Retrogamer: Failing Up

Life is a struggle against failure. In every endeavor, we start by failing, failing mightily. That’s what learning is, correcting our mistakes and errors until, eventually, we stop being terrible, from learning to walk (and watching a child take its first steps is a reminder of how shitty we all begin at basic tasks) to advanced rocket physics and molecular whatnot. Failing is learning.

Start any video game and the beginning is full of fail. Games requiring high levels of twitch facility (think Ghost and Ghouls on the NES or Fallout 3 on modern consoles) result in a lot of deaths early on, until the player masters the dexterity required and the particular skills that respective buttons are mapped to. From there, deaths tail off until new concepts are introduced, assuming an appropriate learning curve.

Some games, of course, are designed to be as difficult as possible, despite twitch skill. Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden (any incarnation) are a slog of death, more death, all the death, until the player’s fingers move in perfect harmony to achieve victory. Watching a player who has mastered twitch-skill games can be joyful; it’s like doing an intricate, graceful dance, almost incomprehensible to those without the skill.

There’s purpose behind failure progression.

Before I talk about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a failure in so many senses of the word (but certainly not all), I want to talk about baseball.

Baseball, in so many ways, is the ultimate game of failure. For those who don’t know much about baseball—you may think it’s boring, or jingoistic, or its fans are troglodytes—baseball is about one player (the pitcher) hurling a small sphere at a minimum of 80+ miles per hour with as much spin as possible, so that it’s as difficult as possible for another player (the batter) to hit that sphere hard enough and skillfully enough that it can’t be caught by the rest of the players (8 fielders). There’s plenty of arcana besides that, but that’s enough for now. What’s important is that baseball is a game of failure.

The best hitters in the game fail to hit that sphere hard enough or skillfully enough to evade it being caught between 60% and 80% of the time. Ted Williams, arguably the best hitter of all time, only averaged 4 hits for every 10 pitches. He failed better than all the others, but he still failed. And besides hitting, baseball is a game where mistakes in catching the sphere (errors) are counted and cataloged and analyzed.

Pitching, however, is perhaps less a game of failure. Pitchers get knocked around from time to time, sure, but they’re the ones who are given a “Win” if their team wins while they’re still playing. The worst pitchers hover around a .500 success rate.

Curt Schilling, one of the driving forces behind Kingdoms of Amalur, was, in his first life, a winning baseball player, arguably one of the winningest in the past 20-30 years. Without delving into details that would overwhelm those who don’t dig baseball (obviously, I dig baseball), he’s been a member of three teams that played in the World Series of Baseball (winning three out of four), he was credited with the “Win” in 60% of games he played, and he won numerous individual awards for being an awesome pitcher. He’s (probably) going to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame and deservedly so.

That he seems to be kind of an awful human being and racist in his personal life is, for the sake of this conversation, kind of beside the point. In his public life, in a sport where failure is the norm, Curt Schilling is and was a winner.

So how did he fail so hard with Kingdoms of Amalur?

Let’s begin with what Kingdoms of Amalur is: a fantasy game, set in an expansive world. The player is the hero, setting out on a Hero’s Quest. Along the way, the PC meets people, some friends, many irrelevant “flavor,” and many, many enemies to be slaughtered, because it’s a hack-and-slash of the role-playing kind. The world is a sandbox, where the player can access most everything from early on. I like those kinds of games (Fable, Jade Empire, Fallout are comparable favorites of mine). And I liked a lot about Amalur.

Amalur is a beautiful game. Graphics aren’t particularly important to me beyond a baseline not-awful, but I stopped and stared often while touring the kingdoms. While the dungeons and houses have a lot of duplication common to open-world games—staircases in particular have a sameness to them—the rest is lush, unique, and painstaking. Some scenes—conversing with an enormous, magical tree in dappled sunlight for example—caused me to put my controller down and stare at art.

Besides its beauty, Amalur is complex. Battle mechanics allow for stealth-murder, brute force, and magical destruction, a cornucopia of combinations to complete the hundreds of quests, tracking the breadth of the many kingdoms (one of the first quests activated is designed to be one of the last finished: finding and collecting 10 books of smut). Character design and equipment allow for many builds and styles, and crafting, for those who like making shit, is extensive (and game-breaking).

The gameplay itself, the twitch, is also entertaining. While the challenge slowly bled out, much like all the victims of my murdering, switching fighting styles to match the encounters was a blast. As a good twitch-game should, it started out just hard enough, forcing me to figure out the controls, how to block and dash, roll and cast spells, how to cycle through weapons to best serve a situation. Fighting a pack of brownies might require use of knives or fae blades (sort of like bladed tonfa), but encountering humans might mean I needed to use longswords, while trolls might necessitate hammers and ball lightning. I gravitated toward speedy assassin-style fighting, while summoning zombie helpers and blasting weakened enemies from a distance.

The plot, while not groundbreaking by any means, is serviceable. The avatar awakens atop a pile of corpses, the first successful rebirth of mortal life, and is given great power, outside the control of fate, and is thrust into a war. The war (and world) is a blend of old Irish, English, Scottish, and Germanic tales of faeries and elves: the mortal (elves, gnomes, and humans) and the immortal (faeries of Summer and Winter Courts). Some of the Winter faerie have gone rogue and are winning a war—only the player character can stop them with the powers given through rebirth and “reckoning.” Engaging enough, mostly because the exploration of Summer and Winter Courts have been left outside the pop culture gestalt (except for the Dresden Files series of pulp fantasy) and is thus novel.

Over the course of two months, I spent 70 hours exploring the kingdoms and slaughtering hordes of enemies. I completed a hundred-plus quests, from collecting the aforementioned smut books to singlehandedly turning the tide of a war. My avatar, Leigh Regatta, became stronger and stronger through level gains, faction bonuses, weapon and armor upgrades, and intense training. For the $9.99 I spent to buy it used from my local (now closed) independent vendor of nerd stuffs, I more than got my money back.

So why did a game I’ve enjoyed so much turn out a failure?

Curt Schilling, in addition to being a fabulous athlete and a winning pitcher (and a diehard, seemingly racist, conservative mouthpiece now shilling for Breitbart) is also an avid gamer. I’m no longer surprised when famous folks are into video games. If actor Matthew Perry asked to be involved in Fallout: New Vegas because of his fandom, if pop star Justin Bieber and rapper Snoop Dogg play Call of Duty, if MMA fighter Ronda Rousey plays World of Warcraft, it shouldn’t be a shock that a 50-year-old pitcher has been obsessed with PC gaming since the Everquest days. It’s just how the world works; celebrities are people, too.

What’s unusual in Schilling’s case is that he took his interest in gaming to a higher level and, after retiring from baseball with $50 million, started his own video game company: 38 Studios, named after Schilling’s jersey number. I remember reading about it at the time of the studio’s founding. I wondered what the connection was between playing games, being a successful baseball player, and running a tech startup.

Apparently, there’s no connection at all.

38 Studios released one game and one game only before firing its employees and going under. It, and Curt Schilling, have been under investigation since the 2012 shuttering of its doors in both civil and criminal domains. The entire state of Rhode Island, where 38 Studios was based, is embroiled in this mess, suing 38 Studios and Schilling to recoup a multi-million dollar loan. According to some sources, debt accrued by the company is around $150 million.

I’m not an investigative reporter, nor am I particularly interested in the details surrounding this whole situation, which, I am sure, is exceedingly complicated (and definitely still ongoing). I can accept the facts. Schilling evidently lost his entire fortune in this nonsense. He’s been close-mouthed on the shenanigans, going on record only a handful of times, sometimes to shift blame, sometimes to get people to stop asking him questions about what is obviously (and reasonably) a sore subject. Maybe someone committed fraud, maybe it was simple mismanagement. Whatever the reason, 38 Studios failed and failed miserably.

Is there a lesson to be learned?

Despite enjoying the heck out of Kingdoms of Amalur, I’d be hard-pressed to call it a good game. Quality and enjoyment do not necessarily make a 1:1 ratio. I like a lot of media that I wouldn’t say are objectively “good.” I’m clowned anytime I mention that Nickleback song I like; I watch rom-coms starring Julia Roberts unironically; when I ate meat, trash-meat was my favorite, like scrapple or gas station chili dogs. A long time ago, I realized that taste meant nothing and elitism in pop culture is bullshit. I like Amalur and don’t really care what others think, or even if it’s actually good.

But I can objectively say that Kingdoms of Amalur in a few respects is, despite being enjoyable, a failure. For one, it’s far too easy to break any sort of difficulty curve with proper crafting, by completing too many side quests and receiving bonuses thereof, or even by power-leveling and equipment farming. Balancing an open-world game is an important step that is often overlooked; Fallout 3 is another example of difficulty-breaking (addressed in its sequels).

But difficulty-breaking isn’t the only reason Amalur fails. Besides that, the sheer number of quests becomes overwhelming. After I’d finished the 60th thinly-disguised fetch quest, I began to tire. While the main quest (save the world, beat the evil army, kill the God) was investing enough and the Faction quests had depth behind them, the many, many nonessential side-quests bled the game dry and artificially inflated the length of the game. I can see how some people would love them; I am not one of those people and, based on a cursory review from critics, I am not alone.

(Also, let’s not forget the ridiculousness of the title. As my wife Leigh said, “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning sounds like the kind of invented nerd game The Big Bang Theory would feature as an example of absurd nerdery.”)

Still, the lack of difficulty and overload of quests wasn’t enough to spell doom. The boring story was. For me, story is king and “serviceable” doesn’t cut it. An evil God and a bloodthirsty empire: ho-hum. While the extensive world-building in books and conversations with NPCs to fill Amalur out is impressive, it’s also essentially detached from the plot. With an overwhelming glut of “stuff” already, searching for optional clues about the world feels pointless.

If more of Amalur had been as well done as the art and gameplay, it might have been a good game. But it wasn’t; it didn’t “work.” Whatever magical concoction a game requires to be considered good, Amalur doesn’t have it. That I enjoyed it doesn’t sway my opinion. I like eating a family size bag of potato chips in one sitting: doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Now, Curt Schilling I don’t like. On a basic level, he played for the Red Sox, a division rival of the Os. But more to the point, I don’t like his politics, and I didn’t like him as a baseball player. I thought he was arrogant and racist (recently he inserted himself into a public story of racism by claiming, for some reason, that Baltimore Oriole Adam Jones made up a story about being called the n-word while playing in Boston. But my distaste aside, I can’t truthfully say he was a bad pitcher. There are objective metrics in this world and by all of them, Curt Schilling was a talented ball player.

But by equivalent metrics, Kingdom of Amalur was a failure. It didn’t do enough right to make it a satisfying experience, and it didn’t save the studio that created it from bankruptcy. According to then-governor of Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee, it “needed to sell 3 million copies to break even.” That didn’t happen. It failed.

We learn from failure, from falling on our face and applying lessons to the future. But those lessons aren’t necessarily transferable from one mode to another. I’ve failed many, many times, and I’m going to fail more, but I’m getting better at everything I’ve tried (except ice skating). But even when I achieve proficiency, I’m not going to expect to apply that proficiency to a different field. Just because I’m an adequate writer doesn’t mean I’d make an adequate filmmaker or sprinter or game designer. Michael Jordan didn’t become a good baseball player when he switched from basketball. I mean, he was better than me and probably better than anyone who will read this, but he wasn’t good enough.

I have to assume that Curt Schilling assumed that mastering baseball and mastering video game playing would be enough. They weren’t. But within Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a lot of really good design, even if the pieces didn’t fit to create a whole. Getting Spawn artist Todd McFarlane to illustrate the game was a bold, wonderful move. Hiring R.A. Salvatore to write the text was smart also. Kingdoms of Amalur didn’t work, but there are nuggets of wisdom to take away from it.

Schilling is out of the video game industry, probably for good, so we may never see him learn from Amalur’s mistakes. He learned a different lesson, I suppose, since he now sticks to entirely different pastures. But who knows? Maybe others were watching and taking notes. Maybe they’ll avoid the same mistakes and succeed where he failed. That’s the only way we learn, right?