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Question of the Week Responses: The MMO Goes 'Mainstream'?

Is having over 2 million subscribers a bigger sign of MMO expansion into the mainstream? Gamasutra presents the answers to: "Does the recent success of World of Warcraft indicate that this once primarily hardcore genre is now reaching the mainstream? If not, what needs to happen for MMOs to radically expand their market?"

Quang Hong, Blogger

July 1, 2005

13 Min Read

The latest Question of the Week asked: “Does the recent success of World of Warcraft indicate that this once primarily hardcore genre is now reaching the mainstream? If not, what needs to happen for MMOs to radically expand their market?”

Illustration by Erin Mehlos


No, MMOs are for the Hardcore.

A valid point brought up by the professional respondents to our question was that MMORPGs, being RPGs, are built around grinding on the level treadmill. Naturally, such practices are time-intensive and tend to turn off the more casual, mainstream audience. Some attributed World of Warcraft's success as another Blizzard brand hit rather than the mainstream embracing MMOs.

No, WoW has expanded to its player base beyond WarCraft and Diablo, but not to the mainstream. Many of these subscribers will not play another MMO in the near future. MMOs need to expand their playstyle from treadmills to focusing on fun factor. Mainstream players do not have the time or see any benefit in investing hours upon hours into an avatar that exists in a static treadmill world. Technology also needs to progress to allow MMOs to play like standard games, many mainstream people will not be willing to deal with the technical issues MMOs typically have.
-Patrick Lister, Computer Sciences Corporation

I think the mainstream is still a majority of casual gamers -MMOs do not have a place there just yet. World of Warcraft is based on an incredibly popular franchise which has gone a long way to ensure commercial success. This particular MMOG has shifted the dynamic a little to allow the game to be played more casually, perhaps grabbing the attention of a small minority of mainstream gamers. For MMOs to expand their market, they need to take a sharp turn away from traditional role-playing. Quick-fix gameplay and concentrated action could lead the MMO into the mainstream.
-David Deeble

What is mainstream? Yes, Blizzard is hitting this one out of the ballpark, and deservedly so. But I have yet to find that any of my friends, who were not dedicated players before WoW, have taken up playing World of Warcraft. However all my hardcore friends have had a stab at it. Is Blizzard really breaking through to the mainstream, or just simply rallying every single geek out there? As for reaching the mainstream, we need more song and dance, The Sims, and Nintendogs it seems, and less hack 'n' slash, orcs, dragons and light sabers...
-Marque Pierre Sondergaard, Powerhouse

I don't think that MMOs will ever be fully mainstream. Blizzard has done a good job of making WoW easy and appealing for players new to MMOs, but they can't control people. There is a certain percentage of people who play online games who ruin the experience for other players, though perhaps not always intentionally. I think that what we all really want is more options in dealing with our server communities. Maybe Blizzard and the creators of other MMOs should take it a step farther and allow players on specific servers to form and enforce their own community rules.
-Carolyn Begle, Stardock

In my opinion, the success of WoW indicates a convergence of the fractured MMORPG gaming population and not necessarily the sudden adoption of the mainstream gamer. Robert Garriott (CEO of NCSoft North America) called this "churning", as players move from one game to another. In the case of WoW, players from rival MMOs collectively "churned" into this new offering of Blizzard almost simultaneously. Then, right below the core MMORPG players, are other hardcore gamers tasting their first massively multiplayer experience due to word of mouth. To get the mainstream on board something needs to be done with the trap that most MMOPRGs fall into and that's the "grind". Fed Ex quests that take hours to complete or missions that require a specific party structure, and farming for money/resources are going to be tough pills to swallow for the casual consumer. What's worse is we're asking them to pay a monthly fee for this. So how does one get the casual gamer on board? Maybe a tiered pricing structure would help. As they grow their interest in the game so does their monetary commitment. But most of all, MMOs really need to create an interdependent society where personal success contributes to the overall welfare of specific communities. Have a system where crafting (or any other non-combat related activity) is actually fun and rewarding. Implement a system where advanced players can take on newbies and casual gamers as apprentices or students. You can foster a relationship where these players can help you farm for resources and craft. In return they can learn some of your skills and abilities a bit faster than doing it alone. On a personal note, I'd like to be able to break the shackles of my PC and bid/sell in the Auction House using my cell phone... not while I'm driving of course.
-Carlo Delallana, Ubisoft

I don't believe it indicates the genre is reaching “mainstream” status. Instead, I believe the success of World of Warcraft can be attributed more to the fact that it is a Blizzard title and less to it being a great MMOG. With any other developer's name on the box I think WoW would have sold significantly less. While I think the success of WoW will have more people following the genre, and perhaps even playing a MMOG for a short while, I don't think it will have so much impact that MMOGs in general begin selling as well as other genres. So long as MMOGs continue to reward players more for time invested than anything else, I think sales of MMOGs - WoW aside - will remain similar to what they are achieving now.
Nathan Cooper, Hendricks & Partners

Yes, MMOs are Mainstream.

Some argued that MMOs are definitely moving towards the mainstream, with a few stating that they already are mainstream. Our respondents felt that games like World of Warcraft, by offering something for everyone, drew in a much larger market, and the title is definitely a step in the right direction for the expansion of MMOs.

Yes it does. Nothing needs to happen, the gears are already in motion. The "next generation consoles" are going to do everything that that needs to be done. The "casual player" will migrate to consoles, leaving the PC market to the "hardcore players" that it made up most of its audience in the ‘90s. This PC market will, in turn, be mostly made out of online games - just because they are more fun. Virtually all genres will evolve into their MMO analogs. What makes me wonder is how the consoles will try to adapt some of those genres. Strategy and FPS, for instance, seem to be lacking in the interface department due to the general all-around mouseless-ness.
-Ilya Bossov, Lesta

WoW is a good step in broadening the player-base for MMOs, due largely to the high production values and to the enormous strength of the Blizzard brand. That it is very solo-friendly and has a wealth of hand-crafted content also helps a great deal. Further expansion of the market is certain and will happen through a combination of factors, such as more solo-friendly gameplay and content, better player-matching (allow players to keep playing together as they advance through the game at different rates) and the release of less hardcore games and console MMOs. More and more I am hearing of persistence being considered in all sorts of games and you will probably see that start to emerge in next-generation console games as the traditional MMORPG is blended with other genres.
-Robert Spencer, BigWorld

It's only the way that the genre is applied that leads to a game being exclusively “hardcore” or not. MMOs needn't include confusing interfaces and reams of stats - as WoW proves. The move from blanketing all these games as MMORPGs towards more specific titles is a clear indication that the industry is opening up the “genre” to more of a mainstream audience. Why must a massively multiplayer game be an RPG? As we are seeing now, MMO style play can be applied to a number of different genres; appealing to a much wider audience. I would rather think of an MMO as a delivery method rather than a genre in itself. As long as the time and effort asked from the game to enjoy it is not excessive, moving into the territory of the hardcore gamer, then it will be accessible to the masses. On the other hand, just as complex stat heavy offline games will remain the realm of the dedicated hardcore gamer, so will the MMOs as long as they follow that narrow path. MMOs have shown that they have the ability to acquire and retain vast numbers of players - now we just need to let the more casual gamers know that there is something there for them too.
-Oliver Ashford, Chiba-it

I think its starting to get there. Blizzard managed to make MMO gaming far less complicated, yet still as deep as any other MMO. However, in an NCSoft interview, the company said it best when claiming that getting outside of the "fantasy realms" that generally are 90% of MMOs is the way to break into broader audiences wallets. I know I'm not the only one who has mentioned or imagined a GTA MMO. And while the game may include people running around and killing anything that moves, if that's what gamers want, then that's what they deserve. Less MMOs focused on giving players tasks and more just letting them have fun and play around in a world with the only limitation being their own creativity.
-Angel Vargas

Yes, absolutely. And No. Fantasy MMORPGs have reached the mainstream, not surprisingly as the first. This means that the mainstream is ready to adopt and accept the subscription-based business model, which is a good thing. Other types of MMO have not necessarily breached into the mainstream, but there is absolutely no reason this shouldn't happen. We, who are making narrower, smaller games, should keep doing that, because the business needs diversification, but we should also look into business constructions that allow us to bundle our products in a reasonable way, such that the mass market can easily and affordably try out many MMOs.
-Lars Kroll Kristensen, Runestone Game Development

WoW is absolutely reaching the mainstream market. I'm in a guild in WoW where there are many players who are playing their first MMO, and beyond that, playing their first video game ever! For example, my girlfriend plays and she would've never thought to buy a video game until trying out WoW. She works at a medical device company, and her female co-workers talk about playing WoW. But then again, WoW is the best MMO out there for hardcore and casual gamers alike. World of Warcraft is a great license also, but to most casual gamers, Star Wars or the Matrix are more notable names. It's not about the license, it's about making a great game.
-Tony Dormanesh, Midway

MMOs Need To Change?

Over all answers, there was actually an even split of opinions on whether MMOs were really heading 'mainstream'. But, regardless of whether or not our respondents felt that MMOs were reaching a mainstream audience, many had suggestions to further grow the market for MMOs. In fact, one of our respondents had plenty of suggested improvements to make MMOs more accessible to casual gamers:

Recently, there has a been a huge push-on the designer's part-to try and make MMOs more appealing to casual players. 2 million in World of Warcraft is a lot of active subscriptions; I'd certainly consider the game popular. As for mainstreaming, the question is, “Who is playing?” Has World of Warcraft succeeded in bringing new blood to the MMO market or have they merely convinced a lot of MMO players to switch over to their product instead? A few suggestions for making MMOs more accessible to the casual gaming public:
-Allow for shorter play sessions. I've noticed that upon logging into most games, I keep doing something that leads to something else and before I know it, I've spent a rather hefty amount of time on the game. Phantasy Star Online is quite good about this. There are some quests that end after a certain amount of time, or are short enough in general that I'm capable of budgeting my time spent in the game. If I have 20 minutes before the bus arrives, I know there are a few quests I can easily accomplish within that amount of time and still get to work on time.
-Limit the use of sinks and grinds. This correlates with the aforementioned item about making “bite-sized” play sessions, but these 2 items have become such quintessential parts of MMOs (MMORPGs especially) that they warrant being addressed specifically. These two aspects of gaming-forcing a player to waste resources(real world time or in-game resources) and excessive use of repetition to advance in the game-feel more like chores than pleasurable activities. When grinding or wading through sinks, the players themselves look like they're in some kind of trance; the same trance you see slot players in casinos. Being a mindless, addicted zombie is a behavior that society looks down upon and that seems to be the image the main stream has of MMO players, as shown in numerous main stream media articles. Reducing the grind and sinks should also make the game more accessible to newcomers; a longstanding issue with MMOs.
-Allow for interruptions. Just about every game out there has some kind of pause feature, except for MMOs. Persistent, dynamic worlds are a big draw and pausing the entire realm every time a single player hits a pause button would render the game unplayable. Again, I give much credit for Phantasy Star Online for making all log-offs easy (you always start in an area where no harm can be done to your character) and having safe havens 10-20 seconds away.
-Get rid of “lamers.” There are some major positives about running around a virtual world seemingly without consequence. However, it would be nice to have consequences for typing (or screaming if there is voice chat support) obscenities and behaving in an uncivilized manner. MMOs can be nice escape from reality but “1337 sp34k” and the general barbarism exhibited by other users can destroy the game atmosphere in an instant. Ability to control instances and whom you associate with can be extremely helpful but having the game's maintainer take a more active role has been something even hardcore gamers seem to be clamoring for. These are a few major issues that stick out to me. That and making MMOs more than chat rooms with mindless killing and collecting shiny objects.
-Christa Morse, Perpetual Entertainment


[Article illustration by Erin Mehlos. Please note that the opinions of individual employees responding to the Question Of The Week may not represent those of their company.]

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Quang Hong


Quang Hong is the Features Editor of Gamasutra.com.

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