Monday, May 24, 2010

No, the MMOs aren't really that bad!

I really should start listening to my own advice. I should know better than to devour rants from burned-out players who have seen the "truth" and want to share it with the world, possibly to get absolution for all the time they've spent on WoW or other MMOs up until now.

I should have known better than to read posts calling me an "glassy eyed, brain addled denizen of an opium house", "just too stoned to care".

And yet I read it. Because the writer in question is Wolfshead and he's an awesome blogger - even when he's in a depressive mood.

By the way, if you're reading this you should probably consider yourself included in the opium house analogy - Wolfhead puts this label on the entire MMO community, and calls it lethargic, since we haven't yet reached the insight that the MMOs of today are so void of innovation that they should be boycotted.

Wolfshead's rant
After an eleven year long, passionate relationship with the MMO genre, Wolfshead declares that he has has fallen out of love with it, and now he's apparently mad. He's breaking up with a bang, stating that the MMO industry needs a Real Cataclysm, something that turns the world upside down in a far more dramatic way than WoW's upcoming expansion.

Exactly what this Alternative Cataclysm would consist of is hard to tell from the post. Only that it would be better. Absolutely not more of the same. And nothing in the lines of the new features Blizzard has launched the last couple of years.

If it wasn't for the fact that I've read Wolfshead for a while and know that he's passionate about games and gaming - even working in the industry himself - I would have drawn the conclusion that he must have joined one of the more hardcore circles of the anti-WoW/MMO-movement.

Some of his statements could as well have come from one of those ex-players who have woken up from their addiction and now commit their lives to preach about how WoW is an lethal creation from Hell, ruining not only the lives of families but our entire society. I'll give you a few examples to give an idea about the post:

"We are watching this apocalypse unfold before our very eyes."

"[...] technicians who sold their souls at Blizzard Entertainment. For years they have been carefully and methodically concocting an addiction that is designed to keep you playing and paying long after there is any legitimate reason to do so.

"The WoW of 2010 is a MMO where community barely exists if at all. Players don’t even talk to each other anymore as they mindlessly farm so-called heroic dungeons. Players are happy to use each other like cheap whores in order to farm more emblems in order to get more shiny purple pixels."

"Blizzard has willfully programmed selfishness and avarice into the psyche of the modern MMO player via the mechanics of WoW. I’ve seen good people lose their souls and morph into ruthless Jason Bourne robots because of WoW."

"they are basically a numbers game heavily disguised by lots of polish and eye-candy. How many people do you know that played WoW 6 years ago are still playing? Most of them have figured out the equation and moved on."

"They’ve been serving us the same unimaginative crap for the last 11 years and putting a colorful bow on it. And you know what? We keep paying for it."

Some good points

I could go on like this forever. And I must admit that those sweeping statements put me off a bit.

There are several interesting points in the post though. His thoughts about the lack of independent and fearless gaming journalism that dares to take a critical position towards the industry would be well worth a discussion. He also brings up the risk that the design team might take bad decisions for the benefit of the players in the long run, just eager to get demographics that will please the stakeholders. This is underlined by a link to an excellent article by Richard Bartle from 2004, which was new to at least me.

However those golden grains somehow drown in the overwhelming flood of bitterness and criticism. It is a pity because as I said Wolfshead is a writer who has my admiration and respect. He's normally very intelligent, knowledgeable and well worth listening to.

He has been roaming around in the MMO field for a respectable eleven years, and maybe that explains this outburst. It's a long time, long enough for you to get tired with almost any other hobby. It happens all the time. You join a rock band, have fun a few years and then you move on. You take a course in sushi cooking and read up everything there is about that until you get blasé and something else catches your attention.

Is it really the MMO genre that has grown stagnant after eleven years? Or is the article more about his own, personal development, where the preferences will shift over a lifetime?

The lost paradise
I haven't been a part of the MMO phenomena for eleven years, only a little bit more than three. Eleven years ago, when Wolfshead started his exploration of the genre, I didn't have a clue about gaming and I couldn't imagine that there one day would be a game such as WoW. I remember how I for the first time heard about people who on an experimental basis arranged meetings in virtual rooms where they mastered avatars who represented themselves. I was told about it from a researcher at a university institution where I took a course in design of user interfaces, and I marveled at the idea. This was a glimpse of the future! Would I ever see such a thing myself?

I did eventually, in February 2007, when I took my first stumbling steps in Azeroth. A little more than three years later, my eyes are still wide open with amazement and enthusiasm, enchanted by this magical world.

I just don't recognize the description of the state of the game. Wolfshead talks about a lost paradise where he was a part of a virtual world, enjoying the "community, camaraderie, danger, player interdependence, role-playing and player freedom". This has now been opted for a "safe and scripted amusement park ride".

Is this really so? I don't deny that there is an amusement park open 24/7 in Azeroth with fantastic rides to enjoy. But surely that isn't all there is to do? As far as I can tell there's nothing that prevents you from creating your own game content, building your own world, using the world as a stage for whatever you want to. It still happens if you look around. RP:ers do it all the time.

"Too stoned to care?" Grumble, grumble. I beg to differ. Even if I've lost a bit of my newbie innocence, I'm not prepared to ditch the entire genre, preaching Doom and Gloom and "This is the End".

I'm want to believe that there's still a community worth the name. I want to believe that there's a lot of thinking and creativity going on behind the scenes and I have full confidence that we've only seen the beginning. Blizzard's secret MMO project might be the next step. And if not - there will be others. Who knows, maybe Wolfshead himself will be one of those who pushes the MMOs into the next phase?

He ends his article with a few words of wisdom:

"maybe I need to realize that there’s more to this life than looking at a computer screen and hoping for salvation from a virtual world."
Here's finally something we definitely can agree on. If you expect miracles and salvation from playing a computer game you're quite likely to get disappointed. It can't save our souls. But it can bubble us for a little while, distract us, entertain us and possibly give us a few friends.

And that's pretty well done if you ask me.


Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

While I agree Wolfshead's being a bit bitter, I think that there is some truth to it. I started playing online games in the form of text MUDs in 1992. I started developing MMOs with Meridian 59 in 1998. I've been around the block, too.

I think the core of his argument is that there's a lot of missed opportunity here. When some of us got involved in online games, we saw a lot of possibilities. As you put it, THE FUTURE!

But, things haven't lived up to the original hype or hopes that we had. Of course, few things do. But, we have one game that has dominated and seemingly stagnated the industry (WoW), and another threatening to topple it with an even worse focus on living up to the potential (Farmville). If you've followed the online medium for a long time, this can seem like a whole lot of missed opportunity.

I think that things aren't as dire as Wolfshead says. As I say in a comment, perhaps this will be the opportunity for some of us niche enthusiasts to finally stake out interesting opportunities. With a lot of the money-chasers going on to social games, perhaps some small games that try to recapture some of the opportunities of the past will thrive.

We'll see, I guess. :)

Magma said...

One thing I agree with is that the MMO genre definitely needs a BIG shake up. However, I don't know how that would happen or from who.

I have no ideas what could possibly be so new and amazing that could just "wow" us all. I'm guessing other companies don't have much of an idea either or they would have already done it or at least had some kind of announcement.

If you think about it, what could they possibly do that hasn't been done? I guess that's why they pay people who aren't me to come up with ideas I suppose.

Stabs said...

For a very compelling counter-argument listen to Massively's 100th podcast which is an interview with Richard Garriott.

The father of Ultima Online is enthusiastic about the future.

Holly said...

Do I think MMO's have changed little more than quirks and graphics over 11 years? Yes, I agree with that, do I think that's terrible? no. Tried and true isn't necessarily a bad thing, I still pick up original super mario bros. from time to time to enjoy it, why? it's fun. Did I enjoy new super mario bros for DS and wii? Yes, because -it's still fun- do people still play solitaire, chess, dungeons and dragoons when little has changed in them in decades? Yes. Why? It's still -fun.- When people get bored with the same old, they move onto the next same old.

What could be done to liven up the MMO genre? Make MMO's that work completely differently. There are now MMOFPS's, There are talks of ones that don't follow the holy trinity of tank/dps/healer, but overall rpg's of any type have been close on the heels of dungeons and dragons. Is it a numbers game? yes, but when you have to program in 1's and 0's and need to make -game mechanics- it has to be a numbers game. Can you just pick up a deck of cards, randomly deal them out, and expect a game to happen? Maybe, but without rules, there's chaos, and with rules in any kind of game, there are going to be lots of number play.

Are some MMO's guilty of what cigarette companies are in making their games addictive? probably. I could go on, but honestly, I do think when good writers go bitter, I have to say in the end, it's gnerd rage.

Is WoW something glorious to behold? No, it's a game, but it's a fun game, when you stop having fun, you should stop playing, end of story.

Flex said...

Thanks for the link to Bartle's document. It's interesting to see that the issues that saw me and many of my contemporaries leave WoW were well known before we even started playing the game.

Of course, readers who don't like my point of view can blame it on confirmation bias and continue living their lives ;)

Larísa said...

@Brian Psychochild Green: Well, I suppose I see it from a different perspective. Never being around back in time, I haven't got that laguage of unfulfilled expectations. I'm just so charmed and spellbound by what I still get from WoW.

I'm the first one not to embrace the Farmville kind of games. I frankly don't see the attraction, the entertainment, the stick-factor in them.

So I would give you right that this isn't the most interesting track of development.

But as you say there are other tracks. Being the optmist I am i can't see anything but an interesting future, with features and games that we yet haven't been able to imagine. Holodeck 2.0. And then the cycle will repeat and those who were in the frontline for developing the next generation of MMOs will get burned out and complain that it didn't come out as they expected...

Development goes in cycles. or steps. I think Wolfshead is too quick to dismiss the entire MMO genre as a fail.

@Magma: I think there will be more. Come on! Think about novels. How many novels have there been published up until now? There have been novels on every theme you can think of. and yet there will come new genereations of authors who will find new takes and twist well known themes in new directions. Imagination and creativity are not limited resources imo.

@Stabs: got to listen to that. Thanks for the heads-up!

@Holly: yeah, it's true that some old forms of entertainment will still keep us interested even for hundreds of years. And never do I hear people rage-quitting chess and requiring it to go through a Cataclysm and the inventors of it go die in a fire. I wonder how come? What is it with MMOs that make people go nuts, making up unreasonable demands?

@Flex: yeah I think it was a very good read. And as opposed to Wolfshead it wasn't colored by unreasonable hatred and bitterness towards an ex-lover.

Saga said...

I've never been an "avid gamer" - I was always someone who just enjoyed the occassional game here and there - until I started playing WoW. However, WoW is still the one game I play seriously.

I've tried some of the other MMOs that were released the last few years. They all had ups and downs. Some good things, some less good. But I ended up sticking with WoW.

Maybe it's because I - like you - have not been around for 11 years and can see the "big picture".. but I do enjoy WoW. Sure, things can be improved.. but when can you - ever, in any situation - say that something can not be?

The one thing I reacted to (a little extra) on the quotes was the part about WoW no longer being a community. While - yes - you can do heroics without talking to anyone etc. that is still a choice to me.

I play with my friends. While I might venture off on my own to do some heroics, I would not be playing the game if I didn't play it with my friends.

Copra said...

WoW, while it should be a MMORPG, has been developed down to a Single Player Massive Online Game. I agree totally with Wolfshead with the premise that the community is not there: all the recent 'innovations' Blizzard has put into the game have carved the last of the community out there. The only ones holding the so called community up in the game are the few guilds which see the community as the basis rather than something to use for the raiding.

There is very little you can do to enjoy the RPG kind of elements of the game alone, really, and the game mechanics aren't helping to find or stay in touch with the group you may find. The sad part -IMO- is the fact that people are stating that it's just a game, where it really is an enormous virtual world to explore. People are raping the high end content with the shine of the new purples instead of seeing the vast multitude of the lore available to them.

People are playing the game to win it in one way or another without understanding that it's not something you can win.

In addition to this, there is nothing a player can do to change anything, the persistent world is way too persistent.

Still I play it, even though there are so few things that keep me interested in it. Call it first love, call it masochism, call it stupidity over the ease of logging in.

You see, I followed friends to the game. Now they are not there anymore, and I'm alone in the group of people.

Like the rest of the population.

C out

Jim said...

Some folks become so sophisticated with a game that they become frustrated. Games are limited by rules and by concepts. This is true from Tic Tac Toe to MMORPGs. Any game can leave you feeling "There must be something more" or " This is no good its limited and devoid of imagination"

MMOs after all are a sort of hybrid electronic emulation of D&D, which is a dice game ( note it always weirds me out how people rail against RNG when the first concept of dice gaming is all about that) and social interaction.

I know many players who do everything in WoW. They make and maintain characters that they write stories for and RP daily in game and on other websites, They PvE to the highest level they can and PvP frequently. for them the game is a play ground and not boring and they see the rules as perfectly acceptable to keep playing after years. Its about fun, its about relaxing and indulging in something you find interesting.

I heard a saying once which may be a bit trite, That "Only boring people are bored" I think there is some truth to it and I think of it whenever I hear someone is bored with WoW. Its perfectly great to find it no longer meets your needs and move on to other interests. But to say the whole genre is messed up is somewhat silly considering its success and the enthusiasm that Thousands of players have.

Nosnum said...

"If you build it, [they] will come". Seriously, if someone builds a better, more innovative MMO, people will flock to it and the developer will make oodles of money. There have been attempts to topple WoW, and there will be more - one of them will be successful and WoW will cease being a viable game at that time. Until then, the holier than thou "I've seen the light but you're too dumb to get it yet" crowd can go eat cake for all I care. This particular mindset is responsible for a lot of things wrong in the world at the moment, but I digress...

2nd Nin said...

What is there to change really though?

Pen and Paper RPGs have been going on for what 30+ years with very little change other than new story lines and new players. First Person shooters always boil down to weapon efficiency, accuracy and mobility / survivability. RTS games come down to finding the ideal force to defeat the enemy force at that point in time.

Fundamentally all games, and all life, are relatively simple rules sets with very few variations. The difference is the story we tell within the rules set. The issue Blizzard and others have is that it is very difficult to produce high quality content, quickly, and cheaply. Some people will assume that we can just generate random bosses with the same fun as a created one however doing that reduces the quality of the boss - there are only so many mechanics and only so many ways to implement them.

We saw Blizzard break AVR because of this, our splash damage on areas where you were standing mechanics become identical to a targeted attack if we get a big red targeting circle.

Our issue will always be content within the system. Its no replacement for life, but it should not be considered a waste of time to play. If it is, then 99% of what we as Humanity do is also a waste of time.

Larísa said...

@Saga: about the community: I wonder if Wolfshead had been quite that critical about it if he had been in a decent guild.

@Copra: it sounds very, very lonely. And I suppose I'd feel the same way if I ended up without a group/guild to play with. I'd probably quit. Because even if I enjoy the world a lot - and think it's a pity we're just teleporting past it these days - I don't play the game for the world. I play it for the people, to do things together as a group.

@Jim: "Only boring people are bored". There's some truth in that tbh.

@Nosnum: yeah, of course there will come something that hopefully is even better. I wouldn't be surprised if wears the Blizzard tag, but you never know.

@2ndNin: hm... I don't quite remember the lecturers I got in school, but if I'm not totally wrong there are basically seven stories that are told over and over again in different versions. Why are people SO impatiant in this aspect with computer games, while they happily accept that Shakespeare's dramas share the same concepts as some of the old Greek plays? Isn't that a double standard?

Redbeard said...

Maybe the basics of MMOs haven't changed too much, but D&D is moving in the direction of MMOs with 4E. You can see it in the lingo --such as tanks and damage oriented classes-- as well as the concept of talents.

Really, the game is what you make of it. You can spend your time on a WoW RP server and immerse yourself in the game world, or you can simply be out farming for gear or better stuff just like the old Commodore 64 games. If the players you hang with are only interested in something that doesn't emphasize what you want out of the game, then change the people you play with.

From my experience, a player will not play to fit the system, but rather will play the system to fit what the player is looking for out of the game.

Blizz and other MMO creators are only providing the framework, they aren't in the business of telling you how to roleplay. In fact, you can argue that an MMO system that forces you to roleplay in a specific manner is more restrictive than one that is silent on the issue.

What's my Main Again? said...

The realm I am on, US. Durotan was one of the initial launch servers and several of my friends and guild mates were there day one when the server came on. I'm not one of those but had I of started playing wow when it released chances are I would still be playing wow like I am today.

When I get tired of playing wow I go play a newer more innovative rpg/fps/rts. Its fun playing and doing new things... but in the end WoW is like that comfortable old pair of jeans or sweat pants that you can throw on anytime and they just fit comfortably. Sure you will look like a fool wearing them out and about the town and even when hanging out with friends.

The social interaction is still there. I mean... 99% of the people I grouped with before the cross server dungeons were in place left a negligible impression on me. I don't buy that a system that easier grouping has now destroyed all social interaction.

I've been playing STO when I get bored with wow. Its fun to play something new but ultimately I don't have the social connections that I do in wow... and the game itself isn't presented in a way that I see it holding my attention past the highest lvl.

2nd Nin said...

Its the setting of the content Larisa.

When we approach a book or a movie we tend to ignore the fundamental story line and become engrossed in the characters and their actions within the story. The story will follow a relatively standard plot (one of the seven or so) however we become engaged with the other aspects of the book.

In a computer game we tend not to become obsessed with the characters even in an RPG setting. Instead we tend to approach the game as a mathematical problem, how do I do x, how does y happen. We may do this to drive the story forward, however our approach gives us a more lifeless approach to the characters. While we hate to see ourselves die and most of us would likely have issues deleting a long term character, simply we are not as attached to them in that way.

Either the levels and actions get in the way of the story, or the story gets in the way of the game. In the case of WoW the game is likely too epic to really be considered. WotLK alone had what 4 major plots (Magic War, Creation of Humanity, Troll Gods, Yogg Saron and the Keepers, The Nerubians, and Arthas at least imo) yet we glossed over them in a small raid or nothing.

We approach games differently to other media, its not art its a game, but in the game there is art.

Aurgon said...

Great post Larisa!

Certainly, we can give games a much greater load that they can bear. He wont find "salvation" in any game, ever. No one will.

The one point that I might agree on is about the hardening of the community. Sure, I still meet a lot of nice people, and my guild full of friends... but there are a lot of people out there who are mean. Heroics, VoA pugs, battlegrounds, etc. A lot of trash talk, or simply no talk at all. There's always been griefing of some kind.

There are all kinds of reasons why this might take place. Certainly I think Blizzard is *partly* to blame because the game mechanics can encourage, or at least allow, such behaviour. Ultimately though, people are people. Games don't make people better.

I would encourage Wolfshead, and anyone, to take a look at the Guild Wars 2 site. There have been a few development diaries lately and the design team is spending an incredible amount of time trying to innovate and design a system specifically to prevent all forms of griefing, and to actively encourage healthy cooperation and community. It looks pretty promising.