Vague Patch Notes: The sneering elitism of the MMO term ‘welfare epics’


A few weeks ago, I saw an MMO player unironically complaining about “welfare epics” here in 2021. This is basically the equivalent of saying, “I’m a gigantic elitist turd,” and it invites laughter. The devil cannot stand mockery and all that. But that aside, it did prompt a bit of a discussion among the team about that awful term, where it came from, and how utterly stupid the whole thing is when taken at face value.

Because let’s be clear about something: This idea is stupid, elitist garbage. People who use it this way are just trying to argue that there’s some meaningful distinction of people who “deserve” pretend pieces of gear in a video game, like there’s some antique history to this hierarchy. And there sort of is… in the sense that one game introduced traces of it and then World of Warcraft jumped in hard to the idea that there should be some sort of top-end hierarchy for getting your pretend gear.

For some of our younger readers, this might be a bit unfamiliar, but back in the halcyon days when “MMORPG” was mostly just Ultima Online, there was no such thing as the most elite people deserving gear. The person who deserved the best gear was the person who looted it, crafted it, bought it, or looted it off those guys. If you told someone in the early years of the first MMO that gear had to be earned through some sort of endgame challenge, the response would be a disbelieving chuckle.

It wasn’t until EverQuest that devs inserted the idea that there was some sort of Player Gear Hierarchy, and even then it wasn’t terribly strict. Sure, there was raiding, but for most players it was mostly a massive scrum of people slopping through the planes and hoping for a drop. Picture something closer to an outdoor music festival, but with slaying a dragon replacing regrettable makeouts, drugs, and music. [Surely he means in addition to. -Eds]

Zounds, no one doth care.

Herein lies the dark heart of WoW, and the fact that we have to reckon with a very clear issue. While there’s a lot of space to argue that WoW made leveling and the moment-to-moment questing play experience of an MMORPG accessible to a lot of people in ways it hadn’t been before, the fact of the matter is that its endgame was very much more a case of absolute hierarchy. Either you were in a raiding guild or you weren’t, and the power gap between people who had epics or just blues was substantial enough that there was a clear, rigid hierarchy.

This was, however, entirely artificial. I want to make that clear. There was not some longstanding tradition that held that only raiders should be able to wear the Good Equipment (it wasn’t the case in EQ, the most obvious antecedent, which early on offered quite a bit of bind-on-equip gear), and it relies entirely upon a wholly invented idea that one group or another “deserves” something. This is what it always comes back to: the idea that people who aren’t in The Raiding Circle don’t “deserve” the gear, and therefore, a game that offers good gear for other activities is engaging in some sort of “welfare” program, an extremely loaded term for anyone who’s been alive in the US in the last few decades.

Just take that and think about it for a moment. Really roll over how ridiculous this is. The only way that you can deserve to have the best gear in this construction is to have the time and patience to do one very specific form of content. As if this were some divine creation and not a game developed by specific people who decided, arbitrarily, that this should be the primary gatekeeping mechanism.

Would this fly with literally anything else? Would you accept the idea that you only “deserved” to play a certain class or race if you were participating in the most egregiously time-gated and socially frictional activity in the game? Considering how many people didn’t like that you could have races in the same game gated behind soloable activities, I’m going to guess not many people would accept that one.

What makes this story sadder, though, is the fact that the people who wanted this to turn into some sort of hierarchy… they won.

You have to use one of these shots when talking about deterministic gear. It's the law.

The first two expansions to WoW both specifically explored more deterministic systems, and that’s when the whole “welfare epics” debate in MMOs really took off. (You know, when the “deserving it” argument literally dated back a minute length of time.) The Burning Crusade introduced badges and the deterministic honor system; Wrath of the Lich King made for even more deterministic systems for all gearing.

And the hardcore raid group lost their minds, and the developers started a panicked reaction that has literally lasted until… well, now. The game has been backsliding hard against those systems since then specifically out of fears that somewhere, someone might just be wearing a tier set without having ground through the appropriate content. And it all comes back to the same core problem, the idea that someone might not deserve this equipment.

Worse yet is the fact that in the years following WoW, we’ve seen far too many games to list take this whole “deserving” idea as if it actually were some kind of inviolable or real law of the land instead of just a quirk of a specific hierarchical design. It’s no coincidence that out of the big five, WoW is pretty much unique in this rigid insistence on “deserving” things, with basically all of the other titles in that lineup having more deterministic or open-ended systems that don’t rely on a very narrow field of acceptable play options.

But of course, that’s always the problem. The people who rail against the idea of “welfare” gear are mostly angry at the thought that their position at the top of the hierarchy might somehow be challenged, that it’s possible for people to catch up to them or even surpass them without ever doing the very specific sequence of things that they consider “worthy.” It’s all down to making a very strict list in which they get to be the undisputed masters of something.

It’s toxic, horrible, and unpleasant. And it’s exactly the sort of thing that turns people off from our genre rather than attracting new people.

Veteran MMO players often rail against games like Fortnite because they have a business model that puts paid players on track to receive lots of good things rather than players who have necessarily played the best. Superficially, they’re not wrong that monetization can be both abusive and game-disrupting. But it’s also important to understand that this is also another example of the same basic focus on hierarchy. It’s still creating a split between the haves and the have-nots based on arbitrary distinctions; it’s just that now it’s a distinction of cash money instead of time-weighted content, both of which reflect real-world economic status.

Aristocracies and hierarchies don’t get people into games. They turn people off from games because new players rightly assume that they’re never going to be able to catch up and former players don’t want to waste time climbing again. The endpoint isn’t a whole bunch of people admiring the gear that you, by an arbitrary standard, “deserve” to wear; it’s a lot of people leaving because they recognize that they exist only to be grist for the mill.

So stop being an elitist turdwaffle or be prepared to be laughed at.

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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