Tuesday, March 27, 2012

...Could Be Better I Guess

Last time we discussed the shocking revelation of what my favorite example of game design is. The infrastructure in place in Three Rings' long-running puzzle-centric MMO Puzzle Pirates might not reveal itself at first blush, what with the cutesy G-rated Playmobil-like visual design and general "kid-friendly" style. But, as one plays on, well-modeled systems for player-run affiliations ("flags" and "crews") in both naval and economic conflict get their chance to impress. So the question begs: with such a rich and capable world in which to play puzzle games and pretend to swashbuckle, why don't more people participate... and why don't I play all that much, for that matter? Well, the following are a few overarching hypotheses: some blame lies with the game, some with me, and some with the world at large.

It really is uncanny, to an extent.
1. It's over eight years old.

Most MMOs would kill to have the kind of developer-supported longevity that Pirates has. Compare to other big-name MMOs: The Matrix Online lasted a few months over 4 years, and memorable flop APB only had four months before caving in. The initial release of World of Warcraft in North America was a year after Three Rings debuted their game. Certainly being free-to-play versus strict subscription for full content is a difference, but the general impression here should be that even if the game were to shut down tomorrow it would have a long, full life behind it.

This of course also means that many people have already cycled through and had their fill. Populations within the actual worlds are often either brand new faces (often very young thanks to the cartoonish accessibility of the video game's presentation), people making another brief return before vanishing again (like myself), or long-time stalwarts with established empires and histories that the other two groups will almost never achieve. It's tough to acclimate to a world full of nearly nothing but other transients and entrenched veterans. It's just a dynamic that comes with age; expansions of content aside, the core game hasn't changed in all this time, and it shows. A lot of the mileage has been used up, and there's no way to turn back the clock except the far-flung day someone decides it's time for Puzzle Pirates II.

I can hear you thinking about Portal, and I want punch you in the face.

2. It's "for kids".

You would think that, for an industry and medium struggling to define itself and grow, making things which are accessible or family-friendly would be admirable, but take one look at the palpable cloud of hate you can still summon just by uttering "casual gamer" and you again understand what's really going on here. Video games want more than anything else to be taken as mature and for adults and meaningful. Replace most of the talk about whether or not they are or can be "art" and replace those phrases instead; the subtext is so painfully obvious that it was the first thing I ever bothered to write about here. For people who want to devote their lives to these things, being "for kids" or "a waste of time" simply won't do, and they would rather argue until blue in the face that the things they've already played or made have are valuable.

Older gamers with this kind of inferiority complex about their primary pastime will naturally shy away from smiley peg-people and wacky word filters that change curses to words like "scupper" or "John Thomas" and so on. Of course, when this happens it becomes self-fulfilling: a lot of the players then are younger children, save the older hands and people who either aren't bothered by or embrace the visual design... for whatever reason. Again, just something that makes it difficult for attempts to actualize oneself in the world at this stage to stick.

This is for babies! Therefore I want guns and boobs and swears like a big boy!

3. It isn't EVE Online.

The two games have much in common as far as the world's flexibility for different kinds of play within the various available systems. The only reason I chose Puzzle Pirates over EVE is because action in the former is much more immediate and accessible than action in the other. As a friend of an intermittent EVE player, I simply cannot understand the draw of a game that requires hours and days and months of idling to make a character of value to the machinations of the game's world. Puzzle Pirates has its fair share of tedium and grinding before being able to establish a power base, but at the very least there's some action on the player's part compared to logging out and waiting for a skill to train over the next however many days.

But, obviously, plenty of people are more than willing to go through the drab motions of immediate EVE play to be able to participate in the ongoing space opera. No customizable pets, no printed doll faces; just a bunch of space voyage refugees being grim as heck and rendered in high-quality graphics. There's even fluid transfer between two currency types so that savvy players can fund their own subscription with nothing but virtual in-game money. In the parlance of both games, "pieces of eight" are to "ISK" as "doubloons" are to "PLEX," and as long as somebody's paying real money, Three Rings and CCP Games are happy.

Beats having Chinese prisoners farm your in-game money, right?
So, why isn't an eight-year-old kids' puzzle MMO the epicenter of the gaming universe? Because it's eight years old, for kids, and about puzzles. Sure, you can add in that maybe the decay mechanic on items could be a little more generous, and the "premium" sub-game rotation means lots of repetition in the games you play. But at the end of the day, none of this was the point (Seriously, you needed me to spell this out for you?) It's about giving a nod to a team of designers who created a video game that's easy to get into, difficult to "master" however you choose to take that, and trusts its players to create their own significance, rather than spoon-feeding them one by robbing them of actual gameplay depth.

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