Game announcements are spewing out of the Los Angeles convention center as E3 2011 is in full swing. Promises from developers and publishers reveal more than factoids about specific games. They indicate broader trends of the gaming future to come. Now, with more and more cards laid out on the table, a simple divination is clear: an information revolution is brewing and multiplayer gaming will never be the same.
Although Valve’s Gabe Newell has predicted (and notably advocated for) the delivery of games as a service, his vision has only slowly come to fruition. With the announcement of Modern Warfare 3’s Call of Duty: Elite, a new era of content delivery seems guaranteed. Meanwhile, coupled with the continued growth of alternative distributions models, a wave of player-tailored information is dramatically changing what we come to expect from our multiplayer experiences.
Fans of the Modern Warfare franchise were rightly excited about the news of Elite. While most media outlets were abuzz with concerns regarding the pay wall that Activision will implement, it became easy to forget that most of Elite’s features will be absolutely free to all players. The service provides notable features absent from past Modern Warfare titles and most shooters. Heat-maps, for example, will educate players about areas on each map in which kills and deaths take place. These heat-maps will also be tailored to each player’s performance, offering unique insight into personal play styles and paths towards self-improvement. Remarkably in-depth stat tracking adds to the library of play information collected for Elite users. BeachHead, the creative team behind Elite, are also incorporating a theatre mode, a clan and group management system (including user-created leaderboards), and an assortment of social networking integration.
As a few journalists correctly pointed out, not all of these features are completely new. Bungie.net has offered video recording and sharing features in their Halo franchise for some time now. Plenty of shooters make basic player statistics available — at least allowing individuals to track their kill/death ratios over time. It is not the existence of Elite that heralds the coming information revolution in multiplayer gaming but the sheer amount of information collected and the breadth of its reach. Modern Warfare 3 is making player access to massive amounts of information commonplace, but it is just one of many games advancing data collection and distribution.
In obvious response to Activision’s Elite service, DICE tailored their own Battlefield 3 announcement to emphasize the game’s accompanying “Battlelog” database. According to the press release, the service features “powerful social tools, feeds and detailed player stats. Battlelog also lets you manage your friends lists, squad up, create platoons, use voice chat and follow your friends’ progress in real-time, and more.” And to the notable joy of many, this service will be free.
The issue of price is an interesting one. As the hacktavist slogan liberally borrowed from Steward Brand states, “information wants to be free.” The validity of this statement aside, the response to Elite’s price wall indicates that at the very least players want information to be free. As I mentioned above in regards to Elite’s service, most of it is free, and once we have had a taste, we will not want to give it back. Information is clearly and immensely valuable and devilishly hard to quantify and commodify. Activision has promised that the premium service of Elite will cost no more than a subscription to Netflix, currently about eight dollars at its minimum. Even so, this price must be justified. Already they have stated that some amount of DLC (more easily quantifiable merchandise) will be offered to paying Elite subscribers. In time, and with other developers offering the same information for free, withholding information will become increasingly less viable.
With an information revolution comes new ways to use and organize data. The World of Warcraft Armory database collects a vast amount of information about every player on every server and allows anyone access to that data. While individuals can and do use this system to improve their own play habits, it can also be used to by outsiders to encourage introspection. A recent study by Nick Yee at the Palo Alto Research Center collected information from the Armory to examine perceived gender roles in World of Warcraft. EVE Online corporations regularly plumb CCP’s database using player ID numbers to recruit and monitor their members.
Riot Games is putting even more power in the hands of players through their new peer adjudication system, which allows users to vote on whether their fellow League of Legend players should be punished or pardoned for their in-game behavior. In order to judge fairly, users are given battle statistics and chat records for every match for which the accused stands trials. Player adjudicators are rewarded for voting amongst the consensus with in-game points to spend as they choose, encouraging regular participation in a clever self-policing system. By trusting players with more information, Riot is maneuvering around a problem that has plagued multiplayer gaming for ages.
There are two forces driving data collection and distribution to new heights. First, gamers have never been more entitled than they are today. We are consistently fed illusions of grandeur. Why relinquish features when they are at last delivered? Second, publishers will always try to outdo each other. Data collection systems are already widely in use, now it is simply a matter of packaging it best for consumption. The pieces are already in place. Mark my words, the multiplayer information revolution is coming and it will be televised.
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