Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Mobygames Problem

You probably have heard me drop the name "Mobygames" more than a few times in these pages, a(n increasingly) pan-platform user-contributed peer-edited video game documentation project that places a higher requirement on good sources than its wiki peers. (Other general-purpose video game databases tend to either be vast catalogues of emptiness with placeholder pages representing every game by name only or worthwhile warehouses of good content directly scraped illegally from MobyGames, evidenced by, for example, the wild dissemination of empty information about a game I made in high school documented on MobyGames which was, for a time, the sole indicator of its onetime existence.) There were better platform-specific resources maintained by eg. Amiga and Spectrum enthusiasts, but nowhere else that would show you "here how game X looked on platforms A, B and C, and what the differences were between them. Did Genesis really do what Nintendidn't?"

I admired the angle of the site's founders, notably the legendary Trixter (of Hornet archive fame -- hey, actually those are the guys responsible for my '90s multimedia project "the 604 Music Disk" being lost to the ages due to being too ANSI-scene for the demo people and too demoscene for the ANSI people) -- one of those visionary "why not?" programmers who felt it was more important to put a project infrastructure together to document a niche interest (basically, being the IMDB of video games) than to wait until a suitable long-term strategy and business model could be come up with. A similar situation snagged me in '99 at Everything2, which was in place to be Wikipedia before Wikipedia, and then when I left in '03 due to a lack of administrative finesse, I migrated to MobyGames in its place -- and ended up doing a lot less writing about art history, Beat poetry and political science and a lot more about video games... which was fine, since the scholarship had already been done on those other topics, while here was an emerging field in which I felt I could make a much-needed mark.

Ultimately these projects that spring fully-formed from the head of a single visionary grow bottlenecked, however -- they lose interest or lose focus after having kids or, basically, need to justify the financial and time expense of the project. Typically a new crew or an allegedly angelic patron company will come up with what is needed to continue operations and then decide that they'll like its flavour after they pee into it a little bit.

I'm sure Mobygames was no cakewalk for monthly bandwidth charges, as a primary repository for box art scans and screenshots. If it could be boiled down to text-only essentials, maybe it could have remained in its donor-and-advertising-supported form. Instead, the founders handed over responsibility for the site to a terse military type with game industry connections and poor PR skills, who in turn negotiated some kind of deal with game rental service GameFly. What interest GF had in helping to maintain a database full of information primarily about games they'd never be renting out to anyone was an open question, but to demonstrate their nominal interest in their acquisition, they've just imposed a site redesign that has the site's entire community up in arms -- not solely due to aesthetic concerns and the conditions of its imposition, but also because it has broken and hidden a great deal of the database's functionality. Some users have gone on strike deliberately, while others are merely on an effective strike because the day to day business of contributing material and getting it improved has been so obstructed by the new design (and specifically, by elements of the design which were predicted to be problematic months and months ago by the beta-testing approvers, and which were nonetheless rammed through uncorrected regardless.)

I hate to see the site in crisis like this, as it's one of a paltry few oases I've found of good old dial-up BBS forum civility. A truly international cadre of passionate contributors of all ages and both sexes manage to agree to disagree on one of the most holy war-riest of topics, game preferences, in a way free from the rape threats and generally lacking axe-grinding standards of discourse prevalent on forums these days. A breath of fresh air, as was everything2, as were the TABNet online forums, as were well-moderated Usenet newsgroups (I hear good things about Reddit, but my chance direct experiences there are somewhat deflating; also, reports of their community standards include some byways I can't in good conscience support by association with my good name 8)

As a fun game I used to play on Mobygames, I would concoct MG logos using distinct iconography from classic game in-game logos, and the expert specialists being who they are, would more often than not come up with correct answers in short order.

If memory serves correct: Might and Magic 6, Mighty Bomb Jack, Bionic Commando, Oxyd, Great Giana Sisters, Deathtrack, SimCity, Keef the Thief, and Star Control 1, with a bonus serving of Civ 1's world-creation in the background.

Admittedly it's been a while since I played that game there, but I can't imagine doing it here -- first off, I only have one regular commentator, and second, "Shilling Epilepsy to..." is just too long a name to play this game with.

In a roundabout way, I began this blog to have a place to store the primary materials for my MobyGames ad blurb submissions. (And tying it in to the nostalgia full circle, my initial MobyGames involvement was motivated by curiosity over why the industry stopped producing software like the beloved games of my childhood, if I'd missed any similar ones in their genre, and what else their creators had gone on to do. Am I going to end up being nostalgic about the place I used to visit in order to be nostalgic?) All my commentary was kind of secondary to the transcriptions and primary sources. I've since been ramping up research for some poorly-documented corner of gaming history -- specifically, MUDs and computer-moderated PBM games -- thinking that it would end up there at some point. If things don't get sorted out over there, who knows, maybe it will end up here instead.

EDIT: I was somewhat rambling in getting around to the topic here while trying to dovetail it with this blog's theme. I am much punchier on the topic over here.

EDIT, December '13: A solution to the problem is well underway!