Saturday, July 16, 2011

Read a Good Book: This Gaming Life - Chapter 3: a Gamer’s World

Ever since I started played games (that would be starting in the 90s, on an NES, to a SNES, and finally to my sedentary state on the PC) I viewed them as a very isolated experience. Video games were not social. I am only speaking for myself here, but I don’t think I’m entirely alone. Even now video games are still a very isolating experience; whether in singleplayer or multiplayer games, the perspective and the experience of the person controlling a given avatar is highly insular. It’s less so in online multiplayer games, but I think that even then, I’ve found myself simply playing alone. And enjoying it.

Traditional Gaming is what this is all about. It’s very self-interested. Much of the time, games are focused around providing tight, content-based experiences: moments where the player interacts with dynamic inanimate objects and set pieces that are designed to elicit specific emotions.  But this type of design philosophy (and expectation) is a reflection of the culture, and subsequently the culture’s perspective of games and the industry. But there is a powerful antithesis to this predominant industry philosophy: the Korean Gaming Scene.

In this chapter, Jim Rossignol goes in-depth on one of the most cryptic phenomena in the modern game world: Korea. Korean gaming culture is the precise opposite of its American/English (collectively known as “Western”) counterpart, but it is by no means less sophisticated. Its roots are as nearly as deep as those in the west and are probably more influential in its home country than gaming is in this one. While gaming culture has certainly been on the rise in the West for some time now, it is fully integrated into the mainstream in Korea.  According to the book (and current statistics floating around the net) almost 5% of the nation plays video games regularly, while about 500,000 people view professional gaming tournaments every night. These statistics are compelling, but the real magic lies behind the numbers.

The inception and eventual snowballing of the Korean Gaming Scene into the juggernaut it is today is the result of none other than unpredictably favorable political and financial climates. At the time, Korea’s protracted contempt for Japan prompted the government to implement aggressive anti-Japanese policies, namely, import taxation on their goods. Many goods became prohibitively expensive as a result, including those consoles which had and would become the foundation for gaming culture in the West. This created a gap in the Korean gaming market; a gap ably filled by the PC.

So, during this time when Japanese hardware and development was burgeoning in the West, a small, dedicated (even if coercively so) PC-centric analogue was doing so in Korea. Further supported by government initiatives that spurred the growth of technological industry, this amorphous blob grew in the nutritious bosom of a vast, high-speed network. It began to thoroughly congeal around the time that Blizzard’s venerable RTS, StarCraft, came out. By then, the Korean gaming industry was prepped and ready to utilize it to its fullest. StarCraft, combined with the PC’s ability to network effortlessly and expansively, was able to quickly hook players through competitive gaming, turning gaming into a decidedly social endeavor. In doing so, it became a substrate for forming friendships, community, and spending quality time.  Meanwhile, in the West, consoles, with their lack of connectivity, directed development in away that maintained an individualistic bent. The industries inevitably parted their proverbial ways, and what exists today is a direct result of that.

I reiterate this point in order to get to my next point: the Koreans aren't crazy. Korean-developed games have an unshakeable stigma in the West: they are "grindy", "mindless", and ultimately boring. They are not "good games". But this is an unfair assessment. Most Korean-developed games are technologically underwhelming, yes, but they are fully playable, often well-balanced games. But their philosophy of design is different. They are a product of the culture's perception of what games are: something to do with friends. In the West, this isn'tthe prevailing notion (but that is beginning to change).

At this point, Jim's book moves in a completely different (though equally relevant) direction than the one I'm about to go in. So please, don't misinterpret these next few conclusions as having been drawn entirely from his writing.

I mentioned in my article about piracy that the ratio of games as product to games as service is shifting towards a preponderance of service. This ratio, of course, is not primarily physical. It's more a description of a metaphysical phenomenon occurring in the minds of publishers, developers, and consumers alike. But this shift isn't new. It's precisely the kind of situation that already exists: the Korean gaming scene. In Korea, gaming is viewed primarily as a service: Koreans don’t own games. Nor do they care to. In a recent email exchange I had with Jim, he succinctly summarized the thought process behind this:

“Well it's the idea of gaming as service, versus gaming as product. Korean online gaming has always been seen as a service because it sprang up in cafes with public terminals. No one owned those, so it made little sense to think of them as a product. In The West we have experienced gaming as a distinct retail model, and as such we are quite militant about owning games.”

And here is where I get to the point in this particularly lengthy analysis: the West no longer has a monopoly on gaming. “Gaming”, in its various definitions, has fallen from the iron grip of the Western world. As a result, there is a violent, growing backlash from those who were raised up in the Western tradition against many of the ideas and perspectives that they see as foreign.  There isn’t any magic behind this reaction though; as Jim put it: “People always hate what they do not understand.”

To elaborate on this point, I’d like to use Microtransactions as my platform for discussion.

James Portnow and the Extra Credits team recently aired an episode on Microtransactions and how to do them “right”. It resulted in a (relative) flurry of activity on the web, but mostly on their twitter. The issue at hand was about the method and appropriateness of implementing microtransactions in current games. Despite flaring tempers and some inflammatory remarks, some powerful insights were revealed. However, most of these insights were based on the assumption that microtransactions as a monetizing device is fully understood. I, for one, think they are not. This is evidenced by one of the primary rebuttals to the Extra Credits team’s exposition of the subject.

Microtransactions as a foundation for monetizing games is neither bad nor wrong; it is simply different.  It is based on the idea that a game is a social event or gathering, much like a bar, or club, or maybe even a bowling alley or arcade. If seen this way, I think the debate about the power, propriety, and feasibility of microtransaction-based games and gaming becomes less confused, more precise, and more palatable. To be fair, I’m not the first or only one to arrive at this comparison; Jim does so to a limited extent in his book where he writes: “It was as if the roles of our bar culture and our Internet cafés had somehow been reversed and exploded.”

While he leaves that comparison in its ethereal state, I intend to flesh it out here for the purposes of understanding microtransactions.

Picture yourself meeting up with your friends. You decide to go to a local bar for a drink and a place to hang out. This bar is a little different than “traditional” bars: the drinks are free. Well, that’s kind of an oversimplification. When you go to the bar, you know you’ll get a drink (that’s what bars are for, really). What this drink is won’t be entirely up to you. In fact sometimes you won’t even get something that’s remotely close to what you want, and sometimes you’ll get exactly what you want. What’s more, the more often you go to this bar and the more often you submit yourself to this rather arbitrary drink system, you’re given a certain amount of reputation, symbolized by the coasters you get for each drink you consume. When you’ve accumulated a certain number of coasters, you can redeem these coasters for a drink of your choice. Of course, some drinks are more costly than others. What’s more, these coasters can also be used to reserve tables or booths, dance floor space, or even request songs from the DJ. The more time you spend at this bar, the more control you earn over your experience in it. Of course, it takes a lot of time sometimes, but that’s why you go with friends, so that even if you end up doing something that’s maybe not the most ideal thing, at least you’ll have a good time being with your friends. And to be honest, you like the setting, most of the music, and many of the drinks. Every once in awhile, you’ll even nab a table or a booth and make a day of it.

Lately, you’ve been seeing a group of the same people always sitting at a table, with pretty awesome drinks, and apparently enjoying every single song that plays, as though it was picked specifically by them. You even see that the dance floor seems to open up for them all the time. It doesn’t really make sense to you, a long-time patron, that they can do this. Then you remember: this place also takes cash. And lots of it. In fact, it can pretty much operate like a regular old bar if you’re willing to just pony up some of that cash. You can buy the drinks you want, listen to the songs you want, and sit down at a table with your friends if you want, if you’re willing to pay up. This seems a bit ridiculous to you, because you’re thinking that all these things are free. They may not always be ideal, but they are free, and free is awesome. Maybe when you’re in a more financially favorable (or just feeling spendy and generous) position, you’d think about spending some cash at the bar. Until then, you’re content knowing that you’ll at least get a drink you like once in awhile, a table here and there, and listen to a few good songs along the way.

Now let’s get back to microtransactions. The bar is a typical Korean MMO game. It’s nothing extraordinary, but it is something to do with friends when you feel like hanging out, but don’t really like going to a bar or a club or somewhere where you don’t have access to computers. In this game, you do repetitive actions to accumulate small amounts of in-game currency which can eventually be redeemed for convenience, content, or in some cases, power.  Everything you do in the game is a constant reminder of this possibility though: Where did you get that sword? Off this boss at the end of the game. Or you can pay $1 to use it for one day. Cool, cool. Wow! Hey how come you can fly? I found these boots. No, wait, I paid like $3 for them. That’s nice.  What the heck? How come you’re leveling so fast? I’ve been playing like nonstop for 3 days! Well, no, I paid $2 for a 500% exp boost. Awesome.

Maybe I should get that for myself, or maybe my friend here who just started.

You know what, that’s a great idea.

This is the fundamental difference between Western-developed games and Korean online gaming. The problem with analyzing the current state of microtransaction gaming in the West is that developers here are still awkwardly straddling these two disparate models. And this is what Extra Credits is actually saying: Get off the fence, guys. The current retail model in the West is perfect for tight, focused, singleplayer experiences. But this isn’t the right way to approach an F2P monetization model. The microtransaction model is not about a single person’s experience, but about that person’s experience in the context of other people’s experiences. When a western-developed game utilizes microtransactions, they often miss the point of them, neutering them of their context. This is the result we have now. Microtransactions are not primarily about greed, though they can be used in that way (just like anything else). They were formed out of a cultural environment that forced developers and economists alike to formulate a model that would foster the growth of the playerbase and maintain the game in its form in perpetuity. In other words, Korean MMOs are handled more like small businesses than they are like single products.

As of now, the West is still trying its darndest to maintain its hold on the perception of gaming: that it is epic, experiential, focused, entertaining, and worth the price of admission. The problem is that now the balance of power is shifting and this perception can no longer keep up with the changes. It’s a mad dash of Hungry, Hungry Hippo-esque panic, creating lots of confusion, distraction, and dissatisfaction among many of people who have long enjoyed this hobby in a particular way. I’m not saying that this shift will inevitably end us up on the other extreme, but as we approach this fulcrum between the idea of games as products and games as service, it will take tremendous effort on the part of the industry to clarify and demonstrate that they are fully divested of their old ways and prepared to step into the new. And it will take even more of that effort on the part of the community to begin to welcome these new ideas and the gamers they bring along with them.

I believe we can do it. And I believe that if we don’t, not only will gaming as we know it still change; those of us unable to accept it will be left out. And I really hope that doesn’t happen.

Here’s to hoping.