Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Just Plain Bad

Brightcape's last blog post pointed me to Wolfshead making a post complaining about how the success of MMORPGs has been detrimental to their quality.

Now I decided to make an entire blog that is nothing but complaining about World of Warcraft, so it probably doesn't surprise you to hear that most of the time when I see other people complaining about World of Warcraft I think they are idiots1. Of course "idiots" is purposeful hyperbole, and I certainly don't think from Wolfshead's post that he is an idiot. But I do think that the complaint that WoW is low-quality (or "too easy", "bad", "stupid", etc.) is a little bit spurious.

I appreciate hellish nightmares of games as much as the next guy. I grew up playing Bard's Tale and Might and Magic (1 and 2, not the new fangled stuff with graphics that look like things) and I've sunk countless hours into playing roguelikes. I stuck with the original Legend of Zelda until I could make it to Ganon in both the first and second quest without picking up a sword (you can't kill him without one, unfortunately) and I've beaten Final Fantasy I with four white mages. I like to think I have a little bit of street cred when it comes to RPGs2.

Oldschool RPGs were unapologetically made for hardcore gamers, the only kind of gamer there really was at the time. It was supposed to be an achievement if you could win them, and it actually was. These games often threw you into a world with very little explanation of what was going on, and expected you to solve puzzles that you didn't necessarily know were there. Sometimes you'd meet a dragon on the first level of the dungeon and die instantly. Even worse, sometimes the dragon would be on the third level after you had a really promising start. There was no one to complain to and no one was going to nerf anything for you. If you wanted to play, you sucked it up and took what the game gave you.

I'll admit that I am a little nostalgic for those games. They were super fun, and the fact that no one makes games like that anymore is sad. But WoW was never one of those games.

First of all, WoW was never hard. People beat Molten Core carrying mages who waited for their first frostbolt to hit before they cast another one. Winning strategies for Twin Emps actually require far less concentration and attention than winning strategies for modern bosses. Sure, no one ever beat unnerfed C'Thun but they only tried for a few months. The first Yogg +0 kill came far later after Yogg's release than the C'Thun nerf came after C'Thun's release, and well after many people had "proved" (as they did with C'Thun) that it was mathematically impossible to win.

Second, it's really hard to make a game like that now. The internet is actually a thing. A game of adventure and exploration can only be so hard if you can go and read exactly what to do. Anyone could go download Might and Magic one on an emulator right now, look up a guide, and win it in 15 minutes without going up any levels.

Third, the decision to make games like WoW just plain makes sense. Many of these games we are nostalgic for were labours of love by a single person or by a small team. The fact that they somehow made it onto store shelves in itself is a small miracle. WoW has a really big development team and millions of players. At some point, they decided that it simply did not make sense to devote more than half their development resources catering to 1 or 2% of their players.

It's the third point that is really getting people, I think. The problem is that no one can come up with a constructive solution. There is simply no avoiding the fact that more developer time devoted to one group of players means less devoted to another. There is also no justifying the idea that the developers of a game with 11 million players should be catering to you instead of to a broader audience.

So faced with the fact that the developers are no longer favouring the few elite gamers with all their time and energy, and in the absence of any real argument that it should be any different, we see the vilification of that design choice. And of course, it comes down to money. The marketing department and the stockholders have taken over the developers and nothing is pure anymore.

It's hard when something you like changes in a way you don't like. What makes it even harder is when you can't even get mad about it. Vilifying the people responsible (greed is a sin!) for the decision makes things easier because it brings the anger back, but there in reality there is no wrong here. They are making sensible decisions that are both making them money and making 10 million or more people happy.

Through all this I have saved my biggest complaint for last. Wolfshead is probably the best expression of the argument that MMOs have become tainted by money that I have read, but certainly not the first. And between everyone who has ever complained that WoW or MMOs are getting worse, not a single one has ever quoted Zarathustra:

That everyone can learn to read will ruin in the long run not only writing, but thinking too.

Such a great opportunity lost.

1. This makes perfect sense.

2. I have no street cred in anything else, of course. A dubious achievement!

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