Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
McDonald's is not responsible for your eating habits

The best thing I can say about Wolfshead is that fortunately he doesn't post often. But when he does it is always a long diatribe against the evils of modern MMORPGs, modern being anything from this century. Usually I just ignore him, but his current rant at least deserves one major logical flaw to be pointed out: In a free market the bad habits of customers are not the fault of the companies that enable those bad habits. Just because junk food exists does not force anybody to eat junk food. And if, as Wolfshead claims, there is a bad habit of gaming without social interaction that is enabled by World of Warcraft, that is *NOT* the fault of World of Warcraft.

In the case of McDonald's people could still point out that junk food is cheaper than healthy food. That still doesn't make McDonald's responsible for you eating junk food, but at least you can blame socio-economic factors for it. Playing World of Warcraft is not cheaper than other MMORPGs, in fact WoW is one of the most expensive games out there. So if more people play World of Warcraft than some "socially superior" game, it is because players *prefer* the "playing alone together" mode of World of Warcraft to the forced grouping of yesteryear.

Communities in online role-playing games evolved in a trend which is similar to the evolution of communities elsewhere on the internet: We moved from a situation where only a very small part of the population had access to a situation where everybody has access. Early online communities were tight because they were small and socially homogeneous. Today the online world is much bigger and much more heterogeneous, which leads to people having less in common and less interest in interacting with each other. People today prefer games in which they don't have to speak to each other for exactly the same reason that people generally don't start conversations with strangers on a bus.

What Blizzard does is what Blizzard always did well: Make accessible games and design them around what the players want. If guilds and raids today in WoW are the way they are, it is because people prefer them that way. And it is because people prefer playing the way that WoW offers that the game has millions of players. There is no secret, hidden conspiracy where Blizzard executives visit the houses of people who would rather prefer games with more social interaction and force them at gunpoint to play solo-friendly WoW.

The "flaws" that Wolfshead lists, easy soloing and no downtime, are actually part of World of Warcraft's recipe for success. Forced grouping and long downtime are not popular features for the mass market. The worst thing you can accuse WoW of is creating a mass market, as some people would have preferred MMORPGs to remain niche forever. But even in a hypothetical parallel world with no WoW, MMORPGs would have evolved to have less forced social interaction. Because the alternative, that is visible in places like Twitter or League of Legends, is a toxic and petty community in which people hate each other. Good modern games deliberately isolate players from each other, because hell is other people.

Leaving aside the little matter of treating social and political constructs as though they were physical laws, a couple of specifically MMO-related questions come to mind.

1. At the time WoW originally became hugely successful, how much "forced grouping" did it require and how common was "social interaction"? I didn't play WoW in the first half-decade so I have no personal experience but I understood that, while it was certainly more solo-friendly than most earlier MMOs, grouping was still a core part of the gameplay. Ditto social interaction.

If so, was that what players' wanted then? If it was, why did they stop wanting it?

2. If "forced grouping" and "social interaction" are no longer popular with the MMO mass market, how would you explain both remaining core components of one of the most succesful of all post-WoW MMOs, FFXIV?

I'm not suggesting you're wrong or Wolfshead is right. Just that things might be a bit more nuanced.
As a long-time rider of the MMO nostalgia bus, I get where Wolfshead is coming from. I have plenty of fond memories of the "good old days" and my brain no doubt filters out a lot of the bad. I wallow in that from time to time.

But I try not to kid myself.

I play WoW and accept it for what it is, a good shared experience where you don't have to depend on others all the time and where you can reasonably expect to be able to log in and accomplish something with a limited time budget. I play more of that than anything else.

The game I play that is closest to old EQ is EVE Online, where I am pretty much dependent on corp, squad, alliance, or coalition mates to be able to go out and do something. That is mitigated by the fact that we have an alert system in place (Jabber) that lets people know when things are happening. So I often play another game... WoW... until something interesting comes up in EVE. Without that, I am not sure EVE would be very viable for me.

And going back in time, there certainly there were a lot of nights during the early times when I logged into EQ and wasted a whole evening trying to get something together to do. That was part of what made WoW popular in the first place.
Well, I mean fair point to a degree, but as far as fast food, they have teams of scientists working to induce cravings, prevent your body from recognizing the calories you just ate, and otherwise circumvent the consumers ability to exercise personal responsibility.

So when a product is designed from the ground up induce irresponsible behavior I don't think you can just throw up your hands and go "free market" & "personal responsibility." Society still has to bear the burden of those poor decisions regardless of whose fault it is.

That said you're right on this issue. UO and EQ were terrible games in many, many ways, which is why they peaked at customer levels 1/20th of WoWs. They were completely unattractive to most gamers, however well regarded they are by a few people who claim to love them but don't bother to actually play them (which is still an option).
As far as when they stopped wanting interaction, eventually you come to the realization that people are going to leave. I don't know how many people I considered real friends who just up and decided to quit or change servers. Once you've had a few friends ditch you for whatever reason, being friendly seems like a waste of time. A certain level of detachment develops, and spending an hour getting a group together and then spending 25 minutes flying to Dire Maul or whatever seems like an enormous waste of time.
I agree.

But I think it is also important to flip it around - "McDonald's is not responsible for your eating habits" however your eating habits are responsible for McDonalds. If the majority of customers preferred 20 minute boat rides to LFR, the companies would still be selling 20 minute boat rides. I had a marketing professor who kept pointing out that companies/advertising can't create demand, they can only stimulate it.

The answer to your first question depends on the timeline. For Vanilla WoW at launch, leveling your character WAS the game for most players. It took roughly 300-500 hours to reach the level 60 cap, soloing was the majority of this. Dungeons were available while leveling, but were entirely optional and provided insignificant xp.

Yes, there was content at level cap. But if I were to guess what level most players were playing at that time, it would be somewhere in the realm of 20% level 60, 80% 1-59. There were only a few level 60 dungeons, and raiding just wasn't very popular at that time. Battlegrounds were introduced, but server Battlegroups were not yet. Leveling alts was the more common thing to do when you hit level cap.

Burning Crusade changed things significantly. Spending your time leveling characters was still viable and something a lot of people did, but there were a LOT more dungeons, and running dungeons at level cap became a lot more common. Contrary to common misconception, the Dungeon Finder did exist at that time, but was not convenient and offered no meaningful rewards, so no one used it. Arena PvP was introduced, and Battlegrounds became viable with the introduction of server Battlegroups. Raiding was still something done only by a very small minority.

The important thing that I can see is simply that players don't want to stand around doing nothing. If they log on and their friends aren't on, they need to be able to solo (and make meaningful character progression while doing it). If they want to group, waiting is acceptable as long as they can do something meaningful while they wait. Which, obviously, goes back to soloing. Soloing can be more than questing, and doesn't need to be the focus of the game, but I do think it needs to be there and be meaningful.

I don't think there is a good answer to "social interaction," because that isn't just one thing, and is very difficult to measure. There is plenty of "social interaction" in League of Legends, but the best feature of Heroes of the Storm will be that you can turn it off entirely. That isn't because I hate social interaction, just the kind you find in MOBAs. So I can't really draw any conclusions from the large scale hatred of "forced grouping." Depending on the implementation, it doesn't tend to provide any real or positive social interaction. Just shoving players together isn't good enough. And in fact, shoving them together in a high stress situation tends to have overwhelmingly negative results.
This could just be my "sampling corner" but I've noticed that in every MMO I have played in which significant stimuli/reward systems are introduced to motivate players to join guilds in order to acquire those extra perks, the value of guilds as a social network drops off proportionately. Guilds as a social construct worked well --to a point-- but incentivizing them for reasons I can't put my finger on changes the dynamic from "meet people to chat and game with" to "join guild to get XP perk." and with that the value of guilds and the rise of automated guild-invite spamming became the norm.
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