If you’ve found yourself here because I tipped Massively to a story and they were kind enough to link back to me, the post you are looking for summarizing and breaking down Stoot’s impromptu Community Q&A about Glitch can be found here.
I hesitated to make a new post knowing that Massively’s article linked to my home page, but it’s been over 24 hours. Time to move on.
Speaking of Massively, today Syp made a post at his blog Bio Break about being happy to be a gamer right now that seemed a bit of a poke about gamers nostalgic for a past that theme park fans are often tempted to claim never existed. Syncaine responded with a post on Hardcore Casual strongly disagreeing, in his somewhat snarky, fully sarcastic, yet rather insightful style. I was participating in the comments on both pages, when I found I was writing about the same thing on both blogs. And that the current response to Syp was going from comment territory to small novel turf. So I’m going to try and put it here.
What I really want to address is the idea that in early MMO history, gamers had less choice. They were stuck, to use an example, with either harsh death penalties or harsh death penalties. The thought behind this thought, at least as I understand it, is that when WoW released gamers were given a choice between meaningless deaths and harsh death penalties, and by virtue of WoW’s subscription numbers, clearly gamers chose the meaningless deaths, right?
Except I don’t see when gamers really had those two options side by side. When Ultima Online was at its peak, more people were using AOL for internet than their cable company. Most had no other choice. By the time broadband became more common, UO had been patched to have more in common with EQ, which alienated a lot of the UO vets, did nothing to convince EQ players to switch, and generally marked the beginning of the end for the game. In 2004, WoW releases into an MMO field which included EQ II and really nothing else, at least nothing else that was polished and well marketed. I did not, personally, hear about SWG until most of a year after it launched. However, I not only saw articles about WoW on sites like gamespy (remember gamespy? I remember gamespy); I even got a “talk” about how much better WoW would be delivered to me by the pimply faced kid at Best Buy that was ringing up my EQII preorder.
Turns out he was right, mostly. But I digress, the point is that aside from MMO vets, whom at that time were a much smaller club, most people did not see their choice as between WoW and SWG. Even those that were aware of SWG weren’t necessarily rejecting it for being a sandbox, but instead were rejecting it because it was buggy and unpolished despite having been live for quite awhile, and grinding missions to skill up to the “real game” was kind of a pain in the ass. SWG was perfect for me, since I was primarily into crafting, but my glasses are clear rather than rose-colored — it was not the game for your average combat aficionado.
No, most gamers saw their choice as between WoW and EQII. So their choice was between meaningless death penalty and meaningless death penalty. Their choice was between questing or questing. Their choice was between nearly polished and lacking polish. And with broadband becoming cheaper and more common, there were more gamers looking for an MMO, and WoW, being nearly polished, managed to hook in a whole crap load of them.
Publishers took note. What they saw was a game with formulaic character classes, solo quest-based progression, and a rather linear leveling game that led players from quest hub to quest hub without ever giving them an overwhelming set of choices. They jumped all over those characteristics and decided that these, combined with as much polish as possible, were the reasons for WoW’s success. They ignored any role shared by the increased prevalence of broadband, and they dismissed MMOs that did not achieve WoW status based on their game mechanics, rather than the fact that there simply was a smaller pool to draw on at the time and that when the pool finally became larger, WoW was the most logical choice.
Now is the point in this rant where I direct you to Extra Credits Season 3 Episode 15: Working Conditions. While I do recommend watching the whole thing at some point, especially if you work in or hope to work in the game design industry, for this discussion I only ask that you jump to about the six minute point, and listen to the bit about ways that publishers can negatively interfere with a game’s designers.
I’ll wait until you get back. I promise.
Publishers appear to be doing the same thing to MMOs that Extra Credits claims they tried to do to FPS games. They’ve locked on to the features that were present in a game that happened to be more successful than any previous game, ignored anything else that may have contributed to that game’s success, and declared that the failure to achieve similar stellar results from games that did not include those features were a direct result of those missing features, so no game like them will ever be successful again. They were wrong before. I think they will find they are wrong again. FPS games have a short shelf life, so that blunder of marketing governing design didn’t last so long, but I believe we will eventually begin to see polished sandbox releases as future competition.
Yes, I’ve seen the comments on Massively attacking sandbox fans as outdated troll that just need to accept that their genre moved on without them. But I also remember friends saying there was no point to FPS games without multiplayer, and I haven’t heard any of them say that in years. And most of them played Fallout 3. I borrowed Bioshock from one of those very people, actually.
Just like I don’t see gamers ever having been presented with a choice between harsh death and meaningless death, I don’t see gamers having ever really been offered a choice between sandbox or theme park, not with games of equal quality, both still operating off their original design plan, both still live at the same time.
So yes, I too am happy to be a gamer in 2012, but only because, in my secret dreams of my secret heart, I feel the end of this hidebound repetition is somewhere just out of sight, just over the horizon. Not because I think the games of today are objectively better than the games of a decade earlier — I think the games of today are different than the older games, that they traded one set of problems for a new set, and really have done little to advance the genre since WoW polished up a lot of EQ mechanics and made them the new shiny.
And I think next the gamers I mentioned in an earlier blog, the ones who project every mechanic on to WoW, will have many new opportunities to see mechanics, that they assume must be terrible, in games that build specifically around that mechanic and make it awesome. The two MMO sub-genres may fuse for the sake of accessibility, or they may split further until most think of virtual worlds as a different genre altogether — but the idea that an MMORPG must be based on WoW to be successful will first drain from the publishers and then from the gamers once we actually reach an era where there are real choices. Where the choice is not between harsh death penalty with no real direction and harsh penalty with no direction, and once the choice is not between hotbar combat solo leveling experience with endgame grouping and hotbar combat solo leveling experience with endgame grouping.
Eventually there will be real choices. And many gamers, myself probably included, will likely find they are entertained by both. Many will wonder why they didn’t have sandbox elements in those other games they tried, because it will seem so obvious once they play one where it works.
In the meantime, I steeple my fingers and stare out of the darkness. Lurking.