Soapbox: Wagging The Dog
How long ago was 1998? Well, the obvious answer is about five years - and thanks very much, Captain Math, for calculating that out for me - but I'm going for some kind of context here. So, letÃ‚'s put it this way: 1998 was the year that the original Half-Life was released to a rather startled and pleased public. It was also the year that 3D Realms announced their upcoming Duke Nukem Forever. Now, this editorial has a common and interesting choice to make. It can either drift off into a pedantic and rather predictable pattern of expending great energy and an unprofessional number of words simply to mock the perennially absent Duke, or it can expend great energy and an even more unprofessional number of words to try and say something slightly original. That choice is the difference between a quick Daily Elysium and a metaphorically bloated Soapbox.Honestly, I only mention Duke Nukem because I want to illustrate how perceptively long itÃ‚'s been since 1998 by noting a topic which has so permeated our discussions that itÃ‚'s hard to imagine a time we werenÃ‚'t chortling about Duke Nukem Taking Forever. This is all to say that five years is a long time to keep a big secret in PC gaming when so many others canÃ‚'t or won't.
Imagine, if you randomly will, a dog. Precisely my former dog, a stupid yet loveable German Shepard with a penchant for chasing anything thrown or discovering and cataloguing unusual smells. My dog, or rather this dog that used to be my dog but is now my younger brotherÃ‚'s dog, while tremendously faithful, was not particularly bright. She was a dog, as it happened, that could easily be convinced that she desperately needed things which she had not heretofore been aware she even wanted. Crouching down next to her bent body, her nose likely buried in something that smelled repulsive to all but an instinctive scavenger, be it herself, one of our other dogs, or a particularly pungent shoe, I might suddenly ask if she would like to go outside? Her heavy tail would begin to thump against the floor, her dim but faithful brown eyes would dart in my direction, and her body would tense.
This body language would convey, "Outside? To be honest I hadnÃ‚'t really considered the possibility. I was just sitting here smelling this shoe." Then sheÃ‚'d be distracted by the shoe again until I reiterated my offer. "Now that you mention it, yes. I think IÃ‚'d like to go outside very much. Can I bring this shoe?"
Bear with me folks, this is going somewhere.
The kind thing, the humane thing to do at this point would be to let her out. I mean, it was my idea in the first place, right? But no, that might ruin all the fun. So instead IÃ‚'d pat my knees, crouch deeper, and pleading for her enthusiasm IÃ‚'d ask again if sheÃ‚'d like to go outside. By this time she, poor stupid canine, would be on her feet and the posterior half of her body would be set entirely to the purpose of thrusting her tail left and right like a furry windshield wiper. Yes, she'd seem to moan, I would definitely like to go outside.
Not once did it occur to her that outside was nothing new. It was, in fact, the exact same outside that she had asked to come in from just an hour past. It was the same relatively boring outside that sheÃ‚'d wandered around in the night before. It was the outside that occasionally led to the vet, and sometimes it rained outside which, to the best of her knowledge, it had never done in places like, say, inside. Not once would her body language seem to ask, "Outside? Me? Why, is it different than that crappy outside I was in earlier when I rammed a twig between my paws and got sprayed by a skunk, because if itÃ‚'s just that outside again, then thank you, no."
But she wouldnÃ‚'t ask this. She would just get very excited.
IÃ‚'d ask again, and again, make a motion toward the door, then back teasingly away. The dog, nearly frantic, might whine plaintively at me, might jump on the door, might randomly spin in place or bark. This dog, completely unaware that only a moment before she had been happily sniffing something foul with not a thought in the world about going outside, would be desperate. Finally the door would open. The dog would dash outside, look vaguely surprised, and within a matter of moment be back to smelling herself.
This, my friends, is my metaphor for modern video game marketing, where publishers are the mildly sadistic pet owner, outside is the newest, biggest product, and the mindless dog is us, the consumer. It happens pretty much the same way. We, the gaming public, are happily engaged in our games of Starcraft or Counter-Strike, when the publisher wanders past and suddenly asks, "Who wants to shoot space aliens with loud machine guns?"
Helpless, Pavlovian if you will, we think to ourselves that we like machine guns, and we like space aliens, and we like shooting things with our machine guns so why not have those things be space aliens. We wag our tail, and we say loudly that shooting space aliens with machine guns sounds like a very good idea, and could we please start doing it now? The answer is, of course, no, but it wonÃ‚'t be long. And so, for five years publishers stand with their hand on the door knob and say, in a teasing tone, things like Ã‚"˜Who wants destructible surfaces?Ã‚', Ã‚"˜Who wants skeletal animations?Ã‚', Ã‚"˜Who wants bullet time?Ã‚', and maybe Ã‚"˜Who wants a pointless CollectorÃ‚'s Edition packed with spare marketing trinkets?Ã‚' Then, when the metaphorical door opens and we wander into this fantastic new world, the vast majority of the time we come to realize that this outside of bullet perforated aliens is exactly the same outside of bullet perforated aliens we were enjoying five years ago.
The question arises, is the problem really that the games donÃ‚'t live up to the hype, or do they not live up to our expectations of the hype? After all, IÃ‚'m only promising my dog that we will eventually go outside, and whatever she may be building up in that inscrutable brain of hers is not exactly my responsibility. I may be exaggerating in my tone a bit, but thatÃ‚'s just generating interest and isnÃ‚'t dishonest per se. ItÃ‚'s good marketing.
The problem, of course, is that the dog will still get excited about going outside tomorrow, while we gamers, a good one or two steps up the evolutionary ladder, might begin to ask skeptical questions. Eventually, if publishers tease us long enough, we will turn on them, dig our sarcastic incisors deep into their meaty thigh and tell them that we donÃ‚'t want their stinking outside, weÃ‚'re happy to lie here and metaphorically sniff our own posterior, thank you very much!
Which all leads me back to 1998, and ValveÃ‚'s decision to not tell us they were making Half-Life 2.
I wonder in ValveÃ‚'s decision to keep their development quiet for all this time, if they watched the public and problematic development of DNF with a wry smile. You see, both games have been in development over the past five years, itÃ‚'s just that we only knew about one of them. Granted, Valve took its own brand of heat, but it was directionless, only mildly mocking, and, as it turned out, misinformed, while, because of DNFÃ‚'s publically troubled history, the criticism taken by 3D Realms runs a greater long-term risk of affecting sales. DNF may, on release, suffer from a Ã‚"˜call me in 2000 when I still caredÃ‚' consumer mentality, while the announcement of Half-Life 2 so close to completion is guaranteed to generate sales.
ItÃ‚'s reasonable to assume that any project has a curve of customer enthusiasm, and while I might not be able to trace it mathematically, five years in the public eye is probably on the wrong side of that curve. By announcing Half-Life 2 only six months out from release, Valve has poised itself to release what is arguably the most anticipated sequel in PC gaming history right at the crest of that enthusiasm. Imagine the dollars! I guarantee you that Gabe Newell, whoÃ‚'s going to be laughing about all the Stream jokes from last year all the way to the bank, has.
We wonÃ‚'t know until September or possibly even November, of course, whether it will all pay off, but when I read Gabe Newell making statements like, "Basically, we took every dollar we made on Half-Life and put it into Half-Life 2" I get just a little excited. Oh, who am I kidding. Gabe NewellÃ‚'s got his hand on the doorknob, is asking, "who wants to hit space aliens with crowbars," and my tail is wagging something fierce.