It’s Probably Not A Pirate’s Life For Me

Sea of Thieves (SoT) was the darling of E3 2016, and probably for good reason. We have a lot of co-op games (Overwatch, League of Legends, HALO, and anything else that requires you to play as a team as opposed to an army of one) but none of them are really as free-form as SoT claims to be. I think it’s a concept that a lot of people have been waiting for in video game form for a really long time.

From what I’m seeing about it, it’s not just about getting on a ship and battling other players. Rare is talking about the game in terms of promoting the “pirate lifestyle” in game, meaning if you just want to kick back and hang out at the tavern with your friends, then the game should and will allow you to do that.

In a Gamasutra interview with some folks from Rare, they talk about this and also about how they wanted to design the game to invoke “emotions”. Games are good at invoking emotions, most notably rage. Actually, scratch that…games aren’t inducing the rage, but rather the people you play with or against are.

Still, when I read articles like the Gamasutra interview I can’t help but think that developers are really out of touch with reality. I mean, they can’t possibly be so naive to believe that their desire to have their game evoke many emotions aren’t going to be subverted in the service of that single emotion of rage, right? By gamers, for gamers? If that’s really the case, then I think Rare either isn’t being straight with us (for obvious PR purposes), or they’re really as clueless as their statements paint them as.

The great thing about pirates is everyone knows what to do as a pirate. So ultimately we don’t really need to tell you what to do, how to act.

Yes, yes we do. Piracy. Piracy wasn’t about any kind of “emotional resonance”. It was about sticking it to oppressive regimes by hitting them where it hurt, while hurting their representatives was always an option. It wasn’t about “exploration” or “hanging out with friends”. Unless all your friends were pirates, which was probably pretty likely. It was about fucking people so hard that they were horrified by the levels of ferocity and depravity that people would sink to in the name of profiteering at other’s expense. Actually, sounds exactly like the gaming community, so score one for the designers, I suppose.

In a lot of our early prototypes we actually allowed within-crew betrayal. We thought, “Oh, that’ll be cool.” Actually it’s horrible because you go on adventures together. You spend an hour and a half exploring the world, you get some treasure, and then someone in your crew kills you all and takes the stuff. Kind of horrible experience.

This coming directly after these words…

Actually crew-to-crew “griefing” is kind of okay.

 

Honestly, I think these two passages pretty much nail down the feeling of disconnect that we’re seeing in the games industry. Playing together is cool, but playing against is cooler, and in some games it really is. But how can you fit the two statements above into a coherent way that shows that you know what you’re talking about? If griefing one group is bad, but griefing another group is good, I think the designers need to go back and study their rudimentary math. Two plus two does not equal elephant. It doesn’t matter whether I’m griefed after two hours of hard work by people I have been working with, or people who just show up because they smell opportunity. Two hours flushed is two hours flushed. Period.

The Rust example, Day Z, great experiences…I think they can be quite alienating for a lot of people. The balance of loss is too high. People fear being punished.

Whatever side of the equation you fall on (two plus two, or elephant), there’s no way to ignore that this statement is real. People who are playing in one style who find themselves at the mercy of another player do feel like they’re being punished, even though they are playing the game in one way that the designers want them to play it. Homesteading is a perfectly good and viable mechanic that’s supported in games like DayZ and Rust, but if that’s what you want to do, you’re still required to do it within the confines of someone else’s desire to interfere with your opportunity to do it. Meanwhile, those who choose to interfere with others — while also playing in a way that the game supports, mind you — aren’t limited in similar ways. Game designers try to punish griefers, but we’re talking about video games here…Steam Sales means we never have to sweat about temporary bans with nothing to do, and making players persona non grata in games is exactly the kind of thing griefers thrive on anyway.

Reading this interview, I get that the designers want people to be able to play the ways they want to play, but that’s been said time and time again. It almost never pans out like that. Give people an inch, and they’ll burn down your house just because they want to see you cry about it, or because they have a can of gas and nothing more constructive to do with it, or because they want to goad you into trying to burn down their house. Meanwhile, the cops are reassuring you: “You can just live out your life the way you want to. Don’t worry about it”.

As of this moment, I doubt I’ll ever get into SoT because I’ve got this “smoke up the ass” feeling. I’m not saying that Rare is purposefully following a PR “paint by numbers” routine of assuring fodder for other’s enjoyment that they’ll totally be able to play the game “the way they want to play it”, but I’m also not saying that I’m not. I am saying that these sentiments, while praiseworthy on paper, immediately fall apart in practice. Look around; It’s just how things happen.

Of course, I leave myself open to being wrong, and hope I am, and will certainly and publicly admit to being so…if I am. I’m interested to see what Rare believes they can do to make this rhetoric a reality, because designing emotional triggers is pretty damn easy, but that doesn’t mean people won’t kick your doors down and urinate on your furniture.

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