Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I, Assassin

Sadly, I missed this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Washington. To numb the pain of my absence, I followed the news regarding the massive amounts of content available at PAX. One game that caught my eye was Chris Hecker’s Spy Party, a competitive game between two people: the first a party goer amongst a room full of AI characters tasked with accomplishing three tasks, the second a sniper searching for tells that would reveal the human player as the spy. Despite never actually playing it myself, I dreamed about this game - twice. The idea of pretending to be a computer-controlled character struck me as incredibly appealing. With a very similar mechanic, the multiplayer for the newly released Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a startlingly success.

The four multiplayer modes of Brotherhood are essentially slight iterations on the same basic premise. In Wanted, the free-for-all mode, each player has a unique avatar to differentiate them from the other players. The map is then randomly populated with exact copies of the player avatars. Players are then given a single target to assassinate. Using a form of radar that points to the general vicinity of your target, you must stalk other players and try to discern them from a crowd of clones. All the while, you too are being pursued by other assassin’s, sometimes up to four. The result is a thrilling blend of ‘hide & go seek’ and ‘tag’ that reproduces that sensation I imagine both predators and prey feel during a hunt.
Brotherhood rewards points to players based on escape and types of kills and punishes players for killing civilians. These rewards are significant and greatly incentivize sneaky assassinations - although subtly is not always an option. One particularly challenging reward requires the hunter to be very near her prey for more than three seconds before dealing the fatal blow. Since other players can stun pursuers, accomplishing such a task demands expert patience and nerves of steel. The game evokes unmatched sensations of paranoia as well. Did you catch strange movement from that barber? Could he be trying to kill you? What that a flash of steel from the roof top? Maybe it's just another player chasing a different person. Even choosing when to assassinate or chase your target is a significant decision - you may inadvertently reveal yourself to your pursuer as well. It is not uncommon to see a series of assassinations take place on the same patch of bloodied soil.

Successfully incorporating platforming into a tight multiplayer experience is a success in itself. Verticality is an advantage and disadvantage when on the prowl. Rooftops give you an eagle-eye view of the landscape, but also make you an easy target to spot. Maneuvering the roof tops becomes even more exhilarating when chasing or fleeing another player. Leaping off balconies and scaling towers to outrun an opponent is as riveting as any major movie chase scene. In fact, barreling through crowds of people while tracking another player running on a roof top reminds me of the early chase scene in Casino Royal, the James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, which is hands down one of the best foot chase scenes in cinema. The transition from stalking to racing and vice versa is fluid and effortless.

Many of Brotherhood’s mechanics have more impact in multiplayer than in Assassin's Creed II’s singleplayer. Smoke bombs, instead of unnecessary diversions, are valuable albeit risky tools that can buy you precious seconds to escape a group of assassins. Shooting an opponent off a rooftop ledge with a pistol is a far more significant option when it means you do not have to risk blowing your cover. Even the kill animations are more than normal visual treats: they are exploitable mechanics. While one assassin takes out your teammate with a flurry of swords, the animation might just be long enough to stun them and get revenge. Yet then you would commit yourself to your own animation, revealing your identity and increasing your vulnerability to attack.

I usually play the singleplayer segments of games before moving on to multiplayer, but the call of the hunt is too powerful. Brotherhood and Spy Party both mark a significant and incredibly interesting design path, one that encourages us to blur the lines between player and computer. Rather than trying to push the technological barriers between ourselves and truly artificial intelligence, they exploit tech limitations and our familiarity with computer behavior. I cannot help but feel this opens up the door for more imaginative games that change how we relate to the digital worlds we inhabit.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Experience Points is taking the day off to stuff ourselves with mashed potatoes and gravy, so no post today. We will be back as usual next week. In the spirit of the holidays, thanks to everyone who reads and supports the site. You all give us both a lot to be thankful for.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

EXP Podcast #105: CoDcast: Black Ops

The following information is for your eyes only: This week, the Experience Points Podcast discusses Call of Duty: Black Ops. Topics such as the game’s campaign structure, its multiplayer philosophy, and its relationship with historical subject matters are covered. Be careful: surveillance indicates the presence of plot spoilers towards the end of show. Your mission: listen to the show and then share any of your thoughts in order to add to the growing body of intelligence surrounding this massive gaming phenomenon. Remember: if you are caught, your Gamertag will be wiped from the records and the government will deny any knowledge of your existence.

Some discussion starters:

- Does the single player campaign’s linear style still hold up? What is the right balance between set pieces and emergent gameplay?

- What makes the Call of Duty multiplayer system popular? How do rule systems, statistics, artistic choices, and cultural dynamics impact your enjoyment?

- How does Black Ops relate to historical reality? What is its place among other Cold War fiction?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 37 min 31 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Secret Stars of Black Ops

Gary Oldman, Ice Cube, Ed Harris and (probably) Sam Worthington are the stars of a hit blockbuster that some estimate has already taken in $650 million dollars. Ordinarily, high-profile Hollywood talent like this is a powerful weapon in the war to win the hearts, minds and dollars of consumers. A movie with this cast wouldn’t hesitate to put them on the front lines of an advertising blitz. However, Oldman et al.’s latest project isn’t a movie, but a video game. Despite the potential to shock and awe with star power, it seems instead that inserting big name celebrities into the game is a covert operation.

I don’t have a marketing degree and I’m not a seasoned corporate executive, but it seems strange not to exploit the potential draw of talented, recognizable actors. Perhaps the rationale is that the people planning on buying Black Ops would buy it even if Justin Bieber was playing the lead, while the people not interested in it would need more than movie stars to bring them around. While this argument is somewhat convincing, it still odd strange to go to the trouble of signing big names only to bury them in the credits. Voice work is expensive, even when casting unknown actors, so why err on the (pricey) side of celebrity when anonymity will do?

It’s a problem that stems from Black Ops’ split identity. Its single player campaign strives for a mixture of Bruckheimer-esque action and Coppola-inspired social commentary but never wholly succeeds. While it delivers in terms of imposing set pieces and blinding explosions, its plot feels more like pulpy than poignant. Black Ops is a Cold War genre piece that treads on familiar ground: A team of special agents travel the globe, fighting secret wars, hunting Russians and Nazis, all the while searching for brainwashed sleeper agents. The story itself doesn’t have a unique personality, but sometimes strong actors can save a weak plot.

Unfortunately, movie stars are only as good as their lines and Black Ops doesn’t give them much to work with. Standard war-movie cliches (“We’re at Defcon 2!” and “It’s ‘Nam baby!” etc.) don’t tell us anything other than what is happening in the scene, something that is communicated more effectively by the game’s striking visual style. Oldman in particular seems to work hard to give Reznov some personality, but his chops are mainly used for chewing the scenery. Sam Worthington’s (alleged) performance as Alex Mason vacillates between anguished screams and gruff tough-guy talk. Much of it comes across with a distinctly “down-under” vibe, which raises two questions: “Why not hire an American to play an Alaskan?” and “Why not do another take?” Ice Cube is entertaining, but it’s disappointing to see him relegated to one-liners, as he has demonstrated that he can excel in a war story.

However, these problems are largely rendered moot: For many, Black Ops’ identity as an authored, solo experience will be dwarfed by its identity as a multiplayer experience. It’s here that the rationale for downplaying the cult of celebrity begins to make sense. More than anything, Black Ops is a role-playing game in which players take center stage.

This trailer is an inventive, sincere portrayal of why people stick with the Call of Duty franchise: It can make anyone, from any walk of life, an action hero. Based on the marketing and the obvious work that went into the Black Ops multiplayer, Treyarch and Activision seem well aware of the game’s strengths. So as not to subvert its strangely democratic nature, the game must avoid becoming too focused on charismatic leading men, even as it yearns to sit alongside the great war stories found in other media. Attempting to insert movie stars into Black Ops threatens to detract from the real star, the player, and so it must be done stealthily.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Problem of the Inevitable (Yet Challenging) End in Video Games

My latest post at Pop Matters combines a number of my favorite topics: challenge, storytelling, and game design philosophy. I also compare Moby Dick to Killer7 and find a common thread: I haven’t finished either.

For a long time, I’ve been of the mind that many of the works we call “video games” aren’t very much like games at all. Today’s single-player, story-driven games simply aren’t interested in real competition. It’s very hard to “lose” a game like BioShock or Uncharted because those games go to great lengths to keep the player moving through the experience.

Perhaps players have moved on from competitive games? In a happy coincidence, this week Jorge wrote about his weariness with the glut of iPhone games that lack a story or an ultimate resolution. Without a finite narrative or ludic arc, some games can start to feel like purgatory. However, one person’s purgatory is another person’s pleasure: arcade-style games are philosophically similar to more traditional board games or sports games. Like chess or football, Flight Control can’t be “beaten,” with any definite finality; it can only be won and lost within discrete sessions. I hope I’m not the only one who finds the never-ending quest for mastery somewhat romantic, even if ultimately futile.

Unlike the arcades and the early days of home gaming, players today rarely have to face the prospect of simply not being able to “beat” a game. The difficulty found in mastering specific skills is nominal and often diluted via difficulty settings and various rule options. The real challenge in many story-based games is hard quantify: the difficulty lies in interpreting intangible factors like characterization, plot development, the ludo-narrative relationship. Rather than a test of skill, reaching the end of many games becomes a question of personal taste, intellectual investment and mental stamina.

Red Dead Redemption isn’t difficult in the way Pac-Man is difficult, it’s challenging in the way Moby Dick is challenging.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

EXP Podcast #104: Out of Order

Court is in session and the fate of video games in California is on the line! Alright, maybe that's overly dramatic. But really, the Supreme Court is hearing proceedings for Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The Justices will decide whether banning the sale of videogames to minors infringes the freedom of speech enshrined in the first amendment. Based on the reactions of the court, which you can read here, I don't the industry is doomed quite yet. However, this case raises legitimate concerns worth considering. Join us this week while Scott and I discuss America's founding fathers and the redeeming values, according to Jason Schreier, of nine violent videogames. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts on the comments section and check out Schreier's inspirational article in the show notes below.

Some discussion starters:

- What "adult" games have redeeming values for minors in particular?
- How can the games industry help parents manage their children's consumption of violent videogames?
- Should more gamers be paying attention to the Supreme Court case or do we have nothing to worry about?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 37 min 59 sec
- “Blood Redemption in 9 Violent Videogames" by Jason Schreier, via Wired GameLife
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

App Disillusionment

I am quickly becoming a disillusioned iPhone gamer. When I first got my hands on the device, I reveled in the myriad of games playable literally at my fingertips. I lauded Flight Controller for its addictive gameplay and charming aesthetic. I joined the chorus of praise for Tiger Style’s Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, in which a compelling story occupied the background of web-construction game. The iPhone 4, with its beautiful retina display, raised my iPhone gaming expectations to new heights. But now my mobile device is drowning under a flood of monotonous puzzle clones. Are iPhone game designers all out of innovation?

Like everyone else in the world, I too had an Angry Birds phase. The puzzle game that has players slinging various types of birds into destructible towers is currently the best selling game on the iPhone - and for good reason. For just 99 cents, Birds comes packed with levels and enough depth to keep players returning for higher scores. It is a great game. It is also just another puzzle game with only the shell of a story attached. In fact, it’s very much like Cut the Rope in that regard, the iOS’s second highest selling game.

I am growing even more tired of never-ending games. Fight Control is great, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I want to actually beat a game, master its mechanics and put it down once and for all. I want to feel like I have accomplished something. Now matter many times I play Canabalt, Doodle Jump, Mega Jump, Train Conductor or any other endless-movement clone, I never feel satisfied. On the contrary, I am beginning to feel toyed with, even exploited. Intoxicating colors fly by while I sit there, waiting for absolutely nothing to happen until I die. I can levy the same complaints against the endless iterations of tower defense games.
Interestingly, I have been finding iOS franchise spin-off games more appealing than most “indy” offerings on the app store. Mirror’s Edge from EA is decent, as is Civilization Revolution. I am not the only one who appreciates traditional games on the iPhone. Sims 3, Oregon Trail, Need for Speed, Madden NFL, Tiger Woods, Assassin’s Creed, and the aforementioned Civilization were all amongst the highest selling iPhone games of last year - the first five in order. These games are likely riding the coat tails of their larger franchise counterparts, but there is something to be said for the reassuring comfort of a traditionally constructed game.

I am hesitant to write off any technical features as an inherent design boundary, but maybe the iPhone/iPod are just not suited for the type of play experiences I miss. Perhaps the iPad will break through the limitations of touch-screen devices. Until then, or until Tiger Style releases their next as yet unannounced game, I will bide my time landing planes, over and over again and over again.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Finding Room to Learn in Video Games

My new article is up on PopMatters: Finding Room to Learn in Video Games.

This article sprung into my mind because I happened to play Pandemic after reading Planet of Slums by Mike Davis. Harper's accurately describes the book as "terrifying." If you have an interest in the living conditions of an ever-growing proportion of the urbanized world, I highly recommend it. Cities like Kinshasa, Delhi, and São Paulo come up again and again - the same cities that are centers of disease outbreak in Pandemic. It seems only natural that Pandemic could include more information about the actual conditions that make a city and a population particularly susceptible to epidemics. Of course Pandemic is not explicitly an educational game made by the CDC. However, not only could the extra information improve the tone of the game for those reading it, but it could help make the world a better place.

The post does not, in any way, discuss actual educational game design. That is a subject far more worthy of intricate study. In fact, I specifically wanted to steer away from talking about learning conveyed through game mechanics and game systems. My goal was to show that games have room for learning even when its just optional information in the form of text. I do not believe Pandemic, which is an incredibly fun board game, would be any less compelling if it came with a page or two of additional information about the spread of diseases, be it on a separate piece of paper or on the playing cards themselves. In fact, I can think of few games that would be weakened by the addition of real world knowledge.

Of course such information can make a game dated or come off as didactic. It can also be an unnecessary expense. That being said, shrugging off a chance to teach something real and important, especially when it can make a game more evocative, seems foolish.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

EXP Podcast #103: 3DSocialite

While the main draw of the Nintendo 3DS remains its titular capacity for accommodating a third visual dimension, other thought-provoking features are beginning to emerge. According to The Wall Street Journal, Nintendo is looking to implement a variety of networking and communication features aimed at turning the device into a platform for social gaming. Nintendo’s on-line strategy (such as it is) has always been unique, and it will be interesting to see if this strategy signals a bold new direction or simply another half-step towards towards keeping up with Internet-focused devices like the iPhone.

Some discussion starters:

- Is a single-use portable gaming device still appealing?

- What are your thoughts and concerns regarding the StreetPass and SpotPass programs? Does it affect your attitude towards the 3DS overall?

- Aside from obvious matchmaking functionality, what is the potential of services like StreetPass?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 27 min 23 sec
- “Nintendo Bets Big on Social DS System,” by Daisuke Wakabayashi, via The Wall Street Journal
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hardware Hitches

About ten years ago, I thought that console gaming would grow progressively similar to PC gaming. While I expected the types of game experiences would remain fairly distinct to each environment, the meta-game of actually getting a game to run on a given machine would become similar. Games were getting increasingly complex on a technical level. It seemed that this growing complexity would cause the breakdown of hardware generations as new games would require incremental hardware upgrades to run properly. The recent release of Microsoft’s Kinect and Sony’s Move has me reflecting on this prediction and its unexpected manifestation.

With the Wii, a new era of basic, practical hardware limitations began. Like an adorable little vampire, the Wii abhors sunlight. The infra-red connection between the Wii Remote and censor bar means gamers who like to buck the stereotype and play under natural light have to either rearrange their room based on the angle of the sun or be content with waggling in darkness.

The Wii Motion plus illustrates another simple, yet very strict kind of hardware requirement. On the PC, most games can be scaled to fit a variety of graphics cards and processor speeds. The Wii Motion Plus is a hardware upgrade meant to offer input rather than graphical enhancements, but this means that hardware requirements are often binary: games can either be played or they cannot.

In keeping with tradition, Sony is building on Nintendo’s innovations with the new Move controller. Its increased fidelity and more sophisticated technology only serves to amplify the strict hardware limitations of Move-enabled games. So far, the difference between Move games and non-move games is significantly wider than that of Wii Motion Plus and non-Wii Motion Plus games. At around $80 for each Move wand and navigation control, plus another $40 for the required camera, Move quickly becomes a significant investment and a rigid hardware barrier.

Kinect has the perhaps the most basic and troublesome hardware requirements. Instead of ambient-light requirements or a preponderance of plastic dongles, Kinect demands a minimum amount of physical space. As the staff of Joystiq illustrates, meeting the hardware requirements for Kinect games require both monetary and physical sacrifice that cannot be skirted.

Ironically, these complications are a by-product of trying to make things less complex. In an attempt to make things approachable from an input design standpoint, the consoles have inadvertently become more complex in the most basic technical sense. A console’s strength lies in its ability to “just work,” but current hardware trends are erecting price and usability barriers that serve to erode advantage. While a PC game might require you to compare the latest Nvidia and ATI chips or wade through a mess of .dll files, at least it doesn’t make demands of your home decor.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Considering the Super Mario Canon

My latest post at PopMatters takes a look at Nintendo’s celebration of Super Mario’s 25th anniversary.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but the website itself seems fairly modest. Instead of a all-things-Mario extravaganza, it’s a fairly simple, classy look at the highlights of the series. I enjoy the fact that Nintendo publicly embraces the quirks and bugs that made the original Mario so fun to explore. Additionally, I appreciate their respect for technical mastery of a game. When the creator of a game posts speed runs, it almost feels like a challenge.

Despite the huge universe spawned by Super Mario Bros., there’s no sign of go karts, golf clubs or stethoscopes; as far as Nintendo is concerned, the Super Mario franchise is defined by platformers.

However, isn’t it strange that only select platformers get recognition? In seemingly playing favorites, it appears that Nintendo has its own idea of what makes a definitive Mario game. In celebrating Super Mario’s 25th anniversary, Nintendo seems to be suggesting an official canon for some of the most revered “texts” in the medium.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

EXP Podcast #102: Return to Azeroth

I have been free of World of Warcraft for almost two years now, but already its tendrils are pulling me in - and I'm not the only ex-WoW player being called by the sirens of Cataclysm, Blizzard's next expansion to the iconic MMO. Sean "Elysium" Sands inspires this week's podcast discussion with his article "Is Cataclysm Enough to Bring You Back?" I know my mind has been changed at least once. As always, you can find the original article in the show notes and we encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, check out the following cinematic for the Cataclysm, it's amazing:

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 30 min 02 sec
- “Is Cataclysm Enough to Bring You Back?," by Sean Sands via Gamers with Jobs
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Minecrafting Middle-earth

I am a big Lord of the Rings fan. When I was an undergraduate, I took a course on the History of Middle-earth that taught the series as if it were one hundred percent real. The Fellowship of the Ring was a narrative account from which we gleaned information about the Middle-earth. The Silmarillion was a history textbook (which works, because it very much reads like one). Exploring Tolkien’s fictional world as a real place made the author’s imaginary world more real and therefore more meaningful. It also taught the class a great deal about the intricacies of world building and the amazing depth Tolkien was willing to go to bring such a fantastic otherworldly vision to life. Now a group of people are recreating Middle-earth again, one cube at a time, in Minecraft.

Both Scott and I have written about Minecraft before, but for those still unaware, it is a game currently in alpha that randomly generates a world made out of cubes which can be disassembled and put back together again to create a variety of objects. One person can make a comfortably log cabin or, as in the LotR example, a large number of people on a single server can build entire villages together.
The task these Minecraft players have set for themselves is immense. Middle-earth is absolutely enormous (which is why it takes Frodo so damn long to get to Mordor). While the self-titled “Foremen” of Middle-earth Minecraft project are aiming to scale the landscape down a bit, the amount of work to be done is mind-boggling. Yet they are making good headway.

Hobbiton is pleasant and Bree, a relatively small village just East of the Shire, is almost complete. The central road leads through town, passing by the Prancing Pony (a necessary reference to the lore) and a few notable landmarks. Players are also welcome to build a home and farmstead in and around Bree, so long as the one plot of land they build upon does not contradict Tolkien canon or tarnish existing buildings. Those of whom are finished with Bree can contribute to the long road to across Middle-earth, with notable stops along the way to build Rivendell, Moria and, one day a long way off, Mordor itself.

What these players are doing is far more impressive than the recreation of a single-object, like the Starship Enterprise. They are also not creating Middle-earth from a map editor, choosing to recreate the world themselves. They are building history - a fictional history, but an incredibly rich world nonetheless. It is a dual history. When Isengard is finally built, it will be meaningful to those familiar with the fortress and its lore. But it will also be meaningful to those who built it - not the Númenóreans but the individual minecrafters who raised its walls.
When Middle-earth is complete, it will tell two stories, one the story of Tolkien’s realm and the other the story of a player-created environment, and both will be richer for it. Exploring the fictional world, despite its cubed aesthetic, will reveal a very real history of its creation bound into Tolkien’s work. This is more than most MMOs could ever hope to achieve. While the finished LotR server may not be populated with Orcs and Ents, it does hint at the possibilities Minecraft could create. Imagine a Middle-earth inhabited by opposing factions. Imagine a historical reenactment of a battle outside the walls of Minas Tirith. It all begins with a few more blocks.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
- J.R.R. Tolkien