Game design, Opinion, WoW

Guilty pleasures

Yes, I enjoy looking pretty. And what of it?

This post is by Razzmatazz.

Something has been bothering me lately. Well, as is usually the case, lots of things have been bothering me, it’s just that this one thing was worth writing a post about. It was sparked in part by a presentation/lecture I watched by Jonathan Blow called “Video Games and the Human Condition”, in which he discusses his views on the current state of the game industry. If you’re interested – and I do recommend checking it out if you’ve got the time, as it’s a very interesting talk indeed and forms the backdrop for this post – you can check out the entire one and a half hour (yes) lecture  online over ‘ere, along with an abstract providing a summary of the event.

J-Blow sez “Farmville players being farmed”

Some background to contextualise that talk is probably necessary. Jonathan Blow (or J-Blow as he shall henceforth be known) is an independent game designer. His time-manipulating sidescrolling platformer Braid got quite a bit of acclaim from the gaming press and public alike when it was released in 2008 on the ‘Micro$oft X-bawks’, later also being picked up by PS3 and PC gamers. He’s been pretty vocal about game design for quite a while through his blog and the press willing to give him a voice, and the talk I linked above sort of encapsulates his entire vision in a coherent and structured way. His views on a lot of the current trends in game design are.. quite negative, to put it lightly. He criticises mainstream game developers not just for not pushing the medium forward (due to a lack of innovation which is itself a consequence of the millions of dollars currently being pumped into every triple A title) but also for focusing too much on the superficial aspects of games (visual fluff, for one thing) instead of the core aspects.

Crucially for my current argument, however, he’s also said on more than one occasion that current schools of game design aren’t just bad for the artistic potential of the medium (which, by the way, I tend to agree with – although my stance isn’t nearly as radical as his), but some trends can also be qualified as just plain EVIL. As in, morally reprehensible and WRONG. Ethically unjustifiable. In the lecture he elaborates on Farmville as a specific example.

In Farmville, cows farm YOU. Sorry.

Basically, his argument is that these types of games are built in such a way that they psychologically manipulate people to play them. Players, so says J-Blow, are no longer actively engaging with the game, playing it because it’s fun. They’re being exploited as a resource, treated solely as contributors to a rising number in profits. The Farmville devs have zero respect for their playerbase, and use every trick in the book to keep people playing, while in essence their game is devoid of any depth or significance or emotional impact. The “game” part of Farmville can be reduced to basically just clicking on cows over and over and required no effort on the part of the devs to create, and what players see is all just fluff to draw them in with maximum efficiency. Thus J-Blow argues for a 180 degree turn away from those trends of game design (culminating in Farmville), which would focus on doing everything the current strands of game design neglects: push the medium forward through innovation, respect the players by treating them like actual, intelligent human beings, speak to the human condition through narrative, etc.

How is this relevant to us (ex/semi-)WoW-players? It’s relevant because J-Blow has also used World of Warcraft as an example for this kind of EVIL game design, albeit a considerably less EVIL one than the likes of Farmville. WoW uses a lot of the same tricks: the questing, levelling and reward structure is such that we’re compelled to play on, even if playing the actual game might not be all that fun. We’re just playing because we’re going to get that awesome new spell soon, or because our level will be 42 instead of 41 in half an hour, or because we just want that last silly, ultimately meaningless achievement to clear the ‘Professions’ tab in the achievement pane. The play in itself is no longer the goal – in fact, the play in itself has lost all meaning and value. It’s the psychological tricks that push us forward in the end. So sayeth the J-Blow.

They just don’t understand

Now, obviously this alone has vast implications. But the potential implications aren’t really what I wanted to focus on for this post. The reason I wanted to post about this is because it makes me SAD. It makes me SAD because it can easily be placed in a much wider, unfortunately negative discourse about WoW. Everywhere I look, the game seems to be criticised or derided for a multitude of reasons.

A couple of other examples. On my deeply beloved blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun, a post about the newly released intro movie for Cataclysm was accompanied by this: “Tell you what you shouldn’t do directly after watching this incredibly expensive bit of drama. You shouldn’t watch a YouTube video of an actual WoW boss fight. I think that might be a bad idea.” I’ve gotten so used to reading comments like that about WoW that I’ve ceased throwing fits as I usually did, I just click to the next article and sigh. Where I used to want to scream out “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND”, now I just accept it, knowing that if I were to post a comment like that people would accuse me of being an addict. While naturally, it IS true: as everyone who took part in the raiding game in any way can attest to, encounter design is something WoW does INCREDIBLY well. I’d  argue it’s some of the best co-operative game design out there, in fact. Of course it’s going to look stupid to the uninitiated and when comparing a 5 year old engine with a spangly new CGI clip.

Raiding is terribly boring.

Another example can be found in a seemingly large percentage of people who once played WoW but have since moved on. Why is it that pretty much every one of such ex-players I’ve seen seems to speak of the game very negatively? References to some variety of harddrugs are never far away when speaking about their WoW “career”. I’d say that if the game draws you in to such an extent that you can safely compare it to cocaine, that’s mostly your own bloody fault, not the game’s. I’m sure J-Blow would be quick to disagree.

I’m so tired of that attitude. Am I the only one who actually has fond memories of playing this game? Who’s very much enjoyed (most of, granted) the time he spent in this world? Who sees a tremendous value in various aspects of its design? Who appreciates and respects Blizzard for a world they clearly crafted with a bucketload of love and very hard work? Well, clearly not, considering there are a lot of blogs out there (for one thing) proving otherwise. I just wish that destructive attitude towards WoW, that sense of hopelessness and negativity I’ve pointed towards in this post, was toned down a bit. That the game’s strengths were more known to “Joe Public” (is that a thing?). WoW is not destroying the world, guys. If it destroyed your life, it’s probably because you let it. It is a fantastic, almost uniformly fun, wonderfully designed, lovingly crafted game, and I wish people would treat it as such more often. Instead of only focusing on the bad side. I guess it’s cool to hate the biggest fish, and (in the case of ex-players) it’s easier to place the blame for bad occurrences in your life on factors external to yourself.

J-Blow sez “You cannot enjoy this thing wot you are enjoying”

To return to J-Blow for a moment, he’d probably acknowledge that, yeah, I might want to play WoW and actually enjoy playing it even though it’s evil. He’d also say I’m getting fooled by Blizzard’s tricks, and that I probably don’t really know WHAT I want. That I might enjoy another game (designed entirely differently) far more, and that it might be better for me as a person as it could provide me with more meaningful and useful experiences. Which would actually stimulate me to use my head or have some semblance of emotional impact, as opposed to the MINDLESS ZOMBIE STATE WoW causes.

Mindless slaves to Blizzard's will, the lot of you.

This attitude SOUNDS incredibly arrogant (note that I’m not transferring his exact words here), but the question is if he isn’t, at least on some level, a bit right? I’d say that he is, in the case of Farmville and its ilk. I’d also say that he’s right in positing that humans don’t always know what’s best for them, and that we do tend to really enjoy things we shouldn’t on occasion. That other experiences might in fact be more desirable.

However.

I think there’s nothing inherently wrong about enjoying WoW. Going by Blow’s argument you could say WoW should be treated as a sort of guilty pleasure. Something that’s also best and quite easily forgotten once you stop engaging in it. I don’t think we should necessarily handle it as such. I think there’s plenty of value in playing WoW. I’ve gained friends through WoW which, if I don’t end up chatting with them for years to come, I’ll at least remember very fondly. My first levelling experiences are some of my most cherished gaming memories, and some of the greatest co-operative play I’ve experienced in any game. The same goes for the raiding I’ve done, and the people I’ve met through that. And aside from all that, aside from that social aspect which one might argue isn’t really the explicit result of the game design (I’d say that it is, at least partially), I also very much enjoyed the large majority of the rest of the time I spent in the game.

This isn’t just a matter of clicking cows, of vapid, meaningless gameplay designed to manipulate me into playing it. It’s about overcoming challenges which make me feel a genuine sense of accomplishment. About engaging with a virtual world which still grants me more freedom and is more immersive than pretty much any other I’ve experienced in games. About quests which on one occasion might make me laugh with some random pop culture reference, on another surprise me with an inventive game mechanic.

And even if it were all just fluff, which it obviously isn’t. Even if I were just playing the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster action movie starring Will Smith and generic pretty blonde actress #124, would that be so bad? Occasionally a popcorn movie is exactly what I want. Not all of my entertainment needs to be exceedingly deep and meaningful and subtle, sometimes I’m happy with it just being entertaining. But as I said, WoW can also be much more than that. Calling it evil is going several bridges too far.

I felt the random pretty image quota wasn't being filled for this post, so I decided on this one - it's somehow related to flashy action movies as it's an irrelevant special effect.

That’s not to say we should abandon all criticism. This post doesn’t advocate that at all, I’m just trying to make people celebrate instead of frown upon their own and others’ experiences. Criticise all you want, as long as it’s constructive. But negativity for the sake of it is so tiring. Granted, J-Blow has a well-constructed argument which has quite some merit in the grand scheme of game design. I’m just sick of people making me feel BAD about playing this game. I’ve derived too much enjoyment, too much meaning, too much value from WoW to go along with that.

Remember the titans

No titans are pictured.

So my recommendation, in the end, is this. Enjoy. Play the game and love it. Don’t be ashamed about loving it. Know WHY you’re playing, know WHY the game is valuable to you. Know what you’re getting out of it. And always REMEMBER that. 5 years from now, when you have one and a half kids and are living in a house of your own with your second wife and you’re managing that multinational everybody hates, and you’re reminiscing to that period of your life when you were still young and naïve and had zero kids and were living in that small apartment with those inexplicable stains on the ceiling, and you think back on the time you spent playing WoW. Remember the good things. Not just the bad. Please. It’ll be worth it.

Discussion

8 thoughts on “Guilty pleasures

  1. /sign on this, so much sign. And please make sure Wolfshead, Syncaine and a few other of the bitter ex WoW players read it, OK?

    Posted by Larísa | November 11, 2010, 9:36 pm
  2. This is a great post! I can say that I hope I always remember the good moments in WoW, because I know there have been many of them already, and still more to come.

    Also, just wanted to let you know Razz, that I am glad you have joined the Hats team in a more permanant manner, and I look forward to reading more of your work :)

    Posted by elle | November 11, 2010, 10:08 pm
  3. Fantastic post! Part of the reason I play WOW so much is that by the end of a long day at work, I’m completely burnt out, and it can provide me with entertainment that doesn’t require a lot of deep thinking or stimulation. It can provide a deeper experience, but it doesn’t have to. It may all be psychological tricks, but they are tricks that work – they relieve my stress.

    Posted by Kaelynn | November 11, 2010, 11:41 pm
  4. I’d say that about 90-95% of my WoW time is more for the MM than the RPG part of MMORPG. Right now, my 10 man raids are on hiatus until Cataclysm, and I find myself logging in perhaps once a week or so. WoW might be a game I picked up initially for the RPG part, and the first time leveling was fun, but subsequent toons, it was more of a grind. I will look forward to the last two spots I have to fill on the server I spend 99% of my time on, simply because things are going to be so different in Azeroth.

    But the thing I’m looking forward to the most is raiding, and “hanging out” with the 6-7 other people who have been together since Karazhan.

    Posted by Ktulu | November 12, 2010, 6:49 am
  5. One of my major problems with WoW has been the grindyness, which I’ve ranted about plenty elsewhere, and the arbitrary RNG-based difficulty hoops imposed upon stuff like raids in the past. But the history of patches and design direction shifts says to me that the developers genuinely want their game to be a humane, positive thing – I know I’ve quoted Paul Sams and Nick Yee before, so I won’t repeat myself, but there really does seem to be a constant interplay of “mechanic starts off as way better than what came before it, is slowly realised to be punishing on some level, so dev team tweaks it to improve player quality of life”.

    I think this commitment to ‘quality of life’ would make WoW special even if the gameplay wasn’t that great, but somehow even though it’s really showing its age and has managed to go through massive changes since release, WoW’s core gameplay is still a lot of fun.

    The ‘WHY’ of my involvement these days is probably more linked to the social aspects of the World, but the gameplay is still strong enough that I can have a heck of a lot of fun with it with almost limitless replayability. That combination is very special and something Blizzard should be proud of!

    Posted by Charles | November 18, 2010, 6:37 pm
  6. Mighty handsome tree in your last picture there! I’ve been out of Warcraft for many months now but I don’t talk about it as an exorcised demon like some of the people who exploded out rather than faded away.

    I think comparing WoW to Farmville is an anachronism in a way, since before Warcraft arrived the MMO scene was dominated by grind games which essentially WERE Farmville. Warcraft was the genre’s antidote in that respect as it put a layer of abstraction over the exp-machine by shifting some focus to story-based questing instead. Granted, it is essentially a fuzzy teacosy over a clanking, whirring, mechanised kettle, but it’s still an embellishment that shows the developers weren’t just maliciously setting up new hurdles slightly further apart. They’re telling a story in which you’re actually participating and that’s what a well made game should do – entertain by abstracting the numbers into a continuous ‘experience’.

    As far as I’m concerned as an ex-player though, Warcraft is still pretty hung up on the ‘kill 6 rats and collect 8 rat tails and get level X+1′ system, which was refreshing 5-10 years ago when it was just ‘kill 37 rats to get level X+1′, but is now sort of holding back the genre, since it’s aped by most new games. It’s not EVIL and WRONG on the J-Blow-Moral-O-Meter, but it still needs some serious originality (especially in the raid content) to keep that slider moving upward for MMO games in general – not just letting it rest where it is.

    As an aside, one of my favourite games to this day remains APE ESCAPE – an intensely silly game in which you run around catching monkeys in a net. No experience bars, no level X+1; just Monkeys. And Nets. MMO gaming needs a bit more of that!

    Posted by Solace | November 22, 2010, 12:50 am
    • Good point on WoW’s role in the history of MMOs there. It’s very true that when it first arrived people were praising WoW for exactly those things which seperate it from that “Farmville-like” school of game design. I think no matter how you look at it, it’s hard to go along with everything Blow says in that sense. Not just in terms of “this is morally reprehensible”, but the “this is entirely without value” sense. By his argument you’d probably have to ignore 95% of all games created, which seems a bit silly. Of course it’s also very easy to criticise him for being a pretentious elitist whatever you want to call it, but I won’t do that as I still think there’s value in his approach to game design, and Braid is actually a really good game. It seems equally silly to dismiss all indie “artsy” games based on the opinion of people like Blow as his dismissal of everything which even remotely reeks of mainstream.

      You’re very right about MMOs having far more potential than WoW’s very rigid questing structure offers (even though, again, I can really enjoy WoW’s questing). It’s something I intend to write about in the future.

      Also I love you even more now that I know we share a love for Ape Escape. IRRELEVANT TRIVIA: one of my earliest nerdy endeavours was building an Ape Escape website complete with a monkey encyclopedia, walkthrough, character bios (the professor is such a multi-layered character) and much more. I finished most of the pages but naturally they were crap as I was like 12 years old and barely knew how to surf on the internet let alone design websites for it. It also had a background of a running monkey animated gif tiled across the page about a thousand times which I thought was amusing but it was sure to melt the brains of many a potential visitor.

      Posted by Razz | November 29, 2010, 7:52 pm
  7. Thanks for the kind comments all, glad you enjoyed the post :)

    Happy to see at least some folk agree with me and there’s a slight hope we won’t all turn into WoW-haters once we quit.

    Posted by Razz | November 29, 2010, 7:53 pm

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