Massively has a “soapbox-like” post about SWTOR and its target audience. I think the argument applies to the MMORPG realm as a whole to be frank. The crux of it all is that gamer demographics and player audiences do not match up against paying subscribers. The perceived benefit for designing to your vocal playerbase is often at odds with who is actually paying to play your game.
A referenced study points to younger players aspiring to a leadership position (~24%). This shouldn’t seem strange to anyone who’s played an MMO before or anyone who’s been in their 20s before. The mentality of the “student gamer” is widely different than the “adult gamer” in their 30s. In addition, when you factor in the female demographic, which is far from negligible, the amount of players opting for a leadership role diminishes drastically.
If you were to map those age categories with your existing playerbase, you’d find many more players in the adult/female gamer group than you would in the 18-22 demographic. Yet games are primarily designed for the latter group. Admittedly, this group is often the most vocal (for various reasons) yet a poor designer is the one who designs for the renter rather than the owner.
Case in point, the top tier guilds in WoW. Ensidia, Blood Legion et al. all maintain a core player base in their 18-22 demo. They play hardcore hours for a few weeks until the content is complete then un-subscribe until the next patch, then do it again. People at this level of skill and time dedication are in such a small minority – perhaps 200 people out of 9 million – yet the game has tended to their playstyle. Cataclysm is a perfect example of why this method fails, with the over 3 million subs lost over this expansion cycle.
Quick stats first. Heroic Lich King was out for nearly a year and had massive nerfs to the content. Still, in what is arguably the most casual-friendly expansion pack, only 10% of players ever finished that mode. Heroic Firelands had under 1% completion during it’s current-content run. There were zero systems developed for the 99% of players who obviously had better things to do. The game you bought in the box was the exact same game for over a year. Then 4.3 came out and included costume customization and the LFR tool. The first was somewhat casual-friendly while the latter boosted the raid consumption from 10% to 50% (on an easier difficulty curve).
TOR gets back to the front now, with a design element favoring the vocal minority of gamers – namely hard challenges, a gear grind and specific “special snowflake” encounters/rewards. This is an exclusive group that builds internal cliques of friends but actively shuns the casual player. This is also the player group who consumes content at an epic pace and leaves the game wanting another challenge. There’s nothing wrong with this group existing. There are plenty of games where the challenge is organic to the game (CoD comes to mind). In a themepark however, the rides are limited and take resources to develop. If this tier of player consumes content faster than you can build it, they leave. If they only account for 10% of your playerbase, you really have to ask yourself, do they really matter for the longevity of your game?