A (Somewhat Lengthy) Aside on Negativity and MMORPGs

Am I the only one who isn’t riddled with angst or frustration or FIREY RAEG about MMOs?

Pictured: Absolutely Everybody Else who writes about MMOs.

As you may know, I just did a thing on Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft’s new “Mists of Pandaria” expansion over on Nightmare Mode, comparing how they both approach storytelling and whatnot during the early levels.  I did note that Blizzard’s approach and Bioware’s approach reflected their conservatism, but I did also take pains to note that I actually enjoyed the experience.

So, why, upon reading two pieces linked on Rock Paper Shotgun, do I feel like I’m the only one who has? One of them is a whole long harangue on Gamespy by Leif Johnson about how the genre’s broken because you aren’t dumped, lost and bewildered, into a world and system you can’t at all comprehend anymore. He seems angry that he can’t seem to recapture what he had back when he was doing early WoW raiding.

The other is a newbie to MMORPGs, Stuart Young, who’s game to give it a try, but who seems to be vaguely put off by the abstraction of it all. (And who, ironically, seems lost and a bit bewildered, though perhaps mostly by the patching process.) He’s not happy that opponents respawn, or that there are button bars, or that there’s big pillars of light indicating drops—which is actually a concession to the difficulty of finding things back in Leif’s day.

I respect what both people are trying to say, but there are a lot of issues here.

Stuart seems partially to be stuck in an empty server on the weakest starting planet of the lot of ’em. That’s unfortunate, but it’s fixable: reroll on a better server, and a better planet. I’d suggest Hutta. The Imperial Agent plotline is grand fun, and Hutta’s a fun environment to see it in.

Hhis other complaints seem to be unsolvable, however, because his issue isn’t with MMOs, it’s with RPGs. RPGs are about abstraction. That’s almost entirely the point of it all. The reason why you have those button bars in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft or a single-player RPG like Dragon’s Age is because they’re representations of activities that your character is doing instead of you yourself. That’s the case with pen-and-paper, too. Same deal.

Sure, you could replace abstracted abilities with some sort of direct action. Some MMOs do that: Everybody is going on about TERA right now, but DC Universe Online also jumps out as a good example of a game with direct attacks that are only supplemented by “button-bar” stuff. But the button bars exist for a reason: because the alternative is taking away almost everything your character can do and replacing it with “attack”. That’s how it worked in Everquest, and people HATED that.

He also pointed to the simplicity of combat at that early stage, but there’s a reason for that: he’s not the only newbie, and a lot of them need time to get used to things. It’s going to be pretty simple around level five. It gets harder.Though I have to admit to being a bit baffled by someone who’s never used the right mouse button to move the camera in a game before. Does he just play shooters?

As for Leif Johnson, well…I do understand where he’s coming from, but I think he’s dreaming in technicolor.  This guy was in Risen, which was one of the top-tier guilds of the time.  Risen were the first American guild to take down the final opponent of the original World of Warcraft. That was an incredibly, almost impossibly difficult achievement.

(The people whinging about how World of Warcraft is too “easy” have never actually tried the hard stuff. I still maintain that top-level hard-mode raiding is the most challenging co-op content in the industry. Yes, still. The hard-mode version of Cataclysm’s “Ragnaros” fight is no joke.)

C’mon, Leif. Of course your guild is going to have camaraderie. Of course you’re going to be playing around and experimenting. Of course you’re going to have that fun “flying by the seat of your pants” feel. YOU WERE ONE OF THE BEST IN THE WORLD. You were ahead of everybody else. You were fighting things that the rest of us have never seen. Despite what you may think, there were guides and videos and strategies and whatnot. We all lived on Thottbot and Allakhazam. It’s just that you were so far ahead of the rest of us that you never saw what the rest of us were doing.

It’s “the rest of us” that are the issue here. World of Warcraft‘s singular initial advancement over the rest of the genre was its accessibility. Everquest was a struggle, and it was a struggle that comparatively few people were willing to put up with. When raiding in WoW became its major focus, though, the same thing happened there: people like Leif were seeing things that the rest of us could never see, because we didn’t have the time to do it or the luck to find a group skilled and committed enough to do it with us.  Something like one in a hundred top-level players even saw that boss that Leif downed. Probably not one in a thousand beat him. The rest of us were mired in early raids, if we were even able to raid at all

Leif, the reason why the game appealed to you so much is because the game catered to you as a hardcore raider. The rest of us were out in the cold.

Yes, that’s changed. WoW’s different. Raiding is more accessible now: LFR means that almost everybody gets the rush of large-scale co-op that he enjoyed so much. Dungeons are more accessible now: Blizzard’s taking time to make sure that Mists of Pandaria’s dungeons are accessible to the masses and challenging for the experts.  Leveling is far more accessible now, and a simply better experience than it was in his time, with a wider variety of gameplay verbs and actual honest-to-goodness stories. The interface is MUCH better now, in ways you only appreciate once you’ve played for a little while.  World of Warcraft is a better game. Set aside the nostalgia.

The genre is more accessible now. Leif blithely dismisses the free-to-play revolution, saying it “only masks the deficiencies of the aging gameplay and lackluster player interaction”. He’s wrong. The free to play games are actually doing quite well, as companies like Perfect World and Nexon are making quite clear.  That they ARE doing so contradicts his assertion that “I can’t see younger players ever latching on to single MMORPGs as we did”. The whole free-to-play model depends on social effects to work:  people don’t buy pretty outfits for their avatar if they don’t give a damn about who sees it.

The most frustrating thing, though, is reading something like this:

 To recapture something of that spirit of cooperation, what once passed for endgame gameplay needs to be integrated into the actual leveling experience somehow. The whole world needs to remain alive; zones that we passed through at level 10 should feel as satisfying at level 60. It can be accessible, but we need reasons to care about our fellow players.

This is exactly what everybody’s trying to do—Blizzard included.  Okay, they aren’t doing the “make level 10 zones satisfying at level 60” thing. There’s good reason to keep max-level players away from the newbies, because PvP servers would be absolute bloodbaths.

But everybody’s working to bring that sense of collective action to the leveling game experience. Cataclysm featured a whole host of quests where you were in the middle of huge war zones of NPCs and PCs, and deliberately moved away from “kill [x] of [y]”. Mists of Pandaria specifically focuses on getting players “out into the world” instead of huddling in cities, in using “scenarios” to bring players together outside of the dungeon/raid structure, and in using Blizzard’s phasing tech to create a living, changing world instead of a static one. Even SWTOR, whose gameplay is largely derived from Burning Crusade-era World of Warcraft, gives every player an NPC partner who has their own story, and adds those little instanced zones whose entire POINT was to have areas that actually changed in response to your decisions and actions.

Trion’s also working hard to make Rift more accessible to and more “alive”, too. That’s the whole point of their next expansion.

So, yeah. Things are changing. They’re even improving. Perhaps not as fast as some would like, and there are always going to be concessions to things like latency. Both articles seem to vastly overestimate the quality of people’s Internet connections, but that’s not a new thing. Both also are informed by really, really dated versions of MMO gameplay: Stuart’s view is understandable because he’s playing a new game with old mechanics, but Leif seems unwilling to even admit that World of Warcraft isn’t the same game it used to be. It’s not an uncommon problem. Game journos seem unwilling to acknowledge that MMOs are living, evolving services instead of static products. It’s still disappointing.

What’s maddening, though, is that the genre that is truly stuck in the past, First-Person Shooters, seems to get a bye about this sort of thing even as MMOs get hammered. I’m not fully sure why. My guess is that it has to do with the real reason why people get mad at MMORPGs: the Internet and our lost ability to focus.

But I’ll, um, get to that later. This was supposed to be an aside.

Oh, and a PS: Can people kindly stop arguing that Rift failed? Its subscription numbers dropped, true, but it clearly wasn’t ever intended to do WoW numbers. Trion’s done an amazing job of improving the game, and by all accounts it’s got some of the most loyal and devoted players in the genre. Trion’s hailed as magicians for the speed and quality of their game improvements. If the game had failed, it would have shut down or gone free-to-play by now.

(Starting picture’s from Blizzard.)

(Edited a slight bit for clarity.)

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