Make Way For Us Lowly Gamers

Bow_Before_Your_King_by_MalindachanThe always-entertaining Richard Bartle has stirred up the blogosphere yet again, with an incredibly odd article praising World of Warcraft’s Strangethorn Valley’s design from his learned experience as a game dev.  I say “odd”, because he’s just so, so effusive in his praise over what many gamers saw as one of the more annoying zones in the game (moreso if you were on a PvP server).  Plus, this is one of the oldest zones in the game, present at WoW’s launch in 2004 — to see someone get overly excited about its design is like meeting a friend who wants to tell you about this awesome movie he rented about this guy who learned “The Force” and attacked a “Death Star”.  It’s not just old, it’s archaeological.

I never liked STV one bit, well-designed though it may be — the landscape was cluttered, the quests extraordinarily boring, and the theme of the zone lacking.  Leveling guides would all but apologize for sending me back in there to grind out quests for a couple more levels, because it’s the zone that really never ends — you end up visiting it, particularly on Alliance, for the better part of 12 levels.  Back in the day before Blizzard goose-greased 1-60 leveling, that was a significant portion of my time that I spent squinting past palm trees and getting molested by giant gorillas.

But my thoughts on STV isn’t why I wanted to tack on a few comments before this “story” ran its course — it’s Bartle’s attitude toward us lowly gamers that made me laugh in disbelief:

There are maybe 20 people in the world right now to whom this makes the kind of sense it makes to me, few of whom read QBlog, but hopefully it’s not going to be entirely nonsense to the rest of you… As a designer myself, I can read some of those symbols and divine some of the meaning. I can’t not do it. I see all this going on the whole time I play.  See why I say I can’t play like a player?

Now, Bartle’s special viewpoint on MMOs vs. our own is not the central point of the article, but that attitude is one he’s expressed before and I find particularly irksome.  It’s a variation on the “I’m an expert in the field of X, therefore you shall never be able to fully comprehend and appreciate these things in such a magnificent way that I can, so don’t bother to try.”  I’ve seen this in a multitude of professions, and it never ceases to be off-putting and arrogant.

It’s when a doctor dismisses your own thoughts about a particular problem you’re having with your body, because he’s the expert and you’re not — even if you have your own insights and are not entirely dumb.  Or when a film critic looks down at theatergoers and sniffs that because they do not fully comprehend all of the elements of filmmaking, they are less worthy to judge what is a great movie or not.  Being experienced in a field does give you advantages and some degree of weight as to your opinions, but it doesn’t make you better, nor does it invalidate non-expert opinions.

I, unlike Richard Bartle, am not a game designer or developer or programmer.  I have played MMOs since 2002, video games since 1981, and have spent a chunk of my life thinking up interesting game concepts (and even programming some of them back when I was a teen), but I would never paint myself as experienced as he is on the subject.  But it doesn’t mean I’m an idiot when it comes to “seeing behind the curtain” as to how games are created, zones designed and how I as a player am being manipulated to do this or that.  I think he discredits MMO gamers, who tend to spend a LOT of time thinking about their games and, in many cases, studying the underlining mechanics and design of it all.

I also don’t understand this repeated motif he has of being unable to play games as, I guess, the rest of us do.  I suppose that some experts become unable to view anything related to their field without breaking it down and analysing it, but that’s not my experience.  I’m a minister, and I spend gobs of time understanding scripture, preparing messages, studying commentaries and translations, and so on.  But that doesn’t mean that when I’m in church in the pews, I’m unable to be ministered to without going into an in-depth analysis of how the pastor prepared his sermon, what commentaries he drew off of, if he interpreted the Greek properly and so on.  I can let that stuff go, for the most part, and appreciate what is for what it is.

Same with being a writer or a film critic — I can enjoy movies and novels without analysing them (although sometimes it is educational to do so, and there is another level of enjoyment to be derived — it’s just not an automatic thing), even though I’ve been writing, reading, and studying film theory for years.

I guess I just find it weird and slightly condescending that he continues to beat that drum, because I don’t think all devs and designers are like that.  Look at production videos and podcasts of MMOs; listen to the devs talk — they love games.  They play lots of them, and not just from the analytical perspective of a designer, but from the perspective of a gamer who wants to enjoy the game for what it is without looking at the framework supporting it.  One of the best parts about being an expert in a field is that you have the freedom to enjoy something from multiple viewpoints, instead of just a default — and if you can’t switch between them at will, that’s kind of sad.

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18 thoughts on “Make Way For Us Lowly Gamers

  1. I’ve been a bouncer and worked in bars 15 years of my life, so you can’t enjoy a beer the same way I can.

    Bartle’s logic is so flawed it borders on insane.

    For the record, STV sucked! The leveling range of that zone was ridiculous, and if you were on a PvP server…forget about it.

  2. Great post! More thoughtful and eloquent than my own rather less charitable views on the subject.

  3. He is sometimes a bit weird and has an odd style for an academic. Some go so far to say he is overrated and was talking the same crap he said more than 10 years ago for ages by now.

    I want to disagree, but I still say, you do not necessarily have to believe everything that Bartle tells you.

    I am also puzzled that he cannot play a game without analyzing it.

    I can play AND analyze, as well as reading books, enjoying them and analyzing them at the same time. I write book reviews regularly.

    I think he is right that Stranglethorn is a NICE zone, not only from a design standpoint.

    CONFESS – you hate it just because you had to fight your own faction over the quest drops AND the Horde due to the nature of the zone that makes clashes unavoidable.
    Plus you maybe really bothered to do the “Green Hills” ultra silly quest during the level up phase.

  4. I don’t think STV was amazing but it was fairly entertaining due to its danger-factor when I played through it on a PvP server. That said, you’re totally right… about wondering why the bloody hell we’re actually talking about STV in 2009! :P

  5. IMO Bartle has been riding his “Bartle Test” fame (which wasn’t even all that unique, he just repurposed Meyers-Briggs or any of a number of ‘personality break down’ tests) for far too long now.

    Every time I read something he’s said, he seems out of touch and condescending.

  6. I read the article… and I guess I DO see what he’s talking about as far as STV being “a piece of art”… although as with anything, opinions of “art” are in the eye of the beholder. I hated STV because I was there for waaay too long, and I detest trolls. If I had been on a PvP server, I probably would’ve liked it even less. I did however, enjoy the Hemet Nesingwary quests, just because that hub operates a little differently than a normal quest hub.

    Bartle’s tone, however IS quite condescending… I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but the way he phrases things comes across almost abrasive. I understand that when you’ve done something for a living, you begin to see things differently, but rubbing it in the faces of others isn’t cool.

    And the “Green Hills” quest is a foul, foul, blight upon the face of Classic WoW.

  7. The funny thing is I really liked Stranglethorne Vale and for all the reasons RB has pointed out. Mind you I never got around to alts in WOW so I only ran through it once on an Alliance Hunter. I loved stumbling into the zone and following my way down the trail. I loved the linearly increasing mob difficulty – always tempting you to test your luck just a bit further down the path. I felt a huge sense of achievement when I finally got to that Pirate town whose name I can’t remember at the end of the path. I even liked Nessignwary’s interminable sequence of kill ten x quests. I could have lived without “the Green Hills ” but a trip to the auction house sorted that out pretty quickly. I wonder how much of the loathing people have about the place stems from having to redo it over and over again with alts.

  8. STV was fun the first time I did it, then every time after that I despised it… off to read all the back and forth about it.

  9. >I say “odd”, because he’s just so, so effusive in his praise over what many gamers saw as one of the more annoying zones in the game

    I’m effusing over that one quest group, its set-up, and its part in the greater quest structure. I’m not effusing over STV in general.

    >to see someone get overly excited about its design is like meeting a friend who wants to tell you about this awesome movie he rented about this guy who learned “The Force” and attacked a “Death Star”.

    Well don’t read my blog if you don’t like it.

    What’s that? You don’t read my blog? So what are you complaining about?

    I explained quite clearly at the beginning of that post what it was about. It’s about MMOs as an art form. Basically, I got sick and tired of people telling me that they didn’t think MMOs can be art, so I wanted to show how they were art. I had to do so in a way that would be easy to explain, accessible, and made points that wouldn’t need to much explanation to an intelligent non-gamer. I chose that quest in STV because it fitted the bill. I had plenty of choice, but that one worked.

    As for the ancientness of it, if someone were to say that paintings weren’t art then I doubt that the examples most people would select to show they were art would have been painted this century. It doesn’t have to be state-of-the-art to be art.

    >I never liked STV one bit, well-designed though it may be

    I didn’t say anywhere that you would like it. I was talking about the art inherent in the design of that set of quests. I don’t like cubist paintings; that doesn’t mean I don’t accept that they’re art.

    If you didn’t like STV, OK, fair enough. I can tell you, though, that if it hadn’t been designed as well as it was, you would have disliked it a whole lot more.

    >it’s Bartle’s attitude toward us lowly gamers that made me laugh in disbelief:

    Yet even though you disbelieve it, you’re prepared to make judgments based on what it said. Did it not occur to you that the reason it was unbelievable was because you might, perhaps, have misinterpreted what I was saying?

    >Now, Bartle’s special viewpoint on MMOs vs. our own is not the central point of the article, but that attitude is one he’s expressed before and I find particularly irksome.

    It’s not an attitude, it’s a torment! You think I LIKE not being able to play as a player? You think I ENJOY it? I’m missing out on some wondrous experiences, and you think I’m lording it over you because of this?

    (Broken laughter)

    If only you knew… Only, you don’t know. And when I tell you, you don’t understand, and take it as my being arrogant.

    >It’s a variation on the “I’m an expert in the field of X, therefore you shall never be able to fully comprehend and appreciate these things in such a magnificent way that I can, so don’t bother to try.”

    No it’s not. It’s a variation on the “I used to think tic-tac-toe was fun until I grokked it and now I don’t, and the same thing happened with MMOs, and it’s going to happen to you, so enjoy them while you can”.

    I wrote that opening to explain why what I was about to write might look a lot like nonsense.

    >Being experienced in a field does give you advantages and some degree of weight as to your opinions, but it doesn’t make you better, nor does it invalidate non-expert opinions.

    And where do I say anywhere that it does? Do I say that my view is better, or that I am better? Or that your view is invalid? No, it doesn’t – so please stop acting as if it does!

    Look, I can’t help it if I see MMOs this way. I can’t help it if you don’t. All I was trying to do was to present a demonstration that MMO design is art, because I am annoyed with the disdain with which they are held by people who profess to study the arts. I’m sorry if you think that in so doing I somehow impugned you as a player.

    I will point out, though, that if you thought my post was about effusive praise for STV, then what I wrote did indeed not make the same kind of sense to you as it made to me.

    >But it doesn’t mean I’m an idiot when it comes to “seeing behind the curtain” as to how games are created, zones designed and how I as a player am being manipulated to do this or that.

    OK, so … you’ve written some analyses of the art of quest design yourself? Forgive me for not knowing, I only found your blog via Google blog search. Could you point to an article you’ve written on the subject, perhaps?

    If you haven’t done this kind of analysis, OK, I’m calling you out: write one. Go on, choose any quest from WoW and explain what it’s saying. You say you can see behind the curtain: show us. I want the art, not the craft.

    I don’t intend to seem arrogant or mean here, although I’m sure that won’t make any difference to how what I just asked is interpreted. I’m pushing because I want to encourage people to think of MMOs as art, not as low culture. If you can write Lit Crit style analysis – and I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to – then I’ll have something else I can point to when some jerk tells me that MMOs aren’t art because they’re all about killing things.

    >I also don’t understand this repeated motif he has of being unable to play games as, I guess, the rest of us do.

    Lucky you.

    The fact is, I can’t. I mentioned it in that posting because I was hoping it might help people understand why I can’t. However, it only seems to have been picked up as some kind of call sign. I guess I failed to explain it yet again (sigh).

    >I suppose that some experts become unable to view anything related to their field without breaking it down and analysing it, but that’s not my experience.

    Then you are more fortunate than I am.

    I’m not the only person for whom this is true, by the way. It happens often enough that Raph Koster mentions it in his book (he calls it “designeritis”). I’m not trying to make out that I’m in some way special or anything, I’m just trying to explain my predicament.

    >I can let that stuff go, for the most part, and appreciate what is for what it is.

    I saw that “for the most part”. You must have a sliver of appreciation for what I mean, then, in the least part?

    >Same with being a writer or a film critic — I can enjoy movies and novels without analysing them

    If you’d invented movies and every movie that was ever made after your first one was ultimately descended from it, and you’d watched those movies being made and evolving over 30 years and yet you could still see your own movie in all of them, well then, maybe, you might be in the position I’m in with MMOs.

    >I guess I just find it weird and slightly condescending that he continues to beat that drum, because I don’t think all devs and designers are like that.

    They’re not all like that – I never said they were. Again, you’re putting words in my mouth.

    If I were beating this drum – regularly letting people know that I don’t have the same kind of fun that they do, as if this made me somehow superior – then yes, I can see how that would come across as condescending. Why would I beat the drum if I didn’t want everyone to know?

    Except I’m not beating a drum here. I mentioned it because I genuinely thought it would help explain to people what I experience. It looks as if it’s too late for that, though; people seem to have got it into their heads that I’m sneering at them, and they’re not going to look at it any other way.

    Oh well, I can try…

    >if you can’t switch between them at will, that’s kind of sad.

    You said it. Why don’t you believe me when I say it?

    Richard

  10. I loved the feel and look of STV, the layout on the other hand was horrible. On a pvp server Nesingwary’s camp was horrible, The Horror. . . The Horror. . .

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  13. I’ve gotta say, Richard’s response was a good one. Thanks for stopping by and sharing Mr. Bartle!

  14. >Thanks for stopping by and sharing Mr. Bartle!

    As I’ve noted before on this blog, I have a Google blog search set up for my name so I do see it when people scrag me:

    http://biobreak.wordpress.com/2008/12/09/is-richard-bartle-the-new-jack-thompson/

    In general, if anyone out there wants to use me for target practice without my coming along and embarrassing them, they should just refer to me by my initials. I won’t see it, and then they can have as much fun as they like without the worry that I may show up and cry about it.

    Richard

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  16. Um wow, Mr Bartle responding negatively to everyone who critizes you is going to get you one bad name. Might be worth your while printing this post and your comments and going to talk to your community and pr folks. Its cool that your company lets you blog and comment but if you start getting them a bad name they won’t be happy.

    There is a good reason most engineers should be one step away from the public. The sort of communication that the internet demands is no ego. Its hard to combine design/crafting personality and no ego.

  17. Syp, you’re overthinking it. Imagine you’re a chef and you spend 5 days a week planning innovative menu items, trying to invent some new combinations and introducing some variety in the industry standards.

    It would be near impossible to eat at another restaurant without deconstructing how the meal was created. If you’re creative, a designer, and just maybe a little OCD about it, it’s impossible to turn off the analysis engine.

    Bartle spelled this out pretty clearly. Why do you feel attacked by it? He never implied those of us who don’t obsess over this are less than him. In fact, he expressed some level of envy that we can experience MMO’s without obsessively analyzing them.

    apologies for typos, replying from my phone.

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