Monday, October 16, 2017

Well copy my cats and call me "designer"

For the first time in the long years since first downloading it, I've uninstalled Team Fortress 2, a game I've yakked about several times here starting with post #7. I was willing to put up with cartoonish graphics and even praised their up-side of malleability. I was willing to put up with Valve shoving demands for more cash in my face, with their retarded "achievements" and ludicrous crafting system and seeing them waste all their time developing more funny hat skins for the cash shop than actual gameplay. I was even willing to put up with the utterly troglodytic playerbase 'cause... well shit, it's an online game - 'nuff said. What finally killed it for me altogether was last year's big small-team patch, and today realizing that since writing that disgusted patch review more than a year ago I had only logged in... maybe twice? And I hadn't even missed it.

At the time I couldn't explain to myself why Team Fortress, a game designed for 12 vs. 12 matches, was limiting its new auto-matchmade "competitive" mode to a sparse 6 vs. 6 players, negating most of its own gameplay options... like defense... in favor of moronic twitchy scout dueling. Having played MOBAs I knew it must have something to do with their smaller team sizes. Having not played Overwatch, it took me a while to realize 6v6 happens to be the team size of TF2's direct biggest competitor, which had been kicking TF2's ass up and down the internet since coming out earlier last year. That Overwatch is itself supposedly a cross-bred bastard child of TF2 and DotA does sort of vindicate my suspicions, but that's not my focus here.

My point of contention is Valve's panicked, reflexive response to competition. Yeah, Overwatch has pretty much curbstomped TF2. You can actually see TF2's usage statistics visibly drop in late 2015 when Overwatch went into closed beta, and again in early 2016 when it released. You can also see players returning to TF2 in droves in late summer 2016 when it released its big patch, then hilariously flee again after one, maybe two months, taking even more of Valve's customers back with them, likely right over to Blizzard.

The crazy part is that TF2 actually tried forcing Overwatch's game mode on their players, which basically amounted to free advertising for and a concession to Blizzard. Instead of looking at distancing themselves, building on their strengths and advertising what they can do better (like a hectic, punishing, goal-oriented large-team melee instead of dick-measuring over individual k/d scores MOBA-style) at maintaining a unique brand identity, they tried copying the newer, glitzier product which had already out-copycatted them. Can a dead horse beat itself?

It seems utterly perplexing that in a field arguably defined by neophilia, computer game designers are still stuck in the mentality of infinite growth of the dot-com bubble years. They're still trying to party like it's 1999. They seem to assume they exist in an exponentially expanding market which can accommodate endless identical copycats, that they can just ride a trend like "MMO" or "MOBA" without actually designing anything of their own. Except, Googling "video game industry growth" brings up the top hit "An Aging Video Gaming Industry Wars Against Slowing Growth" accompanied by such first-page rejoinders as "Jobs for Video Game Developers Have Dropped by 65% Since 2014" and Fortune warning back in 2015 in an otherwise exultantly congratulatory article that the upswing was nevertheless hitting its peak. Never mind that even then, much of the growth was coming from consoles... or worse, phone apps.

Amusingly, what business analysts know, computer gamers know also, because we've been sitting here watching one cheesy knock-off after another bite the dust. Vanguard, anyone? Even in one of the newest markets, MOBAs, Wikipedia's list has a third of them "discontinued" and I can tell you from personal experience that proportion should be higher. No-one's played Demigod since before the Mayan Apocalypse. Half of them flop right out of the box, like Sins of a Dark Age.

Games, especially computer games might have to try and stand out in a crowd now. They might need actual features, selling points, innovation, even if it's superficial. There are only so many slices in that pie. The financier overlords know it, we petty rabble know it. Somehow it's the people in the middle of the whole mess, game designers and publishers themselves, who haven't heard the news.

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