The Post You Were Probably Expecting

…when I announced Video Game Week. So, here it is.

Mobile gaming on tablets and smartphones seems to be a huge and growing trend. According to this article, it drove THQ into bankruptcy, forced out John Riccitiello from his job running the soulless corporate combine called EA, and even kneecapped Zynga (Facebook’s social gaming mega-moguls). That’s a lot of scalps, kemosabe, and all in a very short period of time.

And, of course, all these developments are sparking the usual overblown rhetoric, “The Death of Console Gaming!” and the like. Now I can’t tell the future yet, but I seriously doubt console gaming is going to die anytime soon. At worst, we’re looking at a long period of slow decline as the platform gradually sheds users and developers. (You know, like PC gaming, certain politicians, or European imperialism.)

Of course, console companies can speed the process along. Maybe by making a console so shitty no one wants to buy it. Or by requiring always-on DRM or axing backwards compatibility.

As a dedicated console gamer who’s spent — literally — thousands of dollars on Xbox gaming, I’m contemplating buying a Playstation for the first time, ever. That’s not a good sign for Microsoft. Of course, if Sony proves equally dickish I won’t buy from them, either.

After all, customers don’t have to buy a console — a fact Sony learned the hard way this console generation. And if the — rumored and announced — draconian policies really are implemented, console makers might drive people to alternate venues.

Mobile gaming won’t kill console gaming. But console manufacturers can commit suicide, by badgering customers, making crappy consoles, and in general acting with thoughtless arrogance.

The Day Ironforge Died

From economics to epidemiology… (What, you thought Video Game Week was going to be straightforward? Ha!)

This story has it all: bio-terrorism, failed quarantines, the dead lying piled in the streets, and people fleeing the cities for the desolate countryside, in an attempt to avoid the pandemic. And, oh yeah, it happened in an MMO.

Back in 2005, the World of Warcraft saw an outbreak of a pandemic, the “Corrupted Blood Plague”. A disease, part of a high-level boss challenge, escaped the dungeon and laid waste to Azeroth:

The major towns and cities were abandoned by the population as panic set in and players rushed to evacuate to the relative safety of the countryside, leaving urban areas “filled to the brim with corpses”, and the “city streets literally white with the bones of the dead”.

The pandemic was big enough news to get covered by Reuters, the BBC, and The Sunday Times of London. I did some re-reading of the several articles on the subject, and the Wikipedia article covers the incident the best.

Accidental economic collapse… accidental pandemic release… human beings can’t even control our imagined worlds. What makes us think we can control the real one?

Hyperinflation, Gold Farming, and You

Video Game Week covers…

Diablo 3’s economic collapse!

You may have heard of the gold-duping bug in Diablo 3 auctions. (Or, you know, maybe not.) But what you probably don’t know is that the Diablo 3 economy was collapsing before that happened.

At the link above, an analysis of how a tiny, little economy collapsed under the weight of too much fiat currency chasing too few goods.

(Macroeconomics in a micro setting — feel the thrill.)

Video Games Should Never Be Art

Are video games “Art”? Let me quote screenwriter John Raffo:

“As a writer, I’m not an artist… or don’t look on myself that way. Rather, I’m a craftsman… a shoemaker[.] I try and make a good shoe. But here’s the dichotomy… there are ugly shoes and there are beautiful shoes. I want to make beautiful shoes that people want to wear and want to walk in.”

Everything you need to know about my answer is contained within that quote. Hint: Video games are not Art.

But let’s go further. Why would you want them to be?

Art, since the 1920’s, has been shit. Literally! The Dadaists came, they conquered, and they left behind a vapid landscape of fetishized vulgarity, like vomiting on a canvas. It’s no accident that one of the few video games proclaimed as Art allows you to massacre students at Columbine High School.

By these standards, video games are not Art. And I hope to God they never will be.

Mass Effect 3 Is Not Art

(Video Game Week on the blog. We open with a short, little rant about a video game.)

I used to be a Bioware fan. I bought Neverwinter Nights and the two expansions, as well as all the premium modules. I bought Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic twice (once on console, once on Mac). I bought Jade Empire twice (once on disk, once on download). I bought Dragon Age: Origins Collector’s Edition on disk and download, and all the DLC. I bought Dragon Age: Origins — Awakening (disk and download). I bought Dragon Age II Collector’s Edition (and DLC). I bought Mass Effect twice (disk and download) and its subpar DLC, Mass Effect 2 Collector’s Edition (and DLC), and finally Mass Effect 3 Collector’s Edition.

And I will never give another penny to Bioware again.

Bioware’s quality has been slipping for a while now. Dragon Age II was mediocre and (reportedly) rushed. Mass Effect 3 had a lot of problems in gameplay (the quest screen, for example). And the Mass Effect 3 ending itself sucked. (As did “clarity and closure“.)

But I would probably have overlooked those, were it not for the arrogance of Bioware and EA (their publisher) during the ensuing controversy over the ending. Their behavior, to quote the old cliche, added insult to injury. And it’s the insult that drove me away.

EA, in an advertisement, bragged that the ending “provoked a bigger fan reaction than any other videogame’s conclusion in the medium’s history”. Well, it did… just not in a good way.

75% of people disliked or hated the ending, including the game’s most passionate fans, and that’s not something to brag about. If 75% of your intended audience hate something, that’s a sign that you should have done it better, or at least differently.

(Also, that video? Gets censored from posts on the Bioware forums. Take that as you will.)

More, when customers are pissed off… you don’t insult and mock them. It’s just not smart. It says “we hate you and we don’t want your money”. And the sensible response to that attitude is “That’s fine. I won’t give it to you, then.”

Bioware seemed to be as dismissive and (often) insulting. The staff seemed enamored of their Metacritic score (which, they claim, proves the ending by itself is great), and talked down to fans of the game. Their defense of the loathed ending was based on the supposed “artistic integrity” of the game. (This sentiment was echoed by many others.)

In my opinion, changing the ending of a game, or providing an alternate ending after the fact, doesn’t violate “artistic integrity”. Fallout 3 did it, with “Broken Steel”.

However, even if changing the game would violate the integrity of the art, Mass Effect 3 isn’t art.

Art is first and foremost predicated on craft — to actually be an artist, you have to master your craft. Before you can write a novel that rises to the level of Art, you have to be a damn good novelist. Same for a painter, same for a sculptor. Any video game with pretensions to Art has to, first and foremost, be a damn good game.

Yet Mass Effect 3 failed at the basic craft of video games. The ending had numerous plot holes, overlooked important pieces of the universe lore, and completely ignored or abnegated previous themes of the series (choice and the threat of the Reapers), in preference to a “twist ending”. Bioware themselves admitted as much with the Extended Cut DLC, which fixed plot holes and other problematic aspects (but didn’t change the twist).

Bioware failed at their craft, so didn’t produce Art. But wait, there’s more…

Art is not a cookie-cutter, paint by numbers endeavor. Yet that’s exactly what Bioware does.

When I was first telling my friends they should play Mass Effect, I said “if you like Knights of the Old Republic, you’ll like Mass Effect“. Because they were, for most intents and purposes, the exact same game.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Here’s a chart detailing the Bioware story formula. From Baldur’s Gate to Dragon Age, their games all hit the same (or substantially similar) beats.

And here’s an article on “Recycled characters you see in every BioWare game“. Bioware uses the same character archetypes time and again.

Remaking the same game with updated tech, with the same plot and characters, just in new surroundings — D&D fantasy! Different D&D fantasy! Asiatic fantasy! Science Fiction! Different fantasy! — is formulaic. And a story formula isn’t Art.

Video games are pop culture, a form of mass entertainment. And AAA production costs ensure that they must cater to an audience. So when a company short-changes and then insults that very same audience, it’s playing with fire.

It’s hard to establish a reputation for quality. And easy to tarnish it. And the end of that path is to become another casualty of EA’s “buy and bury” business plan.

Bullfrog. Westwood. Origin. Maxis. Pandemic. And more. All legendary studios who created some of the greatest games ever, all purchased by EA, all ultimately shuttered.

Companies die one disappointed customer at a time. If Bioware keeps shortchanging customers, they will join Bullfrog, et. al. on the “killed by EA” list.

And I, for one, won’t mourn them.