Players and Studios: MMOs as a social contract

Guild Wars 2 path of fire

It's no secret that MMO populations have been in a long decline – Lazy peon has an interesting video on the subject ‘Is the MMORPG genre dying?’.

He points out that Google searches for MMORPG peaked around August 2009, while MOBA searches began to rise in that time. And statistically MMO players tend more towards players in their mid-twenties, while MOBA games are more appreciated by players in their late teens. But mid-twenties, well, that’s a prime demographic generally with more disposable income. So while the MMORPG bubble may have burst, investors are looking at a smaller overall pie. For them, It’s a richer pie. Mmmmmm.

Having downloaded and tried more MMOs in the last two months than I did in the previous seven years, I would like to share a few thoughts of my own on this subject. I think what is needed, at least in part, to revive the genre and perhaps reverse the trend is a reconsidered social contract between ‘Players’ and the ‘Studios’. What I have noticed, quite honestly, is what feels to me like a lack of respect on both sides. Not completely surprising when one considers that gamers are a notoriously antisocial demographic, and I think we all, readers of forums and websites such as have met persons who seem to go out of their way to live down to the worst stereotype of a gamer, and often these are exactly the same people who tend to howl the loudest about their game dying.

So, Players first, please do show some respect to your game. No one made you spend 100, 500, 1000 or more hours grinding in your favorite game, until you've come to feel possessive of it, of your cyber home. So respect that, be an ambassador for your game, be the person who invites people into that space, not the troll that chases them off. Remember this is an act of enlightened self-interest. The more players your game has, the greater the Studio’s ROI, the longer the lights will be on, the more likely they are to invest in new content. Seek to be a friend to the studio, ‘your’ studio.

I remember when Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns came out, there was such anticipation for the coming expansion. But within two weeks of its release, people who had blitzed the content to access the new trait lines were already complaining that there was not enough content. No years of work on a new story chapter. Adding Gliders and all the art and mechanics that went into them; and the skill trees for the new trait lines, all that was not enough. “I played it out in two weeks” seemed to be the most common complaint. “I want more”, “I deserve more”, without the slightest nod to the years of work that went into providing the player with those “meager” two weeks of entertainment.

It struck me then and now, very much like a drunkard, who having guzzled a 20-year-old bottle of wine without hardly tasting it, then bellowing for more because it did not immediately deliver the hoped for buzz. It often seems to me that being a developer must be an almost uniquely thankless job because we players as a population, we are so demanding, so quick to criticize, and so stingy with our appreciation.

And sometimes we are just stingy. Now I understand players objecting to a pay-to-win game model, or having the cash shop shoved in your face at every turn. What I do not understand is players who are positively proud of never spending a dime in-game. Yeah, there used to be a word for that: freeloader, and a freeloader was looked upon with no little contempt. Now the devs have worked hard to provide you with an experience, and they deserve fair compensation for their labor, and most of us can easily spare the price of a cuppa now and then to support our game, to support our cyber home.

Supporting your game is just a part of the players’ end of the social contract. And it is also true that business men will go where the money is, period. When you support your game, you also encourage investment in the sort of game you like; when you wrap your fist around your money, you’re saying to the studios and their investors: no ROI here, invest your time and money in something else.

Now to this point I may have seemed like a shill for the studios, but if I could grab their ears I would say this: you have got to respect your players too. We are not cows to be milked, nor whales to be fleeced! Give us a more positive reason to patronize the cash store.

We are not idiots. If I clear a level without using one heal it’s not because I've suddenly become so brilliant, it’s because the mobs hardly fight back. I know when I’m being challenged, and when I’m not, and I have precious little reason to stay where I'm not challenged. The average age of an MMO player is 26, your players are not small children who need mommy to pin up their refrigerator art and tell us how brilliant our scribbles are as she kisses our brow. Handing out levels for walking across the street, and titles for little more than breathing will not retain your player base; on the contrary, it infantilizes them, and that conveys disrespect, and people don't stay where they don't feel respected. No, your players are mostly adults, challenge them as adults, and you will earn their loyalty.

Listen to your veteran players. They have invested hundreds, if not thousands of hours in your game. While they may not know the code as well as your coders, or the art as much as your illustrators, but the whole, the game as a whole… Oh, they know that as well or better than you do because they've been to every last corner of that virtual world. Let them feel they have a voice in the games direction, that the investment of their time is noted and appreciated. Listen to them.

An MMO is pretty much a human thing, and like all human things, there is at the bottom a social contract, and all successful social contracts begin with a foundation of mutual respect: Players and Studios.

A rant by Tom “Blackbird”.

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