I believe what sets games apart from other interactive media are the challenges and obstacles you encounter within them and more importantly: the core decision making process. If a game doesn't challenge you to make choices, then I would argue that it isn't much of a game at all. Decision making is the foundation of challenge in any game, no matter how easy or difficult that challenge ends up becoming.

The terms "casual gamer" and "hardcore gamer" get thrown around too flippantly these days, and I tend to think that the average gamer has differing opinions on what these mean compared to their peers. The disparities between each individual's definition could make this a very complex article, but I want to keep it simple.

Not One, But Two

There are actually two scales players should be getting weighed under when it comes to being "casual" or "hardcore": Time and Challenge.

Time

Some players out there have very little time to play, while others have loads of free-time to dump into play sessions. I tend to find myself more in the former of those two groups and less in the latter these days. With a family of five, two jobs, and a deep passion for story, design, and game-creation I feel like the hours I get to actually play any games continues to shrink every year. Sometimes I miss the summer days of high school or college when I could play 60-80 hours of games a week. These days I typically get a quarter of that - if I'm lucky.

That makes me much more "time-casual" than "hardcore-time".

Challenge

That being said, just because I have less and less free-time to play games, that doesn't mean I necessarily want my games to be easier. I still want a compelling experience that challenges me to think critically, strategically, and is polished enough to enjoy whether I'm committing to a massive challenge or just logging in to tinker with something relatively insignificant.

I've long been a fan of the kind of challenge and decision making that happens in role-playing and strategy games; but those tend to have longer play-session requirements than other game types, especially if they're multiplayer. As the time-crunch continues to grip me, I've had to pick my battles very carefully to ensure my time (and money) is being well-spent.

I tend to think that puts me more on the "hardcore challenge" end of the spectrum than the "casual challenge" side.

That's why a game like World of Warcraft isn't quite as appealing to me. It is "time-casual" friendly, but it isn't "hardcore-challenge" friendly. There aren't many games (none I can think of off the top of my head) that really cover both ends of these two spectrums. That's why some games satisfy certain audiences and others don't. It isn't a matter of games being "niche" it's a matter of accessibility based purely on time and challenge - which I believe are perpendicular scales.

Play-Session Progression

I've remained a big fan of the MOBA genre largely because they've been able to adapt alongside me. Looking back, a Warcraft 3 session of the original Defense of the Ancients typically ran about 60 minutes long (sometimes even longer). League of Legends was born from DotA's popularity and streamlined that gameplay into sessions more along the 35-55 minute range. Now Heroes of the Storm is aiming to streamline the process even further with game sessions usually running in the 25-45 minute range, without sacrificing too much of the complexity and difficulty. Sure there is some drop-off when you start shrinking the play-session, but that's a given.

MMO Time vs. Challenge Discrepancies

Unfortunately for MMOs, they haven't evolved quite as efficiently.

Very few MMOs have done a good job of continuing to make their core game-play remain accessible for the average customer. This is perhaps why we see MMO populations continuing to shrink while MOBA populations continue to grow. Oddly enough, it isn't for a lack of scenery or improved gameplay. MMOs go to the same (or greater) lengths to add new content, features, and gameplay for their players as MOBAs do, yet people continue to drift away from them.

I know quite a few people (including some developers) that believe the problem has a lot to do with content creators not being able to keep up with the rate of consumption and UGC is the answer, but that's merely a symptom of a larger sickness. Minecraft isn't thriving because it has UGC, but because it answers both spectrums so fully. It's great whether you've got hardcore or casual time and also whether you're looking for hardcore or casual challenge.

MMOs are dying because they are failing to satisfy these two spectrums and also because they struggle to adjust on the fly with market changes.

The Problem with Upgrading Complex Systems

MMO just don't age well.

They're heavy, complex, and elaborate machines that aren't very flexible or agile when it comes to adapting to changes in their player populations. In most cases, when a game tries to make itself more accessible, it ends up hacking away at its core gameplay by reducing the challenge, feel, and experience of the original game. It's a process that has largely become a 1 step forward, 2 steps back dance of ultimate demise. World of Warcraft has probably done a better job than most MMOs of maintaining its core gameplay, but even it has slipped down a few pegs when it comes to challenging and compelling content.

Is There a Solution?

Probably. As a former industrial mechanic, I can attest to how difficult it is to try and upgrade complex machinery over time. I worked at a rock-crushing Molybdenum mill in Colorado that was operating on a lot of original machinery built there over 30 years ago. The whole facility was just a massive and complex organism, not unlike a modern MMORPG. In order to maintain operation it's virtually impossible to modernize the facility without significant bouts of regular planned downtime. (We were typically shut down for maintenance and upgrades 4 out of every 14 days, of an otherwise 24 hour mode of operation.)

If you're going to do that, it means whatever upgrades you're putting in, better be worth the production loss caused by the downtime. Historically in the gaming industry that usually happens in the forms of sequels for one-shot games... With MMOs that are persistent, they've got to be upgraded continuously over time to stay current. That's not an easy task, but it is possible. If we could do it with our 15 million square foot Molybdenum mill, then it can be done in an MMO.

From my experience with various equipment we used and replaced - it's a hell of a lot easier and cheaper to do if your facility (the game engine) is built from the beginning with modularity, room to upgrade, and ease of access in mind. MMO longevity probably has far more to do with building upgradeable core systems to begin with than any other factors - which to be fair, no original MMO could have really predicted.

Nobody really new EverQuest would still be around 15 years later, but they probably should have considered the possibility when they were first making the game.

Most Modern MMOs are Rubbish

People know that now, but that's also problematic. Now they have to balance plans for longevity with making a solid working environment that is enjoyable and efficient from the very beginning. I think emergent, adaptable AI is a key component to MMO longevity over time, and I feel like too few games are pushing it as a "must-have" system.

Probably greater than anything else, most newer MMO games are putting the cart before the horse. They're trying to make a massive and immersive world and it's just not working. I think they should start smaller, focus on the quality and expand out slowly on a pace that matches their regular revenue. That's the only way you maintain creative-control over a game and can produce it with the AAA level of polish.

It's why I'm so intrigued by Revival - which plans to start smaller and grow over time rather than make the mistake so many other developers have by starting expansive and duping players with a false grandiose experience. (Those worlds are massive alright, massively empty.) Without a healthy, regular population that has a lot to do and accomplish against, with, and for one another - MMOs feel dead, and the size and scale of the world and narrative no longer matter.

Even when content does get added it feels just like relocating (an experience I am all too familiar with right now) as the new content tends to phase out all the old content for current players. It's completely at odds with the concept of creating an immersive and connected multi-player experience.

MMOs are just terrible right now and I cringe almost every time I see a new one on the horizon that has done nothing to fix these discrepancies that will eventually undermine the core experience.

 


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Last Updated: Mar 15, 2016

About The Author

Wall2
Alex has been playing online games and RPGs for quite some time, starting all the way back with Daggerfall, EverQuest, and Ultima Online. He's staying current with the latest games, picking up various titles and playing during his weekly streams on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings with both MMOs and MOBAs being feature plays. Hit him up on Twitter if you have a stream request for Freeplay Friday! Two future games he's got a keen eye on are Daybreak's EverQuest Next and Illfonic's Revival.

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