Median Gamer Theorem

Why is World of Warcraft The One? This has been a recurring theme in our little world of gaming blogs and discussion groups for quite a while. Answers have generally focused on what WoW supplies in terms of casual play, soloability, polish, simple but compelling graphics, popular intellectual property, attracting new market entry, network effects, humor, etc. I would like to focus on a demand side issue.

Median Voter Theorem is an important political concept explaining why we get the public policy that we do. I would like to briefly apply that to MMOs, explain why the model is wrong for a market with multiple games (rather than one government), and why it is right enough to produce WoW revenues on the order of $1,000,000,000/year. The short answer? It is what people want.

Wow, that’s a pretty trivial conclusion, isn’t it? People play WoW because they like it. That’s like the daily “duh” research with results like “people gain weight when they eat a lot” or “drunk people overestimate others’ attractiveness.”

If you look around, though, there seems to be plenty of counter-evidence for the claim that WoW is what people want. You can find thousands of posts on the topic. Alan gets bored with the solo play it supports, Bob hates the forced grouping at higher levels, Chris likes the grouping but hates the necessity for a Priest, Dan hates raids, Ed likes raids but not the big ones, Frank thinks too many resources are being wasted on small raids instead of more 40-man raids, George thinks the graphics are too cartoony, Hank doesn’t have a good enough graphics card to run the game in large groups, Isaac thinks Rogues are overpowered in PvP, James thinks Paladins are boring because they are immortal, Karl thinks Paladins are boring because they don’t have enough options, Lennie thinks the game is too grindy, Mark feels shuttled about by linear quests pushing him through the levels, Ned hates out-leveling his equipment so fast, Otto feels like he cannot keep up with his friends, Pat thinks PvP is useless with the population so skewed towards the Alliance, Quincy thinks PvP is useless because most of the good players play as the Horde, Randall thinks PvP is useless because the honor system is just another grind, Sam thinks PvP is useless because he only plays PvE, Terry thinks PvE is boring so why isn’t there more time on PvP, Uriel thinks PvP should be unrestricted so the battlegrounds are a waste, Victor thinks the monthly fee is too high, Wally is always stuck in a queue, Xavier thinks the gameplay is too simplistic, you are tired of all the whining in general chat, and Zubon does not like item-centric games. Whew, and we could probably go through the alphabet a few more times before getting through the common complaints, but there are not many common names that start with “Y,” so we won’t.

Median Voter Theorem says that public policy will follow the view of the voter in the center of the distribution. Policy tends towards the middle because that is how you get the most votes. Assume that people vote for the politician whose views are most similar to theirs. In our American two-party system, you expect the two parties to stand right next to each other at the exact center of the political spectrum. There, you capture 50% of the vote. If you move 2% left, you now have 49% of the vote: your opponent has the right 50%, you have the left 48%, and you split the 2% between you. Congratulations, you lose.

This theory does not require that anyone actively seek to set up that situation. You need not betray your views to move yourself to the center, because the public can vote you out in favor of someone who honestly stands for that position.

Applying this to MMOs, people and companies will tend to concentrate around the most popular position. Significant differences between companies are more likely to arise from disagreements about where the center is than from trying to build niche markets. As it turns out, WoW hit the spot better than EQ2, although there was little reliable way to predict that in advance. Sure, you predicted it, but how often are you wrong about which show is going to be a hit, which movie will be #1 this weekend, et cetera? If you were always right, you would be putting your money where you mouth is, investing in your prescient ideas, and rich as Croesus.

Why are most games variants on DikuMUD? That is what players want. That is where the concentration of players is. That is where the money is. As a publisher, you want to be WoW, but just a bit to one side (probably the side opposite EQ/EQ2) to capture one wing of its playerbase. DAoC made its money under the unofficial banner of “EQ without the parts that suck.” When you are the second hot dog stand on the beach, you set up your cart next to the first one and take half the beach (if this is not obvious, think about that divided % of the voters – you are the closest hot dog stand to what percent of the people on the beach? Notice how often fast food places are next to each other, or gas stations across the street from one another).

All those views that WoW is too much this, not enough that, and so on? They cancel out. Those people are still fine with WoW, they just might prefer WoW plus or minus 5%. WoW is still close enough, and you might as well stick with it until the New New Thing comes out, since you already have three level 60s and all your friends are there.

Note also that this is a median, not an average. The difference is that the median is the one in the middle, not the mean value: extreme preferences do not change things. What matters is the central preference for PvE vs. PvP, not how strong or far-out your views are. If you think the game needs to be 10% more PvP-focused, that is no different from thinking the game needs to be PvP-only: you will still pick the more PvP-rich option available.

This explains quite a few of the bat[poo] insane arguments out there: they are harmless. If your view is that Rogues are overpowered, it does not matter if you think they need a 5% damage decrease on Sinister Strike or if you think all daggers should be removed from the game. Either way, you are likely to support changes that makes Rogues a bit weaker. Given the choice between a normal server and a “Rogues are nerfed” server, you will choose the latter.

Again, think of this in terms of politics. If you are a moderate Democrat, you probably voted for John Kerry. If you write for Daily Kos, you probably voted for John Kerry. If you think Dick Cheney personally crashed the planes into the World Trade Center, you probably voted for John Kerry. (Oddly, if Dick Cheney personally shot you in the face, you probably voted for George W. Bush.) It does not matter how far to one side you are, just what side you are on.

Wait, that can’t be right. What about Ralph Nader? We don’t just have two choices, even in politics, and we are talking about video games. There are a ridiculous number of MMOs out there! What kind of nonsense are you spewing this time, Zubon?!

It’s a fair point. After the first two hot dog stands are on the beach, the best place for the next one is…actually, still next to the other two. Now you get that ~49% of the beach, the guy on the far side gets ~50%, and the poor schmuck stuck between you gets virtually no one unless there is a line. This explains why, despite EQ and its many clones, WoW and EQ2 set up in a very similar space. Guess where Vanguard and Crusade aiming for? Is City of Heroes essentially EQ in tights? We have also seen EQ in space, and let’s not even talk about the Korean MMO market.

The beauty of a market, however, is that you can have many options, and they can compete on many factors. You are not on a two-dimensional strand of beach. You are in cyberspace, able to go in any direction you can conceive. Once one person has staked out a funky position, that throws off the calculations for everyone.

So Shadowbane sets up its plank on the extreme PvP side. EVE Online is in a similar PvP space, but it captures more PvE space while having other large differences. A Tale in the Desert has influenced how many games deal with trade skills, and it has a unique niche in the sphere of social games. Second Life … is what it is. Toon Town approaches a younger demographic. City of Heroes brings in superheroes and mostly gets rid of items and raids. Now it might matter a bit if you have more extreme views, since some niche game may cater to you.

We have many options, but they orbit in a cloud around the center, and our mass of DikuMUD descendants absorb most of the consumer space. How much time do you have to learn about which game is going to be 3.5% closer to your perfect game, and will you switch to it while your friends are content in WoW and who knows about these new developers?

A note for my fellow bloggers: we are those bat[poo] insane activists. You may be right about what would make a much better game. Your idea might be the one that convinces everyone to stop playing the same game with new graphics. You might be the one to convince people to care more about gameplay and less about graphics. But right now, we are just hoping to shift a large population that seems content to level a Shaman alt.

: Zubon

5 thoughts on “Median Gamer Theorem”

  1. Thinking about Warhammer Online – if EQ2 is more on the PvE side of things, and WAR more on the PvP side – that leaves WoW in the middle, doesn’t it? Sounds like a good opportunity to verify your theory ;)

  2. Pretty good theory, makes sense.

    The only ‘problem’ I see with this is devs and pubs going for the median by default and exclusively in their attempts to capture that yummy core of gamers. I wonder if ignoring some of the extremes won’t kill a bit of the innovation and leave some good ideas out, whatever those might be.

  3. The big developers ignore the extreme markets, Julian, but not the smaller developers. Those small developers will come up with little improvements to this thing or that thing, and occasionally a huge step forward, which will be implemented by the larger developers when they seem “safe.” Just like everywhere else in Western culture, there’s a tendency, over the very long term, for shifts to more progressive ideas as people get more used to and, frankly, bored with the more conservative ones. I wouldn’t be suprised if, for example, someone eventually uses the idea from Puzzle Pirates of having individuals own shops that other players work in to earn money while producing goods that the shopowner sells. Eventually, the player gets enough money for their own shop (or ship, or sword, or pet, or burns it all on ale and whores, or whatever). To be honest, I’m not sure if that originated from Puzzle Pirates, since I never played a Tale In the Desert, which seems a likely place for it to come from. It actually makes more sense than the original UO model of having blacksmith shops and woodworking shops just kind of sitting there waiting for players to come and use them for the players’ own ends.

    Another thing, which we haven’t seen anywhere, but which is a long time coming, is a truly compelling event and encounter system that doesn’t rely so much on spawn points with monsters just walking around. City of Heroes made a good start on this with sort of vignette spawns of enemies stealing purses or breaking into shops or mugging people, but they didn’t then go and have zone or server wide events that occasionally happened in an unplanned way, like alien invasions or crime waves where different crime groups worked together and their leaders fought heroes in the streets. And then, going beyond even that, there could be missions generated for players, based on skillsets or whatever, that would allow them to stop or weaken the crime wave before it began. There’s lots of dynamic stuff that could be done in the handling of encounters besides “Spawn kobold here” that hasn’t been and that would be much easier to fine tune and set up on a small MMO, even just a web-based one like Urban Dead, rather than a large one, that could then be borrowed by a larger one.

    In fact, I’m surprised there isn’t an experimental group at NCSoft or SOE or Blizzard that just makes small MMOs precisely to test ideas out. It seems like a win-win: small revenue streams while doing R&D with small teams, instead of R&D that has to be swallowed up as part of a larger budget for a manistream MMO.

  4. The theory is pretty sound, and the note that we are the soapbox crowd is well-placed.

    BitterCupOJoe: The Puzzle Pirates shop mentality didn’t come from ATITD. ATITD functioned more like a combat-free EVE. I wouldn’t be so surprised about the lack of an experimental group, though. So long as people are already investing in the smaller MMO’s, all a mogul has to do is sit back and see which of the better ideas they can work into their game without having it turn into an NGE situation or an overload of creeping featurism. At some point it gets to be too much and a new, simpler, less scatter-brained game becomes more attractive. EQ2 is the game I’d cite as an example of that. As opposed to traditional “expansions” heralding the expansion of *content*, the content seems to be secondary to new mechanics, like the achievement system. When it started looking more like a features list than a game, I left.

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