The Rise and Fall of MMO Critique

This week while doing routine maintenance on my blog, I decided to make sure that the links to other MMO blogs that specialize in critique on this site were still pointing toward actual websites. During this process I ended up deleting at least 30% of the links on my site.

I was shocked to see how many blogs that I used to love are no longer in existence or dormant. One particular wonderful blog by a insightful lady named MorningLark is no longer. Her domain is for sale as are some of the links to other MMO blogs displayed on this site. I felt like someone punched me in the gut. My first reaction was to ask the question: why?

While we still have a good number of blogs dedicated to MMOs, many of them seem to be journals of their experiences in virtual worlds. We also have MMO blogs that are all about theory crafting and speculation of how new expansions will impact their chosen class. All of those blogs are useful and worthwhile in their own right.

What concerns me the most are the blogs that deal in critique of the genre. From my own personal anecdotal evidence, those kinds of blogs are in decline. The big question is: why?

Have MMORPGs reached a state of perfection that we no longer need any form of criticism?

Hardly. If anything MMOs seem to be getting worse then better. In a previous article, I mentioned that the popular music genre is also in a downward spiral of producing infantile and sophomoric content. So it’s not just happening to MMOs.

Where is the MMO Wine Spectator?

The video game industry is obsessed by attaining high Metacrticic scores and many bonuses in the industry are tied to those scores, yet for some reason MMO developers seem oblivious to criticism. The only barometers they seem to care about are sales figures and stock prices. While I fully believe in the wisdom of Adam Smith’s invisible hand theory of the marketplace I am perplexed that the marketplace has not given us a better MMO mousetrap.

Maybe we need to consider that the MMO market which is a niche market within the entire video game market, is in actuality two sub-markets: mass market and niche market. The wine industry is like this as well. There are mass market big wine companies that produce cheap wine for consumers and there are mid-size to small wineries that produce award winning wines that show up in Wine Spectator. But the MMO industry doesn’t really have a highly respected authority like Wine Spectator to rate MMOs. The closest thing we have is a ranking list from MMORPG.com.

On the other side of the fence, there is no professional association of MMO developers. With the exception of the odd panel at GDC or PAX, MMO developers rarely get together to talk about their craft.

So the task of critiquing MMOs is left to bloggers and others.

The Rise of MMO Blogging

As the MMORPG genre blossomed in the late 1990’s with titles like EverQuest and exploded later in the mid 2000’s with World of Warcraft, many MMO players sought to understand the phenomenon of virtual worlds. As millions of players found themselves enthralled by this new form of entertainment, they pondered and subsequently deconstructed every aspect of how MMOs are made and why they played them.

At the time blogging was very popular with blog platforms like WordPress and others. So naturally many MMO players started to write about their passion for the hobby. There were blogs and websites devoted to: combat and theory-craft, trade-skills, itemization, maps and exploration and personal experiences in MMOs. There were also many forums at the time devoted to high profile guilds who at the time were the rock stars of the new entertainment medium. A few of the top guild leaders went on to work for major MMO companies.

Other websites and blogs emerged had more of a consumer watchdog purpose. They closely monitored what the big MMO studios were doing and offered opinion and commentary. This made sense because at the time MMOs were an ongoing investment. First you purchased the MMO, then you kept paying for it each month. Naturally due to this ongoing financial commitment, players felt rightly entitled to a high quality of service and ongoing improvements. I believe I can safely say that the MMO players became one of the first true video gamer communities in history.

Since I started blogging in 2004, the MMO genre has changed and so has technology and the way that people get their news and opinion.

YouTube Video Game Reviewer/E-celeb

A few years ago there was the rise of the YouTube video reviewer. People like TotalBiscuit and Angry Joe are a good example of this type of video commentary/entertainment. Many more have followed in their wake and the typical YouTube video game personality seems to be from the UK and is characterized by a snarky and dismissive tone that the Brits have turned into an art form.

Despite being a video site, YouTube is considered to be one of the world’s biggest search engines. Yes, you heard me right. Many people today — especially millennials — do not read actual newspapers or visit websites to get information, instead they use video almost exclusively.

If you want to share your opinions about a MMO today, chances are you’re more likely to start a YouTube channel than to create a traditional text blog. There are in fact quite a few YouTube commentators that are doing a podcast type show where they invite a few personalities to chat about video games and MMOs. I believe there is value in these kinds of videos as they seem to focus less on the entertainment value and more on actual substance.

Mega Gaming Websites

Then a few years later there was the rise of the mega gaming websites. With the increasing popularity of video games, suddenly anyone that played video games thought they could be a video game journalist. Video game journalism is perhaps the lowest rung on the food chain for idealistic graduates fresh out of journalism college bursting with progressive ideas and a desire to change the world™.

When the GamerGate scandal came to light, it exposed the danger of this trend when many video game websites ended up becoming infiltrated by these social justice warriors with a journalism major. Video game journalism ended up being used as propaganda vehicle for left-wing and progressive viewpoints instead of actually reporting and critiquing video games for gamers.

Reddit

As the years passed, eventually Reddit came along and created a more centralized form of discussion based on votes from subscribers. The problem is that this format can be abused and can end up creating a tribal atmosphere and an echo chamber effect where anyone that strays from the narrative is ostracized. When an article is linked on Reddit very rarely to the people ever come to your site to comment; they post on Reddit instead because that’s where the action is. Although I am starting to warm up to Reddit, I have still have some problems with Reddit that I have outlined in a previous article and lately Reddit has been trying to censor and silence conservative and libertarian voices.

Throughout all of the changes I have noticed that people’s attention spans are becoming shorter and shorter. I am fully aware that the kinds of long form articles and essays I write are not as appealing to the current generation of TLDR afflicted gamers.

But the biggest problem with the decline of MMO blogging and critique is that something has happened to MMOs that people are no longer writing about them. The reason is simple: MMOs are in decline.

The Decline of MMOs

MMOs were once thought to be the future of video gaming. Today MMOs aren’t really a big deal anymore. But now that the future is here, other forms of video games have proven to be more popular and have captured the imagination of the public. The sandbox genre video game of Minecraft has sold an impressive 100+ million copies. MOBAs are very popular too.

The main problem is that the creativity of MMO developers has stagnated and atrophied. The creative energy that used to go into making MMOs more immersive is instead being diverted to make better cinematics in order to create so-called “epic experiences”. Other resources are being used to trim away traditional MMO features to make them more accessible in order to attract potential new and unskilled demographics on the periphery. We have gone backwards instead of forwards.

Blizzard spent probably $50 million dollars on their top secret Titan MMO and they had to cancel it because it wasn’t fun. Daybreak Games also spent millions of dollars on EverQuest Next and it too was cancelled for the same reason. The top two MMO studios in the world have now admitted they are incapable of making new MMOs.

Another reason for the decline in MMO blogs is that MMOs have become predictable and boring. It’s very hard to get excited about writing about the same mechanics, the same shopworn plots, the same tired quests over and over again.

The potential of MMORPGs is still largely unrealized and untapped. Virtual worlds are still nowhere close to being living and breathing. To this day there is still very little dynamic content in the MMO genre that lets players have an impact and adds replayability with ever changing and evolving virtual worlds. We are still inhabiting virtual worlds that are enslaved to the tedium of the Groundhog Day syndrome.

The Advent of the Single Player MMO

Perhaps the biggest reason for the decline, is that MMORPGs are no longer MMORPGs anymore. They are basically single player games that you are playing simultaneously with other players.

The MMO community that used to be so passionate and vibrant has vanished just like the community within MMOs. Nobody talks or socializes in MMOs anymore, so why should they talk about them on blogs?

Just as a rising tide raises all ships, so too does a falling tide lower all ships. MMOs have become too easy, too easy, too nonsensical and too juvenile that millions have stopped playing them entirely. The decline of MMOs like World of Warcraft that lose millions of subscribers each year is conclusive evidence of this. As goes WoW, so goes the MMO genre and the communities that coalesce around them.

As the fortunes of the MMO industry fell there have been other collateral casualties. Even WoWInsider — once the top WoW only news site — went out of business. It now carries on as Blizzard Watch which is run by social justice warriors and sycophants who routinely close comments when readers dare to stray from their progressive agenda. Blizzard Watch is one of the worst examples of video game journalism out there as they willfully failed to report on the Nostalrius incident until J. Allen Brack responded officially. They also refused to do any stories on the Tracer controversy.

Conclusion

For an art form to be healthy it requires criticism. Criticism is a noble pursuit that contributes to our culture. Criticism and dissent makes the food we eat, the drink we imbibe and the entertainment and art we experience better and the lives we all lead better. And those who are part of the creative process need to be open to criticism from their peers and the public instead of just relying on sales figures to gauge their success.

In the early years of the MMORPG genre, the MMO community took an active interest in the virtual worlds they were inhabiting. They cared enough to ponder and question how the gods (the developers) administered their virtual worlds. Many senior developers today were in fact some of the loudest and most vocal critics and parlayed their strong opinions into careers in the industry. People like Alex Afrasiabi, Jeff Kaplan, Steve Danuser and Scott Jennings just to name a few. All of them rose to the occasion called out MMO developers for their shenanigans and their criticism had the beneficial effect of improving MMOs. Sadly, those days are over.

Much like the Hollywood film industry, the world of MMO development has devolved into a sausage factory of producing the same MMO over and over again. We bloggers were the resistance. It’s been a long war of attrition but eventually the big companies won. MMO criticism is basically dead with just a few bloggers left to speak for MMO gamers who feel abandoned and disenfranchised. Of course there are still many MMO blogs that are interested in theory crafting and how much DPS (damage per second) in an upcoming talent build will bestow to their favorite class but MMO critique is in decline.

At some point as a critic, you can only voice the same concerns over and over again until it feels pointless to continue. The big MMO companies won’t listen and rarely if ever engage their critics. If they do it’s from the safety of blue text on official forums where they control the shots, make the rules and form the narrative. Instead, these companies have become echo-chambers of insularity where the status quo MMO design philosophy is rigidly imposed and worshiped.

For the past few years, I must admit I have been so utterly disgusted at how banal the MMO genre has become that I wanted to shut down my blog and walk away from it all. If it wasn’t for the assault on gamers by the collusion of social justice warriors and the corrupt video game journalists involved in the Gamergate scandal, I probably would have stopped writing about MMOs altogether.

With the decline and retreat of independent MMO bloggers, we are quickly losing a valuable source of independent opinion that is free from the pernicious influence of big video game companies and the corrupt cadre of sycophantic gaming websites that are only too eager to pander after receiving all-expense paid junkets to preview the latest blockbuster MMO expansion.

As we have seen with the Overwatch Tracer fiasco, video game companies like Blizzard Entertainment routinely censor and delete forum posts to suit their narrative. Blogs are one of the few places left where gamers can freely and openly discuss the issues that are facing gamers and the games they play.

Recently the internet media complex which is dominated by tyrannical big tech companies like Google who promote a progressive agenda both here in the USA and around the world, are silencing and censoring libertarian and conservative voices. Even Wikipedia — the self-appointed arbiters of knowledge — is rotten to the core with left-wing bias and manipulation of knowledge.  Perhaps the most egregious example of this their odious, one-sided article on GamerGate.

We are living in dark times where freedom of speech and democracy is under assault all around the world by the soft tyranny of powerful forces. We are rapidly coming to the point where those of us who express conservative and libertarian views will have our expression labeled as “hate” speech and prosecuted for it by government regulatory bodies. I predict that personal blogs and websites will be the last outposts of freedom left on the Internet. Now more than ever we need to encourage people to keep blogging and expressing their views while we still can. We need to hear more voices rather than less voices. We need more diversity of opinion. We need more inclusion and tolerance of non-progressive ideas.

Are all the MMO blogs gone? No. There are some good ones that are still going. A few are still fighting the good fight. Even though I may not always agree with them or find the time to visit them, I salute them for their tenacity and persistence.

As mentioned earlier, part of the reason for the decline of MMO blogging is that technology is changing on how people like to get information on the Internet. YouTube e-celebs have an inordinate amount of power and influence now. But forever the critic, I must ask: have MMOs gotten better or worse since the arrival of the TotalBiscuits and others?

I have been blogging and writing essays about MMOs for over 11 years. I am proud of my contribution to the MMO genre in that I provided a counterpoint and a rebuttal to the Blizzard formula of how MMOs should be made. Most of my predictions about the industry have come true. Even with all the gloomy news these days about MMOs, I am still optimistic that someday we will find a virtual place we can call home again that is worthy of our dedication and support.

For my part, as long as I have money to pay my monthly hosting costs, I can assure you this blog will never go away. I will always do my best to speak truth to power. I will always be unafraid to take on the big MMO companies when they screw up. I will always stand up for the design principles that I believe in and that made me fall in love with MMORPGs in the first place.

I know I have many readers who still come here after all these years. I want to thank all of you for your continued loyalty and participation.

-Wolfshead

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