The Soapbox: Classism and the oxymoron of the casual MMO

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Seeing as how it's becoming something of a Massively tradition to offer rebuttals to my Soapbox articles, I figured it was time to turn the tables. A few weeks ago, our own Bree Royce penned a piece about class warfare in MMORPGs. Though it contained a number of valuable insights, I feel it struck the wrong chord when it comes to discussing the reasons "hardcore" MMO players dislike the pervasive trend towards accessibility.

While the thrust of Bree's article dealt with classism and my response started out with a similar focus, this week's column has since morphed into more of a pseudo-rant on the casual vs. hardcore debate. Yes, the terms are malleable, and yes, this debate is eternal, but it's eternal because it matters (inasmuch as anything related to entertainment can matter).

Join me after the cut for a traditionalist's take on MMOs and discover why they aren't "casual" games -- and why this has very little to do with social class.

EVE mining
As I said, this article started out as a traditional point-for-point rebuttal, but in writing it, I discovered that it was really one particular paragraph that stuck in my craw. In the interests of avoiding a novelette, I've opted to quote the relevant lines and add my comments after the fact.

"Some gamers pine for the 'good old days' when games featured gameplay that better filtered out the undesirable elements."

In my opinion, most old-school MMOers pine for the good old days for a much less nefarious reason: They liked having more options. Put another way, the gameplay was simply more diverse, and that has nothing to do with filtering anyone out. The various -isms that Bree brought up may be the root cause of gamer unrest in a few sociopathic cases, but a far more common reason is that accessibility flies in the face of what an MMO is (and what early adopters dug about it). MMOs are -- or used to be -- virtual worlds; there's a reason Linden Lab chose the name Second Life instead of Second-casual-game-that-you-can-play-after-the-kids-are-in-bed. It's the same reason Sony Online Entertainment named its flagship product EverQuest rather than OccasionalQuest. Unfortunately, complexity, commitment, and immersion are four-letter words to the new breed of MMO player, and as a result, developers are following the money towards simplicity and missing features (wherefore art thou housing, crafting, and really any sort of gameplay that doesn't revolve around heavily instanced homicide).

Take DC Universe Online, for example. It's a beat-'em-up with various multiplayer lobbies. There's no doubt that its combat is well-designed and fun, but the game is ultimately a shell of an MMORPG and is clearly an attempt by SOE to get consumers to accept a watered-down (i.e., cheaper to produce and maintain) recurring revenue nut. Casuals will invariably chime in with "that's fine, it's a video game and I don't need it to be a job," but the point is that there are already thousands of such games out there. Why waste the virtual world opportunity (and the DC license) making yet another one?

"EVE Online's tedium and brutality is painted as a necessary measure to keep lesser beings from mingling with the elite. Ultima Online's rampant PKing and EverQuest's anti-solo design ensured those who lacked social skills would wash out."

Aside from the "tedium," "lesser beings," and "elite" phrasings (which I would replace with "strategy," "casual," and "hardcore," respectively), why is this a problem? Where is it written that everything must be made for everyone? Humans are tribal creatures; do we really expect people to happily associate with folks who don't share their interests in the name of some ill-defined (and unattainable) utopian ideal? EVE is clearly designed to appeal to people who want to spend a lot of time playing and even more time thinking about playing. CCP doesn't give a damn about the fact that its game is the antithesis of casual-friendly, and as such, the company is one of the few remaining immersion beacons in an increasingly glutted (and gutless) MMO industry. One can only hope that CCP follows the EVE model with its upcoming World of Darkness title rather than jumping on the comically overloaded our-game-appeals-to-casuals-and-hardcores bandwagon.

Anyhow, while I found most of Bree's column an interesting read, I think it painted hardcore gamers with a bit of an inaccurate brush. Are some of them interested in keeping others down? A few probably are. In my experience, though, most of them are more interested in continuing to play the type of games that they enjoy (i.e., games that require time and effort and that are consequently under assault due to the accessible design mandate sweeping the industry). I'll wager that the majority of the article's hypothetical damn dirty "elitists" could not care less about a person's income, lack of income, skin color, sexual orientation, or any other social descriptor; all they care about is that the games they love avoid dying a casual-focused death.

"WoW's current blend of ultra-accessibility is criticized for letting the rabble in. Blizzard screwed up, so say these elitists, by making the gameplay so easy and accessible that casual gamers flooded in to ruin everything."

Despite the fact that this was meant as an indictment of the hardcore mindset, the description is pretty close to reality -- with the "everything" equaling the world-first-game-second mentality shared by many (most?) pre-2005 MMORPGs. In my opinion, the real issue here has nothing to do with classism and everything to do with a nerd pastime going mainstream and subsequently being stripped of what made it magical in the first place.

Darkfall group
So, hardcore MMO fans are generally not seething cauldrons of bottled up classism, sexism, homophobia, or hate. We simply want our genre back. Despite all popular cries to the contrary, MMOs do require a substantial time investment, and until grind (and virtual world leanings, even as watered down as they are currently) are completely eradicated, that will never change. If you don't have time to play, you don't have time to play, and as these games get more and more "accessible," they get less and less MMO.

Cases in point: Vindictus. Global Agenda. DCUO. All of them are lobbies with little more than MMO window dressing and an exclusive focus on combat, combat, and hey guess what, here's some more combat! I won't even go into the laundry list of missing features and assembly line design mentality of F2P game (or browser "MMO") #1,138. I'm not saying these types of games shouldn't exist either. On the contrary, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger Global Agenda fan. What I am saying is that the collective industry has moved toward a constant stream of disposable, tourist-driven fluff-truffle, and it annoys me. Said annoyance has absolutely zero to do with classism, though.

Also, keep in mind that I'm saying this from the perspective of someone who generally despises grind, gearscore, raiding, and most of what is considered hardcore or endgame in terms of mechanics. I'm not interested in gating or keeping people out. I'm interested in MMOs realizing their potential as virtual worlds, and virtual worlds necessitate both a dedicated community and a certain time investment.

If you're OK with that, come on in; the MMO water is just fine and no one cares about your real-world social status. If you're looking for bite-sized entertainment, there's plenty of that too, just not in the MMO space. Consoles have that covered, as do social networking games. Neither of those platforms is appropriate for a real MMORPG, though. And before I get too far off the track, let me circle back around to one of Bree's points. I don't think that anyone in his right mind truly feels that poor people (or any people) should be denied the ability to play games. What I am saying is that if you are too "time-poor" to play MMOs, the game isn't the part of the equation that needs to change.

In the end, I'm given to rolling my eyes when exclusivity and the various flavors of hardcore are denounced (usually by folks who used to have the time, or want to have the time, to play). Hell, I'd love to indulge myself with 18 holes six days a week, so I know how it feels. I don't expect golf course designers to do away with par 5s and water hazards simply because I lack the time to deal with them, however. Life is a series of choices, and in a lot of instances, those choices affect whether you can play MMOs. "Accessible" MMO design is attempting to circumvent that reality, but all it's really doing is creating a bunch of simplistic knock-offs (and alienating those who desire something meatier) as it aims for mass-market appeal. There are a ton of casual games out there, and a ton of really good ones.

There aren't any casual MMOs, though.

SWG - Fleete

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.