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The Third Age

Justin Webb Posted:
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In a previous article, Why You Like What You Like, I introduced the concept of the three RPG Ages, and talked a bit about the First and Second Ages. I adapted Marshall McLuhan’s “hot” and “cool” terminology to help illustrate why we gravitate to games of a specific “temperature”. This time around, I’m going to talk more about the Third Age, and what it predicts for the game industry in the (very) near future. I’ll use the movie Transformers as an example of why “hot” and “cool” is particularly difficult to use in this age, and also Tetris as an example of why we always take a step backwards when developing something new. As further examples, Dinosaurs will become extinct; and mammals will rule the world. This metaphor will be used clumsily throughout.

Before we can speculate on what kind of games, specifically MMOs, will emerge from this “age”, we need to know what this age “is”:

It’s an Ice Age

A rapidly expanding Ice Age, characterized by converging media and increased social connectivity. Using the hot/cool nomenclature, the entirety of today’s pop culture (games included) is cooling down … and quickly. When McLuhan introduced the terms (in the 60s), and then subsequently labeled movies as a hot medium, he probably couldn’t have anticipated the extreme convergence of media that has occurred in the last fifteen years.

When McLuhan wrote about hot and cool media, going to the movies was an extremely “hot” experience. You went and sat in a darkened room and had a movie blasted at you for two hours. That was the only way to do it. In today’s current Age, things are a bit different. For example, imagine that you are going to watch the movie Transformers. You now have a choice to make. Do you watch it at a cinema; at home on a big TV; on DVD using a PC, laptop, or netbook; on a handheld device like a PSP; do you stream it through Netflix via a video-game console; or download it from iTunes and watch it on your Mac, iPod or iPad? Each different medium is a different “temperature” than the others.

In today’s chilly Third Age, McLuhan’s mantra “the medium is the message” is as true as it was in the 60s. When examining a medium, its content is irrelevant. Transformers isn’t hot or cool, it’s the medium in which it is being viewed that determines the “heat” of the experience. In fact, it may be time to add a new mantra:

“Interface is the new medium”

Culturally, how we interact with a game is more important than the game itself. One “symptom” of the Third Age is the increasing number of ways that a player can interact with their gaming platform of choice. For example, the following interaction devices exist (or soon will) to cater to current-gen gamers:

  • Guitars, drum kits, and D.J. peripherals for “music hero” games;
  • Specialized multi-button joysticks for fighting games;
  • The basic nun chuck and wand on the Wii;
  • Touch-sensitive screens (iPlatforms);
  • Stylus-sensitive screens (Nintendo DS);
  • Your basic mouse; and finally,
  • Project Natal, which has no physical interface at all.

In a previous article, I proposed modifying McLuhan’s hot and cool terms so that they could be applied to specific game types, the aim being to figure out “why you like what you like”. In the Third Age it gets a bit more complicated, as the same game can theoretically be played using completely different interfaces. For example, playing Rockband using a guitar controller is a much hotter experience than playing it via a stylus on a DS.

The Second Age had lots of big-budget “hot” games made by a handful of big companies. Those games were played on consoles or PCs. It was a simpler time. At the beginning of the Second Age, an Xbox pretty much did only one thing: played games. The Third Age has been beginning for a while now, and media has converged at an alarming rate. For example, the Third Age Xbox (the 360) doesn’t just play games, it is also an interface for accessing other things, like: Netflix; Zune; Facebook; Twitter; your friends; email, etc.

Currently, the Second-Age MMO dinosaurs (WoW, SW: TOR, et al) are still the top of the MMO food chain. But not for long. The Third Age is an Ice Age, with many new emerging and competing interfaces. The next step is the extinction of anything that cannot adapt to the rapidly cooling environment – bye-bye dinosaurs! It’s “Survival of the Fittest”! Right now, the MMO industry still has Second-Age Dinosaur-like sensibilities – big huge warm games with no cross-interface functionality. Sure, there are some Ice-Age features out there (WoW’s Armory; Fallen Earth’s iPhone app; Pocket Legends, etc.), but the genre has steadfastly stuck to its guns. It will be interesting to see how long that lasts, especially when the first “mammalian” MMOs begin to emerge.

The Dinosaurs will have time to react, however, since …

whenever a new gaming interface emerges, you get Tetris.

By this I mean that the first games that appear on any new interface platform are always a step back in complexity. There’s always a version of Tetris amongst the launch titles. I bet someone is making a version for Natal right now. I have no idea why, but it’s good news for the dinosaurs – it gives them some wiggle room before the mammals take over.

Also, whenever there is “technological” convergence, the product is usually worse at its original function. For example, the iPhone isn’t a very useable phone compared to a standard phone; and the original Xbox wasn’t a very useable DVD player. So, it’s not all doom and gloom for the dinosaurs. They will have a production cycle or two to evolve and a choice to make – to become mammals or become extinct. They may take down some rubbish mammals along the way.

The good news for MMOs is that one of the defining characteristics of the Third age is the emergence of digital social networking. This should be good news for games that are massive and multiplayer, right? It will be. Third-Age MMOs will make extensive use of social networking, perhaps even using “friends” as resources. More importantly:

MMOs will stop being defined by the platforms they exist on, and begin being defined by the interfaces that they interact with.

However, one of the problems with MMO dinosaurs is that, due to their mass(ivellyness), they have great momentum – they’re really hard to slow down. This may be their undoing, as smaller more-agile game types will be able to change course (and adapt) and ultimately become MMO mammals years before MMO dinosaurs do. As such, the first Ice Age games won’t be MMOs … or at least not MMOs in any currently recognizable form.

I have no idea what Ice-Age mammalian MMOs will look like or play like. What is important is that we (developers and players alike) realize that this new Age is will be centered around “interface” and the convergence of media. What is certain, however, is that the Ice Age is upon us, and we are beginning to see the first mammals emerging from the snow.


Justin Webb