Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Suckage is in the eye of the beholder (on a horse that never seems to stay dead)

This post over at Kill Ten Rats about The Secret World got me thinking about a more general issue.*  Most of the arguments we use to "prove" that a given MMO is better than another, or that a given MMO "sucks", are arbitrary and subjective.  The kinds of arguments I've seen commentators use to rank MMOs  generally fall into a few categories.  However, if you think about it there are clear reasons that none of these ranking schemes is a good universal metric of whether a MMO is "good" or not.  For example:

Popularity/ Financial Success: used by players of WoW to argue that WoW is the "best" MMO.  However, this leads to the McDonalds analogy (I stretched that one waaay too far in one of my early posts).  It's kind of elitist, but I think it's also a fair point.  How many folks reading this really think McDonalds has the best hamburgers that money can buy?

Innovation: used by players of EVE Online, TSW, and Guild Wars 2 to argue that their games are better than all the "WoW-clones" out there.  I do see the importance of innovation. Anything that pushes the boundaries of mainstream MMO space is overall a good thing, since it potentially expands the audience.  However, if we want to use innovation as our yard stick of what constitutes a "good MMO" then really bizzare MMOs with tiny audiences like A Tale in the Desert, Endless Forest, and Myst Online have to be considered the best MMOs.  Arden: the World of William Shakespeare was innovative as hell, and development on it eventually was halted because players didn't find it fun. 

Pooled ratings of Professional Critics:  used by players of WoW, SWTOR, and LoTRO (among others) to argue that their games are "good" in an objective sense.  On the surface this seems like a good argument, since it evokes the opinions of "experts."   However, when it comes to it this is just another form of popularity.  History is filled with examples of works of art that critics hated or ignored at first but later came to be considered classics.

Further, I don't find Metacritic scores to be a good guide to whether I personally will like a game or not.  Wrath of the Lich King got an astounding score of 91, and when I first tried it I didn't even last out the free month that came with it.  Diablo III scored an 88 and, at least among the bloggers that I follow, the overall consensus seems to be that it's a popcorn entry into the series with little staying power compared to Diablo II (no offense to Tipa!).  Warhammer Online garnered an 86, and we all know how that turned out.  Dungeons & Dragons Online scored an abysmal 74, and it's grown to be one of my favorite MMOs.  The Secret World did even worse, and I find it to be extremely compelling. 

Obviously what ultimately matters is whether a MMO is fun or not.  Just as obviously, fun is in the eye of the beholder.  What's perhaps harder to accept is that, like fun, suckage is also in the eye of the beholder.  Just because you don't like something doesn't mean that it sucks any objective sense.  Conversely, just because someone doesn't like an MMO that you like doesn't mean they have brain damage or aren't as perceptive as you.  All you can say for certain is that they didn't think it was fun.

Few of us run around screaming at people over whether they enjoy boardgames (love them), tennis (hate it), or hiking (love it).  I can list all the reasons I don't like tennis (I bite at it looms large), but I would never be tempted to claim that tennis sucks in some objective sense. Would anyone?  Why then do we get so worked up over whether other commentators "get" or "don't get" the MMOs we play?    And why do some commentators feel the urge to go out of their way to antagonize fans of games they don't like?  In a some ways MMO enthusiasts tend to behave a lot more like religious fanatics then hobbyists.  Do coin collectors and knitters have these kinds of debates? Well, maybe they do (thanks for the link Sente!).

I'm certainly not the first to comment on this phenomenon.  But to me this is an issue that keeps rearing it's head.  The internet: the great pit where the flamewars are not quenched and the horse dieth not.

*Note: the post I linked at KTR is absolutely not the kind of commentary that irks me.  It's a well written post that raises some interesting points.  Give it a read if you haven't.  The post is simply what got me thinking about these issues again.  


  1. I do believe that one will see this kind of arguments and debates in any sub-culture area - which for most outsiders is just weird that people even bother to argue about perceived minor details.

    There is a recent XKCD on that particular topic:

    I think you summarized the different ways to judge MMOs and their flaws quite well. There is no single or shared view of what would be a success or failure - or something in between, it does not have to be black or white either.

    A single simplified measurement/judgement of something is really only potentially relevant for people who is not really that bothered or much into whatever subject it is about.

    1. That XKCD comic is perfect. I'm going link it back in the main post :-)

      I completely agree that the possibility of gray does not seem to be nearly widely acknowledged enough. Even MMOs that I dislike overall, I can usually point to certain elements I thought were well done. The converse is also true.

  2. Personal preferences, we all have them. One way it occurred to me that TSW was niche is that most of the criticism I've seen is over its advertised features, and not actually over any inherent fault of the game. These features were specifically designed by the developers, they are working as intended, and some people love them, some people hate them. It's not because it's broken or poorly planned, it simply appeals to a certain demographic and yet not to others.

    And yes, I've noticed people antagonizing those who enjoy the games they don't like, as well as its sister phenomenon, that is people antagonizing those who don't enjoy the games they like.

    Look at this post I found linked from Spinks' blog for example:

    I don't necessarily agree with the guy, and he's kinda harsh about it, but he makes valid points and argues them intelligently...does the post truly deserve the level of vitriol as seen in his comments? Like I said, personal preferences. God forbid we have them.

    1. I think MMOs have higher stakes, though.

      If nobody else likes that single player game you stuck on your 'keepers' shelf because you have the bad taste to think it's was made of pure genius awesome, the worst that's likely to happen *for you* (rather than the people who made it) is that you don't get buy a sequel. You can still play your copy of the original game until the heat death of the universe (or Microsoft releases a new version of Windows that breaks everything).

      If the same happens with an MMO the servers will be switched off and you won't be able to play that game at all ever again.

      At best you'll have to endure a lot of desperate development and business moves that change it into a different game you might like a lot less (since all that unpopular stuff was the part that made it so good in your eyes).

      I think a lot of the defensive cynicism and offensive fanboishness, comes from this place of anxiety.

    2. That's a good point about TSW. For example many reviewers complained about the need to look up clues on the internet. Did those reviewers think that the in game browser was included so that you could check your e-mail in game?

      I also noticed that some of the more negative reviews tended to contain minor factual errors, and opinions about the overall GFX quality, storylines, and voice work so different from mine I had to wonder if they were playing the same game as me. Did they base their reviews on an early beta or something?

      The responses to that blog post you linked are pretty much exactly the sort of rabidity that I'm talking about. I found the numerous posters accusing him of being a WoW fanboy that is "afraid" GW 2 will be a success especially funny/ sad.

    3. @Skapusniak: you raise an interesting issue I had not considered. That kind of anxiety would certainly add fuel to a fire.

  3. In my opinion it's a function of investment. The more time and energy you devote to something the more it becomes a part of your identity and the less able you are to acknowledge any short comings, since these aren't just faults in the thing you love but also start to feel like personal faults.

    Religion, sports, and MMOs all have this issue, plus operating systems, programming languages, gaming consoles, and scifi franchises.

    1. I totally buy that explanation. A good MMO will have you playing it for months on end and investing hundreds of hours into it. If someone says that you've invested hundreds of hours into something that sucks, it's hard not to take it somewhat personally.

  4. People mistake personal opinion for absolute truth with frightening regularity. It's true in politics, religion, relationships, and especially in video games.

    I see that Blue is making a similar point, but eff it. I'm still posting this.

    1. It's a related point but more general I'd say :-)

      And yes, it is pretty disturbing. What drives me especially buggy is how willing some (perhaps even most) people are to distort or ignore facts that contradict their opinions.