Friday, 23 December 2011

2011 Year End Review

Even though I haven't been posting for the entirety of 2011 I've still been paying attention to the gaming trends throughout the year, so I figured that there's really no better way to end this year than with a look at what ultimately happened throughout it.

Perhaps the most pertinent thing that comes to mind when I think of the year as a whole is the first time (at least that I can remember) that Nintendo released a portable console that showed even minor signs of struggling. The somewhat lukewarm response that the 3DS invoked and the subsequent price cut was something that stuck out in my mind as a sign of the way that gaming is changing. People have iPads and smartphones now that are just as ready and able to play games as the traditional handheld devices are. The scope of said games might not be the same, but when Angry Birds is all you really need to kill some time on a bus ride or on a lunch break, then why do you need a 3DS or PSP taking up more space on your body and demanding more concentrated bouts of playtime.

The other bit of news from Nintendo was of course the announcement of the Wii U which will launch next year. Of what I've seen so far I'm decidedly unimpressed, and the other coverage shows that I'm not alone in being so. The Wii was a sort of perfect storm of factors that helped Nintendo back into the spotlight when most people would have assumed they'd be laughed off the stage. The price point and the marketing to everyone, not just gamers but everyone, propelled the system to the top spot of consoles sold this generation. The question is: will such a feat be repeatable? It seems that for the most part the honeymoon is over, and the lack of AAA third party games, the less powerful hardware, and the overall awkwardness of motion controls means that people might be less willing to give Nintendo's next console a chance as they were with this one. Perhaps I'm wrong, in fact it might be quite likely, but only time will ultimately tell.

This was also mostly a year of sequels. Series like Battlefield, Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, The Elder Scrolls, Saint's Row, Batman, Zelda, Gears of War,   and likely many more I'm missing all made a big mark on the industry this year. As I've said there's nothing wrong with sequels, it gives developers a chance to refine what was already good and also get enough gains to perhaps take on riskier ventures. This year though also saw the implosion of the Final Fantasy series, and a lot of people have criticized the market as beginning to stagnate on the whole under a sea of 2 and 3's. That's not to say that there weren't original games though: games from big studios like L.A. Noire and independent offerings like The Binding of Isaac proved that there is still room for creativity in gaming. It's a fine line to tread I believe.

All in all, I'd say that this was a pretty stable year. There have been rumblings that we might see the new Xbox by the end of 2012, but if those prove to be the rumour mill spinning out of control then we are not likely to see anything from Microsoft or Sony until at least 2013. In the meantime the same issues of digital rights, content distribution, and the oft times tumultuous relationship between game makers and game players will likely continue to be the focus of debate and issue for the coming future.

That said who's to say what highs, lows and other general surprises 2012 might have. It's just a matter of taking it as it comes. I look forward to being back in the new year, so until we meet again: Merry Christmas (or whatever else you happen to celebrate or not celebrate) and a Happy New Year.

This is Grahf, signing off until 2012.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Gamer Week 4 - Building a Better Morality System

 Believe it or not despite all my rantings, there are a couple (if only just) of games that for the most part are actually doing the morality thing right.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Gamer Week 3 - Experience Machine as Endgame?

 There will come a day when a game will place a perfect simulation of the entire world at your fingertips. The question is, do we really want that to happen?

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Gamer Week 1 - Morality Meters

 It's keeping a list, it's checking it twice. It'll determine whether you're naughty or nice. But most are less than thrilled when the morality meter comes to town.

Friday, 16 December 2011

OnePlayS - "The publisher will also generate revenue on the used sale"

 Since the industry continues to think that used game and game rental revenue is a problem, one European company has a simple solution: share the profit off these sales.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Of Penguins, Exploits, and Meatsinks - How KoL Dealt with Crisis

 After talking about The Kingdom of Loathing a little yesterday I couldn't help but be reminded of how the game dealt with disaster. So here's how they rose to the occasion.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Freemium Isn't a Dirty Word

 Sure, I don't like Farmville. But that doesn't mean I think freemium games are the devil incarnate (although I still strongly dislike the word itself...)

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The False Retirement of A Giant Makes Waves

 There was a recent panic over the speculation that Shigeru Miyamoto -- the man behind Mario, Link, and others -- was retiring. My question is: why?

Monday, 12 December 2011

Guest Article - "Nostalgia is Gross"

I'm happy to play host to something a little different today: the first guest article written for the site, penned by my friend radixius. It ties in to the topic from last week a little, but also works nicely as a stand alone article. Enjoy! If you would like to read more of rad's writing then you can stop by his blog, or if podcasts are more your style he does those too. He's also musically inclined if you wish to give him a listen.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

"Do Games Need to Tell A Story?" Week 4 - More Control, More Impact

 By keeping the player in control it's possible to still give the moments of the game the proper impact. In fact, it can actually be easier.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

"Do Games Need to Tell A Story?" Week 3 - Showing vs. Playing

 Cutscenes are probably the most popular current way to deliver story or other things deemed necessary. The thing is though, isn't too much of a good thing no longer good?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

"Grahf Dissects X" Entry Three - Save Systems Part One: A History

Would you like to save your game? Seven simple words that a lot of us take for granted. But without save systems I believe the video game world would be quite a different place. That's why it's worth taking a look at both the history of saves, and how they can be used today.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Banned from EA's Forums? Then You Might be Banned from Their Games as Well.

Shooting your mouth off online might earn you a forum ban, but if you get kicked off of EA's official forums, then you might find that's not the only thing you get locked out of...

Monday, 28 November 2011

A Sit Down about SOPA - Ramifications and Realities

A little late in coming, but SOPA is something that I feel must be talked about. So, what is SOPA, and what does it potentially mean to video games and the sites that cover them?

Friday, 25 November 2011

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Guy You Love to Hate (or Love...) - Building Villains

 Villains are sometimes a dime a dozen, so what separates the good bad guys from the ones that are merely mediocre?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

He Looks Like a Man with Something to Say - The Talkative Character

With the technology that current game systems employ it's easy to make characters that look, sound, and act more realistic than ever before. The question though, is whether or not that's always a good thing.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

"..." - The Silent (Or Near Silent) Protagonist

Although becoming a rarer and rarer phenomenon these days, the silent protagonist is certainly one of the foundations upon which all characterization has been built in terms of video games. Like I mentioned in yesterday's posting characters like Mario, Sonic, Mega Man, and many others started off as silent protagonists. This isn't to say they were without personality by any means; after all Mario had his distinctive overalls and moustache, Sonic was a blue hedgehog, Mega Man a pellet shooting robot, and so on. Still, in many of their original outings these characters rarely -- if ever -- talked whether through vocalization or text. This didn't stop any of them from becoming popular and beloved gaming icons though, quite the opposite. And while Sonic and Mega Man do tend to be more talkative these days, the most famous of the lot -- Mario -- is still a fairly tight lipped guy.

So, what is it about the silent protagonist that so often endears us to him or her? Well, I think there are a great number of factors. First and perhaps most obviously, having a protagonist that is fairly blank in terms of attitudes and persona allows a player to easily slip into that character and even pretend to be that character for the duration of the game. After all, video games are great at escapism if nothing else, so why not have that immersion carry over to the character that the player is controlling? There's a certain comfort about the stoic nature of silent characters, a stability of personality tends to carry over from game to game even as the technology allows the character to look more complex and do more complex things.

Of course no where is the idea of a silent protagonist standing in for the player more obvious than in first person RPG's where aside from perhaps character creation itself the game is mostly played through the eyes of your creation. Although there may be dialogue, the choices are often yours to make (if they are somewhat limited in scope, granted) so when a person names the main character after themselves or uses a nickname, it arguably is beneficial in helping cement that link to the fantasy world of the game.

Another point quite similar to the one about immersion is that if a character is silent then they become sort of an icon, something for each player to reflect their own beliefs and personality on to. It's hard to hate a silent character when you're the one in control of their actions; their mistakes are your mistakes, their triumphs are your triumphs and so on. It would take a lot of purposeful design to alienate a silent character from the controlling audience, but far less to endear him or her to them. Because the audience has the broad strokes they are free to fill in the blanks however they please, and things such as the way the character looks and how they handle themselves are used to help mold the way the audience looks at them.

For an example let's use a classic RPG: Chrono Trigger. It's hard to imagine what Chrono Trigger might have been like if the eponymous character would have talked at all, much less to the same degree as any of the other party members or even tertiary characters. Yet, to anyone who has played the game, they know who Chrono is: he's a brave, kindhearted guy who can't turn away from the suffering of others, even if it will technically never affect him. His choices throughout the game reflect his selfless nature and determination to see things through to the end. It doesn't matter that he never speaks; his (and thus the players) actions are more than enough to establish him in the narrative. Indeed, I can only assume that if they had given Chrono a speaking role that it might have resulted in a markedly lessened experience, since if his character were handled poorly or didn't make the right impression then player sympathy would be lost and thus a good deal of the enjoyment taken from the game might have been lost as well.

Now, this doesn't mean that every character should be a mute. After all there are plenty of successful characters out there with a lot of personality that have been made to express it. But even these days when the technology allows for a more in depth use of characterization than ever before it doesn't hurt to look at and consider the roots of the video game character and consider just how much this type of treatment is still used. A recent famous example that I can think of is probably Master Chief from Halo. While he does talk in cutscenes and at various points, whenever he's in player control he mostly is silent. This hasn't stopped him from becoming one of the most enduring characters that exists in Microsoft's library of games. So remember, sometimes it really does turn out that less is more.

Monday, 21 November 2011

I Knew Him, Horatio - On Characters and Characterization in Games

From plumbers, apes, and hedgehogs to soldiers, assassins and everything in between characterization in video games has been around from the start, but as the technology has grown and the time has passed we find that more complex characters can be created. What turns a character though, from a necessary part of playing the game, into an icon?

Friday, 18 November 2011

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Storm A Brewin ...? Week: Day 2 - Foundations

What makes a game good? Hell, what makes a game a game to begin with? I may not know the answers, but I think I can honestly venture some good guesses.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Could we be Playing the Next Xbox by Q4 2012?

 We've been told by Microsoft themselves in 2010 that when it comes to the 360 that "we've got at least another five years of this generation where we continue to offer great experiences for people.” But there are rumours circulating already that we might be seeing the next iteration of the popular console by the end of next year. To me this raises one basic but important question: why?

Thursday, 10 November 2011

You Can't Always Get What You Want - Ubisoft Says Reviews Don't Want Innovation

Ubisoft's North American executive director Laurent Detoc is of the notion that reviewers don't really want innovation after what he decided was a "lack of enthusiasm" for Rocksmith, the game the company released that allows you to plug and play a real guitar and learn in the process. But is he missing a few important points?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

"Surprising" News - Gamers Swap and Buy Used Games ... A lot

Although it's something that the game industry is likely ripping its hair out over, the predilection of consumers towards used sales is nothing new. What might be somewhat surprising is the sheer number of people who either buy used or don't even buy at all (and no I'm not talking about piracy here).

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Breaking Release Dates - What's the Issue, and What's to be Done?

Can't wait to play Call of Duty: Modern Warefare 3? Well, if you went to certain stores you didn't have to! It's certainly not the first time that stores have either willfully or just out of ignorance broke the street date on a game release, but this begs the question: shouldn't something be done about it?

Monday, 7 November 2011

Gearbox Co-Founder: Reviews of Duke Nukem Forever were too Harsh

It's been a couple of months now since the second coming and subsequent lambasting of the Duke. Gearbox co-founder Brian Martel thinks that the game got treated unfairly, and should have gotten cut a little slack. Does he have a point, or is he just trying to take Duke's balls of steel for a test drive himself?

Friday, 4 November 2011

Richard Garriott: Blizzard better watch out for the "Zyngas of the world."

When the man behind Ultima Online talks, it's probably a good idea to at least listen to what he has to say. Richard Garriott believes that companies like Blizzard are going to have more to worry about in the future from companies like Zynga than big name rival publishers. Could he be right? Has Blizzard missed a potentially big boat?

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Blizzard Takes Flak for Homophobic BlizzCon Video - Blizzard President Apologizes

Certainly we've all heard the namecalling and trashtalking before, but does it depend more on who's saying it than what's actually said? Recent uproar over George Fisher's comments in a video that was played at BlizzCon seem to indicate that it's probably both, and a whole lot more.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Bad News for Bethesda (at least for now) - A One-Two Punch

The latter half of October has not been a good month for Bethesda or its parent company ZeniMax. They've lost -- at least for the moment -- not one, but two battles in the courts. Sure everyone knows about the story of Mojang and the scrolls, but what about the other suit? Well, read on and find out.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Zynga Reports Sharp Declines in User Activity - Has the Bubble Popped?

If you're on Facebook you've either seen the ads for or have been invited by friends to play any number of games that are likely Zynga commodities: Farmville, Mafia Wars, Adventure World, Texas Hold'em Poker. But things aren't rosey for the company, as they're starting to report that less and less people are playing what they're putting out there.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Nintendo's Near Billion Loss - What Happened and What Happens Next?

Even through its toughest times, when it was a distant third in the console race, Nintendo still always managed to stay in the green. The last few years have arguably been very kind to the company with the Wii becoming the hands down winner of this current generation in terms of sales, so why has The Big N recently posted such a staggering huge loss of profits?

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Golden Touch - Looking at Valve

At a time when most companies cite second hand gaming and piracy as major concerns and seem to be struggling to keep high profits, Valve seems to have no problems keeping themselves in the green ... Even with one of its most popular and successful franchises going free to play. So what's the secret behind its success?

Thursday, 27 October 2011

We Don't Know Jack - Looking Back on the Career of Thompson

With the recent announcement of Grand Theft Auto V having occurred a scant two days ago, it was brought to my attention that the date of said proclamation coincides with an interesting anniversary...

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Ultimate iZelda Climb - Is there a Lesson to be Learned here?

If you own an iphone or ipad or any other Apple product that you use to regularly game then odds are you might have seen an all too familiar character starring in a less than high calibre game. I'm here to ask what, if any, lessons we can take from the rearing of such a blatant rip off.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Other Side of the Coin - Naughty Dog Says No Thanks to Single Player DLC

Yesterday I blathered on about how Naughty Dog was taking a somewhat strange stance (or rather one that most players probably wouldn't like) in regards embracing the PSN Pass for multiplayer. From that same interview though there is something that I consider worthy of praise: the fact that when they release a game, they want the game to be finished, rather than need two or three DLC expansions down the line.


Monday, 24 October 2011

Greater Goods? - Naughty Dog Credits PSN Pass Making Uncharted 3 Multiplayer Possible

Uncharted 3 developer Naughty Dog has recently gone on the record saying that without the implementation of the PSN Pass that Uncharted 3 might not have an online multiplayer mode, or that the single and multiplayer components would have been released as two separate games. Playing devil's advocate I ask "is that really such a bad thing, depending?"

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Grahf Guest Stars on Top Tier Tactics

Holy crap, a post on the weekend? The world must be coming to an end! You can relax, I don't plan on making weekend posting a habit (updating five days a week is sometimes hard enough), but I thought it would be the least I could do do say that I've got a couple of guest articles on Top Tier Tactics.

The first article you might recognize as my rant on regenerating health, but the second one, just released today is a TTT exclusive, the second entry in the Grahf Dissects series talking about limited vs. unlimited arsenals.

Both are worth a read (says the guy that wrote them), and I hope that you find them informative. You can also look forward to me ranting more about Uncharted in the week ahead, as well as gamer movements and perhaps a Grahf Dissects about another feature of gaming that affects us all these days. But nothing is set in stone. See you all next week!

Friday, 21 October 2011

"No Hard Feelings" - Insomniac are Classy Gentlemen (and women)

In a day and age where publishers and gamers alike are often quick to complain about not only negative scores, but scores that are less positive than what they'd have liked Insomniac proves that it's possible to take one on the chin and stay classy. Pretty simple when you don't whine like a bitch I guess.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Damaged Goods - The Present and Future of Final Fantasy

The CEO of Square Enix, Yoichi Wada, has stated that "The Final Fantasy brand has been greatly damaged," by Final Fantasy XIV. From where I'm looking though, it really seems like XIV is just the latest problem in what has been a less than stellar moves for the powerhouse series. Can Final Fantasy be fixed, and should it be fixed at all?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Real-Money Trading Forces Mabinogi to Temporarily Shut Down

Dollars for gold. No, I'm not talking about those cheesy commercials. Rather, what I'm alluding to is the practice of players paying people real money for in game currency; something that has recently forced Nexon to take one of its most popular games offline for some retooling.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Unburning the Bridge - Animosity Between Game Makers and Game Players Needs to Stop

Why is it that when we should be going forward hand in hand, that we're instead at each other's throats. The industry and gamers need to learn to get along, and for more reasons than you might think.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

EVE Online CEO - "I was wrong and I admit it"

CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar P├ętursson takes himself to task over the direction and multiple problems that have been plaguing EVE Online. Is this an honest attempt to make amends? A PR stunt? Does it even matter? Read on to get my take on his letter to the community.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Sony Says "Want Multiplayer? There's (a Mandatory) Code for that!"

If you buy your Playstation 3 games used you'd better get used to awkward passcode inputs and shelling out ten bucks every single time you want to access to multiplayer functionality for a game.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Scroll Wars - Bethesda vs. Mojang and Copyright Hijinks

Also known as that time when a single word made a shitload of trouble for everyone and caused even more headaches. And it wasn't even a naughty one.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Long Haul - Current and Next Generation Console Cycles

With word on the street that we won't see the next Microsoft or Sony offerings hit the stores until 2014, I look at the current trend towards ever increasing console self life.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Put Your XP Where Your Mouth Is

With the upcoming release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Activision is rolling out a campaign that gives gamers double XP for set time limits for redeeming coupons from Mountain Dew and Doritos. But is this kind of tie-in going too far? Is it unfair? Read on to get my view on it.



Tuesday, 4 October 2011

What's Old is New (and Slightly Improved) - Trending HD Rereleases

These days it's hard to browse around game sites and not see at least one article saying that a high definition rerelease of a game or games is coming soon. In the past few months alone we've seen announcements and releases for games like Resident Evil Code Veronica and 4, Final Fantasy 10, Shadow of Colossus and Ico, the Zone of the Enders series, the Metal Gear Solid series, and probably even more.

There's also the endless rumours of game collections getting rereleases like the Devil May Cry series, and gamers wishing and hoping for rereleases of certain series like Timesplitters and Twisted Metal being the front runners on many lists. So with the rising popularity of HD remakes in mind I'm taking some time to look at the pros and cons of slapping some polish on the past and selling it to the present.

There are a lot of upsides to this trend. First and perhaps most obviously is the fact that people that didn't get to play these games the first time around no longer have to scour for used copies that may be more expensive in some cases (Ico and Shadow of the Colossus come to mind more than anything else here). It's worth noting that perhaps some new pack-ins aside and collectors editions, that in game there's no new content, just a higher resolution than things were at before. Still, the games are often released in bundles and at reduced prices. For example you can own both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus for 40 bucks, which I'd say is well worth the price in that case. Likewise, the Zone of the Enders collection will include both games, and the Metal Gear Solid HD collection will include Metal Gear Solid 2, 3, and Peace Walker which was previously released on the PSP (I find myself wishing for a port of The Twin Snakes myself, but that's another matter). These bundles offer an attractive incentive to those that haven't played these games and want a chance to without a lot of hassle.

On the flip side of course there's the very real concern that with this many HD rereleases coming out that it's really just a trend to milk gamers out of more money without putting a lot of effort into it. I know that the rerelease of Resident Evil 4 has drawn some fire from people saying that the HD doesn't look very good, but just as many are saying that it's still the best looking version of the game hands down that you can get without modding and the like. The question of course is whether or not you care enough to put down a $20 on it or not. The cash grab factor does play, but again these are companies that are, you know, out to make money; and if people have demonstrated an interest in obtaining versions of old games, then it's really win win for the most part.

Of course one of the larger problems here is the fact that a lot of games are going to be left out in the cold. It's going to be fairly unlikely that we'll be seeing, say, Okami or the Viewtiful Joe series, because those titles didn't rank too highly on Capcom's list of priorities. That's not to say I wouldn't love to see them be rereleased for those that haven't tried them: they are very much worth it in my opinion. It's just that I don't really see it happening anytime soon. And those titles aren't even all that niche. If you're looking for really old titles or niche games like Vectorman or Bomberman 64 you're probably going to be holding your breath for quite a long time. Even fans rallying around games they want to see redone might not help depending on whether or not they can actually be counted to commit their wallets to the cause as well.

Overall, I'd say that HD rereleasing is a positive trend, of course balanced against the fact that we still like to actually play new games of course. Still, there's nothing wrong with seeing what the fuss was about in some cases, or indulging in a little trip down memory lane. The only problem is that your trips are only going to be to popular locations, so I hope you weren't really expecting any niche destinations. That's the way it goes sometimes though.

Monday, 3 October 2011

"Grahf Dissects X" Entry One - FPS Healthbars and You

Welcome to what is probably going to become an ever ongoing series for this blog. This isn't a theme week per ce, more like something that I can post about whenever something crosses my mind and I feel that I can put in a good word or two or sixty thousand about it.

Basically, in entries like this one I'm going to look at game mechanics: what they are, what they have been, what works, what doesn't and so on. So, to inaugurate this series I believe the issue of health is as good a place as any to start.

I know a lot of games rely on health bars: from platformers that have long since moved away from the one hit one life equation, to fighting games where that's really the entire bloody point of the thing. I'm going to focus on a particular genre's usage of healthbars though: the first person shooter.

There's been a lot of division recently over the two different schools of how healthbars work in FPS's. In the beginning you had a set amount of health and when you took a fireball or Nazi round to the face your health dropped. If you got into bad enough straits it was time to find a health kit which could heal you anywhere from 5 health back to full depending on the size. These games also usually Incorporated armor, which basically doubled your health but of course needed to be found first and was a decent bit harder to come by than just regular health. Still, fairly straightforward: run out of health and you died, end of story.

The more recent trend though, especially with so called cover shooters like "Gears of War" and the endless amounts of titles that have aped it, is to have health that regenerates. In cases like these you might not even know the number of your hit points; you still have indications like how beat up the character looks or perhaps how red your screen is, but there's no distinct amount for you to glance at and say "Ah, I'm this far away from being a meaty pile of crap." Likewise, when you take damage you're not going to be scrambling for a health kit, no sir; instead you just ride it out: wait until your dude looks better or your screen is a little (or a lot) less red, and then you continue on. Essentially, as long as you can find somewhere to catch your breath, you'll be fine and can continue on after a short respite.

Now, before I continue let's get one thing out of the way here, right off the cusp: neither of these methods are at all realistic, and nor will they ever be. Ever. There are some proponents of the fixed, non-regenerating health camp that like to foist this kind of bullshit argument at the regenerating health, saying "Oh man it's so unrealistic!" well, guess what, so is being able to run, jump, shoot, punch, and do whatever else it is that your character does all without penalty at all even at one health out of one hundred. There's no realism between being a fully functioning human being at one health and being a meat pile at zero, so get over it. Besides, in half these games you're fighting shit like Nazi zombie aliens or whatever. If you want realism, that's fine, but don't get all haughty over it when it's really not even close to the point that you're actually mad about.

With that little annoyance out of the way, let's carry on, shall we?

Both systems have their pros and their cons, otherwise there wouldn't be any arguments over which is better -- well, in a perfect world at least, but I digress. On the one hand, the fixed point, no regeneration system rewards smart, tactical gameplay and enforces a sense of danger, especially when you can't carry a health kit with you and don't know when or where the next one might be. Regenerating health is a bit more lenient and allows players to take bigger risks while still punishing them for stupid ones; it also means that you don't have to worry about finding health as long as you don't mind a slight interruption in the gameplay in order to top yourself off.

The downside of fixed health is that sometimes if you take an unlucky hit (and don't tell me it doesn't happen because it does) you might find yourself suddenly having entered an unwinnable situation, not to mention that if you desperately need the health you might end up backtracking to the last place you actually saw a pack -- something which can be more disrupting to the game flow than sitting and waiting to regenerate -- and that ever present number can cause players to second guess themselves, always wondering if they have enough health to survive the encounter ahead or if they need to find a kit to get that little extra boost. It's not a horrible downside, but it's there.

With regenerating health though, sometimes it really can feel like you're getting your hand held throughout the gameplay experience. Sitting and waiting -- especially if it takes a long amount of time to go from gravely injured to full -- is boring and something that games shouldn't be encouraging if they want to tout themselves as fast paced action-oriented shooters. Likewise, sometimes in the heat of things cues as to your current condition might be missed, and without an absolute number to fall back on you can never be sure if the next hit is going to be the last one you can take. More realistic, actually, but at the same time somewhat disheartening when you thought that you were maybe moderately damaged only to keel over at the next bullet.

So, is there a solution, something that incorporates the best of both worlds? Well, sort of. Games like the first Halo, the original Resistance, and a handful of others use both regenerating and fixed health. Halo had regenerating health in the form of a shield, but you also had health that you'd need to medkit back up if you lost it. Resistance took a different approach with a segmented health bar: four segments could each regenerate if given a short rest, but once you lost an entire one then you had to pick up a health kit to restore it. It's not a perfect solution, but it's a compromise that I believe ultimately benefited both games. It was indicative without leading to too many unwinnable scenarios, and helped keep the pacing right on track. There's a fine line between making something arbitrarily difficult and making it laughably easy. The different iterations of health are getting closer, but we aren't quite there yet. It will be interesting to see just what new tricks developers and designers come up with in the future when dealing with this subject.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Stagnation in Gaming - What we’re Asking for vs. What we Want

I don’t necessarily think that this is completely true, but one of the complaints that I hear made over and over about this generation in particular is that the games have gone stagnant. I already touched upon why sequels aren’t a bad thing, but when as Yahtzee says in his Resistance 3 review that, “there’s Gears of War 3, Serious Sam 3, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3...” that there might be a, you know, tiny bit of recycling going on outback.

When we see so many sequels, movie based games, and games that are “just like x” in that they ripped x off wholesale, it does become worrying that the market is kind of just spinning its wheels. The thing is that it’s easy to blame the industry for this, to say “well, they aren’t coming up with anything new” but really, even though it’s a tough question to ask, shouldn’t we also be asking what parts we play in all of this?

We do see people complaining, but when it comes time to take home the tally these sequels always end up being the most popular games that sell the most units and make the most profit for the companies involved. We all talk about how we want something new, but when the time comes to put our money where our mouths are, we tend to get a little gun-shy. Plenty of critics and gamers praise games like Ico, Psychonauts, Shadow of the Colossus, and indie games like Trine, but when you compare sales of these games to the ones that everyone complains about being unoriginal, there’s really no contest. It’s almost not even fair to compare these games side by side, but really, if this is what we’re asking for vs. what we’re actually buying, then where’s the disconnect coming from?

I’m not trying to blame anyone for why game stagnation might be occurring. The thing is that most of us like to play it safe, and really when it comes to a hobby that costs $40 to $60 bucks a pop, it’s often times that you simply don’t want to take a risk, even if the game that is being hailed as new and innovative is being lauded by all comers. In the back of your mind you just can’t help but think “what if I don’t like this? What happens if I’m disappointed, or I feel like I’ve wasted my money?” So rather than go for a potentially high risk/high reward scenario, you just shrug your shoulders and buy the latest copy of the latest series that you know you’ll enjoy, even if it is just a rehash of every game that the series has done up to that point. Of course, when you buy the game, you end up saying something like “it’s good, but I wish that they’d have done something else with it for a change.”

Yet, companies are just as afraid to innovate because they don’t want to drive away a lucrative fan base by giving them too wide a divergence from what they’ve come to expect. Look at Square Enix’s bungles with Final Fantasies XI and XIV. Trying to take the series online has been disastrous for Square -- even though the ultimately lacklustre showing of XIV is also their fault due to a seeming rush to release it that caused it to be buggy as hell -- because among other reasons it alienates those that played the Final Fantasy series for their stories and enjoyed it being a single player experience.

To boil it down to basics, we can’t really have our cake without eating it. If we want games that push the boundaries and actually bring innovation to the medium, we’re going to have to shell out the money for those games once they actually get made, not just say “there, that’s what I wanted” give a satisfied sigh and walk away without investing anything. Not every game is going to be gold, but if you do the research you can at least generally be sure that what you’re buying will be worth going through once. I know it’s not the best solution, since as before affordability is a major issue, but at the same time the almighty dollar speaks volumes more than all the dissent in the world at times, and right now it’s basically saying “play it safe, we want what we’ve had before” and it will take effort to change that to “show us something new, and get rewarded for it”.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Power to the People (Not the Trolls) - The Case for Metacritic

Recently there has been some news regarding Metacritic and games. Metacritic revealed that they had banned and negated the scores of people who they believed were “review-bombing” certain games like Bastion and Toy Soldiers: Cold War were apparently targeted by swathes of people that simply gave the game a zero without any justification. The group was apparently large enough in number to have an impact on the metascores of the games they targeted which is one of the reasons why Metacritic took the action of banning them, believing it to be unfair abuse of the system.

I for one say good on them for doing what they did.

As the case has been covered by other far more notable voices in the industry than myself, there might not be a whole lot of original content to add to the discussion. That never really stops me from trying though.

Metacritic gets a lot of heat because of the “average Joe” factor that to many people seems to rob the Metascore of some level of authority or prestige. The fact that anyone can effectively register and share their thoughts on any movie, music, or game they want seems to turn a lot of people off. Again, I find the need to segregate reviewers of any kind of medium and put them on pedestals like their words are worth more than anyone else’s to be a foolish notion that we really don’t need; reviewers are meant to be helpful guides, voices that can help you make a decision, not the sole factor in making the decision.

What Metacritic has done though, in banning these review-bombers, is essentially making sure that unfair and clearly biased and troll based scores aren’t tolerated. One of the sorest spots would seem to be the idea that people can just say what they want and give the score that they want to give without consequence or justification. This banning clearly proves that there is a line between not liking a game and rating it lowly for reasons legitimate to you, and just plain giving a zero because you think it’s funny to do so.

Certainly, when it comes to Metacritic, there are going to be a lot of pointlessly high and pointless low scores, with no justification given other than “this game rocks my socks off” or “this game sucks and you should never buy it” whether due to poorly expressed personal taste or just a case of hype backlash or what have you. At the same time though you’ll still find people using Metacritic in hopes of becoming more topical and recognized reviewers. These people are finding their voice and hoping to become part of the crowd that has enough recognition that people do take what they have to say seriously. The reviews you’ll find will be varied, and hopefully informative, and I’d say if you are looking to decide on whether or not to buy a game then they certainly can’t hurt if you use them as a tool, as they were meant to be used.

I do find it somewhat strange that, as the previously linked Giantbomb article claims:

“Metacritic is often used to determine royalty and bonus payouts for developers, though its exact use varies from publisher to publisher. I've never heard of a publisher leveraging user reviews as a metric for payment because of situations like this, but especially for small studios, perception is king, which is why user reviews remain very important.”

Though I see the need to base priority on something, I don’t believe that basing whether or not to give bonuses or even keep designers on over reviews -- and I mean any reviews from any critics -- is a fair thing to do when it’s not tempered against things like sales and production costs. Certainly, reviews should be taken into account, but again they shouldn’t be the sole factor to be taken into account.

I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that Metacritic shouldn’t be unfairly blamed for the way that users on it act, especially when they are taking steps to ensure that those that have unwholesome motivations can’t exploit the system to their own ends without being punished and ultimately removed from the system for it.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Why DRM Needs More Batman

DRM, if you're a gamer you've probably heard of it and if not then odds are likely that you've still been affected by it. DRM, short for Digtial Rights Management, is what companies use to attempt to ensure that people pay for what they get; in other words, DRM is meant to stop people from pirating software. From things like OS and development suites, to digital copies of movies and music, and of course, games.

Now, don't get me wrong; there's absolutely nothing wrong with game companies and developers wanting to protect their copyrights and actually make money from what they are selling. These days though, it seems that most DRM is going in the completely wrong direction. By becoming more and more pervasive and envasive, DRM has lead to a lot of misery on both sides of the gaming equation. Companies lose customers who believe the DRM to be obtrusive and overbearing, and gamers might not play the games they want to play, or have to bend to what the the rulesdemands they do in order to play them.

A good example of how DRM has hurt both sides of the equation is Spore. Released in 2008 Spore was a hotly anticipated game from Will Wright, creator of the Sim series. However, when EA revealed that Spore would be using a DRM system called SecuROM the shit really hit the fan. SecuROM was a rootkit program that installed itself onto your harddrive without your knowledge or consent, and remained there even if you uninstalled the game. EA found itself facing a class action lawsuit over the decision to make SecuROM the DRM. More importantly, there was a massive and instant consumer backlash against Spore, leading it to be pirated by a staggering 1.7 million people, earning it the disgraceful title of "The Most Pirated Game Ever". Now, it would be foolish to say that every person, or even a majority of the people that pirated the game did so in protest to the DRM, but was it a factor? Absolutely.

The problem with a lot of DRM these days is that it seems to be evolving into a race between developers and pirates, and the innocent gamers -- the ones that pay for their purchases -- are the ones caught in the middle and taking the most damage from the fight. It may come off as a somewhat defeatist attitude, but let's face it, as long as there is someone that doesn't want to pay money, there will be piracy. People will crack any amount or kind of DRM given enough time and enough desire to do so. Throwing greater and greater amounts of DRM at them only provides them with more of a challenge and greater bragging rights about how they cracked the latest, toughest codes. In the meantime the average gamer is the one that ends up having to deal with crap like SecuROM, or games that demand an online connection at all time to be played, like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood did at one point. All you get are companies spending more money on solutions that clearly aren't working, and gamers getting more and more frustrated by what they have to put up with.

So, is there a solution?

Well, yes and no. There isn't any kind of perfect catch-all solution that will guarantee that a game will never be pirated. However, I believe that the future of DRM isn't about an ever increasingly difficult and intrusive methodology to ensure that gamers are "playing nice" rather, I believe that the best DRM is the kind that has already seen use in the past and even recently: most notably in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

What did this DRM do, you ask? Well, if you had purchased the game the DRM did nothing, just like it should. If the game detected that you were playing from a pirated disc or copy though, then the game gimps Batman, making his glide-jump move -- a somewhat pivotal part of the gameplay -- absolutely useless. Eventually there would be a room that a person playing a pirated copy of the game simply cannot get past, because it requires use ot the glide-jump in order to proceed.

This is the kind of DRM we need: the kind that doesn't punish players, but pirates. The kind of DRM that is subtle, insidious, and utterly hilarious to hear about a game pirate falling pray to. This isn't even the only example of this type of DRM, and although with enough patience it probably is possible to override the DRM, the fact that the subtly of it makes it incredibly difficult to catch on that something is wrong -- which leads to moments like a person playing a pirated copy asking what's wrong with his game only to be flat out told their playing a stolen copy -- makes the subtle game mechanic screwing DRM an obvious choice that pleases both the developers need to protect their materials, but also the average gamer who not only doesn't have to jump through hoops, but also gets to laugh alongside the devs when the pirates get screwed over.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Pay to Play (with Girls) - A Vitriolic Rant

Okay, normally I try to keep a level head and an open mind about most issues and news when it comes to gaming. However, there are points that just force me to say "Come on, what the fuck people?"

This is one of those points.

To basically sum up the issue here: recently a couple of porn stars decided. "Hey, we like to play video games, and we like money too. So why don't we start a service where gamers pay us fees to play against us and watch us game topless?"

Where the fuck do I even begin?

I've got nothing against the women that started this website and service; they saw the potential for a lucrative market and decided "why not?", I can't fault them for that. The thing is though, that I can and will fault a service like this for even existing in the first place, let alone actually doing well.

For years and even now, people that play games have struggled against the stereotypes that society has placed on them: from being violent, isolated loners, to nerds that contribute nothing back to society, to people that need to "grow up" and get out of the phase in their lives when they get enjoyment out of playing games. When some people think of gamers, they think of the people that will jump at this kind of thing, the people that need this service when in reality most people that play video games are -- shockingly -- average people living average lives that just enjoy playing video games.

Something like this I feel is not only offensive to all the women that play video games -- which, by the way, happen to be "Forty-two percent of all game players" according to the ESA -- but also to the majority of the game playing population, which again according to the ESA has an average age of "37 years old and has been playing games for 12 years". In other words, something like this hurts everyone.

Why? Why isn't it just pointless cheesecake that should be dismissed as such? Because to everyone out there that sees gaming as a childish hobby for childish people, this is exactly what they need. It's the fodder that "proves" that gamers are all just 18 to 2X year old basement dwellers covered in a fine layer of Cheeto dust, that think that girls are magical creatures that they can never attain, let alone girls that actually play video games. It's the kind of pandering that doesn't just put back the efforts of a few individuals, but openly harms the group as a whole.

There are plenty of women out there that play video games not because they want attention and a quick buck, but because they, you know, enjoy playing video games as a hobby. When clans of women gamers band together and actually proceed to kick ass and prove themselves, how disheartening do you think it must be for them when the inevitable comparisons -- mostly coming from sour grapes gamers they beat -- to these video game escort services come down the pipe. To be accused of winning due to being "distracting" or "eye candy", even in games where people's voices and faces are never even seen. Likewise the people that get told "you only got beaten because you were thinking with your 'joystick'" when nothing of the sort was going on.

Maybe I am blowing this issue out of proportion and making a mountain out of a couple of molehills. But seeing something like this just forces me to ask: aren't we past this by now? And if were aren't then can we get past it soon? Like, tomorrow would be nice, or yesterday would be even better.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Sony Says "You Can't Sue" - The New Terms of Service and You

It's been extremely difficult to actually be keeping track of gaming news over the past week and not heard of this story. I know that because of the theme week I had last week that my reaction to this news is a little late, but I feel that this issue is important enough that I need to weigh in on it even if it is coming a little late to the party.

The issue here is that with the latest Terms of Service to use the Playstation Network, Sony has slipped in a clause that probably went unnoticed by many gamers -- let's face it, most people don't read the terms of service to begin with and even the ones that do rarely read it every time to check for what changes have been made; something that Sony was probably banking on -- but not by the media. The change was that by agreeing to the ToS, a user of PSN effectively gave up their right to bring a class-action lawsuit against Sony should the need arise.

Sony claims that this change to the ToS was not a decision that had any part to do with the recent hacker induced network outages, but rather that a Supreme Court ruling made them decide that it was a viable thing to do.

Even after being made aware of the clause, some gamers seem apathetic about the whole thing taking an, "It doesn't matter because I'm not going to sue Sony any time in the future anyways." stance. The problem is though, that if something like the PSN outage happens again, or at any point you or a group of people believe that Sony has unfairly infringed upon your rights, you can't take them to public court. Oh, you can still get an arbitration, but in cases of those the individual bringing the case against the corporation probably has better odds of being struck by lightning than actually winning the case, and with arbitration the arbitrator doesn't even have to tell you why the case was thrown out, or why they reached the decision they did. Not exactly what you want in terms of a system that is supposed to be holding people and corporations accountable for their actions.

Legal experts are predicting that it's very unlikely that the no sue clause would hold up in court to begin with, mostly because Sony basically snuck it under the noses of most of its user base. Even if it does, gaming sites have begun to fight back, with GiantBomb giving a generic letter that will allow a user to opt out and retain their right to sue and many other sites directing users towards the opt out and encouraging users of the PSN to do so.

This move on Sony's part has bothered a lot of people, myself included. Truth be told I haven't even updated my PSN to the current state, which means that although I currently don't have access to the online components of my PS3, that I also still have a right to take civil action against Sony should the need be. Slipping this clause into the latest terms of service is a really underhanded move, and one that other companies might try if they think they can follow Sony's example. Certainly the odds are not in Sony's favour, but there's a slight chance that this will hold, and in the event it does Sony has just rendered hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of its user base unable to pursue legal action.

It would have been understandable, if just as unreasonable, if a change to the ToS like this would have come immediately after the PSN outage. But the fact that it comes just when users aren't being vigilant about any changes anymore just stinks of dirty pool tactics. If this is how a game company decides to treat its clientele is it any wonder why people are wary or outright hostile towards the industry?

Addendum:

It seems that before I can even take this to post that it has come to light that EA has done this as well. Basically the only way that you can protect yourself from giving up your rights is to actually read the ToS every time a new update comes out. It might be tedious, but at the same time it's also the only way you might be able to know if you're giving away something you really shouldn't be by clicking that "I agree" box.

Friday, 23 September 2011

"The Future is Disc-Less?" Week Part 5 - The EULA, Ownership, and You

As the final instalment of this week's topic, I find it important to mention how the players are going to be effected by the potential change to completely digital media. This change is something that a lot of people wouldn't even be thinking about most of the time, but is a potentially huge one to the way we look at games. A comment on the first part of this series already brought part of the concern to light -- the idea of rights of ownership -- and while I plan to talk about that, it's equally important to delve into something that we might end up hearing a lot more about in the future: the End User License Agreement, or EULA for short.

The EULA, alternatively known as "that bunch of text that no one ever bothers to read when they install things" is something that we as a society have to be paying more attention to. Hell, arguably we already should be paying more attention to the EULA, but when the media we get no longer comes in physical format is when it goes from being important to being absolutely crucial to have at least a basic grasp of what they're throwing out there in those walls of text before you check that little box that says "I agree". Technically even physical games can come with a EULA that basically states that by buying the game you've agreed not to do things like crack it for piracy or hack the online components if any are present and generally just respect the copyrights.

It's the same deal with games or other software that you download online as well (as an aside, this is how a lot of less than reputable companies dump crap like endless tool-bars and stuff on your machine, by saying that you have to download them in the EULA in order to actually access the software in the first place). The major difference is that if you violate an EULA when you buy the physical copy of a game, then you're generally not going to have agents from the company knocking down your door to take back the disc or anything; on the other hand if you say, hack in Left 4 Dead and the company actually takes notice, then you might be saying goodbye to that copy of the game that you bought upon your next log into Steam.

Now, you might not see this as a problem, because you don't hack or pirate or generally do anything else that might be seen as grounds for any company to strip you of the game that you bought. The thing is that in some cases people have at least had their abilities to play games or access certain features of games withheld due to activity that is deemed suspicious, and in some cases that can be anything from the credit card company calling the retailer up to say that the charges might be suspect, to someone accusing you of hacking in an official server without any real merit or proof.

I will grant you that the above scenarios are somewhat unlikely -- although not impossible -- but there's going to be something that I believe is inherently off-putting about this system. I'm not a betting man, but I'd lay good odds that at least once in your life someone has given you the "privileges and rights" speech: that certain things are privileges and thus can be revoked. Now, I'm not here to argue whether or not gaming itself is a privilege, but currently, our access to games -- specifically the physical copies of games -- is a right that we have. Once we buy a disc we expect to be able to access the data on it whenever we're inclined to do so; in this case that means playing a game whenever you feel like it. That idea might be going out the window though, because without hard copies of games, you aren't really buying a game so much as you are buying the privilege from a publisher or developer to play the game, a privilege that can be revoked with a lot more ease than that copy of "New Game X" that you bought at Best Buy or Wal-Mart or wherever.

There's a lot more potential for problems in these kinds of scenarios. If a company server goes down, people could lose access to attributes they need in order to play the games they've bought. It's not a case where once it's out of the publisher's hands there's no longer a need to worry about the product. Companies are going to have to become a lot more responsive and take greater steps to ensure that potential disruptions of service like the hacker induced PSN outage and other high profile network foibles are addressed quickly, or else have the irate gaming community breathing down their necks demanding to play the games they bought.

There's no easy solution to this problem, but it's one that's going to have to be addressed, and addressed quickly, if companies expect people to fully embrace a disc-less tomorrow.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

"The Future is Disc-less?" Week Part 4 - Changing the Game

Admittedly I've painted a somewhat bleak picture so far in regards to a future where all consoles are disc-less: game retailers struggling to stay relevant, and the secondhand market perhaps simply winking out of existence altogether. It isn't all bad though by any stretch, because there are plenty of upsides about a fully digital distribution system as well, as long as it's handled intelligently and steps are taken to ensure the transition goes smoothly.

Although the secondhand market might encounter a lot of problems, one of the upsides to digital only distribution is that games will become cheaper; with no disc or packaging to manufacture, no manuals to print, and no shipping costs to cut into profits, the games can be sold with lower overhead than is currently possible. Publishers can sell a game directly to the players that want it, and reap 100% of the effective profit. This is a major incentive for publishers and developers to get behind disc-less media, because it will actually help bolster profits off of each sale, while keeping the price point competitive.

Another upside to digital media is a greater incentive on the part of companies to make sure that their games are working right and kept up to date in terms of patches and updates. There's already not much of an excuse to push out a game that has obvious bugs in it, but if something slips past the testing and then is only found after the game goes gold then currently companies have no choice but to put out a day one patch -- something that doesn't earn a lot of praise from the gaming community -- but with digital only distribution changes can be made much later and closer to the release date without as many potential problems cropping up. Since the games will also be more online involved simply via being sold through the internet, the developers can also keep a closer eye on what needs attention and what's working well.

In one of the better scenarios, the move to digital only will also help bridge what seems to currently be an ever widening gap between developers, publishers, and their actual audience: the gamers themselves. It's a strange but notable trend that companies currently seem to see the very people they sell to as at the very least unpleasantly adversarial and at most outright venomous and contrary. Gamers don't tend to view the companies much better in a lot of cases, with most coming off as giant monolithic creations that don't really care about the content or enjoyment that games bring over the almighty dollar. A disc-less future will in some ways force these two groups closer together, and hopefully also assuage some of the more negative feelings that each has about the other.

Regardless of any of that though, what we're experiencing now, with the mix of discs and downloads, is merely the start of a trend that's going to continue to rise more heavily in favour of the latter as time goes on. It might even be possible that we'll see more gamers embracing a purely digital library even when the physical media is still available. Odds are that until given no other choice that we'll never be disc-less entirely, but perhaps the current trends will help acclimate us all to the days to come.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

"The Future is Disc-less?" Week Part 3 - What Happens to the Secondhand Market?

Yesterday I talked about how the notion of disc-less systems could end up putting a major strain and may even end up rendering the physical game store obsolete. There is another huge aspect of the gaming market that stands in just as much of an unknown and perhaps nonviable future: used gaming.

As it stands right now the industry isn't in love with the idea of the secondhand market, and never has been. Game developers and studios say that the sale of used games -- which they see no profit from -- costs them millions of dollars a year. Recently one of the developers behind Heavy Rain claimed that the studio lost somewhere in the realm of 10 million dollars due to people buying the title used. In the 1up article on the subject Guillaume de Fondaumiere claims that:

"We basically sold to date approximately two million units [of Heavy Rain], we know from the trophy system that probably more than three million people bought this game and played it. On my small level it's a million people playing my game without giving me one cent. And my calculation is, as Quantic Dream, I lost between 5 and 10 million [Euros] worth of royalties because of second hand gaming."

Now, the debate between how exaggerated the claims might be and how much damage the used games market is actually doing is still a highly contentious debate that would take much more time than a single person running a blog could hope to solve (although admittedly I did try to take a crack at it in a previous article). Putting all that aside though, there's the real possibility that game studios, developers and companies at large probably see the disc-less system as a very tidy solution to what they consider the problem of used games.

Right now digital games are often sold for cheaper than their physical counterparts, not counting things like sales in both the physical and digital sides of things. However, no digital distribution service currently allows people to trade used games that they have bought access to. It is true that the Steam Trading system allows people to buy games for trade, but with the caveat that they cannot play the game themselves. If they choose to "open" the gifted game, then it becomes part of their gaming library and no longer a viable trading item. It is difficult to speculate as to whether any system will allow users to eventually be able to rebrand their games as gifts for a small price, or if there will be some method developed in the future that will allow used digital content to be traded, but currently digital content is completely prohibitive towards the second hand market: once you've got a copy of something it's yours for good (with certain exceptions that are best talked about another day) whether you like it or not.

Right now, having it "forever" isn't an issue with the majority of the console game market. Certainly there are people who make a majority of their purchases from the consoles online stores, but a good number of people still go down to the nearest physical store and pick up a hard copy of the game; something which allows them to later sell said copy back to a store or to another gamer for profit. The game industry itself isn't in the wrong when they say that they want some of the profit that the secondhand market sees, but to date there simply hasn't been a good method developed to ensure that is the case. Disc-less consoles may make the point moot anyways, since from the industry's perspective it is probably easier and simpler to cut the used game market entirely, rather than trying to find some way to compromise with it.

It's extremely hard to say what the future of used gaming might be when this change comes to pass. Perhaps something will be worked out in the interim. It's also possible that even with disc-less consoles that there will still be a market for used games. Gamers are a clever bunch when we want to be, after all, and someone may figure something out; whether or not it will be completely legal or not is another matter. One thing is certain, as much as the industry may dislike the used market, it plays a valuable and indeed crucial role in the current gaming infrastructure and economy. Without the secondhand market, it's hard to say what the future of gaming might turn out to be. We may however, be finding out sooner rather than later just what the repercussions might be.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

"The Future is Disc-less?" Week Part 2 - Game Store, No More?

I've already touched upon the fact that game stores aren't exactly enjoying having to compete against their online counterparts. The internet was already enough of a mire for them with sites like Amazon and other distributors offering comparable prices on games while having things like free shipping. The coming of Steam and other digitally driven media delivery systems only increased the woes of the brick and mortar game store. It's not hard to imagine the reaction that a retailer like EB or Gamestop will have to a console that a person buys and then never has to walk into a game store again to purchase any title for.

We've actually already had a small taste of the unwillingness of game stores to sell systems that cut them out of the loop. The PSP variant system the PSP Go is a portable platform that actually cannot play disc related content at all: everything that you can play on the system is meant to be downloaded from the Playstation Store and then played from the internal hard drive. You simply load in different games from a library that you build on your user account: having access to all the older titles you've purchased in case you want to replay them, but also making space for newer releases when necessary. Of course game stores were less than thrilled to be selling something that didn't help them sell games which are their main mode of profit. Some retailers outright refused to sell the Go, citing that they would be hurting their own business by doing so.

So, what happens when suddenly it isn't just one offshoot of a portable system that doesn't need the retailer anymore, but every system? If a disc-less future is what's in store, then stores are either going to have to undergo massive changes to how their infrastructure works or risk fading into the past due to being completely obsolete. Boycotting the consoles will in the end prove to be ineffective because gamers will ultimately buy their goods from someone who is willing to sell them, even if it means going directly to the manufacturer themselves.

So, what can game stores do in the face of this paradigm shift? Some game stores have sold both online games and DLC via simply offering packages with a coupon for redemption online. This approach is somewhat novel, but doesn't have a lot of long term sustainability in the face of simply getting the games and DLC from the comfort of your own home. The answer might be in the game stores themselves abandoning their physical location in favour of a purely online model in order to compete. Gamestop is already planning an online distribution service. Even this option though seems somewhat tepid in the face of just buying a game directly from the publisher, something that disc-less gaming would no doubt encourage.

It would seem that under these circumstances -- at least at the moment -- that the best and perhaps only trump card that retailers might have are the exclusive content packages that they buy the rights to. I can foresee a future where store exclusive DLC becomes an even more prominent measure, because that will almost literally be the only defining factor that can be offered in terms of place of purchase. I've already gone over the pitfalls and foibles of making gamers choose certain content over other content, and if it does get to the point where retailer exclusives do have a significant impact on game progression then it's only going to exacerbate the problem. The issue here is though, that I can't really see any other way for the current game stores to stay competitive if everyone does indeed go disc-less. Whether or not they will be able to come up with a solution innovative enough to sustain them is their job, but they'd better hurry, because it seems the clock is ticking either way.

Monday, 19 September 2011

"The Future is Disc-less?" Week Part 1 - The Future is Coming (Like it or Not)

 A somewhat short article today, because I'd like to think that this will serve as an introduction more than anything else.

I've already talked a little about downloadable games vs. physical copies, but at the moment the choice is available. Certainly there is a market for digital only games; platforms like Steam have proven that, and according to the ESA "Purchases of digital content accounted for 24 percent of game sales in 2010, generating $5.9 billion in revenue." While this includes things like DLC, there is no doubt that digital media is certainly a growing and profitable trend.

However, there is speculation on the part of the industry that eventually digital only content distribution might be the only type available.

In this Game Stooge article a couple of industry figures talk about the future of video game consoles. THQ CEO Brian Farrell believes that we could see a disc-less generation as early as the next console iteration. Kaz Hirai believes that disc-less consoles are at least a decade off due to the current infrastructure built around the sale and distribution of physical media. Note that he did not say that it would never happen, just that it wouldn't be in the immediate future.

The move from physical and digital content distribution to pure digital doesn't seem too scary on paper, but in reality it would mark nothing less than a huge change in the one of the fundamental ways we game: how we get our games would be altered. Right now physical and digital media share and compete against one another, but if the disc is taken out of the equation completely there are going to be widespread ramifications for not only the industry itself, but also the sales industry, the second hand market, and of course the gamers themselves.

That is of course not to say that the changes will be all bad or all good. As with everything there will be both positive and negative traits associated with turn to disc-less systems if -- or more seemingly when -- it does happen. Will it be a case of an innovative new way of getting the games you want making everyone happy, or will we end up wishing that we still had our jewel cases and discs intact? At the moment anything that anyone can offer (myself included of course) is mere speculation. But based upon some of the pros and cons that are associated with content delivery systems like Steam, The Playstation Store, Xbox Live Marketplace, and Wii Shop Channel, we can make some educated guesses as to what needs to be worked on, and what can do well enough as is.

That is why the majority of this upcoming week will be devoted to looking at just how a disc-less future would affect the various facets of the entire video game community. And this is something that I do believe will have to be explored, because it seems that the future may invariably leaning towards this method of getting games.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Achievements and Milestones in Gaming - Striking a Balance between Incentive and Burden

Since I've already spent most of this week talking about game length and how players themselves try to get more mileage out of their titles I thought that it was only logical to look at one of the most popular ways as of late that game designers and developers are adding incentive to play longer and try harder: in game achievements and milestones.

From a technical standpoint, gaming achievements are nothing new; beating a game always has been and always will be an achievement after all. The same can be said about getting to the highest level in an RPG, or getting the ultimate weapons in any given game. Of course the only reward for these things used to be the thing in and of itself: the ultimate weapons were worth getting because they kicked ass, and of course when you start a game you will generally want to see it through to the end. Starting with the last generation and then really hitting full force in this one is the relatively new phenomenon of in-game achievements: in other words, rewards (or at least platitudes) for completing certain objectives and tasks in game.

It's quite uncommon to actually see a game without achievements these days, especially one with an online component. Even a fair deal of flash games on sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate can have achievements for things as simple as actually clearing the game to ones that are a fair bit more complex like having a perfect run or coming in under a certain time which is often somewhat prohibitive to achieve. Hell, there's even the flash game series "Achievement Unlocked" where the only point of the game is to get achievements, and the game ends once you've achieved everything.

The Achievement Unlocked games though are obviously satire. The thing is, they are a satire that came about in part due to what many people have viewed as an over-saturation of achievements in games. Most achievements in console and PC games track things like difficulties beaten, or number of enemies killed. A fair bit of them do happen to overlap with the actual progression of the game itself, so simply by playing you're likely to get a handful of them. Other things though, like getting all golds in side missions or beating a ridiculous number of enemies though are obviously there in order to compel players to play the game long after they've initially cleared it.

Most of the time achievements are innocent enough; you can ignore them if they involve doing something that isn't your cup of tea, or you can try and get them all if you're a completionist. However, in the case of the latter sometimes achievements do hurt. There are instances where achievements require completion of certain events that are only available at certain points during a playthrough. An example of this is the Treasure Trove achievement in Lost Odyssey, which requires a perfect run through of all the treasures in the game. You can see just from the comments that this achievement is incredibly hard to attain, and in the case of some people has probably stalled their progress through the game due to not wanting to miss anything in order to actually get the achievement. This is pretty much a case of an achievement actually hampering the gameplay for a select group of players.

I know that a lot of you are just saying "Well, why can't they just ignore that achievement?" but for some people it's just more than a compulsion or a goal: it's something they have to do. Adding achievements to games has driven some people into gaming stagnation: they don't move forward from a select few games because they can't get all the achievements therein, and it keeps them from engaging in new titles.

Of course this isn't even going into the fact that achievements don't actually do anything in most cases. Although in some games like Team Fortress 2 some unlocks can be obtained through achievements (although they can be gotten just about anywhere else as well) most achievements are just there for show. And show they do: although it's not an epidemic by any measure, there are plenty of people out there that put way too much stock into their gamerscore or trophy collection, to the point where they get friends to help them get certain multiplayer achievements that it would be otherwise impossible to get, effectively scamming a system for no real point other than to show off "how pro" they are because they have a hard to get achievement (that's been obtained through no effort on their part). Like I said it's not a huge problem, but the fact that it exists at all is still quite an annoyance to those that just want to play their game without being hassled because they haven't unlocked the "mega death murder crap" trophy.

It's really a double edged sword. Achievements are still new enough that some of the kinks are still being worked out of the system, and hopefully there will be improvements. There's going to have to be, because it doesn't look like achievements are going anywhere anytime soon. And whether you like them or loathe them, odds are you're going to be getting some unlocks at some point in the future.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Make Your Own Difficulty (and Fun) - Player Imposed Challenges

I can say without a lot of doubt that a lot of stupid things have probably resulted from the phrase "I bet you can't do that" or "I dare you". However, along with the stupidity often comes entertainment, and these terms are no exception in the realm of video games.

There are plenty of reasons why self imposed challenges in their various forms exist in the first place. Perhaps a person loves a game so much that they know its ins-and-outs by rote and despite still wanting to play it have become sort of bored by the normal way the gameplay unfolds. Or, of course there are the dares and bets of friends, or even that own voice in your head that goes "I wonder if it's possible to do this like this or if there's no chance at all". Sometimes people attempt the things they attempt to get recognition, or prove that their playstyle is viable or competitive or even superior to those that already exist. Sometimes people even just do it because they have nothing better to do and figure "hey, why the hell not?"

Regardless of the initial reasoning though, the player imposed challenge has given life to its own communities of players that love nothing more than trying (and often succeeding) at doing the seemingly impossible. These challenges have breathed life into older games, and helped allay some of the concerns that modern day gaming is "too easy" (a concern which I don't personally share, but that a lot of people seem to voice nonetheless). Whatever the premise behind the challenge though, the result is still the same: people hone and often times get to showcase their skills, and add hours, sometimes in the ranges of 10s or even over 100, to games that they've already played quite a bit of in the first place; in other words, people are getting more bang for their buck, and that's never a bad thing.

Some games of course already cater to a limited selection, thanks to things like difficulty levels that present more challenges and less room for error. To some though, even the most challenging difficulty becomes mundane after countless playthroughs and enough practice. That's where one of the most basic challenges comes in: playing a game (often on the hardest difficulty) with the starting weapon, or without upgrades, or even without trying to gain levels in the case of RPGs. Certainly, going through a game with the first weapon you're handed when you know there's going to be five to ten upgrades that are going to be offered to you is going to present a challenge: bosses that were already difficult even with the best gun or sword in the entire game turn into monumental tests of skill and stamina: knowing when to attack, when to back off, and how not to get yourself killed after whittling the boss into the red over the course of a half hour or more.

RPGs are even more difficult: how does one avoid random encounters and leveling up from the mandatory boss fights? There are guides out there for such low level runs that are massively complex and detailed. I personally remember the ones that sprang up for Final Fantasy IX after people learned that if you got to a certain point in the game - near the end of the final dungeon actually - within a certain amount of time - I believe within ten or twelve hours, which for a Final Fantasy game is kind of insane - then you could get an excellent weapon for one of the characters. People took the challenge not because the weapon was good (hell, arguably it is nowhere near worth it) but to prove that it could be done. So you had guides that detailed how to get through boss fights as fast as possible, how to make it from area A to area B in the least amount of time, even how to walk in order to avoid random encounters through complex exploitations of the games coding.

All of this amounted to one hell of a low level speed run community that centered around Final Fantasy IX. But of course speed runs themselves are nothing new, and are in fact one of the most commonly seen type of challenges: doubtless because under certain circumstances they can get you worldwide recognition up to and including a place in the Guiness Book of World Records. It's common to see "tool assisted" speed runs on Youtube, where through the use of various tricks that things like playing the game from a ROM allows, the player blasts through a game with lightning speed. While doubtless impressive, the unassisted speed runs sometimes even more so, and there have been some rather impressive ones: games being beaten in minutes that would normally take hours to clear, such as beating Quake on the hardest difficulty in less than 20 minutes. Records have been kept for both assisted and unassisted speed runs, and the amount of effort and planning that goes into either type is truly impressive.

Perhaps the ultimate extension of this are ROMs that are meant to test the absolute limits of player ability. ROMs like the infamous Kaizo Mario World series exist only to prove that with enough time and determination, a player can make their way through what seems like a ridiculously impossible situation. And despite the brainmelting, keyboard smashing frustration that must come from playing this kind of game, people do, and do so often. Because sometimes, really, all you need and all you want is a good challenge; sometimes that just means you have to end up making it yourself, one way or another.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

How Much is Too Much? - Is There a Point When a Game Becomes Long Enough?

I’m writing this article coming off the back of Nintendo’s announcement that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword will be anywhere from 50 to 100 hours in length. When people generally talk about game length the consensus is that longer is better, but in my mind, hearing that a single player game is going to potentially run into the third digit makes me a little leery. Certainly, there are games that can have play length of hundreds of hours, but those are generally due to different circumstances, rather than a game literally being just that big.

As I’ve mentioned before, online multiplayer games can have playtimes of effectively infinite length because the community is always changing. Even single player games can have longer playtimes though, when people play a game they like they might be compelled to complete it to 100%, and then to keep playing it even after everything has been achieved. Skyward Sword doesn’t seem to be a case of this though, as Nintendo is implying that the narrative itself is going to last a tremendously long time, longer than any other game in the Zelda series to date and even most RPGs which “only” clock in at 40 to 60 hours on average.

With this admittedly larger playtime though, I can’t help but wonder if some people will be turned off, knowing the kind of investment that’s needed. I know that out of all the fans that the percentage will very likely be minimal and that a lot of people are pleased that they’re getting a lot of bang for their buck, but I know that at least a few people are going to look at the estimated time to complete the game and go “You know what, it’s not worth it.” Some people simply don’t have the time to invest in such an adventure.

I think I can be forgiven for putting on the nostalgia goggles for a moment, not in regards to games, but in regards to how I used to play them. I remember during my high school days that if I really wanted to then after I got home I could literally do almost nothing but play video games for the rest of the day and not have it be a problem. One instance that is particularly clear to me is when I was playing the Playstation re-release of Chrono Trigger one weekend, and literally wound up playing the game for 16 hours and not caring a wink. I stopped to eat and go to the bathroom, but other than that I spent the entire bloody day playing Chrono Trigger. And you know what, that was completely ok. School wasn’t that challenging, and wasting a Saturday doing something I enjoyed wasn’t much of a concern.

It’s not something that I could - or would - ever do now though.

Now I work for eight and a half hours a day five days a week. When I get home I have a couple of hours to myself, some of which is of course used to write what you’re reading right now. Sure, I have days off, and could squeeze a couple of hours of gameplay out every night, but then I’d also feel like I was neglecting other things that needed to be done. So my time actually playing games became somewhat limited. I’m not alone though, it pretty much happens to everyone. There’s just a certain point where you can’t invest the time you used to anymore.

I used to love RPGs, and I’d have to say I still do. I haven’t played one in ages though, simply because of the amount of time that I’d need to invest in order to finish it in a decent amount of time. And remember, those RPGs are going to be shorter than Skyward Sword seems to be promised to be. So if I had a Wii, it would actually be a difficult choice for me. I know that as a Zelda game that Skyward Sword is probably going to be above the curve, if not fantastic in and of itself. But part of me would be saying that I could finish two or even three regular length games in the time I could finish this one. It’s no one’s fault really, but sometimes circumstances leave you little choice.

Perhaps my concern is irrelevant after all though. But time investment isn’t the only concern. Certainly a narrative that lasts that long might become somewhat fatigued in places, and there’s also the possibility of filler, such as the sailing from Wind Waker, rearing it’s ugly head - I know that some people enjoyed the sailing in WW, but a lot of people hated the fact that it ate up a lot of time and mostly didn’t serve much of a purpose other than getting from point A to point B - all of these are factors that have to be considered when looking at whether or not you’re going to want to play this title. Sometimes longer doesn’t automatically mean better, after all.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Throwing Fridges - Is Having Players "Break" the Game Really a Bad Thing?

With the newly rejuvenated Deus Ex series still very much in the spotlight, some names within the community like Yahtzee have turned to the original to take a look at the roots of the series. Among the things that were mentioned was the fact that the original Deus Ex was a very free-roaming title. You could pile up garbage in people's offices, go places in buildings just to see if there were any particularly interesting bits of dialogue or Easter eggs associated with doing so, and you could do things like break the game by using the somewhat wonky physics engine to get places where you should be able to get or otherwise make the NPCs do really stupid crap. The point is that with the rise of more graphically intensive games, there was been somewhat of a lack in the area of "screwing around" space in titles, and while this may not seem important to most game developers and designers, a lot of gamers, myself included, believe that it's something that is sorely missed these days.

Now, I'm not saying that games should be spat out without beta testing or anything, dear lord no. That's just asking for the most horrifically nightmarish shitshow to grace any platform, something like another Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing or Superman 64. We don't need those titles. No, what I'm saying is that these days the developer response to thinking about what gamers will or won't do seems to have the almost knee-jerk reaction of "well, just limit them" without any real rationale as to why. Stuff like invisible walls, doors that might as be wallpaper, objects that have no purpose other than just just sort of being there since they can't be interacted with, and so on. Perhaps it is the price we pay for having more pretty looking games, but I think it's still a pretty high one.

Even though some railroading is often the case though, in a lot of these games players still try to find ways to just screw around. It's what made the sandbox genre so popular in the first place. If in Grand Theft Auto 3 you said "You know what, fuck the missions" and just decided to drive around, seeing what you could find or do, then you could absolutely do that. You could use cheats to spawn a dozen tanks, parade around while cops chased you, hell, you could even be a good Samaritan if you really felt like it and do the ambulance or firefighter side missions, or you could even be mundane and follow all the laws, not run anyone over or do anything out of the ordinary at all. I'll grant you that most people didn't just drive around being good little boys and girls, but the point is that if you wanted to, you totally could, and then if you got sick of that you could go throw a Molotov cocktail into a crowd or run people over or even, you know, actually do one of the missions that the game gives you.

Developers surely can't account for everything that a player is going to attempt to do. Hell, we've all done some strange stuff in games. I remember playing Goldeneye and just shooting the walls to see how many bullet holes I could get in there before the old ones started disappearing, and laying on proximity mines one on top of the other until there was a ridiculous stack, just to see how big the explosion would get and how ridiculous this gravity defying tower of discs that's jutting out of the wall could become. I hear stories all the time about people who kept holding up when Mario reached the end of a vine in Super Mario Brothers, just because they though the silly little animation he did as he tried to keep climbing to nowhere was funny, and people who played Fallout in the strangest ways just to see how much crap they could actually get away with (Protip: it was quite a bit, actually). Hell, even the origins of the combo started off as a glitch in one of the Street Fighter games, something that the dev team was confident that no one would actually find, let alone exploit; but players found it, and exploited it, and learned to counter it, and so on, and in the next Street Fighter, combos were feature, not a bug.

Screwing around and just seeing how badly you can break something, or if it can even break at all, is hardly a waste of time. In some cases, doing just that is what causes games to evolve and become better down the line, and even if that's not the case, it's not like the people doing this are wasting anyone's time but their own, although when you look at some of the results, and the popularity of programs like Garry's Mod which are almost built specifically to cater to such impulses, I can't really see where the time is being wasted, and neither can a lot of other people.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The 3DS Analog Add On - What to Make of the Second Stick

So, recently it has come to light that the Nintendo 3DS is getting an add on for use with at least the next Monster Hunter game: a peripheral that will give the 3DS a second analog stick. Even though at the moment it is uncertain whether any other games will support the add-on, people are still very unimpressed at the announcement, which they believe could be the first inkling of a redesign at this early stage of the handheld's life cycle. Certainly there have been redesigns before, but it seems that a number of factors have added up to this becoming more of an issue than Nintendo had thought it would be.

Console and handheld redesigns are nothing new, after all: the first Game Boy had a redesign in the form of the Game Boy Pocket. The Game Boy Advance had the SP. The Playstation family have had their slim redesigns, the 360 has its special editions, and so on. Even redesigns to address the flaws of the initial release are common, with ones like the Playstation's initial overheating problem and the original Xbox's disc reading capabilities being addressed in subsequent releases. So why all the bitterness directed towards Nintendo now?

The answer seems three-fold: timing, the userbase, and potential.

The timing and the userbase kind of go hand in hand on this issue, so it's best to cover them together. This announcement of the second analog stick seems to indicate in the minds of many that a redesign for the 3DS might be right around the corner, and the fact that it seems to be happening so early in the system's lifespan means that the initial adopters are seemingly left high and dry. Combine that with the fact that the price drop caused some of the people that were formerly on the fence about buying a 3DS to take the plunge and you have a rather large, rather vocal group that feels slighted. The suggestion that the system should have had two analog sticks from launch might be a somewhat unfair one to make at the moment, but in light of what's happening now it would have doubtless spared Nintendo a lot of headaches and even more criticism from voices that are now saying that the handheld might have been pushed out of development too early for its own good.

The third part: potential, is also a strong reason behind the current mood of those that have taken issue. I'm not sure how much stock to put into this personally, but there are people out there that think that the lack of a second analog stick from out of the gate has hampered the system's potential, and that if the 3DS is about to get a second one, either through the addition, a redesign, or both, that there will finally be games that will be of a higher calibre than what we've been seeing currently. While many would hail this as a good thing, the people that bring this up are also quick to point out that the system should have been designed with such support and capabilities from the start in order to ensure a higher quality output. While I don't agree 100% with that assessment, there is some merit to it, and surely if Nintendo itself adopts the second stick for some of its first party games we could see a wider spectrum of titles than what is currently on the table.

Perhaps more than anything though, is that people seem angry at how poorly this entire thing is being handled. Nintendo has been somewhat evasive regarding this whole issue, and while the designs might change the current way that the add-on looks is failing to inspire much, if any, confidence. The notion that people that just got a 3DS might now also have to shell out more money (just how much more is an unknown factor at the moment, but it will probably be more than zero) is less than appealing to everyone that only bought one due to the price drop. All in all, it just seems like a strange misstep on the part of Nintendo, if and when the overall health of the system.