When I first started playing Final Fantasy XI some two decades ago, I went in with no illusions about one thing that seemed clear to me: I would probably not count as a player. And for most of my experience, that seemed to be pretty much on the money.
This may seem like an odd thing to say because I was subscribed to the game. The developers definitely counted me in their subscription numbers. I was allowed to log in, make a mule, and play the game like anyone else. So under what justification would I be argued to not count as a person who played the game?
Simple. The question here is not about who plays the game but about whose play experience counts in the game. And while I’ve brushed against similar territory before when discussing how MMOs have to design based around who gets to have fun, that was more explicitly exclusionary. This is more passive and yet in many cases no less important. Who counts in an MMO’s playerbase?
It’d be nice to say that everyone who plays an MMO counts as a player. But that’s not true, and we all know it – and to make that clear, let me introduce you to Craig. Don’t worry too much about Craig because Craig sucks.
Seriously, Craig is the worst. Craig is a detriment to every single party he is in. He’s ostensibly a DPS player, but his actual damage is awful. He screws up mechanics no matter how many times they’re explained to him. If there is a consumable Craig needs, he has not purchased it; if there is a progression night in Craig’s future, he will be late and he has not studied ahead of time. In no way is Craig an asset to clearing content, nor is he a crafter or some other sort of abstract aid to the group.
Now, I hear some of you saying that maybe Craig is fun to have around, so it’s all right that Craig sucks at the game. And that’s kind of the question. If Craig is fun to have around, does that mean he counts? What is the game structured to let Craig take part in?
In some games, Craig being in your party makes your lives harder, but you all like Craig enough that there’s a lot of content where you can all pitch in and get through it despite Craig being bad at the game. You might be able to carry Craig all the time. But what if Craig is… also not fun to be around? Does Craig count?
From difficulty sliders to content of different challenges, MMOs have long had to figure out how to balance their gameplay loops to account for the Craigs of the world. Whether or not Craig is a decent guy is ultimately irrelevant; the question is where to peg that challenge level. How bad do you have to be at the game before the developers just say, “Look, you have to be able to at least handle this content in order to keep playing?”
But Craig is just one metric that’s easy to understand. Here’s another example: How independent are you allowed to be? How much content can be completed truly solo? I’m not talking about whether or not a game offers you robust options to queue for content so you don’t need a pre-existing friend group; I’m talking about being literally solo the whole time. There are people who get angry if a game features any sort of time-limited content, any reliance on other players at all, and anything asking you to interact with the other people in this MMO.
Obviously, that seems… kind of ridiculous because while it’s all well and good to say “I shouldn’t have to join a raid group with nightly participation to play the game,” it’s kind of odd to say that you want to play an MMO and never have any interaction of any kind at all with others. But that is, again, an extreme example. If you can always solo queue for all content and expect that queue to pop, is that enough? If you have a party finder but there’s no queue functionality, is that enough? No matter where you put that line, you are still putting down a line.
That’s not to say even that putting down a line is wrong because the inverse also has problems. If you decide that there shall be no lines, that everyone can complete all of the content in your MMO, then… your content has to be pitched so easy that a cat walking across the keyboard can manage it. That’s not a great place to be in!
On a fundamental level, most people want content that’s hard enough that they can win without feeling as if they don’t have to try. But where that level is going to be for every single person is different. Heck, the right balance of not winning isn’t the same for everyone. Some people genuinely enjoy pulling and failing seven times on the same boss in World of Warcraft, while other people figure the boss out on the first pull and get increasingly frustrated as the group wipes because you’re not supposed to move during Flame Wreath, Craig, how hard is that?!
If you’re waiting for me to say that there is a place where the line should be, you’re going to be disappointed because the fact of the matter is that there isn’t one. Part of that is that there isn’t just one line. There’s a line about difficulty and about interactions and about group size and time commitment and all sorts of other things. There’s a network of lines, and some people are fine with a challenge that will force them to wipe and try again several times but want to be able to queue up for that challenge pronto without having to manually assemble a group. One size does not, in fact, fit all.
But even more importantly, the whole thing about saying where lines should be is kind of not useful. I am including myself in saying that I want content that hits the sweet spot of challenge, where I am probably going to succeed but success is not automatic. But that’s a concept, not execution. How hard is the content I can personally accomplish? What’s too easy for me might be too hard for other people who nevertheless think Craig is hopeless.
And every one of these decisions? Every one of these lines? It’s about choosing which players count, which players will be served and which ones will not. It’s about choosing that if you cannot handle this level of challenge, your needs don’t count; it isn’t getting easier. If you aren’t willing to engage with this style of gameplay, you’re still allowed to log in, but the developers will not encourage you. If you aren’t willing to do X, you are going to run out of stuff.
Craig is not, inherently, a lower-rent player. He played the same entry fee as you did. He’s playing the same game. Whether or not Craig counts comes down to a question of what the game studio thinks will be most pleasant for the players who count… and that may not include Craig at all.