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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:
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.
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 (!?):
"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.

"It says blah blah our game got pirated stuff like that. Is there some way to avoid that? I mean can I research a DRM or something?"

Said another user: "Why are there so many people that pirate? It ruins me! Not fair."
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 .: Comments (2) | link :.


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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?
  • BioShock - Note, I'm not talking about BioShock Infinite. That would be timely, and we don't do things like that here at Kaedrin. I actually picked up the BioShock 1 and 2 collection a little while ago and have slowly been making my way through it. Great atmosphere, some harrowing choices, and a combat system that's not all that fun. It's a first person shooter, but something about it just strikes the wrong chord with me. Part of it is the way enemies move, and another part is that ammo is scarce (there seems to be some sort of scaling system that allows you to find more stuff when you're running low, which is nice I guess, but also just annoying). I suppose expectations play a role here too, as this is a game that gets praised to high heaven by everyone, and it's been around for so long that at this point I'm bound to be disappointed. That's the drawback of the Kaedrin system, I guess. Still, I'm interested enough that I will most likely finish.
  • Soul Calibur V - I've never been that into fighting games, so I figured I'd give one a shot a while ago. Let's just say that I'm not very good at this game and that I'm not really willing to put in the practice time to figure it all out. I'd rather just create dumb custom characters, and even that gets dull pretty quickly. So this is perhaps not the game's fault, but I'm not doing so well with this one.
  • FTL: Faster Than Light - Now this is a little more my speed. It's a pretty straightforward looking strategy game that nevertheless has a deceptively deep gameplay. The game basically amounts to micromanaging a spaceship as you try to guide it across several sectors, all whilst being pursued by an enemy fleet. Simple setup, and basic gameplay, but it's fun, and it's something that's pretty easy to pickup and play, no huge investment of time needed. A single game can last an hour or so, but it has a high replay value. I'm no expert or anything, but I'm enjoying it and will continue to play.
  • Hitman: Absolution - The only game in this post that I haven't started yet. Hitman: Blood Money was a game that really grew on me. I still think it's absurd to win the games exactly how you're supposed to without consulting outside guides or anything like that, but the value is that it's fun to come up with alternate strategies or just go completely rogue and kill everyone. Anyway, this is the first entry in the series since Blood Money, so I figure I should try it out.
And that's that. Not an entirely successful reentry into the world of gaming, but it's something.
Posted by Mark on April 10, 2013 at 08:11 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Clang
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:
There's actually a bunch of other interesting videos explaining some of the detailed thought behind why they want to make this game. I particularly enjoyed the one talking about how comprehensive our selection of guns are in games and how people argue over the minutia of gun combat, but sword based games have a depressing lack of options.

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 :.


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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.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.
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 .: Comments (0) | link :.


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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:

Television
  • Fringe - I posted about the first couple seasons a while ago, but I've recently caught up with Season 3 and most of Season 4. To my mind, the show really came into its own in Season 3. What started out as unfocused and aimless has very slowly evolved into a tight, well-plotted series in season 3. I'm not sure I'd call it great, but Season 3 was a lot of fun. There are some ridiculous things about the series as a whole, and that's still there, but it all seemed to be worked out in the third season. Season 4, on the other hand, seems to have taken a few steps backward. It's actually very disorienting. Everything from the first three seasons is now unclear and less important. This was probably their intention, but I'm not entirely sure I like it. I mean, we've spent three seasons getting to know these characters, and now we're in yet another alternate universe with the same characters, but they're all slightly different. I'm not ready to give up on the show or anything, but it seems like the show is back on its unfocused track...
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Terriers - This is an interesting series. It was cancelled after the first season... and while I can see why (the film is almost incessantly anti-mainstream, often finishing off episodes on a down note), I did still enjoy watching the series.
Movies
  • The Secret World of Arrietty - Solid Studio Ghibli film. Not perfect, but well worth a watch and very different than typical American animated fare. Here's my question - what's with the title? It's so weird and unapproachable, whereas the source material, a book called The Borrowers, seems much more appropriate and marketable. This just makes no sense to me. (I suppose one could also quibble about the term "borrowers" since that implies that the goods will be returned, which doesn't happen either. There's actually an interesting discussion to be had here about what constitutes theft/stealing in the world set up in this book/movie.)
  • Act of Valor - A very... strange movie. I don't quite know what to make of this. It stars actual, active-duty Navy SEALs and... they are clearly not actors. Any scenes with dialogue are a little on the painful side, and it doesn't help that they keep talking about their families and how they can't wait to get back to their family and isn't being a father great? I'd give a spoiler warning for what happens here, but it's pretty damn obvious from, oh, the first 5 minutes in the movie what's going to happen at the end. All that being said, the action sequences are very well done and seemingly authentic, though there are a number of scenes shot to resemble a FPS video game. For the first time ever, I think it actually works in this movie, though it's still a little strange to see movies and video games blending together like that.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Gambit - Classic heist film starring a very young Michael Caine as a burglar who hires Shirley MacLaine to help rob one of the richest men in the world. Caine's got a great plan, but of course, things rarely go as planned. Or does it? Tons of twists and turns in this one; very entertaining and satisfying. Highly recommended. (Update: Well, shit, Netflix apparently took it off Instant Streaming... and they don't even have a DVD for the thing. It is on Amazon Instant though...)
Video Games
  • Shadow of the Colossus - I finished Ico a while ago and I loved it. I've since moved on to the other Team Ico game, Shadow of the Colossus. I've actually played this before, but I never finished it. The HD remix that's available on the PS3 now is actually quite nice, though the game still seems a bit stunted to me. Don't get me wrong, it's got great production design and an interesting structure (basically 16 boss fights and that's it), but some of the puzzles (i.e. how to defeat each Colossus) are a bit too obtuse, and once you figure them out, it can still be a huge pain to actually defeat your opponent. It just seems like sometimes the game is giving you busy-work just for the sake of doing so... That being said, I'm determined to actually finish the game off, and I am kinda looking forward to the next Team Ico game, which should be coming out sometime this year.
  • Upcoming Video Gamery: Mass Effect 3 came in the mail this week, and I'm greatly looking forward to it. It took me a while to get into part 2, but once I got there, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I'm a little intrigued by the fact that my character/team from the second game can be transferred to this third game. Not sure how dynamic that makes things, but I guess we'll find out.
  • Other Video Gamery: I've played a little Soul Calibur V, and fighting games remain inscrutable for me. I can get some of the basics down, but once I get into the more advanced maneuvers/enemies, I fall apart pretty quickly, and the game doesn't seem to do a very good job teaching you the more advanced aspects of combat. At this point, I have more fun creating custom characters than actually fighting. I also got a copy of Resistance 3, which is just another FPS with aliens and guns and big explosions and stuff. What can I say, I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.
Books
  • Of the eleven books posted in my last Book Queue, I've read 5. I've only got two books left in Lois McMaster Bujold's excellent Vorkosigan Saga, and I've posted about some of the other books I've read.
  • I'm currently finishing off Shamus Young's Witch Watch, and I'm enjoying it quite a bit.
  • I may end up finishing off the Vorkosigan books next, but I'm also quite looking forward to famous security wonk Bruce Schneier's latest book, Liars & Outliers. It promises to be informative and level-headed look at "trust" from a security professional's standpoint.
The Finer Things
  • I've had lots of great beer recently, but I'll just link over to my beer blog rather than repeat myself here. I've been updating that blog much more often than I ever thought I would, and it's been a lot of fun. Check it out!
  • I think I'll be posting on Sunday about my next Homebrew. I had originally planned to make it an "Earl Grey" beer, but it turns out that food-grade Bergamot oil is somewhat hard to come by (most of what you can find is made for external use). I may still end up getting some flavor from a few teabags of Earl Grey, but it will probably be less prominent than originally planned. Again, more details to come.
And that's all for now...
Posted by Mark on March 07, 2012 at 08:03 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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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:
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum - It's an unwritten (ok, well, probably written many times) rule in the video game world that games based on existing properties from other mediums generally suck. Like, hardcore suck. Like, worst games ever suck. This happens for a variety of reasons. Usually the games are only made because the suits know they're guaranteed to sell a bunch of games to people who love the existing property. Or, more likely, friends and family of the fan. They know the fan likes video games, and they know he/she likes the property, so they naturally figure that game would interest the person. As such, the budgets are usually low on these games. And they're often released as a tie-in with some big happening in the existing property's universe (i.e. the movie release, the start of season 5, etc...), so production schedules are very constrained. All of this usually yields a game that is poorly conceived, plays jankily, and is full of bugs. We've all been there, and we've all been disappointed by the results. Batman: Arkham Asylum's claim to fame is that it's a game based on Batman that doesn't actually suck. And it doesn't! It's actually pretty damn good.

    It's not perfect. There are a few really obvious complaints about the game, notably "detective mode", which activates Batman's special vision where enemies and points of interest are highlighted. This is a neat idea, but it also means that you end up playing the game mostly in that mode. Which is fine, but it also means you're missing out on some excellent production design and artwork in the game. Which, by the way, is probably the best thing about the game. I've never read the comic books, but I'm a big fan of the Animated Series from the 90s, and this game takes place in that universe (notably featuring a lot of the voice talent from that show, though many character designs have been updated), albeit a slightly darker and more grim version (to be expected, given that the game isn't quite as cartoonish). The atmosphere of the game, which takes place entirely on the grounds of Arkham Asylum, is absolutely wonderful, and many of the video game tropes that are present in this game (i.e. the Riddler challenge) give you tons of background on the history and lore of the Batman world. You pick up audio interviews with escaped super-criminals, biographies of other villains, and so on. This sort of "collecting" is usually trite and boring in other games, but here it's actually kinda fun to see what you can find.
    Detective Mode
    Batman's Detective Mode
    Gameplay consists of a mixture of brawling and stealth, with the occasional platforming and (usually optional) puzzle thrown in for variety. The brawling is fun and deceptively simple. At first, it seems like all you do is mash the square button over and over again, which does work pretty well. But there's also the ability to dodge, and if you chain together enough hits, you get some additional moves. I find it lacking the balance of something like the God of War games, in which combat is simple to learn but hard to master. The stealth sections are better, but again, I found myself relying on the same maneuvers over and over again. As with the combat, I didn't really gain a full appreciation for the stealth sections until I started playing the Challenge Mode (which essentially forces you to do alternative takedowns). The Challenge Mode of the game (basically just bite-sized fighting or stealth sections of the game that are independent of story) is actually much more fun here than it is in most games, and as I just said, it helped me gain a better feeling for the complexity of both the fighting and the stealth aspects.

    The platforming and puzzles are pretty straightforward stuff, though I do really enjoy Batman's trademark grappling gun thingy that allows him to climb and fly and stuff. I was also a big fan of the Riddler's little question mark puzzles (which I didn't understand at all for a while, but once I understood the concept, I had great fun trying to line that stuff up...) The story of the game is also straightforward - the Joker has taken over Arkham Asylum and all the prisoners and super-criminals are free! There's some hokum about a Titan Formula that turns people into hulking monsters. For the most part, it's just an excuse to stalk the Asylum and fight super-villains. The boss battles are middling. I enjoyed the Scarecrow sections, but I didn't care for the Killer Croc area. The final boss battle was fine.

    Ultimately, a very good game. And, of course, I played this about 2 years after it came out, right when the sequel, Arkham City, came out. It's apparently quite popular, and I think I did like Arkham Asylum enough that I might check out the sequel... in a year or so!
  • Killzone 3 - Much like its predecessor, this is a generally competent first-person shooter with some odd deficiencies. The control scheme is strangely different than any other shooter (and it has some really weird consequences, as demonstrated by this hilarious tutorial on how to us the Sniper Rifle...) and the story is filled with stereotypical tough-guy bravado and cliched dialogue. There might be a minor improvement on that front, but it's still not particularly good. There's also a minor improvement in the visual design, with some actual variety here instead of the typical gun-metal color palette of these games (there's snow levels and a brightly colored jungle level too). The game is slightly easier than the previous installment too, but I count that as a good thing because the last game got really frustrating at points.

    As with the previous game, I found myself surprised again at how fun the multi-player is... Oh, sure, I still suck at it, but the way this series packages the multi-player modes together in one big match actually makes it much easier to come up to speed with the game, as it gives you time to get to know various maps (instead of constantly switching you around). You get some more variety from the beginning in terms of your available weapons and character classes, but it still works well. I actually really enjoy the multi-player mode and will probably continue to play it for a while (a rarity for me). Ultimately, this game isn't anything particularly special, but it's worth playing. I get the feeling that Sony rushed this one out to be a showcase for their 3D technology (something that I didn't use and wouldn't really want to use anyway).
  • Ico - Originally made for the PS2, this was re-released in HD for the PS3 (in a collection with the same developer's Shadow of the Colossus). It's a sorta minimalist environmental puzzle game following a boy who is rescuing some girl from strange shadow monsters. I'm only about an hour into the game, but it's quite interesting so far. And it looks great. It's still a little dated looking, but it's definitely nice looking (games like this on the PS2 had a kinda vaseline filter on the screen that made everything blurry looking, but this is very clear).
    Ico
    I've actually played Shadow of the Colossus before, and the games both share a certain aesthetic and gameplay design. Unfortunately, since it's a previous-generation game, you have to deal with annoying save points and replay various aspects of the game (a major pet peeve of mine - the only reason it's acceptable here is that it's an old game). So far, though, I think I'm enjoying myself more with this game. The puzzles aren't quite as obtuse, and I'm usually able to figure them out without any help. I'll hold off on any other judgments until I finish the game, but so far, I can see why this game is popular with critics (and is often cited as an example of "video games as art"). Not sure it would go over too well with the CoD/Madden crowd, but whatever. I'm enjoying it... and I'm probably about to go play so more.
There are definitely a lot of games out there that I'm interested in playing, including the next Batman game and the next Team Ico game (which should be coming out soon). I haven't been playing games that much this year, and I don't see that changing too much - I'm generally happy with picking up games a year after they come out. That should keep me busy for a while!
Posted by Mark on December 04, 2011 at 07:00 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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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:
  • GFW Radio - 6/26/08 (.mp3) - The now long-defunct GFW Radio podcast, AKA The Brodeo, was a pretty great podcast, but this particular episode breaks from their normally free-flowing format to present a very well produced episode chronicling a stunt they pulled outside a Gamestop. They basically posed as a marketing research firm and pitched crazy game ideas to random passers-by. If you're into video games, you will love how well they lampoon the various conventions of video game marketing. The episode almost feels like a dry run for Robert Ashley's A Life Well Wasted podcast (Ashley was a member of GFW Radio at the time and later went on to do his own podcast). It's really hysterically funny too. I could not stop laughing around the time they started pitching the Founding Fighters video game (a Street Fighter-like game featuring moves like Alexander Hamilton's Knickerbocker Shocker and the Philadelphia Filibuster).
  • /Filmcast: After Dark - Ep. 79 - An Evening with Jason Reitman - Most interviews with actors or directos feature pretty much the same canned questions and since these folks are participating in dozens of intervews a day, they pretty much have the same answers too. So when Jason Reitman logs on to the /Filmcast, things just derail almost immediately, as he becomes enamored with the live chatroom and answers all the random questions people are asking (like: What's your favorite Dinosaur? and other similarly enlightening questions). Really fun stuff, and a refreshingly non-typical interview.
  • A Conversation on Blogging Ethics and Online Film Journalism - So this isn't really a regular podcast, more of a one time conversation featuring David Chen (of the /Filmcast), C. Robert Cargill (from Ain't It Cool News), Devin Faraci (from CHUD, but now at Badass Digest), and Peter Sciretta (from /Film) as they discuss various ethical issues surrounding the reviewing of movies and how studios try to "buy" good reviews, ban publications from screenings, and the like. Really interesting stuff, and well worth a listen for anyone interested in the industry.
And that's all for now...
Posted by Mark on August 10, 2011 at 09:56 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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 .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Recent Podcastery
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:
  • The /Filmcast - I tried this podcast out a few years ago and my recollection is that I found it kinda boring. I don't know what was going on during that episode though, because I find that this is the podcast I most look forward to every week. I enjoy the format, which starts with a "what we've been watching" segment, followed by a short "movie news" segment, and then an in-depth review of a relatively new release. And when I say "in-depth", I mean very long and detailed, often in the 40-60 minute range. It's also one of the few podcasts to really get into spoilers of a new release (they are very clear about when they start the spoiler section, so no worries if you haven't seen the movie). It's something most reviews and podcasts avoid, but it's actually quite entertaining to listen to (if, that is, you've already seen the film or don't care about the film in question). Also noteworthy is that the show features 3 regular hosts, and a guest host - and the guests are usually fantastic. They're mostly other film critics, but occasionally they'll have actual actors or directors on the show as well - people like Rian Johnson (of Brick and Brothers Bloom fame) and Vincenzo Natali (of Cube and Splice fame). What's more, they don't have these guests on to just interview them - they make them participate in the general format of the show - so you get to see what Rian Johnson has been watching that week or what he thinks of various movie news, etc... It's a really unusual perspective to get on these directors, and it's stuff you rarely get in an interview. So yeah, if you like movies (and television, which they often discuss in the first segment and after dark shows), this is a must-listen podcast.
  • The Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin Show - No, that's not a typo, but don't ask me why he's repeated his name either. I don't really get it. But I do really like the show so far. This is the only relatively new show that I listen to, and so far, it's been great. You may recongnize Rubin from his work at CollegeHumor, such as the great video series, Bleep Bloop and Nerd Alert. In this podcast, he basically interviews someone in each show. So far, we've got an interview with Anamanaguchi (a band that uses old Nintendos as an instrument), a discussion of Game of Thrones with another CollegeHumor guy, Jon Gabrus, a completely awesome interview of a guy that runs pizza tours in NY, and an interview with the guy responsible for writing/directing all those porn parodies that have been coming out lately (brilliant). I have to wonder how well he can keep up the quality of his guests and the variety of topics, but so far, so good.
  • Rebel FM - Video Game podcasts are weird. They often spend a ton of time talking about new or upcoming games that you can't play yet, which is kinda annoying. It's also hard to go back and find an episode where they talked about x or y game (and usually the discussions aren't that enlightening because they're just talking about the mechanics of the game). IRebel FM falls into this category a bit, but what sets it apart is their letters section, which isn't really anything special, but which can be a lot of fun. Somehow, they've become known for giving out sagely advice on relationships and other life challenges. It's just funny to see this sort of thing through the lens of a video game podcast.
  • All Beers Considered - I haven't done a lot of exploring around the beer podcast realm, but I like the Aleheads website, so I tend to listen to these podcasts which generally cover various beer news stories and whatnot. It's not something I'd recommend to someone who's not a beer fanatic, but, well, I am a beer fanatic, so I like it.
  • Basic Brewing Radio - This seems to be THE homebrewing podcast, and it's got a massive archive filled with great stuff (at least, I've found many episodes to be helpful in my brewing efforts). Some stuff works better than others (really, it's kinda strange to listen to a beer tasting, especially of homebrew that you'll never get to try), but there's lots of good stuff for new brewers in the archives.
  • The Adventurenaut Cassettes - There's no real explaining this podcast. It's just really weird, disjointed and almost psychadelic. Good when you're in a certain mood, though.
I really only have 3 or 4 shows that I really look forward to every week, but I'm always looking for more...
Posted by Mark on July 27, 2011 at 10:01 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. "Ask yourself whether you are happy," said J.S. Mill, "and you cease to be so." It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.
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.

Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. The swimmer's muscles might have ached during his most memorable race, his lungs might have felt like exploding, and he might have been dizzy with fatigue - yet these could have been the best moments of his life. Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery - or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life - that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.
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):
  • A Challenging Activity that Requires Skills - This is pretty self explanatory, but it should also be noted that "challenging" does not mean "impossible". We need to confront tasks which push our boundaries, but which we also actually have a chance of completing.
  • The Merging of Action and Awareness - When all of our energy is concentrated on the relevant stimuli. This is related to some of the below components.
  • Clear Goals and Feedback - These are actually two separate components, but they are interrelated and on a personal level, I feel like these are the most important of the components... or at least, one of the most difficult. In particular, accurate feedback and measurement are much more difficult than they sound. Sure, for some activities, they're simple and easy, but for a lot of more complex ones, the metrics either don't exist or are too obtuse. This is something I struggle with in my job. There are certain metrics that are absolute and pretty easy to track, but there are others that are more subjective and exceedingly difficult to quantify.
  • Concentration on the Task at Hand - Very much related to the second point above, this particular component is all about how that sort of intense concentration removes from awareness all the worries and frustrations of everyday life. You are so focused on your task that there is no room in your mind for irrelevant information.
  • The Paradox of Control - Enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. To look at this another way, you could see it as a lack of worry about losing control. The paradox comes into play because this feeling is somewhat illusory. What's important is the "possibility, rather than the actuality, of control."
  • The Loss of Self-Consciousness - Again related to a couple of the above, this one is about how when you're involved in flow, concern about the self disappears. Being so engrossed in a project or a novel or whatever that you forget to eat lunch, and things along those lines. Interestingly, this sort of thing eventually does lead to a sense of self that emerges stronger after the activity has ended.
  • The Transformation of Time - The sense of duration of time is altered. Hours pass by in minutes, or conversely, minutes pass by in what seem like hours. As Einstein once said: "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity."
So what are the implications of all this? There were a few things that kept coming to mind while reading this book.

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:

Television
  • Community is actually a pretty fun show. In a lot of ways, it's standard sitcom fodder, but the inclusion of the character of Abed redeems most of the potentially overused cliches. Abed is a pop-culture obsessed film student who appears to be aware that he's a part of a sitcom, and thus his self-referential observations are often quite prescient. The cast is actually pretty fantastic and there are lots of traditionally funny jokes along the way. Honestly, I think my favorite part of the episode are the post-credits sequences in which Abed and Troy are typically engaging in something silly in a hysterically funny way. I've only seen the first season, but I'm greatly looking forward to the second season (which is almost complete now, and probably available in some form, but I haven't looked into it too closely).
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: The X-Files - It looks like the entire series is available. I watched the series frequently when it was on, but I never realized just how many episodes I missed. I was never a fan of the alien conspiracy episodes (in part because it was difficult to watch them in the right order and I never knew what was going on), but I've always loved the "freak of the week" style episode, and now that all of them are at my fingertips, I'm seeing a bunch that I never knew even existed. The show holds up reasonably well, though it's a little too on-the-nose at times (especially in the early seasons). In the context in which the shows were being produced, though, it's fantastic. From a production quality perspective, it's more cinematic than what was on TV at the time (and a lot of what's on today), and it was one of the early attempts at multi-season plot arcs and continuity (technology at the time wasn't quite right, so I don't think it flourished quite as much as it could have if it had started 10 years later).
Video Games
  • Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction is a lot of fun, though you can sorta tell that it was a near launch game. I actually mentioned this a while back, and because it was my first Ratchet & Clank game, I didn't suffer from most of the repetitive and derivative elements (which I gather is what disappointed old fans). Some minor usability issues (constantly changing weapons/tools is a pain), but otherwise great fun. I particularly enjoyed the Pirate themed enemies, who were very funny. I enjoyed this enough that I'll probably check out the more recent A Crack in Time, which I hear is pretty good.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops - It's another CoD game, so I got pretty much exactly what I expected. The single player game actually has a semi-interesting story, though the animators fell in love with the overly-hyper cutting and shaky-cam style that is already overused in film, and which is mostly unnecessary in video games. Don't get me wrong, the story is kinda hokey, but it's entertaining in its own way. And, of course, the combat is very well balanced and fun (as every game I've played in the series is...) The game ends with one of the most gleefully manic sequences I've ever played (much better than, for example, the airline thing at the end of CoD4). The multi-player is not particularly noob-friendly, but I got a few hours out of it and even managed to win a round one time. The kills come so quickly that it's pretty rare that you'll escape anyone once they start shooting (the way you can in some other games). This is both good and bad though. All in all, it's a good FPS for console.
  • I've started playing Mass Effect 2 for the PS3. I have no idea what's going on with the story (I thought there was supposed to be some sort of PS3 intro thingy, but I didn't see it when I started the game), but I'm having fun so far. It's not something I've been playing a lot though, perhaps because I don't have a ton of time to dedicate to it...
  • Remember when i said I would play more Goldeneye for the Wii? Yeah, I still haven't unpacked the Wii from that trip, which is a pretty good expression of how I generally feel about the Wii these days. I guess it's a good thing Nintendo is announcing their next console soon (though I have to admit, the rumors I'm hearing aren't particularly encouraging).
Movies
  • James Gunn's comic book spoof Super continues the trend towards deconstruction of superheroes that's been going on recently in comic book cinema (though things look like they're about to revert a bit this summer). As such, it's semi-derivative at times, but it sticks to its guns (or should I say, Gunns!) and never flinches at its target. It's also not afraid to embrace the weird (such as, for instance, tentacle rape). It's extremely graphic and violent, and some of it is played for laughs, but there's at least one unforgivable moment in the film. One thing I have to note is that there's going to be a lot of teenage nerds falling in love with Ellen Page because of her enthusiastic performance in this movie. She's awesome. The critical reception seems mixed, but I think I enjoyed it more than most. I wouldn't call it one of the year's best, but it's worth watching for superhero fans who can stomach gore.
  • Hobo with a Shotgun does not fare quite as well as Super, though fans of Grindhouse and ultra-violence will probably get a kick out of it. If Super represents a bit of a depraved outlook on life, Hobo makes it look like the Muppets. A few years ago, when Grindhouse was coming out, there was a contest for folks to create fake grindhouse-style trailers, and one of the winners was this fantastically titled Hobo With a Shotgun. Unfortunately what works in the short form of a fake trailer doesn't really extend well to a full-length feature. There are some interesting things about the film. Rutger Hauer is great as the hobo (look for an awesome monologue about a bear), the atmosphere is genuinely retro, it actually feels like a grindhouse movie (as opposed to Tarantino and Rodriguez's efforts, which are great, but you can also kinda tell they have a decent budget, whereas Hobo clearly has a low budget), and the armored villains known as the Plague are entertaining, if a bit out of place. Ultimately the film doesn't really earn its bullshit. Like last year's Machete (another film built off of the popularity of a "fake" trailer), I'm not convinced that this film really should have been made. Again, devotees to the weird and disgusting might enjoy this, but it's a hard film to recommend.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: The Good, the Bad, the Weird - Kim Jee-woon's take on the spaghetti western is actually quite entertaining, if a bit too long and maybe even a bit too derivative. Still, there are some fantastic sequences in the film, and it's a lot of fun. Jee-woon is one of the more interesting filmmakers that's making a name for Korean cinema on an international scale. I'm greatly looking forward to his latest effort, I Saw the Devil.
Books
  • In my last SF book post, I mentioned Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor. I really enjoyed that book, which was apparently the first in a long series of books, of which I've recently finished two: Barrayar and The Warrior's Apprentice. I'll save the details for the next SF book review post, but let's just say that I'm fully onboard the Bujold train to awesome. I put in an order for the next several books in the series, which seems to be quite long and varied.
  • Timothy Zahn's Cobra Trilogy is what I'm reading right now. I'm enjoying them, but it's clear that Zahn was still growing as a storyteller when writing these. Interestingly, you can see a lot of ideas that he would feature in later works (and he would do so more seamlessly too). I'm about halfway through the trilogy, and should be finishing it off in the next couple weeks, after which, you can expect another SF book review post...
  • I've also started Fred Brooks' The Design of Design, though I haven't gotten very far just yet. I was traveling for a while, and I find that trashy SF like Zahn and Bujold makes for much better plane material than non-fiction. Still, I'm finding Brooks' latest work interesting, though perhaps not as much as his classic Mythical Man Month.
The Finer Things...
  • The best beer I've had in the past few months has been the BrewDog/Mikkeller collaboration Devine Rebel. It's pricey as hell, but if you can find a bottle of the 2009 version and if you like English Barleywines (i.e. really strong and sweet beer), it's worth every penny. I got a bottle of the 2010 version (which is apparently about 2% ABV stronger than the already strong 2009 batch) recently, but I haven't popped it open just yet.
  • My next homebrew kit, a Bavarian Hefeweizen from Northern Brewer, just came in the mail, so expect a brew-day post soon - probably next week, if all goes well. I was hoping to get that batch going a little earlier, but travel plans got in the way. Still, if this goes as planned, the beer should be hitting maturity right in the dead of summer, which is perfect for a wheat beer like this...
  • With the nice weather this weekend, I found myself craving a cigar. Not something I do very often and I really have no idea what makes for a good cigar, but I'll probably end up purchasing a few for Springtime consumption... Recommendations welcome!
That's all for now. Sorry about all the link dumps and general posting of late, but things have been busy around chez Kaedrin, so time has been pretty short. Hopefully some more substantial posting to come in the next few weeks...
Posted by Mark on April 24, 2011 at 06:36 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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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):
  • The Wii Controller scheme is atrocious. It was a key reason I stopped playing the single player, but it was even worse on a split-screen multiplayer experience. This isn't entirely the fault of the game - it's a general problem with FPS on the Wii platform. The wiimote just isn't precise or responsive enough, and it's annoying that you have to keep it pointed directly at the screen at all times (I invariably spawned with my character spinning around and around as I had let me hand sway one direction or another). I was constantly fighting the controls, often losing the fight, as it was very difficult to look up without the wiimote leaving the acceptable pointing range (leading to a frustrating and annoying No symbol appearing on screen). There's also the fact that we had four guys trying to crowd around a relatively small TV, and sometimes the Wii Remote Sensor was blocked by someone's leg or something (something that wouldn't happen with normal controllers). Everyone playing with the wiimotes had similar problems, so it wasn't just me. Now, I could go out an buy the "Classic Controller", which is basically a Wii controller that looks and works like the XBox 360 or PS3 controller, and I probably will at some point, but I'm really starting to get annoyed with the Wii, as it seems like every damn game I buy requires some new doodad or accessory. And that's without even getting into the infamous keyboard/mouse vs console controller debate!
  • The game doesn't feature any of the previous maps or weapons. It turns out that there isn't a Temple map, nor is there a grenade launcher (though we eventually figured out how to use the grenade launcher that was attached to an M16 or something, it's not like the original grenade launcher). No power weapons, no Klobb (not that you'd ever want to use it unless you had two of them, but still), no grenade launcher, no Cougar magnum, no lasers, and so on. There is a rocket launcher, but it sucks (and you only get two rounds). Mines are available, but only as a part of your loadout (and again, ammo is limited). Some of the maps are similar, but they're all rather different, and a couple are absolutely terrible. None of them really bring back the feeling of the original, which is annoying because nostalgia was a key driving factor in my purchase of the game.
  • The graphics are certainly a big improvement over the original, but I also found that everything was so dark that it was sometimes difficult to see, well, anything. Combine that with imprecise controls and the heat of battle, and you get some pretty jumbled multiplayer encounters where the screens are just spinning all over the place as we try to shoot or melee each other. Of course, we were playing on a small SD television set, so that probably has something to do with it. I'm not sure how we were able to cope with the screen split 4 ways in college, but I'm guessing the lack of lighting effects back in the day actually made everything more visible. We ended up fiddling with contrast, color, and brightness settings and managed to improve things a bit, but it was still annoying. However, I suspect things would look a lot better on a bigger HDTV (then again, when playing single player on my nice 50" TV, there was at least one point where I got totally stuck and could not find my way to the next room because it was too dark and I couldn't see the hallway I needed to take, so it's not just because of the TV and split screen mode).
  • The available customization options seem to be less comprehensive than the original. Part of this has to do with shifting the game away from found weapons to the more contemporary loadout strategy (where you pick what weapon you want at the beginning of the match), but that again makes the game feel less like the original, thus nullifying any of the nostalgia factors. It's fine for what it is, but then it also reminds me of other recent FPS games like Call of Duty, etc... which are better at this stuff than Goldeneye.
Again, this is only the local multiplayer - I have not yet jumped through Nintendo's ridiculous hoops to start playing online with my friends (including some sort of improvised voice chat, whether that be through skype or some other phone conferencing possibilities) but I will probably figure that out at some point.

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 .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • There's this weirdly twisted version of video game console history. Of course they don't use real names, but it's not hard to see that Intendro is supposed to be Nintendo. Furthermore, you see the entire history of video games from the early 80s onward (I just got to the point where the Wii-like "Whoops" has been released). Most of the companies are there: Senga, Sonny, Microx 480, etc... It's not an exact history, but it's close enough to be funny and interesting.
  • The neatest thing about the game is how it turns the tables on me, a person who is normally playing games and even occasionally reviewing/criticizing them. This is mostly a big deal at the beginning of the game, when you don't have much money or resources, etc... For example, you make a game, and one of the first things that happens once you release it is that 4 critics give it a rating on a 10 point scale. Since you don't have much money or talent at the beginning of the game, they're typically pretty hard on your games. It's pretty funny, especially when you get some 6s and 7s, and then some asshole gives you a 2. Fuck that! Later in the game, I have a lot more money and was able to hire better folks, so the critics typically rate my games pretty high. Even then, though, you get the three people who will rate a game a 10, and then the one jerk who rates it an 8 (and to make matters even worse, that guy will say it's "The best game of the year!" What the hell man? Wouldn't the best game of the year be at least a 9?)
  • Every once in a while, you'll get some letters from a fan. I got one once that said something to the effect of "I borrowed Monkey Wars 3 from my friend and I loved it and am going to recommend it to all my friends!" Borrowed? Fuck you buddy! If you liked the game so much, why didn't you just buy it yourself?! Hmmm! I'm a little surprised that they didn't take a swipe at the whole "Used Games" market, which is apparently quite the controversial issue with publishers and retailers. Still, it's funny to be on the other end of the spectrum and it makes me feel a little for those who develop games for a living.
  • There are these game awards every year, and you can win an award for best graphics, best sound, runner up, and best game of the year (also worst game, but I think you'd have to try hard to get that one). I have no idea what it takes to actually win the best game award - I had one game that scored a perfect 40 points from critics, sold a boatload, and it only won the runner up award. Gah!
  • There are some random disasters that can happen. Another developer could put out a similar game, which can decrease sales. You can have a power outage, which decreases the stats of the game you're working on, sometimes significantly. I got hit by a couple of these things once, and the game I was working on would have done really poorly, so I canceled the project. Obviously this is a bad thing, but then some ungrateful bastard sends me some "fan mail" where he tells me that since I can only release 2 games this year, he's never going to buy my games again, then my fans drop by 30% (this seemed like a pretty big deal at the time, though who knows, the next game I released sold a ton).
I don't mean to imply that by playing this game, I know what it's like to be a developer, but if you're so inclined, it does provide you with an opportunity to think about video games from a developer's perspective, and it's an interesting experience.

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 .: Comments (0) | link :.


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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:
Barney hands you a crowbar
"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."
As Wong notes in his article, it's nice that "earning bigger, fancier weapons is a reward to keep us playing. But don't make us start with a weapon we probably have in our real-life garage (hey, thanks for the wrench, Bioshock)." Now, Wong was making a general point about underpowered starting weapons... but it becomes doubly annoying when you're playing a sequel to a game and you have to start back at the beginning again.

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 .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tasting Notes...
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:

Television
  • The Walking Dead has been an agreeable series so far, though I do have one major issue with it. Indeed, it's one of the things that always bothers me about zombie movies. In short, nothing of import actually happens, and this series is a good example. It starts out promisingly enough, with the sheriff waking in a hospital (a la 28 Days Later...) and setting out on a mission to find his family during the zombie apocalypse. But then he finds them in, like, the second episode, leaving no real purpose to the series. Everyone is so reactive, and that's where all the tension comes from. That's fine for what it is, and each episode seems pretty well constructed, but the focus is more on characters rather than any sort of story. What's more, I don't really see an overarching story emerging since zombies are uniformly boring antagonists and the notion that "humans are the real monsters" is just as lame if not even more boring. The show is entertaining enough, but I'm not really in the "Best New Show!" camp just yet either (then again, of the "new" shows, it's the only one I'm really watching, so maybe I should be in that camp...)
  • Courtesy of WatchTrek.com, I've been revisiting some of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes. Not sure how long this site will be up (it certainly doesn't seem official), but it's pretty damn cool. Favorite revisited episode: Peak Performance.
Video Games
  • I've started Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and it's quite good! If you've played the first game, you pretty much know what you're in for, but it's still a lot of fun. The biggest observation I have about the game is a more general one about how sequels always need to strip you of all your abilities and weapons, then gradually give them back. The God of War games are the worst in this respect (I mean, really? Kratos forgot how to spin around with his blades of whatever?), but Uncharted has that too - you start the game without any weapon, then a dart gun, then a pistol, gradually working back up to the more powerful guns. Of course, that's only about the first hour, but still. I hate that. It's a big part of why I never got into GTA IV either - lame cars, lame weapons, etc... start the game, which is boring. I've already played the same game like 5 times before, why do I need to keep going through the paces?
  • Now that the hockey season is in full swing, NHL 10 has entered the playing rotation again. It's amazing that something so repetitive can continually keep my interest, but there you have it.
  • Has anyone played the new Goldeneye for the Wii? Is it worth picking up? I'm hearing good things, but I'm almost always disappointed by games for the Wii these days...
Movies
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is fine, I guess, but like the past couple of films in the series, I can't really shake the feeling of filmmakers simply going through the motions (minor spoilers for the rest of the paragraph). I understand that there's a certain difficulty in adapting such beloved source material, but I think the final book could probably have used some liberal editing when being translated to the screen. Do we really need to portray all 7 horcruxes in the movies? Do we really need to break the last book into two movies? Indeed, I think that's the biggest problem with this movie, which is that it's incomplete. They chose a decent place to end the first part, I guess. There's a meaningful death... but then, the really strange thing is that the death that happens in this movie is probably given more attention and fanfare as Dumbledore in the previous film. And while I always liked the character who died and was sad to see him go, I don't think he needed quite so heroic a sendoff. In any case, there were plenty of things to like about the movie - it's quite beautifully shot, there's a great animated sequence in the film, and for the section of the film intended to be all about character building, there are a few decent action sequences (there is, for instance, a nifty "shootout" in a coffee shop that I rather enjoyed). I'm looking forward to the last film, but then, I still think the fourth film is probably the most fun...
  • The Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright commentary track on Hot Fuzz is amazing and worth the price of the BD alone. (Update: Ohhh, there's a page that neatly collects all the films referenced in the commentary - 190 in total, which is pretty astounding.)
Books
  • Currently reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It's great, and it reminds me that I need to revisit that (planned) series of posts that touches on this subject...
  • My recent beer brewing adventures were preceded by some books on the subject, notably How to Brew by John Palmer (also available online for free) and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing Third Edition by Charles Papazian. They're both pretty good, though I'd probably recommend the Palmer book for those just getting started (as I was). Papazian's book is good too, though I have to admit that his frequent advice to "relax... don't worry... and have a homebrew" is really annoying for the first timer (as, you know, I don't have any homebrew yet, and why don't you just rub it in some more!?) I think he might address that situation once, claiming that bottled beer is ok for the first timer, but it's still annoying. Anyway, while the beginner's section could use some work, the rest of the book is rather interesting (though I have yet to read the final sections on Advanced All Grain brewing) and there's lots of detailed information and recipes and whatnot (I think my next beer will be based on his recipe for a Belgian-style Tripel - page 191).
The Finer Things And that about wraps up this edition of tasting notes!
Posted by Mark on November 28, 2010 at 07:37 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.


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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Tasting Notes...
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:

Television
  • The only show I watch regularly is True Blood, and even that has been a bit of a bust this season. There are some good things about this season, but it seems like all the side characters are annoying this season. Even Lafayette seems to be getting annoying. You can't keep increasing the number of big character arcs indefinitely, and this season definitely hit the limit and then stomped over it. All that being said, it's still an entertaining show, and last week's cliffhanger was kinda interesting, except that I know better than to trust that it will be conclusive, which is probably a bad thing. Unless it turns out the way I expect, which is kinda ironic. A damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, I guess.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Mythbusters. Yeah, we've all seen these epsiodes, but putting them on Netflix Watch Instantly is a problem. I didn't know they were on there until Shamus mentioned if off-handedly, and now I find myself watching them all the time.
Video Games
  • It turns out that I've played approximately 0 hours of GTA IV since the last Tasting Notes, so I'm thinking that I should just move on to something else. Complaints are, more or less, the same as last time. All the good things about the game are the same as GTA III, and all the new bits only seem to weigh it down. And for crying out loud, it's ok to let people save their games whenever. This is something that I've become pretty inflexible on - if you have static save points that force me to replay stuff and rewatch cutscenes, I'm not going to like your game much.
  • In lieu of GTA IV, I've been replaying Half-Life 2 on my PC. It's interesting how great that game is, despite its aged mechanics. It got me thinking about what would make for the ideal FPS game (perhaps a topic for another post).
  • Portal is fantastic, but you probably already knew that. Still, for a 3 hour gaming experience, it's just about perfect. I only got stuck a couple of times, and even then, it was fun piecing together what I needed to do... Well worth a play, even if you're not huge into gaming.
Movies
  • Machete is brilliant trash. Interestingly, Rodriguez takes the opportunity to address politics and make a point about immigration. This sort of hand-wringing would normally be annoying, but the mixture of polemic with gloriously over-the-top action, gratuitous nudity and violence, is actually pretty well balanced. On their own, those two elements would be cloying or frustrating. Mix them together, and you've got something altogether different, and it works really well. Also working well, Lindsay Lohan in a bit of self-aware stunt casting (I can't really say that the role "transcends" that with a straight face, but it does go further than simple exploitation). Not working so well: Jessica Alba. She's fine for most of the movie, but when it comes time for her to give an inspirational speech, it's kinda embarrassing. Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, and Don Johnson (!?) are great. Robert De Niro and Steven Seagal are kinda sleepwalking through their roles, but they're fine. In the end, it's trashy fun, and I have a feeling it will stick with me more than other trashy summer fare.
  • The American, on the other hand, is slow, ponderous and ultimately pointless. A promising start, but rather than build on that, the tension evaporates as the film slowly grinds its way to an unsurprising conclusion. Poorly paced and not much to it...
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Beer Wars. A documentary about beer, featuring a pretty good cross-section of the craft brewing leaders in the US, as well as some interesting behind-the-scenes info about legal side of things and how the laws impact the rest of the distribution chain. Really, it's just fun to see interviews with some of my favorite brewers, like the guys from Dogfish Head and Stone brewing, or the Yuengling owner (who seems to get drunk and spill some beans). If you like beer, it's well worth a watch.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week That I Haven't Even Seen Yet: Mother. This Korean thriller made waves in the film-nerd community earlier this year, so it's on my must watch list. Seems noirish.
Books The Finer Things (aka Beer!)
  • Brewery Ommegang is probably my favorite brewery in America, and I recently managed to get my hands on some of their more uncommon brews. BPA is a Belgian-style pale ale. Not as hoppy as an IPA, but also not quite as tasty as Ommegang's other beers. An interesting experiment, but not something I see myself turning to very often. Bière De Mars, on the other hand, is great. I think Ommegang's standards are pretty tough to beat, but that one holds its own. It's a seasonal beer and a limited batch; the one I found was from 2008. It was well worth the wait. There are a bunch of other Ommegang seasonals or specialty beers, but the one I really want to find is the Tripel Perfection. The Tripel is probably my favorite style of belgian beer, so I'd love to see Ommegang's take on it.
  • Some interesting stuff in my fridge: Saison Du BUFF is a collaboration between three local breweries. This batch is from Victory, but the formula was created by Victory, Stone, and Dogfish Head. I saw a case of the Dogfish Head somewhere, but didn't want to buy it until I tried it out. Also in the fridge: Fantôme Saison (this comes highly rated, but I haven't seen it around until now), and a few pumpkin or Octoberfest ales.
And that's all for now.
Posted by Mark on September 05, 2010 at 07:24 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Game Boys
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 .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tasting Notes...
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...

Television
  • The latest season of True Blood seems to be collapsing under the weight of all the new characters and plotlines. It's still good, but the biggest issue with the series is that nothing seems to happen from week to week. That's the problem when you have a series with 15 different subplots, I guess. The motif for this season seems to be to end each episode with Vampire Bill doing something absurdly crazy. I still have hope for the series, but it was much better when I was watching it on DVD/On Demand, when all the episodes are available so you don't have to wait a week between each episode.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: The Dresden Files. An underappreciated Sci-Fi (er, SyFy) original series based on a series of novels by Jim Butcher, this focuses on that other magician named Harry. This one takes the form of a creature-of-the-week series mixed with a bit of a police procedural, and it's actually pretty good. We're not talking groundbreaking or anything, but it's great disposable entertainment and well worth a watch if you like magic and/or police procedurals. Unfortunately, it only lasted about 12 episodes, so there's still some loose threads and whatnot, but it's still a fun series.
Video Games
  • A little late to the party (but not as late as some others), I've started playing Grand Theft Auto IV recently. It's a fine game, I guess, but I've had this problem with the GTA series ever since I played GTA III: There doesn't seem to be anything new or interesting in the game. GTA III was a fantastic game, and it seems like all of the myriad sequels since then have added approximately nothing to its legacy. Vice City and San Andreas added some minor improvements to various gameplay mechanics and whatnot, but they were ultimately the same game with some minor improvements. GTA IV seems basically like the same game, but with HD graphics. Also, is it me, or is it harder to drive around town without constantly spinning out? Maybe Burnout Paradise ruined me on GTA driving, which I used to think of as a lot of fun.
  • I have to admit that this year's E3 seems like a bit of a bust for me. Microsoft had Kinect, which looks like it will be a silly failure (not that it really matters for me, as I have a PS3). Sony has finally caught up to where the Wii was a few years ago with Move, and I don't particularly care, as motion control games have consistently disappointed me. Sony also seems to have bet the farm on 3D gaming, but that would require me to purchase a new $5,000 TV and $100 glasses for anyone who wants to watch. Also, there's the fact that I could care less about 3D. Speaking of which, Nintendo announced the 3DS, which is a portable gaming system with 3D that doesn't require glasses. This is neat, I guess, but I could really care less about portable systems. There are a couple of interesting games for the Wii, namely the new Goldeneye and the new Zelda, but in both cases, I'm a little wary. My big problem with Nintendo this generation has been that they didn''t do anything new or interesting after Wii Sports (and possibly Wii Fit). Everything else has been retreads of old games. There is a certain nostalgia value there, and I can enjoy some of those retreads (Mario Kart Wii was fun, but it's not really that different from a game that came out about 20 years ago, ditto for New Super Mario Brothers Wii, and about 10 other games), but at the same time, I'm getting sick of all that.
  • One game that was announced at E3 that I am looking forward to is called Journey. It's made by the same team as Flower and will hopefully be just as good.
  • Otherwise, I'll probably play a little more of GTA IV, just so I can get far enough to really cause some mayhem in Liberty City (this is another problem with a lot of sequels - you often start the sequel powered-down and have to build up various abilities that you're used to having) and pick up some games from last year, like Uncharted 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Movies
  • I saw Predators last weekend, and despite being a member of this year's illustrious Top 5 Movies I Want To See Even Though I Know They'll Suck list, I actually enjoyed it. Don't get me wrong, it's not fine cinema by any stretch of the imagination, but it knows where its bread is buttered and it hits all the appropriate beats. As MovieBob notes, this movie fills in the expected sequel trajectory of the Alien series. It's Aliens to Predator's Alien, if that makes any sense. In other words, it's Predator but with multiple predators and higher stakes. It's ultimately derivative in the extreme, but I really enjoyed the first movie, so that's not that bad. I mean, you've got the guy with the gatling gun, the tough ethnic girl who recognizes the predators, the tough ethnic guy who pulls off his shirt and faces the predator with a sword in hand to hand combat, and so on. Again, it's a fun movie, and probably the best since the original (although, that's not really saying much). Just don't hope for much in the way of anything new or exciting.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for reasons expounded upon in Sunday's post.
  • Looking forward to Inception this weekend. Early reviews are positive, but I'm not really hoping for that much. Still in a light year for movies, this looks decent.
The Finer Things
  • A couple weekends ago, I went out on my deck on a gorgeous night and drank a beer whilst smoking a cigar. I'm pretty good with beer, so I feel confident in telling you that if you get the chance, Affligem Dubbel is an great beer. It has a dark amber color and a great, full bodied taste. It's as smooth as can be, but carbonated enough that it doesn't taste flat. All in all, one of my favorite recent discoveries. I know absolutely nothing about cigars, but I had an Avo Uvezian Notturno XO (it came in an orange tube). It's a bit smaller than most other cigars I've had, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. Again, a cigar connoisseur, I am not, so take this with a grain of salt.
  • I just got back from my monthly beer club meeting. A decent selection tonight, with the standout and surprise winner being The Woodwork Series - Acasia Barreled. It's a tasty double style beer (perhaps not as good as the aforementioned Affligem, but still quite good) and well worth a try (I'm now interested in trying the other styles, which all seem to be based around the type of barrel the beer is stored in). Other standouts included a homebrewed Triple (nice work Dana!), and, of course, someone brought Ommegang Abby Ale (another Dubbel!) which is a longtime favorite of mine. The beer I brought was a Guldenberg (Belgian tripel), but it must not have liked the car ride as it pretty much exploded when we opened it. I think it tasted a bit flat after that, but it had a great flavor and I think I will certainly have to try this again (preferably not shaking it around so much before I open it).
And I think that just about wraps up this edition of Tasting Notes, which I rather enjoyed writing and will probably try again at some point.
Posted by Mark on July 14, 2010 at 07:38 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Killzone 2
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 .: Comments (0) | link :.


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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.
  • I have to admit that I was fooled by the first chapter featuring the character of Madison Paige. In short, Madison wakes up in her apartment, you walk her around a bit and then you're attacked by a bunch of masked men. There's a QTE fight sequence that quickly gets pretty complicated (in terms of the number of buttons pressed and the amount of time you have to press them) and then... she dies. But wait! It turns out that the whole sequence was a dream! It's a trope we've all seen a billion times in horror movies and thrillers, but my heart was pounding and when the chapter ended, I was really shocked at what had just transpired. It's the sort of thing that would seem hackneyed and unacceptable in a movie, but that worked really well in the game. Presumably the addition of interactivity makes cliches like this acceptable. Or perhaps it's just that I've never seen this sort of thing in a game before - I have to wonder if future games would be able to pull this sort of thing off...
  • The moment of the game that is most frequently referenced by people who love the game is the scene in the police station when Ethan is being questioned by the police. A couple chapters previous to this scene, you control Ethan as he attempts to play with his son at a park. At the end of that sequence, Ethan blacks out and ends up a few blocks away, holding a piece of Origami. He runs back to the park, but he can't find his son. The next chapter after that, you're playing the FBI Agent as he researches the Origami killer at a police station. As that chapter ends, the camera pans over to a desk and you see Ethan being questioned by the police. They ask you simple questions: What time were you at the park? What was your son wearing? And so on. It's very unnerving. The way the game handles such moments is to put up a few possible responses (associated with various buttons), but they're not just floating around you as normal. When you're in high pressure situations like this, they become wobbly and hard to read. It makes what is already a tense situation almost unbearable. It's a really effective tactic, and this was one of the best parts of the game.
  • Of course, Ethan's blackout is also one of my biggest complaints with the story. In short, it makes no sense. There's no real reason for the blackouts, and the origami figure that's in his hand is only there to mislead the person playing the game. The writers attempt to make it a red herring, but it's a lazy and manipulative one because there's no real explanation that would make any sense here.
  • Speaking of the killer, it turns out that the killer is always the same character, no matter how you play the game. On the one hand, I think this is a missed opportunity. There are a number of red herrings strewn throughout the game (some more successful than the aforementioned blackouts), but the game doesn't really follow through on any of them. Now, I liked when the killer was revealed in the game and everything, but it would have been really interesting if the game adapted and chose a different character as the killer depending on your actions. I realize this is probably unrealistic in terms of time and budget for a game like this though, and one thing I will say is that playing the game once really does imply a greater flexibility in the game than is really there. So while playing the game for the first time, you don't know enough about what's going to happen to say what impact your actions had on the story. My assumption during that first playthrough was that almost everything was important. After replaying the game, I saw how limited the game was. When I first played through the game, I thought that maybe I had seen 40-60% of the content in the game. It turns out that it was more like 80%, and even then, the story had basically the same trajectory.
  • I made a lot of "mistakes" in the game, and I think that was actually a good thing. I mentioned in my first post how one of the interesting things about this game is that it actually lets you make mistakes in the first place, and after playing the game, I think that's one of it's biggest successes. This may be the first game I ever played where getting everything right isn't actually that great. In my case, I loved that I accidentally created the world's worst FBI agent by failing a couple of the quicktime events or picking the "wrong" option during one of those tense situations. The FBI agent has something of a drug problem, and you're confronted by this a few times in the game. You can choose to hold out, or you can give in and take the drugs. I think I managed to avoid taking the drugs the first time, but I got flustered and accidentally took them twice later in the game. Then there was the time I was interviewing a suspect and, uh, kinda shot him in the face. I didn't really mean to, but it was one of those tense situations and I panicked and shot the guy. This is one of the great things about the game though. In any other game, that would be a failure state and would cause me to have to replay the scene or something. In this game, I have to live with the consequences of my actions. I have to admit that I was expecting more consequences from that particular shooting though. While replaying the game, I managed to not shoot him and was kinda surprised to see that the result was mostly the same. There was one additional scene stuck in, but otherwise, the results were the same as if I'd shot him.
  • During my first playthrough, I actually managed to keep all my characters alive long enough to make it to the final chapter in the game. However, once there, I failed a number of things. I did succeed in saving Ethan's son, which was relieving, but while my FBI agent was fighting the killer on some sort of weird conveyer belt thing, I failed a bunch of QTE's, leading to the FBI agent's grisly death (he basically fell into a giant woodchipper thingy). Because of this, the killer got away. Meanwhile, Ethan saved his son, and was about to leave the building. Outside, the cops, who think Ethan's the killer, have already surrounded the building. Madison arrives and attempts to help Ethan... or she would, if I didn't fail the QTEs. As such, Madison gets arrested and when Ethan opens the door, he ends up getting shot by the police. It was a very tragic, very emotional part of the game for me, but I think it's actually better than the ones where he survives. The epilogues for this particular ending were great too. The killer ends up getting his comeuppance, courtesy of one of the other side characters in the game (it's a satisfying end to the killer's arc). Madison writes a book, and while at a signing, she seemingly runs into another serial killer who things she deserves a more challenging opponent or somesuch (we'll presumably find out in Heavy Rain 2). Norman Jaden (the FBI agent) is dead, but his non-friend at the police picks up Jaden's sicence-fiction super-glasses and enters a virtual reality world... and then Jaden mysteriously shows up which is really strange (in a good way). Ethan's son has a sad scene with Madison and his mother at the cemetary. All in all, I think it was a fantastic ending.
  • I replayed the game once with the intention of letting the serial killer win the game (thus earning the "Perfect Crime" trophy), and then used various chapter controls to replay individual chapters to see what would happen if I varied my responses in certain situations. As previously mentioned, this pretty much broke the spell of the game in that you begin to see how limited the branching possibilities really are in the game. The first time playing through the game, you feel like every choice has weighty consequences. The second time, I found out that a lot of things didn't have much in the way of consequences at all. This is a bit disappointing, but I have to admit that I've never played a game that made me feel this way before. I really hope that future games manage to figure out a way to create more divergent paths and branching choices. Again, I realize this sort of thing has to be difficult and expensive to develop and I imagine it would be difficult to work on a game where any one playthrough would only reveal a small portion of the game... by design. And yet, that would be pretty awesome if someone could manage it.
That about wraps up Heavy Rain for now. In the end, it's a really interesting game, perhaps the most interesting of this generation, even if it does have its flaws.
Posted by Mark on April 25, 2010 at 08:06 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

Kratos

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
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 .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • First, an announcement! Yes, the Oscars are this Sunday, and in accordance with tradition, I will be liveblogging the event (as I have for the last several years). Feel free to stop by and stick around. I might even get me one of them event chat thingies.
  • The 2009 Muriel Awards: Speaking of movie awards, it's nice to see that some other folks are as tardy as I am with my awards. In any case, it's a good list, and lots of worthy winners.
  • I'm probably the only person who cares about this, but I found this announcement that 2K sports won't be putting out a NHL game for the PS3 or 360 (instead focusing on a Wii version) mildly interesting, and probably a victory for PS3 and 360 owners. My own experience with the 2K Hockey game was rather poor, and I found it very strange indeed when the unforgivable bug that was in my 2005 game was still in evidence at least 3 years later. In any case, this move probably makes sense for 2K, as they only sold somewhere on the order of 150 thousand copies of the game last year (on the PS3 and 360) while selling 250 thousand on the Wii. I suppose it also helps that EA isn't putting out their NHL game on the Wii (yet), as EA's games are clearly superior to the 2K versions. That being said, hockey games (and probably sports titles in general, including Madden) have gotten a bit too complicated for their own good these days. Aside from the tacked-on inclusion of the NHL 94 controller scheme in EA's games, these aren't really games you can just pick up and play. Whatever you may think of the Wii, it does represent an opportunity to rethink the way you approach a game. Often, making a game simpler can increase the fun-factor. But then, I'm not exactly confident in 2K games making that sorta leap. Still, it could prove interesting if EA followed 2K to the Wii. In other news, both 2K and EA missed out on another opportunity at an Olympic Hockey themed game, which I think could be a great change of pace for the Hockey gaming crowd.
  • Frederik Pohl has been writing a sorta retrospective of his friend Isaac Asimov (part 2, part 3, part 4, and ostensibly more coming). I've read a ton of Asimov and credit him with being one of the first SF authors to really get me into reading, but I've never read any of Pohl's books. Yet another addition to the book queue, I guess. In other news, I've actually been making some progress against the queue of late (3 books in 3 weeks, which is pretty good for me, though probably not a sustainable pace), so perhaps I'll get to a Pohl book sometime in the next decade.
  • Holy cow is this post boring... To spice things up, I present this item from the "I'm not scared enough of the Japanese" file (not really NSFW, but worth noting I guess). MGK, as usual, perfectly captures the situation with his captions (note the one underneath the image too).
  • Haven't seen many 2009 movies, why not spoil them all?
Alright, I better end here, or this is going to get really boring.
Posted by Mark on March 03, 2010 at 08:54 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

Father of the Year

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.

Couch potatoes

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 .: Comments (0) | link :.


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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:
  • The games look great. They've been upgraded to HD, though you can kinda tell that it's a previous generation game that's been upgraded. So while it's not a showoff game, it's a significant improvement over the PS2 version of the game. Of course, the character and level design were great to start with, and so this treatment only makes things better. As near as I can tell, everything else is pretty much the same as the PS2 version.
  • Unfortunately, there are some things that worked in the PS2 version, but which annoy me now. Most notably, the save points. Now, don't get me wrong, the save points are reasonably well spaced and there are even checkpoints between savepoints that make things less frustrating. However, I've noticed lately that I've become spoiled by current generation console games and computer games that have automatic save systems and checkpoints. I have to give the GoW Collection a pass on this because it is based on a last generation game, but if GoW III has the same save system, I'm going to be royally pissed. David Wong perfectly encapsulates why this type of thing sucks:
    This is a throwback to the arcade/NES days when physical limitations in the system wouldn't allow you to save your progress just anywhere. There is no reason for this now. None. We're busy. We've got work, appointments, phone calls. We shouldn't tolerate an inability to save our progress in any piece of software.

    Half Life 2 did this perfectly--it auto-saved every few minutes, behind the scenes. You didn't have to worry about it and you didn't have to re-fight enemies you had already defeated.

    There are people who say that preventing saves adds to the "tension" of the game. Sure, in the sense that the fact that your 360 could catch on fire at any moment also adds to the tension. Face it, if the only way you can think of to add suspense to your game is to disable a feature of the hardware, then you suck at making games.
    Now, again, God of War isn't that bad when it comes to save points. It's a lot better than even some current gen games (I'm looking at you Metroid!), but it grates on me. Again, I really hope God of War III will feature a more seamless checkpoint system.
  • Ares was much more difficult this time around! I must have inadvertently switched to easy mode or something when I played the game last because Ares kicked my arse this time around. Of course, I eventually beat him and won the game, so there's that. Interestingly, the battle with Zeus in GoW II was a lot easier, if a little tedious (more on this in a moment)...
  • Conversely, the Hades level didn't give me nearly as many problems this time around. The last time I played, this was a major complaint, and I nearly quit the game because I hated this level so much. I wasn't especially looking forward to it and it's still not fun, but I got through it amazingly quick this time. The platforming in the game is still the worst part (especially given the way the camera moves at times), and I was happy that GoW II mostly did away with the platforming, or took an approach more appropriate for a 3D game (there's a lot more climbing)
  • One of the things that God of War does well is quick time events. QTEs are somewhat of a bane in other games, but God of War always got it right. For the uninitiated, QTEs are basically a series of buttons you need to press during a cut-scene or cinematic. So you're fighting a Minotaur and a little circle appears above the Minotaur's head. Press the circle button and you see Kratos leap up and do some crazy maneuver to kill the Minotaur. There are often multiple steps to the process, in effect creating a mini-game. God of War was always pretty good about this. For the most part, if you failed to press the buttons fast enough, you would be given another chance to do so. In some cases, you don't need to use them at all. Some bosses do require you to complete the sequence though. But again, if you fail the sequence, you can just try again (you might lose some health in the process). A lot of other games are not as forgiving. In many cases, failing to execute the QTE will result in instant death. In such cases, QTEs cease being a fun mini-game and become an exercise in "Press this button to not die." which is kinda silly. And quite frustrating. One game I've played recently that did this poorly was the first Uncharted. That game was terrible at hinting that a QTE was even coming, and when they did happen, they were almost always of the instant-death variety. One of the things I loved about God of War was that they handled QTEs well... right up until the end of GoW II. For some weird reason, the final stage of the Zeus battle is an instant-death QTE. It only took me a couple of times to get it right, but it was annoying, even moreso because the series had always gotten QTEs right.
  • God of War II is still a pretty solid game. There are a bunch of new weapons and mechanics at work, but the game never gets too unwieldy and the primary gameplay is the same familiar hack-n-slash adventure stuff. The new weapons are fine, but the Blades of Chaos are still probably your best bet (also, I miss the Blade of Arcturus from the first game, but even that wasn't that well handled). This time around, there seem to be more in the way of environmental puzzles, all of which are pretty great (and none of which seemed to trip me up as much as a couple of puzzles in the first game). There are also a lot of mini-bosses. Some of these are great fun. Others are a bit lacking, but still pretty good. Ultimately, I don't think the game flows as well as the original, but that's kinda expected in a sequel. I'm already familiar with the things that make the game work, so there is less that feels new about the game. With the exception of a couple small control scheme changes, you could play the second game without knowing that it's even really a sequel (i.e. it seems like a single game... albeit one where you lose all your powers halfway through)... Apparently the series was planned as a trilogy (aren't they always), and so the middle installment ends on a bit of a cliffhanger (hehe, pun intended). Storywise, things are fine this time around. Kratos is less likeable this time around, and his end goal is a bit odd (destroy Zeus?), but by the end, it begins to make more sense. I'm looking forward to the conclusion in the third game...
  • This is completely irrelevant, but both games have PS3 trophies, and a lot of them are rather easy to get. I played through the first game and got 77% of the trophies without even really trying. I only got 60% in the second game (perhaps because I hadn't already played that one before). Still, if you're looking to build up your trophies (even though, uh, there's not actually a reason to do so), these games are probably a good candidate (if I played through again, I bet I could even get the Platinum trophy relatively easily).
Well, that wraps up God of War for now. More to come when part III comes out next month.
Posted by Mark on February 10, 2010 at 06:26 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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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.
  • Vendetta Red - "Shatterday"
  • Arcade Fire - "Intervention"
  • The Animals - "House of the Rising Sun"
  • The Mars Volta - "Aberinkula"
  • The Mars Volta - "Metatron"
  • Sufjan Stevens - "Come On! Feel The Illinoise!"
  • Sufjan Stevens - "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!"
  • Modest Mouse - "Paper Thin Walls"
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela - "Hanuman"
  • Sigur Ros - "Hoppípolla"
5 Annoying Things People Do When Playing NHL 10 Online
  • Abandon A Game - This happens all the time, and it's really annoying. Picture this: You're playing a game of hockey online, and for once, you're doing really well. The puck is bouncing your way, you're putting up a pretty good wall of defense, and you're actually getting scoring chances. You're about halfway through the game, and you've just taken a 4-1 lead when... your opponent quits the game. Now, it can be intensely frustrating to play this game against someone who is a lot better than you, so I can sympathize, but at the same time, this is a douchey thing to do. Indeed, some of the Trophies you can earn are dependent on actually finishing the game (this happened to me for the Century Play trophy, a gold-level trophy I've been slowly chipping away at for a few months now). Of course, there are accidents. People lose connectivity, etc... But those are rare. This happens way too often.
  • Watch All the Cut-Scenes/Highlights - Dude, come on, they're the same damn things every game. There's no reason to do this. None. It's a big waste of time. Sure, you want to watch a particular goal because you're amazed at how good I am (or you want to rub your talent in my face), fine, that's understandable. But that should be maybe once or twice a game, not during every goddamn whistle. Also related, but not a full-blown pet peeve, are the people who pause the game constantly for some reason. I'm assuming it's because they're fiddling with their lines or something, but that's still annoying. Real players can win with what they're given.
  • Play With The All-Star Team - Look, if you're really that bad, maybe you should put in some time playing the CPU on Hardcore Superstar until you get better or something. Choosing the All-Stars as your team just pisses me off. It's bad enough that most people seem to choose amazingly good hockey teams like Pittsburg or the Canadiens, but there's at least a reasonable chance that those people are legitimate fans. I play with the Flyers. A good team, but nowhere near the best.
  • Gratuitous Fight Picking - This is partly the game's fault for allowing so much shenanigans after the whistle and there is a place for fighting in the game (among other things, it boosts your lines energy, etc...), but that doesn't mean we need to take EA up on the offer every time gameplay stops.
  • Playing With A Slow Connection - Really? You want to play a game that's this choppy? Gimme a break. This is the one time I think it's acceptable to abandon a game (but you need to be sure you're not the offending party, in that case).
All that said, I am enjoying myself with the game. Now I just need to figure out the online league thing. I created a team and I have like 7 members on the team, but I can't figure out how to join a league or play a game. I guess some of my other members have to be online or something. Damnit.
Posted by Mark on December 04, 2009 at 11:02 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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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:
  • All Movie Talk - I knew I kept this in iTunes for a reason. Imagine my surprise when the long-defunct movie podcast suddenly sprouted a new episode last month. Of course, they're not planning on weekly podcasts like they used to do, but it's good to have them back. I'm hoping for maybe 1 a month. So far, they've recapped what's happened in their absence and also did an episode about accessible old and foreign movies, which turns out to be an interesting topic (and one which added about 10 movies to my Netflix queue).
  • A Life Well Wasted - Extremely well produced podcast about video games and the people that play them. It's put out by Robert Ashley, a freelance video game journalist and musician, and everything about the show, from the website design and posters (designed by the awesome Olly Moss), to the music and editing, to the actual interviews and subjects, is very well done. While ostensibly about video games, Ashley takes a broader view, often focusing on a more human element (examples include people who collect old video games and a guy that gave up playing video games for a year). The only real problem here is that the episodes are few and far between. But given the quality of the production, it's always worth the wait. I think he'd like to do one a month, but he has trouble finding subjects to interview and of course, editing the shows has to be a bear. Great stuff though, and well worth a listen.
  • My New Best Friend - I'll be honest. I haven't listened to this yet. But it sounds interesting. I won't even try to summarize the concept, but it appears to basically be an interview show (moderated by the hilarious Clown vs. Wolf blogger Greg Rice) where one actor interviews another actor. I'm not really sure what to make of it, but I will most definitely be checking it out.
  • 4 Guys, 1 Up - This one isn't technically new, but since the departure of Garnett Lee from 1 Up, David Ellis has taken over the show, renamed it, and retooled the format a bit. What they're going for is to have an industry guest every week, whether the guest be another journalist or an actual video game designer. So far, the shows have been good and I like the more structured format. Along with Filmspotting, this remains my only other "must listen" show every week.
I've actually toyed around with the concept of doing a podcast myself, but I have a feeling that it'll be a while before anything really comes of it. There's some groundwork I'd need to do first, and I'd also have to find a suitable cohost (I hate the way single person podcasts sound, and also, I'm just not articulate enough - I need someone to play off of...) Plus, the whole "time-consuming" thing won't make things very easy... I doubt I'd ever be able to do a weekly podcast, but then, I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, I'll have to be content with listening to podcasts...
Posted by Mark on December 02, 2009 at 09:29 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.


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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.
  • Infinite Summer has been suspended indefinitely. I only got about 400 pages into the book (and only wrote about the first hundred or so). It's hard to articulate why I never got into the book. It's extremely well written. Some of the subjects are interesting. It's not "hard" to read for me (at least, most of the time) in the way that, say, Gravity's Rainbow was... I just never found myself in the mood to pick up the book. And when I did, I almost immediately found my mind wandering. I wasn't bored, per say, but I found myself thinking about something else and having to refocus and reread the last paragraph. I guess I just don't like it. I have no idea what it's about... if I were having fun with it, that wouldn't be a problem, but I just couldn't connect. There are a ton of characters, but I never really understood or related with most of them. And the ones I did relate to or at least feel empathy for, well, they weren't around often. I don't particularly have any aversion to the amateur tennis world and indeed found that part of things mildly interesting. I really don't get the obsession with addiction and drugs though, and reading about that stuff is grating. There doesn't appear to be a plot. There are tons of things happening, I bet there is a sort of overarching story there, but ultimately, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to care about it when it resolves itself (or when it doesn't). The thought of reading 600 more pages to get there isn't really motivating me either. You know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of a Saturday Night Live episode. Every chapter is like a different skit. Sometimes there are recurring characters (or you see the same actors in different circumstances), there's an occasional laugh here or there, but for the most part, each chapter is an independent thing. There are thematic similarities and even some direct connections, but there are times when you read a 10 page character study on someone, then don't see him again in the next 300 pages (or for all I know, the rest of the book). In the end, I'm giving up on it. This is not something I do often. I can count the number of books I've given up on with one hand. There is a chance, however remote, that I'll get back on the horse someday, but that probably won't be anytime soon.
  • I think perhaps I was a little too hard on Valkyria Chronicles last week. It's not that anything I said was inaccurate, it's just that the combat - the actual part of the game you play - is really a lot of fun. Of course, everything outside of the actual gameplay is still annoying, but perhaps not as much as I made it out to be. I have a feeling that the inability to save games in the middle of a battle will be frustrating, but I just played 5 battles and only had to replay one of them (and that was ok because I was having fun probing the defenses and doing silly things with my people). I really hadn't gotten that far into the game when I wrote the last post, so I feel a little bad that I was so hard on it. It's certainly not a perfect game (it feels a lot like a PS2 game, and suffers from some of the same things that it shouldn't have to now that we have better technology on consoles), but it can be a lot of fun. One of the things I complained about was having to choose my full squad towards the beginning of the game without knowing what I would need, etc... It turns out that you only take a few people into battle anyway, and also that you can modify your squad at any time (and you kinda have to, because some of your people have traits that are or are not suited to the terrain in various levels). Of course, that makes me wonder why I have to limit my team in the first place, but I did find myself getting attached to certain characters and now have go-to folks in my squad. It will be sad if one of them ever dies... Anyway, I just wanted to say that I enjoyed the game a lot more upon revisiting it and am looking forward to playing more. I think I just picked it up when I wasn't in the mood for this type of game...
  • Flickchart is an interesting website. The main concept here is that instead of putting together a list of your top movies directly, you indirectly compile the list by picking between a series of choices between 2 movies. So for example, they put The Terminator up against X-Men Origins: Wolverine and make you choose (guess which one I chose!) There are, of course, a lot of flaws with the concept. The list that's emerged for me is probably only 30-40% accurate... And the grand majority of choices result in the better movie holding steady in the rankings. What's more, sometimes inferior movies creep into the top 10 and it's hard to unseat them because they don't come up to be rated very often, and when they do, they're against drastically inferior movies. You can narrow the pool of movies to choose from though, which helps a bit. In any case, it's a lot of fun, and I started to notice patterns or at least, types of choices that continually present themselves:
    • The Obvious Choice - Where one movie I love is placed against a movie I hate. This is surprisingly often. For example, this just came up: The Fugitive versus Transformers. Duh.
    • The Who Cares Choice - Where two movies I could care less about are presented. I usually just hold my nose and choose randomly. A good example of this just came up for me: Magnolia versus The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both mediocre movies from great directors. I like both movies, but I'm not especially enthusiastic about either and they're a far cry from what their respective directors are capable of...
    • The Sophie's Choice - Where two movies I adore are placed against each other. I suck at picking favorites, so this usually tough.
    • The Fun Favorite versus Great Classic Choice - This one seems to happen quite often. A fun movie is ranked against a movie that is extremely well made and a classic, but also a bit of a downer. Which do you rate higher? What's the criteria here? I would usually prefer to watch the fun movie over the great movie... but does that make the great movie less great? For example, Aliens versus Citizen Kane. Kane is the more important movie and is probably a better made film in a number of ways. But I would rather watch Aliens for the 110th time than Citizen Kane for the 3rd or 4th. It doesn't help that the two movies could not be more different. That might be a different category (or perhaps a different name for this category).
    And so on. Right now, my favorite movie of all time is listed as The Terminator, followed by Casablanca. They're both a bit too high, but reasonably accurate. My number 3 movie is Predator, which I love, but which is also far too high on the list. Meanwhile, my true #1 film of all time, The Godfather, is languishing at #120 on the list. Someday, perhaps after rating a few million more times, the list will be more accurate. I do have to wonder how many ratings you'd have to give in this way in order to arrive at a reasonably accurate list.
  • I seem to be in something of a rut in terms of blog posting. This happens from time to time, but I do have some posts planned that will have a little more meat on them (and not consist of unordered lists of things, the way the grand majority of posts here have been lately). I don't know when they will happen though, as they require more time and effort than your average post (honestly, I don't know how some bloggers do it).
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on November 22, 2009 at 03:08 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.


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Sunday, November 15, 2009

PS3 Game Corner
Just a few thoughts on games I've played recently:
  • Uncharted: Drake's Fortune: In anticipation of the recently released sequel, I finally got around to checking out the original. It was one of the few notable PS3 exclusives a couple years ago and it is indeed one of the system's standout games (though the recent sequel is supposed to be even better). Overall, it's a great game, though there are some annoying bits here and there. Visually, it's quite impressive and ranks right up there with Assassin's Creed the prettiest games I've seen for the system yet. The gaming style is mostly as a third-person shooter, with some basic platforming and puzzle elements thrown in for good measure. I've heard a lot of complaints about the shooting aspects of the game, but I rather liked it. The cover system (similar to Gears of War's system) could get a bit cumbersome at times, but overall, I really enjoyed it. There isn't a huge variety in weaponry, but what's there seems to work well. I suppose the one thing that seems odd is that your primary enemy consists of endless throngs of pirates... you'd think that an organization consisting of several thousand pirates and the logistical ability to support them on remote islands would be more organized and effective (and perhaps not need to go on such risky treasure hunting trips), but I guess not. The platforming is well done, though there are lots of times when you think you should be able to climb up a wall or make your way through some rubble or something, only to find yourself jumping ineffectually. Still, 3D platforming can be very annoying, and it never reached those levels here (the focus of the game is not the platforming, but it works well). The puzzles are almost alarmingly simple, but they work well enough.

    The one blemish on the game is the dreaded "Quick Time Events". I never understood the near universal hostility towards QTEs because my experience of them (mostly in the God of War games) was always pretty good. Well, they're awful here. This is a very cinematic game, with frequent cut-scenes where you passively watch the story progress. The problem, about 3 times in the game, the cut-scene suddenly throws up a button that you have to press within about 1 second, or you die. Not once did I ever notice it in time, forcing me to replay the QTE section again, this time knowing that the QTE is coming. It would be one thing if every cut-scene featured something like this, but 95% of them don't. The reason QTE works in games like God of War is that you don't immediately die when you fail to press the appropriate buttons in the right sequence. In some cases, the QTEs aren't even necessary in GoW. But in Uncharted, they are absolutely pointless. Fortunately, that's the only real major problem on an otherwise very polished game (and it's actually a pretty small problem). The only other minor annoyance is that saving the game doesn't actually save all progress... it only saves you up to the beginning of your current checkpoint. For the most part, the checkpoints are well spaced, but there is the occasional annoying area that's difficult to defeat.

    In terms of a story, well, there is a coherent story here, which is more than you can say for most games. The plot is a little thin, but I can see why a movie adaptation is planned. Indeed, there are several sequences that actually built tension and made me surprisingly jumpy at times. The generator sequence towards the end of the game is pretty harrowing, for instance. It's a lot of fun and one of the better adventure games I've played recently, though I suppose it doesn't really add much in the way of new or innovative gameplay. Still, in videogameland, a game that is this well executed deserves some credit, and I'm really looking forward to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
  • NHL 10: I've never been a big fan of sports or sports games, but for some reason, I've always loved hockey video games. From Blades of Steel on, I've gotten a new game every few years, starting in 1995. During the 2004 to 2006 corridor, I played 3 different games. I played the hell out of NHL 2004 (which probably remains my favorite hockey game of all time), but lost the game when I moved to my current house. I then made the ill-advised move to ESPN NHL 2K5, which was something of a disaster (and it appears that 2K Games were still suffering from major issues at least 3 years later). So made the move back to EA's franchise with NHL 06, which was a massive improvement over the 2K game, but ultimately lacked the spark that really captured me in 2004's installment. So I took a few years off and finally decided to take a look at what the current generation was doing. NHL 09 was apparently one of the best sports games of last year, and NHL 10 was poised to be even better, so I decided to pick it up.

    I have to admit, it's not as good as NHL 2004 in many ways. It's a much deeper game, and it managed to add that depth without sacrificing too much in terms of usability, though there are some things that still baffle me. It seems that in 2009, they completely revamped the controller scheme, and after some initial discomfort as I learned the new scheme, I began to warm to the new system. It makes primary use of the two analog sticks, with much less focus on the buttons. I have to wonder how well someone new to the game would react. I had issues with it, I think, because I was unlearning 15 years of muscle memory. Someone completely new might think it was a little easier. Or not. Who knows? Once you get beyond the basic mechanics, I think it starts to falter a bit. I've always been a big fan of poke-checking, but this game also has this "stick lift" feature that I think might be overemphasized, especially when you get into online play with someone who is really good. It's amazingly frustrating to play against someone who is that good with the more subtle controls. In any case, the game is customizable, so if you're a die hard purist and want to play with NHL 94 controls, that option is available (the PS2 era control scheme is also available). For the most part, the actual gameplay here is probably better than NHL 2004. The game does feature a much deeper franchise mode (called "Be a GM" mode) that manages to be more usable than, say, NHL 2K5 (which also had a deep GM mode). Still, there are some weird usability niggles that confuse me. For instance, advancing to the next game seems oddly manual. You have to manually sim up to the next game. I believe previous games just had an option to "Play Next Game." Also, every time your minor league team has a game the same day you do, you have to tell the system that it's ok to sim the minor league game. This is extremely odd since you can't actually play the minor league games. And even if you could, who would want to do that? What's more, the dialog boxes for this are very poorly written. Anyway, aside from that, things seem to work reasonably well.

    There are a lot of other modes available as well. There's a "Be a Pro" mode where you insert yourself onto a team and try to turn yourself into a star player. I haven't played this mode yet, but I'm very interested in checking it out. There is a new way of doing shootouts and penalty shots that I actually find kinda disorienting (in fact, I'm pretty sure I've never scored a goal against the computer - though I have against a human player). They also made a new fighting system that's a first person view. I'm not sure I have the hang of it yet, but it works reasonably well. There is an online mode that I think I'll actually play a good amount of... which is rare for me. The only online game I've played much of in the past has been Resistance 2's online co-op, and I didn't even play that much. I haven't managed to get into a league yet, but the Online Versus play seems to work fine for now.

    Ultimately, I feel like the game is missing many of the little things that were just so right about NHL 2004. For instance, winning the Stanley Cup was much more memorable in NHL 2004. They played a song you rarely heard and did a really nice presentation of the trophy and recap of the season, featuring little recaps for each individual player. Most of that is gone in NHL 10. You here one of the standard songs they play all the time, the presentation is there, as is the final photo, but the rest is missing. Indeed, the soundtrack in general seems a little weak this year. There is supposedly a feature that lets you import songs from your own collection, which is something I should look into. I wonder how much the soundtrack really impacts a game like this? Also, is it just me, or is this year's play-by-play and commentary distinctly inferior to previous years? I understand that things will be repeated often, but it seems like much of what they're saying isn't really representative of what's happening in the game (ok, fine, I just don't like it when they say that I'm dumb for trying so many one-timers). Also, is it just me, or do the face/hair designs not seem to match the players as well as previous games? I find this rather surprising, considering the improved graphics capabilities. It's not that the designs look bad - the graphics are definitely better - but they don't look as much like the players. Strange.

    The one thing that this game does have that no previous game has had is PS3 trophies. I know they don't really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but I'll be damned if that feeling of earning a new trophy isn't awesome. When I think about it, that Pavlovian "ding" is a little disturbing, but I love it and it keeps me playing games after I normally would have given up on them. I certainly wouldn't have given up on NHL 10, but the trophies do get you to think about new and interesting ways to play the game. All in all, it's a worthy game, probably the best I've played since 2004. I wish there was a way to fix some of the things that annoyed me, but it's a solid game and I'm sure it will keep me busy for a long time.
  • Valkyria Chronicles: This is a game I was really looking forward to for a while there, but as soon as I got it and started playing, I almost immediately lost interest... and I'm not sure why. I think it may have been because I started playing as soon as I finished Fallout 3. Not that I disliked Fallout 3 (in fact, I kinda want to revisit it), but the fact that you had to play for like 2 hours at a time in order to accomplish anything was annoying. I ended up writing a lot more than I thought I would below, but you should probably just watch Yahtzee's review. He's a bit harsher on the game than I would be, but he also hits all the pain points of the game and he is quite right that stuff like no auto-save and the crazy menu system are very annoying. (Also worth watching - the Unskippable guys tearing a cut-scene to shreds)

    Valkyria Chronicles is a sorta mix between a RPG and a turn-based tactical shooter (it's, uh, kinda hard to explain). There are a few things that immediately turned me off about the game. First was the way the story was told. There's this book that is broken up into chapters, and you have to click through each one (not sure why it's set up this way - if there are 3 cut-scenes in a row and I have to watch all of them, why not just show me them all instead of taking me back out to the menu after each one). In a lot of cases, there aren't even animations on screen - you just see a lot of dialog boxes and hear people talking, etc... This is something I have associated with a lot of Wii games, but this exposition-heavy style seems like a more common Japanese thing. Whatever the case, that's annoying. The story itself is ok, I guess. I haven't gotten that far, but the none-too-subtle fantasy version of WWII seems reasonably well done. The story concerns an evil empire in the East attacking a group of allies in the west. You're characters are part of a Switzerland-like country caught in the middle of things. All well and good, I guess, though the main characters don't seem like your average soldier-types. There's a certain naivete that the characters seem to have that I can't quite reconcile with the war setting.

    Anyway, once you get into combat, things are interesting and actually quite fun... but you can't save your game in the middle of a fight, which I predict will be really annoying as time goes on. I haven't gotten far into the game though, so maybe that part is addressed with checkpoints or something. I actually just finished putting together my first squad, and I've only really taken them on a small recon mission, but even putting together my team was a kinda odd experience. I would have thought we'd start out small, then gradually add team members. Instead, they make you load out a full 21 person team all at once. The process was kinda strange. I haven't played enough of the game to know what kind of balance I need from the soldier classes, and I'm not sure I understand the various attributes that give bonuses or penalties (i.e. some soldiers are apparently better at urban warfare than others, or vice versa, you have to consider the relationships between soldiers and various chemistry things there, etc...) I suppose that's something I can tweak as I go, but still. Again, I'm not very far into the game, and it is fun, but there have been a few annoyances along the way.

    The cell-shading art style is gorgeous and the game is generally pretty nice to look at. As previously mentioned, some of the cut-scenes skimp on the animation, but otherwise it's pretty good. Apparently there is an Anime show that is loosely based on the game. Anyway, it's a game I certainly want to play more of before really passing judgment, but so far, I find myself agreeing with Yahtzee on this one. Also, this shouldn't matter, but I can't get my Pavlovian trophy fix with this game because it was made before trophies were required. Dammit.

    Update: It seems I was too hard on Valkyria Chronicles. I've been playing it this week and am having lots of fun. The combat is great fun. The complaints above are still valid, but the story is getting more interesting and the various chapters seem to be a good mixture of combat styles (i.e. a battle in a wide open area of desert requires you to use a lot of scouts and snipers, but not so much shocktroopers). Good stuff...
So in the near future I think I'll find myself playing a lot of NHL 10, giving Valkyria Chronicles another try, playing more NHL 10, checking out the God of War Collection (mostly for GoW2, which I haven't played much of, but it might be nice to see GoW1 in HD too), then maybe catching up with The Force Unleashed. Then I might actually get around to some of the recent releases like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Modern Warfare 2, and Assassin's Creed II.

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 .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

NES Links and Thoughts
Just finishing off the NES retrospective with a few links and thoughts...
  • FCEUX: An easy to use and feature rich NES emulator that I used to get most of the screenshots for this series of posts. The best feature is the ability to save your game state anywhere during a given game. Since most Nintendo games didn't have this feature natively, it became a godsend when playing longer, relatively complicated games like Metroid or Zelda. It's amazing to me that there are still games made today, even on the current console generation, that don't allow saved games (or employ a nifty checkpoint system, etc...) NES games didn't allow them (or provided limited functionality) due mostly to technical reasons, though I guess it also gave kids bragging rights for some of these insanely difficult games. But for someone like me, save states are pretty much a necessity. While on the subject of save states, Kernunrex recently played Castlevania and made a similar point:
    I have no idea how anyone ever did this in the era before save states. ... I can't imagine the gallons of tears this game must have generated from '80s children who had parents mean enough to buy it for them. As an adult, I had to make a save state after every successful hit on Dracula. Even then, it took me 30-40 minutes of work. Yeash.
    Indeed!
  • JSNES: It's no FCEUX, but it's a pretty neat little javascript based NES emulator that runs on an HTML page. It's pretty impressive, though it only works really well in Google Chrome (other browsers have varying levels of lag).
  • Two honorable mentions I inexplicably forgot: Super Mario Brothers and Bionic Commando. Alas, I don't have a ton to say about Super Mario Brothers, except that I never really got into all the sequels (though SMB3 seemed pretty cool) or spinoffs (though I do like Mario Kart). The original came is pretty cool and did indeed engage me for weeks after getting the NES. Exceptional music and that peculiar early NES design aesthetic are true classics though (I mean, seriously, the game is about mustachioed Italian plumbers who are seeking to save a Princess from a giant, turtle-like monster called Bowser by eating mushrooms that make them larger and flowers that allow them to throw fireballs). A lot of the classic games like SMB draw from archetypal sources, which lends them power, I think. For instance, in SMB's case, one of the primary sources has to be Alice in Wonderland. Ok, so I ended up saying more than I expected about SMB. Sue me. As for Bionic Commando, I said my piece on that a few weeks ago in a post on Bionic Commando Rearmed, the rather excellent current-gen remake (though by all accounts, the current generation Bionic Commando game is rather sucky).
  • The Games that Defined the NES: A nice sampling of iconic games on this console - a lot of overlap with my list and... crap, I forgot to mention Excitebike. I did enjoy that game, though it was mostly because of the fact that there was a track editor that came in the game... which may have been a first for me. Anyway, the list has a few other games that are worth mentioning, but which I never really owned or got into (i.e. Kirby and Kid Icarus, though I may have played that one at some point - it seems very familiar).
  • Duck Hunt is another I forgot to mention, though it's primary claim to fame was that it came with SMB and was the only game I ever owned that used the Light Gun. This is actually interesting to me because it's yet another Nintendo game that matches really well with a peripheral that was never really used so well again. Kinda like the Wii, where the single best example of a Motion Control game is still Wii Sports (though I guess you could argue that Wii Sports Resort has superseded the original... on the other hand, it's pretty much the same concept and it also requires an additional peripheral). But I seem to have digressed away from the NES. Moving on...
And that about wraps up the NES retrospective. It was fun! Next up in the list of retrospectives will probably be my family's first IBM compatible computer, a 66MHz 486 Gateway computer, and the various games I played on that (This will be very imprecise though, since there are classic games that I never played until much later on different computers... but given the personal and subjective nature of these retrospectives, it probably makes sense to focus on what I played on what machine... so when I leave out Sim City, don't worry, it'll probably be on the next computer on the list...) Hopefully, I'll get to that series of posts much quicker than I got to the NES (i.e. hopefully within the year).
Posted by Mark on September 30, 2009 at 06:34 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.
  • Blades of Steel: Sports games still didn't quite have the appeal back then, but they could be fun and somewhat memorable, in a simple way. Blades of Steel had that awesomely lame attempt at play-by-play commentary that ended up making the game hard to forget. It would be far surpassed by later games, but this represents the first true playable hockey game...
  • Contra: It's got guns and aliens. What else do you want? Also infamous for the Konami code, which allows you to start the game with 30 lives instead of the usual 3 (and even then, I don't think we ever won this game, though we did get pretty far).

    Scoring a goal

  • Double Dragon II: The Revenge: This game is not nearly as good as I remember it, but this brawler was a lot of fun at the time. I believe this second game was the one I owned, and I'm pretty sure I even beat it. Later games would improve considerably on the formula set by these games though, so there's that.
  • Gauntlet: A port of the arcade game, it was still a lot of fun, and very hard in the later levels. What can I say, I was a sucker for the swords and sorcerer stuff.
  • Mike Tyson's Punch Out: That's right, I said it. Mike Tyson. Not Mr. Dream. Who the hell is that anyway? Even to this day, this game is amazingly fun to play (I haven't played the recent Wii version, but I gather that it's pretty much the same game with a few extra fighters and updated graphics, which is all it really needs). One thing that was obvious even to my younger self but which is so blazingly strange about the game is the absurd racial stereotyping that each fighter represents. It's still a great game. Also, when you win a title match and you start training, the music is incredible, some of the best for the NES. Later boxing games improved graphics and realism, but I think this might remain the best.

    Super Macho Man

  • R.C. Pro-Am: Did you know those were supposed to be radio controlled cars? That's what the R.C. stands for. I always thought this was just a regular racing game. And a really, really fun one. For all its simplicity, it's a really great game. That I was never able to beat. Dammit.

    Racing

  • Shadowgate: This is almost a throwback to those old text adventure games, but it's more formalized for use with a gamepad. I remember being completely consumed by this game when I got it, but it's the sort of game that doesn't do so well upon replaying. Once you know the secrets, it gets a bit boring. Still, it's one of the more memorable games I played.

    Shadowgate screen

Again, there are probably dozens of other games I should be mentioning (Double Dribble? Excitebike? etc...), but this series of posts has to end somewhere... Perhaps one more wrapup post next Wednesday...
Posted by Mark on September 23, 2009 at 06:57 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • Final Fantasy: This is really a great game, from start to finish. You start with a team of four characters, each of which from a different class of character (usually combining the offensive strength of a fighter with other types of fighters and magicians) and begin exploring the various areas. Most of the time, you are funneled through choke points, forcing you to face off against a boss in an area before continuing. You are also prevented from exploring to certain areas because of the power of the enemies you face there (hence the aforementioned grinding). Many of these bosses are memorable and challenging. I distinctly remember several, including the first boss named Garland (which I borrowed as a name of one of my D&D characters, a ranger if I remember correctly). A later boss was the Kraken. I remember it being very difficult to get to the Kraken without depleting your energy too much, to the point where I kept my NES on for a few days (i.e. I didn't want to turn it off because I got so far in good condition). Of the games mentioned in this post, this is the only one I've actually completed. For some reason, despite loving this game, I never played any of the sequels or spinoffs (of which there are over a dozen at this point), though I have to admit a certain anticipation for FF13.
  • Dragon Warrior: This game actually predates Final Fantasy by a year or so (and I'm sure it influenced the makers of FF) and is very similar. To be sure, I don't think I ever got that far with this game, but it introduced me to the franchise and I remember playing this game and Dragon Warrior II at a friend's house often.
  • Dragon Warrior III: When I finally saved up enough money to buy one of these games, Dragon Warrior III had just come out, so I ended up purchasing that game. This game expanded upon the others by including a massive amount of content. A larger world to explore, more and varied enemies to defeat, and a massive amount of special items to collect. Indeed, I remember it having an absolutely huge instruction manual and a big map of the world with a list of magic items and creatures on the back (such things were common then). The game was huge, so despite enjoying it, I don't think I ever finished it. I did get pretty far though, and I had a lot of fun with it...
Well, that about wraps up the RPG portion of this series. The Six Weeks of Halloween series of posts will be starting up this weekend, so I'll probably be finishing off the NES posts with an honorable mentions post and some final thoughts on the coming Wednesdays...
Posted by Mark on September 17, 2009 at 09:03 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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).
  • The Legend of Zelda: I'm surprised at how well this game holds up, even today. Sure, the game is very difficult and requires a level of mastery I rarely attained, but the game's mystique has always kept me interested and wanting more. This is yet another proto-open-world game (I'm beginning to see a pattern here in early games that I consider great), where you simply begin playing in the middle of a gigantic video game world. In the Zelda games, these are referred to as the "overworld" and you navigate up there to find various dungeons, fighting monsters in order to find and reassemble scattered fragments of Triforce. Once you have all the fragments, you fight Gannon and save the princess.

    Navigating the overworld
    Link navigating the overworld

    The overworld is a masterpiece of game design. It's mostly open, meaning that you can go almost anywhere at any time. There are some areas that require an item or two to reach, but even then, you're given surprising freedom of movement within the gameworld. The thing that keeps you out of certain areas are all based on how powerful the enemies are. Sure, you could head over to the graveyard at the beginning of the game, but chances are that you'll have some trouble surviving there long enough to get anything good. I haven't played much of the newer Zelda games, but there seems to be a distinct lack of "overworld" style gameplay that really causes the newer games to suffer. Like Metroid (another pseudo-open-world), the original Zelda is a game that places a premium on exploration. The world is huge and filled with secret rooms, stores and dungeons. The game doesn't make you feel as isolated and alone as Metroid (you encounter many NPCs in Zelda), but it does a lot of similar things.

    Link entering a dungeon
    Link entering a dungeon

    One of the greatest things about the game is the music. It's amazingly good. Despite a decent amount of repetition, the music never really seems to get boring, which is kinda surprising (the dungeon music is perhaps less brilliant than the overworld stuff, but it's still damn good). Likewise, the visual design of the world and the various creatures that inhabit it are excellent. The world is bright but not overly cheery and the dungeons are all ominous without being suffocating.

    One other thing that seems silly, but which definitely differentiated this game from all the others was that the physical game cartridge was gold in color (rather than the standard, boring gray). Normally, I would think of gold as being gaudy and obnoxious, but the Zelda cartridge, manuals, and packaging all seemed to be somewhat classy. So perhaps I was just buying into the hype of the day, but hell, it worked.

    Zeldas Gold Cartridge
    Zelda's Gold Cartridge

    This is actually a game I never owned as a kid. Winning the game was a group effort undertaken by several kids on my block, and it was a lot of fun. Due to various time constraints, I only got about halfway through the game as of this writing (that's even relying on my tendency to cheat at video games), but it's something I definitely want to finish replaying at some point. Other games in this series of posts (or this post itself) won't be so lucky. But Zelda is a true classic, one of the best games of all time.
  • Zelda II: The Adventure of Link: Having loved the first game, I naturally moved on to the sequel, which ended up being a very different game. There was still an overworld, but that was not the main arena for battle. Instead, you used the overworld as a way to get from one dungeon/cave/town to another, occasionally running into some enemies along the way, something more typically seen in RPG games. Indeed, this game built on the RPG elements of the original Zelda in many considerable ways, instituting an experience points system, allowing various magic spells, and of course, expanding upon the concept of collecting magic items and other special abilities. The other huge change in this game was that all of the combat took place in a side-scrolling action/platforming environment. This is a rather large change in gameplay style, though my young self didn't seem to have any issue adjusting (the new and expanded RPG elements were enough to placate me). This game was made rather quickly after the first game, so perhaps Nintendo wasn't sure if the original game's top-down view would continue to work. In any case, the game's controls were relatively well balanced, making it easy to pick up and once you got some of the more advanced abilities, the game gets more fun. It's also worth noting that the overworld had more significant obstacles and choke points, making the game progress a little more linearly than the original. This was mitigated by the sheer size and scope of Zelda II's world, but it's something I found a bit lacking.

    Zelda II Overworld
    Zelda II's Overworld

    From what I can gather, this seems to be one of the least favorite Zelda games in the series. Having played only 3 myself (the original, this one, and Twilight Princess Wii), I'm not really a good judge, but I loved this game when I was a kid. I played through it at least 3, maybe 4 times. One time, a friend got his save files corrupted after getting pretty far into the game, so I volunteered to play the game up to that point for him so that he could continue on.

    The music for this game was good and more varied, but somehow not as iconic as the original (which isn't to say that it's not iconic in its own right). The visuals and enemy design were a definite improvement though. The boss fights, in particular, seemed to be more memorable. One distinct step down in this game was the way it handled character deaths. In the original game, if you died in a dungeon, you would start back at the beginning of the dungeon. In Link, you're given 3 lives, but if you die that many times, you end up back at the beginning of the game. So dying is more of a pain in Zelda II.

    A frequent cause of death in Zelda II
    I hate fighting these guys

    Now, replaying this game, I've only managed to get to the second dungeon (due to the way the overworld is constructed in this game, the dungeons/caves/towns are the star of the game, so that's what everything gets associated with). This is mostly because I didn't have time to figure out the appropriate cheat codes, but it's also because this game is extremely long! At one point, you get to a screen that very much resembles the overworld of the first game. Malstrom has speculated that Zelda I was perhaps just a close-up view of a piece of Zelda II (See the map in his post - he also mentions that most of the new Zelda games are lacking in the overworld department).

    Despite any complaints above, this game is still a classic and one of my favorites of all time. I've probably logged more hours on this game than any others in this post, which is pretty impressive. I doubt I'll have time to completely revisit this game in the near future, but it would be worthwhile if I did.
  • The Battle of Olympus: Given my undying love for Zelda II, it's no wonder that I ended up loving this game as well. It's basically a Zelda II clone in terms of action and fighting gameplay, only it uses Greek Mythology as a base. There's not much of an overworld to the game (there is a map of sorts, but I wouldn't call it an overworld in the Zelda sense), but it's not a completely linear experience either. There are branching paths and backtracking, just not as much as we've seen in games previously discussed.

    Visiting a god
    Visiting a god

    Despite stealing gameplay elements from Zelda II, the game feels very distinct. I think a lot of the power of this game had to do with its reliance on Greek Mythology. You play Orpheus, a real figure from Greek Mythology, who goes on a quest to the Underworld to save his beloved Eurydice from her afterlife in Hades (if I remember correctly, the game is a somewhat less tragic retelling of the story). Along the way, you meet up with familiar gods (Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, etc...), mythological beasts (a Cyclops, a Minotaur, Cerberus, the Lamia (which I find amusing considering the current season of True Blood), a Siren, a Centaur etc...), and you collect various legendary items (Apollo's Harp, the sandals of Hermes, etc...) All these familiar elements lend a timeless quality to the game, even if it isn't the most innovative of it's time (something that God of War would much later cash in on as well, though that game is probably more timeless than this one).

    All of that said, this isn't really as good as Zelda II. The platforming and fighting controls are a little more floaty and difficult to master, and some of the enemies in this game are ridiculous. In particular, I hated battling Cerberus. He has three heads, and you have to destroy each one to defeat him. The only issue is that after destroying one head, you have to be really fast because if you wait too long, it will regenerate. On the one hand, this was annoying as hell. On the other hand, it really stuck out in my head, and once I did manage to defeat him, there was a real sense of accomplishment.

    Fighting some enemies

    I didn't get very far in replaying this game, so it's hard to say for sure, but I can see the appeal to my younger self. The game very clearly depends on a love of mythology and Zelda II, but given that I enjoyed both, I have very fond memories of this game. It's probably not something you'll see in a lot of best-of lists, but it holds a special place in my gaming history.
  • Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse: Having played the first two Castlevania games at various friends' houses, I ended up getting this game when it came out. I never really got far in either of the previous two installments of the game, but I really liked the feel of those games and the prospect of vampire hunting seemed fun to me, so I took the plunge with this game. Technically a prequel to the first two games, you play Trevor Belmont, a vampire hunter on a quest to defeat Dracula. Pretty simple stuff.

    Trevor Belmot and his trademark whip
    Trevor Belmot and his trademark whip

    As gameplay goes, this is more similar to the original Castlevania. It's more of a platformer than anything else, though it's not completely linear. You can take different paths to get to Dracula's castle, and depending on your choices, you can pick up companions along the way. These companions apparently wind up being pretty important throughout the game series, but for the purposes of this game, they're pretty great (well, two of them are). The first one you could encounter is Grant DaNasty, a pirate who was corrupted by Dracula (which is kinda funny considering that pirates aren't exactly saints themselves). Once you defeat him, he becomes human again and you can choose to have him come with you on your quest. He gives you the ability to jump higher and further than Trevor and he can also climb on walls, making some previously inaccessible areas available. He was one of my favorite characters and became the basis for a D&D character I played for years. Another character you could play was Alucard, who is actually Dracula's son. Alucard would go on to star in what is often considered the best game of the Castlevania series, Symphony of the Night. If you chose to use him as your companion, you got the ability to use a fireball attack and you could also change into a bat. Finally, you could also play Sypha Belnades, who didn't have much of a physical attack ability (and thus was probably the least useful of all the characters), but she made up for it a bit with some magical abilities.

    Visually, the game was decent, though not exceptional. Same thing for the music, which is memorable and contains that iconic Castevania theme, but is otherwise not particularly special.

    Grant jumps onto a swinging pendulum
    Grant jumps onto a swinging pendulum

    In replaying this game, I have to admit that I'm surprised it held my interest so much back in the day. Granted, I do still love the mythology of the Castlevania franchise. Dracula is a fantastic villain in any medium, and video games are no exception (and the game makers certainly made that final bossfight count - it took me forever to beat him). The addition of Grant and Alucard (and to a lesser extent Sypha) also did a lot to help my interest in this game (I mean, come on, did you know that Dracula had a son? Holy shit man! That's awesome!). I don't necessarily shy away from a challenge, but man, the platforming and control scheme in this game is just plain shitty (things are improved a bit with Grant, who has a bigger leap and his ability to cling to walls also comes in handy). Unlike previously discussed games like Metroid and Zelda II, the controls here seem quite poorly balanced. So a big portion of the challenges in this game are only challenging because the controls are crappy. I do remember eventually finishing this game and yes, it was quite a good feeling of accomplishment, but looking back at that now, I'm still a bit surprised.

    Aside from the platforming annoyances, it really is a good game, and apparently an influential one on the rest of the series. Alas, I'm not that familiar with other games in the series (I remember playing one on the PS2, but that game wasn't very good), but perhaps I can change that in the near future. I have a lot of fond memories about this one, so perhaps a more lengthy visit in the future would be warranted.
Well that about wraps up this installment. Next up are the RPGs. I will be traveling this week though, so they might get short shrift (which is probably for the best, considering how much time I spent playing those damn games - time that I would never get away with these days).
Posted by Mark on September 13, 2009 at 10:23 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Metroid
Emergency order. Defeat the Metroid of Planet Zebes. Destroy the Mother Brain.
--Galaxy Federal Police M510
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.

Metroid Title Screen

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.

Entering Kraids lair
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
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
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...

Metroid Opening

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.

Kraid

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.

Ridley

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

Frustration, thy name is this screen (and I've already gotten pas the really hard part).

Tantalizing screen

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).

This looks suspicious

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.

An actual Metroid

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.

Mother Brain

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:

The end

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

The NES Gamepad

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 (not sure if those match exactly what I had, but it was close Update: It was an Entex: Color Football 4...) that had a sorta gamepad style control (i.e. buttons for up/down/left/right) and I'm sure some arcades had similar style controls, but the dominant controller at the time was the joystick. The gamepad was a huge innovation and it's something that survives to this day (even Nintendo's new fancy motion-controllers double as old fashioned NES controllers, which is actually kinda impressive). I don't want to get into a holy war regarding the history of video game controllers, but it does seem like Nintendo has always been an innovator in that realm. Sometimes that hurt them (I believe the N64 controller was the first major console controller to feature an analog stick, but Nintendo wasn't sure how that would work out, so they also included a standard gamepad style control, which resulted in a weird three pronged controller), sometimes they scored big (the wiimote). In any case, the classic NES controller is pretty awesome, despite the blocky, non-ergonomic design.

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: Depending on time, I might even check out some games I didn't play much (or games I never played at all). In a lot of cases, I've played only one game in a given series. For instance, I never cared much for Mario, and as such I only ever owned the one that came with my system. Sure, I played part 2 and part 3 from time to time at friends' houses, but I was never really down with the series. In other cases, when I got my hands on enough cash to buy a game, I ended up buying the latest incarnation of a series I know I liked (Castlevania III is a prime example, but there were several others).

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • The graphics have been updated to modern standards. The game is still a 2d platformer, but the graphics engine is 3d and displays a lot more detail. The music has also been given a contemporary facelift. In both cases, the level design and feel of the game has been preserved, while at the same time giving the game a more modern look and feel. The music, in particular, is fantastic - so much so that Capcom has made it available for sale by itself...
  • Many of the annoyances of the NES era have been smoothed over and revised. The game automatically saves after each level, and while you're in the level, if you die, you respawn where you were last standing (usually - there were some times I got sent back further and didn't know why, but in any case, it's an improvement over the original). One of the frustrating things about the original game was that you could only take one of each piece of equipment into a zone (i.e. only 1 gun, only 1 communicator, only 1 special item), but in Rearmed, you always carry everything. There are no "continues" and you don't need to collect extra lives (at least, at the default difficulty you don't).
  • The Boss battles have been completely revamped. There are minor similarities and some of the bosses resemble their original counterparts, but the way the boss battles work is now completely different. I could go either way on this. The new boss battles are definitely good and they can be challenging and fun, but I also enjoyed the originals. One of the things that I always thought was interesting about the original was that in some cases, you didn't even need to defeat the boss in order to win the level - you just needed to destroy each level's reactor to win... but that detail has been left out here. Still, the new Bosses do ensure a freshness to the game that would have been missing if the originals were simply copied.
  • The weapons have been updated, in some cases making them more powerful and also allowing for a few new ideas to make their way into the game. When combined with the ability to access all weapons during a given level, there are some interesting consequences to this variety. For instance, if you're hanging out somewhere and you need to start swinging, you can change to the shotgun and fire off a blast that will get you swinging and allow you to jump to another area, etc...
  • The game features a couple of new modes, including something called Challenge Rooms which are unlockable obstacle courses. These start out pretty easy but quickly become nigh impossible. With a lot of practice and lightning fast reflexes and muscle memory, you'll be able to get far, but man, these things get hard. There are 56 rooms in total (plus some bonus rooms), but by the time you get to the 10th or 11th room, you'll be hurting, and it doesn't get any easier from there. There's also apparently a cooperative mode where two players can play through the game, but I haven't tried that part yet...
  • There are a ton of secrets and weapon upgrades, etc... in the game. In some cases, these are fun to find, in others, I have to wonder how anyone would find them without some sort of walkthrough.
There are lots of other changes, but overall these updates to the game are for the best. The developer, Grin, managed to keep the essence of what made the original great, while jettisoning the stuff that is no longer necessary. The result is a game that retains the feel of its predecessor while still carving out an identity of its own. This isn't a point for point, near identical remake, which ends up being a good thing.

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Playstation News
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?

"It's not coming back, so let me put that on the table," Koller says with an air of finality. But it's all people ever talk about!

"It's not as big as a purchase intent driver as you may be hearing," he claimed. "We've got such a substantial lineup of titles on the PS3; most people are buying the PS3 for PS3 games. They've buying it for PS3 games and Blu-ray movies."

"That won't be returning," he repeats.
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • It's a "sandbox" style game, meaning that there aren't really "levels" or linear progressions. You're simply dropped into a city and you drive around looking for various events. There isn't really a story of any kind... indeed, there don't appear to be any humans in the game (i.e. no pedestrians, no one appears in other cars' seats, etc...) From this, I gather that the game takes place in a futuristic world where humans have become extinct and cars have become sentient, roaming our abandoned cities, doing jumps and smashing into one another. When I first heard about the open sandbox style of the game, I was a little unsure about it, but it turns out to be a fantastic framing device for the gameplay, ensuring continuity between events and allowing you to pursue more open-ended pursuits (like smashing through billboard signs or finding the big jumps). One neat thing about the open world is that the entire thing is available right from the start - you don't have to unlock anything (though you do need to discover various landmarks like gas stations and junkyards, etc... but discovery is as simple as driving past the landmark). Every traffic light in the game represents some sort of event, and you can trigger any event at any time. As you progress throughout the game, more cars become available and you gradually get better and better "licenses." There are probably a couple hundred things to do in the game, so there's generally something fun to do at any given time.
  • While it's an open world game, there are several events that you can participate in. A big part of the reason I like this game so much is that the events aren't all simple racing events (which I find kinda tedious and which can get on my nerves after a while). Sure, there's a few racing style events (where you race other folks or the clock), but there are a bunch of other events that liven things up. There are Marked Man events, where you have to make it to a specific point on the map while other cars try to make you crash all along the way. Then there's the Road Rage events, where you have to "takedown" as many other cars as you can. Finally, there's the Stunt Runs, where you attempt to chain together various jumps, spins and smashes to reach a certain number of points. All of the events are pretty well balanced and fun, and again, I really appreciated that there was more to do here than just racing against other cars.
  • Speaking of cars, there are a ton of cars available in the game. None are real-life cars, but they can still be a lot of fun. There are three basic classes of cars, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. There are speed cars, which are all about fast accelleration and high top speeds, but which usually suffer from a weak chassis and often have handling issues (usually pretty good during races). Aggression style cars can take a lot of damage, but usually aren't very fast and handle like a tank (perfect for Marked Man and Road Rage events, though). Stunt cars can take a fair amount of damage and also have some pep too them. These are probably the most well rounded cars of the bunch, though once you get later in the game, the only thing you can really use them for is, well, stunt runs. Each car has a "boost" that is recharged by doing things the car specializes in (i.e. do a jump or a spin, and you'll racharge some boost in your stunt car, etc...) The only real complaint I have with the cars are with the speed cars. They often look the coolest, but can be really difficult to drive. Since they seem to be made of tinfoil, i also found myself totalling the car often. Considering that you can get up to really high speeds in these cars and that many of them have super-sensitive contorls that make handling somewhat difficult, it can be quite easy to total your car with even the slightest ding. And every time you smash the car, you have to sit through this animation of your car crashing in slow-motion. The first couple of times you see this, it's pretty cool. After a thousand times, it gets kinda old. So the speed cars could use a little tweaking, but otherwise, the cars are a blast.
  • There are a couple of other things you can do. For instance, there are a number of high jumps and billboards throughout the city. There's also something called Showtime, which is basically a "crash mode" style minigame where you crash your car and try to inflict the most damage possible on other cars and street property. If you get on a crowded road, you can keep this going for an amazingly long time, and I have to admit that crashing into a ton of stuff and demolishing whole city blocks worth of cars is pretty damn fun. Less exciting are setting time records on various roads. There's also an apparently deep online mode that I never played (maybe I'll check it out at some point though).
  • All in all, the game is great fun. During my Fallout 3 review, I mentioned that I had to dedicate 2 hours of time per gaming session if I wanted to get anything done, and that was indeed something that annoyed me about that game. However, I found myself playing Burnout much longer than that during most sessions and yet, I was having a blast. I think a big part of it was that Burnout's events are all short and sweet, so it feels like I'm making a lot of progress every time I play. There were times when I popped it in and just played for like 20 minutes or so, and even then, I managed to do an event or two and maybe find a billboard and smash it. Just knowing that's an option makes the game more fun to play (whereas, I wouldn't even bother with a game like Fallout, because I know I wouldn't get anything done). Burnout also seems to have a massive amount of available PS3 Trophies. While I know they don't especially mean anything, they do provide tangible milestones and can be fun to collect. Burnout Paradise sucks you in by appealing to the rewards circuitry in your brain, bigtime. This is something most video games do, but this game does it especially well.
  • In terms of usability, the core concept of finding and starting events is good. The only thing the game does poorly at is how you restart an event. Apparently, there was no way to do this when the game was first released, which meant you had to drive back to the starting point, which could be quite far away. However, Burnout has had quite a few patches and free updates, and they "fixed" the restart issue at some point (before I bought the game). The only problem is that the way you restart your last event is really awkward and involves using the d-pad options menu (as opposed to most every other option in the game, which you can do on the fly). There's no way I would have figured that out without looking it up... but at least it's there. Otherwise, the game does a pretty good job. The only other complaint I have is the latency when choosing cars in the junkyard. I have no idea why it takes so long for the car/info to appear, but it could get annoying. These are all nitpicks though, and the game does a damn good job keeping you in the game.The game's controls are reasonably easy to pick up and don't get too complicated either, which is a plus. I shouldn't have to talk about this, but this game does a fantastic job auto-saving everything to the point where I almost forgot to mention it (which is how saving games should be these days!)
  • In terms of difficulty, I thought the game presented a pretty good balance (keeping in mind that I'm a cheater - not that I cheated during this game, as it wasn't necessary). At the start of the game, it's pretty easy and I think I won most of my events on the first license. As the game progresses, each event style gets harder or at least, the requirements get higher. Towards the end of the game, it gets a bit prohibitive, especially on the stunt runs and the races or burning routes. This might be another minor usability niggle - the city is huge, and once you get to a certain point in the game, the only way to win an event is to memorize, well, pretty much the whole city, including shortcuts and where every jump is located, etc... Again, the city is huge and it can be quite difficult to, for example, chain together the required amount of jumps, spins, and smashes to complete a high difficulty stunt run (though I will admit to a certain rush when I do manage to land an epic stunt run). I'm sure plenty of folks will dissect the hell out of the city and figure out all the fastest routes, etc.. but while I had figured out a few tricks and had certain parts of the city memorized, I never really got there. The game does try to get around this during events that have a finishing point by providing a nice mini-map (which works reasonably well) and a sorta blinking roadsign notification of when you should make a turn, but those indications can be a bit difficult to catch (especially when you're moving really fast). Some people have mentioned that they would pause the game frequently to look at the larger map, but this isn't something I felt I needed to do very often. Also, the various shortcuts sometimes make it hard to find the quickest route on a map. Again, these are relatively minor complaints - the game did an excellent job drawing me in and keeping me interested.
  • The game features an apparently robust online component, though I've never used it (perhaps I'll try it out someday). There is also apparently quite a bit of downloadable add-on content as well, including whole new parts of the city and lots of cars. Some of these add-ons are free and will be downloaded when you first play the game (the amount of updates for the game when you fist play can be a bit daunting at first though - it took quite a while to get the game running that first time because there were so many patches and add-ons being installed.) For instance, there was a free add-on that gives you a few motorcycles and additional events, though that mode isn't very deep (and it kills me that you can't do the hand-breaking on bikes, which I know is a ridiculous thing to ask for, but still). At some point, I may check out some of the DLC for the game, but I haven't as of yet...
All in all, I played this game a little less than Fallout 3, but I had a much better time with this, which is somewhat surprising because I'm not a big fan of racing games (but then, as I hope I've established above, this isn't strictly a racing game). It's a very cheap game, so if you have any inclination towards car games, give this one a try .
Posted by Mark on August 09, 2009 at 06:22 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cheating
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wii Game Corner (again)
Some quick reviews for Wii games I've played recently:
  • Mario Kart Wii: One of the games I used to play all the time in college was the original Mario Kart for SNES (along with NHL 94/95 and GoldenEye). It was great fun, and with this latest installment, I find that Nintendo has more or less duplicated the simple and fun formula of the original installments (the last MK game I played was the one for N64) and made a few tweaks that make it feel fresh. The simple motion controls work well and it's a nice change of pace, but at the same time, it's not like the series' old controls were all that tough. As with the original, this game is a blast to play with friends, especially with 4 players. Single player gets a bit repetitive after a while, but it's quite fun as well - it's nice to be able to pop in a bite-sized gaming experience. I'm glad I own this game becaues I've never owned a Mario Kart game before and I do find it to be a genuinely fun game to play (especially multiplayer), but at the same time, I can't help but think that it's just the same game I started playing 15 years ago. Indeed, it looks like the grand majority of the tracks are repurposed here from previous editions (of course, they picked the best tracks, so it's not necessarily a bad thing...) But hey, it's Mario Kart - it was pretty much exactly what I expected and I can't fault it for that!
  • Wii Fit: For what it is, it's quite good. Unfortunately, it doesn't really break any of the boundries I was hoping it would. The concept of a video game centered around a goal of fitness is an intriguing one, but while Wii fit is an interesting first attempt, I was hoping for more. The thing that really interested me was the concept of combining the just-one-more-level addictiveness of video games with the healthy side-effects of exercise... alas, Wii Fit doesn't really manage that. The software seems more aimed at providing guidance on traditional exercises, along with a few balance games thrown in for good measure. When I first got the software, I played it for about a week straight, and then pretty much lost interest. I'm starting my annual summer exercise kick though, and I think Wii Fit may find a place in my regular exercise schedule, but more as a warmup and a way to keep track of my progress than my primary exercise tool (which will probably be the elliptical machine in my basement, along with some free weights).

    The software comes with a plethora of exercises and simple mini-games, many of which you have to unlock as you go. It can be a bit annoying at first, because a lot of the playing time gets tied up in listening to the Wii Balance Board or your virtual trainer explain stuff to you. The software keeps track of the time you spent exercising, but when you first start off, most of the exercises take only 1 minute or so to complete. So to complete a 30 minute workout, it took about an hour (with the other 30 minutes being explainations and loading time, etc...). As you unlock more and more exercises and get more experience, longer exercises become available. The step exercise gets pretty good after a while, as does the boxing exercise. Yoga poses can be cool, but they still eat up a lot of time. The balance games are a lot of fun, but they're very simple and they also don't seem to be the most vigorous of exercises.

    The software anthropomorphizes the Wii Fit Balance Board into a character in the game, and I'm pretty sure it hates me, though it doesn't say so outright (it usually relies on passive-aggressive techniques to accomplish this). Seriously, sometimes the way the board talks to you is a little odd (my friend Roy thinks there might be some translation issues that cause the game to sound more caustic...). I'm not looking forward to returning after a few months absence... Ultimately, it's not everything I hoped it would be, but it's pretty good.
  • Ōkami: Traditional gamers have long complained that the Wii has left them out in the cold and not released any "Hardcore" games. One of the frequent counter-arguments to that is Ōkami. Originally released on the PS2, this game was ported to the Wii, presumably because one of the core mechanics of the game seems ideal for motion controls. The game's setting is right out of Japanese folklore, and you play a sun goddess named Amaterasu, taking the form of a white wolf. The story centers on how Amaterasu saves the land from a terrible darkness, which sounds like a common trope, but since the setting of traditional Japanese folklore is one I am not that familiar with, it still feels fresh. One of the key abilities of Amaterasu is something called the Celestial Brush. When you're playing, you can bring the game to a pause, which converts the screen into a canvas that you can paint on. Various brush strokes and patterns can be used for a variety of results: drawing a swirl can summon the wind, drawing a line through an enemy can cut them, drawing a circle in the sky can restore sunlight to the land, etc...

    You would think that these Celestial Brush techniques would make the game an ideal candidate for the Wii, but I am constantly struggling with them. There seems to be a certain precision that is required that is beyond what the Wiimote can provide by default. Perhaps I'm just doing something wrong (if I am, it's not particularly obvious what it is), but I often find myself struggling to duplicate whatever exact movement they want me to make. In particular, drawing a straight line can be rough (and early on in the game, that is a very important technique). Human beings have elbows, which are essentially pivots. The very physical nature of our arms means that moving our hand horizontally typically describes an arc, rather than a straight line. This is a basic tenet of human factors design, and I believe it's why I have so much trouble drawing a straight line in this game. So to be honest, I'm not even sure how well these motion controls would work, even if this game was ported to Wii Motion Plus, unless they also allowed some sort of corresponding tolerance to the system.

    The current generation of console video games seems to have massively improved a couple of the really annoying traits of the past. One of the most important of these is how you save your game. On most of my PS3 games, progress is mostly saved automatically whenever you accomplish something. Even games that do not have auto-save (such as Dead Space), make sure to provide frequent save points so that you don't have to constantly repeat large areas of the game (and even then, I hate the arbitrary nature of save points in those games). Unfortunately, like most Nintendo games where progress into a story matters (i.e. not games like Wii Fit or Wii Sports, where there isn't much in the way of "progress"), Ōkami suffers from save points that are spaced relatively far apart. This caused me to get stuck around 2 hours into the game at a point where I would have to play for about an hour, make a ton of progress, and then lose everything because I died in some random fight on my way back to the save point. I've now spent 3 hours trying to get past this point, and have pretty much given up on the game. Given the simplicity of the combat system, it's clear that fighting is not the point of this game. Fighing basically consists of random Wiimote waggling combined with the occasional Celestial Brush stroke, and it's not very fun. It would be one thing if the system was well balanced and fun to play - I'd want to master such a game and wouldn't mind the save system so much. But seriously, it's 2009. There are no more excuses for failing to provide an easy way to save games.

    The game also seems to be very heavy on text and dialog cutscenes (not sure if they technically qualify as cut scenes, but that's basically what they are), often forcing you to read through several screens of text (each screen is relatively short on text, but still, reading through 5 screens at once starts to get tedious). Fortunately, most of this text is skippable... but skipping such text causes the game to pause itself and transition to after the cutscene (in some cases, you're probably better off just pressing through the dialog as fas as it will let you). It doesn't seem like it would be that difficult to provide a more seamless transition from cutscene back to gameplay. Also, the interface is rather difficult to understand. It took me a while, for instance, to figure out how the health meter worked, which is kinda ridiculous.

    I know the game is somewhat old and that it was originally developed for the previous generation of consoles, but these flaws are intensely annoying, especially when I play a game like this side by side with PS3 games that get these usability details exactly right. This is a game I very much want to like a lot - the visual art style is actually quite good. This sort of stylish presentation is common on the Wii, but it truly does look great here and it fits the mood of the story well. I also like the way the game gradually nudges you to solve puzzles, allowing you the freedom to explore and figure out what to do, but also giving you some help if you really get stuck. The story itself seems pretty straightforward and conceptually the puzzles and general gameplay sound great. In practice though, they tend to be frustrating.

    This game gets generally great reviews from critics, but in all its incarnations, it has apparently sold very poorly. I can see why the critics like this game so much - again, it has all the right conceptual elements - but I can also see why it is shunned by players as well... it's not a very fun game. Again, I wanted to like this game - it's got a lot of elements I find intriguing (i.e. visual style, uncommon mythological setting, story, etc...), but in practice, the game just grates on me... I know I'm picky about usability stuff like the motion controls, save points, and dialog cutscenes, but I don't think those things are excusable anymore (at least, the combination of all three should be avoided). Ultimately, I was very disappointed in this game and to be honest, I'm not sure if I'm up to giving it another try. To be honest, the games theme of restoring life to a darkened world only wants to make me play another motion controlled game - Flower, for the PS3.
That's all for now (you could also check out the previous installment of Wii Game Corner). For all my gushing about the PS3 and for my general distaste for single-player Wii games of late, I still have several games I want to play or am otherwise looking forward to. Madworld, House of the Dead: Overkill, and The Conduit all sound like a lot of fun. The new Punch Out seems similar to Mario Kart in that it doesn't look to add too much to the original experience, and I have to admit that sort of thing isn't that exciting... but I wouldn't mind trying out the game. I'm not all that interested in purchasing Wii Sports Resort or Wii Motion Plus, but I would definitely like to play the games, just to see how well Motion Plus works... Who knows, maybe it will restore my flagging faith in motion controls.
Posted by Mark on June 21, 2009 at 09:12 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.”

Dollard says, for instance, that one of the biases in a sip test is toward sweetness: “If you only test in a sip test, consumers will like the sweeter product. But when they have to drink a whole bottle or can, that sweetness can get really overpowering or cloying.” Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, so right away it had a big advantage in a sip test. Pepsi is also characterized by a citrusy flavor burst, unlike the more raisiny-vanilla taste of Coke. But that burst tends to dissipate over the course of an entire can, and that is another reason Coke suffered by comparison. Pepsi, in short, is a drink built to shine in a sip test. Does this mean that the Pepsi Challenge was a fraud? Not at all. It just means that we have two different reactions to colas. We have one reaction after taking a sip, and we have another reaction after drinking a whole can.
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 :.


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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:
  • Overall, I suppose I liked the game. Strangely, that sort of begrudging "it's good, but meh..." response seems to be the general consensus - at least among the 3 folks I read (ok, so he was perhaps a bit less than "meh") and watch. Honestly, when I first thought about posting on the game, I had the same "Yeah, it's allright!" fake-out review as Yahtzee. But I did like the game enough to finish it and according to the game's timer, I spent around 40 hours of time playing it. Considering that I never managed to finish Oblivion and indeed, gave up on it after just a few hours, that's not so bad.
  • Speaking of Oblivion, this game is pretty much exactly the same, but with a different setting. And shotguns. It's the shotguns that really did it for me, as first-person sword fighting is kinda weak (and yes, I realize I could use some sort of long distance magic in Oblivion, but still).
  • And with shotguns comes one of the game's most vaunted features - the V.A.T.S. aiming system. Basically, when fighting, you can hit a button, and the game pauses and displayes your enemy along with various targets on their body and a percentage indicating how easy it is to hit. Hitting different areas has different effects. Hitting the legs will cripple your enemy, slowing them down. Hitting their arm might cause them to drop their weapon. And so on. When you attack using V.A.T.S., the game also shows you a variety of slow-motion animations of your attack. You'd think this would get old, but nope, watching a super-mutant's head explode is always pretty awesome. There are limited "action points" though, so this system does sometimes force you to fire away in real-time (and as a standard FPS, the game is not quite up to par with the competition) or at least, run away and hide until your action points recharge. The system is basically a way to mix the traditional RPG turn-based strategy with FPS action. A lot of people hate this and think the game is bad at both, but I enjoyed it well enough. It's not perfect and I think it could be improved a bit by increasing the action points (or their recharge rate), but it works and I'd be interested to see how this sort of gameplay will evolve.
  • As storylines go, I guess it's ok. Nothing particularly special, and the main thread makes sense and has some neat sub-quests (for some reason, I particularly enjoyed the Matrix-like simulation quest). Most of the side quests end up being "fetch" quests, but there's still some fun to be had. Also, there are a TON of side quests and at 40 hours, I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface.
  • One of the things that bothered me about the game is that I felt like I had to really have a sizeable chunk of time set aside to play it. I feel like the game requires at least 2 hours or so in order to have a productive session, and there were plenty of times when I played for 2 hours and felt like I didn't get anywhere. There's definitely something weird going on here though, because the game I'm playing now (Burnout Paradise) doesn't require any such long periods of time, yet I find myself playing for longer than 2 hours at a time and not minding it at all. I'm guessing that's because I actually accomplish something every time I play Burnout for more than 15 minutes.
  • Whoever designed the concept of the metro system in this game needs to do some soul searching, because their game design skills are weak. Ok, so that's a bit harsh, but the amount of time I spent lost in the metro system, just trying to find my way to the marker on the map, was truly frustrating. Every metro station looks the same, and the destinations don't seem to match any reasonable geographic pattern. I would constantly find myself way off where I thought I was heading. Without the metro system, my experience with the game would have improved considerably.
  • I don't get the appeal of post-apocalyptic settings. Obviously, it can be interesting, but I feel like they're overused these days...
  • Games like this tend to bring out my pack-rat nature. I found myself chronically out of inventory space, which got kinda frustrating at times. Yeah, yeah, you're not supposed to keep every gun type you find and you're obviously not going to use all the components you find, but I have a compulsion. Seriously, the one time I got fed up and sold off a bunch of my stuff, I met up with some NPCs who told me that they needed a fission battery to escape... and I had just sold like 5 of them. All RPGs have to impose some limits on inventory, and Fallout 3 is actually pretty forgiving in this regard, but I still find myself constantly falling into the trap of collecting junk I don't need. When I enter a location, I feel obligated to go through every path, inspect every room, and look in every box (half of which are empty). This is obviously more of an issue with me personally than with the game, but I find it interesting, as it seems to crop up in a lot of games (I had similar issues with Dead Space).
So yeah, I liked it, kinda, and I might even play it again as a more "evil" person (my character this time around was a goody-goody guy), but not anytime soon...
Posted by Mark on June 03, 2009 at 07:54 PM .: link :.


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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.
  • Listen Up! - This podcast (formerly known as "1up Yours") is put together by the fine folks over at 1up.com and can be quite entertaining. There are generally about 4 people on the program at any given time - the regular lineup seems to change up semi-frequently (though at the beginning of the year, several people left 1up to work for other publications or even game companies), but there seems to be a pretty constant core 3 people right now, with a rotating 4th person. Each episode runs about 2 hours or so and has a similar format. Each person talks about what games they've been playing that week (which generally takes up about half the show), followed by a segment or two on news, interviews, or questions from their audience. These guys play a lot of games (it is, after all, their job), probably wayyy more than you or I do, but I've found it to be somewhat interesting even when I'm not that familiar with the games they're talking about (which is most of the time). Since they're reviewers, they will often be playing games and giving impressions about them before release (this can be annoying when they say they played a game but can't talk about it because of a press embargo or something). All in all, it's a solid podcast, and they put out a large amount of content on a regular schedule. This has become one of my two main podcasts every week (the other being Filmspotting).
  • The Brainy Gamer Podcast - The companion podcast to Michael Abbott's excellent video game blog, it often features interviews and commentary with prominent journalists or video game professionals. A typical episode runs about 1- 2 hours or so. There's no set format really, so you can get an in depth discussion or a series of smaller discussions. Abbott is an intelligent guy and a decent interviewer, and the show often tackles subjects in ways you don't normally associate with gamers. New episodes seem to be published once a month, towards the beginning of the month. Depending on what's going on, it could be a single episode or multiple episodes (for instance, during the GDC conference, he published a couple of episodes at once, and he had a nice 3 part holiday edition as well). It's not as regular as Listen Up, but it's high quality stuff.
  • Out of the Game - This one's a bit of a cheat since it doesn't focus exclusively on video games, but I gather it's put together by several former video game journalists who like to get together and talk about interesting stuff. There's no real set format for the show, but they seem to come to each episode with a plan and that seems to work out well. It seems to be something of a media diet type show, where each person talks about what they're reading/watching/playing... though it covers other topics as well (and often, they'll discuss interesting ideas that are presented in the book/movie/tv show/game rather than just doing the standard review). The episodes come out around every other week and are typically somwhere between 1.5 and 2 hours long. This has become another of my favorite podcasts, perhaps because the people on the show are always discussing ideas and concepts that are really interesting...
  • A couple of now-defunct podcasts I like are Game Theory (no website anymore) and the long defunct Mastercritic (which was mostly movies, but was put together by people who worked on video games and who did occasional video game episodes).
It remains to be seen whether or not any of these will spur video game playing the way Filmspotting (then Cinecast) spurred moviewatching, but so far, I wouldn't say that it has (perhaps because video games take so much longer to play - it's much easier to keep up with a movie or two a week than it is to play 10 games a week.) Still, I find these podcasts pretty interesting and so long as they continue, I'll be listening...
Posted by Mark on May 24, 2009 at 09:05 PM .: link :.


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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 :.


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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).

I don't WANT to be an artist. I don't WANT to make REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: THE GAME! I don't want to be the Bob Dylan of games or make the Citizen Kane of games. I want to entertain people and I do not apologize for that. I don't NEED or WANT to go lecture at MIT or USC or any of these other game colleges that have been cranking out some amazing game makers who truly are key in the 'games as art' charge. As much as I love the work of THAT GAME COMPANY (and very much enjoyed your NPR interview last week with them) and as much as I admire work of Jonathan Blow and all the other folks who make the quirky, arty, and yes- perhaps- more meaningful games, I do not want to BE them. And I think I speak for the majority of game makers everywhere when I say that.
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.

Being dissatisfied with the status quo is easy -- proposing practical alternatives or concrete answers isn't. ...

"It's a red herring, because we think that having a Citizen Kane will prove our artistic legitimacy, but masterworks are not how artistic legitimacy is proven anymore," says renowned designer and academic Ian Bogost.

If more internet commentators did a quick Wikipedia check before leaping into the debate, they'd see that the Citizen Kane issue is moot, anyway. Although its cinema technique helped movies fully come into their own, films were generally considered "artistically legitimate" right off the bat, so there's really no translatable parallel for games.

"The world doesn't work that way anymore," says Bogost.
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 :.


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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."

"Video games don't make people more violent, and I'll kill anyone who disagrees."

<dramatic pause>

"I don't think we can print that."
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 :.


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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.

A Colossus
A Colosssus

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."

"We're making a game to entertain people. Sometimes my personality and my team's might be reflected on the game, and it might look like art, but it is a game to entertain people. That kind of feedback is welcome but it's not what I'm trying to achieve."
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."

"We'll come into our own. We don't have to push the issue. Who are we trying to impress? I think game developers should concentrate on making good games. The art thing will happen naturally."
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Queues
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.
  • Fallout 3: I actually bought this one a few weeks ago at the Circuit City sale, so it will be next. I haven't started it yet because it seems like one of them open-ended, eats-your-soul-once-you-start-it games. I've been in the mood for an open ended RPG, and this one is described as Oblivion in a post-apocalyptic future setting, which sounds like it could be fun.
  • Valkyria Chronicles: Of the games on this list, this game intrigues me the most. Almost universally hailed as the best game no one bought, this is a Japanese RPG that sounds like it has some unique gameplay elements and a stylistic Anime-like presentation (I understand that they're actually making an Anime series adapted from the game's story, which concerns a Switzerland-like nation that is invaded during a global war (or something along those lines)).
  • Everyday Shooter: This is one of those small, downloadable PSN games that sounds like an intriguing mixture of gameplay styles, from shoot-em-up to rythm game to puzzle game. The last time I tried something this experimental was with Flower, and that certainly worked out well, so I'm interested in this one too.
  • Uncharted: Drake's Fortune: This seems very much like a standard action-adventure game... but it looks like a lot of fun too. Hopefully I'll be able to pick it up relatively cheap.
  • Burnout Paradise: I'm not usually a fan of racing games, but this game seems like a lot of fun, partially because it's not all just racing around a track. Indeed, it's touted as a sandbox world where you just drive around and try out various missions. I've played the demo, and I have to admit that it seems like a lot of fun (and it's available relatively cheap too).
  • Savage Moon: Another PSN game, though this one is less experimental. It's basically another tower defense game, with a SF, almost Starship Troopers style theme. Looks like fun to me.
  • Killzone 2: I'm sure at some point in the next year, I'll be craving some FPS action, and this game looks like it'll fit the bill nicely.
  • Prince of Persia: I've actually never played any of the Prince of Persia games, but from what I've heard about this game, it seems like they've taken out all of the frustrating elements of typical platformers and made the game a lot more playable. This seems right up my alley, even if I'm not that familiar with the series...
  • Little Big Planet: I have to admit to being a little lukewarm about this game. Sometimes it sounds like a blast, other times it sounds like it might not be as much fun. Still, it seems like Sony is really trying something different with this game.
  • Star Wars: The Force Unleashed: If only I knew the power of the dark side, perhaps I wouldn't want to play the game. But I can't help myself.
5 Forthcoming PS3 Games I Want to Play: Interestingly, most of these are PS3 exclusives, and there are a few others that sound entertaining to me as well. Too many games, too little time.
  • God of War III: It's not clear if this is coming out in 4Q 2009 or 1Q 2010, but in either case, this is one of those PS3 showcase games that looks like it will be taking advantage of all the PS3 hardware has to offer. From the previews, the game looks gorgeous. The first God of War has become the standard by which I judge all action-adventure games, so I'm really looking forward to this game.
  • Heavy Rain: I've heard a lot of really encouraging things about this game. First, the game is supposed to feature the most photo-realistic graphics evar, including effectively rendered CGI characters (apparently a massive amount of motion-capture was done for the game). Secondly, and more importantly, this game seems to feature a story that is morally complex and mature (in the real sense of that word, not in the violence and sex sense usually applicable to video games, though I'm sure both will feature in the game). It sounds like the game is really going to be breaking new ground in terms of gameplay and will hopefully give us a story where you have to face the consequences for your actions (something most games aren't so great at). I was listening to the 1up Listen Up podcast the other day, and one of the hosts mentioned meeting this game's creator, who said something to the effect of this game being meant to be playable by people who don't have a lot of time and just want to come home and play for a half hour at a time, etc... Not a ton of info out there on this yet, but I do find this game intriguing.
  • NHL 2010: I've always loved Hockey video games and if it weren't for the lack of PS3 trophies in NHL 09, I'd probably already own that one. But there are more than enough games to keep me busy over the next few months, so I can wait.
  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves: I suppose this one is pending how much I like the first Uncharted game, but assuming I like it, this one seems like a good next step.
  • Bionic Commando: The original Bionic Commando was the first game I got for the NES, and so it holds a special place in my heart. This new game sounds interesting (main character is voiced by Kaedrin fave Mike Patton), though I think I'll wait and see what the reactions are upon its release.
5 Books I Want to Read: The book queue is infamously large, but these are books I actually own and are sitting on my shelf, just waiting to be read or re-read.
  • Downtiming the Night Side by Jack Chalker: A time travel story recommended by SDB and corroborated by Kaedrin friend foucault, I've actually just started this. I'm a sucker for time travel stories, so I'm looking forward to this (so far, so good).
  • Alice's Adventures In Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: I read this a long, long time ago... and I'm betting that a lot of it went over my head the first time I read it. As such, I figured it was time to revisit it, so I dug up my copy and will be reading it at some point. Also, I'm pretty sure Tim Burton will mess up the film adaptation... so I want to make sure I'm up to speed on the original before blasting Burton (though I suppose he could pull it off, which would be a nice surprise).
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: To be honest, I'm not sure what attracted me to this initially, but there it is, on my shelf, and it does sound interesting, so there.
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: Well, I really enjoyed The Tipping Point and Blink, so it's only natural that I check this out.
  • Diaspora by Greg Egan: And as usual, the queue circles back around to hard SF. I don't know much about this novel, but Egan is an author I've been meaning to check out and I've heard good things about this book.
5 Anime Series I Want To Watch: Yes, I still watch Anime. But as you can see from this post, there are lots of other things competing for my attention, which is why Anime posts come at an agonizingly slow pace. I don't see this changing anytime soon, but there are lots of Anime series and movies that I want to watch.
  • Noir: Based mostly on the high marks given to the series by SDB, but it also sounds like an interesting and harrowing story..
  • Ghost In the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig: Because I really enjoyed both movies and the first series. What can I say, I'm a sucker for the GitS series' existential and technological themes, techno-thriller action, and, uh, Major Kusanagi. It's also available on Netflix's watch online functionality. Added to the fact that I've figured out how to stream Netflix to my PS3, this one is a no-brainer.
  • Banner of the Stars II: Because I liked Crest of the Stars and the first Banner of the Stars. The only thing that gives pause is that the third disc seems to be on semi-permanent "Very Long Wait" status at Netflix. This happend with Crest, and it was really, really annoying.
  • Samurai 7: Back when I originally asked for recommendations, Author pointed me towards this series, which intrigues me because it's a remake of Seven Samurai. Author mentions that he was pleasantly surprised at the direction this series took and that it might be interesting to compare it to the original and other remakes like The Magnificent Seven. I like Seven Samurai a lot, so this sounds like a plan to me. Also, it's one of the few Anime series available on Blu-Ray.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Does this count as Anime? It's American made, but seems to be heavily influenced by Anime. Regardless, it's been recommended by Fledge and a few people I know IRL, so I figure it's worth a shot.
5 Upcoming Movies I Want To See Even Though I Know They'll Suck: I did a list like this a couple years ago, and I wound up being pleasantly surprised by most (though not all) of the movies on the list.
  • Terminator Salvation: The first Terminator movie is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I'm always going to be interested in Terminator universe movies or shows. Heck, I've even watched a good portion of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and that's a horrible show. There are some encouraging things about this movie, but then, there's also McG. The various previews and trailers I've seen leave me with mixed feelings, too, which can't be a good sign.
  • Crank: High Voltage: There are no words for how ridiculous this looks. Even if it's as big of a trainwreck as it seems, I have to watch it.
  • G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra: God help me.
  • Star Trek: It's usually a bad sign when a struggling franchise reaches the point where they start doing prequels in an attempt to recapture the original's magic. This is doubly bad for me, as I've never been that attached to the characters from the original series (much more of a TNG fan here). On the other hand, I was shocked at how well JJ Abrams resurrected the Mission Impossible franchise, so there's that.
  • Avatar: I'm pretty sure this movie won't suck. This is more of a desparate attempt to manage expecations. James Cameron is one of my favorite directors and he's been away so long that I'm really excited to see what he does with this movie. Thus, I'm pretty sure it will be a letdown... unless I can get my expectations low enough that I'm pleasantly surprised. Wish me luck.
Well, that took longer than expected. That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on March 22, 2009 at 07:54 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Flower
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.

Flowers!

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.

There will be some that simply don't get it, and that's OK. There will be some that don't care for it; this is a game that isn't for everyone. There will be others, and I am one of them, that will hear the game whisper to them when they close their eyes.
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, March 15, 2009

More PS3 Reviews
A couple of other games that I've played for the PS3 lately:
  • Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: Remember when I said that most FPS games are set in WWII or some sort of futuristic Alien Invasion? Well the Call of Duty franchise is one of those WWII series. I played one of them once, but I don't remember which one because they're pretty much all the same. You kill Nazis! Well, CoD4 is set in the present day and features contemporary enemies... a setting that is surprisingly underused. Usually, game designers try to spice things up with zombies or aliens or other paranormal crap. Off the top of my head, the only game I can think of with a similar setting is Operation Flashpoint. But while that game was so realistic and complicated that a single shot from an enemy would probably kill you (though I still like the game, I eventually gave up on OF when I got to the squad based missions, which were just unplayable), CoD4 goes for more of an arcadey feel, and it's a lot of fun.

    The game's developers have crafted a surprisingly well balanced game. There are, of course, all the standard FPS tropes here, and these sequences are well balanced. However, what sets CoD4 apart from the crowd is that it managed to break up the gameplay every now and again, and in more ways than just the standard vehicle portion. For instance, there is a level where you take the gunner's seat on a C130 and basically rain down destruction upond your enemies in coordination with a ground assault. Another standout is a sniper mission, which is optimized to actually let you use your sniper rifle (a feature that is surprisingly absent from most FPS games). In terms of weaponry, what you get is mostly standard and realistic.. but the weapons you use are generally pretty satisfying to use and like the sniper level, the game is relatively good about creating set-pieces that require the use of a certain weapon to get through.

    In terms of story, you're mostly following around a British SAS squad and some US Marines, and there's some story about Russians and terrorists who have a nuclear bomb, etc... It's all very standard, but well executed. The single player game is really short and ends in a bit of an abrupt manner. Despite perhaps wanting some more closure than I got, I'm not sure the length is really that bad. What's in the game is fantastic and I suspect that making the game longer would basically mean making it repetitious, which would have made the game seem more muddled. The game has a very deep multi-player mode that I've only really started to use (and, of course, got my arse handed to me). All in all, an above average FPS game with fun, balanced gampelay (if a little too short).
  • Dead Space: A third-person shooter and survival horror game that takes place on a large interstellar mining ship that is stationed around an alien planet. Of course, they've uncovered some sort of alien artifact that begins infecting the crew and turning them into monsters called Necromorphs. You play Isaac Clarke (a not-too-subtle nod to classic SF authors Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke), an engineer sent to help retake the infected mining ship. The game features an off-center, over-the-shoulder third-person view, and the interface tries something different by putting all the various readouts in the environment rather than some sort of HUD. Of course, most of these make no sense. For example, your life meter shows up as a series of bars accross your spine... So while you as the player can see it, Isaac would never be able to see it (he wears a helmet, so it's conceivable that he has a HUD... but then, why advertise how weak you are to your enemies?) I know this is a nitpick, but that's really just an indication that the game failed to fully immerse me in the gameplay. For a survival horror game, immersion is crucial, and this game consistently knocked me out of the world it was trying to create. There's a lot to like about the game, but there were a few key elements that are just inexcusable. Chief among them is save points. All of the games I'd played for the PS3 up to this point have had really nice checkpoint/auto-save style systems. Ultimately, the save points are spaced close together and you never go too long without having an opportunity to save... which just begs the question of why they're needed at all? Save points are a relic - David Wong perfectly summarized the issue years ago:
    This is a throwback to the arcade/NES days when physical limitations in the system wouldn't allow you to save your progress just anywhere. There is no reason for this now. None. We're busy. We've got work, appointments, phone calls. We shouldn't tolerate an inability to save our progress in any piece of software.

    Half Life 2 did this perfectly--it auto-saved every few minutes, behind the scenes. You didn't have to worry about it and you didn't have to re-fight enemies you had already defeated.

    There are people who say that preventing saves adds to the "tension" of the game. Sure, in the sense that the fact that your 360 could catch on fire at any moment also adds to the tension. Face it, if the only way you can think of to add suspense to your game is to disable a feature of the hardware, then you suck at making games.
    Like I said, most of the games I've played on the PS3 so far were fantasic about this. They auto-saved every time something meaningful was accomplished. All Dead Space's save points serve to do is ruin immersion and remind you that you're playing a game rather than fighting off the undead alien hordes. Again, the survival horror genre requires this more than any other type of game, so I'm baffled as to why they would choose to have save points.

    One of the neat things about the game is that killing the enemies require more than just shooting at them - you have to shoot them in such a way as to remove their limbs in order to kill them. This is an interesting way to differentiate the game mechanics of a standard shooter, and the weaponry is suited to this sort of cutting task. Unfortunately, the variation in weaponry is pointless. You would be fine if you only used the first weapon you come accross, the Plasma Cutter. Indeed, one of the PS3 trophies for the game is to complete the whole game with the Plasma Cutter - and I think that would be an easy trophy to earn (if I were willing to play the game again). Some of the other weapons are somewhat neat, but they're also mostly unnecessary. Unlike the Resistance games or even CoD4, there's nothing that is optimized for a specific weapon. Sure, the Line Cutter is great for taking out both legs in one shot, but it has a much slower fire rate. The Ripper is pretty neat and I've heard some people say that it's overpowered, but I always had trouble with it. And so on. In any case, the core gameplay of fighting Necromorphs is pretty fun and one of the better things about the game.

    There are several other gameplay elements in this game - there's a kinesis module that lets you move stuff around (though it's generally used for stuff that would seem simpler if you could just use your arms), there's a time-slowing mechanic that I always forget I even had, and the actually neat mechanic of zero-space maneuvering. There are a couple of interesting gun turrent style sequences that I enjoyed playing as well. Some mini-game style stuff shows up as well (i.e. zero-g basketball). So the various "strategic limb dismemberment" sequences are mixed up with various other tasks that require these other gameplay elements. Sometimes this is fun, sometimes it just seems rather pointless. All these different abilities also mean that the controller scheme is more complicated than usual, though for the most part, I didn't have many problems.

    The atmosphere can be effective at times, what with the spooky noises and music and all. There are also lots of "boo" momeents when a body you thought was dead actually jumps up and attacks you, which generally leads you to stomp around on dead bodies just to make sure they're really dead. Ultimately, like movies that overuse "boo" moments, they become progressively less effective as time moves on. There's more to horror than just a startling moment, so when you add in the gameplay elements that take you out of the story (like the save points), the game becomes less effective. Story-wise, there's not much going on. Isaac Clarke never actually talks during the course of the game, which is kinda weird and makes it a little difficult to tell what's going on... his wife was apparently on the mining ship and is missing.. and the game tries to tease you by showing glimpses of her (or her voice) throughout the ship. One thing I will say is that the very end of the game (the last cutscene) was actually pretty great - I was glad I stuck with the game until the very end.

    For all my gripes, this game is actually pretty competent. It's got some unique elements that perhaps make it worth playing, but there are several flaws that prevented me from loving the game. I pretty much agree with Yahtzee's review of the game as well. Competent, but bland.
That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on March 15, 2009 at 08:51 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:

An example of an Xbox Live gamercard

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:

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:

The actual PS3 gamercard

The actual PS3 gamercard, broken down by type of trophy

(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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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?

Chart of Available Video Games

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...).
  • The data all comes from Wikipedia, particularly the pages that list games for the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3. I compiled all the data in a Google Spreadsheet here, if you want to take a look. Given that my main source admits that the lists of games are incomplete (and indeed, "may never be able to satisfy certain standards for completeness"), you should probably take it with a grain of salt. If anyone knows of a more rigorous dataset that is available, I'd be interested to get my hands on it.
  • Given the rather high number of games on each list (even the PS3, which has the fewest games), I haven't examined the lists very closely. This means that there is no indication of the quality or variety of available games. This is an important factor, because quantity alone is not everything. That said, I don't know if it's reasonable to assume that the number of games available is an indicator that the market has chosen a winner and is thus allocating resources accordingly...
  • The game lists include games that are scheduled to be released in 2009. I don't know how comprehensive that is, but I'm assuming that the margin of error is similar for all three consoles (again, considering that the source is Wikipedia, this might night be a wise assumption).
  • It's also worth noting that the number of games available does not tell us anything about the number of games actually sold for each system. It would hardly matter if Wii had command of the numbero of games offered if PS3 games had outsold Wii games by a factor of 10 to 1. Of course, that does not appear to be the case and I'd be really surprised if the PS3 even began to approach the Wii in terms of games sold (let alone surpass them) - the point is that I don't have any data about this. Again, if anyone has a set of data for this, I'd be interested.
  • I've compared the number of games along several vectors, but my main focus was on titles available in the U.S. Interestingly, while the Wii is far and away the winner among all categories, their percentage of games that are unavailable in the US (over 20% of Wii games listed are not available in the US) is much higher than either the PS3 or Xbox (which are more like 7-8%).
  • I was curious about excusivity, so I included some stats about that as well. The Xbox and PS3 were much closer than I thought they'd be, especially considering the Xbox's head start. I didn't have a number for the Wii though because the Wii's unique controller scheme presumably means that nearly every available Wii game is exclusive. I suppose there are some exceptions, such as the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, which have the same interaction as the other consoles. There are other mitigating factors as well. The aforementioned Guitar Hero and Rock Band games have a wealth of downloadable bonus content on PS3 and Xbox, while the Wii does not have this yet (apparently it's coming soon though). Also, while many games that are ported to the Wii take advantage of the unique controller system, they are also often missing content that is in other consoles. For instance, a game like Madden 2008 features some nifty Wiimote controls (I can throw a better touch pass than McNabb!), but it doesn't feature some of the deeper general mangement or franchise features (not positive how drastic the difference is though). Similarly, the downgraded graphics and level design for games ported to the Wii turns away some people (The Force Unleashed is apparently an example of this). This makes it difficult to say - does it count if the Wii is exclusively worse than the other consoles? Even that is a subjective measure, though, so I just left the number off (plus the wikipedia list I used doesn't have a column for exclusivity, while the Xbox and PS3 lists do). In the end, I'd say the number of completely exclusive Wii titles probably still far outweighs the other two consoles.
  • I also included some data regarding downloadable content for each console. Again, the Wii is the clear winner. The amount of games offered by Wii's Virtual Console (which feature many old but classic NES, SNES, Genesis, etc... games) and Wiiware are higher than the XBox Live Arcade and Playstation Network offerings combined. When combined with the Wii's advantage in regular games, you can see that the Wii has a commanding lead over the rest of the market. I'm not sure which metric is the best to use to compare the systems though...
  • While there does appear to be a correllation between console sales and the amount of video games available for each system, it's debateable how much of a factor it plays in the competition. If you look at the percentages in the data, you can see that in raw numbers for amount of games available, the Xbox 360 is offering about 74% as much as the Wii is offering (PS3 is at 52%). In terms of consoles, the Xbox has only sold about 62% as much as the Wii (PS3 is at 47%). If number of games was truly an indicator of the success of a given system, I would expect those numbers to have a closer correllation (though the PS3 numbers are pretty close). Perhaps the difference is due to the quality or variety of games, or perhaps the Wii has so thoroughly won this generation that it has pulled away in terms of console sales, no matter how many Xbox games are added (winning consoles have the benefit of positive feedback loops, etc...).
  • If the Playstation and PS2 were so great about making sure they had a huge library of games, what the heck is going on with the PS3? There are a couple of potential answers. First, in comparison to the Xbox, PS3 isn't that bad, especially when you consider that the Xbox had about a 1 year head start. Second, in comparison to the Wii, it's obvious that the PS3's advanced technology is getting in the way. Nintendo has actually said that their plan is to flood the market with games (I think they learned this from the PS and PS2 consoles). Wii games are standard definition, run on relatively old and established hardware, and are apparently much easier to develop than PS3 games, which are in HD and run on brand new, cutting edge hardware that no one understands yet. PS3 games take much longer to produce and are also much more expensive, which could explain why the Wii has so many more games. For that matter, the Xbox suffers from similar advanced technology problems. Furthermore, because the Wii's games take less time and effort, they are also more profitable. This is something that will also lend positive reinforcement to the Wii's already hefty lead...
Ultimately, I don't think I have enough data to say for sure whether or not there is a really firm correllation between number of games available and the success of a given system. There does seem to be some evidence of this, but correlation does not imply causation and I think better data sets are needed. Funnily enough, Malstrom has some graphs in his article which have a value breakdown accross a number of features. He doesn't list where he got his data though, and it's clear that he's simply attempting to make a broader point about how Nintendo is focusing on areas that the PS3 and Xbox are not (if you look at the various plots, Nintendo is almost the inverse of the PS3 and Xbox).

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Assassin's Creed
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:
  • Story: The game starts in a near future scenario, with some random bartender being kidnapped by a huge corporation. It turns out that the bartender is the descendant of a Third-Crusade-era assassin, and the corporation wands to force the bartender to relive his ancestor's memories, which are stored in his DNA. So for the majority of the game, your character is strapped into a machine called the Animus, which is a quasi-VR machine that lets him live out his ancestor's memories. Most of the gameplay is centered around the ancestor, a cocky assassin by the name of Altaïr, who is ordered to assassinate a bunch of people in order to counter the assassin organization's enemies, the Templars. There are these stones called "Pieces of Eden" that apparently hold a lot of power. The Templars want them to help in the Crusade (or something like that) and the Assassins have their own plans. Back in the future, the corporation I mentioned earlier is hoping that the memories they're uncovering will lead them to a "Piece of Eden." The story is actually pretty decent, though it ends on a question mark that will presumably be expanded upon in an upcoming sequel (and I mean that literally - it ends with this line of dialogue "What does it mean?"). There are some "twists" in the story that are somewhat obvious, and most of the exposition is essentially repeating various plot points, but it's a serviceable story. The framing device of having a near future person experience memories of an ancestor is interesting, but ultimately, most of the scenes you play in the future are pointless (they allow you to walk around and there are a few actions you can do, but otherwise, you're severely limited).
  • Gameplay: For a game about assassins, there are surprisingly few assassinations in the game. Most of your time is spent doing various information gathering tasks leading up to each assassination. The world of the game consists of several cities, and for the most part you are free to wander about and do whatever you want (like climbing atop one of the many spires in a given city, then jumping off... and then repeating that about 10 times because it's so cool). It's not exactly an open-ended sandbox game like the Grand Theft Auto series, but it does work really well. I'll go into more detail in the following sections, but for the most part, the gameplay is a lot of fun. Even just faffing about in the city, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, climbing preposterously high towers and jumping off them, etc... is a lot of fun. The only real complaint is that the game gets rather repetitive. For each assassination, you face pretty much the same exact set of challenges. There are about 9 assassinations (not counting the various "informant" missions along the way), and by the time you get to the third one, you start wondering if anything new will appear. The ending of the game does alleviate this a bit, but for the most part, you're repeating the same tasks over and over again. This didn't bother me all that much. Perhaps it was because this was the first game I played in a while that really pulled me in, and the gameplay itself is fun enough that the repetition didn't get too annoying.
  • Combat: This is actually a weak point in the game. It's not the worst ever, and it gets the job done, but it could use some serious improvement. At the start of the game, you only have a sword and you only really know one technique for attacking enemies (a somewhat awkward button mashing combo), but as you complete missions, your superior grants you new weapons and abilities. The problem is that after I learned the first couple of skills (the combo, the counter attack, etc...) I pretty much stopped paying attention, because those first couple of sills were getting the job done for me. For instance, I don't think I ever used the throwing knives. This seems to be a relatively common thing with this game. There are lots of subtle maneuvers that you can do if you want, but you don't need to do so to win the game (for instance, to get more throwing knives, you can pickpocket various citizens during the game - something I never did once because I never used the throwing knives in the first place). There is also apparently a combo move you can do with your hidden blade that becomes very important during the last two sections of the game, but which I was never able to get the hang of... The one thing I will say about the combat is that when you do actually get a combo move or counter shot, the resulting animation is actually pretty satisfying. So it can be fun, and I suppose with more practice, I could perhaps have had more fun with the combat system, but I do believe it could use an overhaul in the sequel.
  • Missions and Tasks: As previously mentioned, before each assassination, you need to perform a series of information gathering tasks. There are essentially four different types of tasks: eavesdropping, pickpocketing, interrogations, and informants. Eavesdropping is the easiest, and thus it appears early in the game and then disappears later on. Pickpocketing is reasonably interesting. I was never sure if I was doing the interrogations in the best way (I gather you're supposed to wait for the subject to be alone, then beat him for the info), but I suppose I did a good enough job with it. The informant tasks can be the most fun, but also the most frustrating. Basically, an informant is another assassin that's in the city who is failing miserably at their own tasks. If you help them out, they'll give you info. This always amounts to sorta mini-assassination missions. These can be really fun, but a couple of them get really frustrating because there's a time limit and some of the guards get extra suspicious after a few failed attempts. It would have been nice if there was more variety to these missions. There's nothing particularly wrong with them, but they do get rather repetitive. The assassinations themselves are pretty fun, though I found myself basically relying on a brute force strategy of just killing everyone in my way, rather than relying on stealth. I'm not sure if this was the intention or not, but I didn't see anything like the Hitman series of games where you can do all manner of things to make the kill seem like an accident, etc... Of course, the Hitman games are mildly frustrating becaues how the heck are you supposed to know that if you ask the bartender for some aphrodisiac, then spike your target's drink, he'll take a girl to his bedroom, then walk out to the balcony where you will be waiting to push him off? But once you know the tricks, it can be a lot of fun devising other ways around the issue. There don't seem to be a lot of tricks or alternate methodologies in Assassin's Creed, thus the replay value isn't really there for me...
  • Stealth: Quite frankly, there's not much of it. They've pretty much relegated stealth to a button you can hold down if you don't want to attract attention (and there are times when alert guards around around, so this is necessary). One of the things that the Hitman games did really well was to make it seem like everyone is watching you. As you walk past, some people will follow you with their heads, others will scratch their chin as if recognizing that something is awry. The first time I played those games, these behaviors really did get to me and would contribute significantly to the tension of a given level (in a good way too). None of that subtlety is in Assassin's Creed, and consequently, neither is a lot of that tension. That said, it can be kinda neat when you do get caught and you have to find a way to lose your pursuers (which amounts to hiding in stacks of hay or rooftop, uh, hiding place thingies). Later in the game, perhaps because of the repetition, this starts to get rather annoying. As previously mentioned, there are some times during the assassination attempts where you need to use stealth to approach the target, but for the most part, once you get to the target, you have to take the brute force approach.
  • Visuals and Audio: This is quite possibly the prettiest game I've ever played. The environment and visuals are breathtaking, and this is the game I whip out when I want to show someone how cool an HD game can be (climbing to the top of a spire and doing a leap of faith is a lot of fun, and visually impressive too). The audio is pretty good too - not very showy, but effective and not annoying (which is generally what you ask for in a soundtrack).
  • Usability: The menus and options on the PC version are infamously difficult to use (check out this video of someone trying to quit the game - amazingly poor usability), but the PS3 is rather better. One other annoyance is the lack of PS3 trophies. I understand that the game was developed before they existed, but it's obvious that the game was designed with XBox achievements in mind, so it should be relatively trivial to port them to PS3 trophies, right? Well, probably not, and I'm sure they won't ever do it because spending more time and money on a game that's been out for a year already is probably not a profitable decision, but still. There are all these things in the game that are obviously meant for such a system, and I even spent some time picking up all the flags in one of the cities (only 20 flags), but it's meaningless and there's no real reason to pursue such things. Of course, PS3 Trophies are pretty meaningless in themselves and I'm surprised at how much I like getting a trophy, but that's another discussion entirely. Otherwise, the game does a reasonable job with this sort of thing. The only real complaints are the ones already mentioned - repetitive gameplay, poor combat system and repetitive gameplay.
Overall, it's a good, solid game, and it made a good first experience on the PS3 for me. It's gorgeous, entertaining, and fun. The game takes about 10-15 hours, depending on how much faffing about you want to do during the course of the game. I don't see a ton of replay value here, unless you have the XBox version and want to get some more achievements.

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Consoles
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:
  • WiiNintendo Wii: Not content with competing along the same graphics/power trajectory of its main competitores, Nintendo went off in a wholly different direction. They did some minor upgrades to their previous generation console and then completely changed their entire controller scheme, focusing on creating new and interesting interactions rather than cutting edge graphics and technology. Instead of the typical button-laden video game controller, Nintendo created a remote-control-like device with motion-sensing abilities and relatively few buttons. At first, this seemed rather silly, and Nintendo really was taking a lot of chances with their strategy here. It wasn't uncommon for Nintendo executives to say things like "We really don't know how well the Wii will sell, but we think the market is ready for a change." I'm paraphrasing here, but it turns out that Nintendo has really been focusing on a few key business strategies called The Blue Ocean and Disruption. In short, their goal was to undershoot the market, pick up some non-traditional casual gamers, and build on that base to achieve dominance in the "hardcore" market. Will this gambit work? The Wii certainly does seem to be the winner of this generation, outselling its competitors by a significant margin (especially when you consider that the Xbox 360 came out a year earlier). Furthermore, their reliance on established technology and their focus on innovative interactions seems to be a lot cheaper than their competitors, leading to a much higher profit margin for Nintendo. It certainly seems like their strategic maneuverings have paid off.

    From my perspective, the real question is whether or not Nintendo can really sustain what it has built. As near as I can tell, their strategy is to corner the casual market, then move up the ladder to more complex games and interactions in an effort to pry the hardcore gamers away from the competition whilst retaining and perhaps growing their casual base. The only problem here is that I don't see how they're going to do that. So far, their Wiimote has done well, but in my experience, attempts to move up the ladder to more advanced games have been a bit rough. The closest they seem to have come to this is Super Mario Galaxy, which, while a very good game, also suffers from many of the things that more advanced gamers demand. Other attempts at this sort of thing have been an abject failure (at least to a gamer like me - and I'm again looking at you Metroid Prime III, as well as games like Zelda and No More Heroes, which were perhaps not total failures, but not great either.) I think part of the issue is the Wiimote itself. Don't get me wrong, I like the Wiimote, but a lot of what is done with the Wiimote seems gimmicky and sometimes unneccessary. Take Super Mario Galaxy as an example - there's nothing in that game that really pushes the boundries of the Wiimote or controller schemes in general. It would have been just as good with a traditional controller system. In his console rundown, Yahtzee makes a good point about this (emphasis mine):
    Nintendo is the oldest contestant still in the console race and it seems they've gotten bored with the usual brick-with-button-pads-attached-with-string model and is trying to mix things up with a fancy motion-sensitive system of controls, a bold effort perhaps to do away with the grind of random button mashing, but in practice it's only really replacing it with random stick waggling.
    Games that really do take advantage of the stick waggling features also tend to screw up your arm too, which leads game developers back to the grind of random button mashing until some sort of quicktime event pops up indicating that you shake your controller one way or another.

    In the end, I have to give the Wii credit for trying something new, and they've certainly done a decent job capturing the market they were looking for. The console is an absolute blast at parties and social gatherings... unfortunately, it's not so great at the single player experience. For instance, Wii Sports is a brilliant until you've played it alone for 10 minutes, at which point it becomes mildly boring. None of which is to say that Nintendo can't overcome the deficits of their system so far - they're certainly in a good financial place to address those issues and we're still relatively early in their run. Perhaps once they establish their base and truly attempt to expand, we'll see some really great games. But so far, I'm not so sure. It's a strange situation for me personally. I love the Wii, I love what it's trying to do, but I realized in December that I hadn't even turned it on since August, and before that it was relatively sporadic. The only game that really grabbed a hold of me during the summer was Guitar Hero III, but that had nothing to do with the Wii and indeed, I found myself frustrated when I learned that PS3 and 360 owners could download additional free songs to play. Since then, I've played some Mario Cart, which is fun, but otherwise basically the same as any other Mario Cart game (to me, it never got any better than the original for the SNES). I haven't played Wii Fit, but am only mildly interested in it anyway (at this point, I'd much rather spend my money on PS3 games/Blu-Rays). There were a few times when I decided to buy one of them when I was at a store, but of course, they weren't in stock and are generally difficult to find. Just like the Wii itself, now that I think about it (not a good way to start an experience with casual gamers who value their time). In short, it's a fun system, great at social gatherings, and it shows a lot of promise and potential. But in my mind, it still needs to deliver. Fortunately for Nintendo, I don't think they've really been trying to deliver that experience yet. Like I said, their strategy is to build a big base of casual gamers and then use that to target the more advanced gamers... and I think they're still targeting the base right now. By all measures, they're succeeding at that...
  • Playstation 3Sony Playstation 3: On the other end of the spectrum, you have the PS3: the expensive, overpowered, and cutting edge console for videophile nerds and people who can afford to take out a second mortgage on their house. After their dominance of the market with the first Playstation and then with the PS2 (Sony is the first company to "win" two successive console generations in a row), Sony simply continued to increase complexity and power along the same vectors that made it a successful brand. They've added some nice features along the way, including an included wifi adapter and free access to the PSN for multiplayer (both of which cost extra in the Xbox 360), but these are ultimately nothing new or unique. The PS3 also plays Blu-Ray discs, but for various reasons, that hasn't caught on quite as much as Sony had wanted, perhaps because of the costly HD-DVD format war, followed by general apathy regarding the difference between BR and upscaled DVD. I think that the general story with the PS3 is that they overshot their market. It's a very impressive system, but everything about it is cutting edge and expensive. Plus, to take advantage of its best features, you need to have an HD TV. For me, this wasn't that big of a deal, and HD is making inroads all over the place these days, but back in 2006, it was perhaps a bit too ambitious. The Xbox 360 also focused on HD, but Wii didn't, and I think that might be another part of the puzzle. The biggest initial issue for the PS3 was the astronomical price, which was twice as much as the Wii. Since then, prices have come down a bit, but it's still the most expensive console on the market. The only reason I finally broke down and got one was becaues of a whopping $150 credit if I got a Sony credit card, which put it on par with the Wii and the Xbox 360.

    I have to say, in the short time I've had the PS3, I'm impressed with the system. It has its flaws, sure, but by my estimation, I've already played my PS3 about as much as I've played my Wii. What's more is that I actually look forward to playing on the PS3. Even good games like Super Mario Galaxy became a chore towards the end on the Wii... I've already played through 4 games on the PS3, and have had more fun with them than I have with anything on the Wii. What's more, there are about 5 other games I still want to get for the PS3, and lots of stuff is coming too. The PS3 library of games could probably use some expansion (too many shooters and not enough new and interesting games right now), but there are plenty of games to keep me busy for now. And while BR discs aren't that much better than upscaled DVD, they are pretty impressive and there really is a noticeable difference. The online experience could use some work, but being free helps in that respect. Similarly, the relatively new Trophies system needs some work (are gamertags too much to ask for?), but it serves its purpose well enough. PSN and Trophies have a long way to go before they catch up with Xbox Live and Achievements, but they're serviceable at this point.

    Alas, the PS3's prospects don't look all that good. It's not going away, to be sure, but it also doesn't look like it has any chance of dominating either. Perhaps it could, but Sony seems rather hellbent on running it into the ground and I can't see them doing anything to propel this system past one of its competitors (despite having bought the system, I really don't like Sony very much - they suck). I suppose the one promising thing about the console is that it's advanced technology could mean that it will have a longer life than its competitors, but that's not much and it leads to Sony making baffling statements about how the PS3 is still for early adopters (2 years after it's release). Sony's behavior really is baffling. Consider their holiday strategy, which seemed to be to create a bundle for the PS3 that cost $100 more than their standard overpriced system. Because raising prices during rough economic times is generally a strategy for success, right? I understand that Sony is still losing money on the consoles, but their behavior is hard to defend. Still, I'm happy with my purchase and my enthusiasm doesn't seem to be fading. The general story here is that it's a great system that has to suffer through Sony's mismanagement and annoying tendencies. It shows some potential as well, though perhaps not as much as the Wii, especially given the Wii's long term strategy.
  • Xbox 360Microsoft Xbox 360: Of the three consoles covered in this post, I am the least familiar with the Xbox 360. From what I've seen, it seems to be a somewhat toned down version of the PS3 with better online community features. The Xbox was the first to market and thus it got a head start on everyone else... This didn't stop the Wii from steamrolling over the Xbox, but I do believe that's a significant part of why the PS3 still trails. By the time the PS3 came out, a portion of its target audience already had an Xbox. Some of them may have bought the PS3 anyway, but a common story is the one where people buy a PS3 and let it collect dust because the Xbox does what they need. The Xbox certainly seems to have the best library of games at present, including some pretty good exclusives. Like the PS3 library, there's not much that's really new or innovative here, but they've got plenty of solid games with traditional fun gameplay.

    A couple of catches though. First, while their online system is fantastic, it's also not free. There's also that whole red ring of death thing that will periodically brick your system. Obviously, every system has issues, but the Xbox issues seem to be more persistent and common.

    So what I can see here is a pretty straightforward console. It gets the job done, and that appears to be good enough for most gamers. On the other hand, it doesn't do anything truly innovative or particularly interesting (then again, I guess their online community might fit that bill), and like the PS3, they may have overshot the market (perhaps not as much as the PS3), thus making themselves vulnerable to the Wii's long term strategy.
The thing that strikes me about this generation is just how well balanced it is right now. Each console is targetting different markets, though they all overlap in some spots. The Wii is targeting casual gamers, former gamers, and non-traditional gamers, and it's great fun at social gatherings. It's also the only console to be doing something truly new and unique. The PS3 is going for a more traditional gamer audience who wants cutting edge graphics and advanced gameplay, but they're also the only console that is really going for the videophile audience. The Xbox makes a happy medium, targeting the standard gamer without pushing any real boundries. There's a place for all three of these consoles in the current market, which isn't something that was common in earlier generations. Of course, there's a lot of overlap in the indended audiences, especially between the PS3 and the Xbox. It's also worth noting that owning multiple current generation consoles (as I do) is becoming more and more common (I think that is a part of why the Wii is pulling ahead).

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Link Dump
For obvious reasons, time is a little short these days, so here are a few links I've found interesting lately:
  • Still Life - This is a rather creepy short film directed by Jon Knautz. It has a very Twilight Zoney type of feel, and a rather dark ending, but it's quite compelling. Knautz went on to make Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer... alas, that film, while containing a certain charm for the horror aficionado, isn't quite as good as this short.
  • Zero Punctuation: Assassin's Creed: I've seen some of Yahtzee's video game reviews before, but while they are certainly entertaining to watch, I've never quite known whether or not they were actually useful. It can be a lot of fun to watch someone lay the smackdown on stupid games, and Yahtzee certainly has a knack for doing that (plus he has a British accent, and us Americans apparently love to hear Brits rip into stuf), but you never really know how representative of the actual game it really is. Well, after spending a lot of time playing around with Assassin's Creed this week, I have to say that Yahtzee's review is dead on, and hilarious to boot.
  • A Batman Conversation: It's sad and in poor taste, but I bet some variant of this conversation happened quite frequently about a year ago.
  • MGK Versus His Adolescent Reading Habits: Look! I'm only like 2 months behind the curve on this one! MGK posts a bunch of parodies of book covers from famous SF and fantasy authors (I particularly enjoyed the Asimov, Heinlein, and even the Zahn one).
  • Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2008: Self-explanatory, but there are some pretty cool pics in here...
  • Books as Games: I realize most of my readers also read Shamus, but still, this faux-review of Snow Crash if it were created as a video game before it became a book but in the present day (it, uh, makes more sense in his post) is pretty cool.
  • "Sacred Cow Slayings" Rumored at Sony... Is PlayStation In Jeopardy?: It figures... I finally get off my butt and buy a PS3 and then rumors start appearing that Sony is about to can the program. I don't think it will happen, but this news is obviously not comforting...
  • Keanu Reeves wants to make a live-action version of Cowboy Bebop. No comment.
Posted by Mark on January 07, 2009 at 08:56 PM .: link :.


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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...
  • Might as well get this out of the way first: The PS3 is actually pretty great. At this point, I've spent most of my time playing Assassin's Creed, which is great so far (though my understanding is that it gets repetitive and that's certainly something I'm starting to see...). I also watched the Final Cut of Blade Runner. The set I got comes with 3 other versions of the movie and like 15 hours of extras (these are in standard definition though), including an almost 4 hour in-depth documentary on the production. I also got Resistance, Call of Duty 4, and The Dark Knight, but have yet to fiddle around with those. The PS3 online system seems decent, though I haven't really done anything with it just yet. All in all, I'm very satisfied with my purchase so far.
  • Last January, I made 5 predictions for 2008, and it turns out that I was mostly correct! Neal Stephenson did announce a new novel (which I thoroughly enjoyed), but I was wrong about the setting (though I admitted that possiblity in my prediction). The WGA strike did end, and for the most part, TV didn't recover much of what they lost. There were few new shows that did well and big ratings drops for existing hits like Heroes. Box Office numbers were a bit skewed by The Dark Knight and Iron Man, but admissions were down (on the other hand, they were only down 4%, which isn't bad when compared to the rest of the economy). I predicted Blu-Ray would pick up ground, but not that Blu-Ray would win so decisively and so early. My DRM prediction seems rather stale - not much has changed in either the music industry or the movie industry. And Barack Obama did win the election. So overall, I'd say 4 out of 5 wasn't bad... but that's probably more because I didn't really go out on a limb with any of my predictions! Not sure if I'll be making any predictions for 2009, but you never know...
  • As I have for the past two years, I'm going to do another Kaedrin Movie Awards series of posts for 2008. As I've mentioned before, 2008 hasn't been a particularly great year (perhaps still feeling the effects of the writer's strike?), so I'm still trying to catch up with some films in order to compile my lists. if you have any nominations for the standard awards (see last year for an example) or any arbitrary awards you'd like to see, feel free to leave some comments or send me an email...
That's all for now. I believe I have some evil people to assassinate. Or perhaps I should repel an alien invasion. Or maybe I should just watch The Dark Knight again. Decisions, decisions...
Posted by Mark on January 04, 2009 at 08:33 PM .: link :.


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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Reset Button
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 :.


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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 :.


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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.

Often, the first model wouldn’t work very well, so the group would argue about how to strengthen it. Some would offer up new data they’d collected, and suggest tweaks to the model.
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.

More than half the gamers used “systems-based reasoning” — analyzing the game as a complex, dynamic system. And one-tenth actually constructed specific models to explain the behavior of a monster or situation; they would often use their model to generate predictions. Meanwhile, one-quarter of the commentors would build on someone else’s previous argument, and another quarter would issue rebuttals of previous arguments and models.
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.

Steinkuehler thinks videogames are the way to reverse this sorry trend. She argues that schools ought to be embracing games as places to show kids the value of scientific scrutiny — the way it helps us make sense of the world.
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 :.


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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 Rights

4. A Keeper Right is defined as the opportunity for a MLF manager to retain the rights of a player for one season
4.1. A player is eligible to be kept if they meet the follow criteria
4.1.1. The player must be on your current MLF roster
4.1.2. The player must have been drafted no earlier than the fourth round of that year’s draft
4.1.3. The player has not been kept in the year prior
4.1.4. The player must have been on a MLF roster by the end of the last game of the MLF playoffs (the end of the MLB regular season)
The 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:
  • Push the trade deadline up a month. Teams that know they are out of contention on July 31 (the current trade deadline, same as MLB) might not know as much in June.
  • Make two trade deadlines. One deadline for keeper rights to be traded, one for same keeper status to be traded. The strategy here is similar to pushing the trade deadline up.
  • No more keeper rights can be traded. Only players. This option would mean that teams looking to upgrade must give up players to get other players in return.
  • Extend players' keeper eligibility to 2 years. If this was the rule a lot of the players moved at this years deadline would have not been traded since they could have been kept for another year.
  • Expand on keeper system. Add farm system and extend the number of keeper rights per team. But again keeper rights can't be traded.
  • No more keeper rights period.
And I'm sure there are lots of other variants that aren't listed. There will be a heated debate over the winter about all available options, and I'm positive that the Amendments process will be quite interesting this year. On a personal level, I'm not sure where I'll fall. While some of this year's trades were absurd (8 players for 3 keeps is crazy), it wasn't totally unexpected. While it's never been this crazy, there are always a ton of trades right at the deadline. I don't see any way around this sort of volatility in a keeper league. Plus, I kinda like that our trade deadline is 10 times as exciting as Major League Baseball's trade deadline.
Posted by Mark on August 06, 2008 at 09:09 PM .: link :.


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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Stolen Pixels
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 :.


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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.

One thing I've learned throughout my life ... being tasked with creating new characters and new IP is, you have to have that pool in your head of experience in life to draw from. ...

I love this medium; I think it's the most compelling medium to ever exist in the history of entertainment. To be a good creative, you need to be a well-rounded person. You need to have life experience. You need to have your heart broken. You need to experience loss. You need to raise puppies and have a family eventually and know what it's like to put the top down and drive 120 mph on a beautiful day with the leaves kicking up behind you, with the music playing. Because if you don't know what that's like, how are you going to have a real-life frame of reference to compare it to when you try to bring that level of excitement into your games? I think it's definitely good to live life and be a well-rounded designer.
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

... I built a small collection of spaceships, which were sent to an adjacent planet where they were murdered by space pirates. I built a trade center which sat idle, since I didn’t have anyone with which to trade. I built a series of scout ships and sent them to auto-explore, after which I never heard from them again. I built a capital ship and subsequently misplaced it. I pushed some other buttons related to the running of my main planet, none of which seemed to have any real effect except to deplete my coffers. Then I found some ships I didn’t remember building, flying around my world. They didn’t respond to my commands, and it wasn’t until just before they began bombing the place that I realized why.

A half hour into the game I was running an inept empire whose only accomplishments were staggering financial and military losses. I felt like I was playing Soviets in Space.
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 :.


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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Summoner Geeks
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 :.


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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 :.


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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Wii Game Corner
Some quick reviews for games I've played recently:
  • Super Mario Galaxy: As usual, Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach and Mario's looking to rescue her. This is probably the best reviewed game for the Wii. Metacritic has it at a 97 and there's not a single review below 90. While this is perhaps a bit too high, I do agree that it's a fantastic game. There are some imperfections. The default camera anges are sometimes a bit off, but that's a general platform game problem, so it's hard to fault the game too much for that. Similarly, the controls are sometimes a bit awkward, but for the most part, it works fine. There are some Do it again, stupid or twitch levels, but I expected this and there aren't that many levels that get too frustrating. Otherwise, the game is great. It's the best looking Wii game I've played, and the music is pretty good too (it evokes the older Mario games while doing its own thing). Aside from the camera and sometimes awkward controls, the gameplay is generally fun and easy to pick up. The level design is great (the general concept of the spheroid, 3D levels with neat gravity tricks is well done), and the game is broken up into little bit-sized chunks (something that appeals to people like myself who don't want to have to play for hours at a time to get anywhere). Bottom line, it's a lot of fun. I haven't finished the game yet, but I'm looking forward to playing more, and I can see why people are heaping praise on the game.
  • No More Heroes: This game follows the exploits of Travis Touchdown, an amateur hitman who uses a beam katana (basically a lightsaber) to dispatch his enemies. His goal is to become the #1 ranked assassin in the world... and to do so, he must take out the top 10 assassins. To do this, he must pay the United Assassins Association to set up matches against each assassin, and to pay for these matches, Travis must take on various odd jobs. There are a few positive aspects of this game, but for the most point, it's a mess. The gameplay is interesting, but much too simplistic. You basically need to just keep pressing the A button. A lot. The game tries to add other attack modes (wrestling moves, charging up an attack, etc...), but none of those are really necessary. For the most part, the game just pits you against a bunch of enemies at a time, and you press A a lot. Now, the one good thing about this control scheme is that when you get to a certain point, the game prompts you to do a "kill move" and displays a direction on the screen for you to slash your wiimote, at whichpoint you see a slow-motion animation of your kill move. This is actually a pretty cool interaction and it works well... The game doesn't seem to care how accurate you are with your killing slash though (several times I know I went in the wrong direction, but it registered anyway). The boss fights are relatively fun (at least, when compared to wading through wave after wave of henchmen). Each boss has certain unique powers and you need to figure out how to counter them. The game is broken up into bite-sized chunks, which, as I've already mentioned, is something I like. Unfortunately, that's where the good things about this game end.

    This screenshot probably makes the game look better than it is...
    This screenshot probably makes the game look better than it is...

    The game wants very badly to be something like the Grand Theft Auto games, but with assassins instead of petty criminals. The game is framed in an open-ended cityscape that you can drive around in. There are stores and places to find work, etc... Sound familiar? Yeah, it is, except that the cityscape is tremendously boring. The "open-ended" cityscape turns out to be a little closed off. There's very little you can do here. In GTA, you can steal other cars, get into trouble, cause general meyham, or simply drive around and find jumps. In this game, you can... drive your indestructible motorcycle (which handles like a boat) to your next job (or to a store). And that's pretty much it. Oh, and you live in a hotel (just like GTA!), but in a delightfully irreverant twist, the "save" function happens when you go to the toilet! How clever! It even has authentic flushing sounds to signal a successful save. The fighting in the game is very repetitive and monotonous. The only thing that sorta saves it from that trap are the boss fights, which are decent (but not great). The "odd jobs" portion of the game is inexplicably awful. You need to run around the city and tackle missions like "collecting coconuts" and "lawn mowing" (yes, seriously, there is a mission called "lawn mowing"). In and of themselves, these mini-games aren't that awful, it's just that they're so very out of place in this type of game.

    The game's visuals are a bizarre mish-mash of styles. It's attempting a low-fi comic book style, which would be fine, except that the graphics are clunky and the animations sometimes choppy. When you dispatch one of the enemy hoards, the slow motion animation is decent, but every enemie basically squirts blood like a hose (think Kill Bill or Evil Dead II) and when the screen clogs up with lots of enemies, you really can't see anything (Luckily, all you need to do to get through this is keep pressing A.) Other visual aspects of the game (such as the menues or the assassin ranking screen) seem to be trying to harken back to old-school video games (very pixelated) and are strangely divergent with the other visual styles of the game. The voice acting in the game is pretty good, actually, but the music... perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if there were more than 2 songs in the whole game. It doesn't take long to get annoyed by the music.

    While not garnering the universally positive reviews that Mario Galaxy did, No More Heroes still seems to have done quite well for itself. It's the 10th ranked game on Metacritic, and it's got a score of 84 (which is pretty good). If you can't tell from the above, I think this is wildly inflated. There are some good things about the game, but overall it's a mess.
  • Miscellaneous Sports Games: I've played Madden 08, NBA Live 08, and Major League Baseball 2K8. I haven't played any of these a lot, but of the three, Madden was the best. It has some pretty neat Wiimote controls (touch pass versus a more bullet-like pass, depending on how you throw, etc...) and is generally pretty fun. I loath the game of basketball, and so I probably have an unfair bias against NBA Live 08... however, I did enjoy the slam dunk competition. Finally, we come to 2K games' just released baseball game, which has a neat pitching controller scheme, but otherwise is pretty glitchy. At one point, after throwing a pitch, the pitcher animation froze for about 10 seconds before resuming and throwing the ball at me (the batter). I've always had bad luck with 2K sports games, and they don't seem very trustworthy as a company in general, so this didn't surprise me much.
One thing I'm noticing about a lot of 3rd party games for the Wii is that they're trimmed down from the versions released on other systems. For instance, Madden 08 is missing lots of features that are on other systems. I haven't played the game enough to know whether what's missing is really that important or not, but it does make purchasing a game for the Wii a little nerve-wracking. Am I really getting the same game? The different controller scheme also makes you wonder if they just tacked on Wii controls, or if the game actually has a well-thought-out scheme. I'm really hoping the announced Star Wars game isn't just a toned down version of the real game (early news doesn't look so promising on that front, though it does look like they're trying to add a Wii only gameplay mode). This sort of trouble, when combined with Blue Ray's victory in the HD format war, makes the Playstation 3 a viable purchase for me. Much as a I hate Sony, I might have to do it... though I think I'll wait for the price to come down (or maybe I can get one of those crazy deals where I get 15 discs along with it) before I seriously consider it.
Posted by Mark on March 09, 2008 at 06:19 PM .: link :.


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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.

Victory!

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.

The Pirate Bidding Market

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.

Choke Points

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 :.


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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.
  • In my previous post on the subject, I talked about this game having a bit of a steeper learning curve than the other Stardock games, and I think that's about right. I got annihilated in my first attempt at the game, and have learned several strategies that improved my survival... but I still haven't won a game (I've played about 4 games).
  • The first thing I learned was that I had to expand my empire as much as possible to take advantage of resource mining and trading (to increase funding). Having a solid resource and economic base improves things vastly, and in my first game I spent too much time in my own planet's system. In later games I recognized the virtues of sending a scout ship on auto-explore around the solar system, discovering all the planets and large asteroids (which are big enough to put a colony on.) And then I had to make sure that I expanded my empire, creating colonies on nearby planets and asteroids (and mining resources and setting up trade). The screenshot below shows the largest empire I managed to build, which consists of about 5 planetary bodies (2 planets and 3 large asteroids). Not only that, but I also seem to be in a relatively isolated position of the solar system... alas, things turned bad shortly after I took this screenshot. The bottom right colony was attacked with a large fleet of enemy vessels. I had to shift my military power from other colonies to fend off the attack, which I managed to do, but not without leaving my other colonies vulnerable.

    My Empire

  • Combat has proven to be relatively tricky (for me, at least). After the first game I did some reading around and found out that you start the game with the ability to create a "free" capital ship, which helps enormously in expanding your empire (most "unclaimed" planets still have low-level enemies that you must defeat, and they're generally no match for an invasion fleet with a capital ship). Now, which capital ship to make is still a bit of a mystery. In the game I'm chronicling, I opted to use KOL Battleships and Marza Dreadnoughts, as they seem to have the most powerful weapons. Since I was under attack, that's really what I was looking for. However, I kept having trouble fending off attacks, and my enemies seemed to have no problem taking out my capital ships. I later found out that the ships that caused me the most problems came from one of my enemies called the Advent, and their capital ship type called the "Progenitor Mothership." The below screenshot shows me actually destroying one of these motherships. At this point, the number of ships on the screen has been drastically reduced. Towards the beginning of the battle, it resembled the first scene in Star Wars Episode III - all these ships firing at each other. The Sins interface allows you to zoom in and out with ease, and it was neat to be able to zoom in close enough to see the bullets flying, but then also be able to zoom out a bit and get a more global outlook.

    Battle

  • Capital ships aside, I've also realized I drastically underestimated the necessary size and makeup of a good fleet. I'd have a capital ship and maybe 5 frigates, but from reading around the Sins forums, it seems like what I really need is at least 1 capital ship, 10-15 frigates, and maybe some long range ships that launch support fighters/bombers (and honestly, I'm probably still lowballing that). Part of the reason I keep losing is that I run out of frigates and so all I have is a capital ship where the enemy can concentrate all it's firepower. And honestly, in the screenshot below, I'm destroying another mothership, but you can plainly tell from the stuff on the left of the screen that the bad guys badly outnumber me (they're green, and most of my stuff are immobile logistics structures, not fighters). (Oh, and I took a bunch of screenshots in a row, trying to capture that explosion, so I had to block out a portion of the screeshot that showed the file structure where my screenshot was saved - sorry).

    Kaboom.

  • So I like the game and I'm learning (sorta), but I keep losing, and that's not especially fun. One of the things the game seems to be getting dinged on in the press is the lack of a gameplay mode that features a sort of progression or story. Personally, I don't mind the lack of a story, but other real-time games like Warcraft and Command & Conquer always started you off with easy scenarios and walked you through them so that you could get a handle on all the details. Now, the game does come with 5 short tutorials that go through a bunch of issues and they do indeed help you learn the controls, but they're a little lacking. They don't cover an actual scenario, they just sorta show you how to use the interface. The truth is that I'm still figuring out the basic strategy of the game, which is getting a little annoying. Maybe it's just that I'm a casual gamer and haven't ever been really good at real time games (again, I've played them, but I don't think I ever finished one). In any case, a better way of learning the ins-and-outs of the strategy portion of the game would be a help. As it is now, I might have to resort to reading the manual (and you know how I feel about manuals!) I'm still having fun, and I still want to try out some strategies. I don't mind being challenged by a game, but on the other hand, it would be nice to win a game every once in a while... I think my general temperment isn't aggressive enough with these types of games. I tend to like to build up huge, powerful fleets if I'm going to be militaristic, but in games like GalCiv, I usually ended up winning a cultural victory or a technology victory. This game seems to require a more aggressive military strategy. I guess I shouldn't just be sitting around waiting for people to attack me...

    Defeat!

That's all for now. I'll continue playing this game because it is genuinely pretty cool... but I just haven't gotten the hang of it. I guess that game's not made for casual gamers who don't have a lot of time on their hands... I wonder how a more experienced gamer like Shamus would do with this game (and I know he likes Stardock and was looking forward to Sins, so I'm guessing we'll find out at some point in the near future - I think maybe he's waiting for Impulse (Stardock's new digital distribution software) to come out first...)

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 :.


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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:
  • The one annoyance with purchasing the game online was that I actually went for a TotalGaming.net subscription and then I had a little trouble finding the game in Stardock Central (which is their distribution software). Still not sure what happened there, but when I logged into the TotalGaming.net website, I could spend my tokens there, and then the game showed up in Stardock Central and I was on my way. Anyway, it looks like Stardock has been working on a replacement for Stardock Central called Impulse, and it looks neat. It's supposed to be released within a few weeks, so perhaps I should have waited. Anyway, this is was only a minor speedbump on my way to downloading and installing the game (which took about 20 minutes total - not bad considering the size of the game).
  • Sins mixes some elements from Turn-Based 4X Strategy games like GalCiv II with Real-Time Strategy games like Starcraft and Command & Conquer. While I've played both types of strategy games (real-time and turn-based), I'm not really an expert, but it seems like an interesting concept and I look forward to exploring the gameplay a little more than I have.
  • Again, I'm a casual gamer, so it will probably take me a little longer get up to speed with the game's mechanics. It does seem to have a steeper learning curve than the GalCiv games. Still, after playing for a little while, I think I've got a handle on the basics of gameplay and all the various stats and controls. The HUD is packed with lots of info, though I haven't played enough to say whether or not it's completely successful (but it's not a disaster either, so that's a definite plus). One of the things Stardock games are cool about is automating the tedius aspects of the game (for example, in GalCiv, you can designate "Governers" who automatically act to update the improvements of a planet... that way, you don't have to manually do so). I haven't played enough to find many of these features, and given that this game is now a RTS, I've already found myself surprised by events on other planets and frantically switching back and forth between them. But I'm still trying to figure out the lay of the land (er, lay of the starsystem? Whatever.)
  • The look and feel of the game is relatively consistent with GalCiv II, and it looks great. Naturally, there are lots of differences, and the game overall has better graphics (as you'd expect), but you can tell it's coming from a similar lineage. Everything I've read about the game says it's been developed by a gaming company called Ironclad and distributed by Stardock, but a lot of the features bear a resemblance to Stardock's games, so I'm not sure what the deal is with that. But hey, it looks good.

    A Frigate

  • The game seems to be doing really well, despite having just come out and there being almost no "reviews" in the common publications. As they note: "After years of being told that PC gamers are really just console gamers but with different game controllers (mouse and keyboard) and that in-depth strategy was dying, we now have some conclusive evidence that no, that serious strategy games are alive and kicking. ... People are buying this game sight unseen despite relatively little coverage, PC gamers so much want a real time strategy game that has 4X depth that they are going out, en masse to find out more about this game and buying it. "
Again, I haven't gotten too far in the game, and am still trying to get my bearings, but it's been a lot of fun and I'm really enjoying it. Hopefully, I'll be able to put together a game example like I did for GalCiv II.
Posted by Mark on February 10, 2008 at 07:31 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • Combat: The game is basically a first-person shooter, so combat is pretty straightforward. The controller scheme for the Wii is well done and easy to adjust to. Basically, you use the nunchck to move your character around, and the Wiimote controller controls where you look (and where you shoot). Pressing A shoots, which is a little strange at first, because B is the trigger on the Wiimote, but it works well enough. Sometimes I thought there was a lack of precision in the targeting method, but it seemed to work reasonably well. Sometimes it got annoying to constantly have the Wiimote pointed directly at the screen - if your hand strays, your viewpoint does too, and that can be disorienting. Lots of trademark Metroid weapons make an appearance along with a new hyper mode. Activating hyper mode requires you to empty one of your energy tanks (each energy tank is made up of 100 life points, and you continually gain energy tanks as the game progresses), but you also get a temporary weapons boost. Personally, I found hyper mode annoying and stupid (more on this in a bit).
  • Bosses: One of the primary draws of adventure games like this are bosses, the enemy that shows up at the end of a level. Usually, battling a boss requires a lengthy effort and you need to use a wide array of weapons to defeat them. Often, there's a series of fun "mini-games" that you play in order to defeat a boss. In Metroid 3, this is certainly the case. The bosses are powerful and indeed take all of your firepower to defeat. Unfortunately, the bosses end up being more annoying than anything else. First of all, it's awfully difficult to figure out which weapon you should be using and in what situation. If it wasn't for this walkthrough, I would have given up on the game a long time ago. For example, here's how you defeat a boss named Korakk:
    Riding Korakk is a Pirate Hussar. Get rid of him first, quickly and easily, with the Hyper Beam. After that, downing the Korakk is a fairly easy but also dangerous process. Keep it targeted and be patient as it hops around. When its mouth glows, it's getting ready to shoot its tongue out (it won't really do it unless you're in front of it where it can see you). As soon as the tongue comes out, fire a shot at it to retract it and daze the Korakk.

    Once that happens, immediately roll into a ball and go under the Korakk's glowing belly. Set a few bombs so that they explode and hit the belly. Then zoom out and go back to normal.

    Repeat this at least one more time. When the second set of bombs hit, position yourself just behind the Korakk as it will finally collapse and expose its rear end. Target it and yank it with the Grapple Arm. The Korakk will then reel on its hind legs and expose its belly. Circle over to the front of it, go into Hypermode and plug the belly with a few Hyper Beam shots.
    How are you supposed to know these things if you've never played the game before? I don't know, maybe I'm just dense, or maybe it has something to do with previous installments of the series that I haven't played. Heck, even once you do know what to do, the process of actually doing it is usually a frustrating exercise in button pressing. In some ways, the bosses are kinda neat, but really, they just ended up frustrating me. By the time I got to Mogenar, a particularly difficult boss (and apparently I'm not on my own, as a quick search confirms that a lot of people found this boss frustrating), I was at the end of my rope, and after three or four attempts (each taking a long time, a half-hour at least), I gave up. I'm not going to play the game anymore. I think the biggest problem is that Mogenar requires you to go into hyper mode too often, and I apparently didn't have enough energy tanks for the battle. The thought of backtracking to a previous level and then making my way back to Mogenar is enough to keep me away for good.
  • Other Game Play: The most frustrating thing about this game is the lack of save points. This became especially annoying when my schedule got really busy, as I didn't have much time to play, and the way the game is set up, you have to play for at least 1 hour (frequently 1.5-2 hours) before reaching the next save point. The game doesn't make you start from the very beginning of the level when you die, but it does if you turn the game off, so there's some annoying repetition involved here. The other thing that bothered me about the game is that it seems like it's trying to create an open ended world (a la the GTA series), yet there is a very specific linear progression that you must go through. What this essentially boils down to is a lot of backtracking, realizing that you forgot something, redoing the same level, and then backtracking again to get back to where you were. I had a hard time figuring out the proper sequence of events at some points, and the game doesn't seem to allow multiple solutions to a problem (which is what usually happens when you have a more open-ended world). I don't mind an open-ended world and I generally like freedom within a game's world. Exploration can be a lot of fun, but this game was trying to get that while also railroading you along a specific path. In the end, the level design was just annoying and repetitious, and I quickly got bored with it.
  • Puzzles: The game mixes battle scenes with little puzzles, and these I actually kinda enjoyed. Where the bosses were difficult to figure out and frustrating, I didn't seem to have as much trouble with the puzzles. However, there really weren't that many puzzles and the game was dominated more by battles than puzzles.
  • Visuals and Audio: This is actually another strong point of the game. The visuals are well done and compelling. The music and voice acting is pretty good as well. The character and level design is a little uneven, but overall it's well done. Samus looks great, and her various equipment is also well designed. This is probably the prettiest game I've played on the Wii (though I should mention that I haven't played that many games:P)
  • Story: Ultimately, I found the story to be rather dull and uninspired. Perhaps I'm just missing something from the previous installments of the game, but the story follows the bounty hunter Samus Aran, who seems to be on a mission to battle Space Pirates and rid the universe of something called Phazon. I'm a little confused by this, because at some point Samus gets infected by Phazon, and the Galactic Federation decides that instead of ridding her of the Phazon, they're just going to give her something called a Phazon Enhancement Device (P.E.D.) That seems smart, right? Got infected by something evil? Great, let's enhance it! This leads to annoying periodic phazon episodes that drain your life throughout the game. There are also several other bounty hunters which are supposedly on my team, but which don't seem to serve any purpose other than to betray me (presumably because of the wonderful P.E.D.) I don't know, this whole universe seems much more confusing to me, and it's nothing like what I remembered in the original Metroid. I'm assuming that my lack of experience with the other Metroid Prime games is causing the problem here, but still, the story seemed silly.
  • Usability: I've already mentioned several issues. The biggest problem, again, is the lack of save points and the confusion as to how to proceed at various points in the game (both because of the level design and because of the confusing bosses). The controller scheme seems to work well enough, and I think it's about as good as it will get for a FPS on the Wii. There are some more advanced button combinations that need to happen at various points of the game, but nothing too difficult to use (a big issue for me was that I had trouble finding 2 hour timeslots to play, so I had to reacquaint myself with the controls every time I played).
I'm not very impressed with this game. If I were to give it a rating, it would be somwhere in the 4/10 range, and I'm really surprised that more people aren't mentioning any flaws in this game. I wouldn't recommend this to casual gamers, or those who don't have a lot of time to devote to gaming. Hardcore gamers or those in love with the Metroid franchise might fare better (a lot better, if reviews are to be believed). Then again, I'm not the only one unimpressed. This person does an interesting job summarizing one of the common complaints 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.

I didn't buy Halo or any of these other games, I bought Metroid. In the Metroid I know, you start out alone. You have no map, no friends, and no sunlight. You have a gimped weapon, no bombs, and no guide to get you acclimated to the environment. The satisfaction in playing Metroid doesn't come from finishing the game. It comes from exploring it and surviving it, and occasionally finding an item to help you along.

It's a dark game with eerie music. It's a simple, paranoia-inducing game where if something moves, or is even facing you, you shoot it (because it sure as hell isn't going to say "Hi Samus!" and give you a briefing). It's a non-linear game where the replayability comes not from finishing quests in less time, but from attempting to explore further with fewer items.
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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."

"Yes, it was evidently quite a battle. Very confusing, Holmes!"

"Not so! The descending lift and closed upper door suggest that someone came in through the upper door and jumped down onto the lift, instead of riding the lift up to the door. If he'd been going the other way, the upper door would still be open! This means our quarry cannot be on the upper level. Furthermore, given the other clues in this room we can determine not only what happened here, but we can also discover who was killed and who did the killing!"

"Impossible! The body of the victim is destroyed, and the killer is gone, how can you know who was here?"

"Note the pattern of burn marks, Watson. A even line such as this is only possible with a full volley of rockets, aimed downward. Only our foe xXRoquetManXx is reckless enough to use such a technique, which means he was most likely the victor. We know the victim couldn't have been Ownz0r, because we just got done ambushing him in the boiler room. Er, again. This means that our third adversary, Sn1pa, must have been the unfortunate victim here. So, here is what happened... xXRoquetManXx entered from the upper level and spied the other player below. Having already queued up the needed rockets, he aimed down and obliterated the unwary Sn1pa with the barrage, producing the burn pattern we observe. He then leapt down, touching off the lift as he landed. And finally, we can deduce that when he fled the scene he was unscathed, or else he would have helped himself to the nearby medpacks."

"Amazing Holmes! But bugger all, it would be even more helpful if we knew where he went! There are three doors down here on the lower level. Which way did he go?"

"Even simpler to deduce! He certainly didn't head for the boiler room, since that's the way we just came in, if you remember, and we did not encounter him. It's unlikely that he headed for the exhaust room, since that leads to some health and a rocket launcher, and we have already determined that he has both."

"I get it now, he's headed for the toxic waste pit through the third door. Brilliant! Let's get after him!"

"Easy Watson. No sense in going that way. He's had a good head start, and we'll just end up ten steps behind him. He'll be gathering up all the weapons and armor ahead of us, becoming stronger while we waste time fruitlessly trying to catch up with him. The toxic waste pit leads 'round into the boiler room eventually. So, if we double back now we should get there a few seconds before him. We have just enough time to reach the upper catwalk. He has us out-gunned with his rocket launcher I'm afraid, but we can insta-kill him with the Shock Rifle if we can take him by surprise. Let's go!"

Shamus electrified xXRoquetManXx with the Shock Rifle.

xXRoquetManXx says: dammit shams how r u ALWAYS BEHIND ME??????
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

Here's what I mean. Comic 6 Panel 1 has the line "I'm exploring gender roles within the context of a roleplaying environment". The barbarian's player throws these words back in comic 7 panel 2. It's the punchline of a five-panel gag split over two comics. Structurally, this is a mess. It leads to a lame second gag to fill the rest of comic 7, but more importantly it means some sort of not-quite-a-punchline has to be contrived for the end of comic 6. That's where "improved stamina" comes from. Whatever is said in subsequent comics, it is really hard to read comic 6 in isolation without inferring that the barbarian's player intends to have his character vigorously sexually assault the female character. Because this is the last line of the comic, the additional implication is that we are meant to find this funny in itself. No wonder some people got offended.

Now, imagine doing the same thing over a slightly longer single comic of four or five panels. You would cut the "improved stamina" line for a start - it would serve no purpose any more. Instead, the comic ends on "I prefer to think of it as exploring gender roles within the context of a roleplaying environment". The first advantage of this is that it's a lot funnier. The punchline is where it's supposed to be, not buried half-way through the next comic. The second advantage is that the potential for offending readers is greatly reduced. It no longer reads as though we're meant to find rape or sexual assault funny: the humour is in the elf's player having his pretentiousness deflated in a basically harmless, if tasteless, way.
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!"
- Anne Murrow Lindbergh
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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?

I can't quite figure out whether it's popular because it's the only thing to do other than stuff your face (except on Mondays when you can poll the massage calendar hoping someone will cancel) or if it's actually fun in its own right.
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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 :.


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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 :.


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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 :.


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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.
  • Desktop Tower Defense: This addictive, low-intensity game has been out there for a while, but what was new to me was the context of it's creation. Jeff Atwood dives into the history of Tower Defense style games, and makes a surprising observation:
    You'd be surprised how much money you can make by creating a flash game and giving it away for free on the internet. The Tower Defense game mode is a business opportunity for an enterprising programmer. According to a recent interview, Paul Preese, the author of Desktop Tower Defense, is making around $8,000 per month.
    I suppose it can't last, but wow. Making almost $100,000 a year by making such a simple flash game and giving it away for free? That's just amazing, even if it does only last for a year or two. In any case, a good entrepreneur would reinvest that money into new games and enhancements, or any other number of potentially lucrative endeavors.
  • Shuffle: Another simple, low-intensity game that is no less fun for the effort. Good stuff.
  • Starcraft: Flash Action: When did this happen? I haven't played much of this (for fear of falling into black hole of such games), but it seems like, well, a web implementation of Starcraft. Interesting.
  • The Zoomquilt (and Part II): Not really a game, but a mesmerizing pseudo fractal piece of art that you can continually zoom in on (or zoom out from).
That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on June 06, 2007 at 10:43 PM .: link :.


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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Commodore 64 Links and Thoughts
Just finishing off the Commodore 64 retrospective with some links and thoughts...
  • Vice Emulator: This is the relatively craptacular emulator I used to revisit the games of my youth. Once I figured it out, it wasn't that bad, but the biggest issue with C64 emulators is that they all lack reasonable documentation (or the documentation is difficult to find). The biggest problem I had was with the Keyboard settings. You see, the C64's keyboard had a different layout than today's keyboards, so the mappings aren't always intuitive. Also, the "Keyboard Settings" dialog needs some work (for one thing, someone needs to teach the interface designers how radio buttons are supposed to work). Oh, and by default, Vice assumes a German keyboard layout. That was a good one. Still, it worked well enough for my purposes.
  • C64.com: Fantastic site where I downloaded the majority of the games I played, but which also has lots of good C64 articles, including some long excerpts from The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore.
  • YouTube has a bunch of cheesy old C64 commercials. My favorite has a funny little jingle that goes something like "Are you keeping up with the Commodore, cause the Commodore is keeping up with you!" Ho man, that's not creepy at all. And this one on Google Video is, well... it's just sad.
  • Interestingly enough, I work in the old Commodore headquarters building. Go figure.
Well, that about does it for the Commodore 64. It was a system of firsts for me: my first real computer, my first programming experiences (BASIC!), and lots of firsts in terms of game styles too. And so I do have a bit of a soft spot for the C64. Next up in the video game retrospective will be the good ol NES. I won't be starting that one right away, but I have a feeling that it will end up being a longer series of posts (too many great games for the NES). Until then...
Posted by Mark on May 23, 2007 at 06:16 PM .: link :.


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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)
  • Test Drive/Test Drive 2: A series of games that has pretty much endured the last 20 years and will probably continue to thrive, the first two games were on the C64, and they were great fun. At the time, at least. These games have not aged well. The concept is pretty sound: you're taking a high ticket sports car out for a test drive, and you've got to make it back to the dealership without getting cought by the police (a feature that was pretty neat at the time, and which figures prominently in car games that followed) or totalling the car (a variant has you racing against someone else). But the driving controls are unresponsive and clunky, making it difficult to control and less fun to play. Still, I had a blast with this as a youngster - who wouldn't want to drive around in a Lamborghini or Ferrari?

    Awww yeah, I gots me a Lamborghini   Crashing into a cop ends the game.  I guess that's mildly realistic.

  • California Games: Epyx made a host of popular sports games for the C64 that I used to play a lot, including Winter Games, Summer Games, etc... but California Games was the neatest because it featured non-standard games like skateboarding, footbag (aka hackey sack), and surfing. The different games were varied and depended on differing gameplay. As such, some were tons of fun, and some were little more than an exercise in seeing how many times you could press a button in a short period of time (thank goodness this style of game has mostly gone away). It follows, then, that some games hold up better than others. I'm particularly fond of footbag myself (partly just because I like the names of the tricks, like Jester and Axel Foley)

    Playing hackey sack!

  • Karateka: Probably my first martial arts type game, I was actually kinda suprised at how much I liked this game. I remembered playing it, but not how much fun it was. It's a basic game, with only 6 attacks (puches and kicks, each of which has 3 different heights), but still relatively fun. The controls aren't quite as responsive as I'd like, but it still works out reasonably well. You play a man trained in the art of karate (a karateka), and the goal of the game is to rescue a princess from the evil Akuma. To do this, you must defeat the guards of Akuma's castle and eventually face Akuma himself. It's a very short game, but challenging, as your foes get progressively more difficult to kill (Akuma is really tough). Amusingly, many players got to the end of the game and got killed by the princess because they attempted to rescue her while in a fighting stance (the fact that she's able to kill you with one kick to the head begs the question: if she's so powerful, why does she need to be rescued?!). If you're not in a fighting stance, you hug and kiss the princess. Apparently a lot of players never figured this out and thus never completed the game... By today's standards, this isn't great, but it was surprisingly fun revisiting this game... The game's graphics and animations were astounding at the time, and the game's creator, Jordan Mechner, went on to create the hit Prince of Persia series.

    Take that, weenie!   Fighting Akuma   Yay princess!

  • Skyfox: Now comes my first flight sim game, I don't think I ever really got that far in this game, but there were a lot of things I really liked about it. First, it had a pseudo first-person 3d feel to it, and I think it's one of the first games to have the "cockpit view." When deploying on a mission, the game has a very memorable launch sequence that really stuck with me... The graphics were also good, and I remember being enamored with the enemy units (for some reason, the concept of attacking a mothership was really neat to me).

    Cockpit point of view

  • Temple of Apshai: When going over my atari 2600 picks, I noted that I couldn't get enough of various fantasy games (like Adventure and Dragonfire), and this game was the first to really mimick pencil and paper role-playing games like D & D. I loved it. It's actually not that great. Horrible graphics and an awkward gameplay (when you enter a room, you're supposed to consult your manual to get a description of the room) make this a less-than-exciting experience. It was just a basic dungeon crawl with no real story, but it was also my first taste of an RPG, and I loved it. Needless to say, it doesn't hold up that well, but it's worth noting because it was my first RPG. The one thing I will note is that the soundtrack to this is actually very effective. It has this low, ominous tone that continues as you hack through the dungeon, providing a great ambient background. Plus, for you Homestar Runner fans, Strongbad plays this game!

    Oh noes, a mosquito!

  • Some other games worth noting: Spy vs. Spy (a two player game and funny booby traps, but otherwise not the greatest game), GI Joe (I played this mostly because I loved GI Joe, but the game stunk), and an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade video game (I can't seem to find the version I played, and I remember very little about the game, except that I used to play it all the time while listening to a Motley Crue album. Should I have admitted that? Probably not.)
Most games of the time weren't that impressive, but they were the direct forerunners to many of the conventions we take for granted in today's games. They're still fun, but they wear thin relatively quickly. One final disclaimer: I'm positive that I'm missing a bunch of really great games, but I should stress that this is a) a subjective list and b) limited to my experience playing video games as a youth. Anyway, perhaps one more wrap up post for the C64, and then it's on to other things.
Posted by Mark on May 20, 2007 at 09:18 PM .: link :.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Airborne Ranger
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.
- An excerpt from Airborne Ranger Field Manual
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.

Airborne Ranger (initial screen)

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.

Flying Over Enemy Territory

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...

Flying Over Enemy Territory

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.

Crawling through a trench

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)

Flying Over Enemy Territory

Taking out a bunker with a LAW rocket
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...

Crossing the frozen river
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.

Blowing up an antenna
Tick-tock, tick-tock.

As previously mentioned, you drop bags of supplies that need to be retrieved.

Get away from my supplies!
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!
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:

Programmers!

Posted by Mark on May 16, 2007 at 08:18 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:

C64 Command Line

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Link Dump
Various links for your enjoyment:
  • The Order of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above Average Physique: Like the Boy Scouts, but for Scientists. Aside from the goofy name, they've got an ingenious and hilarious list of badges, including: The "my degree inadvertantly makes me competent in fixing household appliances" badge, The "I've touched human internal organs with my own hands" badge, The "has frozen stuff just to see what happens" badge (oh come one, who hasn't done that?), The "I bet I know more computer languages than you, and I'm not afraid to talk about it" badge (well, I used to know a bunch), and of course, The "dodger of monkey shit" badge. ("One of our self explanatory badges."). Sadly, I qualify for less of these than I'd like. Of course, I'm not a scientist, but still. I'm borderline on many though (for instance, the "I blog about science" badge requires that I maintain a blog where at least a quarter of the material is about science - I certainly blog about technology a lot, but explicitely science? Debateable, I guess.)
  • Dr. Ashen and Gizmodo Reviews The Gamespower 50 (YouTube): It's a funny review of a crappy portable video game device, just watch it. The games on this thing are so bad (there's actually one called "Grass Cutter," which is exactly what you think it is - a game where you mow the lawn).
  • Count Chocula Vandalism on Wikipedia: Some guy came up with an absurdly comprehensive history for Count Chocula:
    Ernst Choukula was born the third child to Estonian landowers in the late autumn of 1873. His parents, Ivan and Brushken Choukula, were well-established traders of Baltic grain who-- by the early twentieth century--had established a monopolistic hold on the export markets of Lithuania, Latvia and southern Finland. A clever child, Ernst advanced quickly through secondary schooling and, at the age of nineteen, was managing one of six Talinn-area farms, along with his father, and older brother, Grinsh. By twenty-four, he appeared in his first "barrelled cereal" endorsement, as the Choukula family debuted "Ernst Choukula's Golden Wheat Muesli", a packaged mix that was intended for horses, mules, and the hospital ridden. Belarussian immigrant silo-tenders started cutting the product with vodka, creating a crude mush-paste they called "gruhll" or "gruell," and would eat the concoction each morning before work.
    It goes on like that for a while. That particular edit has been removed from the real article, but there appears to actually be quite a debate on the Talk page as to whether or not to mention it in the official article.
  • The Psychology of Security by Bruce Schneier: A long draft of an article that delves into psychological reasons we make the security tradeoffs that we do. Interesting stuff.
  • The Sagan Diary by John Scalzi (Audio Book): I've become a great fan of Scalzi's fiction, and his latest work is available here as audio (a book is available too, but it appears to be a limited run). Since the book is essentially the diary of a woman, he got various female authors and friends to read a chapter. This actually makes for somewhat uneven listening, as some are great and others aren't as great. Now that I think about it, this book probably won't make sense if you haven't read Old Man's War and/or The Ghost Brigades. However, they're both wonderful books of the military scifi school (maybe I'll probably write a blog post or two about them in the near future).
Posted by Mark on February 21, 2007 at 08:16 PM .: link :.


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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 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:
  • The Map and Extra Armies: A different map is generated for each game. One of the other differences is that the number of extra armies (or Dice, in this game) you get per turn is based solely on the number of territories you control (and there's no equivalent to turning in Risk cards for more armies). This nullifies the Australia strategy of conquering an easily-defensible continent, but the general strategy remains: you need to maneuver your forces so as to minimize the number of exposed territories, slowly and carefully expanding your empire.
  • Army Placement and Size: Unlike Risk, you can't choose where to place your armies (nor can you do "free moves" at the end of your turn, which are normally used to consolidate defenses or prepare a forward thrust). If you mount a successful attack, you must move all of your armies except one that you leave behind. This makes extended thrusts difficult, as you'll leave a trail of easily conquered territories behind you. This is one of the more annoying differences. Another difference is that any one territory can only have a certain number of armies (i.e. there is a maximum). This changes the dynamic, adding another element of entropy. Again, it's somewhat annoying, but it's easy enough to work around.
  • Attacking and Defending: In Risk, the attacker has a maximum of 3 dice, while the defender has a maximum of 2 dice. Ties go to the defender, but attackers still have the statistical advantage, no matter how many armies are facing off. If both territories have an equal amount of armies, the attacker has the statistical advantage. In Dice Wars, the number of dice used are equal to the number of armies, and instead of matching up single dice against each other, they just total up the dice. If the attacker's total is greater than the defender's, they win. Again, ties go to the defender. So in this case, if two territories have the same number of armies, the statistical advantage goes to the defender. Of course, you generally try to avoid such a situation in both games, but again, the dynamic is quite different here.
The game's familiar mechanics make it easy to pick up, but the differences above make it a little more difficult to master. Here's an example game:

dice wars

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • Combat: The mechanics of combat are intuitive, easy to learn, and fun to use. This is a good thing, because fighting represents the majority of the game, and indeed it is the funnest thing about the game. Your main weapon is a pair of blades that are attached to your arms with chains, thus giving the ability to swing them at a distance. Later on, you get access to other weapons and magical spells. The system works extremely well, allowing you to do certain attack combinations that do more damage or take on a more defensive posture. When fighting big enemies and bosses, once you reduce their heal level to a certain point, you're given a certain sequence of buttons to push (or other actions). These "mini-games" might not sound like a lot of fun, but they actually are. All in all, the combat system is very well thought out and fun to use.
  • Bosses: I had to single out the bosses from the combat section because these enemies are just a blast to fight. Unfortunatly, there are only three bosses in the game... but they're all great. The first boss is the Hydra, and it's a very well conceived combat sequence, with multiple stages that are both challenging and fun. The second boss (don't know what this one is called) is not as elaborate (and the circular motions required in the "mini-game" takedown were a pain to get right), but was also more challenging due to the fact that I had very little life or magic power left. Still the animations were great, and the way you had to kill the thing was neat. The final boss is Ares, the Greek God of War (more about this will be mentioned below in the story section), and this is another one of the multi-stage bosses. Like the other bosses, each stage is challenging and fun. For some reason, defeating Ares was surprisingly easy for me. The first stage wasn't that hard, though I died on my first try. The second stage had me worried for a bit, but I got through it without dying (Thank you, Army of Hades! That spell saved my ass on the first two stages.) Now, the third stage, that took me about 10 seconds to defeat. I must have just gotten lucky or something. Still, it was great fun and one of the best parts of the game.
  • Puzzles: The game interweaves various puzzles with the action sequences and cutscenes, a feature I'm told is common with other action/adventure games. The pacing of the game is excellent as it never gets carried away with any particular type of gameplay, and it cycles through them often enough to keep you interested. The puzzles themselves are often interesting and sometimes challenging. Maybe a couple of them are too challenging, but I was able to get past all of them eventually. Many involve pushing or aligning blocks, or depressing buttons on the ground to trigger various contraptions. It's funny how games these days try so hard to eschew the "Find the Key" dynamic present in so many earlier games... keys are so boring, you know? But there are a couple of equivalent things in action here. That's not a problem with the game, and in fact, most of the triggers are rather clever and well thought out.
  • Obstacles: Along with combat and puzzles, the game will sometimes throw in some obstacles that you need to jump over, climb up, or balance-walk across. For the most part, these tasks are just exercises in tedium. For example, towards the end of the game, you end up trying to escape from Hades. This is the most obsctacle-laden level of them all, and the most frustrating part of the game. One particular obstacle really got on my nerves. Towards the end of the level, you have to climb up these spinning cylinders and they have spikes where if you touch one of them, you fall all the way back down to the bottom (you have to climb a long way's up too). After I fell off for the 100th time, I almost turned off the game forever and put in the new Castlevania game. Eventually, I got through it, but what ended up happening was that I had mostly memorized the rotations and blade positions. That's just stupid. Most of these tasks were just as annoying and basically fell into the Do it again, stupid! theory of game design. It's the worst part of the game. Thankfully, the truly frustrating ones don't occur that often.
  • The Camera: One other thing that annoyed me was the inability to control the camera. I always wanted to be looking around, and there were even times in the game where the designers knew you couldn't see an area and used that in their designs. Frustratingly, some of the walk-the-plank obstacles were made more difficult because of the position of the camera. Most of the time though, the camera was ok (and sometimes, like when you're walking down a spiral staircase, it looks fantastic), but it was disorienting when I started playing. I'm used to being able to look where I want. Also, there were times when their cues for what to do next were kinda difficult to find. For instance, when running around in Athens, you get to a roadblock. It took me a good 5 minutes or so (an eternity when playing a game) before I figured out that you could just cut the barricade down. Then it took another 5 minutes to spot the tiny rope that lets you swing across the ditch. Frustrating. I have to admit though, that for a fixed camera game, they do a pretty good job (I just don't like it).
  • Visuals and Audio: The designs in the game are extremely well done, from the main hero to the various beasties to the ancient Greek architecture and landscapes. Interweaved with the combat and the puzzles (ok, and the annoying obstacles) are various cutscenes which also look great. Everything about the game just looks fantastic, which I think is something of a rarity. The audio is also very good, though it gets a little repetitive. A little more variety would be nice, but what's there is great.
  • Story: The story is mostly told in the cutscenes, which are thoughtfully spaced out throughout the game, further contributing to the game's well paced experience. The story is a little on the dark and brutal side, and indeed the game has all sorts of adult themes including very graphic violence and even nudity. The main character, Kratos, isn't that likeable of a guy (except in asmuch as he's a badass and his end goals are noble), but once his background gets filled in a bit, he becomes a little more understandable. For those not worried about spoilers, the story fleshes out how Kratos came to make a deal with Ares, the Greek God of War, and how Ares eventually betrayed Kratos, who vowed revenge. Ares seems to be a little upset with his father (Zeus) and Athena, as you see Ares laying waste to Athens all throughout the game. The other Gods aid you in your quest to destroy Hades. One mildly annoying thing about the story is that the end-goal of the game is to destroy Ares, and you encounter him very early on in the game... only to be wisked away to a labrynth to get Pandora's Box (which you need to defeat Ares). The majority of the game is encompassed with finding Pandora's Box, and then once you find it, you're sent down to Hades. So the game basically feels like it's moving the goalposts all the time. As I said, it's a minor quibble, but I did find it a bit odd.
  • Usability: One of the most impressive things about the game is the lack of "Loading..." prompts (bane of the PS2). The game seamlessly transitions between gameplay and cutscenes and back again, giving the game a much more immersive quality than most others I've played (I assume this is accomplished with the use of precaching techniques). As I've already mentioned, the game is very well paced, deftly switching between combat, puzzles, obstacles, and cutscenes. Save points are well spaced too, and the game includes various auto-save features that make some of the more frustrating battles or obstacles much easier to deal with. The combat system and gameplay is simple, yet deceptively powerful. The game explains how to accomplish most tasks as you go, so there's no need to rtfm. The menus, text screens and other prompts that come up are easy to read and use. Many of these things are typically overlooked in games like this, with the developers choosing to spend most of the time on the graphics or the animation. To have a game with both excellent visual design and usability is pretty impressive.
Overall, it's a great game, but there are a few flaws that I'm surprised are not noted more in reviews. Or, I should say, in the ratings, as many reviews I've read call out the problem areas, but still end up rating it in the astronomical 9.5-10 range. I guess the game does so many things so well that it's hard to give it a worse rating, but I'd be fine giving it a rating between 9-9.5...

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.
Posted by Mark on July 16, 2006 at 06:26 PM .: Comments (5) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • The Ten Greatest Years in Gaming: It's an interesting list, in part, because I never considered any of these years particularly great. Why? Because I was never a bleeding edge gamer. For example, the first year they mention (1977) was before I was even born. 1986 started the NES trend, but I didn't get mine until 3-4 years later. What this really means is that my favorite years are lagging behind the actual years... An interesting note, in 1993, when technology had progressed enough that games began to take on more artistic characteristics:
    CD-ROM drives were now available, and people bought them en masse, bolstered to a large extent by Nintendo PlayStation almost-ran Myst – a game which would become, and remain for some years, the highest-selling PC game of all time. Between Myst and The 7th Guest, the template was essentially down for mass-market PC games: actors, big budgets, ray-traced graphics, and arbitrary puzzles. It all seemed neat at first. They were almost like movies!
    When you look at some of the things that were done (and are still being done) in gaming, it's difficult to categorize their artistic merits. Take Silent Hill 2 (from 2001):
    Every element in the game, from the inventory to the monsters, reflected an element of the main character's personality. Every action the player took – even inaction – was tracked and analyzed in psychological terms. Depending on what the player's actions said about the main character's state of mind, the game ultimately read a different motive for the protagonist, therefore gave him a different conclusion to his journey.
    So this game is not only telling a story, it's changing the story on the fly based on how you play the game. I've never actually played that game, but it sounds like art to me, and it sounds like it's something that goes above and beyond traditional art (which I guess you'd expect from a more interactive medium). Other games that year played with people's perceptions and otherwise began to show a more mature
    Those new fans were mostly made up of people who had been growing restless with the brainless, essentially unquestioning nature of videogames to date – those Nintendo fans who had grown older still and now were looking for some deeper meaning in their hobby – not so much legitimacy as an art form, as just some kind of actual inspiration – some emotional or intellectual meat to keep them interested. And this was the year that they started to get their wish; that, in place of real hardware or design innovations, videogames began to innovate in the realm of mature expression.

    People started to think differently of videogames: thus the (frankly kind of misguided) "games as art" and "new games journalism" movements. People began to write about them differently, analyze them differently. Take them more seriously – because games were starting to appear that were worth taking seriously. And there was much conflict.
    Have we really turned the corner, though? Gaming has certainly grown a lot over the years, to the point where I think a lot of games can tell a story that is worth telling, but is the medium where it really needs to be? This leads to the next article I ran across:
  • Why There Are No Great Video Game Critics (Yet): John Scalzi responds to the question of why video games, today's dominant form of mass entertainment, have yet to develop a body of interesting criticism. Scalzi is extremely thorough in answering the question. For example, video games haven't been around all that long:
    Video games are no longer anywhere near new -- the first home consoles came out in the 1970s, and Space Invaders is on the verge of its 30th anniversary -- but it's only been in the last decade or so that consoles and computers have become powerful enough to allow the sort of meaningful interactive narrative that is the hallmark of video game storytelling. You can argue with me on the specifics, but I think the first truly notable interactive video game narrative presentation was Myst, which dates back only a dozen years. Other people might choose Civilization (1991) or SimCity (1989) instead, and I think those are valid choices, too. But however you chop it up, the video game as a criticism-worthy medium is, at best, about fifteen years old, and to my mind it's only been since the emergence of Half-Life (1998) that there has been a substantial number of games worthy of genuine criticism. So we're talking less than a decade's worth of games worthy of criticism.

    Now, let's go back to the examples of critics offered earlier: Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs. Pauline Kael began writing film criticism in the 1950s, but only really became Pauline Kael when she started writing for New Yorker in 1967. By the time Kael made her name, film, as an artistic medium, was six decades old and artistically significant films had been made for half a century. It was a mature (if still radically evolving) medium. Likewise, Lester Bangs started reviewing rock in 1969, fifteen years after rock and roll emerged as its own genre, and of course decades after pop music of any sort had become a fertile ground for criticism -- and pop music in general (as opposed to rock itself) should arguably be the metric we use for the medium.
    Another reason we don't have prominent critics:
    You actually have to be able to play the video games. Useful and valid criticism requires some academic knowledge of the field you want to criticize. But once you've got that, the input portion of criticism is generally pretty easy: With film, you (primarily) watch with your eyes. With music, you (primarily) listen with your ears. You're done. Video games, however, require an additional skill, and that is to be able to play the game. Therein lies a problem: The hermeneutics of video games require a whole lot of button-mashing. How many critics are both able to get through a boss level and tell you what it means as a social construct? In the future, probably a lot. At the moment: Not so many.
    The post is excellent and highly recommended.
  • The End of the Affair: Tying in more with the Novelty discussion from a few weeks ago, Clive Anderson's article in Wired begins with a perfect example:
    One day a few weeks ago, I picked up Burnout: Revenge -- the superb new car-racing and -smashing game -- and within an hour I was hooked. I abandoned all work, blew my writing deadlines and ignored my wife. The few moments when I could pry myself from the console, I'd fantasize about when I could return. It seemed like I'd never be able to stop, and indeed, like any addict, I didn't want to.

    Until suddenly, after two weeks of monomaniacal play, everything ended. I finished a three-hour binge of racing, clicked off my Playstation 2, and ... it was over. My compulsion had vanished. I still enjoyed the game, and had plenty more challenges to complete. But I didn't need to play it any more.
    I think we've all had this experience with a few games. A little while ago, I wrote a series of posts on the excellent Galactic Civilizations II, which I had played almost non-stop for a few weeks... but then, I haven't played the game since then. This happens all the time. In fact, I recently picked up God of War for the playstation 2. I've played for a significant portion of the weekend and enjoyed myself (for the most part), but I can already feel it slipping from my consciousness. If I haven't finished the game in a week or so, I doubt I ever will...
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on July 02, 2006 at 07:46 PM .: link :.


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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.
Posted by Samael on June 25, 2006 at 01:42 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Novelty
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.
Posted by Mark on June 18, 2006 at 03:55 PM .: Comments (6) | link :.


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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Link Dump
Time is short this week, so just a few links I found interesting...
  • Make Me Watch TV: Collaborative torture. This guy lets people choose what he watches on TV. Naturally, voters tend to make him watch the worst of the worst (though it seems that sometimes people are nice and let him watch an episode of Lost or Doctor Who). After each viewing, he blogs about what he's seen. One interesting thing here is that, if you want, you can "sponsor" a time slot: If you pay him $5 (per half hour), he'll let you override the popular vote and force him to watch the program of your choice. Democracy in action.
  • Life After the Video Game Crash: In light of recent bloggery, this article in which David Wong recaps the history of video games (including the beloved Atari 2600) also predicts the coming of another Video Game Crash. Basically, it argues that the next generation gaming consoles offer very little in the way of true innovation and Wong is betting that people will stay away in droves. Regardless of what you may think, it's worth reading because Wong is funny:
    And yet, even with the enormous number of games (Metroid delayed my discovering girls for a for a good 18 months), the gaming experience itself still couldn't keep our interest for more than a few years. Attention waned again, but this time new, fancier systems arrived just in time, offering a new and novel experience thanks to prettier graphics and character animation. And yet those systems (the Sega Genesis and later the SNES), as great as they were, eventually were retired to closets and attics and the sandy carpets of the Pakistani black market. It was a bitter, dark cloud of Japanese expletives that wafted from the meeting rooms at Nintendo and Sega when they realized their industry effectively lived under a curse.
  • The World's Most Important 6 Second Drum Beat: Nate Harrison's fascinating 2004 video explores the history of the "Amen Break," a six second drum beat from a b-side of a 1969 single that's been used extensively in early hiphop and sample-based music. From there, it spawned subcultures like drum-and-bass and jungle music. Aside from the strange fact that this is a video (there doesn't appear to actually be a reason for this - most of the video is simply a video of a record playing or a guy sitting in a room, for instance), this is compelling stuff. It covers the history of the break, but also some issues about ownership, copyright, and what constitutes art and creativity...
Apologies for the lameness of this entry. I've been travelling this weekend, and I'm exhausted. I've got several of these weekends coming up, so I'm going to try and set up some guest bloggers to post in my stead. I think the next one will be in two weeks or so. Anyway, I'll try to post again later this week...
Posted by Mark on June 11, 2006 at 09:05 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Atari 2600 Links and Thoughts
Just finishing off the Atari 2600 retrospective with a few links and thoughts...
  • Activision Patch Gallery: One of the things I've lamented about the Atari 2600 platform is the formulaic quality of many games: you basically manipulate a bunch of pixels on the screen to reach an arbitrary goal like 10,000 points. What fun is that? Well, to make things more interesting, Activision had this program where you could send a polaroid of your screen when you reached the arbitrary goal, and they would send you a patch. For example, I was a member of the Chopper Commandos (for Chopper Command), Explorer's Club (Pitfall!), and Trail Drive (Stampede).

    The practice of photographing the screen when you reached the end of a game lasted well into the Nintendo age (though the patches had disappeared by then - you instead got your photos published in Nintendo Power or some other such publication), but had disappeared by the 16 bit era (at least, I think so!)
  • Composite Map of the Lost Caverns from my favorite A2600 game, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns. It was made from the Commodore 64 version of Pitfall II, but the layout is the same for the 2600 version of the game (the only difference is the graphics).
  • YouTube is filled with cheesy old Atari 2600 commercials, strategy videos, and parodies.
  • Kaedrin reader and video game enthusiast Samael has posted a list of his favorite Pre-NES games, including a selection of Intellivision games (a system I never owned).
That about wraps it up for the Atari 2600. Have I missed anything? Drop a comment below...
Posted by Mark on May 31, 2006 at 11:26 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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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:
  • Adventure: One of a handful of exceptions to the typical Atari game formula (i.e. your mission is an arbitrary point score) is Adventure. Your goal is to return a chalice to the gold castle, exploring other castles, chambers, and mazes along the way. There are several objects (including a sword, a magnet, and keys to the aformentioned castles) strewn about the virtual world to aid you in your quest. Three deadly dragons roam the area as well. The graphics and sound are primitive - your character basically appears as a dot on the screen, the sword looks like an arrow, and it's often remarked that the dragons resemble a duck (personally, I think the yellow one looks like big bird. Also, when you kill a dragon, it takes on the shape of what appears to be E.T.). On the other hand the keys and the castles look great, and the gameplay more than makes up for the lack of visual complexity. This game apparently contains the first video game easter egg (unfortunately, I haven't been able to reproduce this on my emulator yet). Shamus also noted a strange bit of functionality where you could enter the difficulty selection screen (an odd bit of functionality, that, but I was able to reproduce it).

    Gold Castle
    The Gold Castle
    Big Bird the Dragon
    Big Bird or a duck?
    You decide!
    Is that E.T.?
    Is that E.T.?
  • Dragonfire: Another game featuring dragons and castles (yeah, I was a sucker for these types of games), this one follows a more standard Atari formula. The gameplay switches between two different screens. On the first, you dodge fireballs in an attempt to enter a castle. Once inside, you're confronted by the castle's guardian dragon and your goal is to collect all the treasure and escape, all the while dodging more fireballs. Excellent graphics (the dragons actually look like dragons and the treasures are detailed and relatively intricate) and smooth animations make this a pleasure to play, and despite the standard treasure collecting goals, the challenge of each successive level is rewarding.

    Fireballs! The Green Dragon
  • Chopper Command: And now we reach the point where a game gets about as formulaic and arbitrary as possible, yet is still entertaining because it executes it's (simple) premise so well. Decent graphics and smooth animation make this game fun to play, though I'm convinced that my childhood opinion of this game was based mostly on the sound effects, particularly that of your weapons (and holding down the fire button allowed for some serious rapid-fire action). Another interesting aspect of this game is the radar map at the bottom of the screen which gives you an overview of the level. This is something that has become common in games these days, which is interesting to see... An enjoyable, if simplistic, game.

    Blasting away...

  • Enduro: I get the impression that this is one of the more underrated Atari games, perhaps in part because it resembles the classicPole Position (but I prefer Enduro). The gameplay for this racer is a bit different from its competition though. Your goal is to pass a certain number of cars in a "day," and each day progresses through a series of weather conditions, including rain, snow, darkness, and fog. The graphics are about medium-range, and the sounds of revving engines are decent too. It gets pretty intense at times, especially when night turns to dawn and you still need to pass some cars before sunrise...

    Racing Racing Racing
  • Keystone Kapers: In this game you play a cop (sorry, a "kop") who chases criminals (kriminals?) through a department store, dodging shopping carts, little airplanes, radios and beachballs along the way. Every level is essentially the same, with the krook becoming more and more difficult to catch. Fun, fluid gameplay is bolstered by the excellent graphics and animations.

    Closing in on my man...

  • Battlezone: Probably a little ahead of its time, I could arguably consider this my first first-person shooter, complete with a little circular radar map at the top telling you where your oponents are lurking (more akin to the one used in Unreal Tournament than the one in Chopper Command). Despite the limited hardware, this game actually managed to pull off its three dimensional nature which is pretty impressive. The enemies are varied and challenging, but in the end, it's another one of those unending formula games. Still, it was impressive enough at the time...

    Battlezone

  • Stampede: Another simplistic formula game, Stampede was still pretty fun. Some nice animations of lassos and running horses/cattle. Movement is a bit restricted (you can only move vertically), but some interesting gameplay allows you to push slow moving cattle ahead, giving yourself some extra time to lasso them. It's actually a pretty unusual game in these respects, and I think that's part of why it sticks out in my head.

    Stampede
Well, I think that just about does it for the Atari 2600 games. One final caveat, I'm sure there are plenty of great games that I'm missing on my list, but this is a) a subjective list and b) limited to my experience playing video games as a youth. As it turns out, many of the old standbys (Space Invaders, Pac-man, etc...) just didn't make that much of an impression on me. The games above did, even if they were clones of other popular games (like Chopper Command and Enduro). Anyway, expect another Atari post or two to wrap up. I may be taking a bit of a break before I start on the next system (the classic Commodore 64 - not technically a console, but a vehicle for many hours of game playing as a young'un). I like taking this stroll down memory lane, but I don't want to completely jam the blog with all video game posts...
Posted by Mark on May 28, 2006 at 08:22 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.


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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.
- An excerpt from Pitfall Harry's diary
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns - Cover Art; click for a larger version
Cover Art
Without a doubt, the greatest game ever made for the Atari 2600 was 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...
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
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.
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
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
That's some powerful helium in that balloon

The valiant Pitfall Harry, about to rescue his neice Rhonda.

Rhonda!
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!
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!
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!
Posted by Mark on May 25, 2006 at 09:09 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.


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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 :.


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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.

The goal: Conquer the worlds of Super Mario Brothers, in order, in as little time as I can.

I'll play through the console versions of the Super Mario games, starting with the original Super Mario Bro., and finishing with Super Mario Sunshine for Gamecube. For the sake of convenience, I'll be using the Mario All-Stars version of the first few games, so that I don't have to drag out my old-school NES. I've set rules for myself, because I am lame. The only rules are that I can't use any cheats or exploits, and I can't use warp-pipes or warp whistles to skip levels. This really only effects the first few games, since it's easy to work your way around levels in the later Mario games.
Bowser!

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.
It only further reinforces my general dislike of gambling.

Except for poker.

I still like poker.

I'd totally kick Bowser's ass in a poker tourney.

3 pm: Mario looks like a doggy when he crouches with the racoon tail.

3:30 pm: World 4's boss is named Larry, I think. His ship didn't have any cannons on it- only the fire-spewing engines. Despite this, it had two power-up boxes. Crazy.

3:35 pm: It took me 12 seconds to defeat Larry.
That's what he gets for being blue, and for wearing antlers on his hat.
What a tool.
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."
Posted by Mark on May 06, 2006 at 04:26 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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
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
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
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!
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 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
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
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.

Victory
Victory!

After decimating the rest of their fleet with my Wildcats, the Altarians begin to have second thoughts...

Altarians offer peace...
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
Say hello to ikorx

Victory! The Kaedrinians have conquered the galaxy not with weapons, but with ideas. All praise tallman!

Victory
Victory!

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.
Posted by Mark on March 12, 2006 at 04:02 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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
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.

The Snathi (click for larger image and more details)
The Snathi
This simply would not do. I had to act quickly if I wanted to secure long term survival (let alone domination). My general strategy is to focus on trade and influence to start, but this time I decided to focus mostly on my military might and, secondarily, economics and trade (having a strong economy would help power the military machine). The goal here would be to find a weak race and take over their planets early. Most of the major races were pretty well established, but I found the perfect opportunity with one of the minor races: the Snathi, a cuddly but apparently "evil" race of squirrel-like beings. One of the nice things about this game is that the creators seem to have a genuine sense of humor. Their description of the Snathi includes this little gem: "... after billions of years of hoarding their proverbial 'nuts,' the Snathi have metaphorically 'climbed out of their tree' and will 'gnaw the galaxy with their squirrel-like teeth'... so to speak."

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
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
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
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
Posted by Mark on March 01, 2006 at 09:00 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
    Lightning Class Battle Cruiser (click for larger image and more details)
    Lightning Class Battle Cruiser
  • I need a new computer! Or, at the very least, I need to upgrade my existing computer with a newer graphics card to take advantage of the new graphics. However, the game is perfectly playable even with my turn-of-the-millenium hardware, which is actually quite nice (hard to believe that this computer is almost 6 years old!).
  • I haven't yet made up my mind about the planetary maintenance changes. So far, I haven't encountered anything bad, but I can see certain things getting on my nerves later. Initially, I thought it was very confusing, but the way "upgrades" are automatically added makes it much easier to handle than other games of this type that I've played (which is to say, not many).
  • War is fun! One of my big complaints about the old game was that military conquest was somewhat annoying. In this game, you can customize your ships with various styles of weaponry and shields, and you can build your ships to capitalize on the weaknesses of your enemies (i.e. defend against their weapons, while circumventing their defences with your weapons). The ship building interface is a little confusing at first, but I think I'm starting to get a little better (it probably would have helped if I watched the tutorials instead of just jumping into the game). However, my designs are tremendously boring compared to the stuff I linked to last week.
  • My big complaint is that I lost. However, what's annoying about this is not so much that I lost as that I have no idea why I lost. Update: I'm pretty sure the problem I was having was my own doing. I had started a war with the Drengin empire, and after a few initial setbacks, I had managed to completely decimate their fleet (courtesy of the Lightning class battle cruiser). I was preparing my planetary invasion when all of the sudden, the game just stopped and said I lost (and there was no explicit explanation about why I lost or who actually won). However, I was able to go back a few turns and start my invasion again, and I continued the game without running into this again. I thought perhaps one of the other races ran away with it while I wasn't looking, but glancing at the statistics, I could see no obvious reason why. The only thing I can think of is that there was some sort of time limit, but that doesn't make much sense. Perhaps it was just a fluke (I sure hope so!)
Aside from the odd and frustrating ending, I really enjoyed the game. I'm hoping the ending thing is just a minor bug that won't come up again, but I guess we'll see. I apologize if this entry seems a bit sparse, but if the game hadn't ended so abruptly, I probably still would have been playing (and no entry would have been posted at all). Expect more later in the week.

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...
Posted by Mark on February 26, 2006 at 11:55 PM .: Comments (6) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • He has posted several game examples which show you how the game is generally played. It's entertaining reading as Wardell gives blow-by-blow descriptions of how his civilization wins or loses. The way he appears to have allowed ship customization seems much more realistic, as each successive generation of warship (for instance) must build and adapt according to who you're fighting (i.e. if you're enemy develops beam weapons, you should develop a certain type of shielding that protects against those... but that shielding might make you vulnerable to rockets)
  • The Galactic Civilizations Universe gives an overview of the general storyline behind the game's universe. The first game didn't have much of this, except at a very broad level. It seems that this game will also have some campaigns that you can play, mostly revolving around the mysterious Dread Lords.
  • Lots of general posts on the process of making a game such as this post: Is it done yet?
    Every time I play the game, I see something different that I could tweak, improve in some slight way. We're way beyond the "it's good enough to ship". As some of our external and internal gamma testers said, it was probably read to ship a week ago. But each day I play it, I see something, something little that could be improved. Made better. When you're deep into the code, you see all kinds of opportunities to make things even better.

    That's one reason it's hard to simply stop. To say "It's time to stop and send it out there."
    Other posts include thoughts on borrowing user interface tweaks and lots of other issues.
There's tons of stuff over at his blog and on GalCiv2.com. Check them out (and don't be afraid to read back into the archives) if you're interested in this sort of thing...

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...
Posted by Mark on February 19, 2006 at 07:43 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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!
Posted by Mark on August 14, 2005 at 07:28 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.
  • Gameplay: Playing a hockey game is fun in both games, but ESPN is the king here. EA's gameplay was one of my minor annoyances. The controls were jerky and awkward, the speed of gameplay was too slow by default (but could be sped up), and the player behavior could be extremely frustrating (especially with Off Sides turned on). ESPN, by contrast, has smooth controls and movements, a good default gameplay speed, and much better player behavior and computer AI. EA's gameplay was rife with 2 line passes and off sides calls, which makes for frustrating play. Another advantage for ESPN is that it offers more and better gaming modes, including a franchise mode which is deeper than it's EA counterpart (more on that later) and a skills competition (which EA doesn't have). Advantage: ESPN
  • Sound: EA wins this one, hands down. Both games have decent sounds during an actual game, but where EA excels is in the maintenance screens. In all EA games, not just hockey, they have assembled a trendy group of songs from real mainstream bands, most of which seem appropriate as a soundtrack to a sports game. I don't know if EA has launched any bands into stardom, but they seem to have a knack for finding good music. ESPN totally falls flat in this respect. The only music they have that is even remotely compelling is the ESPN theme song, which is good, but short and when it repeats for the 10th time, it grates. Their other music is this lame generic instrumental rock music. Normally this wouldn't be that bad, but it just pales in comparison to EA's stylish lineup. This becomes especially important in dynasty or franchise modes, as you spend a significant amount of time tweaking team settings, doing offseason stuff, etc... Both games have play by play announcers that get annoying after a while, but EA's is slightly better in that their comments are usually relevant to what is happening. ESPN commentators will inexplicably throw out some odd comments from time to time. Advantage: EA
  • Graphics: Both games have decent graphics engines, but I think EA has a better overall look and feel. This goes both for the menu design and the gameplay design. The menus are neat and orderly, they look great, and are easy to use (this will be covered in more detail in the usability section). ESPN's menus are allright, but nothing special. In terms of gameplay, while ESPN has a better experience, EA just looks better. Their player animations are great, and their graphics engine is simply superior. ESPN has some nice touches (it sometimes feels like you're literally watching ESPN, as all of the screen elements have the same look and feel as ESPN tv) but it doesn't quite reach EA's heights. Advantage: EA
  • Usability: This isn't something that is usually covered in video game reviews, but this is an area I think is important. Again, this is something that becomes more relevant when you get into dynasty or franchise modes, where a lot of fiddling with team settings and player manipulations are required. You need to be able to navigate through a number of menus and screens to accomplish various tasks. I think EA has the edge here. Their menus and screens look great and are easy to use. More importantly the controls are somewhat intuitive, and there are usually enough hints at the bottom of the screen to let you know what button to press. ESPN, on the other hand, is awful at this. Sometimes their screens are poorly laid out to start with, but when you add to that the clumsy controls, it just makes things that much worse. Take, for instance the Edit Lines screens, typically consisting of one or more lines, along with a list of players you can substitute. Neither interface is perfect, but ESPN's list of substitutions is tiny and requires a lot of scrolling just to see your options. Another good example is sorting. EA's sort is generally accomplished with the O button, while ESPN makes you use one of the least featured buttons on the PS2, the L3 button (and I needed to use ESPN's help to figure that out). ESPN is just too awkward when it comes to this sort of thing. Gameplay controls are fine for both games, but EA is much better when it comes to the maintenance menus and screens. Advantage: EA
  • Depth of Features: As already mentioned, ESPN has more and better gaming modes than EA, and even within the modes, they have a much deeper feature set. Most notably in their franchise mode, where your control of the coaching staff, contracts (which are themselves much more detailed than their EA counterparts), young players, scouting, and drafting is very detailed, to the point of even setting up travel itineraries for your scout and exerting a large amount of control over your minor league team. Even when it comes to unlockables, ESPN has the edge. On the other hand, EA covers most of the same ground, but in a much less detailed fashion. Their simplistic approach will probably appeal to some people more than others. I have not played enough of ESPN's game to really give a feel for this, as one of the most enjoyable things about a franchise or dynasty mode is to watch your young players progress. EA's simplicity could make for a better overall experience, despite the lack of detail. Sometimes, less is more. One other thing to keep in mind is that ESPN's depth is partly nullified by their usability problems, sometimes making their more detailed features more confusing than anything else. If, that is, you can even find them. There are some features, such as the ability to specify line matchups for a game, which must be found by accident (as there is no way to even know such features exist, let alone how to use them). Advantage: ESPN, but it depends on what you're looking for. More depth doesn't necessarily mean more fun. EA's simplicity might be a better overall experience.
  • Injuries: One thing that really annoyed me with EA's 2004 game was the lack of information about injuries, especially when simming significant parts of the season. You'd sim 10 games, find out one of your star players was injured, but there was nowhere to look to find out how long that player was injured (if you were lucky enough to have your injury occur recently, you might find out through the news ticker at the bottom of the screen, but that goes away when you move a few games ahead). ESPN is better in that there is an actual injuries screen you can check. Unfortunately, that's where ESPN's advantages end - their auto-substitution code sucks, and it sometimes doesn't work at all. Indeed, injuries in general seem to really screw the game up. This is one of my major problems with the game. The game actually locks up for unknown reasons, and I literally cannot continue my franchise mode because one of my players got injured. I'm serious, I've tried it five or six times in the last hour, and nothing works. This is inexcusable, especially for a PS2 game (where there are no possible patches), and is reason enough to avoid ESPN's title altogether. Advantage: ESPN (technically, if it worked, ESPN would be better - the bug is more of a symptom of a larger problem that will play into the next section)
  • Franchise vs. Dynasty Modes: ESPN offers Franchise mode, while EA offers Dynasty mode. These are basically the same thing, 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... Personally, since I've been playing hockey video games for many years, and since these are among the first hockey games to have this mode, it is the most attractive part of both games (from my perspective, at least). I've already gone over some of the differences, most notably the difference in depth of features. EA is more simplistic and ESPN is more detailed. Unfortunately, since ESPN also has poor usability, the additional detail doesn't do it much good. Add to that the inexcusable crashing issues (ESPN seems to have a lot of problems handling its rosters, which leads to the game locking up all the time) and I think that EA wins this category. Honestly, it's difficult to tell, because I literally cannot continue playing the ESPN franchise. It freezes every time I try, no matter what settings I use. I honestly don't know how they could release this game with such a glaring bug. Advantage: EA
  • Customizability: ESPN has far more configurations than EA, and their defaults are near perfect. Even better, you aren't forced to choose these configurations when you start a season, but you do have the ability to change them if you want. Basically, ESPN has a lot of power under the hood, but you aren't confronted with it unless you really want to look. This is one area in which ESPN really accels. Unfortunately, it's not as important as some of the other areas and this is also sometimes hampered by poor usability. EA has some configuration too, and for the most part it's fine. Again, simplicity has its virtues, but their options are considerably fewer than ESPN's. Advantage: ESPN
  • Auto Line Changes: One thing that annoys me in both games is the auto line changes feature. It always feels like one of my lines gets the shaft. In EA, it's often the second line, which only gets around 5-10 minutes of ice time, while lines one and three get the lion's share. Line four usually gets screwed as well, but you kind of expect that. This is really baffling to me, as the second line contains, well, your second best players. They should be out there almost as often as the first line (one would think they'd get the second most ice time). ESPN is slightly better in this regard, but the third line gets next to nothing and in some games, the fourth line doesn't play at all. I'm not sure why that is, but both games could use some work when it comes to that. Advantage: ESPN
I could probably add a lot more to this, but in general, I think EA's game is better right now (at least NHL 2004 is, I can't speak for 2005, which some believe is a step back). If ESPN can work through some of their rough spots, they could really give EA a run for their money in the future. As it stands now, they're probably better if all you're looking for is a straight hockey game, but if you want to get into seasons or franchise modes, EA is far superior. EA doesn't have the depth, but their interface is excellent. ESPN has lots of neat features not available in EA, but their value is largely nullified by a lack of usability, not to mention the inexcusable crashes. Again, it's astounding that such bugs made it through, and I just can't get past that. If they can fix these bugs for next year, they'll be in good shape. Of course, there might not be a next year for hockey, so that might be a problem.

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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