Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Demographics for a Star Trek MMORPG

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
I'm with Fraek and Roma - I think the largest bulk, maybe up to 65%, of STO subscribers are going to be MMO fans with a functional or even passing knowledge of Star Trek in its entirety. There's a significant barrier to transitioning over from passive interest in a television show to active participation in an online community, and that's before you even consider that many of these people gave up on even that passive interest.
Do I think the 65% estimate is likely to be in the ballpark? Yes.

Do I think that's inevitable? No.

In other words, I agree that it's likely that Star Trek Online will be designed and marketed to appeal primarily to current MMO fans. It's a safer bet; we already know these people play online games. I wouldn't be surprised to see 85% or more of ST:O's eventual player base be self-identified online gamers, versus 15% or less self-identifying primarily as Star Trek fans who only play ST:O.

But nothing requires this outcome. Of course a Star Trek MMORPG (or a MMORPG based on any licensed IP) will appeal primarily to current online gamers if that's how it's designed and marketed... but who says that's how it has to be designed and marketed?

The concern I'm trying to express here is that we not shortchange ourselves by being willing to accept a product that's less successful than it can and should be. There's something special about Star Trek -- it has value beyond other licenses. With its unique blend of action and heart and brains, it appeals to a mass market in a way that other properties don't. (If it didn't, if Star Trek no longer had meaningful mass appeal, why would CBS spend millions of dollars on yet another Star Trek movie?)

That means there's an opportunity -- not a guarantee, just an opportunity -- for a well-constructed online game based on Star Trek to pull in more subscribers than a well-made online game based on some other less accessible property. If an interactive game about elves and orcs and dwarves killing each other with magic can attract nine million people, what numbers might be achieved by a different kind of game, a game about people cooperating in a technology-based and optimistic universe?

But that will not happen, it cannot happen, if we tell CBS and Star Trek Online's developer and game media writers that we'll be satisfied with designing and marketing Star Trek Online primarily to attract fans of current MMOs.

I'm not claiming that a ST:O that presents a mass-market vision of Star Trek would somehow score 20-30 million or more subscribers. I agree with the observation that passive entertainment (movies) will probably always be more popular in raw numbers than active/interactive entertainment (online games), so I'm definitely not saying that movie attendance numbers will translate directly to MMORPG subscription numbers. What I'm claiming is that pulling in 2-5 million subscribers is a reasonable possibility, but that it is unlikely to happen if ST:O's design and marketing are not seriously extended to the larger audience of Star Trek fans and general entertainment consumers beyond just today's MMORPG players.

Just as we know there are MMORPG players, and thus that it's a financially reasonable idea to build and promote a product to appeal to them, we also know there are Star Trek fans and people who like games in general. So why isn't it also a good idea to explicitly build and promote Star Trek Online to appeal to them as well in some reasonable measure?

A million subscribers for a MMORPG with some Star Trek elements would be nice.

Two million (or more) subscribers for an online game world that is equal parts Star Trek and MMORPG and cooperative, optimistic entertainment experience would be even nicer.

Of course I don't know that the latter will happen with a more broadly designed and marketed game. But we can, I think, be pretty confident that it won't happen if we all assume from the very start that most of Star Trek Online's players will be current MMORPG gamers, so that its design and marketing might as well be limited to the relatively narrow expectations of current MMO fans. Assuming that's true will make it come true. And this game will IMO be less successful than it could have been.

Instead, I hope that whoever finally makes a Star Trek MMORPG will not be content with scraps of the existing MMO pie, but will choose to build a bigger pie by consciously designing and marketing Star Trek Online as a more mainstream entertainment product.

There may be a very good reason why I am not a professional game designer. :)