I imagine that every year after E3, teams of men in hard hats must demolish the enormous LA convention center and distribute the raw materials among millions of zealous corporate devotees the world over, to be used as fuel in the ensuing flame wars. If you spend much time on gaming sites other than GWJ, you know how it goes: Microsoft asserts proposition P; Sony asserts not-P; Nintendo asserts that P is irrelevant... and just like that -- poof! -- instant conflagrations erupt in computer chairs everywhere. If you listen closely, you'll hear the tears sizzling on my cheeks.
The worst thing about modern flame wars, other than the simple fact of their existence, is their unswerving orientation around the success or failure of corporate brand names, products, and properties. Flame wars have always been silly and irrational affairs, but these days, they are also soulless and (paradoxically) cold at heart. The gaming community used to be such that one could readily find flame wars about actual people, along with their associated deeds, words, and thoughts. Nowadays, games-related flame wars have become unhinged from gaming personae in a manner that I would not have thought possible just five years ago.
Thank the heavens, then, for Derek Smart.
If you read Blue's News, then you probably noticed the recent thread concerning Derek's decision to release Battlecruiser Millennium as a free download. Anyone who has ever waded into a Derek Smart discussion in the past won't need to be told that the thread was knocked permanently off-topic within the first ten posts. After a few people made tentative insults, some poor soul named Strategos saw fit to rise to Derek's defense. Very soon thereafter, other forumgoers accused Strategos of being Derek Smart, masquerading under a pseudonym in defense of his own reputation. It should come as no surprise that Derek himself quickly popped in and sprayed gasoline everywhere in his customary style (see post #22). A choice quote will prove illustrative:
The fact of the matter is, most of you are just jealous. Pure and simple. In the past when I would sink down to your levels, engage you in the pits, return insult for insult etc, some of you got this [false] impression that we were of the same calibre; let alone the same caste. I make no excuses for who I am or what I am. What I DO know - and that which is proven and consistent - is that I have progressed over the years, improved on that which I created etc. While, well, all of you are just the same crochety, stagnant, inconsequential people you always were. For always reduced to obscurity; with the only voice you have being that which you use to libel and assassinate someone like me. Someone who is, well, above it all. So, all you and your friends are doing is wasting your time.
I would prefer not to discuss the veracity or import of Derek's claims, his seemingly self-damaging offensiveness, his haughty aloofness, or his contentious history as a developer and Internet personality. These matters have all been explored in the past. What really impresses me about Derek's post to Blue's News, and virtually every post he's ever made anywhere, is that:
1. He interacts directly with the gaming community on a regular -- even predictable -- basis.
2. He does not shy away from controversy; indeed, he usually either invites it or spawns it.
Numbers 1 and 2 above are both remarkably rare traits in present-day game developers. It seems that nearly all the bold developer personalities of the past have dried up or gone into hiding, and that gaming as a whole is impoverished as a result. In years past, I could regularly check the .plan updates of top developers, and I could look forward to encountering and conversing with them on gaming message boards. Every aspect of online gamer culture was influenced by heavy developer presence.
Remember when Old Man Murray routinely engaged in online brawls with Paul Steed? How about when they conducted those raucous interviews with Roman Ribaric, or launched vindictive polemics against Jane Jensen and American McGee? Remember when George Broussard would make fun of other developers' games? When Billy Wilson and Cliffy B would cut the rug and "sample" drinks? When Something Awful was ostensibly a gaming website? When Evil Avatar despised Jason Hall? When PC Accelerator was still alive? When the folks over at PlanetCrap had something to talk about? When Ion Storm Dallas exploded -- multiple times over, and much to the delight of spectators everywhere? When you actually cared about what people like Larry Holland, Chris Roberts, Andy Hollis, and Steve Meretzky were up to? I fear that nearly all of that passion is gone for good, replaced now by joyless and sterile press releases, preview trailers, and corporate fawning. Some of those old personalities are still important to the gaming scene, but now they exert their influence predominantly through their publishers, and through the droves of idiotic gaming press just dying to write a killer preview of their latest game. (At least Ron Gilbert has a good blog going.)
If none of those bits ring true, then here's a fun activity that gestures toward the same point. Go to the "for sale" list of Ye Olde Infocomme Shoppe and look at how many development houses used to exist in the adventure game genre alone. Doesn't it fill you with wonder to look upon all those unknown titles, to consider all the novel gameplay possibilities that await? Do you remember when you could walk into your local software store and get that same feeling? (One need not refer all the way back to the reign of text adventures to recall such days.) Contrast this with the number of development houses and publishers in business today; with the mostly stagnant state of the big game genres; with the marketing, the advertising, the franchises, the ever-worse Hollywood crossovers, the pay-to-play schemes, the buyouts and closures, the corporate slogans, and the shiny, meaningless, prepackaged drivel that the few extant gaming news mega-sites regurgitate for us on a daily basis -- especially around E3 time. The relative diversity of the marketplace and general interest in the affairs of individual game developers are linked; it is not by mere chance that both of them have seen such a rapid, simultaneous decline.
The point is, being a gamer is not what it used to be. Gamers used to have access to communities and markets that simply do not exist any longer. The topicality of the prevalent flame wars at any given time may be taken as a barometer for the creative health of the industry. The fact that flame wars now serve only as arenas for the display of brand loyalty reflects the abovementioned unfortunate change in the gaming climate. Of course, corporate-aligned flame wars also existed in the golden age to which I am hearkening back -- remember the nVidia vs. 3dfx flame wars on Voodoo Extreme? -- but they were tempered by more interesting disputes over whether John Carmack could take Tim Sweeney in a drunken fight.
It's not that I miss the developer-oriented flame wars per se. I just miss the developers themselves, around whom so much day-to-day interest and controversy used to swirl. I guess somewhere along the way, most companies decided that their employees should only interact with the gaming public through established and proven PR methods.
This is why I love Derek Smart. He is like a relic from that dead age, one that refuses to die along with his peers. I like to think that my fondness for Derek and my lament for the dead, developer-heavy gaming community of years past has little to do with the shallow worship of celebrities that is so common among our species. The best of the old-guard game developers had about them the air of artists, creators, intellectuals, and not least of all, gamers. I was never interested in Sid Meier for his fame, fortune, or sex appeal (though he is one sexy, sexy man); I was (and remain) interested in Sid Meier for his accomplishments, talents, and routine insights into the things that make good games tick. Interest in any given game developer has more in common with devotion to a beloved author than with anything related to the celebrity gossip industry.
If I'm supremely lucky, Derek will show up in the comments below, flame me horribly for some remark I made or failed to make, and then Certis will ban him from the site. In the ensuing chaos, I shall breathe deeply of the fiery and personal link to gaming's past, while it lasts.