Friday, November 28, 2008

A Present to be Thankful For

My grandmother has a saying: "There was nothing good about 'the good old days.'" Her life experiences have convinced her that scientific and cultural development has been "positive" in the sense that most people's standards of living are comparatively higher today than in the past. In support of her argument, I offer penicillin and the twenty-fourth amendment as examples.

I usually reflect warmly on gaming's past, but I am justified in idealizing "the good old days?" To wrap up our Thanksgiving themed week, I am going to give thanks for some modern video game innovations I often take for granted:

1. Ergonomically Designed Controllers

For video games, The Nintendo Entertainment System was represented the phoenix rising from the ashes. It reinvigorated the medium, introduced a generation of people to gaming, and set precedents design precedents that continue to influence games created today. These feats are even more impressive upon reviewing the NES controller:

The NES controller has a feature shared with no modern controller: corners. Because of its flat back and rectangular shape, the only way to keep a grip on it was to jam its corners your palms, leaving you with pronounced dents and bruises after long play sessions. And although it is hard to see from the picture, the A and B buttons were concave, as opposed to the convex buttons now standard on controllers. This is important, as it meant that the buttons had sharp edges. In addition to this, games were exclusively manipulated with the surprisingly sharp control pad. Anyone still remember "Nintendo Thumb?"

Say what you will about modern the PS3 and Xbox360's modern game pads, but one thing is undeniable: they fit like gloves compared tothe NES controller.

Ergonomic innovation has continued with the current generation with consoles: cordless controllers are now standard, allowing us to play in a seat dictated by comfort, rather than cord length. Never again will we have to shell out money for cord extenders.

2. Save Games

Through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, there were basically three ways to end a video game session:

1. Succumb the the punishing gameplay and turn the system off in defeat.

2. Muster the skill to claw your way through the game, losing an entire day of your life but winning the luxury of going to bed knowing you were a bad-ass.

3. Remember or write down a ridiculously long "password" (I use quotes since they were usually strings random numbers and letters and not words). Lose that scrap of paper or transpose a number? Tough. Additionally, passwords often worked by simply placing you at the beginning of a level, rather than at your exact stopping point, forcing you to recollect the gear and points you had before you turned the system off.

The ability to save your progress and resume at that exact save point has become integral to the way games are structured. Even relatively short games like Gears of War or Portal run longer than feature films, thus necessitating game saving features. Saving in challenging modern games like God of War makes them more appealing to a broader audience, as the game no longer punishes players by starting them at the beginning if they die too many times.

It is no wonder things like Game Genie flourished in the early days of video games. Sometimes cheating was the only way to get back to where you left off, and often it was the only reasonable way to pass a hellishly difficult level.

In the "good old days," games would routinely present the player with the perfect storm of inconveniences: punishing difficulty, limited continues, and complete lack of saving or passwords. I am thankful we have left this era and its games behind. That's right, I'm talking about you, Battle Toads. I still have nightmares about this level:

3. Backwards Compatibility

Being partial to both nostalgia and history, I always found the transition to new platforms and technology to be a mixed blessing. Certainly, new systems with new games allowed for novel experiences, but they almost always relegated older games to obscurity.

Today, we need not box up our old games with the advent of a new system, as most offer backwards compatibility. There are also plenty of software oriented solutions to the problem of recording gaming history. Services like Steam,Gametap, Good Old Games, as well as each console's on-line store make attaining old games easy and economical for both companies and consumers.

True, it can be annoying to pay five or ten dollars for a game you may have previously owned, and I think we should guard against companies abusing DRM. However, the time and money saved by avoiding eBay and garage sales is worth it for me.

Most importantly, having access to old games provides common reference points and shared experiences within gaming culture. Having access to a machine that can play both Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Galaxy is a boon to people's understanding and enjoyment of the medium.

As is often the case, idealizing the past obscures the benefits of the present. I have plenty of fond memories of my early gaming days, but when I use my GameCube controller to auto-save a Star Fox game, I am thankful that those days are history.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Experience Points Podcast #1: Finishing Games

Here it is, at long last, the first Experience Points Podcast. We have done away with the script style news posts and are embracing the future of recorded voice! Each Wednesday we'll be posting what we think is a podcast of reasonable length, usually a half hour or less. Since this is a new endeavor, if you have any thoughts or suggestions, please let us know either by commenting or emailing ExperiencePoints[at]gmail[dot]com.

The podcast will be in our normal feed which you can subscribe to on the right. An iTunes subscription option will be available shortly. You can also download the MP3 file by right clicking the title and selecting "save link as." Listen to the podcast by left clicking the title.

This week we discuss Tom Endo's article "To Do: Finish Any Game" published in the Escapist. Endo writes about the phenomenon of unfinished games and speculates on some reasons why players put down their controls. We join in on the conversation with our own thoughts and potential solutions. Thanks for listening and Happy Thanksgiving!

Show Notes:

- Run time: 31m 44s
- Tom Endo's Original Article
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Teaser Tuesday!

What's this? An extremely elusive Tuesday post at Experience Points? There must be something special going on...

And there most certainly is! Two important updates:

1. We will be posting a big announcement on the site tomorrow. It's something we've been planning and working on for a while, and we're very excited about its unveiling. Check back tomorrow (Wednesday) evening to check it out...

2. On a much less mysterious, yet equally important note: we will soon be switching over to FeedBurner for the site's feed syndication service. This transition should invisibly forward current subscribers to the new one. That being said, if it seems like you are not getting the updates, try resubscribing to see if that helps. If the feed seems broken even after you re-subscribe, please tell us so that we can fix any SNAFUs before they become any full fledged debacles.

Until tomorrow, good night!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thankful for the Worst

This is a week of traditional celebration here in the states. We gather around our dinner tables, stuffed with mashed potatoes and turkey (or Tofurky in my case), embrace our likable family members, ignore the crazy ones, and give thanks for having the day off. This Thanksgiving, we gamers have a lot to be thankful for, not the least being the slew of titles that we'll be playing throughout the holiday season. Today, I'd like to share with you some unappreciated videogame outliers and experiences I am thankful for. Even the things I sometimes loathe make the videogame world a better place.

Thank you 'coop selfishness':

To the person playing Francis in Left 4 Dead Saturday night, thank you. I am not mad that you frequently shot me in the back with a shotgun. You probably didn't see me there since most of the game you were covered in zombie attracting vomit. I am not mad that you did nothing while I was dragged away by a smoker. You were probably just trying to keep the high ground in what you considered a strategic battle against the undead menace. I am not mad that despite my open wounds and slow pace, you kept the med-kit for yourself. Perhaps you were just being prepared to treat your own injuries, to heal yourself when we needed you most. I am not even mad that instead of clearing a path to the helicopter, you created a raging wall of fire between me and safety.

"Francis", you created what so many games strive to create but fail; a sense of realism and immersion. The fact is, when the inevitable zombie uprising occurs, people like you will make surviving hard for people like me. No matter how many times I've read the Ultimate Zombie Survival Guide, if I have to rely on you, I'll most likely die. Knowing that is scarier than any game mechanic or sound effect Valve can create.

Thank you 'inane dialogue':

Where would we be, I ask you, if all your base did not "are belong to us"? Part of the reason there is something called a "gamer culture" is because we have a plethora of nonsensical gaming moments that make up a part of our shared experiences. Coupled with poor voice acting, developers have made me laugh out loud countless times, albeit unintentionally.

The long tradition of terrible dialogue continues to this day. I've been playing Mirror's Edge, and there is nothing I enjoy hearing more than "Mr. Obvious" on the walkie-talkie telling me, Faith, an unarmed "runner" wearing a tank-top and khakis, to "run away". As if a Kevlar laden battalion of machine gun wielding cops with itchy-trigger fingers wasn't enough encouragement. There is also the ever astute crew of Gears of War 2 who won't just summarize how many enemies you face ("shit loads"), but give you a quantifiable assessment of their numbers ("ten shit loads"). To all the over-worked writers out there, I give my thanks.

Thank you 'my own stupidity':

There is nothing more reliable, nothing I can count on more, than my own stupidity. I have a long history of doing the most rash and brainless actions while playing videogames. I would be lying if I said they were only a result of late-night gaming sessions. No, I take great enjoyment in taking foolish risks.

Be it setting up fuel canisters too close to my teammates in Left 4 Dead, blindly leaping to ludicrously distant ledges in Mirror's Edge, antagonizing level 80 horde players in World of Warcraft, or accidentally killing my wife in Fable II, my own human ineptitude continues to result in some of my most memorable gaming moments. When I finally get around to playing Farcry II, I promise you I will light myself and most of the African Savannah on fire trying to smoke out just one enemy. For this I am thankful.

There are so many things to complain about in videogames. But this week, in the spirit of the holidays, let us be thankful for each and every frustrating, idiotic, and laughably atrocious aspect of the games we love to play. Without them, our experiences would be a little less colorful. What are you thankful for?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Humanizing Competition

Wednesday's post has kept me thinking about competition in the video game world. While I shed no tears over the demise of the Competitive Gaming Series, I still have a soft spot for competition in games.

Despite games' long history of competition, it seems that cooperation is a bigger interest these days. For example, consider three of this season's highest profile releases:LittleBigPlanet, Gears of War 2 and Fable 2. What do they all have in common? Co-op mode.

So is player versus player gaming doomed to become a niche obscurity? Probably not, but I think it is time to revisit competition's redeeming qualities and define some parameters under which it can thrive.

1. The Beauty of Decentralization: Let Competition Happen Naturally

Variety is one of video games' strength as a medium. There are games out there that appeal to folks of all proclivities and if a game is fun, a community will form around it.

In the Internet age, organizing a dedicated, yet disparate group of people is a straightforward and inexpensive affair. There is no need for a corporate-driven gaming league when the cost of entry is negligible. Everything from matchmaking logistics, advertising, and broadcasting matches can be done with the software packaged with the game in conjunction with free web applications. As long as people can pay for their own equipment, they can participate in large scale competitions via the magic of the Interwebs.

Eschewing a formal, all-encompassing league also avoids the problem of pushing games in a competitive direction that do not naturally conform to adversarial play. Putting the onus of league creation on a game's enthusiasts leaves the developer free to create the kind of game they want to make. Instead of worrying how it will be received by "pro-gamers" in "The Official Game League," developers can rest easy knowing that should players want a league experience, they can create it.

Community-grown gaming competition sidesteps corporate commodification and lets gamers define their own skill metrics. Simply because someone is not good at Halo 3 does not mean they are a "bad" gamer. However, if we let official leagues decide which games "professional" gamers must master, we are instituting a flawed system based on arbitrary skills and tiers.

2. "Couch Diplomacy:" Let Competition Happen Locally

The Penny-Arcade guys have knack for pinpointing fundamental concepts in video games. As the aforementioned comic suggests, playing a game with friends in the same room adds an invaluable meta-game to any play experience. In-person interactions continue to prove themselves to be incredibly effective community building tools.

I fear that "professional" competition eliminates the dynamic created when longtime friends and family play together. As I have written, adversarial games can sometimes bring people even closer than cooperative ones. Local competition quite literally unites people, which is crucial to the formation of a stable and inclusive culture. And besides, no headset can recreate the experience of shooting your opponent a gleefully sadistic smile as you launch a blue shell in their direction.

3. "John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory:" Let Competition Happen Publicly

I generally dislike playing games on-line. I always feel the need to scrub myself clean with steel wool fifteen minutes into the affair. Anonymity and a lack of consequences tends to breed mean-spirited behavior. Because of this, on-line gaming has become a proxy for people who cannot be in the same room as their friends when they play games. While there is nothing wrong with this, I think it would be nice if on-line competition could be a way to meet new friends, rather than a place to go to listen to eleven-year-olds speculate on your mother's promiscuity.

I advocate implementing some of Jorge's ideas for self-policing gamer culture. Adding a system of "karma points" to gamer profiles will allow players to choose the social caliber of players they interact with. I am a big proponent of using gamer-tags and profile details that humanize the player. History has shown us that the easiest way to justify mistreating a person is by dehumanizing them. Personal details such as recognizable handles serve to remind people that they are people. I propose that it is harder for Karen to be a jerk to William than it is for "haXorurMOM4lyfe" to be a jerk to "xXxpwnertime69xXx."

If there ever are to be "professional" or even publicly well-known competitive gamers, widespread competitive discourse must change. If a player on a professional football team called another team's players dimwitted, unskilled homosexuals (in so many words) they would likely face suspension, fines, censure in the court of public opinion. Today, video game players of a similar stature in their respective games would suffer no such consequences, and can not be taken seriously until they do.

In essence, my argument for the existence of worthwhile competitive gaming rests on resisting corporate influence while fostering personal interaction and decency. It is a simple argument, but one that is certainly difficult to implement. It will take time, but I believe it can be done: game by game, couch by couch, and player by player.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

News for 11/19/08: The End of an Error

This week in news we discuss the end of the Championship Gaming Series, a concoction brewed for television that smells like ESPN and bad high school memories. Seriously, if you have never seen any CGS event, check out these youtube videos before reading. They will give you a pretty good impression of what the gaming world will lose. If you feel heated about the Series, or if you are a pro-gamer with important insight, please leave your comments below.

Jorge: Let us pause to mourn the death of the Championship Gaming Series. It lived a bright but all to short life... like a candle in the wind Scott... a candle in the wind...

Scott: Hold on, let me put away the world's smallest violin I was playing in tribute. Here's the greatest thing: the title of their farewell notice was "An Idea Whose Time Came too Early."

Jorge: I like how presumptuous they are: They could make more money in the future, but now is just not the right time.

Scott: Such visionaries.

Scott: You've actually seen competitive gaming in person, right?

Jorge: Yea, at Blizzcon they had Starcraft and World of Warcraft tournaments going on. They had flashy slanted televisions, green backdrops, and a couple of attractive announcers yelling into mics about how exciting and mind blowing it all was. It was all very weird and uncomfortable.

Scott: Which makes their failure as a company understandable.

Jorge: Have you ever participated in competitive gaming Scott? Are you that l33t?

Scott: Not even close.

Jorge: Isn't this something popularly abroad? I recall seeing a stadium full of people watching a Starcraft tournament somewhere on the Internet. If it works overseas, how come it doesn't work here?

Scott: It seems like if this was going to happen in the U.S. it would have happened already.

Jorge: Yea, but I wonder why. I think I actually would watch a Smash Bros. tournament. That could be rad.

Scott: It seems like everything that these CGS folks were doing, except for the massive prize money, could be done by normal gamers with their own equipment and youtube.

Jorge: I think one of the fatal characteristics is the forced, top-down approach where these figureheads are trying to shove "e-sports" down our throats. It's so canned. Maybe gaming is not exciting enough for this treatment. Just give up.

Scott: There are plenty of people who will watch the Superbowl of Football, even though they don't play football. I don't think there are many people who would watch the Superbowl of Counter Strike if they didn't already play CS.

Jorge: But I think I would be interested in watching people play videogames I don't have. If I am at work and can't play games, I might actually enjoy watching others play, even just to hear their strategizing.

Scott: It can be fun watching people compete at the highest level, to excel at something, but it seems like it would only appeal to folks that are already into games.

Jorge: So if this could be marketed well, do you think championship gaming would be a good thing? Are we missing the "competitive edge"?

Scott: I could see myself getting into it recreationally: using it as background noise while I'm surfing the web or brainstorming post ideas.

Jorge: Right, it would be a good substitute for actual gaming. But why then have the competitive aspect when I can just watch an average team play TF2?

Scott: But how about the celebrity issue: what if there become superstar players? Like how Bret Favre has a following regardless what team he's on, would some players become entities larger than the teams?

Jorge: Maybe, but I don't think it could happen. I know I will never become a football player. I will never be an eight foot tall behemoth with a good throwing arm. However, I think most gamers believe they could be professional gamers if they had enough time to invest. Also, no matter how exciting a 64 person match of Resistance 2 to can be, it will never lend itself well to broadcasting. That is just a limitation of filming such an event, so I doubt there could be a Favre of gaming.

Scott: Did you ever have that phase growing up when you thought you could hack it as a pro-gamer?

Jorge: No, never. I watched The Wizard and thought "Wow. That kid is way better at videogames than me."

Scott: I think there's a major philosophical and artistic aspect to this conversation, since we look at games as art, rather than sport. How could you have a competition based on creativity or vision?

Jorge: I would really like to see Iron Chef for game developers! Jonathan Blow versus Shigeru Miyamoto. They've got a team of ten coders, and one month to make the coolest side-scrolling platformer imaginable!

Scott: I think the ethos of competitive gaming subverts most of the analysis we do on our site.

Scott: I'm afraid that if competitive gaming took off, it would push the market towards something like Counter Strike and away from something like World of Goo.

Jorge: And those outside the gaming world may perceive videogames as that type of non-serious purely competitive experience.

Scott: I think the real solution is to go away from "competitive gaming" as a blanket category and instead just focus on competitions in certain games.

Scott: Instead of "competitive gaming," just "competitive StarCraft" or "competitive TF2."

Jorge: I agree, and this is something that has to come from the gamers and publishers. In which case CGS is right about future profitability. CGS may rise again... *shudder*

Scott: It can "rise again?" Like the South?

Jorge: Or zombies... or confederate zombies.

Scott: The very worst kind.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Beyond Limitations

[Warning: This post may contain spoilers. Read with discretion.]

Last week Spencer Greenwood of Noble Carrots wrote a very interesting post concerning the thematic limitations of videogames. In this article, Spencer discusses the opening scene to Call of Duty 4, a game I was fortunate enough to be playing at the time, in which the character is dragged through a city, only able to look around. Greenwood had this to say: "The game robs the player of its usual interactivity to great emotional effect. However, I am not sure that this level should exist in a game. Why couldn't it be left to happen in a film? ... the emotionally engaging part of the video they were watching was fundamentally, not an interactive experience."

My first thought was in defense of the game. This segment holds more meaning specifically because I expected more character control than I was given. If this were to happen in a film, I would never have had this expectation. But couldn't this also be considered a limitation? Am I confining my experience by playing games with certain gameplay expectations? I quickly jumped down a rabbit hole of thoughts regarding the limitations of videogames. If the medium cannot address certain thematic concerns, is it doomed to be literature and film's entertaining but ignorant and incoherent step-brother? Are we trapped within the narrative walls of our console prison?

To answer these questions, I first want to take a look at another example from CoD 4. In this scene, your character is extremely limited. You must crawl slowly through the wreckage of your downed helicopter just to gaze upon the nuclear destruction and die. This segment is stunning and disturbing.

The contrast between interaction in the rest of the game and minimal interaction in this particular scene, creates a narrative connection between the lack of player mobility and the lack of character agency within the story. As the player is confined to the limitations of game mechanics, so is the protagonist confined within the structured violence of a war hungry world. The inevitability of player death creates a sense of entanglement, or even culpability, with the system of violence that allowed nuclear carnage to ensue. Maybe being a soldier in CoD 4 isn't as freeing or exhilarating as you thought. The expressive power of this scene could not have been the same in film or literature.

Every medium has its own limits and expectations. Novels are confined to paper and text, with a history of established narrative techniques. Film is a purely visual and auditory experience, and it too has a set of rules and patterns commonly adhered to. Videogames are no different. Therefore, we can take a lesson from those artists who have used these unique characteristics as artistic diving boards.

Vladamir Nabakov was a master of the English language, and several others for that matter, and often used reader expectations to his advantage. Traditionally, novels have a beginning and an end: first A happens, then B, C and so on. In Pnin, the narrator becomes trapped in this formula. The protagonist's story presumably continues past the last chapter while the narrator is forced to begin again at A, doomed to recount the tale for eternity.

Taking lessons from Nabakov, Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves creates a frightening manifestation of the story with the actual text and paper of the book itself, breaking countless conventions in the process. Danielewski's text warps and fades into the binding, crosses over itself, literally creating a labyrinthine journey. Like the titular house of leaves, the book itself is larger on the inside than it is on the outside, adding a sense of macabre realism to the tale. These stories could not have been told with the same power in any other format.

Film too has its narrative jugglers. Federico Fellini's is filmed in such a way as to warp dreams, flashbacks, and reality, creating the most "metafilm" I can think of. Christopher Nolan's Memento tells a compelling story in backward moving segments of linear narrative. This film shatters the viewers' narrative expectations while simultaneously driving the story towards both a beginning and an end. These movies take the limits of storytelling in film and use them towards their own ends, creating unmatchable experiences.

If film and literature can do it, so can videogames. Some already have. Metal Gear Solid fans should all remember Psycho Mantis, a telekinetic, leather wearing weirdo who can read your mind and your memory card! Having an enemy call you a coward for saving your game too often is uniquely unsettling.

Jonathan Blow's Braid also has a scene in which the limits of the game mechanics forge a stronger narrative. At one point in Braid, time moves according to the direction you move, resulting in your character rushing past an NPC who comments on his haste. The protagonist, by definition, is rash and driven ever onward. Without the limitations of a side-scrolling platformer and the mechanics of time, this illuminating piece of narrative would not have been the same.

All the limitations of videogames, from interactivity to save files, hand-held controllers to less-than-perfect AI, are also the features that make videogames unique. No experience in one medium can be mirrored perfectly in another, as it should be. We may have limitations but the expressive power of videogames is limitless.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Review: Connections Within the World of Goo

Reading Jorge's post on Monday inspired me to make it a double review week here at Experience Points! As Jorge wrote, we are trying to present a different kind of review than what can be found on the more mainstream sites. We strive for transparency and clarity in our reviews, and we try to focus on the aspects, features, or themes that make a game important to discuss. Obviously, we welcome your thoughts, so jump in via comments, email, twitter, carrier pigeon, etc.

I played World of Goo on the Nintendo Wii. I completed every stage of the game, most multiple times, and spent a sizable amount of time playing cooperatively. I also played the demo on my laptop running MacOS 10.4.

World of Goo is one of those games you won't see advertised on the sides of buses. You won't see a Hollywood-inspired trailer during the final minutes of Monday Night football. You won't see an ad on the inside cover of EGM and you won't see IGN load up with a World of Goo site skin.

Usually, I decry most of the marketing hype that accompanies games, but in this case, I wish World of Goo had that kind of red carpet roll out. Anything that could potentially increase this game's audience would be a Good Thing, as it is a game that everyone should play. In terms of gameplay, narrative and culture, I believe World of Goo to be this year's most significant game.

To put it simply, it is a game about forming connections.

Connecting the Player to the Game

In World of Goo, the goo balls act as nodes and form links with other goo balls that can be used to build structures. The player uses these structures to reach a pipe at the end of a level. Like many great games, World of Goo has fundamentally simple rules and mechanics that are built upon as the game progresses. Of course, these mechanics are expanded throughout play, but the basic rules remain familiar to that has ever dealt with the three laws of Newtonian Physics. That is to say, everyone who lives in our dimension.

World of Goo connects with players because the game is easy to grasp but difficult to master. My preferred experience is playing the game on the Wii, as the Wiimote and TV gave me an almost tactile sensation while playing. Additionally, there is something special about being able to sit on the couch with another person and simultaneously work through a level. Likely there are others in the room as well, watching and shouting out advice as the towers of goo sway precariously in the breeze. This game is about building community as well as structures. It is welcoming for both gaming veterans and newcomers while also bringing innovative gameplay to the experience.

Connecting the Narrative to the Game

World of Goo may be my all time favorite video game story because of its narrative style and its themes. I am not even sure I completely understand it yet, but that is part of the allure.

It is very popular to talk about narrative, and there are some great conversations on the topic going on right now. Most often these discussion revolve around huge, epic games like Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock, or Fallout. It may be the curmudgeon in me, but I often feel that the ludic quality of these games is lessened by their narrative. The story is designed to be experienced in a certain way, even if there are branching narratives, the games must be played in specific ways to achieve them. And even if the gameplay is uninhibited, having an overarching story often means having to sit through long stretches of passive viewing, something that I believe runs against the fundamental nature of videogames.

World of Goo does not force the player to care about the story. Barring a few cutscenes, the story is fleshed out by completely optional (and hilarious) dialogue. More importantly, if a player does care about the story, they will have to work for it. So often do we find ourselves being hit over the head with themes in video game stories. Even in games with player choice, decisions are usually "good and evil," "salvation or destruction," etc. World of Goo is a game about industrialization, alienation in the modern world, post-modern commentaries on consumer culture, and the downfall of technologically advanced societies. It is all there for those who want it and it demands interpretation, but for those not interested, it is not mandatory. For me, World of Goo best exemplifies video games' potential to provide a linear story without crudely aping film or literature.

Connecting the Culture to the Game

The culture of gaming is quickly shaping up as one of this site's main topics, and games like World of Goo provide a wealth of conversation topics. The game was created in large part by only two people: Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel, who seem to be extremely interesting people. They are clearly aware of the complexity of game development and the uneasy relationship between art, money, and audience. Their decision to engage in questioning the status quo of the industry is bravely represented in the subtext of their game and in their "real life" decisions. For example, World of Goo on the PC is Windows, Mac, and Linux compatible and is without DRM.

Michael Abbott was absolutely correct when he called World of Goo "a truly wonderful and quietly subversive game." It is one of the rare titles that can engage gaming enthusiasts and people who never touch a controller. It contains a deeper story than most blockbuster titles that challenges the player while not forcing itself on them. It levies some harsh criticisms on video games as a medium and an industry while simultaneously reveling in its own existence.

This game is a quietly subversive joy, and I hope that with enough exposure, the subversion will spread.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

News for 11/12/08: Activision Blizzard Plays the Sequel Game

This week, we're discussing some recent comments made by Activision Blizzard CEO Robert Kotick. Most interesting to us were his very candid comments about the company's approach to sequels and intellectual property. Take a look at some of the articles discussing the story and then feel free to weigh in via the comments, email, Twitter, smoke signals, etc. How do you feel about the current video game industry's business model and its treatment of sequels versus new franchises?

Scott: From the Gamasutra article: "With respect to the franchises that don’t have the potential to be exploited every year across every platform, with clear sequel potential that can meet our objectives of, over time, becoming $100 million-plus franchises, that’s a strategy that has worked very well for us," Kotick said in the Gamasutra-attended call later transcribed by Seeking Alpha.

Jorge: That strategy has worked very well for them indeed.

Scott: This resulted in them dropping Ghostbusters! Good thing Atari picked it up. Even if the game doesn't end up being all that great, I love Ghostbusters. Chronicles of Riddick, not so much. I think the crazy thing here is how brazen they are about their financial strategy:
He literally used the word "exploit!"

Jorge: He knows exactly what he is doing, though maybe not what he is saying. "Exploit" has some pretty negative connotations. He could be dropping some really cool IPs too, 50 Cent notwithstanding. It makes me uncomfortable as a gamer knowing they are willing to drop innovative titles because of a market strategy.

Scott: Let's remember that Activision Blizzard has arguably the hottest IPs out there: WoW, Guitar Hero, Call of Duty. Exploiting these franchises is their meal ticket.

Jorge: They are also working on Starcraft II, which they are planning to break up into three games for each class. These are some great titles, but this is a bit weird. It feels like they are artificially elongating Starcraft, and these franchises in general, so they can milk it as much as possible. I wonder what the development process look like for these games on a ten year goal.

Scott: It looks like WoW or Guitar Hero: churning out games so people never are without the thing they like, regardless of innovation.
Of course, GH came out in 2005, and it already seems like it's been 10 years.

Jorge: In that sense they are pretty presumptuous that they can keep these titles going.
I imagine that if Activision Blizzard is keeping the same development teams on the project, the product will become stale. Surely this must stifle the creativity of the development crew if they are churning endless iterations. The result will be painfully repetitive sequels.

Scott: They'll have to do what the CoD franchise does: cycle development teams on and off the same franchise.

Jorge: But how are they going to keep people interested in this in ten years!? That is a ridiculously long time. Are you really going to want to play CoD 15? It's not going to happen unless Activision Blizzard personally funds a Third World War.

Scott: Which they could, based on their current profits.

Jorge: Also, if the industry is too focused on sequels, my fear is independent developers and new IPs will be hard to publish because developers consider them too "risky".

Scott: I think that has already happened to a large extent and that he's just articulating the current situation. We don't like hearing it, but it's basically true.
In a way though, Nintendo has been employing this technique since the company's inception: Look at all the Mario games.

Jorge: Yes, but some of those are pretty big leaps from the original franchise. Mario Kart has very little to do with Mario Sunshine. They are the same franchise, but Nintendo was willing to take dangerous creative leaps.

Scott: True, Nintendo has a track record of innovation.

Jorge: I think Activision Blizzard is too optimistic about this. I think people are going to be sick of these titles long before the ten year mark.

Scott: But either by luck or by skill, they seem to be in a unique situation to do try this business model. People love these games and they don't seem to be slowing.

Jorge: If they come out with these so often, a guitar hero title every year with another CoD in development before the first one of the year even drops

Scott: But there must be people out there who will just by the game based on the title, almost out of habit. This is what Kotick is cashing in on: people who like the games enough to buy them, even if they won't play them that much, rather than targeting a smaller number of people who will buy them, love them, and play the hell out of them.

Jorge: Of course, from a business aspect it makes a lot of sense. Shareholders must be loving this. But from a gamer perspective, I am worried about the repercussions of this business model.

Scott: I have been thinking a lot about World of Goo and its place in this business model.
Maybe if companies are focusing on one franchise, it allows games like this to exist? Or perhaps WoW is secretly funding some black-ops Activision Blizzard new IP project that we don't know about?

Jorge: God I hope so.

Scott: Maybe if the big companies were using a shotgun style scattering of new IPs, it would dilute the impact of unique games like World of Goo.

Jorge: That could be how the process works. It's a circle of life and death. A small developer works on a new IP, the good ones float to the top to be milked to death.
We'll have to see in ten years whether Bobby Kotick is fired or if we're just loving Cello Hero: Symphony Edition!

Scott: Either way, I'm sure he's a rich, rich man. Little Bobby Jr. is flying to college on the wings of Guitar Hero.

Jorge: I hope Blizzard is using some of their money on genetic engineering. That way he could fly on a real mountable griffin.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: The Ambitious Fable II

This post is our first official EXP review. We try to approach the review process a bit differently than most. For one, we will never give you a review score. Scott highlighted some of our reasons for this decision in an earlier post. Additonally, we'll be transparent about how far we progressed in the game as well as any other factors influencing our perceptions. Our goal is to participate in an analysis and dialogue about the game in question and the videogame world overall. We encourage you to participate by leaving your comments below.

Fable II was played on an Xbox 360 (of course). I completed the game on an evil path.

Awhile ago I wrote about the potential benefit of hype, suggesting the excitement around a game's release may serve to spur discussion in regards to innovation and the future of gaming. As a proponent of this theory, I willfully consumed all the hype surrounding Fable II. As I wrap up my thoughts on Fable II, it may be useful to begin with some of the features I was looking forward to and how they measured up to my expectations.

A Moral World

I was looking forward to a world in which every deed would shape my character and my approach to the game. Unfortunately, as I covered in more detail a couple weeks ago, I found the morality system incredibly simplified. Each of your actions are given a numerical value in a binary system between pure good and pure evil. Killing a rabbit gives you evil points, helping a man fall in love gives you good points. Depending on your choices, the game will give you a halo or a set of horns to make the point even clearer. Without an interesting or viable alternative to good and evil, you'll have to use your imagination to create a morally ambiguous persona.

It's a Social Affair

The social aspect of the game was a huge selling point. I am fascinated with interacting with a world of unique individuals. In Albion however, each and every individual is as dumb as a bag of bricks. Despite my hideous appearance and a tendency towards murder, a few jolly thumbs-up will have a gaggle of Albionites follow me to dark sacrificial chambers.

Every interaction with the populace (those available on your wheel of behavior) reminds me how artificial they are, distracting me from the game. For example, one day I was trying to cheer up my very picky wife, the undead Lady Grey, and a strange bald man in an S&M outfit walks into the bedroom of my house, complimenting me during the most intimate moment of my "arm-pump seduction". Why would he the NPC do this? And why, when defending my home, would I be the one arrested? What a profoundly aggravating citizenry.

The Companions

During the first week of the release, I played quite a few hours of coop mode. I can say pretty confidently, Fable II coop is atrocious. The camera is terrible, but even more disappointing is the fact you cannot bring your personalized character into friend's game. I imagined a situation in which, on my own screen, I would be able to play in my companion's world free to do anything short of murder (unless safety is turned off). Instead, one player is designated as a henchman with the limited abilities of the host. Becoming a lackey is just not as appealing as a compatriot hero.

There are smaller criticisms of the game as well: the sluggish and terribly inefficient item system, the ridiculous amount of load screens between locations, the lack of a coherent map and sense of place in the world being the most important. Then why, despite all the aggravations, do I enjoy this game so much?

Rewarding Ambition

Despite its many failures, Fable II is a great game. Combat is entertaining and just the right blend of simplicity and complexity. The environment is unique and often stunning; it is a joy just to walk through this highly stylized world. The voice acting is superb, noticeably better than most highly acclaimed productions, and the dialogue is genuinely funny.

What really makes Fable II shine is its ambition. This game leaks innovation. Last week I complimented the scarring mechanic. I have got to follow up that commendation with praise for the dog companion. The dog, Sir Reginald in my case, surpassed my expectations. Along with the bread crumb trail, he serves to obviate the need of a cumbersome mini-map. Also, its fierce loyalty and playful behavior makes it hard not to fall in love with your canine pal.

Even the features that annoy me also make this game fantastic. My moral choices, though painfully simplistic, irreparably and visibly shape the world, drawing me into the story as it progresses.

The same can be said for the social environment. Though I prefer to ignore the populace, I interact with all of them. The first time I walked into town I accidentally drew my sword and the townspeople cowered in fear. There are countless games in which opening fire in a public park would not draw the slightest attention. This constant immersion counter balances the distractions of a moronic citizenry.

Cooperative play is less forgivable, but earns some redemption by empowering your companion to participate in social interaction. They can potentially ruin your family or murder your children if you allow it. At the very least, coop mode is more than a backup combatant.

Is it fair to reward ambition? One of the reasons I shy away from numerical review scores, though they certainly have their place, is because I think it is important we can applaud ambition and innovation, even when flawed. With a numerical value, we may unintentionally suggest the review will always be accurate, something I cannot promise. The flaws of Fable II will always be flaws, while the enjoyable attributes may one day become trivial.

That being said, Fable II is an excellent game that will likely stand the test of time. I am sure I will be revisiting Fable II as soon as the holiday season winds down. Meanwhile, Peter Molyneux better get cracking. I already have high expectations for Fable III.

Friday, November 7, 2008

November '08 Round Table: Gaming Across the Generations

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 family again in order to comment on the role video games play in their current relationships. As always, comments are welcome, and I encourage everyone to join in on the Round Table with their own posts.

Video games' current role in my immediate family is largely characterized by my contribution to last month's Round Table. My brother Eric and I are the only ones who actively play games, and my parents are basically semi-interested observers (although the Wii is giving them pause to reconsider). So, although it might be cheating a little, I am going to take an optimistic peek into the years to come.

Dear Future Kids,

Some of my fondest memories are when my father introduced me things like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Spiderman. I was exposed to these wonderful influences before I was old enough to understand them on my own, so my dad served as a guide to a new world of conceptual understanding. I was instructed on everything from storytelling to the human condition, and the person I am today is largely a product of these influences.

Video games always seemed to be the missing fourth pillar, as the generational gap seemed a bit too wide to for my dad to jump. With you though, things will be different.

The consoles will not be dividing lines in our house, but rather activity hubs where members of the family share experiences. Our PCs will be purchased with an eye towards cost and an eye towards graphics processors. I will carry my love of games and the discussion they provoke into adulthood and I will also carry the knowledge of their educational potential.

You will have Silly Putty and Lego sets to play with, but you will also have The Sims and LittleBigPlanet. I cannot wait to see a child's utilization of the creative power these games offer. How will you work to exploit the rules and how will your imagination allow for creations I could not begin to conceive?

I look forward to exploring the creation of myths and alternate universes with the Zelda series. While the franchise has not always been heavily narrative-driven, it is a great example of iteration within a common mythical framework. While all the games convey similar messages, they use different artistic techniques to do so, and create a world open to individual interpretation.

I hope that Mario will be more of a fixture than SpongeBob, since at least the former has the good sense to stay quiet and let the action do the talking. I hope everyone's favorite plumber will give you a sense of some historical fundamentals in gaming. I have found it a particularly fruitful exercise to come back to Super Mario Bros. after playing current gen games. It always gives me a unique and enlightening perspective on the past and the present. Could the sequence between world 1-1 and 1-2 be considered a cut scene? Miyamoto really did think of everything!

Of course, having an old man into gaming will not always work to your advantage. Because I will be following the industry, I will be uniquely informed as to what consoles and which games you will be asking me to buy. Do not even think about asking me to buy Gears of War 9 if you are still in grade school: I will have already played it, and I will veto it. On the bright side though, you are probably in store for a few midnight launch release parties.

As you navigate your adolescent years, I hope that we stay on good terms. I realize from experience that it can be hard to maintain a smooth relationship, but I hope you have the time to discuss with me your take on the political and social commentary of Grand Theft Auto andBioshock. One of the few things more exciting than feeling your intellectual acumen grow is watching it happen to someone else.

Eventually you will move out and begin to stand on your own. The world can feel isolating at times, despite its billions of inhabitants. Sometimes it is hard to talk face to face, but the magic of the Internet can reinforce family ties. Take comfort in knowing that I will always be up for some long distance Halo, even if we end up doing more talking than shooting.

And maybe someday you can come home for Thanksgiving and bring your kids. Then, I can regale them with stories about the first time I played Super Mario Bros., much like my grandparents tell me about the first time they saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And they can roll their eyes, but on some level, they will be aware of a connection, a bond that has been forged across the generations. A Link to The Past, if you will.

-Eventually Yours,

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

News Addendum for 11/5/08: Pressing the "Reset" Button With Obama

Although we do not want to turn Experience Points into a political soapbox, not commenting on the election would be even more off-putting than saying a few words. So here it goes:

The word "change" has been thrown around countless times this election cycle, and it is difficult to predict what changes President Obama will enact. Change often comes incrementally, and we should not mistake Obama as the messiah, or even the anti-politician. There are many points on which we differ with Obama, but even so, the simple act of electing him represents a pivotal change of both historical and contemporary scope.

What we do know is this: it is odd writing the words "President Obama," because it makes us proud to do so. Until today, invoking the name of the President of the United States conjured up feelings of outrage and shame. As far as the United States' national identity is concerned, electing Obama is the equivalent of hitting the reset button.

With Obama, our country gets to start over and repair its tarnished national image. No longer do we have a leader who rules by surrounding himself with sycophants and corrupt oligarchs. No longer do we have a leader who denounces science and rationality in favor of blind faith. No longer do we have a leader who sees a monochromatic world of "good and evil" in which he is God's holy warrior.

It appears that we now have a leader who possesses both an understanding of the world's complexity and empathizes with its inhabitants. Electing Obama allows the United States to atone for some of its mistakes. We feel as though we are finally joining the twenty-first century, and we ask the world to be patient as we make up for lost time. As trite as it sounds, for the first time in years, we are hopeful.

It is a wonderful feeling.

News 11/5/08: The Life and Death of Arcades

It is the news time of the week again. We put our hands into the "week-old Halloween candy bucket" of news and pulled out an interesting article discussing the lack of arcades in the world but their apparent prominence in Japan. Do you have any fond arcade moments? Do you miss the arcade? Your comments are highly encouraged.

Scott: This week, let's talk about the state of arcades.

Scott: So they say that because arcades are in more public areas, people play them more.

Jorge: I could see that, but would putting an arcade next to the BART (Subway) station bring in that many more people?

Scott: Would you play on your way to work? I notice that I usually can't resist a game or two of Ms. Pacman when I'm at the laundromat.

Jorge: I have my DS. So even if there was one next to BART, I'd just sit there and play that. I think it has something to do with money. Arcades are kind of expensive.

Scott: Good point. The money-making aspect of video games is at its most blatant at the arcades.

Scott: But maybe it's more about getting an experience you can't get outside of an arcade cabinet, like Time Crisis?

Jorge: That's true, and Time Crisis is a great game, but it's still too expensive. They charge a dollar for a game like Time Crisis now, and they ratcheted up the difficulty intentionally. They don't want you to play for a very long time on fifty cents, so why even bother?

Jorge: Whenever I played arcade systems I never got past the first or second level because I would run out of me. I had to go the movie theater with the intent to blow thirty dollars on Jurassic Park arcade cabinet.

Scott: Yeah, you might as well just buy a game at that point.It just seems like the social aspect of arcades is being co-opted by the Internet.

Jorge: I don't think online gaming has replaced the social aspects of arcades completely. I admit, I probably romanticize arcades. I imagine them to be nerd havens where you can chat it up with other gamers and find people with a similar interest, or maybe bump into a friend and go grab a sandwich before some Guilty Gear.

Scott: But unfortunately, I don't think that has been either of our experiences.

Jorge: That never really happened to me. The only time I interacted with someone was on a competitive level. Someone would come own me at Tekken and essentially take my fifty cents.

Scott: Which was always the problem: there was no way of stratifying skill levels. I always felt inadequate in comparison to those that just lived in the arcade.

Jorge: In that case, internet gaming in the home has arcades beat. You can just boot people who are too good or, as many games do, filter games so you play with people at a comparable skill level.

Scott: It also seems like the kinds of games we like playing now don't translate well to the arcade format.

Scott: The kinds of games I'm playing these days (like Okami or LittleBigPlanet) just don't work in an arcade setting. They are largely solitary and they are time intensive games.

Jorge: But there are the games that do work, hence Xbox Live ARCADE. You could easily put World of Goo in a cabinet and have it fit right in with other arcade titles. Plus, it's not like Japan doesn't have online gaming. I think the reason it is still popular there has more to do with the niche market that comes out with weird titles strictly for the arcade.

Jorge: Also, again I'm sure I'm romanticizing arcades, but I think there is something there, some social aspect, that we just don't get from online console play, at least not yet.

Scott: I think there is a good political-science influenced argument there:in order for gamers to grow in their tastes and habits, they should be exposed to games and fellow gamers that they normally wouldn't seek out by their own choosing.

Jorge: I agree, expand your gamer cultural awareness.

Jorge: Interestingly enough, there are still arenas for that in the form of gaming stores with LAN setups. I have an account to one near the university that has a great computer and table-top setup and I've had some good times there with people I would never have met in another environment. It's not an arcade in the classical sense, but it fulfills the same purpose.In all honesty, I don't go there often at all, but it comforts me to know such a place exists. I've got a gaming sanctuary to run to if my power goes out, or if I'm in need of like minded company.

Scott: I think it's telling that we don't really think of these places as arcades though.

Jorge: Less money per hour and a less tacky atmosphere: I don't consider them as arcades either.

Scott: Even though arcades may be past their prime, we still have them to thank for certain innovations. Rhythm games are a great example: without arcades we probably wouldn't have Rock Band, seeing as how it arose in a climate created by games like DDR.

Jorge: Who knows what kooky, perverted games are evolving in packed and sweaty Japanese arcades right now, just waiting for a console market.

Scott: It seems like we want arcades to exist but we don't really want to go to them.

Jorge: It's like retired superheroes: I don't want to forget they exist, because one day we may need them.

Monday, November 3, 2008

More Than Mortality

I can never die. I can take bullets and axe blows, magic blasts and troll strikes. In Fable II, I am invincible, and though it feels strange, I'm loving it.

Of course my new found immunity to the reaper is off putting. It is weird to say it, but I have grown accustomed to dying... a lot. Death has been a staple of character driven games since the beginning. When Mario fell into a bottomless hole, did any of us really think he was going anywhere but the great big cloud level in the sky?

The illustration of our demise varies, from falling off the screen to the more popular dark atmosphere, chimes, splash of red and slowed time portrait. The conclusion is the same, two words we all know so well: game over. Yet Fable II and some other interesting titles deviate from the norm and offer other propositions. What if death in videogames is more complex and holds more narrative potential than we imagine?

Plenty of people die in Fable II, just not you (or children). Two things happen instead of death: you lose an arbitrary amount of experience points and you receive a scar. You can't do a thing about the scar, it's permanent. No make-up in Albion will cover up the doozie my character has across her face.

Personally, that is enough incentive for me to go into battle prepared with plenty of health potions. For one, I want my character to be pretty. There are social repercussions for the unattractive. Secondly, I'm too self conscious of my "l33t skillz" to be comfortable with severe beatings.

Death has become the ultimate punishment for player failure. For the more masochistic gamers out there, this is a good thing. The threat of death serves to ratchet up the tension and test their skills against the finality of annihilation (I'm looking at you Megaman 9 fans). Is this necessary though? Can we have a challenging, serious and tense gaming without the reaper looming over us? Some developers think so.

Take a look at Bioshock for example. Bioshock does not punish the daredevil player with a game over screen. Rather than dying, your character Jack reappears in a Vita-chamber, healing him to full while leaving your enemies' health bar as they were. Whether or not this makes the game too easy is hotly debated. I'm not the only who one believes the game's tone succeeded without mortality. The art design and sound effects kept my tension level somewhere around sheer panic, and I never fought a big daddy eagerly and without preparation.

So perhaps we need not punish ourselves with death to play a suspenseful and formidable game, but can immortality be an improvement? Puzzle solving, not survival is the challenge of Braid. With time rewinding abilities, your death is never permanent. Interestingly, the fact that you both can and cannot die is essential to the game. There is at least one moment where you must kill your character and rewind in order to progress. This puzzle can be difficult for those of us who accept death as a punishment for a fact. The narrative of Braid is murky at best but, depending on how you see the story, this death/non-death is tragic and revealing of the protagonist's fate. I would not be surprised if more casual gamers saw this connection between death and narrative than those of us accustomed to mortality.

Death and the lack therefor can serve a narrative purpose. Why limit ourselves with a "game over" screen that may only serve to break us out of the game or force us to retrace our steps? Sure, dying is a good excuse to put down the game and go outside, but who needs that? Fable II's scarring system serves to personalize the narrative that continues uninterrupted. If you play with a renegade style, dashing into battle without health potions or food, you'll come out showing the signs of battle, intertwining your experience, the story, and the mechanics. At this point in my game, my scars are worn with pride. This lack of punishment is healthy for hardcore and casual gamers alike, but more importantly, it's healthy for narrative innovation.

One last game I want to mention reports to have a very strange approach to death. Quantic Dream, creators of Indigo Prophecy, will be releasing Heavy Rain, a PS3 exclusive, some time next year. Your character can die in the very first level of Heavy Rain, and once she does, her death is permanent, the story will continue without her. A story that continues independent of your survival is, as far as I know, unheard of. Similar to Fable II, death is not a punishment but an opportunity to build upon a personalized narrative that includes your own demise.

Beyond the mechanics of character mortality, I find death in videogames fascinating. How does death in videogames reflect cultural perceptions on the subject? Does the mortality or immortality of a character affect how we approach a game? Does character death still serve its purpose if we have grown so accustomed to it?

It is not my intention to answer these questions, but remind us that these questions exist and they are worthy of contemplation. I also want to commend Lionhead Studios and other developers willing to take a novel approach to mortality, one in which the punishment mechanic personalizes, not concludes, the gaming experience. We should look forward to videogame death with curiosity, not fear, to see beyond "game over."