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Casual or Hardcore? Which is Better Suited for Mobile MMORPGs?

Often on the Massively Portable podcast, a debate crops up about the nature of pocket-sized MMORPGs. To whit: Should mobile MMO developers cater more to the casual player, or the hardcore player?

It’s an important question. The obvious answer would seem to be hardcore; after all, the most famous MMORPGs of all time — Everquest, World of Warcraft — thrived on the deep loyalty of a dedicated, long-term player base willing to spend $15 a month to continue playing the game.

But wait! Mobile is a casual gamer’s world. Think about the vast majority of successful games on iOS. Doodle Jump, Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Jetpack Joyride, etc. — the list is as long as it is familiar, and each title on it is designed for quick, casual play, the kind of thing you can master in small doses on a tiny screen. Zynga didn’t pay $200 million for Draw Something because the game had a small cadre of loyal fans! Quick play and a low skill threshhold are qualities that can pay off big in the App Store.

Star Legends, from Spacetime Studios

Spacetime Studios, developers of the Legends series, have had much success targeting the casual player base with their fast-action, free-to-play MMORPGs. They thrive on a design that plays fast, rewards cooperation, and does not punish those who drop in and drop out. It doesn’t matter if you joined the party at the beginning of the level, or just as they’re felling the boss; you get experience, you get treasure, you get success.

Of course, there’s a problem with casual players: they’re migratory and fickle. The aforementioned purchase of Draw Something seemed like a good idea at the time, but the game has shed 5 million players in the last month. Ouch! Casual players are not a reliable foundation for a persistent online game world. And while Spacetime Studios has been seeing much success, there’s a definite question as to whether or not they’re really creating MMMORPGs in the first place.

Hardcore players are a different story. The classic MMORPG model rewards hardcore players the most. Order and Chaos is such a game; while levelling a character can be enjoyed by anyone, once a player reaches level cap it becomes a hardcore player’s game. Grinding dungeons, farming materials, improving non-combat skills like tailoring and cooking; these are not things that interest casual players. Only hardcore players are willing to stick with a game long enough to know the value of hard work.

Order and Chaos, from Gameloft

One must also assume that hardcore players are more likely to drop cash on IAPs. After all, IAPs oftentimes confer advantages in-game, such as speedier leveling or access to better equipment. A casual player, faced with a seemingly mandatory IAP to continue playing, is far more likely to move onto another game. A hardcore player almost always ponies up the cash. And with more and more mobile MMOs enbracing a freemium model, that’s a neccessary revenue stream.

But there’s a downside to catering to a hardcore player base: it’s a much smaller group. Again, look at the top apps in the App Store on any given week. How many of them would you classify as “hardcore games”? Not many, most likley. Any MMO drifting too far into hardcore territory risks turning into a real niche market, and a stagnant market.

So, which is better for pocket-sized MMORPGs? It’s a true connundrum for developers of these games. The fair money would seem to be with the hardcopre player, though the casual player base goes much deeper. I suppose a better question might be: Are MMORPGs even a good fit for mobile gaming platofrms?

This writer says yes. But, I don’t think that any developer has quite hit upon the right mix yet. Order & Chaos too much favors the hardcore gamer; the Legends games lean too far towards the causal gamer. There’s a balance to be struck here, and the first dev to nail it stands to make a whole lot of money. I only hope they figure it out soon.

For more about pocket-sized MMORPGs, check out the Massively Portable podcast

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