The Replacements

Blaugust 20th

“I’m here to replace you,” says the youth to the elder. This, I think, is how a lot of people view the generations as we grow older. Sometimes this turns into arrogance, but there’s some truth to the statement. The younger generations will eventually be the older ones.

How the statement’s interpreted is really important. In video games we see developers trying very hard to maintain the same thinking that they held as youth. It begins to feel as though they prize their youth more than they prize maturity, and so games have this pretty strong reputation as toys for kids. Some have chalked this up to the “nature” of video games. They’re fun, they’re inspired by childlike awe and curiously, they’re non-serious, non-political, pure. This is as much a failure of our developers to mature their craft, see it as emerging from the culture and as a source of culture in it’s own right, as it is a failure of the industry to allow games to mature. The industry is all about copying models that have already worked in the past, not improve on them. I think this prevents our games from being more versatile and keeps them narrowly focused on entertaining us. That’s why indie development continues to be one of the most important products of the popularity of the internet.

I don’t know when I started to realize this. Probably around 2007, the height of my MMO gaming. I started wanting more from my games, but I didn’t really know why I was becoming so much more demanding. Was I growing up or outgrowing games? Was I playing the wrong games? Was I just so immersed in gaming culture that I became a snob? The answer was probably a combination of all that and then some. I’m still pretty critical of games, but I’m also more accepting because I think somewhere along the line I realized I had matured. Some things would no longer hold my interest by virtue of just getting older. That leads to greater tolerance in all of us as we mature.

I encounter younger people all the time who see their place in the world as the new leaders. Some believe they have a duty to overturn everything the last generation believed in. Worse, some veterans of my generation see their place as squashing the hopes of the younger, to tell them “how it is” and in doing so discourage them from trying to imagine how it can be. To deter innovation because they worked really hard to get what they have and they see change as destroying that work. The relationship doesn’t mature. If you play as many games as I do, you know that it’s obvious in many game communities. Somewhere in there we’re all failing as stewards and students.

I wonder what can happen if we view each generation not as replacements, but as successors. Will games become more than entertainment? More recognizable as an asset to culture instead of a liability? I think we’re already finding out the answers and to me it looks promising. On most days. On some days it’s down right terrifying.

Sexual Games

Blaugust 12th


A question on the mind of every gaming adult should be: where’s the good sex in my games?! I, for one, am excitedly waiting for it to happen. Some games try ….most games don’t. It seems games struggle to capture the awesome of sex when they include it. At best past games awkwardly mimic human physicality, but fail to deliver the heat,passion and sensuality of a sexual moment. It’s usually portrayed as either porn or as a joke in games with rare exception.

Larry has managed to become the poster child for sex in video games.

Larry has managed to become the poster child for sex in video games.

After wondering where all the sex was, I decided to do some digging into the video game past to see how it’s been done in games I never played. Leisure Suit Larry probably popped in mind for some of you even if you never played it, but video games don’t really have a history with sex. Games just generally don’t do it and mostly never have. I’ve never played Larry, but from what I’ve seen and read it’s the adventures of one bachelor as he tries to bed various women in the game. So this isn’t really an exploration of sex so much as a simulation of how the dating game is supposed to work in real life for men (granted, with humor and sarcasm).

Following various links from Wikipedia I discovered Cobra Mission (NSFW), a sexual adventure for DOS described on the wiki as a Hentai game. It featured lots of combat and the mechanics for having sex were the same as for knocking out bad guys …and let me tell you. I’ve had sex and I’ve punched bad guys, and I have to say …the former is nothing like the latter physically or otherwise. So this sounds like a bizarre game with terrible sex to me.

Some of us wonder if games can actually deliver something genuinely romantic and sexually arousing, but the answer is obviously yes. If novels can make us swoon and invest emotionally with mere ink on paper, surely games can do much more to our senses. But how? And why have games not done this yet?

Bioware: They really, really try.

Bioware: They really, really try.

To be fair, games in America appear to be the real prudes of the industry. Japan has an entire sex game industry by the looks of it, where games of sometimes dubious and downright harmful quality routinely publish sex and outright porn. I don’t have a lot of experience with these games so I can’t say that they haven’t created some good ones. But in America that’s different. We breakdown every piece of entertainment into two categories: porn or prude. There are some political factors making it difficult to develop games with mature sexual content, but mostly it’s just not something developers seem to care about. We get cheesy romance, porn, or nothing. Yet capturing sexual excitement with immersive play seems almost destined for an interactive medium like games.

I’d even argue that seduction is already a game that humans love to play. I won’t speak for others, but those moments, words, stolen glances, smiles and feelings that seduce us are 90% of what’s awesome about the sex that follows. It’s the game that gets many of us excited about the prospect of locking lips and hips. The act of sex is sometimes the endpoint, but not always. Seduction is great on it’s own.The question is whether video games can execute this sequence of seduction which doesn’t need to involve sex itself. This to me seems like a simpler task than trying to make a sex scene non-awkward and meaningful to the player. When we think about it, this is what makes romance options in games like Dragon Age fun. While the sex scenes that follow are funny at best, the act of pursuing romance is actually exciting for players.

When I play Diablo 3 I feel like I'm slaughtering real demons. This game feels great to manipulate. Maybe Blizzard should make a sex game.

When I play Diablo 3 I feel like I’m slaughtering real demons. This game feels great to manipulate. Maybe Blizzard should make a sex game …on second thought …

I think we have to stop thinking of the buttons or the d-pad as the main input device for connecting the player with the act of sex. When that happens the game reduces the act to button presses and directional combos, which is an easy error to fall into. Instead, I think a focus on the kinaesthetics is the key to pleasurable and more realistic sexual encounters in games. If the game can just connect the player with the feel of sexual excitement, it’ll have done everything games have failed at in the past by  moving sex away from a mechanical act and toward a more sensual act where it belongs.

I tried to browse through the dozens of erotic titles listed on Wikipedia and one thing I learned is that sex in games has been done a lot like how sex is handled in magazines and movies. It’s treated as the subject of porn almost exclusively and developers don’t seem to view sex as mature content existing outside of pornography. Of course, games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age do a great job of trying to portray sex as an act of romance and passion, but those scenes are super rare. They’re exceptions to the norm. That says something non-flattering about the way game designers view sex as an act. This could be because of their own awkwardness with the subject, though I’m sure the technical limitations to our understanding of sex in a virtual environment don’t make this a simple task. But what these types of games lack is that sensuality that’s integral to a sexual experience. Remember: wet dreams don’t have controllers either and often lead to orgasm without so much as self-touching. It’s all in the sensations produced in our imaginations. Games in the future could contain sexual adventures unlike we’ve ever experienced!

For now, we seem doomed to simplistic portrayals of awkward sex scenes but hopefully we’ll get better at those, and it’ll lead to baby steps toward that sensuality some of us want to experience in games. Still, how hard can it be to portray sex as a dignified act between consenting adults who desperately want to fuck each other? I’d wager it’s just a matter of developers and gamers viewing sex as mature, not pornographic content.

Incompatible

How much is too much? Depends on what we’re talking about. Price. Profit. Free. Wage. How much?

Between gamers, developers and publishers, there’s some incompatible ideas that go into creating these little bundles of joy called games. These incompatibilities come from all sides and we hear them all the time: Games should make a profit, but they shouldn’t cost too much; Free games should be free, without item shops and other paid gimmicks; Devs should receive a living wage from their work; Companies should make a profit. Some of these parties involved won’t get what they want and it varies by game, with one exception: publishers. They’re the first ones paid so if shit goes down, the only people out of luck are developers and players. There’s plenty of money in game’s development to go around. Shareholders just aren’t interested in sharing the spoils with workers. They clap at board meetings when layoffs are announced.

All involved chant for great games, cheaper games, better game developers and career opportunities. There are always the diehard defenders of meritocracy, as if that’s actually a reality even as developers lose their jobs everyday. It’s like we’re playing musical chairs while pretending that we’re all dancing, all having a good time. As though all of us have a seat we can safely return to when the music stops. Worse are those who think their strength, their willingness to toss a fellow dancer aside in order to assure their own seat will save them from the silence of the music.

But the truth is that there’s no music playing and those with seats have been sitting down all along while clapping their hands and tapping their feet, telling the rest of us it’s a great song and that we’re having a wonderful dance. Some of us believe it. Some of us realized it was all a game eventually, but found we couldn’t stop dancing because it was still a viable option. We thought we were the players, but we’re the game. Cheap games and cheap labor are compatible with each other, but they can’t bring living wages, career stability and innovation. Those are incompatibilities.

Publishers and AAA Development

A recent article on Gamasutra discussed out sourcing. The point of the article was that this is a good practice with many upsides if only one used it properly. At it’s best, outsourcing is a profitable money-saver. Or so it wants us to believe.

The article didn’t mention that outsourcing is devastating. You can’t have well-paid developers, high quality games, a thriving industry, and profitable projects in the long-term while outsourcing. It’s great for depressing wages, lowering job quality, diminishing job security, and devastating industries which in turn devastate our communities. Those distant communities where the jobs are outsourced may initially see some prosperity, but they’re being exploited as cheap labor and are doomed to the same fate. Cheap labor. This idea is incompatible with living wages. 

This isn’t difficult to understand. Suppose I have a large million dollar company in a neighborhood in Silicon Valley California. Suppose I require a staff of 1000 employees to make games each year. Those 1000 employees live locally, where they buy houses, cars, food, and movie tickets. They raise families that go to the schools that their taxes pay for. They use city services and utilities. The residency of these workers boosts the local economy. With their taxes the community can maintain and improve city services like firehouses, hospitals and police departments. They can host things like science fairs, community centers, and computer training programs. The local community college can keep my company’s workforce well-trained. As long as my company does business in the community, it’s prosperity lifts all boats.

Outsourcing destroys this ecosystem. When those jobs leave, unemployment increases, businesses suffer and the city’s expenses go up exponentially due to the sharp decrease in tax revenues. This happens all the time when a job is outsourced – not some of the time, not rarely. Every. Time. I was disappointed, but not surprised that the Gamasutra article was praising its benefits while mentioning none of the guaranteed downsides which seem particularly relevant in the face of large, on-going industry layoffs and chronic unemployment. Honestly, I can’t imagine what working fool in this climate would speak of outsourcing as a good thing. It’s a case of “layoffs happen to those people, not me” self-deception, a willingness to deny the realities of labor.

An article a few years ago published on Forbes that I love to share gives a good summary of the general consequences of outsourcing. Companies may see some savings or an increase in profits in the short-term, but in the long-term this strategy undermines business by alienating workers, customers and communities. This isn’t an extreme case either. When it comes to outsourcing it’s always carried to extremes because the motivation is toward ever more extreme profits. Industries that use it inevitably destroy their workforce, alienate their customers, and decimate their communities.

Developers

The actual cost to make a game is beyond living wages for the average developer, even as the company that employs them reaps record profits – but that money doesn’t go to developers, who are laid off once the golden egg is hatched. Even if indies make a game on a shoestring budget, one can’t live on a budget like that. Aspiring programmers who pool their resources to rent shared apartments to use as makeshift live-in development studios are described as resourceful, bootstrapping keepers of the American Dream, ambitious entrepreneurs doing it the “right” way …instead of being seen for what they really are: impoverished workers who can’t find a living wage no matter how hard they work or how efficient their approach. Even those who strike out independently wind up becoming the team bought into a studio by outsourcing. Instead of being hired by EA or Sony, they’re contracted in for singular projects, contracts for pieces of their labor, contracts that promise to lay them off once the golden egg is hatched.

Some developers have taken to profiting at all costs. When your livelihood is on the line you can sell your soul in order to eat, or you can starve. Or at least that’s the way some people seem to think about it. Anyway, those pieces of software that are often labeled games but which work more like Skinner boxes are the snake oil of the industry. They mostly deprive the player of their money while harming their well-being by training them into behavior patterns that are difficult for them to break. I’ve seen these developers defend these products, even though they know the criticisms are legitimate. They believe they shouldn’t be held accountable for their creations. It’s the drug dealer claiming the drugs aren’t damaging lives, but the purchase of drugs is …even though they’re the salesman. And sure, drug dealers have dedicated clientele. Addicts have to have it. If this is the kind of relationship you’re cultivating with your players, please reconsider. There are better, more ethical ways to develop games which don’t involve behavior loops that enrich you while impoverishing your players. This isn’t the kind of compatibility you should strive for.

Developers have to make a tough choice: do they join in the musical chairs, hoping to take a seat next to the publishers, telling the players to dance and promising there’s a seat for them too? Or do they reject the industry business model and change the game? Changing the game is no small task for sure, but those are the only options on the table.

So how much is a game worth again?

Players

We demand innovation. We demand something new and affordable. We’ll usually pay whatever is asked though, as long as the game delivers us something excellent and as long as we have the money.

But with outsourcing driving industry developments, mediocre games are a promise, a mainstay. We can’t get great and innovative games from a model focused on reducing costs and focusing on ever narrower products. In other words, innovation and greater games isn’t a driving factor in game’s development at large. Innovation is incompatible mediocrity.

Developers may individually dream of this. They may individually put excellence in their work. But as long as their pay days are granted by stockholders, they have little control over the direction any given game project will take. They’ll make whatever they’re told to make. That’s especially true if those devs might not have a job when the game is done, or if parts of their team are already outsourced, or if their wages and benefits aren’t worth fighting for.

Skill and experience seem less important than the money. The first question an employer wants to know is “how much” and right after that  “how long”. Lay offs are an industry constant, which means this never really improves. Those are the current career prospects for aspiring game developers.

Outsourcing has helped create an unstable, product saturated market and our communities are littered with the fallout. The next time someone tells you that outsourcing “done right” is a net positive, let them know that outsourcing is never done “right”. Right means taking ethical considerations seriously and it means looking at the consequences of jobs being moved outside of the communities they’re built upon. Outsourcing always has devastating consequence, with layoffs being the most common.

Still think outsourcing is a godsend? A positive good? Ultimately beneficial?

Do you hear music?

 

Listening to Other Players and Evolving the Chat Box

A new blogger in the community, Simcha, has brought us all a fresh perspective on one aspect of gaming that many of us are able to take for granted: hearing. Reading her articles for the past month has kept this topic on my mind. Until I met her, I didn’t realize how much games are designed for the hearing and how difficult it is for signers.

I try to imagine gaming without sound. No game soundtracks. No sound effects. No ambient clues that I can pick up by just listening. No voices. In my experience – and that’s the key, this is my personal experience – gaming wouldn’t be the same if I lost my hearing tomorrow.

One of the biggest evolutions in how we play games is voice communications. Communication is literally the root word of community and without the former you can’t have the latter. This is especially true for MMOs, but crosses all genres and platforms. Listening to other players has become something that we all count on when we login to a multiplayer game. It’s hard to imagine today’s games without access to voice, even though I don’t personally always prefer it. What were gamers doing before the advent of voice chat?

In MMOs, we used the chat box like communications experts. No raid leader was without a macro manual, a list of commands and information they could bark off with the press of a single button. Remember in World of Warcraft how there was literally a macro interface with little icons that stored large chunks of text for you? I believe this feature still exists, but addons as well as other interface improvements have made this less visible and voice has made it less necessary. My fear is that as voice chat has become more popular, development of non-voice communications tools gets neglected. Instead, they should be getting even more powerful, especially as gamers come in all varieties and abilities.

Chat boxes of old also had other customization options, like changing the colors, fonts, sizes and allowing players to create custom chat rooms. Items in game could be linked in the chat for easily sharing your latest treasure. Then there were addons like CT Raid and Boss Mods that would read data from game encounters and automatically announce text warnings to everyone. Of course these mods still exist, but not because they’re crucial for player communication. These days, players are expected to use voice chat when grouped, no matter how mundane the experience. And generally speaking, if a dungeon doesn’t require voice chat, players also tend to not use the chat box either. So in some ways voice chat has spoiled us and removed the chat box from our list of communications options. Players use it, but only when they really need to, instead of using it to be social.

In fact, in the MMOs I’ve played the past year, chat is fairly empty except for spammers, scammers, and guild recruiting bots. Players don’t use the chat very much to communicate, not even for trading (so long as there’s an auction house). By and large, the people we want to talk to are in our guilds or hanging out on ventrilo even when not in game. For tools like Steam, players are always idling on our friends list but at least in my case, half of them never chat for any reason. It’s as though players are just part of the ambiance of being online, like NPCs or like having a TV running in the background when we’re not watching because it’s comforting. We want to see players there but we don’t care about talking to them so much, especially if it requires us to type.

I never realized how much voice chat had done to enter our non-digital lives and kill some of the magic of being online with strangers who shared your fantasies. If you have a hearing disability, voice chat has significantly changed the kind of content you can enjoy with other players. In some cases, it seems to have ruined the MMO experience entirely.

I can’t remember the last time I was in a guild that didn’t require voice chat. By 2006 Teamspeak was considered mandatory for raiding guilds. What if you couldn’t hear and suddenly people you’ve enjoyed the game with were excluding you because …well, they want to use voice chat because it’s easier for them?

But that brings up another interesting side of the communications issue: Typing. How many friends do you remember from back in the day who were painfully slow in chat? Or who perhaps could not type at all due to a physical disability? We take for granted typing skills, and I look back now and realize not everyone was a good or able typist. The expectation that players can type underlies the entire design of the chat box, and weakens it as a tool for easy communication since it requires efficiency to be useful. Today, you don’t have to be a typist if you can talk and hear. How many gamers are relieved they don’t have to type because they simply don’t have the skill to keep up with a conversation in a text box? I imagine quite a few.

It all seems to boil down to communication skills games assume we have, when they probably shouldn’t. Yet even as a gamer it’s so very easy for me to not realize how lucky I am to be able to communicate in many different ways efficiently. How much more so do developers forget that their players are having real issues communicating with one another? How many times do you imagine they go over their design document solving problems with the chat box? This probably never even comes up. It’s more likely that it’s an assumed feature. There will be a chat box as the default communications method, with no regard for player ability.

Even with the advent of motion sensors like Kinect, developers seem to be looking right past technical solutions which have been with us for decades now. Why don’t our games have voice to text features? Why don’t those which come with voice chat have text to voice?

Why aren’t motion detectors being used for reading sign-language which can then be input to text or voice?

I talked to Simcha about this and asked what were her thoughts on the text to voice features of Mumble, Teamspeak, and Ventrilo. She said one of the worst parts is that the voices all sound like robots. They’re not very human friendly and can be unsettling. Add to that the fact that she has to tab in and out of game to use the tool and we have a recipe for horrible usability. On the one hand, it’s clear some engineers are thinking about the problems, but on the other I wonder how often Mumble has sat in a room with game developers and talked to them about how to better integrate those tools so that their players can communicate. I imagine that’s probably never happened, at least not in regards to solving communications problems. I doubt either party has thought about communications tools for their physically disabled players.

So we have quite a few technical solutions readily available, but which a hearing world doesn’t think to work on because it’s not a problem for us. And it’s all because of people like me, who aren’t concerned about anything that doesn’t directly impact us. I can hear and type just fine. Why would I be thinking about solutions for the deaf or disabled? Well there are a few reasons a game developer would want to. For starters, even if there’s just one deaf gamer in your audience, don’t you want them to enjoy the experience? Do you want them to be isolated from the rest of the players? Then put some tools in your game to assist them.

And how about building a community around your game. Sending the message that your game is interested in being usable by as many kinds of players as possible will go a long way to helping you research solutions. Note the emphasis on many kinds of players. We don’t have to cater to the widest audience possible, just the most diverse audience possible. Engineering solutions to these problems is what makes our work valuable. Doing the same thing the last game did means engineering the same problems it did without solving them.

One could argue that if were an engineer (programmer, game developer, etc) it’s my job to think about these things. It’s clear these technologies have been brought up piecemeal here and there by different studios with different purposes, but it’s not clear there’s been active research on how to make the most of them. There’s old technology that’s been in our games for years which acknowledge that not everyone can hear or type well. Games have closed captions. In some cases, games have settings for the color blind. Many online games offer voice chat and those tools also sometimes have text to voice. Someone has thought about these things, but no one has put them together into a robust suite of communications tools to add to their games. Motion detectors and cameras are a goldmine for the developer who can make it work for signers. There’s just pieces everywhere and no developer interest in revolutionizing the chat box. It’s 2014 and the chat box is the same as it was in 1990.

The next time you’re in a game and someone insists on voice chat, think about how many other gamers can never hear you but who want to play. Then ask your favorite developers to do better so you can have more gamers to play with.

There and Back: Industrialization of MMOs

Not quite as old as the others I’ve re-published, but it’s topic makes it a good time to raise the discussion once again. This is the original version, no edits.


MMOs have a depressingly familiar flavor to them these days no matter which one you play. It’s the kind of impression that leaves some of us feeling like it’s all the same grind, similar to some things in the real world — things we were hoping to escape from. Part of this impression we’re experiencing is the industrialization of MMO content.

Robot Assembly Line Image

This is basically the process for generating content in MMOs. Except it’s still done by people.

The over-production of quests, items, and dungeons are some of the results of this industrialization. The feeling that you’re consuming the same gameplay simply regurgitated by competing companies is ever-present. Their mass production reminds players that there’s nothing special about virtual worlds. The worlds represent a symbol of something and is nothing in and of themselves.

The earliest MMOs relied almost strictly on players as content. Quests were scarce, instances non-existent and resources for game development were usually poured into creating a richer world experience. One day, this model split into two primary models: theme park MMOs and open world MMOs (e.g. sandbox). For example, theme-park MMOs made their debut in 2004, with World of Warcraft. That game was a true cross between old school content delivery and the emerging ideology of theme park design. At the time, it was an amazing improvement on the traditional formula; the game became much more accessible to those who had never played an MMO while veterans got an exceptionally polished, improved game. These days WoW is like the McDonald’s of MMOs …and no one thinks McDonald’s is particularly good, exciting or awesome. It’s just familiar, consistent comfort food that makes us feel safe about eating there (the irony of this shouldn’t be lost on anyone). McDonald’s serves industrialized food.

Theme park MMOs function exactly like theme parks elsewhere, like Disneyland. It’s a vast, mass market, fantasy rendering of an idealized world. Nothing is real, yet it feels exactly how you want it to feel and it idealizes reality in a way that alters our expectations of the real world. Talking mice, fairies, castles, and magic wands …all of these are features in the theme park alongside the side shows and thrill rides. They are there to entertain. As a collection they are designed to allow visitors to wander around all day in any manner they like: in groups, by themselves, and it even invites them to blend in and become invisible (costuming). Most importantly, theme parks aren’t designed for meeting new people or even for enjoying the attractions with them. That is incidental. Friends and family are only welcome insofar as they also pay an entry fee and the park would like their money. Interaction is not encouraged and not discouraged, but is an ever available option since you are constantly surrounded by people. Does this sound like any MMO you have ever played or heard of? It should.

Maps Image

Their similarity is both expected and surprising. It’s one way that we can understand that the design of each place is extremely similar.

A game like Ultima Online can’t really be termed a sandbox as we know them today. It was more like a virtual space, a 3D chat room even, where players could role-play and share in the same fantasy. It acted as an environment for player imagination to thrive. Sandbox in modern terms conjures up images of games like Minecraft or EVE Online, where game developers literally give players the tools to create their own content within the virtual realm. In this way, players themselves are the content and also the content generators. This is a fairly recent development in MMOs though this concept made it’s first appearance in A Tale in the Desert (to be fair, all of these games dropped practically within a year of one another so “first” is a matter of publishing date, not idea conception).

Industrialization

When we industrialize something, we streamline it’s production in order to mass produce a product rapidly and more efficiently for consumption. Quality matters less than quantity and the former usually slides ever closer to mediocrity with every “improvement” of the production line. However, the quality becomes decreasingly important the more people are using the product. It’s ubiquity makes it a natural occurrence in society and it becomes standard fare to the extent that everyone is expected to know about it and have experience with the product. Like McDonald’s.

In MMOs, mass production of quests, dungeons, and gear peaks annually. The ubiquity of these three features within the genre speaks to this. Their use has less to do with gameplay enhancement than with manufacturing them pack the game with “features” and boast about them in the hopes that it’s “enough” content to keep players constantly paying. The consequence is that these features lose all of their initial meaning and sink into near irrelevance; the features don’t represent anything; gameplay achievements signify nothing but themselves.

World of Warcraft is a game which suffers irreparably from over-industrialization, but it’s hardly alone. Guild Wars, Star Wars, The Secret World all suffer the same. Development is clearly dictated by how many more people the company can get into the game. This is seen by players in efforts to “dumb down” or otherwise remove any uniqueness among players. Probably what’s more important is that game development technology, the best available, is almost tailored to crafting the games that are already successful, thus it’s not hard for new games to look and play exactly like their predecessors.

From a development philosophy standpoint, it’s the corruption of the meaning of equality: developers believe that time-spent is the single most important variable when determining what’s fair gameplay. To that end, removing gameplay elements which allow players to accrue power or achievement over time is mandatory to keep the game “fair.” They even the playing field by making all feats attainable no matter how little effort is put into it.  They patronize the player-base, appealing to their vanity instead of their ambition. The game becomes mediocre in the same way that McDonald’s is.

Unfortunately, we still live in an industrialized world and the governing values are those of industrialization. Games aren’t so unique of an industry that they would remain untouched by it. Yet the shifts in technology are changing the way we think about games everyday …hopefully these shifts will occur soon in the MMO genre. It desperately needs to arrive into the 21st century.

Pantheon of Dreams

I had a mind to do a thorough review of the launch of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes years ago, but the Archaeologist (Sypster) did a better job than I could have over at Massively …thankfully. My first thoughts were to review those events in order to give an explanation of why I don’t trust Brad McQuaid today. But the story of Vanguard is largely known, and where it isn’t known, I don’t want to taint the expectations of new players who want to believe in Pantheon. I want to believe in it too. The project details are there for everyone to make their own assessment. So I’ve opted instead to just review Pantheon on it’s own terms, to set aside my distrust and really analyze what this game has to offer and, based on the information available, determine if it’s offering anything at all.

It feels like a dream in a “thin air” kind of way.

The true value of the Pantheon project currently lies in the name of Brad McQuaid. Remove that name and it wouldn’t even be considered worthwhile. Don’t believe me? No other member on the team has so much as a 1 sentence bio on their own site stating their experience, previous work, or even personal interest in the project. Only Brad is linked on the website and the Kickstarter. I also don’t like how all the concept art for the game has no credits to the artist listed. He’s going to get the $800k he’s asking mostly because his name is Brad McQuaid. If the Kickstarter succeeds, it won’t be because there’s demonstrable gameplay features showing that the game can do what it claims. That information is absent, papered over by a dozen interviews saying the same things.

The problem is that Brad isn’t really trying to build a great MMO game. He’s trying to build a great MMO community. He wants to bring back the social. He’s not really promising anything new and he’s counting on the old tried and true features of the genre to some how usher in a renaissance. This is based solely on the idea that those features were responsible for the memorable experience of MMO past. His plan is to re-skin EQ in order to attract the same players who loved it back then. It’s less game development and more community development, except he hasn’t laid out how he intends to recapture that experience.

The features:

  • Leveling with fewer levels, but more content per level.
  • Death penalties.
  • Raiding
  • The Holy Trinity + Crowd Control
  • Hard dungeons
  • Less loot
  • Less class abilities/spells
  • Fewer quests and no quest markers
  • Mounts
  • Non-instanced encounters
  • Faction

This list more or less describes every MMO to date. So …what do we really know about Pantheon? By comparison, projects like Star Citizen give very concrete examples of features, making it easier for players to understand what they’re getting into. For example, it offers descriptions of piloting an aircraft, examples of the supply/demand economy, and things like Oculus Rift. This info is tangible. On the opposite, I don’t know what I’ll be doing in Terminus, because it’s not known what there is to do or how I’ll go about doing it.

And, again, I think this is because Pantheon is a game of dreams, a game whose only aim is to create a community. And that’s not so bad, is it? Brad wants to belong again. I think making this game is his way of returning “home”, as it were. To getting back where he feels he belongs, where the world makes sense. I think this community he’s building is for himself and he wants to share it with us. This is why the description of the game sounds more like reminiscing and strolling down memory lane than it does an actually MMO development project.

I think he should reconsider his own motives and approach for making this game. Like so many others, I’d probably enjoy this kind of game. But right now it feels little more than Project Nostalgia.

Scree Tags #pantheongame #bradmcquaid