Massively Overthinking: Pervasive old MMO ideas that aren’t really true

The way we weren't

This. They're this.

A while back, Eliot and I were discussing one of his columns, in which he noted that in the eldest of the elder MMOs, the main draw was that it was a place to hang out. And of course, he was not wrong. But it led us to chatting about the persistent belief that tools like Discord ruined MMOs because they moved Social out of the game, which always makes me laugh because I spent more time in IRC – the Discord equivalent back then – than I did in Ultima Online. Why? Because 1997 UO didn’t even have global chat and people have always liked to talk. The irony is that we all hung out in a third-party chat room all the way back then – just as we do now.

In other words, sometimes the more things change, the more things stay the same, and now that the genre’s got a couple of full decades under its belt, it’s becoming very clear to me that MMOs illuminate the consistencies in gamer behavior rather than the anomalies.

That’s what we’re going to tackle in this week’s Massively Overthinking. I’m asking the writers and readers to talk about things people believe about (ideally) older, earlier MMOs that aren’t really true. Pick one and tell us what it is, who believes it, why, and how it’s bunk.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): “No one wants to be Uncle Owen in MMOs.”

Say out-of-touch devs, constantly, still, to this day. They don’t specifically say Uncle Owen, but the fact that our characters are always the one and only hero despite being grouped with 4 to 40 other players, not to mention the thousands of other players on our server alone, shows that they still think this. Yes, some games do make you the chosen warrior still. There’s an audience, no doubt. But my FFXIV-playing friends play for mount and pet collection, which Luke never would have done. My WoW brother played for nostalgia, which I can’t see Han Solo doing. And before it took a nose dive, everyone I knew who was excited for ArcheAge was looking forward to something related to crafting or housing, which at best, would be an R2-D2 thing. We just had people toss money to the Project Gorgon folks, which is a game known for being “whimsical” at best, and the only thing that’s ever held that game back has been the graphics, not its design. By comparison, WildStar is a game we still talk about but largely in terms of housing and humor, not all the raiding it tried to put us through. Very much not Luke Skywalker content.

In fact, right now, many of us have clogged storage thanks to housing items and crafting materials. That’s what people are invested in. That’s what they’re saving up to play with. A lot of us want to be Uncle Owens. Design around that!

Andy McAdams: I’m going back to the idea that forced grouping somehow made MMOs more social, and created community and all kinds of other nonsense. This concept annoys me so much that I wrote a whole column on it, and it even got my very own Reddit hate thread. Good times.

The people who champion this line of thinking are almost always using it as a strawman argument that is impossible to disprove because of the army of anecdotes, and it’s the persistent gatekeepy belief that people who didn’t make friends running dungeons somehow got what they deserved. There’s always an undercurrent of gatekeeping that comes with the “forced grouping is actually social.” They ignore the hundreds of people they ran dungeons with and never talked to again in favor of that one time they became friends with someone they ran a dungeon with. And I say this as someone who met his first guild in WoW from running a dungeon. But I recognize that one instance is infinitesimally small compared to all the people I had one-time interactions with in forced grouping situations.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind forced grouping in MMOs; dungeons are probably my favorite content in MMOs. But there’s nothing inherently social about forced grouping. Whether I had to spam in DPS LFG for hours in chat before I ran or I hit a button to queue up, it was just as likely that after the group ended, I would never think about or meet those people again. Any actual social connections made were an aberration, not the norm.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): OK, my first example is already in the intro, so you get a toofer from me. How about the idea that you can’t add housing into an old MMO that doesn’t already have it because it’s just too hard to add after launch? I mean, sure, I’d prefer that housing be baked in to the world and economic design from the beginning, that it play into the gameloop. But kind of a lot of MMOs added it post-launch to great effect, and the first one that did it was freakin’ Asheron’s Call (which launched in 1999 and added housing in 2001), so this is definitely a thing that can be done and in fact was being done two decades ago. Stop using that as an excuse! It can be done and done well. You know who you are.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): Finally, a chance to set the record straight. No, I didn’t steal your Cloudsong. I don’t care how loud or how vulgar you’ll get; I have never stolen anyone’s Cloudsong! I 100% did not come zerging in to take anyone’s Cloudsong!

Now that that’s out of the way, I guess we can talk about how socialization hasn’t really changed much in MMOs. The biggest diff? Our age and the internet. Many of us were less busy too; we were students. There were fewer people online because the barrier of entry was much higher than it is now. Finally, we were all younger. We had less stuff going on. We had time to sit around and chat while waiting for that one healer every one needs. We’re probably kickin’ the shit in less spaces now because if DF and stuff, but the spirit still lives on in every MMO’s main hub.

But yeah, aside from that. I’d appreciate it if y’all would stop accusing me of taking your Cloudsongs.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): “Community and friends were deeper and more meaningful in older MMORPGs because you had to seek out a party.”

Incorrect. In Final Fantasy XI, I spammed global chat to find a group to earn a few levels, stood around and tanked the mobs that someone would kite our way, and maybe chat once in a while. About the only thing that I remember about that time were some of the clever and funny macros people wrote for their signature skills to go off. I otherwise made no emotional connections to anyone in that game, nor did I build a friends list or arrange any sort of camaraderie with people in-game. I can’t even begin to tell you who these people were.

But hey, apparently there’s some hivemind that believes everyone knew everyone in old MMORPGs and that things were far more actively social back then, which is why devs are trying to cut away basic damn party-building tools as a result of this shared mental block. But what do I know. Since I never played in a sandbox MMORPG, my opinion means less than nothing, I guess.

And to tie in with the topic that kicked this whole thing off, I kind of agree that in-game chatting wasn’t the only way to connect with others. And this will be done through the lens of MechWarrior 3, which was my very first online gaming experience.

Back then, I could only play with others through the use of the MSN Gaming Zone feature set. This had its own private messaging and chat features as well, but it wasn’t those things that I use as my example, but the way its features helped me form my own community. After meeting a couple of folks through the Gaming Zone, I arranged my own guild for MW3, setting up a forum and arranging an AOL Instant Messenger friends list in order to better coordinate our play time together, get to know one another, and engage in forum roleplay.

This arguably came as a result of limitations attributed to the lobby system that was required for online play in MW3, but this also has colored my behavior in MMORPGs proper, as I very frequently look outside of in-game social tools to better tie connections to others. Discord might be the new hotness, but it’s not a new tool, and lots of MMOs and multiplayer games were better social experiences outside of the game itself.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): “Everything was better when MMOs were subscription-only and you end up paying way more now that most things are F2P/B2P.”

Listen, I’m not saying this is false for every game out there, but if you’re averaging $15 a month or more in Guild Wars 2, I don’t know what you’re spending it on. I still haven’t spent the $50 worth of gems that came with the Secrets of the Obscure ultimate package. I’m not even sure I will have spent it all by the time the next expansion comes out next year.

Obviously there are whales who will spend tons of money on lockboxes or whatever in just about any MMO you can point to, but if you are a smart spender looking to get the objectively best dollar-to-content ratio, I disagree strongly that subscriptions are best for that.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I think the one I see most often is that if a game has any kind of open world PvP, it must be a gankfest and therefore PvPers will ruin the game for everyone else.

I recall getting into a ton of internet arguments with players over this in Guild Wars 2. Basically, I would like to be able to duel or have flagged PvP available, especially in maps that have some cool arenas. When I would bring it up, other players would pull out absolutely garbage strawmen, some of the primary complaints being that it would arbitrarily scale up difficulty for open world events because the map may see these players nearby the event, but they would not be participating at all. Some would complain about being spammed with duel requests. Others would at least be honest and say that they didn’t want to see it at all.

Back then, open world events basically never failed, and if they did, it was because of the way the mega server system splits players up. If you ended up in a lightly populated map, then you failed. It stinks, but that’s how it worked.

I’ve been in games that didn’t have PvP flagging, and the spam was a pain. But that doesn’t mean it always is. New World has open world flagged PvP, and I don’t think that’s its main PvP problem.

It’s a narrowminded view of how a game can be designed. Encourage more gamers to take advantage of your game, and have more open minds about how a game can be enjoyed. It shouldn’t have to be only your way or the highway.

Tyler Edwards (blog): That a mandatory subscription fee keeps a game’s design “pure” and that designing around monetization started with the introduction of micro-transactions. Did you ever wonder why older MMOs were so grindy? The reason behind XP debt, low drop rates, slow leveling? Why WoW patches trickle out their content so that it always takes more than a single month to see it at all? It’s to keep you subbed and paying. All live service games are built with long-term monetization in mind, and that started long before cash shops were a thing.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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