by Jessica Mulligan
Hes not dead, just gone away
One of my favorite game info/rant sites, The Rantings of Lum the Mad, closed down at the end of last month.
The site had been around for a couple years, applying the annoyingly barbed sting of Scott Jennings wit to the boneheaded mistakes of the massive-multiplayer game industry. I like to think I can turn a clever phrase and amuse the reader, but when he got on a roll, even I was envious of Scotts ability to make a salient point with biting humor. Its all the more impressive when you realize that he wasnt a professional game scribe; it was a hobby for him. Would that more so-called professionals in the industry had such talent and insight.
You might not think so if all youd read of Scott were some of his rants from the first six to nine months of Lums existence. What impressed me most about Lum was how the site matured over time. It started out as a true personal rant site, meaning Scott wasnt afraid to get viciously personal in attacks on individuals. This I know from experience, having been the target of such, ahem, personal attention, more than once in those early days. As a functionary for Origin System working on Ultima Online, I was fair game and, boy-oh-boy, did that guy hunt me with a vengeance. Ill never forget reading his mid-1999 "Win a Dream Date with Durga!" posting, "Durga" being my Ultima Online handle. It was an incredibly vicious attack that played on the South Park-ish anti-gay trash talk that was then popular among his readers. The implied point was that whoever won the contest would, of course, actually lose, because theyd have to go on a date with a transsexual, and we all know what that means, right?
In a long life as a modern iconclast and being subjected to such slings and arrows, I cant remember being quite so angry as I was just then. So Im sitting there, staring at the monitor and seeing red, when I realized I was also laughing my head off and thinking, "This guy is an #*$hole, but hes a funny #*$hole." About a month later, I met Scott in the person at a Texas Renaissance Festival gathering for UO players and we both realized the other was not the Anti-Christ. Over time, we developed a mutual respect.
Later that year or early in 2000 (I forget when exactly and the archives arent online yet, so I cant check), Scott shocked his readers when he publicly swore off personal attacks and covering such tidbits as which game volunteers were screwing which inhouse employees to get cool stuff in what game, and announced that, henceforth, hed viciously attack ideas, events and issues, not the people behind them. And it worked; applying his talent to issues in a public forum of his own making actually caused publishers to reverse some silly decisions and, gods forfend, consult him and his readers before taking action on other decisions. It was a good example of one way the system can work to everyones benefit.
All good things must come to end, however. Earlier this year, Mythic Entertainment hired Scott onto the Dark Age of Camelot team. To avoid a conflict of interest, Scott asked his team of writers and moderators to find another domain name and close down Lum the Mad on September 30.
And so they did, and so an era ends, quietly, but with dignity intact. It was a short era, but a damn good one, overall. When the Slow News Day team has the Lum archives online, Ill post the address. Such elegantly biting writing, even the nasty stuff, should be preserved.
Besides, I want it recorded that Im a Dream Date, dammit! Eat your heart out, Barbie.
Have yourself a merry little purchase
It is officially the Christmas Selling Season, the PC and console game industrys annual ship-to-retail frenzy. Depending on who is doing the figuring, between 35% and 60% of all videogame sales happen during this period, so this is the make-or-break season for publishers. Close to 600 games across all platforms are scheduled to be released between October 1 and December 25. If youre interested in such things, Gamespot has a pretty complete release calendar, which you can check out at http://gamespot.com/gamespot/filters/calendar/pc/0,10854,102001,00.html.
On the PC side of the industry, the frenzy to get products out the door and on the shelf means the practice of shipping products with known major bugs that will need to be patched online directly after installation and before one minute of game play ensues. This is the brave new world that the Internet has helped foster; a game doesnt have to be finished, it has to be Tuesday, thank you very much.
Im not sure theres anything really wrong with that; in the pre-online days, theyd have just shipped the game with the bugs and you might or might not have been able to get a patch later on. If a patch was made available after ship, youd have to call the publisher and have it snail-mailed to you on floppy disk. So the wonder that is the Internet (and the earlier proprietary online services) makes it possible to fix problems faster, and thats a good thing.
On the other hand, whatever happened to pride of product? When did it become OK to ship a game with 400 known bugs? Im not joking; I know from direct experience that a mere 400 bugs is not unusual at all for a gold master, nor is it uncommon to ship product even if QA wont sign off on it. No other industry gets away with crap like that. If Hoover shipped a vacuum cleaner with 400 known defects, theyd be out of business. If Ford shipped a car with even two known defects, theyd be testifying before Congress faster than you can say "corporate slime."
The fiscal realities of publishing and the stark realities of software development using Microsofts tools may make the following a pipe dream, but wouldnt it be nice if a PC game shipped without the need for a patch?
Hey, I said it was a pipe dream. This is part of the price we pay for semi-standardization on Windows tools for the PC game platform. If youve ever heard a coder in the next cubicle cursing the latest release of DirectX for breaking his beautiful subroutine, you know what Im talking about. Microsoft tools solve a lot of routine problems, but the ever-changing nature of them can also create others, as well as bloating out the memory and CPU requirements of most game applications. Its a double-edged sword, with all that entails.
Since Windows is likely to be the PC operating system for a long while, were just going to have to learn to live with both the advantages and disadvantages. And constant patching is going to be one of those things that fits both categories.
And speaking of Dark Age of Camelot
Today is the scheduled ship date for DAOC and the day developer Mythic Entertainment is scheduled to turn on the servers for paying customers.
I mention this because the industrys record of online game launches this year is abysmal and we could use a win, so keep your fingers crossed. The last smooth launch we saw hell, the only smooth launch weve had in the Internet era was Turbines Asherons Call, and that was two years ago. And for all that I was earlier poking pins at Microsoft, their support to Turbine was no doubt instrumental in that smooth launch event.
The importance to the industry of a smooth launch for DAOC cant be over-stated. Players are already losing whatever small confidence they had in us from years of relatively smooth launches on the old online services, pre-1997. The disasters of the post-1997 era have hurt; weve been churning out some of our best customers/players. Come on, we only have about 700,000 paying customers in the US right now, and maybe 1.5 million truly active customers worldwide, out of about twice that who have actually tried the games. Thats pretty pathetic, considering there are supposedly 400 million Internet users and some 6-8 million hard-core gamers out there.
Theyve been churning for a variety of reasons, not just bad product launches. The point is, I think MMOG players patience has either run out or is riding the bleeding edge of that knife. One more launch disaster of a highly touted and anticipated product and we could easily lose a significant number of the old line hard-core players, and lose them for years and they are our bread and butter, we just cant live without them right now. DAOC is our last chance this year to rebuild our reputation a bit and regain some player trust that, yeah, some of us do know how to do this stuff.
Im not trying to put the responsibility of the industry as whole on Mythic. Im just saying it would be real nice if this launch goes well. Real nice.
And if they experience the problems others have had know fear.