Monthly Archives: June 2010

Steam: The Bane of My Marriage

Sweet Ambrosia...

If Steam was setting out to destroy my state of marital bliss, mission accomplished.

I’m guessing that anyone who follows a gaming blog probably already knows about the “Perils of Summer” sale currently running on Steam. There are some truly amazing sales going on, both for entire packages of publisher’s catalogs, as well as daily sales on select titles. To say the prices are astronomical is an understatement.

Since it started, I’ve picked up some crazy deals – both new titles in which I’ve had a passing interest, and backfilling some of my favorites that have either gone MIA or I had abandoned the media. Including:

  • The Deus Ex Collection (Deus Ex and Invisible War) – $4.98 (!)
  • X-COM: The Complete Collection – $3.74 (!!!)
  • Star Wars: The Force Unleashed: Ultimate Sith Edition – $7.49
  • Zeno Clash – $3.75
  • Defense Grid: The Awakening – $9.99
  • King’s Bounty: Gold Edition – $9.99

X-COM and Deus Ex, well, those are just classics from a Golden Era in gaming (at least, it was for me…). To have unlimited access to those for less than the cost of lunch, that’s just a no-brainer.

The rest – those are a testament to the genius of Steam’s strategy. They lured me in with insane prices on some of my favorite games EVER, and when it came to checkout, I figured I’d take a look at what else was out there. I spent a little more on each transaction, and everyone wins. Steam gets a bit more of my money than they would have, and I pick up some titles I’ve always wanted to check out for prices that are well worth it, even if I hardly ever play them.

Man, loading up Deus Ex a few days ago; I’d like to say there’s no price you can put on revisiting something like Deus Ex. It was pure, undiluted nostalgia hitting me right in the gut, both barrels. I used to hear that song in my sleep, and that game honestly warped my perceptions of the Real World for a few weeks.

I’d like to say you can’t put a price on something like that. But Steam did. Exactly the right one.

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Forever Spoiled

I’ve never been a fan of any game, MMO or otherwise, that advertises itself as a “revolution”, or which claims to have “revolutionary” features. Mostly these end up as bullet points during the hype-cycle, spawn some discussion and debate in gaming circles, then fade into oblivion when the developer announces, “Not at launch”. Or that feature is released in a completely bastardized form, barely recognizable from the initial description, and not at all revolutionary. Viva la Revolución and whatnot.

Revolutions, in any form, real or digital, are generally not fun for anyone involved. When it comes to gameplay or mechanics in video games, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen or experienced a truly “revolutionary” idea. And I’d like to keep it that way. Revolution is a complete tear-down of an existing system to replace it with another, presumably more appealing to the oppressed. One, I’m not oppressed in my entertainment choices and, two, I don’t consider disregard for good mechanics an idea worth exploring.

Evolution, on the other hand, is preferable and, at least in gaming, necessary. In many ways it’s a given, considering the relative youth of our type of entertainment and the kinds of people who create them. They continually strive for new and better ways to create fun. Take something, a mechanic or system, a story, a visual style – anything – and push it’s boundaries. Combine it with others, find something new. Make it something more.

*sigh*

These thoughts are all the product of a rather sad revelation; a permanent dissatisfaction with something I very much used to enjoy – crafting in LotRO. The culprit for my disillusionment – All Points Bulletin. I recently gave the game a try during the “Key to the City” open beta event. I’m not going to discuss the game here other than to say that, while I found many things I liked about APB, I just don’t think it’s a game for me. I’ll play through the time I’ve bought (once it launches), and maybe it will change my mind, but I don’t foresee staying with it. I wanted to like it, but it just didn’t click.

However, there was one part of the game that completely blew me away – the part about which everyone is raving. The customization. My word; APB makes City of Heroes’ character customization look almost simplistic. A child’s coloring book next to a masterful stained glass window. Now, considering how lauded CoH is for it’s customization options, how can any other game even compete?

For those of you who may not be familiar, APB allows players to customize the appearance of nearly everything in the game, from your avatar’s physical appearance to their tattoos, clothing, weapons, and vehicles. The tools Real Time Worlds (RTW) created to enable this are marvelous in both their usability and their flexibility; this is an example of the finest in user empowerment, and the industry as a whole (not just MMOs) needs to take a moment to recognize and appreciate what RTW has accomplished. Whether their game succeeds or fails, this system is something that needs to be kept alive.

I spent nearly all of my game time in APB playing around in this system. I struggled at first, but mostly because, upon entering the tools, I had trouble adjusting my thinking to what I was presented. Once I wrapped my brain around what I’d been given, I realized there are no real limits to what is possible. It’s pretty much a game by itself, and I would pay money for an offline version of this tool if it could create just a little bit more than it does now; it creates “decals” that can be placed on nearly anything, and I would want it to create more “objects” that could be shaped and attached to human models.

After having played with such a powerful system, how can I possibly go back to the Easy-Bake oven that is your standard MMO crafting? “A + B + 2-of-C,*click*, wait for progress bar” and out comes your leather armor. Wow, how…thrilling.

This is not to criticize the artists at Turbine. Far from it. LotRO is one of the most beautiful games I’ve played. The item design, particularly the high-level raid armor sets, are gorgeous and desirable enough to help me want to run through that content, even multiple times when necessary. And I don’t think that a system as extensive as APB would be appropriate within LotRO. But even taking a subset of those tools and making them available to players for crafting would be an amazing step forward.

Can you imagine being able to combine various components of armor or weapons and create new designs? For an example piece of torso armor – a scalemail base, with Elven leather pads in chosen locations, and “upgraded” (i.e. fancier) leather pads at the shoulders and elbows? All with their own colors and surface design or texture? The possibilities are mind-boggling, and the “fun factor” of crafting, in my mind, jumps up several levels. There are numerous additional components to just torso armor – the neck, chest-piece (directly over the sternum), abdomen, and hems, for example – that could all have component options from which to choose. Weapons work just as well: pommel, grip, guard, and blade are all components of a bladed melee weapon.

Implementing this into LotRO, with its existing mechanic for “crafting”, would be difficult to say the least. However, a system like this could still be made to work within the current framework:

  • Recipes could still be used. Instead of recipes simply dictating what components are necessary for which output, recipes instead could be used to ensure that different visual components could not be mixed together (thus preserving the canon). Bree-Land, Elven, Dwarf-make, and Moria/Lothlorien variants of armor or weapons can still be made, but only the same type of components could be combined into a single piece (i.e. all Elvish or all Dwarf-make). The other mechanic of recipes – controlling who can make which items – is preserved. Single-use recipes for special statistic increases are also still possible (see further points below).
  • Harvested components would still be required. Though APB has nothing like this (that I ever encountered), it’s easy to maintain this mechanic. Because recipes still exist, material component requirements can still be enforced. Single-use and critical successes for recipes can continue to function, with the requirement of special components during crafting (much like they do now). Also, as it generally works now, materials used would also translate into the statistics of the item – Toughness, Armor/Damage, statistical bonuses, and so on.
  • “Critical Success” is still possible. Critical successes mean two things right now: slightly different appearance (though I’m not sure this is always the case), and different stat boosts provided by the crafted item. As recipes and materials are still required, this mechanic doesn’t really need to change at all.
  • Statistic increases would still exist. Similar to critical successes, this aspect of crafting really wouldn’t change. However, with the greater flexibility inherent to the system, stat boosts could actually be more customizable. Want a bit more of an Agility increase than the recipe would normally provide? Use certain materials, or make sure you don’t have stiff leather pads in certain key areas.
  • Crafting skill levels would still exist. The type of system I’m envisioning would probably result in fewer overall recipes. I don’t think this is a bad thing. But crafting levels (Journeyman, Expert, Artisan, etc.) should still exist, to represent the time and effort invested by individual players. However, instead of controlling to which recipes a player has access, crafting level could instead control which materials a player can use in their recipe, and the visual styles to which a player has access. Skill level could also contribute to base item statistics (Toughness, Armor, Damage) in conjunction with material components.

Most of the fundamental ideas around crafting would remain; mostly this comes down to visual appearance, and a greater flexibility in resulting item statistics. In my opinion, the best part of a system such as this is that, in general, it would work for more than just armor and weapons. Imagine an interface where players could mix components for cooking foods or scholar’s potions? Or combine runes, inks, and writing materials to make scrolls? Stones, metals, and different styles of settings combine for Jewellers. Outfits, by far one of my favorite systems in LotRO, work identically in terms of crafting the items, as does the actual ownership, equipping, and transfer of items when they are sold (they are still represented as icons which fill an inventory space).

Other aspects of player appearance and itemization, i.e. “armor sets” and rare drops, could still work as they currently do or they could be modified. Participation in high-level content (or maybe I should instead say “significantly involved content”) could still reward tokens for bartering, or they could drop special components or recipes (permanent or single-use for either type). Use of these components or recipes in crafted items would result in unique visual pieces (i.e. a special sternum piece that is only available from The Rift) and could even produce Bind on Acquire items to prevent the sale of “high end gear”.

The real value-adds of a system like this are many; greater immersion, greater player involvement in the economy, higher player satisfaction, and (the most important) significantly increased options for players to customize their appearance. The celebration caused by the Outfit system should attest to the importance we place on our avatar’s appearance.

A lot of the systems in APB are built around the mechanics of the customization tools and were done so “from the ground up”; these tools aren’t a replacement or upgrade of existing systems. This fact alone makes it extremely unlikely that anything similar to what I’ve detailed above would be implemented in LotRO. Ever. Not only is it a major overhaul of a relatively small system (and we’ve all seen how quickly changes have come to other “small” systems *cough* housing *cough*), but it would require a complete overhaul of most of the player and item models used in the game, and the implementation of a system that would put all of the pieces together, at runtime, for every player. That’s huge. I’m guessing (though I’m no expert) that that is nearly New Game Engine huge.

But, a person can dream. And the fact that APB has implemented such a system means that it can be done. This is the direction MMOs are headed – the Web-Two-Point-Oh-Player-Generated-Content-Etc.-Direction – and all developers need to take note. Not having systems like this may become a detriment in the future. Were a system like the one I’ve described ever to be introduced it would solidify LotRO as a world-class game with few, if any, peers. And the kinds of fun it would introduce would be untold.

I Am Worthless…

Rawr...…but it’s (mostly) not my fault.

Finished out Volume 2, Book 8 last night, and, due to technical difficulties, I missed what would probably have been a very enjoyable fight. Nonetheless, I got to watch two very solid players from Talath Dirnen (an old kin of mine long long ago) take down Gwathnor. According to kinmates, this is actually a very fun instance. And I missed it.

To recap, I’d found another Burglar and his Minstrel friend willing to join me in this particular 3-man instance – something that made me very happy, as I’ve been remiss in the epic quests recently. Off we go to the Shadowed Refuge, talk to Lenglammel, and head into Azanarukar.

Now, this particular area is among my favorites. It’s very appealing visually, despite nearly everything being red (seriously, how do we walk around in there without third-degree burns?). The monsters are, generally, a little more “fantastic”, or flashy, than most you see in LotRO; most of the mobs in the Foundations of Stone have this very exuberant design. They’re very colorful and somewhat crazy, for lack of a better term.

Now, normally, I greatly appreciate the design of monsters in LotRO. They’re grounded, more or less, in reality (at least, if Orcs did exist in the Real World, that’s how I imagine they’d look). No bright green skin, not huge and bulky. They’re dirty, gritty, and really just malformed humanoids. Peter Jackson did them just right in the movies, and I’ve always like that Turbine took the same approach overall. It stays true to Tolkien’s vision. But every so often, it’s nice to fight some real “fantasy” creatures. Gwathnor and the caerogs are a perfect example. Gwathnor in particular is, I think, my favorite boss design.

Back to this particular incident; we head into the instance, following Magor into the first fight, and the game locks on me. This never happens. I can count on one hand the number of times this has happened to me. And, of course, wouldn’t it just happen to occur during an instance I’d dearly love to run? Figures.

By the time I’d gotten back into the game, I was still in group, but I was locked out of the room where the final encounter occurs. I got to stand on the sidelines and watch. It looked like a great fight.

Had I been with kin, I would have asked them to leave the instance and start over again (yet another reason I prefer running with kinmates – there’s no pressure and little mistakes or inconveniences get overlooked). I’m not criticizing my PUG – they were really nice, but were well into the final fight by the time I got my issues figured out.

This particular mechanic – literally being locked out of a major encounter – is one that, while I understand its use, has always annoyed and frustrated me. At the very least, it’s a way for Turbine to “enforce” the design and flow of encounters which they have carefully, and painstakingly, constructed. It keeps players from “zerging” boss encouters, preventing them from just continually throwing themselves at the monster until it’s worn down. I get that. But it’s always reeked of laziness. Especially considering our character’s “health” is actually Morale, that defeat for us is never physical death but instead that our will to fight has been broken to the point of retreat.

Where is the chance for a true rally? Aside from the standard “rez” mechanic of healers, and the Morale boosts and restoration of Captains…once we’re down, we’re out. And once we’re all out, the monster goes back to full health, standing in the same spot it always has, as if nothing remarkable has happened. It’s always just been a little too standard for me.

All true heroes must fall, or falter, at some point; I don’t want a God-mode game where I can never die. That’s no challenge, and certainly no fun. We need to fall in order to make our comeback. But in MMOs, there is no real comeback – it’s black or white, fail or succeed, finish it or try again. There’s no ebb and flow to our battles.

What saved the night for me was what happened immediately afterwards. I had thought that, being unable to talk to Magor after the big fight had concluded, I was unable to advance the quest. Time to find another group, right? Well, Friends of Frodo stepped up yet again, and I had a full group backing me up in short order. I head back to the Foundations of Stone, run up to Lenglammel to restart the quest, and, to my surprise, find that I had completed the instance, despite being totally worthless in the actual fight. Well, everyone found that endlessly funny (for various reasons, but as I was quite embarassed I did lay on the self-deprecating humor pretty heavily). We all got a good laugh at Drannos’ expense. Six people gathered just to help me turn in a quest.

As Palinuris said, “Fastest Instance Run. Ever. Next time you need help turning in a quest, don’t hesitate to ask!”

Tell My Wife I Love Her

Quiet week for me last week, but mostly because Real Life got particularly busy, and I was extremely distracted by all of the news coming out of E3. This year was, for me and for many of us, a special E3; the old energy seemed to return, and for the first time in years there was real excitement and a boatload of information flying across the wires. Between work, preparing for TyTy’s (my youngest) 1 year birthday, and all of the videos and news coming from LA, I really had no time to write!

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to much for this calendar year when it comes to MMOs. I’ve slowly been succumbing to the temptations of a console (other than the Wii, which is really for the kids); possibly a PS3 in the future for our household, as it’d be really nice to have a Blu-ray player as well.

I’m still not looking forward to much this year, but, so help me, 2011 is looking like a killer year. There are so many games to which I’m looking forward, I’m going to be fairly absent during the nights of next year (I generally log in after everyone is asleep). The Missus will be less than pleased, I’m sure.

Here’s what’s going to destroy my marriage next year (in no particular order), and why I will probably let it:

Star Wars: The Old Republic – A good amount of new information, and, of course, there was the new cinematic. Some information about player ships and PvP came out, and while it’s nice to see more about what the game will include, I can’t say this is particularly surprising. Everyone was making a huge deal about it when all I could think was, “Yep. That makes sense.” Based on what BioWare has stated in the past, none of this should have been a significant surprise. However, based on what they’ve said, I also don’t think these mechanics are going to play out exactly as everyone hopes they will. I see a “Jump to Lightspeed” going on here – no, you can’t really do Star Wars without space, but I don’t think we’re going to see fully fledged space combat at release. I hope I’m wrong, though.

The cinematic did it’s job, though – it got me completely pumped and sold me on the game, all over again. Even though I know the game won’t be as good, if this is the thematic direction BioWare is headed, I’m sold. If they even come close with the gameplay, I’ll enjoy my time in TOR.

Warhammer 40K: Dark Millenium Online – I’d heard that this was in development, but it was nice to see something. Unlike others, I’m not bothered by the “neon-shaded butchery”. I actually played the tabletop game, and I can say that, while they never tell you how to paint your models, Games Workshop was no stranger to bright colors on their battlefields. There was certainly encouragement for creativity in your selection of colors, and I actually like that the game uses some of that. Not all of us need brown-grey to dominate the landscape, just to feel “gritty” and “real”.

I reserve all other judgements and thoughts until I see more about the game. The trailer was nice, and the fact that its 40K means I am excited (and will at least try it), but until there is more information, I just can’t comment.

Final Fantasy XIV – I never played Final Fantasy XI, but I’ve always thought that these games were simply gorgeous, and that I should have at least tried it. The grind (even if it is only perceived) kept me away from FFXI, as did the requirements for grouping (I just don’t always have the time!). I don’t know yet if there won’t be as much grind in FFXIV, but it seems like they’re trying to address these issues, and the Massively interview with Hiromichi Tanaka actually got me more interested. There are some really great ideas here – the skill system, the guildleves, and the treatment of non-combat professions as viable choices – all have me watching this game closely.

The Agency – SOE’s been very quiet over the last year or more when it comes to The Agency. A while back, when the game was first announced, there was a lot of talk about the game, and then they went underground (no pun intended) and we heard almost nothing. The trailer they released during E3 was a great comeback.

Clearly, they’ve been working on the game. I like the new direction for the visuals, though I can’t say I dislike the cel-shaded look of the original designs. The Agency, for me, is closer to what I’d hoped for from APB – a game where I can jump in for some quick, action-packed, TF2-style fun, but also have character development and some story. I also love the idea of having a team of operatives working for me, even when I’m not logged in (I seem to remember hearing that they will email/text me if I allow SOE access to this personal information – which I will!).

Vindictus – I tried Mabinogi (my only experience with Nexon) for a short spell, and I will say one thing: I loved the combat system. I was pretty disgusted with the spam-tastic insanity of the beginner areas, and never got much farther than that. I also didn’t enjoy the “cutesie” feel. I’ve always thought about going back and looking again, but now Nexon has given me exactly zero reasons to ever go back – Vindictus looks amazing!

Reading through the hands-on article over at Massively got me very interested. I don’t usually go in for the ultra-violent, hack-and-slash games, but I’ll make an exception for Vindictus. I love the idea of destructible environments that can be used during combat, and that players will actually be affected by hits from the larger creatures (I’ve always hated that we just stand there taking hits from Giants, when we should get tossed around…). “Real physics” in the game look like they could be a lot of fun, and visually, the game looks stunning. I’ve read that Vindictus and Mabinogi are very different beasts, but Nexon’s approach to strategic combat and detailed, deep systems has me looking forward to this game.

Rift: Planes of Telara – Not only does this game look breathtaking, but the implied flexibility in character creation and development makes it worth paying attention. I was initially intrigued by Trion World’s initial sales pitch for Rift (then called Heroes of Telara); they were talking up the “server-sided” nature of the game that allowed GMs (or whatever they’re calling their in-game team)  or the game itself, to build a more dynamic world with very fluid events. Basically, because a good portion of the game logic exists on the server, as opposed to standard MMOs that have nearly all of it on the client machine, Trion can make changes to the world anytime, and all the players in that area will experience those changes. Rifts seems to take many of the standard MMO systems and build on them, combining the dynamic world with enough familiar game mechanics to make it a natural choice for MMO players.

Black Prophesy/Jumpgate Evolution – These two are somewhat interchangeable in my mind, as much as the developers may dislike that classification. Hands-down, one of my fondest gaming memories is Tie Fighter. It still ranks in my top 10 single-player games. The company that can create an MMO with Tie Fighter/X-Wing space combat is looking at a winner; it looks like both Jumpgate Evolution and Black Prophecy are shooting for this. The fact that both will support joysticks is reason enough for me to check them out; I’ve been looking for a reason to break out the joystick, but haven’t found a flight sim worth my time.

Massively (I seem to be linking to them a lot in this post – they did have great E3 coverage!) has nice write-ups of their hands-on with both games.

LEGO Universe – I’d like to say, “This one if for my kids”, but I’d be lying. Bald-faced, out-and-out untruths.

I love the LEGO games – Star Wars, Batman, Indiana Jones (though I probably won’t check out Harry Potter for me, my older son, the Bean, is very interested) – and LEGO Universe looks like it takes these to the next level, and beyond.

Wow. Talk about pure, unadulterated fun. This is one I can play with my son AND log in just to have some no-pressure fun. Definitely on the “Must Buy” list.

Lord of the Rings Online, Volume 3 Book 2 – Man, Turbine just keeps giving me reasons to stick with LotRO, my one true love. A new area to explore, especially one where Turbine has more flexibility, is a very welcome addition (I loved Forochel, though it was a bit grind-ish towards the end). Housing and Legendary Item changes. A new hobby. DirectX 11 (I just moved to Windows 7). And, of course, the continuation of the Epic Quests.

All in all, this year’s E3 didn’t bring a whole lot of new games to my attention; but it certainly did solidify my interest in several titles, and renewed my interest in others.

I’m not sure where I’m going to fit all of these in, and keep up with my current games, but I’m sure I’ll manage. Also, the number of “freemium” or Free to Play games on the list above should be noted – this may not be the direction for the entire industry, but it’s certainly found it’s place; and the fact that I’m not paying a monthly subscription means a game is more likely to remain installed on my hard drive, so I’ll jump in every once in a while when the fancy strikes me. Those companies will eventually get some of my money, which is more than they would have gotten if they’d used a traditional subscription model. Developers need to stand up and take a long, hard look at this fact – I’m not alone here.

I find myself caught between looking for the depth and breadth of gameplay that I’ve loved for so many years of MMOs, and acknowledging that I just don’t have the time to get involved with every game in which I’m interested, to the extent that I’d like. I think developers are recognizing this as well; the MMO market, while still a relatively niche market, is becoming increasingly crowded. We only have so much time in a day, and if they want our money, developers need to make games accessible without the extreme time commitments.

A big part of me cringes to say this, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

It’s a Trap!

Please....HELP Me....

Oh. Oh…My…WORD.

It just keeps getting better. The latest cinematic trailer is so good, it hurts. I actually ran into a coworker’s office and had him watch it.

If this game is even half as good as the cinematics, I’m doomed. I’m trying hard not to let the jaded gamer flare up, but I just know we’re in for something here – hopefully we’ll all be pleasantly surprised by BioWare. But I can’t help thinking that they’re setting themselves, and us, up on an unreachable pedestal.

Still, I’ll take these cinematics over Episodes I, II, and III (well, maybe not the last one), anyday.

Either way, I’m with GeeCee:

“This game is going to completely destroy my life.”

The Art of Criticism

This is a significant deviation from what I normally write about here, and for that I apologize. However, I felt so strongly, and devoted so much thought to this that I felt compelled to comment. I thank you for your indulgence.

A few months ago, a well-known critic stated, in no uncertain terms, that video games are not art. More specifically, “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form”. And while this isn’t the first time he has posited this theory, it is the first time he has expanded upon it at any length. Predictably, gamers, game journalists, and our beloved developers, nearly the entire gaming biosphere worked itself into a bit of a frenzy and yet another round of the endless debate reared it’s ugly head.

I would agree that I’m late to this particular conversation; except for the fact that I’m not going to contribute to that conversation. I’m not going to comment on the “Games as Art is-sue” (as Patrick Stewart would pronounce it). Arguably, I’m not qualified. I have no degree in Art History, Film Theory, or any of the Fine Arts (though a B.S. in Photography does help a little bit). Except that I’m human, with free will, the capacity for (somewhat) intelligent thought, and opinion.

What prompts me to write this now, so long after the fact, is the contents of this month’s Game Informer. I’m a long-time subscriber, and always look forward to receiving my copy in the mail. Though the Web has in many ways usurped the role of traditional print media, I find that the GI editors and staff do a terrific job of providing real value, and good reason, to subscribe to this particular print periodical. In short, I’m a fan.

My concern is that this month, GI devoted eight pages to presenting a counter-argument to Mr. Critic’s invalidation of games as an art form. The article, in my opinion, presents some very strong arguments about the value of games as a form of artistic expression, pointing to some of our field’s best examples – Braid, Heavy Rain, Shadow of the Colossus, Super Mario Brothers. But this is futile at best, and I found it waste of eight pages; except as a means to highlight the redeeming features of the games mentioned. In their defense, just previous to this article they presented an interview with Ken Levine of Irrational Games, discussing the “Games as Art is-sue”; fortunately, in this interview, Mr. Levine is the voice of reason. He states:

“We don’t owe anything to anybody. The future of entertainment is being envisioned not just by the games industry, but by a confluence of developers and gamers…And we’re just getting started.”

And this is exactly the point I’m trying to make; not that games are Art, or that they’re not, but that we shouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place. We don’t owe anything to the developers and critics of other industries, especially not a justification of our endeavors. All GI accomplished was to engage Mr. Critic’s discourse, on his level and by his terms, when the only appropriate response is to ignore him.

Quite frankly, I was astounded. My only thought was, “Why are we talking about this? Are we so desperate for approval that we’ll vigorously take on any and all who level criticism at our field?

The driving need for validation should be obvious; developers invest a great deal of their time, energy, and creativity in producing games, and gamers invest a lot of their time, energy, and emotions in the games they play. This includes journalists, who devote their working lives to something we all love. Like any other field, we want to feel that our time is spent on something of value. What confuses me is why we seek validation from outside sources, when what really matters is how we feel. We can decry him as “out of touch” or irrelevant, but our manic desire for approval is exactly why Mr. Critic has any chance for commentary, and why he gets any attention from us at all; we hand him the keys with a simpering smile.

Art imitates Life...

And while I struggle with whether or not to say anything about Games as Art (besides a who cares? with rolling eyes), I will state this: I would argue with Mr. Critic’s fundamental premise that any of his approved forms of expression are Art. I stand with Plato and Aristotle; The Arts, both those popularly recognized and those that have yet to receive acknowledgment, are derivations at best. Pale imitations when compared to the world that surrounds us and is the only source of true beauty. How can even the works of the Masters compare to the perfection of even the most basic flower, the smile and laughter of a child, or the awe inspired by standing on a beach at sunrise? Let me be clear – I do not prescribe to any formal religion or system of beliefs. But (and not to sound cliche) I do consider myself to be a spiritually grounded person. I do believe in forces beyond our physical perceptions which nonetheless have real influence on the corporeal World, whether they be conscious or not. Nothing we as humans can create even approaches them, we can only interpret.

So we’re left with subjectivity when it comes to defining Art, and again I must ask, why are we even talking about this? If no one can point to a single, authoritative definition of Art, then how does Mr. Critic consider himself even remotely capable of contributing to any conversation about video games? He can’t.

But the truth is, unfortunately, that people are going to have this conversation whether we participate in it or not. Whether we, having invested so much of ourselves in gaming, like it or not. Whether they’re qualified or not. The title of this post has an important distinction that I make very consciously; criticism, not critique. Critique is constructive, and results from a position of informed opinion. Criticism is neither of these things, is far easier, and hence preferable for those who find themselves floundering, or drowning, in the currents of modern culture. It’s easy to sit in the nosebleed section and proclaim yourself an authority. But if you want to be taken seriously, get on the field and show us that you’re a participant, not a spectator.

I have this piece of advice for the pundits who want to classify games as Art: until you pick up a controller or sit behind a keyboard, and put in your time, I don’t find your opinion useful. Unless you’ve invested yourself in experiencing even a fraction of the depth and breadth that video games have to offer, to the point where you can discuss them intelligently, both their strengths and their shortcomings, then I suggest you opt for the better part of valor and quietly bow out of the conversation. When a 68-year-old man, who has admittedly spent less than a full working day engaged in this specific form of entertainment, loudly proclaims its validity (or lack thereof), it is not an informed opinion; it is a grab for attention and a vain attempt to regain relevance which he has increasingly seen diminish.

To my fellow gamers, both developers and players, I have this: the important question is not “Are games art?”. Even acknowledging that question, let alone trying to answer it, only lends credibility to our detractors. You open the door for them by trying to answer, because you give the impression that we care about their answer. And there is no answer to that question. None worth saying.

The question we should be asking is, “Are games something of value?

Rising Tide

Two unrelated posts today that got me thinking about the “hype machine”, and why, for me, it does more harm than good. GeeCee over at MMO Gamer Chick highlighted the recent release of an $80 statue for Star Wars: The Old Republic (yes, you read that correctly – eighty dollars for a resin statue for a game that hasn’t even launched). And Ravious at Kill Ten Rats had a bit to say about “content explosion” vs. “content drip” for engaging existing players or attracting new ones. Basically it comes down to letting content or information trickle out over weeks or even months to keep players coming back, or, especially in the case of an upcoming game, using both an explosion of content to build hype and a constant trickle to keep them interested.

“In a perfect world, I think both a content explosion coupled with a content drip would be the best option.  It seems more and more that the roar from the content explosions collapse all the more quickly as veteran MMO players tear through the intricately designed content like a one-year old’s first birthday cake.”

~Ravious

For an existing game, I agree with Ravious. “Content explosions” are great for upcoming expansions or major patches. They get the existing players and community excited about what’s coming, and give others a reason to check out an MMO that they wouldn’t normally play. Around the time Rise of the Godslayer was released, I seriously considered resubbing to Age of Conan (I chose DDO instead, but it wasn’t an easy choice!). But “content drip” also has its place – mostly to keep the existing players engaged and the community strong. The War in Kryta (as Ravious points out) is a perfect example of this; the epic books in LotRO could also fall into this category, despite the fact that recently that particular trickle has nearly dried up.

But, for me personally, there is a definite downside to the hype machine. Especially in regards to upcoming games such as The Old Republic. There comes a point when there’s too much information being released, and I find myself actively working not to read or learn anything new about a game. If things continue as they have, by the time TOR releases I’m going to have the strong feeling that there’s nothing new to learn; nothing to explore or discover. Sure, there will be areas to see and quests to play through, but all of the flavor and “new-ness” of any particular area will already have come and gone. And there’s no reason to expect that the hype will do anything except increase. The Old Republic is starting to approach that threshold; it’s like those movie previews that show all of the best scenes in a movie – by the time you get around to seeing the actual film, it’s grossly disappointing.

Where’s the fun in that?

I understand the business behind the hype. These products take insane amounts of money to create, and have to break even pretty quickly. Ongoing costs are a hard fact of life. Box sales and player retention are critical factors to success. It’s almost as if modern “themepark” MMOs are the victims of their own nature – they are virtual worlds that can rake in millions of dollars of profit, but they are also expansive, thousand-plus-hours-of-content monstrosities (though one could argue the validity of grind as “content”) that must continually be moving towards more content in order to keep their customers happy and paying. I’ll leave the arguments over “themepark vs. sandbox” for another time; but as the sole providers and gatekeepers of content for their MMOs, themepark developers are creating a lot of work for themselves, just to remain viable.

These games need the hype machine, even if it damages their product in the long run.