Vague Patch Notes: Paying customers in MMOs aren’t voting shares

Can't keep it up.

So let’s take a tour back to the dewy slopes of 2010, when I bought the collector’s edition of Final Fantasy XIV. That would be the original version, yes. That gave us all several months of free subscription time, and when that ended at long last, I… still subscribed. I have the physical collector’s edition of the 2.0 launch, too. I have physical collector’s editions all the way down the line. My subscription to the game has not lapsed. While I am not going to do the precise math, my total investment in this game no doubt gets into four digits. If anyone is a paying customer of this game, it is me.

Naoki Yoshida has never asked my opinion about the design of the game.

I don’t mean that just in a twee fashion; while I sat down and had a steak dinner with the man ahead of the launch of 2.0 and have gone on to see him in person multiple times (he’s lovely), he has never asked my opinion as a reporter or as a member of the class of the most paying customers possible. And why would he? I don’t know, but somehow there’s a persistent issue of people bringing up that a given change to a game displeases them, followed inevitably by, “And I’m a paying customer.”

To a certain extent, I think this attitude ties into a certain amount of entitlement that has become rampant in fandom spaces for years now. There’s a not-insubstantial portion of the populace that seems to regard “being a fan of something” as being functionally identical to sharing some degree of ownership of the thing, like being a fan of DC superheroes or G. I. Joe or Macross or World of Warcraft confers some sort of ownership over it.

And yes, there is definitely a degree of truth to say that without fans, a property doesn’t have its community. But that isn’t the same as ownership. The fans do not own DC’s comic continuity. DC Comics owns it, and the company can do whatever the heck the people in charge want to do with it.

Fans do get a vote there. If DC Comics decides tomorrow to make Batman a gun-toting weirdo who goes on multi-page rants about hating immigrants and how taxation is theft, well, they’re allowed to hire Frank Miller to write again if they want to. But the fan vote comes down to “stop buying it or don’t.” If you keep buying the comic but other people stop and DC reverses course, you do not actually get to argue that you’re a paying customer and so the comic needs to conform to what you want.

You are not entitled to an outsized vote because you paid $3 for a comic book. Or because you paid $15 for a month’s access to a continually online video game. Nor should you be because odds are you’re not actually a designer.

If you’re insulted by that statement, that might be indicative of the problem.

Ah, that explains it.

The thing about video games is that for whatever reason, this industry seems to attract a lot of people who conflate consumer behavior with not just ownership but the ability to do the same thing as people who have a career doing it. This is not accurate. Playing a video game does not grant you the ability to design a video game. I have spent the past 14 years of my life relentlessly studying this, consuming every piece of information I can about design while also learning about the marketing and management of video games in general and MMOs in particular.

Does that mean I could be lead designer on an MMO tomorrow? Heck no. It means I know enough to speak with some authority on the subject while also being very aware of some huge hecking blind spots in my knowledge. Making me the design lead on a game would be a bad idea. AndĀ again, I have been working in this industry for more than a quarter of my life.

My point here is not that you don’t know what you like. If you don’t like, say, the gameplay loop in Warframe? That’s fine and valid. Your inexperience as a designer does not take away from that fact. But it does mean you may not actually be totally clear on why you don’t like it or what could be done to fix it. People like what they like, but disliking a meal doesn’t make you a chef, watching a bad movie doesn’t make you a director, and reading a lousy book doesn’t make you an author.

Where this becomes a problem, though, is when you start insisting that as a paying customer, you believe your voice should have primacy. You know what you don’t like, and the game should do what you want it to do, and you can’t understand why it stopped doing what you like in the first place!

Except we’ve already discussed that before, haven’t we? If you don’t understand what a system is doing, you can’t really speak to how it could be better. If you can’t see a reason why a change was made to a game, even if it’s a change you dislike, the odds are you don’t actually understand it and can’t really speak cogently to it. And let’s not mince words or leave this merely implied: If you think the motivation behind changing something is “lazy devs,” you don’t understand it.

It says that you should take a break.

“But I’m a paying customer!” Congratulations? You got what you paid for, which was access to a video game for a duration of time. There is no other ownership implied, and there is no promise built into that transaction. Heck, this is why the whole “we’re sorry that you were disappointed by such-and-such-game” trend is really unfortunate; it plays into that. There are a lot of video games I purchased that I didn’t like. I didn’t request an apology or insist that the developers had done it wrong. They just… made a game I didn’t like. Bungie didn’t owe me recompense for making the deeply unsatisfying Oni; it was just a disappointing bad game. Those happen.

Every MMO I have ever played has made changes over time. Some of those have been changes I agreed with, some of them have been ones I disagreed with, but there have been ones I disagreed with on some level that I will still defend as the right choices. There were things I liked about the original FFXIV that we lost in the remake. That doesn’t mean we should go back to that design. I’m sad that the unified starting experience in WoW means missing out on some genuinely great starting zones like Gilneas, but I totally get wanting to make a single streamlined experience that puts the game’s best foot forward, and development time isn’t there to revamp nearly a dozen starter zones when you could do the same thing with just one.

My point here is not that developers are infallible. (Usually I just gesture to WildStar as an example here.) It’s that understanding why decisions are made is complex, that addressing them is also complex, and that people should stop thinking their transactional relationship provides them with a measure of ownership. It’s all right to just not like something without thinking you can diagnose the problem, and your $15 a month is not a chance to influence a referendum on how the game ought to be built.

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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