Thursday, October 27, 2011

Commercial Success: Positioning Games in Pop-Culture

My latest PopMatters article is now live - Commercial Success: Positioning Games in Pop Culture

This piece is just an exploration of how three commercials that have caught my attention and the attention of some other Moving Pixels writers position games within popular culture at large. But for this addendum, I want to talk a bit about gamer icons.

I have mixed reactions to watching Harrison Ford play Uncharted 3. One one hand, I find him genuinely charming, every bit representative of the swashbucklers he has played on the big screen. On the other hand, he is clearly getting old. I almost feel bad for the guy. Did Sony really need to trot out an aging icon to convince Japanese consumers to buy Uncharted 3? Couldn't they have connected video games to film culture differently?

This raises an interesting question. Setting aside the oft cited dilemma regarding game designer auteurs, who might we turn to for game icons and ambassadors? At first I thought of other actors. Ryan Gosling is an upcoming action star; maybe he could bring some credibility to the Driver series. Sure there are some actors out there who genuinely enjoy video games and the culture that surrounds them. If it were Nathan Fillion on the couch playing Uncharted, would he better convey the relationship between storytelling in film and storytelling in games? Maybe actors will always come off as artificial, never quite reflecting the unique place games hold in popular culture.

I then moved on to other creative minds. What if a famous director appeared in a commercial instead, conveying to the audience an appreciation for design. Spielberg knows about world building, maybe he could convey the awe of inhabiting a rich interactive environment with credibility. Someone could tell Christopher Nolan to talk to non-gamers about the value of games.

Ah, that brings up an even better games ambassador: Batman. Specifically, the transmedia icon occupies popular culture through a variety of media. Rather than scaring non-gamers off with that bar room full of frightening player avatars worshiping some guy named Michael, Sony could use Batman as a bridge between consumers of all forms of media. Nolan's Dark Knight, the animated version of the bat, and Rocksteady's bulky hero, could all say "I'm batman" and speak the truth. Check out this commercial for Arkham City Walmart put out. The game appears predominantly in the background, secondary to a comedic bit about the caped icon himself. In this approach, games are positioned as one piece of a larger pop culture diet, offering one aspect of a story that has transcended its original medium. He might not be an appropriate ambassador for all games, but I could be comfortable with Batman as my icon of choice. Yet the positioning of games in pop culture is far from over.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

EXP IndieCast #8: Closed, Fantasy, and Aquatic Worlds

It's time once again for an independent game roundup! This week, Jorge and I discuss A Closed World, A Tale By Alex, and Fisher-Diver. All three games are free to play and boast interesting mechanical and thematic features. Each game is thought-provoking and well-worth playing; we have a wide ranging conversation that encompasses everything from considering the difficulties of incorporating LGBTQ themes in games to hunting the most dangerous game. As always, thanks for listening and fell free to jump into the comments with your thoughts!

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: 33 min 11 sec

- A Closed World
- A Tale by Alex
- Fisher-Diver

Additional reading on A Closed World:
- "A Closed World: A Game About LGBTQ Themes," by Hal, via GayGamer
- "Interview: How GAMBIT's A Closed World Tackles Sexuality, Identity," by Leigh Alexander, via Gamasutra
- "'A Closed World' and thoughts on gay video games." and "LGBTQ game design knife fight!" by Robert Yang
- "a closed mind," by Anna Anthropy
- "Anna Anthropy on 'A Closed World,'" by Christine Love

- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Fall Classic

If you've been watching the World Series (and chances are you haven't), then you've been treated to a particularly exciting contest. The Rangers and the Cardinals might not be the biggest names in the league, but they've put on an exciting show. I still have a soft spot for Tony LaRussa thanks to his time with the A's, but I'm mainly rooting for the St. Louis in hopes of getting to see a seventh game. Today's a travel day, so at the risk of losing my sports credibility, I thought I'd share some thoughts on my favorite baseball video game: Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball.

As regular readers know, I don't play many sports games. It's not for lack of interest; I love watching sports and am quite interested in the strategy and athleticism behind them. It's just that sports games, like many other genres, have become increasingly specialized over the years. Imagine if someone who only played Doom dove right in to Battlefield 3? It's hard to simply jump into a current version of Madden or The Show without feeling overwhelmed. I played Griffey when it came out in 1994, and that's pretty much where my skill at baseball video games peaked.

Griffey came out at a time when the line between arcade and simulation styles was blurrier than it is today. The game had deep rosters, accurate player statistics, and realistic representations of every major league stadium. At the same time, player collisions resulted in cartoonish fainting spells, fielders ran at twice the speed of on-base runners, and players routinely broke bats over their knees. It was the kind of game that let you play through an entire season and also regularly blast 500-foot homers.

For some reason, my friends, cousins, and brother took a shining to the quirky title. Because the game wasn't licensed by the players' union, all the names (except for Griffey's) had been changed to thematic pseudonyms. The A's were made up of famous authors like Byron and Twain. Seattle unsurprisingly boasted a roster of Nintendo employees like Howard Lincoln and Dan Owsen. Because the stats, numbers, and teams were true to life, it was easy to figure out who was who, but I never bothered editing most of the names. There was something great about seeing "J. Wayne" of the Angels hit grand slams.

When it got too dark to play three flies up, we would head inside and huddle around the TV, taunting each other with slow moves to first and disrespectful tag-outs. The hitting and pitching systems are rudimentary by today's standards, but they were more than adequate for strategic play as well as mind games. Just like in the real game, Griffey was as much about anticipating your opponent's decision as it was executing the play. Of course, the pros don't have to worry about their friends trying to slap the controller out of their hands in hopes of messing up an easy fly ball.

Today, I can still remember that iconic intro song that played over the title screen. It's as if Joe Satriani was distilled into MIDI format. Also: check out the sick base solo at 1:24.

It was the 1990's y'all! I spent so much time playing the game that modern sports games still strike me as eerily quiet. Alas, I feel like the day of digital organ-laden melodic loops are long passed.

Perhaps more so than any other American sport, Baseball is steeped nostalgia. Our memories of it goes deeper than the stats we record about every pitch. The game marks the change in the seasons and gets intertwined with memories of growing up. In this way, Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball is a fitting tribute to the sport. After all these years, I still recall it like some sprite-based sandlot; a digital field of dreams whose fantasy elements imbued its more realistic features with the magic necessary to make indelible memories.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Promotional Adventures: Thoughts on the Subway 'Uncharted 3' Campaign

This week, my post at PopMatters comes to you courtesy of Subway.

That's a bit of an exaggeration: Subway didn't sponsor my post, but it couldn't have happened without the Subway Uncharted 3 promotion. Jorge and I talked about the (unprecedented?) ad campaign a few weeks ago. Ultimately, my love of multiplayer and sandwiches surmounted my reservations about creeping corporatism and I went down to Subway to grab a code. The post is basically a debriefing.

As I've said before, I think Uncharted 3's multiplayer is very good. Therefore, I'm glad Sony seems to be pushing it. Unfortunately, it's popularity and the early access may ultimately be detrimental to its accessibility, as people have already become ridiculously good at the game. By the time the game is released, many players will be experts at navigating the maps and will have unlocked gear superior to what is available for newcomers.

I think the promotion is more interesting on a philosophical level, as it raises questions about what we should expect from video games and their characters. What does it mean when fictional characters become spokespeople for non-fictional products? How does selling parts specific parts of a game impact the entire package? Will this become a trend? As I say in the post, I'm certain people would pay extra money to get early access to the Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer. I doubt you'd even have to offer them a sandwich.

Finally: I'm interested in hearing from anyone who has unlocked and chosen to wear the Subway-themed gear in the Uncharted 3. In a word: Why? Do you view it as a mark of your skill? Do you like the design? Are you wearing it ironically? Do you consider it an advertisement for Subway? I'm genuinely interested.

Ultimately, I'm happy that I had another shot at Uncharted 3's multiplayer and that I was able to do some first hand research in a trend that has both design and artistic implications for the medium. However, my experiences have made me reluctant to embrace similar promotions in the future.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

EXP Podcast #145: HD Recollections - Ico

Somewhere in a forgotten castle in Japan, where the sound of ocean waves can drift through the remains of ancient keeps, Fumito Ueda is hard at work crafting The Last Guardian. The only tenable flavor of that otherworldly realm must come from the recent launch of the Ico and Shadow of the Collosus HD bundle. This week on the show, at the request of listener Chris Rickard, we take a look at the first half of the collection and revisit our time with Yorda, Team Ico's management of camera angles and scales, and the evolutionary tree of platformers. Surely you have played the game before (If not, get on it!), so be sure to leave your thoughts on the game in the comments section below, as well as your feelings towards the HD conversion. If you liked this show, come back in two weeks while we discuss Shadow of the Collosus.

Discussion starters:

- If you played Ico at launch, what were your first thoughts?
- Does the game hold up? Does anything stand out?
- What has been the impact of Ico on the games industry at large?

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: 37 min 22 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks and Michiru Oshima from the Ico Soundtrack.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Darker Knight

Warning: This post contains spoilers for 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum.

When Batman: Arkham Asylum launched last year, despite its very positive reception, it never quite caught my eye. To be honest, I have just never been that big a fan of Batman. Call me crazy, but I find it hard to relate to a rich white playboy who secretly buys expensive toys and uses them to beat people up. Now before you pull your own Wayne-pile-driver, I should say I’m actually adore a certain type of Batman. After finally giving Arkham Asylum a try, I can safely say the game captures many of the comic book elements introduced by DC’s great writers, which help make both a great game and a great protagonist. Now I am ready and eager to get my hands on Arkham City.

Like Superman, I never found Batman interesting growing up. I was busy engulfing the X-men and could not be bothered with the caped crusader. Then, in college, I read Arkham Asylum: The Serious House on Serious Earth by legendary Grant Morrison. You cannot read this comic book and look at Batman the same way ever again. Although Rocksteady only loosely based their game on this comic, the power of the source material is powerful enough to shine through. The heroes and villains Morrison presents are not glamorous or cliches, despite their ludicrous personas. The inmates of Arkham Asylum are deranged murderers living in a maddening and terribly dark world. The world they inhabit only mirrors the insanities of the outside world as well, which Batman inhabits tenuously. Some of these same adult undertones work marvelously in the game version of Arkham Island. Not only is the game genuinely dark, but the protective wards for inmates, the audio tapes dotting the island, and the disturbingly sadistic characterization of Killer Croc and Victor Zsaz are quite unsettling.

Arkham Asylum also upholds some of the more nuanced elements of Batman established in comic book form. Frank Miller’s run of The Dark Night Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again portrays Bruce Wayne as a far more human and fallible hero than the norm. Although Rocksteady stayed clear of some of the most interesting ethical and political dimensions of the Dark Knight’s actions, Batman still comes off as vulnerable, albeit quite capable. The jitter of the controller and the dazed camera effects make each punch Batman takes dramatic and punishing. Even the locked off areas of the island express how reliant Batman is on his tools of the trade. The build-up of wounds and damages to his suit over the game also add-up to a character who is forcing himself to suffer to achieve his ends. He is tenacious, not magically imbued with mutant powers. All of which make his decision to use the antidote on himself, to stop from becoming super-human, far more powerful.

Even the elements of the Arkham Asylum comic and Alan Moore’s run of The Killing Joke that characterize Batman as partially insane himself appear in Rocksteady’s efforts. The Scarecrow hallucinations vividly exploring just how disturbed Bruce Wayne still is. After all, he dresses up like a bat because he couldn’t handle the death of his parents. The villains play as much a part in his pysche as he does in theirs. “You need us as much as we need you,” Scarecrow calls out to Batman while tormenting him with nightmares, some of which incorporate a hidden recognition of his own insanity. How cool is that? And some people call Nathan Drake a complex hero?

Ok , I see now why you all put Arkham Asylumon on your game-of-the-year lists of 2009, and why undoubtedly so many of you are playing through Arkham City right now. No spoilers, but does it live up to the hype? Do the downtrodden cops of Ed Brubaker’s amazing Gotham Central make an appearance, those unfortunate detectives forced to live in a hero’s shadow while watching their city crumble? Have they made the Bat even more interesting? I am certainly eager to find out. While I wait though, I might write a letter to Rocksteady telling them to read Kingdom Come and All-Star Superman and plead for them bring our red-caped protector back into the modern age of videogames.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A 'League of Legends' Balancing Act

My latest PopMatters article is now live: A League of Legends Balancing Act

I have written about League of Legends a startling amount of times. This is partly because I still play the game, getting in at least two or three matches a week (and sometimes a lot more), and partly because the game is always changing. I admire Riot's commitment to not only adapting and growing their product, but making their community feel like an integral part of the experience. It's not just the frequent videos where they highlight fan art, or the champion highlights and "how-to"s, but also their apparent respect to their fan base. The player judgement system is a perfect example of Riot recognizing the community's complaints and concerns about griefers and their willingness to create a system that acts on this need by tapping the very community it serves.

Riot's pro-level circuit and livestreams are also fascinating to watch, and always offer accessible and entertaining commentary. Riot has also shown support for indy devs, and after talking with a few of the devs at a hackathon they supported in New York last summer, I get the sense this admiration for player and indy ingenuity is genuine for the entire team. For those interested in community relations, particularly in competitive multiplayer environments, Riot is the company to watch.

This is precisely why I find 'Dominion' so interesting in relation to game balance. The new launch is just a reminder of how quickly Riot has grown since launch, both their game and their design team (for which they are still hiring). When I compare their community efforts with Blizzard or CCP, I wonder if there are inevitable growing pains for companies working in the multiplayer sphere. Players always demand more content, but more content bloats a product and makes is harder to wrangle. I'm certain Riot will do just fine, but I certainly consider their work to be an experiment in balancing design goals and community expectations.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

EXP Podcast #144: The Wonder Gears

Time moves fast in the world of video games. Technology changes (remember Rumble Paks?), franchises rise and fall (just ask Guitar Hero!), and it's hard to predict what will gain popularity (Minecraft, anyone?). With the recent release of Gears of War 3, Jorge and I decided we would take stock of what we consider to be one of most important franchises of the last five years. This show is less about the games' specific story and more about their narrative within the industry. We talk about everything from the influence of cover to blurred genres distinctions, and close with some thoughts (and hopes) regarding Epic's future. As always, thanks for listening and feel free to voice your thoughts in the comments!

Discussion starters:

- How does Gears differ from other big franchises of last few years?
- Is the series' influence understated, properly recognized, or exaggerated?
- What are your hopes for Epic's future projects?

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: 41 min 20 sec
- "No Glory for Gears," by Jorge Albor, via PopMatters
- "'Gears of War 3:' A Triumphant Past, a Familiar Present, and an Uncertain Future," by Scott Juster, via PopMatters
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Fog of War: Notes from the Battlefield 3 Beta

The beta for DICE's upcoming Battlefield 3 recently closed. As an avid on-line shooter dilettante, I was excited to get a look at what seems to be a very important release for EA. Battlefield is a long-running franchise, but this installment is being positioned to directly compete with the industry's reigning military shooter juggernaut, Modern Warfare 3. Designing a successful first-person shooter is difficult; designing one that works well enough to capture the console audience is even more so. Will Battlefield 3 be able to pull this off?

It's hard to tell, but to be honest, I'm not optimistic. I've been in a bit of a visual design mood lately, and because of this, certain aspects of BF 3's visual presentation stood out. Complex, fast-paced games need readable, navigable on-screen information systems, especially on a console where control inputs are limited. Unfortunately, BF 3 does a sub-par job of conveying crucial information.

The in-game HUD is pretty, but its symbols and numbers could be redesigned to be more readable. Instead of denoting grenades with "G," why not use a widely-recognizable pictogram? Implementing this symbol would also allow for multiple grenade types with different physical profiles. It took me a while to figure out that the three dots near the ammo count represent the gun's firing rate. Changing them to be shaped like bullets would have communicated their significance much more quickly, as it would be clear that a group of bullets meant auto-fire while a single-bullet meant a single shot.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

'Gears of War 3': A Triumphant Past, a Familiar Present, and an Uncertain Future

This week's PopMatters post is a meditation on the past, present, and future of Gears of War.

Gears is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word "meditative," but I'm always interested in searching for the brains behind the brawn.  I have a certain soft spot for Gears in much the same way I do for the God of War series.  While the violence and impressive set pieces attract an understandable amount of attention, there are plenty of impressive design choices and thought-provoking thematic elements.  Sometimes these things things start getting a little bit meta, which is where this week's essay comes in.

I wasn't surprised to see mostly positive reviews for Gears of War 3.  Epic knows what it's doing.  I was intrigued by a small, but noticeable undercurrent of dissatisfaction that appeared in a variety of reviews.  For some, Gears 3 delivered everything it was expected to provide, and yet it felt somewhat lacking or perhaps even boring.  Nothing specific is wrong or missing.  On the contrary, its many elegant systems and game modes make Gears 3 one of the most robust games out there.  What then is the problem?

My theory is that the franchise's fate resembles that of its protagonist.  By the end of the trilogy, Marcus has turned the tide of the war and cleared a space for a new world to emerge.  But now that the battle is over, what will become of him and the unique skills that define him?  As a series, Gears fought a battle to claw out a space for a new kind of shooter.  Third-person can basically be broken down into two groups: pre and post-Gears.  Things like one-button cover systems have become ubiquitous, as have blockbuster games with both expansive single-player and complex multiplayer modes.  Gears helped changed the landscape, but what comes next? 

Gears is still the best at what it does, but perhaps its own successes have diminished its impact?  Years after the first and second games, we have seen scores of titles learn and implement Gears' lessons.  The result is things that initially felt innovative have now become commonplace.  Gears of War 3 may be the ultimate refinement of a once-innovative style, but it no longer surprises people.  This leaves Epic, Marcus, and players with the same question: What next?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

EXP Podcast #143: Deli Club DLC

If Antonio Banderas can sell sinus medication, why can't Captain Olimar sell herbicide? Maybe he can. Video games have been used to sell a wide variety of non-game related merchandise, but have our iconic protagonists ever been spokespersons?  If not, then Nathan Drake is changing videogames again, and this time he is doing it was sandwiches. This week on the EXP Podcast, we discuss the fourth-wall breaking personification of Nathan Drake, how it reflects the status of games cultures and narratives, and the ethical concerns about connecting game content with real world consumption. We encourage to watch, and the re-watch, the Uncharted 3 Subway commercial embedded below, and then leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Some discussion starters:

- Does this ad campaign water down Uncharted 3's story?
- Do you think this type of marketing will weave its way throughout videogames more often?
- Did you already buy Subway before even listening to this episode?

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 58 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Crossing the Shooter Divide

I have wrapped the campaign for Gears 3, killing my final locust grub and triumphantly yelling “shit yea!” at the top of my lungs while gyrating in front my apartment window, fist raised to the sky. As a personal reward (it’s important to enjoy the little things), I hopped onto my computer to try out the Battlefield 3 multiplayer. Now I have played Battlefield games before, most of which I enjoyed immensely. I can comfortably say no one comes close to creating the sensation of fighting in a large scale battle than Dice. That being said, I had no idea what I was getting into. I quickly abandoned the illusion that these two games belonged in the same genre. Far from it. Gears is to Battlefield 3 as Woody from Toy Story is to Clint Eastwood from Unforgiven.

Like stepping out of darkness into the bright outdoors, I was blinded by the visual fidelity of Battlefield 3. I had grown accustomed to the browns and greys of locust hordes, so much so that I became overwhelmed and quite confused by the landscape before me. One of the maps in the beta takes place out doors in a park, with sunlight shining on the bushes, rocks, and assorted park accessories. In an environment awash with light, picking out enemies can actually be quite hard. Crouched in a bush leagues away, or even standing next to a tree, other players can seem like just a part of their environment. With all the detail, you have got to train your eyes to spot subtle movement or the glint of light off an enemy’s scope. In multiple instances, after I had been shot out from an unknown location, I frantically scanned my surroundings, looking for signs of life, wondering if perhaps my assailant had fled, only to be shot down from who knows where. Trying to read Battlefield 3’s landscape can be like staring at a magic eye puzzle you just cannot see.

Even in the subterranean subway, light plays a crucial role in combat. Well lit expanses become dead zones where players are easily taken out from a distance, their movement visible from anywhere. Localized fires create smoke and distracting flares that obscure enemies hiding behind them. Unlike Gears your enemies will not make loud grunting sounds or telegraph their presence with a battle cry. More often than not, I died quickly and efficiently by the hands of players I could not see. The flashlight, an unlockable piece of equipment, made matters worse by disorienting and blinding me when confronting players armed with a mag light. Not knowing if the source was friend or foe, I found myself shooting the air haphazardly like an inept villain.

Speaking of shooting, the weaponry in Battlefield 3 leaves me baffled. I thought I had grown familiar with guns - scoped ones kill people from far away, rifles take out mid-range one, and shotgungs blow close things to shreds. Regardless of what you wield, everything bullet is fatal in Battlefield 3. Whereas each weapon in Gears has some clever gimmick to it, making it unique, the differences between weapons seem minuscule. Of course I have yet to unlock the cornucopia of attachments to increase for murderous efficiency. After collapsing to the ground, for the fourth time, from what seemed like a bee sting, I began to miss the heavy-set impermeable of Marcus Fenix and a gun with a freaking chainsaw on it.

Sometime in between racking up kills by laying prone next to some boxes, waiting for enemies to walk into my sights, and running like a madman into battle hoping to drop a radio beacon to gain points without having to shoot anything, I realized the genre term “shooter” is damn near meaningless. There is enjoyment to be had in Gears of War 3 and Battlefield 3, but moving from one to the other can be shocking. From hence forth, I will move gradually across my genre divides, lest I panic, run for cover, and hide in bushes for twenty minutes... again.