What an MMO can teach us

You've changed man

You've changed man

Disclaimer: Please note, when I refer to WoW I’m referring to the game as it was circa Vanilla-The Burning Crusade. I stopped playing seriously during Wrath of the Lich King, and haven’t even touched Cataclysm. If some or much of what I say doesn’t apply to the modern day incarnation of WoW then you’ll have to cast your memory back to 2007 for a more relevant vantage point. Keep in mind that this article should be taken in the context of MMOs more generally as most of them follow a similar formula, with liberal tinkering done on the edges.

There’s no question that modern day MMORPGs (click/tab target xp/level based games in the WoW mould) paint very large targets on their backs. The myriad of softly softly game mechanics, casinoesque reward structures that stimulate the same brain patterns as pokie machines, coupled with greedy and sometimes downright exploitative payment structures give anyone who scratches the surface more than enough ammunition to claim that the modern day MMO is sent from whatever sinister sentient being you subscribe to.

From a strictly gaming standpoint argument against states that these games require little to no skill, usually due to hard limitations on the amount of output your character can produce, (often in the form of a global cooldown on your abilities) as well as things like streamlined and unthreatening level/world design, character design that emphasizes cooldown and resource management more than it does physical dexterity or complex application, an emphasis on repetition of tasks rather than merely the successful one time completion of a task for reward, and the never-ending nature of the game requiring players to spend absurd amounts of time playing (the two latter aspects better known as “the grind”). The game hooks into the part of the brain that wires us into addiction, and much like the gambling apparatus that the games have designed some of their mechanics on, players are caught in a spiral in which they’re stuck playing a game because of reward driven impulses rather than the satisfaction derived from demonstrating mastery over the game’s mechanics. They then charge the player through the nose for the pleasure.

The argument against states that these games teach you nothing, vampirically sucking your wallet, life and gaming ability dry, spitting out a ghoulish noobified husk that can’t crack 100 apm at any respected RTS. I’m here to argue a different viewpoint.

The reality (in said humble viewpoint) is much more nuanced. While much of the above is true, or at least true for large section of the genre, these mechanics tie into some of the positive aspects of MMOs that seem to get overlooked by their detractors.

Some games require that you obtain mastery over the character creator

Some games require that you obtain mastery over the character creator

Before I go further I’d like to reference a point made by Quintin Smith, formerly of Rock, Paper, Shotgun fame. He wrote a passionate review for Russian FPS/RPG hybrid Pathologic (a punishing, depressing game in which you play a healer attempting to hold back a virulent plague that is wiping a small town off the map) in which he argued that the reason video games aren’t widely considered art is because we haven’t had our Citizen Kane of video games. A seminal work that stands out as an artistic masterpiece against which the rest of the medium can be judged. We’re still in the medium’s relative period of silent, slapstick comedy, it isn’t widely accepted that games can convey concepts and meaning that goes beyond simple childish “fun”. In no artistic medium are the widely respected works those that serve no purpose other than being consumed for a fleeting moment of pleasure.

Whether MMOs or even video games should be considered art isn’t a conversation for this moment. Even the question of how to define “art” is a fraught one that could go on for decades, and is frankly as boring as those circular music arguments about whether light rock or heavy metal music is better (the answer is metal btw). For now I’d just like to introduce the concept that entertainment doesn’t have to entail simply frivolous escapism. There are an enormously broad set of experiences available to us as beings of intelligence, limiting us to merely the superficial from video games is hamstringing them unnecessarily.

That’s not to say fun is something to be recoiled from in a game. That would obviously be ridiculous. It does however raise the interesting question of how you would define fun in the context of a video game. In his book A Theory of fun for Game Design, Ralph Koster defines fun in video games as (and I’m simplifying/butchering his argument here) the acquisition of mastery, with boredom emerging when a game has nothing new to teach us. The reason so many can look at MMOs and call them boring is because the vast majority of the game’s constituent parts are easily mastered. Within minutes of creating a WoW account I could create a human Paladin, right click a bunch of boars, make myself a delicious ham and cheese sandwich, toast it up, then return, picking myself up some loot and a level for my troubles. And I got a sammich too! You could do something similar much closer to the apex of the game. It’s very easy to look at someone zoned out in “grind mode”, farming some hapless, never-ending cluster of enemies, never coming even remotely close to being defeated, and come to the conclusion that they’re not being driven by the acquisition of mastery, but some ghoulish desire to see their arbitrary in game statistics rise. Mastery over challenges that amount to little more than a medieval themed Farmville harvest? You look like you’re half asleep man!

I’ll go into the type of mastery they’re looking to achieve in more detail later, but for the moment I’ll just go over what the game is teaching you at this moment. Patience. It’s a trait that’s very rarely required in traditional video games. Oh sure, you have to be patient to wait for that opportunity in your scripted single player boss fight, sometimes you have to be patient and wait for your opponent to make a mistake in a multiplayer game, but in those games the level of patience required is measured in minutes or seconds, in MMOs it’s weighted in hours, days, months.

Patience is an undeniably positive trait to have in life, but it is of course a very hard sell to the majority of gamers. Patient application to a lengthy multifaceted task can bring you a joy like no other, but a spoiled 12 year old wouldn’t know delayed gratification if it bagged him up and threw him into a compacter. Getting a player like that to patiently commit for patience sake would be impossible. The addictive game mechanics are simply a tool to keep people in the game long enough for the game’s nature to become revealed to them. The “loot factor” is a necessary evil for the positive reinforcement element of learning patience to be experienced.

Nothing teaches you patience like waiting for Sony to update Vanguard

Nothing teaches you patience like waiting for Sony to update Vanguard

Speaking of hard sells, if I managed to get that one by you I should probably stop writing this and get on to selling refrigerators to Eskimos. I can already hear the scorn being heaped on this argument. Rubbish MK! They’re just grinding for loot like a living zombie pouring an entire weeks pay into a pokie machine. While for some players that would no doubt be true, for most serious MMO players the goal isn’t that simple. Most are being driven by what I like to call “the long game”.

The long game is responsible for nearly everything positive you can extract out of an MMO. The long game is harvesting Fire Elementals for weeks to make the materials, to build the gear needed to survive the first wave of mobs in that raid your planning on tackling. The long game is working with a guild for months before you see any tangible benefit. The long game is watching the auction house and calculating whether the price on that key material you require is low enough to make farming that material yourself more or less efficient from a gold/hr perspective. All of the above requires the kind of patience and long term planning non MMO games just don’t have the capacity to teach you.

You’re also playing with a real life resource more precious than money, time. There’s a reason leveling and gold farming services take off like wildfire in these games, and incidentally a reason they’re so frowned upon by developers and the majority of the playerbase alike. Playing efficiently is one of the most important goals in the game because time is a resource that restricts you in an MMO. The more time you have, the more powerful you can become, so squandering time becomes squandering power. You won’t do well in any game if you willfully squander your power.

(It’s worth mentioning that even a game like WoW with relatively gentle punishments for failure that gets routinely mocked for being noob friendly still punishes you for failure in a way traditional games don’t. Wasting time on failure is a squandering of real in game power)

Here sits another alt, leeching away the power of those stronger than he

Here sits another alt, leeching away the power of those stronger than he

None of that would be news to those who frown upon the genre. One player being more powerful than another because of a lifestyle more suited to investing large amounts of time into the game is one of the most repeatable arguments against MMOs deserving a shred of respect. It’s easy to look at this phenomenon and conclude that indeed, MMOs take no skill, just time. But why is that?

Let me illustrate with an example. Back in the days of my WoW fame I played the game religiously with my roommate. We both had 9-5 jobs, girlfriends, hung out in the same social circles and as a consequence had a similar amount of time to pour into the game. We both played with the same level of skill, but at the end he had seen more content, had higher level crafting, made more money, gotten a higher rank in PvP. By every objective measure he was more successful at the game than I was.

It came solely down to priorities and time management. I was an altoholic. I’d read up on Warlock talent trees and suddenly decide than an Affliction Spec looked like a hell of a lot of fun, and I needed a Blood Elf character anyway. Bam, reroll. Didn’t like the way Affliction got nerfed? Well I’ll still need an BE char, I’ll roll a Priest for tasty heals. Run out of excuses? Fuck it, I’m playing my Druid. And so on. I got reasonably far in WoW, but I never had the patience to really push the envelope. My friend on the other hand only played his alliance Priest. On and on he went like some sort of unstoppable biomechanical gaming contraption. All alts were forsaken. When I asked him to join a leveling group with some other friends he said he’d rather focus on progression. He didn’t know how best to gear a Fury Warrior, but he didn’t need to, he just knew they needed extra heals given that they’re a squishy melee class with little threat reduction, and they pose no threat to Priests in PvP because they lacked a healing debuff. It wasn’t apparent if you watched us for an hour, a day or even a week, but over time it was obvious who the better WoW player was.

Are games not a contest of the mind? Can the mind not be tested in different ways? A MMO tests the mind no less rigorously than a strategy game or a shooter, just not the actions generally associated with the faster paced, dare i say more glamorous, side of gaming.

Another skill required in an MMO is the ability to get along with other people, more commonly known as the “don’t be a gargantuan douche” principle, but really it just means fitting in with the accepted norms in your server’s community. (see below) Anyone who’s spent even a little bit of time on the Internet playing more “competitive” games will know that fitting in with some of these people is far harder than you might think. Interestingly though, MMOs are probably the genre that is most resistant to the assholery that comes with a community that is completely anonymous. You actually have a name that’s difficult to change and therefore a reputation to protect. People who aren’t able to integrate with the community they share a game world with will find it difficult to work with a team looking to complete the tougher challenges thrown up by the game’s world. Yet again this is a skill not required of a player in the vast majority of games in other genres.

Acceptable behavior in certain communities

Acceptable behavior in certain communities

The satisfaction derived from acquisition of mastery over a MMO’s “long game” is stronger than anything I’ve ever experienced in 20+ years gaming. Like many people who cut their MMO teeth on WoW, Ragnaros was my first, and like most “firsts” it was a moment I’m unlikely to ever forget. We had been working on MC for months, longer if you count the farming for Fire Essence to make the resist gear needed to simply clear the trash. The Rag fight took us a further month of hard slog getting the mechanics drilled into the skulls of 35+ players (getting 40 was always a challenge).

When we finally dropped the scalding bastard, our ventrillo exploded. I can find no other word for it. It was 2am, most of us had families or housemates asleep somewhere nearby but the joy was too much to be kept in. To call it satisfaction at simply achieving mastery over a game’s mechanics would be selling it short. This was a satisfaction derived at our little community’s patience and dedication, at my own perseverance, pouring so much time into an enormous task which I ended up completing. It was powerful enough for me to remember the exact moment 7 odd years later even as a relatively junior member of the healing team, I can only imagine how the guild’s management felt. They would likely have described the experience like herding 40 sheep with Alzheimer’s through a maze half the time, and overseeing squalling children at day care the other half. I imagine they were patting themselves on the back at that moment too.

What stands out like a pig at a party is that all of the traits that have been outlined above are traits required of you in the workplace. As anyone who has hired staff will tell you, the technical requirements are reasonably easy to satisfy for most jobs, finding someone with the soft skills, the right ambitions and the right schedule is what really gets shit done. If you’ve ever applied to (or have run) a guild and heard the line “gear isn’t that important, we can gear you up to the required level” this is really what they’re saying. When you’re learning to work together as a guild to defeat a difficult challenge, you’re learning to make a team more than the sum of it’s parts in the same way you would working a job that required the input of more than a couple of people.

The more you look at it the more obvious the similarities between a company and a guild become. Both have leadership structures, and as in business they often vary wildly from guild to guild. Both have remuneration schemes, and interestingly the lack of real world collateral makes these generally much more equalized in guilds than their professional counterparts. There’s politics (oh dear god there is politics), there are power struggles, drama, performance management, promotions, ego clashes, epic fuck ups, hirings, firings and sometimes even defection to rival organizations.

The difference between confronting Nazgul and a banshee from accounting are merely superficial

The difference between confronting Nazgul and a banshee from accounting are merely superficial

It makes perfect sense really. The defining feature of the MMO genre is the existence of challenges too great for one player. Too great for 20 players. This is a mirror of the real world, though the scale of the tasks are obviously on a different level. The bigger the job the bigger the organization, and getting human beings to complete these tasks without the levels of organization seen in guilds and companies alike is impossible. The entire history of humanity is a story of groups of people working together. The groups that have done it the best have run the entire world, with strong organization and leadership being a common thread throughout all great groups of people. Do you think the Romans kicked the shit out of the ancient world because they had quicker reflexes or thought better on their feet? Of course they didn’t. They were successful because they were well organized, both civilly and militarily, founding some of the societal principles that have allowed humanity to conquer many of the challenges associated with survival on this rock floating through the dark recesses of the universe. That their society eventually fell as a structure serves to highlight how difficult high levels of organization is to maintain. What you are learning in an MMO are traits as fundamental to our survival as a species as breathing or eating, but come far less naturally to us. We succeed through order, yet we’re hardwired to rail and rebel against it.

Which is why the “takes no skill argument” never made a shred of sense to me. What is more difficult? Cooking a delicious meal, or feeding an army? While I don’t think there is a correct answer to that question as they both take different skills, there’s no question which skill set is in higher demand. The skilled chef who couldn’t organize coitus in a gentleman’s club would no doubt have a specific view, but he’s earning an average wage, while his employer reaps the majority of the rewards of his labor. There is no question that we as a society exalt skilled organizers to the upper perches of the food chain.

So the next time you despair for humanity when you see an MMOs participation numbers, save your despondency for the hole in the ozone layer, the armada of nuclear weaponry stockpiled by world superpowers or the rising ocean levels. People learning how to work together is not something that will cause the fabric of society to tear apart. Referring back to Quintin’s point, there is room for games to convey concepts above and beyond simple pleasure. MMOs can teach us about qualities that are fundamental to who we are as a species.

Lastly, and if nothing else, MMOs are the only games that teach us that everything we love will one day end. MMOs are the only games that truly die. RIP.


The Grubby Commentaries and why you should listen to them

In his spare time Grubby also leads a nations defense against Saxon invaders

In his spare time Grubby also leads a nations defense against Saxon invaders

Manuel Schenkhuizen, better known as the Warcraft 3 master Grubby, has been posting a series of commentaries on great Warcraft 3 matches he played against other high quality opponents, aptly named “The Grubby Commentaries”.

Given that WC3 seems destined to go down in gaming history as the less successful cousin of the RTS behemoth Starcraft (or that game that kills your children for those displaying higher levels of ignorance) you may well be thinking “why the hell should I care”? I feel that it’s my civic duty as a cognizant member of the wider gaming fraternity to explain to you why these videos are worth watching, even if you’ve never played WC3.

A big part of what makes games so enjoyable is the the acquisition of mastery over the game’s rules and mechanics. Everyone who plays games knows that intensely satisfying feeling you get when defeating a particular scenario or challenge that had proven difficult previously. When the challenge is outwitting a human opponent that satisfaction is multiplied exponentially. Being a fan and occasional participant of real world sports, it’s easy to see that exact same feeling mirrored in both pastimes. It’s almost inevitable to wonder why select video games shouldn’t be counted as sports. At their best they’re entertaining contests of skill and fierce competition. What they lack in athleticism (despite 400 APM being beyond the capabilities of the average person) they make up for in mental agility and strategy. Watching two highly skilled players try to overcome the particular flavor of problem the other is throwing them happens to be pretty interesting too. Whether video games deserve to be classified as sports is a discussion for another time, but when played at a high level WC3 is a game that showcases the very best electronic sports have to offer.

Grubby was (is) a player that posseses everything we love in our favorite sportspeople. He was incredibly successful, consistently performing perfectly on the biggest stages with a circa 2003-2009 Federer like record during his heyday. He was personable and literate, speaking very well to the media and was regarded highly as a person amongst teammates and opponents alike. Best of all he played the game with an almost sixth sense. He wasn’t the fastest player, though he was close, but he often overcame opponents who had (slightly) faster reaction times with guile, intelligence, consistency and at times sheer audacity. You had to always be on guard against him or his unmatched knowledge of the game would allow him to exploit a minute weakness you didn’t even know you had. His success combined with a notably resourceful playstyle earned him the fervent support of followers of the game.

In this video series he talks you through some of the greatest games of his career, and by extension some of the greatest moments in the professional WC3 scene. Think MJ talking you through “The Shot”, Maradona describing the “Hand of God” or Ali commentating the “Rumble in the Jungle”. Given that in an RTS’ the action is far more cerebral than in traditional sports, having the player run you through how he approached a game gives you a far greater insight into the nature of the contest than any other sort of commentary can.

What you’ll be watching is a game worthy of high level e-sport status being pushed to its absolute limit. Good RTS’ are notable for their complexity and depth, with literally uncountable in game possibilities, and seeing someone stretching it to it’s capacity is something I think you’ll find engaging even if you don’t follow WC3 very closely. The intense mental war between two incredibly resourceful and intelligent players (and the tangible respect they have for each others skills) is where the whole thing jumps from engaging to awesome.

Last but not least it showcases what’s great about the multiplayer component of one of the best competitive games ever released, and it does it far better than one could summarise in a simple article. They’re pretty long, but if you love games I doubt you’ll end up seeing the time as wasted. If you love competitive WC3 this will likely be one of the most epic things you’ve ever watched.

Five Ten episodes have been produced so far, as more become available I will update this post. Don’t forget to “Like” the videos if you find them enjoyable.

Episode 1 (recommended) – Grubby vs Zacard – Orc vs Orc – Blizzcon 2005 Grand Final – Game 1

Episode 2 (highly recommended) – Grubby vs Zacard – Orc vs Orc – Blizzcon 2005 Grand Final – Game 2

Episode 3 – Grubby vs Suho – Orc vs Night Elf – World  e-Sports festival 2006 Semi Final

Episode 4 – Grubby vs Moon – Orc vs Night Elf – World eSports Masters 2009 Grand Final

Episode 5 – Grubby vs Lucifron – Orc vs Orc – Warcraft 3 Champions League

Episode 6 – Grubby vs FoV – Orc vs Undead – ESWC 2005 Pool Match

Episode 7 – Grubby vs Infi – Orc vs Human – Blizzcon 2010

Episode 8 – Grubby vs TeD – Orc vs Undead – NGL ONE Season 6 (2009)

Episode 9 – Grubby vs ToD – Orc vs Human – WCG 2008

Episode 10 – Grubby vs Lyn – Orc vs Orc – eStars King of the Game 2009

The violent influence of games: Ending the argument

Innocent until proven guilty

Innocent until proven guilty

Alec Meer from Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently wrote an article decrying the glee with which public opinion, headed by certain sections of the international mainstream media, has looked to link the recent mass murder in Norway with video games. The phenomenon manifested in several retail outlets pulling a selection of video games (including World of Warcraft) from their shelves, citing respect for the victims. Meer argues that there is no link between video games, even violent video games and acts of violence in the real world.

He is of course, correct in the most pure sense if the word. Anyone who has even a passing interest in the medium would know this instinctively. Playing a video game doesn’t stir copycat fantasies in the mind of a sane individual and if you’re frequenting this site you would likely know that from personal experience. Even if you don’t have experience with video games you could do some simple napkin arithmetic on the number of games sold around the world and the number of spree killings occurring and come up with the same conclusion. If you wanted to go even further you could look at the demographics of spree killers, (males under 35) look at the rate of video game participation in this demographic and calculate the likelyhood of them NOT playing video games. Failing that you have the frustratingly unprovable line that it’s seeping in to your subconscious. I would have thought the simple fact that the vast vast majority of 20-30 year olds haven’t become mass murderers had that one covered. There is a theory that a violent game could make that disturbed fraction of the population that has the propensity mass murder in their heart more likely to go through with the deed but there has never been any link found between playing violent games and doing violence in the real world. Never. It’s very easy to get the sense that the media might have the cart leading the horse on this one. This would all of course be very rational.

Yet when Anders Breivik in a few sentences of his chillingly disturbed and violent thousand page document of raving (I refuse to imbue it with the title “manifesto”) mentions video games as part of his daily routine the uproar begins. Quoth England’s The Telegraph “Anders Behring Breivik emailed his extremist manifesto to a Dutchman he had met while playing an online computer war game that included scenes where players kill unarmed civilians.” The Mirror proclaims “His Facebook page says he loves bodybuilding and Call Of Duty – where players can shoot people on an island.” You can no doubt find similar media proclamations in the mainstream media of your country of residence.

Like the subject in a Pavlovian conditioning experiment you can almost hear the unspoken accusations. Video games are implicated. Complicit in this tragedy. Part of the problem. Must be controlled. In a world where our governments are looking for as much control as we the people will give them, the thought of the content of video games being heavily regulated is a disturbing one. Hailing from Australia I feel this concept more keenly than most.

The cart leading the horse

The cart leading the horse

So why, when a rational mind and all the studies in the world can so clearly demonstrate no link between virtual violence and real violence does this outcry exist?

I should point out firstly that in this, jumping solely on the back of the media for the prevalence of this phenomenon is simplistic. The media are merely the mouthpiece for a section of public opinion. Sometimes society’s majority opinion, but always the majority opinion of their target reader base. In other words there’s a lot of people out there who think the media are spot on.

No matter how well reasoned the argument against, these people are not going to be convinced. They will continue to see it because the opportunity to be convinced otherwise has been around since the absolute infancy of the medium and yet we are here nearly 20 years out from Doom dealing with the same flawed perception. As much as folks like Meer will rail against it, all the rebuttal arguments in the world will do absolutely no good. The people you need to convince are doing the crebral equivalent of sticking their hands over their ears and shouting gibberish at you.

How churlish!

How churlish!

The outcry is in itself is an understandable manifestation of the fact that despite the perfectly natural aging of gamers over the past twenty five years, we remain a relatively young and politically insignificant group as a collective. In western society the sheer numbers of folk in the 40+ age bracket mean that their views will get a disproportionate amount of airtime in the public domain. There’s also the fact that there are relatively few heads of multinational media organizations under the age of 40, and those that exist likely spent a significant portion of their adult lives surviving in the corporate jungle and not forming informed opinions about video games. You’re looking at a problem which has it’s roots in generational perception.

If you were like me you argued long and hard with at least one authority figure that the particular first person shooter or real time strategy war-game that you were playing wasn’t about violence. There was no way to make them see that what I was engaged with was a battle for in game space, virtual resources, knowledge to foil the actions of my opponent, or just exercising my hand-eye coordination. They were completely unable to look past the pixellated splatter, and projected that that’s all you were seeing as well.

What the future holds is anyone’s guess, but what is for certain is that the demographic that accepts and understands video games will grow in every measurable aspect. The natural and unalterable regeneration of the human race will do it’s work. We will become the majority stakeholders in public opinion of the future and that means issues around gaming will become more readily understood. That means the “video games kill people” line of reasoning will die. Slowly, painfully for those of us who know better, but it’s days are undoubtedly numbered.

We’ll be too busy trying to deal with the underlying social problems that lead to terrorism of both Islamic and far-right Neo Nazi persuasions to give it much thought.

NOTE: The blaming video games train is arriving in Londonriotsville. Of course this newly discovered phenomenon of the riot is a direct result of children playing Grand Theft Auto.

Casual games, the death of creativity and other reasons life isn’t fair

Unless you’ve just awoken from a 3 year coma to a nurse handing you an intertubes device with express instructions to read this blog, you’ve probably heard about social gaming. Social gaming refers to games on platforms such as flash (“facebook games”) and mobile operating systems (“iphone app games”) and some of the more basic games on the Nintendo Wii. They are usually simple affairs, with basic game mechanics, cartoony (if charming) graphics, are often free and supported by micro-transactions or a cheap initial outlay and often have a multiplayer element allowing you to easily play with people you know. What you’ve also likely figured out is that they’ve been wildly successful. The Wii has sold tens of millions of units and Zynga (responsible for behemoths like Farmville and Words with Friends) recently announced a public float expected to generate more than 1 Billion dollars. These companies have somehow managed to corner a share of the market that game developers and publishers had given up on in days of yore.

I like games that challenge me mentally and physically, so to me these simplistic casual games are an anathema. An enormous portion of the people pouring their hard earned into these games are not people that were riding the wave of digital entertainment when it was in it’s relative infancy. They are the girl that you lied to in high school when she asked you why you looked so tired (Don’t tell her you were playing games, don’t tell her you were playing games “Ummmm… I was masturbating all night.” Well played!!!), they are the teacher that told you you needed to grow up and do something productive (WTF learning how to fast expand while fending off Demon Hunter + Huntress harass isn’t productive?!?!?! I hope you don’t mark my English assignment that nastily), they are the parents that set limits on the games you could play, and when you could play them (Mmmmmmmm, forbidden video game….). Now the folks that looked down upon your chosen hobby are responsible for the biggest boom the industry has seen since the 80s. It’d be easy to look at the whole situation and see another example of this world really not giving a shit about what’s fair.

I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed.

I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed.

To ensure the contents of your stomach remain settled, I’ll refrain from regaling you with other reasons life isn’t fair. Instead I’d prefer to talk about what this means for that somewhat intangible concept, “the future”. In particular what it holds for those of us who fear a future Civilization 4 being stripped bare because this new generation of gamers don’t want to learn how to play it.

This influx of potential customers means that companies have an absolutely gargantuan potential market to develop for and while development costs tend to rise, distribution costs have never been lower thanks to the prevalance of digital downloading. Even cornering a small fraction of the market means a financially viable product at the very least. In short, there’s way more money to be made in the game industry as a whole than there has been at any point in the past. The trouble is that at this point, gamers as a group resemble an onion more than they do an amorphous blob. They have layers and each layer is a different size and shape. They also prefer cool dark areas, and taste great when chopped up and cooked into italian food (wait WHAT?!).

This difference in preference is at the core of the pretty well reasoned argument against this expansion of the market being a good thing for games as a whole. The market is dominated by people that aren’t interested in games that stretch them mentally. They enjoy (and pay for) simple games with basic mechanics. If a game publisher has missed this trend it’s pretty safe to say that they’re being run by a pack of faeces flinging baboons at best, that congealed amorphous blob I mentioned earlier at worst. These companies, being professional organisations whose primary purpose is to generate money, are (rightly in some ways) creating games to appeal to this changing market. Combined with the inherent higher development costs associated with big budget game productions, the result is a tendancy to go for the simpler option, a “streamlined” design direction, relentless exploitation of franchises and of course everybody’s favorite, shiny new graphics. Sound like the course of any other big entertainment medium?

I don't care how Alpha Centuri used to play Johnson, we're going to make a tactical shooter!

I don't care how Alpha Centuri used to play Johnson, we're going to make a tactical shooter!

So the next great innovation in gameplay doesn’t get made because all the money in the industry gets poured down the throat of noughts-and-crosses rather than chess. Sounds like the death of creativity in the medium right?

The argument against this horrifying scenario occuring is that gamers that enjoy more complicated interesting games didn’t just suddenly disappear overnight. Actually quite often they used their critical thinking and reasoning to work their way up the corporate food chain and start earning some handy moolah. They have money and they are willing to part with large amounts of it for their chosen personal interest. In other words they’re a market. They’re not the biggest player in the gaming world anymore at the moment, but they are substantial, and “social gaming” won’t scratch their itch. If a substantial market in any industry is not having their needs serviced that represents an opportunity. If history has taught us anything it’s that where there is an opportunity, there WILL be a wily customer that takes advantage of it.

Genghis Khan knew how to exploit a market opportunity.

Genghis Khan knew how to exploit a market opportunity.

The other factor to consider is what will happen to the mass of social gamers that now accept gaming as a form of personal entertainment. As I mentioned in my MATT DAMON post, much of why we enjoy games stems from enjoyment in learning about abstract concepts, and applying those concepts in different situations. When we have no more to learn about the application of the game’s concepts we get bored, and maybe declare the game shallow depending on how quickly we outgrew it. We declare a game “deep” when there are enough applications of the game’s mechanics for nearly limitless variations (See Starcraft, Warcraft 3, Civilization 4 etc…). Social games generally don’t have that level of depth.

Contrary to what you may have gotten from my ravings, I don’t see casual gamers as stupid. They’re such a ridiculously broad spectrum of people that any comment of that nature would be rightly rubbished as absurd in the extreme. Smart, stupid, brawny, scrawny, friendly, quiet, prudish, slutty, fruity, you name it, it’ll be represented in this demographic, and hey I’m sure plenty of dedicated gamers have a Zynga game or two on their phone. “Casual gamers” purely refers to gamers with an aversion to learning more complicated game mechanics, but without a shadow of a doubt there are people in this group that have the fervent gaming zealot gene lying dormant within them. Now ask yourself this question, are the people in that subset currently playing social games more or less likely to go looking for a more enriching experience when they realize CityVille, FarmVille and Smurfs Village are 54 flavors of vanilla? If you answered “more likely” you’re in agreement with this humble individual.

I’m not naive about this. That girl from high school isn’t going to start throwing herself at your feet (or any other of your extremeties) because you went 20-0 on Kalimdor with your off-race and a 400ms ping. But the beauty is that you don’t have to have 1 in 2 outgrowing Mafia Wars and getting wanderlust for greener pastures for there to be an appreciable increase in demand for the next level of gaming. You don’t need 1 in 10 or even 1 in 50. Even 1 in 100 would result in the market growing by millions. Growth in demand means more games being made, and that’s before we take into account a likely improvement in quality and reduction in cost of development tools making the creation of games an easier and cheaper process.

Destroy that Demon Hunter then take me right here milord.

Destroy that Demon Hunter then take me right here milord.

In other words, like most forms of hysteria, the world’s not going to end and the industry is not going to cave in on itself creatively. Games will continue to come in all manner of shapes, sizes, perversions and depth levels because they’re just a reflection on what we the people want. As long as there are many of us craving and subsequently shelling out money for more nuanced experiences those games will be created and thrive. The only thing we can do from down here is spread the message to those outside our caves and bunkers. You might find the great unwashed more receptive than they’ve ever been previously.