Massively Overthinking: Problematic faves in MMOs


A while back, a reader suggested that it was impossible for a fan who loves something to recognize its shortcomings, and I was taken aback. I’ve always thought that the people who love things usually know them well and might even be best-equipped to identify and call out failings if they’re honest. We’ve argued this before in regard to press coverage, but I think it’s true for gamers, too. One of my favorite article formats is the “what X got wrong” trope, where I dig into a game I love and pick some nits. “We’re most critical of the things we love precisely because we love and know them so well and want them to be so much more,” I wrote years ago in just one such article about Guild Wars 2.

I feel like this topic is really the big sister of the “problematic faves” idea – the stuff we love in spite of its flaws or objectionable bits. I want to talk about those today in our Massively Overthinking: I’ve asked our writers for their problematic MMO faves and for their biggest gripes about their favorite MMOs.

Andy McAdams: Try as I might, I can’t shake the rosy memories of Anarchy Online. I’ve gone back and tried to play recently, and there’s so much for that game to do better. I don’t know that the game was every “great,” but it’s still my first MMO and it’ll always be one of my favorites. I loved the sci-fi setting, the procedural gameplay, the fact that there was a “game” to play at all levels with Notum Wars, and Alien Invasion – I never felt a “rush” to max level because it wasn’t a big goal. It was a distinction only a few achieved during my time playing (you know, a few probably still being a few hundred people.).

But it’s a dense game, and not always in a good way. It’s a poster child for complexity for the sake of complexity. While I loved the interplay of player buffing to equip better and better gear and the constant supply and demand, I hated trying to figure out WTF gear I actually needed — what was a good for me. The fact that I needed a third-party tool to plan out my implants with the different glowy balls, then planning on the total buffs I could get from my nanos/spells, from an MP, from a trader — it was mind-bogglingly complex and completely impossible to be able to understand/plan in-game. So I love the interplay there, but it was way more complicated than it needed to be. And the graphics were… rough even at the time and especially now. Combat seems glacial compared to even tab targeting of today. I feel like I spent most of time just waiting for abilities to come off cool down.

I love the setting, I love the open-endedness of the game, I like that there’s “game” to play at all levels, but AO has some issues.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Sheesh, where to even begin? I mean, I play a pair of rogue servers as my current main MMOs. “Problematic faves” are a fact of my existence lately. These are MMOs that were rescued from oblivion by gamers operating in the shadows, and even though they’re not being hassled, it’s still not entirely above-board. I’m acutely aware of the problems of playing and talking about those games, and you can just go listen to a few podcasts to hear me complain about some of their more obscure-to-outsiders foibles.

So let me instead talk about some games whose problems aren’t now chiefly copyright and game preservation. Guild Wars 2 is probably my most problematic fave, as I mentioned, and not just because of its goofy modern design track but because of what I’d characterize as a history of labor problems and communication issues and monetization snafus. I will always love the franchise and respect the rank-and-file devs – most especially the ones whom I’ve worked with personally – but I feel those controversies weigh on me when I log in or when I praise its virtues. And that’s all separate from how I still feel the game has lost its direction and gotten tangled up trying to appease a rather small but demanding and loud endgame demographic over the last few years.

I’d still say that things like dodgy press relationships and abusive monetization are probably the two biggest things that drive me away from MMOs nowadays, more than a game’s actual design. I’m an MMO player – borky design is part of the package!

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I 100% find Star Trek Online a problematic favorite in terms of its monetization scheme. Practically everything about how this thing whomps you over the head with lootbox nonsense is the antithesis of what I want out of a free-to-play MMO, and it does things that I would normally kick and punch down on with other games.

So why does STO get a free pass? Because I enjoy the game enough that I’m willing to actively ignore this jackassitry. I don’t like it, and I damn sure don’t support it with my money (pro tip: panhandling does not entice me to open my wallet), but I am willing to play ignorant because the game itself really is extremely good.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): This is a hard one for me because, well… critiquing the things I love is literally my job. It’s not hard to find me being critical of lots of aspects of Final Fantasy XIV’s design, for example: Housing is unnecessarily limited, which creates a horrible bottleneck there; there’s far too little opportunity to customize your individual choice of job; the focus on story works hard against the game when a particular story beat falls flat; it’s difficult for new players to get into; and so on. Nor is it hard to find my criticisms of how badly World of Warcraft’s design team has been bungling the game for the past five years at least, or to look back for the many times I criticized WildStar for the fact that it took a really fun premise and turned it into someone’s fever dream about endgame WoW raiding.

Some criticisms are definitely going to be invisible to someone who really loves a game, yes, but sometimes that’s also because the criticisms coming from people who don’t love the game aren’t actually correct in the first place. If my own experience bouncing off of Ultima Online led me to declare that the game’s skill system sucks and is dumb, for example, that might describe my feeling, but it would also be wrong. (There might be issues there, but the skill system itself isn’t the problem, nor even is the way you level those skills.) It comes down to fixating on things that are obvious to someone who doesn’t love the game, but it winds up being a shallow critique of the surface elements.

Ultimately, it’s conflating fans with fanboys. One is a fan who really does love the thing under discussion because it’s fun, but if the object of affection stops being fun, it’s not really the end of the world. Fanboyism is the problem, the impulse to take a thing you like as a priori good and thus framing anything bad about it as some combination of lies and misunderstandings. Someone should write an article about that.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): In terms of problematic faves, Dungeons and Dragons Online pops up quickly. It’s a very unusual MMO in terms of its dungeon-centric design, the often complex character options, the outdated (but charming!) graphics, and the difficulty in finding groups outside of your guild or regular party. Yet it offers an experience that goes above and beyond your run-of-the-mill questing adventures, interesting puzzles, tricky dungeons, and multiple ways to approach various obstacles. It’s a hard sell for a game, yet it’s one that makes very fervent followers who persist through it.

Another problematic fave that I frequently mention is Fallen Earth, which is as janky, buggy, and unpolished as all get out — yet also offers a western post-apocalyptic feel that soaks right into your bones. There’s the ability to craft most anything (using an always-persistent crafting timer clock) and black humor and loads of places to explore. I’m hoping the new team can revamp it, although I have concerns if it is even feasible.

OK, so biggest gripes about favorite MMOs. Here goes: World of Warcraft lacks housing and keeps changing the core features instead of refining them. Lord of the Rings Online’s regular questing zones have gotten way too difficult and sloggy from Mordor onward. Guild Wars 2 dived head-first into raiding and that bugs me more than I care to admit. SWTOR has awkward and immersion-breaking character animations (including idle stances). The Elder Scrolls Online has just the most awful inventory UI ever designed, which is in line with all of Bethesda’s “console first” games. Neverwinter only has one healing class (still!). Secret World Legends stopped getting supported by Funcom after making us all start over again. Project Gorgon won’t pull the trigger on a launch. Star Trek Online lacks a good exploration system in a game that really needs one. FFXIV’s vaunted story is front-loaded with so much dull repetitiveness that I’m surprised anyone persisted through to the expansions.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I completely disagree that people who love something can’t find its shortcomings. I will agree that by and large those fans refuse to accept that there are things that could be better.

I think back on times I’ve put my 2 cents into a discussion about Guild Wars 2. I’m not sure why, but critiques against the game’s focus on raids or hardcore or whatever content get white knights to truly jump out and attack. A lot of times it just seems that fans would rather go down with the ship than admit that there might be a problem with heading towards that iceberg.

I think this is where the idea that we can’t be critical of things we love comes from. I’m with Bree, though: I’m so critical of games because I love them. I want them to succeed. When I say that Crowfall needs to improve its systems, it’s not because I hate it and want people to know how bad it is; it’s because I want those things to improve so more gamers can see how great it is. Can’t you see I’m yelling because I love you?

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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