Minimum Standards

On October 22, 2008, in Culture, by psu

Ever since Fresh Air started putting up a daily podcast I’ve spent entirely too much time in the car listening to Terry Gross or one of her cohorts interview various people who are famous for various reasons. I have noticed something interesting about the “entertainment” related shows. Often they will perform a friendly interview with the director or star of some new TV show or movie. Everyone will sound intelligent and thoughtful, it will make you want to see the film. Then, later on, you will find out that the film is crap. After this happened a few times a little bulb went off in my head. That’s just like video game reviews.

I have noticed something else about Fresh Air that is similar to the video game press. I call it the “enthusiast distortion field”. Often the TV critic will wax lyrical about some brilliant program in the current “season” (or whatever they are calling that artificial time-based construct the TV networks use to make it less convenient for you to obtain and enjoy their content). You will listen to the review and think to yourself, “this guy seems intelligent and well spoken, maybe this show is interesting”. Later on you might accidentally run across the show on TV. You might even actually go and find it on the iTunes store or something. However you come into contact with the content the result is almost always the same: after five minutes you think: How can anyone not think this is complete crap?.

This has happened to me on multiple occasions. It’s to the point where I’ve basically given up on series TV altogether. The last time I can remember really enjoying a TV series was the first season of The Sopranos. By the middle of the second season of the show it was clear that Chase was pretty much done. By the middle of the third season it was clear that one should just disconnect the HBO lest you accidentally watch more.

My theory is that enthusiasts in any given area of endeavor: sports, television, video games, genre fiction, comics have a tendency to overestimate the quality and entertainment value of the target of their enthusiasm. This makes sense I suppose, it is what makes them enthusiasts. However, what this means for you and me and the other normal people is that we have to be very careful about asking these folks for objective information about what they love so much.

What I realized after my latest adventure following up on TV recommendations from Fresh Air was that one must establish personal minimum standards for these things so that you do not waste your time on something you will end up hating. So for TV my new standard is that I will not pay attention until the next show comes around that is as good as Season 1 of The Sopranos. Otherwise I’ll stick to food shows and sports.

This scheme also applies to video games. For example, I generally avoid playing games on my computer because there tends to be a whole metagame associated with this activity that I call “spend you entire life building and maintaining a machine that can play the game”. I am not interested in this game.

The minimum standard technique comes to the rescue again. Over the last couple of months I have actually played more computer games than I have in the past ten years. First, courtesy of Blizzard I spent a few weeks attacking the minions of Hell. Second, on peterb’s recommendation, I tried out Crossover Games and discovered to my glee that Valve still thinks I own Half-Life 2 on Steam.

In the past I have said unkind things about Steam, but in its current incarnation and from the comfort of my modern Mac and networking world, I think things have greatly improved. I could not help but be impressed that four years after I touched Half-Life 2 on any PC in the entire world Valve would let me login and just say “OK here you go” and happily deliver the bits to me all over again. And there I was playing the game on a Macintosh, not even running Windows. I found this to be a stunning turn of events.

In any case, the Diablo 2 and Half-Life 2 experiences point to a clear set of minimum requirements for a game to be playable on my computer:

1. Works out of the box 100% of the time on the hardware I own.

2. No stupid optical disks for either installing the game or proving that I own the game. Just authenticate me on a web site, or equivalent, once in a while.

3. Works out of the box 100% of the time on the hardware I own.

4. The game is actually polished, relatively bug free, and well designed.

5. I am allowed to install the game on a reasonable number of machines that I own without undue difficulty.

From what I know of the PC developer landscape these minimum standards boil down to a pretty easy rule: play games made by Valve or Blizzard. I often wonder why other developers don’t follow Valve and Blizzard formula for game production, but that’s another article.

This set of realizations has helped me to immensely simplify a large part of my life as a content consumer. I should probably try to extend the rules into other domains like sports teams, food, console games, and books. But you can’t rush these things. You have to let them develop at their own pace.


5 Responses to “Minimum Standards”

  1. peterb says:

    The “No stupid optical disc” point is, for me, key. Just this past weekend I had the following conversation with myself, I swear to God.

    “Hey. I’d sort of like to play Civilization IV.”
    [I go to the Games folder and double click on the app. It asks me for the disc.]
    “Huh? I have no goddamn idea where the disc is. I guess I won’t play this game.”

    On the one hand, this is cutting off my nose to spite my face. Maybe the publisher shouldn’t care: I did buy the game, after all. They already have my money, right?

    I have, however, noticed that I do this. Which means that I’ve pretty much stopped buying computer games that require me to have a disc in the drive. I’ll still put up with it for console games, but frankly it sort of pisses me off there, too. I should just be able to fly home from work with my jetpack, have my robot serve me a Manhattan, and be able to play games, watch movies, and all the rest, without the burden of having to locate a physical token on any sort beyond the device required to play or display it.

  2. psu says:

    Yeah, where are those direct neural media implants anyway?

  3. TsuDhoNimh says:

    A workaround for the Civ 4 issue (if you want any of the expansions, that is) is to buy the expansions from Steam. Then, the game authenticates via Steam instead of CD. However, if for some reason you want to play the Original Civ 4, you’re still out of luck.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the article, though. I just got finished throwing away all of my old game boxes and most of the manuals. It was at first a painful admission that no, I’m not going to play these games ever again, but then it became liberating as I saw how much shelf space those huge old boxes take on my shelf.

  4. KillahMate says:

    Two comments on the two separate parts of the post:

    1) Have you watched The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood? In view of your incredibly (I’d say ridiculously, but that’s faintly confrontational) high standards for broadcast television, these are possibly the only three TV shows in the last five years you might be interested in. I’ve never met anyone with such high standards, and I’m really interested in what you might think of these three. (Of course, if you haven’t seen one or more of them, my highest recommendations – they’re all worth at least a try.)

    2) Other developers *do* not only follow Valve and Blizzard’s formula, but in fact lead the way. Witness Stardock, creators of Galactic Civilizations and publishers of Sins of a Solar Empire, very beautiful games with very reasonable hardware requirements, that have *no DRM whatsoever*. It’s in fact company policy, as you can tell by their “Gamer’s Bill of Rights” (which you should read, I think you’ll like it very much, since the rights they impart on their customers make your requirements seem positively conservative and lenient). All the games are of course downloadable directly from the company site, with the physical box completely optional.

  5. Derek says:

    Valve, Blizzard, or independent developers. I have yet to try anything from that I didn’t enjoy greatly, and none of them have violated any of your minimum requirements. As an added bonus, they’re generally less expensive too.