What strange alternate dimension have I wound up in, in which it is apparently unacceptable for a game reviewer to review an MMO based on their experience for the first 10 levels of play? There’s a problem that exists somewhere in the gulf between the game design philosophy for your standard MMO and the expectations of MMO players, and this problem seems to be lending itself to players making excuses for games that aren’t fun.
I’ll use an extended metaphor to assist with making my point, here: if a book is poorly-written for the duration of its first ten chapters, it’s not reasonable to expect that the author will suddenly adopt impressive writing skills over the remaining seventy. Okay, maybe the plot twist towards the end isn’t all that bad, but if I have to wade through a sea of grammar, spelling and punctuation errors — or, more realistically, wade through a childish vocabulary and struggle with the author’s painful insistence on pacing the story in a way that doesn’t support any of the story’s events — I’m not going to make it that far, and I won’t enjoy it even if/when I do.
I don’t understand why so many MMORPGs get to ease on by these criteria that would cripple a game published in any other format. It seems gamers want to equate their MMO experience to the plot of a novel, rather than comparing it to the nitty-gritty of the author’s composition, but this equation is a false one. The standard perspective on an MMO, following through with my literary metaphor, seems to be that, “It’s okay that the author can’t spell or string together a sentence in a meaningful way; a lot of really cool stuff happens in the final chapter.” There’s no reason this type of thinking should ever be accepted as sensible; a book simply cannot be good unless the writing itself is good, and a game cannot be good unless the mechanics are fundamentally enjoyable.
Game mechanics are ever-present entities in an MMO world, and no amount of “end-game content” should make a game more fundamentally enjoyable to play, specifically to those individuals who are unwilling to delude themselves. To me, the fun of a game, and the quality of a piece of literature, originates in the details that the experience as a whole builds upon; for a novel, the thrill comes out of the use of individual words in a specific order to create a mental image, and for a game, this thrill comes out of the interactive equivalent — the use of a player’s individual actions to communicate an artistic vision.
This said, accusing game reviewers of not being able to appreciate an MMO because “[they] didn’t play enough of the game” is a daft argument. Any game that requires you to play for twenty boring introductory hours before you reach some actual enjoyable content is simply not a good game, and the situations in which players attempt to defend such a game strongly resemble those in which victims of domestic violence attempt to defend their abusive spouses. If an MMO isn’t enjoyable for the first X levels, then there’s something fundamentally flawed with the formula, and no amount of progress through the game will ever change the fact that the basic mechanics simply aren’t enjoyable.
What seems more likely is there’s some point at which players simply stop caring about whether or not the game is genuinely fun. Once they’ve reached this point, they lose perspective on what it actually means for a game to be fun, and begin defending their choice of game on the grounds that they’ve already sunk a ridiculous amount of time into it and must therefore validate this expenditure to themselves and others. It seems clear to me that the majority of the people defending their MMORPGs on various and sundry forums have simply resigned themselves to playing low-quality games, and can’t tolerate other people telling them that their taste in games is poor.
The MMORPG genre needs to go back to its basics. These games need to be built on a solid foundation of generally enjoyable game mechanics, which reflect the experiences provided by each individual game, rather than endlessly copy-pasted mechanics with slight changes between different games. We need more games like Global Agenda, which attempt a completely new approach to various aspects of the genre, and fewer games like Aion, which seek only to refine what’s already being done. As long as players continue to think of “you didn’t play the game long enough to appreciate it” as a valid defense against criticism, MMOs are going to continue being churned out as generally uninspired rinse-and-repeat experiences that are impossible to take seriously, with the one or two odd exceptions.
Players need to be more critical of their MMOs, and MMO designers need to stop contenting themselves with just meeting standards; it’s time for players to expect more out of their games, and for developers to raise the bar. Until either of these takes place, I strongly expect the genre to wallow in stagnation.