The McDonaldization of Gaming
Somehow there must be a mysterious relation that the more money a company has for it’s game, the less creative and innovative it will be and the more mediocre and streamlined the result will get. Or at leas that was my thought after the recent revelation of Bioware, that despite their 150 million dollar record budget, they did not find a way to integrate aliens as playable races. Or as the entire rest of SWTOR is a manifesto of mediocre game design.
Those of us who remember gaming back from the 80ies and 90ies know that back then the game landscape was very different from today. There was a plethora of small and medium sized studios, each with it’s own brands and unique sort of creativity. Origin with it’s Ultima and Wing Commander, Westwood with Command & Conquer and Lands of Lore, Bullfrog with Populous and Dungeon Keeper. There was a long list of smaller studios with high creativity in those days. Back then, all those games were vastly different and unique. And somehow it was as if the limited budget and graphics was calling for a compensation via creativity and thoughtful design. Anyone who has played those games when they were new knows what I am talking about. The visual details of games like Ultima V or VI was relatively small, but in stark contrast was the great imagination, the extraordinary level of freedom those games had. Or RPGs like the Wizardry series with it’s 20 races and 30 classes. The freedom, the sheer amount of choices and possibilities were almost endless. And every studio and franchise had its own, distinct choice. It were games like big menus from a noble restaurant. They weren’t wolfed down fast, they were celebrated. You played those games for months. You really sunk your teeth into their meat and savoured each nook and edge.
I won’t point at any particular crook to be the sole responsible culprit. But then things changed. When the games got more and more visually detailed and ever greater budget, I like many gamers had high hopes and great dreams for the gaming future. We imagined the diversity and creativity from the games we knew with the visual possibilities of what would come, and the future looked great to us. If there is one highly responsible company, it is without doubt Electronic Arts. Like no one else, EA swallowed one small studio after another, and the story was always the same.
The events around Origin, one of the leading RPG designers and inventors of the legendary Ultima series stands for many. Before EA, Origin created worlds. So was their motto, and they lived up to it. They made games to remember. But the moment they went into EA flock, things went downhill fast. First the action oriented, simplified Ultima 8 disaster, the NGE of that time, and then the final death with Ultima 9 and the LaraCroftization of Ultima. Then Origin was killed as studio. The story was the same for every single studio EA had swallowed. It’s like from that quote “The death of one wife may be an accident, but the loss of three is bordering neglectance!” There is method in the accidents.
The system and the recipe for the success of McDonalds is one simple idea. You get the same burger in every of their restaurant. No matter where you are, you always know exactly what you get. It’s a medium, edible portion, nothing fancy just bread, meat salad. You get it fast, the number of things to order is very limited so to assure the mind is not overburdened with difficult choices, and the restaurant is always colourful and made like some event, some parade or carnival. There are “special days” for this and that and you can get a fancy paper crown. Ok that’s the competition, but you get the idea.
This is what happened to gaming, and especially MMORPG gaming. Ask any EQ1 veteran about the many races and classes, the many different areas. Ask any SWG veteran about the many things you could do in that game. Ask anyone who played UO back in the days about the possibility of really open gameplay! Go back and look how many things to chose from in terms of classes, races and whatnot games of the past had. Today we have THE UI, which is the UI of WOW. Virtually every MMO has just a skin of the WOW UI. Radar at top right, quickbar at the bottom, quest list at the right, group list on the left. You know the buttons for inventory or journal, even if you are entirely new to the next MMO. And so it goes with the rest.
There is the streamlining of classes. The number of MMOs which really made unique and odd classes you can count with one hand. The Vanguard Disciple is one thing that comes to my mind, a martial arts and healer crossover. But beyond that I have to think hard. What we get is the usual lot. Warrior as tank, Mage, Ranger, when we are lucky and it’s really fancy and daring a pet class like Summoner or Hunter, and that’s it. Where SWG has such exotic classes like Teras Kasi and Creature Handler, Dancer and Image Designer, now the 150 million dollar heavy SWTOR has Jedi, Sith, BH, Trooper. Nothing fancy, nothing unexpected, nothing out of the line, and one might wonder where the days have gone where people could order their special menu, when fancy and unusual classes were the spice to be added to a game. When what you made with your character was only limited by your own imagination.
The same goes with combat. How great were our dreams about the visual diversity and exciting possibilities of combat back in the 80ies, when we dreamed how gaming would be in the future. And now that the future is here, we find that almost no gaming company is really able to make something of it. Instead, we see the same “click ability to launch attack movie” in the high budget SWTOR as in the age old EQ1. One new skill every four level, and some very mediocre, barely functional attack animation. Nothing exotic.
Or races. Back in EQ or SWG or DaoC, there was a legion of different races. And every new game seemed to bring new, bizarre and fascinating races, down to walking crocodiles aka Sarnath in EQ2, walking cows aka Tauren in WOW, and the endless possibilities with games like City of Heroes and Champion Online, which both were an explosion of player creativity. When I played CoX and CO, I never stopped to marvel at the other players creativity. All the time new creatures, demons, furries, robots, aliens, monsters of every sort and kind, and most of them even with a cool backstory and some interesting roleplay. But now in the present, it all seems to be cut to what they call “iconic”. Some word we learned to fear with the ascend of the NGE. If there is one lesson game developers just never got, it is, you can not make a game successful against the warning voices of the fans. It has been repeated so often, and yet they never learn.
What does that mean? Well, if you followed the beta development of the MMOs of the past 5 years or so, you see a clear pattern. Game developers have a certain “vision”. Then everything is streamlined to support this “vision”. Usually such things don’t work, because bending other game systems towards one “vision” always ends up as a crooked game. The warning voices of the community are usually there, and mostly loud enough. But there is always this handful of diehard supporters, who follow every way whatever a company decides. And the companies decide to listen to those who praise them; which is partially understandable, but essentially leads to the doom. The result was always the same. Those who warned it would proof a failure were in the end always right. In every single game that failed to deliver. The reason is, simply said, Devs do not listen. Yes, I know, you say, that sounds simplistic. But the truth is, it IS that simple. They are so certain of themselves, so sure to know better, so fixated to their vision, that they get blind to what is going on in the perception of their potential player base. It’s like with the movie “Avatar the Last Airbender. The cartoon series had a huge fanbase, but Night M. Shyamalan thought his vision was better. In the making there were plenty of warning voices, but the director, backed by his many successes, thought he knew better. The result was a disastrous movie, which aggravated almost all the fans and was a huge wasted effort. The same happens to most of the MMOs released in the last couple of years. The reason is, by and large, the vision was directed towards a perceived standard gamer.
When you or me or anyone complains about MMO X and criticise some part of it in the making, what a Developer group does, is, they try to think of the standard gamer. And then they make a standard gamers game, thinking they are the paying masses and the rest is fed with vague promises what will be added later, eventually. See AoC, see WAR, see Champions, see STO, see Vanguard. It was every time the same. We got a McDonaldized standard player game, something mediocre, with little or no speciality, toned down to what big shareholders think is the mass taste, and the demanding gamers are lulled with the promise to wait for all the nice goodies they will add later. Eventually. Which in reality never happens.
Now with SWTOR from Bioware there is a sad new chapter in this saga. When we heard an estimated 150 million dollar budget, our dreams went high. But now reality has caught up, and little by little we come to see that SWTOR is just that: another McDonalds game. We got very mediocre standard visuals, which more seem to come from last decade. Everyone who played Far Cry with it’s stunning visuals will indeed cry looking at the rectangular characters and the dull environments. It is functional. Easy to swallow and for cheap computers to play on. Fast Food graphics. Then we have space on rails. Then we have those classes without anything odd or freakish. And now the announcement that we can essentially only play humans. Yes they will rename them, like Miraluka or Rattaki or whatever. But the reality is they are all humans. Now while Age of Conan can justify it with the lore, having an IP in a Galaxy of millions of species such a decision strikes the fan with surprise. And I personally wonder where the budget of 150 million is going to? Voiceover and story can’t be THAT expensive! But then for what is it used? And why is every single part of the game a write-up of what we can NOT do?
SWTOR is in the essence what McDonalds is to eating. Standardized, mediocre, cheap, easy to swallow portions. A bit colourful and fancy, making it look like some fun event when you go there, but in the end a narrow and streamlined product. Something you are going to play one time through like Champions Online or STO, and then move on. And as such it is, alas, the trend of our days, and I wonder if it is a coincidence than all started to go downhill when Bioware was sold to EA. There are some folks out there who will get insidiously rich from all this. Just like McDonalds is also a roaring success. But there is also something that dies: the creativity and diversity, the chance to make odd byways and freakish things. The other Star Wars game had the motto “This is the greatest story ever told: yours.” Apparently this was yesterday’s ideal.