Massively Overthinking: How essential are hardcore gamers to an MMO’s health?

    
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Yip?

Last week, there was a positively eyebrow-raising thread on the Guild Wars 2 subreddit that tied neatly into the overall MMORPG meta discussion many bloggers and gamers have been having throughout February on raiding and why developers keep pushing it in spite of the fact that most MMO players aren’t actually interested in it. The original post argued that hardcore players and elite raiders drive the communities, events, and streams around the game, while detractors called that “delusional.” It got pretty heated, as these things do, as “salty scrubs” and “toxic elitists” battled it out.

I thought we could back up from the namecalling for a sec to actually dig into this, especially in light of the listener question we tried to answer on the most recent MOP Podcast that specifically wondered whether the loss of prominent community leaders – like the type that run guide websites – is a crushing blow to MMOs. So: How essential are hardcore gamers to an MMO’s health, and how do different types of hardcore impact the overall perception of the game’s strength and popularity? Do MMOs really need hardcores or raiders to survive? Let’s tackle it in this week’s Massively Overthinking.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Most of the restaurants near my parent’s home aren’t good; they just have their audience. All products are like this. By chasing an audience your team simply can’t attract or please, you’re setting yourself up to fail.

WildStar was a great example of this. From marketing and gameplay, aesthetics and customization were their strong points. Hardcore raiders I knew were attracted or repelled by this unless they dug through forums, dev journals, or gameplay to realize it was just another raiding game but with good housing. Not bad, but not what most people wanted.

But they had fashion sites, home building blogs, and fan comics. No one type of gameplay has a monopoly on inspiring community and creativity.

If this had been more clear, if NCsoft hadn’t been chasing World of Warcraft numbers, and if the team had listened to its actual base rather than a subset someone at corporate told them they “needed,” it might have survived or even thrived. We’ve seen it with Elder Scrolls when the game moved more towards gameplay that more closely aligned with its main series features.

Obviously raiding games can do well. And PvP games. And survival games, collectors and builders. But you gotta play to your base, and alienating large amounts of them isn’t going to help.

Andy McAdams: I’m going to refine something – we are talking about hardcore and raiders as an example of what I think an MMO really needs to survive: passionate people. Gamers and what we think of as hardcore are a type of passionate player, but not the only type and definitely not one I would use as a stand-in for passionate people.

Is the loss of the hardcore raider crowd a death knell for a game? Definitely not. Is the loss of passionate people who pour their time and energy into the community and meta space around the game a death knell? Well now that’s a different story. I think the loss of passionate people in a game is a warning sign about the health of that game.

But I don’t think hardcore raiders are representative of passionate players, and so their loss from a game isn’t a measure of the health of the game. The loss of website operators, cosplayers who don’t spend time on the game, RPers who feel like their interests are better served someplace else… these are all way better indicators about a game’s overall health than whether the “cupcake” crowd wants to move onto the next game.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I think that hard core raiders and PvP players are definitely beneficial to the health of a game. The rise of streaming and esports have introduced a whole new way to advertise games to a potential playerbase. I’m not a streamer, but I’ll bet that a PvP stream is on average much more well attended than a stream of somebody crafting, selling in the guild store, or wandering the countryside. More viewers means more exposure, more conversation about the game and more familiarity with the product. It’s a large part of why so many games are now designed with some aspects of esports or hardcore competitive play in mind.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Quite a few MMOs don’t have raiders or raiding and do just fine. So let’s first disentangle raiders and hardcores. I’m willing to bet some of the most hardcore MMO gamers you’ve ever met weren’t into PvE endgames, and I’m also willing to bet that along the way you’ve used addons and websites built by fans who barely play enough to be considered casual.

Even if raiders were the ones making all the raiding guides and doing all the raiding streams, that’s not really a boon to anyone but other raiders (and the marketing department’s budget). You could even argue that emboldening that type of player encourages the very elitism on display in that thread. The majority of players aren’t actually looking for that content; they’re looking for basic character builds and auction hall tips and map databases and housing videos, so guides for content they’ll never see are not really helping them at all.

Where hardcores have an edge is in helping sell the game to people like them (or people who want to be them, whether they can do so or not) on behalf of the studio. Large-scale raiding is more exciting to watch on a stream than lowbie grinding, yes, so that’s great for a game’s attention-grabbing abilities. But… PvP is way more exciting and more palatable on Twitch, so if marketing power were the goal, raiders would be talking up PvPers, not trying to elevate themselves and justify their niche.

It’s probably obvious I think it’s a silly, self-congratulatory discussion on the part of the “elite,” and the old Breakfast Club “You’re so conceited, Claire” line keeps popping into my head. (Brian tells Claire his friends wouldn’t object to her friendship, and Claire argues that’s because Brian’s friends look up to her elite clique, and he calls her out for being so clearly full of herself.) A good virtual world needs all kinds of players, from super casual to hardcore, raiders and PvPers and midgamers and newbies. No one group survives long without the others in a well-rounded, healthy MMORPG; just ask WildStar.

And that’s especially true when the game in question is a game that launched with (and made most of its money with) “no raiding” as one of its bullet points.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): Do I think MMOs need hardcore players? Absolutely. They’re the people that play the game at a level a casual player wont. Is that a slight on the casual playerbase? No because I’m simply answering whether or not we need hardcore players.

What people don’t recognize is the content needs of a hardcore playerbase compared to a more casual one are different. The thing is, the stuff a raider needs actually does generate content like guides. I can’t think of someone running a YouTube channel where all they talk about is a guide to a 4-man dungeon and doing well. Their needs just so happen to force them into the spotlight, whereas a huge swath of folks in FFXIV will be happy to finally get umbrellas, but I don’t think it’ll make for engaging content. The more midcore group of people have access to normal raids and dailies, but for people who play the game for the combat, doing dungeons over and over again isn’t going to be their jam. The content a raider needs is just different, and it just so happens to create community leaders.

People shouldn’t be shaming them for it. Sure, maybe a few of them should at least go to the attitude store and buy a new attitude, but that’s sage advice for the whole community, not just the elite raiders. And yes, they are the ones making the guides and content, so if they’re not making it, then who is going to do it?

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Here’s the thing about a game’s community: It is, by definition, amorphous. It’s a whole lot of players looking to do stuff to have fun, and trying to discern it by looking at a community-by-community perspective is ultimately a bit deceptive. For that matter, it’s ultimately a bit deceptive to look at your corner and see it as representative of the game as a whole, even if it might be.

For example, if you’re an active part of your game’s roleplaying community, you might see some hundred-odd other people who are all working hard at making lore guides and character guides and putting things out there as transcripts and the like. You can easily see all the stuff that is produced and know that there’s an even larger community of people consuming instead of actively producing and find yourself thinking that this is, in fact, the heart of the community. And if there’s a hundred times as many people involved in the community, your community is… about 100,000 people, which depending on the game might still be just a small fraction of the overall playerbase.

“Communities are reactive, not foundational, which means that the real question of whether or not a game can survive losing chunks of its community is more about what is being put in place to support the existing community and why people are leaving.”
Furthermore, the community isn’t segmented like high school cliques. You don’t have to choose between being part of the hardcore community and being part of the RP community inherently; the two might come into conflict depending on circumstance and structure, but you can be part of several different sub-communities at the same time. But all of this is talking around the fact that game communities are reactive, not foundational, which means that the real question of whether or not a game can survive losing chunks of its community is more about what is being put in place to support the existing community and why people are leaving.

If that aforementioned roleplaying community loses some of its creative portion due to burnout, but the stuff that fostered a larger RP community is still in place? Other people will take up the mantle. The community will move forward and adapt. But if the leaders start leaving because the game is aggressively fighting against roleplaying as a concept, then this isn’t a result of the community having churn but being actively forced out. And that’s the sort of thing that can actually do long-term damage to a game, squeezing out the people who enjoy something about the game. It’s indicative of an illness at the core of the development.

Which is – almost always – a result of developers catering to the most hardcore players claiming that the game doesn’t cater enough to their community. So no, the hardcore progression demographic is not the heart of the game; more often, it’s the disease.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I think it doesn’t drive the overall health of the MMO as much as those in that community believe. Don’t get me wrong, it is important to have some minimal level of YouTube/Twitch visibility. Before I dive headfirst into an MMO, I do my due diligence. I check out some videos, look at what the community says in a few different places, and then decide whether to play or not.

I do think it’s important that a few dedicated players with resources build fan sites, post walkthroughs, and build other useful tools for the times I need to find something out. But I really don’t care and don’t watch most user-generated MMO content.

It could just be that the larger demographic of MMO gamers are older and less likely to spend their evenings watching Twitch streams than watch traditional scripted TV. Or it could just be me. But when I have gaming time, I’m usually spending it gaming. I bet that MMO players like me are more common than those in the hardcore community would think.

Tyler Edwards: Just as I draw a distinction between newbs (new players just beginning to learn the ropes) and noobs (people who don’t understand the game mechanics and don’t want to learn), I’d draw a distinction between elites and elitists.

Elites are the top end players. They like to maximize their characters, and usually provide most of the guides and community content for a game. They are, by and large, an asset for a game. They help the rest of us mere mortals improve our game and understand more arcane mechanics that we might not have been motivated to figure out on our own. I’m not convinced that they are essential — I think most games would survive OK without them — but losing them is definitely a loss that is felt.

Elitists are an entirely different breed. Some of them are also elites, while others are more mid-tier players who simply have an inflated sense of self-worth. Regardless, they’re all people who view their worth and the worth of others as being dependent on their skill with video games. These are the people who will do anything to maintain their perceived status as virtual royalty. They’ll fight tooth and nail against any quality of life change that might make life even slightly more livable for casual players. They’ll argue against dungeon finders and the like, perhaps even making up lies about the “disastrous” effects such features have had in other games to make their points.

My feelings on elitists like this are far too intense to ever adequately communicate without this conversation becoming very, very NSFW, but suffice it to say that no game needs them. In fact, any game would be improved immeasurably by the permanent removal of all players like this. Any value they add with guides or the like is offset by the toxicity they bring to the community.

The sad thing is the elitists tend to be the far more vocal crowd, so they usually end up the face of the hardcore players in any game.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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Harlow Games

Hardcore endgame PvE players require the largest amount of time, money, and energy to develop content for, and IME, the content made for them has the shortest lifespan. They generally burn through the rest of the game’s content to get to the endgame, and sink the bulk of their playtime into defeating endgame content, getting their gear, and then complaining that the next round isn’t ready.

I enjoy raiding, dungeon crawling, and the like – so much that I’ve often maintained multiple raiding characters, hit a handful of server firsts, and have on occasion been the most-geared player in my class and server. BUT, I also had diversified interests and was able to stretch content for myself. I also had the advantage of having been a producer for a game studio, so I had (and continue to have) realistic expectations for content and production timelines.

As for the streaming element, look at BDO. They’ve made hardcore progression content out of what is traditionally considered casual – lifeskills. And streams/blogs/sites about min-maxing cooking and gathering, bartering routes, hotspot fishing, and the best mob rotations for meat, and hitting the Mastery level cap, etc. have all been pretty popular. Social interaction + information seems to be more engaging than some clusterfuck of a nodewar that winds up looking like a powerpoint presentation. By giving lifeskills a means of progression (gear, tools, level bonuses) they’ve enabled the player segment that would otherwise be considered casuals a means of pushing themselves, competing, and profiting off of something that requires a different type of investment than endgame raiding.

Streaming, as someone else said, is great marketing, but I see a lot of content driven by desire for connection as opposed to “hardcore gaming”. Consider someone like Asmongold: his streams, for a while, had become more about reaction videos or trying new games, mount/transmog competitions, even (gasp) going outside. His highest engagement seemed to come from commentary, not endgame raids.

@carlo re: “guides” and “community leaders” – there are plenty outside of endgame content. Look at Dulfy for GW2; she was one of the primary sources for guides in multiple games – and it ranged from cash shop item previews to raiding strategies. I wouldn’t have considered her hardcore (and yes, I acknowledge that she did have contributors helping, but she was indeed a raid healer). BDO is another example of a game with a massive number of “leaders” that don’t qualify as “hardcore endgame” players, courtesy of the diversity of game systems that people can be “hardcore” about. Nolife-ing non-combat content doesn’t generate the same type of elitism and exclusion as raiding communities do, but in a game like BDO, it’s where people seek the most in terms of guides and content.

Raiding has been niche in GW2, and will continue to be so. Coming from traditional raiding (WoW, SWTOR, etc.) I found the GW2 raids to be unappealing anyway. Over time, I’ve become more interested in what are considered more “casual” systems – even in Wildstar, I enjoyed housing and leveling and side paths more than endgame. In BDO, I have zero desire to PvP, yet I still became a whale and got heavily involved in the lifeskill side of the game – and it’s managed to keep me interested for a longer period of time than any other title, without an endgame somehow.

Phaserlight
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Phaserlight

People like this guy are essential to the health of the MMO I play, and he plays but once a year!:

Listen to him, though. He’s awesome.

oldandgrumpy
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oldandgrumpy

When the devs get captured by the elitists I know my playing days are number as I am a casual.

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Anstalt

Great article and discussion! It’s rare that I end up agreeing with just about everything said! Main things I’d want to pick out of the article:

Andy made the first excellent point: there is a difference between hardcore and passionate, though there is overlap. It is the passionate players that are essential, not necessarily hardcore. I would consider myself a passionate player, and when I find an MMO I tend to put my heart into, running guilds, pugs, community events etc. I know from previous experience that where I go, 10-20 people follow, because they get a lot of enjoyment out of the extra effort I put in. But I’ve seen other passionate guild leaders who have the loyalty and respect of a much greater number of players, and it is these passionate players who create the community. A good community increases retention, which is good for everyone.

I also really liked Tylers point about distinguishing between elites and elitists. I like to think im part of the elite, but that is because my focus is on mastering my class and the combat. That is where I get my enjoyment from, and being one of the elite is simply a consequence of my playstyle. But, I don’t hold that over other peoples heads, nor judge them if they aren’t elite. In fact, a great secondary bonus of being elite is that you get to pass on your knowledge to others and watch other people grow and get better.

Final point is something that was touched on by a few of the writers but not really expanded on: a diverse community is a strong community.

If you only have raiders, or casuals, or pvpers, or whatever, that small niche community just won’t have long term stability. A single new game can come along and steal most of your community, ending the game. Not only that, but most humans just aren’t that single minded, so if your game only caters to one small niche then sooner or later, each player will get bored and if there aren’t other activities to do, they’ll move on.

If you have a diverse content spread, then when a player gets bored of one activity your game can offer them something else, keeping them in game and keeping the community in tact. This is why raiding / difficult content is also important: through playing the game, players should get better at it. If you manage to retain them, eventually they’ll need some challenging content and if you don’t have it, they’ll get bored and leave. But, on this point you need to pay attention to your metrics. In the past when devs released numbers, we knew that most players never even made it to endgame, they got bored and left well before then. If your leveling process is boring and cant retain players, not much point investing in really challenging endgame.

Final final point: all this discussion is only meaningful if the studio wants to retain players, rather than rely on churn. I don’t see much evidence of designing games to retain people any more, and in the world of churn nobody cares whether you’re casual or hardcore.

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Jokerchyld

What actual value does a game get from a player who rushes to max level to engage the raid content? To make more raid content that 90% of the base doesnt play? Someone had mentioned we wouldn’t have guides or streamers. Guess what? We played games and MMOs just fine (and I’d argue even better) when we didnt have all of this social media pressence. Why do you need someone to tell you how to play the game? The whole point of the mystery is to figure it out yourself. We’ve lost that as MMOs evolved and we are worse off for it. But like Pandora’s box, theres no turning back now.

These raiders (or however you would like to classify that portion of the audience) do not need to be catered to. Should they have content? Yes. But should the entire game be developed with the goal of pleasing them? No.

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Harlow Games

Exactly!

The “hardcore endgame” crowd is the most notorious for burning through content as quickly as possible, and then complaining that there isn’t enough to do and they need more raids.

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Matt Comstock

I think the combination of Andy’s, Bree’s and Tyler’s thoughts on the matter most reflect where my head is at on this issue. The terms need to be disentangled. Hardcore gamer is not the same as a hardcore raider, nor is an elite player the same as an elitist. Games need the passionate players not condescending elitists.

Is there any hard data out there surveying and/or correlating game subs based on streamer personalities? Such data may be helpful in determining whether the hardcore raider and elitist mentalities actually translate into the health of a game. I find it quite possible that while such personalities may have large followings, it may just be people watching the streamer’s antics rather than playing the game they are streaming…

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Castagere Shaikura

Please the hardcore MMO player being needed is a myth. Most of your so-called hardcore MMO players float from one game to another after a couple of months in one. They are always looking for the perfect PVP or Raid content. It’s all about the end game for them. If they don’t like the end game they move onto the next new shiny after the go to Reddit and complain.

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Anton Mochalin

In all online games I played there was the same pattern: the more “hardcore” content I played or the more my level approached “hardcore” in matcmaking the more toxic and pessimistic about the game’s future people I met in the game became. “Vets leaving” is an archetypal thing one can see in any game and it doesn’t correlate with game or updates quality. I’ve heard about “vets” leaving Warframe long before it got to top 10 concurrent players count on Steam. So I guess “vets” missed all the fun. Or maybe “vets” had to leave for the fun to begin.

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Schmidt.Capela

Given that I tend to not even give a chance to games which have content that can only be seen, or rewards that can only be obtained, through raiding, the existence of a raiding community in a game tends to have the exact opposite effect on me: it drives me away. Not because of the community itself — though I’ve seen plenty of raiders that are jerks, I’ve also seen plenty of great and helpful raiders — but because strong raider communities tend to only form in games where the devs reserve content and rewards to only be accessible to raiders.

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Kickstarter Donor
Brazen Bondar

I like Tyler’s distinction between elite and elitists as it applies to a discussion about hardcore. I respect elite players, those who have devoted themselves to mastering the most difficult parts of a game, and THEN help the rest of the players by creating guides, streaming solutions, showing how they can beat time records, etc. TSW had some fantastic elite players who were or seemed to be nice people. Thank goodness for the elite players because I would not have learned how to see the bad spots in any nightmare dungeon without their guides. On the other hand, we also had the elitists and it would often be interesting to see the latter group attack the former in the forums. And its the elitists who usually made or tried to make less experienced or perhaps less accomplished player feel they were inadequate human beings. We should keep elite players. And it seems impossible to get rid of elitists. So there you have it. The developers have to know which group of players they want.

I don’t care if a game has raids. If people like that, let them have it. But if the developers are changing the game to appease 5% of the population who raid, then that isn’t good. I don’t see any developers changing a change for the 30-40% who build. Landmark was headed that way before it was killed.