The Soapbox: Polished vs. feature-rich

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.

A few weeks ago I wrote a Soapbox article that exposed the flaws in the MMO first kiss theory. It generated more discussion than I anticipated, much of it spiraling off into tangents like MMO design, sandbox and themepark elements, and the seeming incompatibility between a polished game and a feature-rich game.

It's this last bit that I'd like to discuss today, and you'll have to forgive me if we tread some familiar ground in the process. While there are many fascinating perspectives and debates in our bizarre hobby, none is as perplexing to me as the disconnect between gamers who want more game and those who want less game, highly polished.

Why can't we have both a polished and feature-rich MMORPG? The answer, I'm assuming, is money. Even the smallest of these games is an expensive endeavor. Budgets are drafted and features are frequently cut due to financial and time constraints.

From a player perspective, polish has become quite the buzzword, to the point that it's now one of the chief rallying cries of the post-2004 MMORPG masses. Whether this is because so many of those now playing were weaned on World of Warcraft (and whatever other adjectives you may apply to Blizzard's behemoth, most folks agree that it is a polished game) or whether people in general have become more spoiled, demanding, and unforgiving is something that bears thinking about.

Polish and simplification

So what is "polish?" Much like "balance" or any other word liable to go inside air quotes on an MMO blog, "polish" is pretty subjective. Is polish a lack of bugs? If so, what kind of bugs, gamebreaking or incidental? Is polish related to attack animations or artistic consistency from one area of the game to the next? Is it related to skill or class balance, the economy, or the soundtrack?

What makes WoW a polished game and Age of Conan a buggy mess (assuming you subscribe to the conventional wisdom here)? Is it that AoC still features a disappearing mount bug that's been in effect since release? Does WoW not have similar quirks? It varies depending on whom you ask, of course, and it's fair to say that one man's polish is another man's simplistic drivel.

While you might think the desire for polish is unequivocally a good thing, I'm not so sure, particularly when it comes to MMORPGs. Why? Because polish and creative risk-taking are often mutually exclusive. One look around our industry confirms this. The year's most successful new MMORPG is an unapologetic rehashing of earlier games with a new coat of paint and a liberal dose of polish-driven pixie dust. If that bit of evidence doesn't convince you, simply look at an exhaustive game list and pick out the titles with unique features (or even features that are unique spins on what's come before). You'll find that they're outnumbered by safer, easier-to-design replicants by a wide margin.

The prevailing industry wisdom seems to be that it's too hard (or too expensive) for devs to do robust feature sets and polish, so as long as your game has the latter and doesn't depart very far from the post-2004 norm, it will sell.

This drive to simplify has manifested itself in a number of different ways, from the group-think that says player housing is unnecessary to the narrow-minded focus on combat (exemplified in all of these MOBAs that are 100% combat-driven yet are brazen enough to adopt business models that are similar to traditional MMORPGs that dwarf them in terms of gameplay options and feature sets).

So what are you saying, Jef -- that we should play buggy indie games that we don't enjoy? No, but I am saying that if you're interested in MMORPGs retaining their complexity, charm, and virtual world leanings, you might want to develop thicker skin when it comes to tolerating bugs and rough-around-the edges implementation. If not, that's fine too, but don't be surprised when we're all playing League of Legends five years from now because real MMORPGs have gone the way of the dinosaur.

I don't particularly enjoy buggy titles, but rare is the MMORPG that is so unpolished that it causes me to log off in frustration. The worst offender that I can think of off the top of my head is Mortal Online, and even it has righted itself somewhat from the unmitigated disaster that was launch.

Polished vs. feature-rich is really just another theater in the ongoing war for the soul of the MMORPG, a war being fought on one side by folks who want deep, free-form, virtual-world type entertainment and those who want disposable 20-minute chunks of faux achievement-whoring. Sometimes those desires intersect, and it's definitely possible to enjoy both, but developers seem oblivious to that fact, or if they are aware of it, many are simply unwilling to throw fans of the former a consistent bone.

A couple of examples

Collectively, today's MMORPG players seem like an instant gratification-obsessed lot. If a game isn't polished to a spit shine at release or shortly thereafter, it's time to move on to the next big hype train. What's often glossed over is the fact that many (most?) MMOs usually acquire polish over time. Therefore, it's perfectly acceptable -- and even desirable, in my book -- to come out swinging in terms of ambitious feature sets that may not be firing on all cylinders right off the bat. Various kinks can be ironed out while maintaining a depth of gameplay that is beyond the reach of all this MMO-lite junk food that manages polish via low expectations.

Exhibit A is Star Wars Galaxies. Sure it was buggy on June 26th, 2003 (and really well into 2007 or so, depending on where you looked). It was nonetheless fascinatingly playable. Today? It's going away -- despite a dedicated and profitable population -- to make room for the next LucasArts cash grab (which will no doubt be highly polished and highly simplified in comparison). Over its remaining six months, SWG will be what it's always been: the blueprint for absurdly deep MMOs looking to layer themepark elements on top of a sandbox foundation.

Another example of the unfortunate polish-is-greater-than-features mentality is evident in the way EVE Online veterans decry anything and everything related to Incarna and DUST 514. No, I'm not talking about monoclegate here but rather about the incessant whining that invariably accompanies any discussion of EVE's new avatars or future plans for station environments, social features, and basically anything that doesn't revolve around pew-pew.

Waaaahhhh, we don't want the most ambitious cross-platform virtual world ever created, New Eden vets are basically saying. We just want lasers and explosions. This is laughably short-sighted when we consider that no one is taking away the ability to internet spaceship (yes, I just made that into a verb).

CCP, despite its occasional ill-advised PR fiasco, is looking to add more things to do in addition to internet spaceships. Apparently, though, some EVE types are incapable of taking their own advice and would rather CCP spend an eternity polishing what's there rather than expanding the canvas.

And that really encapsulates my beef with those who say that more != better. When it comes to MMORPG feature sets -- and consequently player choice and varied options -- more is always better. The opposing mindset retards the advancement of the genre and leads to the creative stagnation we're currently experiencing. Risk, both the creative and the financial type, is what led to MMORPGs in the first place, but now that they're big business, it seems like many players are spoiled to the point of sticking out their bottom lip when they encounter ambitious indie games that lack the polish of their safe and sanitized AAA counterparts.

Of course we'd all like polish, but is it really worth dumbing down the games until they can no longer be called MMORPGs? Massively multiplayer titles are -- or maybe were -- complex beasts that only show polish after significant feature cuts or after many years of constant tweaking by a dedicated dev team that is backed by a patient community.

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.