June 25, 2008

Thank You, Dr. Bartle

A day late (and probably a dollar short), I’m joining the pile-on of commentary over a recent interview that Dr. Richard Bartle gave to Michael Zenke from Massively/MMOGNation/Virginworlds Podcast Collective/A-bazillion-other-game-sites-and-podcasts.

Right now, the historian in me is crying. The blogger in me is disheartened. I’m getting the vapors, and yes, I’m exaggerating a tad.

Dr. Bartle could very well be wrong when he said those infamous words, “I’ve already played Warhammer. It was called World of Warcraft.” But argue his point, don’t treat him like an anonymous troll forum poster by calling him “Crazy,” “stupid,” “senile” or “Old Guard.” (Although Old Guard isn’t necessarily an insult, and to his credit, Moorgard did provide a good counter argument)

He’s not talking about little things, like how Warhammer might have screenshots that look like WoW. He’s talking about wholesale, fundamental, uprooting changes. He’s saying that there needs to be an MMO that pushes things so much, and does it so well, that it doesn’t even resemble the MMOs of today. He’s saying that somewhere down the road, there’s an MMO that will pull us in as much, if not moreso, than our “first love” MMO, whatever that may be.

The fact that his passing comment has generated so much outrage in the blogging community speaks more towards the current malaise than it does towards the issue of whether Bartle is irrelevant or not. My god, if I were working for EA Mythic right now, I’d be losing tons of sleep, because there are millions of MMO fans who are looking towards Warhammer as the second coming, and I’m not sure it’s even possible anymore for the game to live up to the fans’ expectations.

The part of the interview that is worth clinging to is this:

“…when you create it, you’re actually saying something through the design. What is it you’re trying to say? Why are you trying to say it? How are you trying to articulate something? This is from the designer’s point of view what I really want to know. What are they trying to say? Why have they done it this way? Did they know about the other ways?

They’re designers. They’ve got millions. They must have known about the other ways, but they didn’t do it the other way. They did it this way. Why did they do it that way?”

When I read this I thought of an English teacher I had in high school, who drove me crazy because he was always asking me to explain what a certain sentence or paragraph had to do with the rest of my paper. Sure, it might sound good, but how did it relate to the central thesis of my paper? In my head, the answer was “Who cares? It sounds good! @^#@%^f’n@%^#@” But I learned the hard way that an explanation like that doesn’t fly. It forced me to absorb other viewpoints, so I could better defend mine. That’s essentially what Dr. Bartle is saying, I think. In the case of MMOs, if you come up with a shiny, new, game mechanic, that’s nice! But how does it fit in, and push the boundaries of the MMO evolution? How can you move that First Down Marker without having a grasp not only of what came before you, but what is going on around you right now? Sure, you could have mounted combat on flying pigs, as Curt Schilling so brilliantly conceived, but A) what greater purpose does that serve in your game and B) how does that nudge the MMO species along the evolutionary highway? (Luckily, 38 Studios seems to understand this, although flying pigs would be neat)

Here’s where the blogging community comes in. I think one of the more important services that we offer is the ability to shed light on innovative ideas in MMOs. It’s impossible for game developers to chew on every single cool game feature that’s out there in current MMOs, yet it’s important for them to know it in order to make a revolutionary game. Bloggers like Van Hemlock have tried to expose the “nifty ideas” of current MMOs. There are lots of “trench” bloggers, who write about their experiences day to day, and who offer enormous insight into what’s great and what’s not about their MMO of choice. And there are the “big picture” bloggers, who have had a little taste of lots of MMOs, and who can provide lots of great commentary on the MMO movement as a whole. We do the legwork that game developers can’t – if we do it well.

Ten or fifty years from now, what we bloggers have written will be very valuable, just as Dr. Bartle’s writings from 19freakin83 are worth digesting. So what is your MMO footprint? (I hate myself for even typing that)

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