Thursday, February 7, 2013

Cultivating Communities

The #SAVEHOTS activism has come and gone, though analysing it's effectiveness is difficult. The exact outcomes of vigorous conversation through various mediums is nebulous - it's a messed up incarnation of the chicken and egg conundrum. There's no doubt that Blizzard heard the doomsday calls and while specific suggestions were probably noted, a majority of the concerns voiced by the public were aspects of the release already announced, or hinted to, by the development team. When gauging how successful the campaign was, it's not necessary to focus on what suggestions made it through to the beta or even the release. The importance lies in the way our casuals and professionals alike actively reminded Blizzard that the community is one that isn't lying down and accepting food, that they are more than willing to bite the hand that feeds if they don't like what they are given.

The past few months were tumultuous. Both MOBAs stamped their dominance on the streaming sphere and gave the StarCraft 2 world a much needed wake-up call. To most e-sports fans, the life of competitive gaming began with StarCraft 2, in one way or another. I'm not looking to wistfully recant the history of e-sports since the rise and fall of Fatal1ty, but it's just one of those things that unless you're in your mid-to-late twenties, it's hard to explain to a younger generation of gaming fans what exactly has taken place.  There is a huge history before StarCraft 2, League of Legends and DOTA 2, and it's not one of complete separation.  Without going into specifics and scrutiny, in the StarCraft 2 world we're used to these themes - foreign Brood War was completely removed from the powerhouse that was the Korean professional gaming culture. This motif wasn't  shared with previous e-sport scenes. The big names in FPS were shared between Europe and America. The Europeans built a culture heavily invested in Counter-Strike, with America eventually revealing their brand of professional gaming with Quake, Halo and MLG. While there is some animosity between hardcore European shooter fans and the console culture of the United States, the titles could co-exist without exaggerated hatred. The casuals did not care, the very scope of competitive gaming events was enough to generate contentment, not contempt.

"So this is what not to do..."
When the statistics started to tip out of favour of StarCraft 2, the reaction was extreme. Sensationalist blog titles and responses that blurred the line between apocalyptic hysteria and trolling gave those statistics a prophet-like importance. Blame was pointed directly at Blizzard for it's lack of support of casuals. Balance is something that I do not want to discuss here, if the discussion of casuals is to be legitimate, then aspects of balance of the game are less important, as balancing lower-skilled players is near-impossible. It does, however, influence viewership and fan attainment. Evidence of better treatment by the other big companies has been provided, whether through free-to-play models, micro-transactions, funding for events or basic UI elements. The draw-card for casuals in Brood War seemed to be the UMS, which we now know as the Arcade. This aspect was further emphasized through seemingly pointless chat-room limitations in 2.0 and lack of clan support. All these things, while indeed poignant in representing a lack of thorough planning by Blizzard, are futile in suggestions of the be-all and end-all of community growth. The truth of the matter is that when we look back to communities past, no matter what game you came from, it's through rose-coloured glasses.

There are several members in our Australian e-sports community who are from Bored Aussie, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Call of Duty 1 & 2 and Counter-Strike, all of which never had inherent user interfaces to call home. Each and every competitive game relied on IRC channels and forums, not an integrated clan and chat system, or even official ladder or tournament support. Size and scope of the community was never a primary focus, it was the competition. Modders thrived on making the competitive game as effective and engaging as possible, not as casual and addictive as can be. To say that times have changed is redundant, as now the competition between developers is to create the most user-friendly and accommodating UI in order to retain casual-gamer statistics. What I'm getting at is that while chat-rooms and clan support are nice, gamers are going to play the game they feel speaks to their competitive nature best. This is the environment where online gaming communities flourish.

Even if we take a look at the less-competitive formats of online entertainment available at present, the community aspect is slippery to grasp. World of Warcraft has been reduced to a watered-down version of itself, not just in the game-play, but in the over-all way in which players connect. Finding an instance group is completely automated - no user interaction required. Raids are simpler, meaning the epic forty-man grind-fest that took a whole night of planning, gathering and execution is long-gone. It is now an RPG with MMO elements. This is a franchise that has focused on casuals too much, creating an interface of one-two-three clicks and you're done. Human interaction is now second to immediate gratification. In turn it has lost it's competitive spirit it worked so hard to achieve - one that pitted groups of nerds against each other for the title of most tight-knit, well-oiled machine of MMO experience.

"Wow, these new HD texutres are... oh god..."

This has created a hole in the market that New Zealand developers Grinding Gear Games have emphatically filled. Path of Exile has taken what Blizzard removed from titles such as World of Warcraft and Diablo 3 and created something special. Game-play elements aside, human interaction is paramount to getting anywhere. With it's competitors focusing on Auction Houses and automated group systems, Path of Exile has none of these features, not even gold. Legitimate barter systems and town square trading reminiscent of Diablo 2 make for an experience that I haven't had for quite some time. Finding a group requires advertisement on noticeboards, and trading is completely up to the buyer and seller, no suggested prices or professional Auction House campers. This company has treated it's audience like adults and the chat channels reflect this.

The retaining of casuals is something that each e-sports title is going to have to figure out on it's own in direct collaboration with it's prospective audience. If the StarCraft 2 scene cannot accept a smaller-yet-loyal fan-base, then the segregation from other scenes it has felt over the past months is going to strengthen. Perhaps harkening larger chat-channels, clan functions and a better Arcade system as the saving grace of the StarCraft 2 casuals is hasty. With online communities no longer relying on IRC, instead using forum-based websites as a base for human-interaction is something that developers need to take a look at. Perhaps a combined effort from the leaders of those communities and Blizzard will unearth a way to integrate the forums and chat-boxes of communities around the world directly with the StarCraft 2 interface. More chat-channels in different locations is not the answer, as we are all here to experience the game together, not separately. If the balance, competitive spirit and community are there, investors will stay and pro-gamers will survive.

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