Polish. How many times do you see that word when you browse MMORPG sites, from forums to news articles? I am willing to bet many of us see it dozens of times each and every day, possibly without even giving it much thought.
After all, it is the true buzzword of the MMORPG industry these days, spewed forth from the mouths of editors and developers alike. It is not "balance" nor "innovation" anymore - no, those were the buzzwords of days gone by. These days it is all about "polish", but why? And where did this word come from? And what the hell does it really mean?
In this entry I am going to try to cut through the mystery of this word to try to figure all of this out. This is probably going to be a lengthy one as I tend to ramble, but hey, you are here on your own free will and can leave any time you wish.
Whoops, there went half of the readers. Ah well, let's continue, shall we?
Now, I am not going to pretend I launched a thorough investigation on the history of the word as pertaining to MMORPGs, but based upon my own observations, polish was not mentioned much in the days before World of Warcraft. I do not recall developers talking about putting polish on their game back in 2001, for example, as though it were a shoe or a bowling ball. Back then, I remember them speaking more of balance and features. You know, things that were at least somewhat concrete and gave a little bit more insight into what was going on.
Fast forward to today, and almost every single article I read regarding the development of an MMORPG, regardless of the source, mentions polish.
"We are going to use this time to polish our game."
"The release date has been pushed back to allow for more polish."
"The developers hope to release a polished product."
And so on and so forth. Fans even cling to this word, forgiving everything a developer does, especially delays, because the developer throws the magical word out there. Fans go ballistic, shouting things like, "I am so happy they are taking their time to add polish and ensure the game launches ready!"
I always chuckle when I hear about polish being "added", as though it were an ingredient in an MMORPG recipe:
"Combine 2 parts graphics, 1 part balance, and 2 parts content in a large bowl. Whisk them together until something takes form. Add in a dash of polish and and pinch of hype, and bake for three years."
Well, I already wandered off... back to polish!
I have a hunch the word's origins can be traced to the slew of half-baked MMORPGs that have released in the wake of WoW, hoping to cash in big like Blizzard and crew did. Previous to this phenomenon, MMORPGs were a niche genre, but that is no longer really the case. Sure, it is still definitely geekier to play EverQuest II than it is to play Halo 3 or some other mainstream shooter, but it is an accepted, widely known genre now, not just reserved for crazy die-hards obsessed with MUDs and d20 games.
My point is that at the onset of the current MMORPG genre, which I think truly started with EverQuest in 1999 (some may argue Ultima Online, or even Meridian 59, but the point is largely moot), fans were simply happy to have these vast, new worlds to play in. It is not like we had much choice, anyway; it was either play the very few quality MMORPGs that existed, or play none.
On a related note, there was no way to draw comparisons for the purpose of putting expectations in context. Imagine if there was only one television show in the world; it would, by default, be the best, no matter how good it actually was. And so it was with a game like EverQuest - it was really the only show going, next to Ultima Online, with any hope of widespread appeal.
So, we did not fault any of the MMORPGs for much. They were terribly difficult to learn, compared to today, and brutal when it came to punishing players for mistakes. If quests did not work, the game lagged, or the servers crashed, people just dealt with it as the norm. If any of you played EverQuest when it started in 1999, like I did, you will probably fondly remember it as one of the best, if not the best, MMORPG experience of your life. But, if you scrutinize it knowing what we know now, it really had a lot of issues and, had other MMORPGs existed that were at all like it, it would have been criticized a lot more than it was. It got a free ticket and, in my opinion, probably deserved it, to be honest - it did more for the genre than Blizzard could ever hope to do.
But I digress.
When WoW hit the gaming world, it did a lot of things right - we all know what they were, so let's leave it at that. As a result, this was one of the first MMORPGs that held together very well, was both fun and simple to get into, but could still be challenging enough to hold one's interest.
The bar was raised, just like that. No longer could MMORPGs pass by virtue of being unique, they had to also work, in all aspects. Thus, "polish" became an umbrella term for all that Blizzard did. Therein, I am afraid, lies the problem.
Developers now just hurl this word about as if it means anything tangible, or at least worthwhile. We all understand that games are designed to be good and to work, so why must we be told over and over that they are being "polished"?
I think part of it is to reassure us that they are trying to avoid the post-WoW blunders of trying to capitalize on a suddenly very lucrative market. Fans want to hear this sort of marketing talk, and that is really all it is - it speaks nothing of actual game design. It is like an artist saying his picture will be pretty - it mentions nothing of the art itself, only how the public will receive it. Public relations, pure and simple.
But, nowadays the word has become sinister. Downright evil, actually. It is now an excuse for everything, and something we hear about instead of useful information. Funcom's announcement today regarding Age of Conan's delay to May 20th mentioned "polish" four times - four! I find this to be hilarious, and a perfect example of what I am talking about. Gaute Godager's even more recent explanation included the word three times, as well, bringing the total to seven mentions from Funcom in one day.
So, polish is the reason the game is being delayed. That is not exactly helpful, nor comforting. In fact, it only raises suspicion. If a developer cannot frankly tell its audience what needs to be improved, fixed, or added, and simply says the game needs polish, we should question what is being hidden. No, this is not about conspiracy theories, but rather about being given the truth instead of a whitewashed story. Polish is not a valid reason for anything, as it itself is not anything. Polish is the culmination of everything, but is not something you can actually find in a game. Features, content, and all of that are actual things that we can discuss in detail.
Realistically, when a developer says they are adding polish, I suggest reading it as, "We are still implementing major features and game systems, and fixing critical bugs and gameplay issues." This, in my opinion, is what they are actually doing, but they do it under the guise of polish. Look at any recent game that has discussed polish leading up to release - Vanguard and Age of Conan are the best examples and biggest offenders - and read when they started talking about polish, the last step in game development, and when they delayed, announced feature changes (usually cuts), and finally actually released.
You will notice that they talk of being on the polish stage long before the game is even close to completion. Both of the aforementioned games cut classes, changed major game systems, and announced massive delays long after claiming to be just casually polishing their offerings. Does this not seem right? It sure does not seem right to me.
So, to anyone who read this far (congratulations), I hope you will not fall for this buzzword any longer. Developers do not owe us anything, but when they talk to us and hype their game they have chosen to be accountable, and we should hold them to that. When they feed us "polish" as their answer to everything, we should not let it slide. At the very least, let's stop praising them for it. Saying this word does not deserve fanboy fanaticism (see Age of Conan forums for what I am talking about), it deserves cause for concern and a call for real answers and information.
Oh, and you reviewers and editors, please stop centring your articles around the concept of polish - it is useless. I do not need to hear about relative levels of polish that usually reference WoW - I need to hear about what the game is like, and how it plays. Comments like "The game is lacking polish but should have it added in the coming months" are about as useful as a poopy-flavoured lollipop. What is rgood about the game? Why? What is wrong with the game? Why? How could it be fixed? Do some actual reviewing and some real journalism instead of churning out the same garbage that developers feed us.
Anyway, that about does it for me. Reading over this massive entry, I must say I noticed I got angrier as I wrote. I suppose marketing and fluff buzzwords associated with it have always raised my ire.