Does playing shooters make you a war criminal?

Well, obviously not because it doesn’t involve killing actual real people. However the International Red Cross has recently been discussing video games, and you could be excused for thinking that the they wanted to take several zillion CoD players to tribunal from reading the news headlines.

Fortunately for common sense, delegates at the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Red Crescent actually published a Q+A about their debate about video games. I think it makes interesting reading and explains why they felt it was part of their remit.

Truth is, the jury is still out on the effect videogaming has on young people. We know that video games in the past have been used as military recruiting techniques and to ‘harden’ new recruits to protect them from the stresses of combat. Games have not historically been focussed on showing the downsides to war, because that’s not as fun as shooting nazis.

But given that moral choices in gaming have become quite fashionable in the RPG arena, would it really be so bad if those choices were more widely flagged up in shooters too? Sure, choose to flout the Geneva Conventions if you want (do zombies even have human rights?), but at least the game dialogue should reflect that choice. Maybe even let players have more of a choice. I am sure I’ll enjoy the heck out of playing a darkside sith warrior, and I’m pretty sure the empire don’t bother with any of that Geneva Convention nonsense, but at least I’ll know they’re darkside choices …

My tour in Call of Duty Black Ops

call-of-duty-black-ops-arctic6

I could hear the crunching of footsteps on snow, and froze with my back to the wall. Suddenly there was a flicker of movement in my peripheral vision and I spun round in time to bring the light machine gun (LMG) to bear on the man behind me.

“Oh shit, which button is it to fire…” I said, accidentally swinging the viewpoint round so that I was pointing my gun at the floor. I may possibly have said rude words to the PS3 controller.

My friend, patiently, waited until I had gotten the controls together and could happily obliterate him with a headshot.

“Sorry,” I said, as his blood splattered over the snow.

“You don’t have to say sorry every time you kill someone.”

Call of Duty doesn’t do unhappy endings. You don’t really die, you just respawn round the corner with a full clip.

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So here’s the setup. I was round visiting friends over New Year and had a chance to play Black Ops on a lovely big TV. “You write about games, you should try this,” seemed like a great idea at the time. And then there I was, controller in hand, feeling like the clumsiest soldier in the western hemisphere. Do real black ops personnel spend 5 minutes trying to get through an open door? I suspect not.

I can’t get over how awkward the controller is for this type of game. I haven’t played shooters for years, not since playing Quake on the office LAN (despite my partner’s best efforts to interest me in Unreal Tournament) and never on a console.

And yet. Once you have a vague feel for the controls, it’s a very exciting game. Sure, it’s just a souped up version of hide and seek. That actually is the basics of most shooters, as best as I can see. But add in interesting buildings, vehicles, and obstacles to duck around, and hide and seek with imaginary guns seems like a perfectly good afternoon’s pastimes.

I personally find that the ultra realistic uniforms and guns add approximately zero interest to the genre for me. If anything, the more realistic it gets, the more uncomfortable I get. I have no desire to shoot real people. I don’t really want to do anything more violent than paintballing (which I have done iRL and was a lot of fun.)

And compared to the MMOs I’m used to, Black Ops with its first person view feels very claustrophobic. You can’t see the whole battlefield, you can often barely see a few inches in front of your own face and if you tweak the controls awkwardly then the camera careers around, not only making you feel seasick but also destroying any chance at all of you getting a feel for the layout of the area.

I can see though that once you are comfortable with the controls and can get more into the ‘hide and seek with guns’ zone, you can get a good deal more fun out of it.

Reflections on FPS and Black Ops

One of the stand out points for me is that Black Ops was not especially more fun than Quake, despite the length of time between the two games. The actual gameplay wasn’t all that, at least not that I could see. It certainly has prettier graphics, more hyper realistic settings, and lets you interact more with the environment (or at least shoot holes through doors and break windows), but I’m not really seeing the great leap forward in FPS that I was expecting.

The second thing is that really, paintball is a lot more fun and way less claustrophobic. I did find the controller was a hindrance. The studio that can make a good Kinect based shooter will be onto a winner.

The third is that there’s nothing really novel about playing hide and seek online. It’s very basic gameplay, even compared with other console games like Uncharted 2 or Grand Theft Auto. (GTA in particular shows off the console much better, to my mind.)

The fourth is that although it is kind of fun to tag your friends, I just don’t like actually shooting people. So I feel a bit conflicted when I kill anyone. (I think once we started playing for real a bit more, although I obv. wasn’t as good as the guys who had more practice, I did get some actual kills that weren’t pity kills :) ).

The last is that if Blizzard are working on a PvE/ MMO type shooter for Titan, they could well be onto a winner. I think there are lots of players out there like my friends who enjoy playing with people they know, and like the PvE game, but aren’t all that excited about being massacred by random 14 year olds (the game, astoundingly, has no player rank matching a la Starcraft 2, which is an inexplicable omission for me in a genre that stands or falls on it’s PvP tournament modes.)

The Shape of Things to Come

One of the things that caught my eye about Ensidiagate (thanks Matt for coining that term) was how different people responded to the notion that some tradeskill might give an advantage in a raid encounter.

Most longterm WoW players reacted immediately, saying Blizzard would never do that intentionally – which is true. It is completely against their current philosophy. But there was a time when that type of obscure puzzle solving strategy was considered fair game by designers.

Remember Naxxramas? How about that boss which required the use of mind control on the adds, a spell given to only one class in the game. Going back to DaoC, I remember an encounter where the raid needed to stop some adds from walking into the centre of an area. The adds were immune to almost all crowd control. The eventual solution? It involved stealthers using a distract rotation; every time the mob was targeted, it paused for a moment and turned away from the stealther.

Even later on at Lady Vashj, I remember people using the tailored nets to help slow adds.

Back in those days, we would have loved an encounter that required a tradeskill trick to complete. Discovering that strategy would have been brilliant fun, and rewarded real out of the box thinking. And imagine discovering that your crappy tradeskill turns out to be really crucial for a boss fight?

This is not excusing Ensidia for ignoring an obvious exploit (yes, I think it is increasingly obvious that they knew something was up, they’re a very smart bunch), but MMOs these days are moving swiftly away from puzzle solving. There’s not much wriggle room for out of the box thinking in PvE these days in theme park games, and too much of it will lead to exploits. Instead you have to solve the problem in the way the designers intended.

I was thinking this on reading in the Escapist about the Bioware founders’ favourite games of the last decade. I see a lot of shooters in those lists. And only one true puzzle game, LittleBigPlanet.

We know that puzzle based encounters are problematic in MMOs, because of all the spoiler sites and tactic guides, but I wonder if raids were more fun when we felt that any strategy was fair game and that being creative might be rewarded. Has the internet really killed puzzle games? World of Goo and Professor Layton have been popular enough, players still like this sort of challenge and are happy to pay for it.

And I wonder how much of the Ensidia leadership is simply mired in the past, when tanks were warriors, paladins were alliance, and out of the box thinking got you world firsts.

Walking in a linking wonderland

Here are some of the posts and threads that caught my eye over the last couple of weeks.

  1. Kurt Vonnegut explains why people become drama queens
  2. tankspot dares to ask, “Has tanking made you mean?” Obviously not in my case, and I’ll boot anyone who disagrees.
  3. Tobold has an interesting theory about the different players who are attracted to different payment models. If all the players who really want games to be free go with free to play then how can that model make money? Similarly, if all the hardcore 40 hours a week guys flock to subscription models which depend on having lots of casual players, can those thrive too?
  4. Cassandri at HoTs and DoTs wants to know how much you’d pay for a battered hilt (leads to a quest which results in the best non raiding weapon in WoW). Does knowing that it has a high value affect whether you’d roll need on it?
  5. We get a lot of gaming genre blending in CRPGs. Some puzzle solving, squad based combat, exploring, maybe even FPS segments. Rampant Coypte wonders if players enjoy the mix of genres. For me, only if I like BOTH genres. I never forgave Prince of Persia for including stupid fighty bits when I just wanted a platform game.
  6. Mike Schramm has an intriguing post on wow.com asking whether Facebook might count as an MMO. After all, ‘players’ have avatars, homes, and can interact with others virtually. This is also his last week on wow.com so good luck to him in the future, I know I’ve enjoyed his writing.
  7. Larisa has some thoughts on how to take command over the random PUG. I’m hoping she will later address the question of whether or not anyone should be taking command.
  8. Hawley loves healers and says we’ll all miss them when they’re gone. He also wonders about Blizzard’s decision not to have a crowd control class; funnily enough I remember at the time thinking that it was inspired to spread the crowd control between different classes, but it’s true that in practice they weren’t all treated as equal.
  9. Jason Henniger writes the ultimate dear john letter, “Nyarlahotep, I’m breaking up with you.”
  10. Megan at Forbearance and the Drama Mammas (sorry but that column name makes me want to spit nails) at wow.com both think that everyone should chill and welcome the poorly performing players into PUGs.