Ease of Access - Case Studies in Accessibility and Popularity of MMOGs

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. 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.

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.

Defining Accessibility

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:

  1. Can I even play this MMORPG?
  2. How easy and enjoyable is the game to play through to the end game or "elder game"?
  3. What’s waiting for me at the end level or "elder game," and is it worth the trouble?

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.

Can I play?

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.

Is the game fun?

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.

Is it worth it?

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.

A Case Study in Inaccessibility: Where Vanguard: Saga of Heroes Went Wrong

by Karen "Shayalyn" Hertzberg

Vanguard: Saga of Heroes traveled a bumpy road to its launch in late January, 2007. A year prior to launch, many fans viewed Vanguard as their sandbox-style MMO savior--the predecessor to EverQuest, if not in name, then at least in spirit. But by the middle of February that year, and perhaps even sooner, Vanguard’s status had been downgraded from savior to bitter disappointment as the game bled subscribers. What happened to Vanguard, and why?

Could I play Vanguard?

For a large number of gamers eagerly awaiting Vanguard’s launch, the answer to this question ended up a disappointing no. Vanguard’s system specs, for their time, were quite high. [source] Although Brad McQuaid, co-founder and former CEO of Sigil Games Online, Vanguard’s original developers, often claimed that by the time Vanguard was launched technology would “catch up” and the hardware needed to run the game effectively would be less expensive, this theory didn’t necessarily prove true. McQuaid himself says it best in his blog, utilized mainly as a Vanguard post-mortem:

“Although almost 200,000 people signed up right away, the vast majority of players quit the game by level 2 or 3. This leads me to believe that most peoples’ issue was performance. Yes there were bugs, and yes there were too many servers at launch, making it difficult to find other people and to successfully group. But the biggest issue was that the game simply ran horribly slow.”

Even players with solid PC specs found running Vanguard a challenge. Rushed to release for, according to Sigil and SOE, “financial reasons,” the game was not well optimized and ran poorly even on a well turned out machine. Players fiddled with the game’s graphics options and sites, including Ten Ton Hammer, created fine-tuning guides to help players do some client side optimization of their own, but to little avail.

Could gamers play Vanguard? Many of them, even those who upgraded their PCs in order to run the game, couldn’t; they experienced game-breaking lag and hitching. Vanguards stands today as a case study on how games must be fully optimized, with accessible min specs, at launch…or suffer lost subscribers as a consequence. Although the game is well tuned and playable now, its launch ship has sailed and few players remain to enjoy what its vast seamless worlds have to offer.

Was Vanguard fun?

Was Vanguard easy and enjoyable to play? It depends who you ask. Vanguard offered, and still does offer, a lot to love: its world was beautiful, diverse, and immense; its combat was fun and engaging; and quest lines and lore were compelling enough. There was no shortage of things to do or places to see. Quests were so plentiful that players would often delete some from their logs because there simply wasn’t enough time to get through them all before out-leveling the areas or mobs involved.

But at launch Vanguard’s large seamless world was challenging to explore. Its developers had long supported the idea of “meaningful travel.” Players were supposed to experience lengthy, yet adventure-filled, journeys on horseback or by boat across the vast lands of Telon to get from one locale to the other. But travel turned out to be less-than-meaningful to most players, who found spending precious play time running from point A to point B in order to complete a quest or meet up with a group tedious. Some time later, a “riftway” system was implemented, making travel much easier. But, again, the efforts proved to be too little, too late.

Although aimed at a more hardcore (Sigil liked to use the word “core”) audience, Vanguard wasn’t particularly difficult to play. What it lacked in polish--guild, grouping and even item broker tools seemed rather archaic, even compared to older games like EverQuest 2--it made up for in sheer content. But few players were willing to stumble through the polish and travel roadblocks to reach the end game.

Was Vanguard worth it?

What lay waiting for gamers who did reach Vanguard’s end game? Was high level raiding experience worth the journey to the level cap? While most MMOGs lack a significant amount of end-game content at launch, Vanguard was lacking more so than most. It was more than 6 months after launch that the game saw the implementation of its first raid zone, a 12-man instance called the Ancient Port Warehouse.

Based on forum chatter, players who did see Vanguard through to the end game seemed impressed with the Ancient Port Warehouse (APW), and reviews of the content were largely positive, despite the long wait for its arrival. But once again, the end game focus proved too late to impress most players. By the time the APW arrived, many raiding guilds had given up on Vanguard and either moved back to existing games, or were looking forward to new ones.

Today, Vanguard’s development crew is small, and its updates rather sparse as SOE has pointed most of its development efforts elsewhere. Given the size of the world of Telon, player population on Vanguard’s remaining servers (merged later in 2007 to account for the sharp decline in subscriptions) remains thin, but not non-existent. Players still download the game’s free trial, a zone called the Isle of Dawn, reminiscent of EverQuest II’s Trial of the Isle, which leads them through 10+ levels of quest-driven content.

One might consider Vanguard’s downfall a series of unfortunate circumstances. High minimum spec requirements proved a barrier to entry for many gamers, and those who upgraded their boxes in preparation for Vanguard met with bitter disappointment when they still encountered lag and hitching at release. Although the game had the potential for fun, travel hassles, clunky interfaces and systems, and a general lack of polish put many players off. And end game content was nowhere to be found for power gamers until many months after the Vanguard’s release. Add these things up, and the game that could have been the king of sandbox MMOs ended up a lowly pauper that most gamers now overlook, despite its inherent charm and many improvements.

A Case Study in Accessibility: DDO and The Enemy at the Gates

by Reuben "Sardu" Waters

Getting into a new MMOG can often lead to a brand of frustration that simply isn’t shared across other forms of digital entertainment. As consumers we’re conditioned to expect that once you purchase digital media it should be ready to enjoy straight out of the box. Whether it’s a new CD from your favorite band, the DVD release of last summer’s sleeper at the theaters that’s destined to become a cult classic or even the newest console title to hit store shelves, those shiny new discs are synonymous with instant gratification.

Yet when it comes to MMOGs, obtaining the discs is most often just the first of many hurdles that we as gamers have to overcome on the long and winding road that we hope will lead us to our next great online gaming experience. More and more, titles are released containing at best a list of startup instructions and a product key in the box, so that we even have to wait for the game to install before we can view the PDF manual. Assuming all systems are go after the installation process, we’re then treated to a launch window that informs us that before we can ever push the shiny Play button and enjoy our new purchase, the mega patch of doom needs to begin which can sometimes take hours to download to get the client up to date.

The Virtual Toll Booth of Digital Distribution

Digital distribution should have been the silver bullet that kills the need to own a physical copy of a new MMOG, but in terms of accessibility it has only managed to create an even larger set of hoops to jump through. In the time it takes to download, install and patch a new title, you could have listened to a new CD a dozen times, watched a DVD half a dozen times or hit the half way mark on a new console game. This lengthy process only serves to compound the already rampant stereotyping of MMOGs as being a form of entertainment that requires too long of a time investment before ever paying off in the fun department.

In an era when open betas have become the de facto soft launch for many new releases, digital distribution has wiggled its way into our MMO gaming lives, regardless of our intentions to own a physical copy of the latest and potentially greatest new title to grace store shelves. Red flags go up and angry forum rants ensue the moment its announced that the open beta client release is being handled by a third party, especially when a monetary exchange is thrown into the mix which negates the concept of a beta being truly “open” in the first place.

The Turbine Effect

Many of the top shelf MMOG publishers have begun using a catchall download manager for their stable of titles that in many cases circumvents both the necessity of owning a physical copy of a new release as well as the frustrations inherent in dealing with a third party for digital distribution. The recent release of Aion is a perfect example of how this method can be used to great effect, as anyone owning another of NCsoft’s titles can log in and play another game such as Guild Wars while the Aion client downloads in the background, all easily accessible from the same simple interface. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, Turbine’s approach with the rerelease of Dungeons and Dragons Online has shown us that there is indeed a light at the end of the accessibility tunnel.

The time it took between clicking on the download button and getting into the now free to play lands of Eberron was all of 15 minutes, which for all intents and purposes is a landmark record for the industry based on my own previous experiences. The way this was accomplished is by Turbine’s correct assessment that a brand new player just starting out at level one simply isn’t going to need access to high end content straight out of the gates. By reducing the core client install down to less than 300 megabytes, it allows players to dive directly into character creation in less time than it typically takes to install a full game directly from a DVD, meanwhile the full client streams in the background as you play with no noticeable hits to performance.

Bridging the Gap

Not content to simply bash the gates of accessibility wide open with a +2 Hammer of Striking, Turbine smartly included a brief walkthrough of the character creation process within the launch window, giving new players a useful guide to read during the short wait. By the time you’ve gone through the information it contains you’ll be ready to dive into the game itself and also have a better insight as to how the DnD rule set differs from standard fantasy MMOGs. Even the accessibility of character creation has been taken into account, as players are presented with the option to select from a number of preset frameworks that can guide their character’s advancement (though can be abandoned at any time should you opt to steer your character in a different direction).

When taken as a whole, these key elements stand in sharp contrast to the launch version of DDO from 2006, which had a notoriously steep learning curve for anyone not fluent in the intricacies of the tabletop rule set. As a result, the newest online incarnation of the Eberron setting is seeing a rising tide of renewed interest, and has effectively raised the bar for MMOG accessibility to new heights. Developers and publishers alike should certainly stand up and take notice of what Turbine has accomplished here. As things currently stand for the industry, getting people into a new title is often times the accessibility equivalent of expecting them to crawl in through an eighth story window rather than a casual stroll through the unlocked front doors.

A Case Study in the Successfully Inaccessible: EVE Online's Hardcore Mythos

by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle

Just about every MMO fan has an opinion about EVE Online. An impromptu survey of the Ten Ton Hammer team yielded comments like:

  • "EVE's fleet warfare is like Vegas, it'll take you from the most amazing fun you've ever had in an MMO to the worst in-game horror you've experienced, back to the most fun again, all in the space of one night"
  • "Is that the new fitting screen? it's my longest running subscription... I've been paying for the game for four years but haven't logged in but to change skills"
  • "It's the most beautifully crafted spreadsheet I'll never play again."

EVE Online's unique approach to massive scale combat is nothing if not polarizing, and as such it's full of fresh insight into any discussion on what accessibility means to MMOs.

Can I play EVE Online?

The answer to this question is easy: EVE Online is among the most playable games in the wacky wide world of MMOs. While the Linux Cider client was discontinued for lack of interest earlier this year, the Mac OSX client continues to grow in use at a clip comparable to Mac vs. PC adoption. The EVE client also blazed a trail, being Transgaming's first MMO adaptation for Mac (now City of Heroes and Warhammer Online have joined the lineup as well, and WoW, though not a Transgaming port, has always had a Mac presence).

Not only is EVE Online among the most OS-agnostic of MMOs this side of a browser-based game, you can easily run multiple instances of the game from one computer. My personal best is three (one for each of my triple-heads, and a perfect setup for casual mining), but CCP devs say they've gotten up to 10 instances running on one computer. EVE's multi-boxing capacity has been the object of fun and legend, too. Darius Johnson, ex-CEO of Goonswarm, the game's largest alliance, claims to be run by just 20 directors running massive 12-screen rigs, but Ten Ton Hammer thought it was more entertaining not to try and confirm their claim.

Is EVE Online fun?

EVE Online is a game of paradoxes, and what seems like a nightmarishly inaccessible game can, in fact, put you deep in the "endgame" faster than any level-based online RPG you've ever played. In a word, it's all about connections, but first, let's address why EVE has garnered such a gnarly reputation.

Producer and EVE Online forefather Torfi Olafssen had the final word on EVE for beginners when he began a 2008 FanFest 2008 keynote segment with reference to EVE's "steep learning cliff" - an idea forever visualized by an XQCD comic. Even with the best insurance you can buy, you're liable to lose most of your investment whenever you lose a ship (which happens fairly often), and should you get "podded", you can lose horrendous amounts of training time should you commit the cardinal sin of not upgrading your clone regularly. In short, EVE Online's death penalty remains the most punishing among popular MMORPGs, by far, and new players learn very quickly not to put all their proverbial eggs in one battleship-sized basket. The paradox here is that you really feel it when you lose a ship or destroy someone else's ship. For some players, that's visceral and compelling. For others, particularly the PvE attuned, it's just as compelling... as a reason to emo ragequit.

EVE's aura of complication and inaccessibility is in many ways justified, but here’s another interesting reality about EVE: you can be part of the “endgame PvP” in your first week, maybe even your first day. It's as simple as 1) clear your schedule for the evening, 2) join a militia if you haven't already and watch chat to find a roaming fleet headed for trouble, and 3) tag along. You’ve got nothing to lose even if you die in the worst possible way, you’ll learn plenty, and if you can manage not to make a pest of yourself on voicechat, you might even make some friends (which usually equates to getting loot and making money).

The factional warfare introduced in Empyrean Age means that these fleets can be found much closer to high security systems - it’s just a matter of signing up in your local militia office and keeping an eye on chat to see where the next fleet is forming up. Additionally, the upcoming fleet finder system (think LFG for alliance fleets) and sovereignty changes in November's Dominion expansion (notably the new ease with which sovereignty claims can be made and disrupted, upkeep costs for claims, and the massive Titan nerf) are, according to in Lead Designer Noah Ward's words, intended to make sovereignty attainable for smaller and smaller alliances. In the wake of EVE's Great War, a conflict model that's more sporadic and balkanized is welcome news for many players.

And you're never completely without help. EVE still boasts the most newbie accessible mechanic ever to grace an MMO: the new player corporations. It's impossible to be "unguided" in EVE, and you'll always find a few veterans (or pseudo-veterans) hanging out in chat to answer your newbish EVE questions. Failing that, EVE's second largest corp, EVE University, has assisted thousands of players in finding their way into fleet warfare.

What's waiting for EVE players at the end of the yellow brick road?

This isn't an easy question to answer, since EVE is the clearest mainstream example of a sandbox game. From one viewpoint, EVE might be the most soloable game you've ever played. The "endgame" is whatever you want it to be - whether you're tooling around mining or pirating with some friends (always take friends!), roaming around with militia fleets, claiming and maintaining sovereignty with your alliance, spymastering your corp or spying on an enemy's corp, or even market arbitrage.

Not all of the continuing fun of the game is in the endgame, either. Just like in the age of sail, commanding small, speedy ships makes for a more interesting and varied experience than commanding massive ships of the line. What small ships lack in durability and firepower, they make up for in speed, versatility, and affordability. Designed for small craft, the new epic mission arcs have been a success, with new epic mission arcs centered on the pirate factions in the works. Noah also hinted at "subsystem targetting" during our time with him at PAX 2009, by which hordes of smaller ships could target specific parts of capital ships Luke Skywalker-style. No game has put as much continuing effort into revamping its accessibility either, with three major revisions of the new player experience, factional warfare, sovereignty changes, wormholes and tech 3, and so on.

In short, the fun of EVE is all about the effort you put into EVE - it's the most risk / reward oriented MMO that you're going to find. And, despite the jokes, EVE is becoming more and more accessible as time goes on. EVE remains entirely in the realm of the niche MMO, one of the few true holdouts in a category slowly caving to the influence of its most popular title. Despite the "threat" of greater accessibility and a console tie-in, EVE's hardcore mythos has served the game well in the past and should continue to do so in the future.

We've had our say on accessibility, now let's hear yours. Does an MMO's accessibility guide its destiny? Should every game designed nowadays have an easy onramp, or should a game weed out the feint of heart at the very beginning? Was EVE an outlier, or can more MMOs follow EVE's niche model into hardcore celebrity? Your thoughts welcome in the Ten Ton Hammer forums!

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Vanguard: Saga of Heroes Game Page.

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