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Dennis C Scimeca's blog

11:48 AM on 09.13.2010

I'll save the a minute...

Going through a role playing game has some distinct and obvious phases I've identified over 30+ years of playing them. In the noob stage, we’re just learning the combat mechanics and taking our first tenuous steps into the world. In the median stage we’re ensconced in the game world, leveling our characters up, and getting into some of the intricacies of the title like crafting or combining abilities of our party members. In the God mode stage we’ve hit the upper levels, are decked out with hardcore gear, spells, or weapons, and pretty much cut through everything like a hot knife through butter. Last, there’s the end game, when we feel that the adventure is about to come to an end, and all of our exploits and efforts come to fruition in the close of the narrative.

There’s always another stage just prior to the end game for me personally, and I wonder how many other people have the same experience. I call the “the housekeeping stage.” This is when I know the narrative is about to end either by gamer's intuition or very clear signposts, and my response is always to make sure that I’ve finished all the loose ends of my dangling quests.

As someone who is extremely invested in the narrative aspect of video games, I wonder why the hell I do this because it breaks the immersion completely. Here I am, the Grey Warden of Ferelden, about to call the Landsmeet which will determine who becomes King or Queen and unites the human Lords to face the Blight…and I’m running around the map dropping loot off at dead drops to fulfill one of the Rogue quests. Or tracking down Mage apprentices to hand them their walking papers.

I like to imagine the other interested parties in the plot for a particular game, whether it be the citizens of Ferelden in Dragon Age or your other party members in Mass Effect 2 or the Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout 3, waiting around and wondering where the hell you’ve gone as it’s time for the final battle and lives are at stake. Sorry, I’m busy delivering these letters for someone. It’s like if Luke Skywalker, just before he hops into his X-Wing to go blow up the Death Star, instead ponces off to Tatooine because he wants to nosh on some of their local cuisine before the big, final confrontation with the Empire.

At the same time I’d feel robbed if I wasn’t given an opportunity to finish all the quests in my log, perhaps there’s an argument for any game that depends so heavily on its narrative, like an RPG, to structure its quests or missions in such a fashion that certain dramatic arcs can’t be interrupted, or that side quests naturally blend into the main arc without requiring too much diversion from the main path. In some cases, the side quests feel silly like this by default, without even venturing into the housekeeping stage. Think about Mass Effect 2 – Shepard is on a mission to put together a kick ass team to take down the Collectors, who are destroying more human colonies by the day, and he or she is wasting their time tracking down party members’ wayward children or parents, or delivering packages for a Salarian information broker?

It’s an interesting question that might boil down to what the chief responsibility of a video game is, and when we allow them to cross those lines. Video games have to be fun, interactive experiences first, but if they utilize a narrative there’s a neccessary flow to the filmic way in which video games are generally going to present them. A developer recently told me that he thinks video game designers have a more difficult job than any other creative in having to integrate narrative and gameplay elements to make the story feel organic. I think the existence of the housekeeping stage is an illustration of how difficult a task this really is.   read

10:49 AM on 08.30.2010

Setting money on fire

Not too long ago I wrote about the lavish launch budget that Activision is affording Call of Duty: Black Ops, and how this felt like a ridiculous waste of money to me. Last week I began to read stories about the Halo: Reach marketing budget surpassing that of Halo 3, which was anywhere from $6.5 to $10 million depending on whose numbers you quote. It’s a huge amount of money, no matter the precise figure; and while I feel that much has been written about how preposterous these advertising budgets are, what I haven’t seen are enough people drawing the potential connections between publishers setting all of this money on fire advertising AAA titles, and the used games market.

What’s ironic is that the biggest ad budgets seem to be generated on behalf of the games which require them the least. My sister is traveling the world right now, and we keep in touch via Facebook. Somehow the children in a village she visited in Laos with no televisions, telephones, or other technological connections to the outside world, knew about the upcoming release of Halo: Reach. Does anyone NOT know that Halo: Reach is being released in September? Between the live action videos and the open Beta and the viddocs from Bungie, the market is saturated with awareness of this title…and how much of the advertising did we need in the first place? I would love to see research about intent to purchase figures for Halo: Reach before and after major advertising campaigns to see if the numbers moved in any meaningful fashion related to the amount of money being spent on the ads. In the case of a game like Halo: Reach, I am highly dubious. I find it more likely that 95% of the people who will be onboard for the game were onboard the day its existence was officially announced to the world.

I wonder sometimes whether the current nature of video game advertising isn’t some kind of learned reflex on behalf of the publishers, a vestigial organ born from the days of video games not having any mainstream popularity and playing to a limited audience of gamers; and then when we see Microsoft and Activision shelling out these huge budgets for games that people on Mars know are coming out like Reach and Black Ops, it feels like an arms race of stupidity. And it bears repeating that the modern video game industry has its own, practically-captive press who is just begging to do free promotion for them! When Microsoft puts their live action Halo commercials on television, they have to pay for that ad space, and chances are they get even fewer “looks” (that’s modern day advertising currency according to a friend of mine who works in marketing over at MTV) than the copies of their videos, which are playing for free, on the gaming websites.

Not only do I question that actual return on investment for AAA title promotion, but the schedule on which these ad campaigns run. THQ recently got in hot water with the audience for their “we don’t care if the used games purchasers are upset” comment. At E3, THQ put on a massive marketing blitz for their upcoming first person shooter Homefront. They bought out the bloody parking lot across the street from the Los Angeles Convention Center. At the hotel I was staying at, I saw cars running North Korean flags on their radio antennae. There were huge banners lining the ceiling in between the halls of the expo. I wonder how much all of that cost, and for a game which isn’t coming out for a very long time by the way we gamers tend to measure it. I’m at the point now where if a game isn’t coming out in three months, I don’t want to hear about it. Sorry, other games to play. Come bother me when I might actually have to start thinking about putting the money aside to buy your new title.

When games are good, they practically sell themselves. I don’t remember any sort of marketing blitz for BioShock, and I’ve read estimates of $75 million per how much money it made. With a budget of $15 million that’s a hell of a profit for Take Two Interactive. The game got popular because it was smart, polished, and worth the money to pick it up. Word of mouth and good reviews are what sell games, and I don’t see why publishers need to focus so much on the opening-week profits which have to be all that huge pre-release marketing campaigns are good for. In the film industry, distributors split profits with theater owners on a sliding scale. It goes 90/10 in favor of the studios for the first two weeks, and then 70/30, 50/50, etc. every two weeks following. For film distributors, therefore, marketing blitzes make sense because you want as many asses in seats during those first two weeks. The video game industry, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t work that way. They can keep selling a “new” game, if it’s good, many months after the release, and the profit structure doesn’t change.

I think we all agree that the used games market ultimately comes down to the price of titles. This is a tremendous amount of money being spent unnecessarily advertising games which are going to sell no matter what, due to the strength of the franchise or consumer faith in the development studios. These marketing budgets then effect the prices of all the titles a publisher distributes, which undoubtedly plays no small part in why we don't have the tiered-pricing schemes which would probably increase total unit sales in no small a fashion. If the publishers had more faith in the quality of their product, they could axe these marketing money sinks and dial down software prices – and that would be the biggest blow to the used games market they could collectively deal. I suppose that makes too much sense.   read

9:08 AM on 08.16.2010

Teh Bias: Realistic Military First Person Shooters

As a World War II history enthusiast and someone who is fascinated with the military, I prefer my first person shooters to be set in historical conflicts or some semblance of the modern world. I don’t ask for them to be “realistic,” however, because not only is it a fool’s errand, but also supremely disrespectful to the men and women who actually live through these conflicts.

Military FPS games are a ridiculous abstraction. Take, for example, light and heavy machine guns. Their job is to suppress the enemy and allow friendly troops to maneuver safely and flank the enemy. They are not meant for close quarter battle, and when someone is hit by a single round from a Squad Automatic Weapon or an M60 they are going down, and likely not getting back up until they receive medical attention. Yet in Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 we are regularly running around with SAWs and M60’s as we storm into buildings and potentially shooting someone with a submachine two or three times before said submachine gunner kills us. That this is even possible is a testament to how preposterous it is to suggest that these games bear any resemblance to reality.

Everything I know of war and military tactics comes from having been a history major for a while in college, and now just an enthusiast of military history. Most of my regular FPS squadmates fall into the same category, with a few actual veterans among us, but even so when we’re playing a military FPS title in a tight, disciplined fashion, we have no illusions that we’re doing anything akin to what the real thing might be like. “Realism” as meant by developers and designers of military FPS titles usually refers to authenticity and immersion, getting the aesthetics, environment, composition of your kit, and language correct, but not the actual gameplay.

Only mil-sims like ArmA II go to great lengths to try and replicate anything resembling the actual, tactical conditions of modern combat, and will therefore be very inaccessible games to most of the Modern Warfare 2 savants out there. Modern infantry combat is usually engaged in at ranges of 250 meters. That’s something that Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising got right, and it was resultantly not an action-packed game, but rather a cold and clinical exercise of suppression, flanking, and engagement. A realistic military FPS game might actually be quite devoid of action the way we think of it as gamers, and so when people bemoan the lack of “realism” in military first person shooters it takes a lot of discipline to show respect for their opinion, because they must have no idea what they’re actually asking for.

Military FPS games are 1980’s action movies, not vehicles for moving stories about the human condition as expressed through the brutality of warfare. They are not appropriate venues for political discussions of imperialism or the justifications for use of force. They are escapist fantasy because they have to be. Any video game which purported to truly demonstrate a “realistic” picture of war would be a commercial failure, and critically slaughtered. If there’s a deeper meaning behind the existence of this genre at all, it probably has to do with the human fascination with violence, and an explanation for military FPS games specifically is likely tied to the glorification of warriors in almost every culture we could investigate. At a guess, no one writes about these topics in video game magazines or websites because the discussion would be academic, and furthermore quite perhaps there's actually no legitimate conversation to be had here at all.

This being the case, I seethe whenever I see someone reading into these games, as a genre, past the obvious subtext noted above. Leigh Alexander’s “Who Cheers for War?” was some of the most ridiculous nonsense I’ve ever read. Her criticism was predicated on the assumption that the games she was lambasting actually had anything to do with war. She may as well have written a feature called “Who Cheers for Playing Guns?” about witnessing a gaggle of seven year olds cheering when their teacher tells them they’re to be allowed to go outside during recess and play “guns.” That’s all a military first person shooter really is, except we use control pads instead of sticks, and televisions and computer monitors rather than our imaginations.

I share the concern in some corners of the gaming community that video games are seen as childlike, but I attribute this problem not to the content of the games themselves, but rather the fashion in which Western culture in particular seems to view the concept of “play.” Play is a necessary and healthy aspect of the human psyche, but many people dismiss play as the realm solely of children. This issue is much deeper than peoples’ perceptions of video games, but rather an issue of whether or not adults are willing to accept that it is okay to play sometimes, and that all forms of play are intrinsically valuable inasmuch as they fulfill that purpose. Therefore, no one’s making a general statement about video games as a whole if they admit that military first person shooters are just games…and doesn’t the recent issue over the release of Six Days in Fallujah indicate that this is all the audience really wants them to be? And is that a problem?

I do respect the idea of these games making someone uncomfortable, for the record, but those are usually reactions born of an emotional response such as closeness to the subject matter. I don’t think that a World War II vet is reading into anything or attributing greater depth than appropriate if he is offended by Call of Duty: World at War. I don’t think it’s inappropriate for someone who has been touched by the war in Afghanistan to feel uncomfortable wearing a Taliban skin on his multiplayer avatar in the new Medal of Honor. These reactions are not admissions that the military FPS games in question are honestly representing the reality of the uncomfortable experiences these games might remind some people of, however. When you’ve been through something properly traumatic, I imagine that even the palest shades of that reality are enough to call up ghosts.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a game is just a game. If military first person shooters were designed to be realistic, not only would they be boring as video games, but they would also become brutal, traumatic experiences that had to ramp up the gore and the horror in order to attempt approximating what combat might actually feel like, and even the most outrageous attempts to create these emotional responses in the gamer would still be nowhere near the actual impact of combat, because it is psychological as much as anything else. Soldiers live with the knowledge that death is always hanging over their shoulder, waiting either for themselves or the enemies they are about to kill. This is nothing we can replicate with a video game, and we illustrate our utter ignorance of the reality of these soldiers’ lives, and sacrifices, by even considering it might be possible.   read

10:56 AM on 08.10.2010

Nazis Good, Taliban Bad?

Electronic Arts and DICE are catching flak in some corners for calling the upcoming Medal of Honor “just a game” in reference to concerns about gamers “playing as the Taliban” in the multiplayer modes.

Hold on just a second. Gamers have been playing as Nazis in multiplayer gaming since the first Medal of Honor games in 2002. With all due respect to everyone who lost friends and family in the Twin Towers attack, or who have lost soldiers in Afghanistan, compared to the Nazi Regime, the Taliban are lightweights.

You remember the Nazis, right? Murdered at least 11 million people in concentration camps, with some estimates as high as 17 million? Some of the German skins were Wermacht, the regular German army whose officers were only sometimes actual Nazis, but some of the skins in World War II first person shooter titles are straight-up SS, the guys who herded the men and women into those cattle cars to be shipped off to Auschwitz. I don’t remember anyone making this big a stink about wearing Nazi skins in World War II first person shooter titles, and considering Call of Duty: World at War came out in 2008, it’s not a stale issue.

The counter-argument I expect to hear is “Well, World War II happened a long time ago, so it’s not as relevant, but Afghanistan is happening right now!” To which I would say: Fuck you. Tell my grandmother’s best friend, who still has the tattoo on her arm from the time she spent in the concentration camps, that World War II “isn’t as relevant.” Or the American European theater veteran who one of my best friends shot a documentary of a few months ago, and who told stories of the horrors of war that were just as vivid to him today as when he experienced them in 1944. Or, you know, the millions of Jews around the world who lost family and for whom World War II will never cease to be relevant.

All wars are painful, with tremendous human costs and immeasurable amounts of tragedy, but clearly this isn’t a reason not to make first person shooter titles with multiplayer modes in which players don the skins of “the enemy” in order to allow for two opposing teams. EA and DICE are making a reasonable statement here: the multiplayer aspect specifically of Medal of Honor is just a game. It would be one thing if gamers took the role of Taliban fighters in the single player mode and had missions wherein they laid IED’s on the road to ambush American supply columns, or intentionally took cover among civilians and used them as meat shields against incoming American forces, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

We’re talking about the multiplayer. There are no civilians. There is no story. You’re dead for about three seconds and then back into the action. There is no theme, no realism, no depth – it’s about frags and K/D ratios and Capture The Flag. So who gives a shit if we’re wearing Taliban skins this time instead of Nazi skins?

Steven Spielberg is credited with creating the Medal of Honor franchise specifically as a vehicle to bring the actual Medal of Honor into greater public awareness in celebration of the valor it stands for. You know, Steve was really into the World War II movies for a while…hence why the Medal of Honor games stuck with that war for too long, which surely had a lot to do with why the franchise died.

Now that it’s back for a revamp, where is EA going to set the new game? I just read news today about a game based on the Iraq War that EA was making and canned, and of course Six Days in Fallujah ran into the same roadblock, so Iraq is out. Let’s see, where else are American soldiers fighting right now?

Afghanistan may be a more palatable war for a video game setting because, by and large, it’s a war with much higher levels of public approval in America. There’s no question as to the Taliban’s involvement in 9/11, and any nation that not only harbors but actively supports, arms, and trains Al Qaeda was a legitimate military target for the United States after the attack. It’s perfectly in keeping with the ethos behind the Medal of Honor franchise to set the game in this active theater.

Therefore, the multiplayer game is going to involve the Taliban. That doesn’t mean that gamers are playing AS the Taliban. They’re not going to be earning experience points by killing civilians, suppressing the freedom of women, or blowing up statues built by religions other than Islam. They are, literally, a necessary gameplay mechanic, just another set of skins to enable the players to swap sides at the end of a round.

That said, it’s a mechanic which may make the game unpalatable to some people, and that’s a decision I can respect because it’s personal. It’s emotional, and therefore deserves all due consideration; but some of these pundits speaking out about the use of Taliban skins denote no personal skin in this game, pun intended. They’re just mouthing off because it seems potentially popular to do so, and they’re not making a lick of sense. EA and DICE are being criticized for saying “it’s just a game” specifically because Medal of Honor is placed in a contemporary settting, as though there’s some expectation upon them to therefore go into “the deeper issues” of this war.

Are these critics looking forward to a first person shooter where they have to navigate their way through the halls of the United States Congress, pressing A or X to dodge lobbyists, and then once they get into the House of Representatives play a minigame to properly register their vote on an Appropriations bill to fund the troops? Most, not all, of the “deeper issues” around the War on Terror have to do with politics like the prioritization of foreign policy concerns over domestic issues, the monetary cost of the war, and how we're going to get out.

Or perhaps these critics would like to focus on "deeper issues" that surround any war, namely the human tragedy? I was going to make some snide gameplay suggestions about how to depict this horror but I can't. The point is that this isn't an issue suited to a first person shooter either for raw concerns of whether it would be fun or not. No, video games don't always have to be fun if we're speaking hypothetically...but first person shooters do.

Medal of Honor is meant to be celebration of the valor of American soldiers. That’s the greater depth, if there is any to be found. Otherwise, it is just a game, and no one would actually want it to be anything other than that if presented with the reality of what this "deeper game" would look like. If people are getting up in arms about wearing a Taliban skin, can you even imagine the uproar if the real issues were actually touched upon or dealt with? Right – the game wouldn’t even be released. Then these “critics” wouldn’t have anything to complain about. It’s a lose/lose proposition for them, I guess.   read

2:26 PM on 08.05.2010

What the hell does "AAA title" mean?

I'm a writer. I like words. I also like words to mean something, and preferably the same thing every time they are used, or at the very least within the same context. And I can't quite figure out what the hell "triple-A title" means.

I first started thinking about this question a week after I played Blacklight: Tango Down. Zombie Studios promised us "a AAA quality game," with all the trappings and features of a full retail experience. Instead, we were delivered a title with rough graphics, menus that didn't look like they were finished before the release, and I don't know of many full retail FPS titles that just don't bother with a story at all. What I'm curious about is what the developers thought a "triple-a" title is, such that they felt inclined to slap the label on their upcoming game.

Another Dtoid blogger provided the beginnings of an answer to my question, by quoting a Stardock article. "AAA game means games that have almost unlimited budgets and are media events." This isn't what Zombie Studios meant, however. They were referring to the quality they intended to provide...and would anyone call a game with a $100 million budget that was released a month before Christmas after a 12-month PR blitz a "triple-A title" if it turned out to abjectly suck? Wouldn't we probably call it a "triple-A wanna-be?" I also wouldn't call Blacklight a "media event" by any stretch of the imagination.

It's not a phrase with a concrete definition, rather something that "we all know what it means." We "know" that triple-A titles come out around the holidays, and that comparisons with Hollywood blockbusters are common and apparently appropriate. I went into my RSS reader and searched for "AAA title." I got results dating back as far as October, 2005, but the only definitions to be had are contextual.

Halo 3 has the label slapped on it. Sometimes I would read about "huge AAA titles," which implies that there are small AAA titles? Medium strength AAA titles? This discussion suggests that the phrase is directly related to scores on GameSpot.

Singularity is apparently not a AAA title according to Jim Sterling, even though it looks pretty similar to other titles which are AAA (and which very often are first person shooters). Sid Meier's Civilization V is a AAA title according to Firaxis. Crackdown 2 is a AAA title according to IGN. AAA titles can move hardware on their own. Just today I read a story wherein Peter Molyneux stated his belief that a triple-A iPhone game was inevitable. But...if triple-A games require $100 million budgets...

I thought I was close to a solution when I considered that the definition of "triple-A title" might be "a game of high-enough quality such that it must be played in order to understand its influence on the medium." We may disagree that Blacklight: Tango Down offers a triple-A experience, but a group of reasonable gamers could certainly come to an agreement as to what a bevy of triple-A titles actually were by the context in which we use the term, even if we resort to Metacritic as a guide.

God of War III, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Red Dead Redemption, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 are all fairly defined as AAA titles, I think. They are games which must be played by anyone who wants to understand where video games are today, or to comprehend the game culture references which will certainly spring from these highly-regarded gaming experiences, or the inevitable comparisons to these games which future titles in similar genres will be subject to.

They are also games which anyone who loves video games should be able to dredge some level of enjoyment from. Even if you don't like action platformers, there's something to be said for the gorgeous visuals and smooth mechanics of God of War III. Even if you wish Mario would fall down the drain, it's difficult not to appreciate the level of imagination and design that went into the environments in Super Mario Galaxy 2. Red Dead Redemption has a borrowed mission system and bugs that will make you shake your head in disdain, but the writing and characterization are superb. First person shooters may not be your boat, but the multiplayer in Bad Company 2 is balanced and varied enough that someone with a group of mates to squad up with can enjoy the hilarious insanity of the entire world exploding around them due to the wonders of Destruction 2.0.

But I have to add a caveat to my proposed definition, because sometimes there are games which must be played to understand their influence on the medium and the culture simply because they are so fascinatingly bad. I love the fact that I played E.T. on the Atari 2600. I still crack up when I see screenshots. I didn't think Pac-Man for the same system was that horrible...I was also around six years old...but I'm glad I've played it so that I know what writers are talking about when they cite the game. I rue the day that I passed up buying a cheap copy of Superman 64 so that I could have experienced the train wreck for myself. If I had more time, I would go back and play ALL of these bad games because there's something to be said for learning from mistakes and developing critical language accordingly through those experiences.

I think my definition of "a game which must be played" is pretty close to the truth, but what concerns me is that my most cynical response to the question might be the real answer: that "triple-A title" is just something a PR hack concocted, and therefore intentionally has no discrete meaning whatsoever, and never will.   read

2:50 PM on 06.24.2010

Lessons learned from my first E3

Nailing down impressions of the Expo is challenging because the event has so much to throw at you, but E3 feels a little ridiculous now that I've gone through it personally. Take, for example, "Best of Show" awards. To the uninitiated, this might suggest that the items being judged are video games, right?

Head over to Kotaku's list of nominees and you'll see Homefront listed in the "Best New Game" category. Homefront is not a game yet. It was a concept accompanied by an extremely slick ad campaign - which I thoroughly enjoyed - but can I make any appraisals as to whether it might actually be a good video game or not?

"Showing" a game at E3 doesn't actually mean letting you play it, or even having a full game to display. It can range anywhere between a trailer with no questions and interaction from journalists or extended gameplay and lots of questions. "Best of" E3 awards have nothing necessarily to do with video games at all - they're about who best tapped into the hype machine that is the Expo.

It's really the verbiage I'm concerned with when we talk about "Best of Show" awards. I like words to mean what they mean...rather than throw a label on these awards to make them sound legitimate, can't we just call them "Coolest shit I saw at E3" awards? Homefront wasn't "the best game" I saw at E3, it was "the game I got most excited about seeing when I actually get to see it."

When the team from my site had our Ubisoft appointment, one of the games we got to "see" was Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. We asked about the abilities we saw in the demo like calling for satellite scans and marking targets for different human players so as to coordinate takedowns and VIP captures. Were these abilities that people would have in the game, or just parts of the demo presentation? No comment. That was the answer we got to any specifics we asked for: "No comment." Then I saw the GameSpot E3 nomination sticker in the bottom right-hand corner of the computer monitor.

How the hell do you nominate a game for "Best of Show" when it wasn't actually a game? Sure the graphics looked cool, but isn't that pretty much a minimum expectation nowadays? The display on the outside of the Ghost Recon booth with the fake combat armor, helmet, and weapons was pretty cool, maybe that's what should have received the "best of" nomination.

An acquaintance of mine works at a rather well-known and successful game development studio, and told me that the big gaming sites, "the 'Spots" as he called them, get invited to view the games that studios are showing at E3 three weeks before the Expo. GameSpot was already making its determination as to "best of show" awards long before they set foot on the show floor or had any appointments in the private rooms. According to my acquaintance, anyway, who has no reason to lie to me.

This seems rather problematic if the journalists attending the Expo are all supposed to be reporting. Some of them actually are, but for others it's like someone called them three weeks before they planned to set a building on fire so that said journalists could get there early and get the scoop and produce the best coverage, and then they get credit for being "good journalists?"

My next eyebrow-raising moment came on Thursday, when I popped into the Lucasarts booth to get a picture of Daniel Erickson from Bioware to accompany an interview I'd conducted with him the previous day.

I'd come into possession of some information about The Old Republic during that interview that I had not read about in the gaming press prior to that point, nor in any of the multitudinous interviews with Daniel conducted at E3 that I've seen since I got back. I'm intentionally being vague because I'm shopping the story around right now, but as an MMO player of long standing, what he told me was a pretty mind blowing revelation. As I was taking Daniel's picture I asked him how I hadn't read about this before. His answer: "Because no one asks any questions."

What do you mean, no one asks any questions? It clearly isn't true in the literal sense, as I've read plenty of interviews with Daniel that follow the Q&A format. He said that people tend to ask the same questions over and over again, so perhaps he meant that no one asks the right questions to get new information out of him?

The same acquaintance of mine tells me that whenever he's been in press interviews, the gaming press walks in, hears the PR-written spiel that the game producers and designers have to spout, and then that's enough for the gaming press. They don't ask probing questions, which is what a good journalist does.

My wife knows a lot about journalism and recently said to me "Journalism is kind of sleazy. It's all about getting someone to say something they don't want to say." That's a judgmental assessment, but consider this: Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone journalist who got General Mcchrystal to make his comments about President Obama, his career is made if it wasn't already. He got the head of the United States military in Afghanistan fired. My wife says it often works like that, just breaking one good story makes your career for you. I wonder if that's how it works in games journalism, as well.

I'm not down with dismissing all games journalists as being lazy. I can't honestly say that I remember the last time I've seen any investigative journalism in the gaming press, but I don't know why a games journalist wouldn't ask more questions during an interview. Maybe once they get staff jobs somewhere they stop hustling for angles, because they don't need to? Gamers who follow the press get very attached to certain sites, and then they likely get all their news from that site - so all those sites need to do is provide the same news that everyone else does such that their audience doesn't go elsewhere for it. When it comes to interviews, perhaps the "official line" from an interviewee therefore suffices?

Maybe, when it comes specifically to E3, it's a matter of writers not having enough time to ask good questions because they have a set of information they need to wring out of people to satisfy their readers, before they may indulge in more investigative queries? I didn't have that burden at the Expo because my site is very new, and we don't have many readers or much traffic. I could afford to focus on questions or angles that might differentiate my coverage from someone else's because that's what I would need to get anyone interested in reading my articles.

Even with that leeway, however, I wasn't always successful at finding those questions or angles either from being given nothing that was really thought-provoking from the limited demos, or being faced with "no comment" answers or obvious "drilled by the PR department" responses, or just plain running out of time. I barely had time to ask the Lucasarts rep two questions after the <em>Force Unleashed II</em> presentation because the PR people were hustling my group out of the room and shoving the next one in.

Which brings us to the PR people. My site Director has a friend who works in a fairly high position at a game development studio, and when he attended E3 this friend wasn't even allowed to book his own hotel room. My Director's friend reported being "shepherded" around, and the PR handlers needing to know his every move at all times.

PAX bans "booth babes" under the premise that anyone who is working at a game booth should know something about the game. In that case, wouldn't they have to ban PR reps, as well, in some cases? I mean no offense to the PR reps, I saw how hard they worked at E3 in trying to manage an insane asylum, but many of them didn't seem to know anything about video games. They sure knew about schedules and managing traffic, however. The PR people are the gatekeepers, and I didn't expect this to be quite so pronounced.

The last thing I walked away from at E3 has to do with how difficult doing the job of a video game journalist can be. I had never thought it was easy, but when you read some of the comments on gaming site forums you see how many people assume that the job is just playing video games and goofing off.

If someone doesn't write, you can't convince them that writing is work. That's a given - but running around E3 for three days was only fun because I was doing something I love. Running around between show floors and back and forth to private rooms with a messenger bag filled with gear and notebooks and other crap was not enjoyable. Writing down all the notes I needed to because audio recording would have been impossible in some of the venues felt like being back in a history or philosophy course, which is to say it was not "fun."

Talking my way into interviews or hands-on demos when I didn't have an appointment fed into my natural gregariousness, but it wasn't easy or fun by any means. A six hour flight to L.A. from Boston in coach is not fun...which is why my wife and I upgraded to first class on the way back...but I'm pretty sure not all games journalists get to upgrade their flights.

Doing this job full-time would be immensely fun for me, but it would also be a tremendous amount of work, and probably would be disruptive to family life once I had a child. It was extremely valuable to have the opportunity to stare the reality of being a video game journalist square in the face and not flinch - but if anyone ever tells you that it's easy, they've clearly never tried it themselves.

I also saw Rey Gutierrez and about five members of the Destructoid video crew in the red t-shirts hustling past me outside the Media Hospitality Room. Only Dtroid sighting throughout the Expo, however.   read

12:15 PM on 06.13.2010

Who is the gaming press speaking to?

In late April, I wrote a piece criticizing the insular nature of the video game media. I look back on it now as an expression of my learning curve in terms of how this industry works, and the economic realities of trying to make a living writing about video games.

The most important thing to come out of that piece, however, was a comment from a gaming buddy of mine. "I don’t think that Gamers actually care about Game Media – and never talk about it!" I took issue with that sentiment at the time, but this weekend has seen the release of a Neilsen Games study that speaks to my friend's argument.

This study is not a definitive proof of anything, but it suggests that the majority of video gamers really don't care about the video game press. I'd define "caring" in this context as "seeing the major headlines on a daily basis, even if the reader didn't delve into the stories." What other reasonable explanation exists for the ridiculously low numbers of 39% and 42% of active gamers aware of the upcoming motion-control systems for their favorite console?

Most of us with graduate degrees had to take a research methods course, and quickly learned how easy it is to make a survey say what you want it to say. Hopefully most of us walk away from those courses with a critical distrust of any survey conducted by anyone, but unless someone can tell me what Neilsen had to gain by constructing this survey to generate such low numbers, I'm willing to accept they have some validity.

We can safely dismiss the notion that the gaming press simply hasn't covered Natal and Move well enough. Anyone with a robust RSS feed from all the major gaming sites can attest to this in the time it takes to search either of those keywords. Even a basic level of awareness should have informed anyone reading gaming websites and magazines of the existence of Natal and Move. We're not talking about knowledge of the details of these systems, but merely the knowledge they were coming.

Back when I was part of the suggested 60% of gamers who really pay no attention to our press I'd pop onto GameSpot, go straight into the XBox 360 section of the site, and look up the review of the game I wanted to read about which would almost always be on the Top 10 list that day because the game was new. My eye would unlikely be drawn anywhere on the page other than where it needed to go to suss out the specific information I wanted.

If that were a normative experience for gamers then the Neilsen study makes perfect sense. If the study is valid, it throws a very stark light on the potential growth of the gaming press, and just how much opportunity there is for newcomers to the industry. This may be another truth that is just as obvious as my observations about the state of our media back in April. but for anyone new to writing about games it's important to register.

Over on my website, the biggest traffic spike we had was in response to submitting our Modern Warfare 2 review to N4G. I was shocked: hadn't all these gamers read plenty of MW2 reviews already? If product reviews are what justify the existence of the video game media, just how many sources for this sort of thing do we need? If it's about access to screenshots and trailers, why don't gamers just sign up for accounts at Gamespress and skip the middleman?

If the study is valid, it also would explain why the mainstream media just doesn't care about video games. There's no incentive to spend money covering subject matter that even the majority of enthusiasts can't be bothered to read. The other reasonable conclusion is that the study speaks less to awareness or interest in the gaming media, but more to literacy rates among gamers, something I would not dismiss out of hand given the quality of many of the comments I read on gaming websites (TL;DR).   read

9:09 PM on 06.08.2010

Vanquish ZOMG...really?

A bunch of news stories hit the press yesterday about the Vanquish trailer which shows gameplay that will "make mouths drop" (VG247), is "awesome" (GameSpot), and of course there's Jim Sterling's ("zomg") here on Destructoid.

I'm beginning to feel guilty when I make posts like these because it sounds like I'm being snarky for its own sake when that's not my intention because it's too easy...but really? ZOMG?

I'm not a huge fan of Japanese games anymore, I've decided. Dead Rising was fun for me because I'm a zombie nut, but the anime trope characters from Project Sylpheed and Lost Planet bored me to tears.

I do own a Sega Saturn and Dreamcast which I've held onto specifically for my large collection of import titles, and I never had any issues with Capcom when I was playing their games on the NES, SNES, or PS1. Perhaps it's just current-gen Japanese titles which are failing to grab me.

I look at the Vanquish trailer and I all I see is "Japanese game." I was aware of the plot back in February when I wrote some audition pieces off PR releases for the game, and it sounded very silly. Russians attack the United States with a bunch of robots, and the United States fights back with their armored suit. Red Dawn meets Gundam.

It's not the story which these commentators are lauding, but what are we really seeing besides a HUD which takes up too much space? When Jim Sterling references Gears of War, he's right on the money. It looks like we've done this before, now in Japanese style! Add in the silly dialogue from the mouths of characters I've seen a hundred times before in Japanese games that make it over to the West...

One of our writers over on GK reported on Cliff Bleszinski's statement that Japan can't keep up with the U.S." I think Cliffyb might be right.   read

10:36 AM on 06.07.2010

When games actually ARE art

Corey Arcangel is a Brooklyn-based contemporary artist who has made a name for himself incorporating digital technology into his work. I attended his show The Sharper Image back in April at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.

I'm not much for contemporary art, because it often seems too haphazard and for lack of a better word, easy. I had to walk through another exhibit to get to Cory Arcangel's and actually saw the following "pieces" on display:

- A row of four dots on the wall
- A slide projector on a table projecting...nothing
- Two copies of the Life Magazine Picture Puzzle on a shelf

When crap like this constitutes "art" I don't feel uncultured when I say to my wife, the only person I ever go to art museums with, that "I don't get it." Her usual response is that contemporary art requires context in order to understand it, and that if you already have that context it makes sense to you.

If that's the case, and my being a video gamer for 32 years, wouldn't contemporary art which incorporates modded Atari 2600 and NES cartridges and PlayStation 1 controllers as part of the work make some sense to me?

The first exhibit I saw was Space Invader. Arcangel describes the work on his website:

"Space Invader is a mod of the Atari game Space Invaders which has been turned into Space Invader (note: it's no longer plural...thus the white out over the last "s" on the cartridge) --> all the invaders have been erased except one."

The exhibit is interactive; I asked the nearby security guard whether I could actually pick up the Atari 2600 controller, and when she answered in the affirmative I snatched up the joystick with a huge, little-kid grin...and then promptly found myself holding only the rubber joystick guard while the rest of the controller fell down loudly onto the white bench on which the Atari console rested.

No one can say the exhibit isn't authentic.

I thought the game was stuck at first, but resetting didn't replace the lonely Space Invader with the horde I was looking forwarding to shooting up in a fit of nostalgia. Then I read the placard identifying the piece and thought "I get it. Clever." I always feel as though I'm meant to have some sort of deeper reaction to a piece of "art," however, and Space Invader left me feeling empty.

I did some reading about this exhibit online. I've cleaned up the text as the website I took it from looks like a product of Babelfish or some such translation program:

"Arcangel's work also distinguishes itself by demanding audience interaction. This usually ends in total frustration and thus delivers a critical commentary about the participatory strategies so very popular in the 1990s." So I looked up "participatory strategies" and found this:

"Participatory Learning & Action (PLA) is a practical approach to development which evolved and spread in the 1990’s. PLA enables people to learn, work and act together in a co-operative and democratic manner to achieve agreed goals."

I have trouble getting from A to B, here. The audience member plays the game alone, and this has something to do with criticizing people working together? It sounds more like Arcangel is just having a laugh at us.

I Shot Andy Warhol was much more amusing than Space Invader. From Arcangel's website:

"I Shot Andy Warhol is a modification of the NES game Hogan's Alley, where the gangsters have been replaced by Warhol, and the "innocents" have been replaced by the Pope, Flavor Flav (pre MTV show!!!!), and Col Sanders..." I got the high score in all three game modes, and then walked away with the same empty feeling that Space Invader gave me.

I was curious about what the piece was trying to say, so I looked up some criticism. I Shot Andy Warhol has been read as a tribute to Warhol, and inasmuch as Warhol was about being strange and walking down the road less traveled, this is acceptable to me. It didn't occur when I viewed the piece because I've never shown much interest in Andy Warhol. I lacked the context.

Super Mario Clouds is an old Mario Brothers cartridge modified to erase everything but the clouds. "The work's minimalist aesthetic reveals clear references to abstract monochrome painting." That actually makes some sense to me, courtesy of an undergraduate art history course.

Various Self Playing Sony PlayStation Bowling Games is three PlayStation 1 consoles with modded controllers that play the games by themselves, displayed on three side-by-side monitors. I found an interview with the artist and apparently this work is meant to be funny. Am I just being dense when all I saw were three PS1's playing a bowling game?

I've heard Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade speak a few times about his belief that gamers have a set of shared, digital experiences which help define us as gamers. I think Jerry would have enjoyed Totally Fucked. It's another hacked NES cartridge:

I burst out laughing in the middle of the dead-silent exhibit hall when I saw this. I can't find a video of this piece, but it's actually animated. Mario faces left and right alternately over and over again while the "?" block flashes.

I define art as something which inspires an intellectual or emotional reaction that is substantive and resonates. I may not have understood most of these pieces on an emotional level, but they did get me curious and wondering what they meant. By my definition, I have to call every one of these exhibits art, even if they are of the contemporary variety I normally have such distaste for.

Do these exhibits prove Roger Ebert wrong? I Shot Andy Warhol is literally the same thing as Hogan's Alley with altered graphics. Various Self Playing Sony PlayStation Bowling Games aren't being played by us, i.e. people, but they are certainly playing games. Space Invader has been hacked to be a terrible game, but it still has all the basic functionality and victory conditions it is meant to. I suppose it's possible that someone could actually fail to kill that lonely Space Invader before he marches to the bottom of the screen, such that they would lose.

It's ironic that the piece from Cory's exhibit which drew the most immediate and powerful reaction from me was the one exhibit which truly isn't a game anymore because it cannot be played - but that's the point of Totally Fucked.

I've argued that video games are not art, but when I think about these exhibits I'm not so sure. My favorite Penn Jillette quotation: "The definition of an intellectual is someone who can change their mind given facts …" Cory Arcangel's works are facts, real entities that exist to be looked at, interacted with, and contemplated upon.

Many of them are video games, and they literally are art.   read

9:50 PM on 06.03.2010

Pick a story, please.

I don’t always mind hearing “the company line” from a publisher. It takes balls to feed the gaming press something which the journalist and publisher both know is bullshit. It’s not comfortable for either of them, but serves as a “no trespass” sign to prevent the journalist from pressing too hard on territory he or she is not welcome to tread upon, which will lead to things being much more uncomfortable. And maybe the journalist not getting another interview.

What I can’t stand is when different corporate mouthpieces feed us different lines of bullshit, as in a pair of interviews MCV conducted with Electronic Arts. Their UK general manager Keith Ramsdale was quoted yesterday, stating in reference to Project Ten Dollar, "It all about the customer, about improving their experience. It's not a defensive measure against pre-owned or piracy."

EA Sports president Peter Moore is quoted today, defending the much-reviled EA Sports Pass initiative. “I look at the investment that we make in bringing digital experiences – building solid infrastructure, making sure servers stay up and offering customer support when needed. It all takes time, money and effort and we are at the cutting edge of that.”

So, in other words, EA is charging its customers more money so as to improve their experience of getting content that probably ought to have been included in the shipped copy of the game in the first place (Bad Company 2 V.I.P. maps, Kasumi’s Stolen Memory), or to pay for the sports game servers?

Either of those propositions might make sense in light of EA’s losing $677 million in 2009, if these were truly additional revenue streams; but Project Ten Dollar and the EA Online Pass only target purchasers of used games, not everyone else who throws down for new copies. I’d feel insulted if I honestly thought that these comments were targeted at consumers.

Executives at GameStop must read interviews like these and salivate so copiously that sump pumps have to be installed in conference rooms. Paul Raines, the recently-promoted chief executive officer of GameStop, stated in late May that his company not only supports the Online Pass, but are partnering with Microsoft to promote DLC.

If EA isn’t bullshitting gamers, are they bullshitting GameStop? Something along the lines of “No, we really, seriously, weren’t trying to cut into the used games market that you’re absolutely dominating to ridiculous proportions.” Considering what a huge distributor GameStop has become, if I were a major publisher I might not want to be perceived as trying to weaken their position, either, especially when the initiative to do so was blatantly transparent.

No one should blame EA for trying to recuperate money they feel the used game market is taking out of their pockets, regardless of whether it's an up or down year for them, and GameStop is adaptable. If these initiatives did start cutting into their profit margins I wouldn't put it past them to start bundling DLC cards with used EA games and find a way to maintain those margins.

EA might just be bullshitting themselves, putting a new spin on the "why" of Project Ten Dollar and Online Pass to cover up their miscalculation. In any case, I wish they'd just pick one line and stick to it. It's much easier to maintain illusions that way, and pretend we're not being bullshitted in the first place.   read

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