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E C Gach's blog

5:38 PM on 03.07.2012

The Important Wars Take Place Online

Or at least that's what Medal of Honor: Warfighter implies, with the latest news about the game relating to details about how its multiplayer was inspired by FIFA.

Caring, sharing, and cross-fertilization across franchises never felt so good.

And look! As Destructoid's Hamza notes, Warfighter will feature a new weapon attachment!

"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.

I wrote about this earlier this week. The whole thing is a bit sick.

No, actually it's a lot sick.   read

8:31 AM on 02.02.2012

No, Seriously, Online Passes Aren't Defensible

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.   read

6:19 PM on 10.06.2011

Manufacturing Outrage

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."   read

9:08 PM on 08.10.2011

East vs. West: The Numbers Tell a Different Story

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.   read

7:42 PM on 07.26.2011

Motion Control: Missing the Point of Video Games

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.   read

4:44 PM on 07.22.2011

Downloadables: Platforming on the Edge

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.   read

10:38 AM on 07.08.2011

Freedom: Escaping the Console Wars.

"Man is born free," wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "and everywhere he is in chains."

The same applies to video games. Players are born free, and everywhere they are in chains. Forced to swear allegiance to one system or another, or purchase several in order to access first-party titles and other exclusive content, the console wars have become a way of life so tightly wound up in the DNA of the gaming industry that few even take notice of it anymore.

But the oppression persists. The hostilities have decreased in some ways: controller designs and system specs have started to converge on nebulous but singular ideal, exclusive titles are less prevalent, and brand loyalty is down. Still, platforms remain distinct, and mobile and online gaming are starting to see a resurgence in controlled distribution with iOS competing against Android and XBLA competing against PSN.

Why canít we as gamers be free like other media consumers? Music has always had short periods of competition, but these quickly passed and now MP3 files reign, allowing all listeners to share a common frame of reference. And film? LDs competed with VHS for a stint, and then HD went head to head with Blu-ray, but once again movies have settled into another time of peace. Toshiba, Sony, and Dell all make PCs, but none of them force users to purchase specific programs or buy game discs licensed by the respective PC manufacturers.

And yet generation after generation, we as players accept and sometimes even enjoy the constant turmoil of this struggle. New consoles make us giddy, even while they keep us locked and bound in the same chains as before.

Yet there are glimmers of hope dancing along the horizon. The expansion of digital downloads and online distribution has helped to blur the defining lines from one console to another. PSN is more of a brand than a distinct product, offering little tangible difference to XBLA. Similarly, Apple has better apps and a more popular install base, but isnít light years apart from Android. And the reason is that online gaming is inherently resistant, or at the very least indifferent, to differing hardware configurations. Apple doesnít care where you install iTunes as long as you download the media they peddle. Indie developers making downloadable titles donít care about Microsoft versus Sony, only where they can get their game out there and publicized the most.

And then thereís OnLive, which streams top notch games to any PC that can play video. Itís a long way out from being a dominant or even limitedly popular way to play video games, but it offers one possible method for surpassing the limitations of the console wars.

With a flexible controller that works with multiple formats, itís not impossible to imagine a single, all inclusive, magical little box that allows not just gamers, or PC users, but all manner of media consumer to stream everything from television, movies, music, and video games to the screen of their choice. Manufacturers could compete over the best design, either for these boxes or the screens they connect to, while traditional console manufacturers and online distribution formats maintain their brands through online networks.

Thus I turn on this box, synced with a multi-purpose controller and linked to my favorite HD flat screen, where I can than surf through the Apple, Google, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo channels, in addition to Netflix, Hulu, and everything else thatís accessible through web browsing. There might still be physical media for video games, they would come on generic discs based on formats utilized by all of the video game developers as well as other media creators in general.

Of course this future isnít here yet, and it might not be for a while. But it will come. And just like slaves dwelling in Platoís cave, gamers will one day be liberated from the dark shadows of the console wars and brought out into the light of a brighter, more open future. The only question now is: sooner or later? Will gamers support efforts to explore this future, or will console manufacturers continue to try can control the market and protect their territory. So how much are gamers willing to push? How much do we believe in this future, both its possibility and its promise? How much do we really want to be free?

Only time will tell.   read

3:25 PM on 07.07.2011

Maligned by Materia

Materia is Latin for "material,Ē meaning "substance from which something is made." It had early metaphysical connotations, used as a sort of base from which all physical matter could come forth. And of course, you equip it to weapons and bangles in order to unleash powerful magic.

Prior Final Fantasys simply had spells that could be purchased in villages or acquired through leveling up until FF VI broke with this tradition and introduced the Esper system. In this framework, characters would equip an Esper that would then allow them to learn spells and acquire status bonuses after leveling (in addition to being summon-able once per battle).

Then FF VII took this framework, broke it up into discrete segments, and made these new segments interchangeable. Instead of equipping Espers, players attached Materia to their charactersí weapons and armor. Rather than learn magic through experience, in this new system it was the Materia that leveled up and in effect, learned its own spells. Any piece of Materia could be passed around to any other member of a party with its properties and spells kept intact, liberating magic from the user and making it distinct from those who would cast it.

On the positive side, players could save time. Experience could be invested directly in leveling up Materia rather than having to teach the same magic to multiple characters. FF VI forced players to re-teach Cure 3 over and over again; FF VII objectified magic and made it a tangible good to be traded on a whim.

Each Materia also came with status attributes specific to its type and power. Equipping too much high-end Materia would improve MP and magic defense while diminishing other stats.

On the other side of things though, none of these status customizations were permanent (being part of the Materia rather than a lasting effect), and the transferability of Materia made characters more like vessels through which the power of the magic could be unleashed rather than interesting and unique ends in themselves.

And this is the main reason Iíve never thought the Materia system was a breakthrough or even a step in the right direction. I love shiny little crystals and the idea of grinding through random encounters to power them up was certainly addicting. But by locating abilities within discrete items, AND by making those items equally interchangeable between any two characters, something was lost.

Especially for a title like FF VII, where character development is what moves the plot forward and grips the hearts and imaginations of players, diluting the unique importance of these very characters can end up undermining the greater narrative.

In addition, the mechanic through which Materia was utilized was also a rather simple one. In some respects, this helped to streamline the equipment and leveling processes. However, the FF battle system was already quite entrenched and fine-tuned by VII, and if anything, more depth was called for; not more simplicity.

For instance, FF VIIís battle system could still have employed the Materia framework, but gone further and added to the ways in which different Materia could interact as well as made a characterís equipped Materia influence the way they grow as they level.

Imagine if Materia had had bonuses built into them that could be unlocked by joining them along a grid? Instead of a linear pattern, where 2 Materia could be joined, the patterns would be 2-dimensional, allowing any Materia to potentially be connected to any of 4 other Materia. Different bonuses, like for instance magic power x1.5, would then give the adjoining Materia that bonus. Negative side effects, like weakening spells or limiting the number of times they could be used in a battle would add a sacrifice that would force players to be smart and creative in how they fill out their Materia grid.

Different Materia combinations could also yield character bonuses that last as long as that configuration is kept, as well as leveling bonuses that stick with the character long after players have switched up their equipment.

Itís complexity like this that would have made Final Fantasy VII as groundbreaking on gameplay side of things as it was on the artistic front (story, music, art). And it still surprised me when, more than a decade later, JRPGs havenít developed meaningfully complex and interesting ways for customizing characters. Western style RPGs still achieve this largely by assigning points and crunching numbers, and JRPGs, like Final Fantasy XIII, give a hint of freedom while still constraining players to pretty linear character growth.

So sound off guys, what do you think?   read

8:32 PM on 07.06.2011

Don't Take Sony's "PSN Pass" Laying Down

I finally got around to playing both Resistance: Fall of Man and Resistance 2, and am loving every moment. Anticipating the third installment due out this fall, I was immediately interested to know about this little news bit: Sony Introduces 'PSN Pass' Program.

For anyone who doesn't know, basically Sony is going to try out a "PSN Pass" that would come with Resistance 3 if purchased new, but which would need to be bought separately for any player looking to save a buck and wait for a used copy to turn up. Details on the price and other matters have yet to be disclosed. Suffice it to say I couldn't help by smile cynically as my purchasing power took another hit via this new corporate power grab.

But bogger leumpatrick doesn't seem to mind though, and actually feels glad for Sony. After explaining how Sony is right to do everything in their power to squeeze every last bit of profit out of their hard published games, he goes on to write,

"I think it's a clever and fair tactic. It gives a strong incentive for gamers to buy games brand new as opposed to pre-owned and it also allows for publishers to make some money at least from those pre-owned sales. A single game can be sold and traded in so many times that it might potentially come into the hands of maybe 10 different people in the space of a year. The developers have a right to feel a little peeved that so many people are enjoying their game and yet only the consumers themselves and the game stores that are selling it on are making anything out of it."

I can't help but laugh at people who respond to these sorts of events with, "well the company has every right to blah blah blah." Of course they have every right, just as I have every right to shout obscenities at little children, make racial slurs, and be an overall dick. Goldman Sachs had every right to push the bottom line before the market crashed, and continue raking in the profits and giving out multi-million dollar bonuses afterward.

So yea, I guess Sony also has a right to do this. But is that really suppose to make me feel any better?

How about this Sony. Want to combat used video game sales? Try making titles that people don't want to trade back in! The only reason a title goes through 10 different greasy sets of gamer hands is because the retail shelves became filled with pre-owned copies to begin with.

I've been waiting for a pre-owned copy of the PSP Tactics Ogre port for months now, and guess what? Still rare as all get out. I bet you Atlus isn't having a problem with retailers cutting into their bottom line.

And then there's the whole issue of second hand markets to begin with. If Sony wants a share of Gamestop's profit margin on used games, fine by me. But don't bust my wallet to do so! So what if a game gets traded through 10 different people? Remember that for a game to be used, it had to have been purchased at some point in the first place! So now I'm suppose to be not only okay, but say "Good for you Sony!" when they try to reach their long hands into every future sale of the game as well?

If this is about online play, then make it about online play. leumpatrick makes the point that,

"There will be complaints of course, but do PSN users have the right to get so angry? It's not like Sony charge people to play games online anyway - don't forget that the PSN is totally free. If this were being adopted for Xbox Live users, they would have a stronger reason to be pissed, especially if this online pass scheme became the norm. Any PSN user that gets worked up over a very small one-time fee should remember that they've been getting away with playing games at no cost for a long time and should be grateful they don't have to pay a yearly subscription fee."

Fine, then make me sign up for a year of Playstation Plus? Or put in a $60 dollar annual fee for network access, and then just let me play my used games online (and also maybe finally chip in for that extra cyber security).

Because this isn't just about one used game purchase. This is about the future of all used game purchases. Gamers already have next to no rights of digital content. I don't have full rights to my PS3, or my downloaded copy of Infamous 2, and now Sony wants to take away some more of my power of the games I bought? Now I not only have to buy a used copy of Resistance 3, but once I do its value will instantly be diminished because the one time online code is used.

Yes leumpatrick, this is perfectly within Sony's rights, power, and self-interest, but that doesn't mean I have to take it lying down, groveling at its feet, and going out of my way to defend their practices.

Will this make developers at Sony better paid? Will it lead to better titles? Will it lead to cheaper games?

If not I don't see why I should be rooting for Sony on this one.   read

1:32 PM on 07.04.2011

Final Fantasy VII IS Overrated...But Only Sort of

Yes the game is an important artifact, marking an important moment in the history of gaming, but does this make it a lasting title that holds up over time? With respect to its overall importance, of course the game isn't overrated, but those who claim that it remains a crucial gaming experience (at least among RPGs) need to take off the Materia tinted glasses and open their eyes.

Many who deride VII lack coherent positions on the subject, offering blunt tautologies instead of nuanced analysis, while those who defend it point to these ineffective critiques without addressing the game's more serious failings.

In fact, throughout the whole of Sterling's piece (which if you haven't seen it by now, can be found here), he defends VII against its critics with the following equivocations:

"It's true that Final Fantasy VII's story isn't perfect, with a few ludicrous concepts and some silly dialog, but I will proudly say that I still enjoy it with no issue at all"

"Sure, stories have come along in games that I've found to be superior, but that doesn't mean VII hasn't earned its praise."

"I feel Final Fantasy VII hit a range of feelings and a variety of concepts that no other game has managed before or since -- it might not have hit all of them perfectly, but when you truly stand back and look at what the game accomplished narratively, from beginning to end, it's hard not to be impressed."

Whatever the success and achievements of the title, it's disingenuous of Sterling to simply rebut some of game's issues (he fails to note the rest) by mentioning a few in passing before swiftly sweeping them under the rug and out of sight. The game has some weaknesses, but these aren't important, so the argument goes.

Now is Final Fantasy VII a bad game? Absolutely not. I'll be the first to lavish it with praise, remembering fondly the day it popped the RPG cherry that so many other sterile titles had left untouched. The Midgar train still gives me goosebumps as it chugs along the forgotten tracks in one of the franchise's most unforgiving cities in one of its most unforgettable worlds.

But Sterling admits that Final Fantasy VII does have some "ludicrous concepts and some silly dialogue." Weak elements like Cait Sith and Yuffie pull apart what would otherwise be a tight narrative. And unlike the plots found in Final Fantasy Tactics or Vagrant Story, VII starts strong but ends weak, with larger than life story that overshadows its more interesting characters and the psychological suspense they make possible.

He also acknowledges that "Sure, stories have come along in games that I've found to be superior," before later claiming that, "Final Fantasy VII hit a range of feelings and a variety of concepts that no other game has managed before or since."

Sterling manages this sentiment throughout, claiming that Final Fantasy VII is not the best, but that it deserves all its praise, that it has flaws, but survives the test of time, leading one to wonder if its competing for first place or an honorable mention. Because of course he's:

"not saying you have to like any of this. Nobody has to like Final Fantasy VII for its achievements. What I'm saying is that those who do like the game and appreciate the many things it did -- both on a personal level and a cultural one -- are utterly, utterly right in doing so."

So don't worry skeptics of the game's lasting value, you don't have to like're just wrong if you don't, or at least not as "utterly, utterly right" as those who do.

But what of the game's other flaws?

Polygons got you down? Unimpressed by the homogenizing battle system? Disappointed by the lack of items and spaces to equip them? You might want to look else where then.

Sterling does a great job of giving context to the title's release, explaining how and why it made such a profound splash when it came out in 1997.

As for the actual merits of the game, he is less helpful. He doesn't mention the graphics once, which though I am sympathetic to them, especially the character designs and pre-rendered backgrounds, find detracting at this day in age.

With regard to the battle system, "As well as superb Active Time Battle combat, VII also brought us the Materia system -- a compelling method of gaining new abilities by equipping and mastering them. This allowed for far greater player control over a party's combat prowess, and added in tons of gameplay as players would hunt for rare Materia and work on strengthening it."

Except that there were only three equipment slots, and Materia made magic transferable to the point where all customization was non-existent. Yes, you could hunt to your hearts content for new Materia to your heart's content, but with 50% of them useless or unnecessary, and the rest requiring a dull level grind to power-up, consider me less than enthused. What about skill trees unique to each character? Or a job system like V's refined and improved? Even making the individual Materia become more powerful based on the number of times used rather than the number of random encounters fought would had added a much needed layer of complexity to an already stripped down battle system.

The spectacle of Final Fantasy VII's presentation and edgy story made these elements unimportant back when it first came out. But over a decade later we're left to struggle with them, wondering if newcomers should still pick it up, or if they wouldn't be better served moving on to later titles.

Final Fantasy VII IS in fact overrated, if by that you mean it receives bonus points for the context of its release rather than the content of the game. It still has a lot to offer, especially since the genre it inhabits hasn't evolved as much as others during the intervening years. But while the title deserves critical appreciation and gamer respect, its appeal has diminished with time and will only continue to do so, as other games continue to fill in the incomplete picture of an ideal RPG that Final Fantasy VII left many hungry for.   read

4:11 PM on 06.28.2011

Some Gamers Need to Grow Up

There are all kinds of gaps. There's the income gap between rich and poor, the gender gap between men and women; there's generation gap, the race gap, the digital gap, and the education gap. And of course there's the the Gap that sells cool clothes.

But one gap you might not have heard of is the one forming currently within the gaming community. I'll call it the maturity gap. Now the word "mature" sounds like it's for pussies, clearly. At the very mention of it you've probably already stopped reading and thought, "F*** this F*gg*t! I'm gona go read some cool S*** about video game collections or something."

But for those of you who've stuck around (and weren't scared off by the amount of text), here's what I'm getting at. Gaming is becoming mainstream, and as this happens, a divide is forming among the gaming community's "voice" between the thoughtful and the thoughtless.

In a solid post, ManWithNoName looked at how gamers and gaming have both matured, siting DNF's deserved bashing as well as yesterday's Supreme Court decision which continued to acknowledge video games as a protected form of expression:

"I understand that for us, the gamers, none of those signs should be important, as we always believed in the games as media. But it shows that we and society in general are growing up. And I fail to see why became more mature and understanding is a bad thing."

Many in the comments disagreed though,

sheppy: "When our industry finally does mature, and we're a long way from that point, we won't have our critics feel compelled to talk less about games flaws and more about how smart and evolved and respectable they are."

kid23455: "I hate all the people who feel games need to mature. If it all continues to "mature", soon I will have to listen to seven schpiels about why murdering is wrong and go to confession 18 times per day every time I accidentally back into someone in gta."

These are only two commenters among many, but the sentiment is not isolated to them. And the example that ManWithNoName rightly points to, the recent Supreme Court ruling, goes a long way toward demonstrating this split within the community more generally.

Many look at the ruling, and rightly so, as a step forward in gaming's increasing credibility, legitimacy, and respectability. But just because gaming as a medium is worthwhile and valuable, doesn't mean we need defend every thing that comes out of it. In the marketplace of ideas, all should be welcome, but all need not be equally defended, and many in fact deserve to be dismissed and even sometimes condemned.

Sexualchocolate makes a good point: "I mean sure, it's ultimately the parents who should be keeping an eye on shit, but when Mummy says no, over here it means no, over there it means you have to get the money together and buy it yourself. Is it the same for films? Like could a 10 year old go and buy The Human Centipede on DVD? I don't care how they do it, just so long as it's on par with how they deal with and respect age ratings on films."

But who could let that sensible statement stand? Many responded that the industry is "self-regulated" over here (in the United States), and that this law was stupid, redundant, and so on. The problem with that reasoning is that it cuts both ways. If the the law does nothing different from what's already in place, then who cares if it stays in place or not?

I mean, does anyone actually have a problem with prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors?

Apparently not, since no one I read seemed to be arguing that the law was bad BECAUSE it wanted to stop minors from buying violent games, only that that is was a waste of time and unnecessary.

As a result, you've got a bunch of self-righteous gamers who won't tolerate any attacks on their video games, or any attempts to regulate them, for any reason whatsoever, whether it makes sense or not.

Should an adult be allowed to buy DNF? Of course. Should gamers feel under-attack because the government wants to stop kids from playing it? Not at all. We can defend gaming without defending all games, and without resorting to shoddy arguments and political posturing.

It's time to grow up guys.   read

4:29 PM on 06.21.2011

Remake, Remaster, Rehash

Keza MacDonald at IGN thinks video game remakes are great.

I disagree...sort of.

MacDonald asserts that, ďwhen handled correctly, remakes, remasters and re-releases are an extremely good thing, both for the industry and for us.Ē

According to her, they are, ďevidence of the growing maturity of gaming as a medium.Ē

Having an ever growing library of games to look back upon is definitely a sign of a maturing medium, but itís not the cause. The maturing of the industry would occur regardless of the number of remakes being pumped out.

ďThe incessant push towards new and better technologies that has defined gaming for the past 20 years has begun to slow and developers can finally start applying what they've learned to older games whose abundant ambition was hamstrung by the inadequacy of their technology.Ē

True enough. Who hasnít wanted to see their favorite classics given new life? But remakes, remasters, and re-releases are all very different things. Would I like a remake of Chrono Trigger? Definitely. Do I need an HD remaster of the title? Not really. Do I want to shell out another $10 to play it on PSN? Hell no. And there in is why most gamers decry the unending flow of remasters and re-releases (I donít see any real remakes in the list of titles MacDonald mentions).

Itís one thing to argue that a developer meant to do so much more with a title, but was hamstrung by technology at the time. Or that the developer was pleased with what it accomplished in the first generation of a title, but now realizes how much more could be achieved with what modern technology makes possible. My point here is that simply rendering a game in HD, or polishing the polygons, is not enough. Has the sound been improved? The control scheme made vastly superior? Higher quality writing or better localization introduced?

Macdonald applauds the remastering of N64ís first Zelda title, claiming that, ďFor fans of a game like Ocarina of Time, the recent 3D remaster is a dream come true, a full realisation of a vision that was restricted by the N64's tight technological constraints.Ē

Now Iíll pause here and join Macdonald in her praise, because the 3DS version truly does improve upon the first version in many ways. With a screenshot to screenshot comparison, itís pretty clear that the new Ocarina of Time goes a long way toward expanding the vision of the original, even if itís not the ďfull realizationĒ that Macdonald claims that it is. The idea that the 3DS remaster is the ultimate incarnation is shortsighted. Since video games are intrinsically dependent on technology for their proper expression, what makes this version of OoT the ďfull realization,Ē rather than a later remake or remaster in the future?

If, in five years from now on the 30th anniversary of Zelda, Nintendo were to release a large budget, fully remade Ocarina of Time with all the trimmings and a cherry on top, would that be an even fuller realization? In which case one might ask, ďWhen does it stop?Ē And many would rightly reply, ďHopefully never!Ē But it does raise another issue.

In the realm of finite time and limited resources, when and how is it best for remakes to occur? Is the 3DS really the best platform to re-launch a touched-up version of OoT? Why not invest more time and money and showcase it on the Wii U (or the whatever Nintendo might have thought their next-gen console to be at the time)? Surely there was no pressing need to release a remaster as soon as possible.

Opportunity cost accompanies any of these decisions, so the question becomes, do I want to play an up-to-date version of game X, or a sequel to it, or something else entirely? While remakes, remasters, and re-releases can be great, it depends on how much is actually being changed, what is actually being improved, and whether or not gaming, individual players and the medium as a whole, would benefit more from the industry investing in something else.

Iíll finish by acknowledging the youngest among us, for whom Macdonald is rightly concerned,

ďAged technology is a massive barrier between us and gaming history, and what remakes and remasters do is take a sledgehammer to that barrier, making whole worlds of enduringly relevant older games accessible to modern gamers again.Ē

She puts this last part beautifully, and I do agree: remaking and remastering past gems so that they might be enjoyed again is a noble and necessary endeavor of any great cultural form.

But Iím left wondering, wouldnít having a new Zelda title be better?   read

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