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