On the one hand, it’s a personality thing. Here I am in a nutshell, according to Meyers-Briggs at least; I’m pretty much never going to sympathize with “fairness” as a motivator. On the other hand, it’s one of the major issues with modern MMOs: fairness has no place as a design principle.
Let’s look at World of Warcraft, since that is ultimately the big beast on the block. And it’s hard to argue that it’s unsuccessful, though some actually do, and now there does seem to be some truth that it has entertained as long as it can entertain: it’s numbers are slipping by Blizzard’s own admission, and in my incredibly limited and subjective experience, their last expansion did not seem to have much staying power.
I subscribe to the Syncaine theory of WoW success (a blogger, for any confused, add .com to his name and read him, you’ll find he’s got much more snark than me). He would basically claim that while WoW was not a terrible game at release, its popularity was due more to timing than design. You can go scan his site if you want more detail than that, and I think there’s a post way back in my first few months where I talk about it in more detail as well. But only the core is important: WoW’s original playerbase came as much from releasing after broadband had become more common than it did from any element of design.
But let’s get to fairness. I feel WoW’s current downward spiral can be blamed on thinking fairness was their key to success. You will never meet someone in WoW that has anything special. Anything anyone has can be obtained by anyone else. All characters at endgame are utilizing pretty much the same equipment to complete the same raids, and while they may look impressive to new or mid game players, they’re really a dime a dozen, all of them equipped and leveled in nearly the same ways.
But in the early days of WoW, that simply wasn’t true. It took effort and time to build a 40 member raid team: it took socializing, talking to people, getting to know their personalities and skills. Folks that had done so, and had the equipment that proved it, stood out — it meant something. But that wasn’t fair: only a few select guilds on each server were capable of putting together such a team. So let’s make them require only 15 people instead. But you know, that’s still not fair: while many more groups are capable of coordinating 15 members, some players don’t want to make that effort so create the looking for raid tool. And yet, that’s still not fair, as players that have never spoken to each other and have no social ties to each other tend not to work well together, so this high end content is just “too hard.”
Well, they’re a heck of a lot more fair and accessible now, yet they’ve been bleeding subs. But hey, it still must work since all these other games have gone the same route; you know, games like Warhammer and Star Wars: The Old Republic just hit the ground running and never looked back, right? Right? Right?
Well no. For one, they’re not the first MMO for the majority of their players, so they simply didn’t receive the benefit of the doubt that WoW received. And they copied the later versions of WoW, the versions that took accessibility and fairness to extremes — so lacked any flair or flavor. There was nothing for dedicated players to look forward to, nothing for casual players to ooh and aah over. Vanilla WoW, as the original release version is now known, ironically had a hell of a lot more flavor than the later iterations.
Let’s look at an example of something that clearly wasn’t fair or accessible yet was good for the game. I always lament the Jedi of SWG. Until Lucasarts forced SOE to gut that game in an attempt to mimic WoW, Jedi were a rarity. I won’t get into the process, but obtaining the ability to create a Jedi character was a huge time sink, practical to only a very small portion of the community, not even available to all who played the game frequently and for long sessions, but only available to a segment of that community that was willing to face a grind that was always long, but even worse, varied: it could be even longer than long. And once the player got one, she might not get to keep it: after the third death, Jedi characters stayed dead.
And that made sense. It might not have been fair, but it worked. It rewarded the crazy grinders for their dedication, giving them reason to stick around and drive sandbox content, and giving them a high difficulty challenge to follow up all that grinding. It gave us casuals “holy crap, I spotted a Jedi in the wild” moments. And most important, it fit the lore: the game took place between Episodes IV and V, a time period in Star Wars lore when Jedis are either dead or in hiding.
And then they made it fair. And everyone left the game. Okay, fair enough (har har), we left the game for many reasons, but one of the major ones was that Jedi became a starting class. And suddenly, while Luke Skywalker is the universe’s only hope, there’s a few thousand only hopes running around swinging lightsabers openly in front of imperial storm troopers. Immersion was gone. In the name of fairness, the game stopped making any sense at all. And it failed: while the game only recently shut its doors, it peaked before the NGE update changed the game, shed subs like a sandwich artist on crack, and died a shadow of its former self. Since the game’s numbers were never more than a shadow of WoW’s, we can actually say the game died as nothing but a shadow of a shadow. Pretty sad really, but hey, it was fair.
And then there’s the game I mentioned way back in this blog’s first post, when I was listing the f2p games I had tried before starting the blog: Mousehunt. I never imagined I would find the need to discuss Ronza’s Traveling Shoppe. If you read the opening of that link, you probably noticed that this Shoppe only arrives for short periods of time. If you’re on vacation without a computer, tough luck. If you read further, you probably noted that those short periods of time are often separated by a year or more — if you played after a visit, and played for less than a year, tough luck. If you read even further and for detail, you’d discover that she almost never offers the same goods twice. If you weren’t playing the game in the year a certain item was sold, tough luck. And these items are generally not cosmetic, they tended to be incredibly useful for certain parts of the game. That’s really not fair.
And while I stopped playing after the friends that dragged me in stopped playing, the game, and the company that creates it, are alive and well. And thriving last I checked. And Ronza helps. Ronza’s appearances and disappearances create excitement and buzz, create interest in playing. Even before her 2009 visit, I would see traps from her 2008 visit and not look back with anger and envy; instead, I looked forward with excitement.
I hate fairness in games. It’s bland. It’s beyond vanilla: it’s a rice cake, plain, and covered in sand.
My inspiration for this post came out of the Glitch community — shocker I know. These thoughts came up because an idea I pondered but was not seriously considering was picked up and run with by others. There are these meaningless collectible items in the game modeled after blind box vinyl toys — I thought it would be interesting to watch the prices if they were ever discontinued. Others thought it might actually be good for the game for them to be discontinued, and oh boy was that an unpopular idea. But the objection, almost every time, had nothing to do with whether or not it would be bad for the game — the objection most repeated was that “it wouldn’t be fair to players that came later.” As self-appointed resident cantankerous windbag, I felt the need to argue against fairness, even though I didn’t really care: I just wanted one person to lead with something like “keeping all the series on the vendors for all time provides a greater currant sink than would come from the urgency of knowing a series is being discontinued” and then I would have shut the fuck up.
But if I’m going to be forced to talk fairness, let’s show how subjective it is. I think it isn’t fair that players that come after launch might never have an opportunity to display something unique, an opportunity available to every alpha player, every original beta player, and supposedly coming to every current beta player. I think eventually discontinuing the series 1 cubimals after several sets have released would provide players that come after launch with the same opportunities we have, and thus would be more fair.
Or we can just agree that fairness is basically meaningless and has nothing to do with what is good or bad for a game, that refusing to be fair can actually be better for a game: it provides the excitement. Hell, you can even say it provides the lows — without the lows online games are just a series of progressive ticks, never a setback, never a boring moment. But never an exciting moment either.