The initially apparent absurdity of this topic may be bewildering to some, but on further investigation and understanding, it should be of interest to everyone. Also, the inhumanity of certain scumbag first-world gamers you will find infuriating in the extreme. But then, it’s 2017, and the world is a messed up place.
Not a happy topic today, folks, but an important one that raises many questions about the world we live in.
Venezuela in crisis
Not to dwell on the history or political details here, but the facts on the ground are that Venezuela’s economy has been in a critical condition for years, and it continues to slide. With inflation rampant, their currency is close to worthless. Unemployment is widespread. Protests frequently turn fatally violent. Crime is an epidemic. Murder rates exceed those in war-time Iraq. Food shortages abound. People are eating out of rubbish bins (or often not eating at all). Three quarters of the population report involuntary weight loss, and deaths through malnutrition are common, particularly amongst infants.
For the uninitiated, ‘farming’ gold involves playing a multiplayer game (usually a Massively Multiplayer Online game, or ‘MMO’) and deliberately collecting large amounts of the game’s primary or secondary currencies, which can be exchanged for in-game items. Let’s refer to all of these currencies as ‘gold’ for simplicity’s sake.
The farming players then go and sell in-game gold for real world currencies like $US or Bitcoin, thereby turning gameplay (albeit usually very unenjoyable parts of the game) into a paying job. The payout isn’t very much, typically, but Venezuelans at the moment report earning $2-3 per day, which can be enough to buy some food and stave off starvation.
The problem with doing this is that the introduction of more and more currency into a game’s economy has the very same effect as just printing unbacked money in a real economy – inflation! This can destroy a game’s balance/difficulty curve, and since that’s kind of the point of playing, it can ruin the game for people. If left unchecked, this kind of activity can collapse a game’s economy and potentially drive away all its players, basically ending the game and potentially putting the company out of business.
Gold farming by (predominantly) Chinese farms has been a major problem for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, that readers may have heard about before.
So what we’re seeing at the moment is a very large number of Venezuelan players choosing to farm gold in the 2001 MMO Runescape. Personally I’m not sure why they chose this game in particular, though it seems to be that, being an older game, it can run on cheaper, older hardware. I’m reliably informed that electricity in Venezuela is cheap, but computer components are fairly expensive, so this would make it preferable to modern MMOs for new farmers
Importantly, the game also has dedicated players spending money in the game. That’s the key. The game is alive and money is changing hands.
Runescape’s regular players are understandably upset about their game becoming unbalanced. Their hobby fantasy world is being invaded by new ‘players’ who don’t care about the game at all and are just there to farm their gold and log out. This ruins immersion for the players and is just generally disruptive of their hobby. The game gets easier and less fun as stat-boosting items get cheaper due to more of them appearing on the in-game market.
First world problems!
We’re talking about a situation where these gold farmers are trying to feed themselves or their children, choosing to ‘work’ inside instead of risking mugging or murder on the streets of Caracas, and even still they have to queue hours for food that might have run out by the time they get to the front of the line.
One can understand anyone being upset if their hobby is being ruined, but an ounce of human empathy (an increasingly rare commodity) would surely put these concerns in perspective. Sadly, this is beyond certain people.
One should rarely read ‘the comments’ or certain seedy corners of Reddit, but what can be found there on this topic is a vile new low (well…let’s just pretend that it’s a new low, shall we?). Guides have been posted on how to identify and attack specifically Venezuelan players deliberately! Not only that, but some useful Spanish phrases have been shared so as these loyal Runescape players can insult the starving Venezuelans while they do so.
Okay, PvP (player versus player) is all part of the game, and virtual death is a risk associated with farming the gold in these PvP areas of the world (that’s why the gold holds any value to begin with, because it’s not that easy to obtain), but to deliberately jeopardise a starving person’s sole source of income and mock them while you do it is sadistic in the extreme. It’s not good fun. It’s fucking sick. Side note: this post is, to my knowledge, the first time that I’ve committed profanity to print on this blog, but there’s a time and a place for it, and this is it.
I’m not saying to let the farmers away freely. There has to be a risk to their players’ safety or the farmed gold has no value because everyone can get it, then the gold decreases in real $ value, and then nobody can make a living from it. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it’s the racist insults and, more than that, the sheer glee exhibited by some of these first-world players (including YouTubers) at being able to cause real people real pain that sickens me. “That’s what makes it so funny” writes one Reddit user.
I’d like to quote from a Kotaku article on the topic: “I was expecting people to empathise and for once realise that games might just be a way to change people’s lives,” said Yasser, a former Runescape farmer who moved to the US a year ago, in a DM. Instead, he said, “the whole thing just made feel rage. Not your normal ‘political debate’ kind of rage but something more personal, especially because my family is still [in Venezuela], and I know what starving feels like. To see these guys that had the luck to be born on the right soil dehumanize Venezuelans, man, that tore me.”
Me too, Yasser. Me too.
You might argue that they’re killing ‘bots’ and not players, but according to what I’ve been able to discover, most of these farmers seem to be just one player farming away themselves. Not an army of AI bots designed to enrich one human person/company through nefarious means that more directly violate the Terms of Service.
So, let’s be clear. Farming is bad for the game, and is against the Terms of Service, but this is also an unprecedented situation that has some very interesting considerations.
The game’s UK-based developers Jagex are reportedly banning a whopping 10,000 farming-related accounts per day!! That hurts those banned, but that’s fine. Frankly, it has to be. Jagex have a fiduciary responsibility to keep their company afloat, and banning farmers is an important part of that. If they were to allow the farmers to operate unchecked, they’d lose their actual playing and paying community, gain more and more farmers, and then there’d be huge amounts of gold to sell with nobody to buy it, and the game would be dead.
Getting banned is just part of the calculated risk of operating a farming scheme. These farmers know that they’re ruining (or contributing to disimproving) the game for people, but, to again quote the Kotaku article, a farmer by the name of Fhynal said “When you don’t know what the future promises, and you fear for your life and the lives of those you [care about], you kind of don’t care about people’s opinions.”
There are a lot of issues tied up in this one topic. I’ve mostly written it as if I’m trying to explain to non-gamers such as my parents (or the Irish government – still waiting on that investment and tax credit..) just how important a role games can play on the world stage.
Games aren’t just ‘pew pew’ time-wasting. They can literally be life and death for people now. That’s the world that we live in.
I’d like to thank my Venezuelan friends Carlo and Claudio for fact-checking this article.
Truthfully, I didn’t know where I was going when I started writing this. Turns out it’s about two things: ways to deepen game characters, and reasons why it’s important (as well as when it’s not.. so okay three things).
Let me tell you a story. It’s about a boy who was born into a fairly poor family who eked out a passable existence on a family plot in the mountains. When he was only 12 years old, his father was killed in a tragic farming accident, and as his mother was too ill to work, he became the sole breadwinner for a family of six younger siblings.
He had a talent for singing. His deep and melodious voice, paired with a deep well of emotion bought from years of personal sacrifice, won him many admirers in the taverns and dance halls around the local villages. It wasn’t long before the girls started to notice him.
As his younger siblings matured, he dreamed of leaving the farm and pursuing a career in music, until one day a paramour told him she was pregnant with his child. Dreams of a life of travel and singing were forgotten. They married and his love gave birth to twins some few months later. He was the happiest man alive!
Unfortunately, the harvests had been poor for years, and the bank reclaimed his family’s farm as the twins neared their first birthdays.
With not one, but two families to support, and no means of doing so, he joined the army, one of the few employers who was always hiring. He moved both families to the city as he began boot camp.
His first post was guarding a hydroelectric power plant. It was hard to be away from his family, but he knew that they were safe and provided for.
One day on duty, as he quietly hummed a lament, thinking about the night he first met his beloved, this happened…
Like that one? Let me tell you another (shorter) story.
A class sits idle in some code, waiting. Its name is Soldier 4. It’s basically frozen in time. It doesn’t even look like anything yet because its mesh hasn’t been rendered because the player camera’s frustum hasn’t come across it yet. Suddenly, the player enters a trigger area around the corner and the class springs to life in glorious pixelated detail. It starts playing an animation, shifting its weight back and forth on two legs. Then a raycast determines that it’s just been shot 3 times. A rather slow and painful looking death animation is chosen from a small list of predetermined death animations. After a few seconds, Soldier 4 lies still, fades to nothing, and the garbage collector erases any trace of his existence shortly thereafter.
Okay, which story do you like better? Which is more true? Which is more believable?
Which would you tend to think of when playing a game? I suppose that would depend on how immersed you are, and what lengths the game goes to in order to inform you about non player characters (NPCs).
I used Goldeneye because it’s one of the earliest examples I can think of where my mom was a bit upset that I was shooting people in games, rather than speeding through checkpoints and jumping on robotic animals. It’s also one of the first games I can recall that put some real effort into showing pain in the enemies. You could shoot them in the foot, hand, or crotch, and they’d stop shooting, grab the injured area, make a pained noise and hop around (if they still could).
I was too busy at the time being blown away by the speed and the technology (I’d also never played Doom or similar 3D shooters at that time) to think of the enemies as anything more than obstacles to progression, but I can see now in games what my mom saw then. And it’s got nothing to do with graphics, or realistic animations. It’s partly a question of emotional maturity, of course, but also of storytelling. Where I just saw ‘baddies’ my mom saw me walk into a room and gun down a random young man in a Russian uniform with no provocation. Goldeneye didn’t really give you reasons to kill most of the game’s enemies other than “you’re James Bond and they’re Russian. Duh!”
Twenty years later, we have plenty of room on the disc to fit even a little audio that can precisely let you know why you should (or shouldn’t) want to kill these dudes. Yet in those situations where we have the opportunity to do better, how often do we actually strive to?
When to dehumanise
There are so many games of all sorts. I’m not at all trying to argue that we do want backstories for all game characters in order to make them better. That could often do the opposite.
Take Doom (new or old). It’s an unapologetic power fantasy, delivered through the medium of speed and violence. Killing demons removes any need for cumbersome storytelling. It’s black and white. Demons are evil. Kill demons. A game shouldn’t try to do too many things. If the extras conflict with the core idea, cut them.
We often dehumanise the enemy in games. Literally. Whether to simplify story, avoid moral debates or to sidestep local censorship laws, we turn our targets into zombies, monsters, robots, or aliens. It works really well. Robots and zombies can also relieve the impact of bad AI, since they’re not meant to be particularly intelligent to begin with. Great! Over the top violence and power fantasies can be fantastically fun, and I wouldn’t change Doom 1 or 4 one little bit.
The topic I’m addressing is what to do when we have human adversaries, who are meant to represent believable people. Because this is the greater challenge, and it’s likely that you seek to tell some sort of story when you’ve chosen to have human antagonists.
There are two types of games that use humans as enemies; those with either fictional or non-fictional settings.
GTA V is one of the most realistic, alive open world games that’ve ever been created. But players have zero empathy for the citizens of Los Santos. The game’s over the top satire, occasionally wonky physics, and amazing yet vastly imperfect AI, prevent any great depth of immersion. That’s not to say that you can’t get lost in the game for hours, but you’d never mistake it for a real experience, and you wouldn’t really start to feel for the characters. The emphasis on driving fast across a world populated by pedestrians is fundamentally incompatible with any sort of attempt to make you care about individuals in this world. And that’s fine. GTA V is incredible for what it is, and no game can be everything (though it’s not far off, to be fair).
Now take Rise of the Tomb Raider, which I just finished playing yesterday. As in most games, you’ll mow down hundreds of enemies, but narratively there’s something interesting going on. If you listen to the idle dialogue and/or audio records, you’ll come to appreciate a depth to the enemies. There are the core villains but also their paid and oblivious contractors. Trinity are out to do bad things and don’t care who they kill, but most of the enemy army are hired mercenaries who don’t know about or don’t believe in the religious fanaticism that drives their employers. Among these contractors, many start to realise that their bosses are nuts, and say that they didn’t sign on to round up and shoot local tribespeople. Some talk about trying to get out asap. Some other contractors are psychopaths themselves, and then Trinity are always evil. This approach did make me want to avoid killing certain guys, or at least regret having to do so. A little. It also made me more eager to hear what type of group I was about to go up against, by stealthily sneaking up on their positions instead of opening fire early. It’s a pity that there aren’t any non-lethal options or other mechanics to expand on this narrative theme. Once the bullets start flying, the good ones and the bad ones all want to kill you just as much.
Still, it was a good effort at adding some depth to the game, and I appreciated that it was there. Because personally I’m usually (when facing human game enemies) thinking that they’re probably not all bad and they don’t all deserve to die. It was nice for a game to respond to this.
Of course, other games have done this, and done it better. If you haven’t yet played Spec Ops: The Line then do it now! Even if you think you know all the spoilers, it’s a masterpiece in subverting player expectations. The whole journey through the game is brilliant.
Fundamentally, I think that most conflicts only occur due to a lack of understanding or empathy (including an unwillingness to share resources). With better communication and patience, most could be avoided. Games so rarely attempt to show this, but if narrative is a serious part of the game you want to deliver, then it should be strongly considered.
Games are such a powerful medium for delivering understanding and empathy because the player actively takes part in them. I’m not saying that every game should be doing this, but we could certainly be faring better as an industry.
Real world armies have forever attempted to dehumanise the enemy in order to make it easier for your own troops to kill them. They’re all savages. They’re all baby killers. They’re all rapists, thieves and murderers, and God is on our side. War films are almost universally anti-war films (especially since Vietnam) and they usually tap into the folly of these lies. Yet war games still seem to find it more convenient to buy the lie hook, line, and sinker.
Maybe it’s because you’re asking the player to do the killing directly for hours on end that designers have felt the need to retain these lies. I remember that in the opening minutes of Call of Duty World at War you’re being brutally tortured by Japanese captors before being rescued by Kieffer Sutherland and his band of more morally upstanding brothers. It’s set up so that you will have no problems killing Japanese or German pixels for the next several hours. Of course, the Japanese and German armies were conducting genocide and torture, and stopping that is a fairly justifiable goal (as long as we’re clear that no side was squeaky clean), but I’m just saying that I’ve never seen a game take the opportunity to do what Letters from Iwo Jima by Clint Eastwood did.
This is why I’m a bit concerned that Call of Duty are returning to World War 2 as a setting this year. For the last several years they’ve been doing fictional settings and usually have some big opening set piece showing you exactly how evil your enemies are and why you should kill them all (they blew up your house and neighbours, usually). Their games are so formulaic that I’m concerned they’ll miss their chance to advance the genre of war games by just ticking all the same boxes in a new (well, old) setting and perpetuating the notion that Americans are always good, and Nazis are always bad. That said, they seem to be heavily influenced by Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan so maybe they will have some shades of grey in their narrative and do something new.
Battlefield 1 at least lets you play as both sides in a conflict and although human lives are reduced to mere ‘tickets’, I do admit that I felt remorse when sitting in a machine gun nest, mowing down a charge across the trenches by the players on the other team.
Yes, it’s a game, but it represents something. Yes, the players will respawn and so it’s more like a game of paintball or virtual tag than an actual battle, but this is where my empathy for pixels idea comes in. Real lives were ended doing exactly this kind of action that I’m doing right now. I sincerely hope that when you watch the last hour of Titanic you feel a lot more moved than when you watch Con Air. Similarly, I hope than when you play games based on the world wars or Vietnam, that a part of you doesn’t glorify the killing in the same way as you the glory kills in Doom.
They’re different beasts, I think, and deserve different treatments from the creators. I hope that Call of Duty: WW2 gets some of that.
Games with more moral weight
I’ve referenced more linear games here so far, but RPGs are traditionally much better at giving weight to your moral decisions, even if they are nearly always set in fantasy or post-apocalyptic worlds.
I recently played Westerado, an indie cowboy RPG/ murder mystery in an open world that you have a lot of agency over. It doesn’t take itself fully seriously, but because you can go anywhere and kill anyone, you feel like you’ve some real responsibility in the world. Because of this responsibility, when I found myself riding out with some US Army soldiers who’d been fighting with native American tribes, and we than happened upon said tribes in a sudden ambush, I said “oh fuck no I will not be killing native Americans and still pretending I’m the good guy”. I ran from the fight. I failed that side quest. I think the army were all killed but I’m not sure. But that was my story. The game didn’t establish that these natives were out of line in any particular way, just that the army were fighting them. So my own knowledge of history filled in the rest. While I was happy enough to help the army bring food to settlers (or whatever we were doing in that quest) I was not taking part in any genocide. Pixelated or not.
Here is an example of an extremely unrealistic looking game reaching me on a real level. An historical setting (fictional as the specifics are) and a game where my choices can have a lasting effect can create real empathy even for pixelated characters.
Mechanics for deeper, more sympathetic NPCs
Assuming you want some moral ambiguity or emotional weight in your game, particularly if you’re making a war game, what tools could be used to advance this agenda?
Just having NPCs chatter together is a very simple way of humanising them (for better or worse) before you go in guns blazing or not. It’s tried and true in linear games, but challenging in open worlds where the dialogue inevitably can start to repeat, and feel insincere.
The opening level of Battlefield 1 had you fighting a pitched battle on the Western front. Each time you died (in this level only), as the screen faded to black, you got your character’s name and the year of their birth and death. What it would say on their tombstone, basically. You then respawned as a new soldier elsewhere in the battle. This gave a weight to death that most war games (and the rest of this one) usually can’t deliver. If you add to that system something like “loving father and husband” or “always dreaming” you’ve a better system already.
Valiant Hearts has you play as characters from both sides of the trenches, and actually never has you kill anyone. It shows your Franco-German family in tact before the war, then watches as, torn apart by circumstance, they struggle to reunite.
This War of Mine has you play a war game from the point of view of starving families trying to survive amidst the rubble, where you make decisions to kill innocents because you need food for your own kids. The shocking reality of the unseen other side of war games was powerful.
Apart from historical settings that bring their own moral weight (and ethical dilemmas in terms of storytelling) to the table, you could use procedural generation to fill out backstories for each and every NPC that lives or dies. It’s its own challenge, but it’s possible. Watchdogs had a system where you could hack the phone of anyone in the open world and get a little summary of that person as an individual. That’s not an end in itself, but it’s a tool in the box.
Dwarf Fortress procedurally generates its entire world and history when you launch a new game. Co-creator Tarn Adams and Kitfox Games’ Tanya X Short have some great GDC talks and blogs about procedural generation, including a book they co-wrote called Procedural Generation in Game Design coming out soon. Do check some of it out if you’re interested in the area.
I’ve experimented myself with generating a small town’s size of population. Everyone gets a name, age and job. Every year people grow up and either die, marry, have kids, or do nothing extraordinary. Over a few seconds I grow this town by several generations and all of a sudden have a family history for every character still alive at the moment I start playing the game properly. I’m planning on using something similar to this in Sons of Solto flesh out your wingmates’ backgrounds, though we don’t yet know the extent of player interaction with wingmates outside of the main missions.
There are many more ways we could flesh out NPCs. Better AI is one. We could even get as far as giving NPCs the levels of interactivity that the hosts in Westworld have. Though I think the point of that show is that some people will just refuse to acknowledge the humanity in artificial things, while others can empathise with them very naturally; less because they’re fooled by looks or behaviour, but more because they’re emotionally invested in the story.
Humans have always loved storytelling, and creators have always found new and better ways of expanding our toolset for crafting them. We have amazing tools for creating empathy and understanding through interaction now.
Games are chief among the most consumed media in the modern age. Violence and conflict are a core part of many of our games, but also a significant part of the real world that we live in. In a world that too often seems to lack empathy and a willingness to understand our adversaries, games could be our best tool to foster a willingness to understand other sides in a conflict. I think it’s important that we start to do this more often. It doesn’t suit every game, but where killing humans is the main activity, and especially in historical war games, I think we can and should do better than we have been. We’re moving the right way, I think, but let’s keep it up.
Allow me to present my opening argument in the form of a screenplay.
[Setting the scene. Entertainment media news room. Young anchor seated at a desk covered in Nintendo Ameebo and (new) Star Wars stormtrooper toys, smiling and speaking animatedly into the camera]
Anchor: “..in other news, this week saw the release of Battlefield 1, the first game in the new Battlefield franchise. While it’s unusual to actually give the number ‘1’ to a new intellectual property, it shows a bold confidence on Dice and EA’s part in their new…”
[Anchor pauses, puts one finger to their ear]
Anchor: “..wait.. my producer is saying something.. sorry about this folks..”
[Mumbling ensues ]
Anchor: “.. THE FIFTEENTH Battlefield game?!?! NOT including expansions?!”
[Anchor glances nervously at the camera, then turns aside, pressing one hand to their ear and speaking more quietly to producer off-camera].
Anchor: “Is this a joke? Seriously, tell me now. Is this just a prank on the new recruit or…. you’ve got to be joking…. so Battlefield Hardline was the same ser… and Battlefield 4 was actually Battlefield 13?? Holy mother of… I suppose next you’ll be telling me that Assassin’s Creed 4 was…. it was the 6th?…”
“So, wait, what do I say about Battlefield 1?…..”
Anchor (now shout-whispering):“..JUST BECAUSE IT’S SET IN WORLD WAR 1?! THAT’S THE STUPIDEST THING I’VE EVER HEARD!!”
“Okay, okay. Yes, okay. I got it”.
[Anchor lowers their hand, turns slowly back to the camera and recomposes their “tv-smile”]
Anchor: “Ahem.. excuse me. Battlefield 1 released to great critical claim this week, with reviewers calling it ‘the best Battlefield game since..”
[Anchor looks confused for a split second, but ploughs ahead]
Anchor: “..Bad Company 2.“
“And lastly, new DLC has just released for Doom, the new shooter IP from id Software and Bethesda that took the world by storm earlier this year…
[Anchor pauses and their smile half drops as they appear to listen again to their producer. Turns aside again]
Anchor: “..not new?…. 1993?.. But surely nobody would remember one solitary game with crappy graphics from over 20… FOURTH DOOM?!… So why didn’t they just call it…? ..who the hell are the ‘two Johns’??… ‘Quake’? No, Quake is coming out next year, I’m sure of that!… no.. no.. look, forget it…
[Anchor stands up, head now out of the shot, and begins to remove their clip-on microphone. Banging noises can be heard as fabric rubs against the microphone]
Anchor (now less audible):“.. No, I quit! Forget it! This is ridiculous! Until you can grow up as an industry, how is anyone going to take you seriously?”
[Now free of the microphone, the anchor walks out of the shot, becoming increasingly less audible as they leave the room]
Anchor: I’m going to try get that internship back with Fox. At least Fant4stic had the right number somewhere in the name.
[Someone can be heard replying]
Anchor: “Only the third?!”
[Shouted curses can be heard receding, ending with a door slamming]
Ain’t satire fun?
So there’s a humour to how ridiculous game names are becoming, as we live through it, but there’s also a real threat to game preservation, or historical research for those who come after us, or even just twenty years from now. Most people don’t care about the problems of tomorrow (that’s what made us the world we are today, after all) so I’ll focus on the humour, but please also open your mind to what this will all look like to someone in the future. Will they see this time as a golden era of game creation, or will it be marked as a time when ravenous consumers didn’t seem to know or even care what they were playing, but were in fact every bit as gormless and fickle as the big marketers presently seem to think that we are?
To be clear, I’m not saying anything against any of the games mentioned here. Most of them are brilliant! My only issue is with how games are getting named, and it’s the more successful series that create the problems, because they have so many entries.
Hopefully from my “screenplay” above you can see the problem I’m highlighting. I could say “naming conventions are out of control”, but in truth, there appears to be no naming convention in place at all in the games industry other than “marketing think that the target demographic likes this number this week”.
What are movies doing?
The movie and games industries get compared all the time, and I don’t relish doing it, but I will be doing so today because there are great parallels and lessons to be learned.
The movie industry most definitely seems to have a more mature approach to naming conventions where long-running franchises or reboots of old ones are concerned. Despite the fact that the problem (if you agree that it is one) of seemingly constant reboots in both of these entertainment industries originated (at least as a recognisable pattern) in the movie industry, to their credit, they did seem to handle the issue far more tidily. With the exception of RoboCop (2014), most reboots pick an altered title or subtitle to clarify (Batman Begins, The Amazing Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk – and yes, it is mostly superhero/action movies that seem to get the reboots).
Where numbering sequels are concerned movies now seem to dodge that bullet by rarely adding a number any more and instead favouring a subtitle. Marvel is a good example as their interwoven movie narratives can be quite complex and it can sometimes even be hard to figure out who the lead character is. Take Captain America: Civil War. Was that The Avengers 3 or Captain America 3? Or Civil War 1? Well, ignore the numbers and give it a name. That works.
To be clear, I’m not trying to claim that naming conventions used to make more sense or be more consistent either (Jaws used numbers, then number/names, then subtitles: Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, Jaws: The Revenge) but what I am staying is, that with the notable exception of RoboCop (and probably a few others that aren’t coming to mind), franchises are rarely so muddy that I couldn’t tell which exact movie you were talking about if you use the correct name. And I can’t think of any examples where “Movie-name 3” is not actually the 3rd movie, or at least the 3rd in the current reboot.
There is no common convention, but there does seem to be a deliberate attempt to clarify when rebooting a series or making sequels. This is far from the case with games.
Clarification Note: ReMAKES in film often carry the exact same name as the original, but they’re usually a once-off remake of a classic 40-50 years old (3:10 to Yuma, 101 Dalmations, Alice in Wonderland). ReBOOTS usually follow several related sequels, by starting a new string of sequels related to each other but not the older works. Take ‘Star Trek’ (2009). The original 1979 movie was called ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’. They haven’t used an identical name. Although admittedly they could have used a subtitle in 2009 if they wanted to make my point better for me.
What are games doing?
Well, as I see it, there’s two approaches that both muddy the waters to varying degrees (and a third in movies where series-related movies don’t share a name, eg. Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal). These create problems when using search engines, or even just talking to someone and trying to communicate which game you actually mean.
Throwing Numbers Around, ‘Whenever’
I’ve never seen a movie do this, but games series seem so ashamed of their age that they’ll constantly fiddle the numbers. While the reasons for doing this could be both to hide the quantity of games (to counter the perception of over-saturation), or to differentiate between split story lines (Command & Conquer: ‘Tiberium’ series and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 1-3), or even between releases on different devices, it’s still a messy practice.
Movies, once they abandon the numbers, tend to stay away from them. After 6 numbered Police Academy movies, the 7th was just subtitled Mission to Moscow. Superman hasn’t had a numbered movie since IV despite having a later sequel and an even later reboot.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was the 4th GTA, and before GTA IV (TWO games later) I used to refer to Vice City as “GTA 4” for short. 5 is really the 7th, and so on.
Assassin’s Creed III was the 5th game in that series.
The recent Gears of War 4 is the 5th GOW, also.
If you’ve read my last few articles, you’ll have seen me snipe at the name Battlefield 1. I’m getting it out of my system today, okay?
My satirical ‘screenplay’ already picked on Battlefield – probably the worst offender. 3 games deep is the earliest that you can really get inconsistent and they did so by going: Battlefield 1942, then Battlefield Vietnam, and then screwed the pooch with their 3rd game, Battlefield 2. The numbered games have been meaningless since then, only highlighted (for me anyway) by the fact the I’ve seen nobody else bat an eyelid that the new game is called Battlefield 1. It’s so ludicrous, and it’s actually a world first, as far as I’m aware, to name a newer title ‘1’. It’s all the worse considering that, given that with this game they were very much returning to their roots by moving away from modern or sci-fi settings, they had an opportunity to return to their original naming convention (Battlefield 1942) and call this one “Battlefield 1916″ (or anywhere from 1914-1918, I just say 1916 because a recent trailer made a point of being set then, and the year of release, 2016, is a nice, round century after that). I don’t care what anyone says, the marketers definitely missed a trick with that one. And I’ve a degree in marketing so I feel I get to say this with at least a little authority:
If they were so dead-set against a year in the title for whatever reason, Battlefield: The Great War would still have been less of a joke than Battlefield 1, as a name. Okay, I’ve had my say. Great game, horrific name, moving on..
The thing about this trend with all those aforementioned games is that the only way to fix it is to own up and call the next game the correct number. Like “Battlefield 16“, which they’ll never do, especially coming straight after 1, in their case.
Preferable to that would be to continue using subtitles forever once you’ve started, but the problem there is that sales will be lost because less die-hard fans might lose a named game through the year-sized cracks without realising it.
As ridiculous as that all is, it doesn’t exactly cause a major problem for searchability, and a Wikipedia search can quickly inform you if you forgot that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood existed, if you really wanted to know. I mentioned the benefits of being dishonest-thus at the top of this section anyway.
On to the bigger problem.
Naming Reboots The Same As Originals
Doom, Star Wars: Battlefront, Battlezone, and the game that actually prompted this article, Prey are all guilty as hell here.
At E3 this year, we saw a teaser trailer for a new game called Prey. I thought to myself “people seem a bit overly excited at this. What do they know that I don’t? Hang on, the name sounds familiar. Wasn’t there a game named something like that just a few years ago?”
Ten years. It was only ten years ago, no sequels since, and they’re putting out a game with the exact same name. What are fans supposed to say after the second comes out? “Oh I hate Prey, I much prefer Prey.” Ridiculous! Even if there’s were a discerning in-fiction reason (parallel universes or something) that gave an actual good reason to call the games by the same name (let’s give a lot of benefit of the doubt here, for the sake of argument) then you still have to worry about marketing to the general public and internet searchability, and the uninitiated aren’t going to be as sympathetic to your confusing of the issue by ‘staying in character’ or whatever.
Maybe someone more in the know can tell me a good reason to confuse traffic in this way (like there’s already an established number of searches for that topic, thereby making it cheaper to piggy back on the old game’s presence), but if there is such a reason, it seems ludicrously short-sighted and cynical.
Which brings me to Star Wars: Battlefront, which is actually Battlefront3. The fact that it’s made by a different studio doesn’t change the fact that I bought, played and enjoyed two prior Battlefront games, one of which was called Star Wars: Battlefront. However, Disney does seem intent on overwriting absolutely everything bar the movies from pre-2012 Star Wars. When the reboot was announced I tried to Google the name of the original game to see what year it was released, as it seemed too recent to be smothering up the name in the same manner as you might get away with in a 50 year old movie.
2004. *weeping* “It was only twelve years old! It had its whole life ahead of it”. Comical as that sounds, there’s a point to note there. Any distinctly named game will presumably be searchable for decades to come. At a time where the preservation of digital art is becoming an increasingly hot topic, knowingly smothering the presence of any game that came before is irresponsible, and seems almost even callous.
By the way, to find the answer ‘2004’, I had to search for Battlefront 2 and work my way back from there. If I hadn’t known of the sequel, let’s say I’m a 10 year old, not 29, those two older games may as well never have existed, unless someone tells me about them.
Now try this on for size: The Playstation VR title Battlezone is a reboot of the original Atari Battlezone from 1980, and not of the 1998 Battlezone or its 2016 re-release “Battlezone 1998 Redux”, nor of 1999’s Battlezone II: Combat Commander. Do you see how complicated this starts to get? And historically, these are very interesting games! Often underappreciated, yet doing all sorts of new things each time the name appeared. This is a prime example of games we should want to preserve and research in the future. Why the newest version couldn’t just have been called Battlezone VR is beyond me.
You’ve gotten my point by now. Doom (2016) should be called Doom 4 or even “Doom 2016″, but it wasn’t. Sorry, Doom is a game that already existed and that still has thousands of concurrent players daily. In five years time, I’ll be you anything that more people will be playing classic Doom than current Doom, as great as the new one is. You don’t get to steamroll the older title and pretend it didn’t exist. Which is ironic to say because 2016’s version is clearly such a love letter to the original. It seems a shame to me that it copy/pasted the name. Imitation is the best form of flattery, but not when it extends to cutting off and then wearing your idol’s skin.
In Conclusion – What have I missed?
It’s clearly a growing trend to name newer games the same as the originals, even after as little as 10 years, and I can only think of negative consequences for doing so. Is it just more ‘hip’ to drop the number?
It actually disgusts me. The notion that we’re so fickle that we’ll forget about the originals, or somehow appreciate the newer versions more because they didn’t have the number 4 or 5 in the name. You might argue that new players are more likely to pick up a game if they don’t feel like they’ve already missed 5 instalments, but to hide your game’s ancestry for that reason alone is so sardonic! That theory also sounds like something that overpaid marketers may have merely convinced themselves is true rather than something sales data has actually backed up. After all, I bought Assassin’s Creed IV, Civilization V, Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and Fallout 4 all without having played prior games. And I know many who have done the same.
Fudging the numbers in this way is being done by the biggest companies with the biggest marketing departments. There must be some logic to it. It doesn’t seem like something that someone convinced themselves was now trendy while sipping on a 50% hops IPA that is actually brewed in old French wheelbarrows (I’m trying to say “the latest thing that someone suddenly decides is hip”). I’m convinced that there must be real concerted logic at work, here, but I can’t figure it out.
Whatever the logic, or lack thereof, it’s damaging to the preservation and searchability of games. I can hear the response “don’t care, old games don’t sell well. I’ve a monthly bonus to stretch for. I’m not concerned with history”, but can I counter with this example?
A new player comes to Gears of War 4. Loves it. Decides they want to play all the other Gears games. You know; 1, 2, and 3. You’ve made 3 extra (albeit lower-priced) sales on the back of 1. Well done. What about Judgment? You lost that sale didn’t you? Why, because it wasn’t very clear that it existed, and that’s the most recent and thus highest-priced of the previous games that you failed to sell.
So, what of it all? I’m afraid my advice is simply “just be honest with the damned numbers or don’t use them! And never use a name that’s already been used”. Hell, if you use a name even similar to somebody else’s you get sued. Bethesda initiated legal proceedings against Mojang when they announced Scrolls a few years ago because it sounded too similar to their series The Elder Scrolls. But you’re allowed do it to yourself because it’s your property? Legally, okay, sure, but what about the consumers?
I’ll leave you with a section from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)’s website about trademarks.
What is trademark infringement? Trademark infringement is the unauthorized use of a trademark or service mark on or in connection with goods and/or services in a manner that is likely to cause confusion, deception, or mistake about the source of the goods and/or services.
“Unauthorized” doesn’t apply, but the rest is worth thinking about.