Massively Overthinking: How to alienate your MMORPG playerbase


I am not a Pokemon Go player, but I can’t help but stare at its many trainwrecks thanks to the detailed coverage of our Massively on the Go columnist Andrew. And the latest trainwreck is one that I’ve seen play out in MMOs many times. I’ll spare you a full rundown of the gory details leading up to the second player boycott in a year; the nutshell version is that Pokemon Go’s early COVID gameplay accommodations had expanded its playerbase to include a huge range of rural, disabled, and risk-averse gamers, but since then it has been progressively shrinking those options – and doesn’t care at all about the players it’s losing as a result (because it makes its money from location data, not from online/remote raiders).

It came to a head for me when Andrew linked to an interview with a Niantic VP, who downplayed the affected playerbase first by artificially redefining that playerbase in order to minimize it and second by suggesting they were leaving of their own accord and not because of the very policies he was espousing. “[T]he proportion of folks who raid Remote Raid exclusively as they play Pokemon Go and do not participate in some form of in-real-life activities are actually a very, very, very small portion of the total [player] population – and one we actually see decreasing quite a bit over time,” is his airy rejoinder in the interview.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I want to talk about MMO companies that make changes that target a specific part of the playerbase and then shrug it off as some sort of unpredictable anomaly or inevitable outcome when those players leave. When has it worked out, and when has it backfired? Let’s talk about how to alienate your MMO playerbase.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I hope everyone will excuse me for trying to stay positive about this topic, especially since I’m the one going through the gory Niantic-induced mess right now. I’ll also try to avoid some of the more obvious ones I think my fellow writers who play those games will mention.

Turbine (RIP) used to target macroers in Asheron’s Call 1 with varying results, but largely it benefited the community at least by allowing players to report macroers and let GMs, at their nicest, kick them from the game, though I do remember some teleporting the bots off their safe spots and into the mobs they were abusing.

Horizons/Istaria made the decision before launch to cut PvP. As much as it personally disappointed me, I think the game would be in an even worse position today had it tried to focus on PvP before PvE.

In a similar vein, Crowfall cut some of the harsher survival stuff (like having to always eat) to focus more on core gameplay. While it’s in a worse situation than Istaria now, I think it lasted longer because of this change, plus it only (sadly) reinforces the above idea that cutting PvP was the right call for Istaria players.

I hope someone won’t mind me bringing up a more mainstream example, but Blizzard’s 2020 policy change to target multiboxing in World of Warcraft was another good play. I’d already left the game when this happened, but it was something I ran into many, many times when I had played, and often it forced me to log out for awhile to cool off.

What all these have in common is that they focused on their core clientele. None of them targeted normal players making use of the company’s intended (and even incentivized) gameplay mechanics. It’s not that they don’t exist (maybe TERA taking out the politics play helped somehow; I really didn’t see it myself, but the game also lasted for years without it), but it’s just so much more obvious that targeting problem players and anti-social mechanics will grow your community, or at least help it survive. Niantic is actually targeting a social system it developed, which is why it’s seeing so much backlash.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): It seems like a part of the playerbase that is constantly shoved aside regardless of the game is the longtime players/early adopters. And while it may seem counter intuitive to upset your most ardent fans, it seems that studios tend to rely on the sunk cost fallacy to keep them hanging on while they continue to make changes to draw in new players or increase monetization. I realize I’m speaking in generalities, but it seems to be fairly universal that every game has a contingency of bitter veterans who loved the game at some point in the past but have since been alienated and disenfranchised by changes they never asked for.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): World of Warcraft is the biggest offender that leaps immediately to my mind as the game that willingly drove off literally millions of paying subscribers and then pretended that was all normal and fine and inevitable so that it could cater explicitly to the remaining playerbase. They just kept redefining who their “real” playerbase was until it was whittled down to a tiny sliver of its original log.

But everyone knows that one. So let me turn to a different example that I know well but that many folks didn’t experience first-hand – and an example that actually helped rather than hurt the game: Ultima Online’s Felucca-Trammel split.

UO initially launched as a total gankbox where players willing to take on the paltry challenges of a murderer tag roamed the gameworld slaughtering everyone else. As Raph “Designer Dragon” Koster tells it, the rampant PKing resulted in the “loss of many hundreds of thousands of players” and came close to killing the game, in spite of the dozens of crime-system measures the devs implemented. In the end, the team created a mirror world for each server – Trammel – where players were free of ganking.

And the PK playerbase howled when their victims packed up and moved to Trammel. Don’t bother coming for me; I know you existed in plentitudes because I hunted and killed you and kept your heads in a chest I eventually sold with my original account to some nice lady on Ebay who wanted a classic keep. But by alienating this specific type of problematic player, UO managed to double its playerbase (and even kept expanding its playerbase well through the EverQuest launch). Not all alienations are bad!

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): I feel that the games I play are the opposite. Both Final Fantasy XIV and Black Desert Online do things to bring more players into the fold. Final Fantasy XIV needs no introduction with those means. From including a “roleplaying” status to reducing the amount of holes in the Sage’s job icon, the team has done a tremendous job not alienating anyone interested in playing the game.

Black Desert Online started out a little differently. When it first released state-side, it was very much focused on the hardcore PvP gamers. But today’s iteration of the game has become so much more approachable. For one thing, Pearl Abyss added non-gear based PvP. So now, players who got turned off from playing PvP because of its gear requirements have a space. The introduction of season servers gives lapsed and new players opportunities to play the game again. Advancement in instancing technologies now guarantees players have the opportunity to do at least one hour’s worth of grinding at high-demand areas so their scrolls aren’t wasted. And even though PA plans on sticking to RNG based progression systems, players will now always have the opportunity to get at least one complete set of PEN gear if they play enough.

Inclusivity is an important aspect of my life. I wouldn’t play a game that won’t let players play it because of physical limitations.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): One of the first examples of a backfired switch to accommodate a (comparatively) smaller subset of players was Ascent: Infinite Realm changing its cool setting and ideas into Elyon because Korean players weren’t taken by the former. We all know how that change played out.

Arguably, New World’s whole development track prior to launch is another switch, but then I also appreciate the game wanting to cast a wider net and the shift might have worked out for it. Maybe. Possibly. I mean, you don’t dodge Bezos’ big shiny axe for no reason I would assume.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t call out Funcom and its management of The Secret World, particularly the idea of doing a re-release with much worse combat (somehow). That whole thing still feels like the studio broke a generally good toy, shrugged, and just walked off, leaving a dedicated player base twisting in the wind.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I think Andrew got a good one with Crowfall. In a similar vein, New World made a pretty big change by increasing the PvE and reducing the survival PvP. I think it might uniquely have crossed both streams. It backfired by really making PvP players lose an identity in the game, but overall it was a boon because I think the game might have shuttered already if it didn’t have the PvE players that it has.

New World rides a weird line with what it’s done. As someone who really wanted to play more PvP in the game, I can say the devs made it difficult to participate in. On the other hand, I’m not really sure how the endgame PvE players feel about content such as claiming cities being a predominantly PvP activity.

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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