Thursday, April 5, 2012

With Bated Breath and Trepidation

Modern War, the new magazine coming in June (2012) form Decision Games, is the gaming magazine I’ve always wanted. It’s focused on modern topics and has a game in every issue, which, for me, is just about the perfect thing. I’ve wanted this magazine for so long that I once wrote a proposal to do exactly this magazine back in 2002. It was called Perspectives in Modern Conflict, and I pitched it to Doc at DG at the time. He didn’t seem particularly interested, and I ended up working on Fire & Movement instead. (I also pitched it to ATO, who showed more interest, but ultimately it never went anywhere.)

So I was pleased, if a bit startled, to discover that Doc decided to do a modern magazine after all. I was even asked to contribute to it by a member of the staff, but alas, my current work limits my capacity to participate meaningfully at this time. Nevertheless, I will subscribe to the magazine even though I don’t subscribe to the other magazines. But it’s the reasons that I don’t subscribe to those other magazines that I use the word trepidation in the title.

DG has hit upon a strategy for S&T and now WaW that seems to work for them. The games limit their ambition to well established or very simple systems that emphasize playability more than anything else. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what I personally like.

Without going into yet another SPI lament, one thing I really miss about that company was its willingness to innovate, even at the expense of a game’s playability. They were seeking to understand the dynamics of situations and express those dynamics in game form. It frequently didn’t work that well as a game, but always proved an interesting intellectual engagement, at least for me.

Maybe I’m just different. I don’t’ play competitively; I seldom even play to win. I play to glean some insight from the situation, some understanding of conflict to add to my broader narrative. Looking at how some designer approached a situation, modeled it in game form, and then examining the ramifications as a game plays out is an intellectual pursuit that I relish. It’s one I’m particularly interested in in the modern context of conflict. In my opinion, the world is more interesting now that it ever has been. To examine that world through serious games, I want serious game designs that take on current issues that are novel and innovative in their own right. So I want games that are novel and innovative and I’m quite content with the fact that it may damage their playability.

DG is unlikely to give me that. The last several years of S&T and WaW have demonstrated DG’s commitment to making their games as playable as possible. From their point of view, and the point of view of most gamers, this can hardly be couched as a bad thing. Good for them.

But modern topics are different. Net-centric, cyber, air-sea battle, all of these descriptors for aspects of modern conflict have wide reaching ramifications worthy of deep exploration in our serious games. Looking at the first half dozen issues of Modern War doesn’t give me a lot of hope for that. Bruce Costello’s original design submission to S&T for Red Dragon Rising looked nothing like what was ultimately published. The result was a slick, very playable game that has very little to say about the potential reality of the event portrayed. Costello’s original design, unflatteringly described as “overwrought” at the time, had much more to say. It contained cyber and net-centric elements, and had a much more reality-based approach to the subject. I desperately hope that his new iteration in issue 1 of Modern War will bring some of these things back to the table, but I’m not hopeful, especially after DG’s development team are done with it. We’re probably going to get a very playable, entertaining game. I predict that it may even win some awards. But I’m skeptical that it will really be what I’m hoping for.

Looking at the other issues doesn’t give me much optimism either. The premise for the Oil War game seems far-fetched and comes across more like an effort to remake an old game than to tell us anything really interesting about the theater it takes place within (which is really sad given all the things that are happening there now). And of course, we have a back to Korea topic in the mix as well. Gods be praised. Somali Pirates holds some promise, but in truth the first six offerings look more like a closet cleaning than a well thought-out plan to seriously deal with modern and current events in conflict.

The articles and authors previewed so far also leave me with some distress. It looks like the same names and faces as those in S&T and WaW; which is to say that the content is written by hobbyists with a sprinkling of subject matter experts. Current events and history are not the same thing. Writers of one are not necessarily qualified to write about the other. I was able to preview one of the upcoming articles for issue 1 in its entirety. It’s good in a superficial way, but it lacks much of the strategic insight an actual subject matter expert could have brought to the table. And what’s sad is that there are an abundant number of said SMEs to choose from. You just have to go after them … which takes effort.

So yes, I’ve put in my pledge to subscribe to the new magazine, and I expect I will remain a subscriber. It is my dream magazine after all, or at least as close as I’m ever likely to get unless I do it myself. In truth, DG’s approach may be the best one, as it will probably have a much more broad appeal than mine would. Many of my favorite wargames are referred to as valiant failures. Sad (in many ways) as I think that moniker is, I suppose it is better to have a cowardly success than it is a valiant failure, especially where running a business is concerned. But here’s to hoping DG proves me wrong. In the meantime, I continue to wait with baited breath and trepidation.