Opinions, Subjectivity, and When Games Go “Wrong”

A concept I began to touch on in yesterday’s post is this idea of people marking things World of Warcraft has done “wrong” – and about how stating so can often seem arrogant.

My experience in most MMO player communities is that being a WoW/Final Fantasy XIV player means that a certain amount of unearned ire is directed at me for liking the popular games. Liking WoW is tantamount to holding the entire genre back! FFXIV is a base, lowest common denominator game built on awful repetition!

As someone who has played a few other MMO games, not gotten hooked, and watched them slowly (or quickly!) die, there’s a certain amount of “MMO Survivor’s Guilt” that I feel as that process unfolds. Something I try to be careful about when writing about other games I’m not as enamored with is to not declare my personal taste as indicative of the actual quality of the thing. For example, my brief time playing Riders of Icarus – I’d hesitate to say much about the gameplay – the actiony mouse aiming controls felt weird but that is more likely 15 years of tab-target gameplay speaking, at least with the small amount of RoI time spent. I would comment that fire animations in the first zone I was in looked awful because they seemed to have a weird, stuttery framerate lower than everything else, but I also play on a 100Hz monitor, and FFXIV’s ambient fire effects behave somewhat similarly, so I wouldn’t point at that as a failing of the game because my own experience alone is limited.

I do feel bad that many of the great “next big thing” games have died out over the years in opposition to titles I enjoy. I don’t feel a personal sense of responsibility for that, after all, I supported many of them! I bought and played Age of Conan, Aion, Rift (counting free copies given out in goodie bags at PAX East 2012, I have 5 copies of that one!), and have free-to-played Riders of Icarus, Everquest and EQ2, and Ragnarok Online. It’s not the biggest sampling of the genre and I would hesitate to call it expertise with the titles involved, but I saw things I liked in each of them.

But let’s go back to the original point of my post, qualifications out of the way. Something I absolutely loathe about MMO discussions as someone that enjoys the “fast-food” MMOs is when an individual criticism is voiced as indicative of a larger opinion. Say, for example, Dungeon Finder. Introduced in WoW patch 3.2, the heights of Wrath of the Lich King, the Dungeon Finder changed the social dynamic of the game forever. Before Dungeon Finder, dungeon groups required barking in trade chat or general chat in a capital city, trying to round up the 5 players needed to run a group. Your ability to participate in a dungeon was dependent on your willingness to respond to requests, sometimes needing to reply dozens of times to run a single dungeon. The process was long and tedious, but also fostered a real sense of community. It made it so that everyone took a long time to get into a dungeon – and that was time you didn’t spend playing anything else in the game unless it could be done in the zone where the chat was happening, but it also gave you the ability to shape your destiny with good (or bad!) behavior.

Players that were humble, respectful, and skillful became known – and it would often ease your later attempts at joining a dungeon group. Players who misbehaved or played poorly would gain a reputation for that, and might struggle later with group invites. As time marched on, this wasn’t always the case – addons like Gearscore or in-game options like average item level would influence those decisions, and a lot of groups close to the Dungeon Finder’s rollout were plagued with leaders checking Gearscore over any other metric.

From there, we saw phasing technology expanded through Sharding to allow zones from different servers to be melded into a single place to keep zones feeling populated, LFR which brought the dungeon finder experience to raids, and cross-realm group finder, connecting you to anyone else in your region wanting to run content, from world quests up to deprecated Mythic raids.

All of these features have a duality about them. They are good from a gameplay perspective, in that running dungeons/raids/group content is easier, faster, and less limited than ever before. Blizzard has even pushed newer systems into the game that rely on manually forming a group again, like Mythic dungeons, Mythic Keystones, and reintroducing world bosses (although if you hover over one long enough, you might be able to just faction tag it without joining a group!).

However, these features ultimately have eroded the sense of community in the game. Dungeon players are faceless mutes I’ll never see again, as are world quest partners and LFR raiders. For all intents and purposes, they may as well be server-controlled characters – unless they try to spark up a conversation or pollute my chat box, there is an almost ethereal quality to matchmade groups – the players are real, but are they? My server has a few familiar names from as far back as 2004! – but unless you join their guild raids or a PUG run through trade chat, you’ll never see them other than briefly in a chat channel or running through Boralus or Dazar’Alor. It becomes easier to treat group gameplay as transactional in these systems, and the meaning of anyone’s actions are less significant – you no longer have a reputation, good or bad, but even then, the game itself dictates the terms on which most interactions take place and that smooths over most of the bumps (particularly with loot) which is both good and bad.

As someone who plays games built on these systems, they certainly are a mixed bag. Most of my current play in WoW is guild raids, so it is inherently social and when raid is done, I’m unlikely to keep playing, so my experience remains socially-centered with the content being a less-substantial part of the whole idea. In FFXIV, my play largely ends up being single-player, outside of players in Roulettes, which are around 50/50 on whether people say hello or anything, but generally are more social than WoW random groups. However, the thing I understand about these systems is this – they are good for me.

In truth, the idea of me even playing MMOs would have been inconceivable two decades ago. My online gaming was intensely limited to closed Diablo II games, Big Game Hunters matches in Starcraft that were strictly competitive where the chat was usually just “glhf” and “gg,” and stuff like SOCOM on the PS2 with no chat unless you had a headset or keyboard hooked up. I was definitely not one to socialize online.

Playing WoW with my friends even was largely an experience of catching up, where most of play was just single-player with a green chat channel overlaid on it. As I grew up through the game, I took on group content largely out of necessity or eagerness for the dungeons themselves, not so much the grouping. There wasn’t a moment where I would point and say that everything changed, it was just a gradual shift, and by the time I hit around level 50 on my first character leveled to 60, I was willing to put myself out there for the occasional dungeon run with strangers. Not enough to say, farm Tier 0.5, push timed Stratholme, or the like, but enough to get by. Of course, as my confidence in-game grew, so too did my willingness to run group content, including raids, to lead group content, and to speak to my own competencies as a healer and priest player. That confidence led to alts, and well, here I am 10 years after the height of Wrath of the Lich King still playing WoW and now also playing FFXIV.

All of these anecdotes are to say this – while I understand Dungeon Finder, Raid Finder, Group Finder, and Sharding all have trade-offs, to someone like me, those tradeoffs make the game more playable and more enjoyable, overall. Do I miss community, sometimes? Yeah, sure. I remember an Obsidian Sanctum run in early Wrath where a player named Barleycorn tried to join our group. He had been a real prick in an earlier run, and so when his name popped up, I told our raid leader my experiences with him and that I wouldn’t personally invite him. He attempted to apologize, joined the group afterwards, and it felt like he had a fire lit under him to play to a higher level – and it went relatively well! The modern state of my games doesn’t offer that – and I get that, but I think the flipside is that features like Dungeon Finder, cross-server gameplay, and the like have become staples of the MMO genre because they work for a lot of players.

I won’t pretend they work for everyone, and I am sympathetic to that. Dungeon Finder makes the game more about, well, the game, than it is about the world and the sense of scale and immersion. Wrath marks a point in WoW where the world began to feel smaller, because it was possible for players to not even know where dungeons are in the game world (the solution Blizzard hilariously tried in early Cataclysm? You have to discover the instance portal in the world to open the dungeon in your Dungeon Finder! It didn’t last past 4.0.)! The world of classic feels larger, even though modern zones are larger, because the classic game focused on how the world was presented, where the modern game kind of…doesn’t.

Largely, all of these boil down to player choice. Quality of Life features always bring out multiple camps – players who want the convenience they offer and are willing to take the trade vs. those who value the immersion offered by the prior state of the game. The thing I find presumptuous and unnecessarily gate-keepy about calling QoL features and the like “wrong” is that the assumption loaded in that statement is that the way that player prefers their gameplay is the “correct” way. If you like the thing I don’t, that makes you someone that is holding back the “real” MMO genre from its proper glory.

I don’t have to like gameplay in someone else’s game to appreciate that it offers value to a person. That’s why I hold myself to never making inflammatory comments about the quality of someone else’s main play games. If I don’t like something, it simply means that – I don’t like it personally. In the case of WoW and FFXIV, the gameplay is what I like about those games, and the tools that enable me to get into the gameplay without jumping through a ton of player interactions are valuable to me because they put me closer to the things I want out of the interaction and preserve my limited introvert energy. At the same time, I appreciate the value people get out of their immersion into game worlds, and the social interaction necessitated by “the old ways” and so I’ll never say those ways are bad. We just like different things, and it is okay that this is the case. I don’t think wanting to find a group via chat and having the community that entails is wrong or bad – it’s just not my personal preference.

To be clear, there isn’t any one comment or commenter here that drives this post either – I’ve had very gentle versions of this seep in to some comments, but a lot of my non-WoW fan readers are often quite polite and willing to criticize the game without leaping to an attempt to represent their opinion as objective truth or the perspective of a larger mass of players, which I appreciate!

With that off of my chest and no fun way to end this post, uh…thanks for reading (and commenting!)!

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6 thoughts on “Opinions, Subjectivity, and When Games Go “Wrong”

  1. The conflation of personal opinion with fact is a blight that extends beyond the gaming community. But it certainly manifests itself a lot in the MMO genre. With its self appointed gatekeepers and arbiters. Always makes me chuckle when from time to time, one of the Massively OP writers trots out a “you’re gaming wrong” opinion piece. Mercifully they are seldom given any serious consideration.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Heh, I have to admit the notion of feeling harrassed for liking the popular thing made me chuckle a little, as I’m only familiar with the opposite: I’m pretty sure every player who’s ever made one of the even slightly smaller MMOs their home has at some point been faced with ridicule or at best bafflement about why they’d choose to prefer to play such an “inferior” product when WoW obviously does everything better. But fair point, MMO players can be tribal jerks to anyone who doesn’t play the same games as them, and it can go either way.

    Other than that, I totally get your annoyance with people treating their preferences as fact (even more so when they are actually woefully ill-informed about the game they are judging negatively), but I kind of want to say that there’s a bit more to what I’d call the “WoW bittervet”. I was one myself for a while, even if I tried hard not to rain on other people’s parades.

    The thing with WoW is that it has changed so much over the years that someone complaining about one expansion vs. another is not the same as judging a completely different game. If you were playing WoW during one expansion and having a blast, and then Blizzard took away things you liked to make the game more fun for someone else, that’s not a neutral situation. I still seethe a little when I remember various dev statements telling me that they were taking this or that away because “it’s not fun” when it had bloody well been fun for me.

    So I see a lot of this sort of player grousing as coming from a position of helplessness, which is why I’m a lot more understanding of it these days when I see it in others, even if I don’t personally agree with the person’s particular gripe. It’s a lot easier to ask for civility when the game favours your own play style anyway than when things you liked have been taken away and you’re being lectured about how you were having fun the wrong way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, I try to be cognizant of the smaller MMOs and I think the thing I notice is that no matter how good they can be, there is always this very market-focused critique of them, like, because they aren’t popular must mean they are bad, and it makes pulling people in to play harder even when the game is great. It’s definitely not just an MMO thing (MOBAs have it, FPSes have it, Battle Royale games have it) and I think it is largely just a byproduct of a larger cultural shift.

      Agreed on the point about feature removal – Blizzard loves this trend of doing things for one expansion and then removing them, and it absolutely makes it harder for players to buy in to the game or stay engaged. It probably explains a lot of their current issues with player retention – if core gameplay elements can’t be counted on to last, what point is there to following the reward loop now?

      I think what I’ve observed as a blogger is that satisfied players do tend to blog more or discuss their preferences openly more, which can open them up to having their preferences dissected more. If I tweet about the game on my own personal twitter, I’m just a guy who has an opinion, but if I write a blog post about it and an audience reads it, it becomes part of a *discourse* and that allows people from all sides of the topic to come into the conversation, which is good but can also bring some of that lingering resentment of the topical game.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve had this discussion before, although it’s not one that comes up all that often. As always, I believe the real problem is language and semantics. We argue about these things because we have yet to establish widely accepted and understood terms to frame the discussion meaningfully.

    A year or two ago I decided, on someone’s advice (I forget who) to try and be consistent in using the terms “MMO” and “MMORPG”. I also do not use the term “virtual world” as a synonym for either. All of these are discrete and seperate entities which have varying degrees of overlap.

    In the case of WoW, I would be willing to argue that, from the period you describe, beginning with the introduction of the Dungeon Finder, the game began to diverge from its historical placing as an MMORPG to move towards becoming an MMO. That transition is still not complete, so I choose to still refer to it with the lengthier acronym but the tim emay come when I have to revise that. I certainly would not describe WoW Retail as a “virtual world” any more and I would be hesitant to use the term about Classic, either, although its certainly nearer to that pole than Retail.

    The MMO genre really needs a number of sub-divisions. MMORPG, MMOFPS and MMORTS don’t even begin to cover it. When you compare it with the sub-genres and sub-sub-genres that are widely used and broadly understood in popular music, cinema and novels it’s painfully obvious that our genre does not yet have the necessary semantic scaffolding to support the kind of debates we’re trying to have.

    Give it fifty years and we’ll get there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the separation of terms, if only because I can be a language pedant and being able to clarify the terms of the discussion is helpful!

      I think the idea of MMO as a term for a full genre is outdated in a lot of ways, especially because the idea it once communicated exists in a lot of different games with a dizzying array of gameplay modes and models.

      I definitely agree with your assessment of WoW on those terms – I think when thinking of virtual world, Classic is the closest it has ever been, but even then, it was definitely a hybrid approach that placed more value in gameplay than the sense of world and it tried to use gameplay loops to feed the feeling of the world. The game has abandoned that over time and now it’s definitely different from that Classic experience, although built on the same skeleton laid out all those years ago.

      I do have to say that I think certain events in gaming culture, especially a certain one that rhymes with “lame or late” set back a lot of the ability to publicly discuss video games as a medium by devaluing critical thought about games as art and what message they might be trying to deliver. Mainstream games’ journalism is only starting to resume the project of bringing a more artistic evaluation of games back into the coverage they offer, and individual creators often won’t take that risk (I tend towards criticism in a neutral tone precisely because I don’t want to deal with those types of people cluttering up my comments and making things awful).

      I’m optimistic that the terminology and outline of the discussion will take better shape over time, but a big part of why I wrote this was to be the change I wanted to see in the world, and all of that.

      Like

  4. I definitely don’t look down on WoW players – I have been one myself for the better part of the last fifteen years, off and on. But I still hold the view that WoW’s development, if not at release then with each expansion, has killed off the ‘virtual world’ aspect of the genre that marked early MMORPGs as special.

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