The Long Tail

I was visiting my local board games and RPG shop. I went upstairs to check out the RPG gear and noticed there was some new Magic The Gathering gear. When I was younger and nerdier, I was all into Magic The Gathering. It was a new thing then, so I could kinda keep up with it. Then I grew out of it (and the hobby grew beyond my meagre spending cash). Now I’m older, wiser and richer so I thought, “Heck yes, I should buy some starter decks and give it a go and see how the game has changed.” But then I looked at what was on display. “Focus decks” with particular themes or something. Two new product lines and no real distinguishing information on either. I read the back and it was all about quests and things that made no sense to me as a tabula rasa for Magic. I asked the dude behind the counter, told him when I last got into Magic and wanted to know what these things were, using the words I knew like  “Starter deck”. What I got back was a bunch of terms that again made no sense to me. Magic has moved on and I’ve been left behind. So I left with less of an idea than I came in with, and the same amount of money.

It’s interesting when games have a history. Over time slang and nomenclature accumulate, strategies emerge as dominant and mild curiosities become the Only Way To Play. Game developers keeping a game alive for so long tend to do so by adding more content and more things for people to learn. And by “people” they mean the core crowd. For a newbie this can be an exponential amount of things to learn to at least be conversant with the game.

I’m a massive fan of Team Fortress 2 and have been playing since the Orange Box days. I feel sorry for the newbie entering the game at the moment – just the sheer number of weapons is terrifying. So many different things to consider and weigh up, all while you’re trying to have fun and not die. The TF2 devs have tried to at least meet newbies halfway – there’s a tutorial, online coaching, and games versus bots to get you into TF2. It’s still daunting, though.

Some games take a different approach and go deep rather than broad. While the mechanics may be more or less the same, there may be more subtle strategies or uses of items at an expert level. The newbie doesn’t know about them, so isn’t worried about them (whereas in TF2 you will be very concerned about a Soldier with a weird laser gun). Kingdom of Loathing tries this. You can replay the game multiple times with many different classes, handicaps and content available to you. As a newbie you have much the same options available to you, but you’re never affected by someone with much, much more experience than you (other than via jealousy 😉 ).

Other games totally transform when you get to new levels of experience with it. The Starcraft series starts out with you trying to learn maps, units and strategies. After a while you float up and exist in a world where you need to optimise your “macro” and “micro” handling and there’s this new physical level to it. To a newbie this seems like obsessive bullshit, but to the experts it’s how you have to play the game. A similar thing exists in the competitive speedrunners. Heck, look at Go!

Many words have been spilt to encourage game devs to encourage newbies to their games. Does anyone care about their long-term strategies except by accident? Is catering to the eSports crowd the same as catering to the long-timers?

Have you had an experience with being a newbie in an old game, or vice versa? I’d love to hear it.

1 thought on “The Long Tail”

  1. Newbies vs pros? Amateurs vs connoisseurs? An age old struggle, and one that isn’t limited to computer games. I see hardcore followers of certain movie series, TV shows, sports teams, particular brands of cars, history and trivia, alcohol, World of Warcraft, books, sex, horticulture, even frigging make-up.

    Nothing wrong with it of course, and there’s nothing wrong with spreading your interests out and just trying a bit of everything. That’s the freedom of choice, mate!

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