How Helpful Are MMOG Previews?
The last time I wrote a preview of an MMOG was at least a few years ago, long enough that I don't even remember the time frame or the title. What's more, it wouldn't bother me if I never do another. Indeed, if I had to guess, I'd venture to say I won't.
To put the above into its proper frame of reference, I'm using my own definition of "preview" and referring to what I usually call a "full" one. This means I'm talking about an article that describes enough of a game so I, as a reader, can get an accurate sense as to the key things I want to know without having to know anything beforehand or to go look for further information.
Obviously, one of these is what it's like to play. This may seem pretty straightforward, even simple, but in practice, it's not. For instance, what if my preferred archetype is an offensive melee fighter vs. a defensive one? Or perhaps a paladin type? How about if I want to be a nuker, a healer or some other type of support-oriented caster? Then again, maybe I'm particularly partial to using pets, or to minions raised via necromancy.
The list of possible play styles is much more extensive than just these examples. But the large majority of previews are based on only a single character. As a result, unless I get lucky and the writer has chosen the type in which I'm most interested, I'm forced to make a leap of faith, which may be relatively small, but can also be quite substantial. In addition, it's not unknown for previews to omit even listing the available classes. Granted this information isn't hard to look up, but should I have to?
In a related vein, I hardly ever get a good sense as to how solo-friendly the various options are. Since developers have generally trended away from forced or highly encouraged grouping, this isn't as big an issue as it once was. However, it's seldom the case that all choices are equally playable for those who like to spend most of their time adventuring on their own.
And that's not all. For instance, although I'm not a super-dedicated crafter, neither am I totally disinterested. So, I want a preview to tell me about this element - not necessarily in minute detail that some others would probably like, but in enough depth that I can evaluate how likely I am to enjoy a particular game's implementation.
Another thing I look for but don't get nearly as much as I'd like is information that goes beyond the early stages of play. More often than not, what I see is based on the first 10 to 25 hours, and sometimes less. Does a piece written based on this amount of time give me an accurate representation? If the game is well made, it should. Regrettably, it's not difficult to remember examples that were fun starting out, but in which the enjoyment factor declined significantly soon after due to reasons such as lack of content, repetitiveness, etc.
When I put these concerns together with some others, the result is that I find MMOG previews to be far less helpful than I'd like them to be. I realize my dissatisfaction isn't universally shared, and that some of you - maybe a lot, although I hope not - are very happy with what you see. If so, you're in luck since I don't see "the system" as being likely to change any time soon.
In this respect, the core problem is that anything even approaching the kind of preview I'd want just isn't practical. It would take an immense number of hours. For the sake of illustration, let's say 90 hours, 50 with one type of character plus 20 each with two others, would be enough to allow a reasonable assessment of how they compare as well as how a game plays overall. Add some time to write, and we're looking at roughly two full-time weeks of work to produce a single article. I don't know a single publication that would accept this rate of output from staff or pay freelancers accordingly.
Unfortunately, I'm also unaware of any practical ways to improve the current situation. The best I'm able to do is rely on certain writers whose perspectives have proven to align pretty well with mine on a consistent basis. There are a few out there, but even then, I don't get enough specifics and it's hit or miss as to whether any of them writes about a particular game I'm interested in. It's not as bad for subscription releases, but for free to play... That’s another story.