Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
On rose-tinted glasses

Telwyn is discussing his notion that most people in the MMO blogosphere have rose-tinted glasses and are "idolising the past". I'd like to point out that many of the "classic" MMORPGs like Ultima Online or the first Everquest are still around. The fact that not many people play them any more tells me that they don't compare that well to modern games. Having said that, everybody has his first MMORPG, and that one is likely to have a profound impact on the thinking of that player. Because every MMORPG after your first is a mix of new stuff with features you already know, and thus is somewhat less impressive.

Old MMORPGs serve one important purpose in the context of blog discussion: They tried out a lot of ideas that ultimately didn't work. The experience players and game companies had with this classic games had a strong influence on how later games were designed. If you played Ultima Online early on, you will have a very different understanding of why in modern games PvP is often so limited. If you played Everquest 1, you will have a very different understanding of why modern games have flight paths, teleports, and other forms of fast travel. Everquest 1 is also fundamental to understand the quest-driven gameplay of World of Warcraft and beyond. So it is not so much "idolising" past games as being able to quote them in the context of brilliant new ideas that were in fact already discarded a decade ago. If we don't remember the past, history repeats itself, "first as a tragedy, second as a farce".

But of course those rose-tinted glasses exist. People say the "remember" those old games, when in fact they have a curiously selective memory that blends out anything that doesn't fit in their world view. Thus instead of remembering how after the split of UO nobody wanted to play in Felucca any more and Trammel was overcrowded, they choose to remember how "great" unlimited player-killing was before the split. If only the devs hadn't allowed all the potential victims to escape to safety! Ignoring that if the devs hadn't done that, the game would have died, because those victims were already running away by quitting the game.

Curiously people also sometimes forget the things that did work. How often have you heard that "forced grouping" doesn't work? The developers of several quite successful games before WoW would beg to differ, it worked quite well at the time. The negative effect of lone wolves not wanting to play such a game is compensated by the positive effect of people enjoying to play with others and making friends. Social bonds are stronger if you actually *need* other people to progress yourself. You might get less players on day 1, but then you don't have two thirds of your players quitting the game on day 30, which overall might be healthier for the game.

Games can serve as huge social experiments, but that only works if you compare the game with itself, before and after a change. You can't take the fact that people tend to flock to a new game as proof that a specific feature of the new game is better than a specific feature of the old game. Even the fact that World of Warcraft had a peak subscriber number 30 times higher than the previous games doesn't mean that *every* feature and design decision of WoW was better than the equivalent of the older games. People tend to like game for the overall impression that game makes on them, it rarely boils down to one specific feature.

besides the rose-tinted glasses there is also much truth on these memories. Except if you believe that everything new is better than the that case we need to find a color for this type of glasses that people wear and see everything new as "progress" of the genre.

People have not forgot the bad things of old MMOs, they still remember them but they think that the good far outweigh the bad. I also don't doubt that people have asked for those changes because both players and developers didn't know the "side effects" the consequences of the changes.

Some things were much better back in the days and some things are much better right now. One thing is for sure, that the games back in the days were created by passionate "small" studios that wanted to create the best game and not the best money printing machine. Now games are being made and heavily influenced by suits and shareholders.
I'm not quite sure where you get your information that "not many people play [classic mmorpgs] any more". I can't comment on UO since I don't play it but I do play Everquest. It currently has seventeen servers up and running. That would seem to me to compare rather favorably with most MMOs that aren't called WoW, regardless of age. I have characters on several of them and I can affirm that they are seem active, even busy, every time play.

There's a tendency for commentators to assume that just because they and their friends no longer play a particular MMO, no-one else does either. Where's the objective evidence though? Despite the unarguable success of GW2 it's the Everquest-era mmo Lineage that makes NCSoft the most money. Runequest is another massively successful, well-populate MMO from the pre-WoW era.

Yes, all these games have changed over the years and the "rose-tinted glasses" charge may be appropriate for those players who left them long ago and now fondly imagine some notional homecoming when the devs finally come to their senses, but in the meantime the games continue and people still play them in significant numbers. More significant numbers, I would contend, albeit equally subjectively, than many pos-WoW MMOs have managed to retain.
I get my data from here, a graph from MMOData. I didn't say "no-one else" plays these games any more, I said "not many", as in "less than 100,000, and up to 80% down from peak". And no, that does not compare favorably with let's say 450,000 Wildstar subscribers, although the comparison will probably look a lot more favorable in a year's time.
"I'd like to point out that many of the "classic" MMORPGs like Ultima Online or the first Everquest are still around. The fact that not many people play them any more tells me that they don't compare that well to modern games."

Yes and no. They exist, but they are in many ways much different than they were in the last century. You cannot go back and play the game you once played because it literally does not exist any more. To hear the cranks in the EQ forums tell the tale, all SOE needs to do is make a real "classic" server to boost subscribers. I am not really on board with that idea as a long term win for SOE, but there is at least some evidence that there is a retro crowd out there.

When SOE created a retro-progression server, it was overflowed with players to the point that they had to roll up a second. As much fun as that was, it was still an imperfect reproduction of the past... which annoyed a vocal group... and wasn't helped by SOE going down for a couple of weeks due to the hacking incident. And as time went along and newer content was introduced, interest tapered off. Who longs to go back and play the 2009 version of EQ?

More importantly games like EQ and US exist in a different environment. In 1999 you didn't have a lot of MMORPG options, did you? Certainly not relative to today.

Today you have a multitude of choices. I am sure games like EQ and UO suffer as much from odd control schemes and dated graphics as they do any essential game play elements. Again, those games still exist, but they do so in a sea of competitors, where a shiny new game like WildStar, with a lot of hype behind it, peaks 100K subscribers shy of EQ at its height.

Meanwhile, pulling 100K subscribers in an environment where there are lots of newer and better looking competitors seems more impressive than you allow. That is like Ford still selling enough new Pintos in today's auto market to be keep the line profitable.
"How often have you heard that "forced grouping" doesn't work?"

What are you going to do, handcuff players to their computer and prevent them from installing other games? As soon as players had a choice between game types, they flocked in droves to the games which allowed soloing.

I noticed a giant cliff-dive in EQ subscriptions right when WoW was released. Looks like those "great social bonds" created in EQ's forced grouping weren't as strong as you think.

As a player, maybe you are one of the few that prefers forced grouping. As a developer, forced grouping DOESN'T work. Your game will flop.
I noticed a giant cliff-dive in EQ subscriptions right when WoW was released.

You would have had exactly the same giant cliff if EQ had had solo play and WoW forced grouping.
Tobold said...
I didn't say "no-one else" plays these games any more.

I will say it. Excepting sunset games, MMOs are never a completed product and will change through their lifetime (some more than others). Introducing quality of life changes, bug fixes and improvements means those Those active EQ players are playing EQ2014 not EQ1999.

I think that when people are nostalgic about old games, it is less about the game and more about what the player was like back then. When I wish there was a game just like vanilla WoW what I actually mean is I wish that I was able to spend large amounts of time focused packed with enjoyable features that I have not personally seen before.
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