Vague Patch Notes: The many flavors of ‘boosting’ in the MMO genre

    
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Anybody wanna do a mage?

The other day MOP’s Bree and I were having a discussion about boosting. This is not entirely unusual, but it was unusual insofar as the reality is we were talking about multiple totally different kinds of boosting that have entirely different causes, effects, and expectations. This of course prompts the reasonable commentary that there are a lot of different things that the MMO community refers to as “boosting” at the moment, and they’re not all the same, and they all have different impacts, and all of them are at varying degrees of acceptability.

Unfortunately, this is just a reality of the world we live in. The term “boosting” has become overloaded whether we like it or not, and a whole lot of things that used to be called something other than boosting are now all called boosting, and so it’s worth examining all of the boosting we have and which boosting is good, which is bad, which is neutral-if-a-bit-shady, and so forth. Let’s talk about boosts, baby.

The origin of the term “boosting” in this genre is hard to be sure of, since it refers to… you know, an actual thing. As near as we can guess, though, the term was inherited for MMOs from the well-known and ill-regarded practice known as Elo boosting, which is basically a result of people trying to game their Elo ratings in competitive games like League of Legends. (Fun fact: As part of the research for this article I learned that the Elo rating is named after its creator, Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-American physicist who developed the system for chess. The more you know!)

Elo boosting is usually frowned upon in MOBAs since it involves someone intentionally throwing the match to artificially inflate someone else’s rating. The idea is making someone eligible for more desirable placement or advancement via a higher rating, although what it really means is gaming the system in a way that’s harmful to people who are playing legitimately. Usually it results in the boosted players losing their ill-gotten ratings pretty quickly anyhow, since they don’t actually have the skill to get or stay there.

So it appears that the terminology was imported into MMOs, where Elo ratings aren’t as much of a thing throughout the game, but there are still some different things related to boosting. Notably, basically all “boosting” runs in MMOs are sold either via real money or in-game currency, which may or may not be possible to exchange back into some value. The former is definitely not acceptable; the latter sometimes is but is usually discouraged.

Lady.

So what is boosting in an MMO? Well, the broad definition would be “getting something that you didn’t earn through skillful gameplay.” But there are a lot of things that qualify, so let’s just run down a quick list of common types of boosting:

  • Expedited leveling through exploits and tricks that involve clearing enemies quickly with minimal risk and no participation by the boosted player. This has become a pretty consistent problem in WoW Classic, where this kind of boosting is so endemic that Blizzard sprang into action to stop it… after it had been ongoing for years since the classic servers launched. Right intent, but lacking hustle.
  • Improving ratings in some form of competitive play, either by being carried by much more skillful players through PvE content or by having the other team throw the match in PvP content. World of Warcraft’s consistent problem with boosting of M+ keys and boost runs being sold openly falls under the former category; basically any structured PvP format has accusations of the latter.
  • Carrying people through content they otherwise are unable to clear for achievements, unlocks, or even bind-on-pickup loot. How possible and realistic this is depends a lot on the game. People will definitely carry a spare member through content in Final Fantasy XIV, but rarely on current progression stuff, and because of the structure of the game it’s often easier (and definitely cheaper) to just assemble groups for older things. But it does happen.

I could go on, but the point is made. The goal of any kind of boosting is basically to simply buy your way past the problem. Is this raid too long and you don’t feel like learning the mechanics? Find someone to boost you. Don’t feel like actually leveling? Buy a boosting group. Want that championship reward for PvP without actually developing the skill to get into the winner’s circle? Buy a boost only to realize it only gets you part of the way and the gold ring still eludes you. Shame.

None of these things is new in the MMO sphere. We’ve had variants on these for ages. Back in the original Guild Wars people would happily sell you “runs” to Droknar’s Forge, a run that I actually paid for (with in-game gold, obviously) on an alt when I just wanted to get her kitted out early. Powerleveling is hardly new, and back in Final Fantasy XI it was considered both intensely kind and polite even if it was generally not terribly efficient.

And yet if you look at any talk of boosting, it’s usually regarded as awful. So what gives? What’s the deal with this having been a common thing for years but people are now finding it particularly distasteful? Well… it’s complicated.

Drok around the clock.

Two big things have changed over the years in terms of MMO design. The first is business models. Whereas buying a raid spot in World of Warcraft back in 2005 was pretty lame but still meant you had to earn all of that gold somehow, buying an M+ boost now can be as simple as taking out your credit card and buying a WoW Token through legal channels. Even in games without direct currency exchanges, there’s still an RMT ecosystem, and opinions on that have only gotten more negative over time.

But the other thing that’s changed is that some games have gotten more top-heavy over the years. WoW is kind of a perfect case study in this regard. With more and more difficulty levels and more and more competition over gear, and M+ runs adding a competitive aspect on to just dungeon runs… at a certain point you get the sense that the game is actively encouraging you to spend money and just buy a run, either because it’s too difficult or too time-consuming to be worth bothering with otherwise.

And the games where these boosting issues are the most pervasive are also the ones where the people in charge seem either wholly unconcerned or actively complicit in the system. It’s not good when players are doing something that leaves a bad taste in the mouth of others and the people in charge say “sounds great,” after all.

Is there a solution to the problem? Not a single solution, no, because as demonstrated, there are lots of different kinds of boosting and lots of things that could be considered in the same wheelhouse (or at least seen as adjacent). Rather, the best thing to understand is that it’s a problem that doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem.

Put another way: The more your MMO relies on an exclusionary setup, the more people are going to want to pay to bypass it. The fewer direct means you allow for that, the more people will rely on shady boosting tactics. So from a design standpoint, you just have to make sure that your structure is inclusive.

Which… in some games is the opposite of the design goals. Therein lies the problem.

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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