Guest Article: Your Social Network Sucks

Morgon Kanter writes about an irritating new trend in game design.

The first time I ever played an MMORPG online was in 1996. It was called Medievia, and it was back in the days when “MMOs” were really just called “MUDs”, short for Multi-User Dungeons (anyone remember those?). The first time I ever played a video game online was in 1999. I was 11 years old, and I had just gotten my hands on a shiny new copy of Unreal Tournament. For those of you not old enough to remember, Unreal Tournament was, at that point, considered to be the greatest multiplayer shooter ever made. It even managed to accomplish this when most of the world was still playing it on dial-up.

Unreal Tournament, in all its account-free glory

Medievia was the first and last time I ever felt it necessary to make an account for a game. It was natural, really: it’s a persistent world where you’re expected to log in and continue where you last left off. Medievia was even a little unusual about that when compared to other MUDs, because you didn’t lose your equipment when you logged off. Unreal Tournament did not require me to sign up for account. I don’t even think the developers had conceived of the notion of requiring dial-up users to log in to their weak, easily-DDoSed servers in West Nowhereville before playing the greatest multiplayer game ever made. If one of them did, I have this little fantasy in my head wherein said person walked into CliffyB’s office and brought it up to him: “So, CliffyB, do you think we should make everybody sign up for an account and log in to play multiplayer?” To this, CliffyB would dutifully reply: “That’s the most fucking retarded thing I’ve ever heard.”

Fast forward a bit under a decade, and the most fucking retarded thing that my fantasy CliffyB has ever heard has gained some traction. I don’t really know where this idea started, though I have a few ideas: Xbox Live for the original Xbox, and Steam. On both places it makes sense: the former because you had to pay for it so of course you had to log in to play, and the latter because all the games you bought ended up tied to the account so of course you had to log in to play. But wait! Now the concept has expanded…to individual games? Now I need to log in somewhere to play multiplayer on a PC game, where I don’t have to pay for the privilege? This isn’t like Steam, where you log in when your computer boots up to access your games — all your games. Now I’m expected to launch an individual game, then fill in a username and password in order to get online and shoot people.

UT3, on the other hand, demands you make an account.

My first brush with this terrible idea came, rather ironically, with Unreal Tournament 3, where after booting the game up I was expected to do these foreign actions like “create an account” and “log in” in order to play with other people online. I don’t see why this is necessary — it wasn’t necessary in Unreal Tournament, or Unreal Tournament 2004. (The realistic answer is probably “it’s not necessary, but they want to see and control who is playing their game” or in industry-speak “preventing piracy.”) Part of me is glad that that game did so terribly for that reason; I absolutely cannot stand having to sign up for an account to play a game I already paid for. It’s even worse now that the game is on Steam, where first you download it to your Steam account and then once you launch the game you have to make another separate account. WTF, man? Could you imagine if you had to do that for every game you own? But wait, you say, that’s just for multiplayer. UT3 is a multiplayer game, so making an account is okay, right? What about single player? Funny you should mention that…

Turns out that requiring accounts for single-player games is also gaining traction. Dragon Age: Origins with its “social network” is a well-known example (required for the DLC), and anything made by Ubisoft now gets a special mention for the doubly asinine requirement of remaining online while you are playing even though it’s a single player game! Now, Ubisoft is absolutely terrible, and there is absolutely no redeeming feature in that model. But the thing with Dragon Age: Origins, that doesn’t have to be so bad. But there is just one thing…and it’s the same thing that bugged me so much about UT3. How many people bought Dragon Age over Steam? Given how it was in the best-sellers list for a while, I’m willing to bet the answer to that question is “a lot”. Now, with Steam, I am already signed up for an account. I signed up for this account the first time I bought games with Steam. This account is used for multiplayer in a number of Steam-based games (not just games published by Valve). Does it seem a little annoying to anyone else to have to sign up for *another* account, solely for Dragon Age, just for the DLC? Couldn’t they have just used my damn Steam settings?!

All things considered, Dragon Age is pretty tame. I don’t care about their stupid “social network”, but at least it doesn’t require me to run the Games for Windows Live client to play the game, which some games on Steam do require. That makes even less sense to me — I bought the game on Steam. STEAM. Why do I have to download and run ANOTHER stupid client just to play the fucking game?

Really, Bioware? You want me to blog about my DA experiences on your social network?

This deal with creating new accounts to play games (multiplayer or otherwise) is getting out of hand. I recently bought a pack of indie games on Steam. I generally expect indie games to be free of the nonsense and general stupidity over these meta-gaming issues that plague larger development and publishing houses. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that I had to sign up for accounts — separately — for two of these games. I see no reason to not name and shame, so let’s do that: Altitude, and Galcon Fusion. Seriously guys, what were you thinking? I have over eighty games in my Steam account. Just think of what that would be like if I had to sign up for a separate account for every one of these. Think about that for a minute, developers. Can you start to see the problem?

I’m not entirely uncharitable here. I can understand why even small game studios would want people to have accounts for stat tracking or other sorts of persistent information (or “fighting piracy”). But making me sign up for another account when I bought your game over Steam is inexcusable. If you want to handle your own accounts, you need to come up with a way to make the Steam account details automatically transfer over. I actually brought this up to the developers of Altitude, to which they replied that they couldn’t because of privacy issues. That’s a good joke, guys. Privacy issues. As if I’m not going to go sign up for an account so I can play the game I just bought. Make it transfer! Bother Valve until they make some API calls to support it, if Steam doesn’t already! It’s not impossible. It’s not even that hard. So do it already. Stop dodging the issue or issuing these weak mea culpas, because I don’t want to have to make and remember separate accounts for all 83 of my Steam games.

Galcon Fusion is good times, some of the time

The gulf between multiplayer and singleplayer Galcon is like the gulf between an adorable puppy and a dead puppy that is already rotting.

Actually, that’s very unfair. But there is a huge divide. In my opinion, this iPhone-game-turned-PC-clickyfest is practically only worth playing on multiplayer. Multiplayer, particularly the team multiplayer, is a strategy-rich experience; the singleplayer is a dull, brief, staccato process that seems particularly ill-suited to the PC. I’ve heard good things about it on the iPhone, but when you’re playing thirty-second strategy games in your hand, while, as one reviewer put it, brushing your teeth, that’s a very different experience from hunching in front of your computer while the whole screen fills with robot strategy triangles. It’s simply not interesting enough to deserve all that space in front of your face.

Somebody got owned. By triangles.

Because that’s what this game is all about: circles and triangles. Lean, lean visuals. Admirable depth evolving out of a very slight, pared-down set of mechanics. And the developers tried to give this PC version some more totally unneeded complexity by including a seething mess of ill-explained singleplayer game modes that seem to have no reason for existing. And then there’s the AI. It comes in ten levels, some or most of which I could not actually tell apart from one another while playing. So, make of that what you will. This is a game which deserved more than to be weighted down with a million irrelevancies.

This is mainly because the multiplayer is so fantastic. I played multiplayer once last week—during finals week at my college—for over three hours straight. And it did not feel like a waste of time.

See, Galcon multiplayer is is more explicitly a kind of communication than it is in any other strategy game I’ve tried, simply because it’s so stripped down. The units are triangles; they point where they’re going. More triangles means more troops. No triangles means a player’s turtling. Everything that happens is right there on the table, ready for players to draw their own conclusions from. The pull and play of triangles is like a conversation between opponents.

The result is an incredible range of strategy—incredible, really, for a game with only one kind of troop, one kind of command, and automated unit production. By manipulating your troop output, you can trick enemies into thinking you have more or less troops than you actually do; by changing your troops’ direction mid-flight,y ou can pull off some impressive feints. And because your enemies here are people, not AI, the kind of strategy and trickery you can pull off is so much broader, so much more satisfying. There are such a diversity of viable strategies that by the time you’ve grasped the basic mechanics you’ve probably developed a distinctly personal play-style. And these styles stick out. The game is so slight in visuals that player behavior takes the absolute center stage. Other players in your game will know you by your favorite tricks. And you’ll know them by theirs. And team multiplayer is even more glorious—those games are all about wordless cooperation, about games turning on a dime, about perpetrating a fantastic kind of human chaos. It’s something that simply isn’t possible in the singleplayer.

So, the game has terrible music, unimpressive graphics, and a singleplayer mode that struck me as a waste of time. But it has a multiplayer that, out of a few bare-bones elements, inspires a pretty-much endless strategy experience. This is some really tight design. I am incredibly impressed with it. What I’m not impressed with, though, is the fact that the multiplayer servers go absolutely cold during much of the day, which makes it impossible for me to enjoy the one aspect of the game that I actually adore.

Actually, this is what the game looks like most of the time. A bit more placid, I'd say.

I got the game for two bucks as part of an indie bundle; knowing what I know now about the singleplayer and the multiplayer server situation, I’m not sure I would have bought the full ten dollar game just by itself. At any rate, there’s a free demo on Steam. I’d certainly recommend that, but since I bought the game already I don’t even know if that demo has multiplayer in it. I hope it does—this game certainly wants to show potential customers the best it has to offer, not the worst.

Wondered where we were all last week? We were doing finals. It was kind of a bitch. But we’re back now, and you’ll be seeing some interesting stuff soon!

Also, we are going to PAX East. More about that later.

ALSO ALSO, Galcon, regular iPhone Galcon, won the Innovation in Mobile Game Design award at the IGF last year. Here’s the dev’s– Phil Hassey’s–website.

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