I think most people had the same idea of what MAG was going to look like when they first heard about it; “Oh great, just a cookie-cutter shooter with 250 people running around like chickens with their heads cut off.” In other words, something like this. I (we) weren’t completely wrong. In terms of it’s design, controls and the user’s ability to customize, MAG is smack dab in “been there, done that” territory. But those are just the bells and whistles. Admittedly, the game is not perfect. The graphics are ok, though even in HD they still look pixellated. But do the graphics get in the way of the game’s success? Absolutely not. At it’s core, MAG is a distinctive shooter: The game’s originality comes from what it asks players to do, not what how it looks. Despite advertising itself as an extra large shooter, by asking players to achieve compartmentalized tasks in small groups, MAG actually creates a surprisingly intimate experience.
As the industry grows, and the need to make games with mass appeal becomes more pressing, MAG is one of a number of games that appeals to a growing sub-market in gaming, the hard-core gamer. These days, developers looking to make AAA titles tend to riff on variations of established genre: They play it safe. Starting in the Xbox generation developers have pushed to promote more and more shooters and GTA-style “sandbox” action games, but fewer niche genres like traditional RPGs, fighters and Puzzle games from high-caliber developers. Just like all media, high expectations for a game will inevitably translate into compromise; working with established aesthetic motifs and proven gameplay mechanics. For example, Modern Warfare 2 is the best selling game of all time: it is also, frankly speaking, one of the least original. MW2 is clean, has a great (albeit short) story and sets the standard for first-person shooters… But that’s all it is, standard. There will be many shooters in the next few years that will emulate MW2 because they know that people will like games that feel the same way.
Of course, for every action there is a reaction and, sure enough, there have been a few games in the past year that are clearly not designed for their mass appeal, they are geared towards gamers who want a more intense gaming experience. While players who would call themselves “hardcore gamers” would like to believe that makes them better players, what it really means is that their willing to put in more time and money into making their gaming experience more enjoyable. Demon’s Souls, for example, is a decidedly unpublicized online-only action RPG that quickly becomes a cult-classic because of it’s reputation of being so insanely difficult that only “real gamers” can handle it. I have no problem admitting that I did not do well with, or think particularly well of Demon’s Souls. It’s a bland game with middling graphics and no originality in plot or gameplay, plus it’s too hard. But for fans; owning, playing and beating the game is a badge of honor. It shows that they don’t just play Wii sports, Madden and Call of Duty. They are “hardcore”. They like the fact that the game doesn’t have mass appeal, and if takes a little hard work to go against the grain, that’s just icing on the cake.
MAG fits the profile of “hardcore” game to a tee. Let’s face it, the game’s style of play doesn’t appeal to everybody. MAG is a team game. Not only do teams made of up players acting alone consistently lose, they also make the game generally less enjoyable. In the world where players are used to open-ended gameplay, such an oppressive framework is bound to irk some people. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though. By weeding out players who aren’t willing to play by the rules means that every player is on the same page.
And of course, being on the same page means that you don’t always get to do what you want. Sometimes you give orders, sometimes get them. As you would imagine, a game that demands squad-based play encourages the formation of groups. It makes a huge difference playing with even one or two people that you’ve played with before. For randomly compiled squads, the game thankfully put a system in place that lets players vie for leadership positions based on their experience. That said, even when you filly commit to the game, it’s not always easy to trust strangers. One downside to playing with people who are taking the game very seriously, it’s very easy to get on their bad side. If your squadmates don’t like your style, they’ll kick you out. And believe me, people to not hesitate to kick the bad seeds out. I’ve been kicked out of squads for wandering off. One time, I was kicked out immediately because I wasn’t using my headset.
Ultimately, the game is better for it though. Just because the designers wanted players to behave a certain way doesn’t mean that they won’t misbehave. The MAG experience is protected by players who see what the developers were going for and recognize the benefits of going the extra mile; putting on the headset and coordinating within your squad and with others. Working in small groups adds narrows the way players perceive a match to a pinpoint. Goals like “defend bunker A” or “destroy the AA battery” are straightforward, and working with a group keeps players on that path. Where an individual might drift off course for an easy kill or get in on some action, having peers holding you responsible (and who won’t hesitate to kick you out of their squad) is good motivation. That sharp focus helps players feel the vastness of a match: The feeling could come in the form of insignificance when your team loses despite a great match individually, or immense satisfaction of having each squad completing their separate tasks and seeing the larger plan come to fruition. Either way, at the end of 256-player game of “Domination”, you know that the result had to do with you, but was by no means a solo-effort.
MAG is a success because it forces people to play a certain way and, by doing so, draws a certain group of people together. MAG demands teamwork and a commitment to play seriously. It requires a certain amount of maturity. It’s not for snotty 12 year olds who say “pwned” and shoot their teammates. In that way, rating the game becomes difficult, because for many people, it’s not that great (maybe a 7), but for people willing to play the game the right way, it’s a very rewarding experience (more like a 9). It may seem very demanding of the developer, almost selfish, to demand so much of the player, but people who create; artists, writers, musicians, have to make choices. MAG gets consistently branded as mediocre because of the emphasis gamers put on graphics and small details, even though, conceptually, it’s took a chance on a distinctive idea and, at least for now, seems to have succeeded.