Guild Wars 2
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When the iPad was announced earlier this year I wrote a blog entry that was generally sceptical of the device’s overall potential to revolutionize anything; nevertheless, I was still interested in its possibilities as a gaming platform.  At the time, I wrote this:

Apple will in all likelihood need some breakthrough application that really takes advantage of the size and scale of the device (since no significant new functionality was demonstrated) to allow people to do something that they couldn’t do before.  Alternatively, it will need to allow people to do something they could do before but much more efficiently.  Note:  much more efficiently.  I have a hard time seeing how anyone will part with the amount of money needed to get the version with reasonable storage and connectivity if it only does some things a little better than is possible at the moment.

This breakout app that helps to redefine the iPad hasn’t happened yet as far as I’m aware.  No one who has showed me their iPad has yet done the “but what you really need to see is this” move that made me jealous of any number of people with iPods and then iPhones.  Of course, I did underestimate basic human nature.  In fact, lots of people will part with a lot of money to get something that only does things a little better than other devices (and in some cases a lot worse: seriously, have you used the “keyboard” on this thing?  Better yet, watch a proud iPad owner using it: they grin with that kind of “No, this may look painful but I’m really having a lot of fun” look that is vaguely reminiscent of the way elephants look when trying to have sex). . .simply so they can have what most other people don’t have. . .yet.  There is a word for these people.  Posers.

However, someone has finally done the “but what you really need to see is this” move in a way that has made me sit up and take notice.  It came from an unexpected quarter.  Yet, re-reading my rant–that is to say, my informed and nuanced analysis–I also noticed this (and I’m going to quote myself at length because. . .well, you’ll see):

If the iPad is going to bring anything new to gaming, it is going to have to exploit the increased amount of real estate that is now available to pinch swipe and tap.  Now this is a complete fantasy, but I would love to see the iPad develop as a device for playing MMORPGs.

Think about it.  One of the notable characteristics of MMORPGs is that they are extremely complex logistical environments.  Multiple areas of the screen are devoted to discrete task sets: player stats, abilities, tactical awareness displays, inventory management, maps, progress indicators and so on.  Clicking on either these areas or using hotkeys brings up secondary and sometimes tertiary screens that allow access to more detailed functionality.  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to deal with all of that via the magic of the touch-screen interface?  Swishing and swiping your UI elements around a laMinority Report?  And coupling all of that with accelerometer enabled movement around the game world?  The interface might even be able to handle some essential combat dynamics in interesting ways.

Moreover, what this would do is take one of the most successful gaming sectors and make it truly mobile and casual.  Instead of having to haul a laptop around with you if you wanted to game on the go, you find yourself with an hour to spare, so you kick back in your office, the park, your coffee shop, next to your sleeping SO late at night, and throw yourself into your online world of choice.

That was January 8, 2010.

Fast forward to September 21, 2010.

Arenanet announces the Guild Wars 2 “Extended Experience,” their application development initiative that will allow people to stay connected with their friends and the game world.  However, as Tech Director Rick Ellis points out, many MMOs already allow you to do this.  For some time EVE Online has had EVEMon for the PC and Capsuleer for the iPhone, both of which allow you to monitor the status of your character’s skill acquisition, stats and prices on goods, and so on.  Pirates of the Burning Sea has made available a basic API that allows fan sites to monitor the status of the online Caribbean (which ports are under attack, etc.).  Blizzard, of course, has its Mobile Armory app for the iPhone that allows you to browse characters and guild stats and purchase goods from online auction houses (with a subscription to Blizzard’s remote service).

These applications have been marketed as mechanisms for encouraging players to feel more involved with their world, and develop a proprietary connection with the online experience that transcends the actual playing time.  That, however, is traditionally the role played by guilds and societies.  In point of fact these are really just palliatives for OCD gamers who, quite frankly, probably need professional help.  If you feel the need to be checking your character stats while in class or buy stuff from your gaming auction house while at work. . .what am I saying, you’ve probably failed all your classes and can’t hold down a meaningful job.

I am critical of these kinds of apps (having used EVEMon and Capsuleer) because they really don’t add much to the game experience except in a way that is, I would have to say, ultimately a little unhealthy.  For the most part they encourage you to believe you are engaging with the game world but in no functional sense are you actually doing so.  Instead, they are simply “remember me?” devices that encourage distracted dreaming and speculation about what you will do once you finally get away from your boring desk and are able to resume your increasingly time-consuming “real” job as a Level 300 Paladin or intergalactic man of mystery.

ArenaNet, however, appears to have something else in mind:

One thing that separates what we’re doing from the rest of the MMO market is that we aren’t using a simple, one-way connection to get information from the game. We have constructed a high-speed connection to the Guild Wars 2 server and database architecture, allowing us to not only retrieve information from the game but also push data into the game in real time.

Now if you read “Gaming Outside the Game” closely this is all a little less revolutionary than it might appear (worryingly, this is becoming something of a leitmotif with Arenanet announcements!).  At the moment, they are still thinking about this new functionality primarily as a “socializing” tool, albeit a vastly more sophisticated and enhanced one than anything I’ve yet seen.  But as they point out, the ability to follow the progress of your guild on a raid on the night that you can’t make it online for some reason would be pretty neat.  When you couple this with the touchy feely high quality visuals of the iPad giving you the capacity to view a real-time view of your guildies moving around the game world. . .well, that starts to look seriously cool.

This is, however, as they point out, only the tip of the iceberg.  For example:

Mobile users will also have the ability to tap a location on the world map, causing their in-game friends to see a radar ping appear on the mini-map and world map. This is a great feature to help less-experienced friends and guildies learn their way around the Guild Wars 2 world.

I love this idea.  I already have a name for this app: “Guardian Angel.”

But if there is a tip and there is an iceberg there is undoubtedly an ocean liner bearing down on said iceberg.  Why aren’t you able to make your guild’s raid?  Because your SO decided that it was time you took a break from your relentless guildwarring and that the two of you went out to dinner for some “us” time.  So, what are you going to do?  Take repeated surreptitious glances at your iPhone under the table?  Or worse yet, whip out your iPad and caress it lovingly as you gaze fondly into its soft, gleaming face?  No nookie for you tonight.  But hey, at least your Guild obtained the 20 Resist Bludgeoning Mace of Maceration and you were there. . .sort of.  This kind of “Extended Experience” could be one of the worst things to happen to our collective social life since the invention of the cellphone.  Our relationship shipping lanes will become even more crowded with wreckage than they already are.

But it could also be one of the best things to happen to gaming and to MMOs in particular.  In one sense the world of MMOs (especially from the point of view of players) couldn’t be more healthy.  There are some great games out there, and some recent developments (smarter Free-to-Play options, for example) are giving players, especially those new to MMOs, greater incentive to try new games.  Yet MMOs are, I think, living on borrowed time.

My thinking here is influenced by my recent reading of Jesper Juul’s thought-provoking A Casual Revolution (for those of you not familiar with Juul’s work, as a writer he gives academics a good name: most of my academic colleagues would take 300 pages to say what he says so deftly in 100) which discusses the players of casual games and their relationship to “hard core” gamers.   He argues persuasively that the thing which is driving the surge of interest in casual games is simply time.  But this is not time in the way it is usually presented in the media, i.e. that casual games are those things you pick up when you just have a spare moment while waiting for a train.  Indeed, Juul shows that many casual games (and he includes things like Guitar Hero and Wii Sports as well as more familiar diversions like Bejeweled in this category) are often played for reasonable lengths of time: three to four sessions of up to two hours each per week is not unusual.

This, however, is still a much smaller time commitment than that required by most games.  Forget the black hole of alternative space-time that is your average MMO for a moment.  I don’t even want to know how long it took me to complete a single campaign of DragonQuest: Origins (of course, the game insists on telling me); I’m too busy trying to resist the siren song of starting another campaign as an Elfin Rogue.  Unless you are a shit hot circle-strafer, even your average FPS can take the average player between 15 and 40 hours, depending on the game.  Sadly, the gaming demographic is, like every other aspect of our culture–infrastructure, J-Lo–aging.  Sooner or later, gamers find that, try as they might, life catches up with them and dumps a crapload of annoying responsibility into their laps: jobs, kids, SOs who have “needs,” aging parents that need to be cared for, and on, and on, and on.

Game developers, as Juul notes, have been slow to recognize this fact.  Many players of casual games don’t count themselves as game players precisely because they don’t think that what they do fits into the time-intensive, weirdly self-referential and impenetrably jargonistic world of the hard-core gamer.  Indeed, many feel pretty alienated from that world.  Meanwhile, another group of players of casual games were once members of that world but they just can’t swing it any more; indeed, they often find themselves reaching for the simpler games that launched their love affair with gaming in the first place.  Yet developers still keep on developing incredibly complex games as if under the illusion that everyone is perpetually living in a college dorm and capable of functioning on three hours of sleep for months at an end.  But the graying of the population is as inexorable as the march of time itself.  Developers who don’t recognize this fact and its impact on their bottom line are in exactly the same position as those game developers back in the late 90s who seemed incapable of realizing that half of their potential gaming audience was female, and therefore that offering as a “prize” the sight of Miss Silica 2300 flashing her augmented tatas probably wasn’t an appealing strategy to that demographic.  (Now, before any of you comment, I know that some women would have found that appealing, but betting on the lesbian FPS gamer market probably wouldn’t make you the next Blizzard).

This revolution (if one can actually use that term about what is, after all, a state of advancing physiological decrepitude) will hit MMOs particularly hard.  I regularly play with lots of people who already find it increasingly difficult to devote the kind of hours to these kinds of games that they used to.  In some ways, as the games become more elaborate and entrancing, the gap between what you feel you could do and what life actually gives you time to do, will become ever greater and an increasing source of frustration.

The greatest potential, therefore, of the kind of functionality Arenanet is working on now, therefore, isn’t simply to create an “extended experience” out of the existing gameworld, but to enable players to do what has up until now been virtually impossible: play an MMOG casually.  This is where I was a little off base in my earlier piece.  I was thinking about the iPad as a gaming platform, as a mechanism for being able to play an MMOG-type game (and certainly amongst the young and temporally irresponsible there is a market for that: some people absolutely wet themselves at the idea of even playing a ratty pixelated version of WoW on their phone, for God’s sake).  Yet what I was talking about was a change in the ways in which (and therefore the places in which) we play MMOGs.  What I think could be a real breakout moment for this device would be to build a kind of casual game on top of an existing MMO world that will enable people to fit these worlds into their lives but which will also enable them to feel as if they are actually having some kind of meaningful impact on that world.  Not just a “socialization” tool, but an actual honest-to-goodness game that I can play for an hour with passion and intensity and leave feeling as if I’ve left the virtual world a better place.

We don’t need an extended experience as much as an alternate experience.  Maybe that is starting to become a reality.  And back in January I called it!*

*Yes, I realize no one actually cares and that this is all a pale compensatory prop for my bedraggled ego.  I’m under no illusion that hordes of people are reading this blog.  Yet.