Monday, September 29, 2008

The Benefit of Hype

The onslaught of fall releases, the yearly cycle we've all grown accustomed to, has arrived. Even now gamers are crawling out from under their piles of screenshots, concept art and public relations ad campaigns to reserve the games they dreamed of during the long summer hibernation. Though some will succeed, many will not. It is time to throw aside our accumulation of exagerated promises and prepare ourselves for disappointment.

It is no surpise we've grown cynical. Videogame hype has grown to epic proportions. Rumors are leaked years ahead of schedule and reviews hit the interwebs well before release dates are even set. Most previews read like puff pieces, releasing the supposedly best aspects of a game that is not even released yet.

The result is a slew of promises that are hard to keep and growing suspicion of all videogame news. All of which, I argue, is a healthy outcome. There is in fact a unappreciated benefit of hype.

Publishers love getting us excited about their upcoming releases. We are that much more likely to buy the game if we've been spoon fed stylish, pre-packaged information. Some of their efforts can get pretty ridiculous. According to PR stooges, every Nintendogs clone is the most innovative piece of visual mastery of to hit the store shelves. It's hard to get excited about the another traditional genre game, hence the promised paradigm shifts for even the most mundane FPS rip-off.

Exagerated claims create high expectations for the developers to meet. If the game fails to meet these expectations, as many do, it still accomplishes some important tasks. Firstly, it promotes ingenuity because it is precisely what we are promised.

Videogame hype puts so much importance on innovation that it creates a demand for work that stretches outside the box; a demand that might not have otherwise been there. There are plenty of consumers who are satisfied with just another sequel to an existing game. The cynics with higher than normal expectations want unique and fresh experiences, and they are vocal about it.

Secondly, hype encourages the discussion of the yet unrealized potential of videogames. The releases that have the most buzz this season claim to dramatically change the status quo. If all goes according to plan, how we view certain genres and participate in storytelling will never be the same. Fable II, Mirror's Edge, Resistance II, have asked us to think about character development, non-violent FPSs, and multi-player teamwork and they haven't even come out yet.

If these games ultimately play just like their predecessors, we will still get something out of the hype surrounding their launch. Gamers and developers alike have used these games as a launching point to discuss the future of the videogame world and the place these mechanics have in it. Participants in this dialogue aren't mearly reacting to the games they play, but actively shaping how they will progress. When our expectations aren't met, developers have that much more incentive to satisfy our demands on the second time around. Hype is essential to innovation as an examination of a series of trial and error.

By all means, take your time to enjoy the games you love, but I encourage you to always be a little less than satisfied. Hop on the net, go to gametrailers, kotaku, or any other industry news source, and get excited about something; be it the next Animal Crossing or Resident Evil. If it flops, at least you can use its failure to hone in on where you would like to see videogames progress. If it succeeds? Well just think how exciting that will be.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Unlocking the Fun in Games

An anecdote: a group of friends were at Jorge's house. After a movie and a few beers, Jorge casually mentioned that he had picked up Rock Band 2, and the group immediately scurried to the living room. We fired up the console and geared up with our plastic accouterments, but our moods sank when we took a look at the set list. "Where are all the cool songs?" one of us moaned. "I was promised 'Ramblin' Man'!" cried another.

A short trip to the Internet and a consultation with the Oracle of Google soon yielded a surprisingly old-school solution: a cheat code that immediately unlocked all the tracks. The rocking commenced, and a fun time was had by all.

The release of Rock Band 2 and my recent acquisition of Mario Kart Wii and Super Smash Brothers Brawl has me thinking about the practice of "unlocking" features in games. I find myself resenting the fact that it is taking days to unlock Snake on SSBB, yet I am fine with sinking dozens of hours into leveling up RPG or action characters in order to unlock special abilities.

What is behind this ambiguous feeling towards unlockables? For me, I think it comes down to story.

When I begin a game like Zelda, I do not view my modest kokiri sword and barren map as shackles. The game is a journey, over which Link and the player grow by discovering new lands and learning advanced skills. The Master Sword, heart containers, and Death Mountain are all "unlockables" in the sense that the player cannot simply access them from the beginning. However, these limits are not simply obstacles; they are plot points, storytelling devices, and symbols that give the game its basic structure.

Games like Rock Band and SSMB are not story driven, regardless of what anyone might say about "Tour Mode" or "Subspace Emissary." These are essentially arcade games: pick your player and press go. I am not suggesting that these games lack depth or strategy, nor am a criticizing the absence of a narrative. On the contrary: I am praising them for cutting away all the fat in favor of providing an unadulterated gaming experience. A player is quickly able to immerse themselves in what the game has to offer. Unfortunately for me, these offerings are often locked behind hours of play that feel more like obligations than challenges.

I have played games for such a long time and enjoy them so much, I rarely need any motivation to keep playing a game I like. Locking a character or a stage is pointless: I will eventually play the game enough to unlock it, and so I would rather simply have it from the beginning. That way, I would be able to maximize my time and enjoyment on all parts of the game. Of course there are several valid counter-arguments to this philosophy.

After sharing my frustration concerning my still Sonic-less SSBB, Hanah described to me her experience playing Mario Kart Wii. She came into Mario Kart completely uninitiated: having never even driven a single lap, she found herself struggling to master the game. Falling into the lava and being chomped by piranha plants sometimes got old, but she kept playing because she knew if she continued to improve, she would unlock new characters and tracks. Thus what I perceived as limits acted for her as motivation, motivation that (as I have described) has paid off. Although it is counter-intuitive to me, locked features may actually make a game more accessible for newcomers by enforcing a learning curve.

Another argument for unlocking content lies in showing respect for what the developer created and how they intended the player to experience it. By skipping over the world tour mode in Rock Band, I assume that I am completely ignoring a feature that the developer wanted me to utilize. Why else would they have included it in the game? Approached from this angle, unlocking content functions similarly to the way an adventure or RPG uses achievements. New content is meant to represent milestones and give the player a sense of progression while simultaneously ensuring the player is exposed to the care and hard work that went into creating the game.

These counter arguments stop me from declaring all-out war against unlockable achievements. Anything that helps ease newcomers into gaming or that allows us to appreciate the dedication that goes into producing games cannot be all bad. And while I find them annoying at times, I enjoy unlockables in certain contexts. Unlocking the bonus stages in God of War was extremely satisfying, and my mirror tracks in Mario Kart 64 are badges of honor.

Instead of abandoning unlockable content, I simply wish developers would give me a choice. Perhaps something on the options screen that reads something like "Progression Mode (unlockables enforced) or Free Play (all features unlocked)?" I understand the motivation behind locked content, but to players like me, those who would play every aspect of the game regardless of when it became accessible, would benefit from being able to make this choice.

In my view, the fact that I want to experience all aspects of a game with as little delay as possible is the ultimate complement to the game's creators.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

News 9/24/08: The Sims Movie

This week in news, we are discussing videogame movies. Adding to the deep history of videogame movies (who can forget Doom and Bloodrayne?) comes The Sims Movie currently in the works. Before reading our thoughts on the subject, check out the link for a short interview with John Davis, the film's producer. Also, feel free to join in on our conversation by leaving your comments.

Today's Topic: The Sims Movie

Scott: If someone told you to think up a premise for a Sims movie, this would probably be the first crappy idea you come up with. And they're greenlighting it.

Jorge: They can't deny the fact that they are just making this up as they go along. Everything about this script is completely off the top of their head, everything except the fact a game called "The Sims" exists.

Scott: It's a blatant cash in. Possibly more blatant than the ill fated Super Mario Bros. movie.

Jorge: The interviewer on the N'Gai Croal's article, who sounds brutally honest with his questions, likens the movie idea to 'Weird Science'. Which isn't bad. But how old is that movie now? A story like that just doesn't fly anymore.

Scott: Good point. It's been done. So who do they think is going to watch it?

Jorge: I don't even think they will be trying to market it to gamers. I think they're just banking on the name "The Sims" because everyone knows the game, whether or not they've even played it. Part of what is so cool about the Sims is the character creation, but as a movie goer, there is absolutely no interaction. You lose what drew people to the game in the first place.

Scott: There is such a huge audience for the sims game; everyone from "hardcore" players to soccer moms have played it. So do you think they're targeting the moms who don't know better than to watch/bring their kids to what will most likely be terrible movie?

Jorge: Oh, absolutely. So essentially, the movie is going to be about a little kid who gets powers that should NEVER been given to a child, and then uses it to make a pool full of jello or some other idiotic shenanigans. Sounds like a terrible movie for the right audience. Didn't we see this movie already? I think it was called "Click." It's like like a really bad goosebumps story arc.
Really, it kind of saddens me that EA can just wipe their hands clean from the terrible movie this will be. They should be punished for letting this get too far.

Scott: But what power do we have against EA? What are we going to do? Not buy Sims 3? I don't see that happening. Those evil bastards have us right where they want us.

Jorge: I don't know... maybe I'll make a spore creature that spells out "The Sims Movie Sucks."

Jorge: Why do we need videogame movies anyway? I'm not so sure they really lend themselves to the movie format. Even the Mass Effect movie rights were sold, and though it has a strong narrative, I don't believe it will make a good movie.

Scott: I can't really think of a good movie that was originally a video game. Of course, to be fair, I tend to avoid them like the plague.

Jorge: The first resident evil movie was pretty entertaining. I thought about seeing the Silent Hill movie, but I was too scared to just watch the trailer. So that didn't pan out.

Scott: I'm just trying to think of movies not directed by Uwe Boll. It seems like video game movies are just relegated to "B" list actors, budgets, etc. That being said, isn't Marky-Mark in the new Max Payne movie?

Jorge: Yea, which actually looks like a decent action movie, for what its worth. It looks a bit like Constantine. Plus the Bioshock movie speculations are exciting because there is some good source material to work with. If a videogame has a compelling world in which to set a movie in, fine, that could work. I could at least understand why someone would want to make a movie set in that universe.

Scott: It's just hard though, because I think lots of games have good universes. The problem always seems to be coming up with a good script, performed by good actors, directed by a good director, working with a good budget. Without the confluence of all those factors, I think any move, videogame or not, is doomed to suck.

Jorge: I think we are naturally possessive with these worlds too. I'm sure most of the writers didn't grow up with these games. The idea of someone putting their filthy paws on Hyrule is terrifying. Mark Wahlberg said he didn't play the Max Payne movie and said he wasn't going to. That being said, I would love to see a Shadow of the Colossus movie it comes from a studio that actually knows what they are doing.

Scott: Something like Colossus would be hard though, because part of the power of that game is the fact that it is so long and involved. Building the same kind of relationship (a relationship based largely on interaction) is hard to do in 2 hours.

Jorge: There are problems translating any story from one medium to another. You just hope they the movie, book, or game can capture some of the joy you derived from the original content and add something to it as well.

Scott: I guess what we really want is for the movies to do justice for their material.

Jorge: It seems like when books or videogames are translated into movies they shed the things that made the game fun and interesting. For something like The Sims movie, it looks like that is intentional. If a movie comes from a studio that appreciates these videogame worlds from the perspective of a gamer, then the product should be better.

Scott: I just wish all the Hollywood hacks would keep their hands off games. But at the same time, I have a soft spot for the camp value of Super Mario Bros. John Leguizamo as Luigi? Genius. And Dennis Hopper is definitely Bowser's scariest incarnation.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Lesson from the Tabletop

Since last week's feature, I've been thinking more about shared narratives. Imagining what a unique cooperative experience would look like if participants were incorporated into the story, I tried to think of templates that would be helpful for designing such a game. Sadly, there are too few examples to draw from. One thing did come to mind however, and that was Dungeons & Dragons.

Despite logistical trouble, tabletop gaming succeeds in bringing fairly large groups of people who are willing to commit to a potentially long-term narrative. If we take some time to look at what I consider to be a very close relative to videogames, we can learn how a story may be built and shared in a digital medium.

I am not ashamed to say I play tabletop RPGs, two of them in fact. I'm just one of many within a subsection of gamers that play pen and paper games on a regular basis. In fact, some of my most memorable gaming moments were dependent on the roll of a D20. This is no fanciful hobby; I have shared some truly "hardcore" gaming moments with my tabletop friends.

DND is often misunderstood as a game of pretend in which players huddle around a family-size bag of cheetos relying solely on their imagination for the adventure. The universe is actually in large part controlled by a huge set of rules and pre-created content. The settings and story arcs found in campaign modules are often as grand and fleshed out as some of the best videogame worlds. The unique characteristics of tabletop gaming allow players to interact with this environment in an interesting way.

DND has what no videogame will ever have: the participation of a flesh and blood storyteller, the DM. The DM is the facilitator of the entire experience and is empowered to alter the game rules and environment as they see fit. No matter how much I would love to have Team Ico with me in the living room, it's just not going to happen. By having this arbiter between players and narrative, regardless of what bold or idiotic decisions players make, the DM can alter the story accordingly.

Every experience that comes out of a DND session is unique because each player will act differently according to their motivations. Though progression will always take place, the malleable nature of tabletop gaming allows players to act independently from the other participants. The narrative outcome is the result of each players' unique choices along the way; thus, they build a shared story.

To design an interesting cooperative experience in a videogame will mean some of these characteristics should be emulated. I'm no game designer. I have no idea how difficult this might be, so keep in mind all of this is a beautiful dream-land in my head.

Let's say we are making a four player coop game in which each participant is crucial to the story and can shape how the game progresses independently of the other players. Already, this is no easy feat. To start with, the cast of characters should be diverse.

Many tabletop RPGs rely on character classes that come with their own background stories, motivations, and abilities.
This encourages the player to shape the story according to their individual view point, which will include their perception of the other players and their actions. There are already enough unshaven marines coming out of the videogame industry as it is. Indigo Prophecy does a good job of incorporating a diverse, albeit stereotypical, cast into the plot.

Secondly, each player should be free to leave and join the party at will. In fact, it would be ideal if players can choose to work with or against the others, even if they are oblivious of the fact. I'm a big fan of making someone evil on a whim. Fable II is purportedly incorporating this free roaming type of play style, and I'm interested to see how it plays out.

Lastly, our imagined game should have a diverse set of choice options. The more choices available to a player, the more ways they can see their own involvement change the game world. Likewise, other participants should feel the repercussions of your decisions, be they selfless or selfish.
I think we can look to Bioware for a history of success in this regard. Their games are well known for dialogue options can drastically change the situation you find yourself in. I could see a great multi-player coop experience coming out of their studio.

Don't get me wrong. I love the single player narratives and multi-player modes that are out on the market already. As we continue to see titles that emphasize user created content, I become increasingly interested in the potential for a storyline that the players can mold in a similar way. Even if this does come to fruition, I'll likely be rolling twenties, or ones, for a long time to come.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gaming by the Numbers: The Case for Dropping Review Scores

Mario Kart Wii is a better game than Assassin's creed, at least according to

I was once a big believer in review scores, but I think it is time to move away from them. There is nothing inherently wrong with an author reviewing a game and providing insight into what they perceive to be its positives and the negatives. However, trying to distill the quality of a game into a single number is a shallow method of analysis that serves to limit the development of thoughtful analysis by diverting people towards petty arguments.

In my view, there are at least three major reasons to abandon video game scoring systems:

1. Games Can Change, but a Number is Forever

Not to get overly "critical theory"-y on everyone, but the video games, like any other piece of art or entertainment, are defined both by their creators and their consumers. The line between creator and consumer is easily blurred when players begin to utilize features within games that the designers may not have consciously created. Because of this, giving a game a numerical score exacerbates the already-glib nature of a review.

Consider the way in which gamers institute modified sets of rules in games: doing a "speed run" in Super Mario Bros., trying to get through a Zelda game with as few heart containers as possible, or attempting to play the Sims by building a house with only one room. None of these game modes are detailed in the official manual, and each arise from the player's modifications.

In the PC world, game modification has been taken to an extreme: who could have guessed Team Fortress would come into existence when Quake was being reviewed, and how would this have effected its (already very high) scores?

Finally, some games (I'm looking at you Will Wright) feature gameplay that emerges only after a sustained period of playtime. I think it is absurd that Spore is being scored right now, in light of how much of the game depends on player input. Complaints about the weakness of herbivorous characters may be rendered moot when veggie-players band together and create a vast Spore-alliance dedicated to ruling the Spore-universe. Putting a number on a game a week after its release is a shortsighted way of viewing a game that ignores the dynamic nature of art.

2. It's Like Comparing Apples and Machine Guns

As I alluded to in the initial Mario Kart/Assassin's creed example, it is unproductive to use the same basic scoring system on games in vastly different genres. This method of evaluation is unnecessarily focused on standardization.

Different genres provide unique forms of gameplay whose merits should be evaluated in their own right. The basic question a review is trying to answer is: "Is this game enjoyable?" The best explanation, regardless of the answer, would focus solely on the elements of the game without trying to quantify them for mindless digestion.

Mario Kart Wii and Assassin's Creed both succeed and falter at certain points, but trying to convince me that one deserves a higher score than the other is like arguing that chocolate tastes better than bacon. The enjoyment a game provides is a novel product precipitated by the interaction of developer and player. Slapping a number on that experience does a disservice to the player, the developer, and the game by inviting faulty comparisons and oversimplified judgements.

3. Zealots Feed on Numbers

A score's most damaging effect is the adversarial mindset it fosters. The attitude of trying to find "the best game" is a destructive practice that produces discord within the gaming community while also undermining the broader cultural credibility of video games as a medium.

There is nothing worse than someone hell-bent on blindly defending a game towards which they feel some misguided personal attachment. Any criticism is defended with bellicose rhetoric, ad hominem attacks, or good old-fashioned crappy logic. Numbers are simply ammunition for these people, who gleefully jump on a lower-than-expected showings as proof of a failure, or continually trumpet a perfect score as evidence that the epitome of gaming has been reached. Figuring out whether Call of Duty 4 or Halo 3 got higher marks does not make one "teh suckz," it simply creates trivial arguments that distract from thoughtful analysis of each games' respective components.

The inclination towards "scoring" an artistic works seems weaker on a broader societal level than it does in the gaming world. Many newspapers and magazines have dropped numerical or "star" rankings for films. Similarly, have there ever been scores for literature reviews? The most respected art, literature, and film journals do not try to boil down their analysis into a number, yet the most respected video game journals do.

This is not an indictment on the leading game journals, but rather a call out to the entire gaming community. Ultimately, the big game journals represent the state of the community, a state in which scores still have currency. It is time to change that, to embrace the open-ended quality of games, to analyze them on their individual merit, and to cease the bickering that ensues when we make vapid judgements based a fallacious hierarchy of game quality.

It is time to stop playing the numbers game.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

News for 9/17/08: The Xbox 360 Arcade Price Cut

Today, we introduce a segment about current events in the gaming world. Although we like talking about news and previews, there are plenty of dedicated journalism sources on the Internet. We won't be getting any secret leaked information that you can't get elsewhere. What we can do is share our thoughts on said events and leaked secrets with you. Both of us feel like there is a lot of important and interesting stuff going on in thevideogame industry that gets reported, yet not discussed.

A note on the format: What you're reading here are excerpts from a conversation we had over Skype. Since we don't have the technology or the funds to do a podcast (yet!), we thought we'd try out a little stream-of-consciousness-meets-interview-transcript format. What you read here are the written highlights (via Google chat) of our conversation. We're presenting it with minimal edits in order to retain the feel and spirit of our conversation, so hopefully you find our spelling errors, grammatical abominations, and occasional rambling incoherence charming. Expect these news posts to change periodically as we experiment with this format.

Today's topic: The Xbox Arcade price cut

Jorge: News: Xbox Arcade $199, 60gb elite $299
60g 299, elite 399

Scott: Do I now need an xbox? That's cheaper than the wii I just bought.

Jorge: Unless you're itching for a PS3 you won't need one now. If you want a PS3 it might be worth waiting to see if Sony drops their price in reaction to thexbox price drop. Sony can't wait too long though, unless they drop the price before the holiday buying season people will likely just buy a 360.

Scott: I'm a bit worried about storage on the xbox 360 sans hard drive. Can you buy an external hard drive?

Jorge: You got me. Part of the appeal for the sans hard drive arcade is that it's something cheap that has enough memory to play xbox live arcade games that tend to be pretty small. I'm curious who is really buying this system anyway? There has got to be an audience they are targeting.

Scott: I really don't know who is buying xboxes these days.

Jorge: I think part of what they are aiming for is bringing in the Wii audience. Particularly picking up those people who want a Wii this holiday season but can't find one considering there are still shortages two years down the line. Which is just crazy to me.

Scott: I can't see my grandparents or their friends (who are well aware of the Wii, some even own it) even considering an xbox, regardless of price. It seems that Wii is selling a lifestyle almost. And regardless of how intricate or simple the arcade games are, the interface is still the controller, which scares away a lot of new gamers.

Jorge: This actually connects well to the feature you wrote. If Wiis are really selling the lifestyle and the aesthetic nature of their system, then I really do think Microsoft can pick up new gamers off their market. It's not like they always show off all the intricacies of their remote on the box art that packages the 360.

Scott: So then are they angling to make the xbox an impulse buy? Put a few Mii-like avatars on the box art, put a space-invaders like arcade game, and then you have a good holiday alternative for the Wii?

Jorge: I think that is exactly right. I think it will be an impulse buy for a lot of people. If you spruce up the box art and and plaster a simple white console on the cover, maybe a new xbox avatar and their simple UI, five xbox live arcade games, it can look pretty attractive for someone browsing their neighborhood gamestop. And I'm figuring these buys are going to people who don't already own a next gen console. The casual gamers as we like to call them.

Scott: I'm just not confident that the xbla games actually can sell themselves to new people.

Jorge: A price cut could bring in a lot of people into the xbox and in turn into a type of gaming that Wii has yet to provide. At least that is what Microsoft is banking on.

Scott: The big challenge as I see it is getting past the world in which the only people who are playing xbla are also the "hardcore" crowd.

Scott: Getting back to the more avid gamer crowd...
I'm still not sure that any xbox price cut would make me get one.
Many huge games (Rock Band, Orange Box, soon to be Bioshock) are cross platform.
It's the PS3 exclusives that really are the deciding factor: Little Big Planet, PixelJunk Eden, God of War 3.

Jorge: If you're a PS3 owner, or a soon to be PS3 owner, this isn't going to be compelling enough, sure. There is no pressure Sony is feeling to drop their own rates that they haven't been feeling already. The only thing this could potential do is draw in the Wii crowd for the lasting benefit of microsoft. Which, again, is a great decision on their part considering the potential wii shortages this season.

Scott: I think Microsoft is playing a dangerous game.

Scott: They're trying to lure people in with an xbox that seems simple and friendly, but once these "simple" gamers spend some time in the xbox world, they'll quickly see the limitations of the system they bought and be pissed.

Jorge: So what you're saying is that those people who buy an xbox arcade for cheap because of new box art and a "sale" sign people are gonna be irritated that A:they didn't buy a hard drive or B: that they didn't buy a wii. Even if this happens, at least Microsoft made a few bucks off someone who would not be in their core market anyhow. Sounds like a pretty safe game to me.

Scott: I think it will be tough for Microsoft to make any inroads into the new gamer market this generation because of how strong the wii is in the public mindset.

Scott: So what do we think will come of this?

Jorge: Basically a whole lot of nothing.

Scott: Possibilities:
1. An impulse buy for people
2. A way for microsoft to make inroads into the non-gamer community (not likely in the face of the wii)
3. A way to tempt potential PS3 owners towards xbox (maybe, but folks like me really want the Sony exclusives)
Sent at 9:26 PM on Tuesday

Scott: To me, it just seems like xbox is trying its hardest to be all things to all people and that this price cut is really about trying to get people away from the Wii and into the xbox. I'm not sure if it will succeed, but it seems like anyone who buys it is a victory for microsoft.

Jorge: Let's hope Sony and Nintendo call Microsoft's bluff and it doesn't pay out for Microsoft. Teach them a lesson.

Scott: But why do you hope that? lol

Jorge: I don't know. I just like to see big companies flounder.

Scott: Damn commie.

Jorge: Oddly enough "Damn commie" is my 360 gamertag.

Update: As we were readying post, Kotaku broke a story about huge Xbox sales numbers in Japan this week! Will America follow suit? Is the Wii's global reign of terror facing a serious challenge? Is Microsoft a fox? Will we end each news post with a series of dramatic questions? Stay tuned to find out!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Coop Mode

The moment I knew videogames would be an integral part of my life for the rest of my life went something like this. My family had recently purchased an NES and my brother had picked up a used copy of Jackal, a 1988 game about a your mission to save your POW compatriots by driving around in a jeep with a machine gun blowing up enemy tanks and the buildings that house your allies. You'd think you could honk for them to come out, but no, you've got to blow their roof to smithereens with a missile. Quite a wake up call.

The game has two-player cooperative mode which me and my brother played obsessively. After long hours of effort we had traversed all six levels, saved countless soldiers, battled many armored fleets and battalions, and made to the final boss. The city itself turned into a giant armored killing machine and only two jeeps stood in its way. Strafing left and right we dodged missiles and bullets and then suddenly my brother's jeep exploded and I was alone against a citadel. With all the concentration and dexterity an eight year old could muster I fought relentless through the bosses many phases and finally came out victorious. With a frenzied battle cry I avenged my brother and rejoiced, probably with a six-pack of Sunny D. What made this moment so memorable was not the stunning graphics, oh no, it was the teamwork involved.

It was the strategic bomb and dash, cover me, veer left, pull back, watch out!, panic attack gameplay of Jackal that I adored. It was all about the cooperative aspects of the game that gave me so much pleasure. Playing through a game with a friend is whole other experience and can make you feel as if you are playing a different game. All of a sudden, legendary mode in Halo 3 becomes a challenge you can actually overcome. What were once frustrations become merely mental obstacles, nothing cooperative planning and team tactics can’t overcome.

Teamwork has long been a part of First-person shooters via LAN or online gameplay. Importing capture the flag from the sunny out doors of childhood into the landmine strewn battlefields of videogames was a genius idea. If we can somehow incorporate monkey bars and four-square into Call of Duty we'd all be the better for it.

However, though I adore multiplayer combat in all sorts of games, there are some important differences between multiplayer mode and cooperative mode. For one, multiplayer combat isn't always cooperative: unruly and uncooperative teammates are often to blame.Most importantly however, cooperative play usually implies participation in what is normally a single-player story campaign.

A friend can get involved in a number of satisfying or terribly unsatisfying ways. Mario Galaxy has cooperative play but if you are not Mario you're a entirely unnecessary star whizzing about the screen at best obeying the commands of whoever is in control and at worst getting in the way. Though it was difficult to get three friends and some hand-helds for The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, the game promoted cooperation and competition alike. Likewise, coop Halo 3 nicely adds that helpful hand, or battle rifle as it may be, to story progression.

Though playing through these cooperative games is a blast, I can't help but notice that coop mode gaming feels artificial to me. I prefer a friend by my side than an incompetent AI, but too often a teammates death will slow my story progression. Their inclusion is also awkward in stories that focus heavily on one characters actions. Without realistically incorporating the addition of another sentient player character into both the gameplay and the story a second participator is distracting and counter-immersive.

But is this even feasible? Can we actually share a story? Well certainly MMOs have incorporated large numbers of players into broad worlds with rich lore. If you're a demophobe, or if you're looking for an in-depth personalized storyline, an MMO just won't do. It's hard to feel special when millions of other players are accomplishing the exact same goal.

What I might need to satisfy my craving for dynamic coop gaming is a story arc with multiple protagonists. Maybe it's a universal desire to be egomaniacal, but games rarely have more than one playable character. I'm sure the reason is a game design issue: if you are on your own, bouncing around multiple characters and environments can be disorienting.

Indigo Prophecy includes a playable cast with significant narrative roles, but the game plays more like a film than a videogame. It would be interesting to see developers innovatively incorporate multiple protagonists into game while maintaining their participation in the narrative. This could lend itself well to cooperative gaming.

In the meantime, there are some hopefully advancements in my cooperative tag-team cage match of a day dream. In Fable II you can give your team-mate the opportunity to participate in your single player environment, making them more than a bench warmer. While they play individually within your shared world, their interactions and decisions will directly effect how your own story can progress. This can even result in soap-opera like drama. If your suave compatriot seduces your wife the protagonist can add alimony bills and maybe drinking problem to his inventory. I love it.

Valve is also rolling out another intriguing game with their uber-cooperative Left 4 Dead. The "4" alludes to the number of players required. I know, clever right? This game is marketed and designed for those itching for a cooperative experience. Supposedly if you don't work together during the inevitable zombie uprising, you're zombie food. From the look of it, covering your pal's flank and blasting them off your fallen allies isn't suggested, it's required, at least if you're hoping for some reciprocity.

In addition, the game features dynamic hordes that react to your group and what valve calls "four" movies in which you participate. Unfortunately, this is likely over-hyped. Valve's Chet Faliszek was quoted saying "We didn't want to have the game gummed up with a story line… It's about killing zombies, not some fable on the reconstruction of humanity."

If developers don't shy away from a challenge, I thinksome amazing stories can be told in a cooperative setting. I'd really like to see if a group of friends or strangers can build a story together, and actually have it mean something. I'd like to come back to this idea of sharing a story next week as well. In the meantime, I'll be trying to imagine what a shared story might look like and whether or not if once created it would be desirable.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Presentation Matters or: Being Blue-shelled by My Girlfriend

After posting my introduction, I started thinking about ways to draw new people into the gaming community. Evangelizing non-gamers has always been a bit off putting to me, since the action implies that people who already play games are licensed to act as cultural arbitrators. To me, the idea that non-gamers must somehow undergo a "conversion," is condescending and misguided. Why must newcomers conform to the status quo rather than the community reshaping itself to embrace them?

For those of you who can sense a post about the Wii coming on, you are right. No discussion about incorporating new gamer demographics is complete without at least mentioning Nintendo's plucky little wonder. Recently, I finally jumped on the bandwagon myself and (after considerable searching) hunted down a Wii. I'm enjoying it very much thus far and as a welcome surprise, so is my girlfriend, Hanah. As I write this, I can hear the spinning sound of Mario Kart Wii's item blocks, and it is music to my ears.

Hanah has never been a big gaming enthusiast, so why is it now that she can't get enough of Mario Kart? Toss out any theories about the motion control, as she is strictly a Wiimote and Nunchuk kind of gal. Revolutionary gameplay elements can be discounted as well: It's not like the Mario Kart formula has undergone some huge revision this generation. On the contrary, I think that Mario Kart Wii follows more closely in the tradition of Super Mario Kart than its N64 and GameCube predecessors. So why is Hanah just now finding enjoyment in a game that is essentially fifteen years old (can you believe Mario Kart has existed for over fifteen years?)?

I argue that the answer lies in the art of presentation.

Consider the way Wii is marketed: you'd be hard pressed to find a Wii advertisement without a group of people who look to be having the time of their life playing Wii. Instead of a barrage of cutscenes or game screens, the camera devotes a huge amount of time to capturing the players' enjoyment. These happy, smiling people are of all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, and genders, which suggests to the uninitiated that anyone is welcome to partake in this new system.

Personally, I believe that the visual aesthetic of the Wii is focused being open and inviting. It's small, shiny white box radiates simplicity and warmth. It's menus are composed mainly of pictures, rounded edges, and clearly labeled programs. Instead of flashy transitions, there are subtle screen wipes and soothing music playing in the background. The Wii is inviting, but takes pains not to be overbearing.

Juxtapose this with the advertising and the aesthetics of the Xbox 360 and the PS3. While they boast the best visuals in town, their flashy displays and bold designs seem to exude a more aggressive style than the Wii. Games are advertised in the fashion of Hollywood block busters, complete with orchestral music and rapid fire camera cuts. The player is no where to be seen, and the games are presented as entities that demand attention.

A mix of hardware requirements and design choices make the systems large and imposing. Both their physicality and their software are meant to be testaments to kicking ass, and making sure everyone to know it. Until just recently, even the interface of the Xbox had the connotation of a weapon: navigating through "blades" to check your messages sounds a bit more extreme than simply clicking on the "Mail" button, does it not? I don't think XBL's recent face-lift was a coincidence in light of the Wii's success.

Additionally, I think Microsoft and Sony's liberal use of abbreviations and jargon (XBLA , PSN , XMB , Home, GamerTag, etc.) work to subtly inhibit new gamers' acclimation. Learning a new vocabulary of terms and definitions is daunting for someone who, until now, has sat outside the gaming world.

However, despite their stark presentational and marketing differences, much of the Wii's substantive content is no different than 360, PS3 or previous Nintendo systems games. Mario Kart Wii uses the same basic gameplay mechanics that have been in place since 1992. And yet, it is only since the Wii that Hanah and I have shared in the satisfaction of a well placed banana peel. The Wii was able to get a foot in the door, allowing Mario Kart to introduce itself.

Therein lies the true genius of the Wii: it is a system that can package and market almost games to a wide audience, regardless of whether those games are established classics or fresh concepts, "casual" or "hardcore." I think this is undoubtedly a Good Thing, as it allows people to ease into gaming. It is my hope that today's new gamers will gradually realize that gaming skills can be broadly applied to a number of genres and platforms. Eventually, these newcomers will be able to define their personal gaming tastes and take an active role in seeking out the kinds of games they enjoy playing.

Now if you'll excuse me, Hanah and I are going to go for a drive on Rainbow Road.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Introducing Scott

For me, Experience Points is a way to communicate my enjoyment of an form of art and entertainment I have loved my entire life. But my most grandiose motivation lies in my belief that the time has come for video games and the folks who play them to make their bid for widespread cultural acceptance.

A huge portion of gamers have grown up while refusing to abandon their treasured pastime: we have jobs, social lives, friends, and (you might want to sit down for this) lovers. The gaming community consists of the young, the old, a multitude of nationalities, ethnicities, and gender identities. Ours is a global culture, and we number in the millions.

Our medium of choice has grown and diversified similarly to other artistic categories. Film is considered art even though the dismal "Citizen Kane" to "Catwoman" ratio. And what of the "Dostoevsky to shirtless Fabio on the cover" ratio? I argue that games exist in a similar manner: Some video games made simply to entertain, some to cash in on a franchise, and some are just rotten. However, some games stand as monuments to creativity and have nuanced points regarding the human condition. I always wished for the day when that notion would be broadly accepted.

A generation of people understand the phrase "But our princess is in another castle!" as well as "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse." A new cohort has internalized that a spy's best friend can be a Walther PPK or a cardboard box. Gamers must connect with each other and gain the confidence to demonstrate the artistic merits of video games. This mission should not be rigid or grim, but rather determined and joyful. Today, I stop wishing and start acting, knowing that I am in good company.

Introducing Jorge

Scott and I both agreed we should share with you some of our personal motivations for creating Experience Points. We hope our short introductions will give you a better understanding of our writing styles, personalities, and goals.

As you can see from the title of this post, my name is Jorge. You can pronounce it however you like. Shen is the most common persona I use when gaming and it means quite a bit to me. Like many other gamers this alias, among others, has been used for years. I've more an affinity to my gamer tag than my middle name, and I am not alone in this.

I share a lot with gamers all around the world. Millions of us were there when Mario finally reached the princess, when Aeris was murdered, and when Samus Aran took off her Varia suit and revealed she was a woman. Our shared experiences are not limited to videogames either. Many of us have fond memories of Golden Eye battles with friends around the N64 or heated debates about pirates/ninjas and pie/cake.

We can't deny we find ourselves in a gaming community. Just take a look at the Penny-Arcade Expo which just concluded in Seattle if you don't believe me. There you will find people of all ages, some fit "gamer" stereotypes and many do not. Above all you will find a widely diverse group of people content and sharing their enthusiasm with others. I want to take this sense of community and put it into this blog.

I hope to move beyond "fanboy" fanaticism but avoid putting myself upon a pedestal and by doing so create a dialogue between readers and writers. I like to imagine it like a videogame book club, and this blog is our couch, our console, and our margaritas all in one.

Really, I love thinking about, talking about, and writing about the videogames. I hope by sharing all this you will enjoy the process as much as I do. Welcome again to EXP.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Introducing EXP

We sit here struggling to write what will likely be the most difficult post either of us will compose for Experience Points. Even more frustrating is our inability to articulate the source of the aforementioned difficulty.

We grew up with videogames, and it seems they came of age as we became adults ourselves. For us, videogames are more than just a childhood toy. We and probably many others in our generation, feel that games are important for both entertainment value and social commentary. Asking us to explain how videogames can be both a fun diversion and a serious academic exercise is akin to asking our parents or grandparents to explain how film and literature can do the same. Essentially, we are similar to the enthusiasts found in any subject. We love our art: we love consuming it, we love discussing it, we love analyzing it, and we love interacting with others that share our passion.

The blog is a logical conclusion to the situation we find ourselves in. How do we explain our fascination with a topic that is both intellectually intriguing but also a normal part of our lives? We believe analyzing videogames does not sap the fun out of them. If anything, it enhances the experience. The medium is deep and intriguing, from conceptual art to industry happenings, we cannot turn our eyes away. There is a dialogue going on, in forums, blogs, and guild chats. The gaming "community" is finally becoming an appropriate term: the player and the creator, the "casual" and the "hardcore", the marketer and the artist, are increasingly interconnected. There is an existing and burgeoning conversation and we seek to be a part of it.

But enough with the flowery language. Here is what you can expect from us. We hope to bring you thoughtful posts approaching games from a quasi-meditative viewpoint, weekly think pieces if you will, from each of us. We will throw in the occasional review to give you a sense of our gaming tastes along with weekly thoughts on current events in the gaming world. Finally, we hope that this becomes a larger discussion; not just between ourselves but with our readers, with other writers, and anyone interested in videogames. As this blog develops we hope to find our stride as serious but not humorless contributors to the videogame community.

-Jorge and Scott