Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Taking on the World

Online gaming is not as important as people make it out to be, at least not for the average video game enthusiast.

Online gaming connects you to players from across the world. Suddenly, you're not just competing with your household or your neighborhood for the highest score, you're competing with everyone on the planet who has that game. The average player simply isn't good enough to compete with that.

Let's compare that to, say, sports. Say there was only one baseball league, and every baseball team -- from gradeschool teams up to the professionals -- competed within that league. The best teams from the Little League would easily get creamed by the worst teams from the Major Leagues. It would be boring for the Major Leaguers and crushing for the Little Leaguers. The gulf in skill level is just too great to put everyone on the same playing field. That's why we have baseball leagues to begin with -- to give teams a chance to compete with other teams that are at roughly the same skill level.

As it stands right now, Internet skill matching could stand to get a real overhaul. The model I've encountered in Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection service is you get matched with someone whose win/loss record resembles yours. The problem is, Little Leaguers (like me) get matched up against a lot of Major Leaguers on their way to finding people more to their skill level. After coming in fourth place by half a lap in a dozen Mario Kart matchups, the little guy starts to wonder what the point is of playing online. The easily discouraged drop out, leaving only the more skilled, which pushes up the difficulty of playing against the internet. Online play slowly becomes an exercise that only the elite can really enjoy. It takes a real masochist to keep playing Mario Kart online when the only way to compete anymore is to take advantage of a design flaw that allows players to slide-dash through the entire course.

It's one thing to watch speed run videos online and marvel at the talents that other people have. It's quite another to pit yourself against them in direct competition.

So, okay, competitive games may be a wash for the average gamer. What about cooperative games? MMORPGs?

Well, there's two problems with that, as I see it.

I played Phantasy Star Online back on the Dreamcast, when it was free. Even then, the novelty of inviting random strangers into my living room to play a dungeon hack with me quickly lost its appeal. In most RPGs, you're The Hero. In an online RPG, nobody is The Hero. You're all just a bunch of warriors running around slaying monsters together. And, in the end, you're competing for the rewards that come from slaying monsters -- items and money. Some people find a social appeal to online RPGs. Myself, I don't see how people find the time. My experiences with PSO were always "meet in the lobby, decide on a dungeon to clear, then the party breaks up because someone has to leave". Conversations, when they happened at all, were mostly about who was going to get which items. I didn't make a single friend through PSO; I find social interaction to be much better in chat rooms.

So ignoring the fact that it's just like playing the game alone except that there are people you don't know who show up on the screen with you, there's also the hackers. I stopped playing PSO when a hacker joined my game and wrecked my character data. When Animal Crossing came out for the DS, there were warnings about people who would come to your town and use a hack to turn your town gate into a museum, effectively ruining your save file.

The way I see it, you're opening yourself up to some pretty nasty dangers, and you're not getting a heck of a lot back in return.

But, of course, there's some good to online gaming. Most of the people I know who play video games are friends that I've met online. I do like the idea that I could get together with people that I don't get to see on a daily basis and play a video game with them.

If I could just convince them to get a DS.


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