Thursday, June 30, 2011

Gaming Whiplash and the Tragedy of Expectations

In my latest PopMatters post, I write about the danger of defying expectations and (once again) mourn the sad fate of Mirror's Edge.

Everyone has a few games that they can't help but love. For me, Mirror's Edge is one of those games. Don't get me wrong: the game has plenty of shortcomings, and I agree with most of the things Sinan Kubba suggests in his article about how to fix Mirror's Edge. However, I think the game's biggest obstacles can't be overcome with iterations and simple fixes. Mirror's Edge was a victim of history and misaligned expectations.

The game's design philosophy is a sharp departure from most modern games, in that it makes the player work hard to pull off amazing things. Its beautiful graphics seem to put it alongside Assassin's Creed or Call of Duty, but underneath its sheen lies a difficulty system that is more Ghosts 'n Goblins than Gears of War. This is understandable: times change, and so do people. For better or worse, most players simply don't want games to be as challenging as they once were. Thus, many of the things that seem like flaws in Mirror's Edge are simply anachronistic design choices.

Not only did Mirror's Edge defy people's expectations, it wasn't even designed to address them. Thanks to unclear pre-release coverage and player's preconceived notions, Mirror's Edge became a victim of its own achievements. Somewhere along the line, a strong popular belief that Mirror's Edge was meant to be played non-violently gained popularity, thereby setting the stage for frustration and disappointment. While it is possible to finish the game without killing any enemies or using guns, it is an extremely difficult way to play. I can't remember another time when a single achievement or gameplay variant asserted such a strong influence over how people thought the game should be played.

I'm not exactly sure where all of this leaves us. As romantic and wistful as I might sound, I am well aware of how hard it is to purge one's mind of presumptions and comparisons before diving into a game. They hype machine is relentless, and I think it's natural to want to follow an interesting game throughout its development. Jorge and I have even extolled the benefits of hype in the past: high expectations can push people to take risks and push boundaries in terms of design and criticism. Sometimes the most interesting games are the ones that disappoint us. Mirror's Edge is a perfect example: folks are still talking about it nearly three years after its release.

Striving to maintain a blank slate when approaching every new game is fool's errand, but I still think gaming whiplash is a powerful force that is rarely addressed. When players hurtle towards a game anticipating a specific experience, the shock of the unexpected can negate a game's positive aspects, turning strengths into sins.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

EXP Podcast #132: Summer Lovin'

The sun is shining, birds are chirping, and the beaches are crowded, summer is in full swing. To celebrate, PopMatters just featured a great selection of the best summer entertainment. Our compatriots even offered up their choice for great games and podcasts for the season. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I continue the conversation with more of our own picks for games we associate with the summer. As always, we encourage you to join the discussion in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:
- What games do you associate with the summer?
- Does replayability or game duration affect this association?
- Who is your go-to-character in Smash Bros.? (That's right. We only ask the toughest questions.)

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 here. 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:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hacking Away Misconceptions

When given the rare opportunity to enjoy New York City at my leisure, why pass up the opportunity to see local hackers mess around with technology and come up with creative game ideas? Game Hack Day, hosted by the New York City Hackers Union, took place last weekend, bringing together over nearly 100 participants to share ideas, tweak hardware, teach, and compete to put out the best game possible in less than forty-eight hours. There are few game-related sights as inspiring as this group of veterans and noobs alike working together in pursuit of artistic creation. It came as no surprise that not only were the NYC game-hacking folk incredibly nice and welcoming, but that I found some of their final products astounding. Because of Game Hack Day, I am now a firm believer in technologies I have historically shrugged off and ignored.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mastering the Tragedy of the Commons

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Mastering the Tragedy of the Commons.

My experience with Commons reflects the difficulties of incorporating competitive play elements into direct impact and real world games. The goal of Commons is abundantly clear: locate and report problems for city governments to fix. The moment a leaderboard starts tracking victors, however, personal goals arise that may threaten the benign intentions of the designers.

By no means did my eager teammate wish to sully the game experience for anyone. In fact, he considered “breaking the game” a form of play testing. When Commons becomes accessible to the public, there will be those seeking to “win” for less altruistic purposes. For direct impact game designers, competition is a double-edged sword. Healthy antagonism drives engagement, spurning on players to do a little bit better than their compatriots. Yet competitors may also seek to win at any cost. Meanwhile, those trailing behind in competitive games may feel excluded and lower their engagement.

At the Games for Change Festival earlier this week, Stake Hold’Em, a large-scale card game designed specifically for the event, faced similar setbacks as Commons resulting from the game’s competitive elements. A leaderboard tracked the participants’ scores during the conference. As the game progressed the front-runners became more obsessive, while those clearly lagging behind began withdrawing from the game. It certainly did not help that the winner of the game would receive an iPad 2, which fed the fanaticism of the leaders. While the game succeeded in fostering networking opportunities between festival attendees at first, the game devolved into a quite serious sparring match between players.

Commons offers no monetary incentives to win so far and never should. Regardless, merely having a “winner” at all can threaten to spoil the charitable intentions of the game. I am inclined to suggest the removal of all competitive elements in real world games for good. If a game is fun enough to encourage play, why try to incentivize play any further by fostering antagonistic relationships? Simply put, many are simply not fun enough without competition. The solution? Rethink leaderboards, offer a variety of “win” conditions that refresh regularly, and try to keep cutthroat play behavior to a minimum. Some designers are trying to make the world a better place here and they’ll need to keep their players’ priorities in check.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

EXP IndieCast #4: Sissy and the Coup

What do five-year-olds, mythical creatures, and Iranian history all have in common? They are all topics in this week's independent games podcast! This week, we take a look at Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure and The Cat and the Coup. Both are free and quick to play, so we encourage you to take a few minutes to experience two well-made, thought provoking games. After that, we invite you to listen in on our discussion that touches on everything from the value of game design to the nature of history. As always, feel free to join the conversation in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- How does a game benefit from youthful inspiration? Also: which is your favorite Ponycorn?
- How does one balance the impulse to both challenge and educate the player in a documentary game?
- Are certain types of games more useful for imparting specific messages? How do game mechanics influence the way a story is told?

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 here. 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: 48 min 02 sec
- Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure
- The Cat and the Coup
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Familiar Legend

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D came out a couple of days ago and, if reviews are any indication, people are enjoying it.

I am a long-time Zelda fan, and frequent visitors to the site won't be surprised to learn that it warms my heart to see such a positive reception for what I argue is one of the most influential games of all time. Even so, I try not to let my admiration obscure reality: Ocarina originally came out in 1998 and has been re-released on the GameCube and the Virtual Console. After thirteen years and three re-releases, the core game remains unchanged.

On a broader scale, the general Zelda formula itself has not significantly changed for almost twenty years. Ever since A Link to the Past, many of the same items, enemies, and dungeon challenges have greeted old and new players alike. While the artistic style and input methods vary depending on the year and the console, players can be certain that they will be lighting torches, throwing boomerangs, and fighting for Hyrule's salvation.

A couple of days ago, our friend Steven O'Dell posed a question on Twitter regarding why people were freaked out about the new XCOM game's divergence from its predecessors. A similar question could be asked about Zelda: Would it be so bad if the series went down an unfamiliar path? Unlike the forthcoming XCOM game, it looks like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword will be a traditional addition to the series. For me (and I suspect many other fans) this is a good thing, as part of what makes Zelda valuable is its familiarity.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Kratos and the Camera

My latest PopMatters post is up and it's about my old friend, Kratos.

Now that I think about it, this is the second PopMatters post in a row in which I tackle a "silly" game from a "serious" perspective. I didn't purposely line up my posts to be complementary, but I do think that both this recent post and the Vanquish piece have inadvertently revealed one of my core beliefs regarding media and criticism. Simply put: criticism of a cultural artifact should not be limited by said artifact's perceived social status. Rigid cultural hierarchies are stifling, but that's a post for another day.

I'm fully aware that the God of War games are in many ways big, dumb action games. I'm also well aware that they are not necessarily the epitome of the "character-action" genre, as fans of Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden would remind me. All this being said, God of War is a series that has always done an excellent job of communicating its themes through its plot, aesthetics, and rules. Like the ancient Greek myths themselves, God of War is rife with copious amounts of violence and sex. But if you look carefully, you'll find that the series' fixation on violence is more than skin deep.

Countless thousands of words have been dedicated to games like BioShock, Braid, and Passage; games that "make you think." All of these games are excellent, and do merit reflection. However, thinking is an activity, one that can be performed in the context of any game, not just the ones with a capital "M" Message. True, God of War makes for some bombastic good times, but it also demonstrates a unique dedication to communicating the violence's utility and cyclical nature within the game's world. God of War's aesthetic, narrative, and ludic pieces fit together in such a way as to immerse the player in the Kratos' savage existence.

One of my pet peeves is people's use of the word "consume" in relation to the art they experience. The word carries terribly passive, disposable connotations: rather than considering, responding, contemplating, or enjoying something, you're just ingesting it with little thought as to what it contains. If you're dedicated to the gastric-intestinal metaphor, why not use the word "digesting?" At least it implies you're examining the component parts of a work and gaining something something nutritious in the process. With games like God of War, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of simply consuming media uncritically. Familiar themes and impressive graphics make it easy to engage at superficial level and move on without examining the entire package.

As a famous Greek once said: "The unexamined life is not worth living." I argue that the same thing holds true for games. Blasting robots in slow motion in Vanquish or triggering the "Shit yeah!" audio cue in Gears of War offers frivolous moments of fun, but that does not preclude those games from being the subjects of deeper analysis.

Fortunately, you can have it both ways. Games like God of War offer the catharsis that comes from immediate action as well as long term intellectual stimulation. You just have to slow down and look for it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

EXP Podcast #131: E3 2011 Retrospective

This year's Electronic Entertainment Expo has departed, but Scott and I are staying on topic just a little bit longer. Although we both missed the event this year, we kept abreast to the buzz coming out of Los Angeles. Consider us the clean-up crew, bringing you a serious, but not humorless, discussion of the rumors, technical innovations, and idiocies at this year's E3. Let us know your thoughts on all the E3 announcements in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters, in which I can ask anything I want:

- What games are you most excited for coming out of E3?
- How awful is Ubisoft's Mr. Caffeine?
- What is the worse named piece of hardware: the Wii U or the PSVita?

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 here. 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:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Traversing the Black

Two weeks ago I chronicled my first proper sojourn into EVE Online, having abandoned the game twice before over the years. The collective galaxy of EVE holds so many stories, so many opportunities, that I am compelled to visit my own experiences again in the shadow of the universe. If the siren call of the stars remains, my collection of galactic tales may grow and these posts may occur with more frequency. In the mean time, here are more ramblings of a spacefarer.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Information Revolution in Multiplayer Gaming

My latest PopMatters article is now live: The Information Revolution in Multiplayer Gaming

Although the Modern Warfare 3 Elite service cemented some of my thoughts, my original inspiration for this article came from Riot's new Tribunal peer-review system for League of Legends. The idea is relatively simple. Presumably the in-game reporting system used to flag players for harassment, trolling, hate-speech, etc., must have flooded the team with too many complaints to get through at a reasonable pace. Instead of hiring more committed staff to police the game, they opened up the game logs for users to judge their peers themselves, choosing to either punish or pardon them.

Perhaps other games have implemented similar features in the past, but I am unaware of them. Frankly, Riot's faith in their own player base its brave. Not only do they trust their players to actually use the system fairly (there are safeguards put in though), they are willing to let their players see how absolutely terrible their gaming compatriots can be. I have adjudicated roughly fourty cases thus far, and the vast majority of them have been absolutely appalling. I pulled up a few cases just not to pick some quick examples (Warning: Offensive language to come.) In one case Jipplez, who was not actually on trial in that case, lashed his teammate with "eat my dick faggot." In another, Samodael lashes out at his teammate with "be useful and not a ksing asshole you fucking chink." In general, expletives and racist sexist epithets are flung back and forth between players in these cases, are there seem to be thousands of these.

The peer-adjudication system is just one example of developers trusting players with information heretofore kept safely hidden away. It certainly is not as clear-cut as the sort of data offered by Modern Warfare 3, or any of the other games at E3 this year, many of which are showing off ways to interact with information in and out of the game. It does, however, reveal how the developer-player relationship is changing as information becomes more accessible.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

EXP Podcast #130: Of Dollars and Duty

Jorge and I are still processing all the E3 madness, so we thought we'd talk about one of last week's big stories: Call of Duty: Elite. Activision's new Call of Duty social network promises to provide players with detailed battle statistics, group functionality, and a persistent profiles across multiple games. However, some of this comes at a price: parts of Call of Duty: Elite will only be available to those who pay a premium fee. It's move with very few precedents, so we thought it would be a good topic to discuss. As always, feel free to jump in with your thoughts in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- How much (if anything) would you pay for premium Call of Duty content? Are there any other games that might hook you with a similar structure
- What does this mean for the future of the Call of Duty series?
- How will the advent of premium content impact plot-driven games?

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 here. 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: 32 min 00 sec
- A preview of Call of Duty: Elite, via Joystiq
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Queasy About the Future

Sometimes, video games make me sick. Not in a moral or philosophical way (although watching the E3 press conferences can erode one's faith in humanity), but literally: every so often, games give me a mean case of motion sickness. I was reminded of this unhappy fact by some games I've been playing recently as well as a few news items from E3. If current trends continue, it looks like I and other nauseous gamers should prepare ourselves for some rough water.

As my parents could tell you, my childhood was full of queasy car rides. I suppose that makes me a typical case, as Web MD claims that kids between 5 and 12 are especially prone to motion sickness. As I've grown older, I have conquered the epic challenges of reading on a plane and sitting backwards on BART. However, every so often, I'll lose my sea legs, usually because of a video game.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Seriously Absurd Case of Vanquish

My latest PopMatters post is about one of my favorite games from 2010: Vanquish.

Around here, both Jorge and I are pretty careful about using the "F" word. You know the one I'm talking about: "fun." While it's perfectly fine to have fun playing a game, describing it as such often says very little about why and how a game tickled your fancy. Additionally, it obscures the nuances between experiences that are amusing, enjoyable, or rewarding. I wouldn't necessarily call a game like don't take it personally... "fun" in the same way a roller coaster is fun, but I'm extremely glad I played it.

This brings us back to Vanquish, a game I found extremely fun in the way that roller coasters, fried food, and action movies are fun. I mean, just look at it:

It was a challenge was to get past all the bombast that infatuated me, but the end result was very rewarding. The game's campy story and absurd characters are a light-hearted veneer over one of the most innovative shooters in a long time. Once again, Shinji Mikami demonstrates his talent for innovative and experimental design. After re-defining third person shooters with Resident Evil 4, he has clearly been paying attention to subsequent innovations from games like Gears of War. While Vanquich pokes fun at Marcus and the gang, it's more of a love letter than anything: be it the gravelly-voiced protagonist or the necessary use of cover, Vanquish is well aware of its predecessors' strengths.

However, Vanquish is more than a tribute: it successfully addresses many of the problems that plague action and shooter games. It's a cover-based shooter that is both fast-paced and strategic. Its use of "bullet time" is an integral part of the combat, not just a gimmick or an "auto-kill" function. It has an interesting weapon upgrade system that affects player behavior and battle dynamics. It doesn't hurt that the game is visually stunning either. Games like Vanquish are an optimistic sign that the Japanese development community is still capable of producing excellent, relevant games.

Vanquish may seem like a goofy Gears clone at first, but it soon becomes apparent that it is both a tribute and a challenge to other third-person shooters. Vanquish might act the fool, but it is completely serious about providing a polished, innovative experience. It's a fun thing to experience.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

EXP Podcast #129: The Search for Sci-fi

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the state of Science Fiction in modern video games. It turns out a mere smattering of words is not enough to thoroughly explore the veritable galaxy of topics regarding this ripe genre. Joined this week by Grayson Davis of Beeps & Boops, Scott and I discuss the good and bad of science fiction, a bit of Star Trek, time travel, and sources of excellent Sci-fi gaming. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussion starters:

- What are your favorite science fiction games?
- How should we approach the genre as it relates specifically to games?
- How do you see the state of modern science fiction games?

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 here. 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: