Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category


Cluetrain Plus 10: my thoughts on theses 88

April 28, 2009

We have better things to do than worry about whether you’ll change in time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?

Is this still a relevant ‘theses’ ten years on?

Let’s start with ‘business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours’. There is undoubtedly a gulf between a marketer’s work-life and their social-life. In Marketing and Modernity, an ethnographic study of a Swedish pizza company in the 1990s, Marianne Elisabeth Lien states that ‘practically nobody ever enters the marketing department as consumers. Yet the department is filled with people who are all part-time consumers in their various private capacities(original emphasis). This moment of realisation leads her to conclude that as far as marketers are concerned ‘consumers are the ‘ultimate other’’.

Has anything changed since Lien conducted her fieldwork in 1991/92 long before the internet became the mass phenomenon it is and even longer before global brands took an interest in what the internet could do for them? The answer, on the surface, is probably not. Marketing language may be changing to reflect the latest marketing trends, at least in a supplemental way, but the view most marketers prefer of consumers is the one from a distance. Why is this? At a superficial level it’s probably got a lot to do with the culture of most marketing departments, but at a more profound level it has got more to do with the concept of the ‘consumer’ and where it’s expected to sit in the grand hierarchy of life.

Lots of research companies claim not to like the word ‘consumer’ but ultimately ‘consumer’ is a category we tend to put people in if they don’t work in our industry, after all we might ask them about their family, their job, their hobbies, but inevitably we’re interested in what they buy and why. Of course the interesting thing about the term consumer is that nobody really thinks of themselves as a consumer, we may occasionally find ourselves admitting that we are under duress, but beyond the odd ironic slogan t-shirt we see ourselves as much richer subjects than that implied by the term. Despite the importance of consumption in our lives, we tend to see only the act of making a purchase as consumption, once we get our goods home and put them away in their proper place the act of consumption ceases. In light of this it’s understandable why the term consumer has an underlying pejorative meaning, it suggests an individual who puts more value in the act of purchase itself rather than the value of the object purchased. It’s always been a safe way to maintain the status quo, business is what the clever people do, consuming is what the stupid people do. When David Ogilvy in Confessions of an Advertising Man, published way back in 1963, says ‘the consumer isn’t a moron; she’s your wife’, he’s kidding no-one. But things have changed. The reason marketing teams aren’t encouraged to think like consumers is because all that separates them from the commodity obsessed masses is their sales sheets and knowledge of industry jargon. It’s simply safer to pretend that these tentative pieces of cultural capital will hold the dogs at bay.

For the majority of large businesses the growth of the web has done little to change this attitude, if anything the consumer has become an even more unnerving figure, inevitably distorted through media hype of the latest web trend and its most bizarre accounts. But even the companies founded on the web seem to have a rather ambivalent attitude to their consumers – for example, Facebook’s attempts to monetise users so far has ranged from disastrous to ineffectual. So simply being a successful web brand isn’t enough to guarantee an enlightened attitude to the humble consumer. The even sadder fact is that this attitude isn’t exclusive to business people, the people we classify as consumers think consumers are stupid. The Conversation on the web isn’t quite what it was, even in 1999 The Cluetrain Manifesto lamented the loss of innocence Today, we tend to think of “flaming” as a handful of people vociferously insulting each other online. A certain sense of finesse has largely been lost. In the olden days, a good flame war could go on for weeks or months, with hot invective flying around like rhetorical shrapnel’. Having been a part of the great social network site exoduses of the early 21st century I can remember distinctly the allure of Myspace with its legal band profiles, fully customisable html and I can also distinctly remember the jaded comments of friends who were sick and tired of the spam filled inboxes on Myspace, to whom Facebook was a beacon of light. That a lot of this spam came not from businesses as such but bands, club nights, self promoting individuals is no longer a surprise but it was more so at the time. If the web had been all about the conversations, it was rapidly heading in the direction of self-promotion. It seems that rather than businesses becoming more like consumers, consumers were becoming more like businesses. Thanks to the communicative and distributive tools of the internet anybody could advertise themselves and lots of people did. This trend has only accelerated – players of online games form hierarchical top-down organisations, techies develop apps in their spare time, ebay and amazon encourage people to become virtual stores. Even the less commercially minded will cumulatively spend hours updating profiles and uploading photos. If the sprawling chaos of the Myspace profile was the infomercial, Twitter is the streamlined 30 second ad where detail is less important than impact. No wonder business tries to distance itself from consumers when they threaten to move into the territory they’ve spent so long cultivating as their own.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing, the internet gives us greater control over what we consume and how we consume it and theoretically it’s great that anyone can become a business person, but the manner in which most people go about promoting themselves is rooted in over a century of traditional media and traditional media’s tactics, it suffers from the same problems and assumptions, particularly about what consumers will respond to. Hence the proliferation of spam. In the tradition of alternative histories it could be argued that the past 20 years should be known as The Age of Spam. Unlike advertising which has always been the medium of business, spam is the democratised take on one way messaging en masse. If spam was just the tool of the Viagra sellers then it would simply be another form of advertising, the fact that your friends and acquaintances are also more than happy to participate in a bit of ad hoc spamming is what differentiates it from its predecessors. In fairness to the people of the web, there are few proven alternatives to the traditional media format and let’s face it the traditional media approach works even if it’s far from perfect.

Possibly the greatest threat to businesses then is that it is being gradually commoditised, if everyone can do it then the position of expert is eroded if not erased. Perhaps the most insistent example of this is the music industry. When consumers and bands found that it was possible to distribute music more efficiently than the record companies, the music industry’s status was significantly reduced. The situation is hardly helped by programs like The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent where members of the public are raised to pop star status overnight only to be worthless a month later. It suggests that musical ability and talent is something the public at large are just as capable of discovering as the so called experts.

Finally then ‘who needs whom?’ Consumers, or whatever we call them, still need business, so much of our lives is based around the production, distribution and social status of commodities but business is no longer the behemoth it was it is worth only as much as its latest product or ad campaign, business is having to work harder to matter to people. What does business need to do to change this state of affairs? Well The Cluetrain Manifesto argues that business needs to find its human voice, to be genuine, pure, honest, but if the human voice on the web is intractably coloured by decades of marketing speak then it would seem rather foolish for business to attempt to follow this lead. After all it’s very difficult for sprawling corporations to appear genuinely human, a Facebook profile, Youtube page and Twitter account isn’t really enough to convince us of this. Instead business needs to wow us and amaze us like it did in the post war years with its modern miracles. Business is too content to follow trends set by consumers, when it should be starting the trends or at least trying to. Hopefully this would give marketing departments greater confidence in their own abilities rather than feeling like their place in the world has been usurped by the masses and consumer will cease to be such a derisory term. I think when businesses start aiming to be the experts again that then they will be ready to have a real conversation with consumers about what they are doing and what they should be doing because they’ll have an opinion and the confidence to debate its worth.


Gender ‘swapping’ in MMOs

March 26, 2008

As usual I’m totally late on the subject of this blog entry, namely the Nottingham Trent University study ‘Gender Swapping and Socialising in Cyberspace’ . Richard Bartle provided a fairly damning appraisal of both the newspaper reports of the study and the scientificness of the research on his blog. The problem with reports like this is not so much the failings of the study itself, but the distortion of the findings created by the media response, that inevitably errs on the side of sensationalism. Sure the sample used in the study wasn’t huge and many of its findings repeat those of previous studies, but all in all the conclusion is fairly positive. Richard Bartle points to this article from The Guardian (I’m rapidly losing respect for you, you know) which opens with the quote ‘millions of internet users are using computer games to perform virtual sex changes, according to new research’ which sums up the mainstream media’s attitude. Before I start waffling about my own thoughts on this I want to say that ‘gender swapping‘ is a bloody awful term. The dictionary definition of swapping is ‘to make an exchange’ i.e. one party gives up possession of one item in exchange for another. People who play MMOs do not swap gender. If I choose to play a female Orc, I do not cease to be a human male, my gender doesn’t change. Sure, it sounds like pedantry, but I think it’s important that academics (and the media) acknowledge that identity in online contexts is supplemental – I add something to my identity, but I don’t take anything away. In other words I remain a human, male at core but additionally in World of Warcraft I am a female Orc and a male Tauren.

Why gender has become such an issue in MMO studies is interesting in itself, particularly when players also have the opportunity to play as non-humans of varying degrees and take-up occupations that range from stabbing people in the back to summoning demonic entities. The Guardian can happily announce to the world that MMO players ‘perform sex changes’, but they don’t seem as keen to announce that players can make ‘race changes’ or ‘occupation changes’. Okay, so gender is anchored in real world physiology and culture and therefore seems more relevant to a mainstream media audience, but if as the NTU study suggests that Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft normalised the female avatar than why is it still such a big deal in MMOs? The answer is of course lies with the fact that players interact with one another and are relatively anonymous and it isn’t always clear that a female character is being played by a male player or vice versa. What’s interesting about the findings in the study, is that many of the players who play genders opposite to that of their own, have clearly played genders the same as their own. The women who claim they get less hassle as male characters have clearly experienced hassle as female characters and the male players who play female characters know they’ll get fewer gifts as male characters than female becuase they’ve played male characters. Players make decisions about their characters based on their experiences in the game world, they are not necessarily tied to identity issues they may be having in real life.

This is true not just for gender, but aspects such as race and particularly class as well as things like talent and skill builds. A player of an MMO might start the game playing a healer, only to decide later that they prefer tanking, something they could only learn by playing both classes. That most MMO players have numerous alts is not even touched upon in this study even though it’s a major part of the MMO experience and is surely as relevant to identity as gender. Choice of character is tied to what players want out of the game, the fact that they have choice and the option to play whatever combinations there are available is something exclusive to MMOs. In real-life we might spend our childhood years dreaming of being a fireman, only to find we’re better suited at being an accountant once we reach adulthood, we might possibly go through two or three career changes but our range of experiences is pretty finite. In MMOs this is less problematic, players can experience many lifetimes, from birth (level 1) to retirement, multiple times. Retired characters can also be brought back from retirement and suffer none of the issues of ill health that plague their real life counterparts. What would have made for a more interesting study would have been to look at players’ histories of character development: the number and kind of alts they have, their first character, how often they play their characters, what made them try a new character out and stick with it or abandon it and so on. If academics are going to look at gender in MMOs they need to look at the bigger picture, then they might find that it’s not just female characters that get hassle, so do certain classes and talent builds (e.g. hunters), while some classes are more priveleged, e.g. tanks and healers as well as the pressure players may get from guilds and friends to play certain classes. Pressures aren’t related exclusively to gender but a lot more complex and unlikley issues.

(Edited for shit spelling and poor grammar)


Tolkien and Peake: The Next Stage of Fantasy Literature

March 12, 2008

I finally got round to watching the second part of the BBC4 series Worlds of Fantasy, after having some issues with the iPlayer which I won’t go into here, I think there are enough complaints about it already. Unfortunately, it took me so long to get round to watching it then writing this that there’s only 10 hours left to catch it (sorry), although the final part of the series was shown last night and should be available on the iPlayer now. Incidentally, what’s with the Spinal Tap-esque volume adjuster on that thing?

So part two focuses on just two fantasy authors, Tolkien (no surprises there then) and Mervyn Peake, who I was very surprised to see included as the only other author. Let’s be totally honest, Tolkien had to be included, even before the success and mainstream appeal of the films he was still, for the majority of people familiar with this genre, the top of the pile. And naturally his name will bring more eyeballs to the screen, which I haven’t got a problem with at all. I wasn’t expecting a Moorcockian trawl through the outer limits of Gothic and Romantic literature (I’m reading his book Wizardy and Wild Romance at the moment, I know for a fact that if I live my lifetime twice I’ll never read all the books he has read) but I was expecting more than just Tolkien, and oh yeah, Peake. In essence what we got was two brief biographies of the authors, looking at what influenced them (Germanic myths, Worcestershire landscape, the horror of war, Arundel Castle) and what their motivations for writing in this genre were. The most interesting element discussed less fully than it could have been was the idea of ‘secondary world creation’ – Middle Earth and Gormenghast were not set somewhere on earth past, present or future or even a dimension parallel to earth from which they could be accessed, they were entirely secluded locations that had their own histories and cosmologies, especially in Middle Earth’s case (which the documentary does cover in a fair bit of depth, although I don’t recall them mentioning the Silmarillion).

I’ve tried to convince myself that it was for this reason that the programme focused on these two authors exclusively. If we look at the other early fantasy authors there is an element of ambiguity about whether or not their worlds are entirely seperate from a fictional version of our own earth or not. Obviously Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series is set in our universe and Howard’s Conan stories are set on earth albeit in a very different pre-ice age landscape. But what about the other originators of the genre like Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber? Many of their fantasy worlds are distinctly unearthly. I suppose it’s possible that Vance’s Dying Earth is set in the future of our own planet, but never is that made explicit to my knowledge. And there is at least one adventure where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser enter our earth’s past, but this is an exception to the rule. So why were two such influential writers not included? Well, I think it has alot to do with the fact that both Tolkien and Peake were British writers, that Jack Vance and Fritz Lieber are US authors and probably less familiar over here (the Gormenghast TV series from 2000 will have brought some familiarity to the masses) and finally that Lieber and Vance are deemed to have less literary worth in BBC circles.

Given that Tolkien and Peake are described as the ‘grandfathers of modern fantasy’ it would have been nice to have seen a wider range of things thay had influenced. Okay, they mentioned games and actually showed a few clips from Lord of the Rings Online, but I was a bit pissed that they didn’t even mention Dungeons and Dragons or even something like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (perhaps that would have raised to many questions about the absence of Conan). Strangely enough, and maybe in order to emphasise the point that Peake, though clearly in the shadow of Tolkien, has influenced a crop of contemporary fantasists the show featured some prominent clips of books by China Mieville and Joe Abercrombie, but none say of classic Tolkien-inspired romps like Dragonlance or Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series.

To be fair if I didn’t know a great deal about fantasy authors the program would have been fairly informative if limited in scope. Personally I think that Lieber and Vance would have much more appeal to someone who watched the program because they liked Tolkien, and they have they added bonus of a sense of humour. Speaking of humour apparently tonight’s instalment features Michael Moorcock talking about the influence drugs had on fantasy writing in the 60s, should be interesting.


The Origins of Fantasy

February 29, 2008

I just finished watching The Worlds of Fantasy, a three part TV series on BBC4 exploring the history of fantasy lierature, you can view it here on the BBC iPlayer for the next 5 days, although I’m not sure if people oustide the UK can access it (somebody put it on Youtube, please). The first episode deals with children’s literature and children heroes, Harry Potter is naturally included although not as much as the beginning of the programme smight imply, and also Alice (in Wonderland), Peter Pan and lesser known heroes From Alan Garner’s books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service) and Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels.

I don’t think I’m alone in looking forward to the episodes that deal with adult oriented fantasy (expecting to see lots of Tolkien, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Peake and Howard, would also be nice to see Weiss and Hickman, but I’m not holding my breath [see my last post]) as anyone who’s read my blog will know that I think fantasy is a genre is still far too strongly assocaited with kids.

The argument underlying this epsiode was that fantasy emerged in the 19th century alongside a romanticised notion of children as pure and naive beings and as the twentieth century progressed the heroes of these books became more like the children or teens of their respective times. Okay the argument was a little more subtle than that, in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels written in postwar Britain the four heros used slang that was apparently decades out of date, but what their jaunt through the wardrobe did do was make the trauma of wartime displacement into a form of comforting nostalgia where the battle between good and evil was fought between magical beings and the inevitability of triumph was not in question. Clearly it was much easier to write this after the war than during it when the outcome was less certain. In this light Harry Potter with its nostalgically old school setting is a great comfort to kids and parents alike who are scared to send their kids outdoors for fear of stabbings and paedophiles!

It’s hard to be objective about this episode as I was happy enough that this genre was getting any coverage at all, what bothered me was that the childhood themes they discussed could be applied to non-fantasy childrens’ literature, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven share the naive and romaticised spirit of adventure as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories and show some infighting between the children in the group, yet they are set in an idealised but very recognisable Britain. When it did get to grips with fantasy as a style, it focused on the writer’s motives so we got a lot of sniffy complaints about C.S. Lewis’ use of Christian allegory and a bit about Lewis Carroll’s desire to present childhood innocence, but not why he chose fantasy as a vehicle for this message. We get even less on J.K. Rowling’s or Philip Pullman’s reasons for using the fantasy genre, which would be very interesting to hear about. Alan Garner mentions out of body experiences and using his imagination, but doesn’t describe his clear fondness for the British and Welsh mythology that permeates his work, nor the landscapes in which his books are set.

The whole thing felt a little safe for BBC4 (i.e. middle class, highbrow) – let’s focus on general historical themes that normalise fantasy literature, rather than focusing on what makes it so different to other fictional genres. What makes the series feel even more BBC4 is the fact that they’re focusing only on fantasy litertature and not other mediums such as film or games that if anything have helped bring the genre popularity with much broader audiences than books alone.

These issues aside, I wonder what they’ll make of adult fantasy literature? Howard’s stories reflected their time only in as much that they were part of the pulp fiction trend of over the top and violent stories with tough macho characters. Maybe the rich settings of characters like Conan and Bran Mak Morn gave them a sense of authenticity and heritage that was lacking in the typical macho lead which cried out to young men in Depression era America. Was it any coincidence that Tolkien was keen to construct a mythology for Britain just as the Empire was sliding away? Moorcock was inspired by the 60s counter-culture, his heroes had more in common with Howard’s than Tolkien’s often brooding and of dubious morality, but his wrtiting was generally more cerebral and often lampooned the stables of the genre itself. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what they come up with.


Who’s the biggest geek?

February 28, 2008

I excitedly posted about the soon to be released World of Warcraft Minis on my guild forum a few weeks back, to which I got only one response. So I was pleased that Rock, Paper, Shotgun dedicated an entire post to the subject. What was most apparent was the seething ambivalence that surrounds spin-off merchandise. Many of the responses in the comments section displayed a distinct for not buying tie-in merchandise and a n admission of shame if they claimed ever to have boughti it. Even, the author of the piece, Kieron Gillen sheepishly admitted he was snobbish towards fiction based on computer game IPs.To save you reading through the comments here are a few that stood out:

“The only bit of supplemental games related cruft I’ve ever bought outside of my callow teens is the new Warhammer 40,000 Dark Heresy rpg game book thing. No intention of ever playing it, just liked loved the background fiction it presented in its words, pictures and layout. It’s really quite classy, and, as a result of being so impressed, I’ll probably wind up accumulating all the other background books as they dribble out over the course of the rest of the year. Curiously, and this references the peculiar snobbery about the whole business, I’d never buy any of the novels or other frightful tat, though.

“I used to read D&D fiction before I came to the realization that it was mostly quite dreadful.

“I once made the mistake of Wiki-ing Dawn of War. Having never played anything in the 40k universe outside of the rather thin on the ground (story wise) Space Crusade when I was about 10, I spent the next few hours clicking around and soaking it all in. That I was actually supposed to be revising at the time was of no concern. Cracking stuff, in a very cliched, popcorn way”

“And the miniatures? Maybe. I’ll see how I feel when they do come out. It’d be nice to have a one of Thrall (<3), but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal.

As I admitted in my post about Warcraft fiction, I’ve felt exactly the same kind of condescension towards game based novels, but I’m still curious as to why that’s the case. My first thought is that sci-fi, fantasy and gaming are all subjects that are looked down upon by mainstream society. Yes gaming is gradually pulling itself up, but there is still a fair majority of genrally middle aged and up types who don’t get it and the popular media still portrays it as the passtime of choice of the lonely antisocial teenage male. Fantasy is accepted if it’s for and about kids, but the second it’s aimed at adults it’s seen as the choice of lonely antisocial twenty or thirty something males. So given the lack of credibility with which these genres are taken it’s as though the fans make up for it by creating a strict hierarchy of the credible and the uncredible. It very much reminds me of the ‘Geek Hierarchy’ diagram that was floating round the web a few years back. I’ve helpfully added a new box to it…

The quote above that most caught my eye was the last one “…but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal”. This statement in a world where the album artwork from Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’ album is expected to sell for £2.5million. Is it that for a generation of gamers anything that isn’t programmed with AI and immersively interactive isn’t considered worth paying for, or is it an extreme form of conservatism in the vein of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’? To filter Benjamin’s argument down to its basic point, he suggests that because the traditional artwork was unique in space and time it was unarguably ‘authentic’ and that the act of reproducing it so any old person could have a replica hanging from their wall and that this ineffect reduces the ‘aura’, in other words the authenticity, of the original. The strange thing is that computer games are commodities, digitally reproducible commodities at that, they are far from being unique pieces of artwork. But to be fair authenticity is a relative term, after all a unique pice of art is still a manufactured work. Authenticity in popular culture refers to the most original medium, in the same way that film adaptations of novels are usually seen to be inferior to the novels they’re based on. Books and models based on games are seen to be inferior to the games they’re based on. Perhaps the reason why is that these kinds of IP extensions are seen by the fans as milking the franchise, by dispassionate third parties in order to make money and therefore because they’re commercially driven as opposed to passionately created  they threaten to dilute the original work. And perhaps the other fear is that once you start buying the spin-offs you won’t be able to stop, but that’s another story.


World of Lorecraft

December 31, 2007

Being too busy to play WoW really sucked, I actually missed Azeroth/Outland as well as worrying about how far my guildmates had progressed ahead of me in the raiding stakes. I mentioned in my last post that WoW/Warcraft has a huge transmedia presence and I decided in the absence of WoW time that I was going to investigate it in more depth, so I picked up the first three Warcraft novels, Day of the Dragon, Lord of the Clans and The Last Guardian. I have to admit that I was fairly ignorant of the history and lore of Azeroth, I’d played the original Warcraft RTS game way back in the early 90s, but not being a big RTS fan hadn’t touched the sequels. Like many WoW players I’d picked up little bits of Warcraft lore from quests and tidbits from websites, but was truly shocked when I discovered that Medivh of Karazhan fame was once the physical host to Sargeras, a corrupted Titan – the beings who formed and defended the universe from demons – and essentially the ‘Satan’ of the entire Warcraft saga. I always struggled to remember which of the marks of Kil’jaeden and Sargeras were of most value, now of course it’s very obvious. Having read and enjoyed the books I moved on to Warcraft III and although I’m only on Thrall’s campaign it’s been great to follow Arthas’ descent into madness, and undeath. One of the aspects of Warcraft III that most impressed me is the way in which the story is foregrounded. According to the Wikipedia entry to Warcraft III one of the complaints launched against the game was that players weren’t given a choice about Arthas’ fate, but to be honest I found it far more entertaining and epic to participate in his unfolding tragedy.

One of the biggest obstacles to successful transmedia is the problem of ‘specialism’ – the implication that an IP or brand’s success with one medium or product might not be replicable in another medium. Warcraft was a successful game series, but did that mean that it would be capable of producing good fiction books? I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t a little snobbish about buying books based on a computer game IP and I’m not remotely shy about the fact that I’m a gamer. It’s not like I even have a problem with fantasy literature, I read it more regularly than any other kind of fiction, it’s just that there’s a mental obstacle when it comes to taking the narrative from one medium and moving it to another, film adaptations of books are often treated the same way by critics. In all honesty the Warcraft books are not Tolkien, or even Moorcock, they’re probably not even Weiss and Hickman, but they’re not intended to be, they’re intended to flesh out a fantastically rich mythos and at that they’re very good. Which is not to say they were lacking in the story department. Lord of the Clans had me reading into the wee hours of the morning in order to see just how Thrall gained the trust of his washed out species and took them across the sea to Kalimdor.

I’m sure there is still much I have to learn about Warcraft lore, I’ve read through The Sunwell trilogy and have just finished the first book of The War of the Ancients trilogy and then I’ve got the World of Warcraft novels to read, then I have to track down the new WoW comic. In between Warcraft novels I’ve been reading Ted Castranova’s latest book Exodus to the Virtual World and he discusses some interesting ideas about ‘lore’ in virtual worlds in particular he states that ‘a well designed lore allows every player to find her place within it. The lore excludes no-one.’ This isn’t a million miles away from what I suggested back in July, that in virtual worlds people need to be able to orient themselves in order to give their presence there some kind of purpose. The lore I’ve picked up from reading the Warcraft novels and playing Warcraft III has actually changed my mindset when playing WoW. I play on a PvP server (Horde side) and although I’m not an especially aggressive player when it comes to taking on the Alliance, I feel less animosity toward these one time allies and I’m really enjoying taking down demons and servants of the Burning Legion far more knowing that they are truly thoroughly corrupt, it certainly makes Ogri’la dailies more fun anyway.


Media that Crosses the Line

August 11, 2007

The recently released Transformers game tie in with the film of the same name was like Spider-Man 3 before it, something of a disappointment if most reviews are to be believed, and it’s probable that very few people are surprised about this. As usual movie/game synchronicity is seen to be the blame here with some reviwers commenting that the game felt incomplete. Computer games based on film franchises are typically seen as a short-term merchandising investment hence the need to match release dates with the film releases, short-term might be good for the film studio’s pockets, but it isn’t good for gamersor more importantly the reputation of franchise based games.

There is hope though, and I use ‘hope’ optimistically but cynically. The current US box office smash ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ won’t be accompanied by a gane title of the same name, instead the game entitled ‘The Bourne Conspiracy’ won’t be released until 2008 the reason being that “… we didn’t have enough time to build a quality ‘Ultimatum’ game and come out with it at the same time as the movie. So we decided to do things differently, something new.” Whether or not this results in a quality game is another question, but it’s a turn for the better.

The other franchise game that caught my eye is Ubisoft’s Beowulf (see the game videoclip below). Although the game is due out at the same time as the film (November, I think) so a rushed release could still result in a sub-standard game, but in an interview in this month’s Edge magazine provided some hope. Rather than follow the film narrative which will show an aged Beowulf recounting the tales from the past 30 years of his life, the game will fill in the gaps between the events Beowulf tells. This promises to give players plenty of opportunty to battle various monsters from Anglo-Saxon and Nordic myth using the many combat moves available while improving standing with Beowulf’s thanes and this his reputation as a strong and generous ruler. The step Ubisoft have taken that differs from many franchise games is rather than creating filler content to pad out the gaps between ‘boss fights’, they have chosen to make the filler material the core content of the game, which will hopefully give it more variety.

A great book for insights into movie-game relations is Kritin Thompsons’ ‘The Frodo Franchise: the Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood’ (which arrived on my doorstep just this morning, thank you Amazon). A very well respected practitioner of film studies, Kristin was allowed unprecedented access to many of the cast and crew of The Lord of the Rings films, including marketing, fansites and communities and a whole chapter dedicated to the process by which the computer games were made. This account shows the great difficulty EA had in getting access to props and designs from the film-makers, for example there is a request sheet for the ‘Mouth of Sauron vocals’ which as yet didn’t exist and a request that the in-game Shelob design be altered because it was too similar to the ‘top-secret’ design used in the film, which needed to remain a secret until the film’s release (the computer game of ‘The Return of the King’ was released before the film’s debut). There’s a great quote from Neil Young, executive producer of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ games for EA, concerning the problems they faced – “It was a big deal, because it meant that we essentially had to produce high-quality software on a very compressed schedule. If you think about it what the games are, they’re like an action-reel highlight of film of the actual movies themselves, and I think given more time, the games would have had different dimensionality”. This last point sums it up for me, both ‘The Bourne Comspiracy’ and ‘Beowulf’ are attempting to do something different from the film with their game content. In the former, the game developers are doing something radically different in the latter they are actively adding new content to the Beowulf story (in both the film and the book!). Given that prior to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ games there was little interaction between the film making and game making process and that has now become a norm, maybe the two franchises above will set a new precedent that will vastly improve the quality of games based on franchises.

There is a great three part interview with Kristin Thompson on Henry Jenkins’ blog here, here and here.