Monday, February 05, 2007

Gaming's Many Forms, or the Burning Shark

Last Thursday's Shadowrun game was a ton of fun. It was odd not having one of the group's stalwart players there, but we soldiered on.

I imagine most gaming groups have their ups and downs. But after reading this post from Abulia Savant, I can certainly count myself lucky. Our group has never had problems of this magnitude.

Perspective is a funny thing like that. Sometimes one forgets that things are never so bad that they can't get worse.

On a somewhat related note, the momentum for the Warcraft expansion pack has been picking up everywhere I look. Some of the folks who work on my floor are avid WoW players and I hear them chatting about it once in awhile. Most of the Thursday night gaming crew also plays the game (including, I suspect at this point, the infamous Andy), going so far as last week to bring a hardbound copy of the artwork to the table to ogle in pre-dice slinging reverence.

A little perspective helps here, too. For starters, the last thing I need right now with Final Fantasy XII remaining yet unfinished is another game, particularly with the siren song of Dwarf Fortress calling to me from the ugly, demon spawned XP partition of my iMac. It also helps that one of the new races in the game was apparently re-imagined as a famous Star Trek character, complete with spaceship. The shark, people, has officially been jumped.

The required time commitment remains a big factor. Although everyone insists that the smaller instance sizes have eliminated the time consuming need to carefully organize for six hour dungeon treks, I remain extremely skeptical that it will stay that way once everyone maxes out again at the new level cap. At that point it would only make sense for Blizzard to make larger raid instances again in an effort to stem off the inevitable tide of player boredom and angst.

Another factor is the core gameplay mechanic itself. If not for the social aspect, the game would, frankly, be a dull graphics update to Dragon Warrior. Even Final Fantasy XII, now that the new car smell of the gambit system has worn off, is exhibiting some of these same traits.

I must admit that the thing I find most comical (and satisfying in a snarky way) is that everyone who spent the last several months of their lives raiding for hours every night found their gear obsolete seconds after installing the expansion pack. The fact that regular, solo quests now yield gear greater than anything which you acquired with the aid of 39 other stalwart companions just a month ago is a design move that has either slipped the notice of the players, or been offset by gear so unbelievably l33t that it has blinded the good sense for which hardcore WoW players are universally renown.

It was the social aspect of WoW that I thought I wanted. Before the first Christmas of WoW's lifespan, I was completely sucked in by the level of RP and graphical whizbangery to complement it. Post-Christmas, when the average age of the player dipped by a decade or so, things became markedly less amusing. I now realize that although I still want that kind of game, it is not be found in WoW.

Where it is found is at the table with your friends. Whether you are playing a pen and paper RPG or just a board game, the experience there just has not been captured in a computer game. Perhaps trying to do so is a foolish design goal anyway: after all, shouldn't you use a new medium to accomplish new things?

I guess MMO video games have provided us something unique: a chance to get "pwn3d" by kids 15 years our junior.

Oh, and a new reason to kill each other.


LastBestAngryMan said...

The reason WoW doesn't grip you like it did at first, and the reason all computer RPGs eventually feel like they come down to Dragon Warrior with better graphics (or, if you will, Bard's Tale with better graphics, for those of us who cut our video gaming teeth on old 12 mhz PCs rather than those fancy Nintendo machines I hear so much about these days) is because they limit the amount and impact of IMAGINATION that you yourself can bring to the game.

Bear with me; in a game like WoW, you may have a wide array of choices as to the characters you play, the gear, who you play with, etc. The problem is that the vast majority of the imagining involved has already been DONE FOR YOU by the game designers and continues to be done for you by the graphics. You don't have to work to evoke anything; it's all right there for you to see. A video game immediately puts borders into place; by defining the world and everything in it graphically, and defining the storylines that can play out, they have severely limited your imagination's ability to interact with the world. That's all there is to it.

In a pen&paper game, yes there is the social aspect of sitting down with friends, and no amount of keystrokes feels as good as really slinging dice. But the only limits you're given are the rules of the game; the rest is up to the GM (or 'referee' or 'storyteller' for you newfangled, touchy-feely, let's-share-authority' gaming types who'd die in 15 minutes at my table) and to the players. There are far fewer limits on what you can do; your imagination is fully engaged in exploring the world because it is creating it for you moment-to-moment. Your mind is acting rather than reacting.

The best, most replayable video games are the ones that do their best to hide the limits (Baldur's Gate II comes to mind, especially considering all the freely downloadble, high-quality mods out there) but they all must have them. At least it seems like they must; I suppose it would be possible to develop a "graphical MUSH" where players had far fewer limits and could actually effect change in the world and so on, but I wouldn't know how to begin creating it.

Anonymous said...

Every time I read about a new game, or a new expansion, or a new virtual world (2nd life) or any other new gee-whiz social construct, I'm reminded of my time in UO. In 4 years of game play, no system event, no new quest, no expansion, no story line and no system-provided mechanic of any ilk even came close to the true fun and joy of running our own events. I headed up a murderer guild. We raided dungeon crawls and generally made a mess of any and every event on the Baja shard. We ran a newbie walk; escort lower level characters from one end of the world to the other, protecting them from attackers, spies, traitors, etc. I had a little in-game real estate biz going for a while (before a new rule set and expansion limited housing and nerfing an entire economy).

In all of this... in every case... I found more fun and more socialization and a more rewarding experience when I set the system-provided gadgets, loot and rules aside and did something just a little different.

But that became harder and harder as the system was brought under more draconian rule and system-restrictions. Kill zones got smaller. Safe zones got bigger. Loot-dispersement systems became more tied to even-initiators (you couldn't just cruise in and kill all the innocents, whack the Champion and win the loot any longer).

The system took away a lot of the freedom and ability to color outside the lines.

I grew increasingly bored and agitated. I left. I've quietly looked around for other immersive past times and distractions. Turns out just hopping on my motorcycle, writing a crossword-puzzle generator for my daughter or building nifty electronics for the bike gives me enough distraction and enough of a creative outlet.

Screw online games. I just can't see myself ever getting back into them.

Anonymous said...

I know someone who is loosing their life through this addiction. Quit while you are ahead, all of you full time gamers, it's not too late, until you are in the ground.
There is life out here on planet earth and you can make a difference.