The April Fools Spring Clean-Up
by Jessica Mulligan
The winter weather is finally starting to turn and, so it would appear, are conditions in the online game industry. As my Spring welcome to Massachusetts, we had lovely sixty degree weather most of last week so, naturally, we're expecting an inch of snow as I rewrite this intro paragraph. Mother Nature can be such a cruel tease...
The online side of the industry has had its ups and downs over the winter, as well. With The Sims Online from Electronic Arts/Maxis underperforming on subscription levels and Star Wars: Galaxies pushing back its launch until sometime later in the year, there was a lot of gloom and doom leading up to and through the Game Designer's Conference. It is understandable, I suppose; TSO was supposed to validate the mass-market appeal of subscription-based games for analysts and investors and SWG was/is supposed to validate the model for large, multi-media, evergreen licenses. The traditional news and business information organs made a big deal out of it all through the last fall and winter seasons, with major stories appearing in the likes of USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Forbes Magazine. Many stories came complete with the requisite quotes from analysts about the huge potential of mass market subscription games, this could be the watershed events, yada yada yada.
All of which tells me that most analysts, the traditional press and business reporters don't drill down in their research any farther than many game journalists do. Any knowledgeable person who took part in the open Beta tests could have told them that TSO would have a slow start (although even jaded, skeptical me thought they'd have closer to 200,000 subscribers in the first month or two instead of half that). The game is so different and non-traditional that the hard core players who normally make up the initial critical mass audience will tend to avoid it, yet just complicated enough that the more casual players may have a bit of trouble getting into it. What is likely to happen here is the same thing that happened to the original The Sims! game; the moderate and casual players will virally increase the subscription base by bringing in their moderate and casual gaming friends over time, providing a place for the new players to land and learn the game. A mass market game especially is going to have to lean on the 'circle of friends' concept; they are so much more fun when your buddies are around.
As for SWG: Well, we'll just have to wait and see. I don't want to contribute to the current climate of persistent world over-hype that has bent expectations so far out of shape that a pretzel looks positively linear, but Galaxies is a game I will buy and play, simply because Raph Koster and Rich Vogel are involved. I don't expect miracles from the game, mainly because mass-market licenses come with built-in limitations. What I do expect to see is a well-crafted game that reaches for that amorphous, ill-defined thing called "art." I doubt that I'll be disappointed in that, nor do I doubt that the game will do well.
Another sign that the industry weather may be turning for the better was the recent announcement that TA Associates, a private equity investment firm, will invest $32 million USD in Mythic Entertainment, developer and publisher of the persistent world Dark Age of Camelot. Why this is a good sign should be obvious to the most casual observer of our industry: At a time when there is much doom-saying about large publishers sinking and losing hundreds of millions of dollars into the niche and much wondering in the press whether the whole massive-multiplayer subscription thingie is really viable, having a private firm that normally makes investments in such areas as health care, banking and communications make a large an investment in an independent persistent world development house is a huge affirmation.
In a perfect world, this would herald a Renaissance of new funding by new sources for the industry as a whole. We'll see; the weather may be turning a bit, but it is too soon to tell if it is spring yet...
On another front, Wolfpack's Shadowbane, the controversial Player-versus-Player and Faction-Versus-Faction game published and managed by Ubisoft, finally shipped to stores and opened their servers at the end of March, over two years after their first announced ship date. And just like everyone else in the industry launching their first persistent world, they've had their share of opening week problems, including the now-standard issue problems of non-working CD keys, crashing log-in and play servers, lag, long waits to try to log in to play, the billing system hiccupping and some graphics cards not working. It is still too early in the process to say if the industry will eventually brand this as a blown launch or not, but it doesn't look like they going through anything particularly unusual.
And finally, violence in games has been back in the news again recently, with a lawsuit against the most well-to-do game publishers by a grieving parents of one of the school shooting tragedies being tossed out of court and a Washington State lawmaker managing to squeak through a state bill prohibiting sales of 'violent' videogames to minors, 'violence' being defined as glorifying the death of a police officer.
This is an issue that won't be going away soon, so as the last reprint of this, the end of Biting the Hand's sixth continuous year of existence, one of my favs from 1999:
Volume Eight, Issue 13
First Published: Tuesday, April 27, 1999
"Free will is the root of all evil!" says writer.
In response to a lawsuit filed by the parents of three victims of the 1997 Paducah, Kentucky school shootings, Jessica Mulligan, a commentary writer on computer and video games, filed suit against God in Federal District Court today. She charged that Deity with responsibility in the deaths resulting from Michael Carneal's shooting spree. The suit alleges that "God, a.k.a. the Creator, a.k.a. the Supreme Being, a.k.a. 'The Man,' through the use of individual free will in the creation of human beings, is directly responsible for the shootings."
The suit seeks to require God "to remove the concept known as 'free will,' whereby one individual may perform an act or acts that another individual might or might not chose to perform" from the capabilities of humanity and "make all individuals on the celestial body known as Earth, a.k.a. Terra, a.k.a. 'the Planet,' exactly the same emotionally and mentally in all ways and manner." The suit also seeks damages in the amount of one trillion dollars US.
Named as co-defendants were 25 of the world's largest religious organizations, including Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Protestantism, Episcopalean, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca, Satanism and the ancient Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian, Hittite and Sumerian pantheons. The suit also names the US Internal Revenue Service, not generally considered a religious organization by any group except Satanists.
"The lawsuit filed by the victim's parents against computer game and movie producers and a couple porn sites doesn't go far enough," declared Mulligan at a press conference today to announce the suit. "It is the act of grieving parents trying to make sense out of a totally senseless act.
"However," she continued, "suing 25 media and computer game companies can only result in the case either being thrown out of court, or the parents - and their lawyers - receiving a huge monetary award. It begs the question of the moment. Simply stating that movies and computer games brainwashed and then trained Carneal into becoming a seasoned, effective killer ducks the real problem."
The real problem, according to Mulligan, is not that such games and movies are available, but that God allowed humans free will to commit their own acts. "If God had made us all mindless, identical clones," she said, "Carneal would never have been tempted to play a game, watch a movie or pick up a gun. Without free will, this horrific tragedy would never have happened. It's God's fault and if He won't take the blame squarely on His shoulders, we need to place it there."
One reporter asked Ms. Mulligan if she thought the Carneal lawsuit had merit. "Absolutely not," she stated. "This is just like the cartoon violence controversy of the 1960s. God caused the creation of the Roadrunner cartoons, for example, which tempted me as a child to want to trick coyotes into running off of cliffs. I didn't do it," she pointed out quickly, "but what if I had? How many coyotes barely escaped a brush with death or serious injury at my hand, due to God's flagrant and negligent use of free will? The potential is terrifying."
The 25 religious organizations were named as co-defendants, Mulligan said, because "they are God's representatives on Earth. They tend His houses, counsel His followers, see to his financial well being and look after His plants and pets while He's elsewhere. It's a big Universe," she added, "God might be anywhere at the moment and unable to attend the trial in corpus."
When asked if the fact that these were also some of the wealthiest organizations on the planet affected her decision to name them in the suit, Ms. Mulligan replied sternly, "It affected my decision no more than that of the lawyers in the Carneal suit to name 25 of the wealthiest media and computer game companies as co-defendants."
"The important issue," she continued, "is that God is responsible. How many other intelligent species throughout the Universe has He subjected to this cruel joke of free will? If we can prevent this type of behavior in the future by hurting Him monetarily, then we should." Asked how the one trillion dollar damage figure was arrived at, Mulligan shrugged. "He makes the money. We figured one trillion dollars would cause even Him to sit up and take notice. And, we wanted a figure roughly comparable to Bill Gates' annual interest income from Windows sales."
Legal experts are unsure of Ms. Mulligan's chances in court, and none were willing to go on the record with comment. "You've got to be kidding, right?" said one senior attorney for a large New York law firm, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. "This is a lose-lose situation for an attorney. It's like defending a baby killer; you can't win. Give me the Carneal suit any day. At least you have the chance of getting rich with that one."
Repeated calls to Heaven for comment on the suit went unanswered by press time.