Wednesday 7 July 2010

People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing

Wolfshead’s dusted off the old “game vs world” type debate with some reasonable points on adventure and immersion, and some less reasonable points that I started to comment on before things got sprawling enough for a post…

Starter for ten: … we need to take a time machine back to eleven years ago when MMOs like Ultima Online and EverQuest rocked the video game industry to its core. These new multi-player online games unexpectedly raised the stakes to new levels. No longer was a video game all about having fun and amusement. It was something deeper, visceral, engaging and transcendent; an experience within a world.

I don’t agree with that at all. Ultima Online and Everquest are points on a continuum that includes MUDs and MUSHs, Nethack and Roguelikes, the Elder Scrolls series, the AOL Neverwinter Nights and Meridian 59, among many, many others. It’s not like they mark some Damascene revelation, before which everything was silly and frothy and transient; along with Breakout in 1976 you had the Colossal Cave Adventure. MUD1 and Space Invaders were both 1978. Home computing in the early 80s, as per my favourite chapter of Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys: “The classic action game of the early 1980s – Defender, Pac Man – was set in a perpetual present tense, a sort of arcade Eden in which there were always enemies to zap or gobble, but nothing ever changed apart from the score”, then Braben and Bell unleashed the eight galaxies of 256 stars that made up Elite. Computer games have always spanned quick blasts and deep worlds, pill gobbling while chased by ghosts and conquests of entire galaxies. They’ve always been about playing together as well as alone; prior to widespread connectivity competing for high scores or clustering around Gauntlet and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle arcade machines, then as the internet spread from its largely academic confines so came FPS clans and virtual fighter squadrons alongside MMOG guilds. If anything represents a computer game not being simply about fun and amusement what about, by definition, professional gaming, a field dominated by the FPS and RTS genres? Of course Ultima Online and EverQuest are significant games, but I have a problem with the premise of MMOGs as industry-rocking world-changers.

Moving on, the central thrust of the piece is “Adventure is for Adults”, “Fun is For Children”, which seems to be bringing new terminology to the game vs world, theme park vs sandbox debate. I don’t disagree that there is a terminology problem, I tend to go with game and world which are far from ideal; “adventure” for depth, immersion, meaning, risk, sacrifice isn’t bad, but opposing that with “fun” as a shorthand for instant gratification, transience and triviality is a serious problem. After all part of the provided definition of fun is “what provides amusement or enjoyment”, which is a fairly key part of games for me, and whether by accident or design the piece takes on an air of Puritanism, tutting at the depravity of anyone daring to enjoy themselves, culminating in: “There is something unseemly about the pursuit of fun by grown adults. As a MMO veteran of 11 years, this is not what I signed up for. Part this problem is societal and a reflection of the pervasiveness of our youth culture where people today just refuse to grow up — aided and abetted by their enablers in the entertainment industry. Somehow the purpose of life has been reduced to finding ways to endlessly amuse oneself. Regrettably, our generation seems to be trapped in a culture of perpetual adolescence.”

I’m not quite sure how we got from MMOGs to “the purpose of life”. Tobold posted recently about in-game achievements and the lure of the “ding!”, crucially pointing out: “Our real lives are full of amazing achievements: We learn how the world works during our education, then create value every day in our jobs. We make friends, we love, we build families, and participate in communities.” Games are a *facet* of our lives, to play a game for a bit of fun is no more an indication of some deep-seated perpetual adolescence than watching a light comedy programme with no particular message behind it. Sinking a massive amount of time into “serious” adventuring in a virtual world can *sometimes* be an abdication of real life responsibility, not an inherent demonstration of maturity.

The more reasonable point, though; “But let’s accept that many adults today are chasing the dragon of fun; at least they have thousands of video game titles from which to satiate their hunger. Yet for those of us that seek high stakes online adventure there are barely any choices. […] Real virtual adventurers have few if any niche based options that appeal to them that are created with a WoW budget.”

Nitpicking, a niche option with a WoW budget wouldn’t be niche any more, but looking at other fields there are art-house films alongside summer blockbusters, painfully cool indie bands as well as pop sensations, or the good old fallback of gourmet restaurants and McDonalds. It’s always fun to rail against the Hollywood machine and soulless record corporations, but I’d be more interested in why the other gaming choices aren’t working out; Ultima Online and EverQuest are still running after all, if they were indeed the high point of the genre. Wasn’t Vanguard supposed to pick up EverQuest’s “Vision”? EVE, as ever, is a poster child of “not-WoW”, and in smaller niches still there are things like Wurm Online. There seem to be other options out there, how are they failing in the provision of high stakes online adventure?

As Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green notes in the comments, if using the steak/McDonalds analogy: “The problem here is that the current audience balks at paying filet mignon prices. It’s silly to go to McDonald’s and ask for filet mignon just as it’s silly to go to a fine steakhouse and demand the filet mignon at McDonald’s prices. Yet, that seems to be the situation we’re in. One of the reasons I’m a fan of business models beyond the subscription is that it elimiantes the need to appeal to the least common denominator, plus it allows some people who want a truly terrific experience to pay filet mignon prices.” After all, audiophiles pay thousands for hi-fi equipment rather than sticking an iPod on a twenty quid dock, wine connoisseurs can enjoy a nice Château Mouton-Rothschild as opposed to Something Around A Fiver From Tesco, serious amateur photographers (nudge, nudge) have “prosumer” kit available instead of a simple point n’ click camera, MMOG players have… maybe a Deluxe Edition at launch for an extra £10, or some stuff from an item shop if the game’s set up that way. A nice island in Entropia Universe, if you really want to push it, but that’s very much the exception.

The drawback of a more direct link between price and quality is you can also end up with $7000 audio cables, f’rinstance, where you have to wonder if the purpose is to actually improve the sound, or to let you say “oh, yeah, that cable, seven grand” at every opportunity, oddly enough similar to something Tam touched on in a recent post on elitism vs high standards, “elitism comes not from superiority but from the desire to be seen as superior”. Opposition to a move away from subscriptions is understandable as a defence against “…some companies who want to charge filet mignon prices but try to pass off Sizzler level quality…”, but accepting that high stakes online adventure is indeed a niche, something’s got to give between price and slick production values.

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