Commentary Corner - Third Parties in Gaming

Commentary Corner - Third Parties in Gaming

I have been lined up to go back to the well and finish Darkest Dungeon for some time now. But every time I think of picking it up, I think about anything else I could be doing instead. One day I will share with you the secret of one of the best games ever made, that I both love and hate to play. So on we go.

With Darkest Dungeon being delayed until I can summon the strength to endure it's psychological assault again, I have endeavoured to take up painting. Except I'm at the stage where I need to base-coat miniatures and my airbrush decided to suddenly develop several crippling mechanical faults. So, here I am.

The subject of this week's creative venture masquerading as low-effort journalism is one I've been stewing on some time. The dangers of third party organised support services. That sounds a little broad, but let me zero in on two particular organisations I had in mind. Smogon University and the 40k Independent Tournament Circuit.

I have come into contact with these organisations at various times and for different reasons. They are different, but they are also similar. They are a collective of fans of a particular product (Pokemon for Smogon and 40k for ITC). These organisations are borne out of a desire to formalize a community of like-minded people with the purpose of creating a place for those with similar opinions to meet, engage and maybe even stand up a few ancillary services.

Now I have no issue with those who choose to gather with like-minded people to discuss their hobby. I do that frequently and have developed life-long friends as a result. But the danger comes when the community loses sight of its core goals. Either that or they decide (or think) they know better than the primary creator of their chosen property and take up tinkering with it. Both Smogon and ITC are guility of this, with mixed results.

In the case of Smogon University, they created the first real "six v six" pokemon battling community. It was a place for people to meet who enjoyed playing pokemon. Around them they created an intricate tiering system and also developed a flash-based pokemon battling simulator, Pokemon Showdown. This all sounds excellent for the Pokemon Battling community. Not to mention Smogon U has persisted where lots of third party ancillary organisations have failed.

But that doesn't tell the whole story. Smogon's relationship with the primary entities responsible for Pokemon, Game Freak and Nintendo, is completely one-sided. They consume the content these companies produce and don't get a rite of reply. So to maintain relevance, they try and enforce their rules and their views on the tiny area they can control - Pokemon Showdown. For those who choose to battle online through official avenues - 3v3 singles or the Nintendo-branded Video Game Championships - Smogon holds no influence.

The cost for this is paid by all online Pokemon battling fans. It is responsible for the fracturing of a large database into several smaller shards. Each one of those with its own rules and locations in which they engage. In an environment where every player is a precious resource that should spend as little time confused as possible, this represents a significant problem.

But rather than understand the situation Smogon finds itself in where it is the smallest of the three players. The organisation instead persists on dragging players away from the other two primary avenues of online play. I understand why - Smogon can enforce tight controls on the Pokemon Showdown and control a ruleset of its own making.

But the volunteer staff at Smogon are not game designers. The ruleset Smogon has developed is a mess of clauses and conditions unenforcable outside of their platform. Though Sword and Shield isn't a great title - it's online features and its battling system are top notch - and far exceed the capabilities of Pokemon Showdown. Smogon's decision to continue to try and adjust their own internal rulesets (including a frankly ridiculous ban on the generation's core mechanic, Dynamaxing) speaks of an organisation that has gone beyond wishing simply to be a social community and instead become organisation that wishes for those who play online to play on their terms. Without realising that unless you look for Smogon you'll never find it, and it has long-since been eclipsed by Nintendo's official arms of online play.

That isn't to say that Smogon isn't a useful resource for those that wish to play online. But it's far deviated from that original purpose and it shows. You lost, you just don't know it yet. The decision to go above and beyond hasn't backfired, but it has driven potential players off. It's time to modernize.

Our next subject in focus is wildly successful. Borne during the sixth edition of Warhammer 40k, when Games Workshop was miniatures first, rules never, ITC was created as a way to keep Tournament 40k alive. These days it's the only player in town and ITC is 'the' format. It won and those of us who didn't like it can feel free to get out of the way.

Which, in the end, we did. I haven't played in a 40k tournament for a very long time. Part of that was the changing rules and the gradual disapora of my core play group. But 8th edition signalled the end of the long breath of air that players took and I haven't played an ITC tournament - why is that?

Put simply, it's not 40k. It's 40k fed through the filter of something like professional sports, or magic the gathering. It rewards win streaks, playing like an animal to get results and generally throws other smaller parts of the hobby out of the window. I was never any good at painting when I was younger (hell, I'm still not all that good at it) - but I appreciated those who were.

I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with tournament 40k. After all, I was raised on it. But there comes a point where you have realise that what you are doing is not 40k. Fortunately Games Workshop has a better relationship with those who run ITC and they are swallowing the only good thing to come out of ITC - its missions. So maybe this is much ado about nothing.

Just like Smogon - there's nothing wrong with a group of like minded people coming together to discuss strategy and everything else relevant to their hobby. But at some point when you tinker with the core components of your particular hobby, there is a risk that what you end up with isn't what you had hoped for after all. I don't consider the ITC format particularly good and those who used to be prepared to brave tournament events express to me their disdain for the tournament format. Though our biggest ITC event regularly gets 150+ attendees.

Overall both these organisations are solid - but they splinter already threatened playerbases. Often it's over trivial matters and the decisions they take - banning Dynamaxing in Pokemon is a prime example - often result in more problems than they solve. Maybe I'm just really cranky about that - who knows.

Catch you next time,
Vulkan

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Rowan Naveau

About Rowan Naveau

I'm Rowan (Vulkan) - and this is my blog. Here you'll find a stream of consciousness about video games, wargaming and just about everything else.