The Soapbox: Tunnel vision

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|12.20.11

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The Soapbox: Tunnel vision
Remember how WAR was going to bury WoW?  Yeah.
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.

As everyone knows, social gaming is doomed to failure. Mindless, repetitive drivel like FarmVille is just an enormous waste of time and clicking with no actual gameplay aspects involved, and there's no real depth to keep someone hooked. It's not even remotely close to an MMO, and obviously pretty much everyone will get bored with it and stop giving Zynga money in a couple of months.

The only thing that stands in the way of that clearly correct opinion is the piles of money it continues to make.

Of course, the above is what several gamers have been stating ever since the first seemingly innocent Facebook game came around. I'm restating it here not because I'm talking about social games but because it's a symptom of a larger problem. As gamers, we love to predict which MMOs will work and which ones won't, but we're also suffering from a terrible sense of tunnel vision that makes us really awful at that.

You'd think I would care more.  I mean, lizardmen.On one level, this is really inevitable. Even if we narrow the field to just talking about MMOs, that's a huge number of different games catering to all sorts of different audiences with different tastes. Unless you're working with this every single day, you're going to miss a lot, and even if you are, it's easy to find yourself missing big chunks of news. Case in point: I only realized how long it had been since the last EverQuest II expansion when I wrote up a post on it because I don't play the game and thus don't really pay attention to most of the time.

And that's all fine. I also don't pay attention to news about professional sports because I don't care about them. I follow news about the Transformers fan community from a distance because I am a little interested in that. Within an environment of near-constant news, there is no way to follow everything religiously. Asking that would just be insane.

The problem comes when you try to extrapolate the pieces of information you do have into an overall coherent picture because you're working from a position of profound ignorance.

Let's use me as an example once again, just in the interests of fairness. Early on in my tenure at Massively, when I had been working here for maybe two months, I was working on a news piece about EverQuest II. Mentally, I'd already written it off as being totally irrelevant. But when I talked about that story to some of our other writers at the time, they were fascinated by the story and thought it was big news.

I didn't think anyone cared about the game, but that was mostly because I didn't care about the game, thinking of it at best as That Sequel That Launched Into World of Warcraft's Release. My apathy did not in any way make the game irrelevant to others, nor did my total lack of caring result in the game not producing and maintaining a good subscriber base for years. I'd written it off as a failure because it hadn't ever achieved its predecessor's success, but the result was that I had no idea what was actually going on with it.

And we all do it. Constantly. Whether we mean to or not, we judge games against our own ideal games. We move forward with a horrible confirmation bias, priding ourselves on cherry-picking bits of information that support what we think makes sense and ignoring anything that doesn't fit into that schematic.

I sense a great disturbance in the MMO community, as if a large number of people sitting at their computers suddenly became industry experts.Star Wars: The Old Republic has been the most recent target, with people variously claiming that there's no way the game can keep regular voiced content updates after release (ignoring that this eventuality is likely planned for in the first place) or claiming that it's just going to be a success based on the IP rather than the game (which certainly didn't make Star Wars Galaxies an overnight smash, may it rest in peace). Similarly, people on the other side of the fence will claim that it's going to kill World of Warcraft (disregarding that many people playing WoW haven't even heard of Star Wars: The Old Republic) and that it's a revolution in gameplay (when it's more of an evolution in presentation, with much of the gameplay amalgamated from other sources).

Both camps aren't really making predictions. They're stating what they want to happen, based on whether or not they like the game, and then finding whatever arguments would back that up.

And it's understandable. You can't focus on every aspect of gaming in one sweep, nor does doing so actually give you a clear picture of what people want. I would personally never pay one red cent for a game like FarmVille, and I could convincingly argue that no one ever would, except for the fact that people clearly do. It's not a game that caters to what I want, but the result is that I'm not actually very well equipped to argue how well it caters to its target audience.

The best games are the ones you like. The worst are the ones you actively dislike.

This is, in many ways, an extension of the argument I penned a couple of months ago. Not everything is going to appeal equally to everyone. Not every MMO is going to be for you, and sometimes even the general thrust of MMOs is going to move away from you. Attempting to predict how the industry works based on what you like is missing the point to an absurd degree. I work around the MMO industry every single day, and even I don't think I've got more than the tiniest portion of an idea of what will happen next. I would never have predicted stuff like APB: Reloaded turning into a hit or DC Universe Online making a successful free-to-play conversion or the shutdown of Star Wars Galaxies.

I don't imagine anyone will stop making guesses or stop predicting the next big trend or anything like that. But we can at least be aware of our biases before we start making predictions. What you consider the best game ever, the game that should be hugely successful, the game that has so much potential, might be nothing more than a blip on everyone else's radar.

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!
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