Monthly Archives: July 2018

Healing the Rift Between Player and Developer

Lately the gaming world is abuzz over the brouhaha involving Guild Wars 2 writers Jessica Price and Peter Fries. There are a lot of opinions flying around on who is in the wrong here — personally I’m in the camp that says absolutely no one came out of this smelling like roses — and I’m not interested in rehashing the same arguments that have been swirling around in circles across the Internet.

A Norn thief in Guild Wars 2

But it does present an excellent opportunity to discuss a topic that was already on my mind: the often toxic relationship between gamers and developers. Regardless of whose side (if any) you take in the ArenaNet/Price debacle, I think we can agree this is a symptom of the adversarial attitude that has developed between the people who make MMOs and the people who play them.

It’s a bad situation, and it’s only getting worse.

The Cult of Personality

I think one of the core contributors to this climate of toxicity is the habit of gamers to build a cult of personality around a specific developer and subsequently lay every complaint they have on the shoulders of that one individual.

For example, for years World of Warcraft players demonized and lambasted Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street, blaming him for pretty much anything that went wrong with the game. He was painted as an ogre who had single-handedly driven the game into the ground.

Nowadays Ghostcrawler’s moved on, but WoW players are now giving the same treatment to Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas, and I’ve seen similar things happen in other MMO communities. Inevitably one or two developers become the scapegoat for everything wrong in a game, and gamers start harassing or calling for the firing of that person.

But here’s the thing: Game design is collaborative. Most MMOs have dozens if not hundreds of people working on them, and major design decisions are almost never the work of a single individual. Ghostcrawler was never the main developer on WoW; he was just the most visible.

This is something that’s very important to keep in mind when criticizing game development. Demonizing an individual isn’t just mean-spirited; it’s factually incorrect and utterly pointless. Even if the person you blame for all your complaints was to be fired, it probably wouldn’t change anything.

A screenshot from Champions Online

One should always keep in mind that MMOs are built by teams, not individuals. When you realize that, it’s much easier to not make things personal.

Good Ol’ Fashioned Intolerance

For developers who don’t have the luck to be born a straight, white man, things take on a whole new color of ugliness. As incidents like GamerGate have shown us, female developers especially tend to walk around with a target on their back.

For the record, I believe Jessica Price was wrong to lash out as she did, but I also think much of the response to her words is at least as much an overreaction as her initial comments were, and it’s hard not to see this as a reflection on her gender. To be blunt, there are a lot of guys in the gaming community who have a problem with women voicing opinions.

There’s not much I can say here, because this is a complex subject best handled by people older and wiser than I, but I will say this: Try to imagine walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. If someone overreacts to a small provocation, maybe instead of writing them off as a jerk try to imagine what stresses and obstacles they’ve had to deal with to make them this defensive in the first place. Try to understand the greater cultural context that informs people’s actions, and have some empathy.

Provocation

In case it wasn’t clear by now, I feel that the unhealthy relationship between players and developers can largely be blamed on players, but if I’m going to be fair, I must acknowledge that developers are not always saints, either.

I’m not aware of many examples developers of being nakedly toxic or cruel to players — at least as far as mainstream, big name companies go — but that doesn’t mean they’re above making mistakes. It is fairly common for them to carry a certain air of condescension, to talk down to players or ignore our concerns altogether.

A screenshot from Skyforge

I don’t believe this in any way justifies the levels of harassment that developers are often subjected to, but if we’re examining the roots of the toxicity in the MMO community, I must acknowledge it plays a role.

Ideas, not Individuals

For all of the problems that there are in the relationship between players and developers, I do think the solution is relatively simple.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be able to offer criticisms when we’re unhappy with the games we play. Criticism is what drives an art form forward. But there’s a line between constructive criticism and just being an asshat, and you cross that line when you stop criticizing ideas and start criticizing the people behind them.

It’s perfectly okay to think that a developer has made a boneheaded decision, and to say so. It’s taking things too far when you start to call the developer themselves a bonehead. Even the smartest and most well-intentioned people can and do make mistakes. It is not helpful, productive, or moral to vilify an individual because they made a bad decision.

Back in the day, I strongly disagreed with many decisions made by Ghostcrawler, and his logic behind them, but I never let that affect my opinion of Greg Street the man. Indeed, I have always held the belief that he is an intelligent and largely well-intentioned person, and I think I would greatly enjoy sitting down to discuss game design with him for an hour or two.

This is the way forward. Criticize, yes, but don’t make it personal, don’t call for people to be fired, and most definitely do not harass.


F2P is Individualism; P2P is Collectivism

In a genre dominated as much by raiding as it is by grinding for that next level, these two revenue models invite two different styles of play. Plenty of discussion has transpired on which is best, with fair reasons on both sides. Genre fans have debated each model’s merits ad nauseam. What hasn’t been discussed is which revenue model fits which social theory best.

Until now. I’ll be arguing why free to play mirrors individualism and pay to play mirrors collectivism.

What a crazy topic you’re thinking. Social theory on my MMO Bro? This isn’t some Nick Yee gaming science website. Nope, but it’s fun to contemplate motivations and personalities on a deeper level than the game mechanics themselves. So let’s break down each argument separately.

individualism vs collectivism

F2P is Individualism

F2P players are more focused on themselves. They want the most optimal deal on the market. Good free to play MMO games offer fun growth opportunities for completely free players, small spenders, and whales without diminishing the fun of the other groups. However, their low barrier to entry invites very transitory individuals. Without a financial investment, friends will drop as frequently as a theme park roller coaster. Every social list is doomed to an inevitable field of grayed out, offline users. This is because once a free MMO loses it’s appeal to an individual, another substitute awaits.

Pay to win also appeals to the individual. A select few may extend beyond that but only just so. An example here would be ArcheAge, where it’s hard even with a deep wallet to drive the narrative by yourself. These create oligarchic scenarios with a few people at the top running the show. Whether paying to win creates a dictatorship or oligarchy of winning, the focus is still on the few. Luckily video games like these aren’t the real world (at least universally) so annoyed players are free to hop off the real world money death train and move on.

Whether it’s a fair free to play model or a pay to win model, the individualist social theory persists. F2P players find fun in games in and of themselves. This doesn’t mean they’re anti-social, hate cooperating, or won’t help others. This simply means the focus is first and foremost on themselves. They don’t derive as much satisfaction from accomplishing tasks as a group, but instead seek personal benefits for such activities. Further exemplifying this mindset is the heavier focusing on grinding in a free to play game. Grinding is a low level mental task based on repetition with a reward of powering up individuals.

F2P players are more focused on their own growth, choose themselves first over communities, and make independent decisions.

P2P is Collectivism

Ever heard of the sunk cost fallacy? The more you invest in something, the less likely you are to abandon it. Are you more likely to abandon a game you’ve spent $200 in game purchases and subscriptions fees or one you’ve invested no money? This forms a core foundation for pay to play MMOs as a collectivist draw.

Pay to play games want to reward players at the highest level for participating in group activities. Whether it’s raiding in World of Warcraft, conquering Nullsec in Eve Online, or performing trials in Elder Scrolls Online these require near equal participation from a dozen to several dozen individuals. The cooperation and skill requirements in these games exceed the mindless encounters of say, a world boss in Black Desert Online. This forces a reliance on other players to accomplish high end goals. Thus pride in one’s guild or corporation develops as a result of such accomplishments.

When someone ponies up for a monthly subscription, they’re typically eschewing other potential time competitors. This gives the community more chances to interact with one another, and thus enhance a game’s gravitational pull. The bonds and friendships that such games create can be difficult to break. Further, players aren’t looking to break these bonds. The friendships and communities that arise from P2P games are the point. MMORPGs aren’t known for award winning mechanics, but their ability to bind people together is unparalleled.

P2P players are more focused on community growth, choose community first over themselves, and make decisions with consideration of and from others.

In Between

Like every rule, exceptions exist. Guilds formed of F2P players jump from game to game like individuals, but their guild focus aligns closely with collectivism. Many individual players get into a game like World of Warcraft for the story, the exploration, or the single player questing. They don’t care one lick about group progression and will pick up group if and only if it’s needed to advance. Life is rarely so simple to completely equate one thing with another. That said, the link looks pretty strong here.

Where do you fall on the free to play vs. pay to play preference? Do you see yourself more as individualist or a collectivist?

 

 


The Impossibility of Playing Every MMO

An unfortunate reality core MMORPG fans have to deal with is that most of us will never have the time to play all of the MMOs that we want as much as we want. There are simply too many games out there and not enough hours in the day, and the problem only gets worse if you consider the availability of free to play MMOs or want to play single-player games and pursue other hobbies. Sooner or later we must accept that it’s just impossible to play everything that we want to, and then focus in on what we enjoy the most.

A promotional image for the fantasy MMORPG Shaiya

Too Many Games

There are, to be blunt, an absolutely ridiculous number of MMORPGs out there right now. As someone who writes about them for work, I pride myself on having at least a basic knowledge of as many MMOs as possible, but even so I regularly face sobering reminders of my own MMO ignorance.

Recently I’ve befriended someone who is an avid player of a PvP-focused MMO called Shaiya. I’d never even heard of Shaiya before, but apparently it’s been running and thriving for years. I was stunned.

And that sort of thing happens a lot. Every time I think I know every game there is, someone comes along to prove me wrong.

Even if we limit ourselves to the more better known, big-budget titles, the selection’s still pretty huge. Even if we take into account that not everyone is going to enjoy every game, it’s still a lot to juggle.

Take me, for example. I regularly play Elder Scrolls Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Warcraft, and The Secret World (it still technically exists). Those aren’t the only games I want to play; they’re just the games I have time for.

Given unlimited time and money, I’d also be playing Star Trek: Online. It’s a flawed game, but it does let me live out my dream of exploring the universe in a D’deridex warbird. I’d also probably still be playing Neverwinter if I had the time — I never did try any of the tank classes — and the Defiance relaunch has me mightily intrigued.

Oh, and I do still have a soft spot for Aion. And sometimes I miss Guild Wars 2…

A gunslinger character in Aion

If you’re a longtime MMO fan — and if you’re reading this site, you probably are — you’ve probably had similar conversations with yourself.

Not Enough Time

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that MMOs are among the most time-consuming games out there.

Of course, playing an MMO is almost synonymous with grinding. In the old days, MMOs weren’t so much games as they were second jobs. That’s much less true now, but some players (and a few developers) still treat them that way. If you spend all your time grinding to put yourself into the top 1% of players, there will be little time leftover for other games.

Even if you’re not getting sucked down a rabbit hole of grinding, though, MMOs still tend to take up a fair bit of time. They’re huge games with a lot of content.

Even the biggest single-player games can’t compare. I’ve heard of people boasting about sinking five hundred hours into Skyrim, but us MMO players call that casual play. I’ve spent closer to a thousand hours in TSW, and I’m downright scared to check my /played time in WoW.

Other genres of online gaming also struggle to equal the time investment of MMOs. MOBAs and arena shooters don’t require the same level of grind to reach the top end — you generally just jump in and play — and are more conducive to bite-sized sessions. MMOs are best enjoyed in longer chunks of time.

It all adds up, and it makes it very difficult to find the time to play every MMORPG that interests you. It’s not nearly so hard to divide your attention when it comes to other genres of games, or even books or movies. Admittedly these days the media is so choked with options you’ll never have the time for everything that interests you regardless of genre, but for MMO fans, the proposition is especially tricky.

The island of Artaeum in Elder Scrolls Online's new Summerset expansion

Finding Priorities

For some people, one or two games is enough. I envy their clarity of focus. For the rest of us, we need to find ways to divide our attention.

The first step is to admit that you will never have the time to play every game that interests you to the extent that you might want. Instead, it’s better to prioritize. Pick the games that are most important to you and focus on them.

It can also help to make clear plans within each game. Ask yourself what your favorite parts of each title are, what in-game goals are most important to you, and what the most efficient ways to achieve them are.

I’ve found it’s much easier to juggle different games if you let go of your instinct to “keep up with the Joneses.” When you stop caring about being behind the curve or how you compare to other players, it’s much easier to focus on the game and do what makes you happy. The less time you spend on in-game chores that don’t really matter, the more time you have to spend on activities you do enjoy, and on other games.

Even so, though, you’ll probably never reach the point where you have the time for absolutely everything you want to do. Maybe I’ll never get around to piloting that D’deridex or leveling that oathbound paladin.

But if you plan well and make good decisions, you can enjoy most of the games you want to. It’s just a matter of priorities.