Vague Patch Notes: The perils of comparing MMOs to each other

    
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Ladies.

So the other day I read perhaps the worst Tower of Fantasy review I could have possibly read. It was most certainly not the very good one our own Chris turned in, but it was a negative review. But that in and of itself doesn’t make it a bad review. Sometimes two people play the same game and have different reactions to it. No, this was a bad review because it was very clear that the bad review was entirely due to the game having been given to someone who was already a big fan of Genshin Impact and thus was reviewing the new game based on how similar or dissimilar it was to Genshin Impact.

This is, for obvious reasons, not a review of Tower of Fantasy. Maybe it’s amazing, maybe it sucks, I have no idea. (Chris has an idea, though. He wrote a review of it. You should read it.) Rather, this is a discussion of a perniciously common thread of MMO commentary or criticism, reviewing something almost entirely based on its comparison to your one or two other points of reference. And if there was any case to be made for playing more MMOs, this would be Exhibit A.

“Wait, just last week you advocated for the opposite.” Yeah, turns out I just like formulating arguments! (And they’re not quite the same, but hey.)

Now, my go-to metaphor here would be comparing MMOs to romantic relationships, but the terms of my contract here clearly stipulate that I’m allowed to do that only once in a four-week period, and I last did that in the aforementioned article, so I’m going to have to go with a different analogy. Let’s talk about your preferred grocery store.

We all go to the grocery store, and while we probably wouldn’t ever describe our grocery store as our favorite grocery store, in many place you have more than one option. Within a reasonable driving distance of my house, there are at least five different places I could use for grocery shopping, not including the classic Homer Simpson go-to of just doing my grocery shopping at the gas station like a normal person.

But if you move to a new area or – heavens forfend – your favorite store changes management… well, you have to change where you shop. And the thing is that there are never that many differences between one grocery store and another, except that I can absolutely promise you that when you start shopping at the new store, you will be comparing everything to the old store, probably in an unfavorable way. This store keeps all of its olive oil on an endcap, unlike the old store where it was with the salad dressing, which made sense. Why are the pickles between the ketchup and the salad dressing? What nightmare of organization is this?

If you take a moment to think about it, sure, you realize it’s nonsensical. There’s no reason for one arrangement or the other to make more sense except that you’re used to one and thus you’re annoyed when you have to get used to a change. But that doesn’t change the fact that it feels weird, and your first instinct is to be annoyed by things being different because, well, you got used to things working a specific way and now they work differently. No one likes change.

So let’s say you’re going to play a new MMO with that same sort of mindset. The first thing you’re going to notice is that everything feels sort of weird. This is something that happens to me on the regular. If I play a lot of City of Heroes and then I jump over to play Star Trek Online, everything feels a little wrong. My walk speed is different! My jump heights are different! All of the interfaces are just a little bit off! Why aren’t you doing this right?

This is a bit of a bad example because STO actually has some pretty bad interface issues, but you still get the point. The fact of the matter is that neither game is “right” in its deployment all around. Frankly, Klingon captains should not be jumping and cavorting with the ease of superheroes in Paragon City. But because I got used to one thing, this other thing now feels different and weird even though there’s nothing actually wrong with it at all.

Yes, some things should be pretty universal. Pressing “M” should open your map because most PC gamers expect to see a map there when you press that key. “B” for bags or “I” for inventory just make logical sense. But even a lot of that is still subjective. Some people really like having A and D turn left and right while Q and E strafe. Others prefer A and D to strafe while Q and E turn. Some games have a third-person camera lock so there isn’t even an issue of it. No way is the “correct” way to have controls configured, they’re just… how you prefer to play your game.

And frankly, in a halfway competent game you can remap most of these shortcuts if they really bother you anyhow.

This is why it’s a bad idea to have someone who is a dedicated fan of X to review Y: because everything is going to be passed through the filter of “how similar is this to X” and “I like how X does this, and Y does it worse, and therefore I don’t like Y.” It makes for a useless experience because all it does is tell you how likely you are to like Y if you’re already committed to Y.

Zorp?

If you’re a big fan of a specific MMO, that’s better than fine; that’s great. I would go so far as to say that from a pure player standpoint as opposed to a reviewer or pundit, this is kind of the goal in the first place. You shouldn’t have to be comparing everything and playing a dozen games to get a feel for what you like.

But it also means that you are not necessarily well-suited to reviewing other games because even if game X is similar to game Y, that just invites you to drill down and focus on the minor differences as opposed to what might make someone want to play one or the other. Any two games with similarities are going to feel different, but dinging a game merely because it feels different from a similar game is missing the point altogether. The Elder Scrolls Online is not diminished as a game because its active combat feels different from Guild Wars 2’s combat. Neither one is better. They have different mechanics and feels, and while you are free to like one more than the other, dinging the former because it feels different from the latter is missing the point to a comical degree.

We all have our preferences and our baked-in assumptions. Just take care not to judge everything against the standard of what your more familiar game does compared to the new game that you’re evaluating. Something can be similar but different in ways that are going to charm different people, and that’s a good thing.

Unless you keep your character sheet bound to “P.” Then you’re just plain evil.

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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