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Six Reasons to Play MechWarrior Online

April 16, 2013 Leave a comment

For those of you not familiar with the MechWarrior franchise or the BattleTech universe, allow me to introduce you to MechWarrior Online, the latest installation in the series.

The basic premise of the BattleTech universe is as follows:

In the distant future humanity has broken free of the shackles of our solar system and begun settling the vast reaches of space.  Over time human nature rears its ugly head, leading to any number of wars over the period of a millennia.

At some point in time humans perfected the IndustrialMech—a (usually) bi-pedal humanoid machine capable of aiding humans in completing various work more quickly and easily.  As usual, the military applications of the technology become far more important and it isn’t long before the mechs become weaponized.  From that point on, mechs dominated the battlefield.

Inner Sphere Ca. 3050

The Inner Sphere (ca 3050) with colors denoting the various Successor States and their holdings. The center point at which all Successor States meet is Terra Firma (Earth).

MWO is set in the year 3050, long after the Star League—a government uniting almost all humans under one banner—fell and the various states that existed attempted to fill the vacuum left by the Star League in the most selfish manner of all.  These states—known as the Successor States—engaged in numerous wars leading up to 3050.  Currently, the MWO universe resides on the precipice of an impending disaster—one that will shake all of the Inner Sphere (the geographical domain of the Successor States).Until then, the various Houses in power are still engaging in their various squabbles and wars over land, power and resources. MWO is an amazing game, and if you aren’t already playing it I suggest that you begin to do so.  If you aren’t totally convinced, allow me to provide the following reasons to help sway you.

MWO Is Familiar…

MWO is, at its core, a first-person shooter.  The various objectives in the two game modes are reminiscent of the game modes available in the most popular FPS games.  There is, upon playing a match in MWO, a sense of familiarity to it all.

The familiarity is what makes MWO so welcoming to people who are not familiar with the franchise.

Atlas HUD

The HUD within your mech. Note that it is very similar to other HUDs in FPS games.

Matches in MWO are played in teams of 8 players, for 16 total in a match.  The matches themselves involve various capture points that each team can capture, though destruction of all enemy mechs is also a condition for victory.  At the end of a match players are awarded XP and c-bills (in-game currency) that can be used to advance your character and customize your mech.

If it all sounds very much like the COD or Battlefield series of FPSs, you’re right.

The control method is also similar enough that players who have yet to touch any MechWarrior games will not be totally lost in their first matches.  Nonetheless, the controls still have a learning curve to them.

So while MechWarrior games may be foreign to you, MWO is going to be familiar enough to be welcoming and easy to learn.

…But It Is Also Different

While at the most fundamental level MWO is an FPS that is similar to other FPSs, the game is true to the MechWarrior franchise and BattleTech universe, as various unique systems are introduced into MWO that will be familiar to experienced MW players. What separates MWO—and really all of the MechWarrior series—is that it is really the thinking person’s shooter.

I am not a big fan of the COD/Battlefield games.  For one, if I wanted to be yelled at by thirteen year olds who think it’s cool to shout racial slurs, I could have become a junior high teacher.  Since that is not the path I took, I want a game in which I don’t have to worry that some tween is going to lose his shit and/or teabag me.

But the real reason I never got into games like COD/Battlefield is the gameplay itself.  While the core basis of the game is not objectionable, the game itself feels like one must be on speed in order to actually play well, much less enjoy the game.

Consider the following gameplay from a COD game:

There is a lot going on in that game.  Players are falling left-and-right and the player recording even respawns at one point.  People walk around a corner only to be taken out with a single shot.  Movement is paramount, as stopping to time your shot is asking for a bullet to the face.

All-in-all, the COD/Battlefield games are twitchy FPSs that rely on instinct and lightning-fast response times in order to do well.  I do not deny that there are certain elements of strategy, but in general that strategy is limited to the following key points.

1)      Never stop moving.
2)      Always strafe.
3)      Fire your gun at the slightest provocation.
4)      If you die, it’s probably because you were too slow or stopped moving.
5)      Don’t stop moving.

Frantic games have a place in the hobby of gaming as a whole.  But the homogenization of the industry (to which I have previously devoted a post with no small amount of ire) means that almost every game plays this way, with the same elements.

Having a game that is familiar is nice, but I also think that it is about time we as gamers asked for a change of pace.  MWO is that change of pace.

Again, while the basic elements will be familiar, it is the rest of the game that is not.  For one, combat is slower and more deliberate.  Consider this video of MWO gameplay:

There is no shortage of excitement and even some very fast-paced action in MWO.  But for the most part, the game relies on your wits and coordination with the team.  If you are not cooperating with your teammates—even at the most fundamental level, which is sticking together as a group—you will watch your team get picked apart one-by-one.

Note the last event before death was “ammo explosion”. Which means this jackass was either running way too hot or got shot there, and either way didn’t have a CASE to contain the blast.

But the strategy goes beyond that.  Your torso twists separate from your legs, which means you can fire at enemies while retreating.  Your weapons also have maximum (and often minimum) effective ranges.  Selection of weapons for your mech depends upon what role you wish to fulfill, and in combat situations which weapon you use depends upon the range of engagement.  Finally, weapons generate heat, too much of which can cause damage to your mech or shut you down in the middle of a fight.  Heat management is a key to the game, both in terms of mech design and actual gameplay.

What all of the above translates to is the requirement that one think before doing in MWO.  Firing all of your weapons at once may do a lot of damage, but if it shuts you down— and you cannot move or fight back—then the damage will have been for nothing.  If you design a mech for long-range combat with no short-range solutions, you need to be aware of your surroundings and always keep away from the front lines.

I could, quite easily, go on for pages and pages about all the ways that MWO separates itself from the COD series and its clones.  But I will just repeat that MWO is a shooter for the thinking person.  Every action—in the mech lab or on the battlefield—has far reaching consequences.

Make no mistake, though, that the game is intense even if not as fast-paced as COD.  There is no lack of excitement, but rather it is just not as twitchy and reflexive as your typical FPS.

The Game is Free-to-Play—and it’s F2P Model Works

No, really.  You are actually required to pay nothing—as of right now—to enjoy every major benefit of the game.  This is a topic I am going to address in its own post, so the following information will have to do for today.

I have a lot of qualms about free-to-play games, mostly because I have a lot of issues with microtransactions.  If you didn’t read that article previously and you’re not going to click the link, I have two issues with real-money transactions in games:

  1. Often microtransactions are a means for companies to make quick money off people for content that should have been included in the first place or that is hardly worth the money
  2. The second use is to provide players with powerful in-game items without having to do any of the work to actually earn them.  In most games time is a kind of currency that can be exchanged for more powerful items.  There is a reason you don’t get the best weapon from the first moment of the game.  Real-money transactions allow people to skip this work and, in online games, can result in unfair advantages for players who are have the money to spare over those who do not.

So I was a bit hesitant to immediately buy into MWO (in the figurative sense), as I did not want to enjoy the game only to find out that I cannot buy the exact mech I want without dropping real money.

Image

This is the various subscription levels for Star Wars: The Old Republic in its new payment model. Left column is full payment, right column is free-to-play. You might see why I was a tad concerned to hear MWO was F2P.

Fortunately, my concerns were unfounded.  Real money purchases MechWarrior Credits (or MC) which can be used for the following services:

1. Premium time.  This basically earns you more money and experience from each match in which you compete.
2. New BattleMechs that you can use right away and begin customizing immediately.
3. Exchanging one type of XP for another, harder to earn type of XP
4. Mech camo specs, essentially visual customization of the interior as well as cockpit of your mech.

What this means is that given enough time you can purchase the mech you want, give it the loadout you want and play it as much as you want.  If you are determined not to support Piranha Games, then you will have to live without custom camo for your mech.  I think that is a fair trade.

As far as those who do drop money—sometimes lots of it—to get mechs within the game, I would tell you not to be too concerned.  In any game there will be people who are very far ahead of you in terms of progression and skill.  The thing is, none of what that person has (besides perhaps his camo spec) is not obtainable through in-game money.  So, given enough time, however, you can balance out with other players without dropping a dime into the game.

Seeing as there is inequality inherent to games anyway, I figure that PGI’s model for f2p not only works, but addresses quite well the inequality issues inherent to the f2p or microtransaction model.  It isn’t perfect, but there is incentive to play even if you never intend to spend money on it.

It Needs Your Help

MechWarrior Online is the retooled MW5 game, made into a multiplayer online game.  Currently MWO is in its open beta phase, with a planned release date of late summer this year.  Pirhana Games, the developer, decided to use a free-to-play model for the new MechWarrior game and make it multiplayer only.

Image

Uncle Atlas want’s YOU. He also doesn’t want to get scavenged for parts and end up in a box for twenty years. Do not anger him.

Gamers familiar with the model will probably recognize that moving a game to free-to-play status is often a last-ditch effort by the devs to bolster falling subscription rates.   Star Wars: The Old Republic moved toward a three-tier free-to-play model to, as BioWare put it, “expose [the] game to the widest audience possible, so [they are] allowing everyone to download the game for no charge, then play the level 1-to-50 game without having to purchase anything.”  That is corporate buzzword for “our subscription numbers were falling and we figure if people play they’ll get hooked”.

Needless to say, starting off as free-to-play is a bit risky.  We live in an age where people can hardly be bothered to pay for the movies they watch or the music to which they listen.  Offering a fully-functional game for free and hoping that people will be willing to drop real money on bonus features is hoping for the best from an audience—i.e. the internet—that has shown nothing but disdain for the very corporations upon which they depend for entertainment.

That’s the risk: games cost a lot of money to develop and so Piranha and Infinite are putting down a lot of money for something that isn’t guaranteed to return that investment. There are discussions about certain future elements of the game requiring real money investment from players, but for the most part discussion is centered on the game still being fundamentally free.

That’s where you come in.  The more people who play the game, the more people there are that will enjoy it.  The more people that enjoy it the more people there are to feel the desire to pay for elements of the game to provide Piranha/Infinite with some money.  (While I currently can’t afford it, I will definitely support Piranha/Infinite in the future in this manner.)

The best part, though, is that the game really is absolutely free.  Like I said above, it is possible to play and enjoy the game without spending a dime.  You can pick it up, play it and—if you’re unimpressed—just uninstall it.  If you like it, you can still play without paying or you can choose to support the developers.  Regardless what option you choose, there is no risk to you. If it sounds like the kind of game you’d enjoy the least you can do is support the developers by giving it a shot and seeing where it takes you.

It’s Giant Walking Death Robots

Image

Except the ones in MWO have numerous weapons. Many, many weapons.

MechWarrior online is, really, just Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots for adults.

Do I really need to say anything more than that to get you interested?

It May Be the End for MechWarrior

As I stated above, PGI is working on MWO instead of MW5.  There was not enough interest in the game—especially without a PS3 version—and so PGI went this route.  It is a huge risk for them, but also for the fans of the BattleTech Universe.

From the release of MechWarrior 2 until the release of MW4: Mercenaries in 2001, the MechWarrior series was at least alive, if not moving in fits and starts.

Should MWO fail it may well mean no more MechWarrior games for a long time.  It took 9 years for MWO to come out after MW4.  In the meantime we saw some BattleTech video games, namely the MechAssault series.  But these games were not MechWarrior.  They played from a third person perspective and had none of the strategy required in previous MechWarrior installments.  These games are more in line with today’s FPS or games like Gears of War than with anything BattleTech.

Should MWO fail, it shows all the developers and publishers that gamers are only interested in clones of Gears of War, COD and Battlefield.

I am sick of those being the only games that anybody makes anymore, and I hope you are too.  They are insulting in so many ways (see my article about them, linked above) but most of all we need variety.  Even those who love COD/Battlefield no doubt need a break from those games from time-to-time.  MWO can be that break, and in doing so you help make sure that we continue to see quality MechWarrior titles in the future.

I have lived far too long without being able to build my own mech and unleash destruction on all who oppose me.  MWO has brought that dream back to me, and so I hope you’ll help keep MWO alive to keep the dream alive.

Yeah, I said it.

Lamenting the Death of Immersion in Gaming—Talking About Piracy and DRM

May 31, 2012 1 comment

Normally if someone writes an article or post elsewhere that is pretty similar to mine I’ll make a point of referencing it, usually just so people know it’s coincidence rather than me shamelessly ripping off.  In the case of this Cracked.com article, I had to add more than a reference.  As I read it I could not help but feel that I was reading my own post.  I wrote this article last night, before John Cheese’s contribution was put up on Cracked.

With that said, I cannot help but notice how similar the two are so I figured I’d point that out in advance.  John Cheese has talked about stuff like this before, so it’s not a huge surprise to me that our discussions of gaming should overlap.  You can believe that or you can believe the far more likely explanation that Cracked sees me as a threat and has installed a keylogger on my computer to steal ideas.  They have referenced the Miller Lite ads in a similar manner to how I discussed them, but did so well after I originally did.  I smell a conspiracy theory in the making.  Anyway, back to the post.

Recently I started playing Diablo 3. As we are apt to ignore the flaws in so many things until they are highlighted for us, I had hardly noticed how prevalent this kind of jarring experience was in gaming until Diablo 3 brought my attention to it.  Since then I cannot help but to notice how much my “immersion” has been hurt within games.

Once you load it up you have to go through about fifteen different EULAs to get to the login screen.  From there, you log in to your battle.net account (each time you play).  Once you do that you’re told you need to create a gamer tag or whatever Blizzard is calling it.  That takes you to a separate browser window that creates it, then you can start to play.  That is, once you’ve logged in again and created your character.  To use the auction house or see many features, you must exit the game you’re in and do so from the main menus.

If that seems excessive to you, consider that Diablo 3 isn’t the first or only game to require the player to jump through hoops before playing.  While it is incredibly noticeable, other games have been doing this for a long time.

Perhaps I just never noticed because the hoops I was jumping have been added one by one, such that it never drew my attention to the fact that they were being added.

Why Immersion is Necessary

With the way video games have moved to a heavily story-based model, we expect our video games to fully immerse us in the game universe.  When you play Diablo 3 (even if the story is laughably bad) or Mass Effect or Deus Ex: Human Revolution you are expecting to have a seamless and immersive experience.

Give credit where it’s due. They made plastic surgery into a gameplay element.

Consider, for example, character creation in the first Mass Effect.  When you go to create a new character you’re presented with a menu that mimics that of theAlliance’s internal personnel database.  If you choose to create your character the menu acts as though there was a corruption in your file that you must reconstruct.

Developers do not go to so much pain creating immersive menus to create games that leave a distance between the player and the characters.  While some succeed at this more than others, this immersion is necessary for most games out now.

In my discussion of video games as art I talked a little bit about gamers becoming the characters.  When we play a game we take on that person’s role with him as our avatar and, as such, need to have a seamless experience.  Where television can take time out for commercials, doing so in a video game would jar us back to our reality and remind us that we are playing a game.

You see, I’m not a super soldier who can take on armies single-handedly.  I don’t think Hell is real, and if it is real it is at the very least veiled from my perception.  Because of that I am not ever going to be able to run out and fight demonspawn a la Diablo or Doom.  Yet I find it incredibly enjoyable to murder massive numbers of people, demons and anything else that gets in my way–just as long as its in a video game.

I do not enjoy this because I enjoy murder in real life.  (Despite what some people would have you believe.)  In fact, the idea of me ever killing someone is one of the most repulsive things I can imagine.  But video games aren’t real, and for that reason I am okay with doing whatever it is that I do in the various video games.

That is because video games are forms of escapism.  We do not become other people in video games for anything other than a vacation from ourselves (we could, alternatively, go for drives in the rain with the radio off).  We adopt the persona given to us in the game because for that reason it is not you performing those actions, but the person within the game.

What possible reason besides escapism could one have for having and taking care of a virtual baby?

Escapism has a negative connotation in common parlance, mostly because people tend to view it as running away from something.  With video games, however, escapism acts as a means for us to be someone else and do something we never would without any of the consequences that would arise.

In theory, any of us could go out and act out the things we do in Grand Theft Auto.  Unfortunately jail in reality is not a half-day affair that causes you to lose your weapons and money.

If you still don’t love or fully buy into the idea that we immerse ourselves in games to escape ourselves, just look at The Sims.  Three games and about a decade later we’re still seeing versions and expansion of The Sims.  At first glance a game that simulates having to work would be completely uninteresting, and yet these games are immensely popular.

If you’re not convinced yet that immersion is not only necessary to enjoy video games, but also that video games are enjoyed because of said immersion there is just no hope for you.

Piracy At A Glance

I have such mixed feelings about piracy that I don’t know if I can do them justice here.  Every argument for or against piracy seems to make sense to me.  After all, piracy is the reason that games are developed for consoles and ported to the PC, when historically that process was done in reverse.

Ironically, finding a way around Origin is probably the reason half of piracy exists now.

After all, even with measures such as Steam and Origin, piracy of PC games is alive and kicking.  But where those services can be circumvented on the PC with impunity, attempting to do so on a console could result in your account being banned.  This makes piracy on the consoles far more difficult (and potentially less worthwhile) while they provide graphics that are equal to most PCs.

Video games are going through much the same thing that music and movies are right now, which is to say the volume of shitty games is far greater than that of games worth playing.  While music and movies have a less favorable shit-to-quality ratio than video games, the problem is alive for both.

So the argument you often hear people use when pirating, say, a current radio hit is why would he pay for the whole album when everything but the couple singles on it are guaranteed to be shit?  iTunes has helped solve that problem, but again people aren’t deterred by that.

Granted, I know plenty of pirates who will purchase albums they genuinely like while still pirating the shit out of artists who don’t bother to produce an album worth of quality music.  But these people are few and far between. Most pirates don’t care about supporting artists even if they deserve it.  They just succumb to the mentality of “why pay for it when I can get it free?”

I have no doubt that a good deal of people would stop stealing music if the quality of albums were to increase substantially and across all genres of music.  Those who make that argument, however, are drowned out by those who just steal because they can.  And its true for video games, as well.

With this section all I hope to point out is that while I generally side with those who say that if people made better games, music or movies that they’d actually bother to buy it, I also understand that developers and publishers of video games need to stay in business to get a chance to produce quality games.  And staying in business means finding ways to counter pirates.

DRM, Digital Distribution Platforms and the Gaming Experience

Do you know what bothers me about Diablo 3?  Last night I had a short internet outage and was disconnected in the middle of a game I was playing with a friend.  Those of you who don’t have Diablo 3 and aren’t aware of how it works might just say: “big deal, play  singleplayer”.

Seeing this screen while playing solo is as disheartening as it is maddening.

That’s what bothers me, though.  You can’t play solo without an internet connection.  Diablo 3 isn’t the only game to do this.  Most of Ubisoft’s games have DRM that requires internet connections to play, even if it’s the solo portions of the game.

Most games with this type of DRM only check with a server to verify you’re playing on the same computer, but they do not require an account login (in the manner of Diablo 3).  As such, I know for a fact that intrepid hackers have found a way to circumvent this DRM in some games to allow one to play a pirated copy.

I mention this because I feel that DRM of this particular brand is insidious and is killing PC gaming, perhaps more so than piracy.  After all, if pirates are getting around it anyway—which they are—all you’re doing is pissing off the legitimate players.  Some of us have Comcast for our internet, in which case we face outages that are far more frequent than they should be (read: at times other than in the wake of severe storms).

The idea that I cannot play a game that I purchased and own (or rent, really, if you read the EULAs) because of a lack of internet connection is downright insane.  Imagine if your car forced you to input your fingerprint and verify that you were the driver via a satellite connection before you could drive.  Only, it’s really stormy and it can’t connect so you can’t drive it.  While this analogy isn’t the best, people would never buy that car.

If someone was this angry about the car situation we’d understand. Yet a gamer gets pissed like this because he can’t play the game he paid $60 for and we say society is falling apart.

In both of those cases the circumstance is one that won’t happen often—either an unplanned internet outage or weather so severe that it’s blocking a satellite signal—and yet in the case of the car nobody in his right mind would purchase it, knowing there may be a time he couldn’t use his own item.

Platforms such as Steam and Origin are, also, hugely problematic.  While Steam is far less terrible than Origin, the fact that to play any game I must first load and log in to either program is just a tad frustrating.  There was one point in time where a service I had disabled to improve system performance was required for Steam.  I spent three days trying to figure out what the problem was—and not playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution in the meantime—before I could fix it.

Beyond that, I get sick of these games telling me I have to download and install a patch before playing.  Until I played World of Warcraft I don’t think I once installed a patch for a game.  I may have missed out on some content, but most of the time I never experienced any bugs that would make me seek out a patch.  As such, I considered it to be irrelevant and unnecessary.

I will credit Steam with being pretty good about this, usually letting you background download the patch (if you do at all) before playing.  Origin, on the other hand, just patched Mass Effect 3 for me earlier tonight.  I wanted to play the game while it was doing that but found out I could not.

What an immersive and cool menu. If only I didn’t have to wait 15 seconds for it to verify my goddamn internet connection so it can sell me DLC.

All of this complaining is to make a point, that point being that it takes far too long to actually start playing a game now.  Take Mass Effect 3 as an example.  When I double-click to start the program it loads Origin.  Once Origin loads and finishes forcing patches upon me it starts the game.  This may not take long—around 15 seconds at the most if no patch is involved—but it’s more than zero.  I consider that unacceptable.

Once I get past the opening publisher and developer credits I’m brought to the menu.  But I can’t start playing yet.  It has to take around 10-15 seconds to connect to the network to pull up the multiplayer stats.  Can I point out that unless I click “Multiplayer” I don’t give a good god damn what any of that looks like?   Plus, don’t you think they could have found a way to streamline that process with Origin.  In that case Origin would have actually served some useful purpose.

Anyway, that whole thing may take me a total of, say, 30-45 seconds before starting the game.  Nonetheless, that’s still too much for me.  The actual load time of ME3 is obscenely quick if you were to remove Origin and checking the internet connection from the process.  Yet, I’m forced into that every time I play.

I’ve focused a lot on the issues facing PC gamers in this, but console gamers don’t get off any easier.  PSN and Xbox Live are ridiculous pieces of software that shove advertisements, avatars and other useless features into your face before you can start playing your game.  While their purpose is exactly the same as Origin or Steam, their interfaces and features are far more intrusive than either of the PC-based platforms.  If you can believe that Origin isn’t the worst in some way, that is.

 

The Effect on Immersion

When I talked about immersion, it is things like this that kill said immersion.  While starting up a game I am hardly immersed, but I hate to be reminded of the fact that I am using Origin at all, much less during the game.

Nonetheless, I am faced with frequent reminders of Origin all the time.  Some features within ME3 require you to enable Origin in-game (something I chose not to do the moment it installed on my system).  Fortunately these features are small, but just seeing that warning message on my screen is an instant mood killer.

My immersion is ruined, time to stop playing the game.

Achievements are another intrusion into my game space that I cannot stand.  To the credit of Mass Effects 2 and 3, the achievement system was implemented in-game and, thus, made to match the style of the game.  You could even see them in your cabin, a nice little touch to keep you feeling like you’re Shepard the entire time.

On the other hand you have Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s achievements.  Every time you get one of these you see a pop-up in the style of Steam.  For a game that does so much to invite you to feel as though you’re in the game world, that is a jarring reminder that you aren’t.

It’s even worse on every Xbox game, as the achievements pop up in the same little bubble for every game (that I can think of, at least). Again, it’s an instant reminder that you’re playing the game.

I should probably point out that achievements as a whole are kind of a killer of immersion, namely because a soldier in the field wouldn’t be rewarded for a kill streak with a little trophy when he gets back to base.  Games that can implement it into the game itself (a la Mass Effect) at least do something to combat that feeling, but I cannot help that other games implement them as an afterthought.  (I may actually write a full post about achievements now, as I’m reminded by this paragraph of how stupid they really are.)

In the end, these are all little things.  No single one of the things I listed has ever completely destroyed a game for me (in the way that the DLC selling NPC in DA:O did, at least).  With that said, though, I cannot help myself feeling a little bit nostalgic for the days when you opened a game and you were a part of that world from then on without interruption and until the moment you closed the game.

The latest victim of excessive DRM: Assassins Creed 3. Think that “on the cross” pose here is coincidental?

Do not think for a moment that I am arguing that DRM or digital distribution programs should go away completely.  Companies have every right to take reasonable steps to protect their intellectual property.  (Note the keyword reasonable.  Some companies go way beyond the reasonable, in which case I tend to have an issue with the implementation of DRM.)

Nonetheless, those days are long gone, mostly due to pirates and models of profitability that include programs like Origin and Steam or the dashboard of our consoles.  While we will never truly get to go back to the days of clicking an icon and starting a game, I do hope that developers will realize that we play games to escape and these interruptions aren’t helping us any.

Video games are a medium that have many places to go, and right now I feel like we’re in a rut.  PC gaming is dying, gaming in general has been taken over by rehashes of the same two genres (cover-based shooters and multiplayer explorgies with yearly installments), and the pirates stealing the games and the companies trying to protect them are both endangering gaming for the rest of us.

All I want to do is play a goddamn computer game and get so lost in it that I lose 6 hours of my life and still just want to play more.  Why can’t we go back to it being that way?

Microtransactoins: Killing Games Through Economics

May 29, 2012 1 comment

I’d like to start by apologizing that I missed my Thursday post last week.  I recently started a new job and my sleep schedule (and all scheduling) has been thrown off immensely. 

In Mass Effect 3 the multiplayer works by leveling up characters to get more abilities and winning matches to gain money for equipment.  The best equipment comes in a random package that takes about 4 wins to save the money for, assuming you’re playing on the lowest difficulty. Imagine my surprise when I went to go purchase this and realized that the package was also available for BioWare points, or for those who aren’t familiar with that concept, real money.

This says it all.

The idea of microtransactions in video games is to allow the player access to additional goods for real money.  Most games that allow microtransactions use this as their money-making model rather than charging subscription fees.  For example, the MMORPG Aion at first charged a monthly fee but has recently moved toward a microtransaction model.

Microtransactions are everywhere in gaming today, but the various MMORPGs out there seem to be keen on taking advantage of it.  The basic idea is that you can access various parts of the game, but to truly get any further you’ll have to pay to purchase the items that make that possible.  Often these items are available through other means, but acquiring them in the “traditional” manner would require significant time output.

If you’re familiar with microtransactions in any of the forms it takes in gaming, chances are you’ve probably got the same mixed feelings about it that I do.  At least, until you really think about it and realize that microtransactions don’t benefit gamers at all while, in reality, destroying the very games they attempt to improve.

 

Game Currency

Within video games there are two types of currency with which one acquires better items: time and money.

The game currency most of us are familiar with is time.  Consider World of Warcraft, a traditional MMORPG that has (as of yet) not succumbed to the lure of microtransactions.  In WoW you acquire better items by participating in raids, dungeons or various player vs. player matches.  In doing this you acquire the items you want through luck (a boss drops the item you want) or through in-game currency (arena points, honor points, raid tokens).

The currency used here is obtained in dungeons. This is the original implementation of this in-game currency with a list of terrible items.

In the days of The Burning Crusade, if one wanted the best gear for pve encounter he would have to raid the same place in hopes of getting a token that could be traded for the gear.  As players complained that they were waiting on the same drops, Blizzard introduced raid tokens which could be traded for gear that was almost—but not quite—as good as the gear obtained in raiding.

The idea of adding these currency microtransactions was to compensate for randomness.  Some players could defeat the same boss a hundred times and never see the items they wanted.  As a result, it felt like your time was wasted without compensation.  Thus, Blizzard added raid tokens to allow you to gain gear that was better than what you had, but which would still be replaced by the raid drop.

The key concept here, though, is that no matter how Blizzard gave you the items you were still trading your time for a better virtual good.  If you put in enough time you would eventually be rewarded.

That is what I mean when I say “time” is a game currency.  In any game you play you need to put time into it to get better items along the way.  In RPG games—especially MMORPGs—this is readily apparent.  In action games it is less obvious but still a system in use.

On the other hand microtransactions in the sense I am using refer to purchasing items with real-world money.   That concept is not particularly difficult.  Every game implements differently, but usually the same items that are available with real money are available through using time as your currency.

 

Microtransactions Favor a Certain Type of Gamer

The problem with microtransactions is, as this subheading states, that they favor a certain type of gamer.

Consider the probable reasoning behind allowing real-money transactions: some gamers do not have enough time to reasonably get the items they want.  They should not be precluded from enjoying the game, so allow them to trade real money for the items they’d like in order to skip the grind.

You know what’s a sound financial decision for me? Paying money for virtual weapons I can earn by just playing the game more. Even better is when they obscure the cost as “BioWare Points” so I have no idea how much that just cost me!

Of course, not everybody has a ton of money just laying around.  Personally, I would love to spend money on BioWare points to use in ME3’s multiplayer.  I’d love to get the best weapons without having to spend hours playing through matches.  Unfortunately, I just cannot justify spending real money—of which I do not have a ton—on something that is a virtual good.  This is especially true when I can get it by playing the game.

On the other hand, not all gamers have a ton of time.  Lately I’ve been quite busy and have been unable to play games as much as I’d like.  In a sense, microtransactions appeal to me for that reason: I can stay competitive without having to put in a ton of time.

This real distinction is a good reason for microtransactions.  Unfortunately there exist gamers who have neither a ton of time nor a ton of money as well as gamers who have quite a bit of both to spare.  If you fall into the former category, good luck trying to stay competitive in any game you play.  If, on the other hand, you fall into the category of gamers with money and spare time, you now have a massive advantage in that you can acquire these powerful items far more quickly than any other gamers.

When I say that microtransactions favor a certain type of gamer, however, I am not just referring to the lucky ones with time and money in spades.  I am referring to any gamer that can afford microtransactions.

Consider the case of ME3 multiplayer.  I have about 100 N7 points, which are basically a measure of how much you’ve played.  That puts me on the low end of the spectrum, especially when you see people with 500+.  In that time I have amassed quite a collection of additional weaponry and weapon mods, but I still am fighting with some generally poor equipment.

Imagine my surprise when I join a game and see someone with 10 N7 points and two of the ultra-rare weapons equipped.  For those not familiar with ME3’s multiplayer, it is almost impossible that he actually earned those items; rather it is far more likely that he purchased quite a few equipment packs and got lucky with them.

When I talk about favoring certain types of players, that is almost exactly what I’m talking about.  This guy—whose character was level 10 (on a max level of 20) put out more damage than two of the other players, both of whom were level 20.

Skill plays into these things a fair amount, but no amount of skill can overcome the massive handicap that comes with a low-level character and low-quality weapons.  Having the “best” weapons in the game for your character helps overcome that problem.

 

The Future of Microtransactions

Microtransactions aren’t going anywhere.  They make a ton of money for the developers who use them and they can be touted as a way to even the playing field (despite them doing the opposite).  No developer who has moved to this model is going to move away when they realize how much money it really can make.

The unfortunate side effect of microtransactions, beyond being unfair to some gamers, is that it generally detracts from the game as a whole.  When I play a game I do so because it is fun.  Earning rewards is part of that fun.

“Congratulations on purchasing the ‘Dragon Armor Pack’. Your character will now have the best armor in the game right away. Laugh as enemy attacks glance off the armor you shouldn’t have until the very end!

If I started a game of Skyrim and was instantly handed the best equipment in the game I would no doubt find myself somewhat bored.  The same would go for World of Warcraft, as the whole point of raiding—beyond seeing the content—is to be rewarded with better gear.  If you’re just purchasing that gear you have no reason to play the game.

When I first started thinking about microtransactions my stance was that it’s fine.  The players who buy their way to the top miss out while the rest of us can enjoy the game as it was “meant” to be enjoyed.

The problem with thinking that is that more developers are going to move to this model to remain profitable as gaming advances.  As they do so more players will succumb to this model of playing a game until eventually it dominates the industry.

If you wonder what ill effects this could have, just imagine a game in which all achievement is essentially based upon how much money you are willing to spend.  End-game encounters are meaningless because you’re already in the best equipment.  Anybody who has raided in WoW (or any other MMO, really) will tell you that once your entire raid has better gear certain encounters become trivial.  The fun of an encounter in these games is often the challenge and difficulty.  Walking into a lower-tier raid in WoW was something you did for shits and giggles, not a genuine sense of accomplishment.

Competitive multiplayer in video games will also suffer immensely.  While ME3’s multiplayer is co-op, any game with microtransactions and a pvp model of multiplayer is going to, essentially, force players to buy items to be competitive.

Consider World of Warcraft once again.  While the pvp items are not based upon real currency, you do have to spend time playing to get those items.  These pvp items make it more difficult to kill a player wearing them.  When everyone in the match is in all pvp gear it just adds longevity to the fight and keeps it interesting.  When one side has no pvp gear and the other is decked out in the best, the fight lasts about ten seconds and is not at all interesting for the person being trounced.

This is the N7 Valiant. It is the best sniper rifle in ME3. You can obtain it by just spending enough money and never playing multiplayer.

Anybody who has done any competitive multiplayer that is that one-sided will tell you it is more frustrating than fun.  But this is the road we are heading down, a world in which microtransactions dominate the gaming industry as just another way for the companies to make more money off us.

It’s hard to say exactly where this will go, but the point of video games is to be rewarded for your progress (i.e. time spent) in the game.  In a model where people can take the easy, effortless way out many will.  As this happens the content of the game becomes less meaningful because it is, simply put, easier.  It’s not hard to imagine a future, dominated by microtransactions, in which developers put far less effort into the content of the games because they know gamers will circumvent those challenges by just purchasing better items.

Again, you may think I’m being alarmist but look at what other forms of DLC have turned into.  What started as a way to just add fun but unnecessary content to a game has turned into a medium to sell players an incomplete package and convince them they need to spend that extra $10 to really enjoy the game.

The more that we, the gamers, buy into the idea of microtransactions the more the developers are going to create them.

Stop Killing Gaming Part 3: Nobody Takes Gamers Seriously

May 22, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve discussed a lot of parts of gaming.  I’ve talked about why I don’t think video games are art, why DLC (especially shitty DLC) is killing gaming, and why games like COD are destroying the medium.

You may notice that in many ways these are focused solely on the companies producing things that damage overall gaming.  I have, thus far, neglected to really accuse anybody but the companies for hurting gaming.  I guess I’ve been a little hard on gamers for buying into these things, but I don’t really blame them for buying what’s available.

Today I put an end to that by discussing the fact that nobody really takes gaming seriously.  I’ll be looking at video gamers themselves and video game media.

Gamers in the Public Eye

Something Awful, if you’re not familiar with it, is a (brilliant) humor website.  They frequently post the mistitled  (it’s hardly daily) “Awful Link of the Day”, a tradition that has existed for some time on the website.  Not too long ago they covered a particular ALOD that I was slightly put off by: GamerFood.

This proves so many of my points all at once.

Every ALOD gets a brief entry from one of the SA writers detailing what the link is about and why it’s so awful (although usually it’s pretty self-evident).  In the opening sentence of the GamerFood link Daryl “Fucking” Hall urges the reader to “[f]indme a more irritating ‘subculture’ than gamers, I dare you. [. . .] at least those dudes aren’t constantly griping about how their expensive toys aren’t considered art. Gamers seem insistent on constantly reminding the public that their toys are serious toys, deserving of respect”.

If that’s not a little disheartening to you, I’d imagine you don’t consider yourself a gamer.  If you are a gamer, then you’re probably reminded that, as is often the case with observational humor, the truth can sting just a little bit.

Gaming wasn’t always a part of the public eye.  It was, for some time, just considered the domain of nerds in their parents’ basements.  The very games I often deride—games like COD—are the games that have, to some extent, made it acceptable to be a gamer.

After all, the typical image of a gamer is some clueless nerd, and that nerd always has to be inept with women.  (Though I suppose that was implied by the use of the word “nerd”.)  Nonetheless, a lot of the people who play COD are the complete opposite of this subgroup, often fitting into a category most appropriately described as “total douchebags”.

What most people think of when they think gamer. I’m sorry to the poor guy who somehow ended up as the #1 result when you Google Image “video gamer”.

But even with this increased acceptance, gaming is something that people outside of the industry and the subculture rarely take seriously.

Cracked did an article that, oddly, managed to nail the issue almost perfectly.  In that article, David Wong (who is probably one of the only competent writers—besides DOB—on the Cracked staff) talks about all the issues that face gamers, even today.  I’d suggest reading it for no other reason than he talks about this issue in more detail than I will.  Also, it’s in list format for those of you who are put off by having to read things.

To summarize Wong’s points briefly: we’re still considered lonely virgins, the game manufacturers think we’re immature morons, games—after forty years—are still terrible at storytelling, the “technical novelty” (to use his words) still amazes us, and we’re extremely entitled.

Anyway, while he brings up good points, I think that the first two and the last one on that list are the most relevant to my points.

The World Thinks We’re Spoiled Teenagers

The world still thinks of video games as kids entertainment.  Should the world realize for even a moment that not all video gamers are teenagers, we get things like GamerFood.  You have to love the person who invented GamerFood.  I can only imagine that drinking an energy drink and making some Hot Pockets is too hard, so why not just make energy drinks in nut form?  Kill two birds with one stone.

Yeah, we totally deserve to be taken seriously.

Kind of witty, but still not the best way to speak your mind. Yet Google provides countless images and links with a similar means of expressing disapproval. Good job, guys!

Another point in case: I take the side of those who hated the ME3 ending, I have to admit that a lot of the outrage around it was poorly vocalized.  Rather than the masses of gamers talking about the reasons the ending sucked (lack of agency, that they are all the same, etc) we all basically whined nonstop.

The reasons we dislike the ending are legitimate, but all the rest of the world heard was “QQ QQ QQ QQQQQQQ” from us.  That is, assuming they thought in stupid gamer/internet slang.

I should clarify that David Wong’s idea—and by extension my discussion in this post—of entitlement is in terms of the fact that gamers are pirates and will always consider the price tags on games too high for the effort put in.  He does not suggest entitlement in the sense that I discussed it previously.

That is to say, where I think that the (well written) complaints about the ME3 ending are just pointing out that we were misled about the game, entitlement in this case refers to the fact that gamers always want more out of games and they want it for free.

Here are some other examples of how gamers are spoiled kids; examples that you could swear were cases of little kids throwing temper tantrums.  Oh, and youtube has no dearth of videos about spoiled gamers being pissed off.  No doubt some are fake, but then art imitates reality.

Honestly, it’s not all that surprising that nobody takes gamers seriously, because we don’t seem to take ourselves seriously.  Whenever something bad happens in video gaming, we respond like spoiled children and the world, realizing this, just treats us accordingly.

Reinforcing The Stereotype of the Nerdy Virgin Gamer

And, most of all, David Wong’s point about gamers being immature pricks in the eyes of the companies is hilarious.  He posts a number of pictures of various tits and asses from video games.

“I was going to become a supermodel, but then I realized by amazing body would be better used as cannon fodder against aliens.”

Let there be no mistake: video games objectify women in ways that would make Hugh Hefner and Larry Flint blush.  Every video game female in history has been ridiculously attractive.  Unless she’s evil. If a future society could judge ours based solely upon video games, I’m guessing that they’d be incredibly offended and consider us a society of misogynists.

You might try to argue that the game companies just turn female characters in games into anatomical bastardizations of the human body just to try to sell things on cheap sexuality.  Hell, the fighting game franchise Dead or Alive put out a goddamn Beach Volleyball game.  They sold a game entirely based upon the premise that there are virtual women with bouncy breasts.

And make no mistake that just like any other form of media, selling things is at the heart of this objectification of women.   For those of you women (if there are any) reading this post, please don’t mistake this part of the article as me pretending I have never bought into the shit video games pull on me.  I play a female character at almost every opportunity because I feel like it’s way cooler when she destroys everyone around her. I’m just as complicit as everybody else in this.

But I also only realized recently how bad this particular phenomenon was.

As I pointed out when I talked about entitlement, the video game companies are just companies, and they wouldn’t do something if it didn’t sell.  Ever wonder why every female character in every video game is hot, has huge breasts and a shapely ass?  Where are the curvy women?  Where are the women who aren’t supermodels?

At least Miranda has the excuse that her dad designer her body that way, for whatever creepy implications we might get from that. But how is that ridiculous bodysuit even feasible in combat?

They got left behind when video game companies realized that—even more than movies—people buying their games only want to see attractive women.  They want that because they are adolescents (or adults stuck in their adolescence, in the case of most COD players).  They put big breasts and tight asses in games because that is what sells to us, the gamers.

Don’t get me wrong, men in these games are invariably attractive too, so we have the same thing going on in video games as in movies.  Every guy is some musclebound, crew-cut adonis and every woman is a supermodel.  I get that movies, TV, magazines and everything else in our world do that.  So you might be wondering why I’m picking on video games in particular.

The answer is that video games can control this.  Hollywood has this unique problem where they need to find people who can act.  Tatum Channing may seem life proof otherwise, but your Joe Windrider off the street isn’t going to have the acting chops to make it in Hollywood.  Even then, there are plenty of average-looking actors out there, but Hollywood still has a smaller pool to draw from than usual.  In the end, mostly by Hollywood’s own doing, the people who aren’t attractive and who cannot act are going to get filtered out, so by time you get the head shots to the casting director’s desk, he’s got a homogenized pool of actors from which to draw.

Video games don’t have this convenient excuse.  Video game designers can create anybody they want, and so there is no reason that almost every woman should have a ridiculous body and be attractive.  No reason other than we, as people, are shallow.  But then, that’s a deeper social issue that I’m not going to discuss.

My point is just that even if we assumed that nobody wanted to see unattractive people in video games, they do NOT all have to have exaggerated breasts and asses.  Video game designers have a choice, but they know that gamers will be put off if their video games don’t double as masturbatory aids.

The Gaming Media Is a Joke…

When I think “cosplay” I think “take me seriously”.

I’m not going to just pick on gamers’ behavior in general.  The gaming media is just as complicit in this as anybody else.  The thing is, gaming media exists for two reasons: to talk about gaming and to do so in a manner that attracts readers.

I guess that’s why Kotaku has a goddamn cosplay subsection of their site.  It also explains why the vast majority of cosplay articles involve women, and often they are of the scantily clad variety.  It explains why somehow Jessica Chobot got put into Mass Effect 3 in one of the most ridiculous outfits any reporter has worn in history.  Sex sells, and this is apparently especially true for gamers.

But beyond that, one of the reasons that video game media is so damaging is because there is no reason to take it seriously.  Just like we have no reason to take gamers seriously, gaming media is tailored to gamers and written by gamers.  Thus, it is basically full of fluff that is of no consequence.

Once, as a kid, I remember reading in a video game magazine a full article about Lara Croft.  It was not about the Tomb Raider games, it was about Lara Croft.  It contained an interview.  Video game media is, at its heart, the damn swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated in every article.  It appeals to the lowest common denominator within all of us.

But there is another reason nobody can really take video game media seriously: it is one gigantic conflict of interest.  IGN had one of the major video personalities in Mass Effect 3 and yet reviewed it anyway.  Their review page for ME3 had an advertisement for ME3 on the very same page.  Recently when I went to the website to check on it, their entire website was one gigantic advertisement for Battleship.

Nothing wrong with this…nothing wrong AT ALL.  By the way, that’s the IGN front page.  I know, you’d think I accidentally went to battleship.com.

Game magazines—especially the official ones—are often under huge pressure from the manufacturer to make the console look good or else get funding pulled.  Game websites are typically based upon ad revenue—advertisements for the very products they are trying to sell.

If you were to read a movie review in the newspaper and noticed a full-page ad for the same movie on the opposite page, you might wonder at the integrity there.  Yet few give a second thought to that very conflict of interest when it comes to gaming outlets.

To sum this up: the gaming media takes itself super seriously, yet the seriousness with which they speak about topics is often undermined by the topic itself.  In addition to that, almost all gaming media outlets face some conflict of interest, usually because they’re based upon ad revenue.

…But the Gaming Media Is Also Too Serious

Yet in a mind-boggling contradiction, the gaming media simultaneously takes itself far too seriously.  I want the world to look at gamers in a fonder light, but I do not consider video games to be a totally serious subject.

I once got into an argument with a couple of the guys over at The Verdict about whether to side with the Stormcloaks or Imperials in Skyrim.  (The correct answer, by the way, is Imperials.  Ulfric Stormcloak is a bigot and a tyrant in the making.)  But while we were basically yelling at each other, we walked away laughing because it was a video game argument.  It just didn’t matter in the long run.

Kotaku Home Page

What’s wrong with this picture? If your answer is: “there are four articles complaining about video game baseball” you win.

Video game media sits around yelling about video games, but they never stop to realize how ridiculous their ferocity really is.

Kotaku (sorry if you like Kotaku, but honestly that site is trash), while I was doing research for this post, had a main page article (picture included in this article) titled “NBA Live Moves with a Purpose to Make You a Better Baller”.  Then it included three links to other articles about sports games, including “Will We Have Any Baseball Video Games on Xbox 360 Next Year?”

I feel for the baseball fans who want to play baseball on the 360, but is that seriously important?  I mean, can’t you just play last year’s game?  I know the new rosters are included, but that’s about the only difference and I think you’ll live if your team isn’t perfectly in sync with the current team.

Do not think that I am dismissing anybody who takes gaming seriously.  I consider myself a gamer, and I care about games.  I am writing about games.  But I think that at the end of the day I am able to walk away—even when I’ve written about a game and seem to have gotten upset, as in the case of Kai Leng being goddamn stupid—and know that it doesn’t really matter in the long term.

Reviews and previews of video games fall into the “too serious” category.  Reviewing anything is going to be subjective, but reviewing video games is almost more so.  I think any gamer can agree that we all know when a game is really bad.  But look at the metacritic user reviews for any of the major (and well reviewed by media outlets) games to come out this year so far. You’ll find that gamers can never seem to agree with each other as to what a good game is.

Just read the start of that review. You’d think you’re reading a a book review from School Library Journal, not an IGN article. (Also, absorb the hilarity of a paid advertisement for the game they’re reviewing on the same page.)

Part of that is because gaming genres are subjective, and also that they’re blending.  It used to be if you wanted a strategy game, you got that.  RPGs were straight-up RPGs.  And yet now we see genres blending and changing in odd ways.  I’m not a huge fan of traditional RPGs, but gamse like Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect 1 are incredibly enjoyable for me.

Beyond all of this, though, you have to consider that reviewers often consider things like graphics, story, sound and gameplay and then compile an overall score.  Personally, if the graphics are a tad behind but the game is otherwise spectacular I have no problem with it.  Yet you frequently see games get lower scores because they were in development for so long that their graphics aren’t as great.

In the end, the websites and magazines providing these articles act like there is somehow an objective way to review games and ride that premise out.  This falls into the “taking things too seriously” because in the end its a game.  If you enjoyed it but the graphics weren’t fantastic, should that really matter?

What Should Game Media Do to Fix This?

Like in all my other posts, I’ll conclude with some suggestions to help fix this and, more than that, some hope that things will change.

Kotaku seems to be ahead of the curve, having already (subtly) admitted they’re a joke.

I’ll start by suggesting that the video game media needs to get its act together and start writing on topics of substance.  (I’d like to think I fall into that category.)  If you’re going to speak authoritatively and seriously about gaming, you need to say something unique about it.

The current topics of these media outlets run the gamut from reviews to full previews of new games.  We often see articles about the technical advances of the medium.  What you rarely see are people thinking of the larger implications of trends within gaming.

If gaming is ever to be universally considered an art form, then we need to start treating it that way.  Rather than talking about what the hottest new brush techniques are, we should be talking about the meaning and impact of games.  I’d like to think that I am contributing to this, as I never just look at a game and talk about it, but rather talk about what it means in some larger societal context.

This is, to me, the key to changing the face of game media.

If that fails and we still insist on covering the same fluff topics, then perhaps the media outlets just need to change their tone and realize they’re talking about video games, not the presidential election.  Lighten the tone up some.

How Do We Fix Perceptions of Gamers?

Suggesting how gamers as a whole can change perceptions is a lot harder.  There are already social concepts of gamers that we may not be able to break easily, if at all.

Mountain Dew Game Fuel: when your drink isn’t extreme enough for skateboarding, just put an orc on it and sell it to gamers.

But I do think that we, as gamers, need to start somewhere.  When a company decides to release something like GamerFood, I think that we—as gamers—need to stand up and tell them how insulting that really is.

And guys, these things really are insulting. It’s insulting to assume that all gamers are so lazy or easily distracted by games that they would rather eat some foul-tasting mixture of Red Bull and mixed nuts than get up and microwave some damn pizza rolls.

When a website features an article about the hottest video game women, we need to stand up and—like actual human beings who have met women—point out how insulting that truly is.

And it’s insulting that women, who already have to live up to the ridiculous standards set by Hollywood and magazines like Cosmo, have to feel that same pressure coming from video games.

It’s also insulting to us, the gamers.  We may think it’s cool that the breast physics are modeled better than a dead bad guy’s rag doll. Just consider that when a developer sexualizes a video game character they are basically implying that we, the gamers, are the lonely virgins in their mom’s basements.  And we eat that shit up, all too happy to give them our money and prove them right.

We’ve Earned This.

We’ve all heard a friend tell a tasteless, racist joke based upon some stupid stereotype that isn’t even close to true.  I’m sure we’ve all heard the defense that “stereotypes are based in fact”, as though saying that somehow makes that person look less ignorant.  That excuse is the lamest reason to judge an entire group.

And yet in the case of gamers, I look at us as a whole and think that we really have made caricatures of ourselves in every way possible. We seem all too content to whine—with mouths full of GamerFood—that nobody takes our powerful computers and super awesome games seriously. We do this while insisting that the protagonist of our game have DD breasts and an ass that requires more computing power to render than the Apollo 11 moon landing.

I think it’s time to look at ourselves, think really hard, and act the way we want people to perceive us.

What Kai Leng Should Teach Us about Mass Effect 3

May 20, 2012 4 comments

Spoilers, as usual, will be all up in this post.

So I know I’ve talked about ME3 a lot, but as I said in my last post (about gamer entitlement), I’ve been playing the Mass Effect games, so it’s on my mind.  I’m actually considering doing a review (story only) of the game, mostly because I think I have something unique to say about it: In reality, ME3 is a pretty mediocre game.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love playing it.  It’s the same reason I will accept that the Star Wars prequels exist, even though they were a huge disappointment.  I may even watch them sometimes.  Similarly, I’ll enjoy playing ME3, but every time I do there are things that just rub me the wrong way.

The gameplay, graphics and all the technical pieces are there, and in fact it’s probably my favorite of the three games to play.  I credit BioWare with fixing the gameplay issues from ME2 in ME3.  I know some people have issues with how it has kind of turned into a generic cover shooter, but I’d disagree.  That, however, is really just taste.

What I don’t credit them with is the story.  While people have been quick to talk only about the ending, there really were a lot of holes in the story throughout the game.  As I played ME3 I frequently found myself asking “what the hell” to various events.  I told myself that, hey, the general story is good enough that I can look past it.

I can look past a great many things, but there was one thing in all of ME3 that just pissed me off to no end.  This post is about that, so let’s get to it.

Crass Commercialism

Kasumi Goto

“I hope you see the inherent hilarity of me being a master thief, and my DLC being just another way for BioWare to sneak money from your wallet.”

Beyond all of the story issues with ME3, you have the blatant commercialism throughout the game.  Consider the quest with Jondam Bau (the Salarian spectre) to find the traitorous Hanar.  If you didn’t get the Kasumi DLC for ME2, you have to choose between letting the Hanar homeworld blow up or saving Bau.  If you have the Kasumi DLC everybody lives and you get extra war assets.

Or how about Arrival and Lair of the Shadow Broker DLCs?  If you didn’t get those for ME2, you’re basically left in the dark as to why Shepard was stripped of rank and how the hell Liara suddenly became the Shadow Broker.

I find that to be incredibly crass.  After all, not everybody wants to pay an additional $60 to get ALL the DLC from ME2 just so that they can have a better experience in ME3.  In fact, given that I spent $180 on the game, I shouldn’t have to buy anything extra to enjoy the games.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that BioWare wanted to add additional value to the DLC packs by referencing them in ME3.  But referencing should have been it.  The fact that a lack of DLC pack (Kasumi) drastically changes how certain events happen in ME3 is ridiculous.

But you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about all of this in a post titled “What We Should Learn from Kai Leng”.  Especially since I haven’t talked about him at all, at least yet.

Recall how I just said I spent $180 on all three Mass Effect games—probably more for many people who got all the DLC—and consider that for Kai Leng to make sense, you need to have read books.

You see, Kai Leng makes his first appearance in Mass Effect: Retribution and makes a second appearance in Mass Effect: Deception.  Let me tell you right now, I am not a huge fan of reading books based upon video games.  I’m all for people fleshing out the universe around the games, especially in a universe as vast and interesting as Mass Effect.

“Hey guys, I think I’m lost. I’m looking for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Could you point me to the right game?”

But considering that each game is an easy 40-50 hours and $60 (if, like me, you purchased them at release because why wouldn’t you), I feel like I’ve done enough with just the games. But then, you have to buy and read a book to understand this character?

When I talk about crass commercialization in video games, Kai Leng is the poster child.  His existence should have been relegated to the books and should have never crossed paths with the video games.  I’m not sure if people just really liked Kai Leng or if BioWare just had their heads too far up their asses to consider that many of the people playing ME3 wouldn’t have read the damn books.

In comparison to the other examples I put forth above, this is by far the worst transgression.  I can totally understand BioWare giving extra to people who paid for and played the DLC.  I do not understand BioWare expecting me to give a good god damn about Kai Leng because he was in some book.  That is especially true when one of those books has a 1.5 star review on Amazon.  Furthermore, Deception has so many errors that BioWare has announced that it is of dubious canon until a revised copy is released.

The answer is that I should never have to do that to fully understand a video game.  Again, expanding upon a universe is all fine and great, but that’s an expansion of the universe and shouldn’t be a necessary part of the game.

Kai Leng Sucks (And Is Out of Place)

What this post really comes down to is that I hate Kai Leng.  I don’t hate him in the way BioWare intended me to, though.  It is clear that BioWare intended Kai Leng to be Shepard’s foil, the man who stands a chance of besting Shepard.  So if I hated him for that reason, hey congrats BioWare you did your job.

I want to make clear I haven’t read the books.  However, in looking into the information for this post I read the entries about Kai Leng on the Mass Effect Wiki.  That wiki states that Kai Leng “became the Illusive Man’s most trusted agent, working as an infiltrator and assassin.”

But if you read that post further, Leng repeatedly fails to succeed in his missions in both Retribution and Deception.  In fact, all of Retribution is about how Leng is an abject failure.  Deception (which again, is apparently one of the least researched books ever written) features Kai Leng using a goddamn cane to walk, though apparently in this he does a little bit better and succeeds at a mission for once.

Oh, wait.  He can.

I can understand that BioWare wanted to put someone in this game who could “best” Shepard and add tension to the game.  Shepard can never really go one-on-one with a Reaper without getting his ass kicked.  But for there to be any real tension, we need someone standing in Shepard’s way throughout the game.  Previously nobody has really been a match for him.  Saren was kind of a joke and the only time you fight him you kill him; the Harbinger, when he took a Collector body, was kind of a joke himself.

So it makes sense that Kai Leng is introduced as the dangerous face of Cerberus (after all, who seriously thinks the Illusive Man would be hard to kill once you actually found him?).  It makes sense.

But I had no idea who the hell Kai Leng was in Mass Effect 3.  He shows up on the Citadel in support of Udina’s attempted coup.  We aren’t told his name, he just shows up out of nowhere and tries to kill the Salarian councilor.

In our first introduction to Leng, he is bested by a terminally ill Thane.  When he finally stabs Thane he is so smug and self-assured.  Let me tell you this, if I fought and killed a cancer patient, but had my ass handed to me on the way to doing so, I would never brag about it.

Reaper on Rannoch

Oh, and this.

The thing that shocked me most about Kai Leng is his appearance.  He looks like something that snuck out of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and got lost in Mass Effect.  His cyber-punk ninja act is totally out of place in ME3.

I’ve heard people say he’s just the king of the phantoms, but they, too, were completely out of place in ME3.  While they are fairly dangerous adversaries at close range, I’ve rarely had a phantom get close.

You see, it turns out that these things called “guns” can hit stuff that’s far away.  Almost every phantom I’ve encountered in the story I’ve taken out with a headshot from a sniper rifle.   Kai Leng, being the king of these buffoons, brings a sword to gun fights repeatedly and only ever succeeds because BioWare forces his story upon you.

The Trash Talk

The trash talk is, far and away, the worst part of Leng’s persona.  In no way does Kai Leng ever actually best Shepard.  He manages to outwit or outmaneuver him at many points, and that certainly means a lot when that rarely happens to Shepard.  But to have Kai Leng spend half the game telling Shepard how awesome he is and how Shepard sucks is just annoying.

When he gets back to Chronos Base, he’s totally going to brag so hard about that time he killed some dude who was totally terminally ill.

But every time Shepard encounters Leng after the Citadel, Leng does nothing but talk shit about how Shepard is inferior to him.  Let me make light of this every way I can: Kai Leng can only stand up to Shepard and two of his companions by having a fucking army and a gunship fighting by his side at all times.  The gunship, really, is the only reason he ever stood a chance.  The moment it’s gone, Shepard wins.  And yet he happily talks shit like he is better than Shepard.

This doesn’t make him anything other than fucking annoying.

Consider the fight on Thessia: even on a high difficulty setting Leng never once even hurt my shield.  I, on the other hand, was so busy handing him his ass at every opportunity to really pay attention to how little he seemed to hurt me.  On my first play-through I kept getting frustrated wondering why the hell the game was punishing me for killing him when, apparently, I am not supposed to.

Let me make one thing clear: there’s no such thing as “fighting fair” in war, really.  Maybe back when armies marched at each other in a clearing and shot you might have had some concept of honor.  But in general someone should take every advantage he can to survive in a war environment.  So I get that Kai Leng uses a gunship to keep Shepard under control.

In BioWare’s collective mind this fight was as good an idea as just changing the color of the explosion for the endings.

Where BioWare made a huge misstep is by making Leng brag about how much better than Shepard he really is.  If Kai Leng got into a bar fight with you it’d play out like this: he’d fight until he might get hurt, then have his five body-builder friends beat the crap out of you.  When the fight was over, Kai Leng would then brag about how much tougher than you he is.

Then there’s the e-mail Kai Leng sent to Shepard.  The one where he basically brags about how it took a gunship and countless soldiers to keep three people under control.  In the world of missteps, that one is second only to the terrible ME3 endings.

In fact, I have a story.  Once when I was about ten I got into a fight with this kid.  Neither of us really “won”, but that didn’t stop the other kid from somehow getting my phone number and calling me to taunt me.

So congratulations, BioWare, you’ve turned Kai Leng into a twelve year bully.

When I finally beat Kai Leng, I didn’t celebrate because I took down some big challenge that kept standing in my way.  I celebrated because BioWare wasn’t railroading me into being “bested” by someone whose first encounter with a terminally ill Drell almost ended badly for the one in perfect health.

I celebrated because I knew that I wouldn’t be dealing with Kai Leng ever again.

What to Learn from Kai Leng

I’m not sure what, exactly, motivated BioWare to put Kai Leng in the game at all.  In this post, the first reply notes that “[a]fter getting used to him in [the books], he feels like a natural fit in ME3”.  So I guess that’s great, except for those of us that never read the books.

So perfect.

In fact, I couldn’t find anything giving me insight into the official reasoning for Kai Leng ever showing up in the game.  I have to assume that BioWare, again, felt he would make a good foil to Shepard.  That’s fine and great, but if you’re going to give someone a foil, you should do so properly.

Instead of a foil, Kai Leng felt like an attempt to cash-in on the books.  More than that, I think it just goes to show how out-of-touch the BioWare story guys are with what we wanted from ME3.

At the start of this post I suggested that ME3 was kind of a weak game overall.  The story in general kind of sucked.  Kai Leng is where I think the best evidence comes for BioWare not having a goddamn clue what they were doing with ME3.

While we hear things like “artistic vision” in reference to the story as a whole, Kai Leng is the strongest argument I can think of against the idea that BioWare had any clue what they were doing or that they had planned anything out.

You see, if you look at the games only we end up in a tough spot with Cerberus.  Without Miranda or Shepard they really are just a bunch of terrorists.  The Illusive Man has a ton of resources but is himself not much of a fighter (he’s really kind of a coward).  But with Shepard walking away from Cerberus in ME2, and leaving the Illusive Man pissed right the hell off, Cerberus was a natural choice of enemy in ME3.

On the other hand, the Illusive Man might secondhand smoke you to death. That’s threatening, right?

So you see, Cerberus isn’t much of a threat to us.  After all, Shepard has taken down Saren and the Collectors, what chance does Cerberus stand against him?

It is logical, then, that BioWare wanted to look for some new enemy to put as the face of Cerberus in ME3.  Instead of coming up with some new threat and introducing it to us in the proper way, we instead get Kai Leng—Deus Ex Cyberninja Extraordinaire—shoehorned into the plot to stand in Shepard’s way.  After all, why create an all-new bad guy when you’ve got a series of books that has one already in there.

But don’t stop there, put in a reference to the events of the book so that people are left wondering.  After that, they’ll be sure to go buy the book!  That idea = cash moneys.

If the story of ME3 are darts, the ending would have been the dart that hits three feet to the side of the board.  Kai Leng would be the dart you drop on your foot, the one that leaves you with an infected sore and a gigantic hospital bill.

What I’m trying to say is BioWare fucked up.

The Problem of Calling Gamers Entitled

May 17, 2012 3 comments

I realize, as you probably have, that I am talking a hell of a lot about Mass Effect 3.  The thing is, I’ve never enjoyed a video game as much as I have these games.  I’m currently doing another full play-through of the series, making different decisions than before.

But I think, too, that the Mass Effect series has a lot to teach us as gamers, and that we’re just brushing it to the sides to quickly.  While this will be one of the last few articles to be really heavily featuring ME3, I cannot promise I won’t reference it again in the future to help prove a point.

Colin Moriarty Being a Douchebag

Who the hell decided giving this hipster an outlet for his opinions was a good idea? IGN? Well that makes sense.

Before Mass Effect 3, the idea of gamers being entitled was something I seldom heard talked discussed with any seriousness.   Once people started complaining about the ME3 ending, shit hit the fan and everybody had to weigh in.  A crazy amount of people think that gamers are showing how entitled they have become by demanding a different ending to the game.

The funny thing is, I think there are really only three arguments that exist as to why gamers are entitled.  Thanks to Colin Moriarty summing up the collective douchebaggery of the video game media (in the link above—the word “think”) I’ve figured them out. They are:

  1. Who are we, the gamers, to tell BioWare how the game should end?  It’s their artistic vision, and we have no right to interfere in it just because we didn’t like it.
  2. You wouldn’t demand someone change the end of a TV show or movie, would you?
  3. If this bothers you, don’t buy the game.

The thing is that these two arguments (sometimes provided together, sometimes separately) are completely at odds.  That is the problem of gamer entitlement, and that is what I’ll be discussing today.

As a final note: Colin Moriarty is a gigantic piece of garbage.  That man sucks at his job, which is to play video games and talk about whether or not they suck.  His video response to the furor over ME3 was incredibly contradictory, and made clear that he just likes to hear his own voice.

But, that said, I hate the guy.  In fact, this post basically started as a point-by-point breakdown of his video on ME3 that was going to call him out.  I decided not to go with that format, but don’t be surprised if I put up a “bonus” post outside of my normal scheduled posts to call him out.  After seeing that video I did more research, and this guy is as pretentious as pretentious gets.

Anyway, on to the fun.

Game Developers are Businesses, Gamers are Consumers

Right now, when you buy a game, you are a consumer.  As a consumer, you have something called an “economic vote”.  Hopefully you’re aware of the basic idea, but if not, the idea is that every dollar you spend is basically a vote for the company you give it to.  If you dislike a company, you withhold your money.  If you like a company, you spend your money.  Economic votes have a lot of powerespecially when people get mad enough to do something like boycott the company.  If a boycott takes off and a lot of people join in it can really damage the company.

If you purchase a GPS and it doesn’t work as advertised you have every right to make your displeasure at this known.  Chances are you will return the unit and not purchase one from that company again.

If you bought an iPod expecting to get an MP3 player and you got this, you could return it. But you can’t return a video game. I hope that heavy-handed metaphor for ME3 makes sense.

With almost any other product that you can purchase there is an understood guarantee behind the product: if it doesn’t work as advertised, return it. (In some cases, it’s to the store while other cases its to the manufacturer.)  Bought a GPS that doesn’t work right? You’re able to return it.  Bought a vacuum cleaner that barely works?  Return it. Bought a video game and find out it is nothing like what you expected?  Too fucking bad.

Anybody who has ever owned a video game knows one thing:  no returns.  Once that bad boy is open, you can never return that game—unless it were defective and in which case you’re given a new one. When you purchase a video game you are stuck with that game for better or worse.  You do not get to return it if you weren’t satisfied, as you would with almost any other product.

What this means to the gaming industry (and EA in particular, as they seem to thrive on this business model) is that companies can, in effect, release sub par products and yet still keep their money.  In an “all sales are final” model of business you don’t have to worry about the quality of your product because nobody can return it.

But the thing is, if you do get stuck with a sub-par game and you feel you’ve been ripped off you probably aren’t just going to file it away as $60 you lost and will never get back.  No, if you purchased a game that was barely playable from all the bugs in it, you’d let other people know.  If the company producing the game doesn’t patch it to fix it, chances are they’ll permanently lose the business of every person who bought that subpar product.

In that way there is even a kind of model that corrects issues of video game publishers trying to take advantage of that “all sales are final” model.

This is exactly what people are doing when they raised all this stink about ME3: they’re making their displeasure known, and letting BioWare know that if they don’t get their shit together we will not buy their games again.

So is that entitlement?  No.  It’s being a consumer.  And for all the people dismissing gamers as crybabies, what it really comes down to is that we are pissed off consumers trying to get what we paid for.

A Little Background on Mass Effect 3

(Spoilers here.)

In the case of Mass Effect 3, I purchased the game and expected something other than what I got.  I won’t go into a ton of depth, but basically BioWare advertised that every decision we made in the prior games would build up to ME3.  For those of you who haven’t played the game, the way BioWare handled this is through something called “effective military strength”.  Effective military strength is part of what dictates the ending of the game.

Perfect.

So, let’s say you decided to spare the rachni.  Well, in ME3 you have to do another quest at which point you can again decide whether to save them or not. If you do decide to save them, there is a console on theNormandythat you can access that shows that you got a bonus in your effective military strength.  If you chose not to, you don’t get that bonus.

Beyond this, however, it seems like half the decisions you made were unimportant in the game.  For example, the Rachni.  If you saved the Rachni Queen in ME1, you get to decide again if you want to save her.  Or take the Geth Heretics, who you can rewrite or destroy.  In ME3, the Geth Heretics are still an issue, despite that you previously dealt with them.

These two choices are some of the biggest issues I had.  Why did I make a decision in the other games, only to be forced to re-make that decision in ME3?  Then, when all is said and done, the only impact of the decisions I made in regards to the Geth are numbers.  Which fleet (Quarian or Geth) gives me more EMS?

When I first realized that BioWare decided to make sense of all my prior decisions via numbers added to a console, I was pretty damn pissed.  The only other acknowledgement that I made this huge choice was an e-mail in which some guy tells me how weird it was seeing the Rachni work on the Crucible.  I tried to tell myself that the big decisions got some lip service and counted, but really they didn’t.  They got quests that I had to re-make decisions I’d made.  It was some bullshit.

In terms of the actual ending, BioWare again made it seem like every decision would change how that ending played out.  In the end, we got three choices with three different colored explosions and, effectively, the same ending.

So as a consumer, it makes total sense that I am not pleased that the product I got wasn’t what was advertised.  I was told my decisions would have a greater impact, and I got numbers.  The equivalent would be to purchase an iPhone and find out that it’s actually just a walkie-talkie.

 

Video Games, TV and Film

In many cases people want to compare the furor over the ME3 ending to television or film, and point out that when we don’t like the way something happens in those forms of media, we don’t demand changes.

The comparison between video games and film or television is not quite apt for a few reasons.

No, seriously. This image is so awesome I figured I’d use it again.

To start with, movies and TV shows exist solely as mediums in which the audience is not engaging the media actively, but rather passively watching.  While we may get quite drawn into it, that does not change that we do not have input on how the show plays out.  That’s a big difference and a big deal.

But also, film exists as one “dimension” as it were, namely the visual.  When we watch a movie we do not hold the filmmaker accountable for our surroundings, or how the remote works, or how the image looks on our TV screen.  Those are outside influences that the filmmaker cannot control.  I don’t blame poor image quality on the filmmaker, I blame it on my shitty TV.

Games, however, are a total experience.  The gameplay, graphics and story mesh to create the total game experience.  If some portion of the gameplay is bugged in such a way that it makes enjoyment of the game impossible, it is the duty of the developer to fix that bug. Because games are a multi-“dimensional” experience, the game developers are responsible for ensuring that all of those are cohesive elements.

If the gameplay insists that we—the players—make consistent choices and then the story robs us of the payoff for those choices, I consider that a problem on par with a gameplay bug.  As a result, it is the duty of the developer to fix that problem.

In this playthrough, I know none of my decisions matter so I’m just being an asshole.

Some of you may have a problem with that extension, but I think it’s totally fair.  First off, the nature of decision-making in the Mass Effect series was heralded as one of the major gameplay elements.  Regardless of what decisions you make the story still follows a certain path.  Your decisions do not change the fact that the story is still about the reapers.  It just changes how smaller events play out.

You see, in most games before and since Mass Effect, you took on the part of a character.  Story scenes were guided in the same way as a movie, where the player has little input and control.  In effect, we were watching a movie where the drama was played out as cutscenes and the action was the gameplay elements.

Mass Effect, as I said, decided that they would turn decision-making and the story into a gameplay element.  In doing so, they promised us (repeatedly) that our decisions would have an impact in the outcome of the story.  When we were robbed of that outcome, we got pissed and said something.

It’s Not Your Story

I understand the consternation with which people view this whole issue.  I really do.  I understand that the idea is scary that we set a precedent for people not liking a story and then demanding it be changed.

While I do not agree that video games are art, I do believe that the developers often have a vision for their game and what they want from it.  I can understand the concern that caving to fans about the ME3 ending opens up a lot of doors any time someone doesn’t like the story.

I seriously wanted to cry just seeing that picture.

The problem with the idea of saying “it’s not your story” is that, really, it is.  As gamers, we spend countless hours in these games during which we effectively become the characters we play.  The attachment I felt toward the cast of characters in the Mass Effect universe was bordering on the absurd.  I cried a few times, I laughed at Joker’s…jokes.  (I especially loved when you pull up to the Geth mothership and he jokes about taking advantage of them not having windows…for a second time.)  When Ashley almost dies on Mars, I almost cried.  When she got better I jumped out of my chair for joy.  When Mordin went down, I did cry a little and spent so much time staring at his name on the memorial wall.

One of the reasons Mordin touched me so much is that his character arc is probably one of the best in the entire series.  He is one of the best characters I’ve ever seen in video games, and stands among some of the best characters in anything I’ve been exposed to.  His death, to me, was not just pixels on a screen.  It was the loss of someone I spent 5 play-throughs–at 35-45 hours each–of ME2 getting to know.

This is similar to how people come to love characters in books and on television.  The main difference, however, is again the interactivity.  When you watch a movie or read a book, you identify a protagonist through whom that story is told.  You identify with that protagonist and (if the film or book is any good) hope he achieves whatever it is he is trying to achieve.  With that said, the audience of those books or films does not choose the actions of the character.

But then I found this picture from him singing “Scientist Salarian” and it made it all better.

The point I made above—that we become the character in the game is what’s so vital to this and why it is our story.  When we choose what that character does, wears, shoots or doesn’t shoot, who he loves or doesn’t love, we gain an attachment that is beyond any other medium.  I can honestly say that Mordin’s death meant more to me than any event happening to any character in film or literature that I’ve yet come across.

(Keep in mind, I love books and film.  I am not saying these books don’t touch us, but I think the depth of something like Mass Effect is unmatched in those mediums.)

Many people pointed out that BioWare was trying to tell a story and we paid to be told that story.  Thus, we don’t really own the story.  That is wholly untrue—I paid to “live” that story, to become Shepard.  I paid for a game, not a book or movie.

If I wanted to just be told a story, I’d have watched a movie or read a book.

Again, I’ll point out that Mass Effect was unique amongst most games as it treated the story as one of our choosing.  That was, time and again, provided as a major selling point for the game.  Where in Metal Gear Solid you just watch 30 minute cut scenes and shoot someone, in ME3 you drove the story forward with every action and dialogue choice.

 

The Larger Implications

While I’ve talked about ME3 almost exclusively in this, I hope that the implications for gaming at large have become apparent here.

You see, the problem of gamer entitlement is that those who call people like me entitled want to have it both ways.  They want a world in which the game developers can do what they want with their games and I, as the gamer, have two options: don’t buy it or accept it for what it is.

I hope if you’re a gamer that statement bothers you as much as it bothers me.  After all, the furor over ME3 is almost like a Supreme Court case for video games.  What BioWare does next will undoubtedly set the precedent moving forward for all video games.

Really, what is at issue here is whether or not—moving forward—the story will be treated just like any other part of a video game, or if it will be treated as some untouchable piece of art.

I think I’ve made my case for it quite clear, but in the case of Mass Effect, the story was considered a part of the gameplay.  In making the story part of the gameplay, BioWare now has to decide whether or not they’ll live up to their responsibility as a developer, or if they’ll set the precedent that story—whether advertised as part of the gameplay or not—will always be above reproach.

What should not worry any of you is what happens if BioWare really does change the ending.  This does not open us up to a world in which any book, TV show, movie or video game with story elements the audience dislikes will have to be changed.

Rather, all this does is assure us that if another video game comes along that blurs the line between story and gameplay in the same way as in Mass Effect, that the developer of that game will be expected to live up to whatever promises he or she made.

I sincerely hope that BioWare does the right thing and provides us with the ending to the game that as consumers we paid for; as fans we hoped for; and as gamers we deserve.  The only dangerous precedent to come out of this would be if they don’t, in which case it just confirms that video game companies can advertise falsely, release sub-par products and manage to turn it around by calling us entitled.

Are Video Games Art?

May 10, 2012 4 comments

With all of the fuss over the ending of Mass Effect 3 I noticed something kind of odd: the word entitlement was cropping up at an unbelievable rate.  I got to thinking about this and realized two things: first, that there is a problem with using that word; second, that if I am going to discuss that problem, I have to address a much bigger, much more controversial question.

Are video games art?

Shepard Face Palm

Pictured: Every employee at BioWare and EA, realizing that ME3 is now the go-to example of bad story writing.

This whole thing was brought to my mind a while back when I was reading the blog of David Fisk (a follower, and someone I follow).  He wrote a post, Mass Effect 3: I do feel a little entitled, and it got me to thinking about the whole fuss.

Now, I’m not going to say much about the issue I have with using that word.  Just know that deciding whether or not video games are art impacts that greatly.

ANYWAY.

The thing is, nobody seems to agree on whether or not video games are art, and that is probably a far more interesting topic of discussion to you, my readers, than the intricacies of using the word entitlement to describe gamers’ attitudes.

I am not the first, nor will I by any means be the last, to discuss the issue of video games as art.  I am also, by no stretch of the imagination, the most “qualified” to do so.  I have a BA in Literature, so while the concept of art and the ways we interpret it is familiar to me, there are much more educated men than I that have discussed at length (and often, rarely agree) what art is.

Nonetheless, I’m taking this topic on because I think it’s worth talking about.  After all, as a student of literature and a gamer who recognizes the beauty of some games, I find myself torn in two directions on this issue.

What is Art

Let me start right now by saying that my definition of art, as included here, is overly simplistic.  While I’m going to try to hit the main points of what makes something art, there are—as with all things—exceptions and nuances.  In fact, one must truly consider things on a case-by-case basis.  (Which is one of the problems of calling games art.  You’re trying to say the medium is, wholesale, artistic by nature.)

Art

It’s a shame that the idea of “fine art” has been appropriated by the elitists to make themselves feel more cultured. It’s not a shame that, somehow, this picture manages to capture that douchebaggery perfectly.

First, we need to discuss the difference between art and fine art.  This difference is as ambiguous as it is contentious.  But the easiest way to characterize the difference is that art is, according to Britannica Online, is “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination”.   In other words, when you made your macaroni portraits in kindergarten, those qualify as art.

Fine art, on the other hand, is what we often think of when we refer to art.  It is, according to Wikipedia (because hey, why not use it here, too), “a skill [that] is being used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience toward consideration of the finer things.”  For the purposes of this entire post, whenever I refer to “art” after this, I am referring to fine art unless I specifically say otherwise.

With that being said, that definition of fine art doesn’t really do much to distinguish what actually qualifies as art and what doesn’t.  I do like what Wikipedia has to say, I just think there is more to it than just that.

I’ve summed up what I think are three of the biggest things to consider when looking at art.  There are many other criteria, but I think it’s safe to say if it doesn’t meet these three, it isn’t art.

1.  Art must be a task that requires skill, and art must be unique (to some extent) in that an unskilled person could not recreate the same product.

2.  Art must engage the audience’s sensibilities to drive forward an emotional state or an appreciation for the finer things.

3.  Art must have some underlying theme or concept that it hopes to send to the audience through those emotional states.

I do not want to get any more bogged down in this concept, but keep in mind what I said and we’ll move on.

The Argument in Favor

Perhaps one of the biggest arguments that video games are art is the simple fact that people seem to generally think it is possible.  Consider that the Smithsonian American Art Museum has an exhibit entitled “The Art of Video Games”.

The Smithsonian's Video Game Exhibit

I’m not sure that the Smithsonian is thinking of art in the right sense here. They used the word in the exhibit’s name the way I describe my ability to avoid cleaning my car artistic. Hmm.

But I’m not letting off the argument in favor that easy.  There is more to be said on the issue than just a generally growing acceptance of the idea of video games as art.  Kate Cox of Kotaku makes a roundabout argument that they are.  The thing is, her argument (and many others’) rests firmly on the fact that because the Smithsonian says it is, it is.  The atmosphere of the exhibit is one of respect, not of a dog and pony show to bring in more people.  That, then, must mean gamers were right all along!  Hurrah!

(In a coming article I’ll be talking about why I dislike almost every “major” gaming media outlet.  But it’s safe to say that if anybody at Kotaku said that games weren’t art, they’d be facing a shitstorm and loss of readers.  So it’s not surprisingly to me that Kate Cox basically dismisses the argument of games as art as irrelevant and long-since settled.)

Nonetheless, let’s consider the things that qualify art as art and look at video games in that context.

Video games do require quite a bit of skill to create.  They require large teams that split the task into parts, such as modeling characters or environments, texturing, story teams, voice actors, and beyond.  Games cost quite a bit of money to create and have a lot of time and effort going into them.  On that level, video games definitely qualify.

Programming is like poetry!

I’ve got to admit, there is something elegant about finding a way to program something in as little code as possible. I also think it was beautiful to watch Michael Jordan destroy the hopes of every team he played against. That, however, does not make this comparison okay.

Can video games be replicated easily by anybody?  No.  In fact, very seldom do you see a single person creating an entire video game.  As a result, most people who work on video games would be hard-pressed to create an entire video game on their own.  With that said, your average person is unlikely to ever be able to really create a video game himself.

As far as eliciting unique emotional states, I think the furor over Mass Effect 3 alone is evidence.  But with that aside, I know that I—along with many other gamers—have grown attached to characters in games in such a manner that the path these characters embark upon has a profound emotional effect on the player.

Finally, do games have underlying themes?  Again, the Mass Effect series drives home points such as equality, settling feuds and beyond.  Other games’ stories often deal with concepts of good or evil.  So I think it’s safe to say that at least some games do have deeper, non-literal themes they attempt to get across.

So by those standards, I think one could make a fairly strong case that games qualify as art.  But I’m not done with that.

The Case Against

In talking about video games as art, one often sees comparisons to other forms of art.  For example, Discovery News asks the same question and, rather than evaluating video games against some criteria for art, they simply talk about modern art being made of anything.  As such, author Robert Lamb decides, it’s not so far-fetched that games could be considered art.

From the same article: “’Video games obviously can be art,’ says game designer Jonathan Blow. ‘There’s not any real debate on the matter anymore, and there never really has been.’”

Two and a Half Men

It’s amazing how terrible this show is. In fact, they have made being unfunny into an art of its own.

Of course, Mr. Blow conveniently ignores Roger Ebert, who categorically denied that video games are art and, in a wider-reaching claim, says they never will be.  While Ebert later changed his stance and simply said he doesn’t get it.  Ebert eventually admitted games could be art, but  his initial discussion of the matter is pretty interesting and by far the most substantial discussion of the topic I could find.

That’s the interesting thing about this debate.  Both sides seem to think the arguments are so self-evident that, when they write about it, they just barely bother giving reasons why.

Before I return to Ebert’s argument, I’d like to take a moment to compare video games to what is perhaps the most analogous art form: television (or film).  In essence, for every Battlestar Galactica, Buffy, Firefly or whatever show you consider artistic in its nature, there are two or three shows like Two and a Half Men.

This comparison highlights a big point: even if games can qualify as art, not all games ever will.  Consider, for example, Skyrim.  While that game is a blast and a half and the world is beautiful, the story it tells is, well, not that great.  It’s spread out over huge lengths of time, it has M. Night Shamalayan-esque plot twists, and overall, it’s got no subtext.  One does not play Skyrim and realize it’s an allegory for the Iraq War (as BSG was), but rather a game about a person who kills dragons.

Paarthurnax-sucks-top

The leader of the Greybeards is a dargon!? Was he also dead the whole time?
(Image from Nerdapproved.)

If you wish to ignore story, what you’re left with to judge games by are the mechanics and rules as well as the graphics.  While graphics may seem akin to visual art forms, the fact is that very little emotional state is elicited by the scenery, and even if it is there is no deeper message or meaning to take away.

Beyond that, however, Roger Ebert aptly points out that no matter how elegant the rules of Chess are, it would never be considered art.  So calling a game art based on gameplay and visuals is just plum out.

So while one might argue that the Mass Effect series is art, I think it’s harder to argue that all games are art.  But this is the assertion that many people make.  To go back to the television analogy, few people would seriously assert that television is anything more than a form that can potentially be art.  The only art in Two and a Half Men is how artfully Charlie Sheen managed to make an ass of himself.  (Also, how artfully the show managed to drag 10 minutes of plot into 25 minutes through laugh tracks.)

But let’s go back to Roger Ebert.  Ebert’s points are very similar to mine (or, more appropriately, mine are similar to his), but I think the thing he says that stands out most is that the malleability of the gaming experience is what makes the form ineligible to ever be considered art.

Inevitable emotional state of Keats’ odes (for most people): boredom. Pictured here: Keats experiencing the same state.  Clearly he felt he had to share.

Ebert contends that one must be drawn to emotional states to be art (and I agree), and that by allowing gamers choices in their journey, you are not necessarily lead to an inevitable emotional state.  That is the word that makes all the difference, it would seem.

You see, arguments of reader-response theory aside, when you read one of Keats’ odes, you’re drawn by his art to a specific feeling or conclusion.  Gaming, if compared to print, would be kind of like a “choose your own adventure” novel.  If Keats had offered, for “Ode on Melancholy” six stanzas and allowed you to choose only 3 to read, it would not be art.  At least, that’s the summed up version of Ebert’s argument—with an added example. Because of this, Ebert contends, video games will never be art.

What Do I Think?

The thing is, if you’re reading this you’re probably not doing so to hear how awesome I think other people’s arguments for or against are.  You’re probably, at least to a small extent, interested in what I have to say on the topic that is original.

That said, I strongly agree with Ebert on all but one major point: I think video games could someday be art.  But I definitely don’t think any really qualify right now.

Two and a Half Men (Again)

Pictured here: what most video games are equivalent to.

What I think is that video games, as an entire form, will not ever be artistic.  They will probably exist in the same way that TV and film do, with the 99% being (sometimes) enjoyable but face-value drivel, and the 1% telling rich, engaging and artistic stories. But even with that said, I do not think that I would look at any existing video game—including Mass Effect, of which I speak quite highly—as art…yet.

Consider that there are still so many games released that fit into the “shovelware” category.  These games are craptastic affairs that are hardly worth playing.  For every big budget game that comes out that we enjoy, there are five pieces of garbage that start selling at $20.

While video games have advanced, more of that advancement is focused on creating richer environments than telling better and more meaningful stories.  And while the story of Skyrim is much bigger than the story of the original Mario, that does not mean it is instantly deeper.  The Twilight Saga is quite long, but nobody (I sincerely hope, lest I have to burn my degree) would consider it to be fine art.

But video games, while maybe having longer stories, are still in the end simplistic tales driven more by interactivity than by depth.  You could argue that games have gotten much better with stories—and they have—but they are now, as an entire form, probably on par with storytelling akin to the Twilight Saga, not to War and PeaceTheir stories rely on plot twists that would make M. Night Shamalayan blush.

whatatwist

What a twist!

Beyond all of this, however, is that malleability that Ebert talks about.  Where I differ from Ebert, despite generally agreeing with him, is that you do not need to be led to a single conclusion by art.  Malleability of the form is what makes gaming potentially one of the most unique and amazing mediums in which to create art.

So here is where I, as usual, tie all of this together to hopefully make some sense.  Video games as a medium are likely going to continue down the same road as television and film, in which the majority is not art.  As a result, the entire medium could never be considered art.  I don’t know that I can put it in any simpler words than that.  To call all video games art would open the door to calling every book ever published by the same name.  We don’t want to go down that road, so let’s stop now.

The reason I don’t consider any existing games to be art isn’t because they are malleable, as Ebert would argue.  It is because they are still, at their hearts, forms of entertainment centered on killing or racing or what have you.  It is this focus away from the story—and on the gameply—that allows people to experience games and not always get everything out of it that they could.

One Does not Simply...

And yet if one doesn’t do it, why is it an option?

In other words, the reason no video games are art yet isn’t because the malleability of the form leads to many inevitable conclusions.  That is what makes the medium unique among other mediums.  It is because the malleability of the form does not, yet, make any of the conclusions inevitable.  Readers of a book do not generally skip vital characterization—accidentally or purposely—nor do those who enjoy film get that option.

But gamers do have that choice.  In Mass Effect, one can go through the main story and speak to characters minimally while still completing the game.  Additionally, this dialogue can be skipped, such that one never need know what the actual conversation was.   The effect is the same as reading the Sparknotes version of The Catcher in the Rye and actually reading the full book.

Because of this difference, gamers are not forced to any conclusion at all.  The experiences that each gamer has are so different that one cannot really say that there is any conclusion (or conclusions) at all that are inevitable.  One can enjoy the Mass Effect series as games about blowing up giant space aliens, missing out entirely on the subtexts hidden within.

But Don’t Get Too Mad at Me!

Gamers value games.  That is not debated here, not at all.  But while the value people place on a thing does help to make the case for it being art, I don’t think you could or should argue that people valuing something is anything more than a small portion of that consideration.  To do so would open the doors to letting books like Twilight enter the realm of literature.

But I think accepting that gamers value games is key to understanding why people want to call games art: they want it to be valued.  For a myriad of reasons, people have rarely taken video games seriously unless they were themselves gamers.  To outsiders, games look like silly and idle distractions.  To those of us on the inside, it’s something that has its ups and downs, and fosters emotional attachments that are different from (and sometimes stronger than) those created by books or television.

While I do not consider games to be art, I do not either consider them to be trivial. I think the mistake of those arguing video games as art is to think that such a dichotomy exists.  Being considered art will not instantly legitimize games in the world’s view, nor does not being art mean that our games have to always be considered trivial.

I am a gamer, and as you can see from my blog, I consider it a big part of me.  So while I understand the desire to force outsiders to see the value of what gamers enjoy, I don’t think trying to force everyone to admit that our games are art is the right way to do it.