Happy New Year (Seven Days Late!)

Welcome to 2016! What? It’s already been 2016 for an entire week? What do you mean? Where have I been? Why am I writing so many questions?

Indeed. Where have I been? New Year’s Day was a week ago tomorrow. Everyone else already shuffled through the New Year’s Day hangover and made resolutions, unfogged their brains, and then went back to work and life. What have I been doing, that it took me a week to woke up?

Well, due to a convergence in the schedules, I ended up with a solid seven days off from work. Seven days. IN A ROW. Without spending any vacation days. See, what happened was that my schedule was set to rotate to a new one in 2016. The combination of having Friday off (New Year’s Day), my old schedule having the last part of the week off and my new schedule having the first part of the week off, it created this unbroken string of days that did not require me to wear pants.

What did I do with all my free time? Well, I’m happy to say I did go for a few hikes, including one hike while it was snowing, and that was lovely. But mostly I gamed. I gamed hard.

My intended furnished me with several video games over the holidays, including the Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. Both of these games are absolutely massive, sprawling world RPGs that can easily devour 100 hours or more. EACH.

Basically, it was an epic video game bender. It was glorious.

But it’s glorious because it’s the kind of thing you do very rarely. It was fun to laze about for a week, accomplish nothing, ignore my email, and basically lose myself in the digital worlds. But it’s hard to do that for too long without it starting to affect your mind and not in a “video games rot your brain” kind of way, but more like “I need to actually be doing something again so I don’t become a shell of a person.”

It reminded me of how it was to be in my late teens and early twenties; even though I was in college, even though I had a job, gaming binges like that were what I loved most. But as I’ve gotten older (and I am older now, my 29th birthday was Dec. 24), my gaming time has become more selective, dare I say, more mature. I’ll go for long periods without playing anything. I’ll play for a few hours after dinner and dishes are done. The binge days are long over. And that’s a good thing. For the most part.

It was fun to lose myself for a while, but only for a while. I’m dusting off the cobwebs from my brain and getting back to work. I’ve got a day job that I love and I’ve got a novel that I’m excited about. I’ve got my wedding coming up and man if that isn’t making the time fly. There’s a lot going on. Life is good and there’s a lot to do and I wouldn’t change anything else about it.

The virtual world is a fun place to visit. I’m going to keep on visiting, because oh my god you guys these games are so much fun. But the binge is over. And I’m glad that it is. I don’t think I’d want to live that way, even if I could.

Destiny, Or, How To Make People Hate Your Video Game

If you’re not a gamer, skip this post. Everyone else, brace yourselves: I’m about to go full nerd for a while. Thigns are going to get pretty “Inside Baseball” here.

I started playing Destiny back in December, right around the time that I got my Xbox One (I waited for that price drop, yo). I liked the gameplay a lot, although once I finished the main storyline, I felt like there was a pretty intense roadblock keeping me from doing anything else with it. The end game content just required too much work to jump onto the loot treadmill of “get better gear, so you can do the thing to get better gear.” Don’t get me wrong, I like shiny purps as much as the next gamer, but I’m also a lazy gamer. I’ll do the thing to get the thing only as long as it’s actually amusing. The moment that the epics require gameplay behavior that feels like actual work? Fuck that, I’m out.

But then an expansion pack came out and I was all, “ooo, new stuck to do!” In many games, the launch of an expansion pack is the best time to jump in, especially for massively multiplayer or persistent shared world environments. The expansion pack evens out the community again since everyone has new things to complete before returning to the end game and the content always has to be created in such a way that people who didn’t get all the end game epic gear can still complete it. So, even though I was a little surprised at a $20 price point, I purchased the first Destiny expansion The Dark Below. At the time, I decided that it wasn’t that bad, since most MMO expansions (looking at you, WoW) cost $40 but usually deliver enough content to make it worthwhile.

But after burning through all of the content in a single afternoon, I began to worry. After I poked around online, I noticed something even more worrisome; mainly, that I was basically a second class citizen for playing the game on Xbox rather than PlayStation:

Yep, Sony’s snagged themselves yet another Destiny exclusive: one of The Dark Below‘s strike missions—you know, the ones where you and two other players go through quasi-dungeons and take on powerful bosses—is only for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. Bungie says the exclusive is until “at least” fall of 2015, which means that for the next year at a minimum, Xbox players will miss out on a large chunk of The Dark Below.

That’s on top of the already-PlayStation-exclusive Dust Palace strike, so if you’re keeping track, by the second week of December, PlayStation owners will have eight strikes while Xbox players only have six. Of course, it’s been clear for months now that Bungie has firmly sided with Sony in the battle for your living room, but that hasn’t stopped Xbox fans from feeling ripped off. How can you blame them? They’re paying the same amount of money as PlayStation players, yet getting less stuff.

Wait, there’s another strike that I’d never even seen? Because I bought an Xbox rather than a PlayStation? Well . . . that doesn’t make me feel very good. I suppose that if The Dark Below was full of things to do, it wouldn’t have stung so much, but once again, I ran into the treadmill problem. I didn’t need to see all of the things in the game; I like that challenges exist in the forms of raids and other end game content for players that really want to put that effort in. But this is an old problem: hardcores vs. casuals. I’ve been on both sides of that divide, so I understand. But I’m not asking for content to be available for everyone. I just want something to do other than repeating the missions and tiny number of strikes I’ve already done.

Eventually, without any content that felt meaningful at my level and no way to increase my level without grinding (i.e. turning the game into work), I gave up and moved on to something else.

But then another expansion pack came out! And this one had some good (if not great) reviews and had content for everyone and there would even be a chance for me to get some of the really cool stuff. So I bought the next expansion, House of Wolves, once again at $20, and gave it a shot. Still felt really expensive, especially considering how little content was available in the previous expansion, but I was willing to forgive and forget. And you know what, they were right! I was able to snag an exotic pulse rifle that was really fun to use and I finally managed to equip my Warlock with some fancy looking gear and although I’m still not doing end game raiding, I’m feeling pretty good about myself. I’m so glad. Things feel good. I feel good about my time investment and I’m having fun.

And now . . . there’s this:

Why Destiny Players Feel Screwed Over

Destiny Director Defends $40 Price Tag For New Expansion

Disastrous Interview Could Have Ramifications for Destiny

From the Forbes article:

Tom Phillips, the interviewer, sets out with two missions in mind. To understand why players who want the bonus content of theTaken King Collector’s Edition, new emotes and cosmetic items, have to rebuy content they already have, namely the base game and original DLC, in a pack which retails for $80 in the states. The second question is what exactly The Taken King contains where it’s worth a full $40, a very hefty price for DLC, and even for a full expansion in some players’ eyes.

What follows is Luke Smith doing everything possible to fumble the answers to both of these questions. I highly suggest you read the entire interview because from start to finish, it’s kind of astonishing how tone deaf every aspect of it is.

Without copying and pasting the entire thing, the long and short of it is that Smith can’t announce any new plans for players to get this extra content without rebuying things they already own, and he acts like he doesn’t understand why this is a big deal.

“It’s about value,” he says. “The player’s assessment of the value of the content.”

If you didn’t, I strongly encourage you to read the interview. It’s really the only way to get why this is so irritating.

Here’s the thing: I don’t give a shit about bonus content. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I have enough things to keep me from doing things I actually should be doing, so I don’t need to be a completionist anymore to feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth. I don’t have to master every character; I can just play as Reptile for three hundred matches in Mortal Kombat X and call it a day. I can play Heroes of the Storm with the three characters I unlocked for free and have fun. I don’t need all of the things. This Destiny bonus content isn’t for me and I’ll never buy it, in any form.

But I hate the idea of a model that wants its most dedicated fans to pay for content they’ve already purchased. It’s insulting. It’s humiliating. It’s wrong. It’s every bit the Scientology model of “get the sucker to pay more money, so that he’ll keep paying even more money.”

Bonus content like this, especially stuff that’s entirely cosmetic in nature, shouldn’t be used as a reason to tell someone “you will throw money at the screen.” If anything, this is the kind of thing that a player unlocks for being loyal. “Hey, thanks for playing our game for a year. Here’s a neat thing!”

There are updates to the article that say “we’ll be releasing information about what veteran players will be getting and don’t worry, it’s very cool,” but I really think the damage has already been done. You literally have your creative director out there saying that the model you prefer is “pay for content twice.”

Here’s why I’m feeling sad about my time and money spent thus far, summed up perfectly by a very eloquent Reddit post:

ReclaimerSpirit 1058 points 1 day ago*

I normally just lurk this sub but I needed to get this out there.

Reading this interview didn’t just make me not want to buy the expansion, it made me feel really shitty. I feel like I’m being laughed at, like I was a sucker for buying Destiny – a game I’ve really enjoyed and hyped to all of my friends before launch (EDIT: should note that this is the only game I have EVER pre-ordered). The way Smith talks about the player makes me feel small and disposable, like he owns me and I’m going to buy the new DLC no matter what because I’m just a sucker. I’m not the player. I am the sucker, and I will just throw money at the screen because I’m told to.

Bungie, this is part of your game experience. Seeing one of your staff say things that make me feel like I’ve been duped into playing your game makes me not want to play. You’ve done a really good job in the past of listening to your fans and, more importantly, having fun with them. We used to be on the same side – that’s how things like Red vs. Blue and Forge mode came about. What happened?

To quote an old Penny Arcade strip: “the filthy pigs will rush to our trough!”

This whole thing makes me regret the time I’ve spent with the game, in a way that I never did with World of WarCraft or other MMOs. See, there’s this weird thing that happens in the life cycle of a typical MMO or persistent world game; after the player moves out of the enamored phase, it’s common that he or she begins questioning the time spent on the game. Eventually, when the player is no longer having fun, the feeling is that all of the time the player spent on the game was a huge waste, because it’s no longer continually providing enjoyment. Thus, the player burns out, convinced that it was all a waste.

I’ve seen that happen constantly and I’ve tried to always be mindful of it. The fact that I don’t play WoW now does not mean I didn’t have fun when I was playing it. I didn’t waste my time playing it. The idea that if I hadn’t been playing WoW, I would be doing something wonderful and productive is just false. That was my leisure time that I spent; if I hadn’t been doing that, I’d have been playing something else. Or watching Netflix. Whatever.

But this goes beyond the typical life cycle angst. This debacle really does make me feel like I was wrong to have spent my time this way. That’s a terrible thing to do in an industry where making people feel good is your sole directive. It’s a terrible thing and it’s also an impressive thing, to achieve such destruction outside of the gamespace itself.

Destiny really could use some good news right now, since the story is blowing up all over the place. Fortunately, we have this bit of information to smooth things over: New Destiny Quest Is Exclusive To Red Bull:

Activision Publishing, Inc. and Bungie, together with energy drink category leader Red Bull today announced a partnership that will bring an epic new quest to players of the popular sci-fi action adventure game franchise Destiny via custom-designed Red Bull® Energy Drink cans, inviting consumers across the United States and Canada to Become Legend, making this the first time a video-game, or any third party brand, has ever appeared on the iconic Red Bull can.

Access to the quest will be available on specially-marked cans of Red Bull and leverage themes of speed, tenacity and strategy inspired by the energy drink, throughwww.RedBullQuest.com. Each Red Bull can will also include bonus XP to help players prepare for this epic quest. Players can start using the bonus XP throughout the summer, with the in-game quest kicking off following the launch of The Taken King, the latest addition to the Destiny universe scheduled for release on September 15, 2015.

Wow. Just . . . fucking. Wow. I actually triple-checked the date on that article when I saw it, just to make sure it wasn’t something that had been posted on April 1st.

So . . . how about that damage control, huh? Play Destiny! Buy content twice because we think you’re suckers! Buy Red Bull! THROW YOUR MONEY AT THE SCREEN!”

I miss the old model: “here is a game. Pay money and play it. Buy a tie-in product like a novel or comic book if you really love it.”

Community isn’t just a marketing buzzword for games like this; they’re part of the ecosystem, part of the experience. It’s not just a way to keep playing; it’s why most of them are playing in the first place.

You Can Always Tell When Matt Starts Playing A New RPG

In this case, it’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. It was released in November and I know that, had I purchased it then, my NaNoWriMo effort would have been torpedoed and sunk faster than the Lusitania. Fortunately, I had the foresight to delay my purchase of the game until December.

In 2013, I was pretty down about the idea of the next generation of consoles on the horizon. Of course, it didn’t help that the details for the Xbox One sounded uniformly terrible, even to someone who not only has all of the Xboxes but even owns a goddamn Windows Phone. I’m not saying I’m a loyalist but I like my devices to play nicely together and since my Xbox 360 was my favorite device, all my other devices had to build off that. At the time, I wasn’t excited in the slightest about the idea of buying a new console.

But now that the One has had a year to mature, I’ve come around. More importantly, I was able to scoop up a box for a deep discount, which I think made all the difference. I’m past the point in my life where I can spend $500 plus tax on a toy. $300 is a much more manageable chunk of money to justify. It also helps that I have a wonderful girlfriend. I won’t list all the reasons why that it true; I merely want it mentioned here for the permanent record. It is known, as the Dothraki might say.

I’m happy with my shiny box and I’m happy with the new Dragon Age. Dragon Age, of course, is one of the few series for which I am absolutely a huge, unapologetic fanboy. When I met David Gaider, one of the lead writers on the series a few years ago, I pretty much gushed and kept telling him how amazing he is for about ten minutes until he started looking around for a security guard to drag me away (that last part might be exaggerated just a bit).

Inquisition is like a love letter to the fans of the series. It’s deep, complex, full of lore and layers and things to do. It’s also the reason my blog has gone sadly neglected for the past few weeks and why my flood of Goodreads updates has slowed to a trickle.

It’s difficult to know what to write about; I consider a person talking about their personal video game character only marginally more interesting than a person discussing their favorite brand of bagel. That’s not to say that I don’t love video game characters (and weirdly, WoW is the one game where this rule doesn’t hold true) but generally speaking, I don’t want to talk about my character or other people’s characters in any deep way because it spoils the illusion that the Inquisitor is mine. 

I don’t even really acknowledge all the different ways my own Inquisitor could be different based on my own choices. At this point, my Inquisitor is so fully realized in my own mind based on my actions that I simply can’t imagine that things could be any other way. It all just is. And it is because the game world shapes itself to my actions and allows me to maintain that illusion in a flawless manner.

It sounds like an insult to say that I don’t notice all the care and craft that the designers have woven into the game to create branching paths and different narrative experiences. In truth, it’s actually the highest compliment I can offer to a game of this sort.

GamerGate Thoughts

I’ve held off on writing about GamerGate, but I might as well speak my piece. It’s not a very large piece.

I’ve followed Anita Sarkeesian‘s videos since her kickstarter. I follow her on Twitter. I haven’t always agreed with her views (in fact, I often find things I disagree with) but I think it’s really cool of her (and really brave) to be working so hard to have a discussion about gender issues in gaming. I’m really glad that she’s done her thing in the face of so much venom. I support her and developers like Zoe Quinn that have been driven out of their homes by threats from a very vicious, very vocal, very venomous group of people.

And that’s nothing new, nothing that many other reasonable people aren’t also saying. “Wait, Matt, you’re agreeing with the idea that it’s wrong to threaten to kill a bunch of people because a woman is talking about video games?” I know, it’s a totally radical opinion I have.

So here’s what I will talk about instead. Let’s talk about gamers. Let’s talk about us.

I’ve been a lifelong gamer. I had the dubious honor of being part of this group during the Nineties when Mortal Kombat hit the scene. You remember Mortal Kombat, right? Violence in games exploded in a big way after that one came out. Suddenly, everyone was talking about those violent video games. Violent games were forbidden in my house. I had to sneak over to a friend’s house to play Mortal Kombat. Considering how much of a super-geek I was growing up, this is literally the only thing I’ve ever done behind my parents’ backs. I played a video game. No drugs, no booze; just that one particular game.

I remember how it went, from Mortal Kombat to Doom to Grand Theft Auto. The issue of violence in games kept growing. Columbine happened. School shooters became a thing. And for most gamers like me, we kept hoping that it wouldn’t get any worse. We hoped that the public tide wouldn’t turn against games. We hoped they wouldn’t end up banned or strictly controlled. We just wanted to play.

Politicians like Lieberman and Pelosi and Hilary Clinton, likely looking to pick up family-first-morality credit, seemed to be in every article, saying how we need to take a closer look at these games, we need to control this. It might be a little ironic that I’m now a vehement liberal who’d vote for any of them, since back then, they were the enemies of gaming.

I remember when I was about ten or eleven, a friend whose parents worked for the local news station wanted to do a story on kids playing video games. At the time, I thought it was the coolest fucking thing in the world. They interviewed us (hilariously neglecting to get permission from my parents) and took footage of us playing games. I remember I had the first twinge of doubt when I offered to show them some of the non-violent games we had. I brought up Mario Kart and explained that it was my favorite, but they didn’t care about that. The reporter said something about how they already had enough footage of that kind of game. So all they wanted from us was the shooters.

I remember being so proud until the segment finally came on and it was an absolute nightmare for a kid who loved games so much. We were painted as being addicts playing murder simulators. Closeups of concentrated faces, hands moving over control pads. At the time, I thought it was because of how good it was at the game. When I saw the segment, I saw how we’d been lied to, literally lied to by the reporter and the camera crew. Fortunately for my younger self, the segment didn’t air until the last fifteen minutes of the evening news, so nobody I knew other than my parents ever saw it. I didn’t get picked on at school for it.

But honestly, I’m still pissed about it. I still disdain the channel that did it, although I won’t mention which news group it was. But I felt like they’d been out to get me. It was an us vs. them. Gamers vs. normals.

We didn’t want to bother anyone. We wanted to play our games and be left alone. As a kid who was picked on a lot, that was my refuge, a place where it didn’t matter that I was awkward and weird.

I remember Jack Thompson’s insane crusade and the mind-boggling amount of media attention he received. He was the universal enemy of all gamers. Even if you didn’t particularly like the games he railed against, if you were a gamer from 2003-2008, you probably had a negative opinion on Thompson. He was our collective nemesis and it felt like justice when he was finally disbarred as a lawyer.

That seemed like a turning point. Gaming had gone from this insular little thing that a few kids did to being everywhere. Suddenly, everyone was a gamer. We weren’t weird anymore, we weren’t different just because we liked games. Of course, I was well into adulthood as this magical change was happening, so at that point it didn’t matter quite as much to my life, but I could see how we were being treated by the general public consciousness. Famous people were gamers! Practically every single male in the world had a copy of Modern Warfare 2! And some females, too, although not as many. That game was a serious bro-fest. Guys that used to pick on me on the playground were lining up in front of me in the GameStop!

It seemed like gamers had proven the naysayers wrong. We weren’t violent, we weren’t maladjusted, we’d grown up and gotten jobs and become productive citizens and kept on playing. More murders have been committed because of something someone wrote in a novel than because of games.

And now, a few years later . . . here we are. Now we’re at the point where some gamers are threatening to commit the school shootings and rape and kill and literally, literally fucking prove every negative stereotype that we’ve endured since the beginning. How the fuck does that happen? How the fuck do you not see how fucking stupid it is to look at the stereotypes men like Jack Thompson heaped on us and say, “yeah, that’s a good fucking way to solve the issue of a woman talking about video games in a way that I don’t like?”

Here’s what doesn’t make sense to me is this; we grew up in a siege mentality. Gamers were used to being the bad guys, we were used to video games being the demonspawned corrupters of souls, the way movies, comics, rock music, etc. were once.

We were persecuted for being geeks and nerds by a hypermasculine social structure that didn’t reward intellectualism over athleticism, that didn’t value wanting to be different and do our own thing. And how, in some dark hilarious twist, instead of saying we’ll be better than that, we’ll be better than the fucking guys that made our lives such living hells throughout our youth that the only solutions seemed to be drugs, suicide or virtual escapism, now we’re just being the same as those fucking guys.

There’s only one explanation that makes sense to me. I can’t believe that any kid who grew up loving games and having that stigma would be doing this to someone else.

So maybe GamerGate and this systemic campaign of harassment and threatened violence against women in gaming is due to the fact that gamers aren’t the same little group of people anymore. Now gamers are everyone and that means that Gamergate isn’t simply a gamer problem, it’s one battle in a larger social struggle against male privilege and patriarchy and the way women are treated and depicted in this culture. That could be it. Maybe it’s not just gamers, but a very specific group of men in general. I don’t know that this would make me feel better about the situation, but it does make more sense.

Or maybe it really is a gamer problem. Maybe the problem really is us and today’s gamers didn’t heed the lessons of the past. Maybe they’re just ignorant of the history of what Columbine did to the hobby that we love so much, which is why they’d literally threaten that very same thing. Maybe we’ve forgotten what it was like to be the ones singled out for wanting to be who we were, for wanting to like the things that we liked. Maybe we’ve forgotten, taken the current status quo for granted, and now that someone else is daring to want to be part of it all, we’re turning on them like rabid beasts.

Or maybe it’s just a case of the echo chamber of the Internet and a small group of voices can be so mind-boggling, disproportionately loud. Maybe it’s the same group of MRA assholes that have been harassing people like Sarkeesian for years and their voices are just now getting particularly loud, their threats particularly egegrious. Maybe for every one idiot who supports the systemic terrorization of women in gaming, there are 99 other gamers who just want to keep quiet and play on.

Regardless, it’s a shitty situation that we’ve found ourselves in. It’s shitty and it’s depressing and it makes me wonder if maybe we weren’t better off with Jack Thompson and his one-man crazy crusade. Because at least when he was around, saying his crazy things, we could just shrug and say, “man, can you believe what this guy is saying?”

Because right now, all I can do is put my face in my hands and say, “man, can you believe what gamers are saying?”

No. I can’t.

I really, really can’t.