Free Realms dissapointment

Back from my vacation I stumble upon a weird fact. Free Realms is platform specific... Now, I don't understand the technology behind the scenes of Free Realms but it seems to me that when you make  a entry level MMOG that is designed to be free fast and easy to play. You might not want to block out 10% or computer users, namely Mac user.

I just launched the website on my MacBook Pro and simply couldn't find the play button. No information. No anything. I understand the huge difference between building for one versus two platforms but in a production as large as this and focused on such a low requirements user demographic why would this ever happen? I understand that Age of Conan doesn't support Mac. But Eve Online and World of Warcraft don't seem to have a problem making it profitable. Why is Free Realms not on more platforms?

The spectrum of game audiences

Most articles and books about games give a certain skewed image of our audience, the gamers.I can't claim to know what most developers believe but from interviews and articles by some of them I get the feeling that we're looking at a polarized view of game customers from the developer perspective. This could mean serious trouble for games.

By a polarized scale of gamers I mean that in almost all the interviews and articles I read there seem to be exactly two types of gamers. Hard core (or 'gamers') and casual (web games, wii and soduku). Anyone will quickly realize that there must be some space in between these two, but I think most people underestimate the scale of this... eh.. scale.

It's always hard to categorize people, who all have different habits and ideals, but in this case it really isn't that hard because the games industry have spent years defining these two groups. Hardcore gamers are players that spend a lot of money and time on games. They buy the newest consoles and really consume games. Casual gamers are players who would rarely define themselves as gamers. They spend time with really short games with little effort in preparation. Mostly they play games online but for the last year some of them have bought a Wii. Common for them is that they spend very short amounts of time on games and waste little time getting their entertainment, browser based games work better then downloadable and so on. They also spend only small amounts of money on gaming at any one time (micro transactions).

But where are the middle spectrum gamers? Who are they and how many of them are there? Well, statistics provide us with some answers here.

The Playstation 2 became a mainstream machine before the current generation of consoles were announced. Sony's machine has sold something like 120 million units. The current generation consoles, ps3 and xbox360, have together sold something like 40 million units. There is a gap of 80 million possible costumers who've still to adapt to the new technology. Now according to our scale, what kind of games consumers are in this gap? They've chosen NOT to buy the new exiting technology and instead hang on to old and outdated games. These are not hardcore gamers, they are also not casual because they do buy consoles. So who are they? In between gamers?

For another piece of the puzzle lets look at online gaming. Sadly it's hard to find conclusive statistics on players from casual gaming sites. So the closest I've stumbled over is the least casual type of online gaming. Massively Multiplayer Online Games.

World of Warcraft, the most successful MMOG in the western world, currently boasts over 11 million subscribers. It has been online since late 2004 and had over a million players by 2005. It grew really quickly and has had many millions of subscribers for several years. Now we can't know for sure what WoW's churn rate is (churn = players dropping off - new players). But a somewhat safe bet is that it's at least around 5-10%. That's a lot of players. That means that over the years WoW has had at least 20 million players. And most of them never saw end game content. That means that most gamers played the game without reaching hardcore goals, that should make them casual gamers in the polarized scale. But they're hardly casual gamers in the sense of browser based games and non investment if they're playing WoW are they? No, these must also be in between gamers.

These in between gamers are actually an interesting bunch. Because if we do a quick search for games that target this demographic we'll find only a few. One of the most famous, if not the most famous, is Sins of a Solar Empire - a spectacular RTS game by the way - that specifically targets PC gamers that used to play games but don't care to make hardware investments to be continuously shot as cannon fodder for the ruling game elite (hardcore gamers).

An even more surprising move with Sins is that is completely free of DRM. It has no copy protection what so ever. Compared to another current RTS game, World in Conflict, Sins opted for use of 'old' graphics and easy to use installation as well as a really cheap development cycle.

Even without the copy protection Sins has outsold World in Conflict by a longshot. And WiC is a fantastic game.

From the statistics I so lightly touch upon we can deduce that somewhere in the range of 20-80 million "in between" gamers are out there. They are not being actively pursued by the games industry. From my quick look at Sins and World in Conflict we can also see that they are not as prone to piracy as the hardcore demographic. They are in other words; ideal game consumers.

Here the skewed image of our gamers set in. We're not catering to a large part of our target audience. We're simply creating for the top percentage of players and hoping the rest will follow suit. We need to focus on this hard to define group of people, let's hire a marketing company to seek them out. Let's give a million dollar budget to a small studio to make a mainstream game just to see how it turns out at the stores. Let us at least acknowledge that this part of our audience is important.

If we aim for lower specs, go for gameplay that has proved to be fun and make a small but good game. Sell it for a reasonable price and make it as easy to buy as it is to pirate. Not only will we make a game that will sell, we'll probably be more or less alone in a 20-80 million strong demographic part of the gamer spectrum.

This is a huge mistake on the part of our industry. Someone at EA or Acti/Blizz should realize that.

(please comment for improvements or information)

Age of Warcraft

I just started playing Age of Conan and I must say I'm impressed. I've played a lot of MMOGs for research and Age of Conan has the smoothest and most intuitive startup of them all so far.
The fighting feels really liquid and action packed, at least for a start, much unlike the one click combat of WoW.
But the environments make me feel claustrophobic. Don't get me wrong, the world in AoC is beautiful, its just so packed with hills, rocks and stuff that I can't the forest for all the trees.

Overall its a very interesting game but I need to play it a bit more to give some form of real evaluation. A friend of mine claims that the content dries up after lvl 40. Judging from my previous MMO experience I'll get bored a lot sooner the lvl 40 but we'll see, I'm still going strong at lvl 9 and it took me several weeks to get passed lvl 7 in WoW.

I still have my article on the cognitive limitations of the avatar coming up soon. Just need to sit down and write. Later!

Capturing the Online Games Market

As I posted about earlier the web 2.0 applications are forerunners to a new type of game development market that is opening up online. Namely online games of which the flash games are currently most famous and seems to be the default platform in the foreseeable future.

Two large companies are apparently aware of this development as Ubisoft and Garage games have both already started delivering for the platform. While Garage games game platform is a closed network that relies on a plugin download they already have advanced 3D games up and running. Visit InstantAction and have a look.
Ubisofts upcoming Heroes of Might and Magic: Kingdoms might be delivered through flash, but it is to early to tell will HOMMK.

Time will tell but if I were a large publishing house today I'd try like hell to push Adobe to release open GL or direct X support with flash.

Read the previous post for more on the point.

Another line of work

So, after encouragement from Ole Herbjørnsen at Funcom, I've started playing World of Warcraft again. This time with the aim to max level a character and analyze the various systems I find on the way.

Now I've played WoW at least four times before. And the start of this character was no different, it was boring. Really boring. But then at around level 15 something previously unknownst to me happened.
I was enjoying myself!
Not the actual gameplay though, the fighting and grinding was still boring. But I started enjoying traveling through the world. The world itself in WoW is quite beautiful with it's five year old graphical style and the vastness and continuity of it really got to me. But instances and fighting... Let me give you an example:

Last night I had planned with a few of my friends to play Wailing Caverns, a horde instance in the barrens. It is the second instance for players playing the more colorful horde side of WoW.

But after dinner I found myself procrastinating, a lot. Even doing dishes!
Eventually my girlfriend Caroline prodded me:
"Weren't you supposed to play an instance with the guys?"
"...yes..." *sigh* "do I have to?"
"erh... I'm not sure you should pay for this game."

I did play WC, I did enjoy doing something with the guys. But I'm glad I have a few hours yet before I have to do it again. The basic gameplay in MMO's has got to change. Not many people can actually enjoy the one-click combat.