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"Not so casual…" - Difficulty problems in modern MMOs (Part 01: Player Types)

In this series of blog posts, we'll discuss problems in modern MMOs which are related to their difficulty. With these posts, I'd like us to discuss, how we can address these problems. Today we'll talk about player types and different play-styles.

Recently I read another article regarding the difficulty in modern days MMOs. By far this wasn't the first time that someone complained that MMOs became too casual and thus boring. So this led me to this series of blog posts for the coming weeks, asking: Why do gamers feel that way?

Just a few years back, MMOs were some of the most difficult to master games and only a very small group of gamers ever made it to the endgame. So we designers spent a lot of time making them easier and better approachable, but did we go too far? Maybe… Should we go back to the old days? I don't think so, because as designers our goal should still be to entertain as many as possible with our games. I think that we need to find ways, which combine the "modern" and "traditional" approaches, so that we don't lose our fans, while being on the quest designing the next generation of MMOs.

With each post I'll highlight another typical MMO aspect and hope that we can discuss solutions which lead us to better and more entertaining MMOs. None of these posts will have the room to fully discuss or even solve the problems, but hopefully will provide some ideas to tackle the problems in the future.

Also for each aspect I'll interview some other developers and will post their opinions in a separate post shortly after the main post. If you like to get interviewed or have a specific topic you like to discuss, feel free to write me.

That's it for the intro; let's start with the first aspect…

Player Types
Before we can talk about the different MMO aspects, we need to talk about our players and their different play-styles. The main reason for this is that by understanding our players better, we'll become able to create better games. Also a strong understanding of player types helps us to develop our systems in such a way that they match the expectations of our target audience.

Several approaches have been made to describe play-styles and player types. First I was tempted to use the famous Bartle classification, but if we want to include things like casual versus hardcore, it doesn’t really help. Thus I tried to come up with another system and the one I could come up with is a bit similar to the OCEAN (or Big Five) test from the realm of personality tests.

The general idea is that each gamer rates himself/herself in five different categories by assigning a value between 0 and 100. Each category describes another gaming aspect. As in OCEAN a high value means that this person tends more to the right side attribute whereas a low value means that she tends to the left one. The advantage of such a system is that it allows a huge diversity but is still easily understood. Also, again, we can use such a system as a rating tool, to rate our game system against certain play-styles to find out which group of players feels most attracted to a certain feature.

The five categories I came up with for our discussion are "Casual versus Hardcore (Difficulty)", "Cooperative versus Competitive (Competition)", "Story-focused versus Mechanic-focused (Play-Focus)", "Guided versus Un-Guided Exploration (Exploration)" and "Open versus Traditional Minded (Openness)".

The five categories in detail

Casual versus Hardcore (Difficulty)
This category defines if a player sees himself more as a casual player, who likes simple and easy games or if he sees himself as a core gamer, who enjoys complex challenges and tough choices. A high value means that this player tends to hardcore game mechanics and normally doesn’t even care if there is an easy mode or not. A lower value means that he rather enjoys simple game mechanics with a fast reward cycle. He may doesn't even want to be challenged at all and rather watch an interactive movie.

Cooperative versus Competitive (Competition)
With this category, I try to describe, if a player tends more to a Player-versus-Player or towards a cooperative play-style. A higher rating means that this particular player tends more to PvP than to coop-gameplay and enjoys intense battles against other players. A lower rating means that this player would enjoy activities where he can work together with other players to achieve something in the game.

Story-focused versus Mechanic-focused (Play-Focus)
This category describes if someone puts her focus on story experience or the game mechanics itself. Someone with a high value tends to enjoy the challenge that comes from certain mechanics and normally wants to try-out many different ways of playing her character just to find the perfect build. A typical mechanic-focused player wants to get to the endgame as fast as possible and then starts to challenge the most difficult encounters. A player with a low value tends to a story focus. She enjoys a huge variety of well-crafted quests and stories. Sometimes she doesn't even care if she will reach max-level and the best equipment, she just wants to become a part of the world and experience it. For her the way is the goal, whereas for a mechanic-focused person only the results matter.

Guided versus Un-Guided Exploration (Exploration)
With the exploration category a player defines how much he is willing to explore a world on his own. Also it defines if this particular player rather wants to have a huge world with many secret spots or if he enjoys more being part of small well-defined one. A higher rating in this category means that this person wants to spend time to discover the secrets of our virtual world. He doesn't need any guidance, just a world that needs to be discovered. A lower rating means that this player likes to have someone at hand that shows him through the world. He wants to know that he's at the right place to the right time. Also he may enjoy small, well-defined worlds more than vast open ones.

Open versus Traditional (Openness)
The last category addresses the fact that some players are more open to changes than others. With the help of this category I want to provide a rating for this fact, because especially when we create sequels or add-ons we need to know, if our audience will tend to accepting changes or not. A higher rating in this category means that a player tends to more traditional game mechanics. She got so used to the ones we already established that she doesn't want to see a change here. A typical example could be the hardcore pen and paper role-player. She got so used to using attributes and skill roles that she expects to see them in every role-playing game. She may even go as far as proclaiming that games without these mechanics will always fail and never could be true role-playing games. We saw this discussion for example with the release of the first Mass Effect. A lower rating in this category means that she would be open to changes and normally doesn't define a genre by its mechanics. For her the essential experience matters more than the mechanics. For our role-playing example it would mean that she would still define a game as a role-playing one as long as she plays a certain role and interacts in this role with other characters. For her the way how the combat is resolved is only one of many parts that belong to the idea of playing a role.

These are my five categories in short. They are only a rough start and not a fully fleshed out scientific theory. For now I hope that they help us to understand our fans better and ultimately help to create better games. I'll refer to these categories the next posts, when we look at MMO aspects such as Instances, Raids or Skill systems. Also I'll try to show how different player types see certain MMO aspects and how we can change these aspects to address certain player types.

Please feel free to share your thoughts, models and ideas in the comments.

Thanks for reading my blog. Have a great day and God bless you.

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