Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Other Guy With a Red Hat

Image from Flickr user MatthewJJ
The holiday afterglow is still in full effect in my household, so I thought I'd stick with the spirit by mentioning two games that always remind me of Christmas. I was a pretty lucky kid in the 1990s. In 1991, Santa gave my brother and me a Super NES. While I can't remember how early we woke our parents up in anticipation of what was under the tree (I'm sure it was still dark outside), I do remember what that morning sounded like.

Super Mario World Overworld

Five years later, my parents took over Mr. Kringle's tradition and gave us a Nintendo 64. Just as the image of my dad crawling through the growing tangle of wires behind the entertainment center to hook up the system(remember RF switches?), this song has stuck with me:

Dire, Dire Docks (as first heard on Jolly Roger Bay)

For me, this is more than the sound of the holidays; it is the sound of amazement. Super Mario 64 looks pretty crude by today's standards, but exploring such a massive 3D world was revelation back in 1996. Even today, the size and intricacy of the game's worlds is impressive.

On a less nostalgic note, I think these examples demonstrate the importance of launch dates.  By positioning their big, important games during the time of year people receive gifts, Nintendo ensured Mario would show up in a lot of stockings. As an added bonus, they made sure that people like me would be experiencing their games during a holiday focused around creating warm family memories. Hearing these songs not only reminds me of great games, but of fond times that are now inextricably linked to those games.

 But enough of my rambling; anyone else have any inadvertent holiday games?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

EXP Podcast #204: 2012 Games of the Year

Alas, the year has come to an end! With 2013 around the corner, what better time to look back on some of our favorite games from the past year. In Experience Points tradition, Scott and I discuss each of our three favorite games of 2012. What makes our lists? Will we continue the trend of sharing the same Game of the Year? Listen and find out!

Also, what are your favorite games of 2012? Or even your favorite "things", period? We would love to feature it on the podcast. Find out more here!

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:

SPOILER WARNING: Our picks are listed below!

1. Journey
2. The Walking Dead
3. Borderlands 2

1. Journey
2. The Walking Dead
3. Papo & Yo

- Runtime: 39 min 09 secs
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Holidays

I've got my presents, some hot chocolate, and a house full of family, so I'll be taking the holiday off today. Happy non-denominational festivities readers and podcast listeners. I hope you are taking some good time off and playing some games today!

We will be back tomorrow with an End of the Year Experience Points Podcast. Until then, happy holidays!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Reign of Missiles and Conflict Narratives

My latest PopMatters article is now live: A Reign of Missiles and Conflict Narratives.

I should really talk about the intersection of game design and international politics more often, this stuff is fascinating. I was lucky enough to get my MA at a University that embraced such unique combination of concepts and ideas and, frankly, I miss jumping wholeheartedly into the two fields simultaneously. The Reign of Missiles board game is hilariously perfect to pique my interest. A game about Israel and Palestine conflict? What's not to love?

The board game, designed by Paul Rohrbaugh, holds far more depth than my article could thoroughly explore, at least within any reasonable length. There are loads of various interesting systems that reflect particularly perceptions and narratives related to the ongoing conflict. Israel, for example, potentially has access to airborne Commandos that can attack up to two targets in the Gaza area.  These special units still have the same chance of inflicting civilian casualties when attacking. The chances of administering civilian casualties, 60% for both sides, is relatively high, particularly for a small band of ground troops. The frequency of such casualties depict a consistency in fatalities in both sides, regardless of motivation and engagement. Depending on your political perspective, this could be interpreted as a harsh reality or a gross over exaggeration.

A Reign of Missiles joins of many games about real-world conflict and a wider genre of war simulators. As such, there seems to be a clear pursuit of objectivity in the rules here. Of course such goals are impossible to achieve. That being said, A Reign of Missiles is complex enough to offer multiple perspectives on the conflict. As a piece of participatory folklore, the stories this game, and others like, can tell, is incredibly educational.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

EXP Podcast #203: 'Call of Duty: Black Ops II' Debrief

This week, Jorge and I return from top secret mission with classified info on Call of Duty: Black Ops II. This show (which is for your ears only) covers everything from multiplayer dynamics to geo-political commentary, so there's something for everyone. BlOps 2 (as we affectionately call it) offers some intriguing changes to both the mechanical and thematic aspects of the series, so there is plenty to discus. As always don't hesitate to infiltrate the comments with your thoughts!

- 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: 41 min 50 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Game Notes: Frog Fractions

Image from Twin Beard Studios
I'm going to take this whole "experimental Tuesday" thing to heart and start what I hope to be an ongoing series in which I post some of the notes I take while playing video games. Of course, this kind of thing raises some questions:

Why do you take notes while playing a game?

 Because I am a nerd, clearly. Also: I have to remember things in order to write and podcast about them and my ancient brain isn't as absorbent as it used to be.

How will you publish these notes?

If it's a digital document, I'll just link or embed it. I'll post screenshots of my mad scribblings if I have a notebook. Finally, maybe I'll go all Twin Peaks and post voice memos as I encounter points of interest. Think of it as live casting, but not live.

Will this change your note taking practices (physics observable experiment effect)?

Maybe, but what are you going to do? It's true that the simple act of adding this extra layer will probably have some kind of impact on my "natural" process, but I'll try not to post for every game and try to keep myself focused on notes.

 I came up with this idea while playing Frog Fractions. Before reading any further, you should really go play the game yourself. It won't take long and I'm about to reveal the hilarious ending. Frog Fractions is partly a parody of old educational games, but you don't actually have to do any math until the very end when you gain control over the production of bug pornography. The point is that you have to make a profit selling it on the open market while taking into consideration the costs of production and the risks of unknown setbacks. After a couple losing campaigns, I started writing things down in a spreadsheet:

It started innocently enough: writing down single numbers just to remember totals. It then morphed into something a little more serious with expected net/gross totals, complete with cells that took into account the data entered in other cells. Without meaning to, I was beginning to poorly and crudely reinvent accounting 101.

I soon realized better ways of organizing the spreadsheet and more accurate ways of tracking expenses while factoring in unexpected setbacks. I cursed my younger self for not taking more practical classes in college as I painstakingly expanded my profit margins. Then I realized that I would probably have to play the game all day in order to legitimately hit my target profit and opted instead to simply print enough money to finish the game. As the game says, let the next generation deal with inflation.

There are probably some real world lessons in here somewhere. The fiscally responsible option will always be slower and more time consuming to maintain than the quick and easy option. A grasp of basic economics would probably solve a lot of personal and political problems in this world. One freak storm can destroy an entire production run of insect pornography. The list goes on.

One thing's for sure: it had been a long time since a game inspired me to create a spreadsheet.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Call for Favorite Things of 2012

The year is wrapping up, which inevitably results in the "Game of the Year" conversations, which certainly have their place in the industry. This year, Scott and I want to expand upon both the idea and the conversation by asking podcast listeners, guests past, and anyone, to send in your favorite things of the year to be featured on an upcoming EXP Podcast. Be they favorite levels, themes, industry trends, characters, games, or anything you can think up - all favorites are welcome!

Since we plan on including some of these favorites in an upcoming podcast, we encourage you to actually send in a recording of yourself talking about your "favorite thing". Don't be shy. Just email us an audio file of you answering "What is your favorite thing of 2012 and why?". Keep the messages under two minutes and feel free to talk about anything you like.

Want to participate but do not have easy access to a mic? Email us your favorite thing and why it is a memorable experience/idea/etc. from 2012 and we might read it/talk about it on the show. We look forward to hearing your picks!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Finding Value in The Unfinished Swan

Image from
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about the The Unfinished Swan.

It's not officially a review, but in retrospect it pretty much reads like one. In year of exceptionally strong downloadable titles (e.g., Journey, The Walking Dead, Papo & Yo) The Unfinished Swan manages to stand out in a number of ways. First, it's a first-person game that isn't about mass murder, which is always refreshing. It also has a collection of game mechanics that could be easily split off into several stand alone games.

At another time in my life, this probably would have bothered me. "They could have gone so much deeper, made so many more puzzles, and had so many more levels!" my hypothetical past self would have argued. It's true, The Unfinished Swan paints with broad strokes when it comes to exploring the various abilities you have. However, when you consider the gameplay in conjunction with the plot, it's clear that the point of the game isn't to challenge you to paint as fast as you can or to stymie you with puzzles. The Unfinished Swan uses interactive systems to let you feel the game's central metaphor. I won't say too much more about this metaphor, other than it's been quite a year for exploring interpersonal relationships in games this year(again, e.g., Journey, The Walking Dead, Papo & Yo).

One thing that I didn't get a chance to comment on in the post was Terry Gilliam's voicing of the game's eccentric King. It's a pretty interesting choice on a meta-textual level, as the King plays a weird role that is part antagonist, part tragic figure, and part narrator. He's clearly a brilliant architect,, but his creations often turn out half-finished, misunderstood, or simply inscrutable. Gilliam definitely has a better track record than the King, but if anyone has ever had the idea to create a completely white, shadowless Kingdom guarded by a lazy giant, it has to be him.

In any case, I definitely recommend The Unfinished Swan. It may not be the longest game or have the most expansive world, but all its components fit together to form an excellent story.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

EXP Podcast #202: The Walking Dead Debrief, Episode 5

Image from Telltale Games

At least, Lee's story has come to end. After the fifth and final episode of The Walking Dead (Season 1, I hope), we have so much to talk about. What decisions did you make in the end? And, more importantly, does the game satisfy our expectations? Join us this week on the podcast as Scott and I dissect The Walking Dead, Episode 5, and discuss the game's many accomplishments.

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:

- Runtime: 56 min 34 secs
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

EXP Podcast #201: A Day Z Dilemma

We mentioned in our 200th episode that the Experience Points Podcast would try out some new things. Well here is one of our first experimental podcasts. At the heart of this one is a great story by Drew Dixon about his time with Day Z. Initially I wanted to explore why good people do bad things in video games. Instead, I learned more about how reflecting on ethical dilemmas, even ones that turn out less than perfect, can be more rewarding than first imagined. A huge thanks is owed to Matt Lightfoot, Carolyn Jong, and Drew Dixon, for their incredibly insight and willingness to chat. The conversations we had were dramatically shortened for brevity, but every word was fascinating.

Of course we encourage you to share your thoughts on both the topic and this more experimental/themed podcast episode in the comments! If you like the show, be sure to share this episode with your friends and review us in iTunes. This type of podcast not your "cup of tea"? Never fear! We will be back tomorrow with another regular EXP Podcast.

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed and our Stitcher 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: 22 min 56 sec
- "It's all gonna break," by Drew Dixon via GameChurch
- Music provided by Brad Sucks, Alastair Cameron, Broke For Free, and Hey Rosetta!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Black Ops 2 and American Fears

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Black Ops 2 and American Fears.

Last week Scott wrote a great piece about Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 that serves as a great companion for my article this week. Both look at the political and historical realities of the game and, I think, help illuminate some really rewarding content that you can find in the games.

I have always been of two minds on this series. On one side the series has pretty consistently levied interesting and compelling criticisms of US foreign policy, the military industrial complex, the war on terror specifically, and more. But it has also glorified some truly atrocious behavior and funneled players through set pieces that are more style than substance. I keep getting the sense that half the team working on these games are brilliant and the other half, well, less so.

For example, I love how oddly personal Black Ops 2 is. Menendez is driven almost entirely by revenge, mostly towards Woods and Mason at that. Meanwhile, Mason junior and the team are focused primarily on taking out Menendez, just one man. Meanwhile, in the background, huge political machinations are taking place. Whether or not players kill Menendez or imprison him at the end, Cordis Die still exists. Which, by the way, is the vaguest terrorist "organization" in video game history, if you can call it organized. You can read this as a critique of the military's inability to affect meaningful diplomatic change or win hearts and minds. Or this could just be an accident. Honestly, I don't know.

The political themes in the game, particularly those that tap into modern American fears of vulnerability, are absolutely fascinating. How much of are intentional and how much are implemented as clever lead-ins for Blacks Ops 3 I couldn't tell you.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

EXP Podcast #200: The Bicentennial Show

Image from Flickr user Studio H (Chris)
Alright, so we haven't actually been doing the podcast for two hundred years, but it's still been a pretty long time! Two hundred episodes ago, Jorge and I started the podcast. It's been more fun than we could have imagined. This week, we get a little bit meta and talk about the show on the show. Don't worry: it's not just self congratulation. We're looking to switch some things up and try out some new ideas in hopes of making the next two hundred episodes even better.

As always, we couldn't be more grateful to our great audience. To everyone who has ever listened: thank you!

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:

- Runtime: 34 min 39 sec
- New site banner and logos by Phillip Andrew Wong,
- Sound effect from Freesound user Halleck
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Games Are Not Toasters

Image from Flickr user
Like most folks, I'm willing to trade the some personal ownership in exchange for Steam's convenience. I'm fine with ceding some traditional notions of ownership in exchange for its service-based approached to selling games because the service itself is so valuable. However, I'm not fine with false analogies. Check this passage out:
A Steam gift purchase is a one-time transfer—after the recipient has activated and installed the game, it is a non-refundable game in his or her Steam games collection. Also note that you may only gift new purchases—you may not transfer games you already own. That’d be like wrapping up and presenting the toaster you’ve used every morning for the past year. (Steam Support)
This is precisely the wrong way to think about digital goods.

A toaster degrades: the coils wear out, the lever gets jammed, the casing gets stained. You wouldn’t wrap up a toaster and re-gift it or resell it at full price because it’s no longer worth what it was when it was new. As a physical product, it's form and function degrades over time, thereby changing its value.

A digital game never degrades. Whether you use it three times or three thousand times, it will always function the same way. There is no difference between downloading a "new" copy of Half Life and using someone else's digital copy. All those 1s and 0s are as pristine as the day it was released.

Theoretically, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to gift Steam games you bought for yourself. A gift code could be generated and sent to a new person. Once the new person activates it, your license to run the copy of the game would be revoked, thus completing the transaction.

Steam's explanation regarding why you can't gift old games is cloaked in pro-customer rhetoric, but that's not the real reason the policy exists. Games are expensive to make and distribute, and this policy is Steam's way of trying to find a balance between creator's and customer's rights while still making a profit. Trying to disguise it in terms of the content as opposed to the access and delivery system in which that content resides is dangerous.

"Dangerous?" you might say, "Isn't that a little alarmist?" Maybe, but such rhetoric is insidious. Trying to bolt the logic of physical goods onto digital media is what spawns things like the DMCA and SOPA/PIPA. Attempting to run an industry as if it were still the 1950s is what the RIAA and MPAA do. Media companies have a vested interest in maintaining the idea of tangible "things" in the digital age. If you can get people to agree to treat digital media like physical toasters, it's much easier to maintain old, product-based business models.

Digital games will only become more important and prevalent as we prepare for a new console generation, and I highly doubt that Sony and Microsoft will let you relinquish your licenses to other players. When it comes to the transition from physical to digital goods, we're already stuck with the toaster model: even though they never lose functional value, we can no longer trade, sell, or gift the games we payed money for.

I often worry that it's too late. Everyone (myself included) is deeply invested in this system and it's hard to fight the good fight for unrestricted content when we all have bills to pay and lives to live. I hope that, at the very least, we can remember that games are not toasters.