Off the Chest – Rant Edition: Ballroom MMOs, The Emperor’s new Indie and Fantasy Games

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Am I gonna rant. I can’t say I’ve been particularly amused where some recent developments in the game industry are concerned. In fact, I detect a backward trend – of faux values or faulty conclusions, especially where game journalism is concerned, a celebration of pretentiousness and a hype of the trivial that makes me wonder when we stopped asking games for everything in order to receive something, preferably better.

Ever, Jane – Bringing Women’s Fantasies to Video Games

If there’s one thing I personally like to do less than having to read one more Jane Austen novel in my life, it’s playing a Jane Austen MMO. To be perfectly clear here: I’ve no issue with players excited for new, non-combative MMO concepts nor the developers of EJ for that matter. I am incredulous that kickstarter was funded but whatever floats your boat. If ballroom dances replace “epic raids” for you and gossip is a preferable form of combat, why not knock yourself out in a romanticized historical period setting where women were worth less than silver cutlery – yes why not? That prospect is about as exciting and empowering to me as root canal treatment but what has really kicked off this whole EJ-rant is the subtle assumption that this particular game is somehow for women. Or as was stated so wonderfully in a recent interview title on MMORPG.com: Ever, Jane – Bringing Women’s Fantasies to Video Games!

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Whoever is responsible for that wording on one of the most popular MMO gaming sites today, needs to seriously check themselves. I gotta say, it’s a depressing time for female gamers when the MMO worlds we are seeking out ignore us completely or make us a mere afterthought – and the ones we don’t wish to be part of are supposedly MADE for us! Oh the lofty art of gossip, such a womanly skill indeed!

Indiemania – Because nostalgia fills in all the gaps! NOT.

In April 2012 Jim Sterling of Gamefront asked the provocative but very reasonable question of whether we are being too generous to indie games. One year and a half later, after having had some of the best times with stellar titles such as Don’t Starve and Dust: AET this 2013, as well as some of the most incredulous laughs since Atari multigame packs (ou…ya), I echo his sentiment. The unabashed praise that some indie games have received of late by game journos for doing one thing right (thank god for commenters) as opposed to the top level criticism received by full-package, all-around polished titles such as Bioshock Infinite or Assassin’s Creed IV BF, is nothing short of a baffling double standard – not to mention unjust towards anyone involved in creating latter games. For some reason it’s become a very personal, almost unacceptable matter to sternly criticize indie developers. Yet, with big labels it’s still “anything goes” because no real people and livelihoods are involved there.

As Rampant Coyote recently pointed out, what makes the indie “revolution” so great is the liberation, the literal independence from investors, publishers and distributors due to the chance for smaller venues to get noticed in a sea of big fish –

The whole “revolution” and term “indie” was really about a back-door way to set ourselves apart from the guys spending millions of dollars on TV ads, so that gamers *might* take look off the beaten path once in a while and see what we were doing. To the people (especially the press) who weren’t really paying attention, sure – it’s a revolution. Or maybe just a revelation. They turn the corner from their thoroughfare and say, “Holy crap, when did all THIS stuff get built?” and don’t realize it’s all been there forever. [Rampant Coyote]

What indie absolutely isn’t, is a commendation of any kind; an assurance of quality or innovation or worse, an excuse for laziness and mediocrity. Naturally, the successes of titles such as Braid have created a bubble, encouraged an unmanageable flood of cheap copies and lazy attempts at retro homage to a point where ugly pixel graphics and 8bit bleeps are associated with being subversive, deviant or new wave. As someone who actually doesn’t consider retro new wave because I‘ve been to original retro, I’ve endured original retro, let me say this: there is no inherent virtue in pixel graphics. None.

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Superbrothers Sword & Sorcery

Now, some games make the retro look their own; they take it a step further, creating something beautiful or unique. These games are rare. They stand out from the crowd and justify simplicity. They don’t look retro because they “were rushed” or “didn’t have the manpower” or “funds”. They still deliver a package. One of my favorite games this year was created by one guy – it features the most polished 12-hours gameplay experience, retro and contemporary indie homages alike, a deep story with loveable characters, secrets to discover and an off-the-charts soundtrack. You’ll hear no one-man indie excuses from Dean Dodrill.

I have no indie love for indie’s sake. I’ve no love for games that get slack for reason XY when others don’t – that’s not how I perceive my role as a gamer. I’ve no love for game journalists celebrating the emperor’s new clothes in a rush of undifferentiated or artsy hype, at no one’s service but their own. I’ve no love for developers trying to get a free pass for pushing my nostalgia buttons –

We should all strive to look past the smoke and mirrors of modern indie developers, to see which ones are passing off shitty games as indie darlings by pulling on our nostalgic heartstrings. We ought to tell an emotionally engaging art game from one that’s just making indirect references to the “human condition” in order to look smarter than it is. [source]

I am not interested in asking less of games. I still want games to get better in every way possible. And I hope this has something outrageously good going for it, because it sure as hell doesn’t look that way. We can have the morals and the story, as well as the package? Sorry I even asked! (GOTY of 2014: PONG!)

Seriously, there’s no such thing as enough (good) fantasy MMOs

This last argument isn’t so much a rant as a disagreement really and an evergreen at that. The lovely Mike Foster over at Massively recently ventured forth to state that we have had enough fantasy MMOs already – to which I had to respectfully disagree on twitter:

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Now I do get the genre fatigue, I really do but let’s remember correlation. If players are tired of dead horses such as ever being the hero, the holy trinity, traditional questing and foreseeable ends, then that’s an issue of gameplay first and foremost: of mechanics, of writing, of balance and overall lack of imagination. Which is rather ironic given the setting. We should absolutely ask for more.

However, kill ten rats is still kill ten rats in a zombie or space shooter MMO. Personally, I can’t wait to play more fantasy MMOs in the future with dragons and shameless magic of which there can’t ever be enough. I also hope they’ll do new things, show us new twists while playing differently, daring to use their unique fantasy on the fantasy. If you got the setting down, surely you can start focusing elsewhere?

And if everything fails, I can still go ballroom dancing in Ever, Jane. I wonder if I can bring my retro flamethrower.

23 comments

  1. See, I actually enjoy Austen’s books.. But I can’t say that the game sounds even remotely interesting. Unless they’re making an Austen game where they adapt the Pride & Prejudice & Zombies… I don’t think there’s anything worthwhile playing! I want to kill dragons! Not go to dance parties :(

    I’m not overly fond of the pixelated games either. Minecraft can pull it off… But for the rest, most of them just feel lazy. Maybe that’s a harsh judgement, and maybe I’m wrong.. But I prefer games where I can enjoy the surroundings and characters.

    As an aside, I got Dust and even though I’ve only played a little of it so far, it is absolutely beautiful. Isn’t it all hand painted or something as well? Thought I heard/read something like that.

    1. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies – now there’s a thought! x)
      Dust is absolutely wonderful and feels hand crafted in every aspect, not just the graphics. you can always tell these indie games apart from the rest of the crowd; the love for detail, the perfectionism, the sheer effort. the game offers an easy 12hours of content on top of everything else.

      I wouldn’t write off all pixel games completely though – a few like Superbrothers really are elaborate and do something new with the old. that’s what counts for me, a consistent style and effort, a reason to utilize pixels. I fully agree on Minecraft there with you – MC has its reasons for the minimalist graphics. but if you’re not an MC and you offer nothing similarly appealing, you don’t get to look like that.

  2. Dust is such a great, underrated game. Granted, it has its weak points, like the leveling system isn’t interesting, but I found the game to be beautiful, the story really engaging, and an immense amount of exploration. I honestly hadn’t had that much fun with a platformer in a long time.

    As to your point about not lauding something just because of the indie label, I agree. With iPads and Androids, making a cheap game with the potential for massive distribution has never been easier, and it’s clear that indie studios and large publisher houses alike have been putting out a lot of crap. Makes me wonder if the Video Game industry will have a second crash, like what happened in 1983, before Nintendo bailed the industry out with their “Seal of Quality” and rigorous quality checking before letting someone publish on their console.

    1. Heh, I was referring to the video game crisis in the early 80ies the other night in that context too. it does feel like that a bit on the indie market right now. in a way it’s interesting to watch the whole process: the big hype and the foreseeable crash. at the end of the day, only the really good games will make it, as always.

  3. I’ve personally never yet finished any Austen novel I tried to read. But it seems to be a fact of life that Pride and Prejudice appears very high on every list ever compiled of the world-at-large’s most beloved books, e.g. The Big Read. And it’s pretty clear that it is put in that position by predominantly female votes. So it’s not really that much of a stretch to think that an Austen-based MMO might appeal disproportionately to female players. Whether Austen-readers would like any MMOs at all is more debatable.

    1. It surely is. I understand that the whole Regency literature is more popular with women and there are surely many different reasons for that. JA novels do absolutely have their historical and literary merit, I’m not disputing that. also, you can romanticize almost everything. there’s just a big difference between liking a literary genre and things like “ballroom dancing and gossip” being equated with what women are all about / what fantasies they have. that simplification (which was done in the article, not necessarily by the devs) is about as offensive to me as saying men are all brutes and buffoons because they like more wargames. ;) to state women like/are all that and men like/are all this is a step backwards.

      1. To be perfectly honest, the people working on “Ever, Jane” probably aren’t thinking about making a “women’s game” but making a game set in the Regency period. As I said in my original post on the matter, it’s nothing I’d be interested in but there are people who will be. It’s a niche game, but will also be heavy on roleplaying.

        I don’t see my girls being interested in the game, but people who read the Regency era novels will be.

        Now, if they’d make an MMO based on The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers, I’d be all over that. (Want a strong female character? Lady Winter would fit the bill.)

  4. While I think it’s fair to say that gossip is a weapon with significant damage potential… I just can’t see any sort of appeal in that Jane Austen thing. Good luck to them, I guess.

    One quick aside on the retro/pixel concept: While I agree with the overall sentiment, and as an artist, I’m always happy to make newer, spiffier art. as a gamer, there’s a sort of artistic “Uncanny Valley” effect that happened in the early Playstation era, most notably in the Final Fantasy series. The art for the NES and SNES FF games was clearly pixel art, and games like FFVI (FF3 here in the U.S.), Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana were flat out gorgeous. They still look really good, but then, they were crafted lovingly by masters of their craft.

    The jump to FFVII, while awesome in some ways, also brought us 150-polygon player characters and some truly ugly mismatches between concept art, character portraits, prerendered movies and gameplay. It really hasn’t aged well, while the SNES games, limited though their palette is, still look good. Similarly, when Chrono jumped from Trigger to Cross, we got great prerendered movies and better music quality, but the low poly characters didn’t really look right in the prerendered environments. As a result, it didn’t look as good to me. (Though it’s still better than most games).

    Some of this is art direction, some of it is tech, and some of it is budgetary constraints… but the upshot of it is that I’ll take well-executed art with a limited palette over blingy hodgepodge messes any day. These days, with consoles leagues ahead of their ancestors, we still manage to have games that just look ugly (and the Uncanny Valley looms *really* large in a lot of games that try for realism). My art appreciation of a game has almost nothing to do with the tech generation, and almost everything to do with how well it’s presented. (And some of it has to do with my “filling in the gaps” philosophy; the player’s imagination is a huge asset. Making everything in the game world explicit is not only expensive, but also fraught with error potential and diminishing returns.)

    http://tishtoshtesh.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/filling-in-the-gaps/

    Journey is a great example in this regard. The character design is simple, the art style is spartan, but it’s a gorgeous game. In another vein, Minecraft’s limitations to a block-based world are tech-related, but also integral to the building block nature of how you interact with the world. A higher “resolution” of the world’s composition would make the game *play* differently, and most likely, more onerously.

    1. Good points I fully agree with. some of the later SNES era games absolutely were georgeous and they have aged better than many titles from the 32-64bit era. it took a while for that progress to actually become pretty. ;)

      I would also argue though that games like CT and SoM were a lot more than just their graphics, the great graphics came with the greatest package. you still need to aspire to greatness in all aspects. and if you can’t, you need to make up bigtime for what you can’t do – that’s something I don’t think everyone understands. you can’t look at a successful indie pixel game and say “look, they made it with that, so can I” to cut some corners, that’s just not gonna work.

      1. Very, very true. CT and SoM are rock solid *games* that are also gorgeous. And as much as I love art, both as a consumer and as a producer, I think that game design has to come first.

  5. I first read Pride and Prejudice as a 16-year old boy in an all-male English class. No-one told us it was for girls so we read it with exactly the same interest or lack thereof as we read Tender is the Night, The Winter’s Tale and The Secret Agent. I, personally, loved Pride and Prejudice, as did many of the boys in that class, because we found it extremely funny.

    I went on to study English at University, where I read more Austen and where, again, not once was it ever suggested either by lecturers or students that this was “women’s fiction”. I went on to read all the six Jane Austen novels that were published during her lifetime and enjoyed them all. Most of my male friends over the last few decades have read at least some of them and enjoyed them.

    The idea that Austen is in any way “Woman’s Fantasy” is at best a media invention and more likely plain ignorance.

    As for Ever, Jane, As envisaged I think it looks like a cross between Vampire:The Masquerade and EVE. It’s a PvP game based on character assassination by duplicity and lying. I wouldn’t play it. Far too hardcore for me.

    1. LOL! you rock =D

      “The idea that Austen is in any way “Woman’s Fantasy” is at best a media invention and more likely plain ignorance.” It has to be, because with any minimal knowledge of history, nobody would suggest that’s an era any sane woman would fantasize about. okay, maybe about the clothes, lol! To be fair, the romanticized effect goes for the entire medieval genre, which is why we keep having discussions about how female characters in fantasy MMOs should be portrayed (preferably not according to historical realities).

  6. The Ever Jane thing is interesting, in that in a genre so over-loaded with kill, kill, kill games that a non-violent game could even be funded by the crowd. Clearly the novels were set in a more sexist era, perhaps the game could escape that somewhat depending on how brave the developers are?

    I like politics in fiction, but I haven’t yet seen a good way to incorporate that into a MMORPG in a meaningful way – having elections in TERA doesn’t go far enough.

    As for 8bit games and indie gaming promotion, when I saw your link for Swords and Sorcery I immediately thought of the 8bit 1985 classic not some new artsy thing ;-)

    1. Hah yes, it is a little bit different from that thank god. ;)

      I am all for exploring non-combat MMOs myself, be it a focus shift towards politics, crafting / economy or whatever. I hope we’ll see more niche titles like that in the future where I can also endorse the setting. I don’t play VGs to feel disenfranchised.

  7. Awesome rant, Syl!

    While I have enjoyed many of Austen’s books primarily because I love her quirky secondary characters I don’t see myself committing my MMO time to playing tea-party and Come Into My Castle. I am, however, very thrilled for any sort of specialized MMO introduced to the market and would wish them all possible success. As for it being the answer to women’s gaming fantasies, well only a twerp would come up with a categorical title like that and not expect mud-flinging. Probably just chose the article title for its shock value anyway.
    And finally indie games getting the blanket approval puts me up the walls. Also passing off crappy graphics as nostalgic romanticism really relies on your customers having a) player old, shitty games and b) liked them. I wasn’t enamored by 8 bit graphics when that was all we had.
    Messy comment, sorry. Multitasking makes for poor writing, but thanks for writing this, Syl.

    1. Hehe thanks, I am glad you enjoyed my rant. if that title was really chosen consciously for shock effect, I honestly think it backfired and there are plenty of comments to suggest as much. a very thoughtless, annoying way of trying to draw attention.

  8. The problem with indie games is that they get a pass because of the whole “big corporations/government equals evil, small and plucky equals the good guys” axiomatic bullshit that’s popular with far too many people who are desperate to prove that they aren’t mindless sheep without actually having to do any proper thinking about cases – it’s the same reason that the quality of student political debate is usually so poor. Because of this, EA are voted most evil company on the planet whilst some people get a pass for producing shoddy work, or pretentious mediocrity (that usually sledgehammers home the same crappy right-on thoughtless student politics I mentioned above) just because “hey, I’m an indie!” Which does an enormous disservice to the one-man shops turning out games that are genuinely fun to play, like Cliffski’s Positech games. You know, the REAL “indies”.

    Hmm, seems I can rant just as well as you can, Syl :)

    1. “… it’s the same reason that the quality of student political debate is usually so poor.” …I love that analogy. I guess we could say we’re seeing a lot of juvenile self-flattery where some indie games and journalists are concerned, then.

      This reminds me of one the most hilarious pranks by a popular German TV comic about self-admiration/adulation in the art world. even if you don’t understand it, I have to link this –
      http://youtu.be/iyGi5SEI9RI?t=20s ……..I couldn’t stop laughing the first time I saw this. essentially the dramatically performed lyrics are completely inane (about a wolf, a lamb, a bird…..and HURZ, which nobody understands rofl), trying to bullshit the art critics audience. the comments he gets are comedy gold. that guy in the yellow sweater actually starts talking fable traditions and deeper meanings of the wolf vs. lamb metaphor! x) The Emperor’s New Clothes indeed. well at least the lady with the white collar thought it was a little silly!

  9. A few comments.

    As for Ever, Jane, I believe the whole “women’s fantasies” thing is PR. The company is run by a woman (who I’ve met in person and is a really nice person), and many people see Austen’s books as female-focused literature. I’m interested in seeing someone implement social interaction in an MMO for obvious reasons. But, the sad reality is that people are judgmental about games and you need some sort of PR angle to get attention and coverage.

    Speaking of overly judgmental gamers: I think really should give indie games a bit of slack. Note that I didn’t say we should eagerly play horribly broken games because someone used the word “indie” in the marketing. Yeah, you have a few “indie” games that are really lovely, but those are the exception rather than the rule. I like indie games because I like to see something besides the most popular types of games. I like older genres that get ignored by mainstream companies. I like trying out game that break the mold. Yes, sometimes the art isn’t going to be super-pretty, and the gameplay might be a bit rough. But, it’s something that lets other developers take the concept and run with. And, I’d like people who come up with inventive games to still be able to make games rather than not being able to because they can’t afford to make the next game they’d like to try.

    That said, there is a ton of pretentious twaddle out there masquerading as “indie games”. Art styles that make XKCD look masterful and detailed in comparison. And, some people who will cash in on a trend like “indie games” to push absolute crap. But, to expect that a game made with 10th the team and resources of a triple-A game should play as well as that game is foolishness. Dust looks great and and plays well, but let’s admit that this is a case where someone is making a game in a well-established genre rather than really pushing boundaries.

    (As an aside, I often love good pixel art, but I found Sword & Sworcery to just not be very interesting on a visual or gameplay level. I’m not a huge adventure game fan, so maybe that’s it. But, I felt that the art style felt forced instead of a true homage to the games of prior years.)

    Finally, as for the fantasy genre, someone will always say that the market is “saturated”. I remember people saying that the fantasy genre for MMOs was saturated after the original EverQuest, then World of Warcraft came out and silenced that. I think it’s one of those things where someone will keep repeating it, and hoping to be right THIS time. ;)

    1. I have a feeling they will never be right! ;) but then I’m all for other settings as long as I can slay my dragons somewhere. I’m also looking forward to non-combative MMOs with twists and I’m sure the creators of EJ are lovely people……am just not sure that type of wording is the right kind of PR, sorry. that said, I have criticized MMORPG.com for that title and not them (unless of course it comes from them directly).

      About indie games: I am not sure where our opinions differ as much as you’re making it sound. I pretty much made the same concessions as you did in your comment; I never said anywhere that indie games need to be pretty under all circumstances – but that they need to aspire to the same things as other games which is a well-rounded package. there’s ‘AAA pretty’ and there’s putting effort into some sort of overall consistent and unique style. I also said that at the very least, indie games need something big and new going for them if they can’t deliver everything, in which case that’s fine but not deserving of unabashed praise, either. my rant is just as much about (un-)balanced reviews.

      Just copying other titles or cutting corners for an easy buck won’t work (also see my comment @Tesh further up). you don’t need to look or play like a AAA-title but you can have a workable quality and consistent design nonetheless that gets the small details right. I don’t see S&S so much as an indie homage as far as genre goes, but I think it’s a great example of taking pixel graphics to another level, making them your own.

      At the end of the day, it’s not my job as a gamer to give anyone ‘slack’. I will buy those games that appeal to me personally and I can talk about what I like and dislike, right? :) I’ve no moral, higher obligation to support indie developers any more than big labels. I am not up for half-finished games from_either_. that’s just something I won’t spend money on. I’d also like to think by now I have a very intuitive knowledge when it comes to spotting real spirit / effort in games vs. hoax. trust me some of my favorites aren’t all that good looking, although I will happily admit to high aesthetic standards. indie games have the potential to dazzle me just as much as AAA-games but it’s all about love in the end – the love you put in, is the love you will receive in return (most of the time….unless your name is Journey and you tie yourself to one platform. these kind of marketing and/or distribution mistakes are such a shame).

      1. I’m with Syl on this one – as a consumer, I want a good product. What I will say is that I recognise that indies have less money to throw at a game, so there will be less polish on the graphics and no CGI cut-scenes. The good news is that that’s not really what I’m looking for – I want engaging gameplay, with “good enough” graphics. Engaging gameplay doesn’t take an enormous multimillion dollar budget – it just needs a great designer, and there are some great designers out there working as indies.

  10. I think I ignored everything by Jane Austen completely until I happened to stumble upon http://www.lizziebennet.com/ (actually on youtube).

    Then again I’ve never been a fan of any “serious” fiction, and especially not if it’s not SciFi or High Fantasy.
    For the game.. we’ll see how it pans out, but I can’t think of it as anything other than a niche game.

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