Monday, April 6, 2015

The Sinecure is Worse than the Disease

"This is not a noble game
It's also not the price of fame
Expect that I may lie
About the things you have to try"

Neuroticfish - Prostitute

My working theory on the collapse of the persistent world concept a decade ago has always cast investors or the knuckle-dragging public as the driving force, the drag placed on creative development. However, I've been giving computer game developers entirely too much credit. I keep forgetting that no matter all the propaganda about capitalist efficiency, ours is a parasitic society which encourages profit from waste and inefficiency.

Let's take it from the top. Single-player games (RPGs especially) are highly dependent on the amount of content they provide, through visuals, audio, storylines and preset goals. It's a labor-intensive process. A well-crafted multiplayer game, however, is largely self-perpetuating. Given a minimal amount of initial, player-alterable material, players drive each other to keep playing through their various permutations of that material, with only occasional novelties thrown in by the creative team. So, I've always been astounded at the single-player content in MMOs, the sheer volume of wannabe artsy drivel interposed by developers between players and that interaction which justifies putting a game online. I'm not talking here about "kill ten rats" as that sort of repetition actually excuses a great deal of labor, but about the myriad instances and zones which every WoW-clone accumulates, going entirely unplayed as customers cram into the latest release. Try getting a Maraudon group in WoW or a Fornost group in LotRO and you'll see what I mean.

I've never been able to explain to myself how developers can justify all the wasted work-hours spent on cut-scenes, constantly re-skinning monsters to make them seem new, landscaping zone after zone knowing full well they'll just be abandoned next patch, etc. Why focus on all that instead of crafting a self-sustaining system of player interaction which would prompt customers to keep each others' interest active through competition and cooperation? Alas, I am not yet cynical enough for my mind to jump immediately to the logical conclusion: the waste is the justification.

Not to bean-counters of course. To your publisher, you pitch your ideas piecemeal, citing numbers of customers you expect to gain or retain by creating x more kinds of big colorful zombies to farm, x more variations on the same generic music track, x more cosmetic items for sale in the cash shop - all of which naturally requires keeping a certain number of artists and programmers on staff. However, in the case of game designers themselves, we need look no further than that wasted effort as existential pretext. Better planned obsolescence than self-obsolescence, right? There's no money in creating endless replay value, in elegantly simple designs which require no updates or reformulation. It's the same phenomenon you encounter in every other industry. Make yourself necessary. So long as you pitch a business plan which requires constant content updates, at least you won't be out of a job.

Boss is coming.
Look busy!

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