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An Open Letter to Electronic Arts

I still have no idea who this dude is supposed to be. Shepard is a girl.

Maybe the ad campaign could employ a variant of the Citadel discount speech from the second game. “I’m Commander Shepard, and I purchase all of the games starring myself via the official Electronic Arts distribution service.”

Hey, guys!  So I hear tell you want to kill Steam.

Well, okay, that’s overly harsh; you just want a sweet piece of that digital distribution pie.  And who can blame you?  There’s a lot of money going through Steam, and if I were a big company I’d be looking for a way to pick up a few extra bucks down that road.  You’ve made a good opening move by cutting ties with Steam and putting both Star Wars: The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3 exclusively on Origin.  It’s really a good start toward getting a foot in the digital distribution market, and considering how much I like having some healthy competition here, I’m all in favor of it.

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Lionizing

It’s easy to look at the past and say that it must have been better then.  Raids must have required much more strategy and much less reading online to complete when the game launched, compared to the present state of simply learning dance moves and completing them.  The only change has been the design ethos – the past six years have not brought more experience or a more robust network for disseminating strategies.  Things were harder back then, they required more thought, and there was a more enjoyable game in place.

Proving people wrong via experiments such as EverQuest‘s new “progression” server is an exercise in frustration.  If the deliberate throwback experience fails to live up to the image in one’s head, there are countless scapegoats for why the nostalgia server doesn’t properly recapture the glory of yesteryear.  We’re notoriously bad at admitting that our affectionate memories can often grow without outside influence, that in hindsight the things we loved when we were younger weren’t any better or worse than what exists now.  And we’ll construct elaborate rationales for why the Now is bad and Then was better, without stopping to examine that perhaps things have been the same all along.

I remember watching Ms. Lady trying to play through Final Fantasy VI a couple of years ago before giving up and apologizing.  “I just can’t get into it,” she said.  And I looked at a game that had defined so many years of gaming for me, full of characters and story twists and progression that remain etched into my head, and I can see why she would put it down.  It was a marvelous game in 1994, but that was more than a decade ago, and the happy memories of the game are tempered by a selective editing that cuts out every frustrating death or obtuse boss fight or secret hidden in a ridiculous spot.  The game I remember is something so good it stands up to modern standards despite its age; it’s a shame that this game only exists in my memory, not in the present or in 1994 or ever.

Fantasy Earth Zeroed

Fantasy Earth Zero artwork

Conquest isn't going to fix this one

I’m really unexpectedly sad about the news of Fantasy Earth Zero’s imminent closing.  I have to admit that I was also hoping for Tipa’s take on the event, since she has a far more personal stake than I do.  She played the game avidly and sang its praises, which is part of the reason that I started chatting with her.  I just admired the game and worked with the people promoting it, so my perspective is kind of skewed.

And yes, it’s probably immensely telling that I never was quite motivated to actually play the game in a serious capacity, despite the fact that I essentially tripped over myself to cover it.  It’s equally telling that I was the only person who ever covered it, with every single story about the game having my name on it.  But darn it, the game had heart.  And there was something there for people to enjoy, something unique and interesting.

Gamepot’s handling of the closure is… well, it’s not unexpected, but it still leaves something to be desired.  The company as a whole has long since made its money back from acquiring a failing Square game, and I have a feeling that it coming over to the US was as much a stopgap measure as anything.  If it sells, great, if not, who cares.  The fact that the closure announcement comes with a built-in forum shutdown and an advertisement for another Gamepot game doesn’t reek of opportunism, exactly, although I’m struggling to find a better term.  Situational ethics?  Something like that.  They’ve shut down any recourse for players to talk and in the interim offered a small benefit to players who move over, which isn’t going to mollify anyone in the long run.

The really sad part is that this isn’t big news and is going to get overlooked.  It’s a shame that TERA gets high marks for having freeform targeting and skill-based PvP as if these were some sort of innovative point, when Fantasy Earth Zero did both of these things very well long before TERA.  But the latter features exceptionally pert breasts on women wearing metal lingerie, so by all means, let’s ignore actual chronology in favor of transparent sexuality and forgettable storyline trappings.

If I sound bitter, that’s because I am.

What really hits me is the human cost.  This is the first game that I’ve watched shut down where I’ve known some of the people involved, many of them quite enthusiastic and likable.  I might not necessarily be surprised by the outcome here, but I’m still saddened by it.  But much like my Auto Assault post a few days ago, the fact that I’m just noticing all this now probably says volumes about why the game is going the way of all flesh.

The Easy Way Out

Gordon has a spectacular idea – get rid of the goldsellers by getting rid of the gold.

It’s a nice idea, but it won’t work.

Not because of some huge failing in his logic, no.  It’s a finely thought-out plan.  The reason it will fail is that the goldsellers, despite everything we like to think, are not actually the problem.

The problem is the Game Genie.

For those of you who didn’t grow up during the 80s, the Game Genie was a charming device that allowed you to enter secret special codes that… aw, screw it.  It was a hex editor for the game that attached to your NES and had a cumbersome pixelated interface for entering codes which would then allow you some crazy permutation on the game’s actual playstyle.  While the codes could be used to make the game more difficult, you can bet that wasn’t what they used to advertise the product.

“Infinite lives!  Infinite power-ups!  No timer!”

You can imagine how well the little dongle sold.  I believe hotcakes are a frequently-used comparison.  I owned one that went to the console graveyard in the sky many years ago, as a particularly well-loved Christmas present.  And it did everything it advertised and more, allowing me to systematically strip anything challenging out of a game and then lose interest in it shortly thereafter.  I quickly relegated it to rentals that I wasn’t going to get to come back to, and when it came to normal games I would mostly leave it alone.

But there were games I couldn’t beat.  And I was a kid, and I wanted to win, and so I’d hook it up and then I’d beat the game!  Hey, the game didn’t know I’d cheated.

I am not alone.

That eight-year-old impulse exists in pretty much all of us.  And there are people who play games, online and off, who want the reward without the hard work.  They want to be able to buy awesome things off the auction house without even stopping to consider the price.  Give them the opportunity to skip ahead in power level, and they’ll take it.

Remove currency, they’ll look for other breaking points.  As long as there is some way to get ahead without working for it, they’ll jump on it.

Getting rid of gold sellers is fighting a war on human nature.  Human nature tends to win those fights.

Breaking

Late on Thursday night, my e-mail decided to do something curious: break.

At first I thought it was just an oddity of my phone, until I noticed my computer was logged out as well.  Attempts to reset it were useless; GMail’s password recovery protocol routed through a fallback mail that I hadn’t used in years and had since been deleted, and despite knowing my account well enough for any logical person to confirm it was mine, the CS team declared that it wasn’t a sure thing.

The mail address I had been using for six or seven years vanished in a puff of poor design and bad recovery planning.  GMail had locked me out of a good portion of my life, several of my methods of recovery, my account and everything on it.  I still don’t have access to good old Lostfactor, which had become so familiar as an address that even the convenience of my Massively.com address couldn’t overwhelm it.

Luckily, I set up a new account with GMail, rerouted everything necessary, and at this point I’m more or less back to the status quo.  I still have to wrestle with my Droid a little to get it to acknowledge that the old address most likely isn’t coming back, but that’s a lesser concern.  But the very fact that I decided to turn right around and sign back up with GMail raises an interesting question.

Why?

The damn thing broke on me and lost a whole bunch of correspondence in the process.  Why would I go right back?

Because it broke after at least six years, probably seven.  For a free service that I used more or less constantly, that’s stunningly good.  The issues of recovery are ones that can be addressed to a small extent, but they’re also part of the price of doing business.

Things break.  Software develops bugs, cars shudder to a halt, computers slow and stop, games get boring.  Entropy is all-consuming.  Life has a one hundred percent mortality rate.  I’m annoyed at how this broke, and why it broke as badly as it did, but in the back of my mind I wasn’t entirely surprised.  Of course it broke.  Given enough time, so does everything.

MMOs break.  Sometimes they break badly.  Just like any other game, they will get boring, players will leave, the whole thing will eventually shut down.  The fact that our two grandparent games are still running means nothing outside of the fact that the companies that run them feel there’s some profit to be gained, albeit perhaps just in public relations.  These games are fossils.

World of Warcraft has lasted five years now without breaking.  But it will, with certainty, and eventually something will step in to fill the void that it leaves behind.  No king rules forever, nor does one game.  And it will happen, in part, because a company focuses less upon building something that will be even harder to break than WoW and more upon building something that just takes as long as possible before it breaks and stops being interesting.

I signed right back up.  Six years is a good lifespan.  Hopefully by 2016 I’ll be ready for the break.