Tobold's Blog
Thursday, February 14, 2013
How many people did NOT play this game?

MMORPG fans are a bit like football fans, always supporting their team. Unfortunately, unlike football, there aren't matches played whose outcome would tell us something about which team is currently beating which other team. That mostly leads to circular arguments of the type: "You can't measure quality. My game is best, because it has the best un-measurable quality.". People declare themselves as the only ones objectively being able to determine the quality of games, and then miraculously come to the "completely objective" conclusion that the game they are supporting is the one that has the highest quality.

The other sort of argument usually made is based on player numbers in one form or another. And everybody cheats with their numbers, comparing apples with oranges. Games that are distributed world-wide take their global numbers and compare them to games that aren't even distributed in Asia. Free2Play games count everybody who ever made an account. Games in which everybody has multiple accounts count number of accounts instead of number of players. Games with low player numbers count percent of improvement over last month. And if another game has better numbers than the fans favorite game, then the better numbers are declared to be an anomaly which doesn't count.

All that doesn't only result in numbers which are statistically not relevant, they also don't make sense in a historical perspective. How do you compare games that didn't come out at the same time? Is a game only "good" if it is the most technologically advanced game *today*, thus penalizing all older games in the score? Or is a game only good when measured by its degree of innovation over earlier games, which penalizes most modern games? Is people leaving games a sign that a game got worse, or is it just a measure of burnout?

I don't think there will ever be an agree solution to how to measure which game is "best", and most important. But I was wondering if instead of looking at current player numbers or percent up and down compared to the last month, we shouldn't be looking at the impact of a game from the other side:

How many people did NOT play this game?

There will still be a lot of people who will argue that this isn't a measure of whether a game is "good" or "bad". But I would argue that at the very least this would be a measure of the historical significance of a game. In 20 years, if a journalist writes about the history of MMORPGs in the first decade of the 21st century, what games will have been completely forgotten, and which ones will be remembered? I would say that those which pretty much everybody played have the best chance to be remembered.

Cultural memory is likely to depend on two things:

1) Survival. I don't know how 5th century BC Persians viewed their games but for us the clear winner is Chess. If one were to time travel and meet one who said Chess bah! throwing rocks through the gate hoop is the real test of skill we'd just think him wrong.

2) Advocacy. Some thirtieth century scholar could no doubt build a compelling case for Star Wars Galaxies based on contemporary 21st century evidence and post hoc logic like "It was the first MMO based on a popular film IP, it must have been the best game."
This is the old "quantity vs quality" argument again. I suggest you have a browse through the lists of Top 10 highest-grossing movies for each year of the 20th century or, for an even more marked demonstration of the fallacy of this argument, the lists of Top 10 best-selling novels year by year.

Then compare those lists with the movies and novels that were released in each year. See which ones are still widely watched or read, or which are now considered to be of historical significance. See how many books and movies that were the biggest things of their day you've never even heard of and how many cultural cornerstones went largely unwatched and unread for years.

What gives a cultural artifact like a film or a book power isn't who consumes it but who is influenced by it. MMOs simply haven't been around long enough for that influence to become known. WoW, for example, isn't even ten years old yet. It won't show its true influence for another decade or two and by then someone may have been inspired by some MMO we have all ignored and gone on to make the WoW of 2025 because of it.
Hold on a minute in the field of literature best sellers often have a short shelf life so I am not sure your argument holds up. Titles that endure tend to do so because they make a particular artistic or cultural impact. For that reason I suspect that if any of today's games are still remembered in a hundred years time it is more likely to be something like EVE (for its crazy meta gaming) or Second Life (for its wild ambition) than World of Warcraft. More likely still is that only Pong will still be remembered as an early and stereotypical example of the type of 2 dimensional computerised entertainment that enjoyed a brief popularity around the turn of the 20th century.

What about Pac Man then...!
Rogus - Pong was first. OK, purist will argue about that not being technically true, but it was the example of the time.
If the metric is what games I enjoy, then yes I am the world's expert on that :-) I.e., everyone is entitled to their subjective opinions; it's when those are portrayed a objective facts that it breaks down.
As almost all of these games are commercial endeavors, then I feel that profitability is under-appreciated as a metric. E.g., if the risk-adjusted return of all the CCP capital is low enough, then it was not a financial success which is quite different than a "critical" success.
History is written by the victors - so if the dominant, 30-million sub game of 2020 is Elder Scrolls Online or Everquest Next, then ES & EQ1 will have more notoriety.
Off the top of my head, I would list the seminal "games" as:

Second Life

If feeling trolly, one could add Farmville & Angry Birds.

Brilliant post... Bhagpuss. I was going to comment something, but you seen to have made the point perfectly.

By the way:
People declare themselves as the only ones objectively being able to determine the quality of games, and then miraculously come to the "completely objective" conclusion that the game they are supporting is the one that has the highest quality.

Nice strawman there, it almost resembles some of my previous comments on the subject.
I guess I just don't buy the art argument. These are video games that to my mind don't rise to the level of literature or movies or music.

So the line of argument that Tobold is engaging in philistinism when he argues that the most popular game is indicative of quality is a bit flawed in that respect. I get where they are coming from, because Tobold has engaged in the popularity=quality in art argument before. But I think the better comparison is cars, since the MMO genre are painfully similar. One could plausibly argue that the Camry is a better car than the Ford Fusion or Chrysler Sebring, and the proof of that is that the Camry convinced a gazillion more people to buy one. It wouldn't be definitive, but it would be valid evidence, because it indicates that gazillions of people found the Camry to be the better choice on the whole.

While it's of course basically impossible to tell what people will care about in 100 years, I think we can safely say that if a history book bothers to details MMO history, WoW will hog most of the space dedicated to early MMO era, with everything else being a footnote. On the whole, I think we can safely assume that our great-great-grandchildren will not care in the slightest about this topic.
Nice blog and interesting post!
But, but... it's not hard to compare apples with oranges. Oranges are clearly better!

Also. How is it different to count the number of people who didn't play a game from counting the number of people who did? And who are you deciding to 'not' count? If we're starting from 7 billion, then basically noone plays any game. If 'everyone' is some small subset, aren't you just adding another layer of subjectivity to your testing standard?
I'm pretty sure WoW will be remembered from it's pure massive dominans in the gaming industry from it's release in 2004 until some way through in 2009 with wotlk which imo after that expansion it's gone massively downhill and casualized. WoW was the great and reached it's peak with the burning crusade where people up til wotlk release still were pugging karazhan and working their ass off to reach top tier raids for those tier5 and 6 that seemed almost impossible.
Emilmf--- if something had actually come along to displace or even challenge WoW, I guess the timeline might end in 2009.

As is, its dominance in the MMO world is still unabated, to the point where if a game was doing 1/4th as well as WoW it would be considered hot stuff. More likely, imo, is that WoW will be viewed as a fluke that will never be repeated until the MMO evolves way way past the current hotkey driven avatar on a cartesian plane system. In fact its unlikely to do so unless they find a way besides addiction to progressing through repetitive activities as the motivation for playing.
How is it different to count the number of people who didn't play a game from counting the number of people who did?

Does anybody ever count the number of people who "did" play a game? They only ever count those who "do" play it at some specific moment in time. Counting who did/didn't play over a decade gives a better picture of the impact a game had than looking at some peak number. Peak numbers for WAR or SWTOR weren't bad, but they didn't hold.
4c22cb52-3723-11e0-95c0-000bcdcb2996 said:

"if something had actually come along to displace or even challenge WoW, I guess the timeline might end in 2009."

Lots of things came along hoping to displace or challenge WoW. None of them succeeded.

Do we disqualify the world champion of a sport because somebody *might* in principle have been better?

I agree with Emilmf - BC was the peak. Though from the perspective of the designers, everything they did made WoW better... it's just that somehow the combination of changes, or uncontrollable social factors unleashed by the new accessibility in WotLK, led to a deterioration.

WoW is still the leader, and everyone is still cloning it.

Right Gerry, I meant that if anything had actually displaced or challenged WOW. Obviously people have been trying and failing miserably.

The thing is I remember lots and lots of people complaining that BC was awful and had ruined the game back when BC came out. So it's kind of a perpetually moving goalpost.

For some reason people have a hard time believing that spending 3000+ hours on a game might just possibly lead to a bit of burnout and a sense that things just aren't as good as they used to be. It's old coot syndrome on a small scale.

My career in WOW ended towards the end of BC, but having dabbled in it a bit during the WOTLK and Cata era, I don't see anything particularly different or awful. The end game is no longer the reserve for the addicts, that's about it. A lot of annoying inconvenient crap is gone. Those changes are hard to view as a negative. But at the end of the day when you started playing a game when Tier 1 gear is good, it's real hard to maintain your motivation to get tier 15 or whatever the hell they are on at that point.
That said, I also have no interest in the game, because WoW, and all other MMOs, are fundamentally bad games that rely on addiction to drive players.
What gives a cultural artifact like a film or a book power isn't who consumes it but who is influenced by it.

With this logic: quality can be only decided one century later.
Ah and in Internet time scale (which is a whole lot faster than the other "arts") WoW is the all-end of quality, since it's influencing almost everything being released now.

Sorry, I stand my position: you people are evaluating MMOs on the wrong scale: they are games and not art: a lot of people play it = good.

Helistar--- for books that sure seems to be the case. Moby Dick killed Melville's career; it only got popular 70 years later. Meanwhile any number of complete hacks had great literary careers, and have been utterly forgotten. HP Lovecraft was virtually unknown when he died--- now he's got Penguin Lit editions and his influence can be seen in pretty much every horror movie in the past 30 years.

That said, I agree. If you like another MMO, go for it. No problem. But barring some radical departure from the WoW model that isn't the even more boring (talking about you, EVE), I just don't see how you make a definitive call on this one.
Comparing WoW to a flavor of the month film is just as fallacy laden as "quantity vs quality." The game is nearly 10 years old and still has its legs.

The fact that every fantasy MMORPG released post-WoW has been influenced by it should be telling enough.
I spend most of my time arguing that video games might be masterpieces of design, but they are not art. Comparison games to literature or cinema is not always useful, especially if you use criteria from another field to discuss what makes a successful game. There was Roger Ebert, for example, who, if you tried to placate him, would require games to be entirely linear to maybe qualify as art. Or there's Michael ("Metroid Prime is our Citizen Kane") Thomsen, who draws from cinema so much that he ends up dismissing games that don't rely on film and never really needed to (Civilization V is "a game without cinema", "more a game and less a video game", "a cultural defeat". I'd love to read him on Dwarf Fortress and predictably missing the point.) So, to me, and it's sad to say, an important MMO is one that influenced game design. And unfortunately, games that influence game design, especially in a genre that requires not only initial financial success but sustained financial success, are games that are successful.

World of Warcraft, for this reason, is important; it might not be any good, but it is important. From a certain sociological/historical perspective, "Fifty Shades of Grey" and the Star Wars prequels are important too, even though they are meaningless from an artistic perspective.

My impression, though, is that MMO games won't matter at all when their influence has run out. They are ephemeral, even more so than other types of video games, because they can't be fully enjoyed without replicating their communities. Having eight people log into WoW from a private server at the Museum of Modern Art long after the game has ceased being live anywhere else won't even give you the beginning of a suggestion of the aura (to crib from Walter Benjamin) of World of Warcraft in its heyday.
Now *that's* an idea: Let the gold sellers decide what will be canonical. After all, they have a larger stake in this than we gamers have.
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