Reflections on a Recurring Theme
by Jessica Mulligan
It was been a week of reflection for me. That reflection concerned recurring themes. There is a book involved and six years of opinion columns. There is also a point to make here, though it may take a while to get to it. I'm wordy that way.
On Thursday last, author copies of Developing Online Games: An Insider's Guide arrived at my home, a couple days after the book started hitting the shelves at the major bookstores. There is something somber about holding such a thing in your hands, about seeing your name and picture on the cover, which makes you involuntarily pause for a moment. It is one of those times which stand outside of time, where the world disappears into a little funnel, through which the only thing you see for an endless minute is that book in your hands. The culmination of years of work, sitting right there in your palms... You reflect, at such a time, on whether the message contained therein has merit, whether it is actually worth asking people to open their wallets for. Then you feel the grin start to tug at the corners of your mouth, the funnel widens and the rest of the world reappears, only a bit brighter somehow, and you start scrambling to find the right sized box so you can send a copy to Mom.
And yet... There was also a bit of that feeling this past weekend, as I had a bit of time to finally start seriously checking out the Skotos BTH forums again after a several week lapse due to travel and work. A few of the most interesting topics were Collateral Damage, When Size Does Matter and Four Dimensions of MMORPG; I spent quite a bit of time reading and then rereading them. A couple posts, I read a third time. It struck me once again how erudite the people are who post on that forum. It was not by planning; we just got lucky that there are a wide range of smart people with divergent opinions from experienced to non-experienced, from incredibly thoughtful to gut-hunch shotgun and everything in between. This is the kind of leavening you want in any forum because, without it, nothing gets accomplished. Without that spread, a forum tends end up with either a bunch of negative nay-sayers or a bunch of enthusiastic yea-sayers and what gets accomplished when only one general viewpoint is espoused? And I reflected on what I read there...
Now, I admit, these feelings aren't like having your life flash before your eyes, something I've also had happen more than once. It is more like having your attention so spot-on focused for a moment that it seems like time stops and you have that long, long moment in which to consider, well, everything. It is bemusing and maybe you've been in that space once or twice yourself, for some reason; it is a trip. You can't help but think about who you are and the message you're trying to deliver.
For a while, I thought about this column. In about a month, BTH will enter its seventh consecutive year of publication and one would have thought that everything I had to say about gaming would have been said long ago. There is nothing new under the sun and I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time harping on the same themes over and over again. This can be frustrating, because it means (to me, anyway) that there is a reason to do so, i.e. people aren't listening and the same mistakes keep being made over and over again, another recurring theme in the column. That is also one of the themes of the book and when I'd had a chance to spend some time looking at both, book and column, it was a bit sad and depressing to realize that, almost six years after I started trying to spread the word through the column, I should have to repeat the theme as co-author of a 400-plus page book.
Something was different, though, something had changed, something subtle. It took me a while to realize what it was; for some reason, I actually felt a bit of hope and reassurance. It wasn't the book finally being published, though that is a personal accomplishment I'm proud of. No, it was the forums that did it. I was reading through the messages there, posted by people from all levels of experience in the industry from player to hard-core developer and watching the fur fly and, suddenly, I realized I was getting irritated. How cock-sure and pronunciamento some of these Johnny-come-lately, never-made-a-game, by God newbs were acting! I mean, come on; taking to task some the best and brightest the online game industry have to offer? Making pronouncements that this game will fail or this situation will occur; puh-lease! What were they thinking? Have not these professionals been through the fire? Haven't they learned some lessons? Have I accomplished nothing, I thought? Have the last six years been but an exercise in wasted time and breath if only to come to this?
It was then I realized it: Hey, why am I so annoyed? It was one of those moments of slow revelation. It came as a crawling epiphany; these guys weren't questioning just us personally, but the industry as a whole. Questioning our judgment, our actions, the results of it all, the good things and the bad things... they were questioning it all. Today's players and would-be developers, the people doing their best to shoe-horn their way in or with a vested interest in having good games available, were questioning authority.
The first step in making things better is to question everything. And I actually grinned another great big grin, this time one of satisfaction. That is exactly what I'd hoped for when I started Biting the Hand and that is exactly what I got, just not quite from the people I'd hoped would listen originally, namely the publishers and developers trying to break in. Those people still don't seem to be listening much, but you know what? I don't think I care about that as much as I once did. The current crop of companies will have their successes and failures and, regardless of the economic climate, they will continue to plink away and try to recreate the success of Ultima Online, EverQuest and Lineage. They may or may not achieve that success and, if they do, it will likely be with games that innovate little, but have some interesting craftsmanship to them.
That's OK; we need good craftsmanship as much as we need to reach for the stars. And we can pretty well be sure that they'll continue to recreate the mistakes of others along the way. Part of that is just the nature of the industry; it is tough to retain a knowledge base when people change companies so often. When you've had a large crew building, launching and maintaining a hideously complex project for years, then they trickle out the door to elsewhere, so, too, does some of the information you need to retain for the next project. The other part to that is listening to the experienced people you do have, and the ego and political infighting of the video and PC game industry hasn't allowed much of that to date. We tend to be our own worst enemies in that regard. Success, then, will continue to be something of a hit or miss proposition, heavily dependant on the people involved and the willingness of companies to be patient and to trust those people.
When it comes to the new and exciting, though, I'm starting to believe that a significant part of our success equations lies with these upstarts, these annoying questioners. We're in a place, as an industry, where risk taking is at a premium. Games are so expensive to develop these days that the tendency is to go with what worked before, whether it makes a great game or not, or to play to the lowest common denominator. We'll certainly make money that way, we just won't make interesting and new types of games. At some point, you max out what you can do, the growth stops, and then the balloon starts hissing. It could happen next year or it could happen ten years or more from now, but it will surely happen. People will put up with flashy paint jobs on crappy games for a while, but not forever. Think about this: in the last four years, PC game sales brought in about $7 billion USD in gross sales, shipping about 300 or so titles each year. Of that $7 billion, one-seventh went to one game.
These people, these newcomers who are listening, digesting and questioning, could be our saving grace. If they keep questioning, that is, and if enough of them follow their passion into game development proper. Not today or the in the near future, but a few years down the timeline when they digest our mistakes and then some of them make their own games. I think they will make games, as a class. I don't know if they'll build games for themselves or for publishers or indie developers, but I suspect they will, indeed, build them, any way they can. There is that high level of devotion evident in their posts and I know what that kind of passion can accomplish. And they are going to take this questioning thing with them, the irascible bastards, they are going to infiltrate the ranks of game developers with people who question everything until, one day, they fill the ranks from top to bottom and all of sudden they'll be in charge of the checkbook. And then, and then...
And then we may, just maybe, start getting a bunch of games worthy of being called innovative, fresh and new. I may be long retired before it happens, playing games with my wrinkled, knobby, arthritis-ridden hands clutching the controller while I cackle insanely at the screen, but I'm starting to believe it will. On reflection, maybe this questioning stuff isn't such a bad thing, after all.
I'm still annoyed but, hey, nobody's perfect.