Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Censorship by inundation

Dawntide is dying. It lost its funding. It was, while in development, the latest greatest hope of online games. Its setting was mature, its artwork and map-making were sedate and subtle with a good sense of the need for contrast and variation in scale. Best of all, its gameplay was created in response to the much-needed changes which MMO players have been requesting for a decade. It allowed players to build their own cities and conquer them, it did not pigeonhole them into classes by basing character advancement on skill advancement and negated the levelling and item acquisition treadmill by relegating personal loot to the means to an end and not the end itself. It was not perfect but it was better. It was far better than products any of us are likely to find advertised anywhere, and it was only the latest in a long sequence of games which either died in embryonic stages or shortly after release because of the conflict between quality and mass appeal.

Most of these projects have followed the route of WoW: they advertise quality but shift towards mass-appeal as soon as they can. This is in some cases planned, as in WoW's case, in others a capitulation as with Darkfall, where the developers gutted their game of most of its features after a decade of trying just so they could release something. Sometimes it's a slow, painful decline, as with EVE which began some time ago to revolve around pushing players to buy multiple accounts. In most cases, though, the players i meet in WoW-clones like Warhammer Online, LOTRO or Rift have never heard of Darkfall. They have never heard of Ryzom, A Tale in the Desert, Dawntide, Faery Tale Online, The Repopulation, or even The Secret World (more shocking because everyone has heard of Age of Conan, developed by the same company).

This is not only a matter of obscurity. It is the corporate state's model of censorship, mass-appeal turned on itself, the deliberate confusion of popularity with quality. There was more than one aspect of censorship presented in Bradbury's oracular Fahrenheit 451. One was the burning of knowledge, bottom-up censorship, the rebellion of the masses against anything they do not understand. The other is exemplified by Montag trying to gather his thoughts on the train and being continuously interrupted by an advertisement on the loudspeaker for 'Denham's Dentifrice' until everyone on the train starts chanting along with the ad. This is top-down censorship, though it may not fit the traditional model of Gestapo raids and McCarthy era witch hunts. It's a corporate solution for a corporate state, combining profiteering with the elimination of rivals, all through the magic of advertising. It works because the human animal is pre-programmed to form socially advantageous alliances, to pick the winning side. It is embodied by the stereotypically American nonsense phrase 'you can't argue with success', raised to the level of morality and it extends not only to games, movies, books and other entertainment but to every aspect of life. Elections have become confused with horse-racing. The vast majority of consumers in American-style corporate states will not vote for minor parties because they have this vague notion that the purpose of the exercise is to guess the winner.

It should come as no surprise that the most heavily indoctrinated are, as Orwell predicted, the upper classes. It's not shocking that a game like Dawntide lacks mass appeal. It is intended as a niche product. The problem is that publishers, investors and the like are unwilling to invest in niche products. They are unwilling to make a smaller investment for a guaranteed profit and insist instead on competing with each other by copying each other because they themselves are terrified of new ground. We will never truly know whether Dawntide would have succeeded or not because it is driven out of the competition before the race even starts, because when presented with a new option, investors' answer is to drown it out by re-investing in the old one.

Denham's Dentifrice!

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