Using the Casual Hardcore argument, let’s take a look at two PvE MMOs: WoW and Rift. They are in direct competition with each other as they are both fantasy, themepark, PvE-primary MMOs. WoW certainly has the massive lead with close to 10x the population levels but also 6+ years of a head start.
WoW Vanilla was built with old EQ gamers in mind. They wanted the hardcore activities with a bit of the casual stuff thrown in. Raids and PvP (other than world PvP) weren’t even in the launch client. It was ambitious but at the time, they provided the only casual friendly fantasy themepark. I don’t think we’d call it casual by today’s standards mind you, but back then it was certainly true. Anyone who remembers the consumables-dance and resist gear-shuffle can attest to this. Vanilla saw the largest player growth in terms of percentages.
WoW TBC focused heavily on the hardcore playstyle and activity set. The gating system, factions, lots of raids, outdoor and inside along with a steep learning curve made it that if you wanted any level of success, you needed to play the game their way. It provided some casual aspects of dungeon running for rep and rewards but even that gate was fairly difficult to traverse. TBC saw decent player growth.
WoW LK flipped that around. There were certainly raids but they removed the gating system, added tabards, hundreds of faction items, daily quest explosions and most glaringly, the LFD tool. Every hardcore item, except for PvE raids (which added a heroic difficulty) was given a casual system. Even the stat system was simplified. LK saw the final player growth and cap at 12 million subs. The sub drop was massive when Blizzard took a year between the final patch and the next expansion though.
WoW Cataclysm again flipped the target. There were some casual aspects in the levelling game (which prevented you from grouping most often) but once you hit level cap, there was near nothing to do. Only a couple factions actually had reasonable dailies and casual rewards (Ram’haken for one). The focus was on the hardcore crowd up until patch 4.3 and the LFR tool. Before that tool launched, less than 1% of the playerbase had completed a heroic raid, less than 20% had completed an at-level raid. Subs peaked on launch but dropped continually until MoP. The last numbers had the game at a 25% loss from their peak in LK – even with the year sub option for D3. Which starts expiring this week.
WoW Pandaria is a casual approach, once more – plenty of dailies, a very good levelling system, a low gate of entry for dungeons, factions all over and the pet battle system. The hardcore players have to navigate through this casual playground to get to their stuff though, making for some mad hardcore players. Let’s see how that turns out. I personally predict another 2-3 million player drop from now until March (when the D3 offer expired).
Clearly, WoW has been all over the map. From a centrist idea to the outsides and back in either says that the market has changed drastically every 2 years or Blizzard’s strategic direction team doesn’t look farther than 2 years down the road.
RIFT now. Rift launched with a mixed approach to casual and hardcore players. Plenty of dailies, lots of rewards (pets and collections), factions, rifts, LFD and zone quests helped the casual folks. A consistent approach to raiding and dungeons that required attention helped the hardcore crowd, though noticeably less than the casuals. We’re 11 patches in though, which is where WoW was at the end of Lich King. Many casual options have been sent out now; fishing, instant adventures, personal raids, LFGuild tool, mentoring, free character transfers, wardrobes, pre-built characters. Hardcores have a new PvP setup, a new raid every other patch with quality content.
The Storm Legion expansion pack is certainly aimed at the most casual crowd though with player housing, triple land mass, new towns, new collectables. Hardcore players will get more raids and a stat increase but no real new systems.
Though Rift only has one expansion pack on the graph, the 11 content patches all fit into the same general quadrant. This shows consistent strategic direction, though certainly this is over a smaller time frame. Rift has fit nearly 5 year’s worth of WoW content into 18 months. We’ll see how the game does in a few more months.