Update 4/1/2013: So, it sounds like I might not have correctly conveyed me intent with this second half of the piece. I’ll write a follow up that will hopefully clarify my thoughts, and make me look like less an elitist bastard.
This is Part 2 of a 2 Part series on Accessibility in MMOs – read Part One here.
What WoW attempted to do to offset the accessibility swathe was to create different tiers of difficulty for gamers corresponding to how much effort they put into the game. For the top tier there was Hard mode raiding, middle tier was regular raiding, middle lower tier was heroic dungeons (generally speaking, of course). But this tiered approach misses the mark in that it still assumes the lowest common denominator. You have to turn on the heroics in the dungeons, or the hard modes in the raids. The core game play is still geared towards the player wants the lowest common denominator. You have to essentially *ask* for things to be harder.
It might seem to be a simple thing to turn on the harder content. Let’s be real, it is an easy thing (the hard content wouldn’t be accessible if it were hard to turn on, right? Don’t think about that too much…). Tuning the core gameplay experience towards being the lowest common denominator makes the game itself feel easy, regardless of the fact that certain aspects of the game can turned on to make the game more challenging. The fact that it requires something extra to make the game challenging somehow lessens the experience of playing the game.
Imagine for a second if WoW designers had done the inverse. What if they left the core gameplay tuned harder–as if all gameplay was on hard-more or heroic by default, but you had the option to turn on a more accessible option? How much different would the game feel then? Would the accessibility of the game be lost? Essentially the content is the same as what WoW designers actually did, just what is default is changed. What would this game look like? Feel like? I’m not sure, but I think it’s a question worth asking.
In honesty, I think that the lowest common denominator players would be turn off to the game. Why, you ask? Because setting the easy mode requires effort — and the lowest common denominator player is defined by his lack of willingness to put effort into the game. Culling the lowest common denominator player from the game might be a good, or might be a bad thing. Personally, I think the game as a whole would be better for it.
But let’s be realistic, MMOs are big business, and everyone is out to make as much money as possible. The lowest common denominator crew most likely make up a larger number of players that the super hardcore do. It’s more fiscally responsible to design to the lowest common denominator because, to put it bluntly, that means more money.
There’s a third option in and among this as well — tuning core gameplay around slightly above moderate difficulty. The core gameplay isn’t a faceroll across the keyboard, nor does it require hours of meticulous planning and spreadsheet maintenance. Instead, it falls right in the middle of those two places on the continuum. Then, you add in options to make certain aspects of the game harder and easier. So then, you have 3 tiers of difficulty within the game–easy mode which doesn’t require much effort to do well in, normal mode, which requires a moderate amount of effort to do well, and hard mode which requires large amounts of effort to do well. You know, like single player games have.
I don’t know that it would solve all the issues with too much accessibility in games. But it’s something new. WoW might be the big dog on campus right now, but as subscribers slip even with an aggressive content schedule, it’s clear that game is beginning to lose some of it’s stickiness. In my mind, it all goes back to the idea that games should require effort and that effortful play is what makes a game enjoyable. (Check out Jane McGonigal’s “Reality is Broken” for more on why this is).
I should say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with lowest common denominator gamers who want to put in the minimal amount of effort and still get something out. Fundamentally they have as much right to play a game as anyone else. But a game shouldn’t be designed to cater to those players, but rather should be designed to account for those players. Accessibility when taken to extremes takes the game out of the game. At that point, it becomes an interactive movie–where the end is just a matter of tenacity, not actual effort.