The Fatal Flaw of War (Games)

I am spending much too much time playing online games. It's getting to be a problem: not only am I putting off replying to my email, I've got a stack of taped TV shows I haven't watched yet!

This all started a few weeks ago when an old friend from Montréal (who now lives in the States) agreed that we should find something to do together. Since Toronto is hardly next door to Boston, we figured this meant something to do with the net. We'd already had some fun playing Starcraft, in which we coordinated our activities using a novel voice link called a telephone. (We've since switched to Windows Messenger.)

This month, I returned to a game called "Shattered Galaxy", which is a battle game. Heck, let me jump ahead a bit and say that they're all battle games. War lends itself well to gaming because it's easy to keep score: just count bodies. (I sometimes think that war is popular simply because it's easy to figure out who's best at it. It's much harder to figure out who's got a Black Belt in peace-keeping.)

Anyway, SG is fun, in its own way, but my friend James had played it before (as had I) and we eventually concluded that it had the Fatal Flaw (of which I will speak later).

We later tried out Battlefield 1942 but I discovered that my formerly hot-stuff 650 MHz computer was now rated just above the "minimal requirements". I tried it anyway and due to a graphics incompatbility ended up playing a neon-blue soldier in a land with black sea and sky. I upgraded to a much better machine and regained my normal skin pigmentation. (Water and air also reverted to their normal colours.) BF1942 is a good game, though in a way it made me uncomfortable because it was bereft of the fantasy element. It actually gave me a few bad dreams at night. This is a shame, because BF1942 is one of the few battle games that does not appear to have the Fatal Flaw.

By this time James had gone back to playing Anarchy Online. I'd played it about a year earlier but it was so overloaded with users that it sometimes took me five minutes just to turn around. This problem was solved in an interesting way: people left in droves until the servers had the kinds of numbers they could handle. Not very profitable for the company, alas.

AO also has the Fatal Flaw, and so I don't think I'm going to renew my subscription. Before I explain the FF (sorry about all these acronyms), I should mention that for a lark I downloaded the game Unreal Tournament 2003. This has got to be the most visually impressive game I've ever deleted from my hard drive after 30 minutes. With a good graphics card, it truly is stunning to look at. However, it is a "twitch" game, which means that players careen around like the Roadrunner being chased by Wile E. Coyote on rocket skates, despite the fact that they're loaded down with assorted bazookas, rifles, grenades and other instruments of being mean. Kids (who have lightning-quick reaction time and better hand-eye coordination that I do) love this kind of thing, but when I play I die faster than a mayfly with a death wish. I also suspect that UT2003 has the Fatal Flaw.

Here's the Fatal Flaw for many of these battle games: as you progress, you gain in "levels". This gives you better equipment. In order to ensure that you don't increase your level exponentially, you're penalized in some way. For example, if you nuke a newbie, you get maybe one point of "experience", even though you need fourteen bazillion to get to the next level.

I won't go into the details of how "levelling" works in these games because online gamers already know about it, and non-gamers are probably wishing I'd just get to the point. So here it is...

With few exceptions, these battle games are extremely complicated ways of adding "one" to a number. The bigger the number gets, the longer it takes to add "one" to it. The rating is usually called something like "Experience Points", but whereas we've all been taught that "Experience is the best teacher", this isn't really the case here. Basically, the Fatal Flaw implies that whoever plays the game slavishly every day for five years will be on top.

On pay systems especially, it often has to be this way, because nobody who's forking over cash wants to see his or her efforts go down the tubes because one of the enemy got in a lucky shot. That is to say, for economic reasons the games have to be skewed to rewarding those who play more (i.e. pay more) with higher levels. (This is known as "game balance".)

Two games that avoid this Fatal Flaw to some extent are Battlefield 1942 and Pyroto Mountain. The former does it by having the users run the servers, so once you've bought the game, their obligation to you is covered – there's no need to guarantee that people who play more often get ahead. This has let them design a gaming system where people can actually acquire true skill rather than just incrementing a silly number.

Pyroto Mountain runs its own server, but it's run on a donation basis, so people are less compelled to whine if a high-level player puts them six feet under. I won't go into too much detail about this system though, because I was the designer and anything I say would be biased. Maybe one day I'll write something about it and label the article with appropriate warnings and disclaimers.

I still have two days left to play Anarchy Online. I can add "one" to that number (my player level) and encounter some bigger and badder monsters that will mock my new eminence. That will, of course, annoy me so that I'll want to add "one" again. But not quite enough that I'm likely to pay another $19.95 for another month.

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