Holding Your Own Head Underwater

Most of the time the general level of outrage on the Internet starts at ear-bleeding levels, and just soars upwards from there. I try and keep my neck out of any nooses offered during those periods because like most everything else, getting wound up over initial information, rumors, and conjecture doesn’t always result in having been worth the popped veins incurred in the process.

Not this time.

Many gamers know that Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), arm of Sony responsible for EverquestLandmarkH1Z1, and other stuff got sold off to an investment management firm, and became Daybreak Studios. Initially folks got their collective underthings in a bunch and started crying “doom” in all caps. I chalked this up to the Internet being the Internet; we as a community have no knowledge of what the plans are, and not all acquisitions result in dumbass, bone-headed, fuckwit moves.

Not this time.

So we just learned that Linda “Brasse” Carlson and Dave “Smokejumper” Georgeson were laid off from Daybreak. OK, so under other circumstances folks might say “yeah, that happens when a company is acquired”. I’ve been through acquisitions myself, and I’ve seen them from the inside. Generally the layoffs happen in a pyramid structure, where those on the bottom of the totem poll bear the brunt. Those are the people that could be replaced or even rehired once the company regained it’s footing. As the structure winnows upward, there are some casualties (one company I worked for fired most of the telecom techs, and the next day the CEO’s phone couldn’t be fixed), but the buck certainly stops before hitting the corner office.

The dismissal of Brasse and Smokejumper is kind of a different story. They are very public, very visible, very loved and appreciated by the gaming community. They were faces that people recognized in person, and who roped people into the SOE orbit through sheer force of enthusiasm and dedication. Dismissing them is akin to taking the most popular folks in town up to a platform and shooting them in the head in front of a crowd.

Business is often like a black box to consumers, by necessity or choice. Someone in this investment management firm didn’t see the value in keeping Brasse or Smokejumper around, and because of that, I feel confident in saying that this company doesn’t have a fucking clue about what they’re doing with SOE. They don’t know what they have, and in a greater sense, they don’t know who they’re dealing with: you, me, and all the people who really appreciate people like Linda and Dave because they treated us (the customers) like friends and co-conspirators, and not like towels soaked in cash that were just waiting to be wrung out.

Daybreak still doesn’t have the confidence of the panty-bunchers mentioned above, and now I doubt they ever will. Whereas they should have worked to mitigate as much harm to their image as possible, they said “fuck that” and just introduced themselves by driving a bulldozer through the front door rather than politely ringing the doorbell. I don’t doubt that the investment company had to make cuts, and I’m not suggesting that they should have sacrificed others (who need their jobs) to keep Linda and Dave, but I can’t believe that there was any grand strategy in letting them go. I can’t believe they considered what message they were sending to those they hoped would be loyal consumers going forward.

Last Blog Standing

So I wasn’t entirely honest when I said I was getting out of the blogging biz.

Cedarstreet has been my central domain for quite a while now. I branched out to Levelcapped.com because the name fit better when talking about games than “Cedarstreet” did. I eventually spent more time over there than I did here, as I was keeping this as my general purpose dumping ground.

The problem being that I wasn’t really talking about much general purpose stuff. Most things I wrote about were gaming related, with the occasional odd post over here. I tried re-purposing this space for public sounding-board on writing topics, but I don’t want it to entirely spiral down that drain.

But I’ve kind of lost interest in video game blogging. Most of my recent stuff has been about recaps, the things I’ve been playing and what happened. I’m not super interested in reading that kind of thing, so I wasn’t super interested in writing that kind of thing. I’m tired of the weekly controversy that we seem to become embroiled in on cue, so I didn’t want to write about that kind of thing.

I want to write about interesting stuff. Stuff that other people want to read. And I wasn’t feeling that I had tons left to say on the subject of gaming, or at least not enough or frequently enough to warrant having a blog dedicated to that and only that.

So Cedarstreet is the last blog standing. I’ve deleted Levelcapped.com and Flying Blind. All the files and databases are gone.

I’ll be using this space for pretty much everything going forward, then. That means video games, tabletop games, media, non-gaming subjects, and all kinds of other things. I’m still going to try very hard to maintain a positive bent, so no politics or religion or stuff like that.

However, I’m not sure I’ll be advertising this on the social networks. I might just keep this on the down-low, manually throwing out posts as I see fit. I’m not looking for a following. I’m just keeping this space as a place to write.

The One Thing I Want For 2015

I don’t do resolutions, because I try to go with the whole Zen approach to things, one day at a time. I have a retirement account, sure, but setting goals that can be thought up in a few hours means that they can be dropped and forgotten in half the time when they become inconvenient or when The Universe simply doesn’t want to make your life as easy as you’d hoped. I know that kind of sounds like a ready-made excuse for not having to try, but in the recent deluge of posts about New Years Resolutions, the one thread of advice that’s being repeated hasn’t been “go out and do it big”, but rather “make a habit of the little things”. When I think about the things that I regularly do (like blogging Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), and think back on how I came to do them, this is the way they came to be: small tasks done with regularity until they became common practice in my life.

See, what I want out of 2015 is really the same thing I think everyone reading this wants: a better community. 2014 was probably the absolute low point in games and geekery for reasons we can all remember, and the only way 2015 can get any worse is if we continue to do things the way we did last year. There’s no “steady as she goes” about it: unless we all agree to make it a better year, things are going to continue to spiral deeper and deeper into Hell, and we’ll all be to blame.

That’s not a call to arms. This community is nothing if not over-dramatic. We’ve got a lot of templates to work from, not the least of which is “the hero’s journey” that makes up 98% of everything we consume around here. We’re a community of people who, until pretty recently, were outsiders who got a lot of shit for what we liked, how we looked, and what we did. Now that we’re a Big Deal around the world, we’ve gained a swagger: many folks around here believe that we’ve done time in the trenches, and now it’s time for reparations that are due us. It’s still a Wild West of sorts, with vacancies to be filled for the traditional roles of spokespeople, taste-makers, and influencers, and thanks to the egalitarian nature of our hobby and the Internet, every Tweet is an application, and every blog post is a campaign speech. See? Overly dramatic.

What we don’t need are people telling us all to “stop talking and start acting”. That just sounds to me like people are preaching a full-fledged riot as the only way to solve our ills. Instead, what we need are individuals who want to make this community a better place, because the only way that can happen is if we take care of our own, individual houses before we start trying to clean everyone else’s. Look at your own attitude in 2014 by thumbing back through your Tweets, Facebook posts and Likes, blog posts, and behavior in-game. Are you happy with how you appear to your fellow geeks? I suspect that most people will say yes, because why not, right? You’ve got nothing to prove to this wall of text, and your opinions are your own and form the foundation of your identity. Maybe there’s a few here and there that look cringe-worthy in hindsight, but by and large you spoke your mind and you stand by your public face in 2014.

Think on this, then: in 2014, how did you make the community better? I mean really better. I don’t mean how you think you made it better, with your rants in the name of truth, or all those times you called people out for their mistakes and shortcomings, or the pride you took in flinging sarcasm around as a weapon in an Internet battle. Those things don’t help build a better community. Those kinds of activities only allowed you to feel a bit more superior, and maybe to become a bit more noticed by the people we want to be noticed by: other community members.

See that link right there? We behave the way we do because we’re looking for appreciation from the people whose opinions matter to us. We want to be thought well of by a particular segment of the population, so we Tweet what we think will get re-Tweeted, or blog angry because we know people like reading and leaving their own angry comments, and we call that “interaction” and “community” based solely on traffic we generate in response to what we put out there.

Are you helping to build and repair the community through your actions and attitudes? Or are you subverting the community through negativity and snark in a bid to improve your own self-satisfaction?

What really gets me, then, is that games and geekery are ways of life devoted to enjoying things like video games, board games, cosplay, anime, science fiction and fantasy, books, comics, action figures, and stuff like that. No one joined this community because they have a burning hatred of what we’re about, so why, for the love of gawd, do so many people spend so many electrons being negative about it? And before you answer that — in the comments, or just in your own head — ask yourself this: who does your answer really serve? Are you going to say that negativity is a reflection of how fed up we are about the controversy du jour? Are you going to claim that you’re just “being honest” and insinuate that your rant is a universal truth? If you believe that you’re doing the community a favor by being negative or cranky all the time, then you’re not doing the community a favor; I submit that you’re profiteering off of the attention that negativity brings, or else you’re aligning yourself with a specific bandwagon for the anonymity being one among many provides.

No community or industry is perfect. There’s always a lot of work to be done to make things the best they can be, there’s always room for improvement, and often times that does mean identifying what’s wrong and bringing it to the attention of those who can fix it. We can and should identify the things that are broken, and work towards policies and practices that make this community better for everyone, be they consumer or be they the producer. But we have to do it in a such a way that we don’t feel that the only route from problem to solution is to mow down our fellow community members, or put our own desire for “Internet fame” ahead of the reason we claim is behind the “why” of our actions. In no line of business is progress made by being angry, foul-mouthed, sarcastic, and confrontational unless you’re easily fobbed off with any excuse given just to make you go away. As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

And yes, I am aware that there are times when we get frustrated and angry at something we can’t redirect or repair, and we often take to social media to vent to those who we know and trust, and who we believe can help us regain our composure. So in the offline world, so in the online world, but even constant venting has repercussions: on morale, on perception of you and of your subject, and since words written in the haste of irritation often miss the nuance necessary to let people know that you’re venting for the purpose of taking a time out, it’s easy to be seen as the blogger or followee who only has negative things to say about everything. Just as we can feed on the happiness and excitement exuded by people in the community, we can become infected with an ever-present buzz of negativity, no matter it’s reason.

I’ll just say it again in closing: I want 2015 to be the year we actually start working on making this a better community by focusing less on being angry, less on taking action for our own self-satisfied reasons, and more on finding enjoyment in our hobby and subsequently talking about the things we like. Every post and Tweet is our opportunity to evangelize the reasons why we love what we do and to help make the community better. Let’s spend our energy working to repair the damage we’ve done to one another in 2104, and build on that to make things stronger among people who all love the elements of gaming and geekery. I don’t think it’s a tall order, nor do I think it’s particularly difficult thing to accomplish. We as individuals just need to take it one post, one Tweet, one comment, one interaction at a time by asking if the next thing out of our keyboards or out of our mouths is going to help build this community or not. I truly believe we can make it happen.

 

Update: Thanks to Brian Green for bringing this Slate article to my attention, entitled “The year of outrage 2014: Everything you were angry about on social media this year”. This is exactly the type of article I like because it’s not so narrowly focused on one or just a handful of elements. Rather, it’s a retrospective that takes the whole year in review, analyzes it, and extrapolates the overarching trend.

While this is a games and geekery blog and the focus is on the games and geekery community, the Slate article shows us that this element of cyclical anger and sarcasm is by no means limited to this community. It seems to have become a way of being in this dependence on social media as the growing “correct way” to interact with one another. I would suggest we get back to the “old ways” of thinking about our interactions by simply not saying anything that would get us punched in the face, but I know that there’s a generation behind us that’ll never know life without the anonymous interactions that social media provides, and will never have to meter their responses to situations out of fear of getting their ass kicked in person.

But to that end, we are in control of ourselves, threats of reprisals or not, and can and should think of our “public faces” when we’re addressing the world. Our voices reflect the types of people we want others to know us as, and the sum of our voices within this community is the face we present to one another, and to the rest of the world.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the book/movie “Contact”, which I think sums it up perfectly for anyone who thinks that we can never get past the rising tide of outrage, anger, and snark:

David Drumlin: I know you must think this is all very unfair. Maybe that’s an understatement. What you don’t know is I agree. I wish the world was a place where fair was the bottom line, where the kind of idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.

Ellie Arroway: Funny, I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it.

Rewards Versus Goals and Level-Locked Content

On Wednesday @Stargrace posted about the frowny-face she makes when she sees that a game has level-locked content. Levels are the ages-old mechanism by which a game tells you that while your skill at playing the game might stay flat or only incrementally improve over time, your dedication to the game is rewarded with progression of a sort.

The idea of a level-based content drip is the game industry’s version of “time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once”. If you got everything the game had to offer the moment you logged in, what’s the point in playing? Level based content comes in many forms: gear, zones, fluff features, dungeons, and raids.

I know it’s kind of a subtle difference, but level-locking content feels like the design is offering the content as a “reward” when in my opinion, it should be designed as more of a “goal”. Take housing in Wildstar. You don’t get access to it until level 14. Housing was a major selling point for people, and I’m sure many were disappointed that they had to “slog” through 14 levels of other stuff just to start with housing. As @Stargrace wisely indicates, Everquest II allows you to get housing from the get go, making it more attractive to those who are really interested in that system (and many people do play these games just for those kinds of systems…designers).

It’s true that knowing housing is a level locked feature makes working towards level 14 a “goal” of sorts, but consider the extent of what we get in other games, and how we get it. Notice how in some games you get a new ability every other level? That was a reward: You don’t have to wish for it, or plan for it, you just have to keep on playing.

One way to substitute level-locking is money-locking. In EQII, while you can get a house from the start, it’s pretty empty. You need to either build, buy, or earn furnishings for your house. Having more than one avenue for acquiring these aspects turns it into more of a “goal” game than a “reward” game. With so many money sinks, players need to prioritize their finances so they spend the money in respect to their goals. Buy one four poster bed now, or save up and buy a whole bedroom set? Buy furniture now, or save up a nest egg so you can also buy a mount and pay repair costs? You can also complete missions to give furnishings, or work on your crafting and unlock a whole range of building opportunities.

To me, the goal method is more engaging because it’s putting the player in the driver’s seat, whereas the reward method is simply holding back content until a player has played for a sufficient amount of time. It’s kind of sleazy in a way, since I’m sure that withholding perks based on levels is a tactic designed to keep players playing if they know something they really want is on the (eventual) horizon, but personally I’d stick with a game that starts me off with the initial bundle, and then allows me to prioritize other aspects of the game to get in line with what I want to achieve with my game time.

The Shame Of Losing And The Cult Of Winning

Here in the West, specifically in the U.S., we value winning over pretty much anything. In any contest — sports, academic, military, and even social situations — the trajectory of progress is linear: keep your eyes on the goal, full steam ahead, and don’t let anything get in your way.

That’s what competition is about, after all. Why play if you’re not out to win? Why would you pay money to see a movie if you just plan on falling asleep? Winning at something isn’t really at issue here. Winning, coming out ahead, achieving first place…all inherently noble goals that under perfect conditions push us to do our very best and, failing that, make us want to learn more, train harder, and try again.

Trying again isn’t always an option, though, and that’s the problem. Our culture is so winning-oriented that we have effectively removed all benefit from failure. It’s become a dirty word, and a mark of shame. “You failed”. “You are a failure”. It’s one of the worst sitgma a person has to live with in modern Western society.

On one hand, we lionize winning. Our culture is seeped in messages that winning is everything: “win big or go home”. “Second place is first loser”. All sporting equipment is sold with the promise that it’ll catapult you into the winner’s circle. Watch any championship broadcast and you’ll see orchestrated images of happy winners and dejected losers. Even in the niche realm of PC components aimed at video game enthusiasts, you’ll see ads from manufacturers extorting how their products will allow you to “dominate” and “destroy your competition”.

Failure, then, is no longer defined as the position earned when the other guy did better than you. It’s now viewed as not having measured up, or that you weren’t good enough. Losers are shamed in this environment; it’s not even good enough to win. The amount of accolades a winner receives is directly related to how brutally they bury their opponent. The goal isn’t just to compete, but to brutally massacre the competition to the point where they can’t even rise again to demand a rematch.

It’d be one thing is we were just talking about sports here. After all, we’re a species that figured that putting guys with swords in an arena qualified as a “sport”, so in the Big Picture, creative camera work that highlights the happy winners and weeping losers is pretty benign. Here in the West, when winning means everything, it manages to infiltrate all kinds of places where there shouldn’t be any competition, and where there normally is, it elevates that competition to the level of a bloodsport.

The biggest ramification that I see is that it drives people apart. Everything becomes about winning, and about being right. It means that we can’t have discussions on important topics because each of us has closely held beliefs that we need to defend at all costs. Any potential point of view that could alter our personal world view would prove not that we were not right isn’t seen as an opportunity to expand our world view, but that we lost an argument and that we were wrong.

Being wrong is just as bad as losing in modern society, and the only way we can “be wrong” is if someone else is “right”, and only if both parties (if not more) are aware of it. That results in a social showdown in which one person gets to do a victory dance while the other looks foolish. On the Internet, this is magnified exponentially, and it never ever goes away. Our loss becomes institutionalized in Google’s cached page system, on Facebook, or other social network. So people do everything they can to minimize their chances of looking foolish and being branded a loser by not engaging in discussion, or, if they are pulled into it (willfully or not), the fangs come out and it’s a take-no-prisoners brawl which won’t end until one participant stomps the other into the virtual dirt.

So what are we really losing by demonizing losing? In an ideal world, the outcome of a competition isn’t the extreme polar opposite of winners and losers. It’s most honest representation is a sprint: two runners on parallel tracks, neck and neck, until one pulls ahead of the other. The loser didn’t lose because he or she wasn’t good enough; they lost because the winner was just a bit better. And there’s nothing that says that winning erases poor performance early in the game. Sometimes winning is done in the last moments of the competition, in a “come from behind” style victory we always appreciate. The point is, a winner is only the person who pushed ahead at the last minute. Before that, there’s no guarantee that the guy who’s ahead will win, or the guy who’s behind will lose.

The main benefit of losing is that we get to learn from our mistakes. In sports, performance is a big deal, and athletes take it seriously. They review hours and hours of past performance for both themselves and their competition. They learn from what they did wrong, and what their opponents did wrong, and they try and do better. This is what we miss out on when losing is equated with shame, and when the purpose of winning is to destroy the opposition so that they can’t come back and try again.

Outside of sports, though, one thing that not allowing dignity in losing is honesty. People will go to great lengths to cover the shame of losing by redirecting blame, or doubling their efforts to find an equally or more devastating attack on their opponent that will turn the tides. We aren’t allowed to own up to our mistakes because it makes us look weak and imperfect. When trying to project a persona (especially online to impress, or in politics), we can’t have any flaws. We have an idea that people will only accept us as superhuman constructs that can do no wrong. On the other hand, we’re horrified when we find out that these personas are actually human after all, as if we didn’t consciously know that already.

Most of the arguing on the Internet comes from this unfortunate situation. Being right is valued so much that being wrong is treated like a crime simply so the “winner” can feel superior and appear intelligent in front of strangers in an attempt to gain a virtual pat on the back and acknowledgement that they’re someone with good ideas and above-average intellect. By punishing the loser in a public forum, the winner shows that he’s someone you don’t want to mess with when it comes to arguing on the Internet, because he’ll destroy you and make you look stupid. It’s the modern day equivalent of kicking sand in someone’s face at the beach.

Being Productive

I want to do more than just consume. I’ve always considered myself a producer, but I’ve never really produced much for public consumption, outside of this blog and my irregular attempts at streaming.

A lot of the common outlets for creating stuff for this community seems to be group based (aside from blogging and streaming, which is why those are the two I’ve attempted). That means you need to find other people who are just as jazzed about a project as you are, and if you manage to find people of such refined taste and breeding, you have to ensure that everyone has the time to make it happen. No amount of refinement and breeding can ensure that.

It IS possible to do a podcast or videocast solo, but is that really appealing? Listening to or watching someone just jabber on? I suppose if it were presented in such a way that made it appealing, which might be easier for a visual medium than it would be for audio-only.

Where’s The Fun?

Jonathan “Ardua” Doyle has a post up this morning on MMOGames in which he laments the loss of “fun” in the games we play. I agree with him, and started to tell him so, but the comment got too long (as usual). In the writing, I managed to articulate some things that I had been having trouble putting into text previously, and wanted to fit that discussion into an ongoing framework here at the site.

The thing is, of course, is that “fun” is entirely subjective. There is no getting away from that fact. There is no viable argument to the contrary. Jonathan and I, and you, and your guild mates and friends, will all come up with different definitions of what makes a game fun. That’s key: I’m not going to argue with strangers about how X is more fun than Y. It’s as pointless as…arguing on the Internet!

What I do think we may agree on, then, is that MMOs have been chasing an ideal that we’ll arbitrarily call “World of Warcraft-level Subscriber Numbers”, for a lack of a better, more specific term. MMO design has become less of an art, and more of a science, a modular kit in which designers convene and check boxes during initial meetings: The game must have crafting (check), dungeons (check), raids (check), guilds (check). Only once that list has been compiled do the designers engage the cretive process to figure out how to tweak that formula so it’s not so obvious that they just assembled this game from the pieces of someone else’s battle-tested design.

Part of the reason is financial, as MMOs a big budget projects, and companies footing the bills want assurances on the viability on a return for their investment. The MMO market is pretty saturated, and there’s no stomach for risk. The designers MUST provide security for investment, so they look to what has been successful in other games and adopt those mechanics. But they also look to the consumers. With big budget MMOs, designing to an existing audience’s past preferences hopefully increases the chance that a game will succeed (hopefully).

Before you go getting a big head about your individual importance in the design of MMOs, step back and look at your community. The design of these games reflects the ebb and flow of the community at large, what they (think they) want, what they have rejected, and even a little of what the designer thinks the community will accept.

So it’s finances that tie the hands of designers, but it’s also the consumer’s behaviors that make these games what they are. Let’s face it: the WoW Clone wouldn’t be an optional ideal if people didn’t keep demanding WoW Clones.

So what about the fun?

If we accept that MMO design is more math than inspiration, then we need to shift the talk about the influence of the community. In my opinion, humans like to be assured that their decisions and interests are valid. As individuals we think we like what we like, but in the age of over-sharing and instant feedback, we can get that other people’s thumbs up or thumbs down to validate our decisions. A the end of the day, we just want to be part of some community, and we want to be appreciated for who we are, what we think, and what we bring to the table.

Geeks value knowledge. It’s our currency, our XP, and our Faction rating. According to “stereotypes”, geeks lack physical prowess, attractiveness, and business acumen, but if there’s one market that geeks have cornered it’s knowledge. We trade it among ourselves to prove to one another that we belong in this community, and we expect one another to provide similar bona fides for that purpose. We’re suspcious of poseurs and “fake geeks” who haven’t “paid their dues” but who lay claim to the mantle of “being a geek” simply because it’s become trendy (and profitable) in today’s wider culture.

But geeks are also just like every other human, and want people both inside and outside the culture to appreciate what they bring to the table. This is why we stream our game play, blog, tweet, write guides and add-ons, and do an insane amount of self-promotion for a sub-culture that’s been stereotyped as “socially awkward”. We’re constantly trying to achieve and justify to others our place in the geek sub-culture by sharing our knowledge (whether people want it or not) in exchange for the high-fives, re-Tweets, and subscribers.

Games are what we know. We want people to know that we know. And so it really helps when what we know doesn’t change, because that would mean re-learning everything we thought we knew, setting us back as a community by devaluing our knowledge-currency. So we demand that these companies not deviate from the formula that we’re familiar with, thereby allowing us to maintain our place in the greater geek hierarchy that we’ve proven we deserve.

Still not hearing anything about the fun…

That’s the pre-amble. Here’s the payload.

MMO game design has been boiled down to a LEGO set that designers provide, for financial reasons, and that gamers demand because it’s familiar. We don’t get new ideas because no one wants to pay for them, and because as a community we’re unsure that we’ll be able to trade in them. Ergo, we get games that are painfully similar to one’s we’ve already consumed, and yet we as a community continue to strip them bare for our own self-interests.

I have to reiterate that fun is subjective. There are boatloads of people who find WoW Clones fun, who find games like EVE Online fun, and of course there’s less game-specific wildcards like friends that can make even the most boring, cookie-cutter clone stupidly enjoyable.

Still, the demands of the plebes and the financial disincentives for the developers are going to produce games which are known quantities. Games with XP, levels, the Holy Trinity (or a smokescreen that looks like it’s Trinity-less, but which gamers will insist on bending back to the Trinity), dungeons, raids, achievements, and the reliance upon loot as the most desirable goal in the game are going to make up the majority of options on the market. Guides are written, streams are fired up, blog posts dissect, and community stars ascend as players figure out who to trust and who’s blowing smoke. Everyone is expected to commit to the community-discerned, community-sanctioned “right way” to play so not to cause a wipe or waste other people’s time. And we do, because we all want to be well thought of, and don’t want to be “That Noob” that ruined the experience for everyone through a demonstration of ignorance.

What we lose out on is exploration and discovery, the opportunity to have dynamic worlds and unique systems, and a personal learning experience through doing, failing, retrying, and basking in our own ultimate success.

Again, fun is subjective, and to be subjective we require an environment where we’re able to find the fun. Most modern MMOs expect us to find the fun in what we’re given, because other people — possibly us — have found fun in a very similar experience in the past. There’s little to no leeway any more as the pressures of conforming to community expectations designed by the community itself matter more than the Zen of the experience of playing the game.

Overall, I think we’re poorer for it. We’ve demanded “different” in the past, but like anything we rarely know what we want, but we absolutely know what we don’t want once we see it. Not every experiment will succeed, but then again, not every MMO has to appeal to everyone. I’m very much OK with the idea of a massive splintering of the genre which allows smaller titles to appeal to different segments, so that everyone can find a game that they really enjoy, rather than have to rely on expensive AAA titles which must succeed in being palatable to a wide a range of paying players. With a more diverse genre, I think we can all find a game which is fun for us on the individual level.

As a foot-note, I’d also like to appeal to folks who believe that guides and walk-throughs are an inseparable part of the MMO landscape. They’re really not. Yes, our time is valuable, and yes, success is much preferable to failure, but I’ve always looked at the reliance on guides as “playing someone else’s game”.  They tell you what to do and what not to do, like an outline or a Paint By Number project, which leaves you only as the mechanical operator of a soul-less experience. Part of the conceit of these “products of fantasy” is giving ourselves over to the experience as much as we’re able. In my opinion, relying on guides is breaking the fourth wall and robs us of a fully realized experience. Yes, that means a high chance of failure, but I know that for myself, the feeling of accomplishment I get from eventual success after failure is far and away more satisfying than simply going through the motions for the carrot on the stick.

Building Our Personal Cost-Benefit Analysis

We do cost-benefit analysis in every day life, from comparative shopping to deciding if it’s worth the risk to try bungee jumping. When we evaluate the cost of something compared to the benefit we’ll receive, we make the decision based on what’s important to us as individuls. There’s no “universal standard of worth”. Even currency — which we often think of as being pretty immutable — is subject to fluctuations in value.

The cost-benefit analysis of gaming is at the core of an ongoing debate over how games are made and marketed, and how they’re designed to make money for the developers, and take money from the consumers.

A Brief History of Monitization

I’ve been through all modern phases of video game monitization. Here’s a quick timeline as I remember it (which may or may not be entirely accurate):

  1. Games are self contained and sold for a “box cost”. This was during the early days of the Atari 2600, NES, Sega Genesis, and even PC games.
  2. When the Internet arrives, we get BBS and online provider games through services like AOL and CompuServe, but which require a per-minute fee to play (on top of the money we spent to access the service provider).
  3. As PC gaming continues to rise in prominence, modern MMOs arrives. Now, we pay for the connection, then a box price, and a monthly fee. On paper, this seems suicidal, but thanks to the popularity of World of Warcraft, people warm to it, and the genre explodes over the next 15 years.
  4. Smartphones and tablets arrive, bringing a whole new and untapped frontier of gaming that needs rules to be written. Publishers experiment with different price points to see what the market would bear. With such an open field, devs that traditionally published for console or PC flock to mobile to stake their claim before the money dries up.
  5. Existing subscription games and new online games start to offer non-subscription options. Games add cash shops which allow players to spend in small increments for various services, convienience, and content. Having it’s pedigree in the East, where the model forced players to spend in order to advance and compete, this free to play model gets a bad rap in achivement-oriented Western culture, and is quickly associated with “pay to win”. Meanwhile, mobile gaming has followed suit, offering games for free with cash shops that offer “shortcuts” for players.

We pick up the thread at this point.

A Tale Of Two Cities (Or Rather, Gamers)

There’s two distinct camps in this scene. The first is the “traditional” gamer. The second is the “nouveau gamer”. Sometimes the lines blur, but more often than not, the traditional gamer busies himself with both camps, while the nouveau gamer might not even know the other camp exists.

Traditional gamers are used to at least items 3-5 above. Older gamers can stretch back beyond item 1. Regardless, at some point during the formative period of the traditional gamer’s gaming identity, he found a monitization scheme that worked for him, and he stuck by it. I think that for most gamers, this is item #3 or #1.

MMOs are unique in that — in theory — they never end. The world continues to run when we’re not logged in, and we can (ideally) look forward to expansions that make the game bigger. We also get patches and updates, game play balances, and if we’re lucky, some free content here and there.

They’re also unique in that for the past 15 years, MMOs came with an ongoing subscription, a practice that became the norm. Because of the wild success of WoW, anyone who wanted to make an MMO had to support it by charging that monthly fee, and the company that could reproduce WoW’s special sauce could potentially rake in millions of dollars per month. We as consumers learned to accept this, because we felt that the benefits of the cost were worthwhile. MMOs with subscriptions were “buffets” of content: we had access to everything the game had to offer, with no artificial restrictions or additional payments.

Gamers must have felt that this was a good deal, because the subscription MMO market exploded after WoW. The explosion was both a desire of publishers to have a cash cow, and consumer’s acceptance of paying a monthly fee.

Non-traditional gamers don’t view things in that light. They came into the picture around item #4, and ONLY for item #4. They don’t have the baggage that traditional gamers do. They don’t play a wide spectrum of games, don’t play often, and aren’t used to spending tons of money up front for a game. They don’t see anything wrong with paying $5 for the convenience of playing at certain choke-points, which is how Candy Crush Saga earns millions of dollars.

The Cost-Benefit Ratio

If there’s any universal constant, then it’s that people like to get the most bang for their buck. That includes getting everything for nothing, but in lieu of that, it means getting as much as possible for as little as possible. We all have thresholds of how much we’re willing to pay based on what we expect to get from it. Like so many things, however, we don’t necessarily know what we want or where that threshold is, but once we experience it, we recognize it, and once we recognize it, we rarely see any reason to keep looking for anything better.

On the other hand, no one likes to feel like they’re being fleeced, or that they’re being treated like a commodity to be nickled and dimed. It’s harder to see value in an overall product when the transactions are spread over time and for different aspects of the bigger picture. This is both a blessing (for publishers) and a curse (for consumers) because the statistics favor the payee over the payer.

For the traditional gamer, and depending on the individual’s genre of choice, the cost-benefit ratio of payment to payout is going to hit a ceiling at some point, and from there it will not budge. Some gamers won’t go beyond pay once, play forever. Others feel that $15 buffet model is tilted in their favor. Still others feel that getting something for nothing is better than getting anything for a fee, and the final group has no issues paying a la carte.

But each level there often seems to be many gamers who are violently reactive to the level above it. Box-cost only fans can’t fathom why anyone would pay a subscription. Subscribers can’t abide by the cash shop model. Many free to play fans won’t go near the cash shop. Only the full-service free to play user has no one to rail against in this space…except games targeted outside of their own demographic.

Many traditional gamers — no matter what monitization tier they occupy in their own space — find the practices being employed in the mobile space to be abhorrent. Brian Green (who worked on Meridian 59, and who therefor knows about this kind of thing) posted a link to an interview with former Free Realms developer Laralyn McWilliams on the current “best practices” in free-to-play game design. Part of the gist of it is that the way the market is now, there’s no room for trial and error, so when a game likeCandy Crush Saga makes millions of dollars by allowing players to spend their way out of a jam, other companies will adopt it, and it becomes the new de facto “best practice”.

Po-tay-toes and Po-tah-toes

Traditional gamers can’t see the benefit to the cost that these “best practices” are espousing because for the most part, they’re used to having their game at their fingertips. Games are meant to be played, and the more game you play without restriction, the better. Just as buffet fans might consider the F2P model to be exploitative, the idea that a company would purposefully design their product to frustrate a player to the point where their progress is held hostage unless they pay money to progress is an affront to what gaming is all about.

One of the best examples is EA’s recent mobile version of Dungeon Keeper. The original PC game allowed you to create and defend a dungeon. This new version follows the same idea, but as you’re building your dungeon, you’re forced to wait HOURS for a single task to complete. Impatient players can spend real money to hurry this along, ensuring a continuous game play experience, but therein lies the problem from the traditional gamer point of view (especially those who honestly remember the original Dungeon Keeper). Why did EA make this bastardized version of such a well regarded IP instead of making another entry in the traditional vein? The cost of paying to skip the four hour build time isn’t worth the benefit. Normally this might be up for debate, depending on the point of view of the person involved, but we have prescident in how the Dungeon Keeper franchise should be played, and it’s NOT having to pay to skip a four hour queue.

Still, some folks are OK with this. They’ve got no baggage the way traditional gamers do. Mobile games are so transient that many strictly mobile gamers think it’s a plus that the games are free. With so many no-cost games, it’s perfectly OK to pay a little here, a little there, now and then. Maybe the “why” is lost on them, but I’m of the mind that it’s not; it just doesn’t matter as much to them as the idea does to traditional gamers. Their threshold for cost to benefit isn’t just higher than that of the traditional gamer, it’s in a totally different league.

In Closing

Everything that we do has a cost-benefit analysis attached to it, and the hierarchy of fees associated with gaming marks different thresholds for different people. But gamers are very covetous of their hobby, including it’s trademarks and use of said trademarks. Many traditional gamers would barely acknowledge most mobile products as “games”, but in the face of business practices that are designed to exploit a person’s willingness to spend their way out of a jam, these gamers will seek to distance themselves and their own aspect of the industry from association with mobile gaming where these are considered to be the “best practices”.

These views are codified based on the cost-benefit ratio that each individual has accepted as his or her personal ceiling. The benefit is how much game they get for the cost, with some preferring to pay for the buffet, and some who are willing to play for free and to spend on content a la carte.

What worries many traditional gamers, however, is the incessant harping that mobile and tablet gaming is the future of the hobby. We’ve heard about how the gaming industry has seen declining revenue over the past few years, with at least part of the blame resting on the notion that more people are gaming on mobile and tablets, and less on console and PCs. For those who count gaming as their primary hobby, being told that their “future” is this platform which values visibility, metrics, and sales over “by gamers, for gamers” is a frightening and infuriating prospect. Traditional gamers have already started hating on mobile gaming when “their” developers ran to capitalize on the empty playground of mobile platforms and put their future PC and console plans into question, but seeing how companies have adopted “best practices” that amount of holding a game hostage is sending many gamers into fits of rage.

Holiday Traditions and Traditional Holidays

I enjoyed Pyschochild’s post about “The Meaning Of Holidays”, earlier this week. Holidays are kind of weird to me; although there are observable holidays throughout the year which both require and don’t require a “buy in” (Easter: yes; Arbor Day: no), I don’t really get into a “holiday mode” quite like I do when Fall rolls around. It’s the time of year where a lot of big holidays drive bumper-to-bumper, and if you fit certain configurations, you never really stop observing from October to the start of January.

At the risk of too much navel-gazing, I want to know the why behind this seasonal switch. Holidays are at least days on the calendar, and many people simply observe them as such. I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who truly don’t celebrate any of the year’s end holidays here in the West, since we’re practically drowning in trappings absolutely everywhere; I suppose if one wanted to be cynical, it would be easy to justify a “bah, humbug” on the whole thing. But as someone who isn’t like that, the immersion of the Holidays (with a capital “H”) is part of the allure.

A Brief History of The Past

Let’s be frank: when we say “Holidays”, we’re including Halloween and Thanksgiving (here in the West) as a courtesy. We’re really focused on Christmas and Hanukkah. For the purpose of this monologue, though, I’m talking about Christmas (apologies to my Jewish reader), since it’s the one I celebrate.

Christmas is a good holiday because despite the attempts of those to nail it down to one thing and one thing only, it’s many thing to many people. For some, it’s one of the Ultra Religious holidays. For others, it’s about togetherness that doesn’t need a religious reason. It’s one holiday where everyone is right, and no one is wrong; we get out of it what we want to get out of it, and really that’s kind of the point. No matter how the holiday started,  Christmas is always a “modern holiday”.

Or is it? I read somewhere recently a criticism of how we’re observing Christmas. Specifically, the author stated that we’re not observing a “modern holiday”, we’re observing a “Baby Boomer’s holiday” by allowing the celebrations of the early 20th century to color how we celebrate today. On one hand, I guess he/she is correct, because I instantly understood what he/she meant. On the other hand, I think it’s a short-sighted claim.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

In my view, a lot of what we consider in a non-religious, “traditional” Christmas comes from, or is about, life between 1940-something to 1950-something. The Big Christmas Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas were made in those eras. A lot of the holiday “comfort music” we  have is sung by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, also big during those eras. Even one of the more popular modern holiday films — A Christmas Story — takes place in the 50’s.

Ghosts of Christmas Present

I’m not a fan of “newer” holiday stuff. I think the last decent holiday movie to be made was probably National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, or maybe Scrooged (in the 80’s). I can tolerate Michael Buble, but I want to club Mariah Carey with a 30 pound candy cane. And no good “new” Christmas music as been written. Adult Christmas Wish can suck it. Hard.

Whys and Wherefores

I’m only 40 years old. I wasn’t alive when the “classic” vision of Christmas season was actually the present, and yet I dislike anything that was created for the holiday in the past 30 or so years (generally).

I figure it this way.

We have an unabashed “feel good” vibe in the elder Christmas fare, thanks to World War II. After so much wartime horror, the first Christmas back home must have been the most wonderful thing ever: reuniting with family and friends that no one thought would be seen again. Remembering those who were lost. Being thankful that those who returned from the war returned alive. It was probably amazingly optimistic at that point, and if you’re not concerned with the religious angle, it’s about as close to the “meaning of the season” as you can get: Enjoy, and be thankful for the people around you.

In modern times…well, it sounds like a broken record, but we’ve both lost that honest, traditional feeling while fetishizing it at the same time. Almost every ad or commercial in print or on TV this time of year features imagery of “traditional style” holidays with families eating a festive dinner, or of welcoming friends and family into the home. It doesn’t take a cynic to understand that these ads are attempting to bridge the traditional sense of family and togetherness with how good it is to buy stuff. Outside of commercials, though, we’re also narrowly focused on bitching about the shopping season creep, or whether or not it’s appropriate for municipal grounds to sport a manger.  When it’s generally understood that every shopping outlet is a death-sport arena on Black Friday, is it really a wonder we look back to the days when people enjoyed the holiday in a more honest fashion?

That’s not to say that we here in 2013 can’t enjoy the holiday in an honest fashion; it’s just that I don’t believe that our honest feelings about it are rooted in our own lifetimes. No doubt we have fond memories of Christmas as kids, but as an adult, I really find that modern approaches are lacking in anything worth incorporating into my seasonal outlook. New Christmas songs aren’t about the holiday or the season like White Christmas or Jingle Bells. They’re about interpersonal relationships, and ham-handed attempts to shame us into remembering our humanity. None of them really address The Holiday itself; they’re all as narcissistic as any new song is any other day of the year. Same with new holiday movies (most of which are made for TV by those middle-of-the-road networks like Hallmark or ABC Family).

I may not have grown up in the 40’s and 50’s, but my parents did. Their Christmas was the “traditional” Christmas we’re talking about here, and so it became my traditional Christmas through them. It’s where I feel comfortable, so naturally it’s becoming my daughter’s traditional Christmas, through me. In a way, we are living the “Baby Boomer” vision of the holiday, but it’s partly out of nurture, and not because we view it as intrinsically superior (although in light of my low opinion of modern output for the season, I offer that as a vague generality and not a personal affectation). I have no problem with it; it’s still my holiday as much as anyone else’s. No one owns it, and although I don’t have the same reasons or the same intense source as folks did in the 40’s and 50’s, the feelings are a lot stronger, and a lot more comforting, than what I feel I can get from a more “modern” interpretation.

How long will this go on? How many more generations will Bing Crosby last as a cornerstone of Christmas? Maybe not forever, which is why I think the unnamed author who accused us of “celebrating someone else’s holiday” isn’t seeing the forest for the trees. We’re not so far away from the Christmas of our ancestors that we can begin to take comfort in images of adults fist-fighting over the last toy in Wal-Mart as the “true meaning of Christmas”. Many of us grew up with those who experienced the Boomer’s Christmas first hand, and like any generational shift, moving away from that will probably happen gradually as each subsequent generation takes parts of what came before it, and what it creates on it’s own, until the oldest parts of tradition have been marginalized to the atomic level. At some point, I would expect that people will prefer The Santa Claus over Miracle on 34th Street, but I really hope I’m dead by that time, because I don’t think I’d want to be around when that happens.

Then And Now: A Social Retrospective For Dummies

There was this guy, Adam Orth, who was a creative director at Microsoft, and who stirred up a lot of ire by mincing no words when discussing people’s irritation at the Xbox One being “always on, always connected”. As the Internet is wont to do, people took it personally, and worked quickly to make Orth’s life a living hell (according to him).

I could really care less if some random internet dude tells me to “deal with it” in hash tag form. Yes, I pictured this guy as Any Guy, saying this out loud with a “meh” expression and a shrug of the shoulders like a total douchebag, but let’s face it: my opinion is always going to be valid as far as I’m concerned, and that this one guy who’s on the other side of the country, whom I have never met, thinks otherwise makes absolutely no difference in my life. That’s not an attempt to convince myself when my feelings are hurt; I had totally forgotten this guy about 10 minutes after I had originally heard about him.

But his re-surfacing got me thinking, as old people do, about Days Gone By (in this case, pre-Internet). I lived during that time, so this isn’t some half-assed co-opt of an “up hill, both ways” story. Back then, our socializing was limited to only those within arms reach, either through school, clubs, sports, religious institutions, family, or neighbors. The World was a map, or what we heard on TV news or read in the newspapers. Most people (in the U.S., and especially where I grew up) didn’t know anyone on the other side of the world; it might as well have been the 1300’s, before people were really sailing all over the place and meeting new people. The most international I ever got was when my cousins hosted an exchange student from Spain.

Back in those days, you had two choices when dealing with other people. You could totally bullshit people by acting and behaving in a manner that represented who you wanted to be, or you could act like yourself. Usually people chose the first option if they thought their real selves wouldn’t be accepted. But that could really drain your batteries that way, because you had to be “on” 24/7. Remember, your interactions were spatially limited, so if you dropped your guard and someone found out that you were a racist and not a choir-boy, for example, news got around fast. Your entire reputation went from “clean cut” to “bigoted liar” in only a few hours. And you couldn’t get away unless you moved.

Here in modern times, people take for granted the fact that on the Internet, nationality or location in the world is almost meaningless. You can interact with people anywhere, any time, and I think we’ve quickly become immune to the “gee whiz” of it all, especially those who grow up in this environment and know no different.

But as the Orth Parable teaches us, we no longer have the option to choose between throwing up a facade or being ourselves. The freedom that the Internet provides for our benefit is the same freedom that allows people to gang up on one another, to find and publish someone’s home address, the names of family members, the location of children’s schools, a person’s religious and political affiliations, and all kinds of information that isn’t horrible by itself, but in the wrong (and determined) hands, could ignite some Really Bad Shit.

Orth chose to show his true self. He spoke his mind, based on his beliefs that the things people were upset about weren’t worth getting upset about, and that people weren’t seeing the forest for the trees, and were overreacting because of it. But he shot from the hip, and without the benefit of body language or vocal inflection, his comments came off as condescending and arrogant. He wasn’t talking to anyone specifically; he was addressing a nebulous “They”, which included anyone who felt that his comments were addressed directly at them. The Internet being what it is took this slight and stretched it, magnified it, blew it out of proportion, and passed it around until people did what anonymous people will do: they made it as personal for Orth as they felt he had made it for them.

Orth was an idiot. For any intelligent person spending 10 minutes or less on the Internet, it’s pretty obvious that if you’re going to be yourself, you had better be ready for the repercussions. Know this: there are people who are ready for that battle. The rest of us should know that if want to really enjoy our time on the Internet, we have to be who we want to be, not who we are.

Let’s face it: everyone does and says stupid things, and everyone had opinions that other people would find unappealing. There’s no denying that. Back When, if you said something stupid, it would only be stupid if the people in your immediate area thought it was stupid. In the Internet Age, you can say even the most innocuous thing, but it’ll have a world-wide reach in a matter of seconds, and it’ll linger for weeks, months, or years. Someone, somewhere, will find what you said and will call you and idiot for having said it. So we have two options: stay off the Internet, or present a deliberate and cultivated persona designed to provide a little ambiguity as possible regarding your intent, your stance, and your future interaction with people.

Orth had a job to do, and he blew it. He chose to be himself when he should have been Xbox One’s Creative Director. I could write another screed about the disdain that corporations have for consumers as a way to explain how Orth actually was speaking as a Creative Director, but I think this was a case of one man acting alone. His follow-up interview shows that he’s no less clueless about how the Internet works now than he was when he was working for Microsoft. He doesn’t seem to understand that he was just as much to blame by not realizing what kind of a potential shit-storm his off-handed remarks could start. He continues to be dismissive of the people he should have once worked very, very hard to court, even after this debacle caused him apparent hardship. Had he been a model Creative Director, he would have worked hard — probably to no avail — to sell people on the status quo, not tell them to basically fuck off and suck it up. 

That someone who is allowed to speak in public on behalf of another (or a company or brand) can be so clueless about how to comport oneself on the Internet is mind-blowing to me. This kind of behavior would have gone totally unchallenged 25 years ago, but the reality of it is that we can’t just assume that people know us, understand us, or that our words won’t have repercussions somewhere in the world, and then feign indignation when the backlash hits us.