The Greying of the MMO
MMO’s are narrowing their demographic focus
/tldr MMO’s are trending towards twitchy, hyper-repetitive, and reaction based combat. These systems preclude older gamers which makes sense if the target market for MMO’s is younger gamers. Demographic evidence for the populations of advanced economies and MMO gamers in particular suggests that this trend might be a mistake.
Amidst the recent EQ Next reveal, during the combat question and answer panel, a gentleman asked a simple question about the older players in his guild (see through 2:10 for the question and its answers). How, he wondered, would his guild of mostly older players fit in this twitchy, fast-paced EQ Next? The question was generally deflected during the Q&A. That isn’t a knock on EQN, I don’t know that there is an inclusive answer to that question.
I have seen similar questions asked in The Secret World. I recall that a very active member of the beta community lamented the fact that his older guild was simply blocked from nightmare mode (the endgame of TSW). Nightmare mode is built around a hyper-fast, movement based combat within a very twitchy, one second global cooldown. The response from the developers was sympathetic, but still mostly a sorry, we can’t help you, but have you seen the great roleplay theater?
The Internet community commenting on this type of question has, expectedly, been pretty hostile. “Sorry grandpa, this game is not for you,” is the most polite way I can put the various web responses.
Setting aside the ageism and toxicity in the Internet responses, there is nothing wrong with a game being targeted for some people as opposed to other people. Some games appeal more to some of us than to others. That’s okay and it’s inherent in defining a genre or product. A better question, though, is whether its the right answer for MMO’s in general?
Take a moment and review the population pyramids provided below for the United States, Canada, Japan and Germany. All data, and the pyramids themselves are pulled from the U.S. Census Bureau. A population pyramid depicts the population of a country, by gender and by age group. It stacks the age groups from youngest to oldest. This permits a quick analysis of the age mixture of a population.
The figure is called a pyramid because pre-industrial societies typically plot out in an exact pyramid with most of the population in the youngest age brackets and few in the oldest age brackets. Post-industrial, advanced economies don’t follow the pyramid model, though. They feature an aging population where the bulge happens closer to middle aged. I did not include plots for the U.K. or a number of other advanced economies, but they tend to be similar to the Canada/Germany model. Follow the link above and check for yourself, Italy is pretty interesting looking.
In every advanced economy, and even more so outside the United States, the middle-aged demographic is the largest demographic. Forty to Sixty years old is where you are going to find most of the population. This is the effect of “the baby boom” and the result of family downsizing over the past generations. It results in advanced economies having more older and fewer younger citizens. The aging effect is less pronounced in the United States due to higher net immigration, but the aging effect is a significant and important trend for every advanced economy.
That’s fine you might say, but older people aren’t gamers, so who cares? The problem is that’s not true. Using data from the entertainment software association, the average gamer is 30 years old and has played games for about 13 years. If we think about that for a moment, the average gamer starts playing games at around 17 years old and they typically keep playing games as they age.
We can use that idea for a thought exercise examining how the gaming habits for a 17 year old from different decades might have looked. The table below provides some information on what types of games a 17-year old in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s might have played, the types of home gaming systems available to them, and the age of that person today.
There are a number of people in their 50’s and approaching their 60’s for whom gaming has always been a part of their life either at the arcade or in their home. Think about that a moment, we’re not talking about converting grandparents into gamers, we’re talking about grandparents who have always been gamers! Further, older gamers typically have more discretionary income and more free time, they are pretty much the ideal MMORPG customer.
While its wrong to think that gamers in general are young, its even more incorrect to assume an exclusively young age to the MMORPG audience. The most comprehensive, accessible data that I am aware of examining MMORPG customers was prepared by Nick Yee over at the Daedalus project.
His decade old data describes significant representation in virtually every age bracket and notes that EQ players averaged (circa 2000) ten years older than players of other popular PC games. Ten years later, those respondents are again ten years older and most likely still playing MMORPG’s. More recent demographics shows MMO’s have a large female population (as much as 40% in the BBC study). Since Yee’s data suggests that female MMO players tend to be older than male players, an increasingly female population might correspond with a population trending older as well.
An older, not younger, audience also just makes sense for early MMO’s. Playing EQ, AC or UO required an Internet connection, a computer with a graphics card (for EQ), and a credit card. None of these things were as accessible, or inexpensive, for young people then as they are today. But, the early MMO’s also featured game play systems that were less twitchy. There is a reason why the people alluded to in the opening paragraph are advised to “keep playing Everquest.”
While F2P certainly opens the door for a younger audience, there is little reason to expect the MMORPG market would trend younger over time given that the average PC gamer has grown older. Over the past decade, the ESA typically depicts an aging gamer population.
There is an oddity in the average age of gamers, though. The 2011 average age was 37 while the 2012 average age is 30. Ars Technica wondered why the trend towards an aging population reversed so rapidly. They discovered that the change has more to do with the old metrics failing to account for handheld gaming. So, 30 is the new 37, but the PC gaming population has, in general, aged over the last decade.
Ars Technica notes that what is happening with gaming and age is “more of a generational platform shift, where the traditional PC and console gaming markets continue to age while younger players gravitate towards smartphones, tablets and portable systems.” PC gamers tend to be older than console gamers who tend to be older than handheld gamers.
There is certainly a young component to the MMORPG market. It would be foolish to ignore that. Younger consumers are also the largest, and most contested, market segment in gaming. In the next section I will discuss how the trend towards action combat skews towards the younger part of the MMO market.
The Action MMO and Demographic Shift
My point is that telling older gamers (overtly or implicitly) that there’s no place for them in a new MMO might just be a bad business decision. Moving towards an action based, twitch oriented, target reticule driven MMO is a movement that likely has inherent appeal to a younger audience, but it greatly limits the participation in an older audience.
Our physical abilities atrophy with age. Starting somewhere around our 40’s, our physical speed, stamina, and response times begin to deteriorate. Frequent physical training can slow, but can not stop this decay. Notice how amazing it is when a professional athlete survives (let alone remains near their peak) into their 40’s. That’s not to say that older folks don’t remain competitive, it’s just that competition has to take into account what’s reasonable. There is a reason why there is a senior PGA tour.
I am in my early 40’s. At this point, I haven’t seen any MMO content that I can’t do. That’s not true for some of the people I have gamed with over the years and I acknowledge I can see the writing on the wall myself. I can bang out a top-tier damage rotation with the best of them, but after a prolonged session, I’m uncomfortable.
Seriously, a full night of dungeon crawling in a 1-second global cooldown system leaves my wrist, elbow, and shoulder tingling. That’s only going to get worse over time. At some point, I’ll have to simply say its not worth it and just give up MMO’s with action oriented combat. I’ll point out that any game design emphasizing 7,200 left-handed key presses in a 2-hour window is unlikely to be a healthy one for any age, let alone older ages.
But this post isn’t about me, it’s about a demographic getting less and less focus every year. Modern MMO’s are moving in an action combat direction. Either they are outright adopting 3rd person shooter mechanics in games like Defiance, DCUO, or TERA or they are moving towards an action bar hybrid with 1-second button presses like the Secret World, Dungeons and Dragons Online, RIFT, or Star Wars the Old Republic.
The MMO’s in development at this time Wildstar, The Elder Scrolls Online, EQ Next, and Firefall are continuing this market shift. Each of these MMO’s (including recent releases and in development titles) emphasizes fast-paced movement combat with hyper-twitchy, dive-roll mechanics. It’s no longer just “get out of the goo,” it’s “do so within .05 seconds or you’re dead.” These systems are visceral and exciting certainly, but they narrow the demographic accessibility of the genre.
Virtually every MMO recently released or in development is trending towards twitchy, action gameplay. This focuses their products on their younger customers, brushes aside their older customers, while placing MMO’s in direct competition with MOBA and 3rd Person Shooter genres who target the same younger gamers.
There is nothing wrong with demographic targeting, that’s good business. I believe, though, that telling your older customers to “keep playing Everquest” creates a market gap ready to be grabbed.
But Skill Should Matter
The impetus for moving towards twitchy combat stems from the desire to make the player’s skill matter. I don’t think anyone takes the opposing position and argues that skill shouldn’t matter. I think most gamers like to face a challenge. The question, though, is which skills are we challenging?
Twitch based combat focuses on a specific range of skills. They emphasize dexterity, reaction speed, and muscle memory. Being skilled at these things is certainly something to be proud of and building skill based games is desirable. However, these three specific skills are also the ones which atrophy with age. Twitch combat design isn’t about building a skill based game, it is about building a young person’s skill based game.
Planning, coordinating, and strategic flexibility are also skills. They are primarily cognitive skills though, and thus ones which are less likely to atrophy with age (save perhaps in the very aged). You could, easily, build combat systems which test those skills. The pacing would be slower, but the demand on skill would remain high. It’s a more egalitarian skill based system.
Consider, for a moment, an MMORPG combat system based on the builder mechanic commonly used in deck building card games. Each participant in a combat starts with zero resources and each participant accumulates a resource every fixed interval (say 10 seconds). Additionally, you have an allotment of abilities. Some build resources (on yourself or others), some remove resources from opponents, some consume resources to deliver larger effects (on yourself, your allies, or your opponents). All abilities have a recycle on them preventing their continuous use and there is a fixed time allotment (perhaps 5 seconds) between the use of abilities.
Whether this is done with a random card drawing system or a fixed ability bar system isn’t critical. This type of system could use a limited range of abilities or it could use multiple action bars.
What’s important is that this is a system which emphasizes choices in planning over choices in reactions. Do you build or spend resources? If you choose to build resources, do you build them on yourself or a teammate? Do you block/remove an opponent’s resources or let them build? Do you have any abilities that stack conditions or effects that you, or your allies, might take advantage of? Are there stacks or conditions in play that benefit your opponents and, if so, what can you do about them?
This can be played out in a real time, but slower paced combat setting. It’s easy to design, indeed its conceptually similar to how tactical points (TP) works in FFXI, or even deck building card games (Wizard 101) but in real time. It can also be designed to emphasize party-play or solo-play.
It can still work in movement and facing, but at a slower pace. I would suggest that all abilities would be instant cast rather than channeling. Movement becomes more about avoiding clustering to minimize aoe effects rather than diving out of a splat on the ground. The skilled player, in this system, thinks ahead to prevent bad things from happening and uses debuffs and control abilities to disrupt the plans of their opponents.
You return to tab targeting over reticle targeting. The emphasis of movement and positioning is in creating general tactical field advantages, not on circle-strafing or jump shooting. I would also suggest including a broad array of buffs, debuffs, controlling, and control breaking skills. The emphasis of this type of combat involves building up to coup-de-grace and preventing opposing buildups.
The system facilitates (one might argue even requires) communication. It’s different than action combat, but it’s certainly not lacking in skill. The system above lends itself well to a keyboard and mouse, without requiring banging out keystrokes. Hammering a lit up action bar is not inherent to this system, nor is single button macroing, nor is finding the optimal DPS rotation. This system also lends itself to a controller, a touchscreen, or mouse click gameplay reducing the repetitive stress inherent in our modern combat systems. Its pacing leaves time between actions for communication and coordination.
It may be that the AAA market is moving away from older gamers. It may be that this is absolutely the right thing to do from a financial perspective, although the evidence does not seem to clearly support that argument. Having all of your competitors move in one direction might mean that a move away from twitchy combat systems would benefit at least one of the AAA MMO developers.
This is the first article in a two-part piece on the narrowing of the MMORPG target demographic. While this article is entirely focused on aging and its incompatibility with twitch combat, the next article is going to spend more time on motivation to play. Initially these were bundled together, but the article was far too long (indeed, this one alone is pretty long). This article and its motivation counterpart will be the last two editorials for awhile. With Beta-4 getting going, I will be spending a bit more time on FFXIV again. Future editorial-ish posts will be more in a “suggestions for game systems” mode.