Re: “When Depth Gets in the Way of Fun”

Before we kick off another adventure in Mainstream Game Journlolism™, I’d like to make a statement to those who write for GameSpot and 1UP and the rest of the trash heap, teams of writers who assume “expert” status on the topic of video games by virtue of their visibility: If you have to use the word “accessibility” or the phrase “pick up and play” to defend or elaborate upon on your opinion of a video game, then you need to stop reviewing the damn things. Seriously. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that would be a fairly impossible request, because I would be asking the entire business of commercially-driven game criticism to toss itself in the wastebasket. Your overlords, the dudes sitting in board rooms that treat your field of writing as mere profit commodity, have already won out. So instead, I’m going to yell at you, the game journalists, for a couple thousand words. Hopefully, I can convince a couple of people on the outside to help me destroy the myth that “the best games tend to be more accessible”. Hopefully, my inflammatory word choice and inappropriately passionate opinion on the topic should help to make this article more accessible to general audiences.

I mention these things because recently, IGN continued its long-running trend of being the worst game journalism site on the internet. This concerns a piece by one Mr. Nick Kolan that would have been a satire of today’s game criticism if it wasn’t a dead-honest look into the state of the racket. At first glance, there’s not much to be offended by. The title of the article is “Why I Prefer League of Legends Over Dota 2“. So he likes one game over another, big deal. Yeah, it’s depressing that we’re fighting over which Multiplayer Online Battle Arena rules the land at the same time that the real-time strategy genre continues its descent into obscurity, but there’s nothing offensive about it. His reasoning is the scary part. With titles come subtitles, and those subtitles act as a supplement to the thesis or purpose of an article. Your subtitle? “Editorial: When depth gets in the way of fun.”

It’s this trend of simplifying DotA’s mechanics that has made League of Legends more fun for me. The jungle, the area between lanes populated by neutral monsters, is somewhat randomized in Dota 2 (the enemies that spawn at each location are inconsistent from match to match), making leveling in it prohibitively difficult for most heroes until later in the game. It also has dozens of winding trails, with the ring of trees that line the entire map coated with byzantine secret paths that only an experienced player would know about. These trees can even be cut down with certain abilities, complicating things further. The League of Legends jungle is simple, with only a few paths running through it, no secrets, no destruction, and a (now easier than ever) neutral minion makeup that allows many champions to level up in it as an alternative to one of the lanes.

League also turns the line-of-sight differences provided by elevation in DotA into a series of bushes that can’t be seen into or beyond. It’s a change that both provides some interesting tactical depth — allowing players to hide for an ambush — and makes more sense to a newcomer at a glance (hiding in brush strikes me as a little less out-there than not being able to see up some stairs). It also serves as a unique means of triggering abilities, such as Nidalee’s passive skill, that Dota 2’s different heights simply doesn’t allow for. League of Legends’ brush is elegant and instantly recognizable as a usable part of the environment, while the subtlety of Dota 2’s different heights means you may not get the hang of it for many games.*

Now normally, I try to respect the skill levels and comprehension of the medium held by everyone, even if they don’t play video games. I don’t begrudge newbies. I loathe willful ignorance. Some people are more willing and eager to learn more about the world around them. We call those people “curious”. And I have no qualms with a newbie that is curious about the world around them. Those are people who will ask questions when they don’t understand a topic. Those are people who will step out of their comfort zone, trying out things that may seem boring or uncomfortable at first. And as they gain proficiency and comprehension of the topic, they’ll gain even more interest in that topic, and have more questions to ask. I only go out of my way to choke and maim those who try to cast uninformed opinion or judgment on the topic, then hold their ground when their opinion is refuted. In the case of video games, look at any discussion thread on a public message board concerning Angry Birds, where the ease of destroying that game’s laughable mechanics is usually met with “Opinions are like assholes!” and “Well, I liked it, and that’s what counts!”

The situation involving Mr. Kolan is a bit different. Being curious about a topic and holding authority on a topic is different. For instance, I know fuck-all about cars. If I was to write on the topic of cars, I would warn the audience that I do not know anything about cars and I am open to all suggestions. Even if I am curious about the topic, I do not ascribe authority to it. I do not claim to be an expert on the topic. (This is the primary reason “Top X Lists” always suck; their scope asserts a level of authority that no one person living today can hold. And yet, they are one of the most popular and contentious forms of criticism, if you want to call those abortions a form of criticism.) I’ll give you my opinion on video games, because that’s a topic I know well. And even then, I choose my genres carefully. There are people out there who know far more about fighting games and shoot ’em ups than I do. I will defer to their expertise on those genres and keep an open mind.

So here is Mr. Kolan, discussing video games on a web site frequented by millions of unique visitors every month. Whether he likes it or not, his visibility automatically makes him an expert on the topic. And if he was to desperately tell the world that “I stress I am not an expert on this topic!”, readers would disavow and discredit his work, asking “Why is somebody who does not know anything about video games is writing for IGN?” (And I would laugh at that statement, as though this would be the first time someone writing for IGN didn’t know what they were talking about.) To protect his writing, Mr. Kolan must embrace the role of “expert”. And my expectation is that, by presenting himself as an expert, he knows the topic. He is presenting himself as an “expert” on the differences between DotA 2 and League of Legends, and his opinion will be broadcasted to a large audience during the course of this article’s shelf life. I would expect that he has played a good portion of the relevant games in the MOBA genre (Defense of the Ancients, Demigod, League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, DotA 2), possibly some similar games (World of Tanks, World in Conflict) and even has a good deal of real-time strategy experience, particularly Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and its expansion pack The Frozen Throne. You know, the games that provided the foundation for the Defense of the Ancients game model. And preferably, he should be playing these games at a high enough skill level that he can create skilled outcomes and comment on those experiences, rather than observe and comment upon the skilled outcomes of others.

Instead, what do we have? Mr. Kolan, as an expert on the topic of this particular genre, has just said that one video game is more entertaining for him than another because one of those video games is too hard for him.

As one expert addressing another, let me just go ahead and debunk the article. Complexity, quite simply, is the size of the rule set. From good complexity that creates meaningful decisions and interesting possibilities, one derives depth. Depth, quite simply, is the distance between the best player and the worst player. That depth allows for a degree of separation between good players and bad players, a degree of separation between those who can create skilled outcomes and those who cannot. In the best games, there’s a such a wide range of entertaining possible outcomes that the best players continue to find room for improvement in the years and decades following a game’s release.

In competitive multiplayer games such as StarCraft: Brood War and Counter-Strike, this places professionally-paid human beings against each other for over the course of a decade. They are salaried because these games can be so entertaining that people will pay money to watch them play each other. And the best of these games will hold to scrutiny from these professionally-paid players. Those players will still find ways to one-up each other, whether finding new strategies and tactics or simply improving their ability to execute. They will continue setting the bar higher and the game rules will hold their ground. In single-player video games such as Super Metroid, Deus Ex, and Super Mario World, the number of interesting and entertaining things that can be done with this complexity keeps players entertained as they continue to search for every nuance, every shortcut, and every option available to them. From that continual room for improvement, lasting and continued challenge is derived, leading to the most enjoyable video games. And consequently, the best and most interesting games. (The debate, of course, is what constitutes the most interesting game situations in those interesting games. And I’m sure people will continue to fight over that for some time.)

So what you have here is, in essence, an expert on the topic saying that League of Legends is a worse game than DotA 2, with less complexity leading to less depth. And Mr. Kolan is okay with that because, as an expert, he would rather play the simpler, less rewarding game! Why? Because he doesn’t have the patience to learn the deeper, more complex game. And there will be people who will read this article, and they will say “Yup. I’m okay with that. I understand his point.”

The piece is, quite simply, the most depressing affirmation of what most of us know about the state of Mainstream Game Journlolism™. If this was just a one-off incident, where the public immediately jumped on the writer and the crazy train was never heard from again, I’d be willing to ignore it. Here, a writer for a major game journalism outlet openly complained that a game was too hard, an editor signed off on the article, and none of his co-workers were waiting in line begging to challenge his assertions. (Much of the same thought process went through my head when Jen Schiller of Kotaku backhanded the concept of competitive video game playing on a web site supposedly dedicated to video game culture.* I guess Brian Ashcraft was too busy writing about Japan’s fetishes to call her an idiot.)

What countless articles similar to Mr. Kolan’s have done is create an equivalent field of criticism where the works of the greatest writers and philosophers are derided because they are “too difficult to be understood by general audiences”, and the Harry Potter books are the greatest tales ever written because “even kids can get into it”. Mr. Kolan’s article is merely the centerpiece and further elaboration upon the failed modus operandi of mainstream game reviews: To give the highest scores to the games with the widest appeal. And by doing so, assuring the largest gain in profits for the publishers that advertise the hell out of those centerpiece games in their holiday release schedule. (The complex process by which this occurs should probably be covered in the future.) The writers themselves, at their own ignorance, are putting out a message that challenging, deep, complex video games with long learning curves take a backseat to “streamlined”, “simple”, “accessible” games. The culture of mediocrity is so pervasive within these sites that the journalists themselves believe and agree with this, that “accessibility” constitutes a proper criteria.

“Lisa and I both knew that our Paper Mario scores were going to cause controversy. Yes, we know that many people out there will love it. We also know that it is a well-made game. However, it also WILL NOT appeal to many people – I would safely say that more people will dislike it than like it. Why? Like we said in the review, it’s a very kiddie game – it’s target audience is clearly young gamers – I would say 10 and under. For that reason, we had to score it low. Remember, we aren’t scoring games strictly on our personal opinions, we’re also scoring them based on how much we think THE GAMING PUBLIC will like them. We’ve all played games that we personally disliked and scored them well because we’ve known that most people will like them, and we’ve also scored games low that we love, because most people won’t enjoy them.

FOr example, I really like the bizarre frog golf game Ribbit King, and I gave it a 7, because it’s just not for everyone. Paper Mario 2 also scored low because it’s just not for everyone. If you think it’s a 10 in your book, it’s a ten in your book, and that doesn’t change if we disagree. We’re here to guide you on what games to pick up, but ultimately your personal opinion is what will make you buy a game or not.

I hope this helps.”

Jeremy Zoss, former Associate Editor of Game Informer Magazine, defending review policies of the magazine that allow for higher scores on more accessible games, posted on the GameSpot message boards on October of 2004. (This discussion thread no longer exists.)

The result is a review mill, a mill of criticism, that gives limited critical success to fighting games, twin-stick shooters, strategy games, and shoot ’em ups, some of the most complex and refined genre models that developers have ever tinkered with. For recent viewing, look at the response to DoDonPachi Resurrection, one of numerous releases in Cave’s nearly-immaculate bullet hell lineup. Do you think it’s any surprise that the 2010 mobile phone version, featuring an easier and less-complex game mode designed for those phones, received a MetaCritic score twelve points higher than its 2009 Xbox 360 counterpart?** And do you think it’s a surprise that mainstream reviewers regularly complain about the intense difficulty levels in these bullet hell shooters? Those games and other such games are too difficult for the reviewers that play them, whether they’re complaining about the lack of checkpoints in Hard Corps: Uprising, the difficulty level in Dark Souls, or the lack of a tutorial in those complex strategy games. This is the kind of stuff that would lead a notable game reviewer like Jim Sterling of Destructoid (a person who I elsewise value and highly regard for his criticism of industry ethics and practices) to give Bayonetta a 7 an 8* and Vanquish a 5*, which seemed like perfectly acceptable scores until I realized that they were graded on a ten-point scale and not a five-point scale, scores based on gross misunderstandings of how the games hold up when held against skilled player input.

And meanwhile, the more accessible archetypes to be found in platformers, modern first- and third-person shooters, sandbox games, and the flavors of the month created in the wholly deficient Unreal Engine 3 will get all the awards and recognition. Those games will routinely get the highest scores on sites like MetaCritic and GameRankings. And this is why the highest-ranked versions of the four-highest-ranked games in MetaCritic’s 2011 rankings (Batman: Arkham City, Portal 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Minecraft) received 213 positive reviews out of a possible 214.**** Only one review written by one person dabbled in the notion that one of these four games (Portal 2) may not be a good video game. Think about that! You have ended up with a consensus between the public and the “experts”, when criticism in all fields has been the home of a gaping divide between the stupid plebs and the entitled, hateful critics. Those “experts” have traditionally represented the most diverse range of intelligent thought on their topic. You have ended up with homogeniety between “experts”. And as a result, you have ended up with entirely worthless commentary on the matter.

“But those sites are reviewing games based on their immediate appeal, giving a blueprint to the average consumer as to whether they should buy a game!” I’ve heard a lot of people make this argument. Why review for the “supar hardcore gamer” when they don’t need guidance on whether to purchase a game? Well, at-best, you’re stating that review sites are grading on a one-to-ten scale and using tenths of a point to judge one’s first-week impressions against whether they think the public will enjoy the game. That sounds stupid because it is stupid. It is really fucking stupid. It doesn’t make any sense. At-worst, you are saying the reviews are useless to begin with. Why would anyone want to read a review of a game based on the early impressions of a mediocre game player? But the theory that they’re reviewing games on immediate appeal and nothing more is wrong to begin with, because The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is considered the best console video game of all-time by a lot of stupid people, and they will always point to the first-week impressions that helped lead to the highest average GameRankings review average ever.** Those first-week reviews are used as “evidence” years after the first week. And as such, they should be treated like first-week impressions, i.e. “worthless commentary”.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the mistake journalists are making is malicious or not. So long as people like Mr. Kolan continue going out of their way to inadvertently devalue complex games, people should be calling them out for it. And no, I’m not arguing that all great games have, or should have, exceedingly high learning curves. I already talked about two games with short learning curves: Super Mario World and Super Metroid. You can also put the numerous variants of Tetris into the fold, Super Mario Kart, Doom, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, Half-Life, Grand Theft Auto III, and Guitar Hero II on the list. You can also put Pac-Man Championship Edition DX into a fray, a game that vastly expands on another “accessible” game. But please, let the people who don’t cower in fear of complex video games make that determination. Let real experts decide when depth gets in the way of fun. Why? Because if they’re really an expert, I don’t expect it to happen very often.

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