Wednesday, May 01, 2013
Game Dev Irony
One of my favorite iPhone games is called Game Dev Story. It's basically a simulation game where you build a game studio from the ground up. You hire staff, pick which games your company creates, market them, etc... Once you build your company up and start putting out great games, you get high ratings, win awards, and most importantly, you sell a lot of games (which allows you to hire more staff, etc... and thus put out even better games!). It's an addictively fun game, but it's also not particularly deep.
That's not the worst thing in the world, of course, and when it comes to iPhone games, that sort of simplicity is actually a plus. Enter a new game called Game Dev Tycoon. It seems to be the same basic concept, but it looks to have more depth to it, so I'm halfway there in terms of wanting to purchase it. It was made by Greenheart Games, an indie developer consisting of two brothers.
And get this: Knowing it would be pirated anyway, they went ahead and released a cracked version of their game on torrent sites. They even helped seed it. However, they added a twist to the version they released:
The cracked version is nearly identical to the real thing except for one detail… Initially we thought about telling them their copy is an illegal copy, but instead we didn’t want to pass up the unique opportunity of holding a mirror in front of them and showing them what piracy can do to game developers. So, as players spend a few hours playing and growing their own game dev company, they will start to see the following message, styled like any other in-game message:It's a brilliant and ironic move, but the irony doesn't end there. It turns out the players of the pirated version are a little dense. They started going out on the internet and posting absurdly unaware comments in forums, wondering (for example) if there's an in-game way to research DRM to protect their (fictional) games (!?):Boss, it seems that while many players play our new game, they steal it by downloading a cracked version rather than buying it legally. If players don’t buy the games they like, we will sooner or later go bankrupt.Slowly their in-game funds dwindle, and new games they create have a high chance to be pirated until their virtual game development company goes bankrupt.
"I can't progress furher... HELP!" one user wrote. "Guys I reached some point where if I make a decent game with score 9-10 it gets pirated and I can't make any profit.Oh the irony. It hurts! But I'm guessing it hurts the developers even more, so I just went out and bought the game. If you like sim games and this sounds interesting, why not give it a shot. This sort of genius should be rewarded (and so far, 93% of their users are pirates!). (Thanks to Steven for finding this story)
Posted by Mark on May 01, 2013 at 09:30 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Recent and Future Video Gamery
So I've been pretty mum on video games of late, and there's a reason for that: I haven't been playing them much. I seem to have moved on for a while. For instance, those 50 books didn't read themselves. The last game I was really into was Mass Effect 3, but this dip in interest was already in full swing when I started that one (which did nothing to reverse the trend, sad to say). But maybe this sort of thing is cyclical, as I've started to get the itch for some video gamery again. What have I been fiddling with lately, and what am I looking forward to?
Posted by Mark on April 10, 2013 at 08:11 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
So this is old and indeed, the Kickstarter for Clang has already ended (funding successful!), but there's some interesting stuff going on here beyond the typical Kickstarter stories. This was a campaign to raise money for an accurate sword fighting video game, one that would rely on motion controls. This seems soooo 5 years ago at this point, but on the other hand, if someone actually made this game 5 years ago, motion controls might not be the joke they are right now. That's interesting, right? Alright, fine, you caught me. My interest in this originates more from Neal Stephenson's involvement than anything else. Here, check out this funny, detailed pitch:
It might seem odd that a science fiction novelist is making a video game based on swordplay, but then again, this is a guy who wrote a book about a sword-wielding pizza delivery ninja. It also seems to be an outgrowth from one of his other interesting projects: a collaborative, interactive publishing system optimized for digital devices. I still haven't gotten around to reading The Mongoliad, but it's making its way up the queue.
Anyways, there's been some interesting interviews about the project and he even did a Q&A on Reddit recently which was pretty fun. It's all well and good, but I'm glad his involvement in this stuff seems to be winding down. I'm sure I'll keep tabs on Clang and the Mongoliad, but in the end, I'm really a fan of Stephenson's writing, so I'm looking forward to a new book... at some point.
Posted by Mark on July 11, 2012 at 10:07 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 03, 2012
Mass Effect 3
I never played the first Mass Effect game, but the second game has become one of my favorites. It's not a perfect game - I had my issues with certain aspects - but once I got into it, it was very involving and fun to play. I can't think of any other game in which I've been this attached to characters in the story, so naturally, I was looking forward to Mass Effect 3. It's the "last" game in the series and it promised to incorporate decisions and actions from previous games. Unfortunately, this installment stumbles.
Most people will point to the ending, which I certainly think is lackluster at best, but my problem with the game is more emblematic of the series as a whole. My favorite part of the second game was the series of recruiting and loyalty missions. There's an overarching plot about an implacable alien force called the Reapers, who periodically attempt to destroy all life in the galaxy, but I always found that aspect of the story somewhat trite and boring. To me, it was only interesting in so much as it gave me a reason to recruit my crew. It was a unifying evil force in the galaxy, so it worked, but it wasn't all that special or interesting. So the second game focused a lot on your crew, gaining their loyalty through side missions, and stopping some Reaper-related threat. All is well so far, so where does the third game fall down?
Well, at the end of the second game, your crew is scattered and you end up starting over. This is a minor instance of the Video Game Sequel Problem, but one of the interesting things about the Mass Effect series is that your decisions from the previous game play into the current story. That being said, you kinda have to start over. My biggest issue with this third game, though, is that you're not really building a crew that can defeat the reapers. You're trying to align galactic resources, playing politics to get various races to cooperate, gaining strength for the coming fight with the Reapers. There really aren't many new characters, and most of your former crew are relegated to supporting roles, cut scenes, or temporary missions.
The end result of this structure is that in the second game, I had built a crew of 12 members, each with their own personal backstory and independent, often interesting loyalty missions that illuminated their character. In the third game, I had a crew of 4 or sometimes 5. A few of them are characters I know and welcome: Garrus and Liara. EDI is the ship's AI come to life, which is a great development. Towards the beginning of the game, when this happened, I found it very encouraging. Unfortunately, she's really the only new character that's really interesting and progresses through the entire story. Gone are the recruiting and loyalty missions where I grew to like all the characters. Heck, even Shepherd's choices seem to matter less. The whole Renegade/Paragon thing seems to matter much less here, instead you get "Reputation" points, though it's unclear what that actually means (and I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean anything in the end). There are some side characters who showed promise, but they were either relegated to a small part of the game or they didn't have a lot of depth. For instance, I enjoyed playing chess with Specialist Traynor, my Comm officer, but that's really where her role ended (apparently she's a romance option for female Shepherd).
Actually, my romance option from the second game was Tali, and she does show up for a while in this game, but I think some of the choices I made lead to her death (I had, essentially, chosen not to commit genocide against the Geth, but wasn't able to broker a ceasefire between the Geth and the Quarians, so a lot of Quarians ended up dead and Tali committed suicide). This was a tough mission, but it sorta fit with the game and I can see why it happened. Inexplicably, Tali shows up after her death for one last go, just before I went to the final battle with the Reapers.
Anyway, the focus of the third game is to build up Galactic Readiness, aligning alien factions, many of which have longstanding grudges against each other (the Geth and Quarians being an example). This is all well and good, and the whole resolution to the Genophage is actually very well done, but while I got to spend some time with Mordin and Grunt, there was very little moving the characters forward. This seemed to happen with a lot of my former crew. I got to see what became of Jack, which was pretty great (she's grown as a character between games, which was really nice), but it's not like she joined the crew again or anything. Other characters showed up too, but it was all ultimately unfulfilling. It was all in service of fighting the Reapers. And, I guess, Cerberus... an organization I've never quite understood, though I must say that the Illusive Man certainly shows more personality than the Reapers, and thus defeating his plans was somewhat fun.
I think part of my issue with the whole Galactic Readiness angle is that it's not entirely clear how much that helped, especially when you get to the ending. Indeed, the gamemakers even forced me to fire up the multiplayer missions in order to boost Galactic Readiness - though, actually, I really enjoyed the multiplayer for what it was - but while I got to see the pretty numbers increase, I never really saw what impact it had.
So the ending. It's a non-sequitur. It doesn't really logically follow what came before it. Since I wasn't that invested in the main storyline, it didn't actually bother me that much. I was much more bothered by the lack of focus on characters throughout the entire third game. The ending only exacerbated that complaint for me, though it's pretty bad in its own right. As usual, Shamus has done an excellent job breaking this down, in particular the parts about the Reapers and the Galaxy are insightful. There are, of course, contrarians, and I think there's an interesting discussion to be had about the authorship of video games. Devin comes down squarely on the side of the writers at Bioware, but video games as a medium are interesting because of interactivity. Because we, as players, have some sort of ownership of what's happening on screen. There are certainly limits to our ownership, and I think I might agree with Devin about certain pieces of this, but it's an interesting topic of discussion. It gets at the heart of the video game and storytelling problem, the thing that Roger Ebert keeps wanking about (interestingly, both Roger Ebert and Devin Faraci are primarily movie critics, so it makes a bit of sense that they'd side more with the creators than the players). A quick summary of Ebert's argument against games is instructive:
Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.This, of course, has been debated ad nauseum over the years, but then, it's the core of the problem with Mass Effect 3.
One of the reasons the series has been so successful is that Bioware promised that our decisions would matter. Not only would they matter in the immediate story, but they would be accounted for in future games. This is astoundingly ambitious, and I enjoyed most of the game... right up until that ending, which just doesn't logically follow from the rest of the story. It's not just that my choices weren't taken into account - I don't think I would have been frustrated at all if that were the case. I understand that the nature of branching decisions would result in an impossible task for Bioware. There's just no way they could account for everything. But that doesn't mean they should account for nothing and completely change the whole purpose and goal of the story, all in the last minutes of the series. This could have been a game series that settled the whole Ebert debate in favor of video games... instead, it just gives the Ebert argument more credence. The reason people are upset is that it didn't really need to be that way. It's not like Bioware wrote themselves into a corner. There are a million possible endings that would be better than what we got. Dark, happy, depressing, confounding, whatever. It would have been better than "stupid", which is where we're at now.
Ultimately, I had fun with the game, but not as much as with the second game, primarily because of the characters. This whole grand overarching storyline was always underwhelming to me, but I had fun with the characters. Unfortunately, the third game disappoints on that front. The combat is good, the dialogue is well written, a lot of the big conflicts in the series are actually resolved in a satisfying manner... the game plays well. There are some things that aren't as successful. For some reason, the notion of "slow motion" Shepherd seems to fascinate the developers, and those sequences are annoying. I'm still frustrated that navigating to different decks on the Normandy requires a load screen each time. But those are nitpicks. The real trouble was the lack of emphasis on character, exacerbated by a non-sequitur ending. Again, I had a lot of fun with the game, so to me, the ending didn't ruin the whole series (as some folks are saying). Indeed, I find myself contemplating a second play through (starting back at ME2 with the Interactive Backstory (if I can figure out how that works)), perhaps as a female Renegade Shepherd.
Update: Just wanted to point to this video, a very long explanation of why the ending of ME3 doesn't work for him. It's sorta done in the style of those Red Letter Media Plinket reviews, but it's pretty good. The part where he talks about the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC (from ME2) and how "Sometimes I'm not sure Bioware understands the magnitude of what they've done here" is particularly good, and it gets at exactly what I loved about ME2 - the characters! I don't know that Bioware recognized how attached players were to the characters...
Posted by Mark on June 03, 2012 at 02:03 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 07, 2012
Tasting Notes - Part 5
Yet another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:
Posted by Mark on March 07, 2012 at 08:03 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 04, 2011
Recent Video Gamery
Here at Kaedrin, we pride ourselves on being timely. Well, not so much. Especially when it comes to video games, where I'm a cheap bastard and only buy games after they've fallen in price (usually a year or more after original release). Cases in point:
Posted by Mark on December 04, 2011 at 07:00 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Old Podcast Episodes
I sometimes discover a podcast long after it's started, and if I like it enough, I'll head back through the archives to check out some older episodes. In honor of some of the gems I've found by doing so, here are a few really good episodes that are probably worth listening to:
Posted by Mark on August 10, 2011 at 09:56 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 07, 2011
Mass Effect 2
So I've mentioned a couple times that I've been playing Mass Effect 2. It certainly took me a while to get into it, but at some point, I turned a corner and became very enamored with it. It's not perfect, but it is interesting, and at this point, I'm very much looking forward to the third and final installment.
I never played the first Mass Effect, which was an XBox 360/PC exclusive, but this PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 was supposed to include some sort of "Interactive Backstory" that is an introduction to the universe and happenings of the first game. Strangely, it's only available as downloadable content and not really on the disc... at least, I think so. It never actually came up for me (at least, I don't think so... there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding this). In fact, what actually comes with the PS3 version of the game is strangely obscure. I believe you get the full game and some of the original DLC on the disc itself. Then there's this extra pack of content that you can download for free, which I think includes the interactive backstory thingy, but I'm not sure because the whole thing was all very confusing. I get that this is a port of a year old game that already had a bunch of DLC, but is it too much to ask to make that stuff a little clearer?
Anyway, once I got started on Mass Effect 2 proper, it took me a bit to get acclimated to all the various gameplay mechanics. It could have been that I just wasn't up for a new game at the time, or maybe it was because I had no idea what was really going on in the story at the beginning of the game, but for whatever reason, I found the beginning of the game to be a bit of a slog (I have to wonder how people who played the first game felt - were they ok with this, or does it suffer from the Video Game Sequel Problem). Once I got used to the mission structures and combat mechanics, it started to get a lot more fun.
There are basically two types of missions in the game - a main storyline concerning disappearing human settlements and a series of recruiting and loyalty missions. As previously hinted at, the main story was a bit obtuse at first (presumably due to my lack of context), but as I got used to the universe and the various things that inhabit it, it became simple enough to understand. However, I found myself much more interested in recruiting members of my team and helping them out. Perhaps because those stories are self-contained, I found them much more engaging. I became attached to most members of the team, each in their own way and for their own reasons. When it came time to launch the final "suicide mission", I found myself dreading the prospect of losing a member of my team.
As an RPG, there are a lot of dialogue sequences and decision trees. Fortunately, the Bioware writers are reasonably good at writing dialogue. It's not Shakespeare, but it's funny and engaging enough. I particularly enjoyed talking to Mordin, who has a distinctive, clipped stream of consciousness grammar, but who is very witty and funny. In terms of choices, you are forced to make many, and each seems to be split up between two directions: Paragon and Renegade (basically good and evil respectively). At first, the system seemed much more interesting and subtle than other simple good-and-evil scales shown in games. For instance, in other games, when confronted with a puppy, you will get three options: 1. Pet the puppy and give it a snack, 2. Ignore the puppy, and 3. Place the puppy in a blender and make a protein shake. In order to play the "evil" side of the scale, you have to do some pretty heinous things and while pondering your character as he sips pureed puppy may be an interesting experience, it's also pretty surreal. But in Mass Effect 2, the evil options are toned down. Sure, you still do some bad stuff, but it's at least mildly plausible that someone would act this way. I dabbled a bit with both sides of the scale before settling on Paragon for my playthrough... and I do believe that indecision cost me later in the game. From what I've heard, these decisions are supposed to have consequences, but for the most part, I didn't see much of that going on until the end of the game, but at that point, the decisions seem much more arbitrary and frustrating (more on this later). At some point, there may have been an element of implied consequences (similar to how Heavy Rain made me feel like my decisions mattered, even if replaying the game (which you're apparently not supposed to do) reveals the distinct limitations of your decisions), but by the end of the game, I was well aware of how it all worked.
The combat is basically a third-person, cover-based shooter. My understanding is that this is different from the first game and that there was some consternation about the change, but most folks seem to think it was an improvement - and fortunately, I rather enjoy this type of gameplay. There's also a system of "magic" powers, but since this is a science fiction setting, they're called Biotics. I never fully got used to these, though I found myself relying on them more and more as the game went on.
In terms of production values, the game is fantastic - great visuals, great audio, and so on. The voice actor for the male Shepard seemed a bit on the wooden side, but he was alright for the most part (I've heard that the female voice actor is actually much better). The game has a really great auto-save system (I shouldn't have to point that out, but I find that some games, even today, still have horrible save systems), but some major problems with loading screens. In most cases, this is fine, but the part that really drove me nuts was moving around on my own ship, the Normandy. It's silly in the extreme that I need to sit at the loading screen for minutes on end while I'm just trying to go down one level on my ship.
So I assembled my team, gained each of their loyalty, and proceeded to scour the galaxy of missions and campaigns. There's a lot to do, and like all RPGs, there are varying levels of satisfaction surrounding each of the missions. Still, these were, on the whole, positive. As I mentioned before, I really enjoyed the process of recruiting each member of my team, then gaining their loyalty by helping them out on another mission. It's a pretty simple process, of course, but just when I thought it was getting too simplistic, I ended up losing one of my crew's loyalty (it was Miranda, in case you're interested) at the expense of gaining another's. This was mildly frustrating, and because I had dabbled in Renegade actions earlier in the game, I wasn't able to build up enough Paragon points to rectify the situation. I'm pretty sure this was the contributing factor that let the non-loyal crew member die in the final mission.
Speaking of which, I found that final mission very frustrating. The playthrough itself isn't bad or anything - the combat is fun and the situation is actually somewhat tense - but the choices you make here generally lead to members of the crew dying. That would be fine, but the whole thing is rather arbitrary. All of the choices amount to picking specialists to do a specific job, and picking two team members to accompany you throughout the final levels. The specialists part seems straightforward enough - you pick the people who have strong tech skills (Kali and Legion), biotic skills (Samara and Jack), or leadership skills (this one is the least obvious, but Garrus and Jacob both seem to work). But who you take with you has a weirdly disproportionate effect. I played through the final level twice, with the second outcome being that one of my people died, and the first being that 4 people died. The only difference was who I brought with me on the final level. Miranda died in both scenarios (one time I brought her with me, the other time I had her stay with the others). I'm pretty sure that she died because I didn't have enough Paragon points to resolve the whole loyalty situation (though again, it's unclear what formula they used to figure this out). I think there may be a way to save her, but I'm not sure I really want to play the final level again...
This brings up another point on good/evil scales, which is that they generally work in a cumulative manner. You can't do certain things until you get far enough along on either scale... but this isn't how morality really works. People aren't just an accumulation of their good or bad deeds. There are ways for good people to succumb to evil or for bad people to redeem past mistakes. This game tries to do something like that - if you're far along on the Paragon side, some Renegade actions become unavailable. But it's still a little on the simplistic side for me.
Once I got into the game, it was a lot of fun. I was actually surprised to learn that I spent a solid 35 hours or so playing the game... but most of that didn't feel like a waste, as sometimes happens in RPGs of this nature. Oh sure, there are some dumbly repetitive elements, such as probing planets or hacking terminals, but those are relatively short experiences. Other games sometimes take those tasks to the extreme (this is generally referred to as "grinding"), or they make the main missions too long for a single play session. For instance, it was common for me to play Fallout 3 for a couple hours and not actually accomplish anything worthwhile. In Mass Effect, the missions are well delineated and substantial, but not too large or cumbersome that you couldn't finish any one task in a single sitting. This leads to a better flow effect in the game, and thus it's more fulfilling and interesting to play. Ultimately, I had a lot of fun with the game, despite its flaws, and I'm now very much looking forward to Mass Effect 3. I may even replay this game on Renegade. Who knows, maybe the interactive backstory will work this time around.
Posted by Mark on August 07, 2011 at 07:23 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
I like podcasts, but it's depressingly hard to find ones that I really enjoy and which are still regularly published. I tend to discover a lot of podcasts just as they're going through their death throes. This is sometimes ok, as I'm still able to make my way through their archives, but then I run out of content and have to start searching for a new podcast. I will often try out new podcasts, but I have only added a few to the rotation of late. Here's some recent stuff I've been listening to:
Posted by Mark on July 27, 2011 at 10:01 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Flow and Games
When I read a book, especially a non-fiction book, I usually find myself dog-earing pages with passages I find particularly interesting or illuminating. To some book lovers, I'm sure this practice seems barbaric and disrespectful, but it's never really bothered me. Indeed, the best books are the ones with the most dog-ears. Sometimes there are so many dog-ears that the width of the book is distorted so that the top of the book (which is where the majority of my dog-ears go) is thicker than the bottom. The book Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi1 is one such book.
I've touched on this concept before, in posts about Interrupts and Context Switching and Communication. This post isn't a direct continuation of that series, but it is related. My conception of flow in those posts is technically accurate, but also imprecise. My concern was mostly focused around how fragile the state of flow can be - something that Csikszentmihalyi doesn't spend much time on in the book. My description basically amounted to a state of intense concentration. Again, while technically accurate, there's more to it than that, and Csikszentmihalyi equates the state with happiness and enjoyment (from page 2 of my edition):
... happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.In essence, the world is a chaotic place, but there are times when we actually feel like we have achieved some modicum of control. When we become masters of our own fate. It's an exhilarating feeling that Csikszentmihalyi calls "optimal experience". It can happen at any time, whether external forces are favorable or not. It's an internal condition of the mind. One of the most interesting things about this condition is that it doesn't feel like happiness when it's happening (page 3):
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments of our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times - although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.This is an interesting observation. The best times of our lives are often hectic, busy, and frustrating while they're happening, and yet the feeling of satisfaction we get after-the-fact seems worth the effort. Interestingly, since Flow is a state of mind, experiences that are normally passive can become a flow activity through taking a more active role. Csikszentmihalyi makes an interesting distinction between "pleasure" and "enjoyment" (page 46):
Experiences that give pleasure can also give enjoyment, but the two sensations are quite different. For instance, everyone takes pleasure in eating. To enjoy food, however, is more difficult. A gourmet enjoys eating, as does anyone who pays enough attention to a meal so as to discriminate the various sensations provided by it. As this example suggests, we can experience pleasure without any investment of psychic energy, whereas enjoyment happens only as a result of unusual investments of attention. A person can feel pleasure without any effort, if the appropriate centers in his brain are electrically stimulated, or as a result of the chemical stimulation of drugs. But it is impossible to enjoy a tennis game, a book, or a conversation unless attention is fully concentrated on the activity.As someone who watches a lot of movies and reads a lot of books, I can definitely see what Csikszentmihalyi is saying here. Reading a good book will not always be a passive activity, but a dialogue2. Rarely do I accept what someone has written unconditionally or without reserve. For instance, in the passage above, I remember thinking about how arbitrary Csikszentmihalyi's choice of terms was - would the above passage be any different if we switched "pleasure" and "enjoyment"? Ultimately, that doesn't really matter. Csikszentmihalyi's point is that there's a distinction between hedonistic, passive experiences and complex, active experiences.
There is, of course, a limit to what we can experience. In a passage that is much more concise than my post on Interrupts and Context Switching, Csikszentmihalyi expands on this concept:
Unfortunately, the nervous system has definite limits on how much information it can process at any given time. There are just so many "events" that can appear in consciousness and be recognized and handled appropriately before they begin to crowd each other out. Walking across a room while chewing bubble gum at the same time is not too difficult, even though some statesmen have been alleged to be unable to do it; but, in fact, there is not that much more that can be done concurrently. Thoughts have to follow each other, or they get jumbled. While we are thinking about a problem we cannot truly experience either happiness or sadness. We cannot run, sing, and balance the checkbook simultaneously, because each one of those activities exhausts most of our capacity for attention.In other words, human beings are kinda like computers in that we execute instructions in a serial fashion, and things like context switches are quite disruptive to the concept of optimal experience3.
Given all of the above, it's easy to see why there isn't really an easy answer about how to cultivate flow. Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist and is thus quite careful about how he phrases these things. His research is extensive, but necessarily imprecise. Nevertheless, he has identified eight overlapping "elements of enjoyment" that are usually present during flow. Through his extensive interviews, he has noticed at least a few of these major components come up whenever someone discusses a flow activity. A quick summary of the components (pages 48-67):
First, to a large extent, I think this helps explain why video games are so popular. Indeed, many of the flow activities in the book are games or sports. Chess, swimming, dancing, etc... He doesn't mention video games specifically, but they seem to fit the mold. Skills are certainly involved in video games. They require concentration and thus often lead to a loss of self-consciousness and lack of awareness of the outside world. They cause you to lose track of time. They permit a palpable sense of control over their digital environment (indeed, the necessity of a limited paradigm of reality is essential to video games, which lends the impression of control and agency to the player). And perhaps most importantly, the goals are usually very clear and the feedback is nearly instantaneous. It's not uncommon for people to refer to video games in terms of addiction, which brings up an interesting point about flow (page 70):
The flow experience, like everything else, is not "good" in an absolute sense. It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strength and complexity of the self. But whether the consequences of any particular instance of flow is good in a larger sense needs to be discussed and evaluated in terms of more inclusive social criteria. The same is true, however, of all human activities, whether science, religion, or politics.Flow is value neutral. In the infamous words of Buckethead, "Like the atom, the flyswatter can be a force for great good or great evil." So while video games could certainly be a flow activity, are they a good activity? That is usually where the controversy stems from. I believe the flow achieved during video game playing to be valuable, but I can also see why some wouldn't feel that way. Since flow is an internal state of the mind, it's difficult to observe just how that condition is impacting a given person.
Another implication that kept occurring to me throughout the book is what's being called "The gamification of everything". The idea is to use the techniques of game design to get people interested in what are normally non-game activities. This concept is gaining traction all over the place, but especially in business. For example, Target encouraged their cashiers to speed up checkout of customers by instituting a system of scoring and leaderboards to give cashiers instant feedback. In the book, Csikszentmihalyi recounts several examples of employees in seemingly boring jobs, such as assembly lines, who have turned their job from a tedious bore to a flow activity thanks to measurement and feedback. There are a lot of internet startups that use techniques from gaming to enhance their services. Many use an awards system with points and leaderboards. Take FourSquare, with its badges and "Mayorships", which turns "going out" (to restaurants, bars, and other commercial establishments) into a game. Daily Burn uses game mechanics to help people lose weight. Mint.com is a service that basically turns personal finance into a game. The potential examples are almost infinite4.
Again, none of this is necessarily a "good" thing. If Target employees are gamed into checking out faster, are they sacrificing accuracy in the name of speed? What is actually gained by being the "mayor" of a bar in Foursquare? Indeed, many marketing schemes that revolve around the gamification of everything are essentially ways to "trick" customers or "exploit" psychology for profit. I don't really have a problem with this, but I do think it's an interesting trend, and its basis is the flow created by playing games.
On a more personal note, one thing I can't help but notice is that my latest hobby of homebrewing beer seems, at first glance, to be a poor flow activity. Or, at least, the feedback part of the process is not very good. When you brew a beer, you have to wait a few weeks after brew day to bottle or keg your beer, then you have to wait some time after that (less if you keg) before you can actually taste the beer to see how it came out (sure, you can drink the unfermented wort or the uncarbonated/unconditioned beer after primary fermentation, but that's not an exact measurement, and even then, you have to wait long periods of time). On the other hand, flow is an internal state of mind. The process of brewing the beer in the first place has many places for concentration and smaller bits of feedback. When I thought about it more, I feel like those three hours are, in themselves, something of a flow activity. The fact that I get to try it a few weeks/months later to see how it turned out is just an added bonus. Incidentally, the saison I brewed a few weeks ago? It seems to have turned out well - I think it's my best batch yet.
In case you can't tell, I really enjoyed this book, and as longwinded as this post turned out, there's a ton of great material in the book that I'm only touching on. I'll leave you with a quite that seems to sum things up pretty well (page 213): "Being in control of the mind means that literally anything that happens can be a source of joy."
1 - I guess it's a good thing that I'm writing this as opposed to speaking about it, as I have no idea how to pronounce any part of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's name.
2 - Which is not to take away the power of books or movies where you sit down, turn your brain off, and veg out for a while. Hey, I think True Blood is coming on soon...
3 - This is, of course, a massive simplification of a subject that we don't even really understand that well. My post on Interrupts and Context Switching goes into more detail, but even that is lacking in a truly detailed understanding of the conscious mind.
4 - I have to wonder how familiar Casinos are with these concepts. I'm not talking about the games of chance themselves, though that is also a good example of a flow activity (and you can see why gambling addiction could be a problem as a result). Take, for example, blackjack. The faster the dealer gets through a hand of blackjack, the higher the throughput of the table, and thus the more money a Casino would make. Casinos are all about probability, and the higher the throughput, the bigger their take. I seriously wonder if blackjack dealers are measured in some way (in terms of timing, not money).
Posted by Mark on July 10, 2011 at 07:44 PM .: link :.
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Tasting Notes - Part 3
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:
Posted by Mark on April 24, 2011 at 06:36 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
I'll meet you in the Temple with the grenade launcher.
The most played video games of my college career would include a handful of great games: NHL 94/95, various iterations of Mario Kart, and, of course, Goldeneye for the N64. There are several notable aspects Goldeneye: It's a video game based on a movie and it doesn't suck. While the FPS genre was already a long-established tradition in PC gaming, it had never really picked up momentum on consoles... until Goldeneye. Before Halo and Call of Duty, there was Bond. The most popular feature of the game, at least for me, was the split screen multiplayer. I don't know how many hours I spent playing that game with a group of friends, staring a tiny screen that was split in 4, but it was probably more that I'd care to admit.
A few years ago, some friends and I found an old N64 and played some Bond on a much bigger screen (indeed, we had a nice HD projector and a 100+ inch screen - it was awesome). Of course, it was great fun, though it quickly became clear to me that the FPS had come a long way, even on consoles. That being said, it's still one of my favorite games of all time. Perhaps that's more due to nostalgia than any objective evaluation of the game, but I think it holds up reasonably well.
A few months ago, I received a text: "I'll meet you in the Temple with the grenade launcher." It came with a picture of the recently released re-imagining of Goldeneye for the Wii. Since I hadn't even turned my Wii on in several months, I thought it might be a good idea to check this out, and maybe play with some friends online. I eventually bought a copy, plopped it in and played the first section of the single player game. I promptly stopped playing and didn't turn it back on until yesterday, when I met up with a group of friends from college. I'm happy to say that the multiplayer is a heck of a lot more fun than the single player, though I'm not really sure any of that is actually due to this game itself.
Nostalgia certainly plays a big role in the enjoyment of the game. I don't think it's quite as fun as the original was back in the day, but it's still a good time, and a lot of the key elements of the game are nicely adapted to more modern conventions. Unfortunately, there are several things that are awful (Note: all of this is based on local, split-screen multiplayer):
I get that the developers of this game are trying something new (and given the state of IP law, they probably weren't allowed to copy that much of the original, though that's just blind speculation) and for what it's worth, they have created the best FPS I've played on the Wii. It's still frustrating that so much of what I loved about the original is missing from the remake though.
Of course, this didn't stop me from playing the game for 6 hours yesterday, and I did have a really good time. At first, I was getting clobbered, as I haven't really played this game much and the aforementioned control scheme didn't help. But as I got a hang for the controls (inasmuch as one can actually do so) and started to take the game less seriously, I started doing better. While everyone else was playing with machine guns or sniper rifles, I picked the rocket launcher, which actually does have a really satisfying sound effect. You only get 2 rockets and you need to be more precise than the original version of the game (this is particularly annoying given the controller issues), but I managed to get the hang of it pretty quickly (I'm now a fucking surgeon with the rocket launcher). I also figured out how to get the grenade launcher working on one of the loadouts, which was nice, though again, the original game's grenade launcher was way better. We also figured out proximity mines and smoke grenades (a welcome and well implemented addition to the game) and some other things, which made it a bit more interesting. And, as always, the ability to pick a Bond character as your avatar during the game is enjoyable and underrated (perhaps because it's a licensed property and most such games suck).
In the end, it's a game I'm having fun with, but it's very flawed and it missed a lot of opportunity to really generate nostalgia. It's a big disappointment in that respect. Again, that may be due to the fact that the developers couldn't legally use some of the stuff from the original game, but it's still annoying. I will probably get the classic controller and figure out the whole online component at some point as well. Perhaps the game will grow on me a bit, but having also recently finished Call of Duty: Black Ops, I can't say as though it will rank among my top games of this generation.
Posted by Mark on March 27, 2011 at 06:57 PM .: link :.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Game Dev Story
I mentioned last week that I've been playing an iPhone game called Game Dev Story. It's a simple game, but it can get very addictive. The premise is basically that you are the head of a new video game studio. You hire people and direct them into making various games, which are then released. You get updates on your fans, you can track your sales, and so on.
The process of game development is rather straightforward. You don't really direct the actual content of the game, except for certain high level components (i.e. I'm making a Ninja themed Action RPG!) At various times in the development process, you choose one of your employees (or you outsource) to hack one particular aspect of the game, whether that be fun, creativity, graphics, or sound. In a lot of ways, this is a passive process. But the way you watch this stuff is addictive. You typically see your employee sitting at a computer banging away at the keyboard and these little icons pop out and start to accumulate. You can also spend some extra research on other boosts along the same lines. You can feed your employees Red Bull until they fall down and start hallucinating.
There are a number of things I find fascinating about this game:
Ultimately, it's a pretty simple game. At this point, I've developed 45 or so games, and everything I make now is a smash hit. The one additional wrinkle that I have yet to figure out is that I can apparently develop a console (and then presumably games for the console, etc...) However, I can't seem to find any "Hardware Engineers"... I assume they'll become available later or something. It's a really fun game. I suppose there's some room for improvement here - it could be a bit deeper and more varied, but it's still good. I don't play a lot of iPhone games, but this one makes me think I should try more out.
Posted by Mark on February 17, 2011 at 06:29 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 06, 2011
The Video Game Sequel Problem
Astute readers may have noticed that my blogging about video games has slowed considerably. I haven't written anything about video games since late-November, and that was a tasting notes post that only touched on what I was playing. The last real video game post was from August, and that was a review of a book about video games. The last post where I focused on an actual game was in May (for Killzone 2)! As you might guess, I haven't been playing much in the way of video games.
Looking at my collection, I can narrow this down to when I started playing Grand Theft Auto 4. I think there were several factors that kept me from getting into that game. Of course, one is a standard complaint this generation, which is the way missions are structured from a usability perspective (i.e. if you fail a mission, you have to retrace several steps before you can even retry). I realize that this was one of the first games of this generation and they've apparently implemented a checkpoint system in the DLC (which I don't have), so I guess I can cut it some slack in that respect, but that doesn't make it fun to play. However, the biggest problems I had with the game are things that are endemic to a lot of video game sequels.
When you start the game, you've got very little in the way of weaponry and it takes you a while to get to an even reasonably powerful weapon. Your access to the city is very limited, as are the cars you can steal. Now, starting small and earning more powerful weapons is a time-honored video game tradition, as is the expansion of access as you gain more power. But is it really necessary for GTA 4? In most respects, this game is the same as GTA 3 (this is, in itself, another problem, though not one I'm going to focus much on in this post), which was made almost a decade ago at this point (of course, GTA 4 was made a few years ago, but still). Though you can't tell from the numbering, there have actually been several games between those two mentioned. And every one of them starts you off with limited weapons and limited access to the city. Is that really necessary?
It's a tricky problem though. Someone who's new to the series might very well appreciate the slow approach. There are a lot of mechanics to master in the game, so jumping right in might be overwhelming to a new player. But for long-time fans of the series, it can be excruciating to go through the paces yet again. This is most certainly not a problem that is limited to the GTA series.
One particularly egregious example is in the God of War series. The protagonist of the series, Kratos, has these nifty blades that are attached to chains, allowing him to swing them around in many acrobatic maneuvers. In the first game, they're called the "Blades of Chaos". Towards the beginning of GoW II, you get an "upgrade" to the "Blades of Athena". Despite being nearly identical in appearance and functionality, you suddenly forget all of the advanced attacks you had learned on the "Blades of Chaos". Really? So Kratos gets a pair of identical blades, but now he forgets how to spin around with them (I believe this move is called the "Cyclone of Chaos")? And starting the player off with all the powers from the previous game, only to take them away because of a lame plot point? That's not cool. The same thing happens at the beginning of GoW III.
Other recent sequels I've played recently have similar starts. In Uncharted 2, you start with melee attacks and freakin dart guns. You don't get a proper pistol until at least an hour or two into the game (and that's not exactly a powerful weapon either). This is apparently a longstanding issue. David Wong wrote about this years ago, giving one great example from Half Life 2:
"Gordon, the whole world has been taken over by a race of malevolent aliens. All of humanity is depending on you. Here's a goddamned crowbar."
Again, this is a bit of a challenge for game developers, since they don't always have the luxury of assuming that everyone played the previous installment (indeed, their goal is to expand the market and sell more than the previous game, so they have to plan for that possibility). I recently picked up Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction and haven't had any problems... but that's probably only because this is my first Ratchet and Clank game. I'm sure fans of the series were a bit annoyed at starting the game with limited weaponry, and I'm sure that if I pick up A Crack in Time, I'll it will suffer from the typical sequel problems...
The most obvious solution is to allow existing players to skip forward somehow. In the case of GTA IV, that means making more of the island available right away, as well as letting you pick up more powerful weaponry and nicer cars. For Ratchet and Clank, it means having more weapons available right from the start. The problem with this solution is that the developer either has to code two introductory sections of the game, or they have to make sure the game is well balanced for both the experienced and new player (this is probably a lot more difficult than it sounds). For an open ended game like GTA IV, that is probably more feasible than for a more cutscene and story-oriented game, like Uncharted 2. That being said, if it's a sequel, one would assume that the game is popular enough to warrant the extra expenditure.
One thing that might be interesting is to tie this into Trophies/Achievements. If the system can see that you've played the previous game, perhaps you automatically load the player into the experienced track. Of course, that assumes that the sequel is on a game from the current generation (of the games mentioned in this post, the only one that really qualifies is Uncharted 2, though you could make a case for God of War, since they released an upconverted version of the last-generation games on the PS3)
The only game I've played recently that got this right was Call of Duty: Black Ops, where you get a pretty great weapon right from the start. But then, I haven't played the multi-player yet, and I'm sure you have to start at the bottom there...
Apparently there are some games that try to tie your decisions from the first game into the sequels. Mass Effect 2 was supposed to do that, but I get the impression that it wasn't as big a deal as some were expecting. Of course, the first game isn't even available on the PS3 (and my computer is too old to go that route), so I'll be starting ME2 as a new player... but then, Mass Effect 3 is supposed to carry those same decisions on as well, so I guess we'll find out. In any case, I find that concept encouraging, even if I haven't actually played it yet. In the end, I don't think every game will be able to get that far, if only because some games won't have the luxury of planning for a sequel ahead of time. But there might be some simpler things you can do to mitigate the issue, and I hope more developers get creative in that respect.
Posted by Mark on February 06, 2011 at 04:02 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post [Previous Editions: part 1 | part 2]. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:
Posted by Mark on November 28, 2010 at 07:37 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 05, 2010
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:
Posted by Mark on September 05, 2010 at 07:24 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Back when I first got my PS3 and started looking for good gaming podcasts, one of the things I found was the already defunct (but awesome) GFW radio (If you're not familiar, this 4 hour best-of compilation will keep you busy for a while and is well worth a listen). Despite the fact that all the regulars had left 1up to pursue other careers, I delved a bit into their back catalog of podcasts, and in one episode they mentioned an interesting book called Game Boys: Professional Videogaming's Rise from the Basement to the Big Time by Michael Kane. It sounded interesting so I ordered a copy and promptly put it on my shelf, where it gathered dust and got buried under other books. Earlier this year, I vowed to clear off my shelf and read these suckers (7 out of 10 down and only 2 new books added in the meantime!), and I just finished reading Game Boys last week.
The book delves into the world of competitive video gaming and essentially follows two teams of Counter-Strike players as they vie to become the best US gaming team. One team, called 3D, has heavyweight sponsors like Intel and Nvidia. Their players tend to pull in around $30k a year in salary, plus any winnings from tournaments. At the start of the book, they're pretty much the uncontested champions of the US circuit. After all, most players at tournaments are talented amateurs playing for the love of the game. They can't really compete with professional players who spend full workday's practicing CS. But then we find out about team compLexity. This team also plays its players a salary, but it doesn't have any major sponsors. Their manager/coach, Jason Lake, is funding the entire enterprise out of pocket because he believes that professional gaming is the way of the future and he wants to get in on the ground floor. As the book progresses, we see Lake struggle to find sponsors and when we find out that he's sunk in about $200k of his own cash, we can't help but feel a little bad for the guy. He's middle aged, has a family and a successful law practice, but his passion seems to be getting professional gaming off the ground.
Lake fancies himself a coach and he seems to be a stereotypical jock. He paces behind his team, cheering them on and generally getting fired up as the matches progress. Interestingly, one of the angles that the author highlights frequently is how gamers at this level aren't necessarily the fat slobs who spend all their time in the basement staring at their computer - indeed, many seem to be former jocks who realized they couldn't cut it at their sport of choice and turned to video games as something they could do really well. Kane perhaps goes a bit overboard with this angle at times, but it's interesting that the biggest competitors in video gaming tend to come from actual physical gaming backgrounds.
The author, Michael Kane, didn't really come from a video gaming background. He was a sports journalist who did a story on competitive gaming and got intrigued. As such, the book reads like a standard sports underdog story, with Lake's compLexity taking the role of the scrappy, underrated upstarts, while team 3D (lead by manager Craig Levine, who doesn't take the same "coach"-like role that Lake does) are portrayed as the unbeatable champions. As one player describes, 3D is like the Yankees and compLexity is like the Red Sox. Of course, that's not exactly the case, but the human drama represented by that dynamic is one of the interesting things that draws you in when reading the book.
As a sports journalist, Kane does an exceptional job explaining the game, whether that be describing the intricacies of the CS maps, the strategies (or strats) used by the teams, or the blow-by-blow accounts of various matches. I've never played CS, but by the end of this book, I think I had a pretty good idea about what makes the game tick. Kane also does a good job describing the interpersonal relationships and team dynamics that drive the competition. He falters a bit when describing biographical details of each player, but while such asides can break the momentum of the book from time to time, it's still good information and gives the later chapters more of a sense of urgency.
The most interesting thing about the book is Kane's description of competition at the highest level, and how gaming was constantly struggling to break into the mainstream. As previously mentioned, the players aren't quite the pimply nerd types as you might assume, and the way Kane describes their various talents is interesting. Team 3D seems to have a more tumultuous lineup, as their manager, Craig Levine, will ruthlessly replace players who don't play well. Towards the beginning of the book, team 3D suffers a setback and Levine shakes things up by rehiring a former player, with the gamer handle of Moto. Moto is 23 years old and while he was once a top player (Kane describes one infamous game which has coined the term Moto Box), his skills have declined considerably. To make up for these shortcomings, he is able to devise complicated strategies and formal drills for his team that can give them a bit of an edge. Moto also seems to be much better at handling media attention than any other player, and this is something that Levine was counting on... Levine seems to be a savvy businessman. He's recognized that there's money to be made from gaming, and he sees 3D as one part of a larger scheme. Having Moto on the team is not so much about 3D winning as it is about getting gaming to a mainstream audience. This, of course, doesn't sit so well with teammate Rambo, who has a much different philosophy. As one of the elite players, he doesn't care for the precision strategies designed for Moto - he's much more of a run-and-gunnner, and he's got the skills to pull it off. Moto and Rambo clash for most of the book, and it presents an interesting dynamic.
Team compLexity, on the other hand, seems to have a tighter-knit crew of players. The star of the team, and perhaps the best player in the world (at the time), is fRoD, and the team basically revolves around him. fRoD has an amazing kill ratio and is unstoppable with a sniper rifle. Storm takes on the thankless role of defense, but I think Kane does an exceptional job describing the value of Storm's defensive prowess. Warden seems like the team leader, holding the five players together (and late in the book, he single-handedly keeps compLexity alive). Towards the end of the book, at a big, fancy tournament being put on by DirecTV, one of the precursor events is a series of drills meant to test each players skills - things like speed and tracking.
No one from compLexity cracked the top five, a further testament that their success comes more from teamwork and coordination than individual skills. Either that or they tanked it on purpose... (page 232)The rivalry between 3D and compLexity is the center of the book, but along the way, we're treated to lots of other amusing details about the game, culture, and the goings on at various tournaments. Highlights include an embarrassing appearance by born-again Christian Stephen Baldwin (page 106), the gamers of the Mug N Mouse team (amateur players with drug habits and probably criminal records who share a practice venue with team 3D), and amusing gamer tags (my favorite of which appears on page 136: "Ryan's alias was 'TedDanson,' which may be the greatest gamer tag ever on the grounds of weirdness alone.")
This is surprisingly compelling stuff. As previously mentioned, the pacing is sometimes a bit uneven, but once Kane has established the players and the details of the game, it becomes riveting. There are some occasional mistakes (for instance, early in the book, Kane mentions that Halo 3 sold something like 4 billion copies in the first day) as well, but overall, Kane has done an exceptional job capturing what it's like to play video games at the highest level. As with anything involving that level of skill, there are fascinating intricacies and unintended consequences when you see players at that level. It's well worth a read if you're interested in video games or even if you just like a well written sports story.
As someone mentioned in the podcast referenced above, this seems like ideal fodder for the documentary crew that made The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. There's a surprising amount of drama in the book, especially towards the end, as DirecTV seems poised to launch gaming as a mainstream event. Of course, the book was published in 2008 and covers events leading up to the establishment of 2007's DirecTV gaming league. Here in 2010, we know that DirecTV has cancelled the league and while the gaming tournaments continue, there isn't as much interest in mainstream competitive gaming on TV these days.
The events leading up to DirecTV's kickoff event are interesting to read because presenting a game of Counter-Strike to a mainstream audience presents numerous challenges. First of all, watching people play video games has never been a particularly entertaining venture. The game does allow a sorta free-roaming camera for spectators, but it's still a challenge - there's 10 people playing, and you never know where the excitement will happen. Then you have to consider that most people in a potential mainstream audience won't have any idea what's going on in the game. Long-time players will recognize the maps, the strats, the weapons, and so on, but a newcoming won't have any of that shared background.
The events of the book were happening just after poker had exploded onto television. But the difference between poker and Counter-Strike is that everyone knows what's happening in poker. Comparatively few people know the intricacies of CS. The problem with professional gaming in the long run is that it has to feature a game that nearly everyone is familiar with. In Korea, nearly everyone plays StarCraft, so it makes some sort of sense when you watch a video like this (ok, no, that video still blows my mind - look at their uniforms! Look at the crowd!) Such a thing isn't really possible in the US because while video games in general are quite popular, there's no single game that everyone can get on board with.
Kane's book proves that Counter-Strike can be made accessible to just about anyone (his sports writing background ensures that sort of tone), but I just can't see that translating to a full blown sports league that people will tune into every week. That being said, the book works well for what it is, and it covers an interesting and seemingly pivotal period of gaming.
Posted by Mark on August 15, 2010 at 07:09 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
So Nick from CHUD recently revived the idea of a "Tasting Notes..." post that features a bunch of disconnected, scattershot notes on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. It sounds like fun, so here are a few tasting notes...
Posted by Mark on July 14, 2010 at 07:38 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 09, 2010
When I first got my PS3 it seemed like every game I played was a gritty shooter (i.e. the Resistance games, Call of Duty 4, and so on). I tend to enjoy shooters, so that wasn't necessarily a terrible thing, but I did get burnt out on them for a while... so when the PS3 exclusive Killzone 2 came out, I passed on it while moving on to other types of games. Sony recently added it to it's list of Greatest Hits, which means it was now pretty cheap, so I figured I'd check it out. It's a decent game, but I'm glad that I didn't pay full price when it came out.
Killzone 2 is basically a competent FPS game with high production values and no real innovation. Depending on your temperament, this could be a good thing. There's something to be said for a game that does what it does really well, even if there's nothing really new there. Unfortunately, I'm not sure Killzone 2 really reached that level for me. It's got a lot of components of successful games, some of which I like, some of which I don't. For instance, they've adopted the 2 weapon limitation (which is something that I dislike more and more in FPS games - yeah, it's more realistic, but it's also less fun), the lack of a health bar (which is a convention I actually do like a lot), a cover mechanic (which can be good, but which kinda sucks in this game), and so on.
The single player campaign has lots of splashy sequences and the cutscenes are filled with stereotypical tough-guy bravado, cliched dialogue, and the typical brown/grey/blue color scheme of these types of games. But then, you don't play games like this for their story (which makes me wonder why they bother even having one). What you end up with is a series of killboxes, and the progression through them is more difficult than I'm accustomed to with FPS games. One thing I didn't like was the infinitely respawning enemies, which basically forces you to always be moving forward. This makes for a more chaotic game and I found myself dying often. This is something COD games sometimes do, but those games seem to be much better balanced than this one. Maybe it's just because I stink, but during a few standout sequences, I found myself dying so often that the game ceased being any fun at all.
Part of the trouble I had was that I never really had a good feel for my surroundings or where incoming fire was coming from. I would be progressing through an area and suddenly find myself dead because an enemy started shooting at me and I couldn't figure out where they were. This isn't something I had trouble with in any other PS3 shooters, so I'm not exactly sure what the issue was. The blurred vision effect when you're hurt may have something to do with it, as sometimes I could tell where the damage was coming from, other times I couldn't.
The controls of the game are also a bit unusual, especially given they way it plunders other games for various concepts. In particular, the way they use the R3 button to bring up the targeting mode seems awkward (and the fact that it snaps to that mode seems kinda strange). Also, the melee attacks seem ridiculously overpowered (in single player, a single melee attack with the butt of your gun or with the knife will kill most enemies - or you, if you get to close), but this is a common enough feature in FPS games. I think the best illustration of the wonky and unpolished control scheme is this hilarious photo-tutorial on how to use the sniper rifle.
Speaking of the weaponry, what we get here is mostly a series of machine guns. There isn't really a ton of differentiation between them, but they do feel good when you're using them. There are some nice other weapons, like the shotgun or the grenade launcher, but the limitation of only being able to carry 1 main weapon at a time usually discourages playing around with some of those other weapons (though I think the shotgun works pretty well). The one notable exception to all this is the Electricity Gun, which is incredibly fun to play with and imparts an amazing sense of power to the player (unfortunately, that weapon is only available to be used during one relatively short sequence in the game).
Visually the game is gorgeous, and despite the typical color scheme of this type of game, the production design is very well done. The Helghast have these great helmets with glowing red eyes, which I found to be a pleasing design (and it kinda helped in picking them out of the landscapes - evidence that no military in their right mind would ever use such a thing). And I have to admit that the orchestral music is really fantastic for this game. The single player campaign is something that grew on me once I got used to the controls. I managed to have fun with it, even though I occasionally got stuck at a section where I kept dying. Again, I'm not sure if that's just because I'm bad at this kind of shooter or if it's really a balance issue, but I don't find that sort of difficulty to be fun.
Interestingly, I've found myself much more impressed with the multiplayer mode than the single player campaign. This is unusual, since I generally dislike online multiplayer games and never really got into COD4 or Resistance, etc... (though I did enjoy Resistance 2's online co-op) Of course, I've only played a few hours, but there are a bunch of things I really like about the way it works.
From what I can tell, the multiplayer mode is extremely deep and customizable. There are several character classes and the weaponry seems better suited to this type of play too. But what I think is really interesting is that for the first time ever in a multiplayer shooter, I've found myself doing reasonably well right from the start. There are a few big reasons for this, all of which have to do with the way the game is structured. When you start the multiplayer, you only have one character class to choose from: infantryman. As you score points, you move up in military rank and get more choices for weaponry and some additional abilites. Since the game's default matchmaking pits you against other players of similar rank, you end up with a reasonably well balanced match.
Then there's the way the various multiplayer modes are packaged together into matches. There are several types of multiplayer game: there's a free-for-all type mode, a capture the flag type mode, a defend the base mode, an attack the base mode, and there's the assassination mode. Whenever you play multiplayer, you play a match that consists of 4-7 of these modes and whichever team wins the most wins the match. The thing I like about this is that I can actually get comfortable with the level designs. In COD4, for example, I found myself constantly being thrown from one map to another and I never got too familiar with any one map. With Killzone 2, by the end of a match, I found myself in pretty good shape. I knew the important locations and the alternate routes to get there, etc...
Now, this isn't to say that the multiplayer mode is perfect, just that I was able to get up to speed reasonably quickly and am actually looking forward to playing the game some more (which, again, is somewhat unprecedented for me). I'm only at Sergeant First Class, so it's quite possible the game will fall apart later, but I'm having fun. Of course, it does seem like the various upgrades and whatnot will come pretty slow. I'll probably have to play another 3-5 hours to even get the ability to play as another class (the medic). This is one thing I think COD does better, which is to impart the feeling that you're constantly achieving something new. I guess we'll see, but I feel like being slowly introduced to the new character classes will allow me to play the game without being overwhelmed (which I sometimes got when playing COD4 online).
In the end, I have some mixed feelings about this game. There are a bunch of things I don't like about it, but it did grow on me a bit as I played it, and I'm rather surprised at my response to the multiplayer. I will probably continue to play the multiplayer and will hopefully not be overwhelmed by the progression of complexity.
Posted by Mark on May 09, 2010 at 04:33 PM .: link :.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Heavy Rain: Spoilertastic Thoughts
I was only a few hours into the game when I wrote my first post on Heavy Rain, so I thought it might be nice to revisit the game. In short, I loved the game. It's not without its faults, but my first playthrough was about as good as I could have hoped for. If you haven't played the game and it sounds like it might be your thing, definitely go play the game. Don't read anything about it, don't consult gamefaqs, and definitely don't attempt to replay the chapters. I think that's the best way to play the game, and I think some of its finest qualities can be impacted by treating it like every other game. The rest of this post will contain spoilers, though I'll put most of the egregious spoilers into the extended entry.
I don't want to fully retread everything I said in my initial thoughts, but I think that post holds up and my feelings haven't changed much. I was initially suspicious of the choose your own adventure aspects of the story, but for the most part, I was wrapped up enough in the story to not really notice the limitations. I wasn't sure if the controller scheme would hold up throughout the entire game, and it does grate at times. It was done well enough that it didn't entirely detract from the game, and there are definitely times when the controls were very well executed. The control scheme is probably the most obvious flaw in the game, and the one that would probably turn off the most people, but in the end, it worked well enough for me. The "thought" mechanic was basically pointless, but it's also completely optional. Visually spectacular, but not to Avatar levels. Voice acting is terrible and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, but it wasn't bad enough to completely pull me out of the experience.
A big deal was made about the game's mature themes. By "mature", I don't mean violence or sex, though both are present in the game. There's real emotion at the core of the story, and it plays out well. It doesn't really approach the great serial killer movies like Se7en or The Silence of the Lambs though. It's more like the middle-tier thrillers that were popular in the 90s, like Kiss the Girls or The Bone Collector. Or perhaps a really good X-Files episode. This isn't really meant as a slight. It's not a great story, but neither is it a really bad story.
I suppose I should disclose that my first playthrough did not come to a happy ending. Some of my characters did die. And you know what? I thought that was great. I've since replayed the game and tried to get a bunch of the other endings, and I honestly think that the first ending I got was the best I've seen so far (more about this later). Alas, in replaying the game, some of it's limitations become even more clear. I'll leave it at that for now. The extended entry will contain more detailed descriptions of my favorite moments in the game as well as some more detailed discussion about the game's limitations and where I hope gaming is going... So far, I've been kinda light on the spoilers, but the below contains massive spoilers and should be avoided if you haven't played the game yet.
Posted by Mark on April 25, 2010 at 08:06 PM .: link :.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
God of War III
The first God of War was one of my favorite games for the PS2. I had some problems with it (namely, the Hades level towards the end of the game) and upon replaying the updated version, I noticed that some of the previous generation video game conventions were annoying (namely, the save points), but it's still a great game. I was less enamored with God of War II, but it retained the feel of the original and was still an excellent game. When I bought my PS3 last year, one of the major reasons was that God of War III was coming (and it's a platform exclusive for Sony as well). Having finished the game this week, I'm happy to report that it was well worth the wait. It's certainly not perfect, but it's an extremely well executed game.
The critical response to the game has been mostly glowing, though there is an undercurrent of complaints about the repetitiveness of the franchise. Reactions seem to be split into a "OMG, this is the best game evar!" camp and a "It's great, but it's the same damn game, why am I playing this?" camp. Mitch Krpata falls into the latter camp, and makes an interesting case:
I don't know. This game does almost everything right. It's better in some clearly definable ways than its predecessors, and somehow worse in the gestalt. Playing God of War III, I was aware that I was playing a game that had been produced at a high level, but I just didn't care what was happening.I actually think this is a valid point, even if it's not something that really bothered me. There were some things that didn't entirely work in God of War III, but it's still a great game and I think it's definitely a big step up from the second game. Indeed, much of what I don't like about this new game could be pinned on the preceding entry in the series (namely, the story).
I don't think any of the games have a truly great story or anything, but the first game has a solid character arc for Kratos. Of course, the story isn't completed there and there is little in the way of closure, but it works really well as a fresh take on the Greek mythological tragedy. Kratos fits right in with the rest of the Greek pantheon. He's a tragic figure, and there are times when you don't especially like him, but by the end of the game, I think enough empathy has been built up that you do care about him. As I mentioned in my review of the God of War Collection, Kratos is less likeable in the second game, and his motivations and actions are also rather odd. He starts the game as a war-mongering douchebag, for which Zeus lays the smackdown. So Kratos ends up in Hades (again) and makes a deal with the Titans to get revenge on Zeus. He eventually fights his way back to Zeus and something tragic (and rather silly) happens, leading to a literal cliffhanger of an ending. Even beyond those flaws with the story, there's no real character arc in part II either. Ultimately, this story just isn't very convincing, and given that the second game ends on a cliffhanger, God of War III starts off with a bit of a handicap.
Now, I'm not saying that they story they came up with was especially good and I think that Yahtzee's dramatization of the writer's conundrum is pretty spot on:
At this point, the story writer said "Shit, whose idea was it to put a thrilling climax at the start of the game? Now I have to contrive some unconvincing way to drag this out for another six or seven hours."And indeed, they came up with basically the same idea as last time: send Kratos back to Hades (for a third time!), strip him of his powers, and make him fight his way back to the beginning of the game. This has, more or less, been the structure of all three games. Start off with a rousing action sequence, show the primary objective of the game, then make you jump through 10 hours of hoops to actually get to the objective. It would have been nice to perhaps break from tradition here, but again, the end of God of War II handcuffed the writers. Eventually, the story does progress to a point where Kratos actually regains his character arc and proceeds to actually redeem some of his past misdeeds. There's an element of hope injected into the story, and so I think what ended up happening was that the new team, having inherited a crappy cliffhanger ending, did their best to get out of that and provide their own take on the story. As such, I think the beginning of the game suffers a bit from inherited writing of dubious quality, but it eventually shrugs that off and the overall theme of the story works well enough (even if there are massive, titan-sized plot holes strewn throughout).
I can see how it wouldn't work for some folks though, and that's the sort of thing that can sap the fun of the game a bit, especially if you're getting tired of the game mechanics. Fortunately for me, I love the game mechanics, and while not much has changed since the first game, I think that actually works well here. The core combat mechanics are as fluid and satisfying as always; there's no need to muck that up, and I'm glad they haven't. The puzzles, too, are as inventive as ever, and I have to admit that this game flows much better than the second installment. There are still some platforming sections as well, but none of the amazingly frustrating stuff from the first game (i.e. it's actually fun in this game). Finally, the tone and pace of this game is impeccable. I remember complaining that the flow of the second game was worse than the original, but I shrugged that off as a typical sequel problem. Well, part three solved that problem - in terms of pacing, it's at least as good as the original, if not better.
There are some minor changes in the combat system though, not all of which are for the better. There are four weapons in the game, and as with the original and second games, the new weapons aren't very special or engaging (with one exception, which we'll get to in a minute). The blades of chaos (or whatever they're called now) are as great as ever and little has changed. Two of the new weapons are essentially the same thing as the original blades - pointy objects connected to chains. As such, they don't really add much to the proceedings. The third new weapon, and the only one I really connected with, is called the Nemean Cestus (a pair of fist gauntlets shaped like lion heads), and I actually had a lot of fun with this one. While perhaps not as versatile as the traditional blades, they do pack a whallop and can be a lot of fun (especially once powered up).
Kratos, rockin the Nemean Cestus
We also get some new magic spells this time around, though each spell is now tied to the weapon you're using instead of being a separate function. So if you have the blades equipped, you can call on the Army of Sparta magic. But if you have the Nemean Cestus equipped, you have to use the Nemean Roar magic. This isn't that big of a deal, but I think the best magic is also associated with the default weapon, making it harder to branch out into other weapons (I have to admit, I barely used the Nemesis Whip and it does have a promising electricity area-effect magic attack associated with it). In addition to magic, you do also acquire some additional magic items. There's a bow that can shoot flaming arrows, there's the head of Helios which acts as a sorta gruesome flashlight (Helios was the Greek god of the sun, and you're literally holding his decapitated head throughout most of the game), and there's the boots of Hermes, which allow you to run up walls, etc... Some of these are important, some not so much (the Hermes boots are rather lame).
All in all, I'm actually pretty impressed with how many attacks and capabilities they were able to fit onto the controller scheme without making it all that confusing or hard to use. There were some times when I got tripped up, but for the most part, it was very easy to pick up (part of this may have something to do with my familiarity with the original games - not sure how well someone new to the series would do). And speaking of usability, things are pretty damn good this time around. When I revisited the first two games, I noted that I've become spoiled by current generation console games and computer games that have automatic save systems and checkpoints. The first two games had save points, and while that was fine for the previous generation, that's not acceptable now. I'm happy to say that God of War III has implemented a very forgiving auto-save system. Strangely, they have implemented save points as well. Theoretically, these are unnecessary, but I ended up creating a lot of save files anyway (not sure why they couldn't just let you save anywhere, but whatever). It would have been nice to have a sorta chapter system, so I could easily replay various sequences in the game, but according to an interview at 1up, this idea came up too late in the development process and was causing the team to deal with a lot of unintended consequences when they tried implementing it...
And so we come to the dreaded Quick Time Events discussion. The God of War games are certainly no stranger to QTEs, and indeed, the original game was my first real introduction to the modern QTE. I thought that game did a great job of it, but there are certainly a lot of games that do a poor job implementing them. The first Uncharted, for instance, has a few terrible QTE prompts that essentially equate to "Press this button to not die!" God of War games have always been much better at integrating them into the game, though God of War II actually reverted towards the end of the game and implemented a few really bad ones. But they got back on the right track with God of War III, and there are some really memorable boss fights in this game that essentially feature a series of QTE prompts, interspersed with some short combat sequences here and there.
Which brings up the visuals of the game, which are truly impressive, perhaps the most impressive that I've seen so far on the PS3. And the added power of the PS3 allows the QTE sequences to really soar, especially the Cronos bossfight about midway through the game. The sheer scale and scope of that battle is difficult to describe, even though it essentially boils down to the aforementioned QTEs interspersed with some combat. Visually, it's quite arresting. I don't think any of the boss battles are as great as the Hydra or Giant Armored Minotaur from the first game, which remain the best in the series (perhaps because of the seemingly rare combination of boss fight and environmental puzzle that the two aforementioned boss-fights rely on), but God of War III far outclasses the second game when it comes to boss fights. I think the improved capabilities of the PS3 hardware really allowed the game to soar, and the second game's bosses seem flat by comparison. Of course, the visual splendor isn't limited to the boss fights. There are many sweeping vistas throughout the game and numerous cut-scenes as well. You can't skip the cut-scenes, but you also don't have to watch them again (unless you are replaying the game from the beginning) because the game remembers that you already saw it and auto-saves after the cut-scene. From what I've read, it seems that these cut-scenes are where the game does a lot of the pre-caching that allows you to continually play the game without having to wait for loading screens (this is something I've always loved about this series - previous games have gotten around it by making you run through long, winding corridors, which might be a slightly better solution due to the perceived control the player retains). There are more cut-scenes here than in previous games, but I think they work well and don't interrupt the pacing of the game. The added horsepower of the PS3 does lead the developers to perhaps indulge a bit too much at times, sometimes pulling the camera back too far for too long. At first, this is an impressive feat, because you can still see and control Kratos, even when zoomed out, but eventually I found this effect grating. Fortunately, it doesn't come up that often.
The character and environment designs are great, as usual. One of my complaints about the original game was that the fixed camera was annoying. For the most part, you still don't have any control over the camera, but it's something I've grown used to and even embrace at this point. And the level designers seem to take advantage of the various blind spots, etc... in a way that makes me enjoy it more. I suppose you could make the argument that this is actually lazy level design, if you were so inclined, but when you look at how well the game plays, I don't think that argument would wash. Take, for instance, the labyrinth, which manages to evoke the sort of paranoid fear of Cube (for me, at least) with genuinely fun and entertaining puzzle set-pieces and action sequences. Other examples include varied gameplay sequences (i.e. a music minigame, the sequences where you're flying through a collapsing tunnel at high speeds, etc...) and the usual roster of challenging enemies and mini-bosses. There are still times when I really do wish that I could control the camera more and it's taken me a while to get used to it, so I can certainly understand the sentiment, but I feel like the game designers are able to make up for it with their level designs at this point.
You could still complain about some of the longstanding issues of the series, such as the fact that there are plenty of times when you seem to run up on a non-existent wall (Krpata mentions the Gardens of Olympus puzzle sequence, which features a bunch of walls you should easily be able to jump over, yet the game doesn't allow you. There's more to his complaint about the sequence, and it's valid, but I still enjoyed the sequence a lot). This certainly isn't perfect, but it's not like there are other games that have solved this problem yet. The music, sound effects and voice acting are also excellent. If you have any complaints about the game, I doubt it is with the quality of the production.
In the end, what we're left with is a game which is superior to God of War II in every way. The visuals, the audio, the pacing and flow of the game, the usability, the bosses, the level design and even the story are much improved in God of War III. When it comes to the original game, the comparison is a bit more mixed. God of War III has none of the low points of the first game. For instance, there's nothing approaching the frustration of the Hades levels from the original game. But I have to admit that the story of the original game tops the story of part three. This might not be that big of a deal... if God of War III wasn't so laden with cut-scenes. If you liked the first two games, this one is certainly worth checking out. I'm not sure how new players would react. Perhaps some of the things that seemed easy for me to pick up would be hard for someone who is coming to the game cold. Having played all three games in the past few months has been a fun experience though, and I'm happy with all the games. It's a great series, and well worth a play if you're a hack-n-slash action/adventure video game fan.
Posted by Mark on April 11, 2010 at 08:01 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Various and Sundry
I must get back to being an inadvertently incompetent FBI agent in Heavy Rain (in fairness, my private eye is doing a stellar job), so just a few short notes:
Posted by Mark on March 03, 2010 at 08:54 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Heavy Rain: Initial Thoughts
One of the games I've been looking forward to for a while now has been Heavy Rain. I just got the game recently and have only played through a few hours, but I fount it interesting enough that I wanted to share a few thoughts about it (which is more than I can say for most games). For those who've not heard of the game, it's probably best described as an interactive movie. In terms of subject matter, well, I haven't progressed very far, but some interesting stuff is happening.
You play a few different characters throughout the game. There a troubled father, a private detective, an FBI agent, and a journalist. They're all part of a noir-like serial-killer mystery. Things have not progressed very far for my story yet, but one of the big draws of this game is that supposedly the storyline changes depending on the choices you make.
Indeed, there are times when it feels like I'm playing a choose your own adventure style story, albeit one with more interaction than you typically get with those books. This is an interesting dynamic, and one that I'm a little suspicious of. There are certainly times when I feel like I'm on rails and I question whether or not my actions will really matter within the game. However, this is based mostly on previous experience with such "branching" games that give you lots of choices that all lead to the same place (or, sometimes, two places). From what I've heard, choices do matter in this game, and I've decided that for my first playthrough, I'm just going to stick with whatever decisions I've made (so I can't really act on my suspicions by replaying a level... yet).
As far as I can tell, I've made several mistakes. As of yet, I have no idea how those mistakes will impact the outcome of the game (or if they will at all), but I will have some incentive to replay the game after I'm done. In any case, one of the interesting things about this game is that it actually lets you make mistakes in the first place. In 99% of video games, making a mistake means you die and have to restart the level or something. In Heavy Rain, you (presumably) have to live with your choices. Again, I'm a bit suspicious of this. There are times when I can definitely detect the presence of rails. I don't want to ruin the opening of the game, but is it possible to avoid the event in question? At a later point in the game, I missed a key quick time event... and yet, I survived. I found that suspicious. Supposedly, if you make enough mistakes, you can cause your characters to die (and yet the game will go on)... but how many mistakes? And how often can you die? Clearly not every dangerous situation can lead to death?
Speaking of quick time events, this game is heavily reliant on them. However, unlike, say, Uncharted, this game actually makes good use of them. As previously mentioned, you're allowed to fail. At some point, I presume failure means death, but not in the dumb way that some games do it. Apparently, in this game, death means your character is not coming back. In any case, the QTEs are well done and surprisingly varied here. There have only been a few times that I've gotten tripped up with my controller (one interesting tidbit - the game's difficulty meter is based entirely on how well you know the PS controller). It makes use of most of the buttons, but in a realistic sorta way. There might be some Do it Again, Stupid elements in the game, but they're not as frustrating or widespread as they are in a lot of other games.
The control scheme is a bit weird though. It's a mostly third-person game, but instead of the dual-analog controls most games use, this game uses the R2 button to move forward and the left analog stick to choose direction. The right analog stick is mostly used for interacting with the environment (whereas most games use the right analog to allow you to move the camera around). They do provide some limited camera control in the form of pressing L1, which will change to an alternate view, but this still ends up being somewhat awkward, and I still find myself often trying to use the right analog stick to move the camera. These sorts of issues are not entirely uncommon in third person games, but the R2/Left Analog system does take some getting used to and is definitely the most awkward thing about the game.
On the other hand, the interaction scheme isn't really all that complicated. Some of the interactions can be a bit confusing at first, but for the most part, you just hit the buttons or move the sticks in the way they appear onscreen. It's pretty easy to pick up and go. There are a lot of games where you have to memorize the gameplay mechanics and mentally map the mechanic to the buttons. In some games, this can get quite complicated and not playing the game for a while can really confuse you when you pick it up again. Aside from getting used to the way you walk around, I imagine Heavy Rain will not suffer from this at all.
One other element about the game that I find a bit odd is the Thought mechanic. Most of the time, you can press L2 and see a list of things your character is thinking about. Unfortunately, I'm not really sure how much value this adds to the game. However, it also appears to be completely optional, and I think it could perhaps provide some hints to players who aren't sure what to do (I've used it, but more in a probing What does this do? sorta way...)
Visually, the game is quite impressive, though I do think that in the wake of Avatar, video games have their work cut out for them. The camera is very cinematic, even during non-cut-scenes (and besides which, this game sorta blurs the line between cut-scene and gameplay), but the characters aren't always perfectly realized. There are times when Heavy Rain shines in this respect, but it doesn't quite make it all the way across the uncanny valley on a consistent basis (the way that Avatar did). Some characters are better than others and the between-chapter closeups (see image above) of characters faces, for instance, are nearly perfect. The in-gameplay visuals aren't always quite as successful, but are still impressive by general video game standards (see image below). For all intents and purposes, though, the game looks great (and besides, even though both stories are somewhat derivative, Heavy Rain has a better plot than Avatar so far). The voice acting is actually pretty good, despite the fact that most of the actors have a bit of a French accent. I mean, most voice acting in video games is pretty bad, so it's hard to fault Heavy Rain on this, except that Heavy Rain does rely on voice acting more than most games. The music is well crafted, low-key and atmospheric, which is perfect for the game.
One other interesting meta-note is that 99% of the trophies for this game are "hidden" (at least, in the game itself - when you view trophies, all you see is a long list of ??? trophies). This probably makes sense when you think about it, as some of the trophies might give away plot elements. It also probably ruins the immersion the game is going for to list out the trophies and have people looking to earn them instead of playing and enjoying the game for what it is... Still, I found this interesting.
This clearly isn't a game for everyone, but it appears to be right up my alley. I love open-ended video games, and if this one delivers on its promise, I think I'll be very happy with this game. The first hour or so is a bit slow, but things seem to be moving along at a better clip now, and while the story hasn't developed much yet and the controls might be a bit weird at times, I find myself fully engaged with the game. Unlike most games, I'm actually a bit intrigued with the storyline and there have even been a few emotional moments within the game that were reasonably effective. I can't imagine that this will sell well, and I'm positive many people will be frustrated or bored by the opening sequence of the game (the first thing you have to do is brush your teeth and take a shower - hardly exciting stuff) and turn it off in disgust. This isn't an arcade game. It's more like an updated, easier to use text-based adventure game. The extensive cut-scenes, controls and QTEs will probably get on people's nerves as well. But I find myself drawn to this game more than most, and I have a feeling that I'm going to want to replay it several times.
Update: Well, up until now the game has been fine, but it appears that the reports of bugginess are somewhat accurate. Just had my first freeze. Tried to exit out and reload, and now it froze during the loading screen.
Also of note, the FBI agent's voice acting is so bad it's kinda funny. I'm not exactly sure what they're going for, but it sounds like a Frenchman attempting to imitate either a Boston or New York accent. The output is a bizarre mixture of all three accents. Heh.
Posted by Mark on February 28, 2010 at 11:20 AM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Revisiting God of War
One of my favorite games for the PS2 was God of War. I certainly had a few issues with it, but overall it was a great game and far beyond its hack-n-slash adventure game competition. Indeed, it's become my gold standard for these type of games, and most games I've played since don't even come close. Sony recently re-released the first two God of War games (with updated graphics) for the PS3. Since I'd never played the sequel, and since the God of War: Collection was reasonably priced, I figured it was worth a shot (and would help prepare for the upcoming and long awaited God of War III). Some thoughts on the games:
Posted by Mark on February 10, 2010 at 06:26 PM .: link :.
Friday, December 04, 2009
Friday is List Day When I Say It's List Day
This is probably the most uneven feature on the blog, but I like to make me some lists from time to time. It's just not predictable, I guess. Anyway, enjoy.
Not So Random Ten
I suppose an explanation is in order. Normally I start off a list day post with 10 random songs from my playlist. Lately, I've come to realize that my music selection has become rather stale. So I'm attempting to liven things up a bit, with some help, of course. Any musical recommendations are welcome, though I suppose I can't guarantee I'll listen to everything... Anyway, what this means is that the selection below isn't quite as random as normal. Some of it is new, some of it is old, some I've heard before, some I haven't.
Posted by Mark on December 04, 2009 at 11:02 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Recent Podcast Listening
Podcasts are strange beasts in that most of my favorites usually end up closing down (often right after I discover them!) This isn't really surprising. By all accounts, putting out a well produced podcast with regularity has got to be very time consuming. When you consider that most podcasters are doing it as a hobby, it's pretty easy to see that it would take a toll. I'm still amazed at Filmspotting's longevity, though they at least have some income and professional output (I believe their show airs on Chicago Public Radio). Anyway, some interesting stuff lately:
Posted by Mark on December 02, 2009 at 09:29 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Odds & Ends
A few follow ups to recent posts (and, uh, not so recent posts) as well as some other buffoonery. Enjoy.
Posted by Mark on November 22, 2009 at 03:08 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
PS3 Game Corner
Just a few thoughts on games I've played recently:
I noticed the other day that I still haven't unpacked my Wii from when I brought it with me on vacation in August. And honestly, there's not much coming out for the Wii that really intrigues me either. I've never been a big Mario fan, so New Super Mario Bros. Wii doesn't interest me that much, and definitely not Mario Galaxy 2 (I liked the first game a lot, but ultimately got tired of it). I'm a little interested in Wii Sports Resort, but the fact that I have to buy another damn peripheral for the system holds me back (even if it is only an extra $20). Similarly, I might check out Wii Fit Plus. I tend to only do real exercise during the summer months for some reason, so perhaps Wii Fit will help me keep a minimum level of exercise going through Winter. It also sounds like they've improved on the original quite a bit. I'm not expecting my ultimate in video game fitness (which would be a game that combines the just-one-more-level addictiveness of video games with the healthy side effects of exercise), but it does look better than the original (and it seems to be marketed more as a replacement than a sequel). Other than that, the landscape on Wii looks pretty bleak for me. There's supposedly a new Zelda game in the works, which is definitely interesting... but then, I never really got into Twilight Princess. The upcoming Metroid sounds rather dull as well (or maybe I'm just soured on the series because of Metroid Prime 3) There are a few other games I still want to check out, but nothing really jumps out at me. I've been a much more avid gamer with the PS3 than the Wii, and quite frankly, I paid around the same for both consoles. Plus, I watch lots of movies with the PS3 (and the recently added Netflix support is an awesome addition, if a bit awkward to use).
Posted by Mark on November 15, 2009 at 06:50 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
NES Links and Thoughts
Just finishing off the NES retrospective with a few links and thoughts...
Posted by Mark on September 30, 2009 at 06:34 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
NES Games: Honorable Mention
The NES has so many good games, any list is bound to be incomplete, but here's a few I haven't mentioned yet.
Posted by Mark on September 23, 2009 at 06:57 PM .: link :.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
NES Games: Final Fantasy and Dragon Warriors
Like the action/adventure games described in the last post, this post contains a few standouts from the RPG genre. I'm sure there are a few others that were popular at the time, but these were my favorites. Unless you consider old dungeon crawlers like Temple of Apshai a full blown RPG, these are really my first experience with the genre (at the time, I was also getting my feet wet with tabletop RPGs as well, though I never progressed that far there).
The three games listed below are remarkably similar. At least, that's how I remember it. I didn't get very far in replaying, well, any of them. One of the features of the games I've covered so far is that they were very difficult and required a lot of time playing and replaying various aspects in order to defeat the game. The same thing goes for RPGs, but here it's more systematic. A common feature of these game is something called grinding. I did this in Zelda II and Metroid, to an extent, but neither really approaches the levels of these RPGs. I spent countless hours trolling forests and dungeons, picking fights with imps and slimes in order to gain experience points and leveling up my characters. I didn't really recognize it then, but this was my way of cheating (grinding for a long time will make your characters more powerful than they are required to be). I honestly think that more recent games where the enemies' power is proportional to your power (for example, Oblivion), while eliminating the tedious and unfun grinding process, also take some of the fun away from the games. You didn't really need to grind as much as I did, but I did it because there was a benefit to it. It made the world more open to exploration for me, and as I've already established, that's a big part of what I like about games.
For the most part, the game mechanics are the same. There is a top-down overworld of sorts (similar in some ways to the original Zelda) where you lead an adventurer (or a team of adventurers). You will randomly encounter enemies, at which point the game enters a combat screen in which you engage in a turn-based battle with enemies (i.e. for each adventurer, you select which enemy you want to attack, then the game plays out your attacks, followed by enemy attacks, and so on, until one group is completely killed). When you defeat enemies, you get experience and loot. When you get enough experience, your characters go up a level and you get new abilities, etc... And when you defeat powerful enemies, you get better loot. Usually there's some sort of epic story of a land beset by a powerful evil and a chosen warrior (who you play) chosen by the king to defeat the enemy. Pretty standard stuff, really. But if you enjoy exploration and the steady improvement of your characters through experience and magic items, these games can be addicting. So here are my favorites:
Posted by Mark on September 17, 2009 at 09:03 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
NES Games: Zelda, Zeus and Dracula
Like any game genre, there were tons of great action/adventure games for the NES, but to me, it really comes down to the following four games (and a few other implied games).
Posted by Mark on September 13, 2009 at 10:23 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Emergency order. Defeat the Metroid of Planet Zebes. Destroy the Mother Brain.One of my favorite games for the NES is the non-linear, action/adventure game Metroid. In revisiting the game, I realized several important things. First, not only did I never finish Metroid back in the day, I didn't get very far into the game at all! At best, I had gotten to one of the bosses, but that, of course, is nowhere near the end of the game. The game was indeed hard, but it's interesting that I did fall in love with it nevertheless.
In replaying the game, I actually managed to win. Of course, I cheated. I used maps, walkthroughs and most importantly, I utilized my emulator's ability to create saved games. That last one, more than anything else, made the game about a hundred times less frustrating to play. I recognize that the hardware limitations of the NES made it difficult to allow saved games (this game was released before the batteries that allowed saves on newer games), but Metroid was incredibly punitive. It often seems like the game is constructed to waste time, something that would infuriate me in a game today (and indeed, I was not a fan of Metroid III). So the ability to save the game at any time made things a lot easier. I know this isn't a "fair" way to play the game, and I'm sure purists are leaving my site in disgust, but I have to say, the game was a lot of fun.
So why do I love this game? I think a lot of it has to do with the atmosphere of the game. There's not much of a story, but it's clear what you're supposed to do. The music is evocative, the character and monster designs are fantastic for an 8 bit game, and the gameworld is sprawling, open and varied. Again, there's no real narrative in the game, so when you see various designs, you're forced to come up with explanations of your own. For instance, whenever you find a power-up, it's being held by some bird-like statue. Why? Who knows? When entering various boss' lairs, there is a weird alien creature's head that is evocative without being too cheesy.
Samus entering Kraid's lair
This is an action game with platforming elements, but the primary gameplay element is actually exploration. One of the most shocking and subversive things this game did was that it forced you to go left. Indeed, in order to start exploring past the first screen, you need to go left first and gain a power-up. This might seem trivial or silly today, but it was revolutionary back then. The notion of going left-to-right is so ingrained in our consciousness from reading (and other video games), that the concept that we not only could go left, but that we were required to do so, was amazing. The game was also one of the first to use backtracking as a key element. In addition, the game is filled with secrets, hidden barriers, and tricks. Furthermore, these secret barriers were necessary in order to win the game, making the process of exploration that much more fun. Despite the punishing difficulty of the game, the focus on probing captivated me, even when I was younger (and now that I can mitigate the difficulty with saved games, the focus on probing and exploration is that much more rewarding).
Samus finds a new weapon
Like other games of the era, such as the Zelda series, Metroid required you to collect various items, weapons, and abilities in order to strengthen your character. And as you gained various powers, additional areas of the map became accessible. The sprawling, open-world design of the world was quite alluring (I'm also a big fan of precursors like Pitfall II and successors like GTA III) and again, the game's atmosphere really draws you in. It's funny, but part of the allure is the solitary nature of your character. You are literally the only person on the planet. A planet infested with all sorts of nasty creatures and lava pits and all sorts of other crazy obstacles. The design works well, emphasizing the solitude and desperation, yet somehow retaining a fun experience.
One of the things that really struck me upon replaying this game was just how excellent the platforming elements of this game are. Many platformers of the era had floaty, unresponsive controls (I'm looking at you, Castlevania!) which at the time were considered part of the challenge. Not so here. The control and freedom of movement of Samus was quite liberating compared to other games. You could even control a jump while in mid-air. And later powerups like the Super Jump and most importantly, the Screw Attack (one of the best video game weapons ever), made the experience that much better.
Samus is a woman!
One of the things I never realized about Metroid (perhaps because I never finished it back in the day!) was that there actually multiple endings to the game, based on how long it took you to complete the game. Three of the endings revealed something that was pretty shocking at the time: the character you had been playing for the whole game with the awesome power armor? It was a woman! The version I got had her take off her helmet to reveal her long hair. Other versions included her taking off all her armor to reveal a leotard or even a bikini. Then there are the versions where you took too long to complete the game. Those had her keep on her suit (in effect not revealing her identity) and in the "worst" ending, she turns her back to you and covers her face in shame. The fact that the game had different endings based on how quickly you finished started a trend of people doing Metroid Speed Runs, attempting to win the game as quick as humanly possible (The best time right now is just over 18 minutes, which is pretty insane).
It's interesting that the original game has so many elements that I don't especially like in games, but it makes up for any shortcomings with exceptional visual, sound, and gameplay design. It definitely isn't my all-time favorite game for the NES, but it's up there with my favorites .
More screenshots and comments below the fold...
This is where you start in Metroid, and I have to admit to a nostalgic chill when I first heard the famous Metroid fanfare playing.
This is one of the bosses, Kraid. The game also has a "fake" version of Kraid, presumably to trick you into thinking you defeated Kraid, then getting to the end of the game and realizing that something is very wrong. These game designers for Metroid, they were very cruel.
This is the other boss, named Ridley. To be honest, I'm not sure which boss you're supposed to defeat first (which is a pretty cool consequence of an open ended game like this), but Ridley is extremely easy to defeat.
Frustration, thy name is this screen (and I've already gotten pas the really hard part).
One of the consequences of having a somewhat open world like this is that you can reach screens very early in the game that will not become important until the very end. This screen is very tantalizing, and it's really the only in-game hint that there are two bosses you need to defeat before continuing to the last area in the game (they're the two statues on the page - they're Kraid and Ridley - and later in the game, shooting them both opens a bridge across the lava).
Once again, these Metroid designers were very sneaky. Any time you run into a situation like this where something very desirable (like the energy tank) is seemingly easy to access, you know something's up. It turns out that there's an invisible pit just before you reach the energy tank in this screenshot. To get the tank, you have to then make a looooong trek through a bunch of enemy infested screens in order to get back up to the tank.
The little jellyfish thing below Samus there is one of the titular Metroids. These things are huge pains in the ass. You don't get to see any of them until the very end of the game though, and by then you should be pretty adept at using the ice gun... Thank goodness for saved games though.
This is the final boss in the game, Mother Brain, and she is damn hard to beat. It's not so much her that's tough as those stupid fire ring things and gun turrets that surround her. Also, if you fall into the lava in front of her, it's very hard to get back out. Man, the thought of doing this without saved games makes me queasy. Amazingly, once you defeat Mother Brain, the game isn't over. You're given 999 seconds to escape through a vertical shaft that requires some very nifty jumps. But that doesn't stop you for long, and then you get the ending:
I have to admit, for an ending to a game this difficult, this is actually quite lame. If it wasn't for the reveal of Samus' gender a little bit later, this qould be a horrible ending. As it is, it works really well.
Well, that finishes off Metroid. It's probably not my favorite game, but I probably won't have such a detailed recap for other games. It was the fact that I actually managed to win the replay of this game that allowed me to take all these screenshots. I haven't played through as much of most of the other games I'll cover, and there are too many games to go over in this much detail... But I'll do my best. Stay tuned for the Zelda games!
Posted by Mark on September 09, 2009 at 07:47 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 06, 2009
A Video Game Retrospective: Part 3
Several years ago, I started a Video Game Retrospective, beginning with my first video game console, the Atari 2600 then moving on to the Commodore 64. In typical Kaedrin fashion, I have thoroughly ignored the series for a little over two years, so it's probably time to get back on the horse. I was reminded of the series during my recent bout with Bionic Commando Rearmed as well as accidentally stumbling upon a box with a good portion of my old Nintendo cartridges (along with reams of paper containing various passwords and maps, etc...)
So this third installment will be focusing on the classic Nintendo Entertainment System (aka the NES). My memory on exactly when I got an NES is a bit fuzzy, but I can say that it was at the very earliest 1989 - this is actually somewhat late in the life cycle of the NES (the Genesis was introduced within a year, and the SNES not much later than that). Despite this fact, I played quite a bit of NES. The multitude of available games ensured I always had something new and interesting to play, and these games tended to be better, deeper, and more fun than the previously discussed Atari and Commodore games. In addition, the transition to the 16 bit era seemed to take a bit longer than other transitions in the history of gaming (at least, from my own subjective memory of such things, which is probably not very reliable). Most of my friends had an NES, and even the fancy ones who got newer consoles still had and played the NES.
Something that never really occurred to me until recently is just how revolutionary the NES controller was. There really hadn't been anything like it up until that point. Both of the previous systems I mentioned had joysticks of some kind. I remember that I had some weird handheld football game (
The previous two installments were an interesting exercise in nostalgia, and I had some fun revisiting those games, but for the most part, those games were severely lacking. The NES generation of games was the first generation that utterly enthralled my young self. I can still remember the excited anticipation as my parents drove me to Toys R Us to pick up the action pack, and the giddy joy as I played Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt well into the night. I fondly remember hours of grinding through RPGs, mastering various keyboard combos and maneuvers, taking notes and drawing maps on pieces of paper(!?), and other things that I'm amazed I put up with. I remember the strange problems with the top loading cartridges and the silly-yet-seemingly-effective countermeasures (such as blowing on the cartridge or using the Game Genie as an intermediary). Most of all, I remember having a lot of fun, which is what this is all about, right?
The way these retrospective series have gone is that I do an introduction, then I pick one favorite game, then I post several honorable mentions, and conclude with a few links and additional thoughts. Because the NES has so many incredible games that totally blew me away during my formative years, choosing a single favorite would be impossible. As such, I'm not really sure how many posts I'll get out of this, but I plan to be done in a couple of weeks (at which time the annual six weeks of Halloween will commence). I've been revisiting my favorite games on the Virtual Console of my Wii and also on an emulator on my computer (much easier to get screenshots that way, and the emulator offers certain functionality that makes the more frustrating aspects of some games more bearable (i.e. the ability to save - which, yes, is a cheat, but sometimes I like cheats)). A tentative schedule of posts is listed below:
In the end, I'm sure my retrospective will be woefully incomplete from any objective standpoint, but as with my other retrospectives, this is a) a subjective list and b) limited to my experience playing video games as a youth. That being said, feel free to list your favorites or make suggestions in the comments. I'm doubting that I'll have a ton of time to devote to them, but you never know...
Posted by Mark on September 06, 2009 at 10:21 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Bionic Commando Rearmed
Back in the day, the first NES game my brother and I purchased (beyond SMB and Duck Hunt, which came with the system) was Bionic Commando. To be quite honest, I have no idea what possessed us to pick that particular game. It's not like we weren't familiar with the other popular games of the era (i.e. Zelda, Contra, etc...), so I'm not sure what it was about that game that caught our interest, but I'm glad it did. And it turns out that it is something of a cult classic on the NES system - not a top tier title that spawned a massive franchise like Mario or Zelda, but a very well received game that had a big following.
The game was essentially a side-scrolling platformer, but the twist was that your character couldn't jump. Instead, you're given a bionic arm which can shoot out and latch on to stuff, allowing you to swing or climb over various obstacles. It's amazing how lost you can feel without the ability to jump, but the core mechanic of swinging and climbing is actually pretty intuitive and once you get used to the idea, the game becomes a blast. It's something I've revisited many times over the years. Not too long ago, someone decided it was time to give the game a facelift and release it on the next gen consoles. The result was Bionic Commando Rearmed. The game is technically a remake, with several key differences:
Interestingly enough, the thing that struck me the most about this game is that it represented the return of sweaty palms to gaming for me. I haven't had that sort of feeling for many years and definitely not on this latest generation of consoles. Given my predilection for cheating, I have to wonder how much I'd like this game if I wasn't already in love with the original, but in any case, I think I can recommend the game. It should be available for download on XBLA or PSN for a paltry $5-10 (it sometimes goes on sale).
Update: Check out these comparison videos to see the similarities and differences in action. I swear, the transitions between the two different music styles are sometimes seamless, which is pretty amazing (though it's annoying that they play so much of the Rearmed soundtrack over the original game visuals).
Posted by Mark on September 02, 2009 at 07:13 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Some big news from Sony this week. Yesterday, they announced a big price cut for the PS3 as well as a new, slimmed down model. The new slim model does not have much in the way of new features, and the only thing it's losing are some aesthetic stuff (i.e. matte black plastic finish instead of the reflective plastic on older models, actual buttons in place of the pressure sensitive things the older models use, etc...) and the ability to install other OSes (i.e. no more installing linux on your PS3). The one big miss is that Sony still has not reinstated backwards compatibility with the PS2, and in an interview with Sony's head of hardware, John Koller, things don't look promising on that front:
Do we need to stop yapping about backwards compatibility?Darn. He may be correct that people don't intend to purchase the PS3 for its ability to play PS2 games, but it certainly doesn't hurt and it would seemingly increase goodwill. Ok, fine, I just want to be able to play PS2 games from my PS3. Is that so wrong? From what I've seen, a previous model PS3 had simple software emulation for PS2 games, which seems very reasonable (one of the older models actually included PS2 hardware in the PS3 to achieve backwards compatibility, something that was wisely dropped to help lower the amazingly high price of the PS3), even if it didn't work for all games. If nothing else, being able to offer some PS2 classics for download on PSN would be pretty cool. Alas, it's apparently not to be.
Still, $299 is a pretty good deal, especially if you can swing the same Playstation Credit Card rebate that I did (right now it's only a $100 credit, but it is periodically raised to $150 for limited times). In essense, you could buy a PS3 for less than a Wii.
A while ago, I complained about the distinctly boring gamercard that PSN made available. All it basically had was your PSN online ID name... something that could just as easily be typed out (i.e. mine is "mciocco"). Well, sometime in the past week, they upgraded the PSN portable ID to include some more info, so here's mine:
Get your Portable ID!
Much better! It would still be nice to have more info on the thing (i.e. show what games I'm playing, what trophies I won recently, etc...), but at least it lets me brag a bit about how much of a trophy whore I am (update: I think it will show you a lot more information if you click through the gamertag above)...
Anyway, it seems that the PS3 firmware is also due to be upgraded, but there doesn't seem to be much of interest in the update (i.e. no PS2 backwards compatibility). All in all, it seems like it will be a good few months for Sony. I'm betting that Microsoft will respond, but Sony has a pretty interesting lineup of exclusives coming in the next half year or so (including a genuine system-seller in God of War III) and their general library is just as good as MS. Nintendo will, of course, obliterate Sony and MS, because that is just their way. Nintendo isn't playing the same game. Three years after launch, Sony's system costs half of what it once did and Nintendo's costs... the same. And Nintendo was making a profit on the hardware on day 1, while Sony has lost massive amounts of money (the PS3 slim seems to be profitable for them though). I suppose time will tell, but Sony is finally priced competitively with Microsoft, so that part should be interesting. Here's to hoping that it's a rousing success, leading to more and more great games being released for the system (at the very least, we can hope that Bobby Kotick will shut the hell up).
Posted by Mark on August 19, 2009 at 11:25 AM .: link :.
Sunday, August 09, 2009
Burnout Paradise Thoughts
Since finishing Fallout 3 a while back, I have played several games on my PS3. The most enjoyable, so far, has been Burnout Paradise. For a budget title that came out a long time ago, it really surprised me. If you are even remotely interested in driving games, this is a game you should play (I have no idea how it compares to other Burnout titles though, as this is my first). Anyway here are some thoughts on the game:
Posted by Mark on August 09, 2009 at 06:22 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
When it comes to video games, I've usually described myself as a "casual" gamer. The whole "casual" versus "hardcore" gamer debate has become somewhat tired of late, but in modern parlance, "casual" is usually code for "moronic" while "hardcore" is code for someone who likes "adult" games with lots of violence, etc... But my notion of a casual gamer is someone who plays games and enjoys them, but doesn't get all that carried away with them. The hardcore would be someone who borders on obsession. And not just a short term obsession either. Most gamers get engrossed in various games from time to time, but it's rare for the obsession to last much longer than a few weeks (if that). But there are people who keep going, perfecting their performance to the point where (for example), they could complete Super Mario Brothers in 5 minutes (there's a whole site full of these Speed Demos for all sorts of games).
I suppose I have some tendencies towards the hardcore. In particular, I'm a fan of probing, or exploratory play. I like to probe at the limits of a game, just to see what happens. I've written about this before:
Probing is essentially exploration of the game and its possibilities. Much of this is simply the unconscious exploration of the controls and the interface, figuring out how the game works and how you're supposed to interact with it. However, probing also takes the more conscious form of figuring out the limitations of the game. For instance, in a racing game, it's usually interesting to see if you can turn your car around backwards, pick up a lot of speed, then crash head-on into a car going the "correct" way. Or, in Rollercoaster Tycoon, you can creatively place balloon stands next to a roller coaster to see what happens (the result is hilarious). Probing the limits of game physics and finding ways to exploit them are half the fun (or challenge) of video games these days...In short, I like to see what will happen. This will sometimes keep me playing a game long after others have gotten tired of a game. To me, this is the fun part. To the people who do speed demos, it's all about skill. I don't particularly care about skill (more about this later), and one of the ways Nintendo has been courting new gamers is to embrace the sorts of games that do not require hardcore skill in order to complete. To a lesser extent, PS3 and XBox games seem easier these days than things were back in the NES days. So there's a lot of tension in gaming these days between making the game easy, making it more difficult, and making it friendly to new gamers.
A few months ago, Nintendo patented a system that sought to address this situation. The point was to allow them to make a difficult game, but give an option to us helpless casual players who aren't interested in sharpening our skills for dozens of hours at a time just so we can make a particularly difficult series of jumps. Their idea was to allow players to let the game play itself through the difficult parts. So you get to a particularly difficult boss fight and instead of playing it a hundred times, you can just let the game know and it will play and defeat the boss for you.
There have been a variety of responses to this idea, mostly negative. Shamus calls it ungaming:
The problem is that the demo mode solution isn't a solution at all. It's a refusal to even address the problem. New players need a way to engage a game at their own skill and frustration threshold, and making a game play itself doesn't help. Demo mode can't turn a newbie into a gamer for the same reason watching Miles Davis won't turn you into a trumpet player. You can't learn to play if you're not playing.Sean Malstrom has an interesting take on how this functionality detracts from the skill based aspects of gaming:
I’ve been thinking about this frequently, and the answer I come up with is ‘mastery’. The old school gamer says, “I have finally got to level five!” The new school gamer says, “I am twenty hours into this game so far!” The old school gamer’s statement implies mastery. The player had mastered the game to such a level in order to reach level five. ... The new school gamer’s statement implies intoxication, not mastery.Malstrom brings up the various cheats from the NES era. In Super Mario Bros. there were Warp Zones that allowed you to skip ahead a few levels. The infamous Konami Code was indispensible for Contra players. Indeed, cheat codes became very popular in that era, to the point where even stuff like the Game Genie (a third party piece of hardware that you plugged into the game - it had all sorts of crazy cheats you could apply to almost any game) became popular.
Perhaps because a lot of newer games don't have much of this, I've realized lately that I really enjoy cheating. Not for every game, but I did like my Game Genie. I like God mode and I like cheats that give me all the available weapons, etc... Why? Usually because it makes it a lot easier to explore the game world (i.e. to probe). One game I distinctly remember was called Rise of the Triad. The game was not especially fantastic. It was one of those FPS games that tried to amp up the violence and ridiculousness. I was almost immediately bored with it... until I found the cheat codes. The game featured some pretty neat weapons (in particular, I enjoyed the one that shot a wall of fire). There were a couple of cheats that I particularly loved - they let you change the gravity or even fly around the levels. A probing gamer's dream. So I ended up enjoying the game quite a bit, despite not being very good at it in terms of "skill."
I think this is why I don't like Nintendo's proposed system. It's not that they let you get past the difficult part without having any skill that's the problem. As I've established, that doesn't bother me at all. It's that the act of bypassing the hard part is completely passive. I like probing at the limits of the system, not watching someone show me how it's done. I don't want to do it the way it's supposed to be done. That's just plain boring. I say bring back cheating. Cheating is much more fun than watching someone else play, let alone watching the computer play. Of course, all of this is speculative. Companies patent stuff all the time (and as Shamus notes, it's kinda ridiculous that some of these things are being patented at all, but that's another discussion) and there's nothing real to base this on, but it's an interesting subject.
Posted by Mark on July 26, 2009 at 05:09 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Wii Game Corner (again)
Some quick reviews for Wii games I've played recently:
Posted by Mark on June 21, 2009 at 09:12 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
The Motion Control Sip Test
A few weeks ago, Microsoft and Sony unveiled rival motion control systems, presumably in response to Nintendo's dominant market position. The Wii has sold much better than both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 (to the point where sales of Xbox and PS3 combined are around the same as the Wii), so I suppose it's only natural for the competition to adapt. To be honest, I'm not sure how wise that would be... or rather, I'm not sure Sony and Microsoft are imitating the right things. Microsoft's Project Natal seems quite ambitious in that it relies completely on gestures and voice (no controllers!). The Sony motion control system, which relies on a camera and two handheld wands, seems somewhat similar to the Wii in that there are still controllers and buttons. Incidentally, the Wii actually released Wii Motion Plus, an improvement to their already dominant system.
My first thought at a way to compete with the Wii would have been along similar lines, but not for the reasons I suspect Microsoft and Sony released their solutions. The problem for MS & Sony is that the Wii is the unquestionable winner of this generation of gaming consoles, and everyone knows that. A third party video game developer can create a game for a console with an install base of 20 million (the PS3), 30 million (Xbox) or 50 million (Wii). Since the PS3 and Xbox have similar controllers, 3rd parties can often release games on both consoles, though there is overhead in porting your code to both systems. This gives a rough parity between those two systems and the Wii... until you realize that developing games for the Xbox/PS3 means HD and that means those games will be much more costly (in both time and money) to develop. On the other hand, you could reach the same size audience by developing a game for the Wii, using standard definition (which is much easier to develop for) and not having to worry about compatibility issues between two consoles.
The problem with Natal and Sony's Wands is that they basically represent brand new consoles. This totally negates the third party advantage of releasing a game on both platforms. Now a third party developer who wants to create a motion control game is forced to choose between two underperforming platforms and one undisputed leader in the field. How do you think that's going to go?
Microsoft's system seems to be the most interesting in that they're trying something much different than Nintendo or Sony. But "interesting" doesn't necessarily translate into successful, and from what I've read, Natal is a long ways away from production quality. Yeah, the marketing video they created is pretty neat, but from what I can tell, it doesn't quite work that well yet. Even MS execs are saying that what's in the video is "conceptual" and what they "hope" to have at launch. If they launch it at all. I'd be surprised if what we're seeing is ever truly launched. Yeah, the Minority Report interface (which is basically what Natal is) really looks cool, but I have my doubts about how easy it will be to actually use. Won't your arms get tired? Why use motion gestures for something that is so much easier and more precise with a mouse?
Sony's system seems to be less ambitious, but also too different from Nintendo's Wiimote. If I were at Sony, I would have tried to duplicate the Wiimote almost exactly. Why? Because then you give 3rd party developers the option of developing for Wii then porting to PS3, thus enlarging the pie from 50 million to 70 million with minimal effort. Sure the graphics wouldn't be as impressive as other PS3 efforts, but as the Wii has amply demonstrated, you don't need unbelievable graphics to be successful. The PS3 would probably need a way to upscale the SD graphics to ensure they don't look horrible, but that should be easy enough. I'm sure there would be some sort of legal issue with that idea, but I'm also sure Sony could weasel their way out of any such troubles. To be clear, this strategy wouldn't have a chance at cutting into Wii sales - it's more of a holding pattern, a way to stop the bleeding (it might help them compete with MS though). Theoretically, Sony's system isn't done yet either and could be made into something that could get Wii ports, but somehow I'm doubting that will actually be in the works.
The big problem with both Sony and Microsoft's answer to the Wiimote is that they've completely misjudged what made the Wii successful. It's not the Wiimote and motion controls, though that's part of it. It's that Nintendo courted everyone, not just video gamers. They courted grandmas and kids and "hardcore" gamers and "casual" gamers and everyone inbetween. They changed video games from solitary entertainment to something that is played in living rooms with families and friends. They moved into the Blue Ocean and disrupted the gaming industry. The unique control system was important, but I think that's because the control system was a signfier that the Wii was for everyone. The fact that it was simple and intuitive was more important than motion controls. The most important part of the process wasn't motion controls, but rather Wii Sports. Yes, Wii Sports uses motion controls, and it uses them exceptionally well. It's also extremely simple and easy to use and it was targeted towards everyone. It was a lot of fun to pop in Wii Sports and play some short games with your friends or family (or coworkers or enemies or strangers off the street or whoever).
The big problem for me is that even Nintendo hasn't improved on motion controls much since then. It's been 3 years since Wii Sports, and yet it's still probably the best example of motion controls in action. I have not played any Wii Motion Plus games yet, so for me, the jury is still out on that one. However, I'm not that interested in playing the games I'm seeing for Motion Plus, let alone the prospect of paying for yet another peripheral for my Wii (though it does seem to be cheap). The other successful games for the Wii weren't so much successful for their motion controls so much as other, intangible factors. Mario Kart is successful... because it's always successful (incidentally, while I still enjoy playing with friends every now and again, the motion controls have nothing to do with that - it's more just the nostagia I have for the original Mario Kart). Wii Fit has been an amazing success story for Nintendo, but it introduced a completely new peripheral and its success is probably more due to the fact that Nintendo was targeting more than just the core gamer audience with software that broadened what was possible on a video game console. Again, Nintendo's success is due to their strategy of creating new customers and their marketing campaigns that follow the same strategy. Wii has a lot of games that have less than imaginitive motion controls - games which simply replace random button mashing with random stick waggling. But where they're most successful seems to be where they target a broader audience. They also seem to be quite adept at playing on people's nostalgia, hence I find myself playing new Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games, even when I don't like some of them (I'm looking at you, Metroid Prime 3!)
Motion controls play a part in this, but they're the least important part. Why? Because the same complaints I have for Natal and the Minority Report interface apply to the Wii (or the new PS3 system, for that matter). For example, take Metroid Prime 3. A FPS for the Wii! Watch how motion controls will revolutionize FPS! Well, not so much. There are a lot of reasons I don't like the game, but one of the reasons was that you constantly had to have your Wiimote pointed up. If your hand strayed or you wanted to rest your wrists for a moment, your POV also strays. There are probably some other ways to do FPS on the Wii, but I'm not especially convinced (The Conduit looks promising, I guess) that a true FPS game will work that well on a Wii (heck, it doesn't work that well on a PS3 or Xbox when compared to the PC). That's probably why Rail Shooters have been much more successful on the Wii.
Part of the issue I have is that motion controls are great for short periods of time, but even when you're playing a great motion control game like Wii Sports, playing for long periods of time has adverse affects (Wii elbow anyone?). Maybe that's a good thing; maybe gamers shouldn't spend so much time playing video games... but personally, I enjoy a nice marathon session every now and again.
You know what this reminds me of? New Coke. Seriously. Why did Coca-Cola change their time-honored and fabled secred formula? Because of the Pepsi Challenge. In the early 1980s, Coke was losing ground to Pepsi. Coke had long been the most popular soft drink, so they were quite concerned about their diminishing lead. Pepsi was growing closer to parity every day, and that's when they started running these commercials pitting Coke vs. Pepsi. The Pepsi Challenge took dedicated Coke drinkers and asked them to take a sip from two different glasses, one labeled Q and one labeled M. Invariably, people chose the M glass, which was revealed to contain Pepsi. Coke initially disputed the results... until they started private running sip tests of their own. It turns out that people really did prefer Pepsi (hard as that may be for those of us who love Coke!). So Coke started tinkering with their secret formula, attempting to make it lighter and sweeter (i.e. more like Pepsi). Eventually, they got to a point where their new formulation consistently outperformed Pepsi in sip tests, and thus New Coke was born. Of course, we all know what happened. New Coke was a disaster. Coke drinkers were outraged, the company's sales plunged, and Coke was forced to bring back the original formula as "Classic Coke" just a few months later (at which point New Coke practically disappeared). What's more, Pepsi's seemingly unstoppable ascendance never materialized. For the past 20-30 years, Coke has beaten Pepsi despite sip tests which say that it should be the other way around. What was going on here? Malcolm Gladwell explains this incident and the aftermath in his book Blink:
The difficulty with interpreting the Pepsi Challenge findings begins with the fact that they were based on what the industry calls a sip test or a CLT (central location test). Tasters don’t drink the entire can. They take a sip from a cup of each of the brands being tested and then make their choice. Now suppose I were to ask you to test a soft drink a little differently. What if you were to take a case of the drink home and tell me what you think after a few weeks? Would that change your opinion? It turns out it would. Carol Dollard, who worked for Pepsi for many years in new-product development, says, “I’ve seen many times when the CLT will give you one result and the home-use test will give you the exact opposite. For example, in a CLT, consumers might taste three or four different products in a row, taking a sip or a couple sips of each. A sip is very different from sitting and drinking a whole beverage on your own. Sometimes a sip tastes good and a whole bottle doesn’t. That’s why home-use tests give you the best information. The user isn’t in an artificial setting. They are at home, sitting in front of the TV, and the way they feel in that situation is the most reflective of how they will behave when the product hits the market.”To me, motion controls seem like a video game sip test. The analogy isn't perfect, because I think that motion controls are here to stay, but I think the idea is relevant. Coke is like Sony - they look at a successful competitor and completely misjudge what made them successful. Yes, motion controls are a part of the Wii's success, but their true success lies elsewhere. In small doses and optimized for certain games (like bowling or tennis), nothing can beat motion controls. In larger doses with other types of games, motion controls have a long ways to go (and they make my arm sore). Microsoft and Sony certainly don't seem to be abandoning their standard controllers, and even the Wii has a "Classic Controller", and I think that's about right. Motion controls have secured a place in gaming going forward, but I don't see it completely displacing good old-fashioned button mashing either.
Update: Incidentally, I forgot to mention the best motion control game I've played since Wii Sports has been... Flower, for the PS3. Flower is also probably a good example of a game that makes excellent use of motion controls, but hasn't achieved anywhere near the success of Nintendo's games. It's not because it isn't a good game (it is most definitely an excellent game, and the motion controls are great), it's because it doesn't expand the audience the way Nintendo does. If Natal and Sony's new system do make it to market, and if they do manage to release good games (and those are two big "ifs"), I suspect it won't matter much...
Posted by Mark on June 17, 2009 at 06:40 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 03, 2009
Fallout 3 Thoughts
I've spent the past month or so playing through Fallout 3. I realize I'm a little late to the party, but here are some thoughts:
Posted by Mark on June 03, 2009 at 07:54 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Video Game Podcasts
Thanks to my recent interest in video games and with the end of one of my favorite movie podcasts, I've been looking to video game podcasts to augment my time. Alas, the pickins are somewhat slim. Still, there have been a few bright spots and I've found some other promising prospects as well.
Posted by Mark on May 24, 2009 at 09:05 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Cinematography and Art
A topic that has been coming up recently is how many video game makers seem to eschew the label of artist when talking about their work. The "are video games art?" discussion has gotten old and tiresome for many people even as the debate continues on in many forms. Part of the reason this is interesting to me is that it was never even really a question in my mind - video games were as legitimate an art form as any other. Perhaps this comes from growing up with games, but whatever the case, I'm interested in the subject, particularly because it seems like many of the most influential video game creators aren't keen on describing themselves as artists.
One of the things that is often brought up in these discussions is the similarities and differences between video games and movies. It's often said that movies were considered "artistically legitimate" right off the bat, and that may very well be the case, but I was watching a documentary called Visions of Light this weekend that touched on something relevant to this discussion. The doc follows the history of cinematography in movies and features many prominent cinematographers. I uploaded a short clip to youtube in which Stephen Burum (who worked on The Untouchables, among many other films) talks about how many of the classic DPs characterized their work:
Interestingly, it seems that many of the pioneers of cinematography didn't consider themselves much of an artist. I think there's also a similarity between a cinematographer and a video game designer (or coder, or artist, or any of the hundred other jobs it takes to make a modern game) in that they can both describe what they do as craftsmanlike. In the video above, the cinematographers didn't admit to making art, instead referring to stuff as an "interesting effect," which is a phrase I bet a lot of video game makers use. I don't think this really settles anything, but it is perhaps more evidence of the fact that art is in the eye of the beholder. In the comments to my last post on the subject, my friend Dave posed the question "can something still be art if its creators don't consider it art?" I think the answer is yes.
Posted by Mark on May 06, 2009 at 08:46 PM .: link :.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Art vs Entertainment
This may be somewhat repetitive considering some of my recent posts, but I have once again run accross a popular video game designer who bristles at the thought of video games as art. At GDC, there was apparently a "Rants" panel where various guests ranted about one aspect of the industry or another. Some of the rants include concerns about the way people write about games, metacritic scores, character diversity in games, and the uselessness of the old "hardcore" and "casual" labels. However, the most controversial and most-discussed rant was made by Heather Chaplin:
She argued that games' age is not the correct source of blame for the often insultingly juvenile nature of games, the tiresome prevalence of space marines, bikini girls and typified young male power fantasies. Her point: Games aren't adolescent. It's game developers who are a bunch of, in her words, "fucking adolescents."Obviously, this raised some eyebrows (to put it nicely) in the audience. Game designer David Jaffe (perhaps best known for his work on God of War) wrote a long response on his blog and among many points, he included this (emphasis mine):
I think a mistake folks make- in any medium- is assuming we all want to be artistically relevant and important in the eyes of the intelligencia (sp?) of the world. I have to tell you: I think THAT desire is adolescent and spews from a place of need and want and lack of faith in ones own creative powers. And- most important- it gets in the way of creating truly great work (be it film, games, or books).This is the third time I've come on this blog and pointed to a renowned video game designer who has basically said that the games they create are not "art". What's going on here? One of the things each of these guys has mentioned is that their true goal is to make games that entertain people. The struggle seems to be that for whatever reason, art is not equated with entertainment... indeed, it seems like most video game designers are worried about art ruining the entertainment value of their games.
This is an interesting conjecture. When it comes to the Are Video Games Art? debate, movies are often brought up as a comparison point (perhaps due to the visual and auditory nature of both mediums). And in the movie business today, there also seems to be something of a schism between "art films" and "popular films". I'm not sure when this happened (perhaps I'm only now coming to this conclusion after a lifetime of watching film and seeking out new and different material, including foreign and so-called art films), but it seems to be very pronounced today, particularly in the independent movie world. A lot of mainsteam Hollywood fare is focus-grouped to death and neutered to a point where no one can be offended by the result (I don't think the degree to which this happens is as large as most though, and think there are plenty of examples to the contrary). You end up with something bland that is made to appeal to everyone, and as such, it appeals to no one in particular. On the other end of the spectrum, you have your typical independent or artistic film which often seems to revel in the freedom to be provocative and controversial (these are often studio pictures too). These are films that revel in self-loathing and "challenge the popular paradigm of dominant culture" or something along those lines. As such, a lot of these films come off as being pretentious, self-indulgent, boring crap. Yes, yes, you're exploring non-traditional narrative structure whilst deconstructing the nature of capitalism and the suburbs, but your film is boring. In other words, I don't think it's an accident that Jaffe used "REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: THE GAME" as his example.
What I just described as mainstream and independent or artistic films are basically stereotypes. Most films probably don't fit much into either category, but I think the stereotype does hold a place in current public perception of the film world. I find this interesting, because video games are similar in a lot of ways. There is an indie movement in video games, and they are roughly analogous to the indie film movement. So perhaps it's not surprising that mainstream designers like Jaffe don't want to be called "artists". For whatever reason, "art" has been equated with pretentious, self-indulgent, boring crap. Who wants to be that?
The comparison of video games to film also brings the usual questions, most famously, where is the video game equivalent to Citizen Kane? In a recent article, Leigh Alexander wonders if that's really what video games need.
There's nothing wrong with craving watershed moments for video games, of course. But problem with the Citizen Kane question, as with other similar demands, is that it's begun to reverberate wildly without any practical follow-through on what the answer might look like.I think Bogost has hit the nail on the head here. Back when movies began appearing, "art" hadn't been deconstructed to death, so it wasn't really a question. But since video games were invented after people started challenging the nature of art (and painting stuff like Campbell's Soup Cans and calling it art, to pick an entirely arbitrary example), they're held up to extra scrutiny.
It's also interesting to consider that Citizen Kane is not very entertaining by itself. For film enthusiasts, it's an extremely important and fascinating film because it gathered a bunch of existing techniques, invented some new ones, and mashed it all together to tell a story in a new and exciting way. However, if you're not a film history buff, you'd be bored to tears. What made Citizen Kane great has been appropriated, improved upon and contextualized over the years to a point where most people won't see anything new and exciting in the film. For example, audiences at the time were wowed by Orson Welles' use of flashbacks and deep focus. Today, you won't even notice it because those things are a part of the standard movemaking toolkit. You've seen it a thousand times. So to me, Citizen Kane is an important movie because of the techniques it used, not the story it told. To truly enjoy Citizen Kane, you have to really be invested in the cultural and historical context in which it was produced. Video games have most probably had a series of Kane-like innovations over the years. Perhaps they were spread out over a multitude of games, but when you consider the evolution of games, well, we've come a long way. I'm probably not knowledgeable enough about video games to say for sure, but stuff like Wolfenstein and Doom (popularizing the FPS format) and GTA III (with its open-ended sandbox world) could very well represent Kane-like leaps.
Honestly, I still don't understand the people who question the legitimacy of games as art, and I think all that questioning has driven a wedge between art and entertainment. To be sure, those are two different things, but to me, the best art is entertaining too (and vice versa). The problem is that when you equate art with pretentious, self-indulgent, boring crap (as many people apparently do), it drives designers who are interested in entertaining people to eschew art. The question I'm left with is this: If there was no question that games were art, would game designers be producing better games?
Posted by Mark on April 26, 2009 at 08:04 PM .: link :.
Sunday, April 05, 2009
Philadelphia Film Festival: Playing Columbine
A few years ago, student filmmaker Danny Ledonne discovered a computer program called RPG Maker (which provides an easy way to create a video game without having to learn programming) and decided to make a game that would explore issues important to him. As a high school student in Colorado at the time of the Columbine shooting, he found that event to be particularly important in his life. He recognized himself in the shooters and wanted to make a game that explored that concept as well as the idea that video games were themselves responsible for the tragedy. So he made a game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! where you play Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and act out the massacre, following events on the day of the shootings and continuing after their suicide into hell (where they fight creatures from the video game Doom).
In 2005 he (anonymously) made the game available for free on the internet. He didn't do much in the way of promotion for the game, but it almost immediately started garnering attention due to its controversial subject matter. Many people condemned the game and its creator, but it eventually started to pick up some supporters who mounted a defense. As a way of explaining his actions, Ledonne made a documentary called Playing Columbine in 2007 that covers why and how he created the game, and then springboards to broader discussions on the role of serious video games and art in our society.The film has been making its way through the festival circuit since then, including a the showing I saw yesterday at the PFF.
While I wouldn't say that Ledonne is anywhere close to Errol Morris territory, I do think he has crafted an effective exploration of an intensely personal subject. Without knowing much about the game or the movie going in, I suspected that there might be something of a conflict of interests for Ledonne. Was this going to just be an exercise in self-serving defensiveness and bias, or would it be a legitimate exploration of video games, art, and culture? I'm happy to say that Ledonne has succeeded in making a movie that is more than just a defense of his simple game.
Of course, the film starts by detailing the controversy surrounding the game and the response to the game. However, the movie wisely strays from the game at almost every opportunity in order to explore broader and more interesting concepts such as the demonization of video games in the media, the value of video games as an artistic medium, censorship, responsibility and the nature of violence and school violence. There is a somewhat cyclical structure to the film, as each segment uses the Super Columbine Massacre RPG! game as a springboard to discuss different ideas and controversies surrounding video games in general. For instance, one segment covers an incident where the game was pulled from the Slamdance Film Festival's Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition by festival director Peter Baxter. As a result, half of the other game developers withdrew their games from consideration and USC pulled its sponsorship of the competition. The details of this particular story are interesting by themselves, but the movie uses this as a jumping-off point to discuss broader ideas of censorship and art.
The film is comprised primarily of talking head interviews intersperced with video game and movie clips, but Ledonne has done a great job assembling an appropriate and noteworthy cast of game developers, university professors, media experts, school shooting survivors and even game critics. Some notable names include Ian Bogost (video game professor and designer), Hal Halpin (founder of video game trade organization), Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago (designers of Kaedrin favorite, Flower), Jack Thompson (attorney and anti-video game activist), and Andrew Lanza (NY State Senator and video game critic). There are lots of other worthy contributers as well, and they mostly have interesting and thought provoking things to say. By necessity, Ledonne himself also appears throughout the film (for example, there are excerpts of interviews and lectures he has done), but you see him as one of many video game designers and experts throughout the film, not as the director (unlike, say, Bowling for Columbine).
The movie obviously has its own bias, and the amount of time given to critics is dwarved by proponents, but the film does a good overall job of letting you know that fact. Perhaps it's just my current obsession with video games and art, but I did thoroughly enjoy this film. Unfortunately, I it may be difficult to actually see the film, as there doesn't appear to be any DVD release scheduled and I suspect there are a lot of clearance issues that would need to be worked out. Still, if you get a chance to watch it, I would recommend it. Even if you're not interested in a Columbine game, the movie goes much deeper, exploring interesting and broader topics like censorship and violence in the media. Speaking of which, I'm reminded of this exchange from the Acts of Gord:
"We would like a quote for the front page of the newspaper talking about videogame violence, and it's possible impact on society."Heh. I'm still not sure I'll ever play the game, but that isn't because I think there's something wrong about its very existance or anything. Anyway, because of the game, we get a good, thought-provoking movie, which is good enough for me. ***
Posted by Mark on April 05, 2009 at 02:48 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Video Games as Art
I recently wrote about Flower, a game which I think qualifies as art while losing none of it's inherent entertainment value. Indeed, as I had mentioned in this old guest post by Kaedrin friend Samael, I have a pretty broad definition of art and have no issue seeing a wide variety of video games as art. However, it's rather interesting that many of the people working in the field don't see their efforts as art. In Sam's post, he references an interview with Hideo Kojima (who, in Sam's words, "is one of the most significant forces in video games today, the creator of Metal Gear"), who says "I believe that games are not art, and will never be art."
Last week at GDC, there was a panel featuring three highly respected game creators, including Fumito Ueda, lead designer and director of Shadow of the Colossus. My recent video game kick was set into motion by my purchase of a PS3, but I've also spent some time discovering and revisiting games for other systems... and one of the games I revisited was Shadow of the Colossus. It truly is an intriguing game and a wonderful idea. The game starts off typically enough - a lone rider approaches a temple with his dead lover in the hopes that the spirits that live in the temple will revive her. The rider is met by a disembodied voice, which tells him that he must defeat a series of Collosi before he can be reunited with his lover. This is where the game starts, but it's also where the surprises start coming. There are no fantasy game or RPG staples like towns or NPCs and aside from the Colossi, there are no other "enemies" in the game. You spend a fair amount of time travelling through the expansive world the game has created, but the pretty landscapes are not broken up by small battles or other characters. To be sure, even the Colossi aren't an enemy so much as they are an obstacle to your ultimate goal. Fighting the Colossi is also unusual in that each one has its own set of weaknesses and thus each one must be approached in a different manner. It's more of a puzzle game, forcing you to observe the environment around you and the actions of the Colossus before acting. It's very much a game that relies on the player's ability of probing (i.e. the exploration of the game world and its possibilities).
This is an elegant idea for a video game. A game that basically features a series of 16 boss fights that are won or lost on the basis of thinking rather than brute force. Visually, the game is quite pretty. As I mentioned before, there are times when you must navigate through the game world... and nothing happens during that time. You simply ride your horse towards the next Colossus. There are occasionally mini-puzzles you must solve before getting to the Colossus, but for the most part, you are given a lot of time to think while riding around on your horse. The landscapes are sufficiently pretty and epic that they never become boring, and the game seems to relish these downtimes in order to give the player time to think about what they're doing.
I actually haven't finished the game yet, and I have to admit that there are times when I've had to resort to a walkthrough to figure out how to defeat a few of the Colossi (in this and a couple of other areas, the game could perhaps use some work - however, this post is not about that), but I do find the game fascinating, in part because of the relatively silent moments navigating through the world. Even though I'm not at the end of the game, I have an inkling of what's going to happen. I'm fairly certain that the spirits of the temple are misleading my character, and that there will be some sort of betrayal in the end. I seriously doubt my character will be reuinited with his lover, except possibly in death.
The reason I'm thinking this is how it will end is that the game's story has all the earmarks of a traditional tragedy. What I'm seeing is a man motivated by the loss of a loved one. He is so blinded by his loss that he doesn't recognize that he's destroying these gigantic, beautiful creatures (some of whom are admittedly aggressive). I just can't see this ending well. I have to admit that this feeling isn't entirely based on the game itself. It's been out for a while, and the way everyone talks about the game seems to indicate an unhappy ending. It seems that people who review the game try their hardest not to spoil the ending, but skirting around the issue is difficult and the game itself does point in that direction.
The interesting thing about this, to me, is that my feelings on the game are predicated on art. In this case, it is dramatic literature or more specifically, tragedy, that is informing my feelings for the game. While I have gleaned some idea of this from reading about the game, a lot of it came from the time for reflection that is seemingly built into the game. It seems to me that the makers of the game really did want players to take that time to think about the story of the game.
Interestingly, when asked about the game during the panel mentioned above, Ueda had this to say:
The second and final question, lauded Shadow of the Colossus as the posterchild of "games as art", but Ueda disagreed. "My team and I are making a game which is close to art -- that's what people say. Personally I don't think that way."What is going on here? Why is it that such prominent game creators are so reticent to call their games art? The answer seems to be that they are more focused on entertaining players of video games than engaging in artistic enterprises. I suppose there is something to that idea. In my mind the best art is also entertaining, and a lot of people who set out to create art often end up making something that is difficult to relate to or understand. Some artists see this difficulty as an ends unto itself and end up producing truly impenetrable works. However a lot of successful artists try their best to avoid such pitfalls. In my previous entry, several people asked author Neal Stephenson about how he comes up with various ideas or what he thinks his books represent, and his response to such questions is generally something about how he's not that introspective about his work and that perhaps thinking to hard about such things would make his work worse. I think perhaps there is something to that.
Another idea was brought up by Emil Pagliarulo (lead designer of Fallout 3 among other games):
Pagliarulo took up this point in comparison to the film industry. "Early films were meant to entertain and became art along the way as part of that process... I think the whole Roger Ebert 'are games art' thing gets taken a little too far."I think he's on the right track there. I don't know the answer, but I do wonder how early filmmakers thought of movies. Did D. W. Griffith consider himself an artist? When Sergei Eisenstein started formulating his theory of montage, did he consider what he was doing to be art or was he simply a craftsman figuring out how to use various tools? Was that even a question that was asked back then? This is something I'd have to look into more before saying for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if Griffith or Eisenstein did not consider themselves artists. The interesting thing about video games is that they are such a young medium and that they've come a long way in such a short time. In the quote above, Pagliarulo mentions that the art thing will happen naturally, as if it hasn't happened yet. Again, I find this confusing. I've pretty much always considered video games art, in at least some ways.
There is a lot more to this subject than I've written about in this post (for instance, Pagliarulo made reference to Roger Ebert's infamous stance that video games can't be art), but what I wanted to explore was why video game creators tend to shy away from the artist label... The question that keeps popping up in my head is whether or not entertainment can be art. To me, the two have always gone hand in hand. You can't have entertainment without art and most art is meant to entertain (or at least, engage the consumer) in some way or another. I suppose there is a distinction to be made between entertainment and art - you can certainly be entertained by something that is bad art, or bored to tears by something that is good art. In the end, of course, it's all subjective, but I still say that games are artistic and am not really sure why some people are so hesitant to call games art.
Posted by Mark on March 29, 2009 at 09:54 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
As usual, my media diet consists of way more content than I could ever hope to consume in a reasonable timeframe. I know people don't wait with baited breath to see what I think about some of this stuff (like they do with other folks) but I figured it might be worth throwing out a few lists of stuff I hope to be consuming in the coming months:
10 Already Released PS3 Games I Want to Play: An interesting thing about this generation of video game consoles is that even though the PS3 is universally considered to be the least successful console (due to poor sales which are usually attributed to the PS3's unusually high price tag coupled with an unforseen economic downturn), there is still a wealth of great games to be played. In previous generations, a console with the PS3's market penetration would probably be dead in the water, with less and less support as time goes on. While I am starting to see some grumblings about less third party support, etc..., there are still a whole slew of games out there that I want to play.
Posted by Mark on March 22, 2009 at 07:54 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
The games I've played for the PS3 include Assassin's Creed, the Resistance games, Call of Duty 4 and Dead Space. One thing all those games have in common is that they're very violent. For crying out loud, the core gameplay of Dead Space is advertised as "strategic limb dismemberment." Now, I'm not inclined to say there's anything particularly awful about violent video games, but it can get to be a bit much. Enter Flower.
Instead of playing a grizzled space-marine or an assassin, you control... the wind! As you pass flowers, you cause them to bloom and you start to collect a trail of flower pedals. The flowers are arranged in various patterns and as you complete the series, you transform the environment or create a new windflow, among other results. These transformations are oddly satisfying. The landscapes change as you progress through the game, and strangely enough, there's something of a narrative to the progression. Of course, there's no exposition at all, which leaves the "story" (such as it is) open to interpretation, but there are some thrilling momemnts and even surprises in the game (including one "twist" about halfway through the game).
Controlling the wind is done by using the much-maligned Sixaxis tilting functionality of the PS3 controller, and pressing a button (any button) to "blow" the wind forward. Strangely enough, its exactly the sort of game you'd expect to see on the Wii... but it works just fine on the PS3. This game is a PS3 exclusive... and I have to admit that the visuals of the game are indeed very impressive. I'm not sure the game would work as well with the Wii's graphics. Also worth mentioning is the music. As you pass each flower, you trigger a sound, usually some sort of chime, and in some situations you're flying past flowers at a fast rate, chiming along with the background music.
The game is relatively short (3 or 4 hours), but it really is a fantastic game that brings about feelings I'm not used to getting from games. It's a relaxing game. The simple gameplay style allows you to just sit back and enjoy what you're seeing and hearing, even as you control what's happening. However, don't let the simplicity fool you. There is more depth here than is apparent at first glance. The game does have PS3 trophies, and some of them are rather complex (of course, some are rather simple, but there are tough ones as well). I would think that this is a game that most gamers would enjoy. I'd be really interested to see how non-gamers or casual-gamers would react to this game - much of what I've heard about the game comes from the typical hardcore gamers (not that they don't like it, but I wonder if it's the sort of game that could transcend gaming).
Now, I'm not as in love with the game as Brainy Gamer, but I like the game a lot, and it's nice to play a game whose color palette goes beyond black, gray, brown, and muzzle-flash. I'm really glad I bought it (if you have a PS3, you can download the game in the PSN store for $9.99) and will most likely keep playing it fairly regularly.
ArsTechnica thinks the game is art and that it extends the conversation of what games are:
Whether or not Flower has a story is up to what you think is going on, and I'm unconvinced that the most topical explanation for the events in the game is the right one, or even the only one. Games are interactive in more ways than one, and playing Flower before it is released is actually something of a handicap; part of the draw of this game is going to be the discussions that it spawns across the gaming blogs and forums.A while back, I posted a guest entry by my friend Samael (aka Roy) where we discussed video games as art. Sam and I pretty much agreed on a relatively broad definition of art... one that included the possibility of games. He distills the debate well:
The problem mostly seems to be that we're asking the wrong questions. We shouldn't be asking "are video games art" any more than we'd ask "are movies art." It's a loaded question and you'll never come to any real answer, because the answer is going to depend completely on what movie you're looking at, and who you're asking. The same holds true with games. The question shouldn't be whether all games are art, but whether a particular game has some artistic merrit. How we decide what counts as art is constantly up for debate, but there are games that raise such significant moral or philosophical questions, or have such an amazing sense of style, or tell such an amazing story, that it seems hard to argue that they have no artistic merrit.And I firmly believe that Flower is one of those games. Furthermore, there is a stereotype for "artistic" games that they focus on the artistic side of the game so much that it isn't fun to play... but for me, Flower is a clear repudiation of that argument. It's gorgeous and it's fun, and it is most definitely "art."
Posted by Mark on March 18, 2009 at 07:25 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
More PS3 Reviews
A couple of other games that I've played for the PS3 lately:
Posted by Mark on March 15, 2009 at 08:51 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Viva La Resistance (and Resistance 2)
One of the first games I played after getting my PS3 was Resistance: Fall of Man and it's sequel, Resistance 2. These are Playstation exclusive games, and they are indeed shining examples of the FPS genre on the PS3.
First up is Resistance: Fall of Man. Since the dawn of the first person shooter genre, there have been two main settings: WWII and alien invasion. With Resistance, what you get is basically both! As trite as that may sound, it actually works really well. The setting is actually an alternate history, starting around the time of the Tunguska event, which in Resistance actually carried with it the seeds of an alien virus/race called the Chimera. By 1950, the Chimera had infected and overtaken most of Asia and continental Europe. The game starts in 1951, following an American soldier stationed in Britain. He is Sergeant Nathan Hale, and of course, he's the only surviving American soldier. He hooks up with British forces and they seek to halt the advancing Chimeran invasion. Part of the reason he's a survivor is that he is somewhat resistant to the Chimeran virus. Instead of dying and becoming a Chimeran, his eyes turn yellow and he gains strength and regenerative abilities.
Alright, enough of the story and the setting. As FPS games go, this is pretty good. Now that I think about it, it might be the first FPS game I've played all the way through on a console. While I still think the PC is ideal for FPS games, I had no problem adjusting to Resistance and the controls worked reasonably well. The only annoying thing is that the zoom is the R3 button, and I sometimes inadvertently triggered it in the middle of a particularly heated battle. Another aspect of FPS games that Resistance accels at are the weaponry. There are some interesting weapons here and most of them produce satisfying results, but the impressive thing is that many are optimized for certain situations or enemies. You don't need to use a specific weapon to address a specific battle, but certain weapons are ideal for certain situations. There are some vehicle portions of the game which help break up the gameplay... and I have to admit that it is fun taking a spin in the Tank or even the Chimeran Stalker. So as FPS games go, this is a very solid example. (It's available on the budget Greatest Hits line - if you get a PS3 and like FPS games, it's well worth the effort).
Resistance 2 is the sequel to Resistance: Fall of Man and picks up right where the first game left off, then skips forward to a few years later, as the Chimeran plague spreads across the pond to America (I guess the victory at the end of the first game was only a temporary one). Sergeant Hale has been promoted to Lieutenant and is now a part of a military unit (called SRPA, pronounced "sirpa") of similar Chimeran virus resistant soldiers (referred to as Sentinals).
The gameplay has evolved a bit in this game to resemble other popular shooters here, particularly the Halo and Call of Duty games. Gone are the health meters, and I actually really like that change. The game also only allows you to carry two weapons at a time, which is perhaps a less welcome change, but the game is pretty good about making sure ammo and other weapons are all over the place. Speaking of the weaponry, most of the weapons from the first game are still here, though there are a couple of new ones and even enhancements to the old ones (I particularly liked the changes to the Auger and the new sniper-rifle-like Marksman). The controls have changed a bit as well. For instance, they fixed the issue I mentioned about the R3 button... but the way they did that makes it difficult to use the sniper rifle's alternate fire method... still, it's an improvement. They've also done away with the vehicles... perhaps to make way for all the new boss fights. There were a few boss fights in the first game, but this game is filled with them. They usually take the form of some gigantic Chimeran monster and these are usually pretty fun battles. The scope and scale of the battles in this game are larger and impressive than the first game.
In terms of the story, you do start to get more information on what's happening, including some info on the unseen but often referenced "Cloven" (who are not Chimeran, but not human either and, well, let's just say they don't like anyone). There's also a specific villain in this game, a Chimeran creature named Daedalus, who is suitably creepy and seems to know more about Hale than you'd be comforable with. There are still plenty of unanswered questions in the story and I think the game suffers from the lack of a consistent narrator (the first game was narrated by a British Captain, and she provided a good perspective on what was happening and tied the various events together in a useful way), but the story progresses well enough, and the game ends with a rather gutsy event in the cutscene. Visually, both Resistance games are impressive, but Resistance 2's scope and scale give it a bit of an edge. There are also some levels that have a welcome change from the typical gunmetal gray color palette, sometimes even including things like sunlight and plants.
Also worthy of mention in this game is the online multiplayer functionality. The first game had multiplayer as well, but Resistance 2 seems to be trying for a comprehensive online experience, providing tons of options and two main modes. One is the traditional multiplayer that everyone should be familiar with (deathmatches, capture the flag, etc...). I am really bad at this kind of game, but I did find myself really enjoying the other main online multiplayer option, which was the Cooperative campaigns. These allow you and up to 7 other players to go through various missions, attacking the Chimera. There are multiple player classes, and you really have to cooperate with each other if you want to win the level. The three classes are pretty straightforward and easy to pickup. Like most multiplayer games, these missions can get somewhat repetitive, though it's worth noting that there are tons of maps and variations of maps. Honestly, when it comes to the Deathmatch style games, it makes it somewhat difficult to play because there are so many levels that I still am not particularly familiar with any one level... The only other gripe here is that in order to get experience points, you have to use the matcmaker, which automatically chooses a game and a map for you... making it more difficult to get familiar with a given map.
Overall, I think Resistance 2 is a small improvement over the original, a solid shooter in its own right, and with the ending of the single player campaign, I'm actually somwhat excited to see where they take the third game.
Posted by Mark on March 11, 2009 at 06:57 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Playstation Network Gamercards?
I've been spending a lot of my spare time playing the PS3 of late, and I've even started to get my feet wet with the various online features. One of the notable things about the PS3 online experience is that it's free. Of course, playing games online is also free on the PC or the Wii, but Xbox Live is a pay service ($50 a year, though you can get coupons or something to lower that to $30 a year). By all accounts, the Xbox Live system seems to be far better than the Playstation Network, but I'd say that the PSN is good enough to get the job done. After all, I have no problem playing games online, and I don't have to pay for that privilege. But there are seeminly simple things I'm surprised they're not doing. For instance, Gamercards. This is something that Xbox Live does really well. Here's the example gamercard for Xbox live from wikipedia:
The idea is that this card provides a bunch of information about a player, and they can post it on their blog or their favorite forums. The information includes the person's gamertag (i.e. their name), their reputation, their score, a zone (i.e. are you a family gamer, a casual gamer, an "underground" player, etc...), and the last few games that you've played. It's a community thing, and it fits into some of the other things Xbox Live does. I'm not that experienced with Xbox Live, but my understanding is that it uses your score and reputation to help find matchups for you. That way, if you're a new player, you won't get matched with the expert gamers who'll just destroy you. Neato.
The PSN seems to have a patchwork of features, none of which are tied together very well. For instance, they implemented a "Trophy" system last year which parallels the Xbox Live Achievements functionality... except that this information doesn't seem to serve any real purpose. This is exemplified by the PSN Portable ID, which is supposed to be their answer to the Xbox Gamercard. Here's my PSN Portable ID:
Wow! Look at all that info! Just as good as Xbox Live, right? Ok, so the trophy system doesn't get you any real tangible rewards in terms of matchmaking, but at the very least it could be used for bragging rights, and this is seemingly a big part of why people post their Xbox Gamercards all over the place. For reasons that are beyond me, I've spent some time playing games with the sole intention of getting this or that trophy. It can be fun (perhaps I just enjoy activating the reward circuitry of my brain), but it's kinda pointless if I can't share my accomplishments. The dumbest part about this is that I can login to the PSN and bring up an online gamercard that's much cooler. I just took a picture of it:
(Apologies for the lack of a good screenshot, these were pictures taken of my TV) Ok, so even this might not be as good as the Xbox Live gamercard, but it's a heck of a lot better than their portable ID thingy. It's got a PSN level, the number of trophies you've earned, and it has pictures of the last several trophies you've achieved. You can then go to another page which breaks out what kinds of trophies you've won (and there's a third page that has some biographical information). You can view your friend's cards as well, and you can even compare your trophies with theirs. Of course, none of this is available in the official gamercard. What's the point of using the official PS3 gamercard if the only information it contains is my name? If I want to tell people my name, I can do that pretty easily (hey, my PSN id is "mciocco"). The point of a gamertag is to populate it with at least some dynamic data that indicates what kind of player you are or what you've been up to lately. Shamus recently summarized the issue thusly:
I know they have the trophy system, but it doesn’t look to be tied to anything like an account or gamer profile which can be shared. Without a gamertag, you have to just tell people you beat Explodious 3 on super double-hard. The system tracks your accomplishments, but it doesn’t give you a way to share them, which is what makes the system social and perhaps even viral.Am I making too big a deal of this sort of thing? Maybe. Even the Xbox Live Achievements system is arguably not that useful, but to Shamus' point, it's fun to share your accomplishments. And if you don't think that PS3 owners care about that, then why are there a bunch of sites that allow you to create your own PS3 gamercard by populating the data manually?
I suppose the good news is that Sony is tracking that sort of data and they do seem to be making strides in the right direction. After all, they did only just recently implement these trophies... but still, part of the fun of earning trophies is that it's supposed to be a community thing. The lack of a respectible gamercard seems rather silly to me - it should be a relatively easy thing for them to implement, right? (Come to think of it, it takes forever for the gamercard to populate with data in the PS3 interface, so maybe it is more difficult than it sounds... but I can't see why it would be...) On the other hand, I've heard rumors that your Trophy points would contribute towards unlocked stuff in PS Home or possibly even some sort of monetary value. I suppose that would be nice.
Of course, the Wii is selling double what the Xbox and PS3 are combined, and the Wii has nothing like this at all, so I suppose this whole online experience should be taken with a grain of salt (then again, one of the manual gamercard sites linked above also provides a Wii gamercard option). Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some Dead Space trophies to earn.
Posted by Mark on February 25, 2009 at 07:55 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Console Wars: Available Video Games
I've been making my way through Malstrom's Articles lately (thanks to Shamus for pointing them out) and have found them to be perceptive and fascinating reading. Sean Malstrom wanted to learn about how companies succeed. In order to do so, he chose to examine a company that was "exploding in wealth." Having missed the iPod explosion, he chose to examine Nintendo. In doing so, he has made several interesting observations about their business strategy. In particular, he has identified the two major driving forces behind Nintendo's actions: Blue Ocean Strategy and Disruption. This is not something you read about in typical media accounts of the console wars, but ironically, Malstrom was able to discern Nintendo's strategy by simply listening to Nintendo executives talk about their plans. In any case, Malstrom's articles are long and detailed and his points are well made. In Drowning in the Blue Ocean, Malstrom speculates about what defines console generations and comes to the conclusion that the software (i.e. games) is more important than the hardware (i.e. consoles).
The real reason why the Playstation 1 and 2 succeeded was because Sony corrected (to a point) the licensing issues of Sega and Nintendo but more due to the fact that Sony flooded their console with software. The number of software available for the original Playstation was beyond any other system ever. It was this vast library that shot the Playstation up.Way back when the original NES hit the market, Nintendo imposed certain licensing limitations and content standards (i.e. censorship). They were the only game in town, and their limitations were imposed for a reason. However, competition appeared in the form of Sega (specifically, the Genesis), who competed along similar lines. Meanwhile, Sony sat along the sidelines (briefly flirting with Nintendo in a failed attempt to bring their CD technology to the SNES), observing that first console war, until they released the first Playstation (based on the same technology they were going to provide to Nintendo). Their licensing was more leniant than Nintendo or Sega, so the available games skyrocketed. This continued into the PS2, which wins the available game count by a massive margin. The idea is that the more games a console has available, the more popular that console becomes. Of course, it's more complicated than that. The quality and variety of gaming experiences is also important and plays into this. However, looking at the number of available games tends to be a good approximation, perhaps because developers are seeking to make money, so they will favor the more popular systems. This positive feedback loop only serves to reinforce the winner. There are many other factors that help determine the value proposition for a given console, but I became interested in the available games (or size of library, as Malstrom calls it) metric because it seems to follow from the other factors (i.e. a cheap system with cheap development costs can lead to more games).
So if the number of games available is a reasonable proxy for which system is winning a console war, how do the current consoles stack up?
Despite the fancy chart, I have to admit that there are several caveats. But the data is also interesting in many ways, as it mostly correllates with my expectations (confirmation bias? Perhaps...).
Nintendo is the clear winner in terms of sales right now, and it appears that the amount of games available correllates with that. I'm really curious to see how Nintendo leverages their position to attract gamers away from the Xbox and PS3, or if that's even possible. As I mentioned in my recent overview of the consoles, I'm not sure how well they'll be able to make that transition. So far, they've experienced great success just by making gaming different and interesting again. Since "fighting disinterest" seems to be their goal, I'm interested to see how they'll apply it to more advanced games and concepts (I'm no expert and haven't played that many Wii games, but so far, I don't think they've managed to transcend their original goal - Malstrom seems to think they will, but I am not so sure).
Update: According to this page, there are just over 200 exclusive Wii titles. This is approximately twice what the PS3 or Xbox offer... Also, added another bullet about the challenges of developing new PS3 games versus Wii games...
Posted by Mark on February 11, 2009 at 08:41 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 08, 2009
As I've mentioned recently, I've spent most of my free time these past few weeks playing PS3 games. The first game I got for the PS3 was Assassin's Creed. It's on the PS3's "Greatest Hits" budget line, so it was a relatively cheap purchase, and it wound up being a great introduction to the PS3. It seems that the reviews for this game are generally mixed. Some people hate it and some people like it. They all mention pretty much the same complaints, so I guess it's just a matter of how much they grate on you. As I've mentioned previously, I think Yahtzee's review perfectly summarizes the game. In fact, I'm not sure why I've pointed this out, as his review is probably a lot more entertaining than anything I'm about to say, but onwards and upwards. Maybe I'll say something worthwhile, but if you just want the 5 minute version, watch Yahtzee's video.
Again, I should point out that I'm something of a casual gamer and am usually behind the curve of these sorts of games. The last game I played that could be reasonably compared to Assassin's Creed is probably No More Heroes, a game for the Wii I didn't particularly love (but didn't hate either). Interestingly, there are a number of parallels between those two games, but Assassin's Creed is by far the superior game. Here are some thoughts on various aspects of the game:
In comparison to other similar games, I'd say it's better than No More Heroes, but perhaps not as good as Hitman: Blood Money. They've all got similar structures - an assassin takes on various jobs. No More Heroes is even more repetitive than Assassin's Creed, and its lame attempt at a sandbox and its stupid pre-assassination missions are much worse than anything in Creed. The only thing worthwhile was the boss fights, which were on par with Creed. On the other hand, Hitman had a much more varied list of missions with all sorts of alternative methods for completing a level and a good amount of tension generated in the process. The variations actually make it tough the first time through - I have no idea how people figure out some of these things - but replaying levels a few times can still be fun. Assassin's Creed still stacks up favorably and I liked it a lot, but it's not a classic. I look forward to the sequel though, and if they can improve on some of these issues, it could be a great game.
Posted by Mark on February 08, 2009 at 04:23 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 01, 2009
This blog has always covered a mixture of topics that interest me, but in the past year it's definitely become somewhat dominated by movies, with the occassional Anime post, culture/technology post or link dump thrown in for good measure. I spend a significant amount of time watching movies and indeed even reading or listening about them. So when you consider my tendency to arrange interests in parallel, it makes sense that I'd spend most of my blogging capital on movies. But with my recent purchase of a PS3, the whole enterprise has been upended. Most of my free time since its arrival has been spent playing games or watching Blu-Rays. As such, you can expect to see more video game related posts in the coming weeks and months. I might even get around to doing another round or two of my Video Game Retrospective that I pretty much abandoned about a year and a half ago (So far, I've only covered the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 eras, so I'm still a few decades behind here). But today, I'm going to talk about the current generation of video game consoles.
Before I start, I should mention that I'm not what's referred to as a "hardcore" gamer these days. In the past, I've described myself as something of a "casual" gamer, but my experience with the PS3 has shown me that I'm probably somewhere inbetween those two poles of what is actually the false dichotomy of gaming (that I will nevertheless continue to use). My perspective on gaming really comes down to time, in that I don't like to waste any of it. It's valuable to me. On the other hand, I don't consider being entertained to be a waste of time. If a game really grabs hold of me (i.e. it's entertaining or at least compelling in some way), I don't mind spending a lot of time playing video games, even ones that don't seem to have any real "benefit."
A lot of complex games lose me because they start off and nothing meaningful happens. Perhaps I die a lot. Perhaps the story sucks (and there's no shortage of that). Games that have really steep learning curves puzzle me. In general, the way this type of game goes is that it kills me for about an hour straight, and I think "This is stupid, why am I playing this stupid game?" and then go off and do something interesting with my time. Good games usually give you some sort of introduction, building confidence and button-mashing muscle memory before thrusting you into the really advanced gameplay. This isn't to say that there isn't a place for games with steep learning curves, just that I think such games have to earn their bullshit. If you want me to spend hours upon hours learning combo movies so that I can defeat such and such boss, that's fine, but you have to make the learning process worthwhile too. And learning should bring some sort of tangible reward (and I'm not talking about unlockables here either). One other thing that bothers me is a lack of clarity, especially when I know I'm being railroaded, but I'm not really sure where to go (I'm looking at you, Metroid Prime III). Now, these complaints and others used to make me think that I was a casual gamer, but since picking up the PS3 and playing a few supposedly non-casual games, I'm not sure what to make of it.
Apparently, we're in the 7th generation of consoles (drastically simplifying with the main consoles of each generation: the first being Pong and its ilk, the second being Atari 2600, the third being the NES, the fourth being the Genesis/SNES, the fifth being N64/Playstation, and the sixth being the PS2). In this generation, three main consoles have emerged. I own two of them and have played the third enough to comment on it. Let's start with the most interesting system:
Each of these companies will try to gain ground at the expense of the other, and Wii's long term strategy seems like it could really cut into the Xbox and PS business, but in the near future, I see all three consoles flourishing. The Wii may win, but the Xbox and PS3 won't necessarily fail. What does the eigth generation hold in store? That might be where the Wii's dominance really asserts itself on the market, as I can't imagine that it won't be the primary influence on what the next generation will look like. It'll be a while before we know for sure, but I'm betting that Nintendo will be ideally positioned to retain the thone... but then, so was Sony during this generation, so who really knows?
Posted by Mark on February 01, 2009 at 03:54 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
For obvious reasons, time is a little short these days, so here are a few links I've found interesting lately:
Posted by Mark on January 07, 2009 at 08:56 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
The PS3, Revisiting Predictions & Other Odds & Ends
The PS3 came yesterday, so I've spent most of the time since then in a Blu-Ray and Video Game induced haze. I was lured out by my brother this afternoon to watch the Eagles playoff game (we won!) and maybe feed myself too. While I'm out, I figure I should at least make some pretense at updating the blog with something...
Posted by Mark on January 04, 2009 at 08:33 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
With my purchase of a PS3, I've been looking around for good games to check out, and lucky for me, Shamus just posted a video he made about the most innovative game of 2008. To do so, he backs up a bit and covers a bit of video gaming history, explaining why current generation consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360 appeal mostly to people who grew up gaming. As usual, Shamus' points are well reasoned and argued, and I generally agree with his points. Check it out:
It turns out that this was slashdotted today, and the comment thread for that post is worth reading too (also, the comments on Shamus' original post are pretty good).
I've watched the video a couple of times now, and I really like it. Regardless of whether you agree with Shamus or not, it's not the type of video you see very often. Recent video game documentaries like The King of Kong and Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade are great, but they tend to focus on the human aspects of video games... Shamus' video delves into actual mechanics of gameplay and examines why video games are fun or not fun. In the comments he says he has ideas for ten more videos... and I can't wait to watch them. Maybe he'll even get director status on YouTube so he doesn't have to limit his videos to ten minutes...
Posted by Mark on December 31, 2008 at 12:01 AM .: link :.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
The PS3 is Mine
Despite my misgivings and Sony's steady campaign against their own system, I finally broke down and bought a PS3. The clincher was a $150 credit if you apply for their credit card and purchase the PS3 with it (looks like this deal is available until 12/31/08). Of course, it's a credit at the Sony store and I probably won't get it for a gazillion weeks or however long it takes them to process it, but still, that credit puts it in an affordable neighborhood (pretty much the same as what I paid for the Wii). I'm immediately placing an order for The Dark Knight on Blu-Ray (which is a no brainer for me, despite a dearth of special features) and will need to figure out what games to get. If anyone has any advice for good PS3 games, I'm all ears. On the shortlist right now is Fallout 3 (which is getting good reviews and has been endorsed by someone I trust... though I should note that I haven't played either of the first two games), Dead Space, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Resistance 2 (and/or the first Resistance, both of which just look fun to me), and a bunch of games I've already played a bit of and know I like (like Call of Duty 4, Grand Theft Auto 4, and one of them Guitar Hero or Rock Band incarnations). Or maybe I should hit up the bargain basement games like MotorStorm. Too many games, too little time.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to spend the next couple of days constantly refreshing my order status at Sony... (Order Status: Processing, Damn! *press F5* Damn! What the hell is taking so long!? *press F5* Damn!)
Update: Just placed an order for The Dark Knight, Resistance, and Call of Duty 4. Hopefully all will have arrived by next weekend, but that's probably not likely... In other news, order status is still "Processing." Damn!
Posted by Mark on December 28, 2008 at 05:08 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Probing Video Games
Clive Thompson's latest video game article is about how players of online video games collaborate, analyze and develop strategies for beating difficult bosses. One example he gives is a game called Lineage, where groups of 150 players stage assaults on fiendishly difficult enemies. Constance Steinkuehler, a game academic at the University of Wisconsin, was fascinated with the game and how the players were able to quickly identify and exploit weanesses in the bosses. She eventually figured out how her teenage compatriots were accomplishing the feat:
A group of them were building Excel spreadsheets into which they’d dump all the information they’d gathered about how each boss behaved: What potions affected it, what attacks it would use, with what damage, and when. Then they’d develop a mathematical model to explain how the boss worked — and to predict how to beat it.Sound familiar? I've often mentioned Steven Berlin Johnson's book, Everything Bad is Good For You on this blog, with particular focus on the concepts of probing, telescoping and decision-making. The process of probing a game (or in this case, an enemy), developing a hypothesis, reprobing, and then rethinking the hypothesis is essentially the same thing as the scientific method or the hermenutic circle.
Steinkuehler also studied a popular World of Warcraft message board to see what the folks there were talking about. It turns out that people there are mostly doing science!
Only a minority of the postings were “banter” or idle chat. In contrast, a majority — 86 percent — were aimed specifically at analyzing the hidden ruleset of games.I've never actually played WoW, but I find this behavior fascinating. Towards the end of the article, Thompson talks about education:
And here’s the thing: The (mostly) young people engaging in these sciencelike conversations are precisely the same ones who are, more and more, tuning out of science in the classroom. Every study shows science literacy in school is plummeting, with barely one-fifth of students graduating with any sort of sense of how the scientific method works. The situation is far worse for boys than girls.That would certainly make for an interesting class. As I've noted before, it should be interesting to see if video games ever really catch on as learning tools. There have been a lot of attempts at this sort of thing, but they're often stifled by the reputation of video games being a "colossal waste of time" (in recent years, the benefits of gaming are being acknowledged more and more, though not usually as dramatically as Johnson does in his book).
Posted by Mark on September 17, 2008 at 08:47 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Keeper Leagues and Unexpected Consequences
It's not a secret that I'm a pretty geeky guy, especially when it comes to certain subjects (movies, SF, etc...). My friends are a different kind of geek though. They're sports geeks. Specifically, they love baseball. About 10 years ago, they started a fantasy baseball league. At the time, the various websites weren't that great, but as the years passed, things started to get more sophisticated... and the league became much more competitive. In true geek fashion, we started getting carried away with various aspects of the league. Every team owner is expected to issue faux-press releases (i.e. pretending to be the Associated Press and faux interviews, etc...) and the league wrote a Constitution. In its current incarnation, the Constitution is 11 pages long. Every year, owners propose amendments in accordance with Article VI of the Constitution, and if 2/3 of the league approves of the amendment, it is ratified and put in the Constitution.
A few years ago, we ratified an amendment that gave each owner "keeper rights." What this basically means is that you can keep three eligible members of your team for the next season. Here's an excerpt from Article IV of the MLF Constitution:
Article IV: Keeper RightsThe rules of keeper eligibility help keep things a little even, meaning that a team that wins the league one year won't necessarily have as big an advantage as anyone else in the next year. You can't keep a player indefinitely and since players drafted in the first three rounds are also ineligible, that ensures that the best players are still open to even the worst team in the following year's draft. And Article IV, section 3 featues an interesting twist: "Trading keeper rights is permitted."
Now, these rules were put into place for many reasons. Some people like the opportunity to take a chance on a young, developing player (in the hopes that they'll be able to keep them for a breakout year in the following season). Some people want to make sure the team has a solid core that can be built upon. And a host of other reasons. However, after three years of keeper rights, some unexpected consequences have presented themselves.
The biggest implication is that team owners who are not doing well will "sell" their keeper ineligible players for more keeper rights and keeper eligible players. Similarly, those who are doing well will "sell" their keeper rights in the hopes of strengthening their team for the playoffs. The reason I'm using scare quotes around the word "sell" is that what this really amounts to are fire sales. Top tier players will often be traded for near scraps because a team that has no hope of winning the league has no use for that top tier player, but they could use a keeper right to help build for the future.
Initially, there was a bit of a learning curve. How much value does a keeper right really have? In the first season, someone traded 3 keeper rights for Albert Pujols, a trade so lopsided that a new constitutional amendment was ratified (titled The Golden Shaft award, it is given to the player who made the worst trade of the season.) However, after a few years, things have changed. Keeper rights have become more valuable, and teams in contention will "mortgage their future" by trading keeper rights for players (this effectively means they can add top tier talent without losing anything that impacts them for the current season). Some people value keeper rights much more than others, and during this season's trade deadline, things got ridiculous.
During the last day before the trade deadline, there were 8 trades involving 36 players and 7 keeps. This is rather obscene. One owner traded his 3 keeps for 8 players (many top tier folks) and made another trade for 5 additional players. In effect, this person replaced most of his team in one day and became an instant league powerhouse (and he is my division rival as well!) Needless to say, this year's "Winter Meetings" will contain much discussion regarding how we can mitigate these fire sales. There are several options available to us:
Posted by Mark on August 06, 2008 at 09:09 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
I'm sure most of my readers also read Shamus (of DM of the Rings fame), but in case there are some who don't, I'd like to point to Shamus' new comic, called Stolen Pixels. So far, the comic has been lampooning the Unreal Tournament games, but he says he'll be covering other games as the comic progresses. I imagine these will resemble the little comics he's done on several of his posts a few months ago (for instance, see this comic on Sins of a Solar Empire...) So far, there are only 2 comics, but there are 2 new comics published a week (on Tuesdays and Fridays). I'm looking forward to more!
Posted by Mark on July 13, 2008 at 07:23 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Creative Balance and DRM in Video Games
There's an interesting interview in The Escapist with Cliff Bleszinski (who worked on the Unreal games and the Gears of War games). As Ars Technica notes, one of the strange things about the interview is that Bleszinski seems to be saying that the less gaming he does, the better he becomes at his job.
I'm at the point now where I want to make sure I have a good work/life balance. I'll play Call of Duty 4, but I might not necessarily get all the achievements; I might not get to the next level as far as leveling up in the online experience. I might not beat Army of Two. I'll give it a good five or six hours and be like, "OK, I get the experience. Now I want to check out the latest movie." Or I want to be outside taking my dog out or just experiencing life in general and meeting new people.Interesting stuff. Of course there's nothing particularly new about this. When you limit your creative influences, your creativity is sure to become limited as well. The fact that most game designers get into the industry because they love gaming is a good thing, but when they continue to eat, breath, and sleep gaming, a few things happen.
As Bleszinski mentions, creativity tends to suffer in such situations, and thus the industry ends up doing the same old thing over and over again. As a casual gamer, this part isn't as noticeable to me... however, I do tend to notice that games have gotten harder to pick up and more difficult to complete (not all games, of course). I don't mind a challenge, but I think there are some games out there that really attempt to push the boundries of difficulty, and this is done because hardcore gamers demand this sort of thing, especially if the game is a simple rehash of old concepts. But casual gamers get burnt out on this type of thing pretty quickly. Many of these games are very rich and detailed... so much so that I simply don't have the time to parse all the details and get to a point where I'm actually doing well.
None of which is to suggest that game designers shouldn't play games. In the computer industry, using one's own product is known as eating your own dog food, and it's an important part of software development. Of course, similar to with games, this can also lead to incredibly powerful and flexible software that is overly complicated for a casual user (i.e. linux).
This made me wonder about DRM. Pretty much any gamer who legitimately purchases their games hates DRM. It can be incredibly frustrating; even the simple systems that only require the CD to be in the drive to play the game can get annoying. I look at some of the draconian systems being put in place on high profile games today, and I wonder how anyone could possibly think it's a good idea to implement something like this. I guarantee that the people who are pushing for these systems are not eating their own dog food.
Interestingly, there is one small but successful gaming company that doesn't use any form of DRM at all. The company is called Stardock, and I think part of the reason they don't use DRM is because the founder and head of Stardock, Brad Wardell, is a gamer himself. He's often written about his dislike for copy protection, so it shouldn't be that surprising that he knows his dogfood. He also has a keen business mind in that he doesn't believe in inconveniencing his best customers and treating them like criminals. Go figure. That's why I'll gladly shell out money for the latest Stardock game, even if it kicks my ass.
Posted by Mark on May 14, 2008 at 07:33 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Incompetent Boobery of a Solar Empire
A few months ago, I picked up Sins of a Solar Empire, and promptly ran several galactic empires right into the grave. I learned a lot during those first few failures, and I finally managed to win a game. It turns out that all I needed to do was set the difficulty to "Easy." Yet, even after that victory, I wasn't able to keep the streak going. After mismanaging another two empires into extinction, I gave up on the game. It was taking an awful lot of time and effort for me to kill these empires, and continually losing doesn't exactly do wonders for motivation.
The game definitely has a high learning curve. At least, for a casual gamer like me, it does. In one of my posts, I wondered what a more active gamer like Shamus would do with the game. And it appears that he's finally picked up the game and given it a try:
I decided to just run through the tutorials. The most important thing that I learned was that under no circumstances should I ever be allowed to run a galactic empire. It’s harder than it sounds, and the consequences for failure are rather dire. During the tutorial I was taught a few short lessons about some buttons. Apparently there are buttons, and they need to be pressed sometimes. There were some other details in there about economies and spaceships, but they eluded me once the tutorial had run its course. I’m still pretty sure about the button thing, though.He's much better at expressing the futility of a first time player than I was (the comic he created that accompanies his post is utterly hilarious), and I'm somewhat reassured by the fact that even a more experienced gamer had similar problems (reading the Sins forums was disheartening - most everyone there seemed to immediately grasp everything necessary for the game and they all sat about debating minutiae). While his post is very humerous and snarky, he does end up recognizing the game's learning curve:
This is not too say the game is too hard or complex. It’s just different, and you can’t really build on what you’ve learned in other games to help you along here. The tutorial teaches you how to use the interface, but figuring out what you should be doing is your job. At the start of the game there are dozens of possible actions to take, without any real hint as to which ones are a good idea or why. I imagine I’m going to lead a couple more doomed empires into history before I get a handle on the thing.This is very true, and Shamus is good enough that I'm sure he'll have the game figured out in a few games. Is the game too hard? It was hard enough that I wasn't having much fun towards the end. That doesn't make it a bad game, it was just too much work for me... though I have to admit, reading Shamus' post made me want to fire it up and slaughter my people.
The last game I played was one of the specific scenarios. It was a small map, with only a handful of planets, and three players. Furthermore, the map was shaped in such a way that you really can't take advantage of choke points (which usually helps in other games, even the ones where I lost). Anyway, the last time I played it, I got lit up by the two enemies. But I was careful to save a bunch of times, so I loaded one of my older saved games where I was still in good shape and gave it a shot. I threw caution to the wind and sent two of my capital vessels and a fleet of support ships to attack one of my enemies. This actually turned out to be a mildly successful tactic... for a while. Eventually, the other enemy caught on and attacked my home planet. I was able to fend them off, but my population was decimated and my economy went into the tank. I had to retreat from my attack for a bit to rebuild my forces too. Eventually, I was able to resume my attack, but my enemy seemed suspiciously fortified. It turns out that my two weenie enemies had joined together and had a ceasfire and trade relationship going. I was basically screwed. I could spend another hour watching my empire die a slow, torturous death, or come here and finish this blog post. Guess what I did. I don't know, maybe I could turn it around. It seems that I need to read up on how to do some of that diplomacy stuff.
Posted by Mark on April 30, 2008 at 09:18 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
Via Haibane.info, I stumbled across this:
It's pretty funny and I got a little curious about the history of this thing. Apparently a sketch comedy troupe in Wisconsin called the Dead Alewives put together an album featuring a parody of Dungeons & Dragons. The audio skit is pretty funny by itself, and it's been making the rounds on radio and the internet ever since the mid 1990s. In 2000, a bunch of developers at a video game company, Volition (they made Descent, Red Faction, and of course, Summoner), made an animated version, and distrubuted it along with their games (it's in some promotional material and if you win the game, you see it there as well). So it went from an improvisational comedy group, to a CD they made, to the radio, to the internet, got mashed up with visuals from other video games, and has now finally made its way to me (about 12 years later).
Posted by Mark on April 02, 2008 at 10:42 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Crayon Physics Deluxe
Interesting trailer for a game called Crayon Physics Deluxe. It's like a more complicated version of line rider or something.
This is apparently a sequel to Crayon Physics. [via clusterflock]
Posted by Mark on March 19, 2008 at 07:46 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 09, 2008
Wii Game Corner
Some quick reviews for games I've played recently:
Posted by Mark on March 09, 2008 at 06:19 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Sins of a Solar Empire: Victory!
I won a Sins of a Solar Empire game last night. It turns out, all I had to do was play on "Easy." Heh. Actually, I think the thing that really did it was the Pirates.
Pirates are a faction in the game that periodically launch raids on one of the players. By default, they pick a random player to attack, but you can put a bounty on your opponents (or, in larger games, you can secretly attack your allies, if that's necessary), and if you bid more than your opponents, they'll go bother your opponents. When you're playing against AI, it's easy to win the bidding war, and I think that's primarily why I won this game. Honestly, the Pirates thing got a little annoying after a while. It happens every 10-12 minutes or so, and it's really annoying to have to deal with a pirate attack. Later in the game, when I didn't need the pirates, making sure I won the bidding wars was just a pain in the arse. I don't know if the duration between attacks is configurable, but if it were a longer period, the game would go a little smoother.
Another thing I noticed that I forgot to mention in my last post was that position is everything. There are choke points in the phase lanes, and if you can block off your enemy at one of those choke points, you can fortify your position and build your empire behind it. In at least one of my previous games, I was in an awful position and had a lot of trouble fortifying my empire. In the below screenshot, I was able to narrow it down to two phase lanes, one of which was blocked by the Pirates (actually, by the time I had taken that screenshot, I had expanded into my enemy's empire, so while I still had only one planet exposed, there were three phase lanes going into it). Since I was winning the Pirate bidding wars, I didn't have to worry much about the planet facing the Pirates, so I really only had one planet to worry about. I fortified it with mutiple capital ships and a couple hanger defenses, and all was well. Of course, if someone managed to get past those defenses, I would be screwed, as the rest of my empire was relatively free for the taking.
And finally, I found playing with The Advent to be much better than playing with the TEC. Perhaps because I had a better idea of how to use their ships (having been annihilated by them a few times in the past, and thus knowing how to populate my fleet). I still haven't played with or against the Vasari Empire yet, but I did find their backstory, as described by Brad Wardell (owner of Stardock, and I'm pretty sure he's also the author of the AI which keeps kicking my ass), interesting. Basically, The Vasari were tremendously powerful, but are now the equivalent of "Battlestar Galactica, a ragtag, fugitive fleet fleeing something horrific." Interesting. I should try them out sometime. I've honestly only played a couple of the many available scenarios, so I'ev still got lots of stuff to go through with this game.
Posted by Mark on February 20, 2008 at 07:35 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Sins of a Solar Empire: Lessons Learned, Sorta
So I've been playing more of Sins of a Solar Empire this week, and while I'm still having fun, I don't seem to be doing very well. I haven't had a ton of time to play the game, but I actually haven't won a game yet. It being a real time game, I had trouble remembering to take screenshots as I played, but the below thoughts are what I remembered and what I've learned from my first few failed attempts.
Update: Seems I'm not the only one who's having trouble getting started. Some interesting suggestions are given there. Of course, some of them would bother me. For instance, playing the game on slow might give me some more time to read the tooltips and develop a better strategy, but as it is now, I get frustrated having to wait for my resources to fill up so that I can do this or build that... Also found this Tips for New Tyrants guide which looks promising...
Posted by Mark on February 17, 2008 at 08:08 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Sins of a Solar Empire: First Impressions
Sins of a Solar Empire came out this week. While I am a casual gamer and thus don't typically buy new games right when they come out, there are a few reasons I picked this one up. First, it's from Stardock, developers of the Galactic Civilization games (which I'm a big fan of). Stardock is also one of those neat companies that doesn't treat its customers like criminals and makes it easy to download and play the games (no annoying DRM or CD copy protection come with the game). Given my feelings on DRM, it's nice to find decent games to support, and Stardock's user-friendly approach has earned them a free pass in my book. So I'll buy anything even remotely interesting that they put out. Anyway, I bought the game and installed it this morning, so here are some initial thoughts and first impressions on the game:
Posted by Mark on February 10, 2008 at 07:31 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
I got a Nintendo Wiii a while ago, and once I tired of the typical Wii Sports games, I looked around for a new game. I settled on Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. It had just come out at the time, I had fond memories of the original (though I'm not sure I ever finished it), and it had great "reviews" at all the gaming sites (even user reviews hovered around 8-10 out of 10). Of course, I'm much more of a casual gamer, so what I'm looking for is typically a bit different than the hardcore gaming crowd. While I can see why the game got good reviews, I really did not enjoy this game. It's got some positive points, but there are lots of negatives that just dragged the whole experience down for me.
Again, I'm a casual gamer, and during the past few months, I haven't had a lot of time to play video games. I think this context is a big part of why I didn't enjoy this game, but I'll get into that later in this post. Another thing to keep in mind: This is my first Metroid game since the original, and though I have a pretty good opinion of that game, I don't really remember much about it either. Here are some thoughts on various aspects of the game:
I mean, honestly... If I wanted to receive orders from someone, I would have purchased Halo or Half-Life. If I wanted to be sent on a linear mission to perform some menial task, I would have bought Zelda. If I wanted to be placed alongside a team of other mercenaries, only to witness each one die on their own or fight them after they turn against me, I would have bought Metal Gear. If I wanted to play mini-games, I'd play Final Fantasy. And if I wanted to spend my time accumulating achievement points, I would have bought a 360 by now.Again, I have no idea what to say about what makes a Metroid game a Metroid game, as I've only played the original and don't remember much, but what this person is talking about sounds a lot more fun than what Metroid Prime 3 actually was.
As a casual gamer, this game comes nowhere near my standard for the adventure genre, which is God of War. I had my issues with that game as well (*cough* Hades level *cough*), but overall, I was really impressed with a lot of aspects of the game. On a completely abstract level, I actually looked forward to playing GoW, whereas, I almost dreaded playing Metroid (again, consider my context - I don't want to spend a required 2 hours playing the game when my time is at a premium).
Anyway, I traded a friend Metroid for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I like this a lot more than Metroid, but there are still issues. Just when I was getting used to the controller scheme, they up and changed my character into a wolf. The wolf level is mildy boring too, though it's still much better than Metroid. I don't anticipate Zelda frustrating me as much as Metroid, but I guess you never know. I'm much more into the Zelda universe though, so I have a little incentive to keep up with the game. As for the Wii in general, the next game I'll actually get excited about is the announced Star Wars game. Now that is something I'll be willing to dedicate a lot of time towards! Otherwise, I might just invest in a little sports game or something (Rockstar's Ping Pong maybe? Seems like a good fit for the Wii, though I gotta wonder how different it is from Wii tennis).
Posted by Mark on December 02, 2007 at 03:11 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Video Games & Decisions
I've written a couple of times about Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good For You. He intentionally takes a controversial point of view, that pop culture (which is usually referred to as an example of the downfall of culture or something) is actually making us smarter. While I don't agree with everything he has to say, I think he makes a lot of good points. His chapter on video games is particularly interesting, because it's such a new medium, and because it's rare that someone acknowledges anything good about video games, aside from the occasional reference to improving hand-eye coordination. Johnson mentions several things (like probing and telescoping), but the really interesting thing about video games are the decisions we make while playing.
When you think about it, that's what video games are all about. They are constantly forcing you to make decisions, to choose one thing over another, to prioritize. Johnson writes:
All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding. No other pop cultureform directly engages the brain's decision-making apparatus in the same way. From the outside, the primary activity of a gamer looks like a fury of clicking and shooting, which is why so much of the conventional wisdom about games focuses on hand-eye coordination. But if you peer inside the gamer's mind, the primary activity turns out to be another creature altogether: making decisions, some of them snap judgements, some long-term strategies.Shamus wrote a perfect example of this last week. He wrote about his typical strategy when playing deathmatch-style games like Unreal Tournament. His strategy involves lots of decisions and the fast-paced action of the games requires him to make these decisions within mere seconds. He wrote out the process of his decision as a humorous exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Watson:
"You see Watson, the lift on the far side of the room is moving back down to its default position, yet the door at the top is closed. Note also the spread of burn marks on the floor: All in a straight line, evenly spaced. Finally, one cannot miss that there are two medkits in the corner."Obviously, he doesn't make decisions explicitely like this - most of this happens without really thinking about it. It has to, because you don't have time to think much in these types of games. I haven't played one of these types of games since Return to Castle Wolfenstein - the mp_beach level was great fun, and I think a lot of people had a sorta sixth sense about the typical strategies used to complete the level. Sure, there were lots of people who were just good at button-pressing and aiming, but there was a lot of strategy involved too. I actually haven't played Unreal Tournament since the UT99 game (as I'd heard that 2003 and 2004 editions weren't that great), but it sounds like UT 3 is going to be pretty good. I may have to check it out.
Posted by Mark on November 14, 2007 at 08:08 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Groping and Probing
So a few recent installments of Shamus' new comic, Chainmail Bikini, has created a bit of controversy. The comics in question are actually a series of 3 (the fact that there are 3 is a key part of the controversy, but we'll get to that in a moment). Here they are: The controversy stems from the fact that there is a malicious groping in comic #6. Perhaps due to an ill-advised punchline ("improved stamina"), the discussion turned from one of groping and larping and into one of rape. And we all know how funny discussions of rape can get.
To be honest, I didn't find this particular arc in the comics very funny. However, I didn't find it very offensive either (though I can see why some might think so). Also, while I didn't find it especially funny, I do think it makes an interesting statement about gaming in general.
I don't tend to read web-comics the same way I read blogs. I tend to let several installments build up, and then read them all. So I didn't read this particular story arc until I knew about the controversy, and I must admit to a little bit of observer bias. Knowing there was a controversy colored my reading of the comic, and two things immediately struck me.
First is that while there is an element of one guy antagonizing his buddy, there is also an element of probing. By probing, I'm referring to exploration of the limits of a game and its possibilities. Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good for You has a chapter on Video Games which covers this concept really well, and I recently wrote about it:
Probing is essentially exploration of the game and its possibilities. Much of this is simply the unconscious exploration of the controls and the interface, figuring out how the game works and how you're supposed to interact with it. However, probing also takes the more conscious form of figuring out the limitations of the game. For instance, in a racing game, it's usually interesting to see if you can turn your car around backwards, pick up a lot of speed, then crash head-on into a car going the "correct" way.Now again, in comic #6, one character is clearly attempting to antagonize his friend for choosing to role play a woman. However, I find it interesting that he chose to do so in such a way that is consistent with his character (who is a Chaotic Neutral barbarian) and followed the rules of the game (rolling die, etc...). According to the notes that accompany this arc, this sort of thing tends to happen when a campaign is not going well. If the players aren't having fun, they're going to make fun, and in if you're in a role playing game, they're going to do so by making their characters do something a little extreme. They don't do this because they are really extreme people, but because they want to see what happens. In short, they want to knock the game off it's boring rails. In this case, one player's character player groped another player's character. And from the aftermath in comics #7 and #8, you can see that things certainly got interesting. However, you also see that there were indeed consequences for the groping (one player physically assaults the other), and the comments that accompany each comic clearly attest that this is, in fact, a bad thing. To me, it's clear that the character in the comic is engaging in probing, but the comic also makes it clear that in a game that is as open-ended as D&D, it's possible to take things so far, which is why you saw a "real-world" reprisal (scare quotes due to the fact that this is a fictional comic, after all).
The second thing that struck me also had to do with the consequences. The situation immediately reminded me of this post from my friend Roy's feminist blog. He found this german poster which has a picture accompanied by this text:
Warning! Women defend themselves! If you leer at, catcall, or touch a woman, take into account that you might be loudly ridiculed, have a glass of beer poured over you, or be slapped in the face. Therefore, we strongly advise you to refrain from such harrassment!This is exactly what happend in comics #6 - #8. Well, not exactly. The comics actually take the consequences even further, while further abstracting the situation. Let me elaborate. The poster that Roy is pointing to is talking about real life situations. If you grope some woman at a bar, expect to be slapped in the face (or worse). What happened in the comics? An imaginary character who was role playing his own imaginary character groped another imaginary character that was being role played by yet another imaginary character. No one actually exists in this scenario, and yet there are indeed consequences for the groping. In fact, the consequences were the entire point of this character arc. So when I read comics #6-#8, I immediately saw them as a demonstration of Roy's poster. (Ironically, you could even read into this more, saying that the consequences have actually broken free of the imaginary world of Chainmail Bikini and taken root in the real world - in the form of a long comment thread and multiple blog postings like this one).
Now, if one were so inclined, I can see why this arc would be grating. Personally, it doesn't bother me, but I've never been groped (er, against my will) and I can certainly understand how that could be off-putting (I suppose an argument could be made that there are some other gender issues as well). And as an astute commenter at Shamus' site points out, a lot of why this comic doesn't work as humor is due to the structure of the story:
A lot of why this doesn't work well as humour, and why it's ended up annoying people, is to do with the structure of the comic. I think Shamus really struggled with fitting a potentially amusing gag into the three-panel format, and ultimately didn't manage it successfully.Shamus himself has noted that this explanation is not only accurate, but a good explanation as to why people are offended by what he essentially saw as a harmless joke. This makes sense to me. He wrote a strip that touched on a controversial subject in a humorous way, but then he was forced to cut it up and insert artificial punchlines, one of which implied more than he thought. From his point of view, the comic is basically the same as before, but just split up a little. All the sudden people start talking about rape and unsubscribing to the comic. I can see why he'd be a bit perplexed by even a reasonable objection to the comic.
I've never been a particularly great writer. When I was in high school, I always excelled at math and science, but never did especially well at english or writing. By college, I was much more comfortable with writing, and part of the reason for that was that I realized that writing isn't precise. Language is inherently vague and open to interpretation, and though there are some people who can wield language astoundingly well, most of us will open ourselves up to criticism simply by the act of experessing ourselves. One of my favorite quotes summarizes this well:
"To write or to speak is almost inevitably to lie a little. It is an attempt to clothe an intangible in a tangible form; to compress an immeasurable into a mold. And in the act of compression, how the Truth is mangled and torn!"Unfortunately, this simple miscommunication seems to have gotten lost in a thread of almost 200 comments. Some people have quit reading the comic altogether because of some perceived malice or ignorance on Shamus' part, others have taken to turning this into a divisive debate about rape. I don't want to start a holy war here, but when it comes to controversial stuff like this, I tend to give the creators the benefit of the doubt.
I think this whole controversy has brought up some interesting ideas, even if most have reduced it to a debate about rape. For instance, probing in games often takes the form of doing something extreme. My seemingly innocuous example above was turning your racecar around and driving the wrong direction to see what happens when you ram into another car. In real life, such an action would be catastrophic and could result in multiple deaths. Now, does doing something like that speak ill of me (the player)? How does wanton vehicular homicide compare to imaginary groping?
In my limited D&D gaming career, I played a Chaotic Evil thief who stole from his own party (i.e. one of my friends). Why did I do that? In real life, I'd never do such a thing. Why would I be interested in doing it in a role playing game? At a later point, I certainly suffered the consequences for my actions, and I think that's the rub. Playing games is all about setting up a paradigm, and sometimes half the fun is attempting to pull it down and find the holes in the paradigm, just to see what happens. I think that's a big part of why open-ended games like Grand Theft Auto are so popular. It's not the act of stealing a car or murdering a stranger that's fun, it's the act of attempting to derail the game. (Again, I touched on this in a post on game manuals.) In a recent discussion on what people like about Role Playing Games (also at Shamus' site), one of the most prominent answers was that good RPGs "...must give the player lots of freedom to make their own choices." One of the things I really hated about God of War (an otherwise awsome game) was that the character I was playing was a real prick. At one point, he goes out of his way to kill an innocent bystander (something about kicking him down into the hydra maybe? I don't remember specifically.) and that really annoyed me. What happened didn't bother me so much as the fact that I didn't have a choice in the matter. I don't really have an answer here, but I like games that give me a lot of freedom, because once I get bored by the forced or scripted aspects of the game, I can probe for weaknesses in the paradigm, and maybe even exploit them.
Update: I just noticed that Roy has tackled this subject on his blog. He seems quite disheartened by Shamus' post, though Roy wrote his post before the comment I quoted above was posted... My perception was that Shamus just couldn't understand why people were objecting... but once someone actually pointed out, in detail, why the humor doesn't work, he seemed to be more understanding (not only of why people were complaining, but of what people were suggesting by their complaints). But that's just me. I don't want to put words in Shamus' mouth, but as I already mentioned, I tend to give creators the benefit of the doubt.
Posted by Mark on October 03, 2007 at 07:55 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
Wii and Foosball
When playing the Wii, especially Wii Sports, one can't help but wonder how stupid we look playing this game. Here we are, standing in front of a TV, flailing about in an attempt to play some silly game. I'm sure people watching someone play on a Wii think it's really lame. It takes about five minutes of actually playing it to get past that, but getting someone to try that first five minutes might be a little difficult.
The other thing I've noticed is that Wii Sports is really only fun when you're playing with a bunch of other people. I can play the single player games for about a half hour before getting sick of it, but when other people are around, time simply flies. Hours later, you start to wonder why your arm is so sore. When you think about it, this isn't that unusual. Most games are social affairs and would be no fun by yourself. It wasn't until video games came along that single player games became so common. I think a big part of that had to do with the inherent limitations of video game hardware. A lot of early games had capabilities for multi-player, but the really fun multi-player experiences didn't happen until you got to the 1990s, and even then, it wasn't as big a portion of the industry as single-player games. Things have been getting steadily more social as time and hardware (and networking) has gotten better, and I think the Wii taps into something that a lot of the latest games and systems don't. Again, this isn't that unusual. Games are meant to be social, and in some cases the mechanics of the game are irrelevant when compared to the social value. For example, Steve Yegge explains one of the main pastimes at Google:
Anyway, until then, the main pastime, other than researching how the Romans managed to eat several meals at one sitting, is Foosball. This is a game I've been introduced to since I came to Kirkland. I've seen it before, and always thought it looked kind of lame, but that just shows you what I know. Foosball is a way of life around here. Which makes it... not lame, see?There's something similar going on with the Wii. When you're watching other people play, it seems kinda lame... but then you start playing with your friends and all of the sudden, it's 3 am and you feel like your arm is going to fall off. Wii becomes not lame because everyone has so much fun playing, even if they do look like idiots while doing so.
Now all they need is Wii Foosball and we'll be all set.
Posted by Mark on September 05, 2007 at 10:08 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Wii, guess what I get to do?
So I've been working a lot lately, which means no exercise. How to correct this? That's right, I bought a Nintendo Wii using the feeble excuse that it will at least provide some measure of activity other than sitting at a desk and typing. Plus, you know, it's fun. In any case, I'm not writing much tonight, so I'll just point to a few things, including the latest "hubristic" round of the Movie Screenshot Game, in which I posted 5 screenshots and requested that the winner has to get them all right. As it turns out, that was perhaps a little too hard, so I've posted some hints in the comments. If no one gets them tomorrow, I'll post even more obvious hints, and if no one still has it by Friday, I'll have stumped the internet. Or, uh, the 10 people who read my blog.
For those who are baffled by the title of this post, it's one of the little clips they often play on the Preston and Steve Show, a local morning talkshow that's freely available online as a podcast (the whole show is posted every day, with almost no commercials). When I can home tonight and saw the Wii waiting on my doorstep (I ordered online), that was the first thing that went through my head... then I realized I could make a Wiipun.
In other news, Author is also watching Nadesico and wants to "engage into a stegagography themed game" in which people who get rare discs mark them in some way and post them in a central location, so that other people who get the same disc will know, and can mark it again, etc... until they find out how many copies of a disc Netflix has in stock. Interesting idea, though I should admit that I never got disc 4. It said "Very Long Wait" and then one day, it said "Now" so I put it at the top of my queue, but a couple of days later, I checked again, and it was back to "Very Long Wait." Crap. I proceeded to remove it from my queue and downloaded the episodes, which I still haven't watched (this weekend, I promise!) I'm half tempted to put disc 4 back in the queue, just to play Author's game. Author, if it helps, I do have disc 6 here, if that counts for anything. My assumption is that they have less than 10 (maybe only a couple or even just one) of disc 4. Since they don't have any of disc 5, I wouldn't put it past them...
And finally, for anyone who listens to the excellent Filmspotting podcast, it looks like we've reached the end of an era. One of the hosts, Sam Van Hallgren announced on last week's show that he will be retiring from after just a few more shows. At first I was shocked, but then the more I thought about it, I realized I should have seen this coming. The show has had several guest hosts throughout it's 2.5 year run, and it always seemed to be Sam that was absent. Sam will certainly be missed, and I can totally understand his reasons. When he started Filmspotting (or Cinecast, as it was called back then), he was single and working a part time job. Since starting, he's gotten married, bought a house in Milwaukee, and gotten a full time job. Like some bloggers I read, I have no idea how these people manage to produce the quality and quantity of material that they do, and so it's hard to begrudge Sam leaving the show. Again, though, he will be missed. One of the great things about the show was that Adam and Sam have great chemistry and differing tastes. They've already found a replacement for Sam (one of their friends, nicknamed Matty Ballgame), and he's guest hosted before. I'm sure he'll do a good job, but the show will never be the same. Of course, that's what happens - life goes on. Hey, maybe we'll go back to the 2 shows per week format! Really, though, I have to credit Cinecast/Filmspotting for really galvanizing and inspiring my recent (by which I mean the last 2 years) movie craze. I've always loved movies, but listening to Cinecast/Filmspotting has really emphasised my appreciation, and despite Sam's departure, I'm sure it will continue to do so.
That's all for now. Back to the Wii for me.
Posted by Mark on August 29, 2007 at 10:21 PM .: link :.
Monday, August 27, 2007
2K Games = Quality!
So the net is raging about the new video game BioShock, which apparently features an ill-advised DRM scheme. Shamus has posted several updates on the subject, and of course I agree with him and most of the fans that the DRM scheme is absurd, unusable, and ultimately pointless (echoing my general thoughts on DRM), but my experience with 2K Games has nothing to do with DRM.
I have a weakness for sports video games, particularly Hockey games. In 2003, I bought a copy of EA Sports' NHL 2004, which I loved (despite some flaws). I played/simmed 20 seasons in Dynasty mode, and won 20 Stanley Cups (fun!) Unfortunately, I lost the game when I moved into my current house. I looked at the game review sites for the new 2005 hockey games and the then-upstart 2K Games was making some bold moves and getting great reviews. They had just signed a contract to brand their sports games with ESPN and to compete with the EA Sports Goliath, they were pricing their games for just $19.99 (versus EA's $49.99). The games were getting 90+ scores on all the standard sites (while EA was getting average to bad reviews), so I figured why not? Big mistake.
My favorite part of the newer hockey games is the Dynasty mode where you can play a sort of meta game where you take the role of general manager and control a team through many years, as opposed to just one season. It allows you to build your team up with young talent and watch them grow into superstars, etc... NHL 2K5 had a similar mode, called Franchise. The problem? I played 20 games in the first season of my franchise, and then the game simply wouldn't let me save my progress. It just crashed every time I tried, no matter what I did. Did I mention that this was a console game, incapable of being patched? On a side note, it would have been nice if the reviews for this game mentioned this sort of thing, but video game reviews have largely become useless. Of course my review, which takes the form of a comparison between NHL 2004 and NHL 2K5, prominently calls out the 2K game's bugs.
Anyway, it gets better. My friend Dave bought a copy of NHL 2K7 last year... and it still has the same bug! It's been 3 years, and they still haven't fixed the bug.
So I'm not surprised that the same company has embraced a useless DRM scheme (provided by Sony, no less - how on earth could anyone trust a Sony DRM product?) Don't worry, they'll probably get around to fixing the issue in 5 or 6 years (I wonder if they fixed the aforementioned crashing bug in NHL 2K8?).
Posted by Mark on August 27, 2007 at 11:17 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 05, 2007
Manuals, or the lack thereof...
When I first started playing video games and using computer applications, I remember having to read the instruction manuals to figure out what was happening on screen. I don't know if this was because I was young and couldn't figure this stuff out, or because some of the controls were obtuse and difficult. It was perhaps a combination of both, but I think the latter was more prevalent, especially when applications and games became more complex and powerful. I remember sitting down at a computer running DOS and loading up Wordperfect. The interface that appears is rather simplistic, and the developers apparently wanted to avoid the "clutter" of on-screen menus, so they used keyboard combinations. According to Wikipedia, Wordperfect used "almost every possible combination of function keys with Ctrl, Alt, and Shift modifiers." I vaguely remember needing to use those stupid keyboard templates (little pieces of laminated paper that fit snugly around the keyboard keys, helping you remember what key or combo does what.)
Video Games used to have great manuals too. I distinctly remember several great manuals from the Atari 2600 era. For example, the manual for Pitfall II was a wonderful document done in the style of Pitfall Harry's diary. The game itself had little in the way of exposition, so you had to read the manual to figure out that you were trying to rescue your niece Rhonda and her cat, Quickclaw, who became trapped in a catacomb while searching for the fabled Raj diamond. Another example for the Commodore 64 was Temple of Apshai. The game had awful graphics, but each room you entered had a number, and you had to consult your manual to get a description of the room.
By the time of the NES, the importance of manuals had waned from Apshai levels, but they were still somewhat necessary at times, and gaming companies still went to a lot of trouble to produce helpful documents. The one that stands out in my mind was the manual for Dragon Warrior III, which was huge (at least 50 pages) and also contained a nice fold-out chart of most of the monsters and wapons in the game (with really great artwork). PC games were also getting more complex, and as Roy noted recently, companies like Sierra put together really nice instruction manuals for complex games like the King's Quest series.
In the early 1990s, my family got its first Windows PC, and several things changed. With the Word for Windows software, you didn't need any of those silly keyboard templates. Everything you needed to do was in a menu somewhere, and you could just point and click instead of having to memorize strange keyboard combos. Naturally, computer purists love the keyboard, and with good reason. If you really want to be efficient, the keyboard is the way to go, which is why Linux users are so fond of the command line and simple looking but powerful applications like Emacs. But for your average user, the GUI was very important, and made things a lot easier to figure out. Word had a user manual, and it was several hundred pages long, but I don't think I ever cracked it open, except maybe in curiosity (not because I needed to).
The trends of improving interfaces and less useful manuals proceeded throughout the next decade and today, well, I can't think of the last time I had to consult a physical manual for anything. Steven Den Beste has been playing around with flash for a while, but he says he never looks at the manual. "Manuals are for wimps." In his post, Roy wonders where all the manuals have gone. He speculates that manufacturing costs are a primary culprit, and I have no doubt that they are, but there are probably a couple of other reasons as well. For one, interfaces have become much more intuitive and easy to use. This is in part due to familiarity with computers and the emergence of consistent standards for things like dialog boxes (of course, when you eschew those standards, you get what Jacob Nielson describes as a catastrophic failure). If you can easily figure it out through the interface, what use are the manuals? With respect to gaming, the in-game tutorials have largely taken the place of instruction manuals. Another thing that has perhaps affected official instruction manuals are the unofficial walkthroughs and game guides. Visit a local bookstore and you'll find entire bookcases devoted to vide game guides and walkthrough. As nice as the manual for Pitfall II was, you really didn't need much more than 10 pages to explain how to play that game, but several hundred pages barely does justice to some of the more complex video games in today's market. Perhaps the reason gaming companies don't give you instruction manuals with the game is not just that printing the manual is costly, but that they can sell you a more detailed and useful one.
Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good for You has a chapter on Video Games that is very illuminating (in fact, the whole book is highly recommended - even if you don't totally agree with his premise, he still makes a compelling argument). He talks about the official guides and why they're so popular:
The dirty little secret of gaming is how much time you spend not having fun. You may be frustrated; you may be confused or disoriented; you may be stuck. When you put the game down and move back into the real world, you may find yourself mentally working through the problem you've been wrestling with, as though you were worrying a loose tooth. If this is mindless escapism, it's a strangely masochistic version.He gives an example of a man who spends six months working as a smith (mindless work) in Ultima online so that he can attain a certain ability, and he also talks about how people spend tons of money on guides for getting past various roadblocks. Why would someone do this? Johnson spends a fair amount of time going into the neurological underpinnings of this, most notably what he calls the "reward circuitry of the brain." In games, rewards are everywhere. More life, more magic spells, new equipment, etc... And how do we get these rewards? Johnson thinks there are two main modes of intellectual labor that go into video gaming, and he calls them probing and telescoping.
Probing is essentially exploration of the game and its possibilities. Much of this is simply the unconscious exploration of the controls and the interface, figuring out how the game works and how you're supposed to interact with it. However, probing also takes the more conscious form of figuring out the limitations of the game. For instance, in a racing game, it's usually interesting to see if you can turn your car around backwards, pick up a lot of speed, then crash head-on into a car going the "correct" way. Or, in Rollercoaster Tycoon, you can creatively place balloon stands next to a roller coaster to see what happens (the result is hilarious). Probing the limits of game physics and finding ways to exploit them are half the fun (or challenge) of video games these days, which is perhaps another reason why manuals are becoming less frequent.
Telescoping has more to do with the games objectives. Once you've figured out how to play the game through probing, you seek to exploit your knowledge to achieve the game's objectives, which are often nested in a hierarchical fashion. For instance, to save the princess, you must first enter the castle, but you need a key to get into the castle and the key is guarded by a dragon, etc... Indeed, the structure is sometimes even more complicated, and you essentially build this hierarchy of goals in your head as the game progresses. This is called telescoping.
So why is this important? Johnson has the answer (page 41 in my edition):
... far more than books or movies or music, games force you to make decisions. Novels may activate our imagination, and music may conjure up powerful emotions, but games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize. All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long term goals, and then deciding. No other pop culture form directly engages the brain's decision-making apparatus in the same way. From the outside, the primary activity of a gamer looks like a fury of clicking and shooting, which is why much of the conventional wisdom about games focuses on hand-eye coordination. But if you peer inside the gamer's mind, the primary activity turns out to be another creature altogether: making decisions, some of them snap judgements, some long-term strategies.Probing and telescoping are essential to learning in any sense, and the way Johnson describes them in the book reminds me of a number of critical thinking methods. Probing, developing a hypothesis, reprobing, and then rethinking the hypothesis is essentially the same thing as the scientific method or the hermenutic circle. As such, it should be interesting to see if video games ever really catch on as learning tools. There have been a lot of attempts at this sort of thing, but they're often stifled by the reputation of video games being a "colossal waste of time" (in recent years, the benefits of gaming are being acknowledged more and more, though not usually as dramatically as Johnson does in his book).
Another interesting use for video games might be evaluation. A while ago, Bill Simmons made an offhand reference to EA Sports' Madden games in the context of hiring football coaches (this shows up at #29 on his list):
The Maurice Carthon fiasco raises the annual question, "When teams are hiring offensive and defensive coordinators, why wouldn't they have them call plays in video games to get a feel for their play calling?" Seriously, what would be more valuable, hearing them B.S. about the philosophies for an hour, or seeing them call plays in a simulated game at the all-Madden level? Same goes for head coaches: How could you get a feel for a coach until you've played poker and blackjack with him?When I think about how such a thing would actually go down, I'm not so sure, because the football world created by Madden, as complex and comprehensive as it is, still isn't exactly the same as the real football world. However, I think the concept is still sound. Theoretically, you could see how a prospective coach would actually react to a new, and yet similar, football paradigm and how they'd find weaknesses and exploit them. The actual plays they call aren't that important; what you'd be trying to figure out is whether or not the coach was making intelligent decisions or not.
So where are manuals headed? I suspect that they'll become less and less prevalent as time goes on and interfaces become more and more intuitive (though there is still a long ways to go before I'd say that computer interfaces are truly intuitive, I think they're much more intuitive now than they were ten years ago). We'll see more interactive demos and in-game tutorials, and perhaps even games used as teaching tools. I could probably write a whole separate post about how this applies to Linux, which actually does require you to look at manuals sometimes (though at least they have a relatively consistent way of treating manuals; even when the documentation is bad, you can usually find it). Manuals and passive teaching devices will become less important. And to be honest, I don't think we'll miss them. They're annoying.
Posted by Mark on August 05, 2007 at 10:58 AM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Link Dump: Flashy Edition
As per usual these days, time is short, so just some quick links to various flash oddities and games.
Posted by Mark on June 06, 2007 at 10:43 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Commodore 64 Links and Thoughts
Just finishing off the Commodore 64 retrospective with some links and thoughts...
Posted by Mark on May 23, 2007 at 06:16 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
C64 Games: Honorable Mention
Continuing the retrospective: There were a lot of games made for the Commodore 64/128, and to be honest, my experience with the C64 is probably less extensive than with other gaming systems. Nevertheless, there were several games I used to play quite often on the C64, which basically amounted to the interim system between the Atari 2600 and NES. Many games have not aged very well, but there is still some sentimental value to these, and some are still genuinely fun to play. The C64 was significantly more powerful than the Atari 2600, so the games were often much larger in scope and began to have more to accomplish than arbitrary point scores (though, honestly, many games were basically run-and-gun, compete for the high score type games)
Posted by Mark on May 20, 2007 at 09:18 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
THE ELITE UNIT has always captured the imagination of both soldier and civilian. Units such as the Rangers are the point men of the armed forces, the cutting edge, and they fascinate us to an extent out of proportion to their numbers. We envy them their sharp, distinctive appearance, their high status, their esprit de corps. and most of all their awesome skill in their chosen profession. They have an aura of competence that is at once reassuring and intimidating, as if they will admit no limits to what they can achieve. This unshakeable confidence would seem preposterous if it had not been borne out time and again by events on and off the battlefield. The really are as good as they think they are.My favorite game for the Commodore 64 was a 1987 military simulation called Airborne Ranger. I don't consider myself an expert in video games of the era, but I believe this is among the first military themed-games that valued stealth and tactical planning, paving the way for venerable successors like Operation Flashpoint, Metal Gear Solid, and Rainbow Six (and all the other Tom Clancy games). Quite frankly, I think I'd rather play more Airborne Ranger than Rainbow Six, which says something about this game. If it weren't for the poor emulator support and controls, I'd probably still play this game all the time.
The game consisted of several missions in which a lone Airborne Ranger, controlled by yourself, infiltrated enemy territory and carried out various tasks like stealing a code book, destroying a munitions depot, knocking out an enemy radar array, and freeing hostages (amongst other such tasks). As you complete tasks, your ranger is promoted, eventually attaining the rank of Colonel. As previously mentioned, some missions require stealth (in one, you have to steal an enemy uniform to infiltrate the target area) and almost all warrant careful planning. While each mission has required objectives, how you carry out your mission is left up to you. You're given a limited amount of ammunition (some of which can get lost during the air drop if you're not careful), so even when stealth is not required, you must choose your targets carefully. If you run out of ammo, your ranger is captured, but when that happens, other rangers in the roster have a new rescue mission available to them (and if you're successful, you can continue playing with your original character). This is a good thing, because once your character dies, he's dead and you can't use him anymore. Of course, you can run practice missions to make sure you've got the hang of a level, but the maps and objective locations are generated randomly each time you play the mission, so there's no guarantee (this also requires you to think quickly during a mission, as you won't know what you're up against until you actually start the mission).
After choosing a mission, you are briefed and then given control of an aircraft. As it flies over the enemy territory, you have a chance to drop 3 duffel bags filled with supplies (ammo, medical kits, etc...) You need to be careful where you drop these supplies though - if one of the bags hits a tree, barbed wire or other obstacle, those supplies are lost.
As you get towards the bottom of the map, the drop light comes on and you parachute to the surface. This is where the bulk of the game takes place. At this point, you need to carefully make your way up the map, gathering the supplies you dropped and avoiding enemy forces (or not, depending on the mission), until you reach your objective. Once your mission is complete, you need to high-tail it to the extraction point and hold off the enemy until your ride shows up...
The game is lots of fun, and it holds up reasonably well even today. Sure, the graphics and sound are horrible by today's standards, but the concept is well designed and executed. It's probably comparable to the NES games of the era in terms of graphics and sound, but the gameplay is great (incidentally, there are several other versions of the game for other platforms, including the higher-end Commodore Amiga, which had much better graphics). You play the game frome a pseudo-3D perspective that was somewhat rare at the time and commonplace today (it's similar to the Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto games). The only thing really holding it back is the controls. This game was far ahead of it's time and because it was limited by the simple joystick and a single button, it made use of lots of keyboard controls, which is far from ideal (this game would probably be a whole lot easier with today's PS2 style controllers - incidentally, the emulators for the C64 have some strange initial settings which make it difficult to play this game, but that's a topic for another post.) Still, I had a blast revisiting the game, and it's something I'd love to see remade with only minor enhancements...
Put simply, it's a great game. The number of weapons, freedom of movement, varying environments (there are dessert, arctic, and temperate levels), stealth action, variety of missions and randomly generated maps make this game a tough one to beat. Unquestionably my favorite game for the C64, and it would probably end up in my top 10 video games of all time as well.
More screenshots and comments below the fold... One of the key tactics you use in the game is to crawl around in trenches that conveniently dominate the landscape in all the levels (it's not that realistic of a game, you know, but still fun). This prevents you from being seen or shot at by fixed emplacements like the bunker shown below, but patrolling enemies often can see you and will pursue you.
The below series of screens shows my plane flying over the mission objective (in this case, an antenna array, shown in the map by those little blue doohickeys at the top of the map that... kinda look like antennas. One thing I should mention here is that these maps are exceptionally well done - all the objects on the map are clear and intuitive). To get there I have to cross a frozen river (the big white area), and deal with some bunkers and machine gun nests (not to mention all the stuff that's not visible further down on the map)
Bunkers are no match for LAW rockets
Crossing the frozen river is mildly dangerous, as some portions of the ice are unstable. In this screenshot, some of my less-than-bright enemies walked on thin ice and fell in...
Treading on thin ice...
I had used up all my LAW rockets by the time I got to my objective, so I had to make due with a time bomb.
As previously mentioned, you drop bags of supplies that need to be retrieved.
Get away from my supplies, weenie!
One of the more difficult missions involves cutting a pipeline. Part of the difficulty is that there are tanks patrolling the pipeline area, and they're, you know, deadly. Here, you see me getting ready to destroy the pipeline, just before the tank killed me.
Oh noes, a tank!
Here's something you don't see much in games... well... ever. When you start the game, one of the screens you have to pass through is this one, which gives credit to the game's creators:
Posted by Mark on May 16, 2007 at 08:18 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
A Video Game Retrospective: Part 2
About a year ago, I started a video game retrospective, beginning with my first video game console, the Atari 2600. My intention was to go through my favorite games for all the various platforms I've played on. In typical Kaedrin fashion, I wrote about 5 posts on the Atari 2600 then promptly forgot that the series was supposed to continue. I figure it's time to resume the retrospective, taking on my second major video gaming system: the Commodore 64 (and, after my brother and I destroyed that, the Commodore 128).
The C64's hardware was basically contained within the bulky keyboard (the C128 had a more standard keyboard size, but had a chunk extending back that contained the processing hardware) and you could just use a television as a monitor. Now, unlike the Atari 2600, the C64 is an actual computer - you could do more than just play games on this (I remember writing book reports with some rudimentary word processing software and printing it out with a fancy dot-matrix printer). Indeed, I got my first taste of computer programming using the C64's native BASIC language (not that I produced anything of worth, but it was a start). That said, it was primarily used for video games. Booting up the C64 gave you a command line with a distinctive blueish/purple monochromatic color scheme:
It's funny, but that color scheme was very memorable and seems to be a popular target of geeky nostalgia (for all you Opera users out there, there's a user mode style sheet called "Nostalgia" installed by default, so you can browse the web like you're on a C64). It used the same controllers as the Atari (directional stick and a single-button), but it had far better graphics and much more expansive gameplay. You'll see more of this when I go through the games later this week, but the games for the C64 progressed further than the simple, arbitrary goals of the Atari era. I just downloaded the open source VICE emulator and have been getting reaquanted with some of my favorite games. The emulation here leaves something to be desired (particularly with respect to games that require keyboard controls, as the C64 had a slightly different keyboard layout and VICE's documentation is... lacking...), but I'm making due... Again, my favorite games will be reviewed in separate posts, so stay tuned!
Update: Follow up posts:
Posted by Mark on May 13, 2007 at 10:31 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Various links for your enjoyment:
Posted by Mark on February 21, 2007 at 08:16 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 18, 2007
World Domination Via Dice
One of my favorite board games is Risk. I have lots of fond memories of getting annihilated by my family members (I don't think I've ever played the game without being the youngest person at the table) and have long since mastered the fundamentals. I also hold it responsible for my early knowledge of world geography and geopolitics (and thus my early thoughts were warped, but at least I knew where the Middle East was, even if the map is a little broad).
The key to Risk is Australia. The Greeks knew it; the Carthaginians knew it; now you know it. Australia only has four territories to conquer and more importantly, it only has one entrance point, and thus only one territory to defend. Conquering Australia early in the game guarantees an extra two armies a turn, which is huge at that point in the game. Later in the game, that advantage lessens, but after securing Australia, you should be off to a very good start. If you're not in a position to take over Australia, South America will do. It also only has four territories, but it has two entrances and thus two territories to defend. On the bright side, it's also adjacent to Africa and North America, which are good continents to expand to (though they're both considerably more difficult to hold than Australia). This being the internet, there are, of course, some people who have thought about the subject a lot more than I and developed many detailed strategies.
Like many of the classic games, the original has become dwarfed by variants - games set in another universe (LotR Risk) or in a futaristic setting (Risk: 2042) - but I've never played those. However, I recent ran across a little internet game called Dice Wars. It's got the general Risk-like gameplay and concept of world domination via dice, but there are many key differences:
Of course, I'd already played a bit to get to this point, and you can probably spot my strategy here. I started with a concentration of territories towards the middle of the map, and thus focused on consolidating my forces in that area. By the time I got to the screenshot above, I'd narrowed down my exposure to four territories. I began expanding a to the right, and eventually conquered all of the green territories, thus limiting my exposure to only two territories. From there it was just a matter of slowly expanding that wall of two (at one point I needed to expand back to an exposure of three) until I won. Another nice feature of this game is the "History" button that appears at the end. Click it, and you watch the game progress really quickly through every battle, showing you the entire war in a matter of seconds. Neat. It's a fun game, but in the end, I think I still prefer Risk. [hat tip to Hypercubed for the game]
Posted by Mark on February 18, 2007 at 08:33 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 16, 2006
God of War
For the past few weeks, I've been playing the PS2 game God of War. It's quite good, though I'm not sure it reaches the astronomical heights that most reviews seem to place it. It does a lot of things right, but there are some aspects of the game that are downright annoying. I'm more of a casual gamer, and to be honest, I'm not to familiar with action/adventure games like this (I've never even played any of the Tomb Raider games), so it's possible that I'm blowing some of this out of proportion.
Based on Greek Mythology, the game focuses on fighting and puzzle solving, with the occassional cutscene and annoying jumping/balancing exercise. It's a pretty brutal game, in terms of adult content and themes, so be warned. When I bought the game, the store clerk said "Ahh, good game, good game. Easy to learn, hard to master." Yeah, he's obviously a tool, but it actually makes sense. It's easy to get going, but to progress far in the game, you will need to master some of the more obscure elements of gameplay. Here are some thoughts on various aspects of the game:
After completing God of War, I've moved on to the latest Castlevania game, which is theoretically in the same action/adventure category as God of War. However, it's a distinct step down. It's not that it's a bad game (though I suppose I haven't played enough to really make up my mind), it's just that it immediately rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, you're not playing one of the Belmonts. A trivial point, to be sure, but the person I'm playing is a bit of a tool (and the story is correspondingly lame). The attacks and combinations are nowhere near as fun as GoW, and the level design seems to be much more monotonous. I have a feeling that it won't be long before I'm begging for one of those annoying "do it again, stupid" exercises in GoW. The other thing that was immediately and noticeably annoying was that every time you go into a different room, you have to endure a "Loading..." screen. This is one of those things that I loved about God of War, but I think I started to take for granted. Comparatively, this game stinks... so perhaps the high ratings weren't too high after all.
Sunday, July 02, 2006
More on Video Games & Art
Last week, guest poster Samael explored some interesting ground regarding the artistic merits of video games. Like Sam, I agree that it's quite possible to argue that some games (though perhaps not all) have some value as art, even if they are mass entertainment. This week, I ran across a couple of links which I think add to the discussion nicely:
Posted by Mark on July 02, 2006 at 07:46 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 25, 2006
Art for the computer age...
I was originally planning on doing a movie review while our gentle web-master is away, but a topic has come up too many times in the past few weeks for me not to write about it. First it came up in the tag map of Kaedrin, when I noticed that some people were writing pages just to create appealing tag-maps. Then it came up in Illinois and Louisiana. They've passed laws regulating the sale and distribution of "violent games" to minors. This, of course, has led to lawsuits and claims that the law violates free speech. After that, it was the guys at Penny Arcade. They posted links to We Feel Fine and Listening Post.. Those projects search the internet for blogs (maybe this one?) and pull text from them about feelings, and present those feelings to an audience in different ways. Very interesting. Finally, it came up when I opened up the July issue of Game Informer, and read Hideo Kojima's quote:
I believe that games are not art, and will never be art. Let me explain � games will only match their era, meaning what the people of that age want reflects the outcome of the game at that time. So, if you bring a game from 20 years ago out today, no one will say �wow.� There will be some essence where it�s fun, but there won�t be any wows or touching moments. Like a car, for example. If you bring a car from 20 years ago to the modern day, it will be appealing in a classic sense, but how much gasoline it uses, or the lack of air conditioning will simply not be appreciated in that era. So games will always be a kind of mass entertainment form rather than art. Of course, there will be artistic ways of representing games in that era, but it will still be entertainment. However, I believe that games can be a culture that represent their time. If it�s a light era, or a dark era, I always try to implement that era in my works. In the end, when we look back on the projects, we can say �Oh, it was that era.� So overall, when you look back, it becomes a culture.�Every time I reread that quote, I cringe. Here's a man who is one of the most significant forces in video games today, the creator of Metal Gear, and he's saying "No, they're not art, and never will be." I find his distinction between mass entertaintment and art troubling, and his comparison to a car flawed.
It's true that games will always be a reflection of their times- just like anything else is. The limitations of the time and the attitudes of the culture at the time are going to have an effect on everything coming out of that time. A car made in the 60s is going to show the style of the 60s, and is going to have the tech of the 60s. That makes sense. Of course, a painting made in the 1700s is going to show the limits and is going to reflect the feelings of that time, too. The paints, brushes, and canvas used then aren't necessarily going to be the same as the ones used now, especially with the popular use of computers in painting. The fact that something is a reflection of the times isn't going to stop people from appreciating the artistic worth of that thing. The fact that the Egyptians hadn't mastered perspective doesn't stop anyone from wanting to see their statues.
What does that really tell us, though? Nothing. A car from the 80s may not be appreciated as much as a new model car as a means of transport, but Kojima seems to be completely forgetting that there are many cars that are appreciated as special. Nobody buys a 60s era muscle car because they think it's a good car for driving around in- they buy it because they think it's special, because some people view older cars as collectable. Some people do see them as more than a mere means of transportation. People are very much "wowed" by old cars. Is there any reason why this can't be true of games?
I am 8 Bit seems to suggest that there are people who are still wowed by those games. Kojima may be partially correct, though. Maybe most of those early games won't hold up in the long run. That shouldn't be a surprise. They're the first generation of games. The 8-Bit era was the begining of the new wave of games, though. For the first time, creators could start to tell real stories, beyond simple high-score pursuit. Game makers were just getting their wings, and starting to see what games were really capable of. Maybe early games aren't art. Does that mean that games aren't art?
The problem mostly seems to be that we're asking the wrong questions. We shouldn't be asking "are video games art" any more than we'd ask "are movies art." It's a loaded question and you'll never come to any real answer, because the answer is going to depend completely on what movie you're looking at, and who you're asking. The same holds true with games. The question shouldn't be whether all games are art, but whether a particular game has some artistic merrit. How we decide what counts as art is constantly up for debate, but there are games that raise such significant moral or philosophical questions, or have such an amazing sense of style, or tell such an amazing story, that it seems hard to argue that they have no artistic merrit.
All of this really is leading somewhere. Computers have changed everything. I know that seems obvious, but I think it's taking some people- people like Kojima- a little longer to realize it. Computers have opened up a level of interactivity and access to information that we've never really had before. I can update Kaedrin from Michigan, and can send a message to a friend in Germany, all while buying videos from Japan and playing chess with a man in Alaska (not that I'm actually doing those things... but I could). These changes are going to be reflected in the art our culture produces. There's going to be backlash and criticism, and we're going to find that some people just don't "get it" or don't want to. We've gone through the same thing countless times before. Nobody thought movies would be seen as art when they came on the scene, and they were sure that the talkies wouldn't. When Andy Warhol came out, there were plenty of nay-sayers. Soup cans? As art? Computers have generally been accepted as a tool for making art, but I think we're still seeing the limits pushed. We've barely scratched the surface. The interaction between art, artist, and viewer is blurring, and I, for one, can't wait to see what happens.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
David Wong's article on the coming video game crash seems to have inspired Steven Den Beste, who agrees with Wong that there will be a gaming crash and also thinks that the same problems affect other forms of entertainment. The crux of the problem appears to be novelty. Part of the problem appears to be evolutionary as well. As humans, we are conditioned for certain things, and it seems that two of our insticts are conflicting.
The first instinct is the human tendency to rely on induction. Correlation does not imply causation, but most of the time, we act like it does. We develop a complex set of heuristics and guidelines that we have extrapolated from past experiences. We do so because circumstances require us to make all sorts of decisions without posessing the knowledge or understanding necessary to provide a correct answer. Induction allows us to to operate in situations which we do not uderstand. Psychologist B. F. Skinner famously explored and exploited this trait in his experiments. Den Beste notes this in his post:
What you do is to reward the animal (usually by giving it a small amount of food) for progressively behaving in ways which is closer to what you want. The reason Skinner studied it was because he (correctly) thought he was empirically studying the way that higher thought in animals worked. Basically, they're wired to believe that "correlation often implies causation". Which is true, by the way. So when an animal does something and gets a reward it likes (e.g. food) it will try it again, and maybe try it a little bit differently just to see if that might increase the chance or quantity of the reward.So we're hard wired to create these heuristics. This has many implications, from Cargo Cults to Superstition and Security Beliefs.
The second instinct is the human drive to seek novelty, also noted by Den Beste:
The problem is that humans are wired to seek novelty. I think it's a result of our dietary needs. Lions can eat zebra meat exclusively their entire lives without trouble; zebras can eat grass exclusively their entire lives. They don't need novelty, but we do. Primates require a quite varied diet in order to stay healthy, and if we eat the same thing meal after meal we'll get sick. Individuals who became restless and bored with such a diet, and who sought out other things to eat, were more likely to survive. And when you found something new, you were probably deficient in something that it provided nutritionally, so it made sense to like it for a while -- until boredom set in, and you again sought out something new.The drive for diversity affects more than just our diet. Genetic diversity has been shown to impart broader immunity to disease. Children from diverse parentage tend to develop a blend of each parent's defenses (this has other implications, particularly for the tendency for human beings to work together in groups). The biological benefits of diversity are not limited to humans either. Hybrid strains of many crops have been developed over the years because by selectively mixing the best crops to replant the next year, farmers were promoting the best qualities in the species. The simple act of crossing different strains resulted in higher yields and stronger plants.
The problem here is that evolution has made the biological need for diversity and novelty dependent on our inductive reasoning instincts. As such, what we find is that those we rely upon for new entertainment, like Hollywood or the video game industry, are constantly trying to find a simple formula for a big hit.
It's hard to come up with something completely new. It's scary to even make the attempt. If you get it wrong you can flush amazingly large amounts of money down the drain. It's a long-shot gamble. Every once in a while something new comes along, when someone takes that risk, and the audience gets interested...Indeed, the majority of big films made today appear to be remakes, sequels or adaptations. One interesting thing I've noticed is that something new and exciting often fails at the box office. Such films usually gain a following on video or television though. Sometimes this is difficult to believe. For instance, The Shawshank Redemption is a very popular film. In fact, it occupies the #2 spot (just behind The Godfather) on IMDB's top rated films. And yet, the film only made $28 million dollars (ranked 52 in 1994) in theaters. To be sure, that's not a modest chunk of change, but given the universal love for this film, you'd expect that number to be much higher. I think part of the reason this movie failed at the box office was that marketers are just as susceptible to these novelty problems as everyone else. I mean, how do you market a period prison drama that has an awkward title an no big stars? It doesn't sound like a movie that would be popular, even though everyone seems to love it.
Which brings up another point. Not only is it difficult to create novelty, it can also be difficult to find novelty. This is the crux of the problem: we require novelty, but we're programmed to seek out new things via correllation. There is no place to go for perfect recommendations and novelty for the sake of novelty isn't necessarily enjoyable. I can seek out some bizarre musical style and listen to it, but the simple fact that it is novel does not guarantee that it will be enjoyable. I can't rely upon how a film is marketed because that is often misleading or, at least, not really representative of the movie (or whatever). Once we do find something we like, our instinct is often to exhaust that author or director or artist's catalog. Usually, by the end of that process, the artist's work begins to seem a little stale, for obvious reasons.
Seeking out something that is both novel and enjoyable is more difficult than it sounds. It can even be a little scary. Many times, things we think will be new actually turn out to be retreads. Other times, something may actually be novel, but unenjoyable. This leads to another phenomenon that Den Beste mentions: the "Unwatched pile." Den Beste is talking about Anime, and at this point, he's begun to accumulate a bunch of anime DVDs which he's bought but never watched. I've had similar things happen with books and movies. In fact, I have several books on my shelf, just waiting to be read, but for some of them, I'm not sure I'm willing to put in the time and effort to read them. Why? Because, for whatever reason, I've begun to experience some set of diminishing returns when it comes to certain types of books. These are similar to other books I've read, and thus I probably won't enjoy these as much (even if they are good books).
The problem is that we know something novel is out there, it's just a matter of finding it. At this point, I've gotten sick of most of the mass consumption entertainment, and have moved on to more niche forms of entertainment. This is really a signal versus noise, traversal of the long tail problem. An analysis problem. What's more, with globalization and the internet, the world is getting smaller... access to new forms of entertainment are popping up (for example, here in the US, anime was around 20 years ago, but it was nowhere near as common as it is today). This is essentially a subset of a larger information aggregation and analysis problem that we're facing. We're adrift in a sea of information, and must find better ways to navigate.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Time is short this week, so just a few links I found interesting...
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Atari 2600 Links and Thoughts
Just finishing off the Atari 2600 retrospective with a few links and thoughts...
Sunday, May 28, 2006
Atari 2600 Games: Honorable Mention
There are, of course, many great games for the Atari 2600. Some (like Pitfall II) have aged better than others, but there is a certain sentimental value to be had in even the most mind-numbingly repetitive of these games. As I've mentioned before, most games have a completely arbitrary goal set for you, usually having to do with a score or time. This can get tiresome, but back in the day, they were still a whole lot of fun. In reality, it's actually pretty impressive, considering that most of these games were about 2k - 4k in size. Here are some of my other favorite Atari games:
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns
Perhaps I've gone too far. I'm in an underground cavern beneath Peru. It seems to be a complex maze, perhaps eight chambers wide and over three times as deep. Niece Rhonda has disappeared, along with Quickclaw, our cowardly cat. I am beset by all manner of subterranean creatures in this vast, ancient labrynth. And all because of a rock--the Raj diamond. It was stolen a century ago, and hidden here.Pitfall II: Lost Caverns. The original Pitfall! set the standard for Atari adventure games as it sent our intrepid hero, an Indiana Jones clone named Pitfall Harry, to a junge where he must avoid the likes of scorpions, crocodiles quicksand and tar pits (amongst other things). The goal of the first game was simply to collect 32 bars of gold in 20 minutes without dying 3 times, a typical Atari-era video game goal. The sequel improves upon nearly every aspect of the original game and far surpasses the competition.
To start, the game actually has a legitimate goal, not some arbitrary point score. Your goal is to collect the Raj diamond, rescue your niece Rhonda and also your cowardly cat Quickclaw (with an added bonus for collecting a rare rat and the usual gold bars). What's more, you are given an infinite amount of lives and time with which to accomplish these goals (there are scattered checkpoints and when you die, you are transported back to the last one you reached, deducting points as you go). You're given a few new abilities (like the ability to swim) and you face a new series of hazards, including poisonous frogs, bats, condors and electric eels.
From a technological standpoint, Pitfall II pushed the envelope both visually and musically. It was one of the largest games ever created for the 2600 (a whopping 10k), and it included features like smooth scrolling, an expansive map, relatively high-resolution graphics, varying scenery, detailed animations and a first-rate musical score that was detailed and varied (quite an accomplishment considering that most 2600 games did not feature music at all). Obviously, all of these things are trivial by current standards, but at the time, this was an astounding feat. Indeed, it was only made possible because of custom hardware built inside the game cartridge that enhanced the 2600's video and audio capabilities.
You start the game in the jungle. In a perverse maneuver, the game's designers made sure that you could see Quickclaw (one of your primary objectives) immediately beneath your starting point, but to actually reach him you must traverse the entire map!
So close, yet so far away...
Again, the sequel imbues Pitfall Harry with a few extra abilities, including the ability to swim. Naturally, this benefit does not come without danger, as shown by the electric eel swimming along side our hero (you can't see it in the screenshot, but the eel alternates between a white squiggly line and a black squiggly line, thus conveying it's electric nature). Also of note is the rather nice graphical element of the waterfall.
Swimming with an electric eel
As you explore the caverns, you run across various checkpoints marked with a cross. When you touch a cross, it becomes your new starting point whenever you die.
I think that green thing is supposed to be a poison frog.
At various points in the game you are faced with a huge, vertical open space. Sometimes you just have to jump. One of the great things about this game, though, is that there is a surprising amount of freedom of movement. You could, if you wanted, just take the ladder down to the bottom of the cavern instead of jumping (though at one point, if you want to get the Raj ring, you'll need to face the abyss). Plus, there are all sorts of gold bars hidden around the caves in places that you don't have to go. Obviously, there are a limited number of specific paths you can take - it's no GTA III - but given the constraints at the time, this was a neat aspect of the game.
Stepping into the abyss
Another innovation in Pitfall II is Harry's ability to grab onto a rising balloon and ride it to the top of the cavern (a necessary step at one point), dodging bats along the way. A pretty unique and exciting sequence for its time.
That's some powerful helium in that balloon
The valiant Pitfall Harry, about to rescue his neice Rhonda.
The designers' cruel sense of placement strikes again. I can see the Raj diamond, but how do you get there? Luckily, the game's freedom of movement allows you to backtrack if you want (and when you want).
Curse you, game designers!
The final portion of the map is still, to this day, challenging. Up until this point in the game, you've only had to dogde a bat here, a condor there. This section requires you to really get your timing and reflexes in order, as you must complete a long sequence of evasions before you get to the top. Nevertheless, success was imminent.
Victory is mine!
Naturally, the game does not hold water compared to the games of today in terms of technology or gameplay, but what is remarkable about this game is how close it got. And that it did so at a time when many of these concepts were unheard-of. Sure, there are still some elements taken from the "Do it again, stupid" school of game design, but given the constraints of the 6 year old hardware and the fact that nearly every other game ever released for the console was much worse in this respect, I think it's worth cutting the game some slack (plus, as Shamus notes in the referenced post, these sorts of things are still common today!)
Everything about this game, from the packaging and manual (which is actually an excellent document done in the style of Pitfall Harry's aformentioned diary) to the graphics and music to the innovative gameplay and freedom of movement, is exceptional. Without a doubt, my favorite game for the 2600. Stay tuned for the honorable mentions!
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
A Video Game Retrospective: Part 1
Samael's recent Mario Marathon of Madness put me in a nostalgic mood. I started thinking about my history of playing video games. These days I don't do much gaming (with occassional exceptions), but when I was younger, I certainly did. So I figure I'll write a series of posts about my favorite games for all the various platforms I've played on, starting with the glorious Atari 2600.
Technically, the 2600 was not my family's first gaming system. I do remember a strange console that had two paddles and could only play Pong. I'll have to see if I can dig that up. In any case, in looking at the history of the 2600, I don't think I really started playing until after the video game crash of 1983. I suspect this is partly because prices fell dramatically and thus made it that much easier to convince the parents to purchase them (plus, my brother is 4 years older than I, so he had already built up a collection of games).
In any case, you gotta love the 2600, with it's awkward single-button controllers, faux wood panelling console, and huge library of games (yeah, most were clones of popular games like Pac Man, but so what?). The default controllers were awful, but I remember when my brother managed to get his hands on a pair of Epyx 500XJ Joysticks. These unique controllers were more responsive, fit ergonomically and comfortably in the palm of your hand, and as a bonus, could also be used with the Commodore 64/128 (which will be the next system in my series).
The games will be covered in separate posts, but I will say that while they were fun at the time, I can see why people lost interest until the NES. Most games primarily involved manipulating various elements on the screen to get a higher score. Period. There really weren't any goals other than running the score up as high as possible (there were exceptions to this which will be covered in later posts). That said, I recently downloaded an emulator and started playing some of these games again, and it instilled a powerful sense of nostalgia. These games bring back a lot of memories! And there are so many of them. Again, my favorite games will be reviewed in separate posts, so stay tuned!
Update: Follow up posts:
Posted by Mark on May 24, 2006 at 07:03 PM .: link :.
Saturday, May 06, 2006
The Super Mario Mega Marathon of Madness
Perhaps loyal Kaedrin reader Samael has too much time on his hands:
Because I have too much free time on the weekends, and because I loves me some Mario, I'm going to have a little marathon session this weekend.
He started about 7 hours ago (he's posting updates in my forum as he goes), and appears to still be going strong. Some highlights:
1 pm: The slot machine thing- to get free guys- is really hard to win.Again, he's still going. Read all about it in the forum.
Update: Anyone ever heard Mr. Bungle's version of the Super Mario theme? Supposedly, they also do a good Tetris theme as well. I wish they'd release another album...
Update 6 pm: "I've crushed Bowser's Army, his Navy, and his Air Force. What's next King of the Koopas?
"I'm coming for you Bowser. I'm coming for you like Rambo."
Sunday, March 12, 2006
GalCiv II: Kaedrinian Victory
This is a continuation of a Galactic Civilizations II game example I started a few weeks ago. In the Rise of the Kaedrinians, I recounted the birth of the Kaedrinian empire as well as its first major conflict with the adorable but deadly Snathi. With the conquest of the high quality Snathi homeworld, my empire was doing reasonably well and had secured reasonable long term prospects for success.
However, it would not be long before the Kaedrinian empire had another challenger. The Kaedrinians had neutral or close relationships with almost every other civilization. However, The Drengin Empire, perhaps jealous over our conquest of Snathi, were not too happy with the Kaedrinians. They had not declared war just yet, but I could see the writing on the wall... And to make matters worse, the Drengins discovered some precursor machines on the Drengin Homeworld that doubled their planetary quality. This would be problematic. Their military abilities were further developed and this added capacity (once fully utilized) would give them a higher industrial base (one that I probably could not match).
At war with the Drengin Empire
It did not take long for tensions to escalate into full-scale war. The Drengin ships seem to exclusively use missile-type weapons, which meant that my current generation battleship, the Space Lion, would be outmatched (it only featured a small shielding mechanism not meant to defend against missiles). Thus work began on a new prototype:
The Hunter Class Battle Cruiser
Offensively, this isn't much different than the Space Lion, but it has a drastically improved defensive system which should be able to stop anything the Drengins throw at me. Indeed, the Hunter class ships live up to their name, annihilating the entire Drengin fleet in two weeks of battle, taking only negligible damage. A few weeks later, and the ground invasions begin, making quick work of the Drengin empire. Two new planets are mine, including the Drengin homeworld, which rates a 20 in planet quality (this is the highest in the known galaxy, significantly higher than even the Snathi homeworld).
A fleet of Hunter class starships in orbit around the newly acquired Drengi
At this point, I control a significant portion of the galaxy, and my influence is on the rise. It looks like I could pull off an influence-based victory if I start building and upgrading starbases in key positions. As I make preparations, two events occur that would force another change in strategy. First, it appears that the United Planets (like the UN, but with galactic civilizations instead of countries) had built a prison facility on an Altarian planet. This gave the Altarians a boost in production capabilities, as they could use the prisoners as a cheap source of labor. However, as you might expect from a United Planets type organization, the plan has backfired and the prisoners have escaped, hijacking several ships. I'll need to keep an eye out for these new pirates, who are sure to be intercepting trade routes and generally causing mischief.
The prisoners have escaped!
On its own, this would not prompt much in the way of action from me, but a few weeks later, another unexpected event rocks the galaxy:
The Altarians declare war on the Kaedrinians!
The assassination of their leader has set off another war, one which I'm not especially prepared for. Unlike the Drengin, the Altarians have spread their research into a diverse set of weaponry. They have ships utilzing beam weapons, missiles, and mass drivers. What's more, they've also developed certain defenses and fortified their territory with military starbases, giving their ships a significant boost in capabilities. This war was going to get ugly. The Hunter class battle cruisers that had served me so well in the Drengin campaigns would crumble under the diverse weaponry of the Altarians. It was time to develop the next generation warship:
The Wildcat Class Battle Cruiser
Again, this ship's weaponry has not changed much (it's smaller, but of the same power and type), but it will still pack a solid punch against the Altarian ships. What's important about the Wildcat is that it can defend against any weapons thrown at it. It doesn't handle any attacks as well as the Hunter handled missiles, but it still has quality defenses. Also, since I had spent some time early on in the game developing a large economic base, I was able to purchase several Wildcats at once and deploy them against the Altarians. However, during the design and construction of the Wildcat fleet, several hunter class ships had fallen against the Altarian onslaught. The Altarians even attempted a ground invasion of Drengi, which, thankfully, was repelled decisively. Once the Wildcat arrived on the scene, things turned around in fairly short order. The Wildcats were first used to take out the Altarians' military starbases, thus removing their most important advantage. After that, things went much better:
Kaedrinian Task Force Alpha takes on some Altarians
Without their starbase bonuses, the Altarian ships are no match for the Wildcat. In their first engagement with Altarian forces, the Wildcat performed superbly, destroying two Altarian capital ships while taking only minimal losses.
After decimating the rest of their fleet with my Wildcats, the Altarians begin to have second thoughts...
Altarians offer peace...
My planetary invasion fleet was already on its way, so my answer here was pretty much irrelevant. However, my fleet was intercepted by pirates (remember those escaped prisoners?) and destroyed! It turns out that the pirate ships have very heavy missile defenses, which means my missile weaponry was ineffective. Therefore, even though I had a Wildcat escort, the entire fleet was destroyed (the Wildcats have diverse defenses, but not as extensive as the pirates' so the battle took quite a while, but eventually the Wildcat succumbed to the relentless pirates), including my invasion force of two billion troops! Ouch! And what's this? It seems that the Yor Collective have seized on the Altarians' temporary weakness and sent an invasion fleet of their own. Crap! The Yor have stolen two Altarian planets. The Altarians, sensing the writing on the wall, surrender their remaining planets to the Torians. Damn, all that work and I didn't even gain a single planet!
On the other hand, my civilization was finally at peace with all of the remaining civilizations, and my influence had spread far. Checking my stats, I saw that I was quite close to an influence victory. All I needed to do was build a few new influence starbases and enhance them with some cultural improvements. In relatively short order, the soft power of Kaedrinian culture had infected the rest of the galaxy, flooding the markets with Kaedrinian products like the ikorx:
Say hello to ikorx
Victory! The Kaedrinians have conquered the galaxy not with weapons, but with ideas. All praise tallman!
A very satisfying game! For those interested, loyal Kaedrin readers who've been persuaded to purchase the game (I wonder why?) have posted their experiences on the Kaedrin forum. Read all about the Samaelian empire (with their leader, Skeletor). Also, the game seems to be doing incredibly well:
The second manufacturing run of Galactic Civilizations II has sold out. We've now shipped more units of GalCiv II in the first 10 days than the total retail sales of the first GalCiv in its entire history.If my experiences so far are any indication, GalCiv II deserves every last penny.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
GalCiv II: Rise of the Kaedrinians!
Galactic Civilizations II continues to occupy the majority of my free time, and I wanted to try showing a game example (similar to this one by one of the game's creators, though my example won't be as thorough). I'll be showing how I was able to secure good long term prospects at the beginning of my second game.
I played my first game as the Terran Alliance (humans), and one of the most enjoyable things I've noticed about the game is the ability to customize various aspects, such as planet names and ship designs. So this time, I decided to create a new race, the Kaedrinians (long time readers should get a kick out of that), and installed tallman as their emperor.
Update: Moved screenshots and commentary to the extended entry. Click below to see full entry...
(Click images for a larger version, usually with more information)
Welcome to planet Kaedrin!
I set up the galaxy so it was relatively small and had relatively few habitable planets. This may turn out to be my undoing. My typical strategy in these types of games is to expand quickly and get a foothold in several starsystems to start. The Kaedrin system was blessed to have two habitable planets, Kaedrin (which is my homeworld) and Vizzard II, a very low quality planet. After a cursory examination of the surrounding starsystems, I had not found any other habitable planets. As I expanded my search, I saw that most of my opponents were luckier in terms of colonization. Nevertheless, I was able to secure one planet that was relatively far away from my homeworld. However, that planet was also of a relatively low quality. Low quality planets don't support nearly as many enhancements or production capacity. These would serve me well at the beginning of the game, but would become less and less important as time went on.
Despite their cuteness factor, I could not let such nefarious beings continue to exist. Plus, their planet was of an obscenely high quality. It was a real gem. The highest quality planet I'd seen in the galaxy, and thus ideally suited for my purposes of galactic expansion. The Snathi appeared to be farther along in cultivating their planet than I, and were churning out constructors and freighters at a relatively high rate. Lucky for me, neither of those ship classes had any military capacity (no weapons or shields). However, this fortuitous state would not hold forever. I had to act fast if I was to take the planet (I also had to worry about one of the other major civilizations making a run for this ripe planet. Luckily, because they only had one planet, I didn't have to worry about the annoying surrender factor.)
In order to invade, I would need to research a few technologies and build an invasion fleet. The fleet would include a troop transport and a combat escort. The transport ship is one of the core ships and once I had researched the planetary invasion technology, building that ship would be simple. The combat escort, however, presented me with an opportunity to utilize my favorite feature of GalCiv II, the customized ship builder. After researching a number of technologies, I was finally ready to design my first warship, the Space Lion:
The Space Lion Class Battle Cruiser
Armed with Stinger II missiles and basic Shields, the Space Lion wasn't unstoppable, but she packed an impressive punch despite being constructed so early in the game. After constructing my fleet and making the long journey to the Snathi homeworld, I was ready to invade. There was just one problem. My technology is still relatively unsophisticated, so I could only transport around 1 billion troops for the invasion. And the Snathi homeworld had a population of 16 billion people! I was drastically outnumbered, so I decided to pay a little extra and use one of the specialized invasion tactics. Many of the invasion tactics result in a large advantage for the invader, but also lower planetary quality and improvements, which is antithetical to my purpose for the invasion. Thus I decided to go for Information warfare. This would cause a significant portion of the enemy troops to join my ranks, thus mitigating their numerical superiority (though I would still be outnumbered), but more importantly, it would leave the planet quality and improvements unharmed. The invasion begins:
The Snathi Invasion
Victory! The Information Warfare tactic paid off in spades, giving me an extra 2.5 billion troops. I was still outnumbered, but my advantage factor was so much higher that it did not matter. I was able dispatch the adorable but monstrous Snathi with relative ease. The planet was mine!
My New Planet
And what a planet it was. Look at all those manufacturing and technology centers. In terms of industry and research, it was significantly better than my own homeworld of Kaedrin, and I suspect it will quickly become the jewel of the Kaedrinian empire, researching, building and producing more than any other planet. Will I succeed in galactic conquest? Nothing is definite, but now that I have secured this planet, I am primed and ready to go. I'll end my account here, as time does not permit recapping the entire game, but I though this was a natural place to stop.
Update: Read more on this campaign: The continuing adventures of the Kaedrinians
Sunday, February 26, 2006
Initial Impressions of GalCiv II
As I predicted in last week's post, I've gone ahead and downloaded Galactic Civilizations II. Installation process went smoothly and easily (relatively high download speeds as well), but while I enjoy the game as a whole, I found a few things baffling. Here are my initial thoughts:
Update: Ok, so I must have accidentally surrendered (instead of offering a peace treaty) from the diplomatic dialogue. That's the only thing I can think of that would have caused the defeat. I just went back to my saved game and was able to mop up the rest of the Drengin empire without a problem (except that once I really had their backs to the wall, the surrendered their one remaining planet to another alien race, dammit!) So the problem I encountered seems like a fluke, which is great news!
Update II: After I figured out what happened, I went back and played more and the game is truly excellent. My only complaint is that the ship design interface is a little difficult to use at times... but the good far outweighs the bad when it comes to that feature, as it is one of the coolest aspects of the game, allowing you to interject your own personality on the game...
Update III: I've written up a game example...
Sunday, February 19, 2006
Galactic Civilizations II is coming...
Brad Wardell has been posting a lot of interesting stuff over on his blog. Wardell is the founder/owner of Stardock, a company that is known more for it's windows customization programs like WindowBlinds than for it's video games, but each of their games I've played is excellent. They're currently gearing up for the release of Galactic Civilizations II, a sequel to their excellent turn-based strategy game in which you vie for galactic influence with a number of alien races. All throughout the development of the game, Wardell has been posting progress reports and generally shedding some light on the process.
I was a fan of the first GalCiv game. Since I started my posting schedule of at least once a week, I've only missed a Sunday post a few times, mostly because I was travelling. However, there was one week in which I was so engrossed in a galactic war that I actually skipped posting that week. And it looks like the new game will fix some of the things that bothered me about the first game, namely the ability to control social and military production at a planetary level (as opposed to the first game where this was done at the civilization level). There also appears to be much more customization involved (you can design your own ships, etc...)
Wardell was in charge of the AI for the game, so much of his commentary focuses on that aspect of things, but it's still quite interesting. Here are a few posts to check out:
The game comes out on Tuesday of this week, and I'll most likely purchase it at some point. One other feature that's nice is that he's made the system requirements deliberately low, so I don't have to upgrade my computer just to play the game (though it probably won't look as nice). Who knows, maybe I'll miss next week's post due to another galactic war...
Sunday, August 14, 2005
Do you believe in miracles?
Yes! Starz was showing Miracle for the bazillionth time today (not that I mind - the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team's victory over the seemingly invincible Soviets is great stuff, and Disney's film nails it), and it occurred to me that this sort of concept would make a fantastic video game.
Long time readers know that I'm a big fan of Hockey video games (despite the fact that most readers aren't, heh), and I think this idea has legs (or would have, if launched around the same time as the movie). Back in the halcyon days of NHL 94 for the Sega Genesis, all you needed for a good hockey game was some good gameplay, decent graphics, and reasonable statistics. As time has gone on, hockey games have improved along all axis, until the main area of innovation at this point are minutiae like player-specific dekes, and (more importantly) franchise or dynasty modes where you play a general manager and shepherd a team through 20 or so seasons, dealing with contracts, ticket and concession prices, drafting and developing rookies &c. This meta-game has become my favorite part of the experience, and this is where the Miracle video game would excel because it is essentially a story.
As a player, you'd be tasked with defeating the Soviet national team and you'd be given 4 years to do so. Those 4 years could be filled with any number of sub-plot like tasks. Perhaps you have to play a season in a college league, scouting out the players you want for your team U.S.A. The process of scouting players could be done through a tryout camp where players compete in scrimmages but also in the typical hockey drills (speed skating, hardest shot, accuracy, &c.) Take as long as you want to scout (and perhaps allow players to sim the scouting competitions) and cut players until you have your Olympic team. Once you build your team, you'll be able to scrimmage teams from all over the world. And so on. There's a lot of potential there for varied and interesting play, along with a significant portion of administrative tasks. All along, you'd get updates on how the Soviets are crushing their opponents. (Except, of course, for that fateful day on January 11, 1976 when the Flyers beat the crap out of the Soviets (and played some hockey too).) Getting into the social-political mood of the times might be a little much for a video game like this, but it could also lend some gravity to the proceedings.
The mechanics of gameplay are well established, and a developer like EA would simply need to leverage their already developed gameplay code (perhaps with minor alterations). Also, since we're talking about amateur players, licensing fees would be minimal. There would probably be a fair amount of visual design work needed to simulate the vintage uniforms and equipment (however, vintage uniforms are a common feature in newer video games, so that's perhaps not a big deal). The biggest challenge would be setting up the administrative challenges and making sure they're not tedious (and if they are, allowing a way to bypass certain features if you want). If done right, you could end up with a series of very fun and playable sub-games along with the traditional gameplay.
Indeed, you could extend the game to continue on past the 1980 Olympics or even apply the model to other scenarios. In the original version of SimCity, you could start a city from scratch, or you could start with an existing city that had been beset by some disaster (my favorite being the Monster Attack on Tokyo) and rebuilding it. I'm sure there are all sorts of spin-offs that could result from this sort of game. Alas, despite what looks like a compelling concept and low production cost, it was not to be. Yet!
Sunday, November 14, 2004
Hockey Video Games
With the NHL lockout upon us, I have been looking for some way to make up for this lack of hockey viewing. I've always been a big fan of hockey video games, so I figured that might do the trick. Over the past year, I've bought 2 hockey games: EA Sports NHL 2004, and ESPN NHL 2K5. I was very happy with EA's 2004 effort, but there were some annoyances and I appear to have misplaced it during the move, so I figured I'd get a 2005 game.
EA Sports is pretty much dominant when it comes to just about any sports game out there, and hockey is no exception. Ever since the halcyon days of NHL 1994 for the Genesis, EA has dominated the hockey space. So last year, in an effort to compete with EA, Sega announced that it's own hockey title was going to be branded with ESPN. Not only that, but they dropped their prices to around $20 (as compared to the standard $50 that EA charges) in the hope that the low price would lure gamers away from EA. So in looking at the reviews for EA's and ESPN's 2005 efforts, it appeared that ESPN had picked up significant ground on EA. With those reviews and that price, I figured I might as well check it out, so I took a chance and went with ESPN. To be honest, I'm not impressed. Below is a comparison between ESPN's 2005 effort and EA's 2004 game.
To give you an idea where I'm coming from, my favorite mode is franchise, so a lot of my observations will be coming from that perspective. Some things that annoy me might not annoy the casual gamer who just wants to play a game with their buddies every now and again. I'm playing on a Playstation 2, and I'm a usability nerd, so stuff that wouldn't bother other people might bother me. I'd also like to mention that I am far from a hardcore gamer, so my perceptions might be different than others.
Before I finish, I just want to stress that I'm talking about EA NHL 2004, not 2005. I've heard that the newer edition has generated a lot of complaints, but I have not played it so I can't say. Again, I'm no expert, but I'm not very impressed with ESPN's entry into the hockey gaming space. Perhaps in a year or two, with improvements to the UI and bug fixes, that will change.
Posted by Mark on November 14, 2004 at 08:01 PM .: link :.
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