Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Winner Takes It All

Because facerolling through a videogame is fun. No it is not.

For some people it is. Some people only want some mindless fun. Something they can do to relax rather than having to set their mind on overcoming a virtual challenge. That's one of the many reasons why invoking majorities in online discussions just doesn't work.

We all have our own reason to do what we do. Some want to test themselves and improve their skill, some just want to relax and have some fun time with their friends. Some don't even know what the concept of hardcore and casual gaming mean, let alone "skill" or "competitiveness" in something they may not even consider a hobby.

Today, we're going to talk about entertainment.

I used to watch a lot of television in my youth: tons of it, if truth be told. Pretty much my entire life up until the point where my kids were born can be mapped in parallel with major televisual events: it began with Blake's Seven in the late 1970's, pretty much bypassed Trek (sorry about that, there I said it) but did take in Babylon 5, Buffy, The X Files, Stargate and 24. In fact, Kiefer Sutherland has a lot to answer for, because Jack Bauer is one of the reasons I fell out of love with genre TV. There's been tons of great shows/series since the start of the 21st Century, I've just not got totally hooked by any of them. A lot of it (I suspect) is because my role has changed: it's not just about entertaining my mind any more, I have two rather more impressionable beings to consider in my choice of TV viewing. Entertainment isn't therefore simply about what you do, it's as much about why.

I've spoken a lot in the last few months about my personal relationship with Warcraft: how I've found things frustrating, and difficult, and that the best way I've discovered to deal with this is by changing the way not only I play but how I view the game world I'm in. Taking a step back is sometimes a lot harder than people realise, especially if they are unaware of how immersed they have become in something to begin with. I'd like to think it is something I'm good at, but only after I acknowledged my capacity to get too involved. I used to get very obsessed with my TV, unhealthily so, to the point where I did stuff and became a person that, looking back to that time, I'm not particularly proud of. However, absolutely the LAST thing I'd want to do is blame the people making the TV programmes: yes, there should be a level of accountability in how sensitive or contentious subjects are handled, but in the end they're not responsible for my actions: I am. The buck stops here.

Therefore when Person A calls Item X a 'faceroll' there will be twenty four other letters of the alphabet with (potentially) different views on the subject. Some of those might simply agree because of peer pressure, others might have only subtle disagreements, tainted by their own view of the game. The fact remains, it's Blizzard's task in all this to try and cater to the largest possible group, NOT the smallest. That means that, like it or not, the high end of the game is not where the focus will shift. Yup, the people who don't see a hardcore/casual game divide. The people who don't get obsessed and can name every NPC on Kalimdor, and which expansions they first appeared in. The people who, like it or not, form the vast majority of Blizzard's subscriber base. Oh, and the people who, for most of the time, you'll never find complaining about game balance on a Forum because they have better things to do.

This argument appears with what seems like predictable regularity, normally when an Expansion's had the opportunity to bed in. Just how 'hard' should things be? The difference this time around from Cataclysm is that we have a Training Programme for End Game Raiding that didn't exist before: the LFR system. Whatever you might think about it, the way loot is divided (or not) and even the people using it, there is clearly a change in the way LFR makes people approach a part of the game that, for many years, was considered elitist, with good reason. You needed time, thought and most importantly like-minded people to achieve your goals: without them, a large portion of content was simply inaccessible. Blizzard rightly grasped this wasn't doing them any favours, that often the best looking and most cleverly designed sectors of their output were beyond the reach of most people who played. So, they took away the need for immersion.

There will be some of you that read that last sentence and cry foul: hang on, don't tell me Blizzard stopped making me compelled to play, because I have Dailies coming out of my ears and if I want to do this non-immersive content you've just mentioned I will have to run X dungeons and Y LFR's and... STOP. Yes, I know this is how it works. Look back to the LFR model for a moment. To get there requires a certain level of commitment. However what Blizzard make VERY clear, and this is often overlooked in discussions regarding how easy/hard anything is on Azeroth, is the factor of time. The worst thing in my genre TV was, back before You Tube and DVD, having to wait for NEXT WEEK. If there were a particular cliffhanger it could be a nightmare having to work through seven days of Real Life (TM) before I had my resolution. Although that's still largely true for TV, there's enough downloadable/accessible content at your fingertips to keep even the most rabid of genre lover sated almost indefinitely. No waiting, instant access. The same is true with music, and movies. The only restricting factor: how you choose to use your time to process them.

This makes people justifiably impatient. That's never going to end well.

LFR allows people to see raid content, and learn encounters. I can say for a fact it makes doing the 'normalised' versions easier, which means as a training exercise LFR is an unqualified success. However, to get to LFR requires a commitment in time. Getting past it is the same, but the key difference is that this means no content is currently inaccessible. No, really, it's not. You can do everything: whether you can complete it is a different issue altogether, and in the main that isn't Blizzard's problem, unless something pops up that is a) a bug b) an exploit or c) obviously broken. That's where you need to realise that this isn't a TV show you're watching, that you're not in a movie, and that immersion isn't something the game does to you, it's something you do in the game. You're the buck, and if things are either too hard or too easy, it is time for you to work out how to deal with that, and not Blizzard's job to amend.

That is something that does not sit well with many, especially when so many other games offer cheat codes and hack modes. There is no fast forwarding to next week, it is up to you to find the answers, and that is a challenge many people simply don't have the time or the inclination to accept. If you can't cheat, or skip, or find an easier way... then you don't play. It stops being 'fun': not because the game suddenly altered overnight, but your perception of it changed. There's another key factor to all of this too: we're not at the end yet. The Big Bad for this Expansion (to borrow a Buffy trope) may be well-known but is yet to be revealed in context. We have many weeks of waiting before that 'episode' hits and for many, that may just be a climax too far. There are no clear-cut winners in Warcraft, to remain the best takes a vast commitment of many things, not simply time. What the forum complainers need to grasp is the complexity of the problem any entertainment company face when presenting the public with a product. The key isn't how they choose to do that: it's how you choose to deal with them.

Entertainment done well is exactly what Blizzard have pulled off for eight years, and they've done so by finding just the right balance between providing content and balancing it to fit their audience. Unlike many organisations, they entertain contentious dialogue with their fanbase, and frankly I think they often deserve better treatment than they get for doing so. The fact remains however, this is never totally about the winning, and always about the taking part, in whatever form people decide. When the Pandarian NPC's tell you to 'slow down' they're not joking. Remember, it isn't simply about what you do, it is as much about why, and the consequences that can have not simply to yourself but the people around you.

There is a lot more to this game than simply taking part.


TheGrumpyElf said...

Great post.

Everything, at some level at least, is available to everyone that is willing to put in the time and effort to get there.

lometa said...

I agree with what you're saying here. This week, our guild split with in itself into two paths. Those who are fine with the hard and tedious, epic VP grind to LFR and would like to stay at that point,casual, to the more hard core who would like to beat their heads against normal 10 mans. They enjoy the wipe fests and benching others and showing up each and every raid.

I wrote this rant on a WoW Insider article because I was exasperated with it all:

"Why does this have to be so damned hard? I was fine with the old model. I don't need "interesting choices" and "gold sinks.

I don't have time to get valor capped each week unless I'm playing 24/7 and I can't run dungeons with my friends because of all of this crapola that's still being flung at us in the unholy name of people complaining about not having enough to do!

I want to play my alts! I love playing my alts, my alts are not happy with this whole idea of a Meta VP grind!"

Since then I've come to accept the idea that I will not get to see the hard core content. For now I'm staying with the LFRs for as long as the guild decides to do them because I have alts I want to level and play.