Vague Patch Notes: Why people can’t just ignore things they don’t want in MMORPGs

Which is not the same as their being right about why they're upset

There's a lesson here.

As I often do, I’m going to start this column with a bit of history. But in this particular case, it’s a bit of history that I did not personally experience because it’s from Ultima Online. So you’ll have to forgive me if I get pieces wrong, but I promise you that any details I get wrong are not the point. Bear with me.

When UO launched, the rules of the game allowed for open non-consensual PvP. You could be out peacefully gathering wood and not want someone to attack you, but someone else could decide that their Energy Bolt spell had a different opinion on the matter, and the next thing you know that you’re in combat. And while you could be our editor-in-chief, who decides to turn herself into a human landmine John Wick-style, it wasn’t the best it could be, and it hurt the game’s retention since kind of a lot of people don’t want to be murdered and looted every time they log in. (A whopping 70% of the game’s new players were driven off by the playerkilling, according to the game’s own developers.)

So EA’s Origin team went through dozens of iterations on the system trying to curb the rampant griefing without completely disabling it, but eventually they gave up and introduced a new facet called Trammel, which was just… the same world, without open PvP, linked to the old world. You could choose to play and live in which one you wanted!

And by “you could choose” I mean “players overwhelmingly chose Trammel.” It doubled subs and made the game significantly more popular, which helped as it came around the time when UO was facing other big competition in the nascent MMORPG marketplace. And people are still mad about it over two decades later.

Nothing that I just wrote is really all that surprising to the majority of MMORPG fans, but this is not a column about open PvP being problematic. Everyone either knows that or is deep in denial, and my goal is not to rehash that. No, this column is about the false argument made by well-meaning people who insist that if someone doesn’t like group finder tools or non-PvP rulesets or auction houses or guides or whatever, they should just not use them.

It’s honestly a pretty solid argument, and on the merits, it’s correct. If someone dislikes the fact that a given game has a dungeon finder, well, just don’t use it. But the problem is that the people arguing against this inclusion aren’t actually upset about their own need to use it. They’re upset about the option being introduced.

Very few people actually want to say this, of course. But there are legitimate reasons it’s not a solution, even if it doesn’t make the argument incorrect.

We prefer Task Force X.

Within a small enough ecosystem, you can actually enforce something like this. If you and your friends have a weekly Magic game, you can all agree that no one in your group likes playing against counter-heavy decks, and so the best thing to do is to just have a house rule to play other decks. There are enough cards in the game that you can all still build different decks and have fun, and there’s no problem.

But if you go to your local game store and try to play with that philosophy, at best you’re going to have a bad time. At worst you’re going to find that all of your strategies hinged around the idea of no one wanting to counter all of your spells, and when you actually introduce counters, your strongest strategies can actually be… stopped. Quelle surprise, insert the shocked Pikachu face.

Give yourself a larger pool of people and anything not forbidden by the game is going to be used by somebody. That’s just the reality. You can declare as many elements of a game “cheap” or “unfair” as you want, but someone is going to try those cheap techniques. And if they’re actually that cheap, you’ll realize it’s actually detrimental to not use them. If one particular class in an MMORPG deals a dozen times more damage than anything else, it’d be stupid not to play that.

Obviously, a good designer will fix the game so this is no longer the case. A less-good designer will design the entire game around that one class (or mechanic or build or tool), making it effectively mandatory (this is how you wind up with World of Warcraft’s endgame raiding addon nightmare). But this is true even if you don’t necessarily like the class in question. And it’s all well and good to declare that Spoon-Flingers are a dumb class and you’re going to be a Sheep-Tosser until the day you die, but if no one is going to recruit a Sheep-Tosser over a Spoon-Flinger, you don’t actually have the choice being laid out before you.

If you want to play on the server that has mandatory open PvP, you need people there to be openly PvPed against. And if when people get the option, they immediately say, “Actually, I’m going over there, where there isn’t mandatory PvP,” suddenly you find yourself in a much emptier world – which is not good for you because now you’ve lost your targets, and that’s not fun any more.

Wait, did you forget the sort of complaints we’re talking about here?

The fanboy mines are harder to work all the time.

I’ve talked before about people remembering an MMO past that doesn’t exist, but there is a not-inconsiderable portion of people in our genre who do remember the actual past but just want a do-over. It’s not true to say that there were no guides out there; there were guides all over the place in 2003. But it’s possible you didn’t know about the guides, and while you could tell people the websites to check, you could instead look like a wizard who knew everything about Final Fantasy XI and make people rely on you for all knowledge. That gave you power and position.

And you don’t necessarily have to say that part. You can just talk about missing the feeling of adventure and intangible things like getting lost, claims that are on their face not falsifiable. I cannot prove that user r/MakeMeImportantAgainDespiteMyOdiousPersonality1986 doesn’t miss a sense of discovery that he claims existed in the past, even if I can prove that the guides always existed. It’s not about whether or not the claim is false but whether or not the claim appears false.

But it is actually pretty easy to indicate because that user cannot just choose not to use guides. Even if he doesn’t use them and turns off every helper point and trains his eyes never to focus on them, other people still can and will. Only if no one gets that choice can he actually return to hoarding influence for information.

Only if no one can just queue up and get a group can the gatekeeper keep people from playing the game without his approval and/or presence. Only if no one can avoid open PvP does he get his population of targets. We know which option people choose when given a real choice, and so the only time some folks think it’s acceptable to say “well, maybe people should get a choice” is when the end of the sentence is “but they don’t, so you just have to accept the superior option.”

If it’s not already obvious, I am saying this is not a commendable position to have. It is a combination of selfishness and retrograde nostalgia, a desire for a do-over where people do not have the choice to make and the gates and obstructions can be made whole once more after the march of time and design and overwhelming desire have long since torn them down. It is a position that cannot, truly, be settled by just letting people choose because they have already made their choice as evidenced by time and population. And so you need a do-over, the removal of the choice until the only choices are the ones that the arguer wants.

And no, they’re never going to admit it. So just stop pointing it out.

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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