Massively Overthinking: Jumping the shark in MMOs

Alternate title: The one with Tyler's epic Draenei rant


I’m sure those few people out there still bearing a grudge over the Rune-keeper would disagree with me, but one of the things that attracts me to LOTRO is my sense that it’s never jumped the shark and done something truly out of whack for the game. It’s fantasy, but it’s pretty low for fantasy, at least from the characters’ vantage. The usable magic is relatively limited. You spend a lot of time riding around and performing very mundane combat with mostly mundane skills and enemies, for Tolkien’s world especially. Constrained by lore, the devs never really even try jumping the shark.

That consistency appeals to me. I’m never gonna log in one day and find a Samurai/Ninja continent. Mounts aren’t going to be flying mounts tomorrow. It’s never going to suddenly present as a dramatically different game or setting. Did you like leveling on the ground? Now you’re leveling… in spaaaaaaace. Nope. The lore keeps it all in check.

That’s definitely not true in other games; sometimes when the designers have the wild freedom to change the mechanics of the game, they change the core setting and gameplay loop to the point that it doesn’t even feel like the same MMO from one expansion to the next.

So let’s dig into this for Overthinking this week. I’ve asked the Massively OP writers to talk about their thoughts on shark-jumping when it comes to game changes, either thematic or mechanical. Which MMOs have done it shamelessly? Did it work? And which MMOs have made consistency of mechanics and lore their signature move?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m having more trouble thinking of who doesn’t jump the shark, but my issue with many games (especially MMOs) is when the lore doesn’t mention why our characters can repeatedly come back from the dead but lore characters can’t (or at least, within the lore – sorry Bolvar!). For that reason, World of Warcraft feels like a persistent offender. How much retcon has the community endured? What in-game reason was there to go from 40 person raids to 25 or to have a limit at all? I know that lore often takes a far back seat to mechanics at Blizz (Overwatch personally feels like the biggest of their titles to do this), and it’s probably a big reason I can’t motivate myself to even read the books. The wikis are often good enough.

Asheron’s Call had Dr. Who’s Police Box randomly appear, but both universes allowed for that in my opinion. Both games actually felt pretty consistent about staying true to their lore, and when AC1 started to (kind of?) rewrite AC2’s future history, it made sense because players messed with the timeline.

Star Wars: The Old Republic was fun within the single-player storylines for the most part. I remember my Bounty Hunter feeling pretty tough, but as soon as there was a Sith on scene, I recall being knocked into my place. The only problem was that against other players, Sith were balanced so that non-force users could beat them one on one for the most part, and that really ruins the immersion. Jedi may not force choke or use force lightning, but even they should have been tougher opponents had the game followed the lore.

Istaria was another one that never felt like it jumped the shark, at least while I was playing it.

Man, even Pokemon GO has trouble with lore in that for whatever reason remote raiders are basically holograms. The in-game lore could have allowed for the use of the “Fly” ability, which is the series’ fast travel, but maybe cause players to be fatigued in their rush to get there on time to lower their power.

Whatever the case, it sadly feels like the most successful games break immersion, and that’s really disappointing. I’d love it if I could be proven wrong, though!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Since I already talked about how LOTRO breaks free of this problem, let me switch gears here and talk about one most of you probably won’t remember: Zentia, and how it most definitely didn’t pull off a mid-game shark-jump. I adored that MMO, don’t get me wrong. But Zentia presented itself as a cute PvE questing MMO with a cartoony Daoist theme where you could play a baby as a tank. It was weird, so you expected more weirdness. But at level 20, the game suddenly became a game that was basically about warring PvP ganking guilds and guild wars instead of about questing through an idyllic Chinese countryside. Overnight. It was jarring, and clearly it didn’t work for western players since the game didn’t last long here. I still lament what a waste of an adorable gameplay loop and unique setting that turned out to be.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX), YouTube): I’m not sure if this is exactly a “shark-jumping” moment, but when Guild Wars: Nightfall introduced heroes, that was a huge change for me. It was for the better, though. Since I was an Assassin main, heroes meant that I could just go with the next mission. I didn’t have to wait for a tank, and I could edit the character builds the way I wanted. That was a really good change, though, so I wouldn’t really call it jumping the shark. I honestly don’t know if I can recall any expansions or changes I wasn’t happy with outside the occasional nerf/buff to a character class. But that’s not super drastic, so it’s not really an issue with me.

If anything, the most jarring change was how different GW2 was compared to the original. It controlled so differently, and the PvP was sooo much more different. But that horse died a long time ago, and I’ve since accepted it. I don’t know, maybe it’s just because I’m pretty open minded with change, so I don’t inherently see change in a game as a bad thing.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Frankly, I feel like “jumping the shark” as an idea is one of those concepts that wore out its welcome as soon as it became a fixture of pop culture. Like the Bechdel Test, as soon as people started trying to categorize and chart it, the very concept ceased being useful in any real capacity. Yes, that means “jumping the shark” has itself jumped the shark.

Plus, the whole concept refers to the moment when a show began not just a marked but irreversible decline in quality – the sort of thing where it was clear that whatever original motivating animus there may have been for the show to exist had gone out the window altogether. Most of the obvious moments like that don’t exist for MMOs. Yeah, sure, the NGE changed a lot of what made Star Wars Galaxies fans happy with the game, but a lot of the positive changes to the game came after that happened (a fact I know by listening to people talk about it here). As much as people complained about Wings of the Goddess and Abyssea in Final Fantasy XI, the fact is that the very next expansion was much more warmly received… and the subsequent concluding meta-scenario was even more liked, meaning that this supposed “shark jump” really wasn’t.

As long as the game’s alive, this stuff can be changed again. And for games that don’t live, sometimes the shark jump came before launch. WildStar didn’t “jump the shark” so much as it had people who should not have been in charge of endgame systems being placed in charge of endgame systems.

Heck, sometimes the wildly out-of-place stuff works really well. If you had asked me sight-unseen about a Final Fantasy XIV expansion that involved traveling to another world, I’d have told you that sounds like a great way to blow thematic consistency out of the water. Instead… it works really dang well, producing an amazingly consistent and beloved expansion that people are still fawning over in amazement.

But I also feel like the note of how some people are still angry about the Rune-keeper kind of makes the point. There are going to be some pedantic lore wonks who are very angry that even though lots of work was done to make this fit into the setting, it technically is changing something and doing something at odds with the book. If you look at lore as a set of natural laws instead of, like, a set of established facts that establish the feel of the world, that’s how this feels. But that’s not what lore is. Getting angry because something breaks a technical point in lore and acting as if that somehow breaks the setting is just not something I have much energy for (especially since I already wrote a whole column about it).

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I’d posit an even more interesting question — when has an MMO redeemed itself and refound its purpose after a shark-jumping moment?

But for this question, I’ll pick on Star Wars: The Old Republic because I think it has the most interesting example. SWTOR’s Knights of the Fallen Empire was initially received with great acclaim. It felt like a return to the KOTOR storytelling format and took some daring risks with the timeline and setting of the MMO. But soon enough, players felt too distanced from each other due to the excessively solo format of the expansion and weren’t that keen on the new faction and some of the systems introduced with the expansion. The expansion initially helped the game but proved itself to be a shark-jumper for betraying too much of what made SWTOR… well, SWTOR. Fortunately, BioWare is attempting to return the game to the old format, so maybe there will be a redemption after all.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I think the obvious answer here is the Draenei in World of Warcraft. Fun fact: The Draenei are actually one of the oldest elements of the entire Warcraft universe, dating back to the original DOS game from the ’90s (albeit they were merely mentioned in the manual). In real world chronology, they predate almost all other Warcraft races, including all the myriad varieties of Elves and Trolls, and while they never got a lot of attention, they had a pretty clear concept. They were humble, shamanistic cousins of the Orcs, who shared their world of Draenor.

And then Burning Crusade comes along and adds the Draenei as a playable race, but suddenly they’re inter-dimensional space aliens who are also technologically advanced holy demons(?). What?!

This is of course a massive retcon, but Warcraft is no stranger to retcons. Even the fact that this is a much bigger retcon than most isn’t necessarily the problem. The problem is it’s a retcon that makes just about everything about the Draenei and the entire Warcraft universe less appealing. It’s a retcon that broke the lore so badly Chris Metzen himself had to issue a public apology, and it took them almost decade to actually fix things, as it wasn’t until the release of the Chronicle that they established a new reason for Sargeras’ corruption after the Draenei retcon invalidated the original reason.

It could still be defensible if the new Draenei were incredibly cool, but they’re not. They’re ridiculous Mary Sues who are perfect in every way. They’re flawless heroes of the Light, masterful mages, supremely technologically advanced, and somehow also in tune with nature and shamanistic? They steal the thunder from just about every other Alliance race. They usurped the humans and Dwarves as the main champions of the Light. They usurped the Gnomes as the race with the most advanced technology (that’s mostly ignored, which is lucky for the Gnomes but raises the plot hole of why the Draenei don’t solve everything with their technology). Worst of all, they usurped the Night Elves as the chief rivals of the Legion, and I firmly believe the Draenei are one of the main reasons the Night Elves have been so ill-served by WoW’s story-telling.

They even mangle the Orcs’ lore a fair bit. The whole thing around the Orcs worshipping a mountain that turns out to just be the Draenei’s crashed ship kind of smacks of colonialist condescension to me. It’s gross. And can we also touch on the fact the Draenei have a degree of sexual dimorphism that is ludicrously extreme even by the already absurd standards of the setting, and that the fans sexualize their female models even more than the game itself does, to the point where it’s practically its own strange and creepy subculture? Oh, yeah, and all their stuff is an eye-searing shade of neon pink because reasons.

To be fair, over the years the Draenei have improved a bit. Legion put them in a very poor light, and ironically that made them a lot more appealing by making them seem more realistic and relatable, but it took a long time to get to that point, and it doesn’t entirely erase all the damage they’ve done.

Blizzard’s story-telling has had its share of stumbles over the years, but this was more than a stumble. This was an Olympic sprinter going full speed off the edge of the Grand Canyon. I don’t think anything in the MMO space is ever going to top it as far as jumping the shark goes, at least if we’re talking about story or immersion.

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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