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Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Internet's Impact on Gaming

Believe it or not, when I first began my forays into the realm of tabletop wargaming and roleplaying, the Internet wasn't a factor in most people's lives*. In those dark days it all started out at my parents' house with Hero Quest and Battlemaster. A short time later this would give way to more complex games like Battletech and Warhammer fantasty. I was hooked from the beginning. In spite of a brief lapse of the nerdly arts while in college, gaming has been a part of my life for a long time.

Recent blog articles, discussions with peers, and my own snarky internal monologue have spent a lot of time debating the impact or existence of a metagame. This got me to thinking about life in the old days before the widespread use of the internet and how that's changed things for me. Now, I couldn't care less whether or not metagames exist. What I care about is how communications technology has altered the games we play. These changes are a double edged sword at best, and I've spent a lot of time ruminating on whether or not I was a happier gamer before I knew about the Internet.

Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly a better player now. With the amount of data that are available on tactics, list building, and even fluff, the modern player is spoiled for choice when it comes to getting help with their game. Unfortunately, for every bit of good advice out there there are a million pieces of bad advice. I feel sorry for players that have been misdirected by some of the bad advice out there. Being pretty good at cutting through the chaff myself, so this has helped my game immensely. My opponents, unfortunately, have access to all of the same types of data that I do. Accordingly, they have stepped up their games as well. It's like a mini arms race around here sometimes.

I've all but permanently shelved a number of units that I built in the past (A Leman Russ company and dinosaur riding Cadian Rough Riders Spring to mind) because other people out there have made me understand that they aren't optimal choices. I enjoyed painting and modelling all of those things, especially the rough riders, but really wish that I could field them again without "knowing" that I could have taken a better unit. You see when my friends were running bad units and I was running bad units, we were still evenly matched in spite of ourselves. I sort of miss the naivete that led me to convert all those rough riders at great financial and time expense.

That's all great for the competitive and even friendly-competitive environments, but am I really any happier? Before this overflow of information I had my own experiences to go on in addition to a limited amount of backup from printed publications. Yes, my lists were awful and I didn't run min/maxed or optimized units. Yes, my target priority was often erratic. Yes, even deployment could be a struggle. You know what though, my opponents had the same problems as well, and we were learning together. These days it almost seems like everyone, myself included, is surfing the net for the next dirty trick to pull on your opponents. I'm OK with this reality, but feel like it may have sapped some of my creative juices. As my lists begin to resemble cookie-cutter Internet lists and lose my own insane input, I can't help but feel I'm missing out on something**. Was I happier playing badly but feeling more open to create? The jury's still out on that I guess. Really maybe nothing but my definition of bad has changed, as the ante has been upped for everyone equally.

A good friend of mine, purveyor of Laubersheimer Industries, has openly praised the Internet*** for rescuing his game on many occasions. He never felt like he could make his army work the way it was supposed to by himself and he lost interest in gaming several times on account of it. While I don't think he always acknowledges the degree to which our friends being cheating bastards impacted his waxing and waning of interest, I could see his frustration. I also don't think that he was ever a bad player in relation to the people he would play against most frequently. He and I always seem to be pretty evenly matched, trading wins and losses in everything from Scrabble to 40k- PS, next time you're in town Lauby, I will show you the miracle that is Bananagrams and whoop your punk ass. Anyway, this whole thing is a matter of perspective, I guess. Being the librarian that he is, my friend sees the availability of information as a great thing for everyone, where I see it as more of a relative stasis. If everyone's game is getting better by around the same amount, has anything actually improved?

There, is one area, however, where the Internet has changed things for the good. Via programs like Vassal, apprentice, or just even VoIP I can now play games with anybody anywhere. For the competitive player, this blows your metagame (whatever that means) wide open with worldwide competition possible on a daily basis rather than at once in a lifetime tournaments. For me personally, this has meant reconnecting with some distant friends, such as Lauby, via a weekly Shadowrun campaign and the occasional game of 40k. With several months of this kind of play in the bag, I can say that although it is no substitute for the real thing, it's a welcome alternative to not playing. In spite of my personal views of IP protection and worries that too many companies give away too much for free online, I also think that technologies like this are great sales drivers. When I play a list online I either already own the analog in real life or am playing it because I'm planning a purchase. Hell, if GW even found a way to develop and monetize their own software, they could really have something profitable akin to MtG online on their hands.

All said and done, I'm still undecided as to whether or not the Internet has really improved things for me personally. I am really interested in what everyone out there thinks about this subject. Leave your comments, and I'll try and wrap this up into some kind of followup article down the road. Everyone is welcome to contribute, from the old curmudgeons like myself to you young whipper-snappers, who remember when Blu-ray trumped HD-DVD, but not when VHS beat out Betamax. Is there such a thing as too much information?

*Yes, I'm aware that the tubes that comprise the Internet were first laid in the late 1950s, but the Internet was not officially commercialized until the mid 1990s. Fun Fact, as of 2009 25% of the earth's population is on the Internet.

**For the record, I still try and modify the lists that I find out there for my own flavor and am running a home brewed Nids list that I'm in the process of refining with some margin of success. For those that have played me, you may have noticed a distinct lack of insane combos that used to permeate my play style. In MTG, I was the guy who would try and create the most convoluted deck possible and win via alternate victory conditions. Some of that carries over into tabletop games as well for me. In Warmachine I stuck with Menoth, aka the combo army. I've even been known to attempt insane things like seeing if I can get a Culexus assassin to pump out over 20 shots in a turn. Combos are fun, unfortunately, the truly ludicrous that I gravitate towards don't have a place in the competitive scene.

***More specifically YTTH


Chumbalaya said...

Very interesting article, it's certainly something to think about.

I'd say the internet has helped and hurt me. On the one hand, I've got a huge community online full of like-minded folks that I can talk shop with, learn from, and make dick jokes about others. I've gotten a lot better in my game skillz, seen what we can aspire to as far as competition, and gotted good info to avoid me having to waste money on stuff I'll never end up using (hello Devastators). Plus, I can find all sorts of inspiration for painting and fluffy stuff.

On the other hand, there is such a thing as too much internets. I play more games on vassal or theoryhammer online way more than I do IRL (blame my shitty work/school schedule). I write up more army lists than I can use, want too many armies, and never end up building/painting them. I've got this great community of folks I can relate to, but very few people locally "get it" like I do. I'm the zombYe in the land of fluffy bunnies.

For better or worse, the internet is here to stay, and its effect on the hobby is ongoing. I say embrace it, make the most of it and see what it can do for you, but don't lose sight of why we're in this in the first place. It's not about measuring e-peens, throwing lolcat image macros at people, or typing very angrily at them.

John Laubersheimer said...

HA! I've seen bananagrams AND I learned how to play while drunk. I can only imagine what I can do sober. Yer dead in the water, man.

Thanks for the esteem booster, though. Even allowing for all the cheating assholes who called themselves our friends, my early days of Fantasy and 40k were also rained on by shit army choices as well. It was Chaos back in the days of herohammer and then the crappy Dark Angels codex at the end of 4th edition. listbuilding IS part of the game and I’m just not that good at it yet.

The biggest investment of time and mental energy for me is painting – I totally love it and it’s what draws me to the hobby in the first place. However, having a great looking model is awesome and all, but only until you realize that your super awesome masterpiece is a garbage unit. How fun is it to have a 1000 points of models that only ever see play in apocalypse games? Answer: not very. Been down that road too many times already. Part of the challenge that is being a painter first, I guess – I just don’t play all that much – or at least enough to know better right away.

I want to win AND I want a pretty army. However, I don't want a bunch of comp bullshit to make up for a lack of skills. The internet is really about expediency and efficiency for me. Other people have information, and I’ll gladly use it. I don't have the time, money or desire to chase after the dead ends in a codex. I hate, hate, HATE wasting resources on crap units. If I can get solid, free advice and then avoid all the pitfalls that kill the game for me, I'll do it. I can also avoid having to rely on the “I play for fun and fluff” cop out as well since I’m not tied to a bunch of crappy (but well painted) models. I can get a solid core to play with, learn the rules/game, have fun and THEN I can fuck around with the goofy shit.

I have no doubt that the internet has made me a happier gamer.

The Lord of Excess said...

You really are hitting on some key issues that I have been troubled by over the past several years. I feel that the net phenomena has had some strong negative impact on 40K. Of course there has been alot of positive too (access to more info, cool painting, modeling guides and tips, etc.). Some of the comments around the internet about what 40K is disturb me ... apparently to many its just a purely competitive exercise and if your not winning 90% of your games your a tard ... that's annoying BS IMO. When I started playing mini games it wasn't to self actualize by beating people in competitive play ... there are so many other more interesting competitive endeavors out there if that's what one wants. I really play for the love of the game ... does that mean I play shitty lists and make excuses of fluff and cry about codex creep ... nope. I tend to play a list that I have fun playing and by that I try to find something that is nicely balanced to face anything and at least slightly reflects what I feel that army should feel and look like. It might not rape people ... but hopefully I don't get raped in every game I play either. If I go to a tourney and win a game or two ... I'm happy ... if I lose 3 I change my list. I only play in a tourney or two a year anymore anyway ... back in the day it was a monthly occurrence ... I just don't have time anymore. For me 40K has been steadily heading down hill since around 2003-2004. I've been trying to get excited about about 40K ... but its been really rough. There is just so much focus on competitive play anymore and hard min-max "optimized" lists ... to such an extent I really can't go to my local game shops anymore and play a pickup game. Its just annoying ... there is alot less discussion about the fluff and painting and modeling and alot more discussion about optimizing lists. I feel like some cheesy collectible card game has taken over 40K. If it wasn't for fun gaming with my home gaming crew ... where I can hang out play a fun game and win or lose and not really care. I think I'd probably be out of 40K all together if all I had was store gaming and tournament play.

Hoagy said...

Well said, LoE. I just can't be one of those players that can fine tune lists with (real) military precision. I make a list, try and cover as many bases as I can in regard to what I can take down, but I leave it at that. List building is fun, but I know there are some people I used to game with back in the old country that thought they were fighting real wars, they were that serious about it. I lose more games than I win, and occasionally its frustrating, but its more because I probably missed something obvious, or didn't think about what I was doing carefully enough. Its a learning curve though! I still enjoy the game, but I do feel that it is lacking a lot of the flavor and individuality that it had from the earlier editions. I tend to think that the internet is hurting and helping the hobby, and as someone already mentioned, the interwebs are here to stay, so we should look at how it can be used to our advantage. Recently I found a site that had reviews, including snippets and pictures, of the old Realm of Chaos Supplements, which I used to own. This was awesome, as it was a trip down memory lane. The net obviously is a great resource for many aspect of the hobby, but can also have its pitfalls. For me its great to be able to look up painted minis, get ideas for schemes, or read up on other people's experiences on the table top - it's almost like getting a bunch of games worth of experience in a couple of hours! Also looking at other peoples lists, battle reports and what have you is pretty useful to get a feel at how one army fares against another, especially if you are about to start collecting a new army.

Sorry, I think I started rambling, but bravo on the article, and interesting responses!

Hoagy said...

oh, and Deth, in response to your * - reverse engineering from the crash retrieval site at Roswell...

>outs tin foil hat on<

The Lord of Excess said...

Agree Hoagy totally. One thing I forgot to mention about the internets impact on gaming ... I'd have to say at least in the gaming groups/commnities I've been a part of recently (Las Vegas and Salt Lake-Ogden area of Utah) World of Warcrack ... erm Warcraft ... has had a big negative impact on gaming of all kinds. From GW mini gaming to board gaming to RPGing. Its just rough getting gamers to pry themselves away from WoW. After nearly six years ... and that game still has a horrible sleeper hold on gaming. Again just personal experience ... but any angst or bitterness I have for the nets impact on GW games ... I have much more ANGER and RAGE towards WoW. I also say this as someone who played the game from day one and spent probably 2 of those six years the game has been out playing pretty avidly. But I eventually put down the crack pipe ... and reclaimed face to face gaming for myself ... wondering why they hell I ever let anything get in the way of that.

Damon said...

When I play a game, I want to know I can have a shot at winning. Wargames in general are complicated enough that just being good at games in general (which I feel I am) isn't necessarily enough to get you good at something like 40K.

I'm more than happy to take my lumps, but when you can't figure out why you're ALWAYS losing (is it me? is it my list? is it my dice?) ... that's an extremely discouraging problem.

And during my first year or so playing 40K, I thought the reason I sucked was because the game sucked! It was too simple to be figured out, it was all dice and whatever super rules GW had applied to some units were going to carry the day no matter what I did.

The internet was ultimately what educated me. Turns out, I really was bad at this game! Very very bad. Even the crappy advice I gleaned off of my earliest forays onto web forums were eye opening. Only after learning how to digest that kind of advice did I finally get good enough to be able to distinguish good advice from bad.

Tangentially, I think the internet has been VERY good for GW. We all know how GW's army books and codexes from before 5th edition were unbalanced. There were always AWESOME power units/combos as well as units that SUCKED ASS. And until the internet made it possible for a global user base to reveal this publicly, what was there to convince GW to give us all the great BALANCED codexes and army books that we've been consistently seeing for a couple of years now?

Now that the internet can vote on what works and what doesn't -- and overall, amalgamated -- do a fair job at it, I think we're all reaping the benefits.

The_King_Elessar said...

Great article. I've recently posted one that, IMO, covers my opinions on this pretty well - so I'll leave you a link. Thanks for reading.


PS - Dethtron, that link you claim you added hasn't appeared on my screen. lol.

Gonewild said...

I think any forum that allows almost-instant sharing of ideas and information has the potential for great good or dire bad. However, I will say that I have greatly benefited from the internet in regards to 40K- returning to this hobby after a 20 year hiatus.

Back then, I didn't have access to the internet- most didn't. My LGS was ran by an eccentric pot-head hippy cat lady that carried Warhammer and Warhammer 40K, but couldn't tell me the first thing about it. The one employee was familiar with 40K, finished every sentence with a weird nervous guffaw that sounded more like a smoker trying to dislodge pack of cigarettes from his lungs...

Needless to say, I was left to my own devices and shortly thereafter stored my collection of 40K in favor of cheap beer and fast chicks. I think I would have kept on with the hobby if I had access to a gaming community- digital or otherwise.