Wednesday, July 30

Where ignorance is bliss…

I know that I'm ignorant. It is a function of my intellect and my circumstances. I quite like being ignorant because it means that I can learn, discover, uncover and explore in ways I didn't realise or couldn't articulate well. The truth is we're all ignorant, even the somebodies of the world, as nobody can know everything.

I believe that wisdom is never folly and I appreciate a good oxymoron, such as self love.

This relates to my comparisons of my own musings to those of others. My language, my rhetoric if you will, is inadequate when examine it in the harsh light of intelligent bloggers. This isn't an issue of confidence, it's real and tangible. In my discussion of Mass Effect and Uncharted I explored my enjoyment of these games in spite of their inadequacies to fulfill my desire for the ideal game. Dissatisfaction with the game and yet enjoying is…there's a word for it…and I lack the vocabulary. I suppose I could reach for the Thesaurus but that would defeat the purpose of this blog, let alone the post.

Over at Versus Clu Clu Land "Iriquois Pliskin" articulates much that I cannot. In particular, he explores Trash, Art and Games and it is this very exploration that properly articulates much of what I fumbled around in my awkward discussions of fun versus what I want. I am grateful that he writes what he does so that I can name some of those feelings I waffle on about in my posts. I think I might have levelled up recently though - choosing a point of intelligence - because in the past I found his posts challenging to read. I believe that I miss much of the information in there and fear commenting because I know that I will look foolish and ignorant. I don't mind how I appear, what stops me is my desire to contribute meaningfully and my awareness that the chances I can do so are limited but not non-existent. Although secretly, don't tell anyone, I think Mr Pliskin has recently chosen a more conversational tone and I am grateful for that as I can now visit with impunity, my insecurities can lay dormant for another day.

In this way I learn more of who I am, I can name a little more of the maelstrom.

If you stumbled here thinking this was just a blog about video games then you're not looking deep enough. What Thomas Gray said.

Antici…pation

Mere moments before I get my cotton picking little hands on Soulcalibur IV, a game I have eagerly awaited, I wonder at what other - coming Real Soon Now™ - games ding my thing.

Fable 2 (Xbox 360 exclusive)
Molyneux promises much and delivers little so I am highly skeptical of this game. That the primary quest takes only 12 hours suggests that the game lacks depth (just like the first) and that this time I will not take the plunge. I'll adopt a wait and see approach for it with a likely refusal pending delivery of potential.

Braid (XBLA)
Jonathan Blow (the game's designer) is much maligned by Kotaku for his controversial views on gaming. Reason enough for interest. His views interest me, I don't agree with all of what he says, but he is sufficiently different in his thinking to suggest that this game will be a breath of fresh air in the constant stream of shooters.

Valkyria Chronicles (PS3 exclusive)
I love turn based strategy games particularly if they are deep, complex and require much micro-management. Disgaea 3 is on my must buys. Valkyria Chronicles is a turn based strategy title with a difference, mirroring the gameplay of Eternal Sonata but in a 'strategy' context (ie. battlefields filled with many opponents). And it looks beautiful.

The Last Guy (PSN)
2D Zombie survival horror with the 'levels' represented by Google Earth. I've started a list of places I want survive such as my own neighbourhood and several famous landmarks for interest. I wonder whether I can use the Liberty City Map in Google Earth for this game, fusing GTA IV and zombie survival horror? (<- rhetorical).

PixelJunk Eden (PSN)
Art style, play style, concept - all these attributes of the game appeal. It looks a little like a study in games as meditation and even that appeals to me. It's a quirky title that oozes originality and will therefore be something of a hit and miss affair with buyers.

Heavy Rain (PS3 Exclusive)
Farenheit / Indigo Prophecy was disappointing. However, the ideas within it, the ideas espoused by Quantic Dream (the developer) and the digital audition for this game have all served to whet my appetite for more.

Faith and a .45 (multi platform)
I'm not expecting big things from this title because it isn't heavily hyped. I really like the name and the concept as offers a fresh perspective on the two-man co-op approach to shooters. Something about playing inside of a relationship akin to Bonnie and Clyde is appealing - finally a shooting game with style instead of raging machismo - fucking sick of the machismo shit.

Final Fantasy XIII Versus (PS3 exclusive)
While I am interested in plain XIII, it is Versus that has me palpitating. This is because it's something of a diversion from the typical approach Square Enix has taken in the past. As an Action RPG it could be shit (think Dirge of Cerberus) or something special (think next gen upgrade of Kingdom Hearts without the nauseating cuteness).

FlOwer (PSN)
Playing a wind blowing petals across a landscape to open more flowers? Weird.

There are other games I either want to get or am interested in, the ones above just represent my curiosity meter flicking past 11 when the maximum is only 10. Are there games out there that pique your interest? I am particularly interested in those titles that interest you because of some quirk or refreshing perspective rather than known franchise titles that will probably sell millions regardless of quality, originality or passion.

Monday, July 28

The Quest for the Holy Grail - Part Four

I have still more to add regarding my criticisms and claims.

This time it's for action games, puzzle games and sports games.

I want action games to focus on what they're about and this is not storytelling. Shamus Young's Ping Pong example illustrates this quite neatly. This doesn't mean that these kinds of games can't be enhanced through the use of various aspects of storytelling. But I want developers to ask themselves whether it is necessary or even worthwhile to explore this part of the game.

Assuming that story is in an action game then there are some things I want to see.

I want the story to stay out of the way of the action. Nothing breaks mood and atmosphere more than interrupting it with an advertisement for the developers scripting skills - via a cut scene. Find some way to incorporate the script into actual play. Bioshock tried something along these lines with its recorders and with the 'radio' used by NPCs to communicate with your avatar. I don't believe that this was a 'win', but it was a move in the right direction.

Acknowledge the reality of the game. Again I defer to Shamus Young. The reality is that we're not all idiots and we don't need our hands held. If the game is Capture the Flag, then just deal with it. There is absolutely no need to try to conceal this, any attempt to do so just comes across as disingenuous. It's also a waste of resources.

Acknowledge the existence of the player, either directly or indirectly. The direct approach is to ignore any pretense of the artificial and to establish your game as a game played by a real person in their real home. After this is established I want developers to create real structures that allow personal stories to exist, real stories, about playing the game. This is done at present with things like leaderboards, achievements, gamer scores and the like. However, the mechanism for placing meaningful value on such things does not yet exist. Here's an example of how I would create such a mechanism. Let's assume I'm working on Playstation's Home service and I want there to be a meaning between the acquisition of trophies and the Home service. i could implement a trophy cabinet that proudly displays my trophies, a passive and somewhat bland approach, or I could implement a credit system for players who buy games and earn trophies to use in purchases at the Home shops. This encourages attach rates of games, it generates a visible, and artificially meaningful result for residents, and it allows for connection with materials in the stores that give personalisation, customisation, creation of a personal story in the medium of Home without having to break the bank through microtransactions.

Taking it a step further, perhaps, leaders in a variety of games (those at the top of the leaderboards) could be invited to give demonstrations of their skills, could have specific, unique equipment in Home that would identify them to others (much like the leader's yellow jersey in The Tour de France) or be invited to participate in games that might be charitable, educational and/or profitable for them. This probably carries with it a range of risks that cannot yet be measured because there is no precedent.

The indirect approach often involves breaking the fourth wall or referencing reality within the context of the game. Both approaches carry risk or alienating the player, they also offer a chance for player empowerment. In an educational setting, a game can be used as a simulation of dangerous or unpleasant circumstances. In Metal Gear Solid Hideo Kojima references the player's existence in a variety of ways. One involves the suggestion that the very video game s/he is playing is training him or her to be prepared for the coming 'war economy'. If this moment was integrated into play (rather than in a cut scene) then it would be a great example of an indirect reference of the player - an acknowledgment of their role in the game's story.

Keep it simple and keep it within context. Build mechanics that support the themes of the story, so that playing the game actually reinforces the meaningful result of experiencing the story. If you must have a story about a game of Ping Pong then make it about the game of Ping Pong, not some quest to save the universe from the Evil Blarg.

Old school shoot-em-ups are a great example of this kind of thing, there's a character that's going to stop the invasion / save the world by shooting stuff. There's some friends who yell encouraging words at you as you shoot stuff, and some enemies that mock you as you shoot stuff. Your friends might appear in the form of a power-up and your enemies might appear in the form of a boss battle. The story and gameplay are in synergy.

If I am to be completely honest I think that there's more than can be done with integrating story and action in a gaming context. I feel that my offerings here are paltry and weak. Do you have ideas of your own? Would you be willing to share them with me?

The Quest for the Holy Grail - Part Three

I have more to add regarding my criticisms and claims.

This time it's in relation to MMORPGs.

The current set of MMO games focus on task resolution with a linear plot provided by the developers of the product. Even within this structure the potential for creating stories ourselves (that is by the great unwashed instead of the developers) is still very large. However, the mechanics of these games do not support this kind of play. In fact, they actively discourage it. Where this kind of play does exist it frequently consists of ignoring the mechanical aspects of the game and using the MMO as a kind of chat room. While I have nothing against this kind of play it is dissonant.

Therefore, I want an MMO that is built to support storytelling in its mechanics, either as well as or instead of task resolution.

Mechanical aspects could include such devices as character traits and attributes. My character could have traits like cowardly, fearful, bewildered, introspective, intelligent, educated, popular. Each of these and many more besides would have actual mechanical meaning. The game could enforce these traits in many different ways, but in the spirit of providing solutions that are not purely speculative, I would like to propose that the game gives experience points when the conditions of the trait are filled. Cowardly: run from potentially harmful encounters. If orcs invade my character's village (populated by many other characters) and my character, the coward, is challenged to a battle, then he runs and by running he gains XP. Character traits wouldn't be visible to other players except through actions. It is possible that players could choose a trait from a list when interacting with another PC, if they choose a trait that is on that PCs list, then that PC gains some XP. Essentially this offers a means for a player to state what it was they felt the other PCs traits were based on their interactions, offering a form of player to player feedback on performance.

I want to see a mechanic for relationships within the game. If the character Tharin is annoying and I want him dead (or my character does anyway) then I could create a Nemesis relationship with that character, earning experience points whenever I manage to make him fail at declared activities (or some other defined set of parameters). The Paramour relationship declares my romantic interest in another character, and I gain XP whenever I manage to woo said strumpet - with a bonus for marriage.

I want plots to be seamlessly integrated into the game. Developers, moderators, game designers become actors and script writers instead of programmers and directors. They create characters that enter the game, these characters have no special qualities beyond those of a normal character, that is they have traits and relationships, for example. And they interact with other players in an effort to keep the story active and moving.

I want 'tokens' that can be passed from player to player that have some significance to the mechanics of the game. This is particularly hard to define because they are highly dependent on the implementation, they could be things, attributes, circumstances, features that are either temporary or meaningful in many ways. Examples of this sort of thing include; curses - the princess is cursed to eternal slumber lest she be kissed by her one true love; quests - only s/he who finds the Holy Grail can be named King; Titles - Princess, King, Duke, Arch-fiend; or even objects - The Dragon's tooth, Excalibur, a poisoned apple, a letter of free passage from the King. Each of these mechanical items have benefits and costs, each lost or gained, each is rare.

This sort of game absolutely must give some consideration to the variable nature of attendance online. While it's difficult to have a showdown with your Arch-Nemesis if the two of you never appear online together, it may be possible to create work-arounds. Thus, creating a language and mechanism that permits this sort of relationship and makes it interesting and engaging is needed. Structures can be introduced that support this kind of play. For example, two rivals are vying against one another for some reason (any reason is fine) and the mechanics of the game declare that a rivalry exists. In order for it to be possible to have such a rivalry the game must support some means for the two characters to interact even if they are not in the same space. It also must support some means for others to interfere. The idea here is simple. The two rivals must touch a central point each real world day. Each 'touch' is worth a point. The one with the most points is the winner. Other characters can interfere with this by moving the touchpoint, by blocking the rival they do not support, by acting as a secret proxy (or even disguise) for the rival and gaining the touch. Relationships such as Sycophant, Kingmaker, Servant or traits such as Malcontent, Anarchist or Deceptive could all play a part in this kind of 'battle' garnering XP for the player who participates and uses these traits.

Once again I feel that my words fail me. Once again I want to know what you might think. Problems, suggestions, any ideas of your own? Would you be interested in playing in such an MMO?

Sunday, July 27

The Quest for the Holy Grail - Part Two

So…, player centred story building in games.

In an effort to be productive in my criticisms and claims I want to offer a suggestion for resolving the problem. This suggestion offers an interpretation of turn based RPGs.

I want to see turn based resolution of everything, not just combat. Bargaining with a merchant. Researching clues, histories, spells in the library. Begging the ancient master of whatever to take on a new student. Travelling between locations. Dialogue with other characters - particularly when such discussions have critical relevance to the plot. Playing a sport in game. Any of the extraneous and often annoying mini-games included in the typical RPG video game for padding purposes. Use the same, unified mechanic for everything.

I want multiple possible outcomes for "battles". If an invading orcish army comes to my character's village and my character is a diplomat and not a warrior I want to be able to 'fight' the orcs verbally from the village ramparts (having just finished my orcish language lessons in the library - after hearing about their intent from pilgrims). Depending on my character's skill I want to be able to generate a range of responses from the game - convince the orcs to attack someone else, convince to orcs to leave, convince the orcs to join our cause, and maybe others. Even engage the orcs in a bout of fisticuffs if that's what interests me.

I want primary character (and secondary character for that matter) death to be permanent. None of this cowardly continue crap. Given this, the world should remember, allowing a successor to see what has gone before. Players can create new characters that start their journey a day or two after the death of their previous character, or at the beginning of the campaign (harder) or anywhere in the timeline (hardest).

I want all battles to be skippable. That is, if there is a battle that I encounter (say a shopping battle for bargain hunters) then I can skip the battle part and go right to the result. The result should be undesirable to a carefully balanced degree. If my character is exceedingly wealthy I don't want to spend ten minutes in battle haggling over the price of a minimal object (say a couple of potions), I can afford the incredible mark-up that is the result of not bargaining so I skip the tedium of this event. Haggling a significant discount on a high-priced high-powered magical artefact early in the game just because I've focused on such skills would be rewarding, however.

I want every single fucking cut-scene to be integrated into the battle mechanism. Convincing someone to repent their evil ways and atone for their sins at the monastery can be enhanced in the battle by adding script elements to this progression. Convincing the same person to join me in my crusade to rule the world would evoke an entirely different script. If I choose to skip a scripted battle then the game can impose a cut scene on me. This cut scene will depend on what best suits the game depending on character actions, alignments and world structure.

I do not want a world map that my character has to walk across - unless it's using the balance board from WiiFit and I'm burning calories. Make it travel battles I can skip if I want - with requisite penalties.

I want the structure of the world to change based on the outcome of various battles. Structuring key battles will make this easier, developing a large matrix with many key battles would make it extremely immersive and offer a chance for players to experience / shape entirely different stories.

I believe that a single, unified system such as this one will allow the necessary focus required to keep the target in view, but allow for enough freedom that will enable creative interpretation of such a structure and evolve it into new and interesting ways that enable players, rather than neutering them.

Is this ludicrous or can you see this working? Would it make an RPG more exciting for you, or would you flounder around trying to work out what to do as you seek the next story 'trigger' (which ironically won't be as obvious or necessary in this kind of structure)? While it terrifies me, I would love to know - what do you think?

The Story is dead! Long live the Story!

Some time ago, in the real world, I was embroiled in an impassioned debate about building a story within a video game (or games). It became a semantic issue and I agreed with the interpretation that a player of a game can interpret the story of a game, unveiling hidden meanings, connecting relationships in new ways, and repairing holes in the continuum. The Japanese enable this kind of engagement with their "white space" approach to "creative endeavours" - I'm still not convinced that games are art, yet. Nowhere is this better represented than with Team Ico's creations, 'Ico' and 'Shadow of the Colossus'.

I still hold the belief that I am not building a story and am instead a passive recipient of it.

Thus I am going to make a bold, somewhat trollish, sensationalistic prediction.

Linear, plot-based, developer scripted stories in games will no longer be the dominant form of delivery of stories in games within the next five years. My phrasing is shit. I've re-written this several times and can't express properly my meaning. I am saying that the fundamental means in which games are written, in which characters are justified and in which tasks are framed will change completely within the next five years.

Part of the reason for this claim can be found in the demographic shift initiated by Nintendo. Part of the reason for this claim is well represented by Shamus Young's comic Stolen Pixels at The Escapist. Part of the reason for this claim is argued well, if not completely, by David Cage of Quantic Dream - if you love games for their "stories" this is a must read! Part of the reason for this claim is my own experiences - playing Oblivion I learned that I could ignore the plotted stories and create my own. It lacked the tools to properly support the generation of a real story, one that I could share with others, but it was a creative exploration of my imagination and a creative exploration of the tools the game gave me, that were limited but far more flexible than every other game of this generation that I have played. I don't believe the claims of the developers that this is 'hard' because the "choose your own adventure" series of books do a better job of interactive storybuilding than games do. Part of the reason for this claim is the games themselves are evolving, even Metal Gear Solid 4's cut scenes had many interactive elements, however rudimentary. The scent of change is in the air when an industry stalwart such as Kojima and his MGS series tries (and fails) to change its fundamental nature. Many appear to be seeking a new language, new verbs, new nouns, new phrases and a new grammar for story telling through and in games. Part of the reason for this claim is what is already happening in gaming, modified versions of Oblivion tell new stories, create new worlds, the 'modding' community are passionate, creative (though not necessarily critically arty) and are demanding change. They want to tell their own stories.

I am, as of this moment, fundamentally opposed to the developer centred, plot based, scripted story for games. I challenge developers and publishers to look for gaming concepts that empower the player - games that gives players the means to create stories of their own - and discover that by releasing their control to the great unwashed then magic is possible.

Little Big Planet has me excited, it could help me realise this vision if it is successful - thereby signalling to developers that players want to be able to play with the rules of the game, not just the rules within the game. I wish that it had more support for story creation than it appears that it does. Still it is not released yet, so it might surprise me!

Is the day of the plot based story game numbered?

Thursday, July 24

Sometimes fun just happens

Context: I'm a dedicated (aka hardcore) gamer with subcategories of completionist and co-operative play. My competitive subcategory score is quite low, in spite of what my friends might say.

There's a lot wrong with Mass Effect. The story is crap. The on foot game play very samey across all three pure classes anyway. The dialogue options - touted as revolutionary in the pre-release hype - felt arbitrary and had no real bearing on the 'plot'. Elevators. Doors. Maps repeated over and over and OVER. Copycat button press mechanics. Collect missions with no worthwhile relationship to anything. Incredibly long texture load times (arguably not Bioware's fault). Constant screen tearing. And the Mako, don't get me started on the Mako. I even found the graphics strangely sanitary, I can't quite put my finger on it, but something about it lacked personality, giving an artificial quality to every environment in the game. Virmire and Ilos did not suffer from this as much.

And yet, in spite of all of this, I had fun with it.

I enjoyed the story in the same way one enjoys a B grade movie. I laughed at many of the key dramatic moments in the story for all the wrong reasons. Alternatively I'd yell at the characters in the game for all manner of irritations. I also appreciated that there was so much material directly lifted from sources I had enjoyed in their original form, frequently naming such sources as they appeared throughout the game. This also served to underpin how deeply unoriginal most missions were as discrete units of the story.

The side quests, those with story elements weren't as laughable, even being mildly provoking at times. Seeking them out and exploring their permutations was rewarding for the first playthrough. This mirrors my experience with GTA IV, and even Oblivion where the 'major' story pieces often lack the quirkiness, honesty or creativity explored in the smaller pieces. The collect missions could be ignored - they didn't even have much bearing on the acquisition of achievements.

As a completionist I'm pretty forgiving of many things so I wasn't really put off by a wide array of irritating but not game breaking flaws. The repeating maps, meaningless quests, button pressing mini-games, elevators, doors and texture pop-in problems (which were admittedly pretty shocking) reduced the quality of the experience and were at times tiresome but I could bear it. Most games have flaws like these, mind you I've never seen such a high profile game with so many flaws. The screen tearing was a problem though, so bad at times that I had to stop and rest my eyes after only a relatively short play period (compared to my normal play periods).

The Mako was a gamebreaker, I say this because while I 'completed' the game, I constantly searched for ways to exclude the Mako from my play experience. It felt as though Bioware had gotten their hands on the code for the Warthog and then changed it in a way to make it as annoying as possible while maintaining a semblance of playability. In my travels I discovered that when the Mako was badly damaged it was far quicker to press 'X' while in the Mako to return to the ship, land again (wholly restored) and then return to the destination than repair a Mako and wait for the shields to restore. This includes load times! As I learned more about the game I no longer fought from inside the Mako, instead I'd park it, get out and fight on foot. The rewards were better, the play more fun and the recovery time much, much quicker regardless of the technique used. Except for the Thresher Maws. Fortunately the game was still playable without the Mako and its contribution could be minimised, but I'm convinced that the dev time spent on this abomination would have improved all those other niggling problems that lowered the overall quality of this title.

I got all the achievements. Go figure. I was hoping for a theme or something like a civilian skin for Shepard (jeans and t-shirt), or maybe some insight into the development of the game. I was hoping for something interesting - but I've already dealt with this in an earlier post. I satisfied my completionist urges and in gameplay terms I got a small cooperative play fix through the party mechanics of the game, so it definitely wasn't a waste of time.

Wednesday, July 23

Innovate or die!

The dust is beginning to settle. Developers, critics and consumers all have a pretty good idea of what's on offer. Well they should. So what's next?

I like me some innovation. I'm not ashamed to admit that I bought Lair just so that I could see what a game built around the Sixaxis controls would actually play like. Lost Odyssey, on the other hand, used to be the kind of game that interested me - I discovered as I played it that I'd changed, I'm different, that it's not you - Lost Odyssey - it's me. Goodbye, I won't miss you.

There's this interview with Microsoft somebody John Schappert here. Apart from demonstrating that Phil Elliot - the interviewer - is a kiss-arse, John goes on to say that true innovation can be imitation with a few tweaks (my phrasing, not his). Nice. He admits that they're playing copycat with a few things. Honesty, refreshing! And more or less says that it's not just about the games, to support this the Live service gets a good go around, largely through leading questions though. To be a little more fair, some of the ideas have potential, and while they aren't original a 1 vs 100 game with real prizes might entice new markets, for instance.

Nintendo is reeling from a universally negative response to their E3 presentation, even going so far to apologise! The panning they've received spares me that responsibility. Sniff. The reason they got so badly panned is because their big announcement was an add for their Wii-mote that allows for true 1:1 motion sensing. Nice! Problem is it only has the support of one soon to be released first party game. It was news to third party devs too, meaning it's not going to get third party support in software until a year or two from now because they will only be able to add it to games from now on. Not that anyone gives a shit because who buys third party shovelware on the Wii anyway? Provoke, provoke.

And then there's Sony. How can you not like a game of capture the flag, for up to 16 players, where the flag is a princess that can be fed cake? Even the name is awesome! Oh, how I hate that word. Another case of imitation tweaks. Still, the concept and execution is fun - if lacking longevity. The game? Fat Princess! Flower, a weird game, is much closer to something I would call innovation. The player is the wind blowing petals across the landscape opening flowers as they er…blow on their way. No fucking idea on how it plays (for real) or whether it'll be fun but it certainly feels like a fresh, new, innovative concept. LittleBigPlanet? On paper it's more tweaked imitation, but video of it has a fresh feeling. It's a HD version of a 2D platformer where the player can build their own levels and play with up to four others. I don't get any vibe of innovation from these words (which describe the game in a basic sense) but it looks like something that could, maybe, possibly deliver something unexpected. Sony has made such promises before though, and not delivered (Lair, Heavenly Sword). I couldn't care less about MAG, but then I'm not in its target market so that's to be expected.

Apart from demonstrating my like of Sony's penchant for quirky titles I have a point. Nintendo isn't doing anything really new in the coming while, but they don't really need to, they're #1 now, and the Wii-mote was enough, right? Microsoft seeks to tap the lowest common denominator by focusing on what they already know and offering real prizes. Woo! Sony hopes to capture new markets through a bunch of weird arsed shit that is risky and as previous titles have demonstrated, not necessarily worthwhile. If I was an industry pundit who would I reccommend you invest your hard earned dollars with?

Nintendo, of course, 'cause that shit is selling!

Console wars II - what's it all about?

In my first post discussing the great console war of 2007-2008 I summarised BRK's comments by suggesting that for her it was all about the games. Yet, I wonder. Not whether it's all about the games for BRK, but whether the console manufacturers, game developers and industry journalists would agree.

The waggling Wii-mote suggests that gaming is no longer about games alone. Sony has gone live with its video-download service (in America), and will 'soon' supply a device called PlayTV to Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Microsoft has penned a deal with Nettflix for a video download service on the Xbox, a complement to its video marketplace offered as part of its Gold subscription service. EA's Peter Moore is quoted at Eurogamer saying that disc based delivery of games is dead or will be soon, implying (but not specifically stating) that Blu-Ray is irrelevant to gaming. Yet Blu-Ray and HD-DVD was a very expensive battleground and Blu-Ray is offered as a potential selling point for the PS3. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. LittleBigPlanet offers the chance to earn money for budding designers, Sony's Home and Microsoft's dashboard re-design offer enhanced networking experiences (networking as defined by building contacts, not by cables and switches) and the role that the RRoD plays in consumer choice, if any. Must. Stop. Now.

You can see my point.

I'm there for most of it. Although my current circumstances dictate that the video download services will not be for me, high definition video is okay - I own 5 Blu-Ray movies and will buy more - but bandwidth, storage and video quality make the download option less appealing.

But I know who I am and what I want. What about you? What do you want? Do any of the extraneous benefits offered by the consoles (or PCs) influence your decisions in console purchases? Console manufacturers and game developers (to some extent) no longer see gaming as "all about the games", but if any of the examples I've provided above don't float your boat, can you conceive of anything that would?

Monday, July 21

Wherein I contradict myself

The Brainy Gamer is one of those blogs that scares me. On it there's a post about keeping on topic when designing / creating / building a game. In it Patrick Lipo, a video-game somebody, shares his ways to keep the design of a game focussed on its objectives. I agree with the spirit of this post and wholeheartedly support a game that achieves what it set out to do. This statement is a contradiction of my first Holy Grail quest post, kinda. If you didn't click (and we both know you didn't) then that post advocates a kitchen sink approach to game design, kinda. Actually this statement is erroneous, you really should probably read my post...

Let me attempt to illustrate with an example.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is an excellent example of a game that achieves exactly what it sets out to do. I suspect that if someone on the inside of Naughty Dog (the developer) read this they'd have a good old chuckle. Anything that might be missing from the game (as far as intentions go) is not apparent from my play perspective.

The game itself can either be described as a cinematic game or an interactive movie. The concept of linear play is defined here. Every detail scripted. Gameplay is principally a third person shooter with a cover mechanic, it is very robust and moderately intuitive. There are also platforming elements, an on rails shooting sequence, and two jetski based driving sequences. Hmm, a little more kitchen sink than I had realised.

I had a lot of fun with this game, and for no good reason. You see I don't really like the 'shooter' genre of games as a general rule. Too repetitive. Uncharted is no exception. I prefer games that allow for a variety of approaches to problem solving, and Uncharted is very inflexible here. I like games that give me freedom, that let me explore and play and manipulate. Uncharted is asphyxiating-ly rigid. Looking at the individual elements doesn't really offer understanding on my entire experience. This game was more than the sum of its parts, thankfully.

The story, while not particularly original, was well written. It was very mature, not mature in a ratings scale sense, but mature in that it knew itself and how high to pitch, the delivery and context of the material had just the right mix of serious tone and humour that existed on a level that reinforced the core design aesthetic. It was a game pitched at young adults, and it was pitched perfectly.

The pacing of the story and game elements were excellent. Not perfect, sure, but extremely well wrought throughout, action sequences and their structure (level design) were reasonably well contextualised to the mood and atmosphere of the story. The story's development, such as it approached its climax dictated the gameplay, level design elements and vice versa. It wasn't perfect, but it was probably the best example of the integration of these elements I have ever seen.

Lighting was used both as a literary tool and as a mood enhancer. As the game progressed toward its climax, the ambient light of each set reflected the character's (player's) progress through the game and story. Yes, all the corny elements were there too, finishing on a sunset, I mean, please! I am not kidding about this, they really did consider every single element of the game and how it contributed to the agenda.

Characterisations and dialogue were strong, I'd even go so far to say excellent. They were plausible, well animated, well voiced and well written. The language used was mature in that it fit the tones and themes of the game very snugly. I am comfortable admitting that I had an emotional investment in these characters (Nate and Elena anyway) and I cared about them.

While the game was fun, and it kept true to its agenda, it let me down too. I wanted more, I wanted variety and I wanted the chance to explore the designer's vision with the lens of my own experience and expectation. This game didn't allow that. So heavily committed to its original idea of what it should be, it didn't allow for any real deviation from that vision. Mr Lipo might well call that a 'win', but I want it all.

Sunday, July 20

Tabletop RPGs VERSUS Video game RPGs. FIGHT!

Wizards of the Coast, who currently own the rights to the DnD franchise of tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs), have recently released a fourth edition of that game. Others tell me that this edition emulates the class of video games known as massive multiplayer online games (MMOs).

Typically table top games are the genesis of ideas that are either directly or indirectly used as the material for building a video game framework. At least as far as the sub-genre of RPGs (western RPGs). DnD 4e reverses this trend, and it is with good reason. Table top games are in decline while video games, in all their forms, are experiencing what some punters and industry somebodies describe as a new golden age. My friends tell me that 4th ed is fun to play, even as they agree that the rules, as written, are not. A table top game that's a boring read isn't a great sign considering how many people buy and don't play those games. Not sure how many of those books actually get read though.

Outside of DnD, tabletop RPGs have evolved and are still trying to find their feet in a competitive world. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the indy game scene. There are heaps of these sorts of games out there, and although I am loathe to promote this site, it's a great example of the independent scene for RPGs. The Forge is the brainchild of one person, and although many have contributed to it over the years, it remains constrained by a single man's vision. This vision is flawed, but there are many nuggets of gold to be found there nonetheless, and it's a great jumping point when seeking alternatives to the mainstream.

I haven't had much experience with any independent video game RPGs, and this has most likely skewed my perspective. As a game format they haven't evolved at all since at least the days of the Apple II and the Ultima series (for example). Graphically they're more advanced, sure. But the mechanical experience is still much as it was. The base model is almost exactly the same, a set of powerz represented by names and numbers that are used in a turn based format. The newer model is an action adventure game that has ignores the turn based format, but retains the cool powerz. This trend has bleed into first person shooters such as Call of Duty 4 and Bioshock, as well as third person shooters such as Metal Gear Solid 4 - the last place one expects to do number crunching.

I still play tabletop games because they offer me something that video games cannot (or have not, they may be able to). They allow me to play a character of my choosing, in a story that is variable. The game master may well have a specific vision in mind, but I may choose to ignore it and create an alternative that I share with my fellows. The freedom of personal expression offered by tabletop games isn't even really touched upon by their video game counterparts. Either as a single player experience OR as an MMO (although MMOs provide a better vehicle for infinite story creation). MMOs are interesting in that the potential for this kind of play almost exists, but the very nature of the format serves to undermine this potential. Grind, PvP, status, exclusives and lack of support for characterisation and story mean that while the game experience is more open ended than the single player experience, the stories are a function of the game's mechanics.

When video game RPGs (single or multi-player) offer truly open ended characterisation and story experiences table top RPGs will cease to be relevant. Sure there will be a few anachronistic die-hards, but even they will indulge in the electronic version from time to time. It's a pity that RPG designers are still focussed on mechanics where the real innovation is going to come from storytelling and characterisation.

Yes, but, who am I really?

I am a coward, paralysed by fear and feelings of inadequacy. A shivering rodent that is starving to death because it lacks the intestinal fortitude to face the dangers of the real world and forage for food. I'm a wannabe, a nobody, and an irrelevant aberration in the constant stream of consciousness that is the internet.

I fear referencing sites I admire because they may back-track to this blog. The potential for others to come here and find disappointment terrifies me. I look at the blogs that I read, that I admire, that make me laugh and think and I feel unworthy.

None of this has anything to do with "reality" they are irrational feelings that govern my behaviour.

These feelings are contradicted by the reasons for this blog. It is not a vehicle for fame and fortune. I do not seek academic acclaim - no chance of that, I mean have you read any of this shit? I don't expect that anyone will read it, I have to pay my friends for their friendship, so expecting a stranger to contribute for free is…unrealistic.

I seek an identity. This blog is an honest record of me. One aspect of me, in any case. A time capsule of my thoughts and feelings in word form.

I want the chance to test whether my thoughts have any value at all. By offering them to scrutiny I can better determine whether my fears are warranted and can maybe challenge them by scrutinising them through the lens of your experience. I can learn from you, grow and become more worthwhile as a person (whatever the fuck that means).

That doesn't mean I'm not shitting my pants with fear. I hate being such a coward, time to face the music and get my game on, right?

Friday, July 18

Can metacognition improve game design?

Metacognition can loosely be defined as thinking about thought. It is often described with a continuum that has reflective thinking at one end and dynamic thinking at the other. Everyone falls somewhere on this continuum. Reflective thinkers tend to think things through. They might try something that fails and based on that experience spend a few moments thinking about it and try something else, rinse and repeat until success is achieved. Dynamic thinkers tend not to stop attempting an activity to think about it. Generally a dynamic thinker will try a bunch of different things (sometimes repeating already attempted things) before finding something that works. Dynamic thinkers don't stop doing to spend time thinking about their actions.

Meta-gaming is a term used in table top RPGs that describes when the player has their character do things that the character couldn't possibly see as appropriate given the context, but that fit with game tropes or rules. It is quite rightfully seen as a form of cheating, but it has uses in non-cheating ways so it's reputation as a negative is undeserved. I'll try to explore this more later, it's here to illustrate that it exists as a named and known phenomenon in table top gaming.

A meta-dialogue is a term I'm inventing (it may already exist elsewhere with either the same or a different meaning) for when an external stimulus causes one to think about something. An interactive media like games represent the best example of a meta-dialogue in action, tutorials and the like introduce a player to a set of expectations, games frequently then toy with those expectations as part of their challenge mechanic. Oh, I've just searched found something similar in Wikipedia called metafiction. Of particular interest is "A story that anticipates the reader's reaction to the story", but the other points are worthwhile also.

I will explore the idea of a meta-dialogue expressed in gaming through three games developed by a single game company, Bioware's Knight's of the Old Republic (KotoR), Jade Empire and Mass Effect. Produced by a single developer there is a consistency of vision that permeates each game, probably the culture of the company that has formed within the company itself. Also, each game engages a different level of meta-dialogue with the player, I'll start with the most recent game and work backwards chronologically.

Mass Effect has no meta-dialogue with the gamer. It is delivered 'straight-up' with a largely linear story and linear gameplay (yes one can choose the core missions in differing orders but one MUST play through them all rendering the order choice cosmetic). As the lastest game produced by Bioware it shows no insight into its own nature as a game, nor does it deviate from what are standard tropes in RPG story and game design - although it conforms more closely to ARPG (action role-playing game) than RPG in actual play, it is largely an RPG at its heart. It doesn't even have a sense of humour about its overblown and juvenile plot, and cookie cutter characters.

Jade Empire attempts to have a meta-dialogue with the player by establishing a supposed weakness apparent in the hero's fighting style through observations made by skilled NPCs. This fails, however, because it is not observable in actual play. While playing the character there is no way to get a sense of this weakness, not that I could find anyway, a fallible assertion. My 'buy-in' to this premise is undermined by the way the game plays, thereby undermining the effectiveness of the plot 'twist' presented later in the game. It is relatively easy to argue the opposite stance, that as the main character (who is blind to the weakness) the player should not be aware of it. My defense against this particular stance is based on reason, I wanted to test my character's fighting style, to explore it against skilled opponents and understand the claims made by the character's contemporaries. The game even encouraged this mode of thought through repetition and variety of claimant (if one falls on the more reflective end of the spectrum anyway) but it steadfastly refused to allow any form of exploration that could confirm or deny the claims.

Knights of the Old Replubic, the oldest or least recent of Bioware's games explored in this post exploits the expectations of the player to deliver what was recently rated in the top 10 OMG WTF moments in games by Screwattack here. If you haven't played the game then be warned because it's a spoiler. If the player returns to the game, replaying it from the beginning then it is possible to see that moment regularly foreshadowed by the dialogue and events depicted in cut-scenes. I missed it, however, and enjoyed the "shock" because the game took standard video game design tropes and subverted them (well some of them anyway). Go have a look at Videogame Tropes for a long list, I'd recommend reading things like Willing Suspension of Disbelief, Gameplay and Story Segregation, But Thou Must and Post Modernism for named relevant tropes. I thought I had read a trope that details that the hero is an amnesiac, but failed to find it for this piece, so I guess that's up to my readers (all two of them! Woo!). It is my belief that the subversion of the expectations of the player of the game through establishing gameplay actions that we, as gamers, permit for the needs of learning how to play the game and then hinging specific story actions on those gameplay elements helped make this game the memorable experience that many gamers claim.

What I'm positing is this. Games and those that play them explicitly establish a dialogue about many aspects of the game, such as gameplay, character and plot. Many games see this dialogue as nothing more than a means to deliver information to the player for successful completion of in-game tasks / functions / for successful 'play'. They treat the player as a dynamic receptacle for instructions and nothing more. A few games have gone further, and are made the more memorable for it, GTA IV does it through its social commentary, MGS4 does it through the inclusion of the 'real world' in the game world and through Breaking the Fourth Wall (kinda). Those games that are aware of their status as a game, and are aware that someone is playing seem to be those games that garner the greatest attention in discussions, in the collective unconscious of players, in the history of games.

It's a delicate balance, most certainly. But as gaming moves closer to achieving a cultural evolution it is an understanding of the relationship between the game and the gamer that will offer the greatest insight into what sorts of impacts a game can have.

Think back to your greatest play experiences, those OMG WTF moments, or those game-gasms you've had playing games and tell me about them. I don't have enough data to claim that my thoughts are little more than opinion, so I need your help.

Thursday, July 17

And now for something completely different...

Double post today because the first post was so crap!

I often find myself thinking about how a game did something and how it could do it better. For the record, as one of the great unwashed these thoughts are completely independent of any real world requirements of coding, systems or feasibility. My first musing on what works can be found here. Sometimes I think of what I'd like to see in a video game that I've yet to encounter in my travels. Here where I present one of those thoughts.

I want to see a game where the shoulder buttons represent each of the character's (avatar's) limbs. R1 for right arm, R2 for right leg, L1 for left arm and L2 for left leg. The face buttons (square, circle, triangle and cross) are used to change 'stance', loosely defined as the way in which the limbs act. Essentially they change the context of limb use (rather than relying on the environment to do this), press the button once to get into the stance assigned to it, press it again to return to the default stance. Finally, I'd like there to be many more stances available for assignment than the default five, they can be grouped into categories - though I'd prefer they weren't - but I want to be able to customise my play experience as much as possible.

Here's how it would work…

Default stance: Movement

Alternate L2, R2 to walk, run and sprint. Frequency of button presses represents speed of movement. If the button presses are flubbed the avatar stumbles and maybe trips. Press both buttons together for a jump.
Pick things up, manipulate things (switches etc.) with L1 and R1. Climb something you can grab with both buttons together. If nothing to climb, do a handstand with both buttons pressed simultaneously.
Do a cartwheel by pressing, L1, L2, R2, R1 (did I get that right?). Do a series of flips by pressing R2 + L2, followed by R1 + L1. Flubbing the button presses results in a potential accident such as falling, slipping, or tripping per the base running, walking movement above.

Stance suggestions;

Stealth - a variant of the movement stance above. Crawling, going prone, pressing against a wall, hiding inside objects all described using the same button sequences as described above. But applying them differently. Eg a prone position can be initiated by pressing all four shoulder buttons at the same time.

Unarmed combat - Punching, kicking, blocking, tripping, grappling and so forth. Multiple combat styles possible.

Armed combat - Guns, knives, swords, clubs, crowbars, wrenches well you get the idea. Imagine a double fisted gun stance that has one gun in each hand, a reticle for each gun keyed to the left and right sticks respectively. This isn't going to be easy to control, it's just the kind of thing that's possible. The L/R2 buttons might represent strafe left and right in this kind of mode, and a sixaxis controller could handle turning and moving forward and backwards. (This includes the 360 because if the rumours of a pending motion controller for that system are confirmed then it's possible there too).

Social - Each shoulder button could represent an emotional response (happy, sad, loving, hateful, angry, calm, indifferent) when in conversations.

Switching stances is easy, pressing the face button that represents the assigned stance and you'll switch to that stance, press it again and you'll switch to the default stance.

And that's it.

Do you have ideas of your own? Do you want to share them? Do you like / hate this one? I'll post others that I have percolating away in my brain in future posts, so come back if you're interested in stealing this or any of my other ideas!

Why no PC love?

I own a Mac.

Wednesday, July 16

The Quest for the Holy Grail - Part One

I typically despise criticism that offers no alternative solution(s). I grew up in an environment where I had to learn to laugh and blow my nose several times lest I be "bashed" for not getting it right. The problem wasn't so much the bashing, although that wasn't fun, it was not knowing what was actually correct. It generally took several bashings before I stumbled upon a suitable solution. So rather than just say "this didn't work", "this isn't right", "I don't like", I want to offer some idea of what it is I would like. Just in case.

One thing that consistently pleases me about a video game is whether the game allows for a variety of play styles. Will my third person shooter allow for first person and vice versa. Can I use either stealth, diplomacy or feats of acrobatic skill to solve a given problem, without having to use all three? I want a game that gives me the freedom to explore and choose a playstyle that I most enjoy, or better yet, several equally enjoyable playstyles that I can access on a whim.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion probably represents one of the best realisations of this that I've encountered in my travels. There's a lot that I don't like about the game, but it's one that I can enjoy and keep playing because it's flexible and has oodles of play styles. I can play it as a first person shooter, a stealth action title, I can play it as a puzzle game, I can play it as a typical RPG, or I can generate a ruleset that requires quite lateral, or quite ludicrous paradigm shifts.

I'll admit that optimised play in Oblivion has the "All roads lead to Rome" playstyle in that you need to have everything to create an optimised character, more or less. However, it's when one starts setting rules for oneself, and ignoring optimisation that one can truly explore the variety of games on offer here. For example, stealth only kills, a naturist (nudist) class that is forbidden to wear clothing or armour, a zero kill rule - that is, complete the game without a single kill (and as many of the sidequests as possible). Try playing the game with the Atronach starsign and compare the experience to any other starsign, or try playing a Mage class character as either an Atronach or as any other starsign. While the plot of the story doesn't change, the way in which one can engage with it can change considerably.

I also found Metal Gear Solid 4 to be very flexible. It was a stealth action game, a third person shooter, and a first person shooter. Within this there were several subdivisions on offer. Should I use the new metal gear, the knife, CQC, the tranquilizer guns (pistol and rifle), and / or the various disabling traps to be the focus of my stealth gameplay. Each approach changed the game slightly and by devoting oneself to a particular style of play (knife only for instance) the way to engage with the game changed. While knife only doesn't really seem feasible for boss battles it's certainly reasonable for the rest of the game. I suspect a traps only approach would work as well, but would be considerably harder because of their very limited numbers.

Mass Effect offers this kind of game, but fails to deliver. RPGs are most likely to provide varied play, because by their very nature they offer a wide array of skills, powers, effects and possibly gameplay experiences. The problem with Mass Effect was that it used the same basic mechanical method for all in-game effects. Shooting a gun, using a biotic power, throwing a tech grenade, and throwing a normal grenade all used the same basic approach (press and hold one button, and then press another). Ironically, the character that I typically find to offer the least variety in an RPG - the fighter - was the most diverse in feel when playing the game. Shotguns, Assault Rifles and Sniper rifles were sufficiently diverse to create the illusion of some variety when compared to the other classes. The Adept and the Engineer classes were too similar, within the class and to each other. Their powers were utilised in precisely the same way (sequence of button presses), and manifested as a blue or orange glow on the enemy. This is not to say that I hated Mass Effect, or that I think it's a bad game, just that if it were to come down to choosing between the next Mass Effect, the next Metal Gear or the next Oblivion then Mass Effect would lose out.

One game that apparently has this attribute, but really doesn't is GTA IV. So many industry professionals said in their reviews that this game could be played anyway you like. The variety in gameplay is immense, infinite, and so forth. And it was these sorts of statements that tempted me across the line. Each mission follows a very specific and linear structure that requires a specific set of responses from me, and is quite unforgiving if I don't adhere to the game's expectations of me. Sure you can choose to play through the missions in differing orders, but you must play through them all to reach the end of the story regardless. Because of this the mission structure is illusionist handwaving, an attempt to deceive me into thinking I have freedom when really I don't. Outside of the mission structure I can do anything I want, as long as it's one of three things, driving, shooting or playing mini-games. I can't really re-interpret the game, the game world, or the avatar I've been given through play. I can't convince the baddies that I'm badder or better, I can't play the game through the first person perspective, I can't use stealth to solve a problem, I can't impose a set of rules upon myself that fundamentally changes the way in which to game is played. I can impose a set of rules upon myself that fundamentally changes the way in which I interpret what is represented by the game, but this doesn't change what I'm actually doing in the game, how I actually play, it just changes my perception of it. Problem is, I couldn't make it work, I couldn't make a re-interpretation of the game world strong enough to overcome the limitations imposed on me.

What's your Holy Grail of gaming? Is it graphics, story, gameplay, or is it something else? And if you don't mind sharing, what is it about this Holy Grail of yours that makes it so important?

Tuesday, July 15

Console Wars!

I was going to discuss what makes a game good today, but as that's a multi-part discussion and isn't too dependent on news I can probably delay it until tomorrow, or after E3 if the news from there continues to be interesting and controversial.

Square Enix announced that Final Fantasy XIII will be multi-platform today at their E3 presser. This is significant because it's kind of a first. Good for them.

I never really understood the 'console wars' tag anyway. We don't have fridge wars, TV wars, washing machine wars or fan heater wars (unless you count that the current gen of consoles can double as fan heaters), so the very idea of console wars is ludicrous. It's not helped by the largely baseless wankery of a variety of Microsoft and Sony somebodies. And then there's the gaming media - satisfying the fanboy demand apparently - because the online media needs to generate clicks to get paid.

We may have format wars - blu-ray versus HD-DVD or plasma versus LCD - but the context, meaning and motivation for this situation is entirely different. In a market economy everything is in competition with everything else, but we don't go around claiming that gaming is eating into the DVD market…oh wait, the games industry makes all sorts of these claims. Other devices rarely make such claims, the fridge versus gaming console debate hasn't really reached a climax yet.

I understand the concept behind console exclusives and now, more than ever before they have meaning. Each of the current generation of consoles is quite different, their core build is different, the tools by which they operate are different, and at the moment the markets that they're capturing are quite different too. Developers, therefore, have to make a decision, whether to spend huge amounts of time and effort on developing for many diverse platforms in the hopes that they will increase numbers of actual sales (enough to offset the costs), or whether to specialise knowing that their sales numbers could be higher if the reached more gamers through that other gaming platform. Of course, some developers just want the one console for this very reason, it would make these decisions redundant.

If the developer, such as Epic Games developer of the Unreal Engine, has the hardcore market in mind, then it's a pretty basic answer. They can specialise in either of the 'hardcore' capable machines. This is because most hardcore gamers (hardcore is such a crude and derisive term - I'm going to change it and call 'us' dedicated gamers instead!) have both. However, the fanboy quotient means that some people will refuse to buy one or the other not on reason, but emotion, irrational, baseless, mindless emotion. And it is these individuals who are likely to play games like Unreal Tournament, they are the target market of Epic, so it's reasonable that Epic target both consoles. It's also reasonable that they maintain their stance of not developing for the Wii.

I also understand the developer's need to go multi-platform. Now, more than ever before, game production costs factor heavily into profitability. Thus, to recoup the investment gaming companies must consider how they can increase their sales, one such way is to deliver the product to as many consumers as possible. The multi-platform approach. This will tend toward games like Alone in the Dark which has all this potential but it is unrealised for every single console format because it wasn't built with either the technology or the audience in mind.

Here's where it gets interesting. Gaming is in a boom state at the moment. The world economy is experiencing difficulties, difficulties that will not be resolved anytime soon. What can gaming companies do about it?

Let's start with the hardware companies.

Nintendo has done it right. They have taken a long hard look at what they were doing wrong with the Gamecube (keeping up with the Joneses) and focussed on what it's really about, gaming.

Sony's arrogance really dug a deep hole for them. They completely misjudged developers and the market and they're paying for it now. Their product has probably the best overall feature set, the best overall specs and if they hadn't completely misread how difficult it was to develop for (given existing frameworks) it'd be doing much better than it is. Ironically, they're also failing to properly differentiate the product from their competitors, and it is this that is holding them back more than anything. They still don't know or understand what it is that they have, how to sell it, and who to sell it to. A market has developed for it, so they have a chance now to define that market, strengthen the relationship they have with it, and diversify by building strategies around other markets. It doesn't appear that they've quite grasped this yet.

Microsoft also suffers from arrogance. Arrogance born of gaining an headstart and by being unchallenged in other markets. Right now they're last in all territories, and if they can't stem that tide and turn their fortunes around then they're fucked. Problem is, in order to get to the leading position they've created what is essentially a shit box. The components are cheap, easily broken, it's missing the functionality, quality and versatility of its competitors, at least from a manufacturing perspective, and has instilled a perception of poor quality in the great unwashed masses. Somehow this hasn't had the impact on the Xbox that it would in other consumer products and Microsoft can thank the ease at which developers have in developing games for the console and the sheer desperation of dedicated gamers. The headstart helped a lot here too. Their target market (the dedicated FPS / racing gamer) is largely saturated, and if they don't broaden it then sales will drop significantly rather than steadily decline. The RPG market is clearly their next choice, but time will tell us whether it will be enough.

Given this situation, I think the days of the multi-platform gaming may be numbered. At least those sorts of games developed by a single developer. Smaller specialist developers who focus on a single platform now have an opportunity to 'port' existing IP to alternative systems and build an entire business model around helping larger development houses increase overall sales by broadening the available market. It's just that, so far, projects handled in this way are sub-standard. Alone in the Dark for the Wii is an example.

I know the gaming industry professionals are saying that the day of third part exclusives is in the past, but this may be erroneous. The size of games, and the commitment it takes to make one on current generation consoles means that developers lack the versatility required to properly capture the unique qualities of a given machine, and the preferences of each machine's market.

Time will ultimately prove this one way or another, but while we wait let's speculate.

What do you think? Are you going to buy all the consoles and therefore have your pick of the litter, or are you going to stick with one and rough it with the exclusives?

Before you answer think about this…

Many dedicated gamers are choosing which copy to buy based on what differentiates it on a given console. Quality, downloadable content, controller preferences, hard-disk space, and price are among the many factors gamers cite in forums for choosing which console to buy a game on. I couldn't play a game like Soulcalibur IV on the Xbox controller so I'm getting it for PS3, for a more specific example.

The other thing I want you to think about is, Sony has recently announced that they're going to duplicate the Nintendo business model and focus on delivering high quality first party products. What does this mean for 3rd party developers and publishers? A mass migration to Xbox perhaps? Or has the horse already bolted?

Monday, July 14

Why no Wii love?

You've probably noticed by now that I don't really discuss Nintendo's Wii.

The short answer for this is because I don't have ready access to one. There's more to it though.

I admire what Nintendo has done with the Wii. Aaron Greenberg, a Microsoft somebody - apparently - erroneously thinks that the motion controller is a gimmick. If Microsoft can find a new way for people to relate to games that is as intuitive (or more so) than the Wii controller, then all they'll have to do is make sure at least they understand how to publish games to take advantage of the feature and they can start printing money.

The Wii isn't for me.

I never grew up around Nintendo stuff. I have no burning desire to revisit those memories with fan service games likes Super Smash Brothers Brawl. Consequently I don't solicit more information or access to such a device to broaden my understanding of what's on offer. The games the Wii offers aren't to my taste. That doesn't mean I think they're bad games, just not the kind of time wasters I want to waste my time with.

Oh, and for the most part, irritatingly cutesy things like the Mii, just make me want to scream, shout, and smash. While I won't turn green and tear my clothes to shreds, I might smash the offending purveyor of nauseating muck.

All this may change. Many recent games for the Wii appear to have a darker and more mature styling to them. If this trend continues then there might be enough to entice me. But that's not for a good while yet.

Until then, you will just have to tolerate my limited understanding, and limited vision. A nobody like me doesn't necessarily have access to all the latest, greatest and funkiest do-dats available.

Don't let that stop you from sharing your Wii stories, okay?

What's in a 10? revisited

I never expected to like GTA, and my expectations were met. It just isn't my kind of fun. I can't even understand the raging positive passions that a large number of industry professionals have for it.

The industry elite rate it with a score of 98, while the great unwashed give a more honest 79 ref: metacritic. I'd give it a 70-ish. Please consider that average games are typically scored at 70 instead of 50 and bad games typically get scores of 50-ish instead of 10 or 20. Industry professionals are very generous with their scores.

Given that GTA isn't my "type" of game why the hell, then, did I buy it?

Well... I wanted to know! What it was about the game that had so many raving like lunatics? I suppose it's funny that I still don't know the answer to that, I'm guessing that it has something to do with either the 'nature' of the industry or the general low expectations of those in it.

I'm not going to deride the cheap mission design, the boring and repetitive game-play, the derivative and highly predictable story that lacks emotional buy-in from the player (viewer). If you enjoyed this game then my opinion is irrelevant, of course.

There are nuggets of pure gold in GTA IV that made the purchase and subsequent trade a worthwhile exploration, however.

I enjoyed the lampooning of American culture that was omnipresent. Admittedly it was very hit and miss, and largely juvenile, lacking sophistication and truly biting insight. It was enjoyable none-the-less, something worthy of exploration and discovery. I have since learned that this is a hallmark feature of the series and probably won't be as impressive to series loyalists, but as a virgin GTA player it was a worthwhile distraction from all the other irritations that plagued my experience with the title.

The other element of the game that I enjoyed was the "random" encounters. While traversing the game map one could encounter various characters that had no real bearing on the main story. Each encounter was a diversion from the rest of the game and a complete experience in and of itself. Each encounter was a single task mission framed by brief cutscenes. Several encounters spanned more than a single mission.

These random encounters were the best part of the game. They were the most honest, genuinely realised moments in the game. Freed from the stench of the overblown pomposity of the main story, they offered small patches of honest 'reality' in a world where themes focussed on suffering and hardship. They were probably too small for any deep emotional investment from the player, but they didn't need much for what they were. Most of them were spot on too, in terms of pitching the drama to the player, balancing the emotional buy-in against the satisfaction of play and reward. And most resolved in a largely unsatisfying way, highlighting the meaningless of the main character's existence more effectively than any of the mind-numbing drivel that drove the main plot.

The 16 year old female drug addict who offers her body to Nico in return for a couple of bucks, and her subsequent redemption is painful and while offering a chance for the player to do something constructive, news of her redemption is delivered via a distant email.

If one spares one of the targets in the game, there's the opportunity to meet him a little later on. He's resentful that the main character made him beg like a bitch for his life (something the game chose for me, not something I chose for myself, so my emotional buy-in is non-existent). He's looking for payback. He wants you to beg in the same way you made him beg as he points a gun at you. I didn't beg, and don't believe that there was the option to in any case. As a friend remarked, it was a clever reversal of the standard RPG quest result, he wasn't at all grateful about being spared, and it fit the theme of this 'world' perfectly. It did a great job of undermining any 'mercy' acts you may choose for Nico, and resolved in a largely unsatisfactory manner as he died anyway (unless he killed Nico and the player chose to end their gaming experience there!).

The drug addled merchant banker, the hip-hop idealist, the serial killer, even the ship mate selling handbags on a street corner. These were more real, more honest, and more effective in capturing the game's themes than any other part of the game. If I was involved in the design decisions of GTA IV (or subsequent titles) I'd focus the whole game around these "random" encounters. With branching stories revealing new random encounters depending on what choices the player made.

For example, if the player chose to try to save the girl, but her addiction was too strong and she lapsed (more honest, more real than what the game presented), then she might suggest that if the main character were to "take care of" her pusher, it'd be easier for her to get clean. This steady escalation of story offers chances for the player to explore the story in a more open way. More so than the faux open world structure presented. If the player chose to ignore her, or take advantage of her, then other options could be introduced, the police, desperate family members seeking their daughter / sister / friend. Etcetera.

Ignore that a whole bunch of industry professionals place GTA as the pinnacle of gaming experience for the moment and tell me what you think would make it better. Has GTA IV realised all your wishes for gaming, allowing you to place your console aside and get back to living life, or has it left you wanting more? If you do want more, will it be more of the same, or are there things you'd do differently?

Saturday, July 12

I completed Insanity difficulty in Mass Effect and all I got was this stupid gamer pic.

Double post today because I missed yesterday's due to stuff.

Achievements in games can be a good thing. I don't want them to interrupt my play, but they can offer new information about the game, and reward the player for playing.

Ironically, perhaps, the games in the new generation that represent my pick for best implementation of achievements are on the PS3. This doesn't mean the Xbox 360 games don't have well implemented achievements, it's just that I haven't had the joy of finding such a game.

I'll cite three examples of games where the rewards systems are well implemented.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

The first doesn't have an achievement system at all. Not based on gamer points, skill points, medals or anything like that. Instead MGS4 rewards you with descriptors of your game play. It also gives you access to new gear, from new camouflage, to infinite ammo, invisibility and the like. This kind of system was popularised more than a decade ago, and is typically represented in the form of 'cheats'. I dislike the cheats implementation in preference for options that can be turned on and off that are hidden, or unavailable until certain conditions are met (such as completing the game).

RnC and Uncharted take a more Xbox like approach with skill points and medals respectively. However, unlike the arbitrary acquisition of points that typically characterise the Xbox methodology, these games offer genuine, tangible rewards for your efforts. Artwork for the game, skins for the avatar that the character plays, way to change the game board (LOVED the flip the universe option in Uncharted). Some of these rewards are gimmicks, sure. I suspect that those rewards I found to be gimmicky, would be cool features for you, and vice versa.

Games where achievements were implemented in an okay way. That is, they offered actual tangible rewards that went beyond arbitrary scores, but these rewards were half-arsed.

Mass Effect
Conan
The Bourne Conspiracy

Mass Effect is the game that inspired the title. Rewards for completing certain elements of the game are basically 'cheats' for the most part, with the occasional extraneous reward such as a gamer pic (very lame gamer pics). They aren't bad rewards, they're just uninspired. Rather like the Mako.

Conan and The Bourne Conspiracy are what I've seen called 'B grade' games. They have the potential for cult status but critical flaws hold them back from being mainstream successes. Conan's rewards come in two forms, artwork for the game that is too easily won, and too little, (particularly considering how well Nihilistic captured the visual vibe of the novels) and 'cheats' that are earned through play. The Bourne Conspiracy has the collectible treasure approach in the form of passports. There are also 'achievements' for it, but they're connection to the rewards is not clear. The payoff is artwork, music, and being able to replay boss battles.

Poorly implemented achievements include the following games;

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Lost Odyssey
Bioshock
Lair
Eternal Sonata
Enchanted Arms

All of these games offer a score that is awarded for completion of certain in game activities. Nothing else. Most of the activities rewarded are activities that you would do regardless. Lair, at least, has a graded award system with feedback on how to improve it. Lost Odyssey and Bioshock go to some effort to vary the rewards offered from plot based ONLY rewards. That is, at least they give awards for activities that are not purely driven by the plot. The activities are fairly typical of play though, so there's no opportunity to engage with the game in new and interesting ways offered by the game designer. Eternal Sonata and Enchanted Arms offer achievements based purely on game completion, the most boring and unnecessary of implementations. After all, if the game is good enough, I will be completing it regardless.

I started this post by saying "Achievements…can be a good thing", but in truth I actually refer to rewards and feedback. Hints to new ways to play the game, and unlockables that modify the game experience are the 'good thing'. Numeric values released for no more than just playing through the game feel cheap and uninspired.

Are gamer scores enough, or do you want more too?

Seriously. No, Seriously.

Why I hate the Xbox 360's achievements (and PS3's new trophies, presumably).

Aside from a few humorous moments, like those found in the title of this piece, the achievements of the Xbox 360 are an irritation that really gets stuck in my craw.

One reason involves how I engage with a game. For an example, check out the Who am I? post I made earlier. I don't really engage with games in an immersive manner, although I have friends who do. However, I do establish an ongoing dialogue with games that allows for a deep commitment in my participation in them. The basis of this is that should I choose to play a game, then I'm bloody well going to PLAY it. While in front of the display, I am committed to the designer's vision.

Then this stupid plinky plink noise, coupled with a visual cue that varies in placement on the screen, goes and disengages me from my experience and reports that I've done some arbitrary thing within the game that I would have done in any case. This effectively ruins my dialogue with the game and removes me from the moment.

Okay, so I had thought that with time, I would grow inured of this and be able to just partition the distraction from my sensory input. A foolish hope. My next endeavour was to find some way to turn the damnable things off, or down, or minimise them in some way that will spare my consciousness being rudely ripped from the experience for what, exactly? No joy. I could not find anyway to get rid of the fuckers!

Another reason is that apart from their blatant rudeness to my gaming experience, they're largely an arbitrary measure of well not much at all. I say "largely" because there are some achievements embedded within games that have enlightened me to new ways to play the game, by demanding something of me that was NOT demanded of me in the playing of the game. These achievements help to add value to the game, and only really serve to irritate me further as they are the exception rather than the rule. They also highlight possible shortcomings in game design, or possible shortcomings in the player depending on the game, and the player.

Am I to assume that you love your achievements? Or do they grate on you in new and interesting ways?

Thursday, July 10

What's in a 10?

The recent spate of high scoring AAA titles has me perplexed. I've played a few of them...

GTA IV (98 by metacritic, 79 rated by 'us')
Bioshock (96 by metacritic, 87 by 'us')
Oblivion (94 by metacritic, 87 by 'us')
Mass Effect (91 by metacritic, 87 by 'us')
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (88 by metacritic, 88 by 'us')
Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction (89 by metacritic, 89 by 'us')
MGS4 (94 by metacritic, 91 by 'us')

Yeah, I suppose it's debatable as to whether all the above are in the AAA category, let's just go with critical acclaim for now, okay?

It amuses me that game critics are more generous with their scores than the great unwashed masses. I'd expect the opposite. Fans of the games are naturally inclined toward excessive bias, surely? Games journalists, or whatever they are, are more likely to assess the game in light of such criteria as broad based appeal, or innovation, or even technical specifications. Yet, reading through these reviews, most if not all are biased in some direction or another. Judging by the scores above, one can see that the backlash that all these games and their reviews have experienced is because the games aren't really worthy of the scores given them by games journalists. Except perhaps Uncharted, and RnC.

If one tracks the forums, blogs and gaming sites, it is possible to notice the following trend. AAA game receives massive amount of hype (varies depending on budgets and skills of publishers), anticipation for game grows, critics release previews, then they release reviews, and then the great unwashed gets their hands on the product. Many of the great unwashed agree with the hype engine, but many more, growing as time passes were let down by the industry. Backlash ensues.

This pattern repeats itself time and time again.

How can game critics be so consistently wrong?

Who am I?

I've never been one to wax lyrical as to my own nature, nor am I interested in listening to the words of others as they describe theirs. It is actions that arouse me. So how do I convey this in this word based medium? Awkwardly, I suppose. In pieces. After all, if you're going to be reading this, you probably should have some idea of who it is that writes.

Bioshock

My early impressions of this Xbox 360 game may help with getting to know me.

Plane crash. Check. Swam to ominous tower. Check. Climbed into humorously named bathysphere and go down. Er…check. Stop at the bottom of down and watch as something gets all violent, and this is where things start to go wrong.

Okay, so I have hands. Good. Going to use them to open door of humorously named elevator thingy and put a stop to the shenanigans. Hmm. Hands won't open door. Fingers wont push on conveniently located button, murder ensued, forced to watch unable to help, to participate. Manic, low level giggling began to echo throughout my brain.

And then the bathysphere door opened. I breathed a sigh of relief. Freedom...

Someone named Atlas was lecturing me on something. I obeyed, still stunned by the recent violence. I have a spanner in my hand, my right hand, and I used it to send someone's brains splattering across the floorboards. The giggling returned.

Look, a handbag! Inside which are cigarettes, candy and cash! A message read "What is this?" as if I didn't know. I am perplexed. My avatar must be a moronic glutton who gets hard for violence. But I can't pick the damn thing up. I wanted to accessorise, yet the handbag refused to be lifted, it taunted my idiocy and my id, but remained heavier than anything even Atlas could lift. A bottle of booze lay discarded nearby. Of course I drunk it, wouldn't you?

Trying to move away from that table, I found that I was stuck. Looking down to uncover what impeded my progress I discovered I had no feet! I was a pair of hands floating through the landscape, hands that get stuck if there are things in the way of my, invisible?, feet. Moving again, I happened upon a masquerade ball, there, at my…er…feet, lay several masques, all beyond my grasp, cryptically unexplained. A little further and another brutal murder about which I can do nothing but watch. And then the introduction ends, and my gamerscore chirpily tells me I've acquired 10 points.

Hmm, so here's what I got from that…

I'm supposed to be playing a mindless moron, who drools for food, cigs, and booze, play dress ups and loves either to watch or participate in extremely brutal acts of violence. A little later, when encountering the first vending machine, after playing the hacking mini-game I spent all of the money I had found on the liquor available therein, getting my avatar thoroughly drunk.

It seemed fitting somehow. And then I switched the game off.

What were your first impressions?

It begins...

My ignorance knows no bounds.

I'm nervously traversing this space for the first time. In time I hope to master some of the more advanced features of this blog, but until then I guess I'll just shoot shit into the void.

Or some such, heh.