Vague Patch Notes: MMO design is not value-neutral

With musings on WildStar, Final Fantasy XIV, and World of Warcraft

Time to learn.

It’s rare for me to find myself actively yelling at my computer screen while watching something, but it does happen every so often. The recent Folding Ideas video about World of Warcraft managed to accomplish something very close because it is a well-researched video on the surface with a lot of citations… and a shocking outright refusal to engage in a very critical aspect of something that it it is bringing up by not just ignoring but actively dismissing the role that developers play in leading to its instrumental practices.

And yes, I do mean actively dismissing this. Multiple times the video insists that developers are just one part of the conversation, which is strictly true but is the equivalent of saying that the instructor is not the sole fact that determines whether or not a class is any good. It is definitely not the only thing that has an influence on the overall environment, but you cannot offer serious examination of a given MMO without being cognizant of the direct influence that its designers and their goals have on the environment in the first place.

Let’s start by using a very specific example: WoW Classic. We don’t need to guess at the design goals of this particular fork because we’ve been told what they are outright, and we also already know the executive producer of the game is a big fan of gatekeeping progress. You can rightly point out that the developers have not explicitly told players to obsessively speedrun content and to bring only people with the highest gear possible, but that is whom the content is designed for. At every level, this gatekeeping has not simply been permitted but facilitated by the people in charge.

Moreover, we know from literal history that the designers are more than willing to break certain addon functionality to remove aspects that they don’t like (hello, Decursive), even in the event that it breaks other innocent addons. They can quite literally choose the sort of player behavior that results in bans or suspensions. While they might not be the authority making these decisions for player behavior, they are aware of and directly complicit in the creation of these structures that they know they exist, and the fact that all of these strategies and behaviors are not only allowed but encouraged tells you a lot about the priorities at the head of the design team.

And you can’t ignore those facts if you want to actually talk about what leads players to certain behaviors and how folk practice becomes entrenched as the norm. If you never outright tell someone to pick a lock, but you leave them in a room with a locked box, a set of lockpicks, and a guide to picking locks on the table, it’s not reasonable to pretend that someone just accidentally stumbled upon a potential way of play.

Yep, we're going here, too.

Here’s another example: Early on in Final Fantasy XIV, there was no such thing as an Expert roulette of any sort; the concept didn’t exist. Instead, the folk practice became clear: Run the dungeon that can be cleared the fastest for tomestones as quickly as possible. Strategies were developed, and mechanics were dodged. Expert roulette was introduced to make this a more complex prospect such that you could actually find yourself in more than one dungeon over and over.

But that wasn’t the end of changes. People had learned in Wanderer’s Palace that it was easy to have a tank pull everything up to the door, run into the door, and then bypass any risk from the gigantic tonberries. The devs made changes to ensure this strategy no longer worked. People found ways to speedrun skipping things in Amdapor Keep; the devs made more changes so that you had to kill certain enemies to get through each section. When skips were found that the designers didn’t want, they were patched out.

At the same time, dungeon design has also altered and shifted into a reliable cadence. There is nothing forcing you to pull dungeon groups two at a time to a barrier, but not only is it possible, the game actively encourages it through a variety of means. We can see here the difference between “practices the designers are not happy with” and “practices the designers will facilitate,” with the latter being tacitly encouraged and seen as standard among players. If you single-pull in dungeons past the first couple of days, it’s unusual at best.

But it’s not grounds for kicking someone out of the party because if you do that, you actually face penalties – another aspect of designers’ priorities not only shining through but literally putting the burden on players to behave in a certain way or avoid other approaches.

My point here is twofold. The first is that yes, behavior actually a dialogue between players and developers; player practices impact design choices, which in turn influence player practice, so on and so forth. However, the second is that the designers have a profound influence on the dialogue and can literally dictate the terms. It’s not that the designers told anyone “pulling up to each barrier and then stopping is the way to play”; it’s that they have literally designed dungeons this way, rewarded players for going along, and implemented zero drawbacks for doing it.

This player behavior is not merely accepted; it is incorporated into the fundamental building blocks of WoW. And that is because it matches what the designers want from the game.

It's fine, everything is fine, this is fine.

Games do not release; they escape. Every game is the product of a stack of systems working together, and it’s difficult if not impossible to guess at how every individual component might wind up being received. This is all true. The designers of WildStar did not plan on releasing a game that drove off huge chunks of its playerbase once they got to the end of leveling, nor did they design the game to make dungeons miserable. Those weren’t their goals.

But they did design dungeons that required a shocking amount of coordination between players with harsh penalties for slower performance, and when confronted by the reality that many players weren’t interested in this, they doubled down. They did make a point of plastering “#hardcore” on everything possible and pushing the idea that these dungeons were supposed to be hard. And it was only when it was clear a huge number of people had left that they actually started making changes – and they were far too little, far too late.

Heck, just look at it in a microcosm. I didn’t have to start this article the way I did. I could have just put it forth as a simple musing I had unconnected to anything else. I chose to include the examples I did, chose the order in which I presented them, chose the images and where they come in over the course of the article, chose where in the article to refer to a certain class of people as “fart ambassadors.” This was all deliberate.

I can’t choose how you read the article. You could choose to read it as my blaming everyone else for WildStar getting shut down. That’s not correct, but you could make that choice. But I do get to have an outsized influence over how you’re likely to read it, how the concepts are played out, and most importantly, where the ultimate conclusion lies.

And game design is the same thing. The fact that the entire experience in a multiplayer game is not a bespoke construction does not change that you can either empower or weaken gatekeepers, elitists, and general fart ambassadors. And pretending that all of it is down to arbitrary player choice ignores that motivation.

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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