Sunday, November 26, 2017

Ubergamer Attrition

"I'm just trying to find a decent melody
A song that I can sing in my own company"

U2 - Stuck in a Moment

One of my first posts here back in 2012 ...

Was the Mayan Apocalypse really so long ago? Hey, remember that time the world ended? And all those other times? Remember that?

Anyway, one of my first blog posts concerned the death of the RTS / FPS hybrid game Savage 2 due to self-inflicted stupidity. Which is sad. For all its faults, Savage 2 out-did the rest of the game industry in most respects whether in 2008 or now, especially when it came to integrating ranged / melee combat plus RTS commander orders through the interface. Its legacy was a stillborn "resurrection" last year (scroll down to customer reviews demanding their money back) and an object lesson in post-launch mismanagement alongside Demigod.

By 2012, Savage 2 had already been dead for at least half a year. The original Savage came out in 2003. Here's a screenshot of that:
Yes, there are other players in that picture. It's taken a few days ago. Actually that's Savage XR, a continually updated player-modded version of the original, but that doesn't change the fact that unlike the second or third game in the series, it's still being played. Not by many people, sure. One server, five to ten people on each team that I could see the few times I logged in, and that's at peak hours. It's free and can run on cheap computers, so expect mostly teenagers from scattered second / third-world countries. Mostly.

Counter-Strike: Source claims nine thousand players this month on Steam's usage statistics, and that's just the baseline game unchanged since Y2K. The updated version, Global Offensive, has 152,000 players on at this very moment, at what can only be considered low tide. Let's not even get into the popularity of Starcraft, which I'm pretty sure is still South Korea's state religion.

Counterstrike was a good game for its time, a more detailed, more responsive improvement over Team Fortress Classic. For a few years around Y2K, game engines and net speeds had advanced just enough to make headshots fun but not enough for collision detection, reactive abilities or detailed, immersive environments, and Counterstrike's plain-Jane shoot-em-up routine really shone, made the most of the technology of its time. I have fond memories of it. Then one day the owner of my favorite server announced "goodbye CS server, hello NS server" and swapped to Natural Selection.

NS was more creative both in its aesthetics and combat mechanics. It offered more than CS could, especially since it was an RTS/FPS hybrid. In fact, when Savage first came out a year later, a few NS fans were outraged at what they perceived as theft of the hybrid game concept (never mind the Battlezone and Uprising games had already been out for years) and threatened to... I'm not sure what. Savage's developers just laughed in their faces, and welcomed those of us who switched over. So I played Savage, and it was smoother, bigger, slightly more balanced and with more bells and whistles than Natural Selection. Savage 2 improved on it, despite my complaints about aesthetics and legitimized cheating, not to mention the Maliken snafu, but players refused to move on. I've also complained that Natural Selection 2 was not a true sequel but a Source engine nostalgic reiteration of NS, yet a couple hundred players are still in it right now.

Looking back, I almost have to wonder what I personally must have done wrong to leave each game I visited sprinkled with so many players who refuse to abandon their safety blanket. I don't know what makes me so much more resilient to such stagnation. I'm not exactly a neophile, mind you. My computer's over eight years old (and has a few more in it) and I'm perfectly willing to grouse about how shitty most new games are and point out all the valuable concepts the game industry has thrown aside over the decades... like fairness, imagination and complexity. It's kind of my main "thing" here in my den. Still, inevitably, advancing technology offers new opportunities. Even as most concepts within a creative field decay, some mature and now and then something new coalesces.

Advancements keep cropping up, and more and more they're going unrecognized because the history of game design has exacted a terrible attrition among those who should be counted most discerning. The millions of cretins still playing Counterstrike or World of Warcraft don't worry me much. They're mass-market scum anyway. It's either that or Mario Kart. On the other hand, the couple hundred apiece still beating a dead horse called Savage or Natural Selection or Ultima Online or Neverwinter Nights are inflicting much more grievous harm on the worthwhile segments of the game industry. Without them, dumber players are lost in interesting games. A company can't attract the right customers to keep things interesting if those competent few are hiding their heads in the sands of yesteryear.

Sure, many of those players in Savage XR or Ultima Online or Neverwinter Nights' persistent worlds will turn out to be teenagers from some poor backwater extracting what use they can from a hand-me-down computer. A good portion in any such example, however, will consist of the game's old core: commanders, clan leaders and the modding community itself, those who once felt included and validated within that context and remained there, still chasing their old self-importance. The trend toward cozy redundancy certainly has parallels in other forms of entertainment. There are plenty of people who spend every night watching reruns of Cheers "where everybody knows your name" or have seen Casablanca 154 times, or who keep re-reading Pride and Prejudice every few months, thus evincing both qualities.

Something about an interactive medium amplifies the dependency, the separation anxiety. It's not only a matter of sensory experience, but deeply canalized personal agency, the satisfaction of picking at a familiar old scab with every click of the mouse.

I keep wondering why the demographics of computer games, especially online games, have shifted so decidedly toward the moronic over the past decades. The influx of mass-market consumers drowning out what used to be a niche market is the main issue, sure, along with the industry's catering to the vermin. Marketplace expansion has certainly also diluted the intelligent few. Still, some of the decline stems from the stagnation of those who insist on continuing to play their old MUDs into the new millennium, crotchety old thirty-somethings averting their eyes from the scary newfangled thingamabobs out there.

I have no idea why I'm not counted among them despite my rather pronounced nostalgic streak. Despite being very much "into" my favorite titles and playing them three or five times over, I then uninstall them and move on. I love Nine Inch Nails but I still skip it in Pandora in search of something else. Much as I was enthralled by Stranger in a Strange Land, there are other Jubal Harshaws to meet. I will re-watch all my favorite anime... at some point after I find new ones as points of comparison. There is so much of everything-else and much as I hate most of what I find, I can't help but keep looking. The perfect escapist fantasy must be out there somewhere. I'm just not willing to pretend I've found it.

"I am not afraid of anything in this world
There's nothing you can throw at me that I haven't already heard"

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