Devil’s Advocate

Not all hobbies are meant to be professional events. Competitive cross-stitch just doesn’t have the same mass appeal as a good hockey match. Professional hockey is entertaining to me because it’s difficult to organize a pick-up game of hockey. Few people own the requisite equipment and possess the skills necessary to make up two well-matched teams. With the advent of online multiplayer, competitive video game matches are phenomenally easier to organize. I can start a match whenever I want.

Major League Gaming, like any other professional league, schedules its events for certain places and times. If I can play a good match of Halo 2 from my couch at 2:00 AM, what reason is there for me to travel to Charlotte, North Carolina and compete against people in the same room when online multiplayer works just as well and is more convenient?

Major League Gaming is hoping that the possibility of prize money and the chance to be known by a ridiculous name like Fatal1ty will be enough to entice willing participants to try to turn their hobby of choice into a money-maker, sucking all the fun out of it along the way.

Is the world ready for Major League Gaming? Maybe. We’re willing to watch other people play baseball, football, hockey, tennis, and golf. Hell, I can watch the miniature golf championship, lumberjack competitions, and giant men pulling fire trucks with their tree-like legs if I have enough variations of ESPN. If South Korea is any indication, there’s a market to be exploited in televised gaming.

The question, then, is not whether Major League Gaming could be successful, but what must be done to make it so? The G4 television network, devil’s work that it is, is an object lesson in how to televise gaming incorrectly. Arena, aside from taking screen time away from such shows as Call for Help and The Screen Savers, failed to excite viewers. It’s just not fun to watch teams of gamers with stupid names rack up the frags in a game of SOCOM 2. There’s a good reason, too. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to actually see everything that’s going on during a match. From my perch in the cheap seats of Wrigley Field I can see both teams and their performances. In a split-screen game, even a one-on-one split-screen game, I can see either, or sometimes both, participant’s point of view, but there aren’t seats. There isn’t a single vantage from which the game can be viewed as a true spectator. Where does the audience sit?

When watching a Street Fighter Alpha 3 match, the audience sits in the same place the combatants do, and all people can watch the match as it unfolds. Nothing is hidden. If Ryu unleashes a hadoken, I won’t miss it because I was viewing the match through Cammy’s eyes, but when I’m watching that SOCOM 2 match, my impressions of the fight are colored by my position.

Viewing position is only one of the obstacles that Major League Gaming will have to overcome if it’s going to be successful. Other stumbling blocks are certain to exist. Two that I can think of are these: why would I watch somebody play a game when I could be doing so myself, and will anybody look up to professional gamers in the way they do sports figures?

Video games separated themselves from books and movies through their interactivity. A narrative is more gripping when you’re in control of the main character’s actions. MLG is going to need to give us a new reason to be interested in the struggle between multiple Spartans of varying colors. The struggle of one gamer to win a pile of cash just isn’t going to cut it. I’d rather start up a game of Halo 2 on my own Xbox in my own living room and defeat Spartans myself. To be certain, TSA’s speed runs of various Legend of Zelda games are entertaining, but I’d never pay to view them, and I only watch them when I can’t save monkeys in Twilight Princess‘s Forest Temple myself. I’m sorry Fatal1ty. You may kick ass at gaming, but I don’t think I’ll ever replace my posters of Michael Jordan and Troy Aikman with Fatal1ty and D34thF4rt.

All these things aside, I don’t want to see Major League Gaming succeed. The video games industry is already a money maker. Its niches have been found, and those niches are interactive storytelling and personal competition. Major League Gaming offers exactly zero of those things. Gaming is viewed as dorky enough. Don’t turn it into the next professional wrestling. The fewer idiots on my television using corny pseudonyms and trash-talking one another, the better. We’ve already got enough idiots, thanks.

Think, if you will, of the traditional treadmill. Walk, jog, or run all you want and at the end of your journey end up exactly where you started. If you happen to enjoy treadmills, you’ll be happy with yourself for burning a few calories or running a mille in three seconds less than it took yesterday, but the long and the short of it is that for 30 minutes you ran nowhere and all you have to show for it is an interesting aroma and a sweaty t-shirt.

Most JRPGs – their battle system, at least – are the exact same way. Beat the same monsters in the head for an hour just to gain a level. There’s no reason why my attacks should get stronger. If the standard RPG story is to be believed, these stories take place over a short period of time, usually only a matter of days. Why then, does my gun-toting sky pirate go from barely scratching a bat to being able to take down a large group of skeleton mages single-handedly? Those bullets that barely scratch bats found in the introductory area should do even less damage to a high-level enemy or boss.

But without levels, how will the player progress through the game? From what will the player gain a sense of accomplishment? How will he know that he’s doing well?

In a perfect world, all these things would be taken care of through the story segments. It doesn’t matter what level that sword-carrying meathead is if the plan worked and all the rebels were successfully evacuated from the prison. Nobody cares what your wisdom score is if the spell worked and the goblin fell over dead, and unless the end-boss is keeping score it doesn’t matter if that dungeon-boss died while you had 1 HP left or 1,000. He’s dead and you’re standing there victorious. As long as the story progresses, then the game is going well.

Instead of making my gun/axe/bow/whatever better just because I’ve been using it, make it a big deal when I find a better one. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, although not an RPG, did this wonderfully. It was a major event when the prince found a new and better sword. Take another cue from the Sands of Time trilogy while we’re at it. Make me earn my abilities. Send me to the training fields, introduce me to an NPC that can teach me the whirlwind attack, or make these things skill-based rewards. It means something to me when I have 24 hearts in a Zelda game because I earned them. When I’m level 99 in FFXII, it means that I bought a golden amulet and farmed the right monsters for XP for a long enough time.

As to my third point, I’m not certain that the player should know that he’s doing well. Sure, the story progressed, but until the game is over, things should still be fairly crappy for the citizens of random fantasy world. Sure, throw me a new item or a cutscene to show me that I’ve advanced the story, but I don’t deserve to know that everything is peachy keen when there are three more planets to travel to, six more bosses to take down, and a princess to save.

There are plenty of games out there that do this correctly, but it’s a rare occurrence when an RPG is different enough to not feel like the same old fetch quest followed by some leveling up and capped off by my character learning new abilities for no real reason. Recently, Contact managed to allow the player character to grow without needing a level-up screen. Terry, unless you renamed him something different, simply got better at things as he did them, and it made sense. Somebody will get better at running as they continue to run, and a person with no experience handling a sword will develop those skills as he becomes more familiar with the weapon. This only works for so long, and it wouldn’t really apply to an already-expert swordsman, but the loss of the level-up screen is a welcome one.

Give me more RPGs that act like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid if you want me to keep playing them. The same weapons that worked wonders for me at the beginning of the game shouldn’t be instilling feat in anybody at the end. Make me find a plasma beam or a Master Sword. Let me continue using my cruddy old weapons if I so choose, but don’t expect me to believe that the same handgun that worked well on unarmored gang members will also inflict massive damage on a commando wearing kevlar.

As much as I’d love to see RPG developers make me earn new abilities and quit improving my weapons for me, the problem is much more deep-rooted. Play time has become a feature. This is the trend that needs to stop. It doesn’t matter if a game lasts for 50 hours if it isn’t any fun. If you can tell me an epic story with good character development and make me care about the world I’m saving in 10 hours, then that’s a success. Length is not indicative of quality, and when we finally realize that, maybe I can quit collecting running from one side of the world to the other. The characters tell me it’s because Micah over there really needs that MacGuffin, but if you listen closely you can hear a game developer saying that it’s really because that part of the game takes two hours, and those two hours get us that much closer to the target game length of fifty hours.

Stop it, developers. Make your RPGs fun, not just long.