Monday, May 12, 2014

I won't be a third party to this

A long time ago, in an internet far, far away, Penny Arcade actually used to be funny!
But that's neither here nor there, I suppose. What is undeniably "here" is the entrenchment of that attitude within the computer game industry. Whatever their difficulties, game designers have also long been an incredibly spoiled lot and when viewed objectively or comparatively, their incompetence, lack of standards and outright hucksterism would make a snake-oil salesman blush.

I mean, at least he's selling you a bottle of dirty water. Valve, on the other hand, now makes 10% commissions on imaginary items sold for real money between players in TF2, DotA2 and other online games. Mafia dons collecting protection money can only wish they'd gotten in on this racket. WoW and WoW-clones like LotRO, as I complained months ago, now want you to pay them to avoid playing the product you're buying from them.

But let's say that's just the fleecing associated with a product. What about the product itself? Obviously, if we put up with this bullshit, we gamers must be getting some primo material at least. Painstakingly detailed, artistically original... not quite. Can we actually use the programs we pay for without being treated like criminals? Oops, wrong again. Hey, maybe we at least get prompt, reliable service... yeah, that ain't happenin' either. This isn't just me bitching. We know it. Every once in a while, some utter fiasco like Dark and Light reminds everyone that it's possible to be both incompetent and crooked and still be taken seriously in the game industry. Yet despite all of this, gamers keep fawning over designers like beaten dogs crawling back to lick our master's hand. L. Ron Hubbard said the easiest way to make money was by founding his own religion... but boy howdy, it's so much easier to make believers of fanboys. They will make, advertise, sell and buy the invisible alien detectors for you! Go to any game board and see the boundless reserves of belief that things will get better next patch, the sheer levels of denial about the product's endless flaws, the sheepish desperation for a single word from those handing out electronic endorphin delivery systems. That, is faith!

Fanboys have long been the game industry's greatest asset, and a disposable one at that. How do you establish a new intellectual property? Sell it first to a discerning interested audience, then once they do the work of spreading word-of-mouth, screw them, dumb it down to a barely-recognizable caricature of itself to glitz the brainless masses in. But geeks are more than just disposable advertising platforms. They're an endless source of free labor. Games used to have manuals. Now they have Wikis. Instead of paying someone to put together your game's documentation, you do some random schmoes the honor of allowing them to put a thousand work-hours in for free.

Spoiled. How spoiled? You don't even have to finish your product. In a constant display of pure professionalism, countless games have been released over the decades so malformed and cored through with bugs (even my favorites like VtM:Bloodlines) that only customer-created unofficial patches made them playable. The multiplayer incarnation of this disease is the reliance on add-ons. It stands to reason that all participants should have access to the same tools to control the game. Yet especially in so-called MMOs, developers shrug off the responsibility for developing an interface onto third-party programs which sort your inventory, chug your potions for you, queue up whatever skills are algorithmically determined to be necessary and then kindly inform you whether you've won or lost.

Take for instance Firefall, a game I was unfortunate enough to get suckered into some time ago. It's become a running gag that the game's still officially in "beta" only because it allows the creative team to get away with selling an unfinished product. One way to gain resources in Firefall is by salvaging loot, which takes a few seconds per item, minute after minute of sitting there repeatedly scrolling through the same list and clicking the same confirmation window for item after item. A third-party add-on called Salvager can automatically salvage all the items you queue up while you go AFK. If you don't know about it, the game will eat up much more of your time pointlessly. Players will quickly tell you that you need Salvager, and they're right... but it is the responsibility of the designers to include that functionality in their product. If a game is crap without a slew of interface add-ons, then the game is crap.

I play TSW once in a blue moon, so I occasionally forget where such or another NPC service might be found. I once asked someone where I can buy extra gear load-out slots for my character's inventory. He replied: "oh, I dunno, I just use a UI add-on that gives me infinite slots."

I shouldn't have to be the one to call this inexcusable. Getting a helping hand from a third party is, in any game, cheating. It is in fact the most basic definition of cheating, obvious even to eight-year-olds on the playground. If you're seeking and you get a friend to tell you where all the hiders are, you are cheating. No gray areas. No relativism. If some functionality is necessary, then it is necessary for all players, not only those who download the add-on.

We have to stop glorifying cheating and start holding game designers accountable for making their products playable in themselves. In what other industry is such behavior tolerated, much less advertised and applauded?
Can you imagine a plumber coming to your house and saying "eh, I hammered at that pipe for a while, it's still leaking, but you can probably find some kid with a wrench to finish fixing it; I still get paid full price, right?"
Or maybe you'd like a movie editing team saying: "Oh, the scenes are out of order and there's five minutes of blank screen in the middle of it? What do we care, we're still getting paid. Get some editing software and finish it yourselves, see ya!"

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