Vague Patch Notes: The challenge of the average MMO player

    
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Bored now.

Pick an MMO, any MMO you know pretty well. Pick an MMO where you have a good sense of how much content there is in the game. Now, ask yourself this: How much of that content has the average player done? How frequently do players engage with various bits of content? What does an average evening of play look like for this hypothetical average player?

More importantly, keep the following in mind: If this hypothetical average player lines up exactly with your own personal traits, you have probably gotten it wrong and need to start over.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about this for obvious reasons. The thing about writing about games is that you have to be cognizant of the average player, the would-be default for most of the game’s content, because said average player is basically the standard against which you judge all other content and playstyles. But “average” is intensely hard to figure out, even when you’re trying your hardest to piece it together, and it’s not helped at all by the fact that literally all of us use ourselves as a baseline whether we mean to do so or not.

This is not, inherently, a bad thing. We all need a base set of assumptions, and we provide at least a starter point for our own assumptions. It makes logical sense to assume that we are not in an outlying group but exist somewhere in the middle, and statistically speaking it’s the right thing to assume.

The problem is that when it comes to playing MMOs, this can be wrong. And it can be wrong in ways that are not immediately obvious.

I don’t just mean this in the obvious sense that you’re currently reading articles about an MMO on a site about MMOs, which is something the average player probably doesn’t do. Rather, it’s more likely that you are in various ways an outlier – and the sheer volume of stuff in most MMOs means that there’s a lot more space for outliers than you might otherwise expect.

Outliers.

But let’s take another step back first. How do we even know what an average player looks like? What are the base assumptions for an average player? When we try to paint a picture of the average player and how they behave, we’re usually starting from a place of wanting to suss out the stuff that everyone does. To use an obvious example, how often does the average player in Final Fantasy XIV run a dungeon?

The average player who has reached the level cap has probably run all of the main scenario dungeons at least once, yes. But how often does the average player run them? Five times a week? Three times? More? Less? It’s hard to be sure because there are no real stats available about that to the players. Developers probably have more useful statistics available about these things, but even then it’s hard to be sure – and it’s more likely those stats, if they exist, will only ever be disclosed in the form of cute infographics upon meeting some milestone or another.

Even then, though, we run into more problems. Say that you absolutely know that 1000 dungeons were run in a given day. Which dungeons were they? How many of them were run by players who had run one the day before? How many players intended to go back the next day? Was it 1000 dungeons run by 4000 players or fewer? For that matter, which day was it and does that influence the numbers?

The reason I picked FFXIV in this case is because it’s a game where running high-end dungeons is a specific and intended part of the game’s endgame model. The whole thing becomes even more difficult to be sure of in other games. And even if you could ascertain some sort of answer about how often players tend to run dungeons, it’d be hard not to notice that if this activity is uniform across 60% of the playerbase, that’s still 40% who don’t fit that mold.

And remember, this is all dealing with a pretty simple and boolean choice of “are players running dungeons.” Getting further into the weeds about which dungeons and why makes it even more hard to distinguish the average from the specific.

Waifu

So why does this even matter? Well, because the average player is the player for whom the vast majority of content needs to be designed. If the average player runs dungeons, for example, putting lots of design time into new dungeons makes sense. If the average player avoids dungeons, then it makes more sense to focus on other content.

(Please note that there’s also an obvious question to be asked there about whether or not players would run dungeons given the choice between dungeons and other things that we’re allowing to go specifically unasked. The metric is more complex than simply “players do this, thus they like it.” So we’re assuming for these purposes that people are doing things because they like them – because that’s a whole other can of worms.)

But it’s hard to actually ascertain what an average player does. It’s easy to know what your own behaviors are, but it’s very plausible to assume that you are actually something of an outlier even within your game of choice. Maybe you tend to run a bunch of dungeons, but most people actually only run a couple and you’re on the heavy dungeon side. Or most players run more and you’re actually not running as many as people would expect. Heck, it could even be both – you run more dungeons than most people, but a narrower spread of dungeons than most, and over a longer time period.

Those assumptions are core to a lot of other understandings about how the game is structured and what works or doesn’t work. And therein lies the problem. If you’re assuming that the average player does a certain sort of content or doesn’t enjoy a different kind of content, you have to start with a reason for that assumption. And if you assume that you’re the average player in this example… well, I don’t need to explain to you how that can go wrong, do I? You might be wildly wrong in those assumptions.

How do you fix it? Well… you probably don’t. Not entirely.

I say this as someone who has been writing professionally about MMOs for more than a decade now that figuring out an actual average or consensus is difficult. You have to look at statistics around game content being cleared, look at comments, have friends and people you talk to about the game, browse blogs and forum threads, and still make a lot of guesses based on trends and your own core assumptions. I think I’m doing a pretty good job if I’m within a reasonable frame of average for most of my assumptions, and this is a full-time job.

But I do think a good first step is acknowledging that you are probably not the average player. The average player is probably doing less than you are in a game you’re particularly committed to. You are more likely to be an outlier than the platonic idea of average, even if the statistical side of things would imply the inverse.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

While I appreciate the sentiment, I must strongly disagree.

Tailoring a game around some assumed ‘average’ player means designing for mediocrity and homogenaity and falls into the error of assuming everyone fits within a standard skillset.

A world shared by many people should be accessible to most, but provide avenues for a multiplicity of skillsets and ranges while allowing for individual excellence and exclusivity. A great crafter may not be a great fighter, and a superb trader may not share the same skillset as the competent group leader. Picking one broad highway as the average-optimal is a road to irrelevence. The problem is not simple, and no simple system constrained by metric means can capture the whole effectively.

The magic is found in designing a system that can draw upon the synergy of many complex and diverse individuals to form something greater than the ‘average player’. This is the hard path of excellence — a trail that money can’t blaze and metrics cannot survey.

TLDR: McDonalds is garbage food, no matter how many people stuff themselves with those empty calories.

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elenie

I don’t know how useful it is to think of the “average” player so much as thinking of the range of players you want to attract to your game and then a) developing a wide variety of activities, while ideally not making anything mandatory and b) checking metrics and other tools like surveys, forums etc. to see what people want.
If you’re talking about anything relevant such as “what should we change about our dungeon content?”, talking about the “average” would at best be a starting point – I just don’t feel like it’s very useful.

If you’re just making the point that people assume everyone is the same as them – I mean, sure we tend to, but playing with others quickly made it obvious to me that I’m a huge outlier and other players also vary widely in what they do and enjoy :-)

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

Well-said.

Those who focus on statistics can often forget that the mean does not apply when measuring an individual element of the set. When air-guaging machine bearings you can get an idea of the consistency of the group, but every part will still fall to one side or the other of the standard, and the performance builder seeking to excel will not suffer to trust the group standard, but will go to great lengths to find the individual exception.

Excellence is found in the exceptional and individual, not in the average 0r aggregate.

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EmberStar

I know I’m far off average in Star Trek Online. I have 36 captains. I suspect most “average” players have something closer to two or three (depending of if they made characters for previous Recruitment events and also if they kept them afterwards.)

I’ve completed most story missions on only two of those… which means across all of my characters I’m probably closer to the average amount of story completion. (As in, not much, especially now that it’s possible to simply skip any “chapter” that you don’t like.)

I refuse to even enter PVP maps. I suspect most “average” players will at least dabble in it and *then* decide they don’t like it. I do think the average for STO is “not interested in PVP” though. Several years ago a PVP fan was complaining on the forums to a dev about how lazy they were for not updating PVP more often. The dev answered that there were only PVP updates *at all* because some of them were passionate PVP fans and kept pushing for resources. And that, from a numbers standpoint, if they deleted PVP and every single recurring PVP player quit outright… it wouldn’t affect the game’s population numbers in any meaningful way.

I hate the “Task Force Operations” missions that require being dropped into a random team via the groupfinder. I only do them at all during events that require them for the daily completion task. I suspect the “average” player is fine with them, and apparently some people even actually *like* them.

I’m also “not average” in the fact that I’d generally rather quit a game than join a fleet/guild/clan. There are lots of reasons for that, none of which probably matter to anyone else at all.

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Schmidt.Capela

The dev answered that there were only PVP updates *at all* because some of them were passionate PVP fans and kept pushing for resources.

IMHO there’s a deep disconnect between the kind of personality needed to last as a game developer and the usual personality of the average player, which is reflected in how many devs are passionate PvPers, raiders, or roleplayers, versus how little of the general MMO player base enjoys (or even can stand) those activities.

This also seems to be the case when you think about players that do post in the forums versus the wider player base. I remember a post by a LotRO dev stating that if you add together everyone that engages in either raiding or PvP in LotRO you still have less than 10% of the player base, but if you instead take the percentage of PvPers and raiders in the forum they are over half the active forum members.

This creates even more issues for figuring the average player, mind. Seems like not only the majority of the players are “silent”, never making their likes and dislikes known for the devs, but also the non-silent players aren’t even close to being representative of the silent ones.

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Anstalt

I remember back in the 07-10 sort of years when some studios still released numbers, nearly all of them stated that the majority of players who try their game, never make it to the level cap.

So, if you are looking at the “average” of all players who ever played the game, the majority play it for a few weeks and then quit.

But, studios tend to exclude those average players when they release numbers about content cleared etc. Those players who play for 2 weeks and quit are no longer generating revenue, so the devs focus is about retaining the remainder of the community.

And that makes total sense. You can’t build a game that retains everyone, so you just have to aim at retaining enough – whatever enough means for you as a business – and focus on building content and systems for those players.

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Rndomuser

so the devs focus is about retaining the remainder of the community.

And that makes total sense.

No, not really. Developers should absolutely focus on why people are quitting before reaching max level. People who are quitting early or at any point before reaching max level – these people could be continuing to play and pay monthly fees if something that encouraged them to quit would be eliminated. Even Square Enix understands this, they actually did shorten the initial “main story” quest amount to prevent some people from getting bored of doing this mandatory content, though whether they eliminated enough quests to encourage more people to keep playing remains to be seen.

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EmberStar

Have they eliminated the requirement to switch from doing basically solo-only story missions to “You must join a random team to clear this dungeon?” Because for me, that’s the impassable barrier preventing me from even trying the game. I hate being teamed with random people I don’t know. *Especially* for “difficult” content like dungeons where some amount of cooperation is expected. I *can* work in a team if I must. I don’t expect the same from xx_XXLegolasXX_xx and Girthy_Pickle.

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Rndomuser

No, there is still requirement in FFXIV to do most dungeons as a part of the group of people. Which is really unfortunate because if they would’ve allowed people to do all of those solo as an option – game would’ve had much higher population in general, including people who hate dungeons (like me) but like socializing with others outside of dungeons just by talking in chat and doing emotes and also like the general story in game and want to experience it by themselves without watching someone’s stream or video or like cosmetic items which are only available in specific dungeons or trials or raids (unless some other player farmed it and is now selling it on marketboard, and some players don’t really bother doing that).

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Anstalt

Whilst it would be great to retain everyone, its simply not possible. A large proportion of players that quit before hitting max level were never going to like your game the way it’s designed. If the devs tried to change the design to please those who are quitting, they’ll end up losing the players that were originally going to stay.

You could call this bad purchasing decisions, lack of research, dodgy marketing, falling for the hype or whatever, for a whole bunch of reasons there’s a significant amount of players who will buy your game who just won’t enjoy it.

Now, with that said, there is absolutely a case for monitoring the jump off point of your playerbase. Certain quests, or dungeons, or forced changes in playstyle, will definitely cause players to quit, so its worth tracking them and fixing specific problems like that.

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Rndomuser

But I do think a good first step is acknowledging that you are probably not the average player.

No, I am not, and I never assumed so in any game. However I did seen plenty of people with similar gameplay interests as me, as well as totally opposite interests, when playing same game, and ideally a well designed game would be designed to provide plenty of content for all of players with different gameplay preferences (instead of “throw dungeons of various levels of difficulty at everyone because every person is born with same preferences and that’s what all of them want” as the primary endgame activity), especially activities which can self-sustain themselves, without becoming “boring” by their very nature of being a “pre-scripted encounter”, so most subscribers will continue paying monthly fee even after being done with “pre-scripted encounters”. Unfortunately most developers choose to focus on a very specific types of players and gameplay, without even trying to provide different type of gameplay for different players or providing it in a way where it is not enjoyable by many (for example by writing quests with generic “kill boars to collect their spleen but only 1 out of billion of those mutant boars contain the spleen”, or providing substandard player-performed music system or by providing crappy housing system where you cannot build a house with completely unique exterior design and so on).

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styopa

“The average player who has reached the level cap has probably run all of the main scenario dungeons at least once, yes. ”

To be clear, they have BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO. IIRC you can’t progress the story without passage through these dungeons.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about that, I didn’t like it at first but frankly now think that it a) isn’t as hard as it sounds, b) forces everyone through this shared experience, and c) incentivizes players who’ve done the content quite well to spend at least SOME time running these downleveled, which results in a sort of recognized burden that everyone’s pretty good-natured about.

Like so many things FF14 really got the mechanisms right here. (Not to say there aren’t still people who don’t like it; nor to suggest that such a model would work for any other game.)

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EmberStar

“To be clear, they have BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO. IIRC you can’t progress the story without passage through these dungeons.”

And it’s the biggest reason why I’ll never even consider playing that game.

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styopa

See, I thought that bugged me as well. I went into it reluctantly, but found that everyone HAVING to do it made it an experience that felt significantly different than lfg things in other games.

It really made a difference, I was shocked at how much more generally amenable everyone was and patient with each other.

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Sleepy

I didn’t. “Stop healing – that’s not your role”

I wasn’t slowing down the group, or causing problems. I just wasn’t playing the way someone else wanted me to. Instant uninstall when I realised I had that kind of gaming experience ahead of me.

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styopa

Fair. I don’t blame you.

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Dug From The Earth

The irony of content in an mmorpg is that we ask for there to be lots, but a huge percentage of players rush past and skip much of it just to get to a smaller, specific portion of it at the end game.

The Irony continues when developers KNOW this will happen, and still end up releasing mmorpgs lacking in that content people rush to get to, and brimming with content that is often skipped past.

I’ll use WoW Burning Crusade as an example, as its hot on the news of the blizzconline leak. How many people actually played through ALL BC zones before engaging in endgame content? How many hit max level and went back to finish zones they had never done? From talking with my guilds and friends, not many. There are the completionists like my wife who often get “loremaster” on EVERY charcter (yes, even though its not needed).

Im not someone to rush through content or skip it intentionally, but in Burning Crusade, playing through at a normal pace, I hit max level after only doing about half the zones. I hadnt set foot in Shadowmoon, Netherstorm, or BladesEdge at all. Same thing happened in Pandaria. I hit max level without ever stepping foot into Dread Wastes, Townlong Steppes or Krasarang Wilds.

Despite this, the amount of end game content that was there for me when I hit max level both in BC and Pandaria, was limited. Despite this, the incentive to go back and finish those zones was very very very low, because aside from the mediocre mini quest stories, there was nothing to really gain from it.