WoW Donut Has The Wrong Jelly

donut.jpgCameron Sorden on Random Battle asked a very good question recently in his post How Raiding Hurts WoW More Than It Helps:

So why does Blizzard make a community with a majority of non-raiding players raid, given all the problems it causes? Why do they spend so much time and effort on designing, developing, and tuning zones that only 1-6% of their subscribers ever use?

But Blizzard has answered this question themselves. I’ll paraphrase from the AGC talk I attended a couple of years back: Their audience is a donut with the hardcore in the center and the larger, fluffier casual crowd in a ring around that. The hardcore is especially important because they are the ones who convince other players to try the game out. These people are, in the language of The Tipping Point, mavens and connectors. They know the game inside and out and they sit at the hubs of the largest guilds, eager to recruit others into their world.

So to answer Cameron’s question, Blizzard builds content for a tiny fraction of their subscribers because those particular subscribers are directly responsible for recruiting and maintaining the other 94-99% of subscribers. So it’s not a waste — it’s actually quite economical!

Except, of course, that the theory is wrong.

Hardcore players are not universally recruiters. They don’t have a monopoly on knowledge or social networking. Mavens and connectors exist within the hardcore population, sure, but they exist outside this population as well, and in greater numbers. Nor are casual players always the passive recipients of this game evangleism. Players recruit other players who value the same kinds of gameplay — hardcore raiders recruit other hardcore raiders; PvPers recruit PvPers (aka victims); roleplayers recruit roleplayers.

In the past — say, before WoW — it may have been true that the raiders had the most organized social connections and spent the most time talking about their obsessive hobby, and that their efforts caused a ripple effect through the interested-but-slightly-less-hardcore that was the rest of the smallish gaming world. But it’s simply not the case any more. We’re seeing the same shift in focus in the gaming press, and for the same reasons: Look at the growth of the narrow niche fan site, or the widespread growth of personal gaming blogs as compared to the slow but steady demise of print magazines and gaming megasites.

So yes, I believe in Blizzard’s donut model — I just think they’ve mis-labeled the rings. And given that, I also am puzzled as to why they keep pouring so much time and money into creating content that only the tiniest fraction of players will ever see — or care to see. I suspect it’s because life on a live team is often too fast-paced to let you step back and really think about what you are doing.

(And for the record, I swear we’re not picking on Cameron on purpose. It’s just that he keeps writing interesting posts! And commenting on this post of his, inspired as it was by one of Eric’s posts, gets points for being pleasingly circular as well.)

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13 Responses to WoW Donut Has The Wrong Jelly

  1. I was getting all fired up to start arguing with you until you hit that fourth paragraph and did it for me. Well said. :)

  2. My personal experiences seem to back up what Blizzard has said: it’s the harder-core people that tend to provide the stable core of the social fabric. In most guilds I’ve been in, it is the people that are logged on constantly on the same character that keep things cohesive. Having people jump around on different characters confuses new people; it certainly keeps me guessing in the guild I just joined in WoW.

    The focus of the core is not to go out and recruit, but rather to keep the game seeming to be large and populated. The core is the touchstone which keeps other people playing “for their friends” as we heard the excuse given in EQ. This keeps people playing and maintains the appearance that the game is still growing.

    Why do they keep adding raid content? Probably because it does give them the biggest bang for the buck. If the high-end raiding guilds get bored and leave, they take a lot of people with them. Some will be indirect, as the servers will seem a bit more empty. If this happens, there will be blood in the water and the haters will come out of the woodwork, as they have in many games before, declaring that said game is now hopelessly dead because people are leaving in droves. If they were to add in casual content, what will happen? People will consume it, get bored with it, and nothing will change. In fact, adding this type of content could just point out how little content has been added recently.

    I’m not saying that what they’re doing is the absolute smartest thing they can do. But, I don’t think it’s pure foolishness. There is some method to the madness, I think, that’s not too far-fetched.

    My thoughts.

  3. Eric says:

    Without numbers, we can only speculate, but how many WoW players are in hardcore guilds? I would guess that would be a tiny fraction of the population. Actually, I would guess that the number of people in guilds AT ALL is comparatively small.

    It’s true that staying around “because your friends need you” is a traditional hook of raiding, but that doesn’t matter here. All the evidence we have suggests that most people don’t raid. At all. Ever.

    Now, our conventional wisdom tells us that guilds ARE the key to long-term retention for many people, and my experience backs that up to an extent. But it’s a fallacy to assume the people who keep guilds together are the people who enjoy raids. I’m in a guild run by a gregarious extrovert who has never raided, as far as I know. What evidence do we have that most guilds are run by raiders? We have none. From the evidence I’ve seen, most guilds have far less than 50 active members and couldn’t field raids regularly anyway.

    The point is this: WoW’s key social glue, the “connectors” to use terminology from the Tipping Point, can’t be painted with a narrow brush and called raiders. Yes, WoW does this and gets away with it, but only because it’s the 900 lb gorilla at the moment. This is the same reason that EQ1 was able to force people to group even if they would have preferred to solo.

    It’s not a magical secret understanding on Blizzard’s part. They simply had to guess at what their core social glue would like, and they picked their best guess. Good for them. But WoW’s success has given us new data (not to mention a vast new audience). We can do better than blindly follow their guesses.

  4. Bryant says:

    Heya, Eric! Long time no chat, etc.

    So my perspective is that of a fairly casual gamer who’s moved into serious raiding, albeit on an RP server. I am pretty sure that if there wasn’t a raid game in WoW, I wouldn’t be playing any more; I’ve done the RP that’s worth doing for me, I’ve experienced the 1-60 game three times in full and a bunch more times in part, and so on.

    I think the assumption you and Cameron are making is that more casual content would provide the same retention rate as does raid content. I’m not sure that’s true; sort of depends on whether your user base is explorers or achievers. I do think Blizzard’s experimenting with this, though. At present, there are four overlapping elder games in WoW — PvP, 25 man raiding, 10 man raiding, and badge collection. (Plus the little-played but economically significant Auction House elder game.) PvP and 25-man provide equivalent degrees of advancement; the other two are one level of gear behind. So it’s not like Blizzard isn’t experimenting.

    I’m leery of using AC as a model, btw; the Microsoft -> Turbine move had a significant effect on subscriber numbers which IMHO makes it a bad case study. I’d also note that AC had the further advantage of frequent and regular patches. I’d bet real money that monthly content patches do a lot for retention.

  5. Laren says:

    I’m wondering how efficient Blizzard is mining their data to get exact numbers and use them for their decisions. It should actually be pretty straight forward IT wise to determine how many characters/accounts do raid and how often and in what guilds they are organized etc…

  6. Sandra says:

    Hey, Bryant. Just to clarify, I wrote the post and then Eric just jumped into my comment thread. :> Of course, you probably know that are were just saying hi to Eric anyway, but I wanted to clarify …

    Anyway! I’d actually argue that there are a number of elder games in WoW that you don’t list (for example, faction and professional completionist-ism) and that the auction house elder game is more important than you imply. Eric argues vociferously with me on these points, so for the moment I’ll set aside the question of what constitutes an elder game. Regardless, I do agree that a lot of the retention on the top end is because of these other elder games, whether Blizzard is exploring them intentionally or not.

    I’m not actually sure where AC1 came into it, but I think you’ve taken my point here one step further with your last sentence: “I’d bet real money that monthly content patches do a lot for retention.” More general content updates can give a broader range of mavens and connectors something to get excited about, and to use as hooks to pull in others. You can see this with WoW, even — a patch like 2.3 (with its extensive additions to mid-level content in addition to the new raid zone Zul’Aman) has spiked discussion (and apparently numbers, although solid data is hard to come by) more than, say, 1.11 (which added the raid zone Naxxramas).

  7. Sandra says:

    Speaking of numbers, I neglected to answer Laren. :> In my experience: all MMO teams say they mine their data; many teams actually do mine their data; some teams analyze their data; few teams analyze their data in a rigorous fashion; and almost no teams use that analysis to help direct their development — unless it agrees with what they are already doing, of course.

  8. Eric wrote:
    Without numbers, we can only speculate,

    Sure, but that’s part of the problem here: we’re all speculating. We have to speculate in ways that make sense to our observations and biases. :)

    but how many WoW players are in hardcore guilds?

    This is the wrong question. The proper question is: how many WoW players have people who do hardcore raiding in their social network? That number is higher, I suspect, and more of a reason why Blizzard considers their playerbase a donut.

    Are raiders the only possible center? No. But, they are likely significant enough that they are worthy of the attention they are given. I thin Blizzard also recognizes that there are other possible centers, too, they might not talk about them so that they don’t give away all their knowledge to other developers.

    My thoughts,

  9. Pingback: Zen of Design»Blog Archive » Why Blizzard Keep Building Raids

  10. Bryant says:

    Sandra: I did know that, but pfft, I shoulda said hi to you too. Hi!

    Yeah, there’s definitely a completism elder game in WoW. I know two people personally who want every recipe for their craft skills to the point where they’ve gotten Exalted with two opposing factions. So, hm — perhaps the question is what Blizzard’s live team could be doing if they were building as much content as the Sunwell, only in the crafting elder game.

    Oh, and the AH game is very important. I just think it’s played by a relatively small segment of the population. More people will kill Illidan than will accumulate 10K gold at one time, say. But the effect the AH players have on the game is much, much bigger than the effect the raiders have on the game.

  11. Will B says:

    You’re just another casual crying about raid content.

    Raid content provides something for a player to look to, to aspire to. They see people in full epics and think, ‘that might be me someday.’ It’s interesting and intriguing. Also, if 100% of people could kill Illidan, would it be that epic? It provides a mystique.

    They have tons of stuff for the casual- free welfare epics, heroic armor + badge items, etc…

    You forget that the majority of people probably don’t even make it to 70. They just made leveling easier and improved all blue low-level gear, which also reduced the impact of twinking.

    Oh well, keep crying about people who are better at hotkeying (opposed to you, the clicker) spells than you and don’t turn with their mouse.

  12. Uulonze says:

    I never play WOW but I will say their analogy is correct. The ripple effect as you said. Hardcore players are not longer the kind of cloud before. They are more knowledgeable.

  13. I’d bet that a real study of the effect hardcore players have on casuals will reveal a tendency to puch them away as much as it brings them in. I know of numerous people, myself included, who grew dissatisfied with the fact that the social network dominated by the hardcores in-game created unrealistic demands on people who were still attempting to juggle real life concerns and spread their free time and interest across more than one hobby. It finally hit me that I was never going to experience the endgame content when I was very soundly informed by my guildmates that I was a casual gamer because I could rarely alot more than 30 hours a week to the game. When I did the math, it finally sank in that I felt like I was throwing my life away for a game that offered too little reward and not enough of a meaningful social engagement (since I knew the only interest the hardcores had in my improvement was to benefit their own efforts to complete their endgame goals) to be worth the time involved. I’ve since moved on to other games where the expectations-so far-are not crippling to my real, normal life.

    Anyway, the real point of this is simple: WoW works relatively well, I feel, because it does offer content that a casual can enjoy, but it becomes problematic because there is no “conclusion” to the casual content….it’s a gateway to the hardcore elements, and that’s essentially a whole different mind-set and experience. The hardcores shine in this environment. I’d still be playing WoW right now if it was possible to keep playing a level 70 in a casual and meaningful manner that wasn’t laden with redundancy, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way, so I’ll just stick with games like Guild Wars, where when I finish a campaign story arc, I feel like I’ve accomplished something, and can ignore the end-game pvp events and heroics if I don’t feel up to it.