Vague Patch Notes: The art of picking winners and losers in MMO design

This is shameful even by your standards.

There’s a meme that’s gone around the Final Fantasy XIV community sphere for a while, and I’m going to try my best to explain it to you without requiring you to understand the game’s lore. There’s an area of the game that is explicitly a recreation of an ancient city, but since it’s an open-world zone, it also features roaming monsters who will attack and try to kill you. Someone typed up a faux-conversation between the city’s creator and the player character in which the creator argues that back when this was a real city, everyone loved getting attacked by the roaming slime monsters and it was a paradise.

You don’t need to be told that this is silly. That’s literally the whole joke. But it puts me slightly in the mindset of looking at MMO design in general and some thoughts that have been swirling around my head for ages, not least of which covering the Overthinking we did a while back about how one person’s impediment is someone else’s gameplay. Because that is true. No matter what you do, every good decision is someone’s “why did you ruin my fun.” And that means talking about whose fun you’re going to ruin.

Most people chime in at that point to say that a smart developer would just avoid ruining anyone’s fun with design decisions. And to that, I point out that open full-loot PvP is a thing. Some people (who expected to be the looter rather than the looted, to be clear) think that this is really fun. Other people think that this is extremely not fun, the sort of thing that would lead to (wisely) not playing any game where it is enabled.

You cannot court both groups. You can make the open full-loot PvP crowd happy, you can make the crowd who doesn’t want that happy, or you can try to split the difference and wind up making nobody happy. These are mutually incompatible goals. It’s the equivalent of having one person adamant that he doesn’t want red meat as a food option at a party and another being equally adamant that she won’t go unless it is all red meat.

Someone’s fun is going to be ruined. The question is who, and that’s… kind of the whole exercise. Game design is an act of deciding whom you consider worth angering and/or who doesn’t matter if you piss them off.

Imagine someone wants, more than anything, to play a sentient plant person that was previously the pawn of a gigantic vine dragon. This player also wants open full-loot PvP, but the sentient plant person thing is more important. That player is going to play Guild Wars 2 and you don’t really need to worry about losing him at the moment. He has no other options. You could make him sign a paper saying open full-loot PvP is for losers and he might be mad, but he’s still going to sign it.

Surprise, you have no options.

Actual game design rarely benefits from such a clear-cut situation; you always have to take a certain degree of risk analysis into account. You know that there are some people who will stick around if you make a decision they don’t like, you know that there are some who won’t. And you can be sure that every decision is going to be one someone doesn’t like. How do you manage it? How do you choose when every decision is ruining someone’s fun?

Well, at the simplest level, you’re choosing whose fun matters most.

Let me tell you a story about a group of “friends” I had in high school. We were playing a particular multiplayer board game, and the first time we played all of them decided that it would be funny if they all teamed up and made sure that whoever won, I lost. I accepted this as the newest member of the group and still had fun. But I wasn’t having fun when the same thing happened the second, third, and fourth time we played.

It was clear that they were having fun, but it was also pretty clear even to high school me that these people did not give the slightest toss if I was having fun with this experience. So I stopped hanging out with them, and found out later that the group pretty quickly fell apart once I wasn’t there. They were, in a word, bullies looking for a target in a very narrow arena, and they didn’t care if someone new to the group was having fun so long as they were having fun.

Some people are only going to have fun so long as other people aren’t. That’s just human nature. It’d be nice to pretend otherwise, but there are people in this world who can’t have fun with a toy truck unless there are five toy trucks and at least six people who want them. They need to have that rush of exclusion.

These people are present in MMOs, and make no mistake: Every time you make them less capable of lording over others, they will be having less fun. The question, then, becomes whether or not you want them to be having fun in the first place.

Fandaniel is a bad person, don't be like Fandaniel.

You can cater to these people. It’s not even complicated to do so. Doing so basically requires you to cater just enough to the people who want to genuinely have fun so that you can trick them into being there while the people who want to exclude and ooze self-satisfied superiority get to have more fun. Or, you know, you can cater to the people who just genuinely want to have fun and not worry as much whether or not the people who only want the ball so no one else gets to have a ball are having as much fun.

The thing is that this group of exclusionary players are, quite frankly, both small in number and not good for the long-term health of your game. Once players realize that they’re not the audience but the marks, they will leave, and they’re not likely to come back. And since the players who are only there to lord their own fun over others won’t stick around when those others are gone, the community becomes fractured and diminishes pretty quickly.

Community management, like game design, is an art of deciding whom you want to be present. That always does mean excluding people. That’s the reality of any sort of management. You are deciding who is welcome. If you throw open the gates and say everyone is welcome and no one is left out, the people who want to ruin it are going to rush in and ruin it unless you actually force them out.

And once you let those people in? Once you make your game a haven for these people? Toxic people have become your entire foundation, and you’re never getting anything else back. By trying to make a situation where no one is excluded, you have chosen exclusion through inaction.

Yes, game design is always a balancing act of choosing whom you make angry and whose fun you ruin. But sometimes ruining the fun of people who want others to get attacked by slime monsters is actually a good thing.

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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