Get too comfortable with the constant forum chatter, 24-hour news and viral marketing initiatives, and it’s easy to forget that the first videogames were meant to be experienced in relative isolation. Developers presumed that when you stepped up to the arcade cabinet or plopped down in front of your TV screen, you knew little more than what the game told you. While you toiled away with their creations, they remained firmly behind the curtain.
In such a relationship, you could easily overlook or even willfully ignore a game’s faults. When I played the original Mario Kart, it didn’t really register with me that only half the racers were competitive past the 100cc difficulty level. That was a “feature” to me, not a game-balance issue. I also hardly noticed that certain weapons in Doom were basically game-breaking, effective at almost all ranges and against all enemies. If you hoarded enough plasma rifle ammo going into it, the epic confrontation with the Cyberdemon became a one-minute massacre.
Before the internet created the collective gamer and allowed for the post-release patch, developers could get away with anything short of a Battlecruiser 3000AD-level meltdown. Their jobs became a lot harder when gamers ceased to be a lonely crowd and started behaving like a hive mind. True, most of the gaming community’s collective effort has traditionally been wasted on machinima and fanboy wars, but it only takes a small group of passionate fans to dissect a game and expose everything that makes it tick.
For example, take the three-way relationship between a studio like Blizzard, its mass audience (which includes me) and its hardcore fans and critics. While my own ability to unearth World of Warcraft‘s or StarCraft‘s secrets is nonexistent, Blizzard has to face the certainty that there are thousands of people who are eager to explain anything and everything that I might have missed.
People like my friend Zach, who became intolerable as Diablo II‘s release date approached. Almost every time I connected to the internet, an AIM window would pop up with a link to the latest bit of information he’d mined from the fansites.
“Check it out: Some guys cooked up this program that lets you plan your character,” he would say. “I’ve got my necro planned up through Level 30. He’s going to be unstoppable.”
“Yeah?” I was really sick of hearing about it.
“Yeah. But here’s the thing – I’ve worked through all the possible class-skill combos and I’m pretty sure he becomes game-breaking if he’s paired with a paladin casting auras.”
“So here’s what I want you to do …”
“I have to do something?”
“Not much,” he quickly assured me. “Just roll your paladin right now.”
At the time, I had no intention of getting Diablo II. It wasn’t really my bag and frankly, my friend’s dedication frightened me a little. Think about Jonestown, or Tom Cruise on Oprah, and you’ve pretty much got the picture of him before every Blizzard release since Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness.
“Man, I dunno. We don’t even know when it’s coming out for sure.”
“Look, just roll your paladin. I’ve got to see how these two go together.”
“Why can’t you do it yourself?”
“Because you’re going to be playing the paladin, and you need to be comfortable with the character. So make him yours. Then let me know how you spec him.”
Guys like my friend Zach are the reverse of Cypher in The Matrix. They stop seeing the games and start seeing engines, probability tables, dice rolls and modifiers. He once interrupted my account of a recent StarCraft match to explain the absurdity of my Firebat-centric strategy.
“Look, unless you’ve got a guy coming at you with Zerglings, the Firebat is just taking up space in your bunkers. That fire animation looks nice, but that’s about all it has going for it.” Then he went into a detailed explanation of how StarCraft calculated splash damage, did a range comparison of the Firebat to other units like Hydralisks and finished by explaining that after their first armor upgrade, Zerg units were far less vulnerable to area-of-effect weaponry.
By the time he stopped talking, I had failed shop class.
People like Zach are also likely to participate in betas and leave detailed (some might say obsessive) messages on the developers’ forums explaining exactly what they feel is out of whack, how that one small problem drastically upsets the balance of the game and what should be done to fix it. Although developers are free to ignore these observations, it’s telling that Blizzard has instead become notorious for tweaking its games for years following release.
Prior to the internet, someone like Zach could only deconstruct so many games at once, and he couldn’t share his knowledge with more people than he could corner at school. But once we were all plugged into the same the stream of information, he and his kindred spirits began to change gaming. The reality of gaming in the last 15 years is that gamers can instantly find help with a difficult section of a game – or, at the very least, some assurance that others have experienced the same problem. The game is stripped bare by the collective scrutiny of the smartest players and the suspicions of the laymen.
Last month I played a mediocre action game and came to an infuriating boss fight that forced me to fall back on a walkthrough, a tactic that always leaves me feeling a little dirty. The first link from Google read, “OK, now get ready for the crappiest boss battle you’ve ever played.” Five minutes later, I uninstalled the game. It had been exposed as a fraud, relying on an unreasonably punishing enemy that required several levels’ warning and preparation.
There is no longer any hiding the sins of game design. If a game uses cheap tricks, takes shortcuts to artificially challenge the player or contains extraneous or redundant elements, a few people will catch on – and they’ll be more than happy to tell plenty of other gamers who would likely never have noticed anything was wrong.
That’s not necessarily a good thing. I sometimes worry that we’re all turning into amateur game designers and forgetting to be good audience members. I never heard the phrase “game balance issues” in my first decade as a gamer, but now it comes up constantly. I recently read a great piece on Steve Gaynor’s blog about what a good shooter combat arena looks like, which contributed enormously to my understanding of why I’ve loved certain shooters and been left cold by others. His understanding of how we play and approach encounters in a shooter is superb, but once you’ve read his explanation you can’t help but see the landscape of every shooter you play through the new, more critical lens Gaynor provides in his piece.
It doesn’t necessarily lessen my enjoyment of games like F.E.A.R. or Half-Life, but it gives me an unshakable sense of intentionality. Because I have access to so many people more thoughtful and analytical than myself, the people who made my games have started to become a part of my experience. When I’m sprinting across some machine gun-swept plaza in a Call of Duty game, racing for an abandoned car or a heavy planter to hide behind, I now sense the designers’ hand behind my next piece of cover. Suddenly, the maelstrom of war begins to resemble a carefully laid-out playground, as meticulously planned as a paintball court – and about as threatening.
On balance, however, I happily welcome the game-makers and skill-players into my experience if it means I’m getting a better product. A carefully structured game may seem a little too perfect, too devoid of reassuring chaos, but it will likely be more fun to play. It will also probably continue to get better as Zach and the rest of the gamer Overmind commence their exploiting, flaming, whining and explaining.
Rob Zacny is a freelance writer. When not focused on gaming, he pursues his interests in Classics, the World Wars, cooking and film. He can be reached at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.