Answering Tom Chick: Five Easy Pieces And One Snide One

Tom Chick is one of the (if not the) most influential video game writers out there. He also doesn’t like MMOs very much. This is a problem!

He lays out five reasons why not here. You should go read. When you come back, I have some helpful suggestions!

Problem one: Subscription fees

Well, um, not every MMO charges subscription fees. Guild Wars lets you play as much as you want once you buy the box. MMOs for teens like Maple Story and Runequest pioneered the model of “playing for free until you get addicted, then pay a little more”. Games like Puzzle Pirates let you pitch in a dollar or whatever when you need to. This isn’t an unsolved problem. What is an unsolved problem is that perception that subscription fees imply a level of quality in craftmanship, and “free products” are cut-rate. This is driven largely because at the moment, that’s how the market shakes out. After all, World of Warcraft charges a subscription fee, therefore, statistically speaking, all MMOs do! Right?

Problem two: Why do I have to install Omen again?

For those of you not being drug by your nose through World of Warcraft raiding, Omen is the name of a third party threat meter used to ensure your aggro management is precisely where it should be. Aggro is a key part of the Holy Trinity that to date every DikuMUD (muds descending from Diku code bases, as Raph Koster’s magisterial analysis describes), and the core combat mechanic hasn’t really changed that much in the intervening decades. You takes the beats, you heals the beats, you mitigate the beats, you spread the beats around. It’s all about the beats. Unless, you know, you fight other players, since other players are usually immune to taunting unless it takes place on message boards. Even in DikuCombat, PvP breaks the whole aggro paradigm. And there *are* other combat systems that have been introduced. They’re rare, and usually get roundly trounced in the marketplace because people enjoy the safe, secure embrace of take/heal/deal beats. Ultima Online, for example, is entirely apart from the whole DikuMUD aggro mechanic – it has aggro, but it’s dependent on lots of bizarre things such who hit what when and whether you had a bard and the phase of the moon and whatever. But, if you play World of Warcraft, that’s what you’re going to learn, since, statistically speaking, all MMOs are actually World of Warcraft.

Problem three: Why are there so many goddamn buttons on my screen?

Because you’re playing a Warlock? Because you’re raiding? The core World of Warcraft UI is actually pretty simple. It’s player-crafted addons that hoist it aloft into a F-16 HUD. But the real core problem is the button-mashing that, again, DikuCombat is dependent on. It’s an artifact of MMOs being client-server systems at their core; more interactive combat such as Oblivion’s sword slashing imposes a huge tax on latency and percieved responsiveness. There have been hacks (such as Age of Conan’s “autoattacking into space” directional attacks) but, in the main, World of Warcraft uses the same tried and true DikuCombat which means you’re going to be pressing the 1, 2 and 3 keys on your Rogue over and over. And statistically speaking, all World of Warcraft players are in fact Rogues (soon to be Death Knights).

Problem four: Why is there a line to kill Sauron?

World of Warcraft is, by its very nature, intentionally a static amusement park. You get on the ride, you experience thrills, chills, the occasional spill, and get to the end, at which point you get to do it all over, but for reputation points.  This is because if someone came before you and saved Bloodmyst Isle from the Sun Elf threat, you’d have a pretty damned boring time getting your space goat to level 20, wouldn’t you? There have been many attempts to address this problem – having player-generated content (such as UO’s Seers), having player-vs-player content (such as Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer’s Realm vs Realm fighting), or having procedurally generated content (such as Anarchy Online’s early stab at instancing and World of Warcraft’s current iteration of ‘phasing’). But… hey, I bet you know how this will conclude, and I won’t spoil it for the next 50 people doing this quest line. (Hint: ‘statistically speaking…’)

Problem five: I can’t go raiding with Bob with my level 6 paladin

That’s because, for whatever reason, World of Warcraft never implemented sidekicking or mentoring – the ability to temporarily boost yourself or lower your friend’s levels so that they can match, which is a key feature of pretty much every MMO that isn’t World of Warcraft. Unfortunately, statistically speaking, every MMO that isn’t World of Warcraft doesn’t exist, so that’s probably why it hasn’t been implemented yet.

Tom Chick’s core problem: MMO = World of Warcraft. This isn’t really a fair cop, as I have it on good authority that he’s fond of LOTRO, too. But still. Every screenshot in his story is from World of Warcraft. Every problem in his story is from World of Warcraft. Every time he says MMO, he really means World of Warcraft.

And you know, when one of the most influential game writers in the industry makes this mistake, and essentially writes a piece on “Why is World of Warcraft Like World of Warcraft?”, I think we have a problem bigger then aggro management.

Statistically speaking.