Thursday, May 30, 2013

Convenience, Creation, and the New Consoles

This week my PopMatters column is aout Microfost and Sony's new console announcements. Specifically, why they were both so focused on luxury features and so lacking in actual video game content.

It was largely inspired by Jorge, who pointed out that the console makers seem to be trying to manufacture use cases as opposed to addressing existing ones. I agree: it's hard to argue that tying your cable subscription box to your console or being able to shave a few seconds off standby mode are going to be the things that revolutionize games. So why the big focus on these things?

My hypothesis is that there is really nothing else for Sony and Microsoft to focus on. Third party publishers make the biggest blockbusters and independent developers make the most avant garde games. Putting Nintendo aside for a moment, the most interesting games generally aren't coming out of first-party development, so there really isn't much for the manufacturers to show at this point. On the technological side, until the next big interface shift (think control pads to analog sticks) or the next big programming shift (2D sprites to 3D models), we'll just be iterating and improving on existing technical paradigms. Advances in textures and particle effects are neat, but they're only surface level improvements.

Microsoft and Sony are transitioning into more traditional platform keepers: both presentations were focused on things that facilitated playing games and interacting with other media rather than creating the games themselves. Convenience features like voice commands, streaming services, and multitasking improve the ancillary aspects of playing games, which is what the two companies want. Convenience keeps people plugged in and buying games.

Finally, I'll be interested to see how quickly seemingly gimmicky features become standard. Sure we don't "need" voice search, but we also don't "need" wireless controllers. However, if a console came out today with wired controllers, we'd laugh them off the market. As the amount of data we sift through on our consoles gets larger, we'll need faster ways of navigating. Telling my console to search for and then launch a specific game would definitely be faster and more intuitive than the status quo.

In any case, don't take this as an apology for lackluster efforts or corporate money grabs; it's just a possible theory. Microsoft and Sony focused on the cross-media convenience because they didn't really have much else to focus on.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

EXP Podcast #226: Cracking Open the Cube

Curiosity screen via IGN
We have opened the cube and holy cow, Peter Molyneux was inside the whole time! But what else is inside the controversial designer's bizarre experiment? And what does cube's contents mean for the young grand-prize winner, the future players of Godus, and the games industry as a whole? Join us this week on the podcast as Scott and I search for crumbs inside the box that might give us a taste of what's to come!

Now that you Curiosity is over (well, sort of), let us know what you thought of the bizarre "game-like" thing in comments! Are you a cynic or a cubist?

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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:

- Runtime: 32 mins 17 secs
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Blaming Luck

So I just finished playing some Hotline Miami, the top-down action game that seemed to take the internet by storm late last year. I picked it up in the latest Humble Bundle, in addition to a few other games I never got around to playing on release. After jumping into the terribly violent maelstrom that is Hotline, even after this short amount of time, two things are abundantly clear.

First, this game is not for me. That's OK. I might play a couple more hours of it, but this cycle of violent failure after violent failure just does not excite me as it has thousands of others. Of course I take the blame for this entirely. The game simply clashes with my own play styles and preferences

Secondly, when I do succeed, I find myself attributing luck more than any sort of skill. See, Hotline is fast, very fast. A little tip at the screen in fact encouraged me to go quickly and a point calculator at the end of every match restates the value of a mad horrendous dash through the level. Yet this high-speed careening into mayhem does not lend itself to calm analysis and strategic execution. The pace of the game creates a strong sense of randomness.

Hotline Miami screen via Steam
Take this example. Coming down a staircase, pipe in hand, one armed guard sits around the corner. I quickly sprint toward him, lay him out with a pipe to the head, and then get mowed down by another guard I had missed nearby. With an instant reset, I'm back at the staircase and try again. This time, success. No guard takes me out from afar. I lucked out.

Of course the difference between the two runs is the hair's breadth distance that kept me out of line-of-sight from the second armed guard. Still, since the game values speed, and the controls themselves send me zipping around the level, I have no time to measure my way through the level. Instead, I slam up against that wall just to reload and before I know, I'm done. I have killed everything in the room.

I should feel good about my victory, like I overcame the challenge. Instead I just feel lucky.

Yes, I imagine as the game continues the difficulty will ramp up and any illusion of luck will fly out the window as every mistake is severely punished. Still, for my first foray into the game, the sense of randomness undermines my enjoyment. As far as my personal tastes go, the bigger role chance plays in a game, the less likely I am to enjoy it.

I know in this case, luck is, for the most part, an illusion built on finicky controls and high-speed gameplay, but I still can't shake the feeling that my victories are not my own.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Creation of Need for Next-Gen Consoles

My latest PopMatters article is now live: The Creation of Need for Next-Gen Consoles

This piece is less of an expose and more of my way of working out my thoughts on the latest console announcements. Like everyone else, I was flabbergasted at the lack of games in their presentation. The buzz around Microsoft's press conference was entirely in their favor. At least in the circles I frequent, everyone expected Microsoft to soundly defeat Sony in their reveal. All they had to do was follow Sony's presentation, but just add a few tweaks we all expected - a stream partnership with Twitch, some Smart Glass integration, etc.

Instead we got this fantastic Xbox One reveal highlights:

The entire affair felt like it was targeting an audience that was not in the room. It became increasingly more blatant that the announcement was branding the release as a cure for ailments that do not exist, at least not as severely as they make them out to be. Microsoft was practicing the art of snake-oil salesmanship.

Thinking back on Sony's conference, they seemed to take the same strategy for the most part. Both companies releasing a next-gen system into a market place that seems to find the logic behind consoles as we know them increasingly dubious. My suggestion is to look elsewhere for gaming's future.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

EXP Podcast #225: House of Cards

Image from Giant Bomb
We're all still trying process Microsoft's vision of the future, so why don't we take a short break and consider one of Valve's recent reveals. In a move that both Jorge and I find bizarre and terrifying, Valve is piloting Steam trading cards. While there doesn't seem to be any specific game tied to the cards themselves, the rules and rewards about obtaining, trading, and crafting cards may in fact have the potential to change the way we play and purchase games. Are you tempted by the prospect of a rare foil head crab card or do you plan on relegating your Steam cards to your digital attic, never to be touched? Let us know in the comments!

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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:

- Runtime: 33 min 16 sec
- Steam Trading Card FAQ
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Exploring the Xbox One with Spelunky

Microsoft announced the Xbox One today, so Jorge and I decided to debrief and sort out our thoughts than by playing a little Spelunky.  Sometimes when the polygons get too overbearing, you just have to go back to pixels.

As always, feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts and your suggestions about what other games you'd like to see butchered by our feeble attempts to simultaneously play and talk at the same time.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Secret Meta-story of 'Curiosity'

Image from PopMatters
18 layers and counting! Since there's no way knowing what's inside the cube, this week at PopMatters, I wrote about the story that surrounds Curiosity.

My take is pretty straightforward: regardless of whether you like the game or not, it represents a host of trends that are currently shaping the industry. An independent studio trying a weird idea? Check. The rise of smartphones and online application stores as gaming platforms? Yes. Experimentation with "freemium" mechanics? Affirmative. An long-time designer trying to find his way in a changing creative landscape? Yup. Signs that said designer wants to hold on to his past? Roger. Kickstarter as a funding method? Indeed. A porous divide between developer and player? You bet.

I didn't get a chance to talk about this in the column, but I think the way I feel about Peter Molyneux is the way that some people feel about David Cage. Both designers habitually bite off more than they can chew, but in doing so they get people talking about the medium's potential. Whatever's inside the cube is almost certainly less amazing than Molyneux is making it out to be, just as Fable was more linear than was originally promised. It's the effort that I appreciate. It gets people talking.

By the way, I just want to remind everyone that Jorge and I talked about the Cube in a podcast from a while back. I rarely re-listen to our shows, but I found this one pretty amusing. Any game that can spur that type of fun discussion can't be all bad.

For those of you who have played it, have you been keeping track of the Cube? How did the evolution of the game strike you? Do you care what's in it any more? For those of you who didn't play it or are sick of hearing it, I recommend downloading it and taking a few taps. At worst, you'll just be helping us hasten the end of the mystery and see what's inside. We're at 18 layers and counting, but we've already been treated to a great story.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

EXP Podcast #224: A New Hope for Star Wars

8bit Star Wars poster via Waxing Nostalgic
We thought Lucas Arts and Star Wars 1313 was our last hope for a great Star Wars game. But no. There is another. With the recent announcement that Disney will be handing over the video game licenses for Star Wars to EA, the internet has been abuzz with mixed feelings. Some are eager to see what Visceral or BioWare can do with the franchise. Others are a bit more pessimistic. This week on the podcast, Scott and I step into the proverbial "shockboxing ring" and discuss our own thoughts on the Force, old Lucas Arts games, Boba Fett, and the future of the Skywalker clan.

As always, we would love to hear your thoughts on the future of the Star Wars franchise. I also encourage you to let us know what Star Wars games were your favorite, and least favorite, and what titles you would like to see revived. Let us know in the comments below!

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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:

- "Saturday Soapbox: Force feeding fandom," by Dan Whitehead via Eurogamer
- Runtime: 34 mins 52 secs
- Music: "Star Wars Main Theme" and "Imperial March" by John Williams

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mundane Wonder and Map Games

I'm pretty sure I'm standing on just ice. The snowy ground is solid, but in front of me is a bright red boat, the Noorderlicht, whose mast rises up into the clouds that obscure the sky. I will venture a guess and say Noorderlich means Northern Lights. Am I in Norway? How the hell am I supposed to find the airport from here?
The Noorderlich in MapCrunch
If this were real, I would just pick a direction and start walking. Instead, immune to the cold climate, I take my time using Google Maps 360 degree viewer to look around. Then, with a click of a button, I make leaps across the frozen plain. This is MapCrunch, and I am playing a self-imposed game that uses Google's street view to imbue the mundane world with a sense of wonder and adventure.

Playing this impromptu game is simple. Visit MapCrunch, or any website like it, to be placed on the streets of a random place in the world. Be sure to click the "stealth" box to hide any geographical data. Then, with just your wits, using road signs and your innate sense of direction, find your way to an international airport, your imaginary way home.

The simple game is joined by others, most recently by GeoGuessr, a website that similarly places you into a random location via Google street view. Then, with another map on the right, you guess your location in the world. The closer your guess is to your actual location, the more points you earn that round. After several hops around the globe, your final score measure how well you can glean information about the world through signage, iconography, plant and animal life, and architecture.
Nevada summer in GeoGuessr
These map games capture the allure of Alternate Reality Games without actually overlaying reality with the strange or completely fictional. Yes, you interact with "game world" with a browser interface, but it is one witch which you are already familiar. Using street view is a common way the relatively affluent now interact with their environments. We trace our way through our own backyards to find coffee shops, or we plan trips abroad by transporting ourselves onto foreign streets. Some people even trawl street view maps to find strange sightings or movie moments. Google maps has become a pop-culture extension of ourselves, as mundane and normal as looking at an atlas or even out the window.

When you place a game context over this experience, the mundane reality of a dessert in Nevada or a seaside village in Italy takes a new significance. This is not just online sightseeing, these games challenge you to look at the world a new way. They demand it. Simple advertisements become riddles, decipherable texts that convey though foreign script a clue that matters only to you. A movie poster, a type of VW Bug, the symbols for a crosswalk, they could all reveal something about their location. A nice house around a corner could hint at a larger town nearby, and maybe signs for a highway or a tourist center.
A world in transition; Nevada in winter
 In many ways, seeing the world through through a street view game is a form of time travel, an invitation to explore the world as an archaeologist, navigating through our architectural and social past in images, unable to speak to those who call those streets their home. While devoid of life, these experiences are deeply humanistic. The world from this angle is, by definition, one paved by others. The presence of a human collective is expressed in the silent buildings and anonymous warped faces in map games. Both the diversity and similarity of surroundings from one location to the next invoke a cosmopolitan view of the world, and maybe even a slightly imperialistic view as well.

Above all else, these games feed an innate curiosity that stirs up an antithetical desire to stop playing, turn off your computer, go outside, and explore our world.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Cost of Security in The Castle Doctrine and Papers, Please

Taht-al-hissar (Under Siege) cover via Foreign Policy
My latest PopMatters article is now live: The Cost of Security in The Castle Doctrine and Papers, Please.

My compatriot Scott suggested I play Papers, Please in a recent podcast episode. I gave it a try and, without a doubt, it piques all my interests. Not only is the game elegantly designed, but its game systems are deeply political, albeit not confrontation or didactic.

Scott has already written an excellent piece on the game, so I wanted to write about one particular aspect of Papers, Please in particular: the issue of security. As I thought about the subject, Rhorer's The Castle Doctrine kept creeping into my mind. The two games, although very different, procedurally address the subject of security intimately and intelligently. The two gaming experience naturally compliment each other.

The subject actually reminds me of several games that pertain to the Israel/Palestine conflict. The ongoing regional conflict remains one of the most controversial political issues of are time and is, hands down, the most talked about intractable conflict in the world. The quagmire has taken on a life of its own and many people from around the world genuinely believe the conflict has no end. It is the epitome of an endless war.

I disagree with that sentiment for a variety of reasons I don't bother discussing here, but I do respect the extreme emotions both "sides" convey when discussing the issue. The sense of security and safety is a dominant concern in all the conflict narratives and these are reflected in games about the issue. Afkar Media's  Under Ash and Under Siege features a playable and once peaceful protagonist that is compelled to violence  after suffering under an oppressive regime. Interestingly, the game has no clear win condition, the games always end with death or imprisonment, so while violence begets violence, and justifiably so, the cost of security is still on the forefront of the game's procedural rhetoric.

On the other side of the conflict, the 1989 game Intifada casts players in the role of an Israeli Defense Force soldier attempting to quell an uprising of stone-throwing protestors. Using excessive violence in the game drops the army's public opinion, which results in fewer weapons in later rounds. As the game progresses, extreme tactics become more permissible. The game creates an interesting narrative in which security is a managed and negotiated.

Other games based on the conflict, from Global Conflict: Palestine to PeaceMaker address the cost of security in one way or another, but all do so very explicitly. Papers, Please and The Castle Doctrine do so quietly, which makes them fascinating examples of deeply political games that may or may not have any intention of educating or persuading.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

EXP Podcast #223: Conjuring Video Game Magic

Image from Giant Bomb
This week, we open a gateway to the spirit realm to call forth a podcast that defies the feeble constraints our earthly plane and human minds. "What sorcery is this?" you ask. It is precisely that, mortal: this week we talk about magic. Actually, we use Robert Rath's recent article on the subject to push past the usual focus on psychic missiles and black cauldrons. Magic is a common mechanic in games, but its more sociological role is rarely portrayed. What would it look like if magic in games was a lifestyle, rather than simply a way to roast bad guys when you're tired of swinging a sword? As always, don't hesitate to join the conversation by suddenly materializing in the comments!

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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:

- "I Hate Magic," by Robert Rath, via The Escapist
- Runtime: 28 min 25 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Monaco: The Bungling Burglar

My usual Internet communities are all abuzz about Monaco, but I'm feeling kind of left out. I played it with Jorge and Eric last weekend, but it hasn't quite clicked yet. So, determined to like this game out of sheer spite, I fired it up tonight and recorded one of my play sessions. For those of you who have played it, when did Monaco "click" for you?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Experiencing the Banality of Evil in 'Papers, Please'

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about Papers, Please. It's a game that makes arcane bureaucracy both enjoyable and terrifying. The beta is free to download for PCs, and I highly recommend it.

It got me thinking about the difference between an "educational game" and a game that is educational. I'm starting to think of the former as more closely related to traditional flash cards. A game like Math Blaster or Carmen San Diego is upfront about its pedagogical aims: you have to know your multiplication tables and memorize your countries to succeed. Such mechanics are barely hidden under a thin narrative veneer. They're about facts and theorems, whereas a game like Papers, Please offers a more sociological lesson. More accurately it makes an argument: its systems are set up to comment on how power structures and familial obligations can influence a person's willingness to compromise their moral code. Once again Ian Bogost's thoughts on procedural rhetoric are spot on.

I appreciate that the game does very little is done to hide this assault on your ideal. Games like Train or even BioShock have a "gotcha" moment that takes advantage of the fact that the players have been tricked into believing or assuming certain things about the game that are later revealed to be false or misleading. The insidious nature of Papers's, Please is steadily unveiled, but the health of your family will probably prevent you from doing anything to stop it. Food and shelter aren't free after all, and are you really noble enough to sacrifice yourself and your kin to save a stranger?

Maybe you are, but then again, that assumes you're good enough at your job to turn a profit, something that gets increasingly difficult as new rules are piled upon old ones. Even if you navigate the ethical traps, you're still in danger of being buried by paperwork.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

EXP Podcast #222: Playtime Check-in 2013

Papers Please logo by Lucas Pope
The spring lull is upon us. Without any huge release on the immediate horizon, Scott and are using this time to visit some of the games currently taking up space in our busy calendars. From gamified exercise to eSports and beyond, Scott and I have plenty of game mechanics to both love and hate. Check out all the games listed below in the show notes and be sure to chime in with your thoughts in the comments below!

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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:
- Runtime: 35 min 1 sec
- Don't Starve
- Spelunky
- Papers Please
- Monaco
- Music by: Brad Sucks