Ask Massively: We bake bread to crush

I have a dirty little secret: A few weeks ago when I was really sick and laid up on the sofa, I got addicted to Pawn Stars. It's a cheesy little History Channel reality show that tracks the exploits of a Las Vegas pawn shop and the shop owners' good, bad, and history-related deals. (I know, I know. I'm bad and I should feel bad.)

One lesson the boss repeats to his employees and the viewers over and over is that being rare isn't enough to make something valuable and that many valuable things aren't particularly rare at all.

This is not a lesson MMO players have learned.

I say this because MMO players (and designers) are obsessed with the idea of rarity as a measure of awesomeness, the idea that if certain game elements (or activities or rewards) are rare, that alone makes them good, desirable, and valuable. We sneer at words like "accessibility," embrace false scarcity, and insist that some game content should and must be reserved for a special group of elite players who have the time/money/skill/gear/network/magical foozle to access it. We tell ourselves the lie that "anyone" can achieve what those elite players achieve with enough effort because we want to believe that we too can achieve eliteness (never mind our concurrent and dissonant belief that if everyone eventually becomes elite, no one is).

This causes some of us to lose our heads and act like covetous jerks because we base our perception of our achievements and fun not on our achievements and fun but on what everyone else is doing. Some gamers have fun and feel successful only when no one else can have fun and be successful.

Let me give you the example that inspired this edition of Ask Massively and sent me down this path of thought. A reader recently emailed us a tip about Champions Online, one we covered briefly yesterday. He argued that Cryptic had originally announced the Lemurian Invasion final mission as one that would be "challenging for strong, high-level heroes only" (his quote). Apparently, once the mission hit the test server, the mission was made scalable and playable by everyone of every level. Without stating whether he agreed with the sentiment (which I point out in fairness to him), the tipster told us that "the community has shown strong disagreement with this change."

This guy? Totally baking bread to crush.That makes sense, sadly; a small, hardcore, endgame community defines itself by its ability to do things no one else can, so of course there will be some uproar when some content is (predictably) made accessible to a wider group (and in this case, when the content also scales them down to a scrubbish level 30 as if level 40 meant nothing and now their uber gear/powers/stats can't give them an advantage over the nooblets). Those folks' accomplishments aren't actually diminished by other people's accomplishments or scaling-up, but they don't care about the accomplishments themselves -- they care about the rarity of those accomplishments as compared to what everyone else is doing, and they'll complain until content is made more and more rare and harder and harder to achieve (for everyone but them), even at the expense of the health of the game and its community.

Now, I know the problem is by no means new or restricted to Champs. Players like the one our tipster mentioned existed in EverQuest; they're the kind who love open-world endgame dungeons specifically because they are dominated by power guilds able to shut out everyone else and keep the experience rare and elite for the few who made the cut. The early sandbox era was also characterized by the "we don't play to bake bread; we play to crush" mentality (although in my guild's case, we embraced "baking bread to crush"). Everything was a competition. Be it classic or new release, sandbox or themepark, every game has representatives from the big two contingents: casual players who just want to have fun and think the power players are insane, and power players who believe that fun-oriented gamers have ruined everything because games are currently designed to be fun and make money and not to stroke egos. (Who knew?)

The modern MMO genre faces the problem anew as it expands into MOBAs and e-sports and competitive gaming -- gaming as sport rather than as entertainment. Those games themselves are not the problem. They're doing it right because PvP is a sport. Someone's going to win and someone's going to lose (although as Camelot Unchained's Mark Jacobs cutely put it, a really good PvP game ensures that you'll be having fun while losing). But attitudes generated in legitimate competitive gaming leak out of e-sports and back into MMO PvE, and suddenly instead of fighting the mobs, the AI, and the random-number generator, we're waging war on message boards, demanding exclusive access to killing elite rats, noobs be damned.

While I was skimming the Champions forums trying to source the outrage, I saw a lot of positive, friendly behavior, like threads aimed at acclimating City of Heroes refugees. And in between snobby, selfish posts, I also saw players asking Cryptic to just level everyone to 40 rather than 30 in the Alert (so that at least endgamers weren't being leveled down -- a perfectly sensible and inclusive request). Clearly, most of the Champs posters get the big picture. Rare and exclusive hardcore content might be awesome for hardcore egos, but that doesn't make it good for the game. Scaling content means more people having fun, more money for Cryptic, and more content in the future. Accessibility doesn't mean easy, dumbed-down, or everyone getting a gold trophy; it means more warm bodies keeping your game alive. Having seen four of my favorite MMOs sunset in the last year-plus (and having listened to Champs-related doom and gloom for months), I think that perspective is warranted.

What should you play? Where is the MMO industry headed? How does Massively operate? Has Lord British lost his marbles? Why is the edit button on a timer? Should "monoclegate" be hyphenated? Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce submits to your interrogations right here in Ask Massively every Thursday. Drop your questions in the comments below or ping us at Just ask!
This article was originally published on Massively.