Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rant: Criteria for Ranking Video Games

Erica sent along this little Top 10 PC Games of All Time article to me, which is causing me to have to go on a rant. I realize that I usually entertain more intellectual pursuits here than video games, but I feel like this is an important point of view.

I will copy and paste my email response to some friends as well:

I'll lay into this bullshit right here and now. WoW might be the most played (human hours invested) game of all time, but the idea that it's the #1 PC game of all time is absurd. I'm not actually convinced it's the best MMO of all time, though I admit that its interfaces are intuitive and its visual impact is startling. The best PC game of all time should be based on the fun value of the game, which can't be possible in WoW thanks to hours of mindless grinding, repetetive combats, and end-heavy content.

Owing to its stature, I would surely allow WoW to breach the Top 10 and it is certainly the top MMO (which is actually kinda' sad), but to call it the Best PC Game of All Time is absurd. There's no mention of the Half-Life Series or the truly innovative Portal. I fail to see how X-Com could miss the mark. It would have been intellectually dishonest of them not to include Civilization, which is truly one of the best all-time, but while I enjoy SimCity, I find it hard to believe that it is worthy of the top 10. Too often in these sort of Top 10's we get the "Most Innovative" or the "Best Selling" games. Why aren't the games evaluated based on what should really matter: how much fun they are to play.

I think that really needs to be my jumping-off point. I don't think that anyone would argue with me that the primary purpose of games is directed toward enjoyment. Sure there's probably lessons in teamwork or coordination or strategy involved, but we play them to relax, to interact with our friends, and to have fun. I don't have anything against World of Warcraft directly (I played for a while even), but it seems to me that it is reasonably antithetical to some of the things that are important to me. So, for the benefit of those still reading, here's a convenient list of why I think these are important criteria for game designers to consider.

1. We play video games to relax: When we are playing video games it is in our downtime. It's time we're not spending fulfilling our primary obligations. This being the case games should be as user-friendly as possible to their targetted audience. Now sure, maybe some games are too complicated for some people or are of the wrong type. Like books and sports, not everyone likes the same things, which is okay. But in the case of video games, they should be designed with an eye toward the recreational. To put it another way, just because it's my downtime doesn't mean I want to be wasting time. While extended travel times and complex interactions might provide a gameplay-balancing or immersion effect for some players, especially in simulation games like Eve Online, noone wants to play an action oriented game where you have to sit on a bird for 15 minutes to fly from one town to the next. Having to spend hours looking for a party to go to the dungeon where you have already been 6 times just to defeat one boss so the piece of loot you need will drop is another example of how this is bad.

2. We play video games to interact with our friends: I love multiplayer in video games. I've almost gotten to the point where I don't want to play single-player games anymore, although I find some that really speak to me from time to time. But what exactly does multiplayer mean? Is it trading off as my brother and I did in Super Mario Bros. when we were kids? Is it charging into the first room of the Truth and Reconciliation level of Halo in the living room of Adam and Michelle's old townhouse over and over again on Legendary with Jacob, Dean, Baxter, or Adam alongside? Is it the cheering/jeering/laughing competition we had when we multi-boxed Halo, splitting into upstairs and downstairs teams? Is it the experience of joining alongside one or two friends at your own PC screen as Adam, Norm, Dean, Rob, and I did in Neverwinter Nights? Is it the hours of shouting at one another over XBox Live as we schooled n00bz together online? Is it the experience of making new online friends we felt in City of Heroes and World of Warcraft? Which of these experiences provided us with the most fulfilling experiences? Which do we remember most vividly? Can a multiplayer world be so big and expansive that it makes friendships less invigorating? Do you act or talk different when with your real friends and your online friends? When the group is mixed? It's a lot to think about.

3. We play video games to have fun: This seems pretty self explanatory. Maybe we don't all have the same exact definition of fun, and maybe we like different types of games. The point is that whatever you play should be enjoyable. For me, at least, a lot of that enjoyment comes from sharing my gameplay with a friend or two; over XBL or, even better, in person.

It's important to think about what you get from your activities, what you want to be getting from them, and what you think you should be getting from them. We should always strive to examine our activities so that we know why we do them and how the help us become who we want to be.


P.Proteus1035 said...

I couldn't agree more. There is nothing worse than a 30 minute "bat-ride" to depreciate the value of a video game. I cite Oblivion here: HOURS of game time spent doing NOTHING and getting NOWHERE! WoW is notorious for that as well.

While I feel like we are slowly detaching from each other personally, and technology is the cause, I like that I can get together with my friends and "hang out" even though it is unwieldy to travel and arrange meetings in person. Many video games I wouldn't bother to own except that they allow me to spend time with my friends. Example: Star Trek Legacy. Terrible Single Player, hours of mindless Borg killing Multi-player. p.s. Die Defiant, Die.

Often I think programmers loose sight of those two goals and just make games with "multi-playability" that are crap or have "hours of game play" that consists of lead farming to increase my mining skill.

There is one other rationale for playing video games that I think you've missed here and can be a huge factor in it's play ability: Escapism. Can I turn the game on and be someone, ANYone, other than myself for a few hours at a time. That's Key.

B said...

Legacy is an excellent example of an excellent multiplayer concept that fails in single player. Seriosuly, who doesn't love killing the Borg or their friends in a multiplayer game. P.S. Defiant for victory.

I agree with your point about using online games to "hang out" with people when it's infeasible to drive or to hang out in person. Especially when your group hangout-time is often between 9 PM and 1 AM.

Pocket Size said...

I want to know where Oregon Trail and Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego? are on that list. Ahem. Educational enough to play in computer class in school, fun enough that everybody wanted to play them at home. That, I tell you, is brilliant game design.

Less specifically, I couldn't agree more with your point that you don't want to waste game time sitting there twiddling your thumbs. I don't play WoW, because even watching it is boring (I should point out that I'm a video game watcher; I could watch somebody play like I'm watching tv if it's a good game). I didn't see the appeal of Eve, because why "play" a game that, for the majority of your time, doesn't actually have you playing? And I was more than happy to focus more on my homework than on CoH when all we did was let the fire tank run around with that ridiculous burn/taunt combo running and grind all the XP for us. I'm sorry, I signed up to pwn noobs, not let the game or other players waste my time.

I think it's important, too, for the game to be somehow mentally stimulating. That doesn't mean it has to be a thinky game, just that somebody should have put some thought into the point of it all. The best of CoH was following the story arcs. Oregon Trail was like a story, a geography lesson, and a history lesson all in one. I never played Myst, but I'd love to because I'm intrigued by the challenge. And of course, you know I love Portal. It may be kinda short, but the puzzle-solving/critical-thinking aspect is stimulating and the storyline is awesome (not to mention the suspenseful manner in which it unfolds). I guess all of these have a commonality, in that there's a definite goal, a definite end point somewhere. Finish the story, get to your new homestead with your family alive, get out alive, whatever. There's something you want to see, and even if you don't ever get to it, you're enjoying the process.