Tuesday, July 8, 2008

How It All Got Started

I introduced myself earlier, but it seems like it might be useful to give a longer perspective on who I am as a gamer. So that’s this post. Plus, I know that all you guys do is read blogs from dissatisfied customers like me, right? You must not be able to keep them all straight! I figure that after you’ve read this, you’ll know me not only as Some Guy On The Internet, but Some Guy On The Internet who writes absurdly long blog posts. And they pay me by the word for this thing.

There was a time when I was a fanatical consumer of your products. Back then, I was: fairly antisocial, a devoted PC gamer, a sci-fi and fantasy geek, between 18 and 30 years old. In other words, smack in the middle of your demographic.

It all started with Star Wars Galaxies. They say the first is always the best, right? They mean MMOs, believe me. I remember my first look at Coronet like it’s a real place that I visited. To a non-gamer, I’m sure that sounds like the most ridiculous thing I could possibly say. But I suspect a few people will know what I’m talking about.

And what follows goes something like this: I stood there in the main city square. I gaped. Not only at the three-dimensional physical presence of the gamespace, the way that it was immediately familiar as a part of the Star Wars universe, but also at the figures dodging and winding their way through the maze of city streets. Not walking in static patterns like NPCs, but moving abruptly, indecisively. Like live things do. At least until they disappeared completely at 30 feet out, due to the fact that I had my draw distance down. Anyway, I was in my desk chair at the time. But then, I really wasn’t.

Sure, I didn’t grow up playing multiplayer shooters like a lot of PC gamers. So even that aspect of things was new to me. Sharing the game with people. But when the first player-built buildings started to appear, well: that’s uniquely MMO. This idea that people just were going to put random stuff all over the carefully designed, franchised gamespace. Jabba’s Palace and, 100 yards away, Allofherclothesoff’s Krayt Rifle Subcomponent Emporium And Ragtag Collection of Tusken Raider Robes.

I built my first house near a stream. Nice spot. Unfortunately, some mobs that conned red to me happened to live there as well. This made fishing hard, and my commute was always a little hairy. In fact, I’m guessing that about half the time I didn’t make it home at all. The Probot gave up, left a note saying dinner was in the fridge and just to put it in the oven at 400, and went to bed. That was bonus content for me the first few weeks.

Really though, SWG didn’t work right. It did so many things, and so few of them well. In all the ways that anybody who is familiar with the development of these games will find familiar. Character imbalance. Followed by nerfs, and then un-nerfs. After that, re-nerfs. Server instability. We were on Bria: Better Reboot It Again. Exploits. Random game crashes. Lack of enough content, complaints about promised but undelivered content, complaints about delivered but lousy content. Disappearing base timers, and people who poisoned you through walls. Spontaneously appearing mobs, and people who asshatted you after one-shotting you with a pre-nerf mind-fire rifle when you didn’t even know you were overt, and were eating a sandwich anyway. I won’t even talk about Jedi.

It was all part of the spectacle though, even the broken stuff. It was like the developers gave the players tools, and the players used them in sometimes unexpected ways, made something that grew organically.

The GUI for item placement in houses wasn’t in yet, but the command line stuff worked. So people made macros, put them on their toolbars, and started decorating. I’ll bet you guys never anticipated that noob staffs would make the best aquarium walls a guy could want. Did you think I picked up crafting because I liked it?

When you were going to raid Fort Berchest, there was a little gap between the small houses that formed the outer walls. Like a loose chain link fence, really. You wanted to find that, because the other entrance, um, wasn’t so friendly. Great, I just copped to wall hacking. Yeah, I was a rebel on Bria. Bad call there, probably.

So yes, SWG was broken, and it got progressively more broken, fast. It was like a person with gangrene that you have to keep amputating limbs from to save the larger host. But the guy just keeps getting sicker. It isn’t like he dies, but he doesn’t look too good when you visit him. I still played for two years. A long time for me in any game.

By the time I was done, MMOs were a part of my identity. Over the next few years I played everything I could find. I did miss the original couple of generations of games (AO, the first EQ, DAOC, UO, etc.), so I almost feel like that big hook is about to come along and yank me off the stage for being a noob. But I did play tons of EQII, and a little bit of Eve. WoW, naturally. Second Life, briefly. The Auto Assault beta, ditto for Pirates of the Burning Sea and Tabula Rasa. Missed City of Heroes / Villains somehow. I think I was raiding in WoW. I ended with Vanguard, that beautiful house in the country with a massive termite problem and trick stairs.

Then I woke up one day, and knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t grind mobs for another level. Couldn’t sit in that chair for another hour. Couldn’t come home from work, toss my jacket over my gaming chair, and eat dinner with a mouse in my hand. When was the last time I’d read a book? Seen a movie? Hit a bar? I felt tired, and it wasn’t from exercise. The people who I had been playing VG with (they weren’t part of my regular crew but they would have become that crew had we met at a different e-time, they were e-awesome)… I hated them. Didn’t care if I never saw them again.

These are, of course, the symptoms of burnout. Anyone who plays MMOs (or does anything) as obsessively as I was doing is going to feel like this eventually. It had happened before, but somehow I knew this time was different. I knew that my hardcore days had just ended, permanently. I uninstalled Vanguard without a second thought, and haven’t played an MMO since. I’m sure I will again, but never as a hardcore. This hurts, because hardcore is… how do you say it? The only way to roll. But I won’t even dip my toe in for awhile yet. Not until I’m really sure that won’t happen again.

Plus, I’m going to grad school in the fall. I’d have to be crazy to start a game now, right? And just think of all the cool stuff that will be there if I don’t game for three years. We could have full body Matrix-style immersion by then. Everyone else would be saying “Ahhh, that immersion is so last year,” but I’d be loving it.


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