I'm a gaming sophist who likes to discuss, argue, and fight about video games. The only thing I enjoy more is a heaping bowl of Count Chocula. I also like to blog at 1up and IGN, so you can catch me at the communities there or at my own little slice of the Internetz:
"Finally, after all this was described we got to see a live demo of Warfighter in action. The game was looking great running on the Frostbite 2 engine, and the audio design was as superb as ever. This particular mission was a rescue op in the Philippines, where the US Tier 1 forces were working with local PCT units to save hostages. It was pretty standard stuff, but a new dual scope attachment was shown off on one of the assault rifles."
So while service men and women continue to fight and die on the other side of the globe, it's all good cause this fall Americans will be blessed with a new Black Ops AND a new Medal of Honor title.
It's striking sometimes just how deeply removed from reality we can be sometimes. The more we connect to online multiplayer and pseudo-warlike deathmatches the more we disconnect from the realities of war and how it affects those whom it actually involves.
Events from last week point toward a future where gaming consumers pay for gaming companiesí mistakes. The Online Pass which first started out as an innocent experiment is now blossoming into an industry standard, and as announced last Friday, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning will be but one more in a long list of upcoming titles to feature it. Also, a new rumor suggests that Microsoft is toying with the idea of making the next Xbox system incapable of reading used discs all together. To anyone who has been paying attention, neither of these developments is news. Both are symptoms of a single trend as video game companies continue to try and unload the costs and risks associated with their business model onto individual consumers.
Already, a tough market and struggling economy has led video game publishers to hide more of their content behind ďonline passes.Ē Publishers and developers only see revenue from those copies of a title that are purchased new. So in order to see more payoff for each investment, they lock certain features of a game, whether itís multiplayer in Uncharted 3, or Catwomanís story mode in Arkham City, in an effort to incentivize consumers to go ahead and buy the product new. And what started as a fringe experiment has quickly become normal practice. The new Twisted Metal will have an online pass, despite creator David Jaffeís own misgivings, as will BioWareís Mass Effect 3. Indeed, just late last week, 38 Studios announced that its upcoming title, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, will require an ďonline passĒ too.
Originally, the online pass was defended by publishers like EA as a way to help pay for the costs of maintaining online services. But as some have noted, Reckoning is an entirely single player experience. And yet like Arkham City, Reckoning too will have a chunk of its content, specifically ďseven additional side quests,Ē reserved for those who purchase the game new or pay for the pass separately. Now, the costs of the used game market are becoming the problem, rather than simply the costs of running online servers. If that isnít the definition of a slippery slope, I donít know what is.
Of course, when taken to its logical conclusion, the online pass results in the console, rumored by Kotaku, that wonít play used games at all. Why lock select content behind a pay wall when you can stick the entire game behind one instead? Whether such a feature would be feasible isnít important, because itís already the case with digital titles. When I buy Deus Ex: Human Revolution new and download it onto my PS3, it not only cost the same amount as its physical counterpart, but when I return 10 hours later after itís finally installed, I canít travel with it, share it, or ever resell it. Less functionality, same asking price.
And herein lies the rub. Iím a big fan of Steam. Most people are. No, I donít care for their draconian terms of service, or the fact that if they go out of business Iíll have lost hundreds of dollars in ďleasedĒ content. But at least with Steam Iím getting something in return: the endless discounts. I donít ďownĒ my Steam copy of Bastion, but it was also a lot cheaper than the console version when it went on sale for $5. And this is the kind of compromise gaming consumers should come to expect from publishers and developers.
Donít lock content behind an online pass that deprives users of their productís functionality or try to sanction players for not buying games new. This is clearly the wrong way to go, not only for gaming consumers, but for publishers and developers as well. Because at the end of the day what gaming companies are after is more revenue. Exploding video game budgets and unsustainable overhead costs are forcing studios to close, and publishers to bleed red, even at a time when the gaming market keeps on growing. The answer isnít to charge even more money for games, which, by the way, is whatís happening when you charge consumers the same $60 for a product that has lost functionality. First it happened with the proliferation of DLC when companies realized they could make even more money by spinning content off of a game and into discrete packages for future download. Now, itís happening again with online passes that deprive games of even more value without altering the price.
It doesnít take a genius in economics to realize that when supplies are fixed but price goes up, demand will go down. Especially in a luxury industry as competitive as video games. In 2012, gaming consumers have more options than ever with iOS apps often cost less than $10, PSN and XBLA downloads that often donít go above $15, and PC titles that get discounted much faster than those on the consoles. In addition, media consumers in general have more ways to spend their time as well, with a monthly subscription to Netflix, album downloads at Amazon, and even movie box office tickets all costing several times below the standard price of a new game sitting on the shelf at GameStop. As a result, publishers and developers need to recognize and accept the current reality of the media marketplace.
Gamers arenít acting ďentitledĒ by relying on a thriving second-hand market, or demanding that a new game comes with all of the value and functionality its $60 price point has always implied. Rather, they are acting just like rational consumers of music and movies: putting pressure on companies to provide the best content and the best possible prices. And if the present industry model of development and distribution canít accommodate both of those things, then maybe itís the video game companies who need to rethink their strategy, rather than consumers. Should gamers really start paying more, for less?
But so many developers and publishers are hurting, right? Well, yes. However, thatís because of a business model that pushes big triple A titles at the expense of mid and lower tier games that would involve less risk. EA pumped over $200 million into BioWare's Old Republic. That's a huge risk! As a result of that business decision, the company is now greatly exposed and extremely vulnerable to losses if millions of players don't continue their subscriptions.
Game companies have become accustomed to a certain mode of doing business. They've oriented their entire commercial enterprise around that structure. Recent data has shown it to be a very volatile one, especially in the era of heightened competition from distribution networks like Steam and The App Store.
If developers and publishers find themselves hurting as a result, I can't be held responsible for it. I can't give them pity charity. That's not how the market works. And to do so would be irresponsible as a consumer, and as a gamer. If we want more mid-tier games and experimental indie titles, gaming consumers need to put pressure on "the industry" by NOT supporting their bloated development budgets and unsustainable overhead costs, or the over-promising, underwhelming products that too often arrive on store shelves as a result.
The used game market isnít some accidental phenomenon. Itís in direct relation to the larger gaming market. A company like Nintendo understands this, and has a development and publishing model that accommodates it. Have you ever come across a discount bin littered with second-hand Mario Karts? Neither have I, and itís not because Nintendo started locking certain content behind coded pay walls. A thriving used game market provides valuable price signaling. It lets publishers know whether a productís price point matches its perceived value by consumers. A company should utilize that information, not attempt to shut it down.
Not to mention all the ways that the Gamestop model helps the sale of new games. I personally by about 1 console title per month. Thatís 12 a year. If I gain back even just 20% of their value by trading them in, thatís enough credit to buy 2 more NEW games! Now companies are free to do as they wish, and deal with whatever consequences result. They are a market entity and should act on their self-interest. But anyone who defends the proliferation of online passes is being silly.
No one should ever have to settle for getting screwed. Not developers when they create a phenomenal product that fails to get the marketing push it was promised and that it deserves. Not publishers when console manufacturers fail to live up to their agreement and maintain the networks many depend on for distributing new games. And certainly not gaming consumers when companies fail to deliver quality products at competitive prices.
In the coming days, and with a fall break around the corner, I hope to get to some belated reactions to Gears, my current favorite indie game, and why more games should emulate Dark Souls.
For now though, a few thoughts on IGN's smack-down of former Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett.
First, there's Bennett's CNN editorial which states oh so provocatively:
'Today, 18-to- 34-year-old men spend more time playing video games a day than 12-to- 17-year-old boys."
Not exactly fire and brimstone. But IGN wasted no time in publishing an editorial in response, stating:
"Bennett uses games as a catch-all 'bad thing' ignoring the fact that it's merely part of the fabric of modern life, has many social uses and offers people a welcome release from our stressful and / or humdrum lives, as well as a sense of achievement and progression."
A scathing critique to be sure. And like any enthusiastic gamer, I could point out any similar number of benefits and positive effects resulting from the medium. But the IGN editorial not only states Bennett's positions in the most uncharitable light; it completely exaggerates them.
The only full sentence of Bennett's quoted by Colin Campbell in the IGN article is the bit about how much time men in their 30s spend playing video games. Campbell's conclusion is:
"Bennett is the latest in a long line of commentators who believe that the world's ills can be blamed on something that's new and unfamiliar. He says his problem is with games, but if you read between the lines, it's clear that what he really doesn't like, is people."
Why Campbell sought to manufacture this bit of "new," and felt one sentence of one column written by one man required such a thorough rebut is beyond me.
Whatever one thinks of Bennett's civic service, and Campbell pulls no punches when degrading Bennett's time in the Reagen and H.W. Bush administrations, there is little to be enraged by in his piece. Far from laying all the blame for the relative demise of males (Campbell calls it "alleged" despite never providing evidence to the contrary) at the foot of video games, Bennett's critique is broader and spans all of pop culture:
"So what's wrong? Increasingly, the messages to boys about what it means to be a man are confusing. The machismo of the street gang calls out with a swagger. Video games, television and music offer dubious lessons to boys who have been abandoned by their fathers. Some coaches and drill sergeants bark, 'What kind of man are you?' but don't explain.
Movies are filled with stories of men who refuse to grow up and refuse to take responsibility in relationships. Men, some obsessed with sex, treat women as toys to be discarded when things get complicated. Through all these different and conflicting signals, our boys must decipher what it means to be a man, and for many of them it is harder to figure out."
Bennett hasn't been the only one to note the relative decline of men, though he may be unique in attributing it mostly to cultural factors rather than economic ones. For instance, in a prescient cover story for The Atlantic Monthly, Don Peck discusses the fate of the American middle class at length, noting how the changing economy and increasing demand for better educated employees has hit male labor especially hard.
But the issue is less whether one actually agrees with Bennett or not, and more about the stereotypically soft-skinned response of Campbell and the outlet whose opinions the editorial represents. Perhaps Bennett's article warranted a casual blog post in reaction. In it, Campbell could have demonstrated the inadequacies of Bennett's account, offered some counter examples, and explained why the decline of males is a complex social event with no clear cut cause.
Instead, IGN devoted nearly 500 words and a homepage banner link to a crudely juvenile overreaction. Not only does Campbell fail to see past his gamer associations and actually acknowledge the social ills Bennett is trying to address (rightly or wrongly), but rather than devote the limited space in IGN's editorial to offering a humble yet full-throated defense of gaming's cultural value, Campbell and Co. preferred to languish in gamer victimhood.
I'm a gamer and a super liberal one at that. Sometimes in the morning I turn on Bennett's AM talk radio program just to get my blue blood boiling. But when one of the medium's most prominent media outlets manufactures controversy where it barely exists, well, it almost makes me embarrassed to call myself a "gamer."
Is Japanese gaming really in the rut that everyone suggests? From the front pages to the community blogs to the backwaters of video game podcasting, a loose consensus has formed that Japanese developers have faltered and lost their spark, while Western developers move forward, exploring new possibilities and perfecting old models.
But this grand narrative of shifting developer dominance glosses over the subtle nuances and finer distinctions that challenge the very premise upon which the East vs. West debate is built. From using oversimplified language to ignoring the relevant evidence, the success of titles like Mass Effect and Call of Duty have led to hasty and incomplete conclusions that miss a deeper and more complex reality.
Western developers make mistakes too.
Take for instance the terms of the debate themselves. The ďWestĒ may be shorthand for American video game developers, but when considering the style or spirit of a game, the ďWestĒ expands to include Canada, Australia, and the larger part of Europe. Together, those countries have a GDP greater than the rest of the world combined. Not an insignificant alliance, especially in video games, an entertainment medium predicated on luxury and excess income to which most countries donít have access. Like the proverbial ďEast,Ē an amorphous collection of Asiatic countries that spent the better part of the last two centuries colonized and exploited. The only economically developed countries, comparable to those in the West, are Japan, South Korea, and to a growing extent, China. Together, these three countries donít amount to %50 of the Westís GDP, even after you include India.
In addition, though gaming is extremely popular in South Korea, and increasingly so in China, as of yet, neither country has seen its development industry move markedly beyond simply providing support to more established studios. Which leaves Japan. And if East vs. West means Japan vs. the U.S., E.U., Australia and Canada, then the outcome shouldnít be surprising.
Instead, what most people in the East vs. West debate are picking up on is Japanís decline relative to the market dominance it once had. When Nintendo revived the video game industry after its post-Atari implosion, Japanese developers benefited from increasing industry experience and a timely blend of creativity, talent, and an appealing cultural perspective. Itís only natural that Japanís market dominance would begin to decline as other countries, many larger and wealthier than Japan, continued to foster vibrant gaming communities of their own.
A good analogy is Americaís automotive industry. It was dominant for decades. After the devastation of WWII, companies like Ford and GM were unbeatable. But all good things must come to an end, and while mismanagement and costly worker benefits certainly contributed to their decreasing size, the relative decline of GM and Ford was less a result of mistakes on their part, and more directly attributable to increased competition from European and East Asian companies.
Even now plenty of gamers are clamoring for more Japanese titles.
The same holds true for Japan. Their relative decline is less a result of internal shortcomings than external increases to global competition. Itís not that Japan makes worse video games now. Itís that developers all over the rest of the world are making better games, and more of them, then ever before.
In fact, people should be less surprised with Japanese developersí decreasing share of the market, and more shocked by how, in the face of stiff competition from the largest and wealthiest countries in the world, they have maintained even the level of relevancy and dominance they have today.
Because they are still relevant. If you look at the 50 top selling video games of all time, the majority were all created by Japanese studios. Even after you remove previously bundled titles, the Eastís cumulative success is astounding. The first Western game on the list is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas at number 18. Take out those titles that were once bundled and add the sales from Xbox and PC, and it still only makes it to the 16th spot. What about Call of Duty? Combined software sales from all available platforms and it still only sits at number 7.
Indeed, even though they are exclusive to one system, Nintendoís titles have outsold the competition historically, with more recent titles like Mario Kart DS still making it into the top 10 despite only being released on one platform. But that was yesterday some will say. What have Japanese developers done more recently?
Mario Kart remains the most successful and popular racing video game franchise.
On the one hand it appears as though the critical achievements of the past several years have all been developed in the West: Bioshock, Fallout 3, and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. For instance, in 2010, the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences declared Mass Effect 2 game of the year. GDC Game Developers Choice Awards gave 2009 to Uncharted 2. In 2008, Game Informerís choice was Grand Theft Auto IV. And Gampro declared Call of Duty 4 the winner in 2007, while in 2006 Spike TVís VGAs granted the highest honor to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. All Western developed. All high achievements. And all great games.
But another side to the data tells a different story. Score aggregating sites like GameRankings and Metacritic, while loathed by video game journalists, instead point to the continued achievement Japanese developers. According to GameRankings, four out of the last six years, the game of the year was developed either by Nintendo or Capcom. Metacritic arrived at the same results.
And then thereís the bias of various video game critics and media outlets. Edge for example, has given more game of the year awards to Japanese developed titles since 2005 then other outlets, yet still remains closer to the aggregated norm, even as sites like IGN and 1up favored Western titles. In fact, it shouldnít be surprising that many Western video game media websites and publications seem to prefer Western games on the whole. And thus itís somewhat silly to point toward Western rankings of Western games and declare the West the victor. Would it make any more sense to decide the debate solely based on the results of Japanese video game websites and publications?
Still, there is one factor that remains a more objective measure of Japanís continued significance in the video game industry, and thatís the global appeal of the games they produce. Western games donít sell very well in Japan. But Eastern games DO sell very well in the rest of the world, including Europe and the Americas. From Mario to Resident Evil to Metal Gear Solid, Japanese games travel West, while Western title still have a hard time making it East. For all the talk of Japanese developers needing to look to what the rest of the world is doing, it makes one wonder if maybe Western developers shouldnít begin to look a little more at what the developers back East are doing.
On the other hand, where in Japanese game development is there room for this guy?
Now itís true that video game sales alone donít indicate whatís valuable or worthy of critical acclaim. And itís also true that Japanese video game developers have not been as good at adapting to the changing market as their Western counterparts. Downloadable titles have been some of the best to be released in the past few years, and yet on the whole that market has been dominated by the West. But itís also true that considering the size of their competitors and the changing global demographic of the average gamer, Japan has done surprisingly well. The current market trends are less a demonstration of their decline in the video game industry than a long overdue re-balancing of the scales.
If thereís one thing that has become painfully obvious since motion control first began to proliferate, itís that video games arenít just about simulation.
Listen to any executive tout the future of motion control and youíd think that something like Star Trekís holodeck is the end-all, be-all of gaming.
But itís not.
The idea behind a controller is a simple one: press individual buttons, or combinations of them, to execute various commands which then manifest on screen. In other words, as a result of minimal thumb movement, an Italian plumber in overalls and a hat runs, jumps, and dodges from one side of the screen to another.
And ďminimal thumb movementĒ is key here. Because the more taxing a video gameís control scheme becomes on the player, the more the illusion breaks and the less compelling the experience ends up being. Blister inducing button mashing can be fun every now and then, but the best moments in gaming come from executing complicated action on screen via simple and intuitive control inputs. The ease of implementing a well timed combo to demolish a Street Fighter opponent can be sublime, while convulsing frantically as you pump your fists and waggle your hands it not.
Sports games demonstrate this as well. they use to confound non-gamers. Why would you want to press square to shoot the ball when you could go out side and play for real? The same thing happened with the Rock Band craze. Why are all these people wasting their time implementing complicated button pressing sequences when they could learn the song on a real instrument instead?
The reason for this is that video games allow players to inhabit a space where anything from fireballs to carjacking to warfare is possible, but without the need to actually get up and physically do any of those things. And this is the great paradox of video games. They are great because they allow us to navigate our hopes and fears, and explore our most profound fantasies without actually doing it. I could go outside and play football, or I could turn on Madden and play with a friend, executing a masterful play from the comfort of my controller.
A holodeck would be a very fine thing indeed, but it wouldnít be a video game, in the same way that watching a story actually unfold, say in a theater, is great, but still fundamentally different from watching it take place on a movie screen.
Motion control makes the mistake of confusing these two very different experiences, and that's where it misses. Video games will always be distinct from virtual games, even though both are valid and can be equally fun. Motion control on the holodeck makes perfect sense, but in Mario? Not so much. And imposing motion control on video games that are meant to create an experience rather than just simulate one, ends up ruining it instead. I can enjoy paintball, but even the most extreme LARP-ed up version of it wonít replace the fun I have playing Call of Duty.
Thatís because video games go beyond attempting to simulate an experience and actually try to create an entirely new one through the connection shared by players and their onscreen avatars. Itís not that I want to be Mario, jumping on blocks and diving down pipes; itís that I want to inhabit the character and yet control him from afar. Like a pilot who still enjoys flying a remote control plane. The experience isnít meant to just simulate what itís like to actually be flying in a plane, itís meant create a completely new and unique experience through the interaction of the controller and the controlled.
So when motion control attempts to collapse the space between my avatar and I, itís missing an essential part of what it means to play and enjoy video games. And until motion control evolves to the point of more sophisticated simulation, like the holodeck or the Matrix, it should be kept separate from the traditional video game experience. Go outside for a little bit everyday, exercise regularly, but let me enjoy my video games from the comfort of my couch and the ease of my favorite controller.
Platforming was one of the orignal video game genres. While some players don't play shooters, and others refuse to touch an RPG, almost everyone has, at some time or another, given one of the many platforming titles out there a chance.
And yet, as game budgets ballones, and production values rose, the simple pleasure of manuevering across the screen became too small of an experience. Jumping over enemies and avoiding pits might have been great for the first slew of Mario titles, but the modern gamer needs more, at least they do if you want to keep charging $60 a title.
Enter digital distribution, who I can not thank enough for saving, and in many ways revitalizing the platformer. Yes, the genre has remained salient, in many ways integrating its principles and mechanics into other forms, like RPGs and FPSs. But the old-school, run-and-jump of yester-year was edged out of the mainstream gaming market long ago.
Then there's Limbo. Regarded by most for its great visuals and enduring style, it remains one of my favorite games not just because of how it appears on the screen, but because of the subtle ways its design offered a fresh take on the traditional platformer, while still remaining true to the original spirit of that genre.
Naturally, Limbo is beautiful and cinematic. Necessary qualities for any platformer. In addition, it unfolds seamlessly, inviting players to openly embrace the terror that follows each linear progression with a pace and gravity that immerses the them instantly. And even beyond all of this, developer Playdead Stuidosí most important accomplishment in this title is bringing a new vitality to the very essence of platforming--failure.
The point of any solid platformer, no matter how dressed-up or fancy, is to get from point A to point B. Limbo is no different. But rather than the tedium many have come to expect from challenging games, this indie download made failure not only an option, but an inevitable pleasure.
When was falling down a pit in Mario ever anything but a lost life and a nuisance? Who ever smiled with glee at seeing Bullet Bill shoot our plump Italian friend? On the other hand, in Limbo players found themselves often embracing death. Instead of avoiding some traps, I recall greedily springing them in order to be rewarded with the humorously dark death scene to follow. Remember how I said earlier that the main objective of a platformer is to get from point A to point B? Well needless to say, you also have to get their alive. And in Limbo, struggling to get to my destination, only to arrive dismembered, decapitated, or bones broken, was more of a blessing than a curse.
Unlike many of its predecessors, this platformer manages to make failure both alluring and at the same time repugnant, but in a good way. Most puzzle games can be sluggishly infuriating as the player labors to get to a new stage. However, in Limbo that rarely happens. With the exception of two or three parts, the game keeps moving quickly towards certain doom or uncertain success, saving your progress automatically as you go.
Recently, many games have tried to move closer to enjoyable experiences rather than difficult challenges. A simple combination of buttons will allow you to run across buildings, or battles are made less taxing so that players can continue forward without learning through dieing and having to continually backtrack. In most cases this turns the game from challenging to mindless. Whatís the point of trying if auto gets me through the boss fight? How long can running up walls feel fresh when being able to do so was enumerated by a tiresome tutorial rather than earned through explorative play?
The difference between challenging and frustrating is hard to navigate. Either itís too easy or impossible, with the end result in either case being the same--not fun. Fortunately, Limbo traverses this tightrope superbly. The numerous deaths youíll undergo throughout the journey never set you back far and are always exciting to watch. At the same time, despite having been buzz-sawed plenty of times, I was always caught holding my breath with each narrow escape.
Limbo achieves an exquisite blend of obstacle and success. Playing it is to be liberated even while caught in the throws of a maliciously conconted digital maze. It is Limboís balance, which it achieves on so many levels, making puzzles challenging but rewarding, difficult but engaging, that makes it a distinguished success. And which gave platforming new possibilities even as it energized old ones. The story grips you, even though it barely exists. The world feels open, even while confined and linear. And the gamer feels perfectly alive even as their protagonist repeatedly dies.
Most of all, it's a game that couldn't have been made without digital distribution. Short and precise in its vision, Limbo is a perfect example of the "long-tail" that modern gaming had often left unexplored. Now, thanks to digital distribution, the edges of every genre can be explored from the financial security of a narrowly constructed downloadable game.