Conquering the Pile of Shame, Week 9

Distracted by the world… of Warcraft

So, you might have noticed that there was no “Week 8” of this series. Well, as it turns out, I was tragically crook last week and was simply not in a state to do any writing. So, there goes the New Year’s Resolution out the window, right? Of course not. If we give up on something at the first stumble, then we weren’t really ever committed.

Of course, another important part of taking on a challenge is to be honest — with yourself most of all. And while I definitely was too sick to do any writing, I have to admit that I would have had very little to write about, as I simply didn’t make any significant progress on my Pile of Shame. So what happened? World of Warcraft Classic happened.

For me, WOW Classic is a unique obstacle. I have no specific attachment to the modern version of the game, but WOW Classic is a reboot of the “golden days” of World of Warcraft, in all their slow, cumbersome glory. WOW Classic is a game that is both time-consuming and steeped in nostalgia. It’s the sort of game that just eats up your gaming time until there’s no time left for anything else. It also has the benefit of being extremely approachable, even for a game that was released in 2004; it’s one of the main reasons why World of Warcraft’s popularity surpassed anything the genre has offered before or since.

When Blizzard launched WOW Classic in 2019, after years and years of fan demands, they themselves admitted that they were not prepared for how popular it would be. In a way, it somewhat reflected the game’s original rocky launch, which also had a rough start due to overwhelming demand. I personally took a week off work back when WOW Classic launch, so I could really dig into a game that was a big part of my early twenties, and I was touched by the overall community response to the launch. In the Alliance human starting zone, players formed an orderly queue to complete the Garrick Padfoot quest. In all my years of gaming, never before have I seen hundreds of strangers act with such civility and cooperation in a multiplayer game. It really highlighted that everyone there loved the game just as I did, and showcased the mutual respect for everyone’s experience in the Classic community.

I’ve played on and off since the launch in 2019, and currently have a level 60 paladin with a few other characters on their way to level 40. It was a friend’s desire to give WOW Classic a go that encouraged me to return this time around, and once the game gets its hooks into you, don’t expect them to be easily removed any time soon.

I will eventually write an article on World of Warcraft’s sweeping influence. But today, I want to return the focus to my Pile of Shame. Where do they come from? Why do they keep growing? Why are they so difficult to conquer?

The growth of a Pile of Shame comes down to a handful of critical factors: time, sales and freebies, nostalgia and collector/completionist mentality. These four key factors are the principal culprits in the exponential growth of incomplete games in every gamer’s collection. One of the most widely known factors is, of course, sales and freebies.

Valve’s Steam sales have always been the stuff of legends in the gaming community, even after they stopped offering flash sales. Other digital distributors like GOG and Epic have also stepped up to the plate, and Epic has aggressively pursued Steam’s market dominance by offering free games every week for the past two years. It seems that, no matter what, there is always someone having a sale.

Of course, being stupid humans with our stupid human brains, when we see a good deal at a sale, we instantly think “oh, that’s a good price, I better get it now before the sale ends!”. Meanwhile, the logical part of the brain, which has been shoved into some dark corner of the psyche, is screaming at us that there are other sales, and we’re probably not going to play this game anyway. But we ignore that logical voice. Because that’s a great price for the entire collection of Might & Magic on GOG, and I better get it now.

I still haven’t finished Might & Magic VI.

This brings me to the next couple of points. Nostalgia and the collector/completionist mentality. The sale mentioned above was one of GOG’s “classic RPG” sales, and Might & Magic VI is a game that I played a bit of in my youth, but never completed. I always loved all the associated artwork for Might & Magic VI, and can clearly remember the full-page ads in PC Powerplay magazine. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and my yearning to return to a classic and finally complete it is one of the key driving factors in why I always fall victim to sales on GOG, where retro games are their speciality.

This is where the collector/completionist mentality enters the equation. Sure, I couldn buy Might & Magic VI for $3. Or, I could buy the entire Might & Magic series for $10. Then I can play them all! In order!

I still haven’t finished Might & Magic VI.

And finally, there is the big one — time. Let’s do some quick maths. There are 168 hours in a week, of which approximately 56 hours are taken up sleeping and 40 are taken up working. After taking out general household chores, spending time with the family and general miscellaneous time, a typical adult might be left with 15 to 20 hours per week at most where they might have some time for gaming. Taking into account things like holidays and social events, over the course of a year the average adult gamer might have anywhere between 600 to 800 hours per year for gaming.

Depending on your preferred genre, the amount of time required to complete a game varies significantly, but most games sit in the 10–50 hour mark for completion. As a gamer who usually prefers RPGs, these sorts of games lean heavily towards the 50 hour or more mark. A playthrough of The Witcher III sits at around 100 hours, while my first run of Pathfinder: Kingmaker came in at a whopping 150 hours. At an estimate, a playthrough of the Might & Magic core games (not including Heroes of Might & Magic or Dark Messiah of Might & Magic) would take approximately 500 hours.

I still haven’t finished Might & Magic VI.

There are thousands of games released every year, and it is simply not possible to keep up. Inevitably, some games get consigned to the Pile of Shame in favour of other modern releases, and the vicious cycle continues.

As with growth, reducing the size of the Pile of Shame is similarly down to a few critical factors: time, difficulty and reality. I’ve already discussed time — it contributes to the exponentially increasing size of a Pile of Shame, and conversely, time is a major limiting factor in reducing the size of a pile.

The next major factor is difficulty. As games age, they become increasingly difficult to run on modern PCs. While emulators like DOSBox and SCUMMVM have mitigated this to some degree, and remasters occasionally rescue the better-known games, the fact is that most games will eventually begin to have issues on modern PCs. This can make the experience of simply starting the game incredibly onerous, and is frequently an insurmountable obstacle for the less technically-minded.

But it isn’t just technical difficulty that is the issue here. The gameplay experience presents its own difficulties due to dated design. When I completed Ultima I earlier this year, I noted how uncompromising the game is with its difficulty, and I speculated that the difficulty acted as a sort of invisible wall to prevent the player from finding the actual limitations of the game engine. Older games have a reputation for being difficult, but they weren’t always considered so — it’s just that modern gamers have acclimatised themselves to specific comforts that players of older gamers didn’t have, things like quest logs and maps. Combined with the fact that older games don’t have the benefit of decades of UX refinements (interface, menus, save systems, etc.), playing older games can be quite a cumbersome experience. I have absolutely loved playing Fallout 2 again, but the longer I play, the more I yearn for a more functional interface and dialogue system.

The last factor is one that anyone playing an older game will experience at some point — once you remove those nostalgia-goggles, the reality sets in. The simple fact is, some games simply aren’t as good as we remember them. We love games for many reasons, but one of the principal reasons is that the games that we play stand as symbols of a time in our life. We love them because they remind us of being a kid and playing all weekend, or they remind us of the friends we played them with. Even for games that you have completed, this nostalgia is often shattered when games are revisited many years later. Games in the Pile of Shame often don’t have the benefit of a nostalgic attachment. The simple fact is that games like Wizardry or Zork are too dated for modern gamers, in the same way that the majority of early films and old texts are too dated for modern audiences.

The Pile of Shame is an inevitability for dedicated gamers. Is it really so shameful, if we all have one? I know that, in my Pile of Shame, there are plenty of games that I’ve spent a lot of time playing and enjoying, even if I’ve never finished them. And others, I am simply happy to own because I feel satisfaction in seeing them as part of my collection, and feel safe with the knowledge that they will always be there, waiting for me to play them. Every now and then, I’ll pick one up and play for a while, and occasionally finish one and discover something that I’d been missing out on all along, like Spec Ops: The Line or Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.

Perhaps we need to change the narrative, and step away from the notion that you haven’t properly played a game unless you’ve completed it. As we’ve seen with the meteoric rise of the survival/crafting genre, some games don’t even have an ending. What matters is whether those games have brought you happiness, in whatever form that happiness might come — whether it is beating the final boss, or just playing the first level over and over because that’s the level you have a nostalgic attachment to. Games have always been about the journey, not the destination. That is their great strength over film and print. Embrace your Pile of Shame, be proud of it. It speaks volumes about who you are.

But I still haven’t finished Might & Magic VI.

At some point in about 1989 I played my first videogames on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with games...