Seven months ago, when I began writing this column, I suspected the things I would be talking about were mostly wishful thinking. The idea that an increasingly entrenched game industry would see value in connecting casual, social or mobile gamers to their blockbuster triple-A titles through meaningful gameplay seemed likely to fall by the wayside in favour of a more aggressive exploitation via insidiously monetised shovelware. How could developers – constantly understaffed and struggling to make every deadline – ever find the time to build a Facebook or iPhone game that would meaningfully link casual players to their $50-million Christmas release if they couldn’t find the time to make their beta?
The World Of Warcraft Armoury has been around for quite a while, but let’s face it: Blizzard can afford to put a man on the Moon if they want to, so they’re not much of a model for the rest. Various Spore-based browser apps allow you to look at the Sporepedia on a mobile device, but these offer no gameplay to speak of, and aren’t even built by EA. The best that the year’s biggest releases could muster – such as Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – were fan-made game guides and various utilities for mobile devices that allowed you to find intel drops, know what perks and killstreak rewards were coming, and read some map strategies. While useful, none of these things were meaningfully linking different groups of players to a single, unified experience.
I wasn’t the only non-believer, either. I received plenty of emails from people who are sceptical of the idea that some 40-year-old executive might want to manage a crime family from his Android phone, and in doing so, drive a component of the open-world urban crime game that his son is playing at home. More openly hostile emails condemned me for selling out to the marketing vampires I identified in the intro for saying that we could do everything I was suggesting while making a profit, and others accused me of undermining the ultimate goal of building the perfect immersive simulation of everything.
But while my pipedreams and prognostications may remain heretical for some people, they might also end up coming true. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – developed by my esteemed former co-workers – has done a fantastic job of opening the door for a huge audience of casual and social gamers to peer into the amazing and beautiful world of Renaissance Italy and the life of Ezio. I had no idea Assassins’s Creed: Legacy was being developed, but it achieves many of the things I suggested months ago (and, in many ways, better than I imagined – which is no surprise, knowing who was involved). This is an important first step towards the future that I’m talking about, because it challenges the notion that the kinds of fantasies gamers are interested in are inaccessible to a broader audience. We may have always suspected that the fantasy of Assassin’s Creed had a broad appeal beyond the existing audience of a few million hardcore gamers – but we couldn’t prove it. Now we can. Soon we’ll be able to measure the appeal of that fantasy to a real audience.
Dust 514 – a shooter based in the world of Eve Online and currently in development – openly attempts to link two of the most hardcore audiences of gamers out there: competitive online FPS players and dedicated PVP MMOG players. While the potential scope of this intramedia link is smaller than that which would connect Assassin’s Creed on console to Facebook gamers, the data will be just as interesting and important. Will an audience of ‘me first’ shooter players accept the cascade of consequences that emerge from the proposed design? Will they – for example – willingly engage in a battle that they know they can’t win in order to achieve the strategic goal of a group of players in Eve? Will Eve players be willing to leave their best-laid invasion plans in the hands of a bunch of bickering 14-year-olds with hyper-conductive nervous systems? Is the patience and ruthless plotting of the Eve community compatible with the twitchy thirst for chaos of an FPS community?
And perhaps the most important question raised by these games is whether or not the connection between these different audiences will act as a gateway between the games. Will people who have never picked up a controller and played a console game before give Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood a chance if they are invested in its Facebook counterpart Legacy? Will ageing shooter fans who play Dust 514 decide to give Eve a try when their reflexes fail them and they fall under the curve?
In time, we’ll have answers to these and other questions, and developers will already be hard at work on a second wave of games that strive to do even more than I imagined. As William Gibson once said: “The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed yet.”
Clint Hocking is a creative director at LucasArts working on an unannounced project. He blogs at www.clicknothing.com. Read and follow Clint's other columns on his topic page.