Let’s stop using the word “fair” when talking about games, okay?

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.

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5 responses to “Let’s stop using the word “fair” when talking about games, okay?

  1. Interesting post.

    I’m not sure if I agree with your choice of word. ‘Fair’ to me suggests balanced, legitimate, free from bias.
    Anyone of the correct level could assemble a group and try to take on AQ40. It did not close its according to class or race. Everyone had a fair chance.

    What you are criticising is ‘accessibility’, whereby content is restructured such that anyone can be successful.

    Now the argument that WoW lost subscribers due to becoming more accessible works until you consider:

    1) WoW continued to gain subscribers whilst becoming more accessible. Indeed it began to lose subscribers when it changed this tradition in 4.1.0 with more difficult heroic dungeons.

    2) Players that have left WoW appear to be spreading themselves across a number of MMOs, the majority of which are very accessible: Rift, SWTOR, GW2, TERA as well as old favourites like LOTRO.
    If accessibility or fairness, to use your word, are so boring why go to a game which uses the same mechanic?

    • I could say fairness is a specific subset of accessibility, the claim a player will make that “if he can do it, I should be able to as well.” But mostly I just chose it because that’s the word players employ when they complain about accessibility issues on the forums. And I’m very very specifically talking about the idea that anything one player can do or have—regardless of skill, time spent on the game, or time passed since joining—is something that every player must be able to do or have. Mousehunt is an incredibly accessible game, but it’s not “fair” from that perspective

      I have heard others say the exact opposite about whether that tuned up or tuned down difficulty. I wouldn’t know, but considering I have friends that say all they did was watch youtube vids and could do them without issue, I tend to lean toward “tuned down.” Some of the things I mentioned, like LFR, did indeed come while shedding subs. And it’s easy enough for me to shake off all the growth for the same reason I shake off the initial burst, for the same reason I shake off the amount of album sales Justin Beiber has. There’s also people that love Dean Koontz books.

      I would say if something is accessible, then it is not necessarily fair, but if something is fair, then it is necessarily accessible. But let’s look at these other “accessible” games:

      Rift: reduced end game difficulty, shed subs — though it has indeed stabilized and can be considered successful given its initial investment and is at least notable for the pace of its content releases, one still can’t claim that reducing difficulty gained them players.

      SW:TOR — ok, I have trouble even taking this seriously. EA doesn’t want to talk about the game, and it is now, from EA’s own admission, shedding subs from its launch numbers. And the only people who seem the slightest bit surprised are Bioware employees and holders of SW:TOR preorders.

      GW2 — isn’t out, and I would actually say that fairness is ultimately impossible as they grow more and more dynamic events. It seems true even now, even though there are only a fraction of events that players will see after it’s been out for awhile and received planned updates. But the system, as it grows, pretty much guarantees that casual players will not see all the content. Might be accessible, but it’s not “fair”

      TERA — I don’t actually know shit about this game except that the only people I know playing it are playing it for combat, playing it because the combat requires them to pay attention and that just doesn’t seem likely to qualify for accessible. I’m not sure about fair.

      LOTRO — went f2p and now makes money off the small percentage of players willing to drop cash to buy items that used to be earned via advanced content. I’m sure there are a lot of people playing at any given time — but I’m just as sure there’s a ton of turnover. Really, this game just says nothing about the potential for anything other than selling epic weapons to people with too much money on their hands. If it were a successful, sustainable game without that cash shop and constant turnover, it would still be a subscription game.

      I’m not an elite player. And because of that, I shouldn’t get to experience every thing the same as an elite player. It doesn’t improve the game at all. When everyone gets a trophy, no one puts that trophy on a shelf to display. They hide it in a closet, and most important, they forget all about it.

      • I think the link between difficulty and subscriptions is ambiguous. Firstly I can’t comment on how skilled your friends are, although the fact that they used Youtube to trivialise the encounter suggests that they felt it necessary to do so.
        Secondly I imagine they did not breeze through raid hardmodes?

        Finally the games I used as examples were not to suggest that they were perfect, but rather these games appear to be where you will find ex-WoW players.

        Can you find an example of inaccessible/unfair MMO which is attracting lots of players at present?

      • I can, and did, cite examples of games that did just fine while not being fair. My point requires me to say nothing about accessibility, however. Should I copy and paste my post? I’m beginning to suspect you didn’t actually read it, especially given that my last example was an incredibly simple, accessible facebook game that is somehow still not fair. It’s about 1500 words though — reposting as a comment seems excessive. Perhaps you should read it instead?

      • To be fair, I should note that I don’t believe there is any link between difficulty and retention. I think reducing difficulty is just one way that games have been made “fair,” that every experience and every item has been made obtainable by every player, regardless of skill or even something not based on individual characteristics, like whether or not you were playing in the last week of January in 2009.

        My point is not that “difficult is good” — although I wouldn’t say it is bad. My point is that fair is bland, uniform, and uninteresting. And games that have done well under a sub model and retained their numbers over many years, with the single exception of WoW, do not provide uniform and bland experiences. The game doesn’t need to be difficult in order to add that excitement or variety or opportunities to be “unique” — the game I play could not be called difficult in any sense of the word. All a game needs is interesting achievements that are no longer achievable or items that are no longer obtainable. And the expectation that there will be other unique things for other players to see in the future, not just a whole bunch of max level characters with the same equipment and skills, repeating the same things as thousands of others. The opportunity to do or see someone else do something unique is so much more interesting than the opportunity to just be another grain of sand. We see this everywhere in human behavior, but folks feel the need to deny its value in games. It still has value in games.

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