Monday, February 25, 2019

All Aboard For Funtime

Naithin posted yesterday about some coming games of interest. There was one I hadn't heard of before: Outward.

There's no particular reason I should have heard of Outward. It's not an MMORPG. It's not even an MMO. The Steam page describes it as "an open-world RPG" which can be played "alone or with your friends".

It's supposed to be a sandbox rpg with survival mechanics "featuring deep simulation and immersion". Naithlin says it "...puts you in the shoes of a nobody in an otherwise high-fantasy world. Your victories will be small in scale, but no less meaningful.... Getting a backpack is a milestone to remember." In many ways it's the game I would have wanted fifteen or twenty years ago. Not any more. 

This morning I read what may be Gevlon's final blog post. He says it is. In it he details how he feels gaming has changed over the decade or so since he began blogging. Very much for the worse, in his opinion.

"It’s time for me to accept that my hobby went the way of television: once an intelligent entertainment, now targeted to the lowest common denominator", he says. A somewhat nuanced judgment, particularly given the very widely-held belief that television is currently enjoying its greatest Golden Age of all time.

But of course he means free-to-air, broadcast television, which has indeed descended into a dark place from which it will most likely never return. Ironically, over almost exactly the same timeframe, TV has undergone a role-reversal with online gaming. Television is now a subscription medium; games are free. And easy.

"Players no longer need to be any good to progress. They just have to log in and open their wallets... They don’t have to learn anything to succeed, so learning became “tryhard”. They became the dominant culture in gaming. Being any good became “elitism”. “Gamers are dead” is the new slogan among developers"

Gevlon again. It's an oversimplification but not without substance. Expectations and standards have changed.

Have they changed for the worse, though? I'm not sure. And I don't propose to go round that track again, not right now.

What interests me more is how I've changed over the same period. From the time I first dicovered role-playing games, fairly late, in my early twenties, until perhaps ten years after I started playing EverQuest in 1999, my tastes in the genre were fairly consistent.

For the best part of thirty years I knew what I wanted in an RPG, be it on or offline, tabletop or on screen. I wanted a low level, low fantasy setting, where cantrips and potions represented the only magic most people would ever see and the sight of a goblin or two would send even the town guards running.

I was dead set against anything to do with dragons, gods or demons. I wanted my characters to be ordinary people, scratching a living by poking around in old ruins hoping to find a few tarnished trinkets to sell back in town.

Another thing I wanted was "realism". My characters should need to eat, drink and sleep. They'd need to dress appropriately for the weather and anyone crazy enough to try swimming in chainmail deserved a swift trip to the bottom of the river.

I never entirely got what I wanted, even in tabletop RPGs I GM'd myself. Everything always tends to drift upwards. Characters get more powerful. Players want to fight bigger, scarier things.

In MMORPGs, few of which even attempted to pay lip service to any kind of "realism", the invitable power creep of expansions and updates dragged the median level of play away from the gnoll tribe menacing my home village to battles with the gods, with my character as "the chosen one" or "The Commander".

The strange thing is, over time I got to like it. Or perhaps I stopped caring. I was paying far more attention to whether I was enjoying myself than whether I ought to be. It turns out that being powerful and winning all the time is fun.

And killing bigger monsters with flashier explosions is more exciting than killing small ones with a fizzle.I started out playing gritty, leather-clad woodsmen and women, reliant on hard-won practical skills and the ability to read a scent on the wind or a spoor on the ground. These days, in all games, I cleave towards classes with the most spectacular spells and, especially, the most devestating area attacks.

Instead of slipping unseen through the woods, living off the land, I like to leap into the middle of a crowded camp yelling a battlecry, calling down fire from the sky or spinning in circles like a steel-bladed whirlwind, until everything around me lies dead. Subtle I am not.

It's true that I do, even now, relish a slow start. I like the picking yourself up by your bootstraps aspect of starting out with nothing. But you can only stay low level for so long. And how many times can you scavenge for food with the meter running down before you say "sod this for a game of soldiers" and log off?

Which is why characters, even in games with survival mechanics, always outgrow their needs. Those things that seemed hard starting out become easier, then trivial, then cease to be things at all. If not, people get bored of the endless maintenance-work and drift away.

The developers of Outward are almost evangelistic about the joys of defeat. They make a play of the game's constant autosaving, meaning you have to live with your mistakes. All of them. There are even things called "dynamic defeat scenarios", which makes losing sound like something to be relished.

In the end, though, unless the aim is to attract an audience of masochists, players will have to feel they have "won". This is the hard-won discovery of games developers these past few years against which Gevlon rails.

The way he puts it, "Game companies realized that money comes from bad players too, so they started to nerf their games." Or perhaps, given more options than they'd previously been offered, players discovered they didn't care quite so much about being good at games as they thought they did.

Gevlon sees it as the old guard dying out. Players who cared about skill and effort finally deciding the games were no longer worthy of their time and trouble, moving on to other hobbies. There's certainly some of that.

I suspect, though, that many more players changed along with the games. As the games got easier, less demanding, they found there were compensations for the loss of status that came with being "good". Having things is what matters, not how you got them. And less work means more play.

Without a doubt, I was such a player. My goals changed, my tastes changed, my expectations changed. Here I am, entertain me.

The question is, could I change again? Could I find myself swept up in some new, harsh world of struggle, grubbing in the dirt for the wherewithal to buy myself a pair of worn boots and a belt pouch to carry my few coppers?

Of course I could. And no doubt will. And then the cycle will start over.

The cat's out of the bag, the genie out of the bottle. Uphill both ways in the snow was fine when we didn't have a clue where we were going. Today's players, no longer "gamers", know there are shorter, smoother paths to the sunlit uplands.


  1. Just a little side note. I thought perhaps you should take a look at Kenshi if you haven't already.

    I have not played it myself, but think the concept is really interesting. If i find the time i will definitely try this out. And of course the fine people at Rock Paper Shotgun gave it a 'Bestest of the Best' mark.

    1. I vaguely remember looking at Kenshi a while ago. It looks interesting. There's supposed to be a free demo, which I just tried to download, but the download seems to be broken.

  2. I've had a quickdraft floating around a while on approaching a post on how I've changed as a gamer. Outward wasn't the catalyst for it, but could be a good case study in retrospect after trying it out possibly. For me I was contemplating my cycle of Carebear PvEer -> PvP Evangelist -> ...somewhere in the middle, but certainly not as tolerant of certain PvP aspects as I once was.

    I think what has captured me about Outward is that it is still a high fantasy game. You can end up slinging spells and wielding magic weapons.

    Whether it lives or dies (at least as a I think I will enjoy) is going to be balanced on a knife's edge of challenge driving the fantasy of being a nobody while also having a strong sense of progression and micro-goals that can give that same reward sensation as a particularly good drop in another game.

    I don't have any inkling yet whether that is a line Outward will get right, but I'm pretty keen to find out.

    1. Correction for clarity to above:
      Whether it lives or dies (at least as a thing* I will enjoy)...

    2. Despite my position in the post, I do think Outward looks like an interesting game. The screenshots, which I took from their press kit, are hugely more impressive than the in-game video, though, The video makes the game look badly animated and almost unfinished.

      I actually thought Kenshi looked more interesting, though. I wish the demo worked.

  3. Ah, yes. Lifelong learning. You must learn because we say so. The puritan learning ethic is the best. Peer pressure to learn and get up to acceptable externally-marked standards. People should be rewarded that which they are due, due to their hard work and effort learning. Masters of learning deserve their ivory tower over the lazy hoi polloi below. Expertise and mastery are everything, and it cheapens the perceived value of my awards for learning if all of society does not see things this way.

    Heaven forbid that people learn as and when they feel like it, when they want to, or vegetate around nor learning at all.

    (Hmm, have I mixed up the word “learn” with “work” or “game” somewhere along the line there?)

    1. I think you may have broken my irony meter. I'm kind of in favor of life-long learning, although I'm not sure I'm thinking of the same experience you are. I don't really see all that much in favor of "vegetating around not learning at all", not least because there are some fairly-well documented health benefits to keeping up the learning well into later life. When it comes to playing games, though, I do think people should be entirely free to do what they darn well please.

  4. "And less work means more play."

    This is exactly how I feel nowadays. I have enough work at work, I don't need more of that in my free time.

    "I like to leap into the middle of a crowded camp yelling a battlecry, calling down fire from the sky or spinning in circles like a steel-bladed whirlwind, until everything around me lies dead. Subtle I am not."

    I definitely recommend getting Black Desert running again and giving the Striker a whirl. Playing him feels EXACTLY like that. :-) Unfortunately he starts to really shine only after his awakening (at level 56), especially in the AoE department, but that's achieved very quickly and easily even without playing the game like a second job.

    1. Yes, I would really like to get back to Black Desert and try some of the other classes. Not sure when it's going to happen though.

  5. Gevlon's rant sounds very much like the elitism that has been around gaming since forever. There is always some resentment when the filthy casuals are allowed to have anything nice without having "earned" it, for whatever value the speaker has assigned to the word. (Roll that well worn clip of Holly Longdale saying Daybreak will never instance raids on progression servers because allowing casuals to raid would diminish the achievements of real raiders.)

    And, for a lot of games... MMOs especially... there has always been a gray market for those wishing to buy their way ahead rather than play. Leveling services, gold sellers, in-game items for sale, none of that is new. The change has been that the companies running the games figured out that they couldn't stop it, so instead they've decided to step in and get the revenue from it. As as well they might. If somebody is going to sell... and somebody is ALWAYS going to sell... it is better for all concerned that the buyers are giving money to support the game and not some third party.

    And, in the end, those who bought their way in won't perform as well or will tire more quickly for not having become invested along the way. It never changes. Among the advice I would give anybody starting out on a new game would be to do things the hard way, whatever that is, because in the end it is playing the game that counts. If you're paying to bypass the game... thanks for the donation to keep it running I suppose... then you're much less likely to stick around.


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