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The Soapbox: That's the way it should be!

Eliot Lefebvre

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.

Every fandom has it. In Transformers fandom, it's the segment of the population that insists the franchise peaked with the original G1 cartoon (and its numerous animation errors, bad scripting, and downright ridiculous plots). Star Trek fans will insist that the franchise should be more like the original series, where every plot revolved around Kirk's trying to bone someone or Spock's acting stoic. And then there are the tabletop gamers who miss the days of early Dungeons & Dragons, as if the books stopped working once the line stopped being active.

Some fandoms have terms just for this crowd; some don't. But they're all in the same general group -- they're the One True Way crowd. They're fans who insist that one particular incarnation was the right way to go and everything afterward has been a poor imitation. The camp exists with MMOs, as well, and just as with any other franchise, it's arguably the most harmful portion of the fanbase.

Anarchy Online might be the poster child for the fact that trying new things sometimes doesn't work out well.There's nothing harmful, of course, about liking an older game. But there is something very harmful in forgetting the weaknesses of that game, of assuming that it must have been flawless or that the flaws were somehow the result of the players. And there's something very wrong with the assumption that a game that doesn't follow the right mold isn't really an MMO and anyone who dislikes that model doesn't really like MMOs.

For starters, it stymies innovation. I see people complain sometimes that post-World of Warcraft, companies have stopped innovating, which is the exact opposite of the truth. We've seen huge innovations from World of Warcraft itself, not to mention the plethora of games that have come out since then that have targeted all sorts of other ways to handle what is sometimes the same basic concept.

MMOs are a huge meta-genre. Gone are the days when your options were Ultima Online or nothing. We've moved from the earliest point of development on to a more advanced point, from knowing nothing about how MMO games would be played to having entire models of player types and concepts about why people play one title over another. At this point, there is an MMO for nearly everyone who wants one, ranging from low-impact action-based games to large sprawling adventures or farming simulators or whatever else you want.

Some innovations haven't worked very well. Warhammer Online's Kill Collectors were an interesting and innovative idea, but they were pretty bad in practice. It turns out that the shooter gameplay in Tabula Rasa didn't light the world on fire. But to say that these innovations didn't exist is shortchanging a lot of talented developers on the basis that they're the wrong kind of innovations.

Unfortunately for all of us, this sort of fan does seem to most commonly consist of players who see the rise of solo play and streamlined games as an abomination. It's the conflation of complexity with depth and a set of rose-colored glasses that sees more modern games as being "too easy," neglecting the fact that a lack of reliable information isn't a challenge so much as poor design. The result is that when this camp says "innovation," it frequently means "I want you to make me a new EverQuest but better."

And that doesn't help matters, either, because it means that certain features are seen as necessities rather than optional. Everything gets turned into the "sandbox vs. themepark" debate instead of a question of whether or not the feature in question actually adds anything to the game as a whole. If you're making a sandbox game, you have to add in everything from the One True Feature Set instead of just the parts that actually make sense for your game.

This is just plain bad design. It means that instead of including elements that contribute to a unified whole, you're trying to mold a game to fit the elements that you're already forced to include. The game is going to suffer as a whole because you're trying to carve out space, not letting design proceed organically. Of course, when the game fails (and it usually does), the blame is usually on every other possible factor.

But the older game was better!  You know, the one I unsubscribed to before they changed everything because of falling subscriptions.It also speaks to a fundamental lack of observation about why things happen in the way they do. The reason that games have rushed to embrace things like the World of Warcraft play structure isn't because the designers can't think of anything else; it's because that sells games. Free-to-play isn't a last-ditch effort to save a flailing game but a conscious decision on the part of companies because it's a model that's been shown to work as well as subscriptions if not better. There's a certain evolutionary process to the game industry, with less fit models being phased out in favor of better ones, and that evolution and innovation is happening now as surely as ever.

There's nothing wrong with disliking the direction of things. But claiming that the way things are headed is wrong is missing the point. There is no "true" way to design an MMO, no single factor that assures its success or failure, and the environment as a whole has moved on to bigger and better things.

Claiming that there's only one right way to make MMOs means that you're limiting yourself to an incredibly narrow field of possibilities instead of the current state of diversity. You're asking for a return to a time that never existed, for the genre to essentially feed upon its past and just produce the same thing eternally -- to watch talent and creativity slowly wither and die, with fans slowly breaking away as they come to realize that the past doesn't hold all of the answers. It's confusing a fond memory for the reality and an inability to meet an impossible standard as being somehow flawed. It's assuming that if you no longer allow yourself to become immersed in something, it's the fault of the work itself and not of your mindset.

And if you like that sort of stagnant mindset and want to be in a world run by those folks? Well, there are always comic books.

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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