Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Slow Gamers Made the List

"I never wanted to try nine to five
Ain't ever gonna be part of this machine
And never will I be seen not to dream"
Syntax - Strange Days

The more powerful and established a creator (individual or creative community) the less creative it becomes. In the same power dynamic which plays out in every aspect of human society, stability is the philosophy of the oppressors. Just as a revolutionary become leader also becomes an iron-fisted counter-revolutionary, leaders of industry, science, religion, art, the establishment wherever it may be established, begin to entrench. Control is paramount. If you control the definitions, then you need fear no argument. If you control their options, you can keep others chained in illusions of freedom and achievement. If you control the playing field, if you define the rules of competition, you need fear no upstarts.

If you define a game as consisting of the sort of gameplay which you already know, then you can exclude others which may be more creative than you from the market. Seen in this light, the hideously repetitive "kill ten rats" mission-running paradigm of gameplay which now dominates games both on and off-line grew logically out of the game industry's growing success. Though such standardization is mostly easily explained as common, run-of-the-mill laziness or stupidity, it's also born of a desperation to control customers' wishes so they can only wish for whatever you're giving them.

We all know this, whether we play video games or not. We know it because none of us can completely escape the suffocating constriction of our lives by the job market. We are all told that happiness is quantifiable in the amount of scraps of cash the rich deign to throw at us, that our worth reflects the quality of boots we lick, that getting promoted means gaining the freedom to, instead of doing what we're told, tell those below us what those above us tell us to tell. It's no surprise that wage slavery has gradually taken its place alongside slot-machine addiction in an effort to keep customers in line. Keep them busy. Keep them chasing treats. Keep them from imagining anything better.

I do believe Poole's article was less effective for shying away from MMOs. Nowhere is the destructiveness of the job paradigm more obvious than in the category with the most potential to waste and World of Warcraft, as the tipping point where a conscious choice was made between improving or controlling the genre, is the case-in-point for the game industry's shift from revolution to counter-revolution over the past two decades. But while it is the best example it is hardly the only and single-player games are more conveniently concise. Certainly the worst perpetrators of such tyrannical conceit are aware of what they're doing. Quite likely they're the ones who have to sit in some board-room listening to a communications major power-point through some pop-psychological justification for the grind.

Now of course the most pertinent question is whether standardization, simplification, monotonization actually work. Have richer companies succeeded in lowering the entire market's expectations until only their brand of rat-race sells? Have all gamers bought into the new definition of "game" as a means to accept orders and beg for dog biscuits? Games which diverge from the current paradigm pop up now and again but are they only quaint curiosities or can they hold players' attention. In other words, can actual games still sell, or only achievement-loaded, hand-holding endorphin-titration devices?

Anyone who says "the numbers don't lie" is lying. Marketplace statistics are endlessly abusable and always designed to serve the point of those creating them. Occasionally though, a bit of countervailing evidence seeps through what's otherwise a self-congratulatory display of power on the part of the wealthy. Take a recent attempt to compile ownership and usage data from Steam profiles. Predictably, getting your info from Valve's ad-riddled, megalomaniacal excuse for a distribution service yields Valve-friendly numbers, as the author of the article admits. Take for instance the conspicuous absence of most WoW-clone MMOs from the list... or WoW itself. Oh, did Blizzard, Sony and EA not want to subject themselves to Valve's overlordship? Did Time Warner politely decline?

The tone of the article itself is unfortunately gratuitously fanboy-ish in the face of Valve's products' success within Valve's own playground, but then we've likely all encountered enough reviewers sucking up to industry bigwigs to recognize the pattern. It endlessly praises the popularity of DotA2 while ignoring the fact that it's a "free"-to-play game populated by an indiscriminating, uninformed slew of third-world adolescents. DotA2 is a catchphrase and  advertising platform, not a game. You may as well show the numbers for Farmville right next to it.
There's no escaping the circle-jerk of publication as publicity. The fawning desperation to talk about the thing being talked about is the reason it's talked about, and when you spend most of your article focused only at the lowest-common-denominator top of the list, you miss out on the more interesting tidbits below. Kudos to the author for not sinking quite so low. When you look at which games hold players' attention instead of just being starstruck by fad spread, certain ones jump from obscurity into the spotlight.

The over-riding advantage of multiplayer games is competition, whether real or imagined. Nothing quite as satisfying as beating some twelve-year-old into the ground. In more practical terms, players are also much more creative than any commercially-available algorithmic system. AIs get dull when you learn they always dodge left after shooting or always retreat at exactly 37% health. For whichever reason, whether they are driven or intrigued to do so, players spend more time in multiplayer games as a rule. So though the chart of hours-per-owner spent on a product contains some of the usual suspects like online FPS games (Counterstrike, CoD) it's much more interesting to see which single-player games skip ahead in the ratings. Skyrim for instance jumps from the bottom of the "total sales" list toward the top of the "hours per player" lists.

More interestingly, two games spring into the middle of the list as though from nowhere: Europa Universalis and Mount and Blade: Warband. To his credit, the author of the article himself did make passing mention of both. Both are single-player, one by definition, the other by default. Both are small-time enterprises almost bereft of advertising, popularized by word-of-mouth more than anything else. Both feature rather dated graphics. Both should have been utter flops, if the industry's assumptions of player preferences (slot machines and rat races) were correct. So what gives?

More so than even the Elder Scrolls games, these are open-ended and relatively freeform. They do feature quests, but instead of linearly driving the player in any particular direction these are only one activity to be engaged in at will. Instead they emphasize the world itself, adventure, discovery, the drama of personal choice, personal struggle and personal ambition. They make a point of scattering some roses to smell. They are not jobs, and though I fear the Steam versions likely had plenty of "achievements" tacked on to them as per Valve's corporate policies, they were not built around the rat-race or loot drops. They are worlds in which a player can choose his path.

It seems that even though few know of such products, those who try them stick with them. Slow Games, as Poole put it, games in which the player is given little or no direction, games filled with discovery and adventure, do sell, despite their lack of investor support. I have to wonder if they wouldn't sell even better if reviewers and commentators spent more time discussing and promoting the smaller, more creative, more interesting products instead of struggling to attach their names to already over-publicized, simplistic, dumbed-down fads like DotA 2 or Counterstrike by spewing mindless catchphrases like "Either you're one of the best, or you're one of the rest..."

You mean we can't argue with success? Well, actually your own list can.

Warband and EU suggest that those who get a taste of freedom from the virtual rat-race tend to enjoy it. It is still promoted, however, in the interest of maintaining control over players' expectations. Like slot-machine loot drops, the virtual rat-race forces customers to continue playing a product... without any regard for what that product is. It protects established developers from unfavorable comparisons with more creative upstarts by controlling, redefining, limiting the playing field so that relevant qualities of their respective commodities are not brought into question. Instead, they sell identical products through ad-campaigns which smaller "artsier" developers can't afford and try to retain customers solely though gambling addiction and meaningless measures of self-worth - like say, becoming a productive member of virtual society by being told how useful and handsome and what a good boy you are by the various NPCs sending you to kill ten to the tenth rats.

Can we, you know, outgrow this trade guild exclusivity bullshit?

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