I recently read An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen. Much of the book is advice on finding quality ethnic food (and barbecue) at reasonable prices, whether in the US or in their home countries. Don’t eat in the tourist district, do eat where there are several restaurants of the same type in the neighborhood (until I visited DC, it never occurred to me that you could have a half-dozen Ethiopian restaurants in one block). Being an economist, his insights focus on where the restaurants have the right incentives and efficiencies. A place with great atmosphere is selling that, rather than the food; the tourist district does not worry about repeat customers; American shipping systems are great but really fresh seafood and produce is only available close to the source.
Yes, this is one of those extended metaphor posts that takes an example from another setting and applies it to gaming.
The simplest guide is to look at the customers. If the restaurant has the right people eating there, the food is probably good. Who are the right people? The ones with interests aligned with yours. If you are reading his book, Mr. Cowen assumes you are with him, but notes that you can reverse his advice if you are looking for status over food quality. If you’re looking for authentic X cuisine, you want to see people from country X. If the decorations means nothing to a middle American audience, and there are people shouting at each other in a language you do not understand, and it is poorly signed in a strip mall, this is a restaurant that draws in people who would know good X food. It must be surviving on quality. If you see lots of smiling faces and people enjoying the atmosphere, they are enjoying the atmosphere first, the food secondarily. Restaurants are businesses that respond to incentives, and if they get more customers from their music than their food, they will put give more attention to the music. Tourists are a bad sign; repeat customers are the ones who will judge a place based on the quality of the food. Trendy food is bad; hipsters are not known for being drawn to quality.
If a restaurant can live off reputation or being a status symbol, it will. This is not to say that the Michelin-starred restaurant will be bad, just that the $200 meal will be about as good as the $10 meal at the strip mall place without a celebrity chef, assuming you know the right things to look for rather than the Chinese buffet with food sitting in brown sauce for hours. Using reviews is a skill that relates back to the previous paragraph. What are the people praising? If the food (and specific dishes) are not the first thing, the food is “also nice” rather than the primary draw. Find the most recommended, big-name place in town then go three doors down to the place taking its overflow customers with 90% of the quality, 50% of the price, and 0% of the wait. If you’re Googling for recommendations, don’t look for “best restaurant [city]”; that has too much noise. Look for the best cauliflower or duck restaurant, even if you do not want those specific dishes, because the websites getting that specific really care about the food being served; read their other reviews for useful advice on what you really are looking for.
Of course, this advice is tuned to foodies and the adventurous. If you really like burgers and chicken strips, congratulations! The core of the restaurant system is tuned to you. If you like Americanized Chinese food (and many do, American, Chinese, or Chinese-American), there will almost always be somewhere in town serving it. Pepperoni pizza will always be there for you. There is nothing wrong with that, although you might want to branch out and see what other culinary excitements exist. But it will always be easy to find, and it is the more discriminating tastes that will be harder to satisfy.
Okay, let’s bring it around to gaming, for anyone who has not caught the connection. Who is playing your game and why are they playing it? If they look like you or who you want to be, that is a good sign.
Farmville players are not gamers; if you see a real gamer praising a Facebook game, it might be worth considering, but generally the entire area is a wasteland in terms of gaming. It seemed to have promise briefly, but no. They are almost explicitly time-killers with cash shops rather than games. On the other hand, if all you want is a loose connection to people and about as close as your non-gamer mom gets to gaming, go for it. But don’t expect it to be the gateway drug that leads grandma to Halo.
World of Warcraft seems to have become MMO McDonald’s. Again: not a bad thing, millions of customers, but it is tuned to the median. People praise it for the low-level questing experience, although to my mind you find that better elsewhere these days. Amongst serious gamers, people talk about gear and raids. If you like progressive tiers of raids, WoW is the place to go, as if McDonald’s had a biker bar attached to the back. People talk about improving gearscores and specific bosses. IF you don’t care about gearing up, WoW’s endgame will bore you.
In Star Wars: The Old Republic, developers and players talk about stories and companions. Personally, I tend towards books for stories, but I hear only good things about SWTOR in that respect. It seems to crush WoW for that low-level questing experience. If that’s what you’re looking for, SWTOR is the best thing ever. But I have yet to hear anyone say great things about running an alt through the content again or about the endgame. People ride the rides at the theme park and then they leave. This is a great thing if you are looking for a short-term experience, but then so are single-player games.
EVE Online players are the most hardcore of the hardcore. If that is you, and you love PvP, there is no place better to be. If you are happy being a cog in that PvP empire, there is no better place to be. If you love economics and spreadsheets, there is no better place to be. Those are the customers it successfully draws and retains. If that is not you, this is not your game, but EVE really is a serious gamer’s game.
A Tale in the Desert is that tiny place in the strip mall. Mr. Cowen cites a restaurant where you order in advance because it is run by one guy with just a couple of tables, and he cooks everything to order. Tiny, tiny niche, very good at a very small range. Worth considering whether that might be your niche. Players there talk about the community and the crafting. I cite it as the most hardcore PvP game ever, but that aspect is used to keep EVE players out. ATitD is also for the hardcore, but the community differs.
City of Heroes players want to talk about their costumes. Hmm, that seems like a gameplay warning. The big thing you hear is about these dozen alts he made, and here are the costumes for each, and I’m trying all these different power sets. I’ll talk about the gameplay, because the higher levels are great for mass AoE insanity, but the biggest draw seems to be the visuals, the diversity of play options, and the style.
Guild Wars (1 & 2) players seem to be all about mechanics, which makes sense as we don’t have a live game for the latter yet. I was interested in stories about Guild Wars because people discussed their skills and combinations and synergies. I don’t recall much about the setting or community, just the thousands of skills and what you could do with small sets of them. Guild Wars 2 is too early to tell; we’ve been through years of promoting it one system at a time, but the people who are into it seem really into it, gamers, which is a good sign. Granted, we the MMO gaming bloggers did the same with Warhammer Online, and that turned out like it did.
When people talk about Lord of the Rings Online™, they talk about the setting. You get to play in Middle-earth! There is a central storyline quest, like in SWTOR, except you get Legolas instead of lighsabers. That’s pretty much the main draw. There are festivals and hats. You don’t go to LotRO for the quality of the endgame raiding. You go to play a hobbit and to meet Gandalf.
And we’ll end with Rohan’s quote on TERA:
Still, you live by the sword, you die by the sword. TERA chose high heels, skimpy armor, and lolicons. And thus they get the audience that is primarily attracted by high heels, skimpy armor, and lolicons.