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Casual Play: Lowering the Bar

By: Steve Wilson

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Steve Wilson. The column is called "Casual Play" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Wilson. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

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I hear frequently that the newer generations of MMOs are lowering the bar. World of Warcraft is one of the games that receives this accusation more than most others. This is sort of odd considering that it has done more to advance MMOs as a genre than any game previously, if you consider the number of players that subscribe to it as any indication of the genre improving. Really WoW did for MMOs what the Star Wars films did for sci-fi. And so I have to wonder what's really meant when someone says the new games have lowered the bar?

Sure there is some elitist pride having been one of the first in on something. I hear all the time from goths upset that Marilyn Manson ruined their rainy parade. Or that hip hop was once hip before it became white and nerdy. That video games were once the sole domain of the hopelessly dateless. Being the first in any of those niches made one an innovator, something that no matter how dorky seemed like it was worth bragging about. At least to others that thought that sort of thing was impressive.

The problem is that eventually an artist comes along and is able to discern from its whole the elements that appeal to the masses. They make these elements accessible to all and suddenly they have 'lowered the bar.' This accusation is not exactly new. One can look to the birth of printing and the middle classes for some of the first rounds of accusations.

It's been argued that The Adventures of Don Quixote was written as a warning about the dangers of fiction, romantic tales, and the fairly new offset press at the time. The offset press allowed the newly forming middle classes to buy books that had once been the exclusive domain of the wealthy. Rather than buy the classic works of Aristotle and other great thinkers the middle class wanted fantastic romances. What had previously been deemed worthy of print by the elite was being undersold to the new genre of mere fiction. The character Don Quixote becomes so engrossed in these romances that he loses sight of reality and becomes the victim of these fantasies. It was a clarion call against the dangers of books being used for anything less than their most enlightened purpose. Rather than be delighted that literacy was spreading across Europe the elite were repulsed that for books the bar had been lowered.

The old school purists will insist that MMOs have been dumbed down. In reality they've been made vastly more entertaining. Star Wars Galaxies for example had players obsessive over stats that spanned a thousand point range. Managing these secondary spreadsheets incorrectly could result in a character that wasn't able to perform their job correctly. A Calmari swordsman was unheard of, their intellectual skills gimping them in hand to hand combat. Early in Dark Age of Camelot I quit a guild that mocked a player for making an Avalonian armsman. WoW on the other hand removes this chore simply allowing or not allowing a race to perform specific tasks, and removing the boring stat management that went with it. Has the bar really been lowered that players aren't burdened with this tedium? Maybe the old school players are simply upset that it doesn't allow the degree of min/maxing they were once able to get away with?

One thing that lowering the bar has improved is the volume of players that have now experienced how playing cooperatively with others can enhance a game. Recently in my travels I've met the mother of a gamer who never thought she would be pulled into any games lure. The snare for her was that she could play in short increments without having to rely on others. Or a secretary that enjoyed being able to have fantastic adventures without having to juggle tons of numbers. For her playing was just getting in and doing things without having to constantly stress, babysitting every little stat and odd characteristic of previous games.

That lowered bar for me has also allowed me something I could have never ever done in the previous generations of games, play along side my six year old niece as we adventured through the land of Azeroth. In just two evenings not only have we both made level 8 with our characters, but she was frequently able to take the lead giving her a taste of confidence unlike anything Id ever seen in her before. Best of all our experiences were not just what we saw others do on television, but adventures that we got to live together that were more fantastic and fun than our mundane lives.

That a six year old can play WoW is probably proof alone to many old school MMO snobs that the bar has indeed been lowered. But when I consider all the new players, once just average people that would have never entertained the notion of something so geeky, I for one am glad the industry is evolving beyond its obsessive compulsive beginnings.

Heck I might even say it could come down a few more notches.

Steve Wilson / Did some dumb stuff, grew up, then against better judgement went and did some more.

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