Massively Overthinking: Are MMOs designed for 'low-skill gamers'?
Ages ago on the MMORPG subreddit, a player made a bold statement: MMORPGs are designed for low-skill gamers.
"I remember being dazzled by EverQuest and Ultima as a child," he wrote, reminiscing about his memory of high difficulty old-school games. "I recently loaded up [Star Wars: The Old Republic] again, and I'm shocked. Piss easy. Everything. XP falling from the sky. Mobs dead in one GCD. Brainless. The same reason I quite every MMO. I never meet people, I never feel challenged. I just feel bored. 'Wait till endgame' isn't gonna cut it anymore. I'm over it. I'm done. I feel like I'm just hitting the 'Reward' button again and again and again, solitary and alone, like a stupid little rat in the cage." He then basically blames the perceived shift of the genre on people who don't want games to be "like a job": "The genre just seems to be fueled by mediocre, anti-social "consumers."
I wanted to pull this back out to see whether our staff and writers agree with the claims -- and whether we all have some advice for this fan, who concludes his rant by asking people to change his mind. Howsabout it, Overthinking fans?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I admit I have a similar perception these days. I understand people want to be able to solo, and I'm often in that group myself, especially as I have limited time and may need to AFK at a moment's notice. Early MMO experiences are, as described, often rather brainless, especially for genre vets. Worse, they're solo too (I don't mean the tutorial!), especially after launch rush. I agree that waiting till "end game" doesn't cut it anymore. This was the only genre to ask that of players, and that wasn't even how the genre started.
That being said, I don't know if I'd say they're for the skill-less. WildStar wasn't very difficult for me since I'm used to action games, but I saw a lot of newbies (and press!) dying in the starter zones in fairly careless ways. I could do some big pulls back to back and it rewarded my progress, but if I tried to type while fighting or play around with my rotation, I was done for. I think that, perhaps, one of the bigger issues is repetitive design. MMOs thrive on grinding, and when that's all that's asked of you, it gets, well, boring. If you think about traditional, table-top roleplay, which is what inspired our genre, we've moved far, far past it to combat grinders, and as soon as you realize and master that, you've doomed your experience.
I'm not saying all hope is lost. I'm saying we need to flatten the playerbase's power and change our focus. PlanetSide 2 is a good example of a modern MMO, but it didn't seem to catch on. What I liked was that even though it was mostly (PvP) combat focused, players of all levels could drop in, find a place they were needed, and be on a team without needing a lobby, arbitrary player cap, or "end of round." Darkfall's transportation system prevented it from being quite as accessible, but the idea that I could be useful to a guild even as a gatherer/supply runner/scout on day 1 was a big part of the game's stickiness. It's why the death of EverQuest Next still feels relevant to me: the idea of the game world being in constant threat, being something we all interact with but can access on similar levels. Give us multiple gameplay options, not just combat. We need more entertainers and deep crafting mechanics that interact with the people interested in fighting all the time. We need systems of inter-dependence, not independence. We're seeing more of that in upcoming games I think, like Crowfall and (in theory with the family system) Chronicles of Elyria, so there's hope yet for PvP fans, but if you're completely opposed to it... man, I really wish I could think of a modern PvE sandbox MMO that isn't shutting down.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): As a general rule, I can't take seriously the "kids are so spoiled these days" and "back in my day, we walked 10 miles uphill both ways" types of arguments. It's just a generational put-down that ignores most of the factors really in play over the last 20 years. People grow up. They prioritize their consumption and style of entertainment and redefine what "fun" means when half of their life is behind them (instead of most of their life in front of them). The MMORPG genre has also grown up, such that things early hardcore gamers thought were fundamental to the genre have turned out to be correctable mistakes along the way -- things we couldn't design around at the time but can now.
There are certainly some "older" games I enjoyed and miss dearly, but the funny thing is I don't really remember being "dazzled" by the early games like the Reddit poster. I was obsessed with social interaction of Ultima Online and play it to this day, but even me, a total newbie back then and a teenager, was able to PvP and PvE in that game at its highest levels, so there's no way it was difficult or challenging. Ditto for EQ, and in fact, I spent so much time bored out of my skull thanks to "designed downtime" in EverQuest that I played other games on the side. So I don't agree those games were challenging or difficult in the first place. They were grindy and time-consuming, though, which meant the only people who could play them were those who had patience and time. Skill had nothing to do with it at all.
Since those days, MMORPG design and gameplay has become incredibly sophisticated such that those old games feel relatively simple in gameplay, mechanics, and AI, and the social? Well it's all still there, but you have to look for it now that other people aren't forced to play with you against their will -- which is of course a silly thing for me to say, since forced grouping is a factor in every single major modern MMORPG, every one of them. (If you're a fan of work in your games, putting your own groups with other likeminded pro-group people shouldn't be a problem, right?)
Ultimately, I just don't recognize the OP's description of the top crop of MMORPGs right now. Boiling down Elder Scrolls Online or Black Desert to "hitting a reward button again and again" is hyperbole to the degree that it could as easily apply to any game from the '90s, and the idea that modern MMOs are for low-skill gamers while old ones weren't misremembers history as well as conflates time and skill. And frankly, if Guild Wars 2 had shown up in 1999, we would have done literally anything to play it, and it would have kicked our asses.
That said, I understand and agree with the frustration with the "just suck it up and get to endgame where the real game begins" sentiment, but that's another rant entirely.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): This is one of those things that bugs the living crap out of me. Seriously. I didn't play EverQuest, but I played Final Fantasy XI, which inherited a lot of the same DNA, and let me tell you something: It wasn't hard. It's never been hard. It's been slow, and it's been tedious, and it's been luck-based, and sometimes it's been all of those things at the same time, but none of those is the same as hard. If you want something hard, go play Dark Souls blindfolded. A task that requires a year-long commitment is hard only in the sense that taking a photo of yourself every day is hard; you have to put in effort on a consistent basis and might well lose interest.
Games shouldn't be jobs. I have enough jobs. I'm not going to pay someone for the right to get an additional job that happens to involve punching dragons. The risk of random death didn't make any of these games harder; it just made them frustrating. They tended to include more time waiting for things to happen than time spent with things actually happening. Given the choice, I would take Star Wars: The Old Republic over sitting in Jeuno waiting for a party in a heartbeat.
If you feel that other people are antisocial, that often translates to being antisocial yourself and wanting other people to make the first move. I've forged lots of great bonds in games from FFXI up to FFXIV, in SWTOR and in World of Warcraft, and so on down the line. Getting rewarded at a certain pace hasn't really changed that. It's removed any feeling that I might be special for jumping through hoops to get a collection of pixels, but that never made me special. That just meant that I devoted time to it. It's no more special than reading all of a comic book or watching every Star Wars film until I can quote it verbatim; the difference is that a Star Wars film is less likely to suddenly decide that it's going to start back at the beginning because I wasn't paying the right kind of attention.
In short? If what made you like older MMOs was the feeling that every reward required extensive, tedious work, those days are gone and they (thankfully) are probably not coming back. FFXI has done a huge amount of work to patch itself into a state where you spend less time farting around and more time doing stuff. You know what? I find it more fun now than I ever did before. Sure, it's a bit more lonely, and that's sad, but I can log in and do stuff, and I was having enough fun that my wife (who has no history with the game) started playing alongside me and having a grand time. Time spent is not difficulty; time spent is time spent.
Of course, none of that touches upon the fact that most MMOs still have huge month-long projects for you to go on once you hit the level cap, thereby meaning that no one expects "leveling" to be a part-time job, but eh, I'm done.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): MMORPGs cover a wide spectrum of playstyle and difficulty, so if you're whining that the whole genre is too easy because your sample size is one particular game held against your nostalgic memories, then you're just being lazy. There are tough games, skill-wise, information-wise, and puzzle-wise. There are titles that foster more socialization than others. There are games that are hard from the get-go, while others take a while to ramp up. And there are always parts of games that are more challenging than the rest.
To be fair, some MMOs are quite simplistic and streamlined to the point where they don't need much human input at all. I prefer to be challenged more in solving puzzles and navigating the environment than I do in combat (which is its own flashy puzzle), but we all have our own desires and preferences. "Skill" can mean a lot of different things to different people, but when it comes to fights, being skilled means using the right abilities at the right time while taking in the situation, analyzing the best response, and performing well. It doesn't just mean snappy reflexes and constant dodging.
Sometimes you want challenge. Sometimes you want mindless farming fun that makes you feel powerful and helps you zen out in your gameplay. Sometimes you want to be with people, sometimes you just enjoy being "alone together." The variety and options of MMOs are what keep me captivated with this genre, and I'm not on a crusade to have it all be redefined in a much more narrow sense.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): To this I say: Yup. Yup, yep, uh huh, yah boy, and you got it. Well, at least I do as far as the loss of putting in meaningful effort in many games nowadays. I know my opinion is not a favorite one in this respect (if it were, would so many games do the opposite?), but I agree. So I have no intention of changing this fan's mind on that aspect because this is basically the problem in games as I see it -- at least for me. And don't even get me started on the loss of building relationships and communities in games.
People say they don't want games to be like a second job, but in my opinion anything worthwhile takes work. And I hate to break this to some folks, but WORK is not an evil word. It isn't a swear word. It just means you put effort, time, and care into what you do. You focus on something and throw your energies into it. You invest into it. I invest in more than just paid work. I invest in my hobbies and projects. I invest myself into things to have a return on them, from coaching to crafts to relationships. Sadly I am not really invested in any games anymore the way I want to be because there is little to invest in. To invest you need a deep world where you really work toward goals, where you spend time to accomplish something and when you do it is an actual accomplishment.
Unfortunately, that just isn't where the market seems to be. Instead, people appear to want quick, easy, practically passive entertainment in their games -- to be rewarded for next to nothing. But when you don't work for something, you don't get that feeling of accomplishment and appreciation. And people want that feeling, so they just keep going for that quick fix over and over and over again. I really really hate the whole idea of instant gratification; it is shallow and fleeting. No, if you want a fulfilling feeling you will have to cultivate it over time with effort. And that will last longer. I admit that there is a market for fast and furious easy mode. Hey, I get a kick out of that exact thing in Marvel Heroes aka Loot Pinata Online. I just wish it didn't pervade the whole market. That type of game is just for some fun popcorn gaming, it's not anything to really sink myself into. And I really do want to sink myself into another world! I just don't see that happening much anymore. Because "working" appears to be taboo and bad and something to avoid. Me? I think the world would be better if we remembered that work is not all bad. I know gaming would be!