The 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.