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.
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.
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.