GDC 2021: What attracts – and motivates – mobile and MMO gamers?

    
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Oh great.

GDC 2021 has been running this week, but sadly there aren’t a lot of relevant panels for MMO or online game enthusiasts. However, it hasn’t been a total wash for industry watchers. One nice thing that GDC does that other cons don’t is focus on developers and their strategies, and that means we can see some of the tricks of the trade.

While mobile gaming isn’t our focus here at MOP, it does affect gaming as a whole, especially as many mobile games have multiplayer online features. I think that for many readers, online game advertisements can feel cheap, even dishonest, and I took that with me when I watched Facebook’s panel on attracting gamers to the platform. Creative Shop’s Leon Lee had a very short presentation with minimal interaction with the audience, but the statistics are quite enlightening, as were things that weren’t really addressed. My hope is that by discussing some of these statistics and strategies, readers will not only better understand how the market may be evolving but how PR and marketing takes advantage of these data when trying to advertise to you.

But first, let’s do some polling. We thought it would be fun to offer our own version of the panel’s polls, so answer them before reading the article so you don’t bias yourself!

What motivates you to play MMOs/Online Games?

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What motivates you to play MMOs/Online Games? (Limited Version)

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All done? Good. So let me run down a few interesting statistics Lee gave about mobile gamers at the conference:

  • 80% of “non-gamers” do play games on their phone
  • 43% of players are 45 years older or more
  • Women not only account for 50% of the market but tend to play more, do so more often, and spend more

Motivating factors (general):

  • 33% of players are motivated by defeating others in competition
  • 30% play for immersion
  • 29% play to connect with people they know
  • 24% play to learn something new
  • 23% play to meet new people
  • 20% play to connect with a franchise/brand/celebrity
  • 62% play to relieve stress
  • 56% play to pass the time

Motivating factors (limited):

  • 46% of new mobile gamers were motivated by self-expression in games
  • 45% of new mobile gamers were motivated by defeating other players
  • 44% of new mobile gamers were motivated by connecting with people they knew
  • 62% of established mobile gamers played for relaxation

To note, these were taken from a pool of about 13,000 people answering question by question, not choosing a singular motivating factor, which is why the percents don’t add up to 100.

Now, let’s put a few of these statistics into context. The part about women gaming and spending more is why I suspect a lot of mobile ads/games have a cute appearance or seem to be explicitly aiming for the female market (not that it’s bad, quite the opposite actually). While graphical limitations are part of it, World of Warcraft has a cartoony look that’s been replicated in the past but didn’t seem to last long. (Conversely, you also see those games that bill themselves as highly competitive but are slower-paced strategy games unless you’re willing fork-out loads of cash, but I’ll get into that more later.)

I also found it interesting that franchises and celebs are not that dominant a factor. Perhaps this is why I haven’t seen as many celebs embracing embarrassing random PvP mobile titles, but it’s also perhaps why certain franchise games just aren’t doing well, despite the fact that they’re being pumped out, which feels like an issue console/PC gaming tackled in the ’80s and ’90s (RIP all those E.T. games).

Looking over the data, I think it’s rather easy to argue that most MMOs, even mobile titles, focus on progression and benefit from connecting to other players (see, um, every player recruitment reward system in every MMO and even generic mobile multiplayer games). However, I do wonder if MMO players may value the opportunity to meet new people more than mobile players do, as I’d argue the interactions are often much deeper. I spent a year casually playing a browser Game of Thrones game through my phone (especially on laundry day), but I never had even a decent conversation with my guildmates even though the game had chat. Heck, when I have met fellow mobile players, such as at conventions, strategy is discussed less than just which characters we like, so it often feels more shallow than, say, talking to a WoW player about the current story arc.

If progression raiding is a way to indirectly defeat fellow players, that would kind of make sense for why mobile MMOs attract new players. The “auto-play” feature in mobile MMOs becomes even more obvious when you see that established mobile gamers largely play for relaxation and that many mobile gamers primarily play to relieve stress and pass time. Yes, part of this due to the limits on basic control options and screen sizes for devices, but as a Pokemon Go player, I have to admit that the Go Plus feature, which allows me to passively play the game when I’m socializing with non-players, is one of the biggest reasons I still play.

This may be why it sometimes feels like there’s a disconnect between PC/console MMO players’ expectations of gameplay vs. what they experience in mobile games. I know mobile MMOs almost never grab me, and while a few surprise me, none really keeps me. It’s the ones that adapt to my expectations not just about the platform’s limitations, but what I want from that platform. My expectations in housing across the two is fairly similar, but I don’t want complex combat on my phone, not just because the device is small but because I don’t want to be tempted to get into deep gaming while I’m out shopping.

However, I’d also argue that perhaps this helps to show that the current MMO standards– raiding and questing– may not actually benefit from market trends.

For example, people who play for self-expression probably don’t want to be wearing the same armor as everyone else, even if it’s the best in the game. While there is prestige in that, finding other people who look almost exactly like you is always off-putting. Moddable armor that can look like anything would help with this.

While you could argue that competitive PvP players may prefer silhouetting so they have an idea of what a character is capable of just by looking at them, I always felt that Guild Wars 2‘s approach of flat levels and armor in structured PvP was not only accessible but made trying out different classes and having alts much more fun.

In fact, I would argue that GW2’s ability to cater to PvP and PvE players helped the game gain immense popularity by keeping various degrees of PvP and PvE separate. I spent some time playing Lords Mobile with a friend and her guild, and while the PvE part was a cute time-killer, I kind of felt like a clone trying to earn my full stormtrooper gear. I played GW2 for a while even after my friends stopped playing, but my time with Lords lasted until I cut it to regain my time.

That’s one thing Lee mentioned in his presentation. Developers should understand what their game is about in order to market it better. However, he then went on to discuss using the previously described data in marketing.

This paired with little discussion on ethics, morals, or really addressing the use of fake or misleading gameplay is something to consider, especially in retrospect for games like WildStar. The above graphic basically says, “Look at the biggest motivating factors your game has and push those.” That’s different from, “Look at your strongest features and push those.” Again using WildStar, I think many of us can agree that a lot of the direct marketing pushed fun, freedom, and customization, whereas the final product was explicitly treated as a hardcore raiding MMO, something I’d argue most fans could have learned if they went beyond the PR speak and looked into early Q&As and hands-on pieces that specifically said “fun” features were on the side and not the primary method of experiencing content.

Admittedly, I was an early fan of the game since the marketing made it seem more of a virtual world than another raiding MMO. When early demos showed it was going more of that same quest/kill route rather than, say, ArcheAge’s closed beta 3 that front-loaded “fluff” features in the tutorial, such as gliders, mounts, farming, sailing, and more, the marketing suddenly felt like a sham. Well done and funny, no doubt, but it didn’t feel like it reflected the product, and I feel like the sentiments of many readers helps support this idea. This has been the same feeling I often get from “Facebook” and mobile titles that seem popular. It’s not that console/PC games don’t do this (because they do); it’s more like because mobile is “in,” there are people specifically taking advantage of newer gamers with strong data but using them dishonestly.

That being said, I almost wonder if these data might support the idea of returning more to traditional MMO content: open-ended, immersive experiences more similar to Star Wars Galaxies or Asheron’s Call than WoW. The previous titles actually worked well as graphical chat rooms (relaxation and social connections), especially with gear that was light on restrictions and could be worn by any player, which also helped with self-expression. The PvE in the latter was arguably more open-ended and allowed for multiple strategies, which can support competitive players, creatives, and even relaxation if players can simply zerg big-bads down with enough players (assuming servers/devices can handle them).

Most importantly, however, is that these older styles of gaming hit those top four motivational values for mobile gamers. While unique experiences are still valuable to mobile gamers, I’ve seen some titles, such as Black Desert, adjust to work on a smaller device. Again, some are more complex than I’d like from a mobile game, but it does make me wonder whether something like Asheron’s Call 2 could have simplified movement and UI to be ported over and given simple monthly stories with “voting triggers,” as it had done with past franchise events. The data suggest that new players would apparently want this kind of content and that current mobile gamers seem to prefer a relaxing pace, but we need marketing that reflects the actual content rather than hitting on popular trends.

Constantly referring to the strategy as “The Big Catch” and seemingly quantifying this result as “working 100%” without detailing it (I’m assuming it just means each attempt led to at least one new player) only further helped to make me feel like PR and marketing often view players, potential and current, as a resource rather than as community members. Though the data set we got was good, the way it’s supposed to be used doesn’t feel great, especially when I’d argue that many of us already have seen this strategy being used without data. Adding the data just seems like further weaponizing this against consumers-as-fish.

Check out more of our GDC 2021 coverage!

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MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

This is the frontier of human expression. That’s why I play. It’s the new frontier in a world otherwise exhausted and owned by generational wealth. When I play these games I’m doing something that only a tiny fraction of people have experienced within my lifetime, and something past generations could only dream about.

Cordially, I say damn this man and his statistical attempt to teach others how to leverage a sure thing out of unknown possibilities. It’s just more grist for the corporate grinder, and in my opinion serves only those who would take the risk-averse path in a universe of frightening possibilities and paint themselves into a creative corner in pursuit of the illusion of personal security.

The one overarching aspect of MMOs that made them great was the same thing that led to the personal computer defeating (for a time) the locked down consoles and coin-sucking arcades — the wide-open tools to allow the artist to create art, to innovate and pursue a vision outside of what was safe.

MMOs can do anything, could be anything, without a by-your-leave from any billionaire muckety-muck seeking to lock down their wealth.

Break rules. Break standards. Don’t chase the easy money, and don’t think the day-tripping latecomers establish what is best practice for a developer. Try and fail and fail again and never sell your vision short for a secure paycheck. This is the frontier. Create worlds.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

I guess the only one that fits for me is “Immerse myself in a character/world.” I don’t play Star Trek Online because “online,” I play it because “Star Trek.” The same went for SWTOR before I got fed up with the PVP-and-Flahspoints focus of every new update and unsubscribed. (I consider the game unplayable with any version of the “free” UI, because it’s deliberately crippled.) Those are my only option for making a personal character from a wide range of options and within those settings. Any other games in those settings have a fixed protagonist, are even older than those two, or both.

I did get Jedi: Fallen Order, but I only played the prologue and the first mission up to the three-eyed NOPE frog. I got it to show EA that single player titles have an audience as much as anything, so mission accomplished. It’s too bad that I find the main character so dull and unappealing that I can’t even remember his name. :(

Anyway: Most of the other categories are either not super important factors (I can do lots of things to pass time/relieve stress) or just aren’t all that relevant. As I’ve probably mentioned a few (hundred) times elsewhere, I play mostly *despite* online, not because of. I don’t know anyone who plays games, and don’t really want to meet random strangers. I do like to do creative things, but don’t feel that I’m actually *good* at doing them. (My bases in Ark are either unfinished chaos, or look like Borg Cubes made of spare lumber. OnO ) And I hate competing with other players. At all.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

About some of those motivations:

– Feel accomplished: while the effect might be similar, I don’t really want to feel accomplishment; I merely want to experience, and if enjoyable complete, everything the game has to offer. While both motivations can lead to myself completing every piece of content and achieving every reward in the game, the differences are that I will skip anything that I find too annoying, and since I’m not aiming for accomplishment I have no qualms at all about using cheats or exploits to get through less-than-enjoyable content.

– Competition: this one isn’t straightforward with me; whether I enjoy competition or not depends mostly on the consequences of winning or losing. The more the game pushes me to care about the result (with rewards, progression, etc), the more I hate the competition element; conversely, the more consequences-free the game makes the competition — preferably to the point it’s something done just for fun — the more I enjoy it.

– Connecting with people I already know: I would love this, but given how frustrating I find having power discrepancies within a group, this usually only works for me in games where there is absolutely no power progression. It’s why I often say that MMOs are games I play with random strangers.

– Connecting with a brand/celebrity: this tends to strongly push me away. I’m not into celebrity worship, never was and never will, and brand and celebrity endorsement is often used to push expensive shovelware that would never stand on its own. The exception is if the involvement of the brand or celebrity somehow makes the game better even when disregarding the branding (like, for example, Ayrton Senna’s Super Monaco GP II, where Senna — one of the best racers of his time — got involved with the development of the game to make the experience closer to the real one), and even then I’ll wait to see how the brand or celebrity improved the game before jumping in.

– Connecting with a franchise: this for me is a two-edged sword. Using a franchise I like enough can indeed make me check the game — but if I like the franchise that much then I will be far more critical when rating the experience, meaning it’s actually harder for me to enjoy the game, and if I dislike the game it might push me away from the franchise itself. It kinda happened for me with ESO: it’s a game I could have enjoyed if it wasn’t named Elder Scrolls, but I found the experience in it to be so inferior to the rest of the franchise that it chilled my interest in future franchise installments.

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Robert Mann

What this highlights most to me, is that the goals really aren’t that different for many. The problem is design, accessible play, and having something that works well for the target audience. Sadly, the target audience of many titles, especially on mobile still, is “Person who will spend $10k”

MurderHobo
Reader
MurderHobo

I will never be convinced that the financial success of mobile games isn’t related in some way to money laundering on a nation-state scale.

I’m sure there are multitudes who throw money into these games, but I used to do data pulls for fraud investigators long ago and there was too much shady money changing hands (this was during the EQ days prior to mobile gaming) not to realize that something far beyond my comprehension was going on. The black market was bad in the EQ days. I can only imagine that mobile games have merely refined and made easier the laundering of incredible sums of money.

Gaming has always been a shady business long before computers entered the equation.

There’s a reason those $10k transfers are the base unit of non-trivial currency in gaming transactions.

Reader
Anstalt

Interesting article and nice to see some data.

I am very disappointed that “fun” wasn’t an option in the polls, either the GDC poll or the MOP one. For me, “fun” is the highest motivation for why I play games and why I used to play MMORPGs.

Indeed, when the fun stopped in MMORPGs (mostly due to dumping down and the switch to action combat), I stopped playing MMORPGs.

In fact, I find it very telling (and worrying) that none of the options are related to gameplay or mechanics.

So, I ended up voting for “reducing stress”, as that is a direct by-product of having fun, even though it isn’t my motivation at all. But, I could have just as easily voted for lots of other options as they’re all by-products of having fun.

Reader
Robert Mann

Fun, though, is highly subjective. I think they were aiming to avoid that. Some other categories exploring different motivators, such as cooperative goals, exploration of the unknown, and so on… would likely be of more use.

Turing fail
Reader
Turing fail

Concur. My fun might be feel accomplished by building something, while the player that destroys what I’ve built has fun defeating other players in competition.

Reader
Dug From The Earth

Feel like if the polls were split into “Mobile” and “Non-mobile” versions, the results of the 2 would be interestingly different.

Zulika Mi-Nam
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Patreon Donor
Kickstarter Donor
Zulika Mi-Nam

Motivating factors (general): Engaging with a franchise/brand/celeb
-this has much higher chance of pushing me away from a game or product
-exponentially higher if it is a “celeb”

Turing fail
Reader
Turing fail

So backing the Kardashian Island: The Most Dangerous Game Kickstarter is a hard no for you…

EmberStar
Reader
EmberStar

Depends. Do they own the island, and the players are the “game?” Or is it an island full of surplus Kardashians and the players get the guns? :P

Zulika Mi-Nam
Reader
Patreon Donor
Kickstarter Donor
Zulika Mi-Nam

Would this game have any skills whatsoever?

Turing fail
Reader
Turing fail

Just like IRL Kardashians, no skills whatsoever required (neither exhibitionism nor sociopathy are skills, correct?)

Turing fail
Reader
Turing fail

I’m thinking whales can swing the gameplay focus either way. Hoping Kanye makes an appearance in some capacity…