World of Warcraft Is a Theme Park; Eve Is a Sandbox

Hi, everyone. I never thought I’d be in the minority anywhere claiming that games are supposed to be fun, but I’ll wear it proudly. Any entertainment is supposed to be, well, entertaining, and that aspect (as opposed to, say, enlightenment or provocation, which can also be important aspects of any art) is particularly important to games because they are generally the only media that require the consumer to physically participate in creating the experience.

In other words, if the game isn’t fun or entertaining to actually play, the audience will simply put it down. And then nothing else matters.

But enough of the theory. On to the games. In no particular order, here are some random thoughts on some of the notable games of 2010. In many cases, I wrote full reviews of these games already, which are linked to below. My natural and traditional personal gaming milieu is the PC, not consoles, so if there is a bias in that direction I’m proud of that, too. I’m also trying to get to some of the games mentioned in the comments section.

StarCraft II. I’ve been to South Korea and written about how video games, in particular competitive StarCraft, are as important in that culture as professional sports are in ours. It is important to understand StarCraft II in that light. The Koreans refer to competitive gaming as “e-sports,” and StarCraft is really as close to a sport as any online game has come. So while the single-player campaign is entertaining and fun (there are those words again), it really is little more than a nice long learning curve leading you into the introductory online tutorials. StarCraft II is all about your personal skill level, combining manual dexterity with deep knowledge of the actual game systems. In particular, StarCraft is about mastering the rock-paper-scissors relationships among dozens of units.

In online play, there is no narrative and there are no characters. It is just you and your opponent(s). If you’re starting from scratch you will have to lose to other players online—often in utterly humiliating and soul-scarring fashion—literally hundreds of times before you achieve even a basic level of competitive competence. Some people find that fun. Others don’t. But that is what makes StarCraft stand out from the other big Blizzard franchises, in a good way. World of Warcraft and Diablo can each be played in total care-bear mode if you want to, where no player can ever hurt you. But StarCraft is all about head-to-head competition. When it comes to delivering that online competition in a slick, easy-to-navigate way, SC2 and Blizzard’s are matched only perhaps by recent Call of Duty games.

It bears pointing out that both Blizzard and Call of Duty are ultimately controlled by the same company, Activision Blizzard. This isn’t the place for a long comparison between Activision Blizzard and its archrival Electronic Arts, but online play is an important area where Activision remains ahead. (Though personally when it comes to online combat shooters, I vastly prefer the more strategic pacing and style of E.A.’s Battlefield: Bad
Company 2
on Windows to the more frantic multiplayer in either of the recent Call of Duty games.)

Medal of Honor. While the single-player story of Black Ops was wild and implausible (which I enjoyed), Medal of Honor was supposed to be keeping it real in the dusty hills and canyons of Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the scripting and level design and other actual play structures of Medal of Honor are vastly inferior to the recent Call of Duty games. Here we return to my theme at the top: No matter how realistic and gritty and serious a game may be, it fails if it is not fun to play.

Mass Effect 2. I’m an old-school role-playing game fan (both table-top and electronic), and so I’ve been a fan of BioWare since Baldur’s Gate in 1998. When BioWare went to the dark side—switching its lead development platform from Windows to Xbox with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and then Jade Empire and Mass Effect—I felt no small twinge of betrayal. I’ve gotten over it (Dragon Age helped) but Mass Effect 2 represents a lot of what I feared could happen when BioWare went for the mass-market console audience.

It is not the streamlining of the play mechanics I object to; I’m at peace with the fact that Mass Effect is now a shooter franchise with some role-playing elements rather than the other way around. Rather, I just didn’t find the plotting and storyline of Mass Effect 2 very interesting. As others have mentioned, the whole story just boils down to “go collect the various crew members.” Yes, the various adventures are exciting as far as they go, but the big story of humanity’s struggle for a place in the galaxy was not served by them. Once you assemble the A Team there is basically one big concluding level and that’s it. Of course, actually doing things with the band you’ve put back together will be the focus of the trilogy’s third game. And I’m psyched for that. I just wish the second installment had gone farther on its own. As has been said, it feels like ME2 exists only to stitch together the beginning and end of the saga; unlike the ultimate science-fiction sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, it is not the most interesting part.

Sid Meier’s Civilization V. I love the entire Civilization series, but I’ve come to realize I have a serious problem with it: The artificial intelligence blows. Rather than playing smarter, like a chess program, Civ 5 (and its predecessors, to be fair) keeps up with humans by giving the A.I. player structural advantages. The only way the computer can compete with a good human player is, essentially, to cheat on higher difficulty levels. By cheat, I mean that the computer players get to construct items and buildings using fewer resources than you have to spend.

Sure, you can play online against other real people, but you risk a four-hour game being ruined when the other person simply disconnects or walks away. Part of the appeal of Civilization has always been its turn-based, single-player structure. That allows you to play on your own time—maybe make some moves, then come back to it after a few days. I want to be able to play against a machine, but I want to play against A.I. opponents who play like people, tying short-term decisions to long-term objectives.

I discussed this with a top Civ 5 designer, and he basically said that it is just too hard (or too expensive, depending on how you look at it). I understand why: There is a lot more information to process and a hell of a lot more going on in a sprawling multiplayer game like Civ than in a severely bounded and limited game like chess. I understand why making Civ play like an expert human without cheating would require a vast amount of engineering and programming commitment (and cost).

And frankly, I understand why it is not worth it. Such ability would only appeal to a small minority of Civ players, and Take-Two is trying to move the entire franchise in the opposite direction, toward casual players. Computers can play chess. But they can’t play Go or poker at a world-class level yet. And they can’t play complex turn-based strategy games like Civ 5 without cheating. (For a much simpler yet almost as addictive turn-based strategy game that you can learn to play in five minutes and that doesn’t cheat, check out Slay).

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. A great open-world game in the sort of historical setting I wish more games would explore. There is a ton to do in Rome, but I just wish the game gave its minor characters more personality and more of their own individual storylines, a la Red Dead Redemption. Red Dead was excellent at giving you the sense that while your adventure was important, there were other things going on in the world around you. You could choose to take an interest in other folks’ affairs or not, but Red Dead was packed full of such opportunities. In Brotherhood, there are crypts to explore and thieves to catch on the side, but I didn’t find the city full of stories and characters in the way that Rockstar’s games are. That said, I don’t feel the Assassin’s Creed series is getting its proper due as a top franchise in games today (probably because it doesn’t feature machine guns).

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. I have a deep and somewhat ambiguous relationship with WoW that I’m hoping to explore at length soon. I started playing WoW the week it came out in 2004, and over the next two and a half years I spent several thousand hours playing the game as an extremely serious high-end raider. I burnt out in early 2007 after the game’s first expansion, The Burning Crusade, and soon defected to Eve Online, which is a far more hard-core, difficult, and involved game than WoW, but one I could at least play on my own schedule at first (rather than having to show up on time four or five nights a week).

The highest praise I can offer Cataclysm, which hit the market last week, is that it has gotten me back into WoW. Blizzard has done an incredible job of getting high-end players back into the original world of Azeroth after sending them off in previous expansions to Outlands and Northrend (and out of the view of newer players). Has the game lost some of its quirky character since the early days? Of course. The game has become streamlined and systematized in certain ways, but I can see why that has happened, given the mass audience the game now serves. As always, the star of WoW is the world itself, and Blizzard does all it can to make that world available to players. In that sense, WoW is the ultimate online theme park. I’m back in the theme park and I’m enjoying the rides, but I’m still not sure just how serious and committed I’ll end up this
time around.

Eve Online. If WoW is a theme park, Eve is a sandbox. One isn’t better or worse than the other. They’re just different and appeal to different sorts of players. In Eve, the world itself (or rather, the galaxy) barely exists except as a framework. The star of Eve is not the world; it is the players. As in the last several years, I spent far more time playing Eve in 2010 than any other game. In fact, Eve is pretty much the only game I play regularly for myself. (For now, WoW is still in a nether zone between work and personal play.)

In almost every respect, Eve is the anti-WoW. In WoW, no other player can permanently hurt you. When you die in WoW, you resurrect without losing anything except a small bit of time. In Eve, other players can and will take everything you have if you let them. When your ship gets blown up in Eve, it is gone forever and the people who blew you up may have gotten away with your juiciest equipment. (Hence the first rule of Eve: Don’t fly what you can’t afford to lose, because eventually you will lose it.)

For me, Eve is fun and entertaining and challenging and rewarding all at once. The storylines that matter in Eve are created solely through the interaction and social and political dynamics among tens of thousands of players. For my personal taste, playing games is not really about sitting alone in front of a screen interacting with a computer program, even when that program is as felicitous as Red Dead Redemption. Instead, gaming is at its best for me when I am collaborating with other real people through the intermediation of the game to accomplish shared goals. Those goals have meaning because of both their narrative context (the story) and the effort expended to achieve them (the play mechanics).

A lot more people prefer the theme-park model (WoW) to the sandbox approach (Eve), but I thoroughly enjoy them both. Even in a theme park, no one wants to ride alone. Hardly anyone wants to play Wii Sports or Kinect alone either, as opposed to a more traditional console game. So yes, games do exist to connect people and they are doing more of that than ever.

There’s so much we didn’t get to in detail, like the resurrection of music games with Rock Band 3, DJ Hero 2, and the flawed experiment that is Power Gig. We haven’t talked about the relevance of Facebook games and mobile games like Angry Birds. We didn’t talk about 3-D gaming (in the few games that use it, like Black Ops and Gran Turismo 5, it is incredible). But that’s the great thing about video games: They remain the most fertile and interesting area of mass entertainment.

Thanks for having me,

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