Archive for April, 2012
In as many days, I’ve seen two articles which have, in my opinion, attempted to shame gamers into believing that what they enjoy, and why they enjoy it, is total bullshit.
The first was an article on Jonathan Blow in The Atlantic. You will probably know Blow as the creator of Braid, a platformer that received a lot of press for how “smart” it was. The article is entitled “The Most Dangerous Gamer”, and opens with a paragraph that illustrates that “Blow” is not just a guy’s last name; it’s three pages of written fellatio, sewn together with the author’s uninhibited disgust of the gaming industry. The second article, written by an indie developer and specifically talking about the dissonance between massive corporate PR booths and the smaller “honest” indie booths at PAX East, is a kind of…I really don’t know how to explain it, but after reading it (twice) I felt that the author drove by me as I was walking my dog, threw a bucket of mud on me, and screamed “How do you like it now, sheep?!” before tear-assing off down the road.
Now, look. There are many adages that we can apply here. I think the overriding choice is “to each his/her own”. “Live and let live” is another. “Mind your own fucking business” is certainly on the table as well, but what is not available for debate: people like these are not the proverbial Morpheus offering us a blue pill to counter the gaming industry’s red pill. There is no fucking “wake up call” that these people are sounding, because the rest us of aren’t asleep; we just enjoy the things that they so obviously hate, and by extension, they’re hating us for liking them.
The part that these folks conveniently overlook is that people like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft because they like them! That’s all! No conspiracy! Just as Mr. Indie-Pusher or Monsieur Arthouse likes playing their top-down shooters made in someone’s basement, or YAAP (Yet Another Artistic Platformer) created in the San Francisco Weekend Game Jam, I am really looking forward to Halo 4. I liked Skyrim because it entertained me. It’s my choice to make my choice, and I don’t make it because corporate execs and PR reps kidnap me in the middle of the night and force me to watch cinematic trailers until I commit to buying and pushing their product, or because the Max Payne 3 booth at PAX East was so goddamn gargantuan that it blotted out The Future.
The thing is – and I’ve written about this before – I can’t get all hyper for indie or “artsy” products just because A) someone says they’re counter to the mainstream, B) someone browbeats me into supporting the “little guy”, or C) because it’s considered hip or trendy. I have to like what I’m doing if I’m going to elect to spend my free time doing it, and not because someone has an axe to grind with The Establishment and is trying to foment revolution by basically insulting my friends and me in an effort to position themselves as Champion of Highbrow. Make something other than a top-down shooter, a physics-based platform, or an RPG that looks like you ripped a DS cart and packed it up for the PC. Quaint or retro or artistic is preferred by some people, but pretentiousness puts off a hell of a lot more, and I’d rather play “Desaturated Manshooter of Ghost Honor 4” than to support a community of self-absorbed pricks just because they think insulting my taste is a surefire way to win me over.
This is a stream-of-consciousness post, and does not necessarily reflect a philosophy or well formed opinion. It certainly isn’t designed to represent any kind of actual theory or practice as it exists in the real world.
I want to start with this thought from Pete at Dragonchasers:
“Are MMOs the kiss of death? Blizzard was a beloved game developer before World of Warcraft came around. Now there’s definitely a loud Blizzard-hating group of gamers out there. Is Bioware going through that same transition?”
I’d like to see this in survey form, because I think that Pete’s on to something, at least in part. I’d be willing to agree that since BioWare was acquired by EA, and Blizzard by Activision, both titans have experienced a serious down-hill slide, not in quality, but in customer satisfaction brought about by design decisions. World of Warcraft got progressively easier over time, which many people feel ruins the experience, and StarCraft failed to ignite hearts here in the West (and the one-SKU-per-race decision is still a head-scratcher). Similarly, BioWare has hit some rough patches with Dragon Age II and it’s shift from their bread-and-butter tactical mechanics to a console-born action game, controversies over not including same-sex relationships in Star Wars: The Old Republic, and of course the whole Mass Effect 3 ending thing. So I’d probably be more apt to “blame” EA and Activision for handing down edicts, but Pete’s comment about a company “going MMO” got me wondering about the relationship costs for a company when they move from making single or lesser multiplayer games to making an MMO.
The very first thing that I thought about was “what does an MMO mean for the players”? MMOs are time sucks, more so then any other genre out there, I’d say. Call of Duty or Battlefield 3 or Skyrim or Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning may inadvertently keep you playing until 2 AM, but at some point, you’ll finish their campaigns and be done. Maybe you can jump in and play some multiplayer, but those are one-off experiences and are not linked together by anything more than stats and upgrades. Contrast those examples to an MMO, which is multiplayer all the time, where people are around 24/7, and where you can be logged in at any hour and find things both as you left them, and possibly changing around you (in minor degrees, like mob spawns and world events). Because of this, and because an MMO technically has no end, players generally approach these games much differently then they do single or multiplayer games. They hopefully understand that an MMO is a long haul, and therefor the expectations must be adjusted. There will be weekly maintenance windows. There will be patches. Things that you have gotten used to will change. Content will be added. Content will be removed. Friends will come and friends will go. Although most modern MMOs aren’t “virtual worlds”, they do have a persistence of landscape and, to some degree, are dynamic in that the game you have at launch will never be the same game you have in 6 months. Many players count on this, and is the reason why they prefer MMOs to single or multiplayer games.
With the understanding that an MMO is a long-haul experience, players have a tendency to become emotionally attached to the game. IPs or developer involvement aside, players create and play a single avatar (alts notwithstanding). They take them through a “growth process” towards a level cap. They make friends and enemies, and they share experiences with other people that they recall years later and which will be the only light left once their memories of the specifics of the game have faded away. These games can change people, and so MMOs are “serious business” to their players.
So the second thing I wondered was “what does making an MMO mean for the developers”? The story as I understand it is that Richard Garriott had a hell of a time pitching an online version of Ultima to EA, and that they gave him the OK not because they believed in the idea, but because they wanted him to get out of their hair. Hooray for avoidance tactics, because we got Ultima Online, and then EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, Dark Age of Camelot, and eventually World of Warcraft. Blizzard was a beloved developer who got that way by making games for people. Parse that sentence for a second, because it’s more of a powerful idea then it seems. Blizzard’s design process was to keep things simple: Diablo is a CRPG without having to worry about conversations and number crunching. WoW was EverQuest without the hardcore-ness. It was pretty, and approachable, and combined with their reputation as a developer, it blew the doors off of what anyone believed was possible in this young genre.
And the race was on. Everyone wants to get in on the ongoing revenue stream, so it seems that every major developer has an MMO on the market these days. The more people who jump into the arena, the easier it becomes for others to jump in as well, right? It’s a cornerstone philosophy of manufacturing that once something is done often enough, or by enough people, then the processes involved in production, testing, marketing, and distribution get ironed out to the point where they can be achieved without much thought. We get templates for production, and when a product can be churned out on a template, the barrier to entry falls and the market is flooded. In the case of the MMO market, the template is WoW. There are painfully few MMOs which deviate from the WoW look and feel, preferring to differentiate themselves on their art style, their IP, or on incremental changes or additions to the formula.
So I don’t think we should be surprised when other beloved companies like BioWare throw their hat into the MMO ring. BioWare is one of the few companies that I think people believe to be able to “break the mold”. After all, it’s inarguable that BioWare pretty much single handedly kept the CRPG genre afloat while the industry was moving towards more and more FPS and RTS titles. They churned out top-shelf products like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic before they got into modern day CRPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. What else could they do but take their bread-and-butter – the CRPG – and translate their “expertise” into the “final frontier” of the MMORPG?
Making an MMO is a business decision because they’re unique beasts. Whether it’s a monthly subscription or cash-shop supported, MMOs generate ongoing revenue that’s difficult for investors to ignore, especially with the games industry in a kind of “cold war” with used game sales of single and multiplayer games. While I’m sure that the developers of MMOs are gamers, it’s the dollar signs that cause the publishers to stark kicking around the idea of getting a slice of the perpetual revenue pie. This is where everything comes to a head, because we’re now at the confluence of publishers, developers, and fans.
Both Blizzard and BioWare had rabid fans before they got into the MMO space. It was both right and wrong to assume that this loyalty would translate into anything that either company did, and because an MMO needs massive amounts of people, and massive amounts of emotionally invested, loyal people, I’m sure that some bean-counters figured that it would be a direct translation from the fans of the developer to continue to be fans of the developer once they moved into the MMO territory.
MMOs require and give totally different vibes than single player games. MMOs are massive undertakings from the developer’s perspective as well, taking millions of dollars, years of development, gigabytes if not terabytes of assets, and warehouses of hardware to maintain just so players can log in, check their auctions, and log out. We talk about the “hype train” that delivers hints of a new MMO, then confirmation, then asset leaking and developer interviews, and which culminates in a massive Internet pep-rally designed to get people on-board for the release of the game. This starts at least a year in advance, and in the case of companies like BioWare, Blizzard, or NCSoft, it becomes hard to avoid official marketing materials or interviews, and harder to avoid community buzz.
This is where we start to see the real cost of making an MMO: the psychology. Gamers are dedicated. We’re all hardcore. We’re like the girls in the pictures of The Beatles concerts. We laugh at how intense Twilight fans are, but we’re just as rabid about wanting our hobby to take us to some undefined Nirvana that we’re actually willing – at some point in our gaming lives – to put our eggs in someone’s basket because the song they sing to us is so tonally sweet that we can’t imagine life without it. Promises are made, and enthusiasm spreads. We’re caught up in the hype, and we totally forget that this company has no clue what the hell they’re doing!
Sure, they’re technically proficient, and we can be assured that the product won’t be an absolute cluster-fuck, but in the case of BioWare and Blizzard, people totally hung their expectations on WoW and Star Wars: The Old Republic based on those company’s single player products. People believed that neither company could do them wrong, and neither company did do anything wrong from a technical standpoint. Where things invariably went south was in the management of expectations. Hype is what hurts MMOs early, because hype is words and concept art; players are left – and expected – to fill in the blanks with their own desires. If players don’t project their own desires into the marketing material, then marketers have failed in their mission. Once the game is released and the hype gives way to something concrete, it’s the longer term emotional attachment to characters and community that needs to be managed. MMOs aren’t really about raids and dungeons and PvP and mechanics; they’re about managing the expectations and emotional states of the customers through the life-cycle of a long-tail product.
This is where BioWare and Blizzard are losing their footing. SWTOR is BioWare’s first big-release multiplayer game. Previously, their community support was asynchronous, through bug reports and the community management of the forums. Now they have to provide 24/7 support, have employees in the game to deal with transient customer service issues that could never occur, or which could blow up and involve thousands of entrenched players. Blizzard has a different problem, in that they seem to have faltered several times over the years to achieve the balance between what the shareholders want and what the players want. WoW has become more accessible to more players in an effort to ensnare those who have (astoundingly) never played WoW, a move which has often alienated long-term, established players who are emotionally distressed at seeing their hard-won achievements now being handed out like candy at Halloween. Blizzard has teeter-tottered between putting more hardcore back into the game, while also trying to maintain a level of accessibility that they believe is needed to appeal to an untapped demographic.
Talking about and tweaking the mechanics and adding new zones and features is usually what receives the attention in a patch or an expansion announcement, but the fallout of every single bullet point in those lists is the emotional punch that accompanies them. This is where MMOs rise and fall, and the management of emotion is the true job of both developer and publisher. No user base the size of an MMO crowd can be pleased 100%, 100% of the time; the task is to please as many people as possible with each round of releases so that everyone feels that their needs are being addressed at some point, while also managing the disappointment of those who were excluded in the latest round. I think this becomes naturally more difficult the longer the game is in operation because people have had that much more time to become attached to the game, their characters, and the community, to the point where even small changes have huge ramifications. BioWare doesn’t have this level of expertise; they’re good at making games, but when it comes to “living” amongst the community, they’re just as lost as you or I would be if asked to corral players in a certain direction. Blizzard has had longer to work on this, and while just as technically adept as BioWare, their customer relations record has been spotty.
So getting back to Pete’s original question, “Are MMOs the kiss of death?” I think that the product is, as always, neutral. I think that the baggage that accompanies the development, marketing, release, and maintenance of an MMO is a high-wire act that is, at best, a zero-sum game for operators. They have to always being their A-game, have to always be on the move, and can never be off the clock because their real job is to maneuver their players through an emotional experience that’s running every hour of every day for an until number of days. The emotional investment means that players will be overly sensitive to any perceived slight, and will internalize any changes in terms of how it affects them, not how it affects the overall game. This is, of course, an impossible task since giving everyone everything that will make them happy is impossible, but both BioWare and Blizzard are experiencing backlash from failing to appropriately calculate the emotional response of their decisions.
If I remember correctly, we played a good amount of Tribes back in the day. Although FPSesseses aren’t my preferred genre, Tribes was more arcade-y then what we’re seeing today, with the RPGness crammed into places where it really doesn’t fit, which leads to stat-mongering and progressive unlocks and maybe some dust-up over selling said unlocks to new players. We really haven’t had a good just-jump-in-and-kick-ass online shooter for a while. Now it seems we’re going to get buried by them, and one of them is Tribes: Ascend from Hi-Res Studios, the people who brought us another online shooter, Global Agenda.
Tribes: Ascend appears to be a pretty good option for scratching that quick-combat itch. Technically, it’s as silly or as serious as you want it to be: my first public match last night was on a huge map, team deathmatch, and everyone was just jumping everywhere. I had one kill and one assist, and that was actually more then I had expected, given the chaos. Of course, I expect that the mechanics from the original Tribes are still there: the turret placement strategies, the vehicles, and most importantly, the commander role which allows one player to see the action on an overhead map, and to direct his or her team members to where they’re needed the most. But that all depends on the group you’re with. Simple PUG matches will probably be a free-for-all like mine last night; the more involved capture-the-base maps will undoubtedly require more teamwork and organization, and a willingness to listen to the commander.
Tribes: Ascend also has some interesting errata this time around. Naturally, as a free to play game, there’s a cash shop which allows you to unlock different armor sets, XP boosts, and other kinds of stuff you’d expect for a Modern Game of that financial persuasion. Even more interesting is that it seems like Hi-Res is going to offer some kind of bespoke server rental. One of the cool things about Games of Yore was that you could operate your own server for your own friends and outside the obnoxiousness of the general public, but you had to host that on a machine in your own house or pay a hosting provider for it. I guess Hi-Res is cleaving closely to the old school vibe by offering their own hosting for people who want to keep their community intimate, which is something I applaud. It’s a service that’s not active yet, and no word that I have seen on the pricing for that.
And, as always, I’m Scopique in-game. I can’t promise accuracy, but I’m a pro at taking one for the team.
If there’s one thing the shooter genre is missing, it’s humans-versus-dinosaurs. I think the reasons for such a pairing are pretty obvious, the most notable being that it’s horribly unrealistic. I mean, look at that guy over there…who brings a flamethrower to the jungle?
Primal Carnage was a gem we stumbled upon in the corner of the expo hall. It was a two sided booth that wasn’t very crowded when we got there, so we stopped to take a look over-shoulder.
The game is a team-deathmatch design (at least the map we saw was such) where one team is humans, and the other team is dinosaurs. The humans can choose from classes such as the shotgun wielding Native American, the female scientist with tranquilizer gun, the crazy Australian with a Bowie knife, the dude in the picture there with the flamethrower, and Standard Video Game Grunt #327 with Standard Military Armaments. Got to meet those quotas, people! On the dino side you have the small but obnoxiously fast Compsognathus (Compy), who can jump huge distances, the Pteranodon, that can crawl as well as fly and which can pick up the humans and drop them from great heights, the venom-spitting Dilophosaurus that will coat an opponent’s vision in disgusting green goo, and the Raptor, the dino’s assault class. There is, of course, the T-Rex, and he’s MASSIVE, but slow.
So aside from this game being the fruition of someone’s fourth grade playground games come true, the real reason I wanted to single out this game from the sea of AAA titles that we saw was that the game was a hell of a lot of stupid fun, and was surprisingly well balanced. You’d expect the T-Rex to be one bad mutha…and it is, but with coordinated effort, the humans can take it down (granted, at least someone will get eaten in the process, but that’s the price we pay). The Raptors and Compys are very hard to hit if they keep moving, unless someone mines the area, uses AoE (flamethrower), or if the biologist uses her tranquilizer darts to slow them down.
The game had some clipping issues, where the characters (mostly dinos) would pass significantly through the geometry, but overall the game was smooth and pretty worry free. Except when you’re heading out of a building just in time to see the head of a T-Rex crammed into the door, snapping his jaws at you. I almost had to change my pants at that point. The game really reminds me of the days of Unreal Tournament or Quake where there was no overhead by way of stats or unlocks or story. All you did was boot up, log in, and start blasting away for some good old fashioned…dinosaur hunting…fun…
Update: I found a link on the forums that’s basically a comprehensive guide to the game. Check it out.
Double Update!: Here’s a FAQ on the game itself. Arm yourself with knowledge!
Firefall is a multiplayer shooter from Red 5 Studio, one of those “supergroup” developers whose members hail from the bodies of other, lesser studios (Kidding! We’re talking Sony, NCSoft, Blizzard…you know…lightweights). I was aware of this game from PAX East 2011, but didn’t get to play until PAX East 2012, where each participant was enlisted into the beta program. I liked the game so much, I actually wanted to get the hell home from PAX so I could install and play.
The story behind Firefall, as it’s currently completed, is that sometime in the 22nd century, the Earth was decimated by a shower of asteroid fragments – the Firefall. After a series of events where humans were being humans, involving a lot of warfare and general dickery, a Japanese billionaire discovered Crystite in the asteroid fragments. This material could generate enormous amounts of energy, which the fragmented planet desperately needed. Of course, humanity then went to war over the Crystite until everyone realized that some day, the Crystite would run out. They needed to find it’s source, so they put down their guns and created a series of interstellar missions that tracked the source to Alpha Centauri A. Colonists were installed, and shipments of Crystite were sent to Earth. The history ends with the priming of the CMS Arclight, a massive warship-slash-mail truck that can use Crystite to fold space, shortening the time to Alpha Centauri. The company which controlled the Crystite flow realized that at some point, the colonists in Alpha Centauri will try to throw off the Earthling yoke in a bid for independence, and the Arclight is as much a show of force as it is a technological achievement.
But in the game, you blow shit up.
The best way to describe the game in terms of other games is that it’s a combination between the tactics of Tribes, the art style of Borderlands, and the multiplayer world of Global Agenda. You play one of five classes, which are dictated by your “frame”, a powered-armor suit. Any player can choose any frame by visiting a frame selection station, and each frame has it’s own level. Use a frame to level the frame, and with each level comes different unlocks, allowing you to use better weapons and better gear.
You collect Crystite, which is the currency of the game. You also collect a lot of other types of materials which are used in crafting. You can create your own gear from schematics that you find (or eventually buy on an auction house, I assume). The interesting thing is how you get the materials. I love this part.
It starts off with a scanner hammer. Yep, it’s a hammer. You hit the ground with it, and you’ll see a blue waveform shoot forward over the ground. This will reveal the location and concentrations of different minerals. Find a place to harvest, and you switch over to deploy a thumper. This self-contained harvester drops from orbit into the ground, and starts hammering the hell out of the ground, pulling up the materials into it’s hopper. Once it’s full (or whenever you decide you need to leave), the thumper folds up and rockets away into space.
Right now, players start in a PvE zone. I’m not sure what the plan is, but I think I’ve reached a limit of the NPC provided quests. But one can still go out into the wilds (the wilds of the Brazilian coastline, that is) to harvest – and to kill the natives, which are in the form of alien insects that somehow made it to Earth from Alpha Centauri (here’s where the lore shows it’s incompleteness). There’s also some humanoids-maybe-actual-humans that you fight on occasion, if you enter their territory. Use of the thumpers will bring out the waves of enemies of all kinds, and it’s your job (and your team’s job) to defend the thumper until it’s full, as the enemies can destroy it if left undefended.
Right now, the game is obviously in beta. The aformentioned lore isn’t officially fleshed out on the site, in the game a lot of the key-binds aren’t working for some reason, there’s lag and rubber-banding, and some of the female vendors in town have gruff male voices. War is hell.
Expect to hear more about Firefall from me in the future, because I really like this game. I spent 2 hours with a PUG that was scanning minerals and defending thumpers, and it was a total blast, literally and figuratively.
Here’s some video of the scanner hammer in action (although I didn’t find anything except a world of hurt)
Many gamers hate Michael Pachter. It seems whenever there’s some high-level analysis that needs doin’, there’s a quote from Pachter. A lot of times he can be pretty brutal in his assessments, statements, or predictions, and if there’s one thing that many gamers don’t take kindly to, it’s being told anything contrary to their rosy opinions on gaming. The problem is, Pachter doesn’t talk to gamers, he talks about gaming, and he doesn’t talk to gamers, he talks to investors. It’s his job to tell people outside the gaming industry who want to put their money into the gaming industry where to put that money…or where not to put that money. Investors aren’t there to just hand out freebies, after all. They want to know where they can put their money so that it makes them even more money, and where not to put it where it won’t lose them any money. That’s Pachter’s job: to analyze not only the past and current financial numbers in the industry, but to extrapolate where the industry is going (prognostication is never an exact science). And like it or not, it’s also Pachter’s job to comment on the state of the consumers within the industry. It’s the consumer’s behavior that’s the real driver of industry performance. Hardware and software are neutral; opinions and spending habits are not.
Many gamers will still only attach to controversial statements, however, instead of the man’s actual task.
When one is on the ground and surrounded by…things…it’s difficult to have perspective. I remember when I was in New York City for the first time, I had no idea how big the Empire State Building really was. It just kind of tapered off into the sky. But when one takes a real sky-eye view of the landscape, things become clearer. This is the Achilles Heel of all opinions: the closer one is to the subject matter, the less clearly the person can see the forest for the trees. In the case of Pachter’s latest statements, I’m certain that there are many gamers who will quickly agree that dubbing EA “The Word Company In America” is a no-brainer, mainly because of the Mass Effect 3 dust-up, but the same crowd will take umbrage with Pacheter’s calling them out as “whiners”, or his deflection of the Worst Company label for EA.
I agree with what Pachter says, because it’s his job to represent investment opportunities to non-gamer Moneybags. He needs to soften the focus on EA and to bring to light the bad behavior of the consumers that have driven the award to EA’s doorstep. It’s not that EA is a “bad company” – certainly not when compared to companies that have wrecked world economics. It’s that this “vocal minority” has raised a stink out of all proportion to the size of their numbers…why, exactly? Because they didn’t like the product they bought? Who hasn’t bought a product they were less than happy with? I know I have, and my response is either to return it, or if that is not possible, to shrug and to try not to make the same mistake again. Quietly. But some will say that the outrage over ME3 actually “did some good”. I disagree:
“Unfortunately, appeasing the whiners here will only encourage fans to be even more vocal next time, so the lingering issue is that gamers will feel even more entitled and empowered than they have in the past, and will be even more demanding about changes to future games.”
BioWare is doing angry ME3 players a solid by “fixing” something which technically doesn’t need to be fixed, but is more about giving people what they want. I agree with Pachter’s assessment that this is a bad precedent. No novels are written by consensus. No movies are created by consensus. Therefor, no games should be created – or altered – by consensus. What if one day a game is released that you’re perfectly happy with (or ambivalent about), but which some “vocal minority” dislikes? What if the company changes the game out from under you to keep those people quiet? Your game just got re-written by a committee of people that you might not agree with, and was done specifically to shut them up. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, and considering the tendency of the gaming community to splinter along some very fine lines, I think that any company that back peddles on it’s decisions is training consumers that if they bitch, they win. It really doesn’t matter that the ME3 “fix” will be optional; that the company bowed to the pressure, and still earned the Worst Company award is a tea-bagging from the community.
As consumers, we like to think that what we buy is what we want, or else we wouldn’t buy it. Games are kind of weird, though: we don’t want endings spoiled for us, but we feel that we need to be personally satisfied with the game itself or else it “sucks” or is “broken” when it’s simply that “it’s not how we felt it should happen”. Well, that’s life, kids. In the end, will this hurt EA or BioWare? I doubt it. People will still buy their products because gamers have soft memories, and they actually thrive on being part of a controversy. For some, they’ll continue to take things to extreme because they think it’s appropriate, their duty, or because it’s their right as a consumer (like going to the FTC), and for most the next time a Dragon Age sequel comes along, or when the Baldur’s Gate version for iOS is released, they’ll be throwing wallets onto the stage.
Really, I couldn’t care any less about ME3 specifically. If people don’t like it, that’s fine. People have expectations in their heads, and rarely does reality live up to expectations, so I have no beef with people who can rationally explain their dissatisfaction with the game (and thankfully, that has been the majority of my personal interactions). What’s left, then, is the sorry perception of the consumer from outside the industry. A lot of gamers would say that they couldn’t care less how the outside perceives them. Those people are assholes, because when they act like herds of spoiled brats, and when that gets the attention of people outside the industry who know nothing about what goes on inside the industry and who are quick to paint the unknown in whatever caricature presents itself, that means that I can’t be proud of myself as a gamer because someone didn’t like the product they got, threw a public fit like a 4 year old in a department store, and made us all look bad.
Jazz of Girl Vs MMO brought up the topic of “dissatisfaction with the MMO genre” this weekend at PAX, and wrote about it yesterday. In the post she stated that: “I’m not quite sure what this [boredom] says about me or better yet the future of MMOs in general.” That line stuck out for me, because although I have no evidence to back it up, I’m pretty certain that the statement is a distilled essence shared by many MMO gamers.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game
Games are entertainment, and part of what makes “entertainment” entertaining is that it’s fresh. We like the discovery and the excitement and the terror of not knowing where our entertainment is going. We don’t get excited over commuting to work every single day, but if one day we suddenly had to dodge explosions, dinosaurs, and zombies, it’d be a different story because those things are new and out of the norm (although not necessarily entertaining). The more we get of the same old, same old, however, the less exciting they are to us, although there’s certainly the possibility that sequels in a movie series, or a set of novels, can offer excitement. Familiarity with the characters or settings can lead to a greater chance of diminishing returns on excitement. We’ll never get the same high from The Matrix or Star Wars as we did the first time we saw them, for example. Chances are we didn’t get the same excitement from the sequels, either (especially in the case of the the sequels to The Matrix).
So like the Highlander, there can really be only one, that first time we encounter something that really blows our socks off. That doesn’t stop others from trying to bottle that lightning, though, so as soon as some movie or book series, or MMO excites us, we see an endless parade of other, eerily similar offerings looking to get a piece of the zeitgeist. Mostly we see products that ape the popular original. After all, if people like vampires, zombies, kid-wizards, or a game with hot-bars, mini-maps, trash mobs, dungeons, raids, wall-o-text quests, and push-button crafting, then giving them more of the same is going to appeal to them just the same, right?
Problem is, we’ve already played that game. We want to be entertained and excited by the new experience…not just catered to.
There comes a time in every MMO gamer’s life…
It’s “understood” (by me, at least) that the MMO genre is basically represented by two games: World of Warcraft and EVE Online. WoW’s success was due to a “perfect storm”.. Blizzard had a powerful following in the fans of Diablo, WarCraft, and StarCraft. They launched at a time where there really wasn’t a lot of choice in the MMO market: Ultima Online, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars: Galaxies, Asheron’s Call…certainly others, but when it comes down to honest-to-goodness alternatives, many people wouldn’t consider anything else. It’s rampant success was only partly due to it’s execution, but in my opinion it had a hell of a lot more to do with when it released, and the MMO environment at the time.
Of course over time, publishers felt that replicating WoW’s mechanics, with their own veneer on top to make it seem “different”, would be all that’s needed to get their name on the board. History has proven otherwise, as no one has ever been able to reach WoW’s numbers, and with all of the games we have now, it seems more and more unlikely that not only will no other game topple WoW’s record, but with the current design trends still chasing the same design tropes as a way to attempt success, each and every game released going forward is going to have a tougher time convincing MMO gamers to chose it as their “home game”. Anyone who thinks that churning out similar products allows them to find their own slice of success within a trend, is ignoring the fact that at some point the consumers will get tired of being provided with products that exist only to feed the trend.
That’s where many of us MMO gamers are now: We’ve reached the saturation point of the trend in MMOs. For those of us who feel tired with the MMO genre, where we question every new release with an ever-increasing skepticism, it’s really not that the genre has failed us; we’ve just out-leveled this zone.
The immediate counter-argument would probably be that yes, the industry has failed us by not innovating enough to keep us interested, as if “innovation” is hiding under the couch cushions waiting to be discovered. I will admit that it’s rapidly approaching the point where the lack of innovation leads to malaise. The question is, when will the developers and publishers realize it? It’s difficult for them, though, since at the point of concept their ideas might sound very unique and exciting. Two or three years down the road, when a lot has changed industry-wide, and when competitors have maybe launched their own products, the end result doesn’t look as hot as it did on the back of the napkin, all things considered. It’s a moving target, combined with the fickleness of the gamer population fueled by cheap Steam sales, consoles, handhelds and, yes, mobile. Everyone is leveling up their ADHD these days.
So MMO gamers who feel distanced from the genre: I think we need to accept that the genre just isn’t offering us enough excitement – which I think we have realized. It’s not that the genre is trying to move in a different direction that we don’t agree with, and it’s not that our tastes are changing. We’re bored with the familiar systems that will always have a special place in our hearts, and we’re just saddened that we don’t get the same level of excitement with each new release that we used to get, and it’s very likely the case that we won’t see anything on the horizon that will renew our love for the genre. In the end, we may just need to come to grips that our only options are to adjust, and to try and find enjoyment where we can in this sea of sameness, or to adjust, and elevate another genre to our primary interest. The optimal resolution would be for the MMO developers to really take the bull by the horns and do “something different”, but I think we’ve heard enough about games that propose to “be different” to disbelieve anyone who claims that to be the case about their game.
On my way back to work from lunch, I was listening to Word of Mouth on our local NPR affiliate. This is a really good show because they focus on some really off-the-beaten-track topics, and on occasion they hang a left into Geekville. Today, they were talking about the rise in popularity of “German-Style” board games here in the U.S. If you’ve heard of Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride or Insert-Your-Favorite-Here, then you know what the term “German-Style” board game means. For those who don’t, I have no idea how you found this post, but these games are usually more cerebral, require more strategy in order to win, and revolve around some odd themes (the show mentioned one concerning the “Tulip Craze” in 17th century Holland).
I really like these games, although I admit I haven’t played many. I played Agricola once, and have only played the electronic versions of Settlers of Catan (I do own the boxed copy, though), Carcassonne, and Small World. Although I like the presentations on WoF most of the time, they seem to consistently drop the ball when it comes to understanding the gamer community. Case in point: parts of the show were contrasting the board game culture with the video game culture, asking questions like whether or not it was more advantageous for kids to play these board games as opposed to video games. Oh man. Where to start?
First, and hopefully without saying around here, the notion that it’s “kids” who are playing video games is so epically archaic that my faith in the rest of any argument proceeding such assertions always takes a nose-dive. But I can overlook that in this case mainly because I think that video game players need to share in the credit for the popularity of these kinds of games.
Back Then™, when being a “geek” was a forced condition, and not an outfit one puts on in the morning, board games required that you have people to play with. You could play Payday or Scrabble with your parents, but when geeks were isolated and potentially without like-minded friends, video games filled the void because they didn’t require (or yet support) multiplayer gaming. Fast forward to 2012, where video gamers get cranky if there isn’t a multiplayer component in their game. Online gaming and social networking have blown the doors off the isolated geek stereotype and have brought gamers and geeks together over great distances – or even across town, where 20 years ago one geek wouldn’t even know of the existence of another unless they happened to be at the exact same place, at the exact same time, for the exact same reason.
Seeing as how I have just returned from PAX East, this is such a powerful realization. Here we have seventy thousand geeks, dorks, nerds, gamers, collectors, and cosplayers, all of whom would have been social outcasts 20 years ago, from across the country (maybe even some from other countries, as well), taking what online gaming and social media have given them – the opportunity to easily connect to like-minded individuals – and kicking it up a notch by bringing them together physically to celebrate what they love. And it’s not just video games! There is always a massive section devoted to tabletop gaming play, and whole sections of the floor are given over to companies who sell these old-school “German Style” games and their successors.
A lot of the “analog games” (as we’ll call them) that are on display at PAX are the next generation of “German Style”, and many of them are based on properties that video gamers and general geek society has been privy to for decades, but which have recently been reaching the “non-geek” public: Lord of the Rings, Call of Chtulhu, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica…even The Walking Dead. Munchkin is a card game which has been around for ages, and which is seeing a renaissance of it’s own thanks to the momentum of the analog game market.
The popularity of these kinds of games certainly aren’t being propelled by the reality-TV crowd. They’re being developed and discovered by the geeks and the gamers of other stripes who are maybe introducing their non-gamer friends and family to experiences which aren’t as “threatening” as video games are perceived to be. There’s no special hardware, no eye-strain, no esoteric jargon to master. It’s a lot closer to Scrabble or Sorry! then World of Warcraft is, so it’s a lot easier to convince a non-gamers to give it a try. I think that these analog games appeal to the open-mindedness of video gamers who, believe it or not, can and do thrive on social interaction. It’s not “one or the other”, or one supplanting the other; it’s a complimentary opportunity for a demographic that was once marginalized and isolated to come together, even in the face of outdated stereotypes.
So another PAX East has come and gone. I think that for me, this was both the best and the worst of the oh so many of these event’s I’ve been able to attend, which is a lot like saying that my trip to the Moon is both the best and worst of the dead and lifeless places-in-outer-space that I’ve visited. That includes New Jersey.
Last year, we got bumped from the cozy Westin Waterfront to a hotel across town because the Westin had overbooked. This year, we gave them the middle-finger so they knew not to screw with us again: instead of going down on Friday, we went down on Thursday. Take THAT, you greedy bastards! This was advantageous, because we were able to get to the expo floor early on Friday, which means we were in lane 12 in the queue room instead of lane 15. Seriously, some people must have camped out on the concrete floor to get a place in line. Considering how some people smelled, I don’t think I’m too far off the mark.
One of the issues I had with the event last year was that the use of expo space in the BCEC. The lanes were crowded, and once you emerged from the privacy curtains that ringed the exhibitions, you saw that there was probably about 200 feet of empty distance to the nearest concrete wall on all sides. This year, they did away with that, giving the exhibitors more floor space, which thankfully translated into the same sized footprints but more room in between exhibitions. At least it felt that way, as traffic was, for the most part, pretty fluid (except when the assholes from G4 show up and cordon off the walkways like they own the goddamn place).
Most of the panels on tap weren’t all that appealing to me. I had wanted to attend several of the D&D themed events, but found myself too apathetic to get my butt upstairs to do so, which meant that I spent more time on the expo floor this year. We covered what we think is the entire floor, and actually stood in line for several games like Borderlands 2 (got a cool shirt!), XCom: Enemy Unknown (got abducted in the middle of the night!), and Firefall (cleared for the beta at home!). One of the unexpected highlights of the time spent there was finding Primal Carnage tucked away in a corner of the hall. In this indie multiplayer shooter, you play as either a human, or a dinosaur. Hell yeah! While that might actually induce eye-rolling in some, the game felt really, really well balanced, where a good, coordinated assault by the humans could take down a T-Rex with minimal (not zero, minimal) casualties.
Some other daily things of note: I didn’t get to really scope out the tabletop section all that well this year. I always want to, but my local friends aren’t really into that kind of thing, so paying upwards of $50 on an elaborate game would be kind of a waste. There were also a lot more kids this year, I think. We’re talking age 10 and under, some of the tiny variety, strapped to the torso of a parent. And this may be anecdotal, but two thing we believed to have observed were that A) there was more cosplay this year then last, and B) the majority of the players were female, and most of those were walking around with guys who weren’t dressed up. No, I have no point, but we thought it lopsided enough to discuss it in brief at some point.
Our Tweetup went very well this year. We managed to integrate several tables this year as they became available, and got to hang out with @girl_vs_mmo, @Hawkinsa1, @Mindstrike, @pasmith, @g33kg0dd3ss, @grimnir_ (and oh man, I lost the card on which I had written his friend’s Twitter name on, so if I could get those again…?), @CreepTheProphet (and Ray, but I didn’t get if he had a Twitter account or not), and @OrwellsSmith. Once again, we closed up shop around 2 AM. Some people had to retire to their off-site accommodations, and for the rest of us, the bar had closed so we figured we might as well just call it a night.
I do have to say that my earlier feelings that PAX would cause my irritation with the “gamer culture” to flair up were mostly unfounded. It was a very pleasant experience, with the wider lanes meaning less shoulder-to-shoulder encounters with everyone around you, and I didn’t subject myself to too many panels, which meant I didn’t have to listen to audience members stumble over their recitations of their personal gaming manifestos in front of the captive industry folks. Everyone on the floor was kind and courteous, although some were rushed and spent more time looking at the exhibits when they should have been looking where they were walking.
Had it not been for the anticipation of the Tweetup on Saturday night, I really felt that I could have left Saturday afternoon and been satisfied with the amount of exposure I got this year. I decided that this year, every moment still counted, but not every moment needed to be crammed full of “being somewhere specific”. I got to see more games, spend more time with the games, and actually play more of the games this year (and spend more time in lines to do so), but I feel far more comfortable with what was accomplished this year then I had expected.