A View from Atlas Park: Selling the Game

A recent news item with the title NCsoft profits plunge caught the attention of a few people over the past week. In short, there was a reasonable fall in NCsoft’s profits (not revenue) between Q4 2005 and Q1 2006, some of which was linked to CoH/V. Looking at CoH/V’s numbers between the quarters also didn’t look good, with a 58% drop in unit sales from Q4 2005. However, in reality this was mostly a function of Christmas versus non-Christmas, with people buying CoH/V at the end of last year (perhaps when CoV came out) instead of early this year. Comparisons of player numbers across various quarters showed that actual play population had increased slightly, likely due to an influx of people for CoV.

However, the reported plunge did prompt a number of people to suggest fixes for CoH/V that would, supposedly, help attract new players. It’s nice to see players caring enough about the game to try to suggest ways to get more people to play it. However, I’m going to be harsh and say most of those suggestions weren’t very good.

Let’s face it – fixing up some quality of life (QoL) issues such as the size of supergroups isn’t going to bring in new players. A lack of power customisation probably isn’t the only thing stopping someone from grabbing CoH/V off the shelves. A few new powersets might make an old player cast a second glance at the game, but I don’t think it’s going to bring in hordes of fresh players. All of these things (and more) are what is wanted by the only by sub-groups of the current CoH/V player population and their implementation isn’t going to impact much on player numbers or box sales.

New content and lots of it does help attract attention towards CoH/V, which is why the Issues get so much attention. It means that Cryptic can get NCsoft’s PR machine rumbling on their behalf and have the devs conduct a few interviews about why people should be interested in what’s coming out. No new content makes it hard to attract gaming sites to write articles about the game – articles that may be read by non-players who might be interested enough to buy CoH/V. But even that probably doesn’t bring in large numbers of players. Because let’s face it – at two years after launch, I’m willing to bet lots of gamers, especially lots of MMOG gamers, are already aware of CoH/V and have already made their decision about buying or not buying the game.

I’d suggest that, for CoH/V, the MMOG gamer market is one they can mostly ignore. Unless they are launching in a new region with new servers (eg UK, Korea), it’s a section of potential players who already plan to play CoH/V for a while, have already played it or never will. There is no point trying to attract them – they’ve already made their choice that CoH/V is a fun, combat-orientated MMOG or an annoying grindfest with no loot and no raids.

Besides, it’s also the market that doesn’t suit CoH/V’s playstyle. MMOGs traditionally have long grinding periods or require numerous hours spawncamping a single location to get the chance to get a vital piece of equipment that gives you a 3% edge over your opponent(s). This kind of “hardcore” player isn’t suited to the more casual leaning of CoH/V, where there is no loot and you can achieve something in an hour an log off. Hardcore MMOG players appear to grind through CoH/V, hit the max level, go “Is that it?” and leave. So Cryptic should ignore them. They will play regardless of what CoH/V puts out into the field, even if they don’t play for that long.

Novice or first-time MMOG players are a better target, since they haven’t already been turned hardcore or thoroughly turned off MMOGs due their previous experiences. They have also gotten over the MMOG genre barriers (ie monthly billing), which stop everyone from playing in persistent online worlds. But… in most cases, these novice MMOGers are going to World of Warcraft, because that is where all their friends go and everyone knows the Blizzard brand and the Warcraft franchise. In trying to grab this type of MMOG player, Cryptic would have to go up against Blizzard and aggressively compete for customers. It wouldn’t be a guarantee that Cryptic would lose such a fight, but it might cost more to win (or even draw) in such a battle than it would be worth for the fight.

Let’s face it: Cryptic versus Blizzard in a straight-up match would be a stupidly one-sided affair. Blizzard has superior brand recognition, hordes of fans and a franchise going back to 1994. Cryptic is a long way from being at that point. So trying to compete with WoW using the same tactics as WoW uses is forever going to put Cryptic behind the eight ball.

It was stated by Robert Gariott that WoW is actually good for NCsoft (and let’s say CoH/V by default) because its assumed that every 10 months players churn out of MMOGs. With the huge attraction of WoW, this means a large number of novice MMOG players would be available for NCsoft to sell their MMOGs to. Of course, this concept neglects the percentage of players who vow never to pick up a MMOG again due to their experiences in WoW or who go back to playing non-MMOG games in the short-term. It also ignores the fact that these novice players now have a concept of what a MMOG is “meant to be” based off their WoW experience and may find the differences between WoW and CoH/V too big to accept. No classes? No loot? No raids? No way!

Based purely off anecdotal evidence, it’s my opinion that the first MMOG you play is the one that you play the longest (should you enjoy it, of course). Every other MMOG past that point, unless it offers something incredibly distinctive, is compared and contrasted to that original MMOG. Where players might have accepted spending 500 hours to get a ‘good’ character, the next MMOG that comes along and asks them to spend 500 hours to get a ‘good’ character is going to have to do something special to make the player not think, “But I did this kind of thing before…”.

Which is a long way of saying that novice MMOGers would have their own baggage when it came to picking up CoH/V.

And that leaves the market I would be focusing on to get new players into CoH/V – the non-MMOG gamer. The player who has a PC and games but has never picked up a MMOG before. While there are a proportion of the non-MMOGer market that would never go to CoH/V, I believe that it is probably overlooked because it is seen as too hard to get to this type of player. It probably wouldn’t be easy to get this type of player if you stick to the current method of only advertising in computer games press, of only selling in computer game stores. So things would have to be done differently.

CoH/V is a comic-based MMOG, so comic shops would be the best place to start. Maybe whole boxes of free 14-day CoH/V trials sit on the desk at your local comic store, but they sure don’t at mine. That’s a group of people who already love the mythos that CoH/V taps into. They should be relatively easy conversions, especially since the early part of CoH/V plays a lot like a single-player game. This would also apply to other geek shops such as RPG stores and wherever else nerds gather to nerd it up.

I haven’t forgotten the CoH comic and the no-doubt assumed role of it attracting people to CoH who picked it up at the comic store. I’ve already talked about how I think the series fails to depict what it’s like in Paragon City. For someone who doesn’t have the background in CoH/V, I’m sure it’s not a top shelf read at all. But the comic, collectible card game, RPG Sourcebook (guaranteed out before the end of this millenium) and whatever other CoH/V branded things come out are sidelines. It’s the game that is the main show. The number of players who go, “Boy, this is a fun card game; let’s go buy the MMOG,” are going to be few and far between. The aim needs to be to get people to trial the game.

I don’t know how Cryptic’s / NCsoft’s previous attempt at doing something different – the CoV street team – went. What I can say – and do feel – that if NCsoft / Cryptic thinks it is a good idea to try to survive by subsisting on the player debris that falls off WoW, then they are seriously misguided. Stepping up and trying something different might cost them, but choosing to not do anything different is a guaranteed death, albeit one that comes more slowly.[/P]

Why should I care about how many players join CoH/V? 1) I want a better chance of getting a good pick-up team. 2) I’ve said it before: CoH/V is the best MMOG I’ve played and the only one I’ve paid for. I think it should be more successful than it currently is.

(Of course, the problem with non-MMOGers is getting them to hop over the major barrier of paying monthly for the game. This is still an issue that not everyone can accept. But hey, I’m just throwing ideas out there; I’m not having to do the hard part of making them work in reality!)

[p] – UnSub [email protected] 20 May 2006

You may also like