Clan Wars vs. Cosmic War

By Alex Kierkegaard / January 31, 2015

Cosmic War

Cosmic War is a persistent online multiplayer gameworld designed by Alex Kierkegaard and based on Jon Mavor's and Uber Entertainment's next-generation RTS, Planetary Annihilation. The following essay explores the differences between this upcoming game and the superficially similar, but fundamentally different series of events called Clan Wars created and hosted by Exodus Esports.

1. Before we begin delving into the mechanical and lore aspects of how Cosmic War will play out, I feel it would be beneficial to talk a little bit about the differences of what we are trying to do here compared to the premier competitive PA event: Clan Wars. This is for two reasons. One is pure critical curiosity and inquisitiveness, in the sense that a fan of PA would naturally be interested in comparing the two different "game modes", so to speak, which are (or at least promise to become) the largest in scope available. PA itself, as I have been examining at length in my review of the game, is built around a "bigger is better" design philosophy, so the bigger modes will naturally also be the most exciting ones, and the ones in which the core strengths of the game can be enjoyed most fully. And the second reason is practical: many players will not have the time to participate in both events, so they would want to consider their differences in order to decide which one to participate in.
   Now, despite all the criticisms of Clan Wars that you are about to read, I really have nothing but praise for the event, ultimately. I decided to withdraw my clan from it purely because of problems with the organizers, and would strongly consider rejoining it if those problems were resolved. Then again, if Cosmic War evolves into what I want it to evolve, it will take up all my available PA time, several months into the future, and I would eventually have to withdraw from Clan Wars anyway, so perhaps it's best that things went the way that they did. If we had remained in Clan Wars, I would not have had such a strong incentive to develop my own ideas for a long-running PA event, and Cosmic War would either never have come into being, or at the very least it would have been greatly delayed, and would have perhaps even appeared in a considerably scaled down form to what I am trying to turn it into today.
   So without further ado I will simply summarize the differences between the two events in two words, and these words are "sports" and "art". Clan Wars is about sports. Cosmic War is about art.
   Exodus is trying to turn PA into a sport, and Insomnia is trying to turn it into art — into more art than it already is. That is the essence of the opposition here.
   Leaving aside that huge, and now opened, can of worms for a moment, let's talk a little bit about the mechanical differences between the two events, leaving the rather more difficult to grasp aesthetic ones aside for a little later.
   The biggest mechanical issue with Clan Wars for me is that it doesn't really feel like a "clan war" at all, since the very same 5 or 6 guys from each clan take part in more or less every single battle. After all, you are either trying to win, or you aren't. If you are trying to win, why would you ever use any other players than the most experienced 4 players you have available to you at any given moment? I know that this is what my clan did in every battle it fought, and I can see that that's more or less what all the other clans have been doing too, and will have to KEEP doing if they want to grab the highest spot in the rankings that they can grab. Anything other than that would be stupid, and a betrayal of the very nature of the event, which is supposed to be competitive. Some clan leaders will contest this, and claim that they are open to less experienced players taking part and blah blah blah, but just look at the names taking part in the actual battles: it's always the same small number of names. And that's good, because, due to the nature of the event, that's how it's SUPPOSED to be. Exodus and the viewers WANT to see the best players taking part, and in a 4v4 format that leaves the vast majority of the clan players out of the battles.
   So it is obvious to me Clan Wars is not really a clan war, but merely a 4v4 team-based competitive league. And because I am really fascinated about the idea of a REAL clan war, I set out to make Cosmic War into what Clan Wars should have been if it had been designed with that idea in mind.

2. So how do you leverage an ENTIRE clan into a war, aside from organizing huge 40v40 battles or something?
   Actually, that's what I tried to do for a while: I made a thread about large team games on the PA forum, and tried to organize huge clan battles on a regular basis. The first trial went well and, if I had kept pursuing that solution, I am sure I could have turned it into a successful series of events.
   However, that still doesn't quite fulfill the "clan war" ideal that I've always been dreaming about ever since I heard that term. So CULT fought AC, and won one match and lost the other, but which clan won the war then? Even if you factor BRN joining in for the last match, and beating both of us, you still don't quite have a war in your hands, nor really a winner, since the next week you'll have other battles taking place, and the only way to find out who's winning would indeed be by keeping some kind of "score" the way Exodus is doing.
   What the "score" does, however, is destroy the very idea of a war. Real wars are fought only once and there are no rematches possible, no "counting" up of victories or defeats: any further battle in the war will have to be fought ON THE BASIS of all battles that have already taken place. The results of a battle feed into the initial conditions of all future battles, and the struggle continues forever. For a Clan War to be more immersive, then, and therefore more artistic (if you have understood my definition of art as "the craft of illusion"), scores would have to be thrown out the window and we'd need to move to a persistent world: and that's how Cosmic War was born as an idea in my mind.

3. Now, if Clan Wars is supposed to determine which is the strongest clan (and what else would it be supposed to determine?), then we have a situation akin to a tiny Balkan nation devoting all its attention and resources into finding and training the best 5 or 6 e.g. wrestlers in the world, then beating the United States in a wrestling tournament, and claiming that it is the strongest nation in the world, whereas in an actual war between the two states the Balkan one would be wiped out completely from the map in mere hours no matter how many wrestling champions it managed to find within its borders and promote. Which brings us back to the idea behind this whole piece: Are we talking about a war here or not?
   A war, then, is comprised of many battles, each of which plays a more or less crucial part in determining the direction of the war. And since the battles in Clan Wars do not influence future battles, they cannot be said to form part of a war. So not only are clans NOT involved in Clan Wars, the event isn't even a war at all, at which point my many friends in the PA forum would shout that I am nitpicking about misnomers again, and the mods would be stretching their fingers on their mice and looking in their control panels for the "Lock" button, but the fact nevertheless remains that what I am saying is true, and that this realization is what helped me arrive at the format for Cosmic War, and was therefore instrumental in its creation. So people might whine and grumble about "mere semantics", which are supposed to be "pointless", but to actually creative people "mere semantics" are instrumental in clear thought and communication and, since I happen to be such a person myself, they are extremely important to me and by no means "pointless".
   Now, you might say that Clan Wars ISN'T a war, but a SERIES of wars, with each individual battle seen as a self-contained war, but given that most Clan Wars matches so far are over in 15 to 20 minutes, I am having a hard time visualizing them as wars, and hence will continue to insist that the event is misnamed and is misleading people into thinking of it as something that it's not.
   It should go without saying, however, that it STILL is a great event. So if you're looking for dependable 4v4 battles on a regular basis between the best players and teams in the game today, Clan Wars has you covered, and since PA is at heart a team-based game, this is currently the best event to watch, and to participate in, as long as you are one of the top 5 or 6 players in a clan, or if you are prepared to start your own. 4v4 battles, however, are by no means the most, and therefore neither the best, that PA has to currently offer, so I set out to create something bigger and greater than that. I actually suggested to Exodus, among several suggestions that I made to them, to upgrade Clan Wars to a 5v5 format for the second season, to at least start moving in the direction of increasing the size and scope of the battles, but they didn't even bother acknowledging my proposal, let alone respond to it. Which has been their typical reaction to most of my proposals since I joined their event, at which point it became clear to me that, if I wanted to see my ideas realized, I'd have to realize them myself, since the Exodus guys seem perfectly content with what they've made, and do not appear interested in changing it, or taking on additional projects.

4. We finally see that, with their conservative attitude towards the format of the event (strictly 4v4 no matter what, despite my very practical and far more varied and interesting proposals, all of which went unacknowledged and unanswered), and their fascination for the FORM of sports (as opposed to their actual SUBSTANCE, which is PHYSICAL EXERTION), the Exodus guys have been unable to create an event that lives up to the utterly fascinating name "Clan Wars". What do "leagues" and "fixtures" and "points" have to do with wars, after all? There is a medical term that describes people who are obsessed with this sort of thing, and who feel the desire to drag it even into areas of life and activities in which it obviously has no place, but I will leave it out of this article since it would take us off topic. Insomnia is littered with it, anyway, and I have analyzed this behavior and this condition in depth in many reviews and essays, so there's no point in dwelling on it here. The main point to take away from all this is that both Exodus and I are trying to create an amazing series of events based on, and by expanding, the base PA experience, but our idea of what is "amazing" greatly differs, and that's why our events must necessarily differ too, greatly.
   It must be noted, however, that from a pure viewer's perspective Exodus' Clan Wars will generally be superior. Cosmic War will feature the occasional 5v8 or 20v20 that Clan Wars will not be able to feature (at least as Exodus is running it, without incorporating my above-linked proposals), but for the most part Cosmic War battles will be less interesting to watch, especially for those who are not also following the turn-based game. They will often be unbalanced, "unfair", horribly skewed in the direction of one team or another, because their format will be determined by something beyond the battles: by the newly introduced turn-based mechanics, and by the outcomes of all the other real-time battles that took place before them.
   Besides, the turn-based mechanics themselves will certainly not be a "spectator sport". Do people watch Civilization matches? But I am not interested in creating a "spectator sport", I am interested in creating a GAME for me and my friends to PLAY. The streams and the videos will be made primarily to create awareness for the event, and to attract new players to it and help it grow in scope, solely because the bigger the game gets the more I will enjoy playing it. The entire enterprise is based solely around my enjoyment, and if a mechanic or a policy don't contribute to it, in one way or another, I will be sure to not use them.
   And this is, at bottom, what psychologically separates my endeavor with those of the Exodus guys, apart from the aforementioned medical condition: I am a PLAYER first and above all, whereas they are just organizers. They play the game too, of course, but not the game they are organizing. They merely VIEW the game they are organizing, and hence their priorities will always necessarily be skewed towards the viewing experience, as opposed to the playing one. And there's no way to change this as long as the Exodus guys do not form their own clan and participate in their own "Clan Wars". Between us, I have always been amazed at how they could keep themselves out of it at all. They can clearly see that it's awesome — they are the ones who made it, after all! — and they make its rules too, so why not just enter it and join in all the fun that everyone else is having? I've been pondering this question for months, and I still have not arrived at a satisfactory answer. I guess some people just like to watch, but I, for my part, certainly do not count myself among their number.

5. Ultimately, both Clan Wars and Cosmic War are driven by the same desire: the desire to imbue a series of multiplayer PA battles with CONTINUITY. And why is continuity so desirable? Because it increases the DURATION of the experience. And why is greater duration preferable for works of art, as opposed to lesser duration? Because, as a wise man once explained, all else being equal, greater duration is fundamentally more IMMERSIVE.

"One of the triumphs of Breaking Bad (and, to a lesser extent, Game of Thrones) is how it manages to retain narrative cohesion for dozens upon dozens of hours without recourse to disposable, filler content, and this is certainly part of why it's so engrossing. We can infer that, given a high enough level of quality, and all else being equal, the longer an artwork's duration, the more immersive it will be, and that the most immersive artwork would therefore last... forever. It would be time itself enveloping the 'viewer' in all directions."

   So both Exodus and I are trying to achieve the same thing; the difference is in our approach. They solved the problem by a leaderboard and numbers (see my scoring essay in Videogame Culture: Volume I for more details on their solution); I solved it by the creation of a universe. "Esports" in general represent the solution to this problem — the problem of how to change the game so that the player will want to stay longer in it -—; the difference is that this solution is aesthetically wretched, and comes from autists (didn't manage to keep this essay free from this word, but believe me I tried!), who leave the game as it is and employ OUT-OF-GAME mechanics (the leaderboard and the numbers), whereas normal people and aesthetically sensitive people solve it by ENLARGING the game ITSELF, by adding to it more IN-GAME mechanics. And this is, at bottom, the difference between Clan Wars and Cosmic War. They represent the realization of the two fundamentally opposed approaches to game design: the one which marginalizes aesthetics and makes no distinction between the game itself and the circus- and clown-show that oftentimes develop around it (and which are powered and fed by spectators and the money they bring with them...), and the one which I champion, which apotheosizes aesthetics and sees even mechanics as merely a means of achieving a greater aesthetic effect (which design philosophy can only be grasped once one has realized that aesthetics and mechanics are ultimately the same thing, and that the cherished Anglo-Saxon distinction between "graphics" and "gameplay" is therefore retarded).

So what began as a simple examination of the distinction between two competitive events based on a real-time strategy game, led us into a complex series of arguments that cut to the center of the essence of psychology and art, and, if you will believe me, even life. I beg your pardon for this, dear reader, but I can't help but see "infinities everywhere", as Nietzsche explained that we philosophers generally tend to do. Every hole I look into turns into a rabbit hole, and they all lead straight down to the center of the world. But if this is not your cup of tea, there are also blog posts and newspapers for you to read, so whatever strikes your fancy, the internet has you covered.
   tl;dr: Clan Wars is a really cool event, regardless of my criticisms of it, and the Exodus guys are praiseworthy for dreaming it up and running it, but Cosmic War is on a whole other level entirely. I look forward to finalizing its initial design and playing the first round of it and telling you more about it.