Massively Overthinking: MMOs, from hardcore to casual and back again
Massively OP reader Suikoden wrote this great question to the podcast — too good to let just Justin and me answer it. It’s a two-parter!
“Back when I used to be a hardcore MMO gamer circa 2000-2010, I felt that MMOs of that era were designed more toward the hardcore gamer and even catered to us more. Within the last 5 years, I’ve had to develop into more of a casual player. However, I now feel that games once again cater to me and my current playstyle. Did the MMO genre evolve alongside me, from a more hardcore-centric genre to a more casual playerbase? Or is it the same as it always was and I just feel that it caters to me because it’s designed to feel like it caters to all playstyles? And if there was a change, do you feel it is for the better or for the worse for the genre?”
I posted Suikoden’s questions to the team for this week’s Massively Overthinking!
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m going to disagree. I feel like early MMOs were aimed more at casuals, in that they didn’t feel as competitive. Yes, you still had people going after server and world firsts, but I felt like the games were designed more with exploration in mind. We didn’t have quest hubs (or such obvious quests), not due to laziness, but to get people to look for things to do in the game world. We had less hand holding, not because it was hardcore, but because it allowed players to seek adventure rather than be given a list of chores. While that list can be comforting, when it because the mainstay of gameplay, things get stale.
The hardcore emphasis, in my opinion, came into the mainstream MMO (because PvP players tend to be fairly hardcore within their own community) with World of Warcraft. WoW had, what, one or two new 5 man dungeons, but was constantly creating new raid experiences, and they weren’t the kind you could necessarily zerg out in the open. Since that was selling, that’s the model other games followed thinking there was a market. We’re seeing quite plainly that that isn’t the case, as we’re seeing a return to gameplay that isn’t just about raid prep but supports creativity through housing/world building, exploration, but also single player-esque story.
I think the swing back towards varied gameplay is good. I still wonder about some of the single player elements in MMOs, as it sometimes populates the world with players who mostly want to play alone unless given a huge incentive that disrespects the nature of playing together for the experience rather than the reward, but I acknowledge that those players can at least make the world feel less dead, and in rare situations, those players become the social glue the game needs down the line when more social players may follow their friends to Latest MMO 3.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I never can let these kinds of questions go without questioning the meaning of words like hardcore and casual. Do we mean in terms of challenging content? Or time-consuming content? Are hardcores the people who play a lot or complete the “hardest” or endgame-est content or happily seek out the grindiest gameplay? And where do hardcore PvPers and economy warriors and people who roleplay 12 hours a day fit in? That’s not a knock on the questioner at all — just saying it’s hard to unpack.
I think the irony is that while MMORPGs offered content that was significantly more time-consuming Back In The Day, they also offered plenty of space for true casuals, though we tend to forget about it because the drama and hoopla always focuses on raiding type endgame content. I had that exprience in every MMORPG prior to World of Warcraft; I had guildies who played all day long, and guildies who logged just a few hours a week, and everybody found ways to feel accomplished and have fun, whether they were leveling or raiding or feeding vendors. The attitude toward such players was dramatically different then. The word casual didn’t carry nearly the same stigma, and the games weren’t as obsessed with rewarding specific types of play and turning casuals into hardcores because of marketing buzzwords like stickiness. When every player pays the same flat fee, you have no need to actively seek or create “hardcores.”
I’d agree that from about 2005 onward, we’ve seen an expansion of a casual middle class in MMORPG demographics that’s coincided with the rise of easy access to internet, cheaper games, and more content that is advertised as being less time-consuming in one way or another (whether it is or not). But I would also suggest that modern MMORPGs also directly cater to hardcore players with content that is significantly more challenging and gameplay that is significantly more complicated (though far less opaque) than it was two decades ago, chiefly because of improved tech and AI. There’s also been a big push in the last decade away from games that appeal to a wide spectrum of casual-to-hardcore players and toward narrow playerbase types that are frankly cheaper to build for and entice (like PvP sandboxes and heavily limited themeparks).
In other words, while there’s more casual stuff in MMOs than there used to be, part of that is because we’ve relabeled core players as casuals to better elevate hardcores, who marketers believe drive popularity, and part is because there are fewer content types overall in the biggest games. There’s also more tailored hardcore stuff than ever, and it’s in more MMOs than ever, and the hardcore stuff is way more difficult than it used to be. But this is a very general, genre-wide summary. The short answer to your question is probably none of the above; your perspective is going to be vary depending on which specific games you play and what you do in them.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): If you’re thinking that MMOs are designed for different time requirements at this point, that’s definitely the case. My first MMO was Final Fantasy XI, which was apparently designed for me to lose myself in it while going through an awful breakup in college that made me want to completely drop out of school. A good portion of content required one to be online 24/7, form groups of 63 other people who were also online 24/7, or both. It’s absolutely and undeniably true that games are no longer designed like that.
The thing is? That’s a good thing, because that was insane. Again, when I was playing during a period in my life when I basically had no responsibilities whatsoever, I could not maintain that kind of play schedule over the long term. The fact that I can now log in to Final Fantasy XIV (or even Final Fantasy XI with subsequent changes) and spend most of my time actually, like, playing the game is a more than welcome shift.
I disagree that it’s really about casual vs. hardcore, though; it’s really just about time spent and how much time is required for getting a shot at anything. Designers have wisely realized that people would rather play games than wait around to play games, so now we get to actually play on a reliable basis. It’s definitely for the better for the genre as a whole that we have developed to the point where games are about doing things instead of waiting around, and even some of the games coming from designers with an old-school vibe (like McQuaid’s Pantheon) are still emphasizing the idea that you should be able to get in and play rather than sitting back and waiting. So it’s a net benefit for everyone.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I find it useful to distinguish between hardcore play mechanics and overly complex and unintuitive game design. Games can be hard to play but easy to understand, easy to understand and easy to play, hard to understand and hard to play, and so on. Earlier on in the genre, these games were pretty hard in both categories, or at least skewing in that direction. Generally as time went on, MMOs became both easier to understand and easier to master. However, you can and do still see MMOs that have a modern design while incorporating very hardcore elements (such as WildStar at launch).
No matter what, I’m sincerely glad that MMOs have become easier to understand and play. Maybe they’ve gone a little too homogenous in this regard, but it’s nice to actually be able to comprehend systems and know how to navigate the game without requiring an external guide to sift through complex stat builds just to get started.
The challenge is still present in many MMOs if you look, and games like The Secret World make no apologies for being tougher and more challenging (both cerebrally and through combat). I know it’s a well-trod maxim, but the best MMO design is one that’s easy to learn and hard to master. Most of the popular MMOs today do hew to this, creating an easy barrier to entry while slowly teaching more complex elements for the obstacles to come. So yeah, the genre has changed, and for those that want cutting edge difficulty, it’s still out there (and is being made in games like Pantheon and Saga of Lucimia). But I’m quite glad that there’s a range and a realization that by loosening up on the high barrier to entry, you get a whole lot more people (which is one reason that World of Warcraft took off).
Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I believe that you’re right in that MMORPGs have leaned toward the casual player in later years. I considered games like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies to be extremely grindy and to achieve even the simplest of endgame accomplishment, it took weeks of doing the same thing over and over. World of Warcraft probably contributed the most to the genre shift because of the sheer number of people playing that game. However, I would say that Aion was probably the last big title that still held onto the less-casual leveling model. (We could include Fallen Earth in there, too, but I’m not sure if that was a big title at the time.) Although some games prior to Aion were less of a grind, it was the boom of 2010 and 2011 where we hit peak MMO. So many titles launched during those years that were attempting to compete with World of Warcraft, and one of the best ways to compete, I think, was to cater more to the casual player. That meant less grind and less hardcore leveling. Now, some of the games post-2009 still had some tough, hardcore elements, but the cores of most games were targeting the casual. I believe you were shifting to a casual player at about the same time that the genre was expanding and making the same shift.
I cannot really say if it was good or bad for the genre as a whole. I mean, we saw a lot more games and a lot more variety once things started to shift. But then, we also saw a truckload of games that wanted to be the next WoW, and we saw a lot of them fail at doing so. We saw the industry boom, and MMO players were given more and more choices. But because designers and producers wanted to be the next WoW, we now see many publishers pull out of the genre. I guess it is what it is, and as long as I enjoy it, it’s good enough.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I do think that the general theme of games has changed focus over the years from hardcore (when fewer people played) to more casual now (with more players). The industry is following the market, and as the market expanded there were fewer folks percentage-wise who were willing/want to be hardcore in games. That doesn’t mean there are less hardcore gamers out there, but just that their percentage of the entire gaming population has shrunk as the hobby became more mainstream. The niche (gaming) now has many niches. As a whole, the industry is still broadening and it wants to capture the attention of as many wallets as it can, so many will just use the majority as a base for developing a title. And I cannot see the majority ever being hardcore again.
That said, I do think we also tend to look for and notice games that fit within our desired play style more than those we dismiss, so if there are games out there that meet your play style, you will notice them more often. Unfortunately for me, it also works the other way: When you don’t find games that fit your play style, the absence of them is super glaring! I still have no home to call my own. *sad face*