So, I received a few comments on Part 1 and Part 2 that I was being entitled, elitist, pretty much a general asshole–all these things that I really wasn’t intending and definitely don’t think of myself as being when I was trying to talk about Accessibility in MMOs. My bad. So I decided to write a 3 part to this series to hopefully clear up some of the concepts that I didn’t do a good job of communicating the first time.

First I don’t think want to give the impression that only certain people should be able to enjoy games. There is no elitist attitude here, and I think that games should have options for all styles of gameplay, from the lowest denominator gamers, to the those raid competitively. My goal in drawing attention to the lowest common denominator here is not to single them out as being “bad” gamers, but rather to clarify that the game design in many current generation games doesn’t balance the game well between the desires of these two disparate groups of gamers, and that by skewing the game *too much* (note: the comparative here) makes the game as a whole less sticky and less rewarding the whole way around. I think this is first and foremost a game design challenge, not a problem with the gamers themselves.

Many games in this generation, though not all, skew towards designing for the lowest common denominator player — which in itself is not bad, nor are the players themselves “bad” players. They are simply players. The challenge I see with this is that this often results in gameplay mechanics that are quick and easy to grasp in a short amount of time, but are ultimately shallow and lack long-term depth and complexity. Additionally, the shallow gameplay mechanics can minimize much of the sense of accomplishment within the game. Both of these things contribute to a game’s stickiness (but are not the ONLY contributing factors). What I mean when I say sticky is how long a player actively plays and engages with the game. With a game that is very sticky, players will play it more often and longer than a game that isn’t very sticky.

So if we look at a game like WoW , there are trends of much bigger fluctuations in subscriptions than in the past, which indicates that for some players, the stickiness of the game is waning. I want to take a second to note that this should happen naturally — games will naturally, over time, become less sticky. Another example would be a game like SWTOR, which boasted a large launch audience, but the game’s population plummeted soon thereafter, indicating that the same wasn’t sticky enough for most players. The reason for the game’s lack of stickiness isn’t really something I want to discuss — just the fact that it wasn’t sticky.

The advent of the free-to-play (F2P) generation makes the stickiness of a game less important. I say less because it’s still important, but it’s not as important as the traditional MMO subscription model. The traditional model of MMOs involving subscriptions means that they are dependent on players remaining engaged long term to continue to make money. F2P with microtransactions is not dependent on long term engagement, but rather more dependent on short bursts of engagement, accompanied by spending money. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want you to continue to play the game, but they are less dependent on you being consistently engaged long-term.

There are about a million more reasons that F2P games continue to make money, but I mentioned this particular aspect because it supports my argument, not to say that’s the only reason for F2P.

I should have clearly defined what I meant in the first and second piece (rookie mistake) when I was using the term accessible. What do I mean when I say accessible? When I’m talking about accessibility in games, I’m referring to the depth and complexity of gameplay mechanics, and the inherent risk, or ability to fail within the game. I’m *NOT* talking about the “Accessibility Options” made for those with handicaps to enjoy the game. I don’t think that there’s ever a point where you can have too many of those options. Deep, complex gameplay and risks within games creates what I call ‘effortful gameplay.’

Effortful gameplay is my concept that a game takes effort to play, but it’s enjoyable effort.

So what is effort gameplay? Effortful gameplay in my definition contains two things:

  1. Goals that require consistent effort, deep understanding, and evolving challenges
  2. Risk of Failure

So when I say goals that require consistent effort, I don’t want to imply that time should be the only determining factor, or that grinding is the only get effortful gameplay. In today’s world, the pinnacle of MMO gaming is focused around two things – competitive PVP and raiding but in reality there are thousands of other potentials for effortful gameplay. Take Guild Wars 2, they have map completion, crafting, legendary weapons, WvW–they don’t do the greatest at it, but they provide other options. In my previous statements, when I criticized the prevalent accessibility of games, it was assumed that I was either competitive PVPer or Raider, and that I didn’t want the riff-raff in the game with me. However, that’s not at all what I meant.

In my mind, Accessibility and Effortful Gameplay are two ends of a continuum. Too far one direction and you skew the balance too much. Too far in the effort gameplay direction and you get gameplay that takes so much time and effort to get to, a very small percentage of your player base actually experiences it. Too far on the accessibility side, and everything is handed to the player, taking the challenge out of the game. The trick is to find a balance between the two–some games will go further towards effortful gameplay — making it less accessible to appeal to that demographic. Others will go more accessible to appeal to a wider audience. The ‘goldilocks’ games will attempt to strike a balance to account for those than want more accessible gameplay and those that want more effortful gameplay.

By placing accessibility and effortful gameplay on the same continuum, we can easily allow accessible gameplay to still be effortful, and effortful gameplay to still be accessible. In my earlier pieces on the subject, I was referring to the trend that games are skewing heavily towards the accessible gameplay at the cost of effortful gameplay. The takeaway should be that in the MMO space, there are opportunities for great games across the whole continuum.

My second criteria for effortful gameplay is the risk of failure. For me (and this is my opinion), what makes truly fun, effortful gameplay is the ability to fail. A game where everyone wins all the time isn’t generally an engaging experience, though it can be at first. An example of the ability to fail is when WoW was younger and the talent system was less cookie-cutter, you had the ability to fail in your build. You could create builds that were awesome, terrible or just mediocre. WoW has now railroaded the process so it is impossible to “fail” in creating a build. Every choice you make when it comes to your talents is now either neutral or good. In attempting to remove the fluff from talent tree, they also removed the need to plan or to make any meaningful choices. The existing choices aren’t meaningful. They are pre-determined to be good.

But a game like Rift and it’s soul system, or EverQuest 2 have immensely complicated talent systems where its very possible to fail in your build, to make a character who utterly ineffectual in all things. For me, that anxiety of “gimping” my character adds to the game experience. There’s a level of play that comes in with planning talents or similar systems.

Again this is just an example. But I think risk inherent in the game should be part of every game. It’s my opinion that games that are too accessible also have no risk inherent in them, which ultimately hurts the entire experience of the game, especially for the those who want the game to be more accessible. Imagine a system like DnD where crafting required experience, but you also had the chance to fail in the crafting, losing the experience but not getting the item. Think about the tension in decisions that adds to gameplay — something a simple as that.

In order for choices to be meaningful, there has to be a risk associated with that choice.

For the TL;DR crowd – games shouldn’t be elitist, accessibility as a concept isn’t bad but it’s often taken too far at the expense of gameplay for all players involved. So there we go, I hope this cleared up some of my thoughts–I think this article is the longest to date on the subject, which is probably good.

Let me know your thoughts below.