Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Is There a Place for the Game Store Anymore? Physical vs. Digital

Despite things like additional content and various lures to try and grab people into buying from stores, today places like EB, GameStop, and other physical retailers are facing very stiff competition from both online stores like Steam and the inbuilt console franchises, and services like GameFly which offer a greater amount of flexibility at what is considered to be a more affordable price.

It just seems like there is less and less of a need to have a physical game store. Aside from offering exclusive bundles (something which many people already take issue with), there's really no advantage in having a local game store set up. I will admit that personally I'm a fan of having the actual physical copy of a game, rather than just a digital download, but considering that on the PC at least that backing up a game to a disc is something that is not only legal (within certain boundaries of course) but also encouraged by online retailers like Steam, who are quick to tell you that you should backup games to discs in case you ever suffer the dreaded catastrophic system failure that is bound to happen at least once to everyone in this day and age.

Consoles are a little different, of course. Since hard drive space is more limited on a console and you can't back a game up onto a disc there's more of a demand for actual physical media. But even in this case the only notable advantage that a brick and mortar store has over, say, amazon.com or any other online store that sells the physical copies of games is that you can wander down to EB or the like on the release day and likely pick up the title you're interested in. You can still get a game fairly quickly online, but the shipping will cost you more and in some cases people tend to want a new game immediately after it comes out. Game stores have long held midnight openings for large enough titles, giving people that pre-ordered the opportunity to pick it up literally as early as they possibly can without breaking the law.

Still, all of this really begs the question: aside from getting releases on release day (something that you can also achieve via downloading) there's really no advantage to driving down to wherever and picking up a game anymore. Stores used to of course be the only places that you could get games, they were a specialized group that catered to a certain audience. Stores once served as gathering places for things like fighting tournaments and LAN parties. If you've ever read tales recalling the local, privately run game stores, ones like The Acts of Gord (which you should read if you haven't already), you can understand how the game shop used to be a cornerstone of the industry: with a friend behind the counter you could get hard to find games, and good deals on the stuff you wanted.

Now though, the internet has replaced all that. Places like amazon essentially make sure that you're going to be getting the game for the cheapest price that anyone is sane enough to put it at, even if the difference is only a dollar or two. Rare games can be found on ebay or private sites: although they might cost an arm and a leg there's really no difference since having someone else get it for you didn't drive the price down any unless they were a very good negotiator. Opening a privately owned game shop is even more of a risk, since you're competing against everyone else and can't really offer the advantages of deals for trade ins and things like that. When even places like EB are having trouble moving some of their stock, it doesn't bode well for anyone that wants their own little piece of the pie.

It really does seem like the game store is soon, if not already, part of a bygone time. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, or if it even makes a difference, is still yet to be seen. But while stores struggle against the ease of access and other benefits that digital only mediums have, there are still other questions to tackle. Those, however, are better left for another day.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

What’s the (Literal) Deal? - Retailer Exclusive Content

Shifting the gearbox into reverse now, I’m going to talk about the times when retailers actually add content to the games they’re selling, rather than taking content away.

Retailer exclusive content has been a rather recent phenomenon, but has been gaining steam over the past few years. Unlockables ranging from different skins for characters, weapons and vehicles, to starting with weapons that would normally be available much later in game, all the way up to access to exclusive levels depending on where and how you buy your copy of a certain game.

Now this issue is hardly clear cut. On the one hand businesses like to be able to offer people an incentive to get the product - which in this case is otherwise functionally identical to any other copy of the game you could buy anywhere - from their store as opposed to the one down the street. So retailers strike up deals with the game studios: an exclusive costume for Batman, a nice starting package in an Elder Scrolls game, that sort of stuff. But there is a note of concern and indeed some derision from gamers that believe (and rightly so) that in some cases offering this exclusive content is punishing people for simply having the choice of buying a game at all.

When it’s a matter of perhaps unlocking content early on that would - and will be - otherwise accessible later in the game, then it’s not such a big deal. Sure, having a gun on level one that you normally couldn’t get your mitts on until level 10 is certainly useful and definitely enjoyable, but in the long run it’s not game breaking or unbalancing because by the end of the game everyone who plays will have gotten the gun, regardless of whether or not they picked up their copy of the game from EB, or GameStop or even Steam. However, when five different retailers are offering five different exclusive skins that won’t be available at a later date, then even though it’s simply cosmetic and not game altering from a mechanics perspective, it’s still tough shit on anyone who wanted more than one of those pieces of content.

Perhaps the most recent example is when it was announced that for Batman: Arkham City, that British supermarket Tesco would be given access to sell the game with an exclusive challenge map that, according to this article could add as many as “four hours” to the overall gameplay. Four hours is not a small amount in the world of gaming, with average games lasting between 20 and 40 hours. That’s a 10% or higher increase in playtime if the estimate is correct, and it’s only available from one retailer.

It is likely that the content will be released when the inevitable Collector’s Edition of the game comes around. But in the meantime what if people don’t want to buy the game from Tesco? Well then, it’s too bad for them because that’s the only way that they’re going to be able to get that content for the foreseeable future. It’s caused a lot of gamers to cry foul play over the fact that content that should be included on the disc is now being doled out to five or even ten different retailers, making getting a “complete” game a technical impossibility unless you feel like paying for that make separate copies of it in order to get all the content codes.

It’s not much of a hassle at the moment, more of an annoyance or at most a minor inconvenience. But what about when retailers might start demanding exclusive content much like the Arkham challenge maps, but for every game. Games will end up with black boxes, content inaccessible based upon where you buy or do not buy your game. Content trapped on a disc all there for lack of a code or certain file installed that blocks or unblocks it. That’s when I start to get really worried about where this direction is heading.

Monday, 29 August 2011

GameStop Stops Gaming: Kind of Fitting if it Wasn't so Repugnant

I know that last week was officially my "Arrogance in the Industry" parade, but it seems that the "fine" folks at GameStop just felt so darn dejected at their lack of a placement on my list that they went out of their way to make jolly old asses of themselves. For those of you that don't know what I'm talking about, last week GameStop told its employees to pull a coupon for OnLive - a new digital online game store - from their copies of Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

While Square Enix's response of basically saying "that's coo', whatever, they can do what they want" is almost laughably bad, the gamers that bought from GameStop are of course less than thrilled; especially due to the fact that these games which had been opened and modified were sold as completely new games fresh out of the box. Had the memo to store employees not been leaked then people might never caught on that they were being jipped out of a $50 dollar value when buying from GameStop.

As GameStop tries to back-pedal by offering incensed gamers some free stuff (that they kind of should have gotten off the start anyways) I can't help but almost feel bad for the retailer (note that almost doesn't mean I do). I mean, they've gone beyond the kid that gets angry, takes their ball and goes home. They're the kid who gets angry, takes ANOTHER kid's ball, then goes home, proving beyond a shadow of doubt to the rest of the playground that they're a fucking moron in the process.

I can see why GameStop would do what they did, they don't want to give free rep to their competition. GameStop is planning on debuting a digital content delivery system of its own, not to mention the fact that it as a brick and mortar store still does have to compete with the ever increasing presence of online distribution giants like Steam and the inbuilt stores that Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft have established. However, they could have - and arguably should have - handled this situation so much better. I'm not the brightest tool in the shed (derp) but looking at this it took me not even five minutes to spin the unforeseen inclusion of this coupon into something that could have helped GameStop significantly.

Run a promotion. Tell people that buy Deus Ex that if they open it up and give the GameStop employee their coupon for OnLive, that the GameStop employee will give them a coupon for $75 for when the GameStop digital store comes online. All of a sudden GameStop aren't the bad guys anymore; sure, they're undercutting Square Enix, but this is business, you do what you have to do as long as you aren't overtly pissing off the customers. Word will spread that there's a good deal going on at the franchise, so more people will come in and buy the game from them, and then of course when the digital service comes online, you have a bunch of people will free money to spend. Once they spend that money though, they're more likely to stick around, because one purchase, just one small purchase even, can engender that customer loyalty that all retailers, online or physical, need to survive.

It's still a little dubious, I'll admit, and it would probably lose GameStop a little money. But hell, they're losing money now thanks to this whole debacle, AND on top of that they're got to deal with the PR nightmare and gamer backlash this has caused. They didn't have to sit there and just grin and bare it, but in the end even that would have been better than the decision they did make.

This sort of segues into what I'm probably going to be talking about for a majority of the week, if not the whole week. Buying games. There's now more than ever the increasing amount of choice of just where and how you want to get your titles from. Things like different release content for different stores, digital gamestores, and just the internet in general have made the once simple task of buying games now almost a game in and of itself. The question is, who's playing who, and who's going to lose?

Friday, 26 August 2011

Arrogance and the Industry Five - Nintendo Kicks A Legend Upstairs

Now, everyone these days has their preferences for game companies, but even those that love Sony and Microsoft have to begrudgingly admit that video gaming today wouldn't be what it is without Nintendo; hell, it might not even exist at all.

The Big N brought video games back from the brink with the NES after the great crash that left most corporations and the public thinking that video games were a now dead fad. Nintendo has done a lot, and for that I am grateful. But they also perpetrated one of the most heinous examples of arrogance that I can really think of - not to mention the one that bothers me the most.

When I say Nintendo and tell you to think of the people behind the games, you probably instantly gravitate to Shigeru Miyamoto the creator of Mario and Zelda, or perhaps even Masahiro Sakurai who made Kirby and Super Smash Brothers. But a lot of people tend to forget one of the people that allowed Nintendo to gain absolute dominance in a market that until very recently has never come into question.

They forget about Gunpei Yokoi.

Yokoi was with Nintendo years before the NES brought the industry back from the brink. He helped create the Game and Watch series of electronic devices which in a way were a precursor to Nintendo's console and handheld offerings. Yokoi even took Miyamoto under his wing when he was assigned to supervise the creation of a game that Miyamoto was working on: Donkey Kong. It was thanks to Yokoi speaking up that Nintendo had one of its first smash arcade hits. Not one to rest on his laurels though, Yokoi developed some ideas of his own. Perhaps you've heard of or even played one of the games in a series that he originally designed, a little known title called Metroid. Or maybe you're a fan of Kid Icarus, another one of his creations.

It wasn't game development that Yokoi would leave the most enduring mark on though, as good as the titles that he produced were, they paled in comparison to his greatest achievement in hardware: the Game Boy. The old sturdy game brick that played in monochrome swept the world by storm and was basically THE source of portable gaming as we know it today, having itself been inspired by the Game and Watch machines that Yokoi had developed earlier. The Game Boy was a huge success, granting Nintendo domination of the handheld market in the face of competition that ranged from Sega's Game Gear to Sony's PSP. The games were solid, the design well executed, and the survivability legendary. After the release of the Game Boy and still riding high on the success of the Super Nintendo Nintendo could seemingly do no wrong. But all good things must come to an end.

1995 saw the release of another one of Yokoi's inventions, the Virtual Boy. Touted as the first 3D capable console, the entire project proved to be an embarrassing flop and Nintendo's first real taste of failure in the industry. Although the system did have potential, the red monochrome and the obtuse design proved to be off putting, and the lack of games that really took advantage of the advertised capabilities meant the the Virtual Boy quickly floundered after the public was rather unimpressed by the showing it made. However, signs indicate that Yokoi never meant for the Virtual Boy to be released in the state that it was put out in. Nintendo seemingly rushed the development of the system in order to focus more fully on their next big console the Nintendo 64. As a result an idea that in all likelihoods was not complete and never meant to be shown to the public in the form it debuted in was thrown out as a sort of stop gap to keep people talking while Nintendo prepared to wow them with it's next console.

Perhaps they thought that the system was more capable than it was. More likely it seems is that they thought that people would buy it despite of the fact that it was more of a technical demo that showed some interesting capabilities than a full fledged system. But regardless of what Nintendo had thought or perhaps even hoped, the system bombed, and Yokoi was blamed.

The failure of the Virtual Boy meant that Yokoi became part of the madogiwazoku, or “the window seat tribe”. Given a place in middle management without much control and next to no creative input, Yokoi, a man that surely had an integral part in making Nintendo what it was, was set to live out the rest of his career at Nintendo without any opportunities to make anything innovative ever again.

Rather than stay at Nintendo, Yokoi left to start his own company and went on to develop the Bandai Wonderswan before his untimely death at the age of 56 in a motor vehicle accident.

The story of what happened to Yokoi has always been one that I’ve found particularly depressing. The fact that Nintendo pretty much applied a “one strike and you’re out” concept to someone that helped make the company what it was seems incredibly harsh. You might argue that if that mistake is the Virtual Boy then perhaps it’s deserved, but given some of the accounts it seems to be as much of the fault of Nintendo itself than of Yokoi, if not more. Besides, one failure in the face of such successes just seems to be a hollow reason to stifle someone who’s had such a brilliant career to that point.

I know that speculation is arbitrary, but I can’t help but feel like many others that Yokoi still had more creative spark left in him than some people hold throughout there entire lives, and while it’s impossible to say what would have happened had he never been “retired upstairs”, I find it a true waste that he had to leave under those circumstances. There are some cultural differences that need to be taken into account, but it still doesn’t stop the entire thing from seeming like a real waste of a man’s genius.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Arrogance and the Industry Four - Failure to Culturally Communicate

There's been a lot of talk this week about the potential abandonment of the Xbox 360 by Japanese retailers. While the unceremonious dropping does not strike me as particularly surprising, it is rather disheartening.

This is not a case of one individual or even one company's arrogance, and since these events are still unfolding it will be hard to make any determination to the potential harm (or, somehow, good) that this event will render - assuming that it even registers. The comment that Jerry Holkins (or as most know him, Tycho Brahe) made just this past Monday does little to assuage my fears over the situation:

"you might hear a person from Microsoft (who should probably know better than to talk to me) wonder aloud whether it’s possible to succeed in this business without Japan.  They are asking it in a way that implies they have already answered this question for themselves and, indeed, answered it in the affirmative."

Can Microsoft survive without making a foothold in the Japanese market? Yes, of course they can. But is it a good idea in the long term? The answer to that is a lot murkier, but should generally be an unsurprising "no".

Microsoft and Japan as a seeming cultural entity have failed to meet each other halfway. The gaming and consumer culture in Japan is partially to blame, no doubt. There is an insular nature to the Japanese that makes the potential for any out of community forces gaining a foothold that much harder, and let's face it: Nintendo and Sony are both Japanese developers that already have the respect and trust of most of the public in their pockets.

The thing is though, Microsoft would have to have been deaf, blind and dumb to not realize that Japan was going to be a hard fight. While people have accused the big M of many things, I cannot believe that they would go into a market without heavy research on how to integrate themselves; they are a business after all, and judging from the amounts of money they've made in the past, not a stupid one either.

You could argue that Microsoft did take steps, gaining the trust and even some deals for exclusives from companies like Tecmo, and even snagging away the formerly Sony exclusive Final Fantasy series which should have proven to be a big draw. Hell, they even got  Hironobu Sakaguchi to develop a game for them and got Akira Toriyama to create the art and character designs.

The resulting game - Blue Dragon - did do quite well in Japan, but it seems that aside from trying to get more RPGs on the system, that Microsoft was rather complacent about the entire thing. There was a seeming lack of a need to get some in house studios over in the country. There were third party developers like Mistwalker, Grasshopper Manufacture, and Q Entertainment, but there was no initiative to place a first party development suite in Japan, where I believe it would have done some good. A base of operations in Japan devoted to the 360 would have allowed Microsoft to become more in tune with what they would need to achieve in order to move their units to a resistant public. Needless to say, what is seemingly happening now is the exact opposite of what needed to.

Now that Japan has seemingly said "we don't want you" and Microsoft has responded with "we don't need you", both parties can only be hurt in the long run. Microsoft was initially laughed at when they entered the gaming market less than a decade ago. No one is laughing now; they've proved their success. But Microsoft needs to get into the Japanese market in order to go from a strong contender to the potential top of the heap. Japan is a huge market that both Sony and Nintendo have relied upon to weather storms and bolster their positions, and while North America is the same for Microsoft, they aren't really going to make their opponents nervous without making in-strides to where the other two of the big three call home.

Money, if anything, shouldn't be an issue. I know that even with the resources of Bill Gates behind you that reckless spending isn't advisable, but isn't spending a modest sum now to get larger returns - you know, investing - something that is encouraged on both the part of the individual and the corporation? By saying that they don't need Japan, Microsoft is cutting itself off from a huge chunk of potential market shares, all because they seemingly looked around and said "well, since it's not as easy as it is everywhere else, it's not worth sticking around". I can't help but wonder not if, but rather when, they might come to regret that decision.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Arrogance and the Industry Part Three - You Will Take the Redesign and You Will Like It!

Some characters are iconic: Mario, Sonic, Master Chief; all of these protagonists are immediately identifiable to most gamers and even to a lot of people that don’t play games or haven’t in a while. There’s nothing inherently wrong with not changing a design if that design works spectacularly.

There are just as many characters that have undergone design changes from game to game. I’m thinking of guys like Ratchet, Jak, the various protagonists of Resident Evil. Even Solid Snake underwent a massive change for the release of Metal Gear Solid 4: going from his original design to Old Snake. There’s nothing wrong with change when it’s warranted or done to serve a greater purpose while also making sure not to lose sight of what makes the character unique to begin with.

That’s why the redesign of Dante for the upcoming reboot of Devil May Cry (now called simply DmC) is so, very, infuriating.

Dante is hardly an esoteric character; plenty of people are aware of him through either playing his games or some of the ones that he’s made appearances in including Marvel vs. Capcom 3. He’s had redesigns, sure, but a few things have always remained: the white hair, red coat, and if you ignore 2 (which most do) his fairly nonchalant attitude regarding most things most of the time.

I had thought that Capcom might have learned its lesson after the Dante of Devil May Cry 2 - a stoic, almost silent hero in comparison to every other one of his incarnations - was cited as one of the games most glaring faults. Without the cocky wisecracking attitude it’s not really Dante. It is, after all, one of his defining traits.

So when the reboot was announced and everyone got a good look at the new Dante fans were understandably pissed. This is a character as far removed from his heart and soul as you could get.

The thing about this Dante is that, well, it’s not Dante. There’s nothing that is immediately resonant in this character that points to anything we seem to know about him. Sure, he has a sword and guns, but so do a lot of people. Some trailers seem to show a more “original” form as a possible Devil Trigger, but the fact that it only appears briefly and seemingly only exists to try to appease fans doesn’t help matters.

Such a redesign can work. I’m sure that people were shocked at Old Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4. But his appearance and presence worked as they were explained by the story. It might be the same in this case. However, if you look at Old Snake, you can still tell that the character you’re looking at is Snake. The bodysuit, the facial structure, the bandana and the fact that he’s still voiced by David Hayter are all connections that firmly establish this character as being in the same continuity. With new Dante, none of these things seem to be the case.

I can understand wanting to make a radical departure. But honestly, the way that both Capcom and Ninja Theory have handled this smacks of a certain attitude: something that seems to say “We know what you like more than you do, so shut up and take it like good children.”

Just look at the comments in this article or, if you want the choicest bit, the idea that, “"The people who are skeptical secretly want to like it," Antoniades added, "and our job is to prove it's Devil May Cry in essence."”

No, I think the people who are skeptical “secretly” want a protagonist that they can actually fucking recognize as Dante.

The sad thing is that from the gameplay I’ve seen, I actually think that this DmC does hold potential. But Dante’s design is just so radically removed from any seeming sense of sanity that it makes it hard to look past it.

Gamers are a fickle but sometimes sadly ineffectual bunch, so while a lot of people are complaining about Dante’s new look, most of them might still buy the game. I won’t be among them. As much as I love the series and even if the gameplay is fantastic, I cannot support Capcom and Ninja Theory in this decision. Since buying the game is the surest way to prove that you do support the changes they’ve made I can't buy it, because nothing talks like the almighty dollar.

You might remember that Cole from inFAMOUS was slated to undergo design changes in the sequel, and that gamers balked at the changes. Sucker Punch opted to take the backlash to heart, and while not giving something that was completely the same as the original character, gave enough so that he was still recognizable as Cole. DmC seems to be taking the opposite route, what with the announcement that Dante is not only half demon, but half angel as well in this game (something which clashes with the original backstory as presented until this point).

Maybe I’m wrong and everyone else is wrong, and this new Dante will either be or become something that we all love and longingly anticipate playing as again in the future. But a lot of people, if they stick by their guns, won’t be finding out because it’s just too much to stand. We’ve already had a young Dante, the Dante of Devil May Cry 3 who was a more apathetic but still instantly recognizable character, and his journey from just being on the fringes to actually wanting to make a difference was - here’s a shock - actually conveyed well in that game. So to take all of what has happened to this point and say “Nope, doesn’t mean anything, you like this guy now.” is just asking too much of a crowd that stuck by the game because of its protagonist almost as much as they stuck by it for the gameplay.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Arrogance and the Industry Part Two - Sony’s Bad Case of (Giant Enemy) Crabs

We’re still a year or two (perhaps more if Mircosoft and Sony’s statements hold any water) from seeing most of the next generation of game consoles which will be the eighth thus far. People are already giving sideways looks to the Nintendo Wii U, but it’s easy to forget that going into the seventh generation it was Sony’s game to lose, and they’d have had to screw up royal in order to blow it.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Fanboys will argue until they are blue in the face, but I’m not one of those so that’s a moot point. Hell, of the three consoles I only have a PS3 and I will still tell you that Sony blew it. Out their ass. HARD. No amount of petulant whining and desperate clasping of hands over ears will change that fact.

Everyone that watched it (or, hell, let’s face it, has been on the internet in the time since) has probably heard some of the memes that were spawned by the Sony E3 press conference when they first unveiled the PS3 and announced the initial line-up and price point. You might remember “Giant Enemy Crab”, “$599 US Dollars!”, or “RIDGGGGE RACER!”. While it seems comical now - or rather it would be if you hadn’t already heard it possibly literally a million times - the truth is though, that some of the people laughing hardest probably were doing so because if they didn’t they’d be crying until they ran out of tears.

The release of the PS3 turned Sony from the dominant market shareholder into a laughingstock that was fighting for a distant third and only recently able to recover into a close competition with the Xbox 360 for second. Consider though that the PS2 has almost sold as many units as the three current generation consoles combined.

So. What went wrong?

Well, there isn’t one singular factor to blame in this case, but if you want to say that one came pretty damn close it would have to be the price point first and foremost. A lot of people balked at the 600 dollar price tag for a game system when the base Xbox 360 launched for half that and the launch of the Wii with a price tag of 250 USD. The competition had a definitive edge in that you could by a system and five or six games for the price of the PS3 alone. Still, people have proven that they are willing to spend the cash when what they think they are buying is worth it. So something - or rather some things - must have made the PS3 not worth it.

When it comes to the reasons why the PS3 lost the seventh generation it’s most useful to look at the reasons why the PS2 won the sixth. When the PS2 came out it’s launch line up was actually not a whole lot more impressive than the PS3’s. There were a couple of decent games, but nothing that had a hell of a lot of brand recognition that could really get the units to sell. So why did the PS2 sell almost a million units in a single day? Part of the reason was that it was the first console that boasted backwards compatibility: so if you had an extensive number of PS1 titles, you could play those on your PS2 right out of the gate. The huge reason why it was so successful though was actually not because of the games, but rather because of what the PS2 offered: a cheap (comparatively) reliable DVD player. A lot of people, especially in Japan, bought the PS2 for it’s DVD playing capabilities first, and as a console in a close second.

I think that Sony wanted to, or thought they could at least, do the same thing with the PS3 and Blu Ray. In their minds the PS2 had justified the fact that if they had the hardware people wanted that the price point and the lack of a really strong starting line-up wouldn’t hurt that much and could be quickly overcome by the money they made off the initial sales.

The problem is that in-between the launch of these two systems the market had changed. DVDs were the big thing when the PS2 came out, but the PS3 had come out during the war between HDDVD and Blu Ray when there was no clear winner in sight. Sony had shrugged off the early launch of the 360 and the low price point of the Nintendo Wii because they had thought that Blu Ray was their trump card, along with brand loyalty.

Neither of those things justified 600 dollars in the minds of a lot of people.

Sure, there were good games in the launch line-up. Resistance: Fall of Man was a stellar title. But without any big name games coming out to whet the appetites of the public most people didn’t bite. With the loss of a lot of exclusives and the rise of the multiplatform release Sony saw it’s advantage dwindle to nothing. Then, rather than admitting they had made a mistake, they were the ones who ignored reality making themselves into the butt of a lot of jokes, but not into the homes of a lot of gamers.

Right now both Microsoft and Sony say that they’re only halfway through an unheard of 10 year cycle for these consoles. Whether or not that’s the case or just hot air is anyone’s guess. Regardless of when the next Sony console comes out, I certainly hope that Sony has learned something from the debacle that was the PS3 launch, because they honestly can’t afford another one.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Arrogance and the Industry Part One - The Big Good-Bye that Almost Was

I’ve given it some thought, and although I’d say that overall the industry is in a fairly good shape, it could always stand to be better. Sometimes it’s really not the fault of any one person, company or entity; the markets can be fickle after all. However, there have been some dubious trends and decisions that I believe have earned some well placed ire.

Let me make two things absolutely clear: first of all is the fact that this series by its very nature as a bunch of opinion pieces is something that not everyone is going to agree with. Some of the people or events that I’m going to point out over the coming weeks might make some of you do a double-take and say “But X was a good thing, why hate on X?” Well, maybe the reasons I hate on X are the same ones you consider to be the good qualities about it. But to me, certain decisions have smacked of arrogance, and while some people are already facing what I would view as repercussions for these decisions, they still bare pointing out again.

Secondly, I want to make it clear that when I point out these beefs, I do so not out of the same arrogance I so detest. I am a lot of things, but I’d rather not be a hypocrite when I can avoid it. I believe that by talking about some of what’s been going and indeed has gone wrong that there’s less chance of any future disaster taking place. I’m not one of those people going around waving the signs saying the apocalypse is nigh, because it’s seriously not. But as the saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And there was a point in time that the doomsayers were almost correct, and I’d give anything to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

The year was 1983, two years before I was even born. This means I can't remember the events of that year, which might be for the best. It is the year that video gaming nearly died a sad and ignominious death after all.

You can say what you want about shovelware shit and cheap attempts to cash in these days: hell, we all roll our eyes whenever the next shoddily made movie tie-in game hits the shelves, knowing that some poor sap is going to buy it because of their love for the base material, or perhaps just not knowing any better. But At the turn of the decade in the 80’s there were no less than 10 consoles, some put out by the same company and competing directly against each other like the Atari 2600 and 5200 and the ColecoVision Coleco Gemini. The market was also flooded with people that make those responsible for movie tie-in games look like Gunpei Yokoi and Shigeru Miyamoto. You had such instant classics as Chase the Chuck Wagon: a game that was designed by Purina (yes, the dog food company) and other games created by companies that have about as much business being in the game industry as Hugh Hefner has in a monogamous relationship.

Yet, unbelievably, these aren’t even the worst examples of games during the time. I mentioned shovelware earlier, and while those games clearly are shovelware, the crap that doomed the industry was actually supposed to be good. For example, Pac-Man was set to bring the addictive and hugely popular arcade game to home consoles. The appeal was monumental. But while people knew that a home system couldn’t really compete with the arcade graphics (stop laughing out there, it was a different age) they still probably weren’t expecting something like this.  And the truly sad thing is that even with the extremely limited hardware and software, that they could have done better. The game was rushed to in order to meet the unrealistic 81 Christmas deadline, and every aspect of it suffered for it. It wouldn’t be the last title that a rushed and botched dev cycle would make a laughing stock of, either…

In what would turn into an oddly prophetic call forward to how monumentally shitty these games have the potential to be, the game that a lot of people cite as nearly killing the industry was none other than a movie tie-in game. Specifically, the game for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. While many critics said that the game was piss poor in every aspect, what wasn’t public knowledge is that in an effort to make the 82 Christmas season (sensing a trend here…) the game was given a mere six week development cycle from the time that the rights were acquired. To put that into perspective some individual levels of games probably be more fraking dev time than this entire game, which was supposed to be a blockbuster title, did for it’s entire short and woe-begotten life.

The results were, in hindsight, utterly predictable. After being soured on Pac-Man the previous holiday season, people weren’t rushing to buy this new holiday hit, and the reception was stifled further by the negative reviews that the title garnered. Atari hemorrhaged money and lost a position of faith that it had once enjoyed. As the urban legend goes it had to bury the unsold copies of the game just to avoid further embarrassment. Whether they did or not remains to be seen, but they nearly ended up presiding  over the burial of an entire industry that that had a fair share in poisoning.

This was (and hopefully will remain) the lowest point in the history of games. People saying ‘me too’ when they saw something that they thought was an easy way to get money through exploiting the idea that “hey, if we make a game for it, people will buy it regardless of how crappy or botched it turns out!” The price that was paid for this arrogance was nearly the highest of all, the industry was nearly crippled, sales bottoming out in less than a year between the horrendous releases of Pac-Man and E.T.

None of the other examples I’m going to throw out this week are going to be this bad, but it’s important to remember that even without invoking the slippery slope that if bad decisions go unchecked - or even worse are actively rewarded - then it will only be a matter of time before we might face another crisis. That’s precisely why it’s up to everyone who can point out the mistakes to do so. I’d rather exercise tough love now than mourn the second great crash 10 or 15 years down the line.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Presenting the Past - To Port or Not to Port

One thing that has definitely caught my attention these days is the whole porting category that has cropped up lately. Through the PSN and Nintendo marketplaces people are free to buy releases of old games for various predecessors of these systems. There’s no doubt that for Nintendo with it’s rich library of classics that this is a huge draw, but with games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to Parasite Eve to the first few instalments of the Grand Turismo series.

I believe that porting, although having to compete with the free ROMs and emulators that have already catered to this market, do offer to some gamers the opportunity to play the games that helped shape the consoles and the market into what it is today. Personally, I find playing a game on a console like how it was originally presented somewhat more of a comfortable experience than playing on a ROM.

I know that the argument that “why pay for it when I can play it for free here?” is a strong one that will sway many people to turning to ROMs, but I think that the fact that if the results are encouraging enough that companies might in fact be convinced to put entire libraries - including those untranslated (by the companies or the fans) games that some people have begged for - online for sale.

Moving past whether you play on a console or a computer though, I believe that putting games up into the marketplaces unaltered from their original releases is a breathe of fresh air. It is one thing to port a game to a different system and improve it, but at the same time even putting nostalgia aside there is something to seeing the original product, even comparing it to subsequent re-releases and trying to dissect whether the things touted as improvements really are or not.

Yahtzee recently talked about the problem of keeping a sort of museum or catalogue of classic games without having to resort to a constant stream of reports and reedits, and I honestly believe that for the most part the virtual marketplace proves to the one of the better solutions. I would gladly pay a small monthly fee - much like people that subscribe to Gamefly - in order to be able to access a huge repository of the original games for each console. And while there may not be much call for games like Heiankyo Alien (yes, this is the second time I’ve mentioned it, perhaps I might attempt to make it into a drinking game for those so inclined…) you can branch off into the niche titles as more people sign up in order to get access to those classics.

Before ROMs even, the only way to get access to these games was to attempt to track down the old disks or cartridges; and heaven help you if you had to replace a battery if the game became too old or was overplayed. Most Game Boy games are less than a freaking Megabyte of data, and you can hold literally hundreds if not thousands on a console if you wanted to, and be able to pick and choose. Sure, the graphics might not be the best, but honestly if you want the latest graphics play the latest games, if you want to see the roots of some of the classic series and characters, then turning to a virtual emulation is reliable, affordable, and shows developers that people are still interested in old I.P.s and games, a way to make money with absolutely minimal effort involved.

Also, it’s worth noting that Grahf Games won’t be updating this upcoming Friday, and perhaps not on Monday or Tuesday either. I’m likely to be a.f.k. for a trip, so you’ve have to do without my pretentious ramblings for somewhat of a long weekend. Count your blessings.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

FemShep Numbah Five - The Rage Tango

Under the credo that it’s better somewhat late than never, I’ve decided to take a look at the recent shitstorm that has surfaced around the voting results for the female incarnation of main character of the Mass Effect series.

It all started about a half a month ago, when on Facebook fans were asked to vote for whichever female Shepard they wanted to be the default model for the character in the upcoming third release. After the voting was said and done the blonde haired, blue eyed Shepard that had come to be known as FemShep Five stood victorious over her counterparts.

People were not amused.

Whether through trolling or ballot stuffing or other shenanigans - or, hell, let’s face it, an honest victory on the backs that those that thought she’d be a good fit - the Mass Effect community was given the face of five as the new default face for their hero if they choose to be female, a choice that apparently one in five gamers made during ME2 according to this fact sheet.

Vitriol abounded as people complained about the “bimboization” of a character that regardless of gender is portrayed in the game universe as one of the most competent and determined people to ever have lived. But thus comes the question: why does it even matter?

A lot of people have already weighed in on that topic, and I believe that Sophie Prell’s article on Destructoid does sum up one of the major reasons why some people are off put when she says:

“It's not because FemShep 5 is blonde and therefore perceived as stupid and incapable of being a badass. It's not even that she upholds the stereotypical Caucasian beauty ideals of a long blonde-haired, blue-eyed buxom babe; that's merely an aside, a symptom of the larger problem, which was the construction of the vote itself. No male hero has ever been or ever would be dragged into the limelight and forced to defend himself like this. Hell, even if he was, there's no justification that could possibly be truthful to his nature as the idolized protagonist, and that's why FemShep 5 is so wrong.”

While I do agree that this argument has some merit, it’s not what actually bothers me about this entire thing. No, what bugs me about this recent debate is that it really has proven how meaningless such things are, and not for the reason you might be thinking of either.

People are going to say that it doesn’t matter what the defaults for each Shepard are, because you can ultimately make them however you want to make them. I say that that’s really no excuse. The six female Shepard models are, in and of themselves, a cadre of raging stereotypes that have been applied to female characters from time and tide. Let’s break down the list, shall we? (be sure to visit the link to the face book page just so you can play along)

- Shepard number one: the classic tough but still ruggedly beautiful tomboy
- Shepard number two: copy/paste number one, but with red hair to show she’s fiery!
- Shepard number three: the vaguely Asian-esque face for that bit of foreign allure
- Shepard number four: the gruff, tough, ghetto girl that doesn’t take shit from anyone
- Shepard number five: the Aryan princess, aloof and unobtainable
- Shepard number six: the Noire-esque Russian spy type face that spells trouble

Are you offended by my summations of these pictures? Well, you should be! Because really that’s precisely all that they are. There’s no diversity here, just the same old rehashed shit that people have been seeing and not caring about for years. The only reason that people have given such a great amount of crap about this choice is that it’s being presented to them in such a bald-faced manner that they can’t choose to ignore it. Looking back at Prell’s comments, I actually have to disagree with her assessment regarding default male Shepard. At the time of his release, there was simply no emotional investment on the part of players. But just take a look at him, it’s the exact same thing: almost all the default male facial models are that same old tired “oh look, he’s ruggedly handsome in an authoritarian sort of way” thing that literally every single male protagonist in 99.9% of video games already looks like. Sure, if you choose a male or female Shepard, you can distort their face and make them look really strange and somewhat stupid (if more original than the majority of the models out there) but it’s also still just a male or female head on an uncustomizable male or female body.

So I ask: why can’t we have more freedom of choice? Why not have the choice to have a pudgey or even outright obese Shepard, male or female? How about a gaunt, sickly looking bag of bones? Or, here’s a thought, how about something that might actually be average?

Sure, people play games to escape, and part of the escapism is becoming someone else, even a more heroic and idealized version of yourself. But if you tout such customizablity, and cause such and uproar over what is ultimately a trivial and really let’s face it inconsequential choice, you’re just pointing out that you’re shitting on the cupcake and calling it frosting.

It’s probably not why the majority of people are pissed off about this issue. Hell, it’s probably not even one of the reasons that more than a handful of people are angry about it. But it’d be the reason that I’d be mad about it if I gave enough of a toss to care to begin with.

Afterword: Just so that we’re not confused here, I’m in no way, shape, or form saying that sexism isn’t a problem in video games. Hell, it’s still enough of one that it will probably be a theme week for posts at some point down the line. I believe that in this case though, it’s really just the same old stereotypical crap on both sides of the fence, which is why I can’t inherently get as wound up over it as a lot of the other people that have weighed in.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Revenge of the Revenge of - Sequels and You

One of the complaints that is often the most prevalent in this current state of gaming affairs is the fact that the market is inundated with sequels to popular - and even unpopular - titles. People are often quick to criticize that sequels are hardly innovative anymore, and that worse they represent a want on the part of the industry to play it safe, thus quashing the possibility of new titles that explore the different aspects that haven’t been looked at as of yet.

The thing is that while some of the complaints might be on the mark, for the most part sequels are a good thing. Yes, that’s right, I said a good thing. They give the industry a chance to improve what has already been tested, as well as give the opportunity to explore those niche and potentially risky titles that people seem to crave.

When people complain that all they seem to see these days is sequels, it’s almost like they forget to realize that every franchise, even the powerhouses we know today like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Mario, Pokemon, and countless others had to start somewhere. Some of these games haven’t changed much at all, shooters seem infamous for this, with the aforementioned COD series being tweaked with slightly different changes but still looking, feeling and playing the same overall. Perhaps the criticism is merited for games like this, but when I look at the evolution of a franchise like Grand Theft Auto my mind boggles as to how people can accuse the franchise of becoming stagnant. The radical shift from a top-down game that was played mostly for laughs to one of the most influential and indeed imitated open world designs that had been seen for years. I for one will be interested to see where GTA can go and will go with more time, but I wouldn’t call what they’ve done cashing in for the sake of cashing in, quite the opposite. And speaking of Rockstar…

Rockstar recently released L.A. Noire, a game which tried to focus more on story and attempting to capture the feeling of really interrogating someone. Although people were excited for the game you have to admit that it’s not an approach that you would consider safe. The game still sold extremely well, but even if it hadn’t the risk would have been minimized. Why is this? Because part of the money that was earned from selling over 100 million copies of Grand Theft Auto 4 allowed the studio to take some risks and spend time developing the technology that would be used with L.A. Noire.

For every established franchise that turns a profit, there is potential for the company to use some of that overhead to fund projects that might have an inherently high risk factor or unknown quantity. I know that a lot of people turn to indie developers these days when they expect to find something new, but even established studios need new blood in order to keep drawing profit.

A good example of this is Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. A lot of people look at it now and considering that there’s a fourth instalment of the game on the way they might say “Oh man, not another one of these,” or “Well of course we’re getting another AC game because it’s a franchise that is a big earner for Ubisoft”. What a lot of people forget is that when it was first released in 2007 the game was going into mostly untested waters. Would people enjoy the concept of being an ancient assassin enough to make the production worth it? The answer was ultimately yes, and the game managed to make a positive impression despite of some rough edges. Assassin’s Creed 2 though, took everything good from the first game and then added greater improvements. While AC1 scored a very respectable 80% on Metacritic, AC2 has scored an average roughly ten percent higher, sitting at 90%. The sequel allowed the game to really come into it’s own and game the developers more flexibility due to the fact that it had proved its worth.

Every established franchise, and every franchise that will ever be established, is going to follow the same set of criteria. Those first steps might be shaky, but just think, the next revolutionary gaming experience might end up only existing thanks to the guaranteed revenue of game that some consider “cash-grab sequels”. I’m not saying that you have to like all sequels, or even any at all. What I am saying is that you should at least understand why they exist beyond the obvious need for revenue, and how in their own way they can help pave the path for newer and dare I say innovative game designs.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Evolve of Die? - The Case for Not Fixing what Isn’t Broken, but Still Improving it

While browsing tvtropes recently I came across a thread that had sparked some debate. It was centered around this ign article.

There were cries of ignorance on the part of the respondents, that you shouldn’t mess with a good thing, and that sometimes genres of games - specifically platformers in this case - have progressed to the point of not really needing to change to be good.

Don’t get me wrong, there is something to be said about fixing something that doesn’t need it. Platformers, specifically 2D ones, are a genre that has been around for almost as long as there have been games. Even today when you play the most recent Kirby or Mario games on the handheld systems you aren’t really seeing a whole lot that hasn’t been honed from decades of trial and error. And, as long as the games are fun, it shouldn’t matter, right?

Well, no; that’s not really true at all. A tried and true formula is nice, but it will only take you so far without innovation and improvement.

Take the latest Kirby game for example: Kirby Mass Attack. Sure, it’s certainly a Kirby game, through and through, but this time instead of controlling one Kirby, you get up to 10 of the little pink blobs to navigate through levels. It’s not a huge risk that Nintendo is taking with the franchise from the looks of it, but it’s enough to keep people interested, to keep them coming back.

Let’s face it, even the guy who’s the life of the party eventually stops getting invited if he keeps telling the same stories every time.

This is an era where, as I’ve mentioned before, that if a person believes that they can do better, then with a little time effort and ingenuity, they actually can do better. Games like ‘Spolsion Man, Braid, and any number of titles that can easily be found in the Xbox, PS3, and Steam online marketplaces vie for your attention against the established classics. But when they all have to compete, then in the best outcome everyone wins: games increase in quality, decrease in price (to a reasonable degree) and become more diversified thanks to the free market fostering such practices.

Some people accuse certain games or genres of getting stagnant, I know that the ign article mentions a slew of games that simply aren’t worth your money. But I ask: who is to blame for that? The genre itself, or those that would push out shoddy shovelware for the sake of a quick dollar? As the audience our money speaks more volumes than our words likely ever will. If we stop buying crappy games then eventually they will stop appearing, believe it or not. And frankly in an era where more people play than ever and understand what makes a game good or bad, I’m not going to accept the whole “Well my parents/grandparents/second uncle Frank got me this and it’s shitty but I have to keep it”. There’s a reason why receipts exist and why trade-ins are allowed after big ticket holidays.

These franchises haven’t remain unchanged, they’ve just stayed true to what made them popular in the first place. That isn’t a crime, it’s just being smart.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Fine Line Between Gaming Godsend and Gimmick

Since I spent most of the week talking about things like motion controls and 3D gaming, I’m guessing that it doesn’t really come as a surprise that the finale for this week deals with whether or not these innovations are ultimately good for games or not.

While I’ve extrapolated that both of these technologies are going to be somewhat pivotal in getting to an experience that is totally immersive, from what I’ve seen this generation, a lot of the applications honestly have me asking if the games could have been done better had they not bothered integrating 3D, doubly so for games that integrate motion controls. There’s no problem with experimenting per se, but when the public is your main guinea pig and source of income the clashes over what they enjoy and what they don’t might end up costing you money, perhaps even your company if you falter bad enough.

Now, I can hear people saying “But Grahf, the Wii has been the most successful console this generation!” and that is a valid point. But when looking at some of the prime factors the motion controls contribute a hell of a lot less to that than the fact that it launched at the lowest price point. The Playstation 3 launch was absolutely disastrous, and the 360, though solid, was nothing ultimately special. So in this case, the fact that the system was the cheapest option meant that it was also the most attractive one. Perhaps the motion controls got some people to buy the system when they wouldn’t have bought a more traditional method of control, but you have to realize that most of the gaming market is well entrenched, and most people already really knew which console (or consoles) they’d be buying from the onset, and would only really consider something different if something utterly blew them away.

So, that aside, I believe that this push to include such features, especially motion controls, might have actually hurt their perspective usefulness in the future. There is no doubt that motion controls can and eventually will be utilized as one of the main methods of controlling games, but at the moment they are a clumsy and often sub-par way of playing a game. The technology needs - or rather, needed - time to catch up with what people ultimately expected of it, rather than being released early to an eagerly awaiting public which is then profoundly disappointed that the fledgling potential doesn’t translate into everything they want and then some. Let’s face it, we’re a finicky bunch, and the first impressions that motion controls seem to have made on most people is that they are underwhelming but cute at best, and a waste of time and vastly inferior to the kinds of control schemes we’ve grown up with at worst.

The latter reaction makes future attempts, even ones with vastly improved technology, that much harder for the already somewhat jaded gaming community to accept. We’d rather have the developers and game companies focusing on how to improve the already existing aspects of games: story, scenarios, artificial intelligence, flexibility through design, and many more factors that while decent in some of the AAA titles could always use more work on all fronts.

I guess what it really boils down to is really something that we’ve all heard or perhaps even thought of before: before trying to introduce new gaming innovations, make sure that the games themselves are worth playing first. And when you do introduce those innovations, make sure that they’ve already gone through a couple of in-house generations to ensure that they can meet or even exceed consumer expectation. It sounds difficult because hell, it probably is, but it’s not bloody impossible. It just means that people - god forbid - actually have to exercise some patience, and this is coming from both sides of the fence. I firmly believe that good things do come to those who wait, and that it doesn’t take much more to turn good into great.

On a final, pretty much completely unrelated note, I have a twitter account that’s mostly gathering dust. Feel free to follow me at http://twitter.com/#!/GrahfGames and prod me to actually post shit that’s 140 characters or less.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Hardly Poetry - Motion Controls

While the Wii was the system to really kick motion controls into the forefront - with the PS3 and 360 following with their own motion control peripherals - motion gaming has been around for a little while longer. The earliest offhand example I can think of in terms of consoles was the EyeToy for the PS2, although in terms of arcade games any light-gun game has the rudimentary elements of the gameplay present.

It wasn’t until the Wii introduced the motion control as the primary interface to their game system that people really started to pay attention. Nintendo was quick to point out that these controls would allow people to play who had never considered playing a console or indeed any games at all. This was an open market concept: everyone can go through the motions, so-to-speak.

There is no doubt a certain amount of appeal to being able to introduce your grandfather to the Wii by saying “Hey, you can bowl just by holding this and going through the motions of throwing the ball” or your other family members by showing them games that have activities relevant to their interests. Also, did anyone in the gaming community see these and not pretty much instantly think of lightsabers or just sword related combat in general? These controls could really help you literally get into the game.

There’s no doubt that at their peak efficiency motion controls can do some really damn impressive things, I mean look at the work that this engineer did with the Wii sensors and controls in order to allow it to track head and finger movement. Not to mention the fact that doctors have been using the Kinect in order to do complex surgery both are pretty amazing applications of the technology.

It’s just sort of strange that in both cases it took someone other than the actual companies to unlock that capacity, and of course although using the Kinect for medical applications is unprecedented and unique, a lot of gamers will look and go, “Well, that’s cool, but how will it affect how I play anything?” and the sad odds are that, well, it won’t. At all.

Motion controls for the games themselves are ultimately a mixed bag, I find. Although I don’t own a Wii, I have friends that do. I’ve played a racer in the form of Mario Kart, an FPS in the form of the Goldeneye remake, and a couple of other titles, and while I have to say that for these games that while there is fun to be had using a motion control, that it comes at the expensive of both accuracy, and ironically, intuitiveness. Perhaps I’m just a curmudgeon, but the most glaring example I can think of is Mario Kart: when I was using the motion controls I was about the middle of the pack. Switching to a classic controller, I was placing top two every race. Now, I admit there could be a number of factors involved here, but honestly I’d have to say that when it came down to it I had to think less when I was using the pad based control style: I could be more precise and overall just less sloppy, whereas with the motion controls I often found myself either hopeless over or under shooting what I wanted to do. It was the same thing for Goldeneye. The second I switched back to a regular controller I actually stood a chance as opposed to just being a target that said “shoot me, I can’t do shit about it” in big bold neon letters.

This is the sad sort of paradox of motion controls: they’ve made games more accessible, but at the same time oddly more cumbersome. It’s like comparing a regular console controller to a keyboard and mouse setup for an FPS: one just blows the other right out of the water, no contest.

I’m not saying that there’s absolutely no use or future for motion controls. The technology still has quite a ways to go, and the links I provided earlier prove if nothing else that it does have the potential. I guess what I’m trying to say though is that if I want to play a game using the “old, clunky controller” then shouldn’t that be my prerogative? I grow increasingly concerned that things like 3D and motion controls are being forced upon gamers without us really having a say in the matter - ah, but that’s getting ahead of myself.

Until next time.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Being There - Is Total Game Immersion a Worthy Goal?

Yesterday I mentioned that things like 3D gaming and motion controls are stepping stones towards the plateau that is currently a sort of holy grail for the industry: total game immersion. We’re still a ways off in terms of achieving anything near a total immersion factor; sure, we have certain games that employ more complex control schemes and things like VR helmets, but I don’t really doubt that it’s the goal of the entire business to eventually get us all into holodecks or The Matrix.

My question is whether or not it’s ultimately worth it.

As with portable gaming, I see there as being two ways that total immersion could possibly go, both of which I mentioned yesterday. The first is the holodeck route, where you enter a room, tell the computer to boot up Doom 19 or whatever the hell, and then have yourself a fun time wandering around blasting demons with a shotgun and wondering why the hell it’s 2111 and you still can’t duct tape a damn flashlight to your shotgun.

It sounds really appealing, because you’re not limited anymore. If you want to duck and peek around a corner then you do so, there’s no frustration because aside from your own physical limitations there’s really nothing that is impossible. But did you catch what I said there? Those two little innocuous words: “physical limitations” mean a whole lot more than what people give it credit for. I’ll admit, I’m not a guy that’s in what you’d call “good shape” unless you consider the male version of rubenesque to be a good shape, so for me there’d be a hard limit to how much running and gunning I could do. For the most part, success in these kinds of games would equate to how much physical capability you’ve got. In other words, games pretty much become sports. There might be mitigating factors, like a movement modification program that ensures that no matter what your actual pace is that everyone technically moves at the same speed in game, but doesn’t that kind of defeat the point?

If nothing else, these games would stop groups from complaining that kids aren’t getting enough exercise through playing, but at the same time you can pretty much kiss the platformer genre goodbye because no one is going to want to take the risk of someone breaking their spine after that triple jump to get to that final peak in Bowser’s Castle just didn’t go quite as planned. There’s just no way the logistics work, and while people will no doubt scramble for solutions, in the end it might prove to be too much effort for people to bother with. The thing is though that even a holodeck isn’t really the pinnacle of total immersion, although it is something that we stand a chance of getting within say, the next 10 to 50 years. But the truest depths of total immersion lie even beyond that.

I know earlier in the article I mentioned The Matrix, but that’s not quite a correct analogy for it either. What the total immersion experience would be would be akin to a lucid dream, a very directed lucid dream. A person could either play from the perspective of the character in cases of games like first person shooters or even driving games, or sort of watch along, being immersed in a world where they mentally control an avatar, sort of like being the cameraman in Super Mario World but being able to direct the eponymous plumber around. This kind of game would no doubt be the peak of the system, and would arguably be one of the more interesting experiences that a gamer that grew up staring at a tv or pc could actually have. Thing is it’s still probably a long ways off, and it’s not without risks, although again, nothing is.

People have already played themselves to death for the sake of grinding out the next level in whatever MMO has caught their current fancy, but think of how easy it would be to lose track of time when you are literally in the world, rather than just watching it through a medium. There’d have to be safeguards to make sure that, say, you don’t die if your house burns down because that copy of Morrowind 20 was just so damn enthralling. Some people would doubtless also call for hard limits on how long a game could be played at a time, but again that comes down more to personal responsibility than any truly inherent danger present in the system: if you’re going to be stupid and play a game for 48 straight hours while ignoring even the most basic of your needs then of course you’re going to suffer the consequences, even today where you’re still just staring at a screen all day.

The question is, after we reach this threshold, what happens next? We’ve already seen a trend towards wanting more realistic graphics at the cost of whimsicality, so if we do achieve total immersion will games like the Mario’s and Metroid’s disappear entirely? I certainly hope not, because just because we can make a near reality experience doesn’t mean that we still don’t want those colourful worlds at our beck and call in the future as well.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Going Out of My Depth - 3D Gaming

Although we’ve had 3D movies since the 1950’s, gaming in the realm of the third dimension is a relatively new phenomenon due to a number of factors: the technology seems to be advanced enough now to be capable of it, the presence of more affordable home units with 3D capability has offered game companies incentive to try and see whether or not there is a solid market and demand for games that support it. So far though I don’t think I’d be far off the mark to say that it’s been a mixed bag at best.

I’m going to be completely honest here: I’m not a huge fan of 3D gaming. Just because I’m not though, doesn’t mean that I don’t see the point of it, and think that some of the ways that games have presented its usage to be somewhat clever. I think that the 3DS Augmented Reality is something that could really have some decent applications if people are willing to put enough time into it.

On the other end of the scale I thought that the recent gimmick that Sony has come up with where two people can play multiplayer on a single 3D tv by using one of the stereoscopic images as their own personal screen to be a cute, if ultimately pointless idea. It mostly comes down to the fact that not a whole hell of a lot of people are playing each other in living rooms anymore. This application came about seven years too late, and even if it would have been released back when being accused of screen looking was something that got tossed around a lot it would still probably be so prohibitively expensive that almost no one could actually make use of it.

These things aside though, I mentioned that I can see why the gaming industry is trying their hand with 3D: because to them it’s a stepping stone on the way to what make are viewing as the holy grail of gaming: total player immersion - which is sort of the soft topic for this week as a whole. The ultimate goal is to provide the gamer with an experience that is either a) going into a holodeck equivalent or b) controlling and experiencing a game in essentially the same way that a person experiences a dream. While both of these possibilities are probably still a ways off, you can see the progression towards them: more realistic graphics, interfaces like the ones from America’s Army, and now with this current generation motion controls and 3D applications.

The thing with 3D though, is that even though gaming hardware and software can now support it, it’s not necessarily a good idea for them to do so. I will say that it’s a good thing that unlike some of the recent movies that have come out, no particular game or system absolutely forces you to use 3D in order to play it, but when one of the pros to a feature is the fact that you can turn it off if you don’t want to use it that doesn’t reflect very well on the actual sustainability of the feature.

Aside from the glasses, which can and will cause headaches and nausea - some people, myself included cannot even sit through most 3D films without feeling like they’re on the bad end of a drinking binge - there’s also the limitations of glasses-free versions like that which the 3DS uses. Mostly the fact in order to actually see the full effect that the handheld must be kept completely still and at a certain angle, not the most intuitive thing in the world when it comes to something that you’re supposed to play on the go.

Even though the industry is decades old at this point, these are the first shaky steps along the way to a new plateau, 3D might not be the grand finale to it, but it’s certainly something that merited trying out along the way. Of course, this also begs the question of what actually happens when we reach that plateau, but that’s me getting a little ahead of myself. At least for the moment.

Monday, 8 August 2011

The Future of Portable Gaming

It’s no secret by now that the Nintendo 3DS is going to be receiving a huge price cut within the next week, dropping from $249 to $169 - a nearly 100 dollar cut - which is unprecedented this early in the life of any system, console or handheld.

The official word from Nintendo is that the price drop is to provide motivation for the 3DS to live up to its true potential. But that’s not really something that anyone is ready or willing to believe, even the Nintendo faithful judging by drop in stock that occurred around when the price drop was announced.

No, what seems to be closer to the mark was something that was succinctly summarized in this Penny Arcade strip.

Portable gaming is undergoing a change, and it has been for a while now, but it’s really begun to catalyze in the last one or two years. Really, it’s all gone to the birds, the Angry Birds.

The fact is that with more and more portable games appearing on tablet computers like the iPad and others, that systems like the 3DS that are primarily gaming machines just don’t have the command of the industry that they used to. In a very strange way the multimedia minded PSP was a little ahead of the curve, considering that it could be used as web browser and could potentially be homebrewed into doing other media applications as well. People don’t just want a game system on the go anymore: they want an everything on the go system; and the latter is just what they’re getting whenever they buy a tablet PC.

The problem isn’t just with the fact that people are demanding - and getting - more elsewhere, it’s the fact that portable gaming can really go down one of two roads, and right now companies like Nintendo and Sony have to decide just what they’re going to throw in for.

The first way of doing things is the way that most of the tablet pcs have adopted: games that are immediately accessible and more than reasonably priced: generally for under $1 and almost never in the double digit range. These games are often good for popping off a couple of levels whenever time allows, then forgotten about (or not) whenever there’s more pressing matters to attend. Games like Angry Birds and Death Rally are both good examples of this kind of idea. The immediacy of the pick up and play is quite appealing, and thanks to the price point a person might be able to buy five, ten, or even more games for the price of one game for a more traditional handheld gaming system.

Odds are these are going to be the style of games that the market ultimately turns to because of the ease of development, the immediate turn around time, a decent profitability factor, and of course the fact that it’s what the public is heavily buying into itself these days. There is a different option, but it is a strange one indeed.

From the first glances of it, I can say that the Sony Vita may perhaps be gambling and attempting to go this route, and the 3DS has definitely been attempting it. I’m talking about attempting to emulate a console gaming experience on a handheld. It’s important to note that I don’t actually mean remakes like the recent re-release of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I mean original, completely new entries in existing series or entirely new franchises that offer the same length and scope of gameplay that one would expect to see from the Wii, PS3, or 360 currently.

The reason for this is that one of the turnoffs - at least in my belief - about handheld gaming is that you’re paying nearly as much money as you would for a console game, but getting nowhere near the same amount of gameplay out of it. Handheld games are generally offering perhaps 10 to 20 hours with any more being an outset. Most decent console games are attempting to offer at least double that in order to be deemed worthy of purchase.

Now, I won’t lie, I’ve run into this problem before, especially on the DS. Games that cost 30 to 40 dollars a pop that can be decimated in two days because I’m playing them non-stop left me feeling ultimately cheated, even if the experience was an above average one. I’d actually be thrilled if handheld games became more like console games, but I know that I’d be in what is likely to be the extreme minority of those that would be. While there is some appeal to a console length game on a handheld, at this point the argument holds that if you want a console game experience that you play a console game. Console games do not lend themselves well to the dynamic, sometimes stop and go gameplay that handheld games need to adhere to. A lot of people don’t even play their handhelds at home, instead opting to make progress in whatever game catches their eye whenever they’re on a trip or have a couple of minutes to spare. Even with the best save system in the world, the frustration can only mount when you’re still five or ten minutes away from the next progress point and your game must end now. A lot of people simply won’t tolerate games that make such demands of their time, not when they are outside of the sit down and play environment.

Whichever of the paths that handheld gaming goes down though, it’s clear that the days of games being miniaturized versions of their console counterparts has to become a thing of the past, because it’s something that people simply won’t tolerate. Nintendo has already proven that micro gaming can work on a handheld with their successful WarioWare series, but it’s a matter of asking them if that is ultimately what they want to go all in on, because if they want to survive in this current market, it might have to be.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Games as Art 5: Games as Mimesis 2

Yesterday I talked a little about how games, much like art: draw from and are sometimes inspired by real life events, whether they be benign or controversial ones. But likewise, games in turn often inspire the communities they generate, sometimes to levels that end in the production of a high calibre game that can be directly traced back to the experience that someone had with a title at one point.

Now, we’ve all read or seen some of the bad (intentionally or otherwise) fan fiction out there. Stuff like Doom: Repercussions of Evil and Half-Life Full Life Consequences. But there’s a lot of fiction that gets generated for plenty of games. I’ve seen plenty of stuff written, even about fighting games where the backstory is generally just a minimalist reason to beat the shit out of other dudes. People write interactions between the characters, flesh out the past and present. Some even insert their own ideas in the form of their own characters (whether this is a good thing is neither here nor there, and is decidedly NOT the topic of this discussion). The point I’m trying to make here is that these people have found inspiration from games - enough to want to interject and interpret them in their own ways. Not every example will be good, but everything has to start somewhere, and who knows how many writers might have started off putting a pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard to talk about Kingdom Hearts or even Grand Theft Auto.

That’s hardly the end of it though. I can’t help but wonder how many future game designers might have been crafted, taking their first steps in terms of world building by using things like the level editors in flash games or console titles like Little Big Planet or the like. Perhaps the want to see something that they’ve personally crafted propels them to strive for greater and greater heights, to learn how to create without a system there to hold their hands, thus they start learning the proper coding, and before you know it they’re creating their first rudimentary flash games and from there full levels for titles that you may some day play and enjoy.

It’s not even just a good experience that can spur creative heights. Although I’m sure that few would admit it, there’s probably more than a handful of developers and producers out there that got their start after playing something truly awful. It’s rather common to spout off “Even I could do better than that!” but something made these people take it to heart, and they did end up doing better. I know it’s hypothetical, but I do feel that at least some games have been middle fingers from people saying “Hey industry, look at what I did! Blew your crappy game out of the water, that’s what!” and made themselves a AAA quality title while they were doing it, too.

The ultimate point I’m reaching here is that people have said that one of the principle features of good art is the fact that it can likewise inspire creation in and of itself - something that games have also been doing for years - from every piece of fan fiction or character that a person thinks would be awesome in a game they love, to every user generated level. Hell, this blog you’re reading now reached its genesis because I love games and want to be able to make that love into something more. Sometimes the things bred are forgettable or ultimately mediocre, but it is as such with everything. Still, once in a while, when the stars are right, you get something that is on par with, or can even surpass that which inspired it. Games are no exception to this, and never have been.

I feel that I should conclude by saying that I know that what I’ve talked about this week has been more than a little esoteric, but you know what, so is the definition of art (when a definition can even be given). Instead of talking about games that are extremely aesthetically pleasing, or games that are considered good candidates because they fall well off the beaten path, I hoped to show that even the most mainstream of titles have quantities that can ultimately define them as art, even only if in parts and not the whole.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Games as Art 4: Games as Mimesis 1

First off let me start by saying that there’s going to be some spoilers regarding games in this one. Here there be monsters, etc.

Mimesis is defined in one way as “art’s imitation of life” and going off this games in some ways have acted both as examples mimesis themselves, as well as progenitors for cultivating it from the communities that rise up around them.

There are a multitude of examples, but I think that it would be best to start with one of the ones that was interesting in concept, if not exactly perfect. I’m talking about the .HACK series in this case. These games were interesting because they played off the fact that the people in the world were playing a game, so there was a doubling of layers in terms of interpretations. While no one would say that the overarching story of the series, both through the games and other media that were used, was realistic, it did mirror some of the growing concerns about possible immersion into online games and the blurring of the line between what problems reside in the virtual and real worlds.

Although not nearly as dramatic as the events of .HACK, it was somewhat prophetic on the game’s part that it talked about the concept of infection spreading throughout systems and virtual worlds. The Corrupted Blood incident from World of Warcraft proved to be an uncanny if small scale replica and a somewhat troubling reminder of the damage that could unwittingly be caused in games whether intentional or not on the part of the players.

Just as the world of .HACK came under siege, so did the World of Warcraft in September 2005 when people discovered that a highly virulent debuff could be taken beyond the confines of where it was meant to be through certain methods that the game devs didn’t account for. What followed was an incident so strange and compelling that the CDC became interested in who the event played out - not to mention the US government in terms of the possible ideas regarding potential online terrorism - all of this from what most would dismiss as a harmless way to pass the time.

Another more recent incident I can think of games responding to real life events is only a couple of years old, stemming back to the end of 2009 with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The game was highly anticipated, but the inclusion of a level where the player could - if they so choose to - gun down innocent civilians during a mission. It should be noted that despite the multiple warnings given and the option to completely skip the content, the level still aroused a great deal of controversy. It does bare in mind that despite how atrocious the content might seem, that it was, is and will remain completely virtual within the context of the game itself. So why the backlash?

I believe that the reaction was so poor due to a number of factors, but motivated by one prime one: the fact that there was nothing that could be done in game to save the lives of those affected by the terrorism. There is something very psychologically unbalancing about not being able to take control in a situation within a realm where player control means everything. The choice not to render the scene in cinematics, but to leave the player in control but powerless to stop - or indeed motivated to “keep up cover” by shooting a few of the innocent people themselves - was one that was surely designed to create the maximum amount of impact, along with the fact that regardless of the actions of the player the character that he is controlling is known to be a plant and thus killed at the end of the level regardless.

I believe that this hit far to close to home for the peace of mind of a lot of people. The idea of powerlessness is nothing new in real life, but video games as I mentioned are “obliged” to offer escapism from that turmoil: you can be the hero, you can save everyone and look damn good while doing it. To have that subverted wasn’t breaking some scared trust, but it was akin to a bucket of cold water being dumped onto a thereto sleeping community.

Games not only are inspired by real life events though, they in turn also inspire those that play or are even just tangentially interested in them. That, however, is an article for tomorrow rather than today.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Games as Art 3 - Game as Story

I’ve already talked previously about online games, which for most intents and purposes don’t really need a story - even an MMORPG like WoW doesn’t need the rich history that it has to be successful, it’s essentially just a nice bonus for those who are interested - but what about the other side of the coin? While I would hesitate to say that story based games are the antithesis of multiplayer online games they certainly are a polar opposite in terms of what kinds of content you might find and frankly expect.

I look at the recent examples of L.A. Noire and even Alan Wake to see games that are interested in telling a story that compels the player to move forward. It even allowed a feature that allows a player to bypass more action oriented parts of the game if they prove to be too frustrating in order to allow them to move forward with the plot. L.A. Noire might not have been perfect, but it is a step in an interesting direction, although hardly the first step.

L.A. Noire and Alan Wake are just the most recent permutations of a genre that really has tended to get ignored, unfairly so. I’m talking about adventure games: titles like Myst, and Day of the Tentacle. The point of these games were to submerge the player in a story, and reward the completion of tasks and puzzles with an ever deepening plot and the eventual payoff of a well earned resolution. In cases like these the writing was the draw, the reason to keep soldiering on even when that next puzzle was frustrating as all hell.

Some would say that this genre has been slowly fading away, and I tend to agree with them. However, I don’t think it’s a lost cause. Far from it, I think that what this genre needs is just one title that would make people sit-up again and pay attention. Especially prolific would be the fact that an adventure game more than any other genre might be the one place where the often touted morality system could really be used to full effect. Could you imagine say, the impact of a game that allowed a player to be subtly evil, or good, but with Byronic tendencies? Adventure games could lend themselves well to such a system, in that through additions and player feedback they could even be tweaked to allow for a greater and greater variety of choice. A story told through an open-world model that allows for a player to decide how they will progress and just how they want to be recognized within the story. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see just how long you could get away with being the real villain in a world that thinks you’re the hero, or to see how many people recognize the good you do over your own outward bastardness? I’d play a game like that in a heartbeat.

What it all boils down to is that games have been and can be used to convey a point. Perhaps it is a bit of a hard sell, but when it’s pulled off right - and there are enough successful games out there to prove it can be done - it’s something that can stand next to texts that are considered great pieces of literature, art through text, through story.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Games as Art 2 - The Living World

One of the things that people say about good art is that it draws you in; paints an entire world for you to escape into for even a moment. Getting lost in a painting is something that people prize as one of the most treasured experiences when looking at pictures or paintings. And yet, video games have been doing that for years, and they’re only getting better at it as well.

It’s nothing to mention today when looking at a game like Grand Theft Auto 4 which plays host to an entire living, breathing city that video games can and do build worlds. I can only imagine that it won’t be a long time in coming before we might see games with cities that are populated with unique citizenry as well, because right now there is some twinning going on that seemingly can’t be helped.

But even without the advantages of the current generation games have never had problems crafting a world that it’s all too easy to get lost in. I’ve seen kids pretending to be Mario or Mega Man as much as I’ve seen them pretending to be Superman or other comic book or television heroes.

If the purpose of art is to ignite the imagination and inspire works of creativity, then games always have and always will qualify. Look at how many of the currently successful game producers and designers attribute their love of the industry to the games that they escaped into. Art begets art as games beget games.

Even a game where the story is minimalist can leave such an impression. Katamari Damacy is a quirky experience, but also a great example of how the world matters and ultimately springs to life as you progress through it. Sure, you start off small, barely noticed rolling detritus to make new stars for the cosmos, but soon you start attracting attention, people flee or stand in awe of what’s happening around them. Ultimately you can even roll the entirety of the world into a star, and somehow that doesn’t come off as horrific as much as it does funny. The game inspires the reckless abandonment of simply not caring what gets in your way: what’s too big for your britches now won’t be in a couple of minutes, so why worry about it?

It’s that carefree attitude that helps elevate KD from something beyond a mere game into more of an experience; unique in and of itself. And really, isn’t that what all good art truly aims to be: a unique experience to be treasured and enjoyed for as long as possible? Surely that is one of the prime indicators that the would be artist has done their job right, and it should be no different for game developers either. For every bland, uninspired piece of art there’s plenty of equally uninspired attempts at cash-ins like movie games or platformers cranked out with obviously marketable mascots abound. But there are gems in both cases as well: the Da Vincis and the Marios. What ultimately separates them is only time, and that is becoming less of an issue as the inevitable passage of said quantity blurs the lines between what is classic and what is modern.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Video Games as Art 1 - Setting the Canvas

I actually expect that this might be a somewhat difficult series of blog posts to write, mostly because it’s going to be hard for me not to go into what will probably be horribly boring because I might launch into some quasi-philosophical bullshit that will likely bore the pants off the three or four readers I have (thanks for sticking it out by the by).

For example, in talking about games as art, one has to inherently tackle the idea of what art is in and of itself. Some people have said that anything can ultimately qualify as art, but I assert that’s a cop-out to what is a question that is and remains incredibly hard to answer. Certainly one can consider everything art, but I wouldn’t consider a dog turd on a sidewalk art, even if some pretentious ghit fed the dog specific elements for a quality crap. Likewise, you could say that all video games are art, but I don’t believe that to be the case because some games are clearly not art, while others are more straddling a line that’s difficult to decide.

It’s going to differ for everyone, and is nearly as broad a definition, but I believe that art is something that you find resonant on a personal level. It doesn’t have to register as an epiphany, but it’s something that speaks to you and that you’ll always remember. That being said, not all elements of game might qualify as art, only a certain part or portion.

For example, I think unequivocally that the soundtrack to Final Fantasy 6 is art. I don’t care what format it’s in: fully orchestrated or in the original MIDI files, but something about that soundtrack speaks to me. I can’t listen to Wanderer of Time, Fierce Battle, Dancing Mad, or any of the other tracks without becoming mesmerized. That soundtrack defines a certain period, a certain joy, in my life and it always will. To me, that is art.

I also think that art can be found in games that aren’t necessarily considered art. In the Assassin’s Creed series, there’s certainly a lot of beautiful elements. But for the brief moment that you ascend to a view point and the camera shifts to a panorama of the cityscape there’s just something that screams “this is art” to me. It doesn’t last more than a few seconds before you’re plopped back into the standard world, but that exterior awareness, that expansive horizon, seems to me to be something special.

This, to me, is why games are art. It doesn’t matter what game it might be, because there’s god knows how many different genres of art to begin with. But those elements that evoke in you a sense of something more, is that not the point of art to begin with? To transcend the mundane, and capture however briefly that flash of something extraordinary.

Talking about games, as in a whole game as art, is somewhat difficult because the most popular subjects have already been done to death: Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Rez, Child of Eden. These are games that people often look to and talk about fervently as examples of how games are art. But there are other games that deserve recognition as well, which is why I hope to be able to spend some time talking this upcoming week about some ways that games are emulating - no, rather I should say, that games are becoming art more and more as time passes. If it comes down to it I will comment on the games I’ve mentioned above, but I feel that they’ve already been talked to about more than enough in terms of their artistic merit, so it’d be nice to consider other games that people might not have.

Like I said, it’s not going to be easy, but that just means that it’s worth doing