Vague Patch Notes: When MMO designers build traps for players

It's not the meta when the game lies to you


So last week, I spent a whole lot of words talking about what “the meta” actually means when it comes to MMOs. Put very simply, the meta is just a description of what the game is like beyond the concepts and into the specifics. I didn’t even have the time and space to talk about the difference between how people will sometimes use the image of “the meta” as a sort of oblique force without understanding what it actually means! And I still won’t this week because if you remember the intro to that piece, that wasn’t what I actually wanted to explain.

The inciting incident was Christopher “Wolfy” Nealtopher, esquire, friend to man and beast alike (I have since been informed some parts of this title may be inaccurate, but I am not changing them), who ran afoul of the meta whilst adventuring in New World. But he didn’t. He ran afoul of the game basically lying to him so that he fell into a noob trap. So in order to take this on, we are going to start by taking a detour to Final Fantasy on the Nintendo Entertainment System – and how that game just straight-up lies to people in the manual and in the game.

The original release of Final Fantasy has several weapons that are supposed to inflict extra damage against certain types of creatures or elemental weaknesses. But they don’t. None of them does anything special. Magic, which is supposed to scale up based on a character’s Intelligence, does not scale in any way. Six spells don’t work as intended at all, either doing nothing, always missing, or in one particular case increasing what it’s supposed to decrease.

So let’s say you collect the Ice Sword in an area full of ice enemies. You don’t equip it on your sword-wielding character, though, because why would you? It’ll deal less damage! And now the dungeon is harder, and it’s harder because the game has told you that something will happen and it won’t. The game has just lied to you.

Here is something that should be a fairly uncontroversial statement: If a game tells me, as part of its UI, something that happens, then that should be what happens. If the tutorial tells me “press E to shoot fireworks,” pressing E should not summon a wallaby. If a game tells me that a gun deals 10-15 damage, then when I shoot the gun at something that takes damage, it should do between 10 to 15 damage, barring special status effects that override that. It’s pretty basic. When the game tells you how to play it, the game shouldn’t be lying.

Classic barb wire gun.

That’s not to say games should never trick you or surprise you or any of that stuff; quite the opposite. It’s just that you should have access to the information you actually need to make intelligent decisions about what you are doing. If I can choose one specialization for tanking, another for dealing damage, and a third for healing, I should not find that the tanking specialization does nothing but improve my healing when cast on others. I should, in fact, be able to heal now.

Situations like this can feel like they’re a meta thing, but they’re actually not. They’re just bad design masquerading as being meta problems, but it’s inverting the equation deliberately.

Case in point: We can look at classic World of Warcraft, where every class once had three specializations but usually only one viable specialization. You could, with a great deal of concentrated effort, kinda tank somewhat decently on a Paladin if you were in a five-player dungeon. But if you wanted to be DPS? Your tree was a joke. The reality is that at one point Paladins were designed to be healers, and that was their one choice. If you don’t like it, play something else.

And yes, this was just bad design; it’s a noob trap. It was a case where players were given a choice to read the talent descriptions and say “ah, this is the tree for dealing damage” with nothing to tell you “actually, this tree doesn’t work at all, you’ll be useless.” It was, functionally, lying to players about what options they could actually pick between! This is why it’s a rear-view problem for the game because subsequent expansions made a point of ensuring that a class with healing and tanking trees could, in fact, heal or tank or DPS at the endgame level.

It’s trying to appeal to the meta and often gets lumped in with the meta, but the reality is that this isn’t a case where someone is observing the state of the game and reporting on it. It’s a case where the game is telling you “hey, do this” and the extent of meta advice is people saying “so that’s actually a lie.” And it means that the developers, very specifically, have screwed up along the way.

Some people are more eager to carry water for these choices and say “well, what did you expect when you chose these options?” The answer, though, is “for the options to work as they were presented.” It’s not a mistake if you tell me “this fire spell will heal you” and then the fire spell does not heal me.


To be clear, it’s not necessarily bad design to declare “this class can only heal” as a principle. It’s also not necessarily bad design to have only a handful of viable choices in a given field. If you want to say that you need to pick one of these three classes or these four weapons or whatever in order to be able to tank, that is a valid choice.

What’s bad design is when a game pretends you have a whole lot of choices despite actually your only having one or two viable ones. There are far too many games that act as if you can build whatever you want, but that’s not actually true. The Secret World, for example, really had only a certain number of viable builds. A lot of the freedom in that game was just the freedom to make bad choices and screw yourself over, with a limited number of viable synergies you could actually make use of.

Compare and contrast that with Guild Wars, where you could absolutely make yourself a Necromancer/Warrior build that lived in melee. Maybe not the most efficient, but the game absolutely worked to let you do that.

The fact of the matter is that regardless of your skill level, you should be able to derive information from the game about what a certain choice will do and go from there. The players who have acclimated to a game with a whole lot of false-choice cul-de-sacs are probably going to be quick to point out that obviously you can’t combine Energy Melee with Flame Magic and the dagger; what were you thinking? But if the game doesn’t say something about not putting those things together, the problem is that the designers have built an engine designed to make people screw up based on unavailable information.

And that’s not really a matter of the meta. That’s a matter of the designers wanting to pretend the meta doesn’t exist because it serves their purposes. The meta is about describing what the game is actually like, but this is obfuscating the meta, pretending it isn’t there with a fake smile and a false choice.

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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