SAN FRANCISCO — About a month ago it was clear — at least to reporters who cover video games — that gamers could expect March to start with a bang.
Organizers for the Game Developers Conference did a media tour, tipping the press off to a keynote by Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto and winking when making the suggestion to go to a panel by an obscure game development team called Media Molecule. The big stuff was obvious, but there was a much more involved, 87-page program to dig through for those interested.
There was a brief speech scheduled from a guy who worked on the "Thief" games. He was going to talk about why some gamers compulsively save and load repeatedly as they play a game and offer suggestions about how to get players to stop doing that. There was also a talk scheduled by Dr. Edd Schneider, a 12-year veteran attendee of GDC and associate professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam. He was scheduled to present for one hour on, of all things, "English Speaking Players as In-Game Content."
Try unpacking that title. He would be talking about you, the English-speaking gamer, as a gaming bonus — not unlike a cool new super-gun or furry pair of gauntlets that might be added to the average massively multiplayer online game.
Schneider (who co-presented with his colleague, Zoetic's Kai Zheng) stood ready to explain things at 1 p.m. in the massive Moscone Center a couple of Thursdays ago. He was giving a "poster session," which means he wasn't given a conference room to explain his case. He had to do it standing up, against a wall, hoping his red, yellow and blue poster would draw attention. It was a low-key placement for someone making the video game version of a speech that President Reagan gave some years ago when the late leader went to Berlin and exhorted the head of the Soviet Union to "tear down this wall."
Schneider wants the wall to come down in "World of Warcraft" and other games of its kind. There's a problem, as Schneider sees it: Players of massively multiplayer games like "WoW" on one continent are not able to play against gamers on another. He thinks the continental divide should be bridged — better for game makers, gamers and, curiously enough, an international market he believes exists of non-English speakers who could be enticed to learn the language by playing an MMO against English speakers. Imagine the vocabulary-building from a single dungeon raid in the caves of Azeroth.
Officially, the major MMOs are set up so players agree to play with and against gamers locked to a server for their region. Chinese "WoW" gamers are supposed to play on Chinese servers. Americans are supposed to play on American ones. Gamers certainly find ways around this (see "Documentary Reaps Truth About Game's Controversial 'Gold Farming' "). But when a player crosses over — sometimes for the economic gain of selling virtual items to a player an ocean away — it can rile other players up. And that results in one problem Schneider wants to solve. "A lot of online games have gotten bad press where you get a couple of idiots in a chat room or in a guild that will say, 'Only perfect English. If you don't speak perfect English then get out of here,' " he said. "They'll hassle players from other countries."
He's proposing that MMO makers establish a few international servers reserved for players who not only won't mind having foreigners in their game but will actually welcome it.
Last year, Schneider recruited a group of grad students in their early 20s to test his theories out. For a 16-week semester, his students would wake up once a week at 3 or 4 a.m. to play online games against students at Shanghai's QiBao High School. They started with online Scrabble and chess. Then they tried popular Korean-made MMOs. They used headsets, talking to each other with voiceover IP. Schneider's program was a test, but not a rigorous scientific one. He and his grad students noticed improvements in the Chinese students' English and their confidence in even trying the language. "They were going from, 'Oh my God, I'm afraid to talk, I'm just gonna type,' to, 'How's it going? I'm going to kick your butt this time in this game.' " He said his grad students never tried to actually teach the Chinese students English. They just played. He's preparing a more thorough program this summer, which he wants to turn into a summer camp.
Schneider's poster at GDC listed four obstacles that could keep the walls between international players from tumbling down: parents, piracy, technical, translations. The problem with parents is that in Asia, they often frown on their kids' game-playing interests. But if the games helped their kids learn English, then they might be welcoming, Schneider reasons. If that sounds like a business pitch, bear in mind the subtitle of Schneider's poster talk: "New Ideas for Marketing to Youth in Asia." The technical hurdles he points to involve lag — those split-seconds longer it might take players spread across the world to coordinate their attacks than for those merely spread across America.
What's in it for game-makers and the gamers who already speak English? For that first group, Schneider thinks having some all-nations-welcome servers would make for good public relations and allow the creators to see their massive games played on a globally massive basis. For the gamers, Schneider might argue for a discount if a "WoW" player is helping someone learn the language. Plus they'd be able to vie for Olympian bragging rights. "You're not the best in the world unless you're playing on an international server," Schneider said. "You're not going to be playing against people who use perfect grammatical structures, but it's not like anyone does in online games anyway."
More from the world of video games:
Fans already certain that they will buy "Halo 3" still have decisions to make. Microsoft announced late last week that the Xbox 360 sequel will be sold this fall in three formats. The bare-bones $60 version will only include the game. A $70 limited-edition version will be packaged in a metal case with a "Halo" fiction and art book, along with a making-of documentary on a bonus disc. For the cost of a Nintendo DS — $130 — gamers can get the Legendary Edition, including the game, the making-of DVD, a second bonus disc full of extras and, according to a Microsoft press release, a "highly collectible Spartan helmet case." ...
Two years ago, "Grand Theft Auto" maker Rockstar Games created an online application called "The Beaterator" that let people hop online and create their own rap beats. Then they decided to team up with Timbaland and turn it into a PSP game. As a result, the Flash-enabled beatmaking program is no longer available at Beaterator.com, but a promo for the summer release of "Beaterator" on PSP is. Rockstar's founders have their roots in music, and the company is renowned for creating and compiling cutting-edge soundtracks. This summer, PSP users will be able to see if that all adds up to a product worth rhyming to. ...
For all the knocks the World War II genre of games takes among critics who feel that horse is surely flogged by now, it should be noted that the best-reviewed PC game last year, "Company of Heroes," was a WWII game. And it was also hailed for innovation at that. Now it's being reported that the next issue of Game Informer has the exclusive on a new title from the "Mercenaries" development studio Pandemic. The studio is working on a 2008 WWII game called "Saboteur" that will put players in the role of a member of the French resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. It sounds like gameplay will focus on stealth as players try to disrupt German control one region at a time. German-controlled areas will be shown in black-and-white, a look few games have dabbled with outside a level of "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker" here and the character art of the DS mystery game "Hotel Dusk: Room 215" there.
Recent video game story from MTV News: