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

    
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Point.

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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Narficus

I think this sidesteps the main reason why “welfare epics” exist and why it is both okay to call them that and for them to exist.

1.) They are a catch-up design to raise someone’s gear to be able to do the next tier of more difficult content without anywhere near the amount of grind/effort/cost of the previously more difficult to obtain epics. The latter are still more powerful as to encourage people to put in the effort to acquire them, and usually look different for further incentivization.

That’s about it, really. I know, shocking that for once I’m not the one to Wall of Text a topic, but this is a bit of a non-issue except for attitudes (and sometimes it’s just raider elitism, which is a whole new topic of its own).

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Ralphi2449

WoW has become an elitist tryhard metaslave mess, its community rivals LoL in toxicity and that comes from far too many unhealthy Gamers TM who use video games as a source of self worth which leads to this “I am deserving and you are not” behavior which has run rampart in WoW since the devs themselves share this mentality and thus make a game that panders to high end tryhards in the expense of all forms of casual content.

Which is exactly why I am playing final fantasy 14, the game has a far better, friendlier and nicer community, we que for extremes(no forced grouping) and even if there’s wipes there’s no slurs, insults, attacks or ragequits, we simply see what went wrong and do it better next time, elitism has no place in FF14 because it is a video game meant to be fun, it isnt designed from the ground up to provide self worth to people with self esteem issues and they dont get special attention from the devs so we simply have a game that has better story, better class design, far more interesting and fun fights, great graphics because they didnt abandon everything for the sake of performance and a far better community

And until WoW starts letting casuals and solo players get mythic gear via solo challenges and start respecting casuals I doubt i will ever touch it again.

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Exo Genesis

Have to echo the sentiment of a few other posts here. You compare the systems of current day WoW to dinosaurs like Everquest as some kind of logical like for like situation despite the fact that these are drastically different games.

Gear is intrinsically tied into most modern MMO’s PvE content difficulty and progression. The easy stuff gives the gear to take on the middling stuff which gives the gear to take on the harder stuff which gives the gear to take on the really challenging stuff. In a lot of cases you’re running the same content over and over but with a slightly increased difficulty each time. Gear is being used as a treadmill to catch peoples attention and keep them working away and getting a new, better statted piece feels great for those players as it allows them to push onwards to the next level. This system provides pretty constant feedback in regards to telling players they’ve gotten stronger, after getting the gear from a bunch of +5 keys in WoW you start to notice that each run gets smoother and begin to feel like you’re ready to move up to the next tier.

Generally speaking the gear you unlock through this content is only really relevant in this content. Not a lot of MMO’s deliberately offer solo challenges, that kind of thing is generally reserved for groups. As such when a player with 0 gear demands that they should basically get the same stuff as someone who spent their time pushing up the ranks…the latter player is going to get annoyed. They worked to get themselves up to that tier and obviously aren’t going to react positively to someone who demands that they be allowed to totally bypass that progression.

It’s worth noting that by making such progression free…you’ve created a new baseline for what every future player will be at. People will always take the easiest path. You can point to gear treadmill as “That’s a grind and grinds are work!” but in reality it’s simply a gameplay loop that keeps people engaged when running repetitive content. Remove it and they have far less reason to stick around beyond the first few clears.

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draugris

A bit of a naive article, the author is comparing the uncomparable. Gear in modern days mmorpg’s functions as a content gate. You need better gear to beat more difficult content, this was clearly not the case back in the old UO days. This creates competition between players and where is competition there is elitism. This comes natural. But there are more people to blame, how does it even come to something like “welfare epics”, it’s the casual player community that demands having access to anything without putting the same amount of effort in it. This leads to studios making it more easy to get them and by doing that devalueing epics for everybody. So the big question is for what casual players need epics if they are not interested in putting in the effort beating content they would need it for aka difficult group content. Epics should be hard to get and they should only be needed for difficult content. I am a casual myself and i am not interested in epics, i don’t need them for the things i am able to do. And i am unwilling to put in more time in a game.

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Roger Edwards

Sometime in the far future…

Alien 1: Wow, despite protestations to the contrary, humans really liked hierarchies, didn’t they? Regardless whether they were real or just perceived.

Alien 2: Yes and it was their undoing.

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Utakata

Yes, I know the pigtails are chiming in here real late. But there are 4 thoughts that have always come to mind over this debate…

1) There is nothing fundamentally wrong with welfare. Or those having to use welfare. It’s needed in place of a market based system that requires a degree of unemployment in order work. And thus is there so folks and their families don’t die on streets out of starvation and/or exposure to the elements who are wrong end of said system.

2) So please stop equating an ingame system to something that is very necessary in real life. It’s pretty degrading to those who have to use the system. And pointlessly so.

3) Especially, when the concept of “welfare epics” is entirely in the heads of players (and at least one WoW developer who came up with the term). That is, it simply doesn’t exist. Every gear that players acquire is earned to one degree or another. Thus the player has to work for it. So there is nothing welfare about it.

4) Therefore, with the above in consideration, players who use this term in the negative, are mostly likely trolling. Or least have no idea what they’re going on about. Just saying.

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Zandohaha .

“Every gear that players acquire is earned to one degree or another.”

So is welfare IRL. For Jobseekers allowance, for example, you have to turn up to a meeting every two weeks and prove that you are actively applying for jobs.

You have to do something to get that money just like you have to do something to get that gear. Thing is you don’t have to do much. Running a few world quests is equivalent to the person turning up to the Job Centre every two weeks for his epics in comparison to the person raiding 3 times a week/ doing a full time job. Sure the epics might not have as big a number attached to it, but they are still getting them.

Welfare epics is a very apt phrase to use for them to be honest.

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Utakata

“So is welfare IRL.”

No it isn’t. Not even by the long stretch. Or else, I have a dead parrot to sell you that’s just “resting”.

Welfare epics is a very apt phrase to use for them to be honest.

Sure it is, if you are planning to troll. /shrug

Turing fail
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Turing fail

Pining for the fjords…

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bahramnima

rift is a best example of hard core mentality, hard raids and the game was raid centric, basically rift died because it was casual unfriendly, basically no story no different levels of difficulty( it was hard by default)
look at top 5 so called mmos:
wow: by far more casual friendly than classic wow, by far has more story than classic wow, has different difficulty from easy to hard for dungeon and raids.
ffxiv: full of story, has different difficulty similar to wow
eso: full of story, easy to hard difficulty for pve content
gw2: full of story
bdo: 90% grind solo grind, and 10% pvp
yeah hard core and elitism is dead, last developer who was stupid enough to make game for hard core crowd was wild star and died in 4 years.
money is in casuals, always has been and always going to be as simple as that.

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Zandohaha .

Rift was doing fine while they were able to work through their fast pace of content releases though, once that dried up a lot of people left.

Also, Wildstar didn’t fail because it was targeted to the hardcore players. It failed because it was shit. Every guild I’ve ever been in when we’ve talked about Wildstar and the theme is common, people did not make it to max level. The hardcore mentality didn’t put them off, the fact that nothing about the world, the aesthetic, the art design, nor the gameplay captivated them did.

jimthomasUS
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jimthomasUS

“Gear” is a construct, whether a Mercedes or Thunderfury, that only exists to entice people to participate in a process that provides wealth for someone else.

EA and Acti/Blizz have become billion dollar corps because of “Gear” The rich laugh at our pettiness over who has the fancier whatever.

If it’s a game it should be fun. If it’s not, find a different game that’s fun to play or acknowledge to yourself that you’re participating in said construct.

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HolyAvengerOne

I feel like there’s a good point somewhere in there but I’m having a hard time discerning what it is between the entirely subjective angles of artistocracy and welfare on this case.

Are you saying players overcoming hard challenges to get great rewards. shouldn’t be discontent about those same rewards becoming significantly easier to obtain later on?

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Jim Bergevin Jr

I think he’s commenting on those who essentially act like snobs. Kind of like someone who says that because he had to walk 5 miles through hip deep snow in the dead of winter to get to school, everyone else should still have to do it, even though we now have school busses that make getting to school a lot less painful.

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HolyAvengerOne

I see what you’re saying Jim, but that’s very different from your example; one is tied to progress in tech and society over many decades, the other is a conscious game design choice over a few years.

Getting high-end gear didn’t get easier because we’ve evolved, it’s because game designers made a choice.

There are ways to avoid players feeling slanted by those changes, and as with most change management, it revolves around setting expectations and respecting people.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

It boils down to attitude. Players have no control over design decisions than schoolkids have over the weather and technology.

Should I make my daughter walk to school because I had to at her age? Some people would say yes, it teaches a life lesson. I say that there are always other opportunities to teach those lessons without having to resort to such methods. Should I feel jealous (slanted) by kids being able to take the school bus when I had to walk to get the same education? Or should I be grateful that they don’t have to slog through the same nonsense I did all those years ago because we have advanced enough to realize that sometimes making life easier isn’t actually a bad thing.

At the end of the day, if I enjoy busting my keyboard and sweating out a tough raid, why should I care that the reward I got for successful completion was had by someone who bought it in a cash shop, or traded with another player for it, or bought it off an NPC, or managed to get to a hidden area on the map and found it in a treasure chest. How they got it had no bearing or effect on my game play or enjoyment thereof.

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Zandohaha .

Its about the uniqueness of your character. If you get a shiny new pair of trainers at school that everyone is jealous of, then yeah, it becomes a little bit that separates you from others, makes you stand out.

If those trainers were your reward for walking 5 miles to school every day, then yeah, I think you’d be a bit miffed that they decided to start giving every kid the same pair of trainers just for getting on the bus. Your hard work no longer stands out and makes you unique and I don’t think it’s unfair for people to feel bad about that and to want the effort of their daily 5 mile walk to make them stand out in some way.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

You may have read my post, but you clearly didn’t comprehend it, especially my last line. To repeat what I said below, the game play (the education) is and should always be the incentive and reward.

jimthomasUS
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jimthomasUS

There are no hard challenges in games. There are elitists regardless which make me laugh.

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Khalith .

I remember the term “welfare epics” when it was new in WoW as well and the mentality behind it. The examples I remember most vividly were that someone could get an epic weapon with an ilevel and stats comparable to a raid weapon by just doing the bare minimum in some PVP content where they didn’t even necessarily need to do well or win to get gear. A concept that bothered the raiders I knew because if you lost to a raid boss you get nothing, if you lose in PVP you’d get something for your trouble regardless.

I’m going to say that yes, people that complete the most difficult content in the game do deserve something to distinguish that but that doesn’t have to be a set of the best gear. My main MMO is ffxiv, the last two expansions I’ve cleared the savage mode raids and the rewards that I still keep are the unique mounts from each, the gear I got has long since been tossed away or stored in case I really liked the look and wanted to use it again.

One of the things I love about FFXIV is that you don’t even need to raid to get to a comparable item level to raiders. In terms of pure player power, the difference between my tank that raids and a tank that never touches the raids but still does gear progression available outside of it is roughly a 1 item level average difference and less optimized secondary stats. I think that’s perfectly fine as the game provides everyone with the ability to advance and make their character stronger but the difference between a raider and someone that actively works on their gear outside of raiding isn’t really that much.

Honestly out of the all the endgame systems I’ve dealt with through the years I feel like FFXIV is the most generous when it comes to endgame gear progression.