Massively Overthinking: Please complain about MMOs, loudly and insistently

    
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Last weekend, the blogosphere exploded over an article that essentially told the MMORPG community to shut up, sit down, and stop complaining about things like lockboxes (“they’re not hurting anyone”) and pay-to-win (“you can’t win in PVE because you’re not competing against anyone”). People reacted rather viscerally to it, from our own writers on their home blogs to fellow bloggers (that last one is not safe for work, I’m afraid — I did mean “viscerally”). I’d like to take this edition of Massively Overthinking to let our staff weigh in on the argument. Where’s the line between critique and complaint? Do you agree that we should all stop whining and take our lumps? Is complaining about the genre’s troubles even productive anymore? What exactly is the role of journalists and player advocates in a world where complaining is off the table? And finally, please complain about something.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): A complaint is simply stating you dislike something. A critique is going into detail about the issue, like what you expect, your understanding of the situation, and why the object of your critique doesn’t meet the standards you’ve set forth, and often offers suggestions, which that particular article seems a bit weak on.

I strongly disagree with the article. Gaming as a medium honestly feels like it’s on the cusp of being seen as acceptable (if your grandma or her generation wouldn’t laugh at your hobby or call it childish, it’s respectable). However, since it’s often still treated as a glorified toy market, criticism is mostly limited to gaming communities. The outside world mostly couldn’t care less about the issues we have which would, frankly, become major headlines if they occurred in sports, movies, or television.

As we saw with the Goobergobber incident, it is worth spilling digital ink over. We got some coverage. I’ve talked to non-gamers, even a few in Japan, and they at least understood one or two very basic issues thanks to mainstream media or (as in Japan) YouTube translations of it. While I’m glad the site in question did express their opinion, I am saddened that it was to attempt to silence others. The press is not PR. We should not be defending any business practice as a completely fair and even process. We can always find room for improvement, but shutting down the conversation prevents that. Imagine what the internet would be like if we all still had to pay by the minute!

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Brendan Drain (@nyphur): There are a lot of legitimate complaints to be made today about MMO business practices, gameplay, and player attitudes, and both gamers and the games media have an obligation to raise objections to them. We’re not just complaining for the sake of it and we don’t hate a game because we complain about its mechanics or the business practices, we’re highlighting problems that need to be solved. Where is the line between critique and complaint? I think Eliot put it extremely well in his WoW Factor article Being positive vs. being honest in games criticism, and I would suggest everyone give it a read.

Of the five complaints the article casually dismissed, the one that really should not be dismissed is random loot from lockboxes. I think lockboxes are fine as long as the items inside are reasonably obtainable by other means, confer no significant gameplay advantage beyond convenience, and have no cash value. It’s games like Dota 2 and CS:GO where the system becomes almost exploitative, as you get random cosmetics in a crate and can then sell them on a marketplace for cash or trade them to other users. It doesn’t matter that the skins are purely cosmetic; they have a cash value in Steam credit presented in your local currency. If you’re spending cash on a chance of getting more cash or something equivalent to cash, that’s gambling and it needs to be regulated as such.

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Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Players and journalists have exactly two levers when it comes to agitating for change in a genre like ours: voting with our wallets and issuing criticism. Neither is a specialized or universally effective tool, and neither works when wielded by only one person. I consider detailed and earnest and good-faith complaining to be an essential piece of the feedback cycle, as well as my duty as a journalist, and there’s no way I would voluntarily give it up or expect other people to.

I would like to imagine the author was simply fed up about complaining that veers into trolling territory; that is a case we’ve made before. I’ve certainly grown bored of moderating those occasional commenters whose only contribution to the discussion is to shout that something sucks or is vaporware or what have you. However, as to the particulars here, I consider lockbox business models, pay-to-win cash shops, sandboxes-vs.-themeparks, and PvP models all to be serious, fundamental design and marketing issues affecting our industry — from the hobbyists to the careerists — in the most immediate and direct possible way. These arguments literally boil down to “what goes into games” and “how they are funded.” If you care about the MMORPG genre, you care about these things. Not only should we not stop complaining about the minutia of such important topics, we should complain about them more.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Having read the article, I can say I agree with some of the points. Part of the problem here is more a matter of tone than anything; when you write something about how people need to stop fighting over something while phrasing the whole article as a fight seems somehow counterproductive. But part of the problem is that it conflates “stop arguing about this issue’s existence” with “stop talking about this altogether.”

As an example: lockboxes. Boxes packed with random items. I don’t like them, and I didn’t like them when they were the main method of getting stuff in the first game I played that featured them… Magic: the Gathering, back in 1994. Forget a random nice-looking lightsaber; the packs that you bought could mean the difference between playable decks and utter garbage. This is something that has existed in games pretty much forever, and it’s not going away however much we might not like being able to control what we get out of purchases. I sure as heck would have liked a do-over on every Revised pack I bought that contained some piece of utter garbage.

But we’re not obligated to stop talking about lockboxes. There are lots of things to talk about therein. Are the boxes purchased directly, or do the boxes drop and then ask you to buy a key? Once you open the box, are the items immediately locked into your character or can other characters purchase them from you? How many new things in the game come from the boxes in question and how many can be obtained through other methods? Can you acquire currency to pick up the boxes purely from play? Do you have ample cosmetic options without the boxes? Do they contain anything other than cosmetic options? These are all relevant questions, worth talking about, and they all factor into my opinion about loxkboxes on a game-by-game basis. The point is that we should be discussing how these mechanics work, not just whether or not they should exist.

Having discussions about random packs isn’t productive; you don’t like ’em much, I don’t either, but they’re here and they’re not going anywhere regardless. Having discussions about games that use better or worse implementations and how packs can be improved, the randomness can be mitigated, and so forth? That’s productive and useful.

I’ve done a similar article myself when discussing terms that we need to stop using, but there, it was entirely focused on the terminology because sometimes the things we’re talking about are no longer well-served with the existing words. Pay-to-win, as a term, is functionally meaningless at this point, but the idea of paying for significant game advantages that can be obtained through no other means is a meaningful discussion. I’ve frequently opined that the whole sandbox/themepark split is an artificially constructed one that hurts games in general. But in every case, my goal – always – is to get rid of discussions that aren’t going anywhere. Fighting over the exact definition of pay-to-win isn’t a useful or productive discussion. Talking about the ideas behind that is quite productive. Does this buy-to-play game allow me to access everything without further purchases? Will I be at a distinct disadvantage if I don’t buy anything? More to the point, if I like playing with cosmetic options, will I have a robust selection without buying more?

The core of “stop whining about lockboxes” is a fine headline. But that’s all it is – a headline. It states an opinion that invites further examination. Stopping at “just don’t complain about this” is leaving out all of the actual interesting parts, like why complaining about the very existence of these elements is counterproductive or what we should be talking about. Trying to head off an argument by phrasing a series of bullet points without elaboration as an argument isn’t helpful; it’s inviting an argument to complain about your premise rather than your points. If that’s the discussion you’d like to have, it doesn’t seem terribly useful.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Communities get into all sorts of trouble when they skew to only praising or only condemning games, and I can see why there would be frustration out there over nonstop whining and complaining. It’s often just emotional noise, a bleating lamb that wants to be noticed and shut down the opposition by being overly obnoxious. But complaints can be valid criticisms too, and one person’s incoherent ramble against a title, feature, or practice might see a better expression in other person’s well-reasoned, impassioned argument.

Complaints have their purpose. We’ve seen, time and again, community uprisings against a studio decision cause that studio to change its course or make a positive change. Of course, that does prompt people to throw fits for every little thing, too, so it’s a double-edged sword. And the public response — from players and journalists — is what keeps studios in check from abusing customers and going back on their word.

We should be as free with our praise when it’s deserved, cautious with our criticism when we don’t have all of the facts, and thoughtful about our complaints when we issue them. Then, once your piece is said, let it go. Point back to your argument if need be, or add more to it if there’s something new, but there’s little to be gained by repeating yourself ad nauseam.

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Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): With the same title and different content, the article in question could have been about how MMO players should complain about everything that will actually make a game better for players and developers. So here are my five things MMO gamers should stop complaining about: nothing, zip, nada, pagh (Klingon), and naas (Mando’a). With the possible exception of complaining about carebears and noobs, the other four items in the list have legitimate issues that need to be brought to the attention of developers of MMOs. The two issues that really stood out to me were lockboxes and pay-to-win.

If there anything that is a bigger scar on the relationship between the player and the developer, I don’t know what it is. Lockboxes make every developer who implements them look like someone who has run out of ideas for making money in his game, and the players know it. I could go on about how lockboxes create an artificial sense of economic demand and serve to further segregate the playerbase, but I will have to save that for another time.

Pay-to-win is a the only thing worse than lockboxes when it comes to making money in an MMO. Sure, some people take the P2W argument to an extreme, but I would rather have players complain about something that’s not really P2W than a developer flippantly dismissing it. Nah, keep complaining about P2W, players need to keep developers in check over these things so that they don’t slip off the deep end. And if you believe there is no P2W in PvE, then you don’t really raid or do any kind of endgame PvE. If you did, then you’d know that P2W in PvE undermines the whole idea of gear and character progression.

The bottom line is if you tell MMO players to stop complaining about anything that is dissatisfying, then we might as well give up on good games. Only when the relationship between the developer and the customer is symbiotic do you get a strong, satisfying MMORPG.

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MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I think I have made my position clear before: Criticism is best when constructive. Or at least when the only purpose isn’t just to attack and tear something else to shreds. I don’t think complaining that is nothing more than spewing forth hate and insults is worth much, but valid concerns need to be expressed; that’s how things get fixed! That’s how we better things. Telling people they have to be complacent and just accept things as they are… no, not on board with that. We should never stop noticing and commenting when we see things we think are wrong, or things we think can be better. Personal attacks, of course, are totally off the table IMO. My biggest complaint involves those folks who do nothing more than hate on things and tear them down. Same kind of folks who derive pleasure from harming/harassing others. Yeah, wish we didn’t have those around in the world.

Your turn!