Wednesday, December 30, 2009

EXP Podcast #58: The 2009 Year-end Extravaganza

As 2009 draws to a close, it's time to take a step back and reflect on the games we played over the year. Being the rebels that we are, Jorge and I are even letting pre-2009 games get in on all the GOTY action played numerous games this past year that were not even released in 2009. Instead of abandoning them to the sands of time, we decided to do a super-sized show that highlights both our favorite 2009 titles as well as our favorite gaming experiences from the past calendar year (release dates be damned!).

As always, feel free to offer your assessment on the year and share your top gaming moments from 2009. Thanks to everyone who visited the site over the past year; without you we'd just be yelling at the screen. Have a great New Year, and we'll see you in 2010!

Some discussion starters:

- First thing's first: What were your favorite 2009 titles? Which games are we missing out on?

- Regardless of release date, which games hooked you over the past year? Did you find a hidden gem in your back catalog, or are you still pouring hours into a game like Roller Coaster Tycoon?

- We didn't have enough time to touch on this in the podcast, but what were your favorite gaming trends or surprises from 2009? What are you looking forward to in 2010?

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: 49 min 19 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Sensationalist: Death and Family in Assassin's Creed 2

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

Spoiler Pirate says "Yarrr! There be spoilers ahead!

How games depict death and family relationships is immensely interesting. These two subjects can be very emotionally evocative for players, particular when a game's protagonist reacts strongly to both. Ezio Auditore, the protagonist of Assassin's Creed 2, is surrounded by death and is initially motivated to become a trained killer by several deaths in his family. The opportunity to evoke powerful sensations in players through Ezio's loss and deadly task ahead is apparent. Unfortunately, AC2 squanders much of its narrative potential with inconsistent messages and obscure motivations.


Desmond, the modern day lead character reliving Ezio's memory in Assassin's Creed 2, first encounters the Auditore family when Frederico Auditore comes to Ezio's aid during a street brawl. Frederico teaches Ezio how to fight and loot the bodies of unconscious (or dead) enemies. This tutorial-family relationship, to the annoyance of some, is repeated 'ad nauseam' as the first few hours of AC2 is spent completing mundane tasks for Ezio's family.
Ubisoft attempts to convey strong sensations of family bonding by transforming the day-to-day tasks of the Auditores into player tutorials. When these lessons lose their utility, so do Ezio's familial relationships. When his father and two brothers are killed, Ezio escorts his mother and sister to the Monteriggioni villa where they cease to play any significant part in the story. Maria is forever praying and Claudia only asks her brother if he wants to look at his finances. Over the 23 years the game takes place, neither ages, moves from their room, or responds to Ezio's new profession in any way. His transformation into an assassin occurs while his familial relationships disappear. What could be a powerful depiction of loss is abandoned when Ezio displays no grief for his brothers and father and spends no time with his surviving family members.

What then motivates Ezio? Why does he choose a life of danger instead of leaving Italy with his mother and sister? He could be pursuing revenge, but his role as an assassin protecting the Italian people and stopping the Templar quickly subsumes all of his attention. Ezio's Uncle Mario, also an assassin, consistently plays the role of an ally, not a close family member. When those helping Ezio along the way reveal themselves to be fellow assassins, it becomes clear this order of killers has largely replaced his family. There is even a cute 'leap of faith' initiation. While this moment does complete the plan his father Giovanni had laid out, his memory is given but a passing glance before the more important task is discussed. The player is left with one solitary goal, uninformed by familial relationships.


Death is treated with similar confusion and inconsistency. For example, Ezio collects feathers after Petruccio's death and deposits them at the Villa. His motivations for doing this are muddled. It could be an effort to draw Maria out of sorrow induced shock. At 50 collected feathers, Mario tells Ezio to give up on his mother's recovery and "focus on more important things." It also unlocks a new mace. When all the feathers are collected, Maria wakes from her stupor and thanks Ezio for not forgetting about her, also unlocking a new cloak. She then sits in the room, equally devoid of agency. For such an immense effort, her reaction and reward is absurd.
Most players will never collect all the feathers, so these scenes are largely superfluous anyway. It is more powerful to assume Ezio collects the feathers to express his own mourning. Attaching a monetary incentive to the feathers, however, obscures Ezio's motivations. For the player, collecting feathers is not a mourning, it's profit making. Ezio displays no meaningful emotional alternative that would reinterpret the player's selfish interest.

Yet during some moments, death is treated is as emotionally significant. Maria confirms from Ezio that the Auditore deceased were given a proper funeral. Also, each assassination ends with "Requiscat in Pace," with Ezio performing last rites and telling his enemies to rest in peace. How does one earn such a formal treatment? The men he kills are evil Templars and have shown no reason to deserve respect. Perhaps this is Ezio's own ceremony reserved specifically for the death of enemies, a display of personal gratification. But at one point he gives this blessing to a dying thief ally. If death should be treated with respect for everyone, why then does Ezio never give last rites to murdered guards? The depiction of death evokes little response from players when their protagonist offers only contradictions.

Blame Desmond

There are a few moments in Assassin's Creed 2 where Ezio seems remorseful about his new profession, wishing he did not have to kill. Yet he goes about his duties with a seemingly eager single-mindedness, enjoying the monetary rewards along the way. It is as if Ezio is merely an avatar, acting out the desires of an emotionally distant other. Which is exactly what he is. Despite significant changes from the first Assassin's Creed, the sequel still relies too heavily on Desmond to draw interest, leaving the individual assassin's story to languish.
When Desmond wakes up from his genetic memory, visual remnants of the past persist. Emotional remnants do not. Desmond never behaves as though he were emotionally invested in Ezio's life. There is no mirage of Giovanni, no sudden remorse for killing so many people. His attitude towards death is just as vapid when he kills actual people himself. Like the player, Desmond's time as Ezio holds no greater meaning besides the exhilaration and mystery surrounding an assassin's destiny. With inconsistent and muddled depictions of in-game relationships and behavior, a potentially memorable character and evocative story becomes watered down and wasted.

Friday, December 25, 2009

On the Subject of Magic

Spoiler warning: In this post, Santa's identity is discussed.

I had another Mario post rolling around in my head, but, seeing as how it's the holiday season and all, I will instead subject you to some schmaltzy, eggnog induced musings.

This week's podcast about the often-grim realities of the game industry inspired me to reflect on how my conception of the medium has changed over the years. In my younger, more naive days, games were self-contained entities removed from larger social and economic contexts. I gave very little thought to who made them, how they were marketed, or even how they were designed. I took them for granted, as if games naturally sprung forth from some mystical cartridge tree whose fruit was harvested, packaged, and then shipped to store shelves.

Looking back, my childhood view of Christmas was similar to how I viewed games. I was blissfully ignorant of the stress that comes with manufacturing holiday cheer. Our family was fortunate enough to have the means to enjoy a festive tree and delicious food. Santa could always be counted on to inexplicably drop off a game or two that I had been coveting. Things seemed to fall into place as if guided by the hidden holly-jolly hand of the season.

Those days are long since past: I know now that magic, both the holiday and gaming variety, is not the product of mystical forces but rather the outcome of hard work undertaken by determined people. While it was nice to live in a fantasy world in which a North Pole-dwelling demigod traded games for cookies, understanding how how things actually worked gave me a better appreciation of the holidays. Similarly, peeking behind the curtain of a game reveals a kind of practical magic that makes them special.

One of the dangers of critically analyzing video games is creating overly clinical gaming experiences. Personally, playing games was a more whimsical activity before I started noticing quirks in AI paths, gameplay exploits, and plot holes. Just as discovering that Santa's real identity made the initially made the world a more ordinary place, running into an invisible wall in Super Mario 64 made video games more mundane experiences in some respects.

Thankfully, time and experience ameliorates the shock of dissipated illusions. Naive wonder is replaced with admiration for those who labor to construct opportunities to indulge in fantasy, however briefly. The land of Hyrule is not the result of an ancient race of triangle-worshiping fairies and elves, but rather the culmination of decades of largely unnoticed human effort. Knowing that its serene landscapes, odd inhabitants, and mischievous creatures were actually birthed in our world makes their novelty all the more stunning. It also makes it easier to forgive flaws, or even accept them as reminders of the game's hand-crafted origins.

Intellectually, I know that that Nathan Drake is an amalgamation of writers, artists, actors, and producers. Even so, the imposture is so convincing that I find myself thinking of him as a real person. In return for a small suspension of disbelief, the designers help the player hold two contradictory thoughts in their head: Nathan Drake is both an illusion and a reality.

Working on this website has crystallized this concept. These days, it is almost impossible to turn off the little critic in my mind who is constantly commenting on a game's design, message, or release circumstances. Because this part of me is so focused on the reality, it serves to better contrast with the virtual-realities games present. Games present me with a single object that inspires both sides of my brain to reach the same conclusion, albeit via differing means. My aesthetic sensibilities say that games are magic because they show me things that exist beyond the world I live in; my analytical sensibilities decides that games might as well be magic, since the confluence of events that takes place in order to create them is complex to the point of being miraculous.

Let me close by explicitly thanking all the people that make this possible. While it may not change the fact that you went unrecognized, unpaid, or unappreciated on a project, know that your efforts are appreciated. You might not wear a red suit or own enchanted reindeer. You might actually feel more like an elf, toiling away in obscurity while some fat guy gets all the credit. Regardless, know that what you do makes a difference. Magic just doesn't happen; it exists because people create it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

EXP Podcast #57: Celebrities and Exploitation

The innards of the videogame industry are dark, mysterious, and just a little bit icky. According to a recent article by Leigh Alexander, not all is merry for our game developers this holiday season. Some people who have put in a lot of work are being ignored, by publishers and gamers alike. Maybe, as Joshua Lin describes, we need more videogame celebrities as advocates and representatives. Join Scott and I while we discuss labor disputes, the Joss Whedon appeal, developer secrecy, and the hidden ailments of the games industry.

Some discussion starters:

- Do you treat any game developers as celebrities? Does the games industry more outspoken and charismatic individuals?
- How much do you know about who makes your games? Are the majority of gamers tragically misinformed or blissfully ignorant?

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: 29 min 4933 sec
- They worked on the game you played but didn't get credit, by Leigh Alexander via Kotaku
- We Need "Celebrities", by Joshua Lin via Gamasutra
- Sometimes, the Spy Games are Too Much, by Nels Anderson via Above49
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, December 21, 2009

Friendly Competition

Like many others, New Super Mario Bros. Wii has become an instant classic. The more I traipse through the Mushroom Kingdom, the more the plurality of 'Mario Experiences' Scott described recently rings true. I am a more vengeful Mario player than my couch compatriots. If Luigi snags that extra power-up, I will toss him into nearby enemies with jovial enthusiasm. In dangerous levels however, I will restrain my malevolent behavior and more readily cooperate. NSMBW is brilliantly designed to facilitate this mixture of altruism and antagonism.

A more competitive Mario-verse could have easily lead to some frustrated Toadstools. I am no stranger to gaming hostilities. I had a friend mad at me for months over a particularly vicious game of Settlers of Catan and have witnessed hour long arguments while playing the Battlestar Galactica board game. I have a new appreciation for a design philosophy that encourages 'friendly competition' and welcome its presence amongst its hostile siblings.

The most clear examples of friendly competition I can conjure are actually board games. Dominion, designed by Donald Vaccarino and published by Rio Grande, is a strategic deck building game. Players compete for high scores by adding point cards to a growing deck of ability cards and money cards. Scores are tabulated at the end of the game, with triumph going to the most efficient and strategic deck creator.
While competitive, Dominion is not explicitly combative. Some have called Dominion a game of competitive-solitaire, since most cards available for purchase have little-to-no effect on other players. Opponents, by and large, mind their own business. If they did feel like meddling, most players will have a hard time keeping track of opponent progress. Since points are calculated when the game is over, and come-from-behind-victories are frequent, players are seldom sure who, if anyone, should be most reviled. Even if someone were to earn the displeasure of her competitors, she cannot be isolated and attacked individually. The few cards that affect other decks negatively target all players indiscriminately. The game's design encourages chit-chat and idle banter rather than heated and hostile discourse.

Carcassonne creates a similar sense of friendly competition. Designed by Klaus-J├╝rgen Wrede and also published by Rio Grande for its English release (also available on XBLA), Carcassonne is a tile-based land management game in which players compete for points by building and claiming roads, farm lands, and castles. Low-level players tend to mind to themselves and try to gauge the risk of expanding their territories or score easy points. High-level players are more hostile, intentionally encroaching into other people's territory or encircling castles with roads to curb expansion.
The most hostile Carcasonne player can manage, at best, indirect attacks against a single opponent. Random tile draw will mean, however, that even the worst intentions may be thwarted by luck. Players that do encroach on another person's castle will end up sharing wealth, not stealing it. Competition inherently leads to cooperation as both players invested in a castle have an incentive to complete it. When points are finalized and calculated at the end of the game, players are more likely to chock up a loss to chance rather than the malign intentions of their friend.

These two board games are very different from NSMBW, but foster similarly friendly attitudes during a potentially competitive experience. Carcasonne and Dominion limit direct hostility while New Super Mario Bros. Wii demands cooperation when it matters most. The design philosophy of these games is founded on the belief all players should be having fun, even when they are negatively affected by real-life players.

In an interview with a Brazillian blogger, Donald Vaccarino states "my games struggle to be non-political, with things such as Dominion's attacks that hit everyone else rather than targeting a specific player. This goes back to evenings of whining about who gets the robber in Settlers of Catan." Gamers are familiar with competitive behavior, particularly in online matches, which is often ignored as a by-product of anonymity. Level design that demands cooperation, player-neutral attacks, and vague progress tracking are just a few ways to develop amiable behaviors during competitive games. When a game calls for real life multi-player participation, designing a game around 'friendly competition' can go a long way towards maintaining the flare of rivalries without fueling hatred.

Friday, December 18, 2009

New Super Mario Nitpicks

As the end of the year approaches, my thoughts have turned to selecting my personal "Game of the Year." It probably won't surprise you to know that New Super Mario Bros. Wii is on the short list.

However, while I may be an inveterate Mario fanboy, I try not to let my love blind me. In that spirit, I'll attempt to offer some clear-eyed criticism of one of my favorite games of the current console generation. Forgive me, Mario!

The Tale of Two Toads

When it comes to player avatars, I prize function over form. Whenever I play an RPG, I construct my party based on skills rather than my interest in character stories. In LittleBigPlanet, I've been known to rock a naked Sack Boy out of sheer disinterest in clothing him. When playing Rock Band, I'm the one rolling his eyes while people fiddle with their characters. However, options and customization are key components for many players, and I do understand the importance of offering diverse character options.

Disappointingly, with a crew composed of Mario, Luigi, and two Toads, NSMBW is devoid of playable female characters. Miyamoto's excuse that Peach's dress would require more work to animate is baffling: Is Nintendo really that hard up for talented artists, or the money to pay them?

Even if there were technical issues, why not just give Peach a pair of royal overalls? Or, if Peach must be kidnapped, why not bring one of the many extended cast members into the Big Leagues? It is sad that two of the four playable avatars are only differentiated by a palette swap, especially since Toadette was passed over.

Alas, Poor Yoshi

I was delighted to see Yoshi make his triumphant return in NSMBW. I was less thrilled to find out that Yoshi seems to have lost a step during his hiatus.

In Super Mario World, Yoshi gained different powers depending on what color shell he ate, but in NSMBW, this power is missing. Given enough time, Yoshi used to be able to swallow hard objects like shells, but in NSMBW, Yoshi's digestive tract is decidedly less durable. I also think that tilt control could have made for an interesting egg-throwing mechanic, but evidently something is disrupting Yoshi's ovulation.

Despite being somewhat nerfed, Yoshi still ads pleasant variety to the stages he inhabits. However, Yoshi has grown more territorial over the years and now refuses to leave the levels to which he is endemic. This is a missed opportunity, as being able to take Yoshi to different stages would have provided replay value as well as the opportunity to barter with friends. If only one player out of four finished the stage mounted, Yoshi would then become a status symbol, or perhaps even a bargaining chip to be used to curry favor with certain players ("I'll trade you my Yoshi for the next penguin suit.").

The Lost Art of Negotiation

NSMBW creates a rare dynamic of competitive cooperation, but more could have been done to enhance the inter-player negotiations. The ability to trade extra, individually collected items or to bestow hoarded 1ups on other players would add currency to the couch-centered meta-game that takes place alongside the on-screen action.

Like theoretical Yoshi-trading, being able to strike deals using in-game resources could be used to both help and trick other players, making it a perfect fit for the game's ambivalent stance on teamwork.

Counting Cards

NSMBW contains a new version of the "Go Fish" style game present in Super Mario Bros. 3. Matching cards with the same item on their face allows the player keep that item. Unlike SMB 3, NSMBW fails to give the player a short peek at the deck before all the cards are flipped over. This removes any skill from the game, and instead turns it into a game of chance. These seems particularly incongruous with the overall Mario ethos, as Mario games tend to reward those that make their own luck.

Learning the Language

For those new to the game, luck is a difficult thing to make. Although coated in a cartoonish veneer and distributed on a system marketed to those new to video games, NSMBW does not coddle its players, which may end of hurting its ability to teach them how to play.

While the early levels have fewer hazards than later ones, the obstacles carry the same danger and consequences as late-game challenges. A koopa deals out the same amount of damage whether you fight it in the first level or the last; the first pit you must jump is just as bottomless as the last one. Unlike so many modern games, NSMBW does not offer a formal tutorial, and failure often means a significant loss of progress.

I imagine that for someone who has only played relatively recent games, NSMBW feels a bit like a reading Shakespeare: Certain elements and themes are recognizable, but the work's elegance is revealed through slowly becoming familiar with its unique structure. Just as contemporary English speakers get tripped up by The Bard, contemporary gamers get tripped up by The Plumber.

I suspect that playing NSMBW is, for many players, the equivalent of trying to converse in French having only taken one course back in middle school. Compounding this difficult learning process is the potentially daunting prospect of being surrounded by players who already speak the language. While immersion may ultimately be the best route towards fluency, it is an initially painful process, one that might be a turnoff new players.

Now that I have that out of the way, I will feel less guilty about any additional fawning posts I write about the game. If you have yet to play the game, don't let these nitpicks scare you off: NSMBW is an excellent experience. With any luck, we will see these shortcomings rectified in the hypothetical and poorly named sequel: New Super Mario Bros. Wii 2! On second thought, maybe "New New Super Mario Bros. Wii" works better.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

EXP Podcast #56: New Mario Mania

Every so often, the fall's harvest yields an extra-special crop, a crop in which fungus is the bounty rather than the blight. New Super Mario Bros. Wii is out and provoking unusually disparate reactions. In order to share our thoughts on the game, Jorge and I have called a truce on throwing each other into lava pits for just long enough to record a podcast. We discuss our impressions, the madness that is multiplayer Mario, as well as the contemporary relevance of Mario's game design. Feel free to triple-jump into the comments with your thoughts. We promise we won't throw any koopa shells at you, just remember we never said anything about Bob-ombs...

On a related note, I found this video of a big band performing the Super Mario Bros. theme song. It even has lyrics!

Some discussion starters:

- For those of you who have played the game, what do you think? For those of you who haven't, does a side-scrolling Mario appeal to you?

- One of the most surprising things about NSMBW's multiplayer mode was its ability to foster both cooperative and competitive play. Can you think of any other games that have tapped into this dynamic?

- Should Mario adopt modern gaming conventions such as character classes or more forgiving difficulty? Can a newcomer find as much enjoyment in this game as an experienced player?

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 33 sec
- Mitch Krpata's review, via The Phoenix
- To get a taste of the hilarity that is the multiplayer, check out Giant Bomb's review.
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, December 14, 2009

Enduring iPhone Favorites of 2009

Spike TV's 2009 Video Game Awards have come and gone. Despite the sheer number of games produced for the iPhone and iPod touch, no 'Mountain Dew fueled' category praised the efforts of numerous developers trying to find success in an portable market saturated with rubbish. Along with many others, I tend to avert my critical attention towards 'real' games, away from the vast iPhone catalog meant to charm in short easily consumable segment. Despite all the time I put into iPhone gaming, I have not once discussed my habit on Experience Points. This is my effort to amend and understand this oversight. What follows is my top three list of iPhone games of 2009, why I love them, and why I forget the too easily.

Space Invaders Infinity Gene

Developed in Japan by Taito, a subsidiary of Square Enix, Space Invaders Infinity Gene is a scrolling shooter with a very retro appeal. Taito, designers of the first Space Invaders, shows genuine love and enthusiasm for the game's basics, starting the player in the scenario of the original Invaders: a simple ship versus a wave of aliens. From there the game evolves, with each stage earning the player points to unlock new maps, weapons, music and game modes.
The ship is controlled by touching anywhere on the screen, minimizing finger obscuring while utilizing all available play space. Enemies that approach from above or the side, weapons that include lasers and gravity wells, and strange boss battles keep Infinity Gene interesting long after the nostalgia wears off. Infinity Gene will also generate maps based on and set to the player's own music, in case someone fancies Elton John laser battles. Naturally, this game kept my attention for quite some time.

Flight Control

Flight Control is a testament to how enjoyable simple games can be. Filling the role of an air traffic controller, players draw a path to escort various sized aircraft to their appropriate landing strips. There are four types of vehicles with different speeds, jumbo jets being the fastest and helicopters being the slowest. What starts off easy, quickly becomes a frantic and futile exercise in multitasking. Planes will keep coming, filling up the screen, until a mid-air collision ends the game.
Free updates have brought new maps, new aircraft, and the ability to play two player over Bluetooth. With each player routing different planes to the other, two player Flight Control requires a level of cooperation rare in such simple handheld games. It is also the pursuit of high scores that still brings me back to Flight Control - 115 landings is my personal best. The satisfaction of routing and landing a screen full of planes is incredibly satisfying and makes Flight Control one of my most played iPhone games of 2009.

Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor

Developed over eight months by the small and newly formed Tiger Style Studio, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is about an insect eating arachnid. It is also about a family torn apart by love, jealousy, shame, deceit and suicide. Players control a web slinging spider, trapping and eating various insects, employing different strategies given the species and landscape. The more interesting story, however, is told in the background. Hidden notes, portraits, tombstones and mementos reveal an engaging and woeful tale about the Bryce family. Amazingly, Spider weaves its story more fluidly and organically than many top-tier console games.
I cannot lavish enough praise on Spider's intuitive controls, elegant artwork, clever level design and storytelling. Thankfully, Michael Abbot of The Brainy Gamer wrote an excellent piece on Spider earlier this year, rightfully applauding developer Randy Smith for his insight into game design and outspoken advocacy for the advancement of the medium. While Spider may not make meet Game of the Year criteria, I would include it my top ten games of 2009. When I think of the potential of iPhone development, I think of Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor.

Poor Judgement

Yet that might be just the problem. These games slip my mind because I see them as early designs of non-existent games. I judge iPhone games on an unfair scale, asking them to deliver an altogether different experience. Infinity Gene is great, but when my finger gets in the way or I think about the visuals, I am reminded of the iPhone's limitations. Flight Control is incredibly enjoyable, but my interest in short gameplay segments, no matter how engaging, is not enough to warrant my undivided attention.

These three games are just a few of my favorites. Rolando 2, Lux, Civilization Revolution and HiHowAreYou all caught my attention this year, but only as supplemental games. While supplemental gaming is still valuable, I may be disregarding these games too quickly. Perhaps the sheer number of games causes me to avert my attention, or maybe the low price ranges misrepresent their worth. In actuality, my favorite iPhone games of 2009 showcase elements of game design that triple-A console titles should emulate. While they may never offer me the operatic story line or intense multiplayer I crave on the console or PC, these few handheld games have earned their place amongst champions. If you have an iPhone, you should give them a try and let me know what games you enjoy that I may have overlooked.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gamerprints and Mario's Multiverse

At first blush, New Super Mario Bros Wii appears to be a gaming dinosaur that has somehow survived the turn of the century. In a world world where experience points and character customization are to be found in games as disparate as Modern Warfare and Dragon Age, Mario's character customization is as shallow as the two dimensions he inhabits. In terms of game design, many modern platformers aspire to eschew tradition: The recent Prince of Persia embraced the open-world format and LittleBigPlanet's emphasis on user-generated content gave the keys to the kingdom to the player. Mario remains set in his ways: levels begin on the left and end on the right, and survival is the only measure of victory.

Despite this rigidity, NSMBW excels in demonstrating just how much agency players have in crafting personalized experiences. Because of their out-of-game history and in-game choices, every player leaves digital fingerprints in the games they play. NSMBW's design coats our fingers with ink and shows us how players to leave their personal marks on even the least malleable games.

I started thinking about this while listening to a Gamers With Jobs podcast in which Sean Andrich asked the crew whether they all played Mario with the "B" (or in the case of NSMBW the "1") button perpetually pressed. "Pshaw!" I scoffed to nobody in particular, "What kind of panicked, hyperactive lemur would run at all times?"

Evidently, the world is populated with more panicked, hyperactive lemurs than I originally suspected: The GWJ crew quickly came to a consensus that Mario has places to be and things to see, and therefore must sprint at every opportunity. It dawned on me that, even though we were all playing the same game, our individual play styles were providing highly differentiated experiences within a very structured rule set. This new game was not just giving me a new Mario experience, it was inspiring me to explore the plurality of "Mario experiences."

In typical Nintendo fashion, NSMBW's major innovation stems from a simple concept. NSMBW not only lets multiple players traipse through a course simultaneously, it does so without trying to neuter the chaos of such an undertaking. In LittleBigPlanet, players must take deliberate action in order to interact with one another: a slap or a grab is only executed when the player presses a button. In NSMBW, player interaction is a fact, rather than a choice. Bouncing on each others' heads, knocking people off small platforms, and even accidentally bumping into one another while running are exciting, hilarious ways to harass your friends, but they are also unavoidable parts of the game. Each player is a fully-realized entity in the game world, which means everyone must adapt to everyone's play style in order to succeed.

The need to understand your fellow players (whether the ultimate aim is to help them or hurt them) gives rise to impromptu in-game anthropological and sociological studies. Some players feel the need to vanquish every goomba, while others are content to live and let live. The courses contain enough variety to facilitate people who are comfortable on platforms and those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground. An aerialist might spend the majority of the game using a propeller hat to float over obstacles, while a melee-oriented player would fight through the trenches (or pipes) armed with a trusty fire-flower. For some people, Mario is a game about hoarding. Even if I already have an ice-flower, something inside compels me to grab an extra whenever I see (an impulse that threatens to destroy my relationships with friends and loved ones).

It is rare that personal gaming quirks are so readily displayed. Because everyone shares the same screen and the same play space, individual flair and little habits suddenly become apparent. For example, Jorge tends to favor the ground-pound move. Even when sliding down a simple hill, I'd notice him perform flip and a pound to start things off. As for me, I find that I have a habit to do a lot of maneuvering mid-jump. There are plenty of times when I make a jump to the right and, after a fitful spurt of mid-air indecision, land facing left. On the other hand, watching the experts' videos proves that the potential for astounding economy of movement is just as real as chaotic flailing. Be they substantial or cosmetic, distinctive play styles mirror the contours on the fingertips from which they spring forth.

Viewed another way, one could argue that Playing NSMBW with others is simulation of the Mushroom Kingdom's multiverse. Each player is constrained by certain rules, but each person catches a glimpse of "what could have been" via the actions of their fellow players. What would happen if I compulsively broke every block? Should I wait for that bomb to explode before jumping? How would the level have worked had I chosen that penguin suit? Through a combination of the game's rules and the players' agency, we can look outside of our digital selves to sneak a peek at what could have been and what always was. Although I would never do such a thing, there exists a world in which Yoshi is continually abandoned over a bottomless pit. NSMBW allows me to play in that world.

Players have always left their fingerprints on the games they play, and these alternate play-worlds have always existed. New Super Mario Bros. Wii provides a means by which to explore the often-obscure variety that can be found in single-player, largely linear games.

However, make no mistake about it: Just because you are a beautiful, unique snowflake doesn't mean I won't laugh as I throw you into the lava.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

EXP Podcast #55: The Making of a Memorable Character

What makes Mario such a memorable character? Is it that sweet mustache? Those flattering overalls? Could it be his trademark 'woohoo'? Or is his appeal coincidental? How would Faith from Mirror's Edge measure up?

These topics are on our minds thanks to a fascinating article by Andrew Vanden Bossche discussing game design and its influence on memorable characters. This week on the EXP Podcast, join Scott and I while we discuss ass kicking, those gendered voices in your ear, first-person hugs, and the art of impressive character design. Your comments are encouraged and appreciated.

Some discussion starters:

- What makes a memorable character for you? What do non-memorable characters in excellent games lack?
- How much does nostalgia and good game mechanics effect how memorable a character is?
- Are player-generated characters more memorable than developer creates ones?

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: 28 min 34 sec
- "Memorable Game Characters, Mirror's Edge and Picture Books" by Andrew Vanden Bossche, via Gamasutra
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Gambling Gamer

I have been known to risk a few dollars around a poker table, attend the horse races, or make a friendly wager amongst friends, but I do not consider myself a gambler. In real life, I prefer to keep the money I have earned instead of throwing it away. In videogames, however, I will let my money ride. Which explains why I intentionally quit a four hour play session of The Witcher without saving.
I approached The Witcher's dice game too eagerly. The game is a variation of Yahtzee - poker played with a set of five dice. Two dice showing the same number is a pair, all five dice showing numbers one through five is a straight, a pair and three-of-a-kind is a full house, etc. After sweeping a set of novice players, I thought I had this game beat. Then I was trounced - thoroughly. I lost everything. While humiliating, this experience has given me some insight. First, do not raise unless you have the winning hand. Second, videogame gambling is an interesting cultural artifact, with its own utility and appeal.

The Betting Tables

The earliest in-game gambling scenario I could find appears in Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter, a DOS game released in 1986 for early home computers. The game features playable slot machines, which may reward you, take your money, or even kill you should the wrong symbols line up (an early indictment of real world gambling?). My own first experience with in-game betting was in 1997 at the Golden Saucer, a casino-like amusement park in Final Fantasy VII. The Golden Saucer includes various games that cost a few GP with potentially significant rewards. It also includes Chocobo Races, a significant attraction and plot point.
Since these early examples, gambling has been a playable feature in numerous games. Pokemon Red offers slot machines, as does Bioshock - in two very different genres. Fallout 2 features an interactive casino, the Shark Club, and several of the Grand Theft Auto games follow suit. Mass Effect has a slot machine game called Quasar, which is not as fun as Knights of the Old Republic's high-stakes game of Pazaak. Most of the Final Fantasy's have card games for the JRPG playing sort. For a jollier take on gambling, Fable 2 includes a set of Pub Games both in Albion and as an XBLA title - which you can merge with Fable 2 to pad your in-game character's bank account. All of these risk/reward scenarios, while similar to actual games of chance, are interesting because of what they offer to the player in the context of the larger game.

Why We Gamble

Why do actual people gamble their real money? There are a few popular reasons. The first is a simple hope for pay out. There is a chance, albeit a slim one, that a few dollars will miraculously turn into a few hundred. Hope is a strong motivator for the eternally optimistic, especially for low income individuals - those most likely to gamble. Secondly, gambling can be "fun". The social dynamics and ambiance of a casino can be intoxicating (figuratively and literally), and the lights and sounds are strategically designed to satisfy. Lastly, the rush of winning can create a sort of high. The adrenaline associated with risk and win/lose cycles can be exhilarating and physically addicting. Gambling, to some, is a form of thrill seeking akin to bungee-jumping.

Yet there is more to videogame gambling than these three reasons. The hope for pay out is present in games, but muted. Gambling mini-games may be slanted against the player. The rewards could also be minuscule compared to those earned by playing the actual game. While these mini-games can be fun (original interactive card games in particular), many are cheap imitations of real life games. Playing slot machines in the middle of Bioshock for example, is ridiculous and more than a little ironic. Lastly, the risk/reward high is significantly diminished when playing with fake money. Surely risking your protagonists life in-game is more adrenaline pumping than risking their artificial cash.
In-game poker is far more safe and mundane than real world poker, which is exactly why we gamers gamble. It is an extension of fantasy risk. I can safely put away thousands of dollars into Bioshock slot machines without any real world repercussions. I can also gamble guilt free, since most videogames do not condemn the player for betting - which could be the result of a society largely ambivalent towards gambling at best. As an outlier, Fable 2 gives players corruption points for money earned in Pub Games, even if they used an early exploit. These are, however, easily managed and removed. (Interestingly, Peter Molyneux told cheaters would be punished with in-game consequences, but his threat turned out to be hollow.)

Our Own Rewards

Gambling also has in-game utility for both players and developers. The low risk safety of fictional gambling can offer much needed rest for the weary gamer. The stress of battle or mental fatigue from being lost in Mass Effect's Citadel again can be relieved with a quick game of Quasar. Betting tables can act as optional rest points which reward player-generated pacing. They can also act as a money sink, alternatively giving control of pacing back to the author. Don't want your player overloaded with too much money? Trick them into giving it back with slot machines rigged in your favor.
Gambling in a game is just that: a game. I lost my money in The Witcher because I perceived the dice game as a set of rules designed so that I can, and should, win. I bought into the same fallacy that empties the pockets of casino goers. That is where there is confusion in how gambling is implemented. To some extent, I am supposed to win - there is a story that specifically rewards the persistent gambler. But the game is not entirely fair, and will make high-end opponents "luckier". Perhaps I was supposed to return to an earlier save. In this particular case, I blame myself for abandoning the developers design. Despite my fear of losing, there is value in the story of a broke Witcher.

Gambling in games could go either way. It could be an interesting addition accompanied by a strong statement. Or, it could be a mini-game afterthought put in to lure away the dollars, gil, and orens of unsuspecting players. For most games, I would guess the latter, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Now I am curious. What gambling tables have you enjoyed? Or do you play it safe and not play at all?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review: Sweating to the Oldies with Wii Fit Plus

A little while ago I argued that, as a game, Wii Fit functions differently from most every other title out there. Although its empirical effectiveness at burning calories might be underwhelming, the game's real strength comes from its ability to extend itself beyond the digital realm. When I am in a Wii Fit groove, I keep playing the game even when I am away from the TV: every time I have to choose between an elevator or the stairs, an apple or a cookie, the game's rules are in play.

Because of its massive sales numbers, I was interested to see how Wii Fit Plus would expand on its attempt to make its gameplay part of your lifestyle. Much to my surprise, instead of continuing to challenge our definition of "game," Wii Fit Plus is very much about iterating on traditional game experiences. Happily, incorporating the Balance Board into well-known gameplay structures is both a great workout and a sign that the Balance Board can survive outside of the fitness/mini-game ghetto.

Before I highlight the game's strength, I am compelled to note some of its baffling shortcomings. The original game's twelve yoga poses and twelve strength exercises can easily grow stale. I looked forward to host of new exercises, but only three new yoga poses and three additional strength poses have been added, making it easy to fall into a fitness rut.

The original Wii Fit contained very sparse organizational and administrative options. With three levels of intensity for each exercise and no way of creating saved routines, the player wasted precious minutes paging through menus feeling the burn. Wii Fit Plus attempts to address this issue by bundling sets of complementary exercises that flow from one to the next without any interstitial menus. While the fact that these exercises target specific body regions and physical skills is convenient, there is no way to adjust their intensity levels. Being the awesome beefcake that I am, I am again stuck with choosing each exercise individually.

Another of Wii Fit Plus' highly-touted features was the ability to create a custom routine. For reasons that elude me, Nintendo made good on its boast of letting the player create "a" workout: Only one custom workout at a time can be stored on your profile. Adhering to a "Monday-Wednesday-Friday" routine means erasing your workout and rebuilding it for each day. Compounding this lazy design is the fact that only strength and yoga exercises can be used in the custom routines. The fitness games, the place where the real fun and calorie burning happen, are left out.

Despite these drawbacks, Wii Fit Plus' new games have me enamored with the game. The addition of simple, yet meaningful motion control to games whose rules most gamers are already familiar with is an outstanding nod to the past and a great way of refreshing old concepts.

For those who crave twitchy, multi-tasking challenges there is the "Tilt City" game. By using the Wii Remote and Balance Board to control flippers, the player rolls colored marbles into their corresponding pipes. While things start out simple, the game gets quite frantic as the marbles begin to roll out faster. Tilting the controller left while leaning right on the balance board to simultaneously role two marbles in opposite directions takes mental focus and physical dexterity. The whole thing feels a bit like trying to pat your stomach and rub your head simultaneously.

As Jorge and I have discussed, cover mechanics are all the rage these days. Wii Fit Plus jumps on the bandwagon with its Snowball Fight game. By leaning to either side, you can peek out from behind a barricade to take shots at your opponents as they run between cover. Ducking out one side to draw enemy fire and then popping round the other to pick them off are dynamics I rarely associate with Nintendo games, but they make an excellent showing here. This could easily be a way to make light-gun-style games more interactive. I find myself hoping that the next Gears of War game is Balance Board-compatible.

Long time readers know my soft spot for Mario. After playing "Obstacle Course," I have a whole new admiration for everyone's favorite plumber. Trying to keep track of moving platforms, icy ground, and deadly projectiles is difficult to do with a controller. By making you physically responsible for the running and jumping, the sweat from nervousness and exertion is combined into one hilariously rewarding activity. Now I know why Mario looks so happy when he reaches the end of a level!

That Nintendo seems to have neglected the straightforward exercise portion of Wii Fit Plus suggests to me that the attempt to get people excited about traditional exercises has failed. Perhaps stretching and push-ups were not engaging enough to prevent the Balance Board from joining other abandoned New Year's resolutions in the back of the closet.

Whatever the case may be, with Wii Fit Plus, Nintendo returns to what it does best: creating innovative games that draw from and experiment with established gaming traditions. In doing so, Nintendo succeeds in keeping both the player and medium from growing sluggish.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

EXP Podcast #54: Following Xbox, Friending PlayStation

It's amazing (and frightening, depending on your viewpoint) how quickly social networking websites have become part of our daily lives. In 2004, who would have thought that [The] Facebook would be keeping track of their video game accomplishments? In 2006, Twitter asked the world "What are you doing?" and now we can answer its nagging inquiry by replying: "I'm updating you on my Xbox." As Web 2.0 snakes its tendrils into our game consoles, we discuss our initial impressions of the features and exchange some ideas about the ramifications of adding our game-playing selves to the Internet Hive Mind. Seeing as how the explosion of social networking has been crucial to this site, I'll stop teasing the hand that feeds us and invite you all to jump in with your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- Have you activated the social networking functions on your consoles yet? If so, are you enjoying the experience? If not, what stops you from doing so?

- What effects will social network integration have on player habits?

- What does the future hold for the relationship between sites like Twitter, the game industry, and its culture? Is this the beginning of a huge change or simply a passing fad?

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: 26 min 13 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks