May 18 2009

The More Things Change…

Way back when I got my first computer, in the olden days of 1988, it was mainly a game machine.  The Internet was mostly a military and university project back then, and a modem was an expensive add-on piece of hardware.  There were some BBSs around, but all were on long-distance numbers at the time, which put them out of my budget. On the output end, I didn’t get a printer for a few years, so I wasn’t producing documents or computer art either.  Every computer was an island, for the most part.

photo from

photo from

It’s very different now: if the Internet goes down, I might as well walk away from the keyboard, because I’m not going to be able to get much done. In fact, the last time that happened, I used the opportunity to shut down and swap some hardware.  The more powerful our computers get, the more they seem to become little more than network terminals.

I did a little programming back then in BASIC and machine language, but with no connection to anyone else, you couldn’t easily share a nifty little program, so there wasn’t a lot of incentive.  You could submit it to a magazine, which might print it out so others could type it into their own computers months later, but you couldn’t count on it.  If you wrote something really good, you could start making disc copies and buy an ad in a magazine and try to sell it or distribute it as shareware, but that was even more trouble for little chance of reward.

So mostly I played games.  Fortunately, some of my equally stranded-in-Iowa friends had been in the Commodore 64 scene longer than I had, and had lots of games.  (Yes, mostly pirated.  When we had a few extra bucks, we bought games, but that didn’t happen often.  Which also explains why most people who went the shareware route made diddly.)  Some of my favorites were the D&D-style role-playing games, where you play a character or small group of characters that travel around on adventures, collecting treasure and raising their abilities to handle increasingly difficult challenges.  Ultima 1-5, Pool of Radiance, Legacy of the Ancients, Bard’s Tale, and others.  There were also the adventure games set in a large, non-D&D world, like Elite and Autoduel.

When I was playing those games on my computerized island, I used to think how cool it would be if I could be connected to other people playing at the same time.  Computer AI was even worse than it is now, of course, so after the hundredth time my character got killed because one of my allies accidentally blasted him with a lightning bolt, I’d start thinking how nice it would be to have halfway intelligent real-life humans behind the other characters.

When I finally got online and played my first online game, Command & Conquer: Red Alert, I found it wasn’t as wonderful as I’d hoped. Most of my opponents were kids who played approximately a thousand times more often than I did, and they were simply too fast.  It was like being an amateur basketball player and finding that the only pick-up games in your neighborhood are full of ex-NBA players.  I never stood a chance.  Turn-based games and others that weren’t based on click speed were better, but were still dominated by the players who had tons of time to practice and study strategies.  Before long, I went back to playing solo games again.

Now there’s a new generation of multiplayer games at places like Facebook that look promising at first.  The players are more likely to be regular people who aren’t pros, so a casual player might be able to compete.  But there’s another problem: the monetization model.  With the old games, you paid for the game and for the use of the online service.  These new games are free, so they have to get paid another way.  They can surround them with ads, but the money that can be made from ads is dwindling, and a person engrossed in a game is probably not likely to click on them anyway.  (I sure never have.)  So they have to find ways to make money within the game somehow.

The main method seems to be to offer you something within the game if you’ll go do something outside the game, like signing up for a credit card.  Then they get paid for each new signup they generate.  These offers are usually technically free, but they make you fill out a bunch of forms, or sign up for a “free for 14 days” offer you’ll forget to cancel in time, or something even more annoying.  In Mafia Wars, you can do that to get Godfather Points; in Yoville, a virtual world, it’s the only way to get YoCash, which you need to buy a decent pet.  And so on.  Alternatively, you can buy direct with PayPal or a credit card.  So you can spend real money or endure a bunch of aggravation to get a leg up in all these games.  No thanks.  I just want to play a game, not make an investment!

The other thing they do is use the game to encourage you to get other people to play (and maybe pay), by requiring you to have an increasing number of friends in your mafia/clan/kingdom/group before you can move up in levels.  In Mafia Wars, I can’t fight the next boss until I have 16 people in my mafia, and I only have 11 now.  The longer I play the game and increase my level, the more I’ll be facing people who have huge mafias.  So I either nag some of my real friends to sign up for the game, or add some strangers who are adding me for the same reason.  And so it continues, up to a maximum of 500 members—which sounds like a full-time job just keeping it all straight.  It’d be a lot more fun if they had leagues that were limited to smaller groups, so a casual player could play against people who were approximately as dedicated as themselves.  But that’d make it harder for them to make any money off it, I suppose.

I certainly don’t begrudge any game maker a decent profit—or even a big profit if they can manage it.  I just wish there were a way to make these games interesting and competitive for everyone, not just for the people who are willing to dedicate a few hours a day to them and send out hundreds of invites.  Maybe I just need to give up playing them and start making them.  I realized the other day that Autoduel would make an awesome multiplayer game in this new style, with some changes to take out the real-time battles.  Have to work on that.

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