Monday, December 17, 2018

Two Weeks In Another Town - or - Raph Breaks The Internet

Tobold is complaining of "game overload" because he has three hundred and fifty five games on his Steam profile and hasn't played two hundred and forty nine of them. Meanwhile, his old Friday blog wars sparring partner SynCaine, talking about MMOs specifically, reports he's played just one in 2018 (Life is Feudal), finding the current global offer so moribund that "nothing else in the genre caught my eye enough to even bother".

On the face of it, these would seem to represent the extreme ends of a curve. On the one side you have the person who buys games by the dozen with no regard to when or even whether they might want to play them; on the other, someone who knows their own tastes so intimately there's hardly anything even worth considering.

I don't really cleave to either of those extremes. I will - not infrequently - buy (or more often download for free) a game I know I'll never play "seriously". If I do show sufficient interest in a game to install it, however, I will almost always at least fire it up and give it a run. Sheer curiosity dictates that much.

What I don't do is stuff my Steam folder full of games just because they're super-cheap or massively discounted. The sum total of all the games on my Steam account is sixteen, all of which I have played at least once.

Nine of the sixteen are MMOs and therefore not eligible for finishing. Of the other seven, I've completed three (all very short) and made substantial progress in two (both single player games that mirror MMO gameplay, which turns out to be not as great a thing as I thought it would be).

The remaining two are some weird alpha I got an invite for (The Skies), which turned out to be unplayable and then vanished, but which I can't delete from my library for some reason, and Broken Sword 5 which I have been waiting several years now to find an opportunity to play through with Mrs Bhagpuss, since we so enjoyed doing that with BS1 and 2 more than twenty years ago.

As for the current state of the MMORPG genre, it would be disingenuous to claim it's in the rudest of health but it sure as heck isn't in terminal decline. And even that moderately downbeat analysis depends entirely on what you think an MMORPG is.

Decades after the term was first coined, I believe we have to accept that the lines defining the genre have blurred almost to the point of invisibility. Many games that once would have felt as though they were outside the purview of an MMORPG fan now fall well within the loop.

Raph Koster recently made the astute point that Fortnite is like an MMO. He was responding to a truly excellent article at which I would encourage anyone interested in MMORPGs to read.

As I read it, agreeing silently with almost every point it makes, two things occurred to me. Firstly, Fortnite isn't "like" an MMO. It plainly is one. And secondly, that same article might have been - probably was - written a few years back - about another global phenomenon: Minecraft.

It's all very well for we veterans to look sniffily at the new intake and mither on about the good old days; that's the prerogative of the old, after all. It's fine for developers to cater to our outmoded tastes by producing games that use the same mechanics they tried to discard decades ago. Old people like familiarity and there's nothing wrong with that.

As a culture, though -  a global culture - we don't get the MMOs we want - we get the MMOs we need.The world needed Minecraft and now it needs Fortnite. What it will need next year or the year after that, neither I nor anyone else can tell you but you can be sure whatever it is, it will come.

Whether many of us, here in the aging MMO blogosphere, will be adaptive enough to appreciate it, let alone participate, is another matter. By the time the next global MMOlike phenomenon rolls in to replace Fortnite, I'll most likely have retired.

Given good health though, always the concern, I won't have retired from gaming. Nor blogging. I hope I'll be here, still, complaining about the controls and claiming I don't have the digital dexterity modern games designers expect from their audience of tweens, teens and twenties.

The fact is, I never was any good at gaming. I never did have those twitch reflexes. When my friends and I played "winner stays on" at Galaxians and Asteroids back in college it was never me who got to stay on. The last console I owned was an Atari 2600. Once joysticks evolved to use more than one button I was done.

It doesn't matter that I can't use a controller. It doesn't matter that I have to look at the keyboard every single time to find my Special Action key, even when someone is beating me death while somersaulting back and forth over my head.

All that matters is that I'm still in there, appreciating, enjoying and learning. Not everything new is good but everything new is worth considering to see if it might be good. You don't have to hoover up everything on offer or sit back and wait for the perfect match. You just need to stay alert and open to offers.

I guess I should go download Fortnite now.


  1. The problem for me is that Raph pretty much says everything is an MMO. If it has an online component and two people can interact, it is an MMO. I'm pretty sure he'd say that No Man's Sky is an MMO now that it has finally delivered on the promise that you can run into other people.

    Yeah, I know, grumpy elitist old me.

    You have to admit that, as a term, MMO has been stretched very thin. This is why I try to be careful about which term I use, preferring MMORPG and usually specifying the shared, persistent, virtual world aspect of that. That, for me, is a key element. That is why I did jump on Minecraft eventually but see Fortnite as just a shooter. Whether it is an MMO shooter, that doesn't really matter much to me.

    1. I feel exactly the same. The term MMO has been stretched so far it's nearly meaningless now that everything has an online component.

      For me the RPG parts still is important and of course the persistent world you can explore. And there has to be some story that's been told.

      And i don't subscribe to the school of thought that everything that has some sort of character development is an RPG. CoD is not an RPG :) It has to have some sort of power progression to be called an RPG.

      Perhaps we need some new words to define the games we like because the old words are just to vague now.

    2. Yeah, just thirding what Wilhelm and Lognodo above me have said. I don't think anyone's denying that a lot of games have MMO elements these days. If you're a fan of MMORPGs that doesn't automatically make them relevant to you though. I guess we need to go back to emphasising the RPG part more again to highlight that we're not interested in any old multiplayer shooter.

    3. Generally I think Raph talks through his hat. I wasn't planning on paying any attention to his latest pronouncement and I was just going to drag it in as a talking point but then, as you can see from the broken-backed nature of the post itself, I was completely derailed when I went and read the article that got Raph tweeting in the first place. That article articulates brilliantly exactly why Fortnite is an MMO in all the ways that matter - or the ways that matter to me, anyway.

      The author (I really should learn his name) uses skate parks as a point of comparison. For years I always used to say that MMOs were the virtual equivalent of the recs I grew up with - Recreation Grounds, an open space in towns where kids of all ages would gather, unsupervised, to play games and hang out.

      I also used to go on at length about the main reason I, discovering EQ at the age of 40, became so overwhelmed and taken up by it that I changed many of my habits and my general lifestyle so i could spend as much time there as possible. That was because the experience of roaming around Norrath on my own, then running into other people, getting to know them, hanging out and playing together, was the strongest callback to my very happy childhood. MMO gameplay of that kind is literally what I used to do in real life from the age of about eight to fifteen.

      From then, as I moved into somewhat more structured play, with guilds and fixed groups, the whole experience bagan to mirror my late adolescence and early twenties, when my social life revolved around cliques in school and college. That period lasted several years and forms the core of what I believe an MMO to be.

      Since then, the MMOs we talk about here have become increasingly impersonal and solipsistic. Systems and mechanics, most of which I have regularly and routinely praised, remove most of the need to socialize in anything but the most abstract fashion. The piece describing the way Fortnite is played suggests a return to the behaviors and values that made MMOs so vital and irresistible in the first decade of the form.

      Of course, I'm taking the writer at his word. I don't play Fortnite and were I to start there's little to no chance I'd play it socially as described. What's more, it isn't my generation, or the one below me, that needs Fortnite. It's the generation that needs Recs and Skateparks and doesn't have them.

      In terms of entertainment and personal enjoyment, what I want are plenty more AAA graphical MMORPGS that follow the well-established DIKU-MUD path. That's why the MMO I'm pinning most of my hopes on - personally - is Brad McQuaid's Pantheon. Much though I want to play that game, however, I'm not intellectually excited by it. I'm far more excited in that way by the new games that I won't be playing and especially by the new games I can't even imagine.

      I certainly couldn't have imagined Fortnite (or Minecraft) becoming the cultural juggernauts they did, before it happened. Who could? I'm somewhat annoyed with myself for not having realized until it was painstakingly explained to me just how important both are. I'd like to think I could have spotted it for myself but apparently not. I'm just hoping I can gee myself up to pay sufficient attention in future to spot what's going on right under my nose.

      And this comment, of course, should have been part of the main post. If I'd known when I started writing the post this morning what it was going to be about, it would have been!

  2. I'm in agreement that the term "MMO" doesn't mean much more than "has other players in it" these days, which encompasses roughly 95% of all games. Calling Fortnite the newest version of what started as traditional MMORPGs is a bit of a stretch for me. I'd classify it more as a descendent of progenitors like Quake and Counterstrike, with a little survival sandbox thrown in.

    1. If you haven't already, you should read the linked article. The reason Fortnite is an MMO has literally nothing to do with the given purpose of the game itself.

  3. The author is Keith Stuart: once (and still occasional) games journalist at The Guardian.

    And Raph's point, although he doesn't put it this way, is that all MMO's are Virtual Worlds - and although our genre (MMOs) has been superceded as the representatative of Virtual Worlds, those worlds, and the dreams they articulate, are still out there and active: and games like Fortnight (and yes, Minecraft before it: Keith Stuart has a beautiful book about the way Minecraft enabled him to connect with his son with autism) are the current representation of the Virtual World.

    Sure, I'd like more people playing Black Desert (insert your own favourite MMO here), but I love that many, many people are experiencing and creating their own sense of self through Virtual Worlds, in this case, Fortnight. Long may it prosper, at least until it's replaced by the next improvement for 'living the life you wish to live in a safe but challenging environment'.

    1. Ah is that who he is? I've looked at that book at work and nearly bought it. I might add it to my wishlist. I deliberately avoided using the term "virtual world" in the latter half of the post because it always leads to a whole load of clarifications but I was thinking it.

      We suffer badly from misleading legacy terminology when we try to talk about gaming and as the whole network of things we call "games" continues to both expand and fracture that problem just gets worse and worse. I've almost given up arguing that the the worst thing that ever happened to the MMORPG genre was the name it was given right at the start but I still largely believe it to be true. Half the things that carry the label should never have been called "games" at all and we should never have conflated "virtual worlds" with online roleplaying games as if they were merely different names for the same thing.

      Every time I read something as well-argued as Keith Stuart's piece it reminds me what I used to believe about the form twenty, fifteen, even ten years ago and how far from those ideals I've let myself slide. Probably obvious from the tone in the latter half of the post...

      I really need to do a proper analysis of all this sometime but it's not going to be this side of 2019.

  4. One of the things I find fascinating about your perspective is that you're very much what I would define as an "old school" MMO player rooted in the old days of EverQuest and the like (which seem impossibly ancient to my twenty-eight year old self who joined MMOs "only" ten years ago), and yet you maintain a great deal of open-mindedness towards the future of the genre. It's quite refreshing. I find too many people in this part of cyberspace are blinded by nostalgia. You clearly love the genre's past, but not to the point where it makes you hate its present. I still often disagree with your opinions, but I always find the logic behind them interesting and worthy of respect.

    Anyway, a bit off topic, but this post reminded me why I follow you.

    On topic: That article on Fortnite is an interesting read. It still doesn't seem like a game for me, but it does give me a better insight into its popularity.

    It reminds me of something I read once about why Eastern and Western MMO design tends to differ. The argument was that Eastern MMOs have historically tended towards grind and simplicity not out of any nefarious purpose, but simply because of the culture of gaming there.

    In the West, gaming is largely something you do at home, alone or perhaps with one or two other people. In the East, gaming is more commonly something you do in an Internet cafe surrounded by your friends. You chat and hang out while playing, and the game is just kind of something mindless to fiddle with while you're socializing. That's why shallow grinders are popular -- they don't want a game that's going to distract them from their friends too much.

    1. Thanks for the very kind comments! My starting point for most things, particularly in art and entertainment, is that there's always going to be something new and interesting round the next corner and my favorite thing ever may be something I haven't yet found. That's how I've always been and I don't find that aging changes my attitude to that at all.

      I realise it's not typical behavior, though. It's very common for people to become fixated on or stuck in the period when they first discovered something, usually in the ten or fifteen years from adolescence to full adulthood. If you read the comments after music videos on YouTube (which I do, all the time) it's the norm for person after person to claim that X period was the best ever for music and that all music since then is dire and awful. The golden age varies from the 1950s to the early 200os, the only consistency being that it co-incides with the formative years of the commenter. I plan on never being one of those people. Even though I still love most of the things I've loved over the decades, there's always room for more.

      The East/West thing is fascinating. I've read exactyl that about internet cafes too. I watched a documentary on it once and one thing I remember was that Eastern gamers preferred click-to-move to WASD because
      they liked to play using only one hand, the other being unavailable because they either had a cigarette in it or had their arm around a girlfriend, whose role was to watch admiringly as they played. Not sure how universal that ever was but it was a striking image.

  5. Very good read (yours as well as Keith Stuart's).

    I didn't think twice about trying out Fortnite until now, but if I look at it like this I think I absolutely should some time.
    After all "a place to go" is what I'm always looking for in a game rather than "stuff to do".

    1. I suspect you probably have to have a bunch of friends who play to get the full "place to go" effect, but even the names and descriptions of the locales in Fortnight made it sound like a place worth exploring. I wonder if the same map is used for the PvE co-op version (which still exists, but you have to pay for it, which seems counter-intuitive).


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