Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Shifting Demographic: Imbalance - It's Not A Bug, It's A Feature

So I've been trying out DotA 2 (which is just a nostalgic trip down bad memory lane, it's DotA 1 right down to point-by-point copying the exact same heroes and abilities) and aside from its many, many other problems, I've had a thorough reminder of just how ridiculously unbalanced it was.

DotA, as I've said before, is the dumbed-down side of a wide variety of AoS maps which War3's modding community put out. It was the most simplified, which means it had the widest leet-kiddie appeal, which means it also accumulated various other features intended to draw in even more leet-kiddies. And what do all humans like to do? Beat up nerds, of course!
DotA was split by necessity between heroes based on intelligence, agility and strength stats, because this was the delineation set out in Warcraft 3. Without getting into details, suffice it to say that DotA's community of snot-nosed neanderthals seized on the inherent imbalance to set up a system of glorified inequality. The "killer" or macho archetypes of heroes were given endless arrays of abilities and items which made killing intel-based nerds fun and easy, constantly reinforced by both practical resource rewards and the limbic* payoff of having the game tell you in booming, Quaking voice that you're "godlike". Or "teh awesomesauce" or whatever other moronic catchphrase they stuck in.
This is now getting mindlessly copycatted by all AoS games as the concept of a "carry" - the type of super-buffed assassin hero class which does not help others, relies on others to support it and just kills stuff. Kills stuff hard. Really really hard. 'Cuz it's awesomesauce. I refer you to this post if you'd like to figure out what kind of players this appeals to.

The "shifting demographic" series of posts is a continuation of my MMManifesto, which is supposed to be about products which aspire to the "MMO" label in some way. So why am I talking about Warcraft 3 and DotA? Because it's no accident that it was Blizzard Entertainment's fan club which cemented this mindset in the marketplace. Blizzard itself has long had a policy of "no balance is good balance" refusing to address blatant issues as long as they make someone feel like a big man. World of Warcraft was a perfect example. From the start, it was clear to anyone with half a brain that the "shaman" class was a cut above others. It was versatile, it could burst, it could heal, it had armor, it had escape abilities and everything else it could want. Blizzard only ever responded with their all-purpose customer-service stonewalling tagline that the class was "working as intended." And then the public data-gathering started. And Shamans were winning 85% of their PvP fights.
"Working as intended" indeed. It's not a bug, it's a feature. Shamans were very likely intended to draw players to the horde side, to make up for the "pretty people" and cutesiness appeal of the alliance races. But there's a greater theme here. Players used to throw "unbalanced" at a multiplayer game as one of the greatest curses imaginable. However, with WoW breaking into the mass-market, that liability became an asset.

The most redundant PvE class in every WoW guild was the Rogue. Guilds had to make special allowances just to fit rogues into their raiding line-ups, to make them feel included, to carry them through instances so they could get geared. Yet the rogue class consistently acquired more and more players. Why? Because rogues hurt people. This has been a constant in online games for as long as there have been online games. Whatever feature, be it weapon, race, class, whatever, which lets players hurt others with impunity will always be over-represented. However, companies used to have to cater to nerds as at least part of their playerbase. Some sort of balance had to be struck. Not so once you've breached the mass-market, once you have scores of sports-fans and reality TV watchers who will gladly play for the illusion of power. This is why WoW's rogues, in addition to their killing abilities, also kept the "vanish" skill, a perfect getaway device which not only turned them invisible but wiped all spell effects and positioned the rogue's dick in perfect alignment with your ass.
Because humans are not intelligent enough to care about balance. They just want to feel like they can "pwn noobz".

The entire industry has adopted this variant of mass-appeal. Being macho, being sadistic, being a parasite using your teammates so you can score killing blows without risking your own hide makes you better by default. No matter the game, developers feel the need to implement options which are obviously, blatantly better than others, so that the moronic masses can feel superior for taking what's been handed to them.

I could see the shift in EVE-Online. At its start, it attempted to strike a balance between ship types, avoiding entirely pigeonholing them into "killer" and "victim" roles. As it went on however, noncombat or support ships lost their defensive capabilities and more and more "ganker" options started showing up.

It shows up in Planetside 2 with the Liberator, the bomber-class aircraft. Instead of flying over targets to bomb them and being susceptible to interceptor aircraft, you'll more often see Liberators flying sideways so they can aim their bomb-launchers at interceptors to one-shot them. It's not a bug, it's a feature. It's a risk-free proposition, sadism without repercussions. It sells subscriptions.

It shows up everywhere because this is the nature of humanity. Back in the late 90s and turn of the millenium it used to be that nerds and geeks in online games were ridiculed for their vicious aggression, for their desire to be nothing more than griefers, taking every chance, be it imbalance, cheating, hacking, zerging, anything to ruin your day. This was presented as a character fault of nerds and geeks, of pimple-faced internet escapists, because only such monsters could act so monstrously... right?

Heheh, no. When injustice gets codified into law, it's because the people adopt it, not because the escapist intelligentsia invent it. Miniver Cheevy wanted to be a "warrior bold" not a drooling psychopath. The sadism, the cowardice, the facetiousness, that's the all-too-normal side of the customer base, and it has grown immeasurably larger over the past decade, enough that fairminded nerds wanting to play paladins or Robin Hood can now be ignored by developers.

Welcome to the real world.

Where'd the Internet go?

* Here I discovered that blogger's spellchecker does not recognize the word "limbic" - honestly people, basic neurology's not exactly the latest obscure slang by 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment