Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Smartphones - cutting the tumor from dekstop gaming?

The living death of MMOs, though the particulars vary, has featured as a core constant the downward slide into what I and many other angry nerds have for years called slot-machine gameplay. With Lineage, Diablo 2, Everquest and especially WoW, companies marketed the most simplistic endorphin boost through operant conditioning: loot drops. Simplistic, mindless actions, repeated endlessly, become addictive through the random pay-off of an apparent increase in wealth or social status. The shiny sword acquired by hitting goblin #462 over the head with a magic sword is addictive for the same reasons as the clink of coins in a Las Vegas slot machine after 462 pulls of the lever.

Recently, it was suggested to me that games made for mobile devices, in their accessibility and mind-numbingly addictive simplicity, their sheer limbic pay-off per joule of cerebral investment, represent the death of games. I offer a dissenting scenario. Computer games have, for one thing, always coexisted with their prettier but more simplistic console counterparts, the bimbos of electronic gaming. Most of us grew up with plenty of opportunities to jump through hoops as Sonic the hedgehog, yet at some point some of us decided we'd rather, say, amass a few tank battalions in Command and Conquer. Even from the depths of our own beloved desktop computers beckon the likes of Solitaire or Minesweeper and yet we still sought more. Computer games have as a rule simply addressed a marginally more ambitious demographic.

The internet changed all that. Most online games have been best played on desktop computers, as a rule. The internet has been, until only the most recent couple of years, a predominantly "desktop" feature - despite growing numbers of WiFi hotspots. A side-effect relevant to this discussion was the conflation of online games with purely social online activity. The draw of the internet itself brought the mass market in, and the mass market demanded that gameplay be simplified to their hoop-jumping, slot-jockey tastes. Single-player games were in turn tainted by association, through "competitive" multiplayer gimmick runoff like achievements or static levelling. The crux of the matter, however, is still the multiplayer market. As long as the mass-market infection continues, it will easily drown out the feeble cries of us few nerds who pine for the days when we'd lock ourselves in dark rooms to slay goblins for the joy of goblin-slaying and not to fill a goblin-slaying quota for a Steam achievement.

It may be the tumor is deadly seeing it has, as I mentioned, already metastasized from MMOs to other genres. However, there's another possibility. The mass market did not invade computer games for the love of playing games on computers. They always wanted only the simplistic slot-machine gameplay they could get anywhere else, but in a medium which allowed them to form social hierarchies around it. They wanted to pull at that one-armed bandit not by themselves with a handheld game, but with an opportunity to have their skill at lever-pulling witnessed by the entire world.

And the accessibility of tablets and smartphones can fit this role much better. They offer dick-measuring in a more accessible form. The average morons never wanted an MMO. They wanted Pong with character levels in a global stadium, and now that mobile, networked devices are so prevalent, they can get it without sitting at a desk. Fruit Ninja might seem like a problem, but it can provide precisely the sort of breathing room much better computer games need. As simplistic mobile games acquire fancier graphics and more reliable internet support, they might draw in those players who just want simplistic gameplay with bragging rights attached - and draw them away from say, strategy or roleplaying games.

It will mean a shrinking of the market for desktop games, yes, and that's good. We should be praying that the marching morons abandon computer games, and leave them to the same crowd who got drawn in because the complexity of gameplay afforded by a mouse and keyboard trumped the simple animalistic joy of Mortal Kombat. Let's hope they'll soon be able to get their Achievement fix on phones and wander off. Then maybe the voice of we few who have little interest in ninja-ing fruit and who outgrew Mario and Sonic's antics can once again be heard in what used to be our niche market.

Let's hope the new wave of networked slot-machines, twitch-swiping and button-mashing will remove the incentive for strategy and RPGs to cater to those tastes, and relegate those genres once again to their proper role as the "artsy" nerdy fringe of electronic gaming. And from there, we can grow once again into the proper concept of an MMO.

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