Are we expecting too much from online games?

This past week I’ve finally had some time to sink my teeth into New World. I’ve so far managed to log about 20 hours in-game, an amount of time which to me feels not-insignificant, but which a lot of other people would consider laughably scant. Still, I’ve actually been having a lot of fun. I’m playing the game at my own pace, getting distracted as and when I feel compelled to (which is often), and making my way through the main story with no great hurry. I already have my qualms, but I dont intend for this to be a review of the game – in fact, this post is in some ways taking to task the very notion of reviewing an online game (specifically an MMO). More than that however I want to address why players are feeling compelled to publicly disparage games which they’re happily willing to admit to having sunk large chunks of their time into.

Steam review sections are a pretty terrible place. Sure you can almost always find a funny meme review (although only a very small percentage of said efforts actually hit the mark), and there are the occasional helpful round ups of the positives and negatives of a game, but for the most part they’re used as a sounding board for people to tell the world how they feel they’ve been personally wronged by the game’s developers. You can head over to pretty much any MMORPG on the platform and find any number of negative reviews. For starters these are easy to find because Steam reviews only deal in binaries – therefore a game is either good – as represented by a blue thumbs-up that blends in with the default skin’s colour scheme – or bad – a glaring, red thumbs-down. One thing which I do like about Steam reviews however is that each one tells you how much time the player has actually spent in that respective game. Sure, you may feel unhappy about the direction that a game’s development has taken, but if you have over 7000 hours under your belt in that game, is it truly worthy of a big red thumbs-down just because the endgame is currently “boring” or “dead”?

This kind of gross overreaction can be found in discussions (I’m using that term very loosely here) across pretty much all platforms and surrounding all forms of media. “It’s a sign of the times, social discord and debate is dead, the youth are doomed, yadda yadda“. With regards to online games however I feel that part of this attitude is driven by a misunderstanding of what we, as players, personally want out of these kinds of games. Developers and publishers hope that their game will keep you playing forever, and their game mechanics are built to facilitate exactly this. It isn’t surprising then that we players go into these games wanting and expecting to do just that.

But, as Prince said of forever, “that’s a mighty long time”. Of course we’re not going to be playing a game until the literal end of time, so at what point do we justifiably say that we’ve played a game “pretty much forever”? Other storytelling mediums don’t have this problem: a film is as long as it is, and you can read a book as slowly as you like, but you’re going to finish even the longest book in a little more than 50 or so hours. When you watch a film or read a book (or even play a single player story-driven game) you’re experiencing a complete, finished product that is meant to be consumed and then you can go about the rest of your life. The design ethos is completely different to that of an online game. Therein lies the rub of why it’s impossible to review an online game in the same way you would other media.

So, back to New World, where less than one month after its release you can go pretty much anywhere including the game itself to find people whining that there’s nothing to do. It’s a tale as old as time and one that you would expect to see in Steam reviews, or on Reddit, or Twitter. What caught me off guard however was when I read a similar sentiment in PC Gamer‘s review of New World. Each paragraph of the review follows the same format and it goes something like this: “I was having fun doing x, but after a while the lack of variety made me bored”. At first this seems fair – certainly if you were playing a 20 hour single player campaign and your fun was crippled by repetitive design then that’s an obvious problem. Of course if you were playing an online game and the same was true after 20 hours then that’s also a serious red flag. As it is however, the reviewer states three times that he had spent “hundreds of hours” in the game. Even assuming that this includes time in either the beta, or in press pre-release play sessions that is a lot of time put into a game which was released less than a month ago.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the VAST majority of the hundreds of thousands of players that purchased the game have not put in anywhere close to those sort of hours. And sure some of those people will have put in only a handful before quitting altogether – that’s fine, because no game is going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I would say most people are probably similar to me and they’ve logged somewhere between 10-50 hours in the game since launch. Those people I know who have done exactly that are all pretty much feeling the same way about the game – it’s a pretty game to explore, the gameplay loops and mechanics are nicely polished, and it has a good variety of different things to do to keep each play session varied. The fact that the story is uninspired is a concern, but its obvious that it was never intended to be the big selling point for the game in the same way that it is for titles like Final Fantasy XIV.

Myself and other “casual players” (insert roll eyes emoji) will potentially plug a few hundred hours into the game over the coming months or years. By which time there will hopefully be more content, and most of the egregious endgame imbalances will be ironed out. Part of the appeal of these kinds of games is, after all, the fact that they evolve over time. If the game were to have launched with the same amount of content that FFXIV or WoW has today then it would have needed a similar development period that includes the time that those games have been operating as a live service, and I’m pretty sure that even Amazon would balk at the cost outlay of a decade-long development period. So, they pushed the game out the door. And yes there are bugs, and a relatively short storyline, and a thin endgame, but presumably Amazon Game Studios is listening and it won’t be long before new content and fixes start streaming in. To those players who, in the space of only a few weeks, have sunk a hundred or more hours of your life into the game already then there is undoubtedly something there that has your interest in a serious way.

If you are in that crowd then by all means let your opinions be heard on how you think the game needs to evolve. There’s nothing wrong with being a hardcore player and unless it’s against the game’s specific design ethos (which it certainly isn’t in the case of New World) then there does need to be systems in place to support that section of the game’s community. But please, reconsider whether you think the game really is bad before you go giving it a big red thumbs down.

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