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Justin Webb: Why You Like What You Like

Column By Justin Webb on April 20, 2010

In this article I’m going to explain why you like what you like. You’re going to end up being either “cool” or “hot” (or maybe even “tepid”). You’ll have your own gaming thermometer. I’ll explain why you might love UO yet hate WoW. I’ll talk about the “play me” and “show me” Ages of RPGs. Along the way, I’m also going to mention Marshall McLuhan and Woody Allen. You’ll then get to poke fun of me in the forums. And I’m going to try and explain it all in about a thousand words or less.

The thoughts behind this article began after I realized that I didn’t much like some recent games that had phenomenally high Metacritic scores (Bioshock, Mass Effect 2, and Dragon Age). I’ll spare you my reasonings. Instead, I’m going to investigate why.

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Why Do I Like What I Like? Why Do You?

I first wondered whether it might be because I’ve “seen behind the curtain”? I certainly played Magic a lot less after I started working at Wizards of the Coast. And I’ve been in the MMO trenches for long enough now to understand the development meat grinder. However, that’s not the reason. It’s something more subtle than that.

I then wondered whether it might be an “Age” thing. I’m not talking about personal age, but more like the way comics are organized. For example, was there a Golden Age or a Silver Age of RPGs? What age are we in right now? Was I being nostalgic and/or subconsciously predisposed to like games that had all the qualities of being from a particular “Age”? Again, I think it’s more subtle than that.

The RPG Ages

Back in the late 80s, RPGs were predominantly text based. For example, MUDs; Colossal Cave; Infocom adventures; The Hobbit; etc. Players parsed the text and had to imagine/infer what was going on. Players interacted “into” the game ... and the game responded. Game concepts could be quite abstract without need for any visualization. Many of these games had very sophisticated systems. The play experience of these games rewarded players who manipulated those systems in the most strategic way. These games didn’t try to appear realistically (they couldn’t back then), they just wanted to get inside your imagination.This is the First Age. Its slogan is “play me”.

As technology advanced, graphics began to appear and the race toward photorealism began. Graphical RPGs become very popular in an attempt to take the older RPGs to the next level of interaction. Final Fantasy VII was a watershed cultural moment – perhaps the start of the Second Age. In that game, extensive use was made of cut scenes and rigid storytelling. Overall, there was less need to “imagine/infer” what was going on – the game was “shown” “realistically” to the player. A trend began whereby games tried as much as possible to graphically recreate what was going on inside the game. In conjunction with (for its time) amazing graphics, FF VII went on to sell a gabazillion copies, leading the way for Baldur’s Gate … and the “Bioware way of doing things”. Bioware has taken the mantra of “stories … told epic-ly” and run with it.

Soon after, 3D MMOs also began to appear. They were still strongly systematic, reminiscent of games from the First Age, and became wildly popular. As the 3D MMO industry evolved, games became much prettier, more “forgiving”, and (arguably) easier to play. WoW is the crowning example of this trend. The MMO space, with some notable examples, has become gradually less First Age and more Second Age. Console games are extremely Second Age. The Second Age’s slogan is “show me”.

We may be on the cusp of the Third Age, perhaps even well into it. With the advent of social networking and mobile platforms, gamers have a plethora of new ways to interact. This time around, the interaction is with other people rather than with the dynamics of a game. The Third Age’s slogan is “friend me”.

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