Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Worlds Within Worlds, Part 1

Here’s my glass-half-full take on the fact that I am forever lamenting the fact that my free time is minimal and fleeting, the things I turn to for leisure are time-consuming, and there exists an eternally long list of things I would do, just for fun, if I had time, which I don’t: the list keeps elongating. I know that seems at first glance to take a bad situation and make it worse, but the reason this is a silver lining is because it means I haven’t given up hope that I will eventually find a way to balance everything and check out more and more things I’ve been meaning to get into. Because if I just started ignoring movie reviews and publishing schedules after concluding that I would never dig myself out of my life-scheduling hole, that would be grim indeed. But as long as I’m still window-shopping the pop culture landscape (window-popping?) then, you know, I’m still me.

I was thinking about this the other day as I read yet another article online about a soon-to-be-released video game. (For “soon” in this case, read as “probably in the spring of 2011, but who really knows” and actually, that suits me just fine.) Video games are actually a gigantic blind spot for me, because while I enjoy them they don’t really get their hooks into me (the way they get their hooks into many of my cohorts, or the way other equally disposable entertainments get their own hooks into me) and as such I content myself with a Wii that doesn’t even get much use these days, and have never once even contemplated picking up an Xbox 360 or a PS3. I like Guitar Hero and Mario Kart and I’m moderately not terrible at them. All of which is the essence of a non-issue for me.

Moving away from consoles and into the realm of PCs, things are pretty much the same. There are three computers in my house, and none of them are particularly ideal for playing video games. I talk some good talk about replacing one or more of them with the bare minimum specs for modern gaming in mind, but so far that has yet to translate into actual action of the discretionary spending kind. As it happens, the soon-to-be-released game I was reading about is the kind I would play on the PC, and not only is it the same kind of game that I’ve logged the most hours on in the past five years or so, but it also covers a lot of the same thematic territory. None of which is all that surprising, creature of habit that I am.

For the past half-decade I’ve invested a mortifying amount of time in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (that would be the MMORPG you may have heard bandied about as stuff like World of Warcraft has risen into the collective pop consciousness) called City of Heroes. It’s a game in the sense that you run around scoring points for beating up bad guys, it’s role-playing because you play as a custom-created character in a very freeform environment tracing your way through a loosely deterministic narrative, it’s online because you need an internet connection to play because the actual data for the game resides on a server, and it’s massively multiplayer because hundreds and thousands of people connect to the same servers and all run around the same city maps fighting the same bad guys (or each other) in ways ranging from tight cooperation to outright ignoring. The basic appeal of City of Heroes, to me, should be pretty obvious: you get to make up a super hero and run him around doing comic book-y things, which becomes addictive because of the way they parcel out the tropes. The object of the game is to get to Level 50, and every level gives your character a little bit more ability. You can’t really fly until you get to level 12 or so (I think; it’s been a while since I was hardcore playing often enough to have the various milestones memorized cold) and you can’t put a proper cape on your costume until level 20, etc.

And I should point out that it’s the “make up a super hero” part that captures my attention much moreso than the “run around doing comic book-y things” part. Again, I’m no video game prodigy so when I’m engaging in actual gameplay I tend to stumble a bit and get beaten by the computer-controlled opponents more often than not, not so much that it ever stops being fun, but it can occasionally be a bit of a grind that’s fun in the same way as Minesweeper. Lots of starting over.

Whereas making up a super hero from scratch has no winning or losing, and City of Heroes has a character design interface that is mind-blowingly robust and ridiculously easy to use. You are allowed to have something like a hundred different characters saved to your game account, and I have made the most of that capacity. Sometimes when I’ve had half an hour to kill I’ve spent it customizing costume pieces like a little girl playing virtual Barbie, and ended up with yet another super hero I will never actually play in the game because I’ve already got so many others working their way through the levels. (I have yet to get even one character all the way to level 50.)

Blue skin, orange cyborg armor?  No problem!
And yet another thing I really love about the game is logging in to the virtual world and simply people watching, looking at the other player-generated characters running around on my screen and seeing the digitized hero concepts I never would have thought of in a million years. Some people obviously take great care in crafting their super avatars, coming up with a look that conveys certain compelling ideas right off the bat. Other people just want to dive into beating up bad guys and produce deliberately simplified or absurd collections of random pixels. Either approach can be fascinating.

And of course once you create your super hero character, he or she needs a name, and the same creativity-vs-apathy dynamics play out there, too, but take on another intriguing dimension, because every character name has to be unique (for data integrity reasons), and they are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. So once someone else decides to be Captain Awesome, you are restricted from choosing that name yourself. But it’s the literal character string that’s locked down by the server programming, not the underlying concept, so Capt Awesome or Cpt Awesome or Kapitan Awesomme would all be acceptable (again, acceptable at the data level, if somewhat grammatically and/or aesthetically suspect). For that matter, Captain~4WZ0M3 would be acceptable, if you don’t mind your avatar running around with what looks like a pharmaceutical spam subject line glowing over his head. (And, from my observations, some people don’t.)

Then again, eventually you run afoul of copyright. If you had your heart set on fighting crime as Captain Awesome but found that name (along with most of its variants which are not gross degradations of text-based literacy) already taken, you could try Captain Impressive or Captain Gobsmacker but you had better not even attempt to use Captain Marvel because that name is already spoken for by a major comic book publisher (technically, by both of them for completely unrelated characters, but that is a long story that I won’t get into right now). City of Heroes is unaffiliated with either DC Comics or Marvel Comics and as such the intellectual properties of those companies are not available for use in the game. It’s an “original” universe (really it’s pretty much a pastiche of both of the biggies) and you are disallowed from playing Spider-Man or Wolverine or Batman or Superman.

Ah, but what does that mean? For one thing, the owners of the City of Heroes game can go ahead and preemptively lock down those character names so that the servers never allow anyone to choose them, which is all well and good. (I should quickly note here that my understanding of the situation is that the game owners voluntarily police the players themselves so as not to incur the wrath of DC and Marvel and bring down crippling copyright-infringement lawsuits, so all of this kind of falls under “err on the side of caution” headings. The reasons why there is not a more official copyright-enforcement agreement among the interested parties will become clear a little later.) But it would be nigh impossible to lock down every single variant along the lines of Spyder-Man, Sp1derman, ManSpider, ZPIDURM/\N, ad absurdum, which means the game owners, or more specifically the admins who keep the servers running, visually scan the logs from time to time to see if anyone is trying to scam their way past the rules. They also have to visually scan the costumes created, too, because just because someone created a super hero and named him The Blazing Star-Cop doesn’t mean they didn’t attire him in copyright-encroaching shades and patterns of emerald and black which too closely resemble a certain ring-wielding intergalactic enforcer who has a movie due out next summer.

Simple enough, but of course not really simple at all. Putting a video game avatar in blue tights and red boots and cape and an S on his chest and calling him Superlative-Man seems like an easy example of a violation, but what if the boots and cape are pink instead? Or you add a helmet? Or the chest-letter is an E? (For the “-est” which most superlatives end in?) Aren’t all super-heroes, to one extent or another, derivative of Superman anyway? Where is the line? I don’t really have answers to these questions, because I am neither a video game designer nor an IP lawyer nor a media giant obsessed with protecting brand identity. Several of my buddies play(ed) City of Heroes and one of them was a co-worker with whom I carpooled, and we used to spend hours on the road speculating wildly about what counted as a copyright infringement, both in terms of the letter of the law and in terms of what the City of Heroes owners would blow away just to be on the safe side. My buddy lost a character clad in red, white and blue and christened Captain Americana in the name of testing the limits of the admins’ tolerance for blurring the lines. (Granted, that one wasn’t terribly blurry.) All in all, though, it’s pretty fascinating to people watch in-game and play Spot the Influence, and its corollary Can They Get Away With That?

Didn’t I start off talking about a game that hasn’t come out yet, though? Yes, well, the reason why City of Heroes never came to some kind of official agreement with DC Comics where licensing fees could be remitted and people could, for example, play Green Lanterns to their hearts’ content was because that would run counter to DC’s plans to develop and roll out a MMORPG of their own, set in their own universe, and THAT is what I’m now looking forward to in spring of 2011. And of course DC Universe Online (as it will be called) will have a lot of the same issues to contend with as City of Heroes, but also some altogether different yet equally fascinating ones, as well. Next Wednesday I will speculate wildly about those!

No comments:

Post a Comment