Some Assembly Required: On balance and fairness

Some Assembly Required 22

Today it occurred to me that The Secret World's faction choice is meaningless. You're probably aware that the game features three organizations, but if you're not a regular player, you may not know that picking one is largely an aesthetic exercise. Sure you get different lines of dialogue in the game's numerous cutscenes depending upon whether you're a Dragon or a Templar, and you get Illuminati-specific outfits if you roll that way, but outside of these niceties and perhaps roleplay, TSW's factions are pretty pointless.

They're pointless because there's no real consequence for picking one over the other, and there's no lasting impact on either the world or gameplay that results from in-game factional "wins."

Anyhow, when I mentioned this to a friend, his very first comment was that "any changes would need to be fair and inclusive."

The Secret World - gravedigging cats

Now, I'll stop short of advocating for an unbalanced playing field. Or will I? The more I think about it, the more I think that notions of balance, all-inclusiveness, and "fairness" (whatever that means) are doing a number on the ability for MMOs to provide interesting virtual world gameplay. I may be wrong, and feel free to convince me of such in the comments, but everyone running on the same perfectly balanced hamster wheel is my definition of boring.

MMOs are going through a period of obsessive sameness that in my mind has to do with the genre's rise in popularity. As the gaming industry seeks to expand and pull in ever larger numbers of non-traditional gamers, and as traditional gamers age and procreate, there is necessarily less time/desire for actual virtual world gaming because it can exacerbate the gap between the haves and the have-nots throughout an MMO's ecosystem.

These games were once viewed as huge time-sinks, though, and most of them can still be played that way even though it's becoming more and more common for MMO players to skim the surface and dabble in dozens of different titles, never fully engaging any of them.

Call it accessibility or casual-friendliness or whatever marketing buzzword you like, but it's simply the way it is. As a result of this market shift, the "bite-sized" mentality has become more prominent in MMO design in the form of instancing, lobbies, and games with fewer feature sets and a strict focus on combat.

Many (most?) people will tell you that this design shift and the theoretically level playing field it creates is a good thing. I'm unconvinced, though admittedly that's because I look to MMOs to fill the virtual world niche instead of trying to replicate a heroic single-player experience.

Vanguard - Player ship

There's seemingly a strange duality at work in the minds of many MMO players. On the one hand, folks want to be unique and celebrated for it (hence grinding for legendaries, bank-sitting, and other forms of e-peenery). On the other, they cry out for equality and ample rewards regardless of skill-level or time investment.

The aforementioned convo about meaningful faction competition and the incessant calls for "balance" on forums and in comment sections all over the blogosphere are a couple of examples, but I'm not just talking about mechanical balance. Another example of this duality is evident in discussions like that surrounding Guild Wars 2's one-time event brouhaha. The Massively staff weighed in on this one, and we were pretty divided on the issue. Some of us saw the merits in being able to affect a game world in a meaningful/permanent fashion, while others focused on the what-ifs inherent in their busy schedules and fretted over not being able to do/acquire a theoretical piece of content.

Meaningful virtual world gameplay and MMO individuality are interesting conundrums, and frankly I'm glad my livelihood doesn't hinge on them. MMO devs are constantly challenged to take the same basic formula and make it interesting, preferably interesting enough to get players to open their wallets over extended periods of time. There's a certain shallow pointlessness to progression-based gameplay, though, particularly when that progression has a predetermined end result that can never be appreciably altered by the player.

One of the main reasons to play an MMORPG, then, is to prove that you can do this progression better, faster, or otherwise more expertly than someone else. In other words, competition.

And by definition, competition features a winner and a loser. We may dress up the loser with participation prizes and feel-good rhetoric, but it's inescapable that we as a species are hard-wired to challenge one another and crown a victor in just about everything that we do. Why, then, is there all this lip service regarding balance and fairness when what we're really obsessed with is being better than the next guy? The endgame of "balanced and fair" is a million clones and little to no competition between them. Is that really what we want?

EVE Online - Rifter

If so, then there's no room for the upset, the underdog, or really, anything other than utter predictability. There's no room for actual achievement, creativity, or excellence, because if everyone is achieving the same thing (the same armor sets, boss kills, trait builds, etc.), the achievements are illusory, and this fakery is observable in all PvE-centric MMOs that tell you you're the savior of the world while respawning the big bad you just killed for the savior in line behind you.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the more "fair and balanced" an MMO is, the less interesting it is. EVE Online is a good case in point. The game is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, page hit draw ever when it comes to MMO-related stories in both the gaming and mainstream press.

By contrast, few people care to read about most other MMOs unless there's a declining subscriber count in the story. Anecdotes about a guild offing XYZ raid boss are boring and irrelevant because a hundred thousand others will do the same thing shortly thereafter, if they haven't already. Millions of people love reading about the latest EVE corp scam, though, because it isn't especially fair, balanced, or predictable, and it's therefore always interesting even if the gameplay itself isn't your cup of tea.

In closing, I'd love to see MMO designers become a little less focused on being fair and inclusive and a little more focused on servicing their particular niche in ways that aren't offered in every other game. I understand that the market has shifted and that so-called casual players far outnumber their so-called hardcore counterparts, but bland, meaningless repetition doesn't serve either party.

One-time events, truly challenging content, or the ability to affect a game world may in fact require more dedication and/or skill than most of us can muster, but that's not necessarily bad design as much as it is life.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of sandboxes and player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!