Usability is Your Core Game Mechanic

Perhaps the most common stereotype of the modern gamer is the portrait of an aggressive teenage male who spends an inordinate amount of time in front of the screen indulging his addiction. While youth does correlate with hardcore game-playing (Yee, 2009), a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the average gamer is, in fact, 35 years old (Weaver, et. al, 2009). By looking at this demographic, we can better understand the causes behind the recent rise in the popularity of casual games and learn how to make games with broader appeal.

The game industry has long catered to its younger, hardcore audience while occasionally throwing a bone to casual gamers. More recent triple-A offerings have become somewhat friendlier to casual gamers by offering easier learning curves and more frequent save points, but still require a significant investment of time to play. The average hardcore gamer is male and mainly lies between 11 to 22 years of age (Yee, 2009); He is probably still in school, unemployed, and likely has a decent amount of free time which can be devoted to playing games. He has enough time to learn and master even the most complex of games. By contrast, the average gamer is 35 years old, is likely employed or looking for work, may be married and have children, and probably has comparatively little time to spend on playing games, much less learning how to play the more complex offerings.

During my time in college I was involved in the development of a game called Lacona, which was designed with the goal of creating a hyper-realistic space combat simulator. To this day Lacona is one of the most complicated games I’ve ever played. It boasted some impressive features, such as the procedural destruction of craft components, and an accurate sensor system, which took into account the cross section and heat output of any given target, and in 2007 we went to the 2nd annual Maker Faire to exhibit a beta. What we found was that only a few of the people we showed the game to were able to appreciate it. The average user would pick up the controls, play for 1 -2 minutes, and then move on, but those who stuck with it long enough to get a feel for the game enjoyed it. Our problem was with how difficult the game was to pick up, and understandably so; space flight is extremely complex and counter-intuitive to human nature enough as it is, but the game necessitated additional complexity in the form of control sets for each of the spacecraft’s systems. Even I, as a developer of the game, had a hard time keeping track of all of the different button mappings and craft functions. The game was very fun once you actually knew how to play, but the learning curve was so steep, and the game was so difficult that it prevented the majority of users from actually getting to the point where they could enjoy it properly.

The mistakes we made with Lacona are undoubtedly a more extreme example of the same mistakes that the industry makes today by catering primarily to hardcore gamers. Hardcore gamers are notoriously vocal, but they are a minority. Casual games such as those within the ‘tower defense’ genre are popular because of the simplicity of their game mechanic and ease of use, but of these two elements, it is the usability which is most important. A game does not need be simple to be able to be played casually, but it needs to be easy to learn. A good example of this lies in World of Warcraft (WoW), which currently dominates the market for massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). WoW is a reasonably complex game at the endgame, but is very easy to use and offers a gradual learning curve – it is rare that the player is forced to learn more than one new skill at once and they are never left with the feeling of having been overwhelmed. This is critical for casual gamers, who do not have an abundance of time to devote to learning a new game; a hardcore gamer might see a sharp learning curve as a challenge, but a casual gamer is far more likely to be overwhelmed and simply walk away.

WoW proves that a game does not need to cater solely to hardcore or casual players, but can instead offer something to each demographic. In the case of WoW this is because a player can devote as much or as little time as she wants to it, yet still gain adequate satisfaction from playing. The game itself is not particularly difficult or complex, and requires only a small amount of skill for players to excel. This enables the majority of casual players play as they will, while the minority of hardcore gamers are satisfied with exclusive gear and items which can only be obtained by performing difficult or time consuming tasks.

A game like WoW has broad appeal, as opposed to games in other niche genres like fighting games which are aimed specifically towards hardcore gamers and require a sizable investment of time in order to master. Even within the genre there are differences: the Soul Calibur series by Namco requires players to enter complex and often difficult combinations of buttons in order to control their avatars, while the Super Smash Bros. series by Nintendo offers a much simpler control scheme which is more dependent upon timing than complexity. Soul Calibur is highly rated, but has a more difficult learning curve than Super Smash Bros, which is more popular with casual audiences. The usability of a game is directly tied to the amount of practice required to master its core game mechanic, and so a game that appeals to both casual and hardcore gamers will have a gradual learning curve, but enough features to keep players of all levels interested. It is true that hardcore players will always be advantaged over casual players, but this is an issue of hardcore gamers having spent more time in the game world, and can be circumvented through the use of matchmaking technology.

Time is a limited resource, not only for game developers, but for the players as well. It can be a wonderful experience to lose oneself in a game for hours on end, but not everyone has this luxury. For hardcore gamers, time is in abundance, but a 35 year old gamer with children, bills and a job doesn’t necessarily have the time to practice a game until he gets good; instead he might just load up Tower Defense, or go and play World of Warcraft with his friends.

Guilds, Raiding and the Retention of the Casual Gamer Majority in MMOs

Most massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) today incorporate some form of social networking system into their gameplay, whether through social guilds, raiding, or group-based player versus player combat (PvP). There are a number of incentives to join these social networking organizations as membership allows the player greater access to resources and allies than solo play, and enables players to socialize and make friends with other like-minded individuals.

Players tend to join groups which have gameplay goals that align with their own, and effectively tailor their gameplay experience to their preferences. Despite this tailoring, the majority of high-end content in MMOs today seems to be geared mostly towards a specific portion of the player base, leaving others with indeterminate goals and thus less incentive to continue playing.

Undoubtedly, MMOs have a significant social component, and research has suggested that a player’s involvement or lack of involvement in social networks (whether formally through in-game organizations, or otherwise) is a predictor of character abandonment (Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell & Moore, 2006). The reasoning behind this follows that a player who has made friends in the game world will be more hesitant to quit for fear of alienation. This is especially true for players who are involved in player run organizations such as guilds or corporations, as members of these organizations often come to be responsible for a number of specific roles and tasks. Thus, a player who quits may consider themselves not only to be alienating their friends, but reneging on a social responsibility as well. A player who holds membership in an in-game social organization has more to lose by quitting than a player who has few ties and no responsibility to others.

In Blizzard’s World of Warcraft it was found that lack of guild membership was a significant predictor of character abandonment (Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell & Moore, 2006). Given that it has been stated that as a few as 40% of new subscribers play MMOs for more than 2 months (Mulligan & Patrovsky, 2003, cited in Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell & Moore, 2006), it is in the interest of the developer not only to promote early player membership in guilds, but to foster the growth and continuation of pre-existing guilds.

Phases of Gameplay

In World of Warcraft there is a distinct social shift in gameplay style when a player reaches the maximum level, which divides gameplay into two distinct phases. The first phase involves embarking upon quests in small groups and slaying monsters in order to gather experience which in turn causes the character to increase in level and power. When the character reaches the maximum level (80, as of writing), or the ‘endgame’ phase, the player must then engage in high-end raid events and PvP in order to gain new equipment to increase their character’s power. Often these events require a much larger group, up to as many as 40 players and a high degree of in-group organization and coordination.

As of 2006, the majority of high-end content in World of Warcraft was geared primarily towards large and influential raiding and PvP guilds, which constitute a minority of the game’s population. Research implies that roughly 30-35% (varying by server type) of characters in guilds are members of smaller organizations with 60 or less members (Williams, Ducheneaut, Xiong, Zhang, Yee & Nickel, 2006) with an average guild size ranging from 11.26 (on RP servers) to 17.29 (on PvE servers).

A guild of exactly 60 characters would need approximately 66% of it’s members  (assuming one character per player) to be online at the same time for a period of several hours, which would be a very rare occurrence even for a scheduled event. Furthermore, endgame raids often require a sizable portion of time to complete, which makes it very difficult for the majority of smaller guilds, which may be composed of casual gamers, to participate in.

It was found after a month of observation that only 3.6% of players spent more than an hour playing high-end raid content (Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell & Moore, 2006). Since the majority of endgame gameplay is specifically crafted to favor this 3.6%, this is a highly inefficient use of the developer’s resources. Favoring this minority comes at a risk of alienating the larger group of casual gamers in smaller guilds. Left to their own devices, it leaves them with no distinctive or realistically achievable goal thus forcing them to come up with their own reasons to continue playing. Eventually such players may start alternate characters to regain a lost sense of purpose in the game, or even become fed up and leave.

Lessons and Suggestions

While trends specific to World of Warcraft in 2006 cannot necessarily be generalized to other games, issues of player retention, social networking and endgame play are concepts which are relevant to all MMOs. Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell and Moore write that the aforementioned 3.6% of players who participate in high end content are likely highly vocal hardcore gamers, and conclude that World of Warcraft, in the end, is not as casual a game as it claims to be.

The fact that the high end content was capitalized by a minority of the player population suggests a need for a different means of progressing at endgame other than raiding or PvP.  CCP’s EVE, for example, introduces a system of progression which is based upon learned skills, not level. Skills are learned based on time and may have prerequisites. The skills are so numerous that players cannot hope to possibly learn all of them, and must therefore decide what to specialize in. A character may excel in leadership and commerce, but be completely inept when it comes to combat. No matter how skilled a character may be, there is always room for improvement. This results in a more fluid definition of ‘endgame,’ which changes depending on updates, in-game politics and what the player desires.

Similarly, in the original incarnation of Sony Online Entertainment’s Star Wars Galaxies, players could choose from a number of professions, some of which were entirely based upon social interaction. Most exemplar of these were the entertainer classes, who healed wounds of the psyche, and the politician class which allowed for the administration of player owned cities. Other classes, such as the architect, engineer, tailor, chef and trader also allowed for similar social interaction. Endgame in the original Star Wars Galaxies came when a player ran out of skill points with which to develop their character. At that point the character could no longer gain further skills, and depending on their profession, was free to participate in raids, factional PvP, city building, or whatever their vocation allowed them.

None of this is to say that EVE and Star Wars Galaxies are or are not plagued by the same social and endgame problems that World of Warcraft experiences, but they are examples of alternative styles of play which directly reward social interaction outside of the primary game mechanic of slaying enemies. Considering that some 60% of participants of a 2006 study considered their guild to be primarily social (Williams, Ducheneaut, Xiong, Zhang, Yee & Nickel, 2006) this is an important consideration.

Since 2006 Blizzard has significantly expanded the endgame phase of World of Warcraft. As of current writing raid groups in World of Warcraft range from 5-25 people, and can be challenged at different levels of difficulty, which increases accessability to the game’s larger population of casual gamers. Unfortunately there is a significant lack of contemporary empirical research on massively multiplayer games with respect to gameplay issues, and so it is difficult to authoritatively say what other effects these changes have created.

The difficulty of designing a game which has something to offer both to casual and hardcore gamers is not trivial. Any changes which cater to casual gamers may inadvertently upset hardcore gamers and visa versa. In the end hardcore gamers will always have the advantage over casual gamers, as they are generally able to devote more time to playing games, and will in turn have access to a greater share of in-game resources than their casual counterparts.

Overall the most important lesson is that while it is common practice to appease power gamers by implementing large scale PvP and raids, these events should not be developed to the exclusion of content for smaller scale organizations and casual gamers. The more players developers can keep entertained, the less they have to worry about acquiring new ones.


Ducheneaut, N, Yee, N, Nickell, E, and Moore, J, R. (2006). Building an MMO with mass appeal: A look at gameplay in World of Warcraft. Games and Culture, 1(4), 281-317.

Williams, D, Ducheneaut, N, Xiong, L, Zhang, Y, Yee, N, Nickell, E. (2006). From tree house to barracks: The social life of guilds in World of Warcraft. Games and Culture, 1(4), 338-361.

Special Thanks

To pwfffff and ITJC68 on Slashdot for updating me on the current state of World of Warcraft’s endgame, and pointing out an error.