Holy cow, I just saw the trailer for the upcoming Battlefield 3 game and I have to say, it caught me by surprise. I’m not a big fan of “shooters” (really, the only one I’ve played extensively was the Halo franchise back in college—but does that even count?) so maybe I should have known better, but I thought that Call of Duty was the big player when it comes to these war simulation games. By the looks of this trailer, I’d say that’s no longer the case. Battlefield 3 looks incredible, seems to offer a compelling story and (my favourite part) you can fly jets! Awesome.
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The following is an excerpt from my upcoming ENGL 794 major project, where I will be comparing World of Warcraft, Age of Empires and Utopia in order to create a game concept of my own. Specifically, this is an in-depth overview of World of Warcraft, which will be pared down significantly for my final project.
Exploration in World of Warcraft is as basic a concept as you can get with a first-person (or third-person, which you can experience in WoW) role playing game. Gamers simply wander around the vast virtual world looking for avatars who can offer them quests, and ultimately a reward. Getting from point A to B is tedious, and while finding new territory is interesting it is only useful by way of offering more quests and more enemies with whom players may interact.
The world is beautifully rendered, however, and seeing the various, diverse land is a treat. In this regard, exploration is a pure instance of discovery that brings inherent pleasure. Much like the feelings that Europeans must have experienced as they discovered new plants and animals in the New World, gamers can feel excitement and surprise when they run into an odd creature or a breathtaking view.
Because game progression in WoW revolves around the avatar—the personalized, computer-generated virtual creature that gamers of WoW control in order to move through the game—I have decided to combine my critique of development and avatars here. Michael Heim has described avatars in a way that I think works very well in the context of online role playing games like WoW: “shared fantasy identities that prove [gamers] are alive and telepresent through real-time playful interactive construction. Avatar identities are finite points of presence, intrinsically interactive and plural, embedded in communities of other avatars” (in Flanagan 68). Meanwhile, Mary Flanagan argues that avatars are “an other (perhaps a soft other), with whom we develop a relationship” (68). The difference between these two definitions is that Heim sees avatars as a virtual representation, or stand-in, of a real person, while Flanagan sees avatars as a kind of remote-controlled robot. I think either definition can work in WoW depending on how players choose to use their avatar. For me, I designed my avatar after myself and added accessories and weapons that spoke to me personally (for more on my experience creating a WoW avatar, click here). However, gamers may choose to create an avatar that is completely different from themselves, as seen in this clip from the television show How I Met Your Mother:
Gamers may also treat their avatars as a subservient “other” by putting their avatars into situations they would never go themselves. For instance, gamers may find enjoyment from casting their avatar off cliffs, feeding it to wolves, using it as bait to help others, etc. For me, I avoided these situations as I had invested myself into my avatar as an extension of myself, and used it to interact with others as I would interact with others in person (within the boundaries provided by the game).
At any rate, the avatar is an extremely important component of WoW, and indeed the entire game is played in order to make your avatar as powerful as possible. Quests are completed in order to obtain accessories—or in-game currency that is used to buy accessories—for your avatar, and experience points, which help increase certain powers and abilities. Gamers do not own any land in WoW, but rather only what their avatar can carry on their virtual person.
The development of one’s avatar seems to be enough to keep most WoW players interested (even obsessively hooked), and the progressive points-as-reward system is simple and effective. But, as one game reviewer has pointed out, “the grind” of exploration and avatar development can be a bit much:
…let’s talk about The Grind. In a traditional persistent online RPG, you advance your character by killing an endless string of monsters, and by doing “FedEx” quests where you get some money and/or experience points by delivering an arbitrary item from Point A to Point B. As your character advances, his or her progress begins to slow. It takes longer and longer to get to the next level, because you need more and more experience points each time, yet the experience returned from monsters and deliveries does not scale accordingly. Yet you feel compelled to continue because at Level X you get a really cool spell or other ability that’s supposed to make the game more “fun.” (McNamara)
Avatar development in WoW is a trap, and an effective trap indeed.
The combat in WoW is bulky, slow and unappealing. Essentially, players can engage a single target at a time (at least early on, in my experience), and fire different spells or attacks in timed intervals. What this leads to is an almost turn-based combat system (think Pokemon or even “go-fish”) where two avatars give and receive hits until one runs out of defensive stamina. After playing games with phenomenal hand-to-hand combat (Arkham Asylum comes to mind), the battles in WoW just don’t impress. I realize swordplay, magic, gunfighting and the like are difficult to combine, but there has to be a more natural way to make it all come together. Aside from the flashes of mystical lightning, swinging of hands/swords or the bursts of fire from the barrel of a blunderbuss, combat in WoW is pretty lame.
Here’s a sample PvP (player-vs-player) battle (the addition of “Sandstorm” energizes things significantly):
Interface and Controls
As you can see from the screenshot above, the interface in WoW can get pretty complicated. Along the bottom you have your inventory of spells, objects and weapons; in the top-right corner you have a map and different options for navigating the game-world; along the top are health meters for you and your enemies; and to the left are other human-controlled avatars with whom you may interact. I have to say that I became lost in this mess more than once, and never really got to understand all of the features that were available to me.
In terms of controls, WoW requires a keyboard and mouse (it’s played on a computer, after all), which became overwhelming to me as well, since I have in recent years become a console gamer exclusively. I am told that you can get used to finding the proper buttons to hit on a keyboard and that the game can be manipulated rather smoothly, but there are a lot of keys on a keyboard, aren’t there? And figuring out which keys do what, and in which situation, became a nightmare for me.*
*Again, I admit that I only played this game for a couple of weeks and my experience is extremely limited. But this was my initial impression.
The most incredible part of WoW for me is how detailed and diverse the developers have made this massive virtual world. Every village and city has its own look and feel and the land is covered in prairies, mountains, lakes, forests, deserts, and all kinds of geographical variation to keep things fresh and to help players remember where certain items or individuals are located.
The computer graphics may be somewhat polygonal and dated, and lack a realistic edginess that some gamers may prefer. But I found the stylized characters and buildings appealing and, more importantly, consistent throughout the game. Without much knowledge about the kind of computing power it takes to run such a game, I suspect the developers at Blizzard were forced to make certain concessions when it came to graphic design in order to have the game play smoothly online, which it did for me (at the university—not at home).
The opening cut scene for World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (which is the updated version that I experienced) is a pretty cool video, and certainly one that should get players excited to get into the game and start playing. Unfortunately, I did not run into any further cut scenes like this in my two weeks of gameplay (maybe there are more later on?…) and the loading images that I did see were standard images that seemed to come straight off of the box the game comes in.
Finally, the sound in WoW is bland, ineffective and sparse. Eventually I ended up muting the game in favour of my personal library of music. All narrative elements that are offered to gamers through meeting characters and completing quests are written in pop-up boxes—nothing is voiced. Occasionally you will hear a grunt, roar or squeal from a nearby character, and attacks/spells are accompanied by appropriate booms and clangs. But I certainly never encountered music or sound that aided in submersing me deeper into the game.
Obviously, what I lacked in my two week trial of World of Warcraft was the “massively multiplayer” element. I think WoW could be a really fun game if I had a bunch of friends who I could meet up with online and annihilate other groups of people, and certainly that seems to be the appeal for hardcore gamers of WoW (as depicted in the online series The Guild):
However, from the perspective of a single player looking to have fun independently with others, WoW is a vast space that takes far too long to explore, and the individual quests do not come together to form a cohesive narrative. Instead, I found myself bouncing back and forth from one spot to another trying to gain experience points and accessories for my avatar, until I eventually found the game too time consuming to continue, and I haven’t been lured back (despite the fact that WoW can now be played for free up until you reach level 20).
WoW is a fun game to try out, and certainly a marvel in terms of environment design. But there are only a few elements that I would like to take from the game and incorporate into my own.
Flanagan, Mary and Austin Booth. Re:skin. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2002.
McNamara, Tom. “World of Warcraft Review.” IGN. 10 Dec. 2004. Web. 1 Aug. 2011 <http://pc.ign.com/articles/572/572070p1.html>.
I like my Xbox 360 – the controller fits nicely in my hands, the menu interface is solid, the game selection is good and (so far) there haven’t been any major problems with its hardware or online network (which is more than Playstation has been able to say recently). Plus, I can play it in my (rather small) living room and use it to watch movies and listen to music.
Which platform do you prefer?
In 1989, Maxis Software, with the help of now-legendary video game designer Will Wright, released SimCity. It was a game developed for the Commodore 64, but found widespread success on other early PC platforms (I myself first played it on Windows 95).
SimCity allowed users to design their own city, complete with roads, houses, factories, shops, parks, stadiums, airports and anything else you’d find in a typical city. The idea was to have users create a functioning city that made money, attracted residents and dealt with traffic problems efficiently. As you can see in the screenshot to the left, the game contained a lot of complexities that made the game extremely interesting and—dare I say it—educational. For users (especially young users), realizing things like the necessity to connect the sections of their cities with hydro lines and roads, or the desire of residents to have recreational facilities and parks, makes the user appreciate the challenges city planners of your real-life city or town face everyday.
SimCity seems to interest Lars Konzack a great deal in terms of its philosophy. In his article “Philosophical Game Design,” he explains the philosophy of SimCity in the following way:
SimCity is an example of philosophical game design, not so much because it creates a sandbox in which the player is able to act, or whether the player chooses to play the application either as a game accomplishing a goal or performing a free-play, but because the underlying rules of the game presents a vision of the world. The philosophy of SimCity is that of the complexity of modern cities and how social behavior and environmental issues influence city planning… With SimCity, Wright was presenting a cybernetic philosophy of urban construction in an aesthetic way, making these feedback relations and game theoretical mechanisms into an experience.” (33-4)
Konzack says that “games that go beyond mere entertainment” need to have an overarching philosophy in which “each element of gameplay and each mechanical feature” fits coherently (33). First-person shooters like America’s Army, Call of Duty and Ace Combat (though the latter technically fits under the “flight simulator” genre) possess an underlying military propaganda that argues problems can be solved honourably through violence. These games are obvious examples of games that can subtly (or not-so subtly) coerce their users, but not all games flaunt their philosophies so noticeably.
BioShock, an adventure game from 2K Boston (now Irrational Games), “is a genuinely philosophical game,” says Konzack. “The Game is a criticism of Ayn Rand’s aesthetic vision of a libertarian utopia based on her so-called objectivist thoughts, which in essence may be interpreted as the decree greed is good… BioShock investigates the ethics of greed is good” (40).
Konzack makes a distinction between what he considers “philosophical” and “educational” games, although his definitions (like most in this young discipline) are open to criticism. From Konzack’s perspective, games like SimCity and even BioShock can possess educational value, but they are not designed to teach their users anything directly like games like Mavis Beacon, JumpStart or WolfQuest. Philosophical games do their teaching by “confront[ing] us with ideas and how they work in consequential systems” (33). While BioShock has foundations in Ayn Rand’s economic theories, I would guess that most players of the game have a very limited knowledge of those theories, or Ayn Rand herself. However, the philosophies that surrounded such theories (greed and egoism) become apparent as the user progresses through BioShock, and the user likely comes away from their playing experience feeling just a tad more socialist.
With Konzack’s notion of philosophical gaming in mind, the question I have is where to draw lines between philosophical games, educational games, and games like Tetris, Checkers or other games that do not really offer any kind of immediate knowledge gain (although I admit that the latter can develop reflexes, a competitive spirit, logical thinking, etc.).
Recently, I was asked to play the online farming game Farmerama, which should be familiar if you’ve played Farmville on Facebook (or Farm Town, which Zynga apparently plagiarized to develop Farmville). The good thing about Farmerama (at least in my opinion) is that the game is not on Facebook, which means it is not sucking personal information out of its users any chance it gets. That said, this game is still a money-maker. The game progresses very slowly, and users are prompted to buy additional features (with real-world money) to help them get things moving. Users are also given glimpses of what lies ahead, or what they will be able to do once they get enough “barnyard bills” (game money), which makes the game very addictive. It’s an easy game to play, after all. It’s just a matter of spending the time required to plant fields, harvest them (20min-8hrs later) and sell them. While the game was well put together in terms of its visual aesthetics, ease of play, variety of challenges and seemingly endless growth, I lost the patience to continually wait for things to happen, and having to click on every single square of land to seed/harvest was extremely tedious. After only a few days of playing, I forgot to check back on my farm and I haven’t felt the urge to return.
But does Farmerama offer any kind of meaningful philosophy? It follows a consistent overarching theme (farming) and asks users to work through the situation in which they are placed (a budding farm with great potential) and I suppose that people (particularly children) could come away with something meaningful in terms of what it might be like to operate a farm, or at least what you might be able to do if you owned a farm. But in my opinion, Farmerama exhibits an ignorant, urbanized view, or philosophy, of farming, which fails to acknowledge the true origins of food and its production. None of the animals in Farmerama are slaughtered, no chemicals are used on the crops and users are able to grow any type of crop they choose, regardless of geographical location (wherever Farmerama may be supposedly located). It seems to me that Farmerama portrays farming exactly how the average citizen from an industrialized, urban world envisions farming.
In contrast, SimFarm (1993) offers a philosophy of farming realism much like its predecessor SimCity—realism that involves the use of chemicals like herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, raising of animals that grow in value, die of hunger and escape from their pen, and natural disasters like tornadoes, hail, floods and locusts. Users begin the game by choosing one of nine possible regions of the United States to farm in, each of which allows different crops to flourish and presents the possibility of different natural disasters. Once crops are planted, users are able to keep track of weather, take out loans from the bank, borrow equipment from neighbouring farmers, dig irrigation ditches, plant wind-breaking trees, buy more land, etc. Unlinke Farmerama, SimFarm moves quickly and requires a great deal of attention, foresight and on-the-spot decision-making.
Overall, SimFarm illustrates to its users how difficult it is to be a farmer. Farming requires a tonne of money, constant vigilance, luck and a deep understanding of the crops and animals you farm. Its philosophy, much like that of SimCity, is to show users that there is an awful lot that goes into the building of a successful farm, and that ultimately, we are all subject to the forces of nature and luck.
It’s clear that Farmerama and SimFarm share similarities in terms of their layout and click-and-point controls, while they remain worlds apart in terms of their graphics, complexity, realism and the amount of time they demand to play. I also argue that their philosophies differ greatly. While you may not agree with my analysis of what I consider to be an urbanized Farmerama or a harsh, even cynical SimFarm, it is clear that each game has been editorialized somewhat to fit the philosophy of its developers.
When playing your next shooter or adventure or RPG game, think about how the structure and progression of the game impacts your way of thinking. Is the game speaking to you in subtle ways about war, ethics, economics, race, gender—even life? It just may be.
Download and Play SimFarm:
Watch the Video Demo of SimFarm:
Konzack, Lars. “Philosophical Game Design.” The Video Game Theory Reader 2. Ed. Bernard Perron & Mark J.P. Wolf. New York: Routledge, 2009. 33-44.
GiantBomb.com has a decent list of what they consider to be the “most important” games scheduled for release over the next year or so. Today’s poll question asks what games have you been most excited about?
My answers: Arkham City, L.A. Noire and Other (Madden 12 looks pretty slick and Ace Combat: Assault Horizon should be awesome, considering I’ve never played an AC game I didn’t like).