Mobhunter: The Barriers of Online Gaming

Last week I spent a few hours playing the new Shadowrun demo for the Xbox 360. It is a very interesting evolution in first person shooters (FPSs). Rather than the standard run, jump, and shoot we find in most FPS games these days, Shadowrun adds "new verbs" as the marketing guys like to say. You can run, jump, glide, teleport, blast back, see through walls, resurrect, and heal. You can combine magic, technology, and firepower all as fast as you can hit your bumpers and triggers. It's a pretty amazing game but I'm not going to buy it.

It isn't the game itself that steers me away but the knowledge that I am never going to be good enough to compete with those who will have more time, more skill, and more dedication to it than I will have. Shadowrun focuses exclusively on online play and with an online game, there is no option for me to enjoy it in my own way. Other games like Halo 2 at least had a single player campaign but even those disappointed me when I knew how much energy went into the multiplayer portion of that game, a portion I would rarely play and never enjoy.

I've pontificated at great length on the difficulties of the non-raider in Everquest. For six years I played Everquest dozens of hours a week without ever reaching into the depths of Everquest's high-end raid content. Though I spent extensive time in Everquest, I never broke into the inner circles of high-end raiders until recently. Some players in Everquest, and also now in Warcraft, complain about the lack of support for those who have not the time, skill, or dedication to achieve the highest rewards. This problem isn't exclusive to these games. Recently, on the most excellent 1UP Yours podcast (43 meg MP3 file link), they discussed the barrier of entry for gamers who want to play competitive online games but cannot break into that circle of hard core elite gamers.

Building quality games for hobbyist gamers is extremely hard to do. Most games either focus on hard core elite gamers or focus on extremely short-duration gaming with little room in between. This has been a problem as long as gaming has existed but as games become more and more social, as more players interact with one another within these games, the problem becomes much more apparent.

Simple solutions cannot solve this problem. Adding features that automatically balance difficulties to even out the battleground will clearly show themselves as artificial. Hard core gamers won't like seeing their power limited and the victories of hobbyist gamers will feel hollow.

Before we dig too deep into this discussion, let us lay out some definitions.

Hard core gamers are gamers who have both the skill and the time to become the elite within any particular game. These are the high-end raiders in massive online games like Everquest and Warcraft. These are the guys who have ten times as many kills as the next highest player in Halo 2. These are the guys who make magic in Shadowrun really look like magic. These are the guys who post Youtube videos of themselves playing Freebird on Expert at 95% in Guitar Hero 2.

It would be easy for us to stereotype hard core players as jobless pimply teens hiding in their mother's basement but we'd be wrong. These can, and often are, adults with jobs and kids who just manage to have the time, skill, and dedication to be one of the best in their chosen battleground. Now that video games have hit an age where adults remember playing them throughout their lives, just about anyone can be a hard core gamer.

We can define casual gamers, a term I myself demanded to be tossed into the fires of the nine hells for its constant misuse, as gamers who play for very short periods of time, have little skill for more complex games, and who care little for the games themselves other than as a way to kill a few minutes. Casual gamers play solitare, they play flash games, and they play freecell when their boss isn't looking. They might play a Nintendo DS once in a while. They're the masses of people who still fawn over the bowling game for their Nintendo Wii. Any gamer who would take the time to read a message forum, read an article, or listen to a podcast about gaming spend very little time considering true casual gamers. We don't even consider them gamers. The marketing groups for the big gaming companies consider them constantly, however. They're building hundreds of new cell phone games a year just for this market.

hobbyist gamers is a new term for me. It defines those gamers who still consider themselves gamers but, either due to a lack of time, a lack of commitment, or a lack of skill, cannot break into the ranks of hard core gamers. Unfortunately for them, however, they know what a hard core gamer is. They know what the hard core gamers possess. These hobbyist gamers are the ones with one, two, or even three level 60 World of Warcraft characters but without a single piece of raid gear. They're the gamers who get destroyed dozens of times in an hour of Halo 2. Their corpses litter the battlegrounds of Azeroth.

hobbyist gamers didn't have much trouble in the past. It might take them twice as long, but on single player games, a hobbyist gamer could still complete it. Only on games with extreme difficulty or extreme time requirements would a hobbyist gamer simply quit. Online, however, these gamers face different problems. Instead of running at their own pace, they are in a race with some of the best and most dedicated gamers in the world. They may have done well against automated opponents but against real players they get destroyed over and over again. They feel as though they will never be as good as the hard core gamers and, when competing with them, either directly in combat or indirectly through content progression, they simply want to quit.

What can game manufacturers do to help? The companies that figure this out stand to make a lot more than the companies that focus on either the hard core or the casual gamers. There are no easy solutions, however. Everything must be carefully balanced. Double experience bonuses, instanced adventures, high-end loot purchasing systems; all of these have helped steer massive online games towards hobbyist gamers. Everquest and World of Warcraft could both reduce the amount of time it takes to complete meaningful group encounters such as the dungeon instances in WoW and the missions in Everquest.

Thirty minutes is all that can be expected when it can, for both of these games, take nearly that long to form a group capable of completing such an event. For player versus player games, there is no clear solution. Ranking systems don't seem to work. Equipment matching doesn't help make up for player experience. Dynamic difficulties are unrewarding for both types of players. Any game that is good enough to get the attention of a hobbyist gamer would likewise get the attention of a hard core gamer so there is no way to focus an entire game directly for hobbyists without also attracting hard core gamers.

The companies that find the right balance stand to make a lot of money. Right now that continues to be primarily single-player games like Zelda Twilight Princess, Crackdown, Grand Theft Auto, and the single player Halo campaigns. The designers of World of Warcraft made some smart decisions early on by keeping leveling fast even when hard core gamers hit maximum character levels in very short periods of time. Games like the multi-player Halo, Shadowrun, Battlefield, and Everquest will continue to reward those who put in the most time, have the most skill, and the highest focus. Many players would say this is as it should be. People trying to sell the games, however, realize the large number of players they're cutting off.

Breaking through the barrier of online gaming for hobbyist gamers is the greatest current challenge of gaming today. There exists a lot of potential for those who seek to break it.

Loral Ciriclight
22 June 2007