Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Aggregate Quality of MMOs

There is quite a bit of discussion out there about the quality of modern MMOs and how they are (allegedly) built for the lowest common denominator instead of designers actually aiming to make a good game. Oftentimes people argue that market share isn’t an indicator for the quality of a game – I greatly disagree.

If we define the quality of a game as the amount of fun that is had while playing it, it is quite obvious that different games are of different quality to different people. From an individual point of view I can easily define features that are fun, art-styles I enjoy, and so on. Sales figures don’t say much about how much I personally will like a game, obviously.

We can’t, however, mark the overall quality of a game by what I like (or Wolfshead, or Larísa). I would argue that it is a bad idea to talk about an overall quality at all, but if you have to do so (and people are) then you are pretty much left with just the option of looking at aggregated quality. If Peter loves the game, Paul finds it so-so, and Mary hates it then what we have is a so-so game. This, again, doesn’t tell us how much an individual will enjoy the game. What it does tell us is how likely it is that the individual in question will enjoy it. If eight out of ten people enjoyed the game, odds are you will as well.

There are various attempts at quantifying the quality of a game, such as Metacritic’s aggregated review and user scores. These are flawed by the simple fact that not all players actually enter their scores there and that those that do are often biased. MMOs have the peculiar feature that players usually only play one of them at a time. Using a slight simplification, one can say that players always play the MMO they like best. This helps immensely with determining aggregate quality since we now only need to look at subscriber numbers to get a vote from every single player of MMOs as to which one they like best. Subscriber numbers therefore correlate directly with aggregate quality.

One disadvantage of this approach is that quality can only be measured relatively – if all other games are pretty bad, the mediocre one will be the clear winner. Subscriber numbers therefore don’t indicate that designers are doing things right, but that they are doing them better than others. From an aggregate point of view, World of Warcraft still is the best MMO out there – even if certain people, me included, don’t like it much anymore. This doesn’t mean that World of Warcraft couldn’t be much better than it is; it’s simply the best MMO around.

The problem here is of course that aiming for aggregate quality – that is more people who enjoy the game – can lead to a reduction in individual quality. Naturally, companies shoot for the largest market share (especially in this market in which prices are pretty much fixed) and therefore give us many games that all aim to be the best game for a large amount of players. That means that people with niche interests will not get a game that suits those. Not yet, anyway.

Companies will soon notice – if they haven’t yet – that there can only be one big fish in the mainstream MMO pond. Sure you can try to beat that fish heads-up, but when you lose (which you most likely will) your investments will go down the drain. Sooner or later, game companies will try to harness those MMO players that are slowly being driven out of MMOs by Blizzard and its ilk. The issue here is that these games need to be profitable. If you make your MMO on a low budget, you will find that even your “hardcore” target audience doesn’t like it very much (however much they may claim that they don’t care about production values beforehand) and your game will fail. A higher budget either requires more players or players who pay more.

More players mean more accessibility which in turn is what made World of Warcraft so undesirable for players like me. Someone brought up the “hamburgers served” analogy in comments somewhere, meaning to compare modern MMOs to fast-food chains. Obviously, McDonalds and its ilk aim to make food that appeals to many people and make money by selling large amounts of meals every day. Their food is of very low aggregate quality, which is supposed to suggest that aiming for large audiences leads to low quality. It doesn’t, it is the price that does that.

You can go to a better restaurant and get objectively (well, as objective as it gets with taste) better food than in a fast food joint. If free choice was involved, virtually everyone would go to the better restaurant instead. The only reason they eat the junk food is that it is cheaper to get while still being of acceptable quality. MMOs don’t work this way, they all cost the same (excluding free-to-play games for the argument’s sake). People will always play the MMO they like best as long as price is not a concern, introducing a fundamental difference to the fast food industry. An MMO simply has to be of high aggregate quality to be successful.

Would I like a niche, more “hardcore” MMO? Absolutely. I would even pay more to get it. Claiming, however, that MMOs are getting worse over time with the emphasis on market share is just wrong. They might be getting worse for you and me; they are getting better for the vast majority of players.

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