Part Eight: Future Past
Seven months ago when I started writing this column, I suspected the things I would be talking about were mostly wishful thinking. The idea that an increasingly entrenched game industry would see value in connecting casual, social or mobile gamers to their blockbuster AAA titles through meaningful gameplay seemed likely to fall by the wayside in favour of more aggressive exploitation of insidiously monetized shovel ware. How could developers – constantly understaffed and struggling to make every deadline – ever find the time to build a Facebook or iPhone game that would meaningfully link casual players to their fifty million dollar Christmas release if they couldn't find the time to make their Beta?
The World of Warcraft Armoury has been around for quite a while, but let’s face it: Blizzard can afford to put a man on the moon if they want, so they’re not much of a model for the rest. Various Spore browser apps allow you to look at the Sporepedia on a mobile device, but these offer no gameplay, and aren’t even built by EA. The best that the year’s biggest releases could muster – like Modern Warfare 2 – were fan made game guides and various utilities for mobile devices that allowed you to find Intel Drops, know what Perks and Kill Streak Rewards were coming and read some map strategies. None of these things were meaningfully linking different groups of players to a single unified experience.
I wasn't my only non-believer, either. I received plenty of emails skeptical of the idea that some 40 year old executive might want to manage a crime family from his Android phone, and in doing, drive a component of the open world urban crime game his son was playing. More openly hostile emails condemned me for selling out to the marketing vampires I identified in the intro for suggesting we could do everything I was suggesting profitably, while others accused me of undermining the ultimate goal of building the perfect immersive simulation of everything.
But while my pipe-dreams and prognostications may remain heretical for some, they might also end up coming true. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – developed by my esteemed former co-workers – has done a fantastic job of opening the door for a huge audience of casual and social gamers to peer into the amazing world of Renaissance Italy and the life of Ezio. I had no idea AC: Legacy was being developed, but it achieves many of the things I suggested months ago (and in many ways better than I imagined – which is no surprise knowing who was involved). This is an important first step toward the future that I’m talking about because it challenges the notion that the kinds of fantasies gamers are interested in are inaccessible to a broad audience. We may have always suspected that the fantasy of Assassin’s Creed had a broad appeal beyond the existing audience of a few million hardcore gamers – but we couldn’t prove it. Now we can. Now we will be able to measure the appeal of that fantasy to a real audience.
Dust 514 – though still in development – openly attempts to link two of the most hardcore audiences of gamers out there: competitive online FPS players and dedicated PvP MMO players. While the potential scope of this intramedia link is smaller than that which would connect Assassin’s Creed on console to Facebook gamers, the data will be just as interesting and important. Will an audience of ‘me first’ shooter players accept the cascade of consequences that emerge from the proposed design? Will they – for example – willingly engage in a battle they can’t win to achieve the strategic goal of a group of players in EVE? Will EVE players be willing to leave their best laid invasion plans in the hands of a bunch of bickering fourteen year-olds with hyper-conductive nervous systems? Is the patience and ruthless plotting of the EVE community compatible with the twitchy thirst for chaos of an FPS community?
And perhaps the most important question raised by these games is whether or not the connection between different audiences will act as a gateway between the games. Will people who have never played a console game give Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood a chance if they are invested in Legacy? Will ageing shooter fans invested in Dust 514 decide to give EVE a try as their reflexes fail them and they fall under the curve?
Before this article ever sees print we'll have answers to these and other questions, and developers will already be hard at work on a second wave of games that strive to do even more than I imagined. As William Gibson once said, "the future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed yet."