The MMO audience seems to be undergoing a change. It's been slow enough to pass as a typical shift in the market, and it might be. I'm no analytical expert, and I certainly do not have access to the inside of every game studio. What I do have is at least 13 years experience as an MMO fan. I've not only covered them but been obsessed by them for that time. I have always been interested in new titles, movements, and changes in the market. It's a hobby turned job turned fascinating social investigation.
I think there are generally three types of gamer: casual, core, and hardcore. Feel free to correct my terminology in the comments section or in an email, but let the discussion that ensues be proof that the shift is real. It seems as if the great mass of MMO fans -- not shooter fans or MOBA fans or fans of mobile, single-player games but fans of MMOs -- has split itself in the middle and pushed to both sides. The fandom has become more extreme, moving to hardcore or to casually hardcore.
The core gamer is a thing of the past.
Core gamers are the workhorses. They tend to a few titles and explore others but generally stick to their favorites. These players spend dutifully and expect full access for it. Many of them grew up with the subscription and so fell into the trap of the Western freemium model. After all, the velvet rope -- full, free access combined with the comfort of a subscription -- is too hard to resist. These gamers dabble in true free-to-play, games that offer full, free access but tack a cash shop on the top to make money. The core gamer tolerates the free-to-plays but sees them generally as fluffy, cookie-cutterish, and cheap. Free-to-play comes from other places, features odd art styles and mechanics, and unbeknownst to the core gamer, works to push the core gamers to the Western freemiums. The cheap, fluffy cash shops of the free-to-plays made the Western cash shops and costly expansions seem like something other than a cash-shop product. The Western freemium developer has benefited mostly from the foreign free-to-play. The core player has paid the cost.
"Hardcore players stick to one game. These gamers rarely venture outside of a particular title or genre, and to them, gaming styles are political parties."
We can look to MUDs for a good example of how the playerbase has become divided. Over the (admittedly brief) time I dedicated to covering MUDs, I noticed just how much of an old-school gamer's world MUDs are. I literally ran across players who had no idea other games existed, people who had no idea what "MMO" stood for. They were paused in time, remaining loyal to the first world that caught their imagination. It's an endearing loyalty, but it does bring up one key question: How does the industry survive with players who do not venture outside of one title?
I think the answer can be found in the age groups. Older players like yours truly remember the internet coming into its own. I remember the first widely available PCs that allowed us to venture into cyberspace. I, like many of you, distinctly remember the sound of the dial-up modem. I also remember our first trips online while using cable and later fiber optics. Speeds increase every year. I did not grow up with the internet; I have grown with it. I've always seen MMOs from the point of view of someone who had to pay for it himself. And I've enjoyed every minute of it.
But younger gamers have grown up with the internet, players who have the internet in their pockets and have had access to the net for as long as they can remember. Those gamers often differ in playstyle from older players. They can be the most hardcore players you'll find or can be as flighty as the assumed soccer parent from earlier. This younger group is just fine with getting something for free, so some developers literally employ freemium walls to force younger players to pay something. If developers did not use these tactics, too many of these customers would come from the "just a glass of water for me, thanks" category.
That's happened to so many titles over these last years: RIFT, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Lord of the Rings Online. And now the attention spans seem to be getting shorter and shorter. Even hardcore dedication is defined not by how long you play a game but by the fact that you played it loyally even if for a short time. Guild Wars 2 is making similar promises, and many players promise to be there. The Secret World started off strong with hardcore dedication, but the players will move on. They always do as soon as the next promise comes out. These players are casually hardcore, dedicated to one title at a time... until the next one is released.
"Meanwhile, casual MMO players are moving slowly into MMO-like games. MOBAs will rule all the world soon at the rate they are growing. "Facebook" gaming is immensely popular because it introduced easy, simple, and very social gameplay."
The definitions have changed. If you're a casual player, you're someone willing to split your time between whichever game piques your interest at the moment. You might have grown up with the internet and so have grown up with the idea that stuff on the internet is free. You do not see a subscription as something more noble. In fact, many casual gamers have never paid a subscription to anything.
The hardcore gamer is the smaller group. As a hardcore player, you are dedicated to a few titles. There is no longer a difference between dedication to one and dedication to a few. After all, we're talking about a market with hundreds and hundreds of titles. Many hardcore gamers might consider themselves open-minded because they jumped into a new Western freemium title, but they cannot consider themselves explorers.
Is the loss of the middle-ground bad for MMO gaming? Yes. Casual play is by far the greater of the remaining forces. We used to immerse ourselves in virtual worlds, but now the entire world is part of that experience. Social media has ensured that we can share anything, anywhere. Twitter can serve as a LFG channel, and Facebook can help us share our experiences with others. As I have said before, it's all social enough for many players. In large part, MMOs will eventually be lost in that newer world. Luckily, technology will in time redeem the genre by allowing almost any game to host any number of players, and MMOs will be slightly redefined but at least reborn. It will take time, though. Perhaps a very long time.
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