Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why PokeWoW Makes Me Feel Old

I'm having a hard time deciding if this is more disturbing than Kung Fu Panda or the other way around.
It's been a few weeks now but I have been thoroughly unable to dredge up any enthusiasm for the "Pet Battle System" announced for Mists of Pandaria. It seems very closely based on the gaming principles of Pokemon, I somehow picture a Blizzard developers' meeting where somebody stood up and shouted, "Now we have something for those free-loading companion pets to do!"

But Pokemon is a toy franchise guaranteed to bring a sneer of disgust to about 50% of the people I know, comeplete disinterest from another 49% and wriggles of excitement from the 1% like my nephew who is nine. Granted, the whole Poke-franchise has been around for probably close to 15 years now, so there are probably college graduates who grew up with these things now, but these things are not still so popular, are they?

Pokemon is a wildly sucessful franchise for a lot of reasons but I think part of its success is that it works very well for the market it is aimed at: young children. The characters stepped into by players do not technically fight. They just train little pugilists for a good clean fight in the ring. As a parent, I might not like having my young children play a game in which their self-identified characters "fight."  But, having them play a character in which they have little surrogate fighters that they "train" would give a modicum of distance from that violence that might be healthier for those little tykes. Might. I'm pretty sure the research is still out on that question.

Small children, developmentally, don't distinguish fantasy from reality the same way adults do, so this surrogate battle system is actually an important safety feature for the emotions that come from winning and losing. Small children can go into a hysterical funk or exhibit other weird, unexpected behaviors based on their performance at a task. Rather than fight with characters with whom the children self-identify, Children train their Pokepets to throw the punches and do the hard work. That lets parents deflect a "loss" in battle with a well-phrased line like, "Well, you did your best. It was Pikachu who blew it."

It is difficult to find specific figures on Pokepopularity, but some research suggests that Pokemon just doesn't play beyond teenagers, and that nostalgia (rather than good gameplay) is the chief draw for anybody getting into their latter teens. This seems like it happens for pretty clear reasons to me.

Gamers, as they move into adulthood, crave more visceral experience with enhanced emotional depth. First person shooters do this. So does a well-developed RPG. Who wants to do surrogate pet fights when you could instead step into the boots of the Master Chief and blow holes in the Flood? Pet battles, I would argue, probably don't succeed with adult gamers for most of the same reasons that they are so popular and developmentally appropriate for smaller children.

Which just brings us to the question:  Why do we need PokeWoW?  The "Gotta catch 'em all" craze peaked some time ago, so Blizzard's move has a faint whiff of staleness to it. Blizzard doesn't have to present us with cutting edge gameplay at every turn, but fighting midget monsters seems goofy in comparison to the usual level of gameplay WoW players are used to.

I dunno what's going on. But I can speculate:

Blizzard thinks the untapped market for WoW lies in the "Under Tween" set?
We've speculated about Blizzard subscription numbers before, and how it would seem that Blizzard has co-opted every reasonable demographic they can get their hands on. But, this would be a new possibility. There are probably a few million parents in WoW now who would like to be able to bring their own kids to Azeroth, but think they may not really be ready to raid Ragnaros.

But really? Come on, are we really going to lead our children to Elwynn Forest with all the trolls, sexplay, and other general foulness that keeps most adults I know out of there? Certainly not, and current WoW parents know this better than anybody I'm sure.

I've thought long and hard about how I could bring young family members to Azeroth and I just can't find much of a way to do it that would be safe for children.  I don't think Blizzard has any significant track record we can point at to say how they manage family friendliness. Blizzard games are not, in my opinion, family friendly at all. They are not hostile either... don't get me wrong. But Blizzard knows its market and (at least until now) that market did not include 8-year-olds.

Nostalgia is a bigger draw than I would imagine.
Are there hordes of (young?) adults who remember their Pokedays fondly and would like to relive some of that sort of glory again in Azeroth? It seemed to me that, in the late 90s, nostalgia fads moved up and out of popularity almost constantly.  But, I just don't see that so much recently. I guess I could concede the possibility but it just doesn't seem likely to me.

PokeWoW isn't actually going to be as Poke as we think it will be.
This is a big possibility: that despite first appearances, there is something about this system they are designing that will make it entirely different. Blizzard does tend to make positive surprises for us in terms of gameplay after all. So, despite the fact that Cory Stockton got up and introduced this system in terms that made the Blizzcon audience guffaw and wait for a punchline, this pet battle system could, in fact, be nothing like the pet battle system from the Japanese kawaii nation. But, it seems to me we are still all waiting for the punchline a few weeks later and um... it doesn't seem to be on the way.

Is there a problem with the existence of this system?

Probably not but, tsk.... do we have to?  I'd like to think that they'll bring the pet battles and I'll ignore them.  But I'm sure they'll bring a great slew of PokeWoW achievements too and since I'm a total achievement slut on my main, I'll feel compelled to give many of them a go.

It won't be a problem, so long as they don't start burying Poke-references in the game. For example, if any new companion pet appears that might reasonably be mistaken for a pikachu, I'm going to hurl.  Blizzard loooves a good pop culture reference, and Pokereference already exists in the achievements around the Iron Council in Ulduar ("I Choose You, Runemaster Molgel!") It really should not become even easier to see. Again, Pokemon peaked some time ago. These references are as stale as that brown broccoli I found in my fridge this morning.

It probably won't be a problem, but Blizzard seems so intent on cramming more features into the game, and yet they take so many shortcuts on other things. I just have to stop and wonder what it would be like if they reallocated their resources and actually... produced more and better content.

I'm not obtuse enough to pretend that PokeWoW isn't "content" in the sense that it won't give people something to do in game. And I won't disagree that some people are really going to love it. But what if the people working on pet battles had been assigned to generate another two or three dungeons so that Blizzard didn't have to recycle Scarlet Monastery and Scholomance back at us again? God, I hate recycled dungeons.

Blizzard says time and again that it's different people working on these functions-- that the pet battle people are on a different team from the dungeon development team. And I'll say time and again that it's poor management and planning if they can't hire more of the right people to actually produce the quality of content we have become used to, rather than have to make up new things like "pet battles."

I think about the last time Blizzard co-opted the gameplay of another popular genre. Has everybody visited the Alterac Mountains and gotten a crack at the Plants vs. Zombies homage they have there? Did anybody else think that it was a lousy, terrible and sometimes frustrating approximation of that game's gameplay?  That P vs. Z adventure was sort of a lark, and not meant as a serious diversion from normal WoWplay, and I'm happy to have my singing sunflower pet (argh, what "fight" abilities is she going to get?) but in most regards, it was not a good thing.

I guess a large question here, and one that I probably am just being pessimistic about, is this: Does PokeWoW take anything away from the game that we have now? Answer: Probably not.  Blizzard would surely say that they are just adding more dimension and depth to WoW.  I just guess that I like WoW for what it is now and I don't need it to be all things in my gaming world.  If I want to play pet battles, I'll grab my Nintendo DS and head over to my brother's house and play against his kids. I don't think I'll want to play against my guild.

1 comment:

  1. Are you still conducting foodstuff science experiments in your refrigerator?
    Brown Broccoli experiments?