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Alex N's blog

8:48 AM on 10.29.2012

"Level Up" is THE modern video game experience.

No reason to stay old-school

As I was thinking about this topic few weeks back, I was thinking of games that have jumped ship and introduced some sort of role-playing mechanic into their usually-non-RPG gameplay. It was also then that I was considering games that have yet to do so. Starcraft 2 came to mind, as an old-school PC RTS with a hardcore following and an e-sports mainstay. The only RPG elements found in that game are the experience points you earn from winning games and moving up on global leaderboards.

However, in an interesting twist of fate, an article popped up online saying that Blizzard is introducing a full blown RPG experience in its upcoming expansion. Experience levels, ranks, rewards - all of the things we usually associate with an RPG. Moreso, they are doing so as a response to comments by a well-known esports player saying that Starcraft 2, old-school PC RTS and an esports staple, is dying out. And it is doing so because there is no reason to play the game, unless it is your livelihood.

RPG as an experience

For the purposes of this blog, the term "RPG" refers to a video game in which a certain mechanism is present. The mechanism in which a player is rewarded on a consistent basis with experience, which unlocks persistent rewards for their character, allowing them to become more powerful overtime. In more familiar terms, I define "RPG" as any game that has any combination of Experience Bars, Levels, Character Points and Skills, but not limited to those elements.

In the good old days...
Ever since the days of pen/paper RPG's, the early mechanics of an RPG were clearly defined. Players wanted to be powerful, but not too powerful. Players wanted other players to know what gear and stats they had. Players wanted something to show for all the hours they put into their games. Players also wanted to have clearly defined roles that set them apart from their peers.

These elements became more and more profound as the RPG made its way into electronic gaming. Technology allowed for players to explore more worlds by themselves, gather awesome gear, and level up their characters with new skills.

With the arrival of the internet, players could now take to the virtual worlds their virtual selves, show off their gear, while maintaining their own characters and being in control of their own experience.

For a while, "leveling up" and "experience" were terms only used by RPG players in RPG games, which were mostly about walking around dungeon crawling, slaying monsters and gaining loot.

We must go deeper...
The RPG mechanics represent the IDEAL REWARD SYSTEM FOR A VIDEO GAMES. Yes, all caps. In essence, you are being rewarded with experience for doing something. Experience is a virtual commodity that represents nothing. And because it represents nothing, it can be applied to anything. You can gain experience from killing monsters, other players, performing certain actions, standing in one place, playing cards, etc etc etc. Any sort of action can be rewarded with experience. When that experience is quantified and tied to a level system, you are giving a person a clear structure of rewards that is easy to understand because it has been in use for last 30 or so years. You do something in the game - you gain experience - you level up and become somewhat stronger than before.

It is a system that many of us wish we had in real life. Where our every action, no matter how tedious or miniscule, meant something in the long run.

Recently, I'd say around the time the last generation of consoles were introduced, more and more games came out that had some sort of RPG mechanic in them. These games were not traditional fantasy action RPG's, or Japanese RPG's... they were games in genres that people do not usually associate with RPG's. Driving games, first and third person shooters... they all were turning to the RPG system to communicate player progression to the player. You were now gaining experience for driving a perfect lap in Forza, for killing enemies with precision in first person shooters in Halo 2. RPG's were no longer limited to fantasy/heroic setting.

RPG as a meta-experience.
Soon, it was clear that players liked to fill up empty experience bars and having level numbers to tell them they have progressed in the game. Sony and Microsoft both sought to introduce RPG mechanics to their online multiplayer services. Xbox Live gives you a persistent person over Xbox Live, complete with avatar that you can buy gear for, experience points in a form of Achievements that show how much you have accomplished, and recently, a giant number next to your name that shows how many years you have been with the service.

Sony, not to be outdone, straight up opted for levels and experience bars for their users for completing similar objectives in games on their own console.

Facebook allowed millions of people access to new forms of video games... and most of those games had bars, experience points and levels. Why? Because that is the easiest system to implement and it has been proven to work. And it worked so well that it propelled Facebook-RPG makers like Zynga to stratospheric financial proportions. People that never played a game in their life were getting addicted to simple games with RPG elements because RPGs are designed to do just that.

You are no longer wasting time in a video game. You are "levelling up".

You are no longer levelling up your just your wizard in that one game though. You are levelling up a race car driver. Or your farm. Or your Space soldier. Or your Special Ops Operative. Or your tank. You are levelling up your persistent online persona, in the form of Xbox Live, PlayStation or Steam account, or even Origin, AppleID and any other system that tracks your gaming progress... in the form of bars, experiences and levels. There are even meta-game tracking services like Raptr, that track your gaming identity across all possible platforms imaginable.

Even going further, you can now earn points and experience from doing actual real world things like going to places, and "checking in" with mobile applications like Foursquare. Social meta-RPG, I supposed should be the name for this.

In the future...
What does this all mean? What can we expect in the future?

I expect last few gaming genres to adopt some form of RPG functionality to their games. It is almost inevitable now. People want to show off their progress, be that in terms of their loot, their lap times, their kills... anything that will make the time reflect upon themselves. Just like Blizzard is turning one of the oldest surviving RTS to an RPG-enabled oldest surviving RTS in an effort to save its (allegedly) dwindling popularity... other will follow soon. Certainly, games designed around the experience points and levels, such as MMORPG's and Action RPG's will still deliver more bars and a deeper bar-filling experience... but for how long? I predict you can soon expect to see Level 50 Exhaulted Train Conductor as a title. Or a Sims/Foursquare hybrid, where your phone will track your every move, from peeing to eating a peanut butter sandwich, and award experience points based on those activities. You could be a level 24 Office Worker with a Chaotic Allignment because you eat a lot of meat.

What does this mean for the video game industry as a whole? Does this mean the oversimplification and degradation of the experience? Does EVERYONE like filling bars with experience?

What do you think? Comments and suggestions are welcome.   read

8:15 PM on 03.13.2012

Why Mass Effect 3's ending was a cop-out... among other things.

We all know now about the massive shitstorm brewing on the internet with regards to Mass Effect 3's ending(s). While the ending to ANY popular trilogy usually causes unhappiness among fans, Mass Effect 3 struck particularly close to home with me because I was a fan of the game since Day 1. I have been playing through ME2 religiously in the months before release to ensure best possible save game.

And then I bought the game, and it took me roughly 40 hours to get to the end, doing everything you can do, all the tiny sidequests, planet scans and missions, in order to ensure best possible outcome.

And then I got to the end... and a thousand mouths cried out in pain...

I will try to address and express a number of issues that I personally have with the endings, and hopefully most of you will feel the same way. Or at least see where I am coming from.


[I copied this part from a forum post on Penny Arcade]

The Crucible is not deus ex machina, it is a MacGuffin. It's largely irrelevant except as a plot device. It is the exhaust port on the Death Star.

The narrative of ME3 is not about finding the Crucible, it is about building the greatest alliance ever seen in the galaxy (which the Crucible, as a plot device, allows to happen).

Why the Catalyst AI and his Monty Hall spiel of the Adjust Hue/Saturation is a deus ex machina is that it is the resolution to the narrative. The fact that he is also literally a "god from the machine" is irrelevant, albeit ironic. He is a deus ex machina in the literary sense, i.e. a handwaved contrivance that shows up out of the blue to quickly whisk away all the dangling story threads, and to abruptly end the story.

This is abysmal writing. This is abysmal game design; a Pick Your Own Adventure book where all choices take you to the same final chapter. It is counter to everything this game is. And what is this game?

In a recent Extra Credits, Portnow discussed core elements of a game. The Mass Effect series is really not a third person shooter. It is also really not a roll-the-dice-and-level-up CRPG. Mass Effect is, at its core, interactive fiction. All the memorable moments in these games take place in cutscenes that play out in myriad ways based on prior choices. You are role-playing in the most literal sense of crafting a character's personality based on your choices. The climax of Mass Effect 2 was not shooting the Human Reaper in the eye, the climax of Mass Effect 2 were the cutscenes that played and showed the results of your actions. Did you defy TIM? Did your crewmates survive? If your choices were poor enough, you could defeat the final boss, only to make a desperate leap towards the Normandy with no one to catch you.

The desperate leap in Mass Effect 3 is your dash towards the Beam. The only input that matters at all past this point is the encounter with TIM. That encounter is true to Mass Effect, and honors your previous choices, and provides closure for the secondary antagonist.

But for the main antagonist (Reapers), nothing you did matters. You are given three arbitrary choices to solve a problem that, depending on your actions, may be proven to be a false dilemma in the first place. If you saved both the Quarians and the Geth, witnessed Legion's messianic sacrifice, and humanized EDI - the Catalyst's claim of organic/synthetic conflict being unavoidable is patently false.

The Catalyst AI is completely incongruous with the narrative and the themes of the game. It shows up, provides a complete strawman of a conflict, and then offers three vapid, plot-hole ridden resolutions to this conflict, which abruptly end the narrative in a blinding flash of Space Magic (pick your color!).

No one is complaining about the preceding 30 hours of gameplay. Choices did seem to matter. Your treatment of the Rachni queen from two games ago ended up gaining you a seemingly valuable ally. Saving Wrex can gain a hopeful future for the Krogan. Your choices regarding Legion and the Migrant Fleet in ME2 have incredibly strong consequences in the seeming conclusion of the Geth/Quarian storyline. This is why we loved the game up to the ending.

And the ending completely demolished all of it, and made it completely illusory. Who gives a shit if you saved the Rachni? They just end up giving you Space Points and don't affect your ending at all. Who gives a shit if the Quarians or Geth or both survived? They're all dead anyway. Who cares if you cured the genophage and saved the one leader who could lead the Krogan into a less brutish, more hopeful future? He's either trapped on earth or dead, and the radioactive husk that is Tuchanka cannot sustain their race without supplies anyway.

And even more egregiously, the choices you made in the development of YOUR Shepard don't matter. She acts EXACTLY the same when facing the ultimate antagonist regardless of whether she's a Space Racist Renegade or Never Surrender Paragon or whatever your Shepard actually is, and what (insert pronoun) stands for.

You accept Space Hitler's premise without argument, and dejectedly pick one of the three Slightly Less Turning Everyone Into Paste final solutions he has to offer.

How does it matter in the slightest that I've done the frickin' impossible and united the Geth and the Quarians into a hopeful future, shown that we need not fear synthetic life, seen a nascent artificial sentience freely decide to set "Love and compassion" as their main motivation, and fought for the reactionary, bleak idea of "AI will always rebel" to be proven wrong? Space Hitler shows up, says "AI will always rebel, here are drastic fixes to this undeniable problem". And I go "yessuh"?

The ending of the story is not actually sad, it's just anticlimactic, contrived, incongruous, and ridden with plot holes.

The part that's sad and what's tearing me apart is that this is not a case of people writing themselves into a corner. This is not a case of glorified hacks like Ronald D. Moore or Cuse/Lindelof making shit up as they go along, to find themselves at the end with no way to tie all the crap together in a cathartic way.

This is a beautifully written game, for the majority of the experience. Bioware has bona fide talent within their ranks. And the story, up to the very end, is redeemable in dozens of ways. Even the contrived, out-of-the-blue Star Child could be made into an interesting character by presenting it as a shackled AI who was given a specific, limited goal born of fear (stop AI from wiping out organic life forever), and it arrived at the grotesque solution of Reapers not because AI is evil, but the constraints never allow it to look past the false dilemma it's attempting to solve.

Most importantly, this is not a TV show or a movie. This narrative is, by design, told in a unique medium which is NOT doomed to give us a singular ending. Our Shepards can be varied, yes, but there is a finite amount of paradigms that lead you to the end, and they could all have a cathartic, poignant, and persistent ending. Let the Renegades ascend to rule the galaxy. Let the Paragons defeat primitive fear and xenophobia.

I do not care if the Relays have to go down, but don't do it in such a thoughtless way as to destroy everything meaningful I accomplished. I do not care if my Shepard dies. In fact, I expected her to go down in a blaze of glory, in the greatest battle that shall ever be fought, for the most meaningful (to her) victory a soldier could ever earn. She did not get this. I did not get this.

TENS OF THOUSANDS of people didn't get this. We are not asking for a Disney ending. We are not asking for a dance party with Ewoks. We are just asking for our Big Damn Heroes to go out on their own terms, win or lose.

Credit for this post goes to: user 'unigolyn' over @ Penny Arcade

... In the end, what we got was a 1 minute long quasi-philosophical expo video where everyone starts anew, as if this was the ending of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy... you don't know what happens to anyone or anything, your friends or enemies, krogan, human, quarians or salarians (whom you dont hear from for half of the game)... it just gives you 0 closure whatsoever, and raises more questions than it answers.

[b]Not to mention that from purely gaming standpoint, there was no final boss fight. The defending the rockets part felt forced and uninspired, and all you had to do is dodge the damn laser for 5 minutes. And we are led to believe that 2 rocket launchers are our only hope, when just 10 minutes ago I took out an entire Reaper single-handedly with a single shot from M-920 Cain? Why don't everyone have those guns? There were at least 2 lying next to the broken shuttle...
/rant   read

11:34 PM on 02.12.2011

Yet another "State of PC Gaming" blog. Part 1 - The Beginning.

Welcome, dear readers, to a newbie blog. This will be my first blog ever. Which probably means it will not be the greatest piece of work ever to grace the fine virtual pages of Destructoid. I hold no such delusions. I am also no master of ballsy controversy a la Mr. Sterling. Nor do I aspire to be.

No, what you are about to (hopefully) read is just a regular guy's musings on a topic that has been covered before, by all kinds of professional media reporters, probably a billion blogs and countless number of angry forum posts.

Said topic is the State of PC Gaming.

Part 1. The Beginning.

Groans and moaning aside, I am going to give you my point of view on where the PC Gaming stands now and where I think it is headed. There is without a doubt a healthy dose of bias in here, by default, but this is why this is a blog and not an encyclopedia entry. As I started writing this entry, I realized it will take me longer than a single blog entry to fit it all in, so I will split it up into a number of parts.

Let us begin, then.

I was growing up in one of those post-Soviet countries that you only hear about on TV when there is something bad going on. Other than that, it is barely heard of. It is squarely 2nd world and will probably stay that way. The 80 years or so of Soviet isolation meant that until late 1980's, when the Iron Curtain was raised a bit, we had no idea about things such as Nintendo or say, Sega, or Mario. There wasn't a computer in my household until about 1995. Ah, 386. You were a beast. You got me into gaming. PC gaming, specifically. Consoles had to be imported, and only the rich kids could afford them. Games had to be imported as well. PC gaming was affordable. PC gaming was something I could get my hands on. And it stayed that way for a long time. Everyone in my family was to a certain degree a PC gamer. My dad was a pro at Minesweeper when it came with Windows 95. My grandfather was firmly stuck in the DOS era with a simple game called Lines (where my dad constantly set the high score), where you had to arranged colored balls into lines. He would touch nothing else. My mom was the most advanced PC gamer. She had beaten original Doom without any cheat codes. She also played the original Alone in the Dark as both the female and male characters. I remember me and my sister watching my mom set the Tree of Evil in the end on fire [spoilers?]. I remember the end cutscene made me run out of the room.

The game that my dad and grandfather sunk countless hours into...

But then, life got tougher, games got more advanced and my mom could not do both anymore so she stopped playing. It was my sister's and mine turns to game. I started off with Dune II and Test Drive (the purple-and-cyan game that made me a driving addict I am now); while she played Dangerous Dave and Titus the Fox, and Aladdin and so forth. Our 386 lasted us for almost 8 years because we couldn't afford a better computer. Its awesome Turbo button had failed long ago and the LCD display with the CPU frequency was stuck at 99.

Around 1998-1999, the Internet began to creep its way even into our own little country so the new phenomenon caused the appearance of numerous internet cafes around the city. Soon there were hundreds of them everywhere. On just about every city block. It made perfect sense. People couldn't afford internet at home or a proper good computer, but they could most certainly afford a very low hourly rate.

Their kids could afford it too.

2Mb LAN, Ultima and Internet... the keywords of my generation at the time... and staples of the computer club culture in the city.

And so the main visitors of the internet cafes (or computer clubs, as they were more appropriately called) were teenagers, anywhere from 8 to 13. They would LIVE in the computer clubs, playing Doom 2, and Ultima, and then Half Life, and Half Life's deathmatch mode. (dm_crossfire = best map ever made). Half Life's deathmatch, however, could not compete with overwhelming popularity of Quake 3 Arena. It was THE staple of all multiplayer matches in all the clubs. Clans were formed. Clans represented their home clubs, and intra-club and city-wide tournaments were held. Quake III (or "kvaka") how it was called, was everyone's buzzword. Yours truly was not spared the addiction.

Then, one day, the beta of Counter Strike appeared in first 2 major clubs in the city. Soon, in every club, at least half of the computers were running CS, and not Quake. Soon after that, Quake III was something you played in breaks between CS. Half Life's deathmatch was something you played if you were not good at CS and Quake.

Time moved on. My golden years before puberty were spent in crowded, dark and hot computer clubs, where testosterone and tension were palpable. My computer at home was finally upgraded to a Celeron 433 with an actual CD-ROM, an ATI Rage card and most importantly, we got a 56k modem. I was now connected to a world wide web, albeit it took forever to do anything and we had to balance internet with usage of phone. I remember downloading 30-second-long porn clip (naturally), using some of the earliest download managers and hiding it 3 folder deep. The entire operation took a month. It was my prized possession. It was also at this time that I became obsessed with computer hardware and software, and was officially ahead of my entire family in terms of computer operation and usage. My family considered computers to be a new and strange thing. Dad used them for office work. Grandfather still played the Lines game and used to sigh about the good old days, and how Americans got "us" (The Soviets) beaten at the computer race. He took it hard upon himself, because he was an old school university professor and Dean of the Faculty of Radio-communications. He was at the forefront of Soviet information race, his desk was always filled with various tubes, transistors and vacuum lamps. But the moment the 386 computer crossed our doorstep, he realized that the battle was lost and the West was way too far ahead of the game. I can't even imagine what that meant to him, having his entire life's work being rendered hopelessly obsolete.

With CD-ROM era finally here, I was able to catch up with some of the single player PC games that I could not have played before. Needless to say, all of the PC games available to us were pirated versions. All of the bookstores, computer stores and even bookstands were selling pirated PC games, often with simple jewel case, photoshopped inserts, poorly cracked and poorly translated versions. Their sole redeeming value was the price. And there was an unwritten code of honor amongst software vendors that if your game did not work for you, you could exchange it for something else. You could also trade your PC games back in, because they would simply be put back on the display.

It was in places like this, open-air stands filled to the brim with pirated game copies, that everyone got their games from. The vendors were also the go-to source for gaming news and technical support, cheats etc. Whereas before these book-stands were a front for illegal currency exchanges, in the years 1999 and on, it meant that the currency dealers were now also dealing in games, music and other software. Times have changed...

This was how I got my first proper modern PC game, which was Shogun Total War. That game blew me away with its graphics, the music, everything. I remember having to explain to my parents why the game has to be "installed". From their previous experiences with 5.25 and 3.5 diskettes, you insert it into the slot and then it works. The new age was finally upon. Because of the accessibilty of the pirated PC games, I was able to buy a ton of PC games. This is one of the main reasons of the PC gaming's success - accessibility and availability. We couldn't afford gaming consoles, but we had a PC for dad's business, and the fact that it could also run games solidified it as "people's gaming platform".

On a sidenote, my richer friends all had SEGA and Nintendo consoles that I could never afford so on occasion, I had a chance to play them. But their rudimentary graphics and "weird" controllers never appealed much to me. Except for when the Playstation 1 came around. Few of us could afford it once again, but certain computer clubs dedicated 1 or 2 TV's, with Playstation's attached to them, and once again, for an hourly rate, you could play Playstation. Now this was my first real exposure to console gaming. The graphics were not bad. The controller felt good. The games were awesome. Tekken 3, Twisted Metal 2 and 3, Vigilante 8.. all of those games were great, but I could only play them 1 - 2 hours a day at some dark basement. It was never MY console, and never MY TV, and I could never actually save my game. So while the games and the console was deeply loved by me, it was never my first option when it came to gaming simply because it was never affordable enough to be in my home.

That is, until my family had escaped the old country in 2002 and I ended up in the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada. What happened then, is a tale for another time...

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for Part 2.

PS. If you're wondering which city I keep talking about, it is Odessa, Ukraine.   read

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