The path to the mass market.

It would seem that the only way to attract a mass-market audience is to go casual. A rather simple concept right? WoW is huge because it aims at casual MMO fans (whoever that is), the Wii is dominating because it attracts non-gamer fans, and the iPhone is huge because it’s so easy to use.

Yet if success were that simple, the countless shovelware games sitting at Wallmart or Best Buy would be million+ sellers. You can’t get much more casual than video Monopoly, and while the game is remade and re-packaged monthly, it’s never topped the best seller list.

In the three example above, something happened BEFORE the mass market picked up on each product, something that launched them into the mass-market and into the massive success stories they are today.

The iPhone is the easiest example, so lets start there. While the Apple design and functionality helps set the iPhone apart, those features can be mimicked in time (how many touch screen phones do we have now?). What can’t easily be mimicked is the App Store, and Apple knows it. Yet the mass-market does not fuel that App Store, the niche market does. Part of the reason this worked for Apple is because of their large niche following, especially among the tech-savvy crowd. Given a solid development platform, a chance to be rewarded for their work (in some cases very well), and a centralized distribution system, and you get a ‘perfect storm’ to create the wide range of useful or amusing apps for the iPhone. Once this is established, the masses follow and further reward those early adopters while pushing the App Store into pop culture, money train following closely behind.

The Wii is a somewhat similar story, as like Apple, Nintendo has a very solid core following, even when the masses moved away from the SNES and to the PlayStation. The innovation of the Wii remote was viewed as a cheap gimmick before the systems launch, and all predictions pointed to Nintendo once again assuming the 3rd spot in the console war behind the PS3 (ha) and the Xbox 360. So what happened? Early buzz from that Nintendo core grew, thanks in large part to Nintendo providing their usual high-quality first-party games. (That they provided for the N64 and GC mind you) What was viewed as a gimmick became a key feature, much like the iPhone touch screen, and as the mass market caught up, Wii buzz continued to grow. Another interesting piece of the Wii story is the third-party games. They have sold very poorly, despite EA/Activision doing their best to imitate Nintendo and provide seemingly ‘casual’ games. The difference between the two is that Nintendo has the name and known quality, while EA/Activision are seen as trying to pass off a second-rate product (even if in some cases, the 3d party product is actually better). Had EA/Activision been on the Wii bandwagon day one, perhaps things would be different.

And finally, WoW. WoW is without doubt the most mass-market MMO out now, with it’s streamlined leveling game and generally low challenge compared to the genre. Add in bare-bones system requirements, a refined UI, and a mostly bug-free game, and it’s not hard to see why WoW would appeal to a non-MMO gamer. But while that is WoW today, that was not WoW in 2004. WoW had a mostly typical MMO launch, with days of server downtime (that Blizzard credited accounts for), massive bugs (loot lag, mob spawns, etc), server imbalances with long queues (both in Alliance/Horde and just total server pop, without the option to transfer), and an unfinished end-game. It was also not nearly as hardware friendly as it is today (though not as cutting edge as EQ2 at the time), and the UI was very lacking compared to today. When you have a game that requires 3-4 bars of hotkeys, and you launch with only one, it’s an issue. But the core gamers through UI mods soon fixed that issue, along with others. The core tolerated massive downtime and zone populations as well, choosing to voluntarily re-roll away from overpopulated servers. And while certainly not a hardcore game even in 2004, WoW was much harder and more MMO-like than it is post-WotLK, especially the endgame. Once the core had accepted (and helped improve) WoW, the masses caught on and subscription records followed. Once the initial buzz had been established, Blizzard continued to grow the game by continually lowering the bar (first slowly with BC , and recently completely with WotLK), pushing out the core and embarrassing the mass market. Done in reverse, or just jumping to the mass market phase, and perhaps those 11 million subs might not have come around.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in MMO design, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The path to the mass market.

  1. Bonedead says:

    What what, in the butt

  2. Squirrt says:

    I am not sure if your statement of “pushing out the core is accurate” My guild, we considered ourselves hard core casuals, we did all the 40 man instances, except for Nax, did some of the 1st expansions 25 mans. I actually considered the 25 mans in the first expansion more difficult than the 40 mans in the original. Most of the guild left before the second expension came out to try other MMO’s but unlike me who loves Warhammer, almost all of them either went back to WOW (75% of them) or just stoped playing MMO’s all together.

    I know from visiting their Guild web page that they are now bored, since they have beat all the 10 man content and have rolled alts or are actually starting to look for other games to play.

  3. Graktar says:

    I have to agree with Squirrt that I don’t think they’ve managed to push out their core gamers yet. Maybe they’ll achieve that with the next xpac. The tolerance for repetition of some people is simply astonishing, and there are plenty of ‘hardcore’ guilds still farming the same endgame content over and over.

    I think in some ways WoW is habit forming — people who play it too much get in the habit of playing games the way they play WoW. If they can’t play a game the way they play WoW they get confused, unhappy, and ultimately leave the game unsatisfied and convinced it sucks. They fall back into their deeply worn rut in WoW, like putting on an ancient and tattered shirt that is nevertheless the most comfortable thing you own.

  4. Damage Inc says:

    I think what is being said is not that WoW has pushed out the core GAMER but it has pushed out the core MMORPG player. Most of the people from my guild in WoW have left. They tried out WAR and other games but most of them are NOT going back to WoW, myself included.

    WoW is a great game for gamers. WoW is a crummy game for the traditional MMORPG player. Instead of building on games like UO/AC/EQ, WoW just over simplified everything

    When I used to play pen and paper AD&D when I was a kid, we didn’t have DM’s who held our hand or told us what to do and where to go. We explored, made mistakes and learned as we went through the game. Early MMORPG’s where just like this. On the other hand, WoW spoon feeds it’s game to you. The old MMORPG players like the exploration, the adventure and danger. We don’t want the world handed to us on a silver platter but would rather open it like the layers of an onion. :)

  5. syncaine says:

    Squirrt: I read what you wrote as exactly pushing out the core. Your guild is bored of WotLK because it was tuned to be more ‘accessible’ (easy), which pushes out the guilds who found vanilla and BC enjoyable. If your guild is on the level of Nax 40, Nax 10/25 is not content that’s enjoyable, and unless they enjoy attempting content with one eye closed and a hand tied behind their back, they are SOL now.

    The separation of the ‘core’ MMO and the casual ones is fine. Just like Hello Kitty Online is not for me, DarkFall won’t be for others. As long as the two are kept away from each other, instead of trying to make Hello DarkFall Online, all good.

    The major issue I have with WoW itself (tourists aside) is it went for the mass market at the expense of its core. 11 million subs say it was the right move, but that does not mean I personally like it, nor do I believe its good business to push out those who got you to where you are today, not in the long run anyway.

  6. WyldKard says:

    The success of the iPhone, the Wii, and WoW, can easily be blamed on ease of use, which had a much greater role on financial success and mass-market adaptation than “core hype”. /Every/ Apple product gets core hype, but the iPhone was different because it was accessible to non-Apple users. The touch-screen may have been the initial draw, but it’s overall polish and user accessibility that kept the momentum going. Same for the Wii.

    As far as WoW is concerned, because it was so solo-friendly, with a graphics engine fully capable of being played on machines two years old, and with 60 levels to grind through before “hardcore” play was necessary, the game’s momentum didn’t slow for some time. In fact, the only initial draw for the game was the Blizzard namesake and the vaguely familiar IP. The MMORPG core may have flocked to WoW in the early days, but ultimately their hype had less of an impact on the mass MMORPG market than the game’s solo-ability.

    The reason shovelware games like “Monopoloy+” don’t sell isn’t because there isn’t a niche market, or core, to fuel the hype. It’s because the potential market for gamers interested in another Monopoly iteration is simply non-existent.

    People like the iPhone, the Wii, and WoW because they’re /complex/ products with /simple/ interfaces. Monopoly is a simple product, period. If there’s isn’t long-term complexity (read: flexibility and innovative potential), then there’s no potential market, be that a market of 100k, or millions of consumers.

  7. Bonedead says:

    All three of those products’ companies had a pretty strong history, thus a decent sized fan base, or whatnot.

    Nintendo, NES, SNES, 64. Who hasn’t played one of those?

    Apple had the transparent computers with the hockey puck mouse, how many schools were filled with these? Not to mention the iPod becoming almost as common as a cell phone.

    Blizzard of course had games Diablo, SC, and WC.

    From there it’s only a matter of word of mouth. Blizzard I think experienced more growth than the other companies simply because they could advertise their new product on their old products via banner ads.

  8. Swift Voyager says:

    A simple google search credits the success of the Wii and the IPhone (as well as other landmark products like the walkman and the model-t) to blue ocean marketing strategy.

    They essentially went for a different audience. This could be said to be true of WoW as well, as they beckonned a much wider audience than the core gamers. They did the same thing as the Wii in that they took a step backward in technology in stead of a step forward. They have created a game that appeals to a broader range of customers.

    That would seem to validate your points about the average WoW player. Along that line of reasoning, the average WoW player isn’t a core gamer. They are not likely to buy other games. They are not likely to enjoy another game if they buy one and try it. They are not likely to be very experienced or knowledgeable about games and gaming in general.

    People reading this blog will generally not fall into that category, so we’re really preaching to the choir again.

    Your point about needing to go retro in order to reach the mass market isn’t really valid, since many companies attempting to use blue ocean marketing do so by taking a giant leap forward or sideways, rather than dumbing down the product. Name/Brand recognition also helped to create a monoplistic target audience for WoW, as it does for apple products.

  9. Swift Voyager says:

    On a side note: Eve is probably successfull due to the same theory. There isn’t anything like eve, anywhere in the world, ever in history. There isn’t any competition in Eve’s market space, and it’s likely to remain that way for a LONG time. Massive single-shard MMO? I don’t see anyone rushing out to develope what is essentially a homemade supercomputer in order to host another MMO any time soon.

  10. Yeebo says:

    11 million subs does indeed say it’s the right move. Ultrahardcore MMO enthusiasts are a niche market. 500K (the height of EQ) seems to be about the most you can ever hope for with that crowd.

    I also disagree that the initial sucess of WoW had anything to do with “hardcore” MMO players. Launch WoW was far from a “hardcore” MMO, it was very casual for the time. Gamers that liked the idea of an MMO but found EQ inaccessible flocked to it. Any class could solo well (shocking!) and there was only one 40 man raid in the game (MC). Later updates moved the game away from their core casual market by adding additional 40 man raids and a PvP system where you quite literally had to be online 40+ hours a week to hit the highest ranks. Almost no-one played all the way through that content.

    The strategy of catering to their most hardcore players was a complete failure. Subs stagnated until they moved away from the “endgame that is only accessible to the ultra-hardcore” design philosophy. TBC cut maximum raid sizes down, and also added “entry level” raids for casual guilds (e.g., Kara). Subs started to grow steadily again.

    WotLK goes even further in that direction. Time will tell if they took things too far in the casual direction with it, but based on sales the answer seems to be “hell no” so far.

  11. Letrange says:

    @swift Based on this years Fanfest I’d have to say it’s no longer quite so homemade. Don’t forget they are still want to finish off a few key pieces of technology that their server currently lacks. What they did with QR:
    – Switch server to 64bit server code breaking memory barriers (the blades they dedicate to massive fleet battles and jita now have 16GB of RAM)
    – Go to stacklessIO Improved networking layer allowing better topology between the proxies and the sol blades.
    With Apocrypha:
    – Another round of upgrading the RAMSANs (going from 400’s to 500’s as I recall)

    Stuff they’ve said they still need to do:
    – Further reworking of the network layer to leverage Infiniband technology (once they get this the server should be blindingly fast)
    – Rework the core solar system code to be able to run on multiple cores (paralelize a single system). Right now although you can run multiple solarsystems on a single core for those systems that don’t see a lot of traffic, for those that do they dedicate a single core to each most traveled system. The problem is that places like Jita and the big 1400+ fleet fights have enough going on that they’d like to assign multiple cores to the same solar system bu the code does not yet support this.
    – Allow for more dynamic load balancing. Right now the big fleet fights kinda need to be “phoned in ahead of time” so that CCP knows the intention of large fleet commanders and can assign dedicated cores to specific systems in anticipation of fleet battles there the next day. It would be nice if the dedicated systems could be switched on the fly depending on dynamic usage.

    So although they are already years ahead of anyone else they have ongoing plans for further development that should allow for further reduction in lag and further increases in fleet battle and Jita sizes. Remember they not only want buff hamsters they want them all working together (check out the youtube coverage of fanfest 2008 to get the reference)

  12. Swift Voyager says:

    by “homemade” I didn’t mean that it was bad. I only meant that they built it themselves rather than buy off-the-shelf hardware. The Eve server farm, as a result, is a one-of-a-kind marvel probably without equal below the level of organizations like the Pentagon, NASA, and the NSA, and even excedes anything from even those organizations on some levels.

    My point was that Eve will be without competition for a long time, possibly forever, due to excessively high technology rather than dumbing things down. My prediction is for Eve to continue to grow as long as that is true. WoW, on the other hand, has very little more to offer that would draw in more people so it will remain relatively static. All online games should see small growth over time due to proliferation of personal computers with broadband internet connections though.

  13. Diametrix says:

    Syncaine said: The major issue I have with WoW itself (tourists aside)is it went for the Mass Market at the expense of its Core.

    You are a niche unto yourself, Sir. You are that part of the human world that drives change. You are the Elvis Presley, the Punk Rock, the Grunge. Blizzard is the Beatles, the Pop, the Hair Bands.

    Without angry elitists like Syncaine and his army of hardcore casualists the genre would stagnate. Every genre stagnates by way of its own swollen growth. The elitist revolutionarys break out of the mold and declare everyone else to be bland tourists….enough of the tourists begin to follow your lead and before you know it…YOU ARE THE TREND. Then someone else will stand up and call you the same old thing.

    Congrats Sir, you are the angry bitching breaking edge of the wave. Some of use are surfing your face, some of us are watching from the beach. There is another wave behind you.

  14. xXJayeDuBXx says:

    Interesting points, but I think that you should have mentioned that Nintendo has the least expensive console on the market which has helped sales, and that Nintendo continues to beat the same dead horse every console since the NES with regards to their first-party releases.

  15. Jogy says:

    “You are a niche unto yourself, Sir. You are that part of the human world that drives change. You are the Elvis Presley, the Punk Rock, the Grunge. Blizzard is the Beatles, the Pop, the Hair Bands.”

    So, Beatles and “Beatles-tourists” ruined the music industry, by introducing their easy to listen songs?

    Maybe music should have stayed an entertainment only for the chosen few, the hardcore elite, and not becoming a mass market with many different genres for everybody’s taste….

  16. Bonedead says:

    Syncaine, creator of grudges, destroyer of worlds (of warcraft)!

  17. Anne says:

    I disagree *a little* with your 500k figure. I was to young and not techno-able when EQ (or UO) was released to be able to play. I am sure I am not the only one, people that have run into more technology over the years and have finally caught up. If a game like Everquest did come out now days I would be more then glade to pick it up, even for the blocky graphics… For games like EQ it was the population that made a lot of the games (a population that they cease to have). It is a right shame that I missed out on when those games were released and were popular.

  18. Anne says:

    So are you saying that people aren’t getting into technology more? Because that would be moronic.

    And I specifically stated *a little*. So try again retard. Just because WAR can’t get over 500,000 doesn’t mean that there are less then 500k people who are interested in hardcore raiding, this goes the same for LOTRO, both games are far from being made for hardcore PVE raiders (since LOTRO is casual and WAR… well idk wtf WAR is TRYING to be).

    Again, to say that MMORPGs in terms of hardcore PVE raiding has decreased since 2002 or whenever Everquest had 500k is moronic considering you have major gaming sponsors/guilds (or w/e you call them) like SK-gaming competing for PVE number 1 spots. So if you actually believe that people that want hardcore PVE is stuck at 500,000 then you are a downy, that simple.

    So spam some more wikipedia pages, I dare you, since that’s what BAD trolls (yes, you are a bad troll, but dw, i know people like yourself have inexperience in trolling, you have to start somewhere… sadly one of your starting points was with myself) who don’t actually have an argument do.

  19. PTD says:

    I love when “low challenge” or its like are invoked. Be honest, there is hardly any skill involved in ANY MMO, outside of perhaps Eve. If you can invest the time in the levels and gear, you can succeed. Sure, skill can matter in one on one confrontations, or reading performance meters and the like, but honestly MMOs are all easy sauce.

  20. syncaine says:

    @PTD: The difference between Nax40 sauce and Nax25 sauce is rather great, while PvP success in DF is as close to pure skill as you are going to get in an MMO.

  21. Gooney says:


    Your examples seem to confuse “casual” with “quality”. The reason that shovel-ware is shovel-ware is because it lacks the qualities that would propel them to Mass Market appeal.

    WoW for example was a “success” before it even launched, never before had such a strong computer game specific IP created an MMO. Blizzard had millions of fans long before WoW even entered Beta. No other MMO has that pedigree.

    The innovations and refinements that Blizzard has done to WoW over time have one primary focus in mind. Providing their customer base with a compelling reason to remain their customer base. That is Blizzards focus, a focus driven by the market reality of a competitive environment and a very real need to continue to produce profit (especially now).

    Games enthusiasts seem to always mire themselves in the minutia of what the “perfect” game would be, for each digital-pundit this is something different, none from what I can see actually even acknowledge or have awareness of the business side of things to actually understand whether or not their ideas are even plausible.

    WoW cost upwards of $350M to make, much more by now no doubt, companies do not invest that kind of cash without having a very firm business plan. This is why TR went Bye-bye, and why despite the quality WAR and AOC are abject failures for their parent companies.

    These games are businesses that NEED to earn money, that is why they need Mass Market appeal or a business plan that allows them to be profitable as a Niche product, like Eve-Online and Darkfall.

    Having a vibrant Mass Market allows you a greater customer base from which to acquire niche players. The niche market is a subset fraction of the mass market, which inevitably derives its numbers from players of gateway games such as WoW.


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