Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Legitimized cheating

So here i am playing Dragon Age, enjoying the slightly-blighted sights of Ferelden, when i start running across some downloadable content that came with my super-premium ultra-special mega-dooper collector's edition or whatever i bought. I have a feeling that it's extraneous to the game as a whole, but i have to try it, because hey, it's there, i already paid for it. The real problem turns out to be that these modules were originally created to be bought individually by players who had already bought the game, as per Bioware's long-standing 'premium module' system. This means that the developers felt the need to add incentives for players to spend their money. It isn't enough to give them new content. You have to stroke their fragile egos.
To that effect, the downloadable modules were made into crutches: easier mobs, few or no puzzles, much better rewards. This isn't just insultingly patronizing in itself, but can wreck the rest of the main campaign. It's much easier to face down those revenants and ogres when you're wearing the king's own armour and all your party members, mage or not, have blood magic powers. They basically sold players a way to cheat through the difficulty of building up their characters.

This is unfortunately a sign of the times. Every game, especially if it's online, sells its customers the right to cheat. It's not as if it's a new idea. Before World of Warcraft and all its clones, while EVE was just a wonderful deceitful dream and Everquest was just starting to prove the effectiveness of slot-machine gameplay, Project Entropia billed itself as a free-to-play MMO. The catch was that everything in the game, every gun, force field and round of ammunition was bought with real-world money. Players could take the long and painful road of farming everything, sure, but they'd soon get 'outplayed' by those willing to sink hundreds of dollars into getting an advantage. My comment on it after trying it was that it's like playing a game where cheating isn't just permitted, but is the ultimate virtue.

Years later, every type of game seems to be doing it. WoW-clone MMOs are switching to microtransactions and theme-park currency with LOTRO leading the way, at least in the western hemisphere. EVE-Online incorporated multiple accounts and real-money trading into its marketing strategy and is actively pushing players to have multiple subscriptions running at once and buy items with real money to sell in-game. Savage 2, a team FPS/RTS hybrid lets players play for free but also offers paid items that amount to a 15% boost in character stats. Team Fortress 2 lets players buy guns, though in their defense it is a much tamer version, as the weapons are usually only modifications on viable starting equipment. It's disappointing but not entirely shocking that the idea of bribing the game's publisher for cheats is now spreading to single-player games like Dragon Age.

That this is morally unjustifiable is blatantly obvious. Paying for an advantage is the most consistent definition of cheating. It's the equivalent of bribing the referee, wrestling on steroids, or as i like to put it, buying extra chess pieces for a dime a pawn and a quarter a rook. The extent to which it damages a game depends on the type of game. In a wishy-washy caricature of a theme-park MMO like LOTRO or City of Heroes, little or nothing the players do has any impact on the game world or each other, so the advantages they buy, while shameful, have little consequence as well. A world like EVE, on the other hand, where players compete with each other in both combat and economics, gets completely ruined by legitimized bribery. In simpler PvP games like Savage 2, the unfairness of it is even more glaring because there is less fluff to mask the players' interactions.

The game designers' motivation in making bad games is no mystery. They are capitalists, and selling takes precedence over creating; their goal is profit not product. Still, as always, i'll play the LaManchan self-deceiver and pretend there are still some in the world who care about what should be done, not just what's convenient. The only payment involved in a game should be the basic participation fee. Each player pays the same amount and gets the same in-game resources. That there are other illegitimate advantages to be had like more time to play or a faster computer does not justify piling more injustice into an already-frustrating environment.

When i said that this pattern is a sign of the times, i wasn't referring only to MMOs. Consumers expect this from the games they buy because it's what they're given in society at large. 'Tolerance' has been a buzz-word for so long in the U.S. and every culture that falls under its sway that it's taken on the magnitude of dogma. No criticism is tolerated, no notion of inferiority. Players come into a game expecting to be told they're amazing, skillful, morally justified and great in bed. The concept of attempting a difficult task for the satisfaction of success has fallen by the wayside. Today's winners go right for the instant gratification. This also leads to the astounding irrationality that's used to justify legitimizing cheating and bribery.
"Everybody should feel good. I deserve to feel good. The world owes it to me to feel good. Anyone who has any advantage over me, be it circumstance or natural aptitude, is making me feel bad. Therefore i am justified in creating circumstance which denies aptitude in order to make myself feel good and make others feel bad."

So far it may seem only a self-serving delusion, but the truly moronic aspect is every little ape's refusal to see that he might get the short end of the stick, that if he's willing to buy two accounts, there will invariably be some people with three, or if he's willing to spend a hundred dollars in the in-game store, there will be those who spend two hundred. It seems the same head-in-the-sand optimism that sells the idea of capitalism also transfers perfectly to the internet.

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