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Why so serious?

One of my fellow Twitterverse denizens, Giuseppe Nelva from Dualshockers, wrote a good piece last week on the odd trend amongst MMO fans, to be more than a little negative towards the games in the genre.

It is an interesting subject, and I have touched on it before. For me there are really three elements that come into play here, the first two are much more of a cultural observation, and the other much more MMO specific.

The first part is all too familiar to anyone who takes a passing interest in understanding what motivates our modern media culture. People like hearing bad news. It is more dramatic, and generally tends to draw in more of an audience. Social commentators have offered all kinds of explanations down the years, but most tend to be some form of Schadenfreude. There is a reason that the uplifting 'human interest' stories tend to be the rare exceptions in modern news coverage. Online conversations of games, and MMOs, are really no different, and the press and fans are probably equally guilty on having a slightly greater interest in the potential problems of any given title than they are of it's successes.

Recent stories on Star Wars: The Old Republic just bring that into focus again with an almost predictable clarity. From the launch exploit with their dancing emotes, through exaggeration and conspiracy theories revolving around the users that couldn't see the unsubscribe button all the way up to everyone worrying that the game was going to crash and burn on the strength of one analysts stock advice. You can quickly see the trend (although the dancing exploit was admittedly amusing). The press also want to maximize their readership, and that means most can't resist a little bit of controversy, or using inventive or exaggerated headlines to solicit clicks on their stories. (This one amused me yesterday...it's not really a comment on the content, it's about getting people to read on and click the link)

The Hype factor...

Then we have the fact that it is easy for people to get caught in the hype around an upcoming game. I have spoken before about the challenges of that communication, and it is certainly not an easy balance. This is an area where developers can rarely win...and one I think we can all agree that players and marketers often don't see eye to eye. It is however a self-perpetuating circle, as without the attention, games don't sell, which means they wouldn't get made, which means that talking about their best features is a necessity. The issue is that in doing so we expose our players to their own imaginations...the game they can imagine can often be far, far, more compelling than any game we could actually build...

It happens to all games to some extent, but MMOs are particularly susceptible for some very specific reasons that other genres can much more easily sidestep.

The worlds of our imaginations issue...

Most other genres are pretty well defined. The rules by which they are judged are rarely arbitrary, and  are, by and large, pretty well defined. There may be the occasional cross-over, but what constitutes a 'good' or 'bad' implementation is rarely disagreed upon. (at least on a structural level, of course subjective opnions rate different titles flavor according to preference)...MMOs however are faced with the challenge that even their audience often struggles to define what makes for a 'good' MMO in terms of design approach...

The genre almost inherently makes us dream about what is possible with the idea of these virtual worlds. Ever since the genre moved into 3D the possibilities that it has suggested to us have been inspiring. The experiences that we have had, shared with real people, have formed bonds, built relationships, and even formed rivalries. These were living breathing worlds, tangible things we could believe in.

In the beginning we accepted the limits of the technology, however as we have progressed and start to move through the genres second decade, we, as players, start to yearn for more. The technology must have moved on right? We want more interaction, new innovations, progression within the genre.

That is why people latch onto those elements in a game that are 'new', whether it was Age of Conan's combat, Warhammer Online's public quests, Rift's eponymous rift system and multi-classing, SWTOR's full voice acting and single player storylines, Guild Wars 2 and it's dynamic outdoor quests, or the Secret World's lack of classes., those things that are different about a game are what fire our imagination.

The problem of course is that those elements are just part of a wider design, and the template for that wider design hasn't changed much in the last decade. That is where the tension is created amongst MMO fans. Despite the arrival of new twists to the game-play, and the raising of the bar for general quality (which should in itself not be dismissed!), we have essentially been playing refinements of the same formula set out in Everquest over a decade ago. 

The true excitement for the genre is this conflict between our desires for these potentially dynamic worlds that we could, as players, influence, against our actual play habits and need for some direction, mixed in with some of the serious technical limitations that still stand between us developers and providing the kind of experiences that our imaginations can imagine possible.

I am sure that it will come one day, and that the genre will continue to develop towards that goal, because as I have said before...the appeal of that kind of a game is just too strong...someone will always be trying, and someone, someday, will get it to work in a way that starts to satisfy these motivations...but for now it does mean that we will have this challenge of expectation against reality, and the challenge of the world's our imagination creates... 

Wrapping up...

Personally I tend to label myself as a pragmatically cynical optimist (as opposed to an optimistically pragmatic cynic). I understand that there are downsides to the genre, and indeed some of them might significantly impact my enjoyment of any given title. However I rarely let myself dwell on any of the negatives. As a designer, developer and publisher, I definitely try and understand why a title failed to engage me so that I can learn from it, and yes, not everyone has that professional excuse, but I don't tend to hold any grudges....so I may not be the right person to comment on why people feel the need to attack the parts of a game they don't like...

..so what about you? Do you fall prey to the urge to be negative rather than supportive of the MMOs you play?

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