Video Games

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. 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).

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:


  • 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).


  • 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.


  • 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…

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.

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.

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.

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:


  • 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, 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…


  • 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.)


  • 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!

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:


  • 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.


  • 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.


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.

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.

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…


  • 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.


  • 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 <a href="Predator“>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.

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.