Thursday, August 16, 2007

Demographics for a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
Flatfingers, I think there's a problem with the implied premise of your post, which seems to say that there's something wrong and undesirable about a game whose subscription base comprises a plurality or majority of people who already play MMOs. It seems that you're saying such a game would be "less successful than it can or should be".
The only thing I wanted to suggest would be wrong and undesirable would be to leave money on the table!

The reason I piped up on this was to try to provide some kind of logical foundation for designing and marketing a Star Trek MMORPG to more than just current MMO fans -- not because I think there's anything wrong with those folks, but because I think aiming too much at them risks losing potential revenue from other sources. For the record, I think it would be equally mistaken to aim Star Trek Online's design too much at Star Trek fans.

My belief is that there's a sweet spot for design somewhere between the standard list of general MMORPG features (whatever those are) and the standard list of iconic Star Trek features (whatever those are). By aiming ST:O's design and marketing not just at current MMORPG players, and not just at Star Trek fans, but at a mark in the general population that strongly includes both these subgroups, I think ST:O can be more successful than if it tries too hard to satisfy either of these groups.

WRT Star Trek's current popularity, I believe you may be underestimating the cachet that Trek retains among the general public. (And overestimating the importance of Star Trek: Enterprise's ratings.) Again, if it's truly so déclassé these days, why is CBS spending millions of dollars to make yet another Star Trek movie, even if in some adulterated J.J. Abrams version? Why would Perpetual or Cryptic or any other game development studio agree to make a Star Trek MMORPG if that bit of intellectual property is no longer considered to have enough fans to make attracting them seem financially worthwhile?

Furthermore, the people in high school and college when TNG started have now reached the point in their professional lives of having more disposable income, not less. That makes them prime candidates for trying a subscription-based online game.

The question of having less free time is a good one, but it cuts both ways -- if young professionals have less time for Star Trek Online, they have less time for WoW or EVE or any other online game as well. So Star Trek is not at any disadvantage there merely by being Star Trek.

Additionally, I see the time issue as a competitive opportunity for ST:O because its design is not yet (as far as I know!) set in stone, as is the case with games like WoW and SWG and EVE. If ST:O is not already being designed to accommodate the casual player with only 30 minutes to an hour or two to play each night, then there's still time to "make it so." And to do so would be a definite win: someone who pays a monthly subscription but plays only one or two hours a night is actually more valuable than a hardcore player because the casual player pays the same amount of money to use less bandwidth -- whoever makes Star Trek Online ought to want to design ST:O to appeal to casual players! Again, that's a good fit for the people who watched TNG as teenagers and young adults.

Finally, on the question of the general population of which MMO fans and Star Trek fans are a part:

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
With all of that said, I'm not actually certain what the ultimate difference is. I'm not really sure "general entertainment fans" are going to want something particularly different than what most MMO players want, and if they are, what? I consider myself a "latent Trek fan", and in all honesty, a "general entertainment fan", and I'm probably perceived to be more in line with "most MMO players" than not. Which is also to say, I find this argument to conflict somewhat with pleas on this board for Perpetual not to "dumb down" STO, or to appeal to the least common denominator.
Concerning the difference between current MMO fans and the general public, I think my earlier point holds. A game about elves and orcs and magic -- which is exactly the kind of thing that most current MMOGs are about -- is not going to appeal to your MMOG-curious suburban golfer to the same degree that a relatively straightforward science fiction game can. Clarke's Law aside, a starship can be treated as just a really good car; replicators are just fancy microwave ovens; and so on. More people can relate to those things than to (for example) a spellcasting "14th-level Tauren shaman." Yes, a Star Trek game has aliens, but the technology-based setting is, I think, more plausible, more familiar to the average person, and therefore more acceptable as entertainment that people can admit to their friends that they enjoy.

As for "dumbing down" a Star Trek MMORPG, I suspect that when some gamers express a concern that Star Trek Online's developer will dumb it down, they're not talking about making the game more appealing to the general public -- they're worried that it will be simplified per the demands of the hardcore MMORPG players who want guaranteed wins through predictability. That said, there probably are some people who worry that features appealing to non-Trekkies will attract players who want the "wrong" kinds of things. To which I'd reply, hey, it's a massively multiplayer game -- everybody gives up some of what they want in order to get some of what they do want.

A game with some meaningful and thoughtful gameplay (in addition to the usual frenetic action and accumulation gameplay) is better than no game at all.


The point of all this is not to criticize what other people want -- I'm just not opposition-focused like that. All I'm trying to do here is think out loud a bit about what the best high-level target for designing and marketing Star Trek Online might be.

And what my gut tells me is that the real bullseye isn't just current MMORPG players, nor is it primarily Star Trek fans, nor is it the general public -- it's somewhere (I'm not pretending to know exactly where) in between those three overlapping groups. It'll have some features that feel familiar to your typical MMORPG player; it'll have some features that appeal primarily (or even exclusively) to the dedicated Star Trek fan; and it'll have some features that are acceptable to people who aren't currently MMORPG players or Star Trek fans. That game, I think, would tap into the biggest population of people who might play an online game based on Star Trek.

A reasonable counterargument to this is that such a game, by trying to appeal to too many people, would wind up not appealing enough to anyone. I think that's a fair criticism, but it would have more punch if it were backed up with its own answer to the question I've tried to address: If Star Trek Online shouldn't be designed and marketed to appeal roughly equally to MMORPG players, Star Trek fans, and the general public, then who should it be targeted to? And why?