Hype and Fun and Games

Perfect Storm

Maybe we should go back to the harbor

I love thought-provoking talks via Twitter. They make me want to write and they help me put my thoughts in order about things percolating in my mind. Today’s brain brew is all about game hype, game expectations, why we love some games but don’t love their successors as much, game success and failure, and what I’m thinking of as the perfect storm for failure that has plagued several games lately.

I’ve come to one conclusion that MMOs that are based off of very popular single-player games or popular books are probably doomed to failure. I can’t say that for sure because the future remains unwritten, but it seems very possible. You can’t recapture in an MMO the same arc and satisfaction that you got from a single-player RPG or a well-written series. It is like having a book that you love so much that you re-read it, then turning that book into a story that has a start, a middle, but NO END. You can’t recapture the hero’s journey in an MMO because the journey never ends and no one is a unique flower.

Why did people love Knights of the Old Republic so  much, but those same people don’t love the game that expands upon its world, Star Wars: The Old Republic? Maybe because by its very nature as an MMO, the SWTOR story/world can’t take you on the same journey. It is the song that never ends. It is played by people with MMO expectations. It is also played by Star Wars fans and while it captures the adventure, humor, flavor, and much of the essence of the IP, it doesn’t have a happy ending because it doesn’t have an ending. I wonder if that makes sense to others the way it does to me. The game is unsatisfying to the Star Wars movie fans in the same way that a book or movie without a definitive end is. We finish up our epic journey and then we putter around at loose ends. I don’t think people’s excitement over the game was unfounded, I just think their excitement over existing  within it as an MMO was. It has much better re-playability than most MMOs, but a surprising number of people don’t want to play more than their one archetype.

Now on to that whole “perfect storm” concept. The current environment for the games I love is full of storm clouds of turmoil, social media challenges, financially strapped customers, a likely aging player base with more real life responsibilities (I don’t know if younger gamers are a big demographic or if they are too busy playing social games on their smart phones), emerging technologies, trolls who ruin reputations without a care, heavy competition, and long-standing games that their loyal customers refuse to leave. It seems to be more than the usual environment of heavy competition. Players have very high expectations and a thunderously loud voice in which to share them. Production costs versus what people are willing or able to pay just don’t seem to mesh. In general, it is more turbulence than most companies could have foreseen a few years ago. Gale force winds have come upon them rather quickly it seems and I wonder if they saw any red skies at night.

There are evolving social issues that players grapple with in their daily lives, pitfalls in the social media revolution that topple companies and even political regimes, and those social challenges hit game developers too. People have billowing expectations and surprisingly broad reach and the skies the limit in their potential sphere of influence. Players are connected to each other and to the companies that build games in ways that didn’t exist just a few years ago.

Blizz and WoW built their massive player base during calm skies and they’ve managed to hold onto it so far. Their giant cruise ship has been able to weather the rogue waves that have swamped some of the younger games trying to ride the storm in much smaller boats.  Years ago developers saw what WoW was doing and thought, we can be successful too, we can bring that kind of fun to our players, and we can give them more/different/better. Sure, assuming the players they seek are willing to allow them to do more/different/better instead of clinging to their comfort zones. And assuming we didn’t all start to spiral into a cycle of long term unemployment, high gas prices, high food prices, and all the other pressures that compete for increasingly limited resources.

While I’m grateful we have so many fantastic ways to escape from reality, I’m almost overwhelmed by them. I never keep up with all the things I’d like to do and see. Some really entertaining things never get my attention, no matter how good they might be.

I really enjoy cooperative game play and some of the mechanics of MMOs. (I also almost equally dislike some of the mechanics of MMOs and some of the side effects of massively multiplayer environments. I don’t like being reminded that the world is full of rude people, especially when that happens during my fun time.) But despite some really stellar moments in several of the MMOs I play, most especially in SWTOR, I’ve never enjoyed story in my MMOs the way I’ve enjoyed it in my single player RPGs. I’ve never “read” my game story content the way I enjoy reading books, even though most of the games I play have a wealth of written information. SWTOR tries very hard to blend the awesome elements of a good book or a good RPG, but I wonder if by its very nature as an MMO, it won’t be able to fully satisfy its readers, viewers or its RPGers who are trying to recapture a very different experience.

Deciding on the quality of games that exist in this highly complex environment isn’t easy. I think people judge games on criteria that are overly simplistic at times. And really, the future of several  of our games, both the highly successful and those in their infancy, still remains unwritten. I don’t envy them being born under such stormy skies.

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