Welcome to the first of an irregular series of words by a long time friend of Koff’s.
..why am I here?
Well lets just say that he and I have been kicking around discussions for a long time. We like to talk, we like to pontificate and we sure like to rant.. Yup, we’ve shared plenty of meditations on life, love, whether Jeroen Tel really was a better musician than Rob Hubbard or how did Chris Butler become such a good C64 programmer after years of writing dreck. These nuggets and many more punctuate a friendship that goes back many, many, many years.
What makes it all so interesting, is that Koff and I are gamers at very different ends of the spectrum. He’s embroiled in it, lives it.. breathes it.. he’s spent years toiling away in the industry but enjoys the process and the results so deeply as to, well, take his work home with him (amongst other things!). Of course, sometimes it means he can’t see the wood for the woodchipper but that’s a tasty morsel for another time. Me? ..well I’d like to consider myself the complete consumer. Decades of experiencing and evaluating all that Koff and those like him see fit to lay before us… fried gold, diamonds in the rough and complete turds alike. I’ll admit that after all these years, its kinda cathartic to express some of this stuff by way of the humble written word, so I ask you to bear with me as I delve into a leftfield topic that many of us gamers take for granted.
“..And lo it came to pass, that gamers would learn to enjoy the pleasures of competition, co-operation and of social discourse with their fellow gamer. No longer confined to the solitary pursuit of perfection; they would go forth unto the world and share what they experienced in a joyous union of rapturous enlightenment..”
Yeah, right.. that’s not really the case at all is it? All things considered however, we’ve come a long way in a relatively short time.
Now apologies in advance to those obsessives out there who indulge in MMOGs but your particular drug of choice isn’t really going to get a look in here. Why? Because life just isn’t long enough to do it all justice – if justice is indeed the right word. 😉
So where to begin? Well, we know that in one crucial respect video gaming is no different from any other kind of recreational activity, particularly sport. It’s competitive. Extremely competitive. And why shouldn’t it be? Higher Scores, better lap times, unlockable characters? All of these things designed to enhance the entertainment, increase longevity by encouraging repeat play and competition. Of course a high score or a better lap time starts to lose its lustre if you’ve got no one to brag to right?
You see as our favourite pasttime properly entered the home, something happened. Solitary Computer gaming gained in dominance at the expense of the very arcades that helped to promote video gaming’s competitive nature to the wider world (and let’s face it, Games Master was pants!). Our interests began to turn inwards, causing us to lose interest in interacting with others on the game grid. Sure there were scores of home titles with two player modes that you and a friend could wreck your Competition Pros over; there’s no denying the important role the home computer revolution played in birthing today’s multi-billion dollar gaming industry either. But let’s be honest. Playing a rushed conversion of R-Type on your 14″ colour TV was never going to offer the same experience as traipsing to a packed amusement arcade with a pocket full of 10p coins; Waiting patiently for the chance to show a growing crowd just how good at Smash TV you really were.
Now if all of this sounds overly nostalgic that’s because it is. Unapologetically so in fact. Because only recently are we as a gaming culture begining to return to the sheer joie de vivre of that golden era. For example, ask yourselves why “retro gaming” has established itself as more than just a flash-in-the-pan fad. Yes, there’s money to be made in it but more importantly, we’re savvy enough to appreciate that its not solely about the games themselves, but that it might actually be about the game play instead. Emulators and replica JaMMA cabinets will never be able to recreate the past glory of a session down the Plashet Road Arcade, or late night jaunt to Southend’s many gaming pits. What those old games do for us however, is serve as a timely reminder that it should be about more than just sitting in a darkened room, limping through yet another chapter of [Insert nameless FPS/TPS/Sports Franchise here] hoping you’ll get to the save checkpoint in one piece. And what happens when you’re done? You get the pleasure of sitting through 20 minutes of end credits followed by the glorious reward of being given the same game to complete all over again on a harder difficulty. Oh, and a hollow empty feeling as you hunger for something else to entertain you.
Now on the surface that sounds not too dissimilar from previous generations of games, except with no high score to call your own and more importantly a no real culture based around the importance of scoring achievements any more. What were we left with?
You could further argue that in many respects, the last few generations of games I’m talking about don’t differ a great deal from those of the distant past (apart from, y’know, the obvious technological advances). Yes, once you’ve completed Pac-Man that’s it. Finito. Just like there’s not a lot to do once you’ve completed Devil May Cry 3. However the real distinction between the two actually lies in how we ended up being engaged with those games and the world around us.
Back in’t day, you had to go out to play something. You actually had to leave the house. And, whilst you were there, stuff usually happened to you beyond just the game itself. Without putting too fine a point on it try this for example. Liken what I’ve just said to the difference between being sitting home alone with nothing more for company than a four-pack of warm Carling, a Pot Noodle and a poorly censored hour of soft porn on the telly; versus going down to a lively pub with your mates, sinking several pints, pulling the cute blonde with the cavernous cleavage and taking her home for a night of hide the salami…
Being at home with all the mod cons, microwave dinners and Playboy Channel “On-Demand” might *seem* more advanced (better?) on the surface, but where does the real interaction come from? Option #2 is where its at (I’ll leave the lurid details of how it actually plays out to your own imagination..) 😉
So, is Multiplayer is the key..?
We’ve all heard stories of how Wolfenstein and Doom were a jolt in the arm for multiplayer, social, gaming; the birthplace of huge CounterStrike sessions, Unreal Tournaments and middleware tools like GameSpy. The impact is much much bigger than that. Similarly, the humble LAN party is most definitely the inspiration and the catalyst for what millions of gamers now enjoy in the form of XBox LIVE and PSN – except now, we can enjoy it without the arseache of having to lug a mini tower, bulky CRT and miles of CAT5 cabling to our friends’ place. By taking advantage of facilities such as these to start gaming online, it allows us to at once get closer to those older sociable days and in many ways take us beyond it.
But it doesn’t just stop there. Its no surprise that the wireless capabilities of both the DS and the PSP are constantly touted. Or in another example, the emergence of GPS location-based “real world” games building on early efforts such as GeoCaching. Both the public and the entertainment industry have come to (re)realise the importance of socially interactive gaming (And lets not forget all the parents groups who are now struggling to to use the old “Gaming makes you socially inept” argument)
It isn’t all altruistic sweetness and light unfortunately. There’s gold in them thar hills. Both the hardware and software Vendors want to sell us more stuff. Gaming, online or otherwise is a business after all and they want to milk it. The cynical amongst us will cite new trends such as micro-payments, Episodic and ancilliary DLC as an attempt to leverage even more revenue from an already saturated marketplace.. and they’re not wrong.
Still, we have to accept that its the price we now pay for our own earlier complacency and apathy. As a group on the whole, we’ve grown more impatient and perversely, acquired shorter attention spans. The constantly evolving content path provided by an online delivery model does at least go some way to addressing this thirst. But if we’re as smart as we think we are, we should appreciate that the real benefit from all this online malarky, is through the return of interactivity – not just between us and our games, but more importantly with each other.
..And as for the importance of bragging rights; whoever wants to believe that high-scores are still passée in this day and age is very very wrong. Two words.. Achievement Points..