lateblt (lateblt) wrote,

MobyGames has started to suck

A few years ago, I was engaged in a discussion with another user on Jason Scott's blog about the presence of de facto websites for certain niche subjects. The topic came up in regard to the fact that Jason's site is, has long been, and will probably remain the de facto go-to place for textfiles from the BBS era. With increasing numbers of young Internet users not knowing what a dial-up BBS is (let alone having actually used one), a site with this particular specialty is sadly becoming less relevant to the majority of Internet users, but anyway, while discussing this point on the blog, I made an analogy with MobyGames. For many years, MobyGames had been the go-to site for vendor-neutral gaming information; since its inception in 1999, MobyGames really was the hub site to post screenshots, reviews, and documentary information about video games of all stripes. Since the site was not paid off by game publishers or any other entities with vested interests in the subject matter, MobyGames users were free to submit information in an environment that had been created for the sheer love of gaming rather than to make money. (Having a neutral platform in which to create game reviews took on a new level of importance after Jeff Gerstmann was fired from his position at Gamespot, allegedly because he wrote a review that reflected poorly on a game that was being heavily advertised on Gamespot at the time of its release.)

In my post on Jason's blog, I noted that MobyGames' momentum would likely keep it at the forefront of its subject matter for a long time to come; there really didn't seem to be a good reason to use other sites, since MobyGames had by far the largest collection of information. I added that having a single website for this kind of information held an inherent risk, since all that information could be hard to replicate if MobyGames disappeared or started to suck for some reason; in my post, I used the example of MobyGames possibly starting to charge for people to use it as a way that it might start to suck.

By coincidence, it happens that Jim "Trixter" Leonard, one of the founders of MobyGames, is good friends with Jason Scott and reads Jason's blog regularly. Jim happened to see my comment and responded to it, assuring me that MobyGames will never require payment for its use. That was nice of him to say; I've never met Trixter but he seems like a genuinely nice guy. (Incidentally, I have met Jason Scott briefly at an event in San Francisco, and he's much nicer than he sometimes comes off as in text. Online, Jason tends to be completely unrestrained in expressing his wrath for anything or anyone he disagrees with, but this is something of a persona that he puts on--in real life, Jason is entirely affable and gentle.)

Anyway, yeah, Trixter sent me a brief note stating that MobyGames would never charge. I was reassured by this, and assumed that MobyGames would remain a nexus of gaming enthusiast activity for several years to come.

A few years down the line, however, I've become increasingly aware of a phenomenon that isn't going away, but appears to be only growing more true as time goes by: MobyGames has started to suck.

Now, Trixter didn't go back on his word: MobyGames is still free. It hasn't gone through any quantum shifts in how it works, at least on the surface; in fact, the site has been something of a bastion of not changing its design, even still retaining that annoying review format that breaks your review into two separate sections called "The Good" and "The Bad," a format which should have been made more flexible a long time ago. Nonetheless, I won't complain about this, because too many things are subject to change in our world today, and it's nice to see a site that hasn't felt the need to reform or redesign itself out of some idiotic idea that it needs to keep changing to remain relevant.

So what happened? What's wrong with MobyGames today? Quite simply, it stopped doing what it once did best: Compile information.

MobyGames isn't Wikipedia; everything you submit to the site has to go through an "approver" before it will be posted on the site. When MobyGames started, this was perfectly reasonable, as this is the Internet, and it's not hard to imagine that people routinely posted pure garbage to the site which would have needed some amount of filtering. The level of filtering was none too heavy-handed, as I routinely saw very short reviews get posted to the site, so it's not as though you had to produce something that was pure gold in order for it to qualify for submission; they just wanted to make sure that people weren't polluting the site with nonsense. As far as I'm concerned, that level of quality control was and is eminently reasonable.

The problem started when MobyGames got it into its head that it wouldn't take just any submissions, but needed to enforce some arbitrary level of quality control that was never outlined anywhere, but simply dreamed up in some people's heads. If standards had even been created and drawn up in a formal document that was made available to anyone, it might not have been so bad, but there was never any such document that I saw; it really seems that each individual approver was simply given free rein to decide what went into the database and what didn't. Reasonably well-prepared submissions which would once have been approved into the database after a glance began getting rejected or classified as "Works in progress" while submitters were told that their submissions weren't good enough or complete enough.

My first taste of this was when I submitted a new game to the site several years ago. I wrote a paragraph for the main description which explained the premise behind the game, and had my submission rejected because the approver wanted me to write another couple of paragraphs about what the game's actual gameplay mechanics were like. Ignoring for a moment that there's no stated requirement anywhere on the site that this must be part of the entry's main description, what really makes a request like this irksome is that it's not consistent; plenty of the game entries on MobyGames have no such information in them, which means that a demand like this is not part of some well-thought-out standard, but a completely arbitrary decision by some guy who decided that he didn't think someone wrote enough. I expanded the game's description as requested, re-submitted it, and had the entry approved, but this was just my first taste of what MobyGames was becoming.

As time went by, I had screenshots rejected because they were the "wrong resolution" (this is pretty awesome, considering that many games allow the player to choose the in-game resolution; I wonder how the approvers decide which resolution they think is "right" for a particular game) and whole games rejected because the games were too obscure for the approvers to actually Google them to ensure that I wasn't just making the game up. At one point in time, I had thought that MobyGames would be an ideal place for people to put up information about obscure games for which there was no other information online, but if approvers are just going to Google this stuff anyway, then that specifically entails that information on the games must already be on the Internet, so what's the point of having a MobyGames? At best, that requires MobyGames to be an aggregator for information that's already on the Internet instead of a repository of new content.

The most unimaginably stupid display of stupidity, however, came one day when I submitted an Apple IIgs-only game to MobyGames and cited the game's platform as "Apple II." The approver took some time to get back to me on this one, but finally said that as far as he could tell, the game had never been released for the Apple II, but only the Apple IIgs, which was not currently an available platform type on the site. The approver was willing to let the submission go if I had a website which documented that the game had in fact been released for the "Apple II," but otherwise the submission could not be approved.

Never mind the fact that the Apple IIgs is part of the Apple II family; if MobyGames insisted on considering it a whole separate platform, why not just add it to the site? When I sent an e-mail to the site's administration asking that the Apple IIgs be added as a platform option, an admin responded that they were planning on adding the Apple IIgs as an available platform, but needed to perform "research" before they could add it.

Seriously now: Research? MobyGames provides information on games, not computer platforms; the act of adding the IIgs to the site is literally nothing more than adding an additional entry in an already-extensive list of check boxes that you can check off when submitting a new game. How much research is needed to add "Apple IIgs" as an option in a list of check boxes? Were they researching the existence of the Apple IIgs itself to ensure that it was a real computer and that I didn't just make up this whole "Apple IIgs" jive because it sounded funny, or could they not figure out how to add a check box next to the text "Apple IIgs" to a website? Were no 12-year-old kids who'd just taken an HTML class available to assist in this research?

What really killed MobyGames more than anything else, however, was the changing face of the computer game field. As commercial games have become increasingly "Hollywoodized" in recent years, the focus among gamers has shifted from the store shelves to what people are cooking up in their bedrooms late at night. No longer are the best games forged over a period of years by teams of hundreds of animators, artists, and voice actors before being sold by some big-name studio for $50. The best games today are made by teams of one or two people working in their spare time and usually given away for free. The problem with this is that MobyGames demands a company name when specifying the developer and publisher of a game. You can't put the programmer's name in the box, because that's a person, and if you correctly identify the person who designed, programmed, and released the game, your MobyGames approver will helpfully remind you that only company names should go into that box, and would you please put that person's name in a different box, and by the way they still require a company name from you before they'll approve the game to go up on the site. (Last time I checked, MobyGames still had some laughably inaccurate text that said something like "Most games are made by companies" on their submission form.) If you then explain that the game was independently released and there is not any company associated with the game, your approver will become suspicious and explain that further information about the game is needed, and some websites to help you back up your claims would be helpful, even though they could just as readily go onto Google and verify this information in less than 60 seconds. By jove, you're trying to submit a game that wasn't published by a company? What kind of trick are you trying to pull here?

Again, this kind of mindset is understandable from a quality-control perspective. MobyGames has long had a policy, for example, that they will not add unfinished games to their site; vaporware has no place on MobyGames, and I can understand this policy completely. (Imagine how foolish it would have looked if MobyGames had added Duke Nukem Forever to their database 10 years ago.) MobyGames wants to ensure that they add games which are in a reasonably finished state, and frankly they don't want to list every little demo that some joker churned out in a few minutes. Fair enough. However, the failure of this kind of a "quality control" attitude becomes apparent when Spelunky, one of the most important computer games of 2009, could not be added to MobyGames because it was independently developed and published by Derek Yu. Spelunky was only added to MobyGames when Derek Yu formed his own company, Mossmouth LLC, at which time it suddenly became perfectly acceptable to add Spelunky to MobyGames under that company name, even though it was the same game that it had been a year prior. By then, it was too late; it had become readily apparent that MobyGames had fallen behind the curve.

The whole premise of "quality control" reminds me of the similar scuffle that happened in the world of Let's Players on YouTube, during which a certain group of belligerents claimed that they were the authorities on video quality, and proceeded to harass people who dared to release YouTube videos with their authorization on the basis that the videos were of poor "quality." When did a bunch of Internet kids become arbiters of art? If video games are art (as most gamers repeatedly insist they are), how can anyone dare to call themselves judges of what's good and what's bad? Isn't that, you know, what stupid and ignorant people do? Oh, wait... Yes, yes it is.

Perhaps ironically, MobyGames has started to suck for all the same reasons that Jason Scott hates Wikipedia. Jason has freely and repeatedly expressed just how much he hates Wikipedia, and as far as I can tell, the primary reason is because Wikipedia isn't truly free, but has a committee of oversight which fairly arbitrarily decides what's "notable" (and thus can be included on Wikipedia) and what isn't (and thus will have its article deleted if you try to create such an article). Jason is a historian who loves to preserve data, and thus his distaste for the wanton deletion of information is perfectly understandable; however, Wikipedia is something of a self-contained democracy, in which articles which are proposed for deletion go to a vote in which anyone is welcome to submit comments and votes for whether the article should be deleted or not. By contrast, when you submit anything on MobyGames, there's really just one person who sees your submission and has final say on whether your work is "good enough," and whose qualifications to be in such a position of judgment are neither presented nor likely to be sufficient if they were.

MobyGames still has a lot of historical data in it. Go through its list of games and you can find a lot of good old information there. But just try adding to that database these days; it's like pulling teeth. What's perhaps even more infuriating is some of the things that do get posted to MobyGames because of application of stupid rules. For example, remember that rule I mentioned in which unfinished games cannot be approved? Apparently there's a corollary to that rule that if a game is being charged for, it's "finished." This has resulted in unfinished games being submitted and approved, because hey, if you're charging for it, it must be a finished product. The result is that any joeboy who invents a fictitious business name and slaps it on his game, or who decides to charge money for his piece-of-crap game that he made in an hour, can get his game on MobyGames, while works which were months or years in the making can't be approved because the developer left his own name on the game instead of making up a company name to make himself seem like a corporation.

And there you have it. MobyGames has started to suck. So what's the alternative? Well, my earlier prediction came true: Since MobyGames was something of a key repository for such information, there really hasn't been a site of central importance to take its place. Instead, gaming information is sort of spread out across the web, and while there are many sites that provide good information and updates on new indie games that are coming out, there really isn't any one site that dominates this arena. Perhaps that's appropriate, given the decentralized and community-based focus of independent development and consumption. One notable site that routinely publishes excellent information on new and upcoming indie games is TIGSource, which stands for The Independent Gaming Source. They're also kind enough to provide a list of external links to sites that tend to specialize in similar information, such as Play This Thing! and Jay is Games. Similarly, Cactus, one of the foremost indie game developers of the moment, lists several notable people of similar stature on his site, including of course fellow Swede Nicklas "Nifflas" Nygren (Knytt, Within A Deep Forest), as well as Terry Cavanagh (Don't Look Back, VVVVVV) and several others.

Fare thee well, MobyGames. We hardly knew ye...
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