Feb 23 2005

Games Mags and the WoW Factor

I want to quickly yammer about some games stuff that I probably won’t get to splice into my syndicated empire of international gibberish.

First up: games magazines. I regularly get into obstinate, pedantic word-flinging matches in comments threads across the Internet on the subject of games mags. Usually it’s because I’m just feeling like fighting, but sometimes I have a point to make too. Recently I’ve been hearing a lot about how games magazines are broken in one way or another. One of the issues that gets dragged up by my interlocutors is that games magazines fail, in one way or another, to address the needs and requirements of ‘casual gamers’. As writer Gillen regularly points out, if you’re a casual partaker in any subject you’re probably not going to be buy a magazine about it. We all enjoy music, but how many of us actually buy Q or the NME? Is that the fault of the magazines themselves? Have they been too elitist? No – the fact is that most of us simply have other priorities than reading reams of text regarding music, no matter how delicately orchestrated to cater to our casual palette these words might be.

So a ‘casual’ games mag is something impossible, a dream object that can be conceptualised but never actualised. In reality there are only really two types of games magazine: those that are trying, and those that aren’t.

An ancillary issue to this is that of cover mounts. I regularly hear the negatively framed comment: ‘gamers (perhaps casual gamers) only buy mag X for the coverdisc’. And that’s a bad thing? No, of course it’s not. You know what, I couldn’t be further embedded in the arse of magazines if I tried, but I arrived at this position because I just wanted to play some games. (My interest in writing has long had a different focus.) As a moderately well off adolescent, the best way to get my hands on games was from coverdiscs of various magazines. Initially it didn’t matter which magazine, but later it was Amiga Power and the PC Gamer. The coverdisc lured me in and I stayed for the humorous banter and excellent reviews. The games taught me about themselves, while the magazine taught me about what other people think about games, and how to talk about them. That is the lesson: we come for the free goodies, and we stay if the magazine attached to them grabs and focuses and vocalises our appetite for gaming. You get more out of a subject if you have a larger vocabulary (however straightforward) for talking about it. Arguably Amiga Power transformed me from casual gamer, one who simply enjoyed games and never really thought more about it than that, to hardcore gamer, who lives, breaths and sometimes eats games. If there had been a decent magazine about drugs, philosophy, beat poets and ambient electronica (perhaps with a free bong on the cover) well, I might not have been writing this today.

There’s a hell of a lot wrong with the scene I work in, and I sometimes stand on a box to shout about it, but it bugs me to hell when other people stand on boxes and shout about entirely the wrong thing. We’ll get this right, we just need to keep working at it. Other people can give up if they want, let The Man make all the mistakes, but I want to keep going, and make some of my own.

In other news: we’re all addicted to World of Warcraft. Admittedly eight out of ten people in my world are games journalists, but that doesn’t alter the fact that my game-hating girlfriend had to be prised away from her Undead Warlock at 3am so that we could actually function like the Undead people-with-work-to-do when we woke up this morning. If it hadn’t been for several repetitious deaths and an unpleasant encounter with a giant spider, I don’t think my lady could have been removed from it at all.

Which I think is scaring a few people. It’s remarkably addictive, and those of us normally able to show restraint when it comes to games have admitted defeat and played for fourteen hours a day whenever we can sidestep doing anything constructive. The reason this worries anyone is that the game is so deeply flawed. It’s a PC classic in that sense: brilliantly constructed and annoyingly broken. As I type I’ve realised that I simply can’t be bothered to go into all the things that are worn with it (I’d really rather dwell on all the things that are right with it) but I do want to say one last thing.

World of Warcraft is a rich, lavish and beautifully engineered work of game cleverness, but it does have some gaping problems. I considered (just then as I leaned back in my chair and put hand to chin) about writing about the difference between talent and genius and the way that manifests in games, but that’s as waste of time and I need to have some breakfast. To the point: there are quite a few people out there who simply won’t entertain criticisms of the great game. Cobbett and Walker have both fought running battles with these people, who inadvertantly reveal the root of the word ‘fan’ as they collapse back into raving fanaticism. Yeah, we all want the things that we sinking hundreds of hours of our lives into to be brilliant and perfect, and it’s always better for that conscience of ours if we redescribe it as such. But the fact is: Warcraft is hamstrung but some uniquely awful design (poor aggro management, stupid baddy respawning, crappy grouping, poor comms, queues, lag, terrible instancing)… and I just can’t stop playing it. It’s all too human.

Perhaps that is genius.

Feb 7 2005

Writing Archive #1 – Planetside

‘Going Planetside’ – an extended look at the online shooter for PC Gamer UK. Originally published August 2004

“We’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. We chased dropships across ice-worlds and fought a sci-fi siege in the depths of an alien dust-storm. We’ve bailed a jeep out of a dropship from three hundred metres up. We’ve seen attack ships on fire…” Nevermind the poetry – this is more like opera anyway, filled with vast scenes of conflict and fat men singing, well shooting anyway. Planetside is a huge, bewildering phenomenon and right at the heart of it are thousands of players, each one with a hundred thousand war stories to tell. Continue reading

Feb 5 2005

Got Off At Swindon

I just remembered an anecdote that I meant to blog before Christmas.

I was on the train back from Paddington and I saw a mob of Stella-drinking youths, all tracksuits and goldie-lookin’ chains, sit down at the tables in the same carriage as me. On the late train back from London it’s almost inevitable that I’ll have to listen to drunken conversations or, worse, booze-fuelled altercations of an unpleasant nature. The giant spitting man back in July had made me all too aware of the Trouble With Trains.

I took a quick glance at the eight-strong gang and expecting nothing less than rowdiness. Their wobbles and agitation suggested an evening of strong booze was behind them. I sank into my seat and began to read something about errant scientists.

Silence. Surely they should have been loudly chatting, swearing, arguing and all the other things a squad of ne’er do wells engage in after liquor? Indeed they were standing, jostling about, clanking beer cans on the table… But there was a strange lack of any sound. I read on.

After a few more minutes I became aware of an actual fight. Two of the fellows were stood in the aisle, playfully punching each other’s arms as hard as they could between gangsta’ posings. Not wanting to intrude, I sank back into the book. Still not an utterance, not so much as a ‘fuckin ‘ell’ to be heard. But there was a lot of slapping and popping.

Raising my head above the seats I saw the reason for this abberance: they were, to a puffa-jacketed man, all deaf-mutes. Decked out in crass hiphop gear, lager cans, they were clearly all pissed and swearing – but in sign language.

They got off at Swindon.

And I had to laugh at my lack of imagination.