On GDC ’09…

Back in my younger tyke days, I dreamed of the day I would fly to LA and march through the doors of the ever growing E3 gaming convention. To be among a sea of developers, nerds, and journalists that I still hope to emulate in the future, it was my big white whale. Sadly, as time went on and E3 bloated into a counter-productive festival of pomp and circumstance, I saw the growing need for it to take a step back and change. Then, as if I momentarily achieved telepathy with Andy McNamara of Game Informer, I read his column dubbed “Why E3 Needed to Change” and practically melted into the issue. I felt like I had somehow helped Andy bring about the words to write it simply by thinking it; that I was in some way a co-owner to his brilliance on paper. Of course, my editorial flow and style resembles more of a frustrated teen repressing homosexual tendencies (at least that’s what I’ve been told) and has lightyears to go before it rivals the mastery of Andy, Kato, Adam and the others on the GI payroll.

To see the annual Game Developers Conference occur in Austin, Texas is a fact I brandish with pride as it helps further the truth that us Texans are a little more with the times than most people give us credit for. For the past few years, GDC has really matured into it’s own. Not only as a sort of sophomore effort to E3, but also to give the actual game developers a chance to take the spotlight, and I applaud that. Among them, Tracy Seamster and Steve Danuser helmed a lecture that I was very bitter to miss. As these virtual worlds continue to multiply like spam mail, it seems pretty inevitable that some developer group will say ‘to hell with it’ and start their own. What Tracy and Steve try remind everyone of is that in a world where there is no single protagonist and no real ending…it’s pretty damn difficult to make up a good story to go along with it.

As my roommate so nicely put it, “I think the most insulting thing to do to a good story or character is to turn it into crop farming”. While it may seem a little stretched in the way of explaning our opinions, it does illustrate what seems to plague every single media product that procures great success—everybody wants it to happen again. But in the virtual realms of World of Warcraft and Everquest, he is refering to the concept of “farming” where a process or event is repeatable and, therefor, becomes a weekly ritual for guilds and groups coordinated enough to do it. Famous villain Illidan of the Warcraft universe was one of the many pinnacle characters to become a farming event in which 25 very dedicated players would kill him every week. Rather than build his ultimate demise into a great cinematic experience or infuse it with some emotional connection between myself and the unfolding story, his continuous death is now a random collection of purple-labeled loot known as “epics” to be equipped and used in future encounters. All of a sudden, the ending of a fantasticly-written character has turned into something more…economic. Ewww.

While it takes great strides from many people to render a virtual world and its denizens, it the job of writers to start penciling in the fabled canon and history of this newly-discovered land. But why go to all the trouble of crafting these thousands of pages of dialogue and lectures from NPCs when all I want is to turn in my X number of Y object so I recieve my Z amount of experience points? To Seamster and Danuser, the sad truth is that a lot of what they write is hardly ever read. In a way, it’s just another item to check off the recipe of “stuff you need to bake an MMOG”. But, if that’s true, then where does that leave the fate of Star Wars: The Old Republic?

Bioware is famous for story. Give them any hypothetical elf and generic fantasy setting, and they’ll give you a J.J. Abrams-esque novel of exquisite design. While they’ve proven themselves time and time again, is it possible for even Bioware to make the masses care about what they’re reading? Well, fully-voiced dialogue is a good start, and it adds a layer of interaction that should keep most people tuned in to the quest-giving NPC at the time. Plus, it’s fucking Star Wars—with an established canon as concrete as Catholicism, I can imagine most fans will be paying pretty close attention to anything Bioware has to say about Tattooine (sp?) and Coruscant, given the game’s grand exposure back in May. Truth be told, I never cared much, if at all, for the lore behind Everquest. I didn’t really care why there were planes of fear, hate and fire; I just needed to convince 29 other players to go with me. I kept a little more in touch when it came time to try out WoW, but even so, the epic tale of Sylvanas or Thrall got a little lost in the midst of grinding out levels and reputation ranks in the Plaguelands.

It is a given fact that the needs of many outweigh the needs of few, and while there are far more players who scrutinize instance runs and class balancing over character logic and narrative progression, that doesn’t change the fact that writers are hard pressed to create vast stories in a world where most people don’t care. For Tracy and Steve to come forward and raise a flag for the overshadowed imagination of script writers and story tellers, I can only say I’m damn sorry I missed it.

See you in the next level,

Gray

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