Get too comfortable with the constant forum chatter, 24-hour news and viral marketing initiatives, and it's easy to forget that the first videogames were meant to be experienced in relative isolation. Developers presumed that when you stepped up to the arcade cabinet or plopped down in front of your TV screen, you knew little more than what the game told you. While you toiled away with their creations, they remained firmly behind the curtain.
In such a relationship, you could easily overlook or even willfully ignore a game's faults. When I played the original Mario Kart, it didn't really register with me that only half the racers were competitive past the 100cc difficulty level. That was a "feature" to me, not a game-balance issue. I also hardly noticed that certain weapons in Doom were basically game-breaking, effective at almost all ranges and against all enemies. If you hoarded enough plasma rifle ammo going into it, the epic confrontation with the Cyberdemon became a one-minute massacre.
Before the internet created the collective gamer and allowed for the post-release patch, developers could get away with anything short of a Battlecruiser 3000AD-level meltdown. Their jobs became a lot harder when gamers ceased to be a lonely crowd and started behaving like a hive mind. True, most of the gaming community's collective effort has traditionally been wasted on machinima and fanboy wars, but it only takes a small group of passionate fans to dissect a game and expose everything that makes it tick.
For example, take the three-way relationship between a studio like Blizzard, its mass audience (which includes me) and its hardcore fans and critics. While my own ability to unearth World of Warcraft's or StarCraft's secrets is nonexistent, Blizzard has to face the certainty that there are thousands of people who are eager to explain anything and everything that I might have missed.
People like my friend Zach, who became intolerable as Diablo II's release date approached. Almost every time I connected to the internet, an AIM window would pop up with a link to the latest bit of information he'd mined from the fansites.
"Check it out: Some guys cooked up this program that lets you plan your character," he would say. "I've got my necro planned up through Level 30. He's going to be unstoppable."
"Yeah?" I was really sick of hearing about it.
"Yeah. But here's the thing - I've worked through all the possible class-skill combos and I'm pretty sure he becomes game-breaking if he's paired with a paladin casting auras."
"So here's what I want you to do ..."
"I have to do something?"
"Not much," he quickly assured me. "Just roll your paladin right now."