Updated Mon, Oct 05, 2009 by Sardu
Ask just about anyone in the industry for one word to describe why World of Warcraft is so successful, and if they don't say "Blizzard," they'll likely say "accessibility." What does accessibility mean? Is it as simple as lowering the barriers to entry or offering casual players a shot at succeeding in the endgame? We'll attempt to define accessibility, then examine three case studies in an accessible MMO, an inaccessible MMO that by many accounts failed, and an inaccessible MMO that became a success story.
by Benjamin J. de la Durantaye
Since the dictionary definition of accessible is pretty broad ("easy to approach or use"), and because players approach and use these games many different ways throughout their playing "career", we're going to try and isolate accessibility for the newbie game, intermediate game, and endgame. For our purposes, accessibility can be defined in three ways:
With these criteria, we have a starting point for evaluating how likely it is that a game will initially attract a crowd, pull them in with interest, and keep them playing.
The first step to reach players, obviously, is to ensure the game will be able to be played on as many home computers (or consoles) as possible. If no one can play the game, no one will. Equally, if only a few can play it, only a few will play. The danger of going this route is that if a segment of the audience is excluded right off the bat, there will be fewer players in phase two, and even fewer to see phase three.
Any restrictions imposed will have an adverse effect on the active player population. The more conditions that have to be met, the fewer who will be able (and willing) to pay a monthly subscription. Age of Conan, for example, limited its audience to adults only with a big “M” rating on the product’s box. Technical Requirements prevented many from playing Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Billing issues and alleged hidden fees of the Play Online system stunted Final Fantasy XI’s numbers. Darkfall never even made it into a large segment of the North American audience due to myopic marketing.
That’s not to say a studio should not ever limit its potential audience for a particular game, either by rating or minspec. Though niche games will never attain WoW numbers, going for a particular audience can be the best way to get noticed in a category rife with copycats and wannabes. Gaining widespread appeal will be an uphill battle for such games, however.
Assuming a game makes it into the home of thousands or even millions of customers, how fun is the game? This stage of accessibility can be viewed as the real meat of the product design, and may have a larger contribution to customer retention than the other two phases. The whole purpose of a game is entertainment, and that is, to have fun. What makes a game fun is largely subjective, but most will agree there are some key components here too. The User Interface, for example, will take away from a lot of the fun if players cannot do what they want to do with relative ease. It’s simply not fun to fight with hard coded, poorly designed interfaces in order to play the game.
Art direction, animation, and other mechanics like questing, combat, crafting and communication need a great deal of focus as well, since what makes a game not fun is as elusive a thing as what makes a game fun. The whole base of this phase of accessibility is to ensure that players can enjoy the core gameplay with as little friction as possible. Age of Conan suffered a difficult UI. Classic EverQuest had a steep leveling curve. EVE Online is a difficult and complicated game to get to know. Every complication or obstacle a player faces in a game potentially offers one more reason for the player to quit the game.
That being said, part of the fun is also overcoming the game’s obstacles, such as raid bosses. This should not be confused with core gameplay mechanics. Solving a puzzle can be fun. Going to university to learn reverse engineering in order to recode a game to add the ability to move an awkwardly placed window is not.
The players left in game after phases one and two will be asking this very question. After they’ve bought the game, played diligently through it, and reached “max level,” what’s waiting for them? If the answer is “nothing,” don’t expect them to continue subscribing. There is no “ending sequence” in MMO games, so there needs to be an unending treadmill of significant rewards, and that invariably will lead to more things for players to do.
Aside from PvP and bragging rights in games like Ultima Online, perhaps the first major endgame hook dates from EverQuest. Even after a player has reached the level cap, has raided all the bosses, maxed their crafting skill, they can still develop their character through Alternate Advancement (AA). This system continues to reward players with combat and quest experience, and after so much experience is earned, they are rewarded an AA point. They can spend these points on improving their character, whether by increasing their stats, or just making them able to hold their breath a little longer under water. Even if the carrot is a small one, players will stay loyal if they are kept entertained and feel that they can still progress their character’s career.
If the game can reach millions of players, get them involved and interested in the game, and keep them entertained long past level cap, one can expect to keep millions of players paying a subscription fee. But disregard given to any of the three phases above will yield lesser results. The only obstacles in a game should be the ones designed purposefully to challenge players, and not handicap them. If all the components are weighed carefully and designed thoughtfully, there’s no reason the game cannot succeed and attract large numbers of players for a long time to come.
With these criteria in mind, let's examine three case studies in accessibility, inaccessibility, and because there's an exception to every rule: an MMO with a reputation for inaccessibility that's found itself quite an audience.