to anything else and tailoring rewards to perceived “groups” of players, it creates an environment wherein players are discouraged to try something outside of a perceived group.
Counterexamples exist. Final Fantasy XIV, for example, seems to take a more holistic view of how its various forms of content interact with one another. There is not the “leveling group” and the “raiding group” and the “dungeon group” and so forth; there are various forms of content in the game, with rewards and availability adjusted over time and the need for more people to see things. When the percentage of players clearing the progression content in 2.x was too low, the decision was made to have future progression content (Alexander) come out at a lower difficulty with an optional higher difficulty level. Adjustments are made so that more people have the option and more content is available to everyone, rather than treating the whole thing as a contest of minority interests.
So no, I don’t think this is correct. I think, if anything, this theory of balancing shows why WoW increasingly comes under harsh critical fire. Yes, there are people with different interests running in your game, but by factionalizing them and treating them as opposing forces, you’re encouraging the idea that these types of content aren’t for everyone, rather than giving a broader focus to a variety of playstyles that can interact with your game at varying degrees.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I enjoyed this post by Hazzikostas — it was measured, reasonable, and not reeking of condescension as I would’ve expected. Naturally, MMO studios have access to metrics and perspectives that we on the outside do not, so I don’t have the ability to confirm or refute his statements here about what percentage plays what in the game. I’m inclined to take this at face value, because it lines up with what I’ve seen and experienced.
One of the wonderful things about MMORPGs is that they do offer a wide buffet of activities to meet both our playstyle and our current moods. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if player interest is spread all over the map, unless there’s something that’s either incredibly new, incredibly (even disproportionately) rewarding, or incredibly popular. I don’t envy developers for trying to cater to such a wide range of interests, but then again, if they didn’t want to try to tackle this they could’ve taken jobs elsewhere.
If we’re being honest here, can you imagine anything that a developer could post about a change or improvement to a game that wouldn’t generate pushback and hostility among some of the players? Some players want to find offense even when there’s none there, and Hazzikostas is absolutely right when he says that people get prickly when devs are making content “not for them.”
On the other side of this, players should voice concerns and desires, and studios should listen — especially when there’s a groundswell pointing at an issue or demanding change. I’ve seen MMO studios (particularly Blizzard here) become actively tone-deaf to the community and choose to retreat into silence instead of discussing issues with the players. Even if the answer is “no, we’re not going to do that,” it’s almost always better to take a little bit of time to communicate why instead of pulling back completely.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): He speaks wisdom! There really doesn’t seem and major, overarching type of gamer; instead it’s a conglomeration of many types making up a player-base. I wish developers and studios would embrace the truth: “You can’t please all the people all of the time.” Heck, you can’t even please some of the people all of the time. And you shouldn’t even try! The best you can aim for is to try to be sure that all people are pleased an equal amount of time. Unless you can create and maintain a niche game on a small budget, then going totally niche is not necessarily in a game’s best interest. Instead, there should be things that bring a variety of customers together. So the idea of alternating really pleasing each group instead of trying to discover what “thing” would be least hated by everyone sounds like a smart move. And if everyone knows they will have a turn at getting the love and attention, it could (theoretically) appease folks. The trick is you have to deliver on such a promise. When it comes to feedback, then you’d have to focus on whether your action/content/whatever did indeed please the group it was meant for and not really worry if you are pleasing the others, already knowing that you won’t. You don’t ignore that other feedback, but you file it away. It would be neat if there was an easy way for devs to easily tell from which audience the feedback come, but any method I can come up with could either be very labor intensive to monitor or could be circumvented by those who want to sway the decision. Perhaps when you offer feedback you have to mark yourself as a certain type of primary gameplay and can’t change that selection more than once every three months or so.
Your turn! (And thanks, Sally!)