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Gerstmann Takes On... Video Game Wrestling Madness

Let's talk about eSports Entertainment, the further misadventures of SimCity, and occasional outbursts of excitement.

With Alex spending the last week out on vacation, he's asked me to generate a hot column to fill in for his weekly address. I agreed, but I lack the purity of thought that I can only imagine comes from working remotely. No phones to ignore, no emails to avoid returning, no room full of coughing co-workers to worry about. So I don't know that I have any one topic for you this week. I'll... probably meander a bit.

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I hate machinima. A lot of that probably has to do with the term itself, which manages to make the concept of "recording dumb shit that somehow involves video games" sound like the most pompous thing in the world. It probably doesn't help that most of the early examples of the form were absolutely awful. Do I really want to watch a billion different "funny" "comedy" "skits" recorded in first-person shooters? Hell, I didn't even really want to watch all those Team Fortress 2 videos that Valve made. But over the last couple of weeks I've gotten into Video Game Championship Wrestling, a regular, episodic set of WWE '13 livestreams that combine the chaos of poorly-programmed AI routines with the madness of a set of awkward story creation tools. It also lumps in a bunch of wrestling and video game nonsense, which more or less sums up my upbringing.

eSports Entertainment at its finest.
eSports Entertainment at its finest.

Characters include Little Mac from Punch-Out!! and Nappa from Dragon Ball Z. Woody from Toy Story has been on a tear recently, eventually growing a set of Devil Kazuya wings and threatening to make the other figures "play with their toys." Donkey Kong was the champion until recently, when the belt was stripped from him after it was revealed that he's been using a glitched finishing move that gave him an unfair advantage.

The VGCW somehow manages to be more "real" than real professional wrestling, because the man behind all this madness just writes the stories and makes the matches. Once the action in the ring begins, everything unfolds as a series of dice rolls as AI-controlled characters face off against one-another. The obvious, wrestling-like storylines and twists get tossed out the window when, for example, Ganondorf can't beat Bowser in a rematch that, if you applied wrestling logic and plot theory to it, should have gone the other way. So there's a certain thrill in watching Bazza, the mastermind behind this whole thing, dig himself out of holes that the AI tosses him into time and time again. His writing keeps things light enough to make it interesting regardless of the outcome, and seeing Adam Jensen roll into the ring on his Augmented Bike is, well, pretty funny.

There's a good, small community surrounding the VGCW, running a wiki devoted to the virtual promotion's happenings and filling Baz's Twitch chat room every time he starts up a show, performing the textual equivalent of wrestling chants and other feel-good nonsense. It's a hefty investment, as the shows can last three hours or more, but if you're a specific kind of nutcase, it's amazing. I don't really watch any TV anymore, but I'm willing to watch THQ's astoundingly busted game play itself for hours at a time... that might be weird to some, but it all just strikes me as another example of people entertaining each other. In a world filled with people just streaming themselves playing League of Legends over and over again, it's great to see something more creative and weird providing a sound alternative to all that eSports stuff. It's also the only thing that makes me excited to see what Yuke's does with the next WWE game, since if Yuke's can be counted on for anything, it's creating a broken wrestling game.

If I were writing it I would put the handful of "real people" in the promotion into a heel stable and find a way for the video game characters to drive them out for good. But I'm not!

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SimCity! Still broken? Well... it's less broken than it was last week, but now we're on the section of the rage wheel where people stop complaining about messed-up servers and start complaining about the nature of the game itself. I tend to agree with most of the people who are complaining about the small city sizes and the over-reliance on neighboring cities, since both of those things make this a SimCity game that I'd rather not play.

Drawing outside the lines.
Drawing outside the lines.

For EA's part, it's still in the middle of an internet rage storm as enterprising modders keep finding ways to disconnect SimCity from its various limitations and disprove a handful of EA's official statements about the nature of the game. Is it offloading complex calculations to the remote servers? Nah, probably not. Does it have extreme issues with how it handles its population as individual Sims move from one part of the city to the other? Yeah, it sounds like it does.

When the internet mobs up and gets angry, it often overreaches and gets into some weird kind of rage land that no sane human would support. But when I look at all the stuff people have been uncovering about SimCity and set that against EA's statements about the game and its slightly condescending tone when attempting to address its detractors... at some point EA is just bringing more of this on itself. The tone of its responses ("I hate to disturb you when you’re playing SimCity") aren't helping them spin this into a positive thing.

Hopefully the people inside EA are taking all of this seriously and not just looking at numbers of cities created or sales figures while attempting to spin this all off internally as yet another example of "the internet's anti-EA bias." I'm sure it'd be pretty easy to lump this in with the Mass Effect 3 outcry and say "well, everyone's just trying to throw rocks at the throne" or something. There are clearly some lessons to be learned here... if EA is actually paying attention, that is.

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I recently saw a probably-soon-to-be-announced game that I liked quite a bit.

Thumbs up, soldiers.
Thumbs up, soldiers.

Normally I try to stay away from weird, non-specific statements like that. They're annoying and they make it look like I'm lording my position--where this is a fairly common occurrence--over everyone else. So unlike some other people in my line of work, I attempt to keep that to myself until I have something of substance to say. I get the appeal, though. I've done it before. I'll probably do it again. But that's not because I'm trying to tease some future coverage on the site. I'm not trying to make myself seem self-important (though I understand when people call me out for that very reason when this happens). Sometimes I get pretty excited about this stuff, I guess.

Seeing new games is probably the coolest part about this job, especially when coupled with the ability to talk to the people working on the game and hear about why they're choosing this direction. It's easy to get a little jaded by the game business' constant emphasis on business. But I still get a chill down my spine when I see something new for the first time. If I no longer felt that, I'd probably start thinking about getting out of this line of work. And if you're in this line of work and you don't feel that... why are you doing this for a living?

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If you've got questions for me, ask away over on Tumblr. I've been running a blog over there for a bit after abandoning Formspring (which, incidentally, is shutting down soon). I definitely don't get to everything, but since it's got a decent mobile app it's something I can whittle away at when I'm stuck in Ryan's car heading to and from the office. Oh, and be sure to say hi if you see us at PAX! Come to the panel on Friday night, Boston!

Jeff Gerstmann on Google+