Waking the Giant, by Julie Whitefeather
Apr 08, 2007 22:56:19

Where does a giant sleep? The answer, of course, is anywhere he wants to. There has been much talk lately of this game or that game being a "WoW beater". Some game developers admit that they are addressing a niche market. Others seem to originally talk about being a WoW beater, but as they approach the Blizzard giant, they seem to have second thoughts. One such person to have second thoughts, mostly as a result of hind sight, is Brad McQuaid - who lately brought us Vanguard and originally helped bring us Everquest 1.

In a long post that seems more of an apology than anything else, and is quite verbose as seems to be his style, he addresses several issues. Among them are tech issues (performance), under-populated servers, launching close to the release of "The Burning Crusade" and marketing. Here are some of the things he says about marketing:

"There are two groups of ex-EQ 1, UO, DAoC, etc. players out there: the ones that look back fondly on the years they put into EQ 1 and those who don't -- either they're upset or, more often, they simply have had their lives change and they don't have the time to play another EQ 1. So when they heard about Vanguard and all of the EQ 1 people working on it they didn't even give it a chance -- they simply assumed Vanguard would be as hard core as EQ 1 (when it absolutely isn't). We totally underestimated that second group, and I think if we had got the message out that Vanguard was not just another EQ with all of its time sinks, tedium, leveling times, necessary raiding, need for contiguous time commitments, and somehow got that message clearly and strongly through to that second group we would have launched more strongly..." - Brad McQuaid

This touches on some issues on why some people may indeed be waking up the Blizzard giant. Not only that, the Blizzard giant has done a few things (even if they produced unexpected results) that should cause it to not sleep so soundly these days.

Back in grad school our marketing teacher taught us that marketing is about making your product meet the needs of the customers - not the other way around. Or as it has been so aptly put before:

"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."

Yet in marketing games, sometimes this has been forgotten. In the ultra-competitive media market grab to get the attention and the time of customers, this is an important principle if you are even going to get out of the gate.

One of the ways this is overlooked is in tech issues.

"Ideally, you launch with both a flexible engine that grows with you and also in a tech window that doesn't mean that a lot of your players feel the need to upgrade their machines significantly." - Brad McQuaid.

Yet this is just what happens these days. In an effort to produce games with "jaw dropping" graphics the computer needed to run games starts to outstrip the ability of the average player to obtain them. If you want to run a game like Vanguard, for instance, you can't even think about running it smoothly on average settings without 2 gigs of ram, over 2ghz speed, and the equivalent of an Nvida 7900 card. But if there is one thing that both World of Warcraft and Korean imports have taught us (but in different ways) that is that really great graphics don't always make for really great game play. There are games out there that may look great, but right now are being used as a door stop around my house. They became just a drag to play. But one man's trash is another man's treasure, as they say and Blizzard has taught the world, with their latest expansion that the artwork doesn't have to require a Cray Supercomputer just to look great.

Yes, there are some games that start with a great IP (intellectual property) like Lord of the Rings Online that has a built in market. There are a lot of Lord of the Rings Fans of all ages and Turbine has struck while the iron is hot. But in the long run, if the game play is garbage, it won't matter how good the IP is.

What does it take to wake up the sleeping Blizzard giant, let alone grab a part of his action? Developers all over the world would like an answer to that one. Conferences are held to discuss the issue. Sometimes, though, the simple things get overlooked.

Game play...

What constitutes good game play? That answer can be as hard to hit as a poor marksman with a small target. We may not always know what it is there right off the bat, but it is very obvious when it is missing. In his comments on marketing, Brad Mcquaid talks about his target market as "ex-EQ 1, UO, DaoC" players. I personally fit in the first two of those categories. Why did I continue to play UO (Ultima Online) with it's overhead perspective and lousy graphics even after WoW and EQ 1 came out? The answer to that question is easy. Game play; it was fun to play and it had a great community of players. I did play EQ 1, but quit in very short order. Why? Brad already knows why. It was an INCREDIBLE grind. Games that take hours upon end in which to advance even a little bit do not daunt the "hard core" gamer. But the hard core gamer is not the average gamer. Not any more; Blizzard saw to that. Thank you Blizzard (honestly).

All ages...

Gaming used to be a dirty word. Adults didn't play games and if they did, they certainly didn't admit it.

This attitude has been exacerbated by media stories, sometimes amounting to little more than yellow journalism. We have all seen them - television shows, such as a recent daytime talk show, where a tearful wife tells of her husband's obsession, and he ends up shredding the disks to the game in front of a joyous audience of women. All the while, every gamer watching re-runs of the show on You tube are saying "right. Nice try...the game is played from the hard drive, not the disks." There is a clinic in Europe now for addicted gamers, in Amsterdam. Even the Betty Ford Clinic people have hopped on the band wagon and opened a clinic. Yet the time was, if you googled the word Columbine, you would just get articles on a flower. The sad turn of events is that there is actually a "super columbine massacre rpg" online game. Even the United States Army has their own MMO that they use as a recruitment tool. There, in fact, is an MMO that no podcast has ever covered - thankfully.

And so the myth of the evils of video gaming are born.

The general media used to ingrain the idea in our heads of video games being violent and childish. As an adult there was always a fear of being considered a "loser" who is unemployed and lives in her mother's basement. The conservative elements of society often consider gamers as somehow lacking the mental capacity for any more prodigious pursuits in life.

No one, not even Blizzard, originally thought the MMO market was as big as it was. Yet when subscribers of MMOs in the United States alone count in the millions it is a bit hard for anyone to attribute all the accounts to teenagers and "loser" adults. I have met lawyers, nurses, business executives, accountants, computer programmers (one retired grandmother comes to mind and no she did not program video games) and more. None of them stupid, and certainly not losers. In my case, I am a nun, and a businesswoman with two masters degrees.

Yet many people like me have long since come out of the video gamer closet. And when that many people not only start coming out of the video gamer closet, but more and more often start turning off the television in favor of the computer, entertainment industries start to notice.

One of the biggest influences that brought me out of the video gamer closet was knowing other adults who not only play WoW, but have come to enjoy the sense of community that can result from meeting other gamers from all walks of life. But sometimes those communities start to fall apart. Not always for the same reason to be sure. Sometimes it is silly guild drama. But more often than not, it has been a case of people unhappy with where the game has gone, or is going.

Sometimes game producers dig their grave before the product even comes out. Although it was only a small blurb in a gaming magazine, it was announced that EA pulled the developers working on the next Lord of the Rings expansion off the project. If so, this repeats what they did to Origin Games and Ultima Online. A new expansion (actually a new game) that would have put UO on par with other MMOs was first announced, and later canceled. History seems to be repeating itself here, but I hope not. But this leads to another important factor in marketing a game.

In the long run...

What happens to a game in the long run? What is the future of the game? A game is something in which you invest your time, even if it isn't a grind. But is that time worth investing if a game has little or no future? I had a friend that swore she would be one of the people shutting out the lights and locking the doors behind her when Ultima Online finally closed its doors. Yes, there will always be some die-hard fans. But an MMO still has to make enough money to pay the bills for it to keep going. CCP has made a great success for itself on about a quarter of a million subscribers with Eve Online. Yet over the course of a year, the Blizzard company bans more players than most companies have. Does this mean they aren't successful games? Nope. But it does mean they aren't likely to become a wow killer.

But even the giant, Blizzard, has done some things that should disturb its sleep. Some I am sure the devs at Blizzard are already trying to address. Others are a bit out of their control.

For the present Blizzard is probably one of the few, if not only, companies where the developers of the game can tell the publisher when the game is ready (for which it is known) and not have the reverse be true.

When The Burning Crusade first came out it, having your copy in hand the first day was like having tickets to the Super bowl. Blizzard wanted the content of the current expansion to last AT LEAST for the next year. Almost immediately we saw someone in France reach the new level 70 cap in 28 hours. At first it seemed like a fluke by someone with no life and too much time on their hands. Yet in the next couple of weeks after the expansion came out, WoW was once again full of level 70 players bumping up against the new cap. And there, as William Shakespeare would have said, "lays the rub." It is the situation that all game developers have to deal with. What do you do when the players have hit the cap and are looking for something else to do? The answer is what is commonly known to gamers as "endgame".

But what happens when the end game gets to difficult? All you have to do is take a look at the blogsphere and forums for popular MMO's, and you will find them full of ex or soon to be ex-wow players who are bored stiff.

But why is that? Did they all rush to level 70 and say "now what?" This is the situation that Devs must also address; namely how to keep the hard core gamer that dedicates there life to excelling in the game happy and how to keep the average gamer happy as well.

One of the things that Blizzard Developers have done is to reduce the number of people needed to raid, with the thought of addressing the needs of the casual player looking for a group. But they have also made it difficult to reach much of the end game instances, requiring long quests to even be able to get inside them (called getting "keyed" because you need to earn a key to the front door of the instance). While this level of difficulty may ensure the "shelf life" of a particular expansion, it also serves to stratify the players. It divides them into the "haves and the have-nots."

Think of it this way; the fewer people you have in a raid, the more essential each person's role in that raid becomes.

Hard core grind vs. the casual player stroll...

This is where marketing comes in again, knowing your customers - the average gamer. The thought certainly must have been that small numbers of players needed in instances, and in end game, would make things easier for the casual gamer.

But communities of players that made the game fun, just getting together to play together can no longer do so on WoW. There are no longer any large instances that large groups of people can go to. There are no longer any instances that even just TEN people can go to without excruciatingly long quest chains to get "keyed."

And there we have the problem.

The average gamer is no longer someone who is 14 to 21 years old living with their parents. Gamers now include people with families, husbands, wives, and people with 40+ hour a week jobs. If the average person in one of these categories wants to come home each night and game until 2:00 am, and all day weekends, they will rapidly find themselves single and unemployed.

But there are always those people in every game who will make the big rush to the level cap and start their regular end game raids. But what happens to those players who actually took time to enjoy the content? Those who didn't push to make it to level 70 as fast as humanly possible? What about those players whose characters don't fall into the critical "healer, tank, DPS" categories need to succeed in end game? Many of them get left behind.

Read the blogsphere and the forums and you will find people talking of looking at guild rosters only to find guild mates who are in the key roles of "healer, tank, dps" running instances, while they are left out in the cold. Guilds have started to develop "A teams" of hard core players that meet specific needs for end game raids.

It has caused bad feelings and people who are left out, while others get included in an inner circle. Yes, there will always be exceptions. But more and more you can see this. This is the factor that Blizzard cannot control; namely the reaction of players to the game. What they can control is the structure of endgame. In an effort to both address the needs of casual player looking for a group, and make the expansion have a long shelf life at the same time they have begun to alienate their player base.

This situation is only exacerbated by the lack of new mid game content. It was lots of fun to run the new races through levels 1 to 20, but when you face the mid game it is the same old, same old.

Does this mean that Blizzard is no longer the giant that dominates the industry? No it does not. What it does mean, extending the metaphor, is that giant should not sleep so soundly these days. And believe me - there are A LOT of entertainment companies who are anxious to get a piece of that particular market. Do you think that no one can possibly wake up the sleeping Blizzard giant that dominates the gaming industry? Everyone used to say the same about a place called Rome - it used to rule the world too.

-Julie Whitefeather

Submitted by Brent on Apr 08, 2007 22:56:19 CST (comments: 6)


'Blizzard' by Nezrak
Submitted on 2007-04-09 14:54:42 CST
About end-game content:

There's something I didn't get here, and usually I don't get it when people start this argument.

End-game content is for the players that ARE hardcore. By hardcore, I don't mean ppl that used to be in MC, ie: that have alot of time on their hands, because MC/BWL/AQ40 where not hard, they were time consuming more than anything else. You could have 20 good players in MC, and 20 not so good players, and you could successfully run the instance. Did that several time with my guild. How do I know? because sometimes we didn't had the 40 players, it turns out that sometimes we had 25 players and we went to MC anyways, and we were completing content anyways, just took alot more time... -> not fun in the end.

Now what do I mean by hardcore then ? I mean someone who has insight of the game, know the game, love to play it, and is really good at it. I know my guild run Karazhan 3 times a week, 3 hours each time. Is it too time consuming ? well I don't think so, the average person who watch tv afterwork probably spend more time at that. You are saying that people have a life besides WoW, well I think the giant did react to it, and they made it way much more possible for "hardcore/has a life" player to do end-game and enjoy it. For example, in Karazhan, instead of having a ton of trash mobs in front of a boss, they reduced the number, and increased the respawn rate. What does it mean, it means if you want, u can do the boss in 15min, but if your group isn't good enough, it can take you 3 weeks. Something can be as time consuming as you want.

End-game content made by blizzard is for the player who want a -> challenge

'(don't know what happended there, I guess there's a max size)' by Nezrak
Submitted on 2007-04-09 14:56:01 CST
he can't get from usual questing form. In the end, blizzard did put Heroic modes 5 man, so you can actually do only one instance, the one you like most, and have a challenge there too.

So now, how come everyone Soooo want to do end-game ? well I think my article wanted to answer that question.

You are saying that the usual content doesn't take long to play. Yes, I think you are right. But that's what makes WoW successfull: accessible - fun - soloable. I spend 19days with one of my characters - 1 to 70. I didn't spend much time with it besides lvling with a friend who was leveling his own character. WoW isn't a long game, most people can play it for a few months and get to lvl 70.

'Accessible' by scytale2
Submitted on 2007-04-09 20:05:54 CST
Key issue with WoW is its accessibility - something spotted by Jenny in "The Noob" section of the podcast.

With accessibility comes "simplicity" and KISS (Keep it simple stupid) is one of the key watchwords in any product on the market. WoW may be hardcore, but it is easy to figure and its web page support, combined with WoWHead etc. give all the info any player would ever want to have.

Skill and Fun are the only other two aspects that spring to mind and these are not quite so easy to duplicate, as Vanguard (and EQ2 to be truthful) is finding out.

I think, Julie, you are wrong regarding the hoped for market for MMOs. We've only scratched the surface here in 2007 and I am certain most of the MMO visionaries (including Blizzard) were perfectly aware of the possible future for their game, when they launched it.

Anyway - congrats for a great article!

'Not only family life suffers....' by Lostinspace
Submitted on 2007-04-10 00:53:14 CST
"If the average person in one of these categories wants to come home each night and game until 2:00 am, and all day weekends, they will rapidly find themselves single and unemployed."

Definate food for thought in there. That got me thinking about our personal (for want of a better term) Entertainment Budget - and I'm not talking about $50 for dinner and a movie on a Friday night but rather the amount of time we dedicate to entertaining ourselves. In fact the old adage of "All work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy" even needs to be revised! Johnny still gets plenty of play but he's dull nevertheless!. What does it take away from other forms of entertainment - I used to spend $50 on dinner and a movie but now I'm whomping trolls online til 2 am... cost $0, TV is no longer the draw, WoW is = at least I'm not (yet) getting spammedby adverts every 15 miutes :P

'Adverts' by scytale2
Submitted on 2007-04-10 05:20:05 CST
Gosh the dollar signs must be haunting Blizzard staff in their sleep, when they see juicy advertising revenue pluckable from the WoW trees. And can you imagine the shareholder meetings, where this is on EVERY agenda and the game designers fight desperately for their integrity against the capitalist tsunami of money, money, money?

Seriously though, if WoW manages to fight off advertising revenue, then I would be very happy to play a game with advertising in it, where that advertising made sense (ie present life) as long as the game was as enjoable as WoW is. I have nothing against advertising in a game per se - am I in the minority?

'URL Quests anyone?' by Lostinspace
Submitted on 2007-04-10 08:22:14 CST
Items, gold and general phat l3wt be damned, I can visualize the quest or moster drops where the "reward" is a token that relates to a URL and "gift" cookie unique to the winner. I wonder if that is already in the pipeline?

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From the desk of Julie Whitefeather


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