Friday, October 31, 2008

LittleBigPlanet: Impressions of a New, Yet Familiar, World

As I have mentioned, LittleBigPlanet was the reason I bought a PS3. Therefore, I would be remiss without offering my thoughts on the game. I refrain from calling this a review, as I am of the mind that to truly review something takes time; possibly even multiple play-throughs, but at least more than a week of serious reflection. I can offer some early impressions though, with the possibility of starting a bigger discussion or even revisiting them in the future for a proper "review."

Let's go planet-side:

1. "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants:" The Gameplay of LBP

Hanah astutely noted that the packaging and appearance of LBP is surprisingly deceptive. Sackboy's cuddly demeanor and enchanting world belie gameplay that is both traditional and challenging. At its core, playing LittleBigPlanet is like playing the wacky love-child of Super Mario and the Prince of Persia. Sackboy can run, jump, grab, and swing. While this move set may seem quaint by today's standards, the levels test these moves in almost every way imaginable, in almost endless iterations.

LittleBigPlanet is a game aware of its roots. The first level is full of over-sized mushrooms, and later levels see Sackboy speeding through narrow tunnels while grabbing rings (excuse me, orbs) along the way. For a gamer like me, this is the sublime: a set of simple, yet versatile actions that the player must apply in inventive and skillful ways. No formal leveling up is necessary to succeed; only personal improvement with the skills learned in the first level will see you through the experience.

This kind of toughness is not often seen in modern games and is definitely not for everyone. LBP the quintessential platformer. Its stripped down nature draws attention to level design and the rules of the environment: the player is forced to test Sackboy's limits as well as their own. How far can Sackboy really jump? How wide does that ledge need to be? Will my momentum swing me high enough to reach that platform? With enough practice, the answers to these questions become instinctual, giving modern players a taste of what things were like back in the old days. Perhaps most importantly, the player can now apply these skills towards the creative process.

2. "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands:" Level Creation

I try not to get hyperbolic on the site, as I think it undermines rational analysis, so believe me when I say that I have never seen anything like LBP's level creator. It is so robust, so comprehensive, and so malleable that it actually may be faster to describe what you cannot do with the system as opposed to what you can do. Everything a player sees in the game can eventually be used, giving the player nearly as much power to design levels as the game's developers. I have played an underwater exploration level that uses a series of jet packs as scuba gear as well as a castle siege level complete with catapult.

The amount of freedom to be had in the level creator is both amazing and paralyzing. Starting a level from scratch has been a daunting process for me, as it is clear that creating something that is appealing from a gameplay and an artistic perspective requires days, weeks, and even months of work. The game renews my respect for visionaries like Shigeru Miyamoto who started scratch with even fewer historical precedents. LBP may be the best example yet for the "games as art" movement: creating a great level takes skill, ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance. If the combination of those traits does not yield art, nothing does.

3. "Evidence of Intelligent Design:" The LBP Experience

It is clear that, in designing LBP, Media Molecule were painstakingly deliberate in their design choices. No part of the game, from the menus, to the animation, to the narration is an afterthought. Craftsmanship like this does not happen every day, and it is wonderful to behold when it does.

That being said, the game is not without its shortcomings. The multi-layered platforming can sometimes be hindrance to a level's momentum. It is quite irritating to be stuck in the foreground or accidentally jump into the background. The mechanic of having a layered side-scroller is novel though, and serves to give the game more depth than traditional 2D fare (both literally and metaphorically).

Considering the game's overarching theme, dreams, it is not surprising that Sackboy's jumps are floaty. Sackboy's movements fit with the game's fantastic, ethereal theme. While the jumping may have benefited form some tightening, I think the overall feel is purposely different from other classic sidescrollers. Sackboy is not Mario, he is not Sonic, he is not Simon Belmont, and therefore he does not control like them. Once I accepted this and started learning the rules and mechanics of the game rather than trying to superimpose my preconceptions, the jumps magically got easier.

4. "What Dreams May Come:" Closing Thoughts

LBP is a title that gives me confidence in the future of video games. It draws from a solid foundation of great influences, embraces contemporary techniques, and strives to innovate. The effort MediaMolecule put into their work is readily apparent, and the powerful tools available to players makes me think that this game will be around for a long time.

I argue that LBP is a game about evolution, even more so than Spore. LBP inherits its basic DNA from the classic games that came before it, but the potential for mutation and growth is built into its structure. LBP is one of those games that could potentially go on forever, and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for Sackboy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

News for 10/29/08: Remakes and The Game Library

This week, we eschew the storm of new releases and talk about the recent trend of game re-makes. Now that the industry has been around for a few decades, it seems likely that remakes will become increasingly common. This raises a number of creative and economic issues, so feel free to weigh in with your thoughts the matter, as well as which games you would like to see remade.

Jorge: You do realize we could be playing Fable II and Little Big Planet as we type this.

Scott: Dear readers, you are witnessing true heroism; superhuman dedication.

Scott: Alright. Seems like this week's news is a bit less controversial than last week's.
We'll have to talk about something we read a while ago.

Scott: Let's take a break from all the current games and talk about old ones.
They're remaking Klonoa, for example. I never played it so what are your thoughts?

Jorge: Woohoo!

Scott: Guess that answered that.

Jorge: I seriously love Klonoa. I must have played that game ten times at least.

Scott: So would you buy it again for Wii?

Jorge: Yes, absolutely. Hell, I'll buy it again for PS2 if I ever see a copy.
Before this article came out, I had completely forgotten about Klonoa. It brought back a flood of happy memories.
Now that this franchise is enlivened, all I need is another Legacy of Kain.

Scott: I was going to ask why games should be remade, and your statement about Klonoa makes me think nostalgia is a good reason.

Jorge: People usually feel nostalgic for good games anyway. For those who have never played said game, this could be a good opportunity to get it out there.
Chrono Trigger got a re-release on the DS.

Scott: Which is also awesome. Probably my favorite RPG ever.

Scott: How about the dark side of remakes? Are there any drawbacks, or awful examples you can think of?

Jorge: Well for one, it's kind of lazy on their part. There aren't huge overhauls for some of these games, even graphically.
Also, do we really want to focus too much on older titles?

Scott: That's my fear when Squeenix does something like remake all the Final Fantasy games for DS.
I'd rather have new games of that caliber rather than re-live old ones I already played.

Jorge: Regardless of how you feel about Mega Man 9, we don't really need it. There are countless emulators online if you needed to play a game so hard you develop Tourette's.

Scott: But Mega Man 9 isn't a remake: there is brand new content.

Jorge: Right, but the core mechanics and visuals are exactly the same. Don't we want innovation? I'm not against remaking a classic game or making a game in the same style, but there has got to be a limit. I've played so many great games in the past, but I don't want to see a remake of every single one. There are plenty of new stories to be told as well.
Even Klonoa, I would prefer ten-fold to play a completely new Klonoa, not just a polished version of the one I have in a cardboard box back at home.

Scott: That's a good point, but Mega Man 9 is for folks that love the core mechanics of Mega Man and want to apply them in new situations.
That being said, I agree that we don't want to just make old games into cash cows.

Scott: Your point about remakes being valuable for those who missed the original release brings me back to my last post: Doesn't remaking classic games add to gamers' shared cultural experiences?
There are kids playing games today that weren't even born when Chrono Trigger was released.

Jorge: That's true. It's kind of like encouraging kids who are avid readers to pick up Of Mice and Men... or another, better, analogy...

Jorge: Playing through older titles will better arm them when going into current games. How many times have we heard reviewers cite much older releases when discussing the latest JRPG?
That's where literature has an advantage over videogames as a medium. It is so much easier to go back and experience older works.

Scott: Maybe this is an argument for the widespread availability of used games then?

Jorge: Even if I can get my hands on a copy of the original Lunar or some other really old title, I'll still need a functioning console to play it on and a gamer who hasn't grown to comfortable with the flashy visuals of games today.

Scott: So maybe what we're actually talking about is a kind of public domain for video games.
That way, publishers can't continue to milk games and people who can deal with old-school graphics and gameplay have the titles readily available.

Jorge: A virtual library of games to play over the Internet could be great for the industry. If there is a demand for a title reworked on a new engine it can still be done, and the more obscure titles that would never get a re-release, particular foreign games, could be accessible.

Scott: And if people wanted an updated version, a developer could make it and give the people the option of paying for it.

Scott: I think this is the most radical, Utopian, far flung idea we've ever proposed.

Jorge: "And games were played, it was good."

Jorge: If it's not troublesome, I'm fine with all good titles getting a remake. Or at last encouraging backwards compatibility.
But the public library of gaming, I like that better. It has a nice ring to it.

Scott: I like that idea too. If only we had the theoretical time to devote to this theoretical concept.

Jorge: Amen... So you want to go play some Little Big Planet?

Scott: I think you know the answer to that question.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Infamy in Albion

I'm new to this whole "evil" thing. I've never reveled in the suffering of others, never hunted down innocents with malicious intent. My only foray into malevolent gaming was leveling an undead character in World of Warcraft. And I didn't even kill Alliance players.

But the dark side has its allure, so when I pre-ordered Fable II, I made the decision to be the most cruel and loathsome miscreant I could. I made a deal with a friend: he would be the noble hero of Albion, and I would be the villain. I am taking my time with Fable II, mostly working on my real estate empire, yet my wicked deeds have already had drastic repercussions. Though I'm enjoying the game immensely, it isn't easy being bad.

Before treading the path of the villain, I thought about why I usually play a champion of good. Maybe it's a bad excuse, but it is easier for me to relate to an honorable character. It may be my kind, cuddly, panda-bear sized heart, but I'm sure it has something to do with narrative as well.

I'm hesitant to believe anyone can do "evil" right. I saw Star Wars Episode III; thus, I know how ridiculously cliche becoming a Sith lord can be. Accordingly, I've always presumed game designers intended me take the holy route, allowing devilish deeds as an afterthought. Much to the disappointment of friends, I've never gone to the dark side in KOTOR. Fable II would be my chance to dabble in iniquity.

The game starts you off as a poverty stricken child of Bowerstone on a quest for gold. My first evil act was to give liquor to a struggling alcoholic. The choice was a clear dichotomy: Give the bottle to a caring woman or feed a poor man's addiction. That put me in an uncomfortable situation. How do I justify feeding the paupers booze habit for money when another woman is offering me the same reward if keep it from him? I'm a poor kid with a kind sister and every reason to help a fellow urchin get back on the wagon, but I was determined to go evil.

This early scenario was quickly followed up by similar decisions: Option A = good, Option B = bad, with both granting you the same compensation. I found these unsatisfying. Was I really acting in character? Sure there are some brat kids, but I found it hard to believe, with equal outcomes, I would make the villainous choice.

Upon entering adulthood, my acts of depravity grew to epic proportions. First, I started walking into houses to steal from strangers or sleep on their beds. Soon I was a hired assassin and a cultist, seducing men and women into marriage just to lure them to their death, sacrificing monks in fours. I felt most uncomfortable when I cornered a solitary child, danced to his amusement, and enticed him to follow me. I had become the pied piper of Albion! (Never fear, the game stops you short of killing children or bring them to your unholy alter.)

Early in the game, evil deeds are committed at the whim of the player, with little clarification for your character's motivations. Late in the game, you no longer need justification. With every evil act I commit, my appearance grows more hideous. Horns have sprouted from my head and men, women, and children run in fear whenever I walk into town, making human interaction nearly impossible. My devilish persona is hated, and I grow increasingly impatient with the citizens of Albion, opting to kill my way through the population rather than garner their favor to earn gifts.

Moral decisions in Fable II are simplified, offering an obvious dichotomy of pure good and pure evil. Offering little rationalization for your misdeeds, vile behavior justifies itself. Pernicious behavior is fun but often insincere.

I am enjoying the game immensely and can forgive it for some its over-simplification. It is a fable after all, and fables are known for such tropes. I've grown tired of fairy-tale-morality, but not fairy tales. In the future, If I am to control a character's moral compass, I would prefer ambiguous moral dilemmas with uncertain outcomes. All decisions should come at a cost. Fallout 3 may offer just that, but until I find time in this deluge of holiday releases, I'll savor my infamy in Albion.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Obligatory Play or The Analysis Game?

For gamers, fall is always special: it is the season of big budget, high profile game releases. This year seems especially crazy, and I think Leigh Alexander phrased it well when she wrote:

"Really, to be honest, the avalanche pace of these truly stellar releases is actually making me feel a little clammy and short-of-breath. Anyone else?"

My answer, Leigh, is an emphatic yes. How could one hope to work their way through all these games that are glutting the market? However, what motivates me to play these games most is something a bit different from immediate social pressure. Of course, I want to be able to join in when folks discuss the latest big releases, but most of my anxiety stems from a desire to be well-versed in the larger conversation on video games: Which games are changing the medium? Which are shaping the industry? What are the most popular gameplay styles? Which will be looked back on as landmark achievements.

There is a high correlation between games I find important and games I find fun, but this philosophy also works as double-edged sword. Lately, I find myself increasingly compelled to play certain games that do not interest me. The sick thing is, I am unsure of whether I can change this, or even if I want to change this.

Every medium or discipline has certain landmark works that serve as reference points for wider analysis. Theories, methodologies, archetypes and traditions are anchored in common works and experiences. Once these works are established as common reference points, personal feelings towards them are often subverted in favor of recognizing their importance in the overall field.

For example, if you are a U.S. historian, it really does not matter whether you enjoy reading W.E.B. DuBois. Regardless of relative pleasure one derives from studying his writing, one can not claim a thorough understandng of Civil War Reconstruction, African-American history, or American intellectual history without having read some of his works.

I consider myself both a fan and a student of video games, and I approach them similarly to how I study history. There are certain games out there that I believe informed gaming enthusiasts must play:Tetris , Super Mario Bros., Doom, and Final Fantasy VII are some classic examples that come to my mind. This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor an objective one. Part of the fun of analyzing games is discussing (sometimes arguing!) their merits and contributions to the medium.

The reality is that this metaphorical list (or do I dare call it a "canon?") will continue to grow, and not all games added to it will appeal to all people. There are old games and upcoming games that I think are important to play and analyze even though I have no desire to play them for fun. It is a trap of my own construction: In order to feel like I am well-informed on current events, but most importantly the overall history of video games, I feel the need to play certain titles regardless of whether I enjoy them.

Oftentimes, filling the gaps in my knowledge is highly satisfying in both the immediate and long term sense. After finally playing the demo of Bioshock , I cannot wait to dive into the game. It is a title that is changing the way folks view the medium and I also find it damn fun. Conversely, after the first entry, I have grown less enthusiastic about each subsequent Metal Gear Solid game. Despite this, I (and many others) see Metal Gear Solid 4 as a landmark game. Multiple attributes like its story, graphics, and creator make it an important game within the medium, one that I believe that I must play in order to consider myself an informed gamer/critic/enthusiast. Regardless, I am already looking forward to being finished with a game I have not even started (sorry Leigh!).

It seems that I am ending up in a paradox (or maybe a contradiction, you logic-types can correct me): I enjoy videogames because I like to both play them as well as analyze the medium as it changes over time. However, in order to experience this enjoyment fully, I must force myself to push through games I do not find all that fun.

As I mentioned earlier, I am not sure there is any solution to this, nor should there be a solution to this. Analysis is a meta-game in a way, a game that has certain rules I do not like, e.g. having to wade through games I'm not crazy about.

I know that both LittleBigPlanet and Fallout 3 will both be huge games in terms of sales, scores, and long-term impact on gaming culture. I look forward to analyzing them both, and watching what they do to the medium and the industry. However, I only look forward to playing one of them...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

News for 10/22/08: Little Planet, Big Controversy

This week we are discussing the Little Big Planet delay on account of two Qur'An verses appearing in some background music. We won't be linking to the original story as usual since this is all over the games news media already. The fact this incident received so much coverage is indicative of how interesting and controversial religion is these days. We're pretty certain you've all got an opinion on the subject, so feel free to participate in the dialogue by leaving your comments.

Scott: They delayed the reason I bought a PS3, dammit.

Jorge: It was for your own good Scott. Who knows what kind of rage you would go into upon hearing parts of the Qur'An sung while completely immersed in LBP.

Scott: You're right. It's good to have a friend like you, praise Allah. Wait, was that culturally

Jorge: I don't know. You're Jewish so I think it evens out... In all seriousness, I kind of feel bad for Sony. After all the media blow-up on the subject, they are receiving more flak than they would have had they left the game alone.

Scott: I think you're right on that one. Do we even know who brought it up, or if anyone even complained? Or is this just a preemptive recall?

Jorge: Their exact statement was "During the review process prior to the release of LittleBigPlanet, it has been brought to our attention that one of the background music tracks licensed from a record label for use in the game contains two expressions that can be found in the Qur'an."

Scott: Kotaku mentions they may have received this written complaint from a "hardcore Arabic gaming forum."

Jorge: Even their complaint implies they would be fine with shipping the game as long as future prints do not contain the lyrics. They were patching it anyway. The only people who could have heard it and been offended were a small portion of Muslims with keen hearing who bought LBP and played without being connected to the Internet. How many is that? Three?

Scott: Yes, it just seems like a huge amount of work to recall disks, print new ones, and then ship them out. And this says nothing about the larger ethical, cultural, or moral dilemmas brought into focus by Sony's actions.

Jorge: I understand that Sony wants to satisfy their fan base, some of which is Muslim. So in that sense, removing it from future printing and sending out the patch makes sense. But the entire reprinting process and delay hurts the rest of their consumers, albeit minutely. I don't think the ends justify the means in this case.

Scott: Agreed. And I realize that the delay is just a week, which isn't a big deal.

Scott: The thing that angers me is their willingness to completely bend to the will of a vocal minority. Why do a small group of people get to change a game simply because they are offended by it? Jack Thompson tried to do that for years and Rock Star never changed GTA's content.

Jorge: And I'm sure there are plenty of Christians within the US that have been offended by aspects of videogames for quite sometime.

Scott: I mean, think of the number of times someone has said "Oh my God," and "Goddammit!" in video games. Any calls to censor that stuff is met with derision.

Scott: Capitulation to Muslim complaints strike me as racist. Bear with me here: I argue that the only reason to relent to this minority is that Sony views them as "dangerous" people capable as extreme acts.

Jorge: I completely agree with you. Sony seems to have bought into this fear of radical Muslims. There will be people within all faiths that don't always agree. No group is homogeneous. I'm sure there are some Muslims who are more offended that Sony took this action at all. To think you can please everyone through rash action is ludicrous. Pleasing all audiences is impossible, though I commend Media Molecule in trying to achieve a universal crowd pleaser.

Scott: I argue that the only reason Sony took the song out was because they buy into the threat of Muslim extremism. And now those Muslims who don't care have to deal with the backlash of non-Muslims who are pissed at Sony.

Jorge: If videogames are to be classified as art then publishers will have to make these sometimes tough decisions because art will almost always offend. It's a risk inherent in the medium.

Scott: True: good art pushes people's comfort zones.

Jorge: Though I know this isn't that big of a deal in the long run (its only two lines of lyric after all) I think this is a nice reminder that the videogame industry is still couched in the larger global context in which we all find ourselves. I'd like to know if publishers are going to consistently fear offending people, because that is not a quality I desire in the industry, even if that means I will be offended now and again. Material created with the intent to agitate tends to sell poorly, but knowing we can push the boundaries of the medium is important.

Scott: The frustrating thing is that there are real battles to fight in terms of prejudice in games. Prejudice in terms of race, sexuality, gender and a whole host of other topics.This flap about two ambiguous lines detracts from what is really offensive in games.

Jorge: All of which can be addressed by either not purchasing the offensive game in question or engaging in a dialogue between gamers, developers, and publishers. No one in the videogame industry wants to make gamers feel unwelcome, that's obvious. There was no maliciousness on Sony's part.

Scott: Exactly, and instead of start a discussion, people called for censorship and censorship was readily granted. This does nothing to advance the medium.

Scott: And I think neither of us want this to turn into an "anti-PC" rant. Cultural sensitivity is a good thing; alarmist reactions are not.

Jorge: And if anything it's counterproductive in allaying the concern of Sony's consumers. I wonder if they now regret this decision.

Scott: Yes, this was a time when calm, rational reflection was needed. This whole situation casts Sony as a reactionary company willing to sacrifice a game's artistic package on whim.

Scott: Well, at least this controversy has given me something to think about while I wait for LBP.

Jorge: By LBP you mean "Little Blasphemy Planet" right?

Scott: You win, sir. You win.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Gamer in the Family

This week's post is my first participation in Corvus Elrod's "Blogs of the Round Table" in which Scott contributed earlier this month. The topic for this Round Table is gaming experiences with family, and I'm excited to add my thoughts to all the insightful responses already given. Once again, comments are appreciated and encouraged.

"This month’s Round Table invites you to explore your earliest memories of playing games with your family. Although this is slowly changing, video games have traditionally been seen as an isolating medium." I was certain I would not contribute to this month's Round Table when I read the topic. I seldom want to talk about family. I reconsidered after reading the second sentence. Some have taken the opportunity to tell stories of family gaming that refute the "isolating medium" stereotype, something I cannot do. In many ways, videogames were an isolating experience during my childhood, and I am profoundly thankful for it.

It may be an understatement to say I did not grow up in the healthiest of homes. My parents were not great caregivers. Instead, my siblings and I filled their roles as best we could. My older brother first got me into gaming (some of which I've detailed here) by picking up a used NES. We were far from a wealthy family, so most of the games and peripherals were procured used. Once my brother stole an Iron Man game from Best Buy for me and my sister to play. Though not a great moral lesson, I remember the moment fondly.

One game I remember playing with my brother and sister was Caveman Games, a set of prehistoric Olympic competitions. My brother was the Michael Phelps of Neanderthal sporting events... at first. After hours of training, my gaming improved noticeably. I distinctly remember toying with my sister by almost letting her caveman light a fire before I whacked her with a club. She was furious.

My brother encouraged my skill development and offered his praise when I could defeat particularly difficult bosses. My gaming efforts set me apart from my siblings. I was becoming a gamer long before I knew there were others who bore this title. I formed a sense of identity separate from the unfortunate family environment my siblings and I found ourselves in. I lived in a rural area with no neighbors. Though some see it as derogatory, I valued the escapism videogames and literature provided.

Though perhaps unintentional, I like to think my brother saw what videogames could offer me: a much needed distraction from my family situation and a sense of accomplishment in an atmosphere largely devoid of positive encouragement. For this I am forever grateful.

Video games did not bring my family together. Apart from the occasional games my brother would play with me, and until I met other gamers, it was largely an isolating experience. Fortunately, this was exactly what I needed. Though I'm the only hardcore gamer in the family, I'll still find time to talk about my latest gaming experiences around the Thanksgiving table.

The growing casual market may explain my family's acceptance of videogames (my sisters will play a mean Rock Band guitar!). I like to think they appreciate games because of me. Because of my family, and my brother in particular, my identity as a gamer exists regardless of the games I play today. I would still be the gamer in the family if games were outlawed. If that day were to come, I would wear the mantle with pride and consider myself lucky.

Friday, October 17, 2008

PS3 and Me: The First 24 Hours

Well it finally happened. It was quite an Odyssey: I missed the delivery person and had to drive out to the industrial center near the airport. I had to stand in line, in the dark, with a group of other equally exhausted and frustrated people. I had to finesse the car down the freeway, taking the turns ever so gradually and braking ever gently to protect my precious cargo.

A quick tangent: the UPS customer service center/warehouse and shipping location was a fascinating place. A huge number of people work there, as the parking lot for customers was dwarfed by the employee lot. The customer service center was basically at the end of a long road that runs parallel to the airport, presumably to make it easy to offload the cargo of UPS planes. As far as the kinds of people waiting to pick up their package at 9:00 pm, it is somewhat like the DMV: all shapes, sizes, ages, cultures, creeds, and classes are represented. No one really wants to be there, and there is a grim understanding between the line-standers that we're all at the mercy of a shadowy bureaucracy. Ah the parcel business, the great leveler.

But enough of that, the big news is that I got my grubby mitts on a PS3. I've had it for about twenty-four hours now, so I thought I'd offer some initial impressions and a few pictures of the unboxing (people seem to like that sort of thing).

Let's start with the bad news.

Things I dislike:

"1. Can I play yet?"
The set up process begins with a huge firmware upgrade right out of the box. Even though my PS3 is the most current hardware revision, I was forced to download and install this massive update before I could really do anything with the machine. It probably took about an hour to get everything set up. This stands in stark contrast with the Wii, whose setup was reminiscent of baby giraffe: that thing was up and running in minutes. Sony is serious when it calls it a "computer entertainment system:" I basically had to install an OS!

2. "Hey PS2! Where do you think you're going?"
Although it may be quieter and more energy efficient than early hardware generations, my PS3 suffers from a lack of PS2 backwards compatibility. In my mind, this is nothing more than laziness and greed. Either Sony couldn't be bothered to manufacture their systems or create emulation software capable of running previous generation games, or they simply want to ruthlessly milk the PS2 until the world ends. Either scenario annoys me. My philosophy is that if you aren't making significant changes to the controller, then there is no reason to drop backwards compatibility. If the method of input doesn't change, why should some games stop working?

3. "It has me on short leash."
The USB charger for the wireless controller is laughably short. I have to sit right in front of the screen if I'm running low on juice. I also purchased an extra Dualshock 3, and was rudely surprised by the absence of a USB cable. That's right, you have to buy it separately. How petty.

4. "I must be getting old, could you read that to me?"
I have a decent size TV screen, but I roll old school: in standard-definition. The text for the PSN and for many games is ridiculously small. Would it be too much to ask for better standard-def support?

But enough of that, let us move on to happier topics.

Things I like:

1. "It's a beautiful thing."
I cannot help but be impressed by the design of the machine, and the experience it promotes in general. The curved, glossy surface gives it a kind of elegance that suggests a quiet confidence. The power source is inside the console, circumventing the existence of a external power brick. Clearly Sony's engineers and designers spent a significant amount of time making this thing come together. This attention to detail is carried over into the user interface. The PS3 has an impressive, mature, yet understated look that does not draw unnecessary attention to itself.

2. "The XMB is Xcellent."
Building on my previous point, I must admit (somewhat begrudgingly) to my admiration admire of Sony's XrossMedia bar. Having a unified menu system that can be accessed at any time (even during gameplay) is quite slick, and it makes the whole thing a unified experience. Although the Wii menu system may be a bit clearer and easier to learn, it is not as accessible. In comparison to the Xbox 360, I much prefer XMB to the flashy, cluttered blade menu system.

3. "Honey, I'm off to the store!"
My initial experiences with PSN have been overwhelmingly positive. It was quite easy to set up my "wallet," and I was able to buy PixelJunk Eden within minutes of entering the store. I also appreciate that the transactions take place in dollars. I am somewhat resentful of the "WiiPoints" and "Microsoft Fun-Bucks" (or whatever): they seem to be transparent ploys to separate people from the reality of spending money. With PSN, there is no pretense. As an adult, if I wish to spend legal currency, I can choose to do so without having to convert it into monopoly money.

4. "Sackboy is going to ruin my life."
The PS3 is my the machine that will allow me to play LittleBigPlanet. 'Nuff said.

Overall, I am quite satisfied with the purchase. The machine seems like a solid piece of electronics, and I truly believe the upcoming years will see some very impressive offerings for the PS3 (*cough* God of War III *cough*).

Most importantly, your faithful Experience Points editors now own all three current-gen systems! What more could anyone want?!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Poverty, Privilege, and Gaming

This post is a response to Blog Action Day 2008, an event created to get on-line writers talking about substantial world issues in order to work towards solutions. This year's topic is "poverty." I highly recommend visiting the site for posts far more impressive than this modest submission. As always, Jorge and I encourage everyone to share their thoughts in the comments, via email, and through their own sites.

In this blog, Jorge and I talk a lot about trying to push for the creation and definition of a gaming culture. There are many different ideas about how to achieve this and what an ideal culture would look like, but we both desire to witness one basic development: the emergence of a mature, self-aware, and socially responsible culture of gamers.

Blogging Action Day 2008 asks writers to address the topic of poverty, ideally in an aspect that relates to their normal topics of interest. I believe poverty and games have a unique relationship, and one that gamers have a moral obligation to discuss. I offer no sweeping solutions about how to relieve human suffering in this post; it is a topic beyond my (andanybody's) singular capabilities. What I do suggest is that people who identify as gamers must at least try to tackle these issues. The first step is to recognize our privileges as gamers.

Privilege is a term that gets bandied about a lot in the academic and social circles I frequent. It has come to encompass a wide variety of explicitly and implicitly defined rights and behaviors unique to certain groups of people within society. Any identity trait comes with certain benefits, and gaming is no different.

The fact of the matter is that video games (like many other forms of art and entertainment) require disposable income. People who play video games have both the money and the time to expend on pursuits other than finding a way to pay for food shelter are privileged. Gamers complain about prices, and my friends and I joke about being "poor," but we are no where near the category. Being able to spend money on art and entertainment is something that differentiates us from the vast majority of people in the world. We enjoy unique, and most would say enviable, perks.

This does not mean gamers are spoiled, shallow, or bad people. Any discussion of privilege flirts with the danger of venturing into preachy, moralizing, and judgemental rhetoric. My point is not to make anybody feel bad for what they have or what they enjoy. What I urge is that people recognize the benefits they enjoy, in hopes that this recognition can lead to positive change for those less privileged than we.

Steps towards righting economic disparity can start within the gaming community. I am proud to watch the growth of organizations that assume philanthropic duties like Penny Arcade's Child's Play. In a more decentralized sense, we can make games more accessible to people of all incomes by democratizing the means of production through the support of open source software and independent games (like World of Goo!). Downloadable games are blossoming due to their innovation and their pricing, and this only serves to improve the medium as a whole. Even more broadly, supporting an open healthy atmosphere of education and discussion only serves to strengthen and spread video games' accessibility.

Of course, to truly attack poverty, gamers must not live with blinders on: immersing ourselves in games or even the academic pursuit of game analysis is both self defeating and ultimately immoral. In the end, we must act not as gamers, not even as citizens, but as human beings. Let us structure our governments to emphasize humanitarian policies, let us volunteer to make sacrifices of our money and time, and above all, let us empathize with (rather than scorn or even pity) those who struggle.

The issue of poverty is immense and any solution will take time and dedication. It is difficult to get started in the face of such a momentous task, but every project requires an initial step. As gamers, let our first step be our recognition of the privilege we enjoy. Instead of feeling guilty about it, let us help transmit this privilege and help them attain the opportunities we are fortunate enough to possess.

It is through self-awareness that we may develop a responsible culture; one aware of the world's inequities, and one focused on spreading the joy we derive from our games and from our privilege.

News for 10/15/08: Marching Booth Babes and the Oddities of Conventions

There were quite a few interesting things to see at the recent Tokyo Game Show. Instead of rehash all the announcements, we'd like to point out a little bit of the show's absurdity. To be fair, no game show is without its weirdness, but this video served as a good starting point for a discussion about the culture of trade shows as well as gamer culture in general.

Scott: Here we go. Time for the News: The WTF edition

Scott: I kind of feel like this video is like one of those de-motivational posters: "Sense: This video makes none."

Jorge: I like the cowboy boots. Is that to emphasize the fact Microsoft is a Western franchise? But Japanese women are wearing them. Maybe this is some metaphor for Microsoft's burgeoning role in the Japanese market.

Scott: Or maybe ladies in boots are hawwwwt.

Jorge: Hey, I just came from Blizzcon. Why make them wear boots when you can make them wear skimpy leather clothing and night-elf ears?

Scott: I mean, we talk a lot about video games in fairly serious way: culture, economics, artistic interpretation. But this is a good reminder of the commercial nature of the industry. Not to mention the downright weirdness.

Jorge: It is the overt commercial aspects that are so weird.

Jorge: Costumes and themed apparel are not new (eg: for convention goers. But most of these are just game enthusiasts, not paid models who don't know the difference between a thumbstick and a drumstick.

Scott: Are these ladies really helping Microsoft sell things?
I mean, I don't watch this and then think to myself: Snap, I have to buy a 360!

Jorge: It's strange because when I think of gamer communities getting together, and TGS definitely included this considering how many civilians showed up, I think of an organic experience. There is an interesting dichotomy at events like these between the organic and inorganic aspects of gamer culture.

Scott: What do you mean by "organic?"

Jorge: When I think of gamers getting together I think of myself getting together with friends back in high school. If you think of these events as venues where people gather to share a common interest you are dreadfully misinformed. Unless your common interest is an army of booth babes.

Scott: Which it most certainly is.
But seriously, that's a good point: these events are by their nature marketing events. They're trying to sell their stuff, so why not use sex appeal?

Jorge: Part of the uncomfortable feeling, and maybe its just me, is the sense that I am being targeted. All these women are just scantily clad door-to-door salesmen as I see it.

Jorge: It's not just the night-elf models either. There were two announcers at Blizzcon during the Starcraft Tournament that were clearly had no idea what they were talking about. They called themselves "E-sports" announcers. The pay-per-view announcers at the event had the same pre-packaged feel about them.

Scott: They literally called it e-sports?

Jorge: Yeah. Their heads were swollen with excitement.

Scott: Or faux-excitement?
Because I think that's what you're getting at with the whole "organic" thing. These are people who are being paid to look excited about the games, rather than being genuinely enthusiastic.

Jorge: When I think of videogames as related to books, the booth babe marching band seems incredibly alien. I've never seen something like that at a book signing.

Scott: Or at a movie premier, or even something like Sundance.

Jorge: Do you find this degrading to the medium?

Scott: It's somewhat degrading, although probably more so to the women...
But it's the idea that gamers can be fooled by a tight body and pumping techno music.

Jorge: I don't think its just targeting gamers though. They do it for themselves too, and for journalists. It's just become so ingrained in the theatrical nature of it all. Car shows do the same thing.

Scott: So they're branding, or trying to create a culture for a company?

Jorge: You'd think you'd be able to show off your goods without showing off someone else's goods. Brand your company with sex appeal and show off frivoulous spending, that will bolster your street cred.

Scott: A corporate pissing contest?

Jorge: Yea, its just what you get with this type of marketing. It's easy to forget how silly the videogame industry is when you're busy enjoying their actual product.

Scott: True. Maybe it's best just to laugh at it and try not to get too involved in the marketing quagmire.

Jorge: I'm glad that game journalists and convention goers know this is just silly.

Scott: Yeah. It makes me less worried that all the big deal folks like Brian Crecente realize how ridiculous it is. But you have to admit, techno "Auld Lang Syne" is damn catchy.

Monday, October 13, 2008


This weekend I had the good fortune of being one of more than fifteen thousand or so attendees at the third Blizzard Entertainment Convention (Blizzcon) held in Anaheim, California. It was my first time and though it wasn't exactly what I expected, I had a great time. There were tournaments, cosplayers, and carnival style contests, but the event focused on showing off Blizzard's three upcoming releases: World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, Diablo III, and Starcraft II.

Each of these titles were showcased and discussed during panels that covered gameplay, lore, and art. Designers and developers hosted these sessions themselves. Though much of the event felt like a giant marketing ploy, the panelists sounded sincere and extremely knowledgeable. Unfortunately, it would have been impossible to attend all the discussions, and seeing as I have no particular affinity to Starcraft (I was never any good at it), I skipped out on all the panels pertaining to that franchise. My apologies to any RTS fans out there. I promise I'll try Starcraft 2 when the beta comes out and give you my thoughts. The panels I did attend dished out some interesting aspects of game design, some of which I'll talk about now.

Wrath of the Lich King

Beside the games I am currently playing that are viewable to the right of this post, there are a few others I play pretty regularly but don't bother to list. These include some casual DS games, Team Fortress 2, and until recently, World of Warcraft. Oddly enough, I was probably the only one at Blizzcon with a canceled account. I've already reserved Lich King however, and I'll be reactivating my WoW account this week. I mention this is to emphasize my excitment in hearing Blizzard's Lead Level Designer Cory Stockton and Lead Game Designer Tom Chilton address existing concerns in their latest expansion.

The first issue is the fact a huge number of players were never able to see some end-game content. There are some 25-man raids in that are so difficult or require such astounding gear that the vast majority of players will never see them. They could make these encounters easier, but then the WoW forums would ignite with rants from all the "hardcore" players about making the game too easy. Blizzard's solution? Implement a tiered difficulty system. In Lich King all 25-man dungeons can also be done with just 10 individuals, the encounter is adjusted to be easier accordingly. They will also be easing player participation by implementing "dual specializations" in the near future.

Tom Chilton also gave an example of another raid encounter in which players could choose the difficulty of the boss by killing, or not killing, three drakes before starting the battle. Hardcore players have a harder time but are given a greater award, while the more casual players can still experience end-game content. If you don't play an MMO it may be hard to conceptualize how this might effect the game. Maybe it's premature, but I think this is going to be huge. I am a big fan of allowing players to experience content how they wish.

Diablo III

Jay Wilson, Lead Game Director for Diablo III hosted a fantastic panel, showed off a sweet t-shirt, and was incredibly responsive and detailed during the Q&A segment. You can tell the man is passionate about his creation and the Diablo universe. The most interesting topic of discussion to me concerned meshing the story of Diablo III with their system of randomized content.

Diablo III encourages replay. They've done so by emphasizing each classes unique characteristics and play style, creating NPC interactions that differ depending on the character you choose to play, and by randomizing your experiences each time. According to Wilson, this means everything. Items, enemies, and dungeons will all be randomly created. Unfortunately, this tactic tends to create dungeons that feel removed from the story, created from generic parts. Their solution is to incorporate scripted story driven events and established environments in the cycle of randomized content. The game is far from completion, so this game mechanic is still in the works. Chopping up narrative elements could result in a haphazard experience, but along with Jay Wilson, I'm eager to see how it plays out.

Last Thoughts

The dichotomy between the over-the-top, pay-per-view style canned dialogue used to market their games and the development team panels was striking. The game designers and artists are so much more knowledgeable and informed about the game, and so much more sincere and impassioned, than the pre -packaged marketing tactics used to grab our attention. I didn't expect them to understand so thoroughly the relationship between game mechanics, user interface, lore, and player. Some very diverse teams, working on different aspects of development, seem to be genuinely interested in creating a cohesive game that they and their fans can enjoy.

This was the first time I felt developers were fundamentally a part of the gaming community. It was a welcome feeling in an environment where gamers don't have many interactions with creators, and I'd love to see more of it. These designers seem to have the fans in mind during the entire creative process. I'm curious to know why there isn't a greater discourse between ourselves and the people who make the games we love. The monetary driven nature of game marketing, I fear, is the culprit. Blizzcon merged the two and has, so far, come out with a winning formula.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Brothers in Arms (and Thumbs)

This feature is my contribution to Corvus Elrod's monthly writing invitational "Blogs of the Round Table." This month's topic asked everyone to think about their gaming experiences with family. I've always thought this was a great community-building exercise, and I'm excited to finally jump in. As always, comments are welcome, and I encourage everyone to join in on the Round Table with their own posts.

As the introduction of this month's round table suggests, video games were a pastime enjoyed by only part of my household. My parents generally saw video games as a neat diversion, but they rarely participated (beyond buying them for their ingrate kids of course). Aside from my mother's legendary Dr. Mario prowess, my brother, Eric, and I were the gamers of the family.

Siblings are often each others' most frequent and reliable playmates; Eric, and I were no exception to this generalization. We spent our free time playing games and had a blast doing it. Spending so many hours side by side allowed for conversations ranging from the grave to the banal, and I attribute much of the close relationship we still have today to gaming. However, that mushiness belongs in a different post. In thinking about the impact family members had on my view of games, I realized my gaming habits were largely defined by the hours playing with Eric. Most important is the fact that we were not simply playing games together: we were playing them against each other.

Born in the 1980s, Eric and I came of age in the 1990s, a time in which people played together differently than they do today. While I'll offer no empirical evidence, I believe that co-op mode enjoys a widespread popularity today that was not as strong when my gaming styles and preferences were in their nascent stages. Today, I enjoy co-op mode very much, but suffice to say that my brother and I shared very few experiences like the one Jorge talked about.

Most of our time spent gaming together was decidedly adversarial. Games like Goldeneye wore our N64 controllers to the breaking point, and to this day I have a hard time hearing the James Bond fanfare without looking over my shoulder for timed mine. The worst thing about being blue-shelled in Mario Kart was not falling out of first place, it was enduring the trash-talking that accompanied it. Even now, when Eric and I go home to visit our parents, all it takes is one aggressively arched eye-brow to instigate a pitching duel on Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball.

Playing against one person so many times gave me a unique ownership of certain games. Eric and I would invariably learn each others' gaming styles, which would force us to innovate and adapt new tactics to gain an advantage. On top of this, we often drew territorial lines: certain teams or avatars would become associated with one of us, which added yet another personal layer to our digital rivalry.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the epitome of our long war was Smash Bros. Melee. The game was released when we were adults: it drew upon our history together, and its superb gameplay only magnified the competition (and the fun). It was our last great battle, as college later saw us move out from under the same roof.

I chose Samus (as I always had done, tiers be damned!), Eric was either Marth or Roy. We would mess around with melee battles, but every session would eventually end with one-on-one, stock survival matches. Every action was planned, every move thought out five steps in advance. If the match momentum flagged, we would stand facing each other in a showdown, each daring the other to make the first (and possibly fatal) move. There was swearing, laughing, controller throwing, but also some good conversations and, in retrospect, the crystallization of a relationship.

I failed to truly comprehend this until Eric and I were at Jorge's house, and some folks were playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl. I was in the other room when I overheard: "Dammit, fucking Roy every time, what the fuck, come on, just have fun."

I sauntered over to the TV, picked up a controller, shot Eric a knowing grin, and selected Samus.

Fun? This was our definition of fun. We have become two old chess players. When we play each other, there are actually two games playing out: one involving the physical game pieces, and one involving the pieces of history between the rivals.

I'm sure co-op legendary mode in Halo 3 is great fun, and I often wonder how things would have been different if Eric and I grew up playing today's games together. In the end though, I would not trade our battles for any amount of cooperation.

Competition provided a perfect opponent for each of us and gave us the opportunity to sort things out in the simple language of wins and losses. But most importantly, our rivalry created kindred spirits, an understanding of one another that can only be described as familial.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

News for 10/8/2008: New & Used Gears of War 2

This week in news we are talking about Epic Studio's plan to release downloadable content for Gears of War 2 for those who buy the game new and on launch date. This seems like a pretty obvious attempt to address lost profit concerns with used games. If this game is purchased used, the consumer will never be able to get their hands on the map pack. We've condensed our discussion, which included sandwich analogies and meat-scented-candles, to the following post. The used games issue has gotten a lot of interested lately. If you've got a strong opinion either way, let us hear it.

Scott: Now, buying Gears 2 used, do we feel cheated?

Jorge: I don't. If I decide to buy it used for a cheaper price I'm essentially getting what I paid for. If anything its more fair.

Scott: But, my point is that once the code for exclusive new content is used, the game is changed. Someone who buys it used is buying a different product. Jorge: That is exactly what the publishers want. If you buy a used version of GoW2, then you are not buying the same product but you are getting a cheaper deal for it. This addition to the game forces the consumer to make a decision that can only give the publishers a more fair portion of the profit. What would you ask for in exchange, I cheaper copy of an already cheap used game? Look at DLC for example. You have two things already on the market. Some people buy it. For those who don't, it is a different game.

Scott: It feels like that with DLC, everyone is starting with the same basic game, and then they can modify it as they see fit. The Gears2 example makes it so that people who buy the same disc won't have the same game nor the option to buy it.

Jorge: They do have the option though. Your option is buy the game when it first hits the shelves. Either you buy the Gears2 and give the developers a more fair share of the profits or you buy the used version and suffer the consequences.

Scott: This calls into question people's rights to sell games. If you buy a game that is only truly "complete" if it is new, the product is instantly devalued for the next person who wants to sell it.Should you have the right to sell the same product you bought, with the only difference is that it is used?

Jorge: Right. That is a tough question, and to be honest I don't know where I side on this. But that is why Epic's action is so ingenious.
Scott: So you think that they're ingenious for confusing us? You think that the glass is half full?
Jorge: If we change how we perceive this new content then GoW2 is satisfying both aspects of the issue here. If we see the new weapons attached to new copies of GoW2 as extra and the lack thereof as the "actual" game, then there isn't a problem. You can still sell your game or buy one used. You just won't be getting that bonus material. Essentially they are just rewarding those gamers who will buy their game early.

Scott: they're only rewarding them if the other gamers have the option to buy the content they initially had to wait for.

Jorge: Do you think it would be more satisfying if they released the content later as DLC?

Scott: I feel like everybody should have the opportunity to play the game in its entirety.
Jorge: What if you saw the extra content as something consumable that you can keep or give away. You could, theoretically, buy GoW2, not use the code, and then sell the game and code together. Or, if you enjoy the map pack, you could use the code, thereby keeping it on your hardware. You could sell the game, just not that portion.

Scott: Essentially, we are moving towards a model where the consumer owns specific components of the game (components they are free to sell individually) instead of the game as a whole.

Jorge: Right. But in this case the loss of value is coming from the user not the publisher.

Scott: And we're both in agreement that we respect the publisher's wishes to make some money off their games.

Jorge: Yes, and Gamestop is a major factor in curbing the profits that flow to the publishers.with their almost fanatical attempts at getting people to buy used games and sell their own for a couple bucks.

Scott: I can't really blame the publishers for trying to circumvent Gamestop since they don't see any money from the used stuff.

Jorge: Yea, but Gamestop itself is at the core of the issue right now. We'll open up that can of worms another day.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Self-Policing Gamer Culture

As we mentioned in our EXP Introduction, the gaming "community" is increasingly becoming an appropriate term to refer to our ilk. Predictably, like all communities, we too have our share of miscreants. They go by many names. Some call them griefers, team-killers, ****wads, or a number of other expletives (I have my personal favorite). They are known for their treachery, bigotry, harassment, and generally aggravating behavior, and they can be found wherever Internet gaming is played.

Unfortunately, we've grown accustomed to this aggravating element. The common response for those who complain: "QQ more" or "stop playing [any FPS title]". I can't imagine this is the best we as a community can come up with. Surely, if we are as self-aware as we profess to be, and if we want outsiders to take the medium seriously, we should be more cautious about how we are perceived. Even if we do not consider ourselves burdened by a need to present a welcoming face to a growing casual audience, it would do us good to constructively address those who can turn so many of us away from online gaming. I don't believe this behavior is an inherent part of gamer culture. Rather, we need to improve how self-police our player communities.

It is dangerous to peer into the abyss of complete Internet stupidity. It may consume you, leaving an inane husk of your former self. Yet some brave souls have observed our gamer scoundrels and tried to locate their dark origins. Michael Walbridge of Game,Set,Watch wrote an interesting column on games effecting players. He suggested that "the mechanics of a game have the potential to be as strong as any other context in culture as far as influencing the perceptions, beliefs, and behavior of a person." Perhaps our immature ruffians are not solely to blame, that perhaps game mechanics can "provide an environment that makes it easier to treat people horribly."

If this were the case, we should expect certain games to suffer from this problem more than others, and that is exactly what we see. Even within the FPS genre, Halo 3 is known for having a relatively large amount of griefers. Team Fortress 2 on the other hand, though not perfect, has been praised for an artistic style and cooperative encouragements that foster a much friendlier atmosphere. The importance of group composition and medic classes are ingenious team-building strategies that can be ported to other titles.

I highly encourage creating games that foster cooperative behavior, but surely hugging-it-out can't be our only solution. Call of Duty: World at Peace just doesn't have that special something to get people excited. I don't think we have to quarantine hardcore competitive games to keep the virtuous safe. In addition to game mechanics that may foment hostilities, anonymity may to be to blame for immature behavior.

A recent Gamasutra column discussed a panel held at the AGDC that brought together MMO community managers and psychologists to speak on the subject of anonymity and the problems it creates. According to one Dr. Pennebaker, "Just from the psychology side, this whole issue of anonymity is central. The more anonymous people can be, the worse they'll act." In an anonymous environment, it is easier to distance yourself from your fellow gamers. They are not real after all, and any hostile behavior will go unpunished. Those looking for an outlet for aggression revel in the relative freedom of faceless four minute matches. How are we to self-police crude behavior when we have short interactions with anonymous individuals?

Potential Solutions?
Traditionally small communities monitor and police behavior with the help of cultural leaders by vocally denouncing and ostracizing those who misbehave. A village elder for example, may publicly shame a criminal, making them a social outcast. Though not punished physically or materially, these punitive measures can be very effective. Griefers derive their pleasure from what is inherently a social interaction. They are enfeebled if they become pariahs. But first, though it may feel uncomfortable, we need to shed some of our anonymity.

We don't need to know that Tbagr420 is a middle-schooler from Tucson or that AlphaQ2 is a Sagittarius from California (and also my brother). What I would like to see however, is more permanence in the profile used when gaming. The AGDC panel concluded with some thoughts on an "ebay-style user rating system". We've already got achievement points, why not shame points? If repeat offenders carry with them visible negative titles such as Team Killer, Blabber Mouth, or Griefer into the games they play, they can no longer hide behind anonymity. Then give players the ability to filter their games free of players with certain negative titles and we can marginalize and isolate the negative elements.

Additionally, social capital elements can be included into gameplay. If there were achievements points available based on cooperative and friendly behavior (perhaps enough positive ratings from gamers not on your friends list), maybe the game environment would be more mature. If these paragon achievements were attached to in-game benefits, perhaps certain "leadership" abilities, there would be tangible advantageous to maintaining a welcoming and friendly atmosphere. If players want these rewards, they'll have to earn them. For those rougher elements of our community, it should be an uphill battle.

Unless player behavior scares off potential consumers, developers may not have an incentive to support give players the tools to self-police Internet gaming. Even banning or muting players can be bothersome at times. With an influx of more casual gamers however, the threat of loss business is a serious one. Our best bet for now is to strengthen the amiable communities we do have. Though I do believe the industry will inevitably give players the tools to filter hostile elements out of our gaming experiences. After all, polite, kind, and caring gamers hugely outnumber the hostile elements. And if these griefers don't like what's coming? Well they can QQ more for all I care.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Videogames and the Culture of Collection

Try this mental exercise: pick an enjoyable game and try to describe its objective. After trying this out myself, I found that many of the titles I came up with boiled down to the act of collecting. The stories were different and the characters were diverse, but a huge number of games seem to revolve around amassing possessions. Be it stars, crystals, pocket monsters, pendants, statues, jiggies, hearts, or good old fashioned loot, game culture seems to be a culture of hoarding.

Here, I'll suggest three reasons why I believe the collection element is so strong in games, while also offering some thoughts on the benefits and limitations of this particular gameplay tradition. A disclaimer: the bulk of my thoughts concern action/adventure/RPG-style games, but we should not overlook the prevalent role of collection in other genres such as racing and sports.

1. "Can a Pixel Feel?": Collection as Plot Devices
Storytelling in videogames has historically been a tricky undertaking, and the difficulties of creating meaningful characters persist today. Constructing a layered narrative that succeeds in fomenting the development of complex characters necessitates both artistic and technical skill. Even if a developer can craft an enjoyable story, technical restrictions can limit player attachment to the virtual characters. Advancing a story is difficult if your characters can only perform three frames of animation, or if disk space limits the amount of dialogue you can write or record.

8-bit era Link was not the most articulate chap (not that he is a motormouth today), and his strength as a character could not be relied upon to move the story of a game forward. Thus, it is necessary to introduce items that move the game along. The task of collecting becomes the primary focus for the player and their avatar. Collection serves as the metric by which story and character progression are measured. Gaining new weapons and stat points denotes character growth, and the number of items collected signifies progress in the story (e.g. If you have collected 50% of the stars, the game is half over).

2. "Is that it?": Collection as a Gameplay Style
Relative to movies, television, theater, and even some novels, videogames are meant to be long engagements. The shortest blockbuster games are easily twice as long as Hollywood blockbuster movies. Collection adds to the amount of time a player spends in a game, immersing them in the game's world.

I will use movies as an example again: From an economic standpoint $60 dollars for a block-buster game is about six times as much money as the equivalent big-budget Hollywood movie costs. It feels good when I know that when I pay six times as much for a game, I'll get six times the hours of enjoyment from my purchase.

These extra hours must be filled with something, and oftentimes the character arcs simply cannot support dozens of hours of focus. This is no slight towards writers or directors; creating a compelling plot with empathetic characters is difficult to do for any length of time. By inserting long stretches of collection-based gameplay, character and story development is spaced out, giving videogames their unique artistic pacing.

Additionally, adding collection gameplay exposes the player to the complete work of the game developer. If a game necessitates scouring an entire virtual world looking for hidden treasure, the developers can rest assured that their hard work has been witnessed and that the player is given the opportunity to enjoy every aspect of their art.

3. "Greed is Good": The Societal Drive to Collect
Videogames are products of a world dominated by twentieth century capitalism. Compound this with the heavy influence of Euro-centric cultural norms, and collection in games takes on a more culturally reflective image. Game players and developers are immersed in a largely global culture of accumulation: accumulation of money, accumulation of resources, accumulation of consumer goods, etc. Is it any wonder our art reflects our society, or that our society draws influence from our art?

When a game asks us to amass a stockpile of items, it is playing into a familiar theme for most gamers. Our non-gaming lives are defined by societal rules that dictate that the person with the most "wins." We are conditioned to understand collection as a necessary, if not worthwhile, goal and our games conform to this societal demand. While the merit of this is debatable, the success of the collection tactic within games is a testament to its efficacy.

Consider the Pokemon franchise as the ultimate example of modern western capitalism distilled into a neat package (or possibly trapped within a Pokeball). The point of the series is to collect resources (Pokemon) and grow these assets (by investing time into improving and trading them) in hopes of edging out your competitors. "Gotta catch 'em all!" is arguably the most descriptive and most fitting slogan ever created in gaming. This slogan can easily be read as "Gotta buy 'em all!" since, as we have seen, the Pokemon videogames themselves have created a thriving meta-game. Not only must players focus on accumulating Pokemon in the game world, they must also accumulate a variety of Pokemon games if they hope to compete their collections.

Do not mistake this final point as some neo-socialist diatribe against capitalism and its evils; the world is painted in a rainbow of greys. It may be embarrassing to admit, but Pokemon games are damn fun.

Collection has its place, and I would be sad to see it fall by the wayside. I believe it is one aspect that truly differentiates videogames from other artistic mediums. Games can play into this convention honestly and succeed, but they are also free to put a spin on the collection trope. Take Katamari Damacy as an example, in which collection is taken its logical conclusion. The game is charming and fun, but it also delivers a sly critique on both gaming culture and its place in society.

Collection in games sometimes worries me in that it represents the temptation of stagnation. Today's games are increasingly detailed in regards to both artistry and technology. I do not think collection should exist simply because it has historical precedent, fits well with traditional game design, and is a familiar mode of existence. Games that need not be scavenger hunts should jettison this convention in favor of pursuing new storytelling and gameplay directions. It is hard to understand a character if all you know about them is that he really needs to get ten more MacGuffins in order to save the universe or something.

Ultimately, I seem to find myself in the ironic position of focusing on collecting video games while worrying that they focus too much on collection.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

News for 10/1/08: The Welch Interview and the Death of Consoles

This week's news post comes from an exceedingly interesting, yet frustratingly brief interview with John Welch, the CEO of PlayFirst. As the head of a company focused on "casual" gaming, Welch provides some unique views on the future of video games. Jorge and I had a very long conversation about this article, mostly because Welch touches on so many hot buttons for old crotchety gamers like ourselves. This excerpt is only a small portion of what we talked about, and I am certain that the issues raised in the course of our conversation will show up in future posts. Again, feel free to check the article out yourself and add your two cents in the comments.

Scott: Interesting article this week, an interview with John Welch, CEO of PlayFirst, of "Cooking Dash" fame. In it, he speculates on the death of consoles!

Jorge: First off, I was really surprised to see this article at all. From what I've been hearing, there has been more talk about the death of pc-gaming than the death of consoles. Just the idea sounds ludicrous.

Scott: As we both know, the death of pc gaming has always been proclaimed, and has always been nonsense. He has an interesting quote about his approach to the market: "We’re really attacking or going after the ‘gamerification’ of the mass market. If you have the whole gamer industry, that’s a segment, and you’ve got everybody else, which is a bigger segment. So our approach is getting those people to become gamers."

Jorge: It's not one or the other as I see it. If more people become gamers, this should theoretically fuel the console market, not make is obsolete.

Scott: I kind of agree with his sentiment here, as long as it doesn't mean the end of deep, complex games.

Jorge: Crappy flash games have some consumers, but how many people can that hold? These are two different markets here. Is he imagining that soon everyone will play simple games and therefore not needed consoles as devices through which they can play the more complex games?

Welch is articulating the fear of the "hardcore" gamer, the source of all the discussion about the pros and cons of a growing casual gamer market. That is, casual gamers will be such a large part of the videogame market that they will fundamentally change how videogames are played. He creates the type of games that would succeed in that market, so its something he's looking forward to and wants to happen.

Scott: So essentially, gamers and non-gamers should meet halfway?

Jorge: In his opinion, yes. For him, halfway means giving up our emphasis on hardware in favor of more "casual" software that makes things like powerful consoles obsolete.

Scott: I agree that "hardcore" folks need to be open to letting newcomers ease in with a gradual learning curve, but I think that "casual" folks need to be open to exploring deeper and more complex games.

Jorge: I certainly believe they can live side by side. You already see that with some gamers who don't touch a certain genre.

Scott: His idea that "hardcore" games will be a niche market is a little threatening to those of us who never play DinerDash.

Jorge: Exactly. As a console gamer, I don't like what he has to say at all. But I also think he's flat wrong regardless of my bias. Which I think is becoming a trend in these news posts.

Scott: Well, let's talk about his comments about where the consoles themselves are going. He says: "I think the biggest proof point in the death of consoles in my thesis is the Wii...The technology could be adapted to run on your average set top box, at least in the next generation of set top boxes. How much would it cost to integrate Wii-like technology into a set top box, if anything even needs to be specialized? What we really need are more standards around the input devices."

Jorge: First, I don't even know what a set top box is. Do I have a set top box? Is my xbox a set top box? It's definitely a box. That much is clear.

Scott: Exactly, a "set-top-box" is a just a three word term for a console. It is a device that exists outside your TV that plays games.

Jorge: He is imagining a console then, that fulfills other functions of your entertainment set-up. DVD playing, downloadable movies and tv shows, Blue-ray capabilities, which the existing consoles are already addressing. He just doesn't want to call them consoles and he believes there will be just one producer with no incentive to increase the technological capabilities of their product.

Scott: It seems like he's saying that, since a large chunk of gamers are casual (which in his mind means that that they don't want the best graphics and technology) the hardware doesn't matter anymore.

Jorge: That claim that we have no more need of advancing technology has been made over and over again over the years and has been proven wrong time and time again. If we can improve the hardware, we will. If for no other reason that it makes a stale product more marketable and gives you an advantage over others in the market.

Scott: True, more horsepower doesn't automatically provide new experiences, but it can definitely allow for new experiences. Today's consoles offer innovativegameplay that is also technically advanced in one easy-to-use package. Consoles can provide both fun and technically advanced games in a cheap and relatively hassle free way in comparison to the PC.

Jorge: Which is exactly the tech race that PC gaming suffers from and why consoles make up a solid chunk of the market. It's simply easier for gamers and developers to agree on the hardware of an existing console that is already being marketed.

Scott: And I think that arms race turns off the casual gamer. The beauty of the console is that, like you said, you'll know all the games will work right out of the box without any cumbersome install.

Scott: Because the Wii presented a set piece of hardware that never changes and needs almost zero user maintenance, people are free to focus on the games. They are drawn in by casual titles and are automatically provided with the tools they need to go further if they so choose. You might buy a Wii for WiiSports, but then get into Mario Kart, and then Zelda, and then you're magically seen as a "hardcore" gamer.

Jorge: I don't think Mr. Welch here appreciates the innovation that specifically comes out of consoles as a launching point for developers to use the specs to their advantage to create a new and innovative titles. And this is particularly the case for independent game developers who use the consoles conveniently because they know they have a system that can play their creation with ease and that can market their content better than they could ever do on their own.

Scott: Braid, PixelJunk Eden, and Mega Man IX are all good examples of what you describe. Consoles give developers a set of parameters and the knowledge that anyone could play their games, not just those with a high-end system. For gamers, having a console allows them to go as deep as they want in terms of games: they can stick to simple, casual games, but they can also rest assured that if they want to get more serious, they have the opportunity to do so. Consoles have always been appealing to me because of their simplicity. They are an elegant solution to playing games: they are a machine completely dedicated to that task.

Jorge: I think its telling that Steam is one of the most popular PC gaming clients specifically because it is essentially setting up a virtual console. It provides easy access and easy playability of games that you know will run on your computer. Their success is due in no small part to the fact they are the only ones who are treating their client like a videogame console. Steam's got their market on lockdown.

Scott: So it seems our conclusion is that consoles provide the platform that incorporates Welch's audience with the more hardcore audience. I argue that, if anything, consoles detract from his audience, since they allow the casual player to move deeper into gaming.

Jorge: "Next Week's News: Diner Dash Highest Selling XBLA game."

Scott: The prospect chills me to the bone.