Selling Nostalgia

This morning I am just now waking up as I am off for good Friday.  Which in truth I always thought was odd given how much Baptists outnumber Catholics in my area, but whatever the case I will take it.  I like days off, other than the fact that they sort of cause me to lose momentum.  As a result I have been staring at the screen for awhile now after waking up and eating a couple of croissants. and now seem to have absolutely no ammunition for a proper blog post.  As a result you are instead getting a bit of a reprise of something I already said on the interwebs.  Yesterday at some point during the day I went on a bit of a tear on twitter of posting a chain of posts about nostalgia and gaming projects.  Every so often I decide to react to something…  and like the confused madman that I am I rarely if ever provide proper reference for the ramblings that are about to ensue.  Yesterday was no different, and ultimately what started the machine running was the fact that I keep seeing announcements relating to the various City of Heroes nostalgia projects that are all hoping to capture the magic of that game.

The general problem I have with this concept is… that City of Heroes was a specific moment in time for me and involved not only the game…  but the general lack of other options available at the time.  In the early MMO era there was a period of each game release absolutely eclipsing what the previous one was offering me.  Prior to the launch of City of Heroes, the MMOs that I had played for serious amounts of time were Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot and Horizon: Empire of Istaria in that order.  From each game I gathered up some friends and carried them forward into the next title, and this was absolutely the case for City of Heroes seeing me splitting time between playing with a circle of local friends, my first Everquest guild, my second Everquest guild…  and a group that would ultimately end up being the core of folks I carried forward into World of Warcraft.  It was a weird time in gaming and it was made vibrant by the fact that everything was fresh and new.  That said the moment any of us got our hands on World of Warcraft, it pretty much was the death of City of Heroes… and instead of continuing to play we largely spent a bunch of time planning out what our ultimate adventures in Azeroth would look like.

The City of Heroes nostalgia games however are instead a dogmatic recreation of this thirteen year old game brought into the 16:9 resolution world with higher fidelity.  Sure that is an interesting prospect, but something you might download a screw with on a boring Sunday afternoon like an Everquest emulator… but probably not something you are likely to play for long periods of time.  The core problem with City of Heroes is that there were simply not that many people actually playing it when the game was shuttered.  Sure it bothered me greatly to know that this virtual world that I once loved was now gone, and it still frustrates me.  However I was not actually playing it…  nor was anyone that I knew…  and that was the issue.  It was a game we all remembered fondly… but chose to keep remembering fondly by not playing it and subjecting it to the criticism of knowing the games that came after it.  This is not entirely a critique of City of Heroes, because there are plenty of other trips down memory lane in the works that intend to bring back Everquest or Dark Age of Camelot.  City of Heroes was an important game for me…  but also one I had moved past.

“I remember this thing fondly” is an extremely dangerous demographic, because our memories are ultimately fallible.  It is entirely possible for us to inflate the idea of something to the point where it no longer represents anything vaguely close to the actual experience.  A prime example of this is that I loved Bravestar the cartoon… and a number of years ago I tracked down a copy of the series run.  About three episodes into watching it, I stopped because it simply did not stand the test of time… and seemingly I remembered the show… but also infused that memory with how much I actually enjoyed playing with the toys.  Similarly I remember loving Airwolf… and then subjected myself to watching the show from Netflix and it was something that just no longer worked for me.  I think City of Heroes is going to ultimately be the same for a lot of people, that they remember the game fondly because in truth they are actually remembering a moment in time and the people that were involved with it.  I’ve changed an awful lot since April of 2004, and I have this feeling that most of the folks that really clamor for a return to that game have changed as well.

The truth is I would love to see a modern City of Heroes, but when I say that I don’t mean it literally.  What I want is a modern super hero MMO that captures the spirit of City of Heroes, but more importantly is relevant and something that all of my friends are similarly excited to be playing.  The last part is the hardest in the equation.  Online games are never actually the same, because they are this combination of elements that the game studio has control over, and elements that it doesn’t in the form of the community of folks playing it.  Sure you can revisit a book or a movie and even though you have changed… the source material ultimately has not.  That is not the case with an online experience, because the community effects your perception of the game in ways that we don’t even fully understand.  I might phase my statement “I really miss X game” but what I am actually saying is I miss the moment in time when I had a group of friends actively playing that game.  These little vignettes of time are just something you can’t really get back.  I have experienced this so many times with World of Warcraft as folks rush into a brand new expansion… only to peter out once again because it ultimately feels like ground we have tread too many times to maintain the level of excitement for long.

Nostalgia is a seriously addictive drug, and I admit that I succumb to it rather often.  As gamers we are all I think chasing the original high we felt when we played this game or did this activity.  Then ultimately lying to ourselves when we claim that the game is just as good as we remembered it.  Comfort gaming will always be comfortable because we can slip into it without the experience asking that much from us.  However in doing so we are largely feeding off past memories far more than we are actually making new ones.  I remember those first few years in World of Warcraft with crystal clarity, but with each expansion and each succession of a brand new group of people to meet and remember…  they get significantly more hazy.  Coming back to a game…  makes you remember not just the highlight reel of good moments, but the crashing reality of all of the frustrations you felt about the game and that likely ultimately lead you to quit in the first place.  All of this is why I feel like relying entirely on nostalgia to carry a project forward is a deeply dangerous proposal.  Nostalgia is a great hook to get people through the door, but the project itself has to immediately stand on its own two feel and start building deep and interesting memories to keep people there for long.  I wish the crop of nostalgia induced projects the best of luck, but at the same time I am deeply skeptical that they are going to live up to our memories.

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