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MMO figures and Raph Koster (again)

December 28, 2007

Christmas at last, which means that I actually have time to sit down and write a post. First thing I want to talk about is this post by Raph Koster and this response by Tobold. I’ve written stuff about MMO figures in the past and although I tend to agree with Tobold on this one, I admit that Raph is making a valid point about the gaming industry in general, I just think that he has a particular goal in mind and that this goal has theu nfortunate distinction of winding gamers up. So what is Raph on about?

Take Raph’s new project, Metaplace, it’s clearly an attempt to break out of the ‘walled garden’ MMO concept of which even the ‘casual’, browser based MMOs he mentions so frequently are guilty, it also eschews multi-gigabyte client downloads and claims that users ca build whatever virtual world they like. Now, why would he come up with an idea like this? Well, the answer is clearly, accesibility. Raph wants to make an MMO (or at least provide the software for an MMO) that will appeal to as many people as possible, and from reading through his GDC Prime presentation this appears to be his goal for the game industry as a whole. I don’t think this is a bad thing and I particularly liked the way he highlighted how badly successful women can be treated in the largely male dominated world of gamers, yeah that’ll teach you to be attractive Jade Raymond…

I have done several presentations about gaming, MMOs, virtual worlds etc. to large multinationals over the last year and while they can just about get their heads round Second Life, the second you show them a picture of an orc or a dragon or whatever you generally lose them. Sure, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass can top the movie charts but playing a game where you pretend to be a character from one of these IPs is a whole different kettle of fish (unless you’re a kid, then it’s ok). So I understand that when Raph states that Habbo Hotel has a userbase that rivals WoW, he’s trying to normalise a genre or a medium that to most people is still quite weird. I understand that this sounds weird to gamers, can people really be so behind the times that they are oblivious to the steady growth and popularity of gaming over the last decade. The answer sadly is ‘yes’. I think it’s actually worse in the UK than it is in the States, where at least WoW crops up regularly in popular culture. This attitude towards gaming goes some way to explaining why Second Life has persisted in the media for so long despite its relatively low number of active users – it presents a very human face versus the WoWs, EQs, LotROs etc. By claiming that gaming/MMOs are now about branding (when have they ever not been?), celebrity and lifestyle maketing Raph is using langugae that is familiar, if not entirely unambiguous, to a mainstream marketing audience. Add to this Raph’s insistence that you can make great ROI on browser-based casual games vs the triple As of gaming-dom then Raph’s entire stance becomes apparent. I’m also unsurprised that many of the MMOs Raph namechecks are aimed at or have predominantly pre-adult user bases – as I’ve already mentioned it’s far more acceptable for kids to play computer games than adults, in fact I know some adults who won’t even admit to gaming in their workplaces for fear of ostracisation.

I certainly feel that games publishers/developers limit their audiences and can be more experimental with revenue channels, but I can also see why Raph’s spin on things can get gamer’s backs up, despite our growing numbers we’re still considered an odd lot – the lonely, male, loser stereotype predominates – and then along came WoW which proved all the naysayers wrong, has inserted itself into popular culture (moreso in the US than Europe I’m afriad) and is inherently social, and even then it’s being dismissed as second place to some crappy browser game with shit graphics and an audience of faddish 8 year olds who’ll happily gravitate to the next big thing in three months time.

And I think this last point is something Raph should remember. Facebook might be huge now, but so was Myspace three years ago and Friendster two years before that. Already I hear people I know saying that they’re bored of Facebook, that there are too many useless applications cluttering up profile pages. Relatively new MMOs like Club Penguin, Barbiegirls and so on have yet to prove themselves over the long term and although Habbo has made it past the seven year mark I have rarely encountered concurrency greater than a few thousand suggesting it might have an infrequent if large user base. At the moment the way in which ‘eyeballs’ are measured is very crude, but as more money is invested in these mediums they will become more sophisticated and then these kinds of figures will struggle to stand up, while the figures for a game like WoW will look very impressive indeed. It’s interesting that the new Nielsen Ratings of time spent already prove that Second Life users spend far more time in Second Life than Facebook users spend on their pages, the same can only be truer for WoW.

I’d like to write a big long paragraph on transmedia, given what Raph presented at the GDC Prime. WoW is one of the most interesting  transmedia MMO brands out there, what with a TCG, novels, a new comic, toys, boardgames and a film on the horizon. It’s certainly up there with Halo in my opinion and given its openness to popular culture I can only imagine it becoming more transmedia-like as time goes by. As much as Raph is keen to push the games industry in a more progressive direction he should probably focus on the fact that in the AAA world of MMOs WoW remains the exception not the rule.

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