Vague Patch Notes: Sub-optimal play vs. just plain bad play in MMORPGs

There's bad play and then there are bad players

Be better.

Something we need to start reckoning with when it comes to MMOs is the fact that it really is a problem when you’re playing badly in group content.

This is one of the things that the community, as a whole, has a difficult time with simply because we don’t establish very solid boundaries. For a certain slice of the player population, bad play is a synonym for anything sub-optimal. The boundary between optimal and sub-optimal play varies for each individual player, but it’s generally accepted to be elitist nonsense if, say, you’re going to call a Scholar garbage in Final Fantasy XIV if you get a single unnecessary heal cast on you.

But there’s a world of difference between the Scholar who uses Adloquium when perhaps she doesn’t need to and the one who casts no spells other than Physick and never touches his faerie. Both of those are, in the broadest sense, bad play, but one of them is really not worth getting upset about, while the other one is literally making it unlikely to impossible to get through actual content. So let’s talk about that space between sub-optimal and just plain bad because it is a deep and uncomfortable well to explore.

It’s not exactly hard to understand why people started getting bent out of shape over being called “bad” for anything sub-optimal. This is one of those things that’s been in existence as long as there have been role-playing games of any sort. One set of options is always going to produce better results than another set, and there are always going to be people who see the best options and want to play with those.

The tier system for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition tends to illustrate how this can be a real problem rather than just an elitist power trip thing. If you’re playing a Cleric in that version of the game, you have an enormous amount of raw power and options. If the rest of your party consists of a Fighter, a Monk, a Rogue, and a Barbarian, your GM can either create challenges appropriate for the rest of the party that you defeat handily without breaking a sweat, or create challenges appropriate for you wherein the rest of your party is functionally just a cheering section.

Of course, the differences are rarely so stark in most video games. Once you get past the jankiest and oldest games, you can make a lot of sub-optimal choices, but very few of them are actively bad and unplayable. Yes, your Retribution Paladin in The Burning Crusade would not be tearing up the World of Warcraft damage charts, but you were still functional and still had the ability to help your party. It was a sub-optimal choice, not a non-functional one.


As a community, we’ve long accepted as an aggregate that shaming people for deliberately made sub-optimal is generally not a good look outside of being an elitist jerk. Thus, outside of elitist jerks, criticizing people for things like that has become socially unacceptable. You don’t do that.

Unfortunately, “bad player” is not actually synecdoche for “sub-optimal player.” There are players who aren’t just making sub-optimal choices but are actively crippling their characters, not because of decisions as much as because of a failure of skill.

We’ve all met these people. The dude who can’t stay out of the fire. The DPS pulling things ahead of the tank after being asked to stop. The tank with all the defense of wet tissue paper. The Guild Wars 2 dungeoneer who treats the rest of the party like his personal minions. People deep in the Dunning-Kruger abyss, unable or unwilling to realize how bad they are and able to rationalize away feedback by claiming that the source is being elitist.

None of this is a problem if the person in question is playing solo, of course. If someone’s own incompetence turns the early levels of Star Wars: The Old Republic into a death march, that’s that player’s problem. But if that player then queues up to join you in a flashpoint without a trace of situational awareness, you are now paying the price for it.

The bright side, of course, is that the modern age of design means this sort of situation is at least less crippling than it used to be. There was a time in WoW, for example, when my wife and I spent the better part of an hour assembling a full party and filling in the tank and two DPS spots we needed, only to find out once we were in the dungeon that our tank did not actually have the gear or knowledge necessary for tanking and wasn’t actually all that good at the DPS thing, either. Given the choice, I far prefer “that’s five minutes of my life I won’t get back” to “that’s an hour and a half of my life I won’t get back.”

Heck, it wasn’t even unheard of in Final Fantasy XI to have players everyone knew was garbage but leveled up because they were playing a job that you could safely shove into “we need a sixth” slots. A friend of mine was even in a linkshell with a notoriously awful player who kept going because, well… you needed six people to grind and sometimes he was there. It was apparently worth it.

Yes, very impressive.

But the real question isn’t how these players manage to get up to higher levels; it’s how they keep managing to play without someone pointing out along the way that they are terrible at what they’re trying to do. These are people who barely grasp the basic mechanics of the game and still somehow manage to fail through the game, never really understanding that the chief reasons for being unwanted in groups is due to truly awful play.

Because we do, rightly, reject elitist chest-pounding as a valid reason to criticize someone in the middle of group content, but in doing so we’ve also created a space wherein people are reluctant to criticize others at all. It’s better to just suffer through it and just never group with that person alone. There’s no way to kick someone from a dungeon group for being bad because that’s a culture ripe for abuse by the elitist segment.

And this is, to be fair, really difficult to balance just right. You want a cultural setup wherein people aren’t afraid to play sub-optimally but are also pressured to at least be capable of putting forth appropriate effort into playing decently with others. It’s a tightrope act of balancing outside pressures, and I don’t have an actual good answer because as much as I dislike someone playing Black Mage and just casting Blizzard over and over, I likewise dislike someone trying to vote-kick another Black Mage who’s keeping up her rotation but prioritizes dodging a little more than she does.

But I do know that at least some of it starts with understanding that the two things are not commensurate and shouldn’t be directly compared. There’s a difference between playing sub-optimally and just being terrible at the game, and we need to acknowledge that making a talent choice considered less than ideal but that you find fun is not the same as running forward and dying to the first boss mechanic.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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