Us Surrender? Aw, Nuts!

Some people like to be buried before they are dead. A friend of mine started calling himself an “old man” at fraternity events within fifteen minutes of graduating. He’s younger than I am, but that doesn’t stop him from taking stock of his diminishing powers and and freedoms every time we meet for drinks. I fear he’s willing his youth away by constantly telling himself that it’s leaving him.

Wargamers and hardcore PC gamers can be like that. Like Elves they talk in weary, faraway voices about the world that was before the age of metal, steam, and consoles. They lament the vanished kingdoms of SSI, Dynamix, and TalonSoft while constructing the ships that will bear them to Grey Havens. The industry has changed. It has evolved. Things will never again be as they were. We understand.

Julian Murdoch observed on a recent Three Moves Ahead that most people like to be on the bandwagon, on the winning team. But strategy gamers and wargamers always seem defeated, evangelizing with all the charisma and conviction of Eeyore. “You probably won’t care. I couldn’t blame you. But Scourge of War: Gettysburg is out. It’s pret-ty good. It’d probably bore you. You probably just want to play Red Dead.

Sometimes we are guilty of this on TMA, but on balance we spend far more time celebrating strategy and wargames and checking out under-the-radar projects like Gettysburg and AI War. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we make strategy gaming sound cool (in what universe are Bruce, Julian, Tom, Troy, and me at the “cool kids’ table”?). At least you can tell we’re having a lot of fun, and you’re invited.

Grognards, seen here fending off an aggressive probe by mainstream gamers.

On the other hand, when Alex Macris, the publisher of The Escapist, writes something like this, I get a little frustrated. I am in complete agreement with him on most of his points. Like him, I sometimes feel alienated from gaming’s mainstream. Like him, I have been a harsh critic of the industry’s drift toward the blockbuster business model, and I’ve expressed that opinion at The Escapist.

What bothers me is the fact that Alex Macris laments the slow death of the type of gaming that he loves, but he of all people is in a pretty good position to champion it. Yet you would never guess, from looking at The Escapist, that the publisher is an old-school PC gamer and a dyed-in-the-wool grognard.

It’s not that The Escapist caters solely to mainstream interests. If you look at the features and columns they run, to say nothing of their video series, you’ll find quite a lot of diverse content. They review all the major AAA game releases, but you’re also likely to find some reviews for manga  and the odd indie puzzler. Just about the only things The Escapist ignores, in fact, are strategy and wargaming.

So when Macris writes:

I don’t blame Creative Assembly or Matrix for adapting to the new ecological realities. They needed to in order to survive. I’m the one who hasn’t evolved.

So at E3 this year, I’ll be prowling around like some sort of saber-toothed tiger of videogaming. My food supply has grown scarce; my days as an apex consumer are limited. I’m rated E for Endangered.

I can’t help but think, “Well I wonder why.”

Is there no room in The Escapist for a grognards’ corner among the science column, the tabletop RPG column, the game design column, the movie column, etc.? Is the publisher of The Escapist so resigned to going extinct that he won’t use his platform to try and reproduce? Surely, if he is still buying games from Matrix he could take space to review one or two of them.

More grognards, deploying for an attack on the marketplace of ideas.

Admittedly, it’s easy for me to say this. The only thing I publish is this here blog, and I’m my only employee. I know my readers by name, and I pay my hosting fees with change I find underneath the futon. Nor am I responsible for churning out the volume of content that The Escapist editorial staff have to manage. And I will absolutely confess to feeling proprietary toward The Escapist, a combination of pride that I’m a part of it and frustration with the fact that it is not always the exact site I would have it be if I ruled the internet.

Still, it’s disconcerting to see the publisher of a major games site acting as if he has no agency when it comes to the decline and disappearance of his favorite types of games. The least he could do is tell readers what he likes. Maybe a few of them would decide they like it to.

I know a few of mine do.

Update: Irony

A couple days after writing the above, I dropped by The Escapist and noticed a new column, “The Game Stash”, by Steve Butts. This is exciting for a couple reasons. First, Steve Butts was the only person I ever made a point to read regularly at IGN, and I’m glad to see such a good writer showing up with a column at The Escapist.

Butts is also a great wargame and strategy reviewer. He kept reviewing them at IGN and was one of the few people I could trust when I came to gnarly, hardcore wargames and strategy games. I remember that the guys at the Wargamer forums used to go batshit when he teed-off on a Matrix game, screeching that he was being unfair to wargames and IGN wasn’t fit to review anything deeper than Peggle… but what really drove them nuts was how fucking right he so often was. Butts didn’t slap wargames around for the hell of it: he knew that they were mired in outdated production values and design philosophies, and that the standards for videogames had gotten tougher in a lot of areas. He was unwilling to grant the “well, it’s a wargame” absolution that so many grognards dispense.

I don’t know whether his column will be focusing on strategy and wargames, nor do I know what types of games he will be reviewing for The Escapist. But from his past record, I can only believe that Butts’ arrival at The Escapist will go a long way to plugging the gaps I mentioned above.  I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with the space.

  1. I agree with you that The Escapist needs to be more active in advocating the marginalized genres and, indeed, has the capacity to do it.

    Though I am an avid history geek and wargamer, I would take the devil’s advocate position and say: the wargames that we love are marginalized . . . so what?

    If the sole penalty for being a niche product is having inferior graphics and production values, then I really don’t mind. As long as Matrix and similar studios still produce substantive, quality stuff, then I’m willing to overlook some pixels. I’m part of the tiny niche audience who still plays pixel-tastic Patrician III, after all.

    I’d like to offer Paradox as a counter-example, if I may. Paradox makes esoteric, hyper-realistic strategy titles, but they tend to make them with reasonably current graphics and a high bar for quality. Look at EUIII. It came out years ago at full retail price, developed a cultish but surprisingly large fanbase, then Paradox has continued to make money off of selling three expansions. Now they’re turning around and making a sequel to the even more obscure Victoria. They’re not making Modern Warfare money by any means, but it does give one hope.

    And, dangit, that’s the way we *want* it to be. As I’ve noted here before, I dislike the Total War series precisely because they started appealing too mainstream, “sold out,” to use the indie rock term. I’m reluctant to compromise depth for flash. If that means I”m going to continue to be a commercially undesirable demographic, then screw ‘em.

    Oh, and yes, I’ve always thought of myself as an old man. I am not ashamed.

    • First, Paradox is a bright spot and I’ve been really pleased to see the way they are branching out into more hardcore wargaming territory with the AGEOD acquisition and games like Achtung Panzer. However, Paradox is a bit of an outlier. 1C has a really cool lineup and there’s definitely a lot there for people interested in wargaming and strategy but the production values aren’t always there. I’m not talking about graphics, either. I’m talking about AI, interface, game mechanics… a lot of these games are really interesting but kind of crippled by bothersome flaws. Matrix is too damn expensive and perhaps a little too centered on the hardcore wargame.

      I feel like a little variety has been lost, honestly. Time was you could choose between Sid Meier’s Gettysburg or one of Talonsoft’s Battleground series (I think I’m remembering that title correctly). We had games like Myth, which told great stories over a series of tactical-puzzle missions, with loads of atmosphere. The Close Combat series was alive and well, or you could hit something a little more demanding from SSI. I don’t want to just wax nostalgic here and how great everything used to be, but I am serious when I say that I don’t feel my wargaming options are as exciting as they used to be. And I love what Paradox does, but there are limits to how much nation-building I can stand.

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