Vague Patch Notes: Having fun in an MMO doesn’t actually mean it’s any good


It appears that Fallout 76 has become the latest in a long line of games that launched too early with ill-defined goals, trying to be both an MMO and a non-MMO and managing to successfully be no one. This is good because now that Wild West Online is basically over, and we needed a new one of those. And thus we see people showing up as the Fallout 76 defense brigade in comments, quick to point out that no matter what other people are saying they’re having fun and thus all the critical statements about the problems must be wrong.

Keep in mind that I don’t have a horse in this race. This has not affected my desire to play Fallout 76, which was never going to happen; in the abstract I’d like games to be good for people who want them rather than bad, but the opinions of people whose opinions I trust on this top out at “it’s not good, but it has potential.” I’ve got no interest in unpacking whether or not you’re having fun with it.

Because, really, having fun in something isn’t the same as something being good. And to demonstrate this, I’d like to introduce the world to Hand Pool.

Viewers of The Good Place will, by complete coincidence, be familiar with the Jacksonville-style pool rules introduced in a recent episode. Our rules were slightly less nonsensical, but still prompted a wink and a nudge from my wife and I. In short, the rules were that no one used cues, you had to sink all of either solids or stripes, the 8-ball was not to be sunk, and your hands had to remain on the table at all times.

Pictured: Deep hurting

A cursory examination of these rules would probably reveal the problem here, but my wife and I along with our friends nevertheless agreed that this would be a good use of our time. And a strategy very quickly emerged. Rather than sinking any balls, we found the best thing to do was to aim vicious hurtling balls as fast as possible at the other person’s hands, thereby making it inevitable that your opponent would probably pull away from the table (usually with cries of “ow, that hurt!” or something similar).

The game, in short, became an excuse for all of us to hurt one another and left the person with the smallest, fastest hands at a clear advantage. That was me.

I was having fun. No one else was, which was part of why I was having fun.

Of course, it’s also a minor miracle we didn’t break anyone’s fingers in the process, not to mention a testament to how deeply bored we all were with playing pool. We all agreed after a fairly short few matches that this was a bad game.

You’ll note that I was still having fun. That wasn’t the problem, nor was the problem inherently that no one else was having fun. The problem was that these were just bad rules. They set up a degenerate state of play without any actual skill testing or interaction or whatever. My having fun with it didn’t preclude this fact.

One of the most important lessons to learn as a critic is to separate your own fun from what the game is attempting to do and how well it succeeds at its goals. This is not something human beings are naturally inclined to do. Our knee-jerk reaction is to say that a game where you’re having fun is good and a game where you’re not having fun is bad, full stop.

But this misses the point that there are lots of different kinds of fun. Curbstomping old raids in World of Warcraft is fun, watching a boss give his big dramatic speech before going down in two punches. Taking on the highest floors of Heaven-on-High in Final Fantasy XIV is fun, carefully slipping past dangerous patrols, working as a team, and managing to scrape out a win against increasingly complex spawns and enemies. Both fun, both very different sorts of fun, and expecting one but getting the other would probably result in a rather sharp protest about what’s happening.

The whole point of games is to be fun, so it makes a certain amount of sense that the default response to a critical drubbing would be “well, I’m having fun.” Which the speaker may very well be; while I think there’s a certain perverse contrariness to this at times (see my own dogged persistence in finding the fun in FFXIV’s launch version), generally speaking we do know what we like pretty quickly.

Everybody having a very good time

This doesn’t always mean that the game is any good or that we can articulate what’s fun about it or that it’s something to be emulated. Sometimes you’re having fun because you have an advantage in smacking your friends in the hands with pool balls and it seems like a fun way to waste your evening.

Sometimes, yes, a critical consensus can be misunderstanding part of the game or outright wrong. There’s a great video about Bloodborne being a game that teaches players how to play the overarching Souls series, and part of its argument is that while previous entries gave you plenty of shields, Bloodborne never does. It teaches you right away that rather than playing super-defensive and trying to never die, it’s more fun to learn the timing on abilities and have a more aggressive playstyle, and once you do that you can go back to the older games and wind up having more fun by ignoring shields.

Yet you’ll notice that the point there is not “older viewpoints of the Souls games being slow and plodding is wrong because I was having fun.” The point is “older viewpoints tended to use a style of play supported and even encouraged by the game, which makes the games far slower and often results in more deaths.” It’s not a question of having fun but of what was being communicated to the players.

In the specific case of Fallout 76, there are definitely some problem indicators with the game thus far. Of course there’s fun to be had in the game; it’s a playground in which you get to stomp around through a post-apocalyptic wasteland with heavy weaponry. It’d be more surprising if you couldn’t have fun. But there are so many people talking about how the game is a confusing mess without a clear audience that you’d have to start by defining who the audience is actually supposed to be for the game.

That hasn’t been included in the defenses of the game I’ve seen. It’s all come down to “I’m having fun in the game, so the haters are wrong.” And hey, it’s great that you’re having fun! But if all was fine in the game world, it wouldn’t be going on steep discount after having been out for less only a few weeks. I have no doubt people could have fun in No Man’s Sky at launch, but the whole multiplayer not actually being there and the general sense of directionlessness wasn’t fabricated out of nowhere. These were, in fact, real problems with the game at it was originally delivered.

So by all means, have fun with the games you’re having fun with and let people know about it. But don’t let the fact that you’re having fun serve as an override for actual issues within the game, and don’t assume that “I’m having fun” has much to do with the game’s quality. They’re separate clauses.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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