Accessibility in MMOs – Part 1

This is the first part of a two part series on Accessibility in MMOs, using World of Warcraft as the critical piece.  The second half of this piece will be published next week.

I stumbled across this video from Preach about the evolution of World of Warcraftand more importantly the concept of the Journey in MMOs.  Preach makes some valid points about the direction of WoW and accessibility in his video, and I don’t want to rehash them–you can just watch it, and I think you should.  So I’ll let you do that.

OK – I’m sure you heard a little bit of whining in there about accessibility and the evils therein.  I think preach oversimplifies the situation in WoW’s case because he doesn’t mention things like Deadly Boss Mods, QuestHelper, Carbonite as mods that make the game VASTLY easier than what it was before.  Last I checked, things like DBM and Omen and similar addons were required to raid.  Add in the fact that most of their betas are open, encounters well documented, and boss’s challenged hundreds if not thousands of times before the actual content even hits live servers and most players just have a cookie cutter model of following instructions.  Sites WoWhead, WowWiki, and Thottbot show every aspect of the game down to the most minute detail and are only a google search away. Is it really any wonder, even apart from increased accessibility, the players complain of the game “dumbing down” or too easy?

Does that make Preach’s rant against accessibility wrong?  No, just perhaps a bit overzealous.  Accessibility isn’t a bad thing, but accessibility without effort, or being overly accessible, is.  This is, I think, the heart of the current issues many people have with WoW and most modern MMOs.  WoW (after it was acquired by Activision, I might add) started down the accessibility slippery slope with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion.  They saw a correlative increase in active subscriptions, leading them to move even more in the accessibility direction.  This tactic worked for a while, and Azeroth at one point had more people than Los Angeles.  Though now, they seem to have leveled off quite a bit.

In efforts to emulate WoW‘s success, these MMOs take accessibility to the extreme.  They hope that by giving lots of shinies without much effort means that they will cultivate a large player base.  It seems to work at first–there are huge initial subscriptions/players for a game, but then there’s a drop off approximately 4-6 months after the games launch.  The accessibility model is great as a, “make lots of money real fast,” tactic, but MMOs are distance race, not a sprint.

I think of this methodology as designing to the lowest common denominator.  You design the game so that the players who exhibit the least effort can see 99% of the game.  But this is just that…a game.  Any game, be it sports, board game,  or video game requires effort to do … pretty much anything.

Let’s use a sports analogy.  Think of the kid who played basketball in school, but never practiced, never really tried.  He just went through the motions and gave a half-assed effort.  In the real world, he would spend his time sitting on the bench during games.  But with a lowest common denominator in mind, he would get to play every game, every time, and the other team would deliberately throw the game so that this one player could experience a win.  Over and over again.    That’s what too much accessibility looks like in game design.

Check back next week for the second part of the series where I explore some different ways to increase accessibility without compromising the quality of the game.

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