Trouble at The Escapist?

It’s always uncomfortable to take a look behind the curtain at the realities of running a commercial media website, and never more so when accusations of running short of money and stiffing indie creators are brought into the mix. The Escapist is probably most widely known among gamers for hosting Yahtzee’s Zero Punctuation reviews, but they also host a lot of other high quality writing and podcasting.

The team behind Extra Credits (a series of smart, and deservedly popular video podcasts) are parting ways with The Escapist in acrimonious terms. The reason? Well, here’s the bboard thread where things play out. It’s a sad story of not being paid, offers that were made unofficially, and arguments over who owns which parts of a charity fund originally set up to help pay for one of the team’s medical costs.

My best summary would be:

  • The EC crew hadn’t been paid for months. The Escapist says that they were told, “”…you can put us to the bottom of the list for right now” so that’s what they did.
  • The EC crew started a charitable fund to raise money for a member’s medical costs. This was wildly successful.
  • There is a disagreement on what should be done with the excess funds after the medical costs were paid. (It looks to me as though the EC crew were fairly upfront about notifying their fans of their plans to create an indie game publisher regularly.)

Note the ‘hadn’t been paid for months’ part. This is what I mean about a glimpse behind the curtain. The Escapist is in trouble. Make up your own minds about the wrongs and rights of this one, but it’s more evidence to me that the economics behind some of these web magazines just don’t add up. It’s a shame, because I enjoy what I’ve read/ seen of the site, but comments on the bboard are very telling. “I’ll take my page hits away from this site,” is sad and all, but it’s not a very strong threat to boycott something you were getting for free anyway.

If you’d like to support Extra Credits, just follow their facebook/ twitter so you can keep watching the show and supporting it wherever it ends up. If you’d like to support The Escapist, go sign up for their site and consider a subscription. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

On another note, aside from exposing the teetering state of at least one popular gaming site, this story shows another angle on the balance between indie creators and publishers. The fact that EC is able to maintain its own brand, fansite, fanbase etc gives them a fair amount of pulling power.

Being the big damn hero!

Mal: Well, look at this! Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?
Zoe: Big damn heroes, sir!
Mal: Ain’t we just?

There’s a great article at The Escapist about  tricks that designers use to make you feel heroic when you’re actually just piloting a bunch of pixels around. This isn’t just about immersion, drama, and well written stories. It’s about how a player can be made to feel as though they’ve just done something difficult and skilful under pressure, when it really didn’t matter what they did. It’s about how to make a cut scene feel interactive.

Is that what we want from games?

Imagine instead a game which monitors a player’s skill and sets up appropriate challenges. So the end boss is hard, but exactly how hard depends on the player’s skill up to that point. Two different players should find that the challenge was equally difficult for both of them. Or maybe the game has infinite levels of increasing difficulty and people just keep playing forever until they get to their limit point. Those games would both let players of different skill levels play them and have fun and feel a sense of achievement when they beat a challenge for the first time. And this is where MMO designers are experimenting with hard mode instances/ encounters.

The interactive cut-scene approach is cheating. It’s like giving daft achievements, the player gets a quick fix of ‘yay, I’m a hero!’ but without having learned anything new about playing the game.

Except that it isn’t really cheating at all. It’s using time honored dramatic techniques, honed by centuries of playwrights, artists, composers, and authors, to manipulate the player’s emotions. I don’t feel cheated when I go to see a great film, opera, or gig. Even though I’ve read a screenwriting book or two and know about the craft and the formulae that go on behind the scenes, I don’t feel manipulated when I watch a great film. I enjoy the hell out of them.

And the same goes for games that give me a good dramatic story. I was sad when Aeris died. I wanted to punch the air when I watched Wrathgate and hear Putress yell, “This is the hour of the forsaken!”.  Now those may have both happened in cut scenes, but I felt involved because I’d been an agent in events leading up to the cut. Designers need to use dramatic techniques to get players to care about the NPC and the world around them because otherwise we simply won’t.

I think Diablo 2 is a really fun game and liked the mad killing parts and constantly getting cool loot, but it was the storytelling and atmospherics that made it stand out as a setting as well as the gameplay. That’s the graphics, the music, the animations … everything that makes a computer game into a computer game.

There is a line between a good atmospheric world and a railroaded plot. But sometimes the railroaded, well crafted, manipulative plot is the memorable experience that the player wants.

Do we want to feel like big damned heroes?

I was thinking about this while playing CoH this morning. A superhero game should give a player lots of opportunities to feel like a hero. But sometimes feeling like a hero means ‘Only you can save the world’ and that’s not going to happen in an MMO. Because there are lots of other players, and they all want to be heroes and save the world too.

Then I was thinking about last night’s Naxx raid. Which was good fun,  and very social — not the tidiest raid we’ve ever run but I know I personally was playing well, and we killed lots of stuff.

I come to the obvious conclusion which is that I don’t really feel like a hero in WoW, except maybe the first time I do a particularly heroic quest. Or maybe when a fight goes bad and I pull something out of the bag and save a wipe. Or when the raid arrives at The Nexus and I get asked to tank the big dragon (tanking a big dragon will always make you feel a bit heroic).

And that perfectly illustrates  different ways in which players can feel heroic in games. Quests are cool and all, but in an MMO, they can’t replace player interaction for sheer levels of emotional investment.

I never feel as though only I can save the world in an MMO. But I may feel as though only I can save my friends.