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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ecto said...

Seems people expect too much of an MMO today.
If it's not the quests that are boring it's the end-game, or even the PvP. It really doesn't matter how much dollars are spent (200 mill for SW TOR) people will be unhappy either way.

Reading the SW TOR forums with all the people demanding a fix for something yesterday 1 month after an MMO launch just shows this.
Age of conan forums were just like this, like the TSW forums will be and even Blizzards upcomming MMO forums will be.

People need to lower their expectations 50% and take a MMO for what it is at launch.

Tarka said...

Mr Morrison, this is another insightful and thought provoking post and I'd like to thank you for it.

Personally, I think that MMO development companies are often at fault for being the source for creating over-hype and negativity. This is due to the respective company being reluctant to give their potential customers the necessary information which can solidify what the game actually does and does not acheive. Thus, encouraging the potential customers imaginations to "fill in the blanks" based on previous experience of products in the same genre, and what has been achieved in other genres.

Now whatever the reaso is for the reluctance to give out information, the result is often the same: the refusal to discuss even some of the more "general" points about the content sets the company, and their product, up for negative posts and/or over-hype.

Not to sound like a cheerleader, but Mr Morrison, I think that you are perhaps one of a small number of people in this industry that openly goes against that trend by actually giving details about what's coming. Your style of customer communication is something that some other dev companies should be taking note of.

Of course, there will also be some potential customers whose imagination and expectations far outweigh what can actually be achieved. But in my experience, the percentage of those whose expectations appear on the surface to be quite achievable, far outweigh those that aren't.

Tarka said...

I disagree,

For a company who is trying to emulate Blizzard's 800lb gorilla (Dr Greg Zeschuk quote: "if they [other MMO products] break any of the WoW rules, in my book that's pretty dumb."), Bioware have made some pretty monumental slip ups. Case in point: the UI for SWTOR is awful in places and some of the design decisions are VERY questionable to say the least. If one plays other MMO's, these issues seem like they should never have surfaced in SWTOR.

I'm not talking about the quantity of content, I'm referring to the quality of the overall product. Dev companies focus on a specific "new thing" in their product (as Mr Morrison touched on in his post). But in doing so, they seem to neglect other areas of that very same product. Thus the flaws with it eventually begin to overshadow whatever "good points" it has (for example: a lot of AOC's good points where overshadowed by the issues pertaining to poor performance and others).

Is it really too much to expect a new product being launched in 2011/12 to even exhibit a level of overall quality that is shown in other competitive products? Let alone to surpass that level of quality.

Personally, I don't think it's too much to ask. The question is whether the dev company is capable of making a competitive product or not.

AmandaP said...

I try and be positive when it comes to my gaming. If there comes a point when I am sick of a game I tend to walk away quietly. The exception is when I can see huge potential in a game that isn't fulfilled. That can get me a little worked up sometimes, and it is easy to forget that the development team are probably trying their best. I am almost always constructive :p (we are all allowed the occassional lapse of judgement yes?)

Astral said...

I try to be positive and understand development cycles take time. I understand it takes time and can appreciate the effort and creativity of games like AoC, Eve , LOTRO, WoW, and SWTOR. And I find that most people have become self-entitled. In a way I can see it killing off MMORPG’s that were complex or take any real effort. People want a perfect product released from day one which is impossible. I haven’t seen a single piece of software in 20 years that doesn’t have some type of issue, especially Microsoft Windows.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I don't think the majority do expect a perfect product, however that doesn't excuse some of the states in which products have been released in the past 8 or so years. Having a few bugs is one thing and can be excused somewhat. But it's a different story when a dev company releases a product that has significant issues that some find "gamebreaking". Yes, these products take a lot of time and effort to make. But just like in any other industry, that's no excuse for shoddy workmanship.

Craig Morrison said...

...and I think that is definitely one of the areas that the genre is steadily improving in. It is a good thing that the quality bar is raised and that the experiences are more polished. However on the flip side, that is also one of the key contributing factors to the perceived lack of innovation in the genre, as doing 'new' things invariably has more technical risks...so there is the proverbial double edged sword there. It is often a very challenging balance for the developers to strike.

Craig Morrison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig Morrison said...

Glad you enjoyed the post!

UI is actually one of the areas where many MMOs struggle, and from experience a lot of that is due to the fact that there is a relatively smaller number of experts in that field...in particular with experience in MMO technology (and MMOs usually display far more information on screen than any other genre). There is a real battle between creating the right aesthetic and creating usability for the user. It is definitely an area quite a few MMOs can improve upon.

It is interesting that those smaller flaws can definitely overshadow the good things a game does. Even when the good things massively outweigh those negatives, as with any other form of entertainment, if something turns someone 'off', you have often lost them regardless of other strengths, whether it is control scheme, UI, animations or content...

ForGwend said...

I think that people are now driven away more by the frustrating small bugs and performance issues. If a game doesn't play smoothly with little or no impact from lag then I believe we rightly don't accept it as much any more.

In the old days it used to be accepted to a degree, but now games don't get the benefit of the doubt. I can forgive the occasional broken quest or animation, but I cannot accept poor framerate or stuttering, it just makes the game unplayable for me. That is also partly because I, like many others, are mainly console players, where such things are not accepted.

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