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The Soapbox: The demise of the core gamer


Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

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.

WoW screenshot
How do we define these three groups? Relatively easily. A casual player is sometimes defined as a soccer parent, a wispy, flighty player who comes and goes and knows no better. Casuals are not dedicated to one game, or they're dedicated to casually playing one game. They spend money here and there and are responsible for the "dumbing down" of MMOs in general. Some folks might claim World of Warcraft bowed to these casuals and wrecked the MMO universe.

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."

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. Yes, many of these hardcore players have even claimed to be "conservative" and come up with terms to set themselves apart from the rest of the soft, casual, larger crowd. Dedication equals in-game glory. True, time in an MMO is more important than almost anything, but whether this sort of dedication to a handful of titles is better for the genre or for the few titles the hardcore gamer plays is up for debate. A developer loves a hardcore fan; the genre as a whole probably does not.

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.

Games list screenshot
So we now have older players who stick to their older games, younger players who stick to their games or have no loyalty to one genre thanks to the ever-present smartphone and access to Facebook, and players like yours truly who find it harder and harder to find players to explore with. My Rise and Shiny column soon proved to me just how unwilling players are to explore. Although most of the games I cover in the column offer at least a completely free client and basic access, I had to pull teeth just to get a handful of players to play the game with me before I wrote up my first impressions (that was the original idea of the column, anyway). Most of my readers waited for my "review" to come out and then would possibly try the game. I would be moving on to the next game, and the readers would wait again until they were given the all-clear. It was a sobering reminder of just how many titles there are out there, so many that players have now become distrustful of those that do not make grand promises. In fact, the "AAA" games are some of the few MMOs left that can pull in a new player just based on promises alone.

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."

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. Remember, sharing a picture of your favorite game can fulfill the social need as much as raiding can. The proof is in the success of the genre. So the core gamer, the one who was at least willing to try something new despite its promises, is being split and seduced by promises of groundbreaking gameplay or by the easier pace of social gaming. There are too many titles to try, and the core gamer no longer has the guts to jump into even a completely free world. Indie gaming suffers because of this lack of exploration.

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.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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