Minimum Standards

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.