The Basic Argument of All My Writing about Games: Change is Inevitable

I’m going to reiterate this argument another time, as explicitly as possible, so in the future I can just link people here rather than have any more wonderful comment wars that eventually lead to me dismissing my opponent as a small-minded idiot.  Such might not be a fair conclusion for me to reach, but if you’ve read my About page, you should already be aware that I’m not going to apologize for perceiving people that oppose this argument as small-minded idiots.  Not very nice of me, I know, but it’s not because I’m a sandbox sociopath—there are very few MMO games in which I actively participated in, never mind enjoyed, PvP—it’s just because I’ve reached a point in life where dealing with what I perceive as a frustrating set of assumptions is no longer part of my job description (and for the sake of world peace, hopefully never will be again), and I no longer have the patience required to *headdesk* politely.

I might as well let people know up front that they’re pushing a very heavy rock up a vertical cliff.

The argument is simple, no amount of any kind of evidence allows any one to say “this is what people want and all they will ever want” or “that isn’t what is popular recently so it never will be.”  At the very basic level, such statements require not only identifying trends in marketing or gaming culture, but they require assuming that these trends will continue on to infinity.  They also require assuming that the medium which the products operate on will never change — and this triple-processor, 1 terabyte hard drive, 4 gigs of RAM with two HD monitors, while not top of the line even when it was purchased, would certainly have a thing or two to say about changing mediums to the 486 DOS machine that was handed down to be my first personal, as opposed to family, computer.

I don’t just apply this to the MMO genre — I apply this to every industry, every task, every minute facet of life that currently utilizes information technology.   For any that look into the past to justify predictions of the future, I find it absurd to not reach the same conclusion — at any point in the last 50 years any prediction based on current trends, marketing, and product popularity that attempted to limit the future would have been wrong.

But let’s apply this directly to MMOs.  The MMO genre has existed anywhere from 15 – 30 years.  The MMO-as-we-know-it is closer to 15 than 30 years old — going back 30 years generally requires accepting precursors that wouldn’t be called MMOs today.  The theme park structure (as-we-know-it of course) has only existed for about 7 years — prior to that many of the characteristics existed in EQ, but WoW (and to some extent EQ2) set the standards for that structure.

That means that in 15 years since the birth of a genre, we have seen one major change.   To assume that such a change is permanent and to perceive that change as a step on an evolutionary scale that will only travel one direction is unsupportable.  Even if information technology was never going to improve beyond what we have today, predictions based on trends have little strength given the youth of the genre and the long shelf-life of individual games.  WoW is just now seeing a decline after releasing 7 years ago — in what other video gaming genre do we frequently see games still at the top of popularity 7 years after release?  The genre has only seen two or three possibilities of structures released on a large scale — I certainly find it small-minded to imagine that there will never be anything new under the sun after such a short time.

Even icebergs travel, if but slowly.  The MMO genre has not been around long enough to determine its rate of travel, not even long enough to determine the direction of travel, or if there even is one.

Calling people “small-minded idiots” is unproductive at best, I know.  But I don’t look at “never” comments as hyperbolic.  Or at least, I see them so frequently as responses on news articles and blogs about MMOs that the possibility that some might be hyperbolic slips my mind.  And there’s the whole “my sub-genre is better than you sub-genre” trend that I just refuse to be part of.  I am not a proponent of any particular sub-genre.  I am a proponent of inevitable change.  I will play Guild Wars 2 not because I think it is a return to the sandbox, but because I think it will, at least in some ways, offer up something different than the repeated structure that other games have continuously put forth — many of which have failed.   In the process, I think that gamers’ assumptions, designers’ assumptions, and the assumptions of investors and publishers will slowly become meaningless, much as they have for other genres, much as they have for video games as a whole, much as they have for everything that has ever depended on information technology in any way, since the first home computer became a reality.

I can recall a time I was about 5 or so years old when my parents and I would have high score competitions—pinning the top results to the fridge—playing River Raid on an Atari.  Nearly nothing about that experience applies to the games of today.  I think in another 30 years, we’ll be looking back and realizing that nothing about the games of 2012 predicted anything about the games of 2042.

I hope to live a long life.  I’m in my thirties now, and I don’t find it a stretch to imagine I could still be alive and gaming in my eighties.  Any prediction involving “never” or “always” or “must be” or “cannot be” will seem like small-thinking to me, as it is my own assumption that whomever is using such words is looking at the immediate future and refusing to acknowledge that the immediate future is only a small slice of what is possible.

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3 responses to “The Basic Argument of All My Writing about Games: Change is Inevitable

  1. Couldn’t agree more about how depressing it is that so many people can’t see beyond what they’ve already seen (and for a lot of people, that’s not much).

    That was the root of this comment – http://syncaine.com/2012/01/18/rebuilding-the-genre-on-swtors-ashes/#comment-47231 – I left on Syncaine’s blog. Even without talking themepark vs. sandbox, even without talking massive concepts like permadeath, so many people can’t even conceive of a casual-friendly themepark MMO doing the most basic gameplay elements differently to WoW/EQ2/LOTRO/Rift/SW:TOR.

    Lord help you when you get onto bigger concepts like holy trinity, skills vs. levels, or the dreaded permadeath..

  2. I agree with your central tenet – that the genre is young and evolving, and that extrapolating a trajectory is difficult, our predictions are largely meaningless on a long enough timeline.

    But I don’t think this should dissuade the likes of Syncaine and Tobold (and many others), each in their own ways, from attempting to do so.

    To me, the lines ‘anything is possible’ or ‘never say never’ (apologies for the paraphrasing) is just a dead end to the discussion.

    • I agree, and I hope it wouldn’t — I find Syncaine entertaining as hell.

      But I don’t think it’s simply just a dead end — in fact, it frequently leads to me agreeing with Syncaine, though not always for the reasons he gives, and disagreeing with Tobold.

      I think it’s more of a starting point. Rather than end an argument with “anything is possible,” I generally use it to ask “how might this be possible?” Like Carson’s comment above suggests, I use that question to imagine how things could be different or built around unusual mechanics without being limited by claims about the limits of marketing and money. Because it’s not just “anything is possible,” it’s “anything is possible except remaining static.”

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