Monday, February 25, 2013

The Shifting Demographic - Massive Means Smaller

"In addition, the Ost Dunhoth raid has been split and balanced as three separate encounters to preserve the challenge but allow players to complete it in an order of their choosing."
 - from the latest LoTRO newsletter

There was a time when the selling point of 'massive' online games was their, well, mass. By this i don't mean the old favorites of redundancy i referenced in this post or the ever-spinning treadmill but the sheer size and complexity of the game world. EVE-Online led its ads with a promise of five thousand solar systems. Project Entropia framed its boasts in square kilometers of seamless game world. One of the high points of the Saga of Ryzom beta was a show of force on the developers' part, a migration of hundreds of mobs, the equivalent of a buffalo herd, migrating across the continent. Lineage 2's definition of 'dungeon' was not an instance, but a massive underground cave complex in the main game world itself, fitting as many players as would show up. Even World of Warcraft advertised the sheer expanse of Azeroth, the more new world to explore, the braver. As late as Darkfall, a frequent advertising tag-line touted a world so large it would take player characters eight hours to traverse on foot, a direct comparison to WoW's time-of-travel ads.

That escalation was also logically assumed to apply to gameplay. Planetside achieved the dream of constant continent-spanning battles involving hundreds of players. Even WoW was initially planned as a PvP game in which an entire world of players would constantly vie for control of both continents. Then came the instancing craze. Then came WoW-clones, copycatting instances - but even then a hint of the old idea of escalation, of mass, remained: raids. Raids were the last remnant of MMO aspirations, time-consuming engagements requiring large numbers of players working together. The first WoW raids, though instanced, still required forty players to spend hours on end working at an instance. They required clear organization, every group of five players having to function both individually and in conjunction with the greater plan. They had to prepare ahead of time with the appropriate supplies and function according to a militaristic schedule. Raids were, to the average idiot consumer, logistical, strategic and tactical nightmares. To nerds, they were a logistic, strategic and tactical dream.

Within a couple of years, raids stared being downsized. WoW raids went from forty to twenty players. LoTRO, after creating a raid group mechanic to fit twenty-four players, limited its instances to twelve, then reduced its regular instance runs from six to three players. City of Heroes scrapped its plans for raids altogether. The justification was always a concession to player demands. Players complained that raids took too much time. Players complained that raids required too many players. Players complained that players shouldn't have to prepare, or organize or cooperate. Just who the hell were these players?

Keep in mind, the original idea of an MMO, the gigantic seamless world inhabited by thousands of players at once, was not the pipe-dream of one lunatic. It wasn't just Lord British wanting to create the ultimate Ultima. It was the logical progression and escalation of escapist fantasy. We, the players, wanted bigger worlds. We wanted greater challenges. We looked forward to how massive each new MMO would be. Companies used sheer size as advertising because it worked, because their customers at that time wanted worlds and fights big enough to lose themselves in. We dreamt big. A good persistent world makes you feel small by comparison.
The MMO concept was never meant for casual play. It was not meant for casual players. It was created by and for escapists, for those of us who want to live in an alternate reality, in Azeroth or the Genesis star cluster. It's true that not everything in an MMO should be geared towards zerg guilds of hundreds of players, but there should be a benefit to the ability to organize, to plan and prepare. Players that only ever want to instantly jump into instances with a couple of buddies should not be put on the same pedestal as those capable of coordinating forty people for five hours straight. Intelligence, breadth and detail of foresight, should mean something. We need demanding, large-scale raids.

Yet the breakdown continues. The vicious cycle is now almost completely down its spiral. Encouraging small thought brought in more small thinkers. More small thinkers demanded smaller thought. From an entire world to forty players, from forty to twenty, to twelve to six to three. These are not the games players wanted because these are not the players the games were made for. Where did all the nerds go?

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