Here’s a fact that is objectively true but feels objectively false: There’s no law stating that the best MMO of all time, to date, was ever one of the MMOs with the highest subscriber counts.
Now, lest you start scurrying off in defense, keep in mind that this column is not actually about determining the best MMO of all time, not least of which because that’s a mug’s game for reasons I’ll probably go into in another column. Rather, I’m stating something that is just a truth of the universe. Even if we could objectively determine the best MMO of all time, its subscriber count wouldn’t be a metric that argued in favor of its quality.
This feels at once obvious from a logical standpoint and also slightly ridiculous; you want to start picking it apart because it can’t be that simple. The subscriber count has to matter a lot more than “not at all”! That dissonance means that it’s time for us to talk about the bandwagon fallacy as it applies to discussing MMO quality as a whole.
As used in logical discussions, the bandwagon fallacy is the statement that the popularity of an idea is not related to its veracity. It is a logical fallacy to say “lots of people believe in ghosts, therefore ghosts are real.” Whether or not ghosts are real (they’re not) is in no way affected by the number of people who believe it; think about how absurd it would be to argue that since because these dozen people think dogs aren’t real, logically dogs don’t exist.
It’s also worth noting that, like all fallacies, the use of the fallacy indicates a logical flaw and not the nullification of the argument. “Lots of people believe dogs exist, therefore dogs are real” is also a fallacious argument, but dogs are actually real. This trips up a lot of people who treat logical fallacies like an immediate winning play, but I digress.
Technically, saying “this game is the best because it’s the most popular” is perhaps not quite the bandwagon fallacy, but it’s close enough that they are at the very least holding hands. It’s the same basic logical flaw, to boot – treating “this is popular and people know about this” as being commensurate with “this is good and/or correct.”
But let’s step a bit beyond the fact that it’s not correct and explore, instead, why it actually shouldn’t be anyway. And to do that? We should start by examining the standards of power.
At a very basic level, appeals like “this is the most popular thing, thus it is the best” have been a staple of advertising for as long as I’ve been alive and probably a lot longer. It is, in fact, a kind of comprehensible argument. If four million people like something, well, heck, how likely it is that all four million of them are wrong? That feels unlikely, doesn’t it?
But the reality is that not only is it possible for that population to be wrong about something, it’s also irrelevant to the thing’s quality. And even more importantly than that, if something is in a position of power, that should invite more scrutiny, not less.
Consider the following argument: I have been writing about MMOs professionally for 13 years now, therefore I don’t need to cite sources on any news story I write. Does that hold any water? Of course not. It’s prima facie incorrect because if anything my years of experience should mean that I am better at citing and finding sources, piercing through obfuscation, and understanding sometimes contradictory statements from studio PR. Mistakes that would be totally acceptable from someone new to this absurd industry would be appalling coming from me because I should know better.
An appeal to popularity in this regard upends the entire structure in favor of a bizarre tautology that amounts to since it’s good to be successful, successful things are good. We all know that successful people are not necessarily good people, for the love of cripes. This is obvious nonsense. (As is the inverse where success is bad and all the good stuff is obscure. These are both absurd arguments.)
If anything, a big and successful MMO doesn’t deserve less scrutiny because it’s big and successful. It deserves more scrutiny. It provokes questions about why certain issues persist after years and why developers ignore certain fan requests while paying attention to others. That doesn’t mean the designers should always answer the way you like, but it does mean that the question should be asked and answers should be forthcoming.
This goes doubly so for games that are specifically targeting and marketing to younger players. There’s lots to dislike about Fortnite’s monetization, for example, but the fact that all of it is done with an intentional eye toward younger players makes it that much creepier and worthy of that much more scrutiny, even if you as an adult are able to tune it out because of years of experience.
Now, this is not the same as arguing that every successful game should be everything to everyone; that’s the whole point of discussing various aspects of design and whether they help or harm the game as a whole, something I have spent years doing. Everything you streamline means removing someone’s vital gameplay, and every change breaks someone’s flow of play. To a certain extent, design is the art of deciding whom you’re comfortable upsetting and what they’re going to do.
Yes, I have my own personal feelings about this. Everyone does. I back that up with data and arguments, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m right all the time; it just means that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and come to conclusions, some of which evolve as I realize prior conclusions were incomplete or somehow didn’t consider an important angle.
But the important thing here is that the popularity or lack thereof doesn’t actually bear a major influence on that. I cannot prove that people who like Fractured Online have poor taste by pointing at the game’s Steam chart because even if that were an accurate picture of everyone playing the game (it isn’t), it wouldn’t actually convey any relevant information. A low player count isn’t an indicator of a game being bad, since there are a lot of reasons for something to be unpopular that have absolutely nothing to do with its quality.
And just as surely, there are lots of reasons something can be tremendously popular without actually being good. Things that are popular tend to become so for a reason, but those reasons don’t necessarily correspond directly to quality. With any MMO, quality and overall care of craft should be evident by looking at the product as itself, not as a comparative function when leveraged against other games. If a design is good or bad, you do not need to point to another game to establish that, and similarly greater or lesser popularity is not in and of itself indicative of higher or lower quality (or vice versa).