Massively Overthinking: That moment when your MMO looks like a 'fire sale at an exotic pet store'
Massively OP Podcast listener John recently sent us a really great question that saw Justin and me sharply divided in terms of our responses, so naturally, we decided to kick it to the whole team and the readers too.
"When you walk through a city in WoW, you very rarely see two adjacent characters riding the same species of mount," he wrote. "I just walk by, thinking, 'Unicorn, griffin, dragon, wyvern, skeleton of a horse, motorcycle, floating-on-a-cloud, mammoth, turtle, rocket, sparkle pony, rancor, miniature TIE fighter,' and so on. Once there’s a cash shop, special instance rewards and PvP mounts, a flood of new (and increasingly implausible) mounts hit the scene. It makes it hard, for me at least, to imagine that I am in any kind of a coherent setting. Why not add an optional checkbox for 'Traditional Mounts' that would cause other people's mounts to render as normal mounts for their race? Everybody else would be able to see what they want to see, and cities wouldn't look like a fire sale at an exotic pet store. I also propose the same solution for people who find female gear too revealing and impractical: Give me a 'Sensible Armor' checkbox as well!"
Why not indeed? Let's hear it!
(With apologies to Trove, whose screenshot I just had to use above but is actually wholly justified in being wacky.)
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I really have no problem with avatar options. Maybe John's forgotten the ages of "clone wars," where we all looked the same. It's frustrating in PvE games, but downright dangerous in FFA PvP games like Darkfall, where you had to target someone to know if they were on your team, and even then, the game had friendly fire.
But having some simple button that assigns all players the same race/class mount and armor for RP reasons? I don't see the harm, but I don't see much benefit either. RPers are generally the first ones modern MMO developers forget about these days. Mechanics tend to come first. I will agree with the sensible armor, though, and give a quick kudos to Ubisoft for getting female armor right.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I'm certain we can go back and forth for days arguing about people's right to present and whose rights trump whom, and it's fun to argue about for sure, but this has an uncomplicated analogue already: chat. We can already put annoying people on ignore and never hear or see a thing they say ever again, and communication is a thousand times more important to the sanctity and function of an MMORPG than whether other people know you're riding a horse or a particle-bedecked bear-pegasus hybrid with a tentacle saddle and flaming purple eyes. I don't see how putting people (or more specifically, their terrible mount and armor choices) on the equivalent of "visual ignore" is fundamentally different from putting them on "aural ignore" in chat. And we're not even really talking about a true ignore -- just a harmless mask.
Would I use it? Probably not; while I can think of examples of cosmetic outfit combos that definitely belong on an episode of What Not To Wear: MMO Edition, I enjoy people-watching too much. I like the insanity and clutter. I like wacky mounts and nonsense in games. I survived the Great Jedi Duels of Mos Eisley Spaceport! I ran around as a pink Ithorian with a purple lightsaber and a baby Hutt poking out of my backpack! What I'm saying is that I doubt I'd begrudge hardcore roleplayers for doing it to me so they don't have to look at my ridiculous Elder Scrolls Online camel nonsensically riding around in the snow. In fact, I'd never even know.
That said, it would be nice if game studios didn't force us into these positions to begin with. The games we discussed on the podcast, including World of Warcraft and Ultima Online, the ones that eventually became the worst offenders and set the worst precedents when it comes to eye-searing monstrosities, really didn't begin that way, so it seems unfair to blame it on players who ought to have known just what kind of circus sideshow they were getting into. It really is the developers' responsibility here, but since we know far too many of them care more about selling shinies in the cash shop than about lore integrity, maybe just give us the damn toggle.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): There was a supplement for White Wolf's original World of Darkness line that, while well-intentioned, had some pretty bad ideas about how to manage a horrific environment. In brief, it proposed the idea that characters walking through an environment would each see a different version of the environment, so the character who grew up in Algiers would see dusty pottery and faded scraps of cloth, while the character who grew up in Japan might see discarded electronics.
Obviously, this was a terrible idea, not simply because it meant twice as much work for the person running the game but because it completely divorced you from the idea that you were all sharing the same space and looking at the same thing. Once you can edit the world around you for content, it stops being a shared experience, and while there can be good reasons for making an experience less shared in some fashion (which would make this response even longer), appealing to a personal desire to make more common things in lore seem more common in the game world doesn't fall under that header.
I can understand walking through a city and thinking "jeez, why does everyone have a flaming unobtainable magical mount instead of common mounts," but if the developers want those mounts to be common among players, ways exist to make that happen. Final Fantasy XIV has a number of unusual mounts available, but almost all of them are some variety of fairly understandable and comprehensible mounts, and the game extensively shows the commonality of chocobos as mounts all across the game. There's also no shortage of customization for chocobo mounts, encouraging players to use the birds instead of another mount.
In the case of World of Warcraft, there's little reason not to use a flying mount in any region with flight, and since flight has been ubiquitous in the game for so long basically everything is based on "what can fly." Disliking it is a problem of the designers, not the players using the mounts.
Similarly, the idea of being able to turn on an "armor filter" is misplacing the problem. I don't have a problem with the fact that there are skimpy outfits in the game; I have a problem when armor is skimpy on women and fully covering on men, or when upwards of 80% of the game's armor for female characters is entirely based around looking sexy instead of functionality. (I hate to harp on FFXIV, but it neatly sidesteps both of these issues, with only a handful of pieces being more revealing on women and a wide variety of styles available for both genders.) I don't want a switch to avoid seeing it; I want the designers to do a better job.
In short, no, a filter for this stuff isn't a solution to the problem. And far too frequently, I see the people asking for it also want everyone else to have to adhere to the standard of fewer frills; I've seen people arguing that fewer people should be able to, say, wear WoW's tier sets, while still allowing exceptions so that they still get to wear them. Worth noting.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): It's a very interesting question and one that I try to see from both perspectives: from the person who would want to "censor" or alter other outfits/mounts for the sake of immersion or personal modesty, and from the perspective of people who would be censored without their knowing.
I sympathize with the sentiment here because if a cohesive game world is really important to you, then other players can often muck that up with their goofiness, travel patterns, and choice of costumes and gear. On the other hand, you play MMORPGs; this comes with the territory. I've always seen it far more of the charm than a distraction. But should games give tools for players to limit what others show off? They do in a small way, since you can turn off chat bubbles, disable forced emotes, and erase names and titles from your vision. So along this line, it would be more customization on your end that would technically hurt nobody.
But as someone who exists in game worlds and is seen by others, I can say that this would bug me tremendously to both know that others could be censoring my choice of outfits and mounts -- and do this without my knowing. One of the great things about MMOs is personal expression and creativity, and many people channel that their their outfits (plus, it's a great way to show off accomplishments). With one checkbox, this would render all of that null and void. There'd be an invisible barrier separating me from that person, and that's not a great way to bind communities together.
Plus, what gives you the right to censor my avatar's looks -- even if it is just for your computer? That really rankles. I say, suck it up, be a part of the community, keep those barriers down, and if you don't like it, there are other MMOs that have more visual cohesiveness for those that don't want "broken immersion."
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I can see how garish stuff is less than desirable ("hurts my eyes" is literal for me in some cases) and how it definitely can yank players out of an immersive mindset. Then again, by including such a motley assortment of mounts the game itself shows an obvious lack of respect for cohesion or immersion, so I have to wonder how much I would bother trying to maintain that cohesion myself when the game is clearly working against it? Do I really want to expend the energy and deal with the frustration working against something the devs are proponents of?
I also can see this from a totally different angle. Should people have the right to only see in game what they want to see, or should they be beholden to what devs want them to see? What about the rights of players to present themselves as they see fit? I mean, we do have many instances of elaborate character customization for just that. Where does it start and where does it end?
In Conan Exiles, you have people who can choose of their own accord to see nudity or not regardless of what others choose. This seems very wise and prudent, yes? But what about when how you look becomes more about your entire visage and not just the parts that bounce when you run? In EverQuest II, players can decide whether they see other characters in the original model form or in the SOGA alternate model. This was bothersome to many players -- including myself -- and even infuriating to some because people put a great deal of effort into carefully crafting the specific look they wanted to portray, and now people didn't see that look. I personally detest almost all the SOGA models, and my character looks hideous in it, completely ruining her look. A friend hates the original models and was so happy to finally have a look with SOGA that perfectly portrayed his toon; he was not happy to learn that I and any other players who opted out didn't see that look.
How you want to present to the world can be a very integral part of the game experience. Yes, some people don't care one whit, and that's cool too. But others care about how they are portrayed, and learning that how you portray can be different to everyone is not necessarily pleasant. And it totally sucks for roleplay because you can't trust your eyes and react accordingly! A matron mother strutting around on her enslaved dragon presents a much different picture than if a few folks only see a little pony.
It boils down to does the right of the person to see only what they want trump the right of the person who wants to be portrayed how they want? Whose right is right?
As much as I am a total proponent of immersion, if the devs aren't going to prioritize keeping their world a cohesive experience, I am not going to waste my time slamming my head against a wall trying to force it. I won't win -- the devs will! If they want immersion, they will have to work to make it so. Otherwise, part of being in an MMO for me means I just have to deal with all the uniqueness of the individuals involved. As long as players are using items/tools put at their disposal by devs, they have every right to look how they want and ride what they want.
All that said, I cannot deny the allure of the option to visually turn off all mounts in cities. One gets tired of staring at horse butt when one is simply trying to use the bank! And the visual clutter (not to mention how it taxes your system) of pets and mounts and players can get to be extreme.