I'm a journalism student with experience that includes newspaper writing, academic research, video game reviews, and personal blogging. My passion is video games; I've been a gamer since the age of three, and have always striven to play a large variety of games in order to keep up with the industry that I cover as a journalist.
"Everyone, stick to the plan!" my teammate urges as the match begins. We all know the drill by now, though, a mere two days into the Halo: Reach beta, well enough to instinctively hop over the railing, mash the left bumper to sprint forward, and fire off our supplies of grenades the second the game starts. One-flag Capture the Flag on Sword Base, the azure map with multiple levels and ramps, plays out the same way every time. The flag's defenders have little choice; they can wait until our grenade bombardment lets up and hope they're not too late, or go around the back way, allowing us to steal their precious flag, though flanking us in the process. Few teams choose the latter strategy.
Games on Sword Base unfold the same way, every time
This is, technically, a very balanced experience. The red and blue teams take turns defending and attacking, always spawning in the same locations, usually with the same armor abilities. Attackers choose sprint to get to the flag quickly. Defenders choose armor lock, the temporary impenetrable shield, to survive the avalanche of grenades. Once the flag has been carried out into the main courtyard of the level, which rarely takes long, members of each team fall back to the tried and true jetpack-enabled Airborne loadout. The attackers attempt to launch the flag into their base using the gravity lift, which may or may not have been its original purpose, and the defenders attempt to shoot them. Grenades are thrown upon spawning, and clusterfucking ensues.
It's difficult to defend the flag, but it's also difficult for the attacking team to carry it all the way to their base, even with the (perhaps unintentional) advantage provided by the central grav lift. (For some reason, I like to imagine that Bungie envisioned players running, pack-like, through the level's cramped corridors, working together and checking around every corner, rather than spamming grenades into the middle of the level while the flags floats up and down helplessly. If that's the case, their vision was, sadly, not achieved.)
Regardless, this experience is a far cry from those halcyon days of Halo: Combat Evolved. This is the complaint most frequently leveraged against Bungie's beloved franchise, and even discounting the heady influence of nostalgia, the detractors have a point.
My transformative years were spent right here
When the original Xbox's sci-fi green, quasi-holographic dashboard greeted my 13-year-old eyes for the first time, I was mesmerized. When Captain Keyes handed me that fabled pistol, I hardly knew how to thank him. Getting the feel for the new controller, innovative game mechanics and unearthly graphics was an incredible experience, one made infinitely better by the fact that I shared it with my closest friends. Though technically young, we were hardened veterans of the frenetic battlefields of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, and thanks to Halo's multiplayer, making the transition from Nintendo's trusted quirks to Microsoft's unexplored frontiers wasn't as hard as we had feared it would be. We were lucky trailblazers.
Our favorite was, of course, Blood Gulch. A match's initial moments were spent hurling pistols slugs at one another while scrambling toward the Scorpion Tank in an all-out race for supremacy. Whomever controlled the tank controlled the entire level. The first of us to reach it usually headed for the hills- literally- jamming the Scorpion behind the elevated rocks at the far end of the canyon, raining military-grade death down on anyone and everyone who dared move. The others, like those left behind at the Rapture, tip-toed through the shadows and clambered up the hill, intent on toppling the Scorpion God, lest more judgments be hurled down from on high. These efforts were usually in vain, and matches often ended with vast differences in scores.
The battle rifle eliminated experimentation
It was fun to watch on the Scorpion God's portion of the screen as you bobbed up and down between the gulch's hills, brashly attempting to reach the rocket launcher and fire off one desperate shot before being force-fed oblivion by the tank's main cannon. Equally fun was teaming up, if only temporarily, to man a Warthog and distract the tank with errant chain gun fire and tenacious meandering long enough for a fourth player to get the jump on him. Experimentation was the name of the game, and this proved true on all maps, through single player, multiplayer, in every game type, and in every scenario.
Something happened, though, during the creation of Halo 2. Balance was given import over experimentation, and the three-round burst battle rifle was introduced. All players were equal, provided they didn't try to pick up any other weapon. The masses of Xbox Live and the elitists at Major League Gaming controlled the tides of gameplay, influencing title updates, weapon tweaks, and matchmaking playlists- elements that hadn't even existed a few years earlier. Vehicles were gimped by the rocket launcher's shiny new lock-on feature, and the 'Gulch, remade as Coagulation, was an over sized mess.
Though the return of Halo's assault rifle boded well for Halo 3, the same issues persisted in its multiplayer. It was fair for every player, it was difficult for one team to gain a distinct advantage, and it truly wasn't as fun as it used to be. It's difficult to articulate where the magic went, but for fans, the difference was palpable. Halo 3: ODST's Firefight mode went miles in the right direction, though spotty connections and a lack of matchmaking (my friends and I live worlds apart by now, after all, and we rarely have similar schedules) made it ineffectual, a blip on the radar.
Firefight, though excellent, was largely overlooked
Halo: Reach may be Bungie's last chance to recapture some of that old magic. The first few days of the multiplayer beta, which began on May 4, demonstrated that they were certainly trying. The internet weeps at the removal of the battle rifle, though many players shed tears of joy. Its replacement- the DMR- is a far more subtle weapon, capable of great damage, but with numerous weaknesses. That's as it should be.
Something was still awry, however, and it struck me as my friends and I- the same ones I devoured the original Halo with over eight years ago- stormed the Sword Base's flag for the umpteenth time.
"This is not why I play Halo," I said, half aloud.
"What?" responded my friend.
"This is not why I play Halo," I reiterated. The discussion that followed led to a revelation. After years as a Halo fan- the kind that reads the books and scours the Wiki, not the MLG kind- I could finally put into words some of what I had been feeling for years- I missed the experimenation. The discussion ended with a pang of hope, however, as the following day was to see the release of Bungie's true ace in the hole: Invasion.
Elites and Spartans are no longer evenly matched
Invasion pits Spartans against elites in a three-part game of territories-meets-capture the flag. Spartans desperately try to hold their ground as the agile, powerful elites storm a simple complex from either side. The Spartans are eventually forced to retreat into a larger base, where more objectives must be achieved before either team can claim victory. Players are no longer evenly matched; elites now possess a versatile dodge maneuver, allowing them to negotiate an advantage against Spartan players in almost any face-to-face confrontation. Spartans possess generally superior weapons and vehicles, however, and the equipment in play becomes more lethal as the various objectives are met. Toward the end of a match, plasma rifles and DMRs are replaced by energy swords and grenade launchers, and vehicles, including that good old Scorpion Tank, are dropped into the map for extra chaos.
Teamwork is important for both sides, but especially for elites, who must decide whether to storm the Spartans' base guns blazing or opt for the more stealthy Assassin loadout. During the final phase of most matches, players are presented with limitless choices. Spawn far from the action and hop in a vehicle, or ask your teammate to kindly find a quiet corner so you can join the game at his or her side? Elites can choose the deadly energy sword, the long range needle rifle, the plasma rifle or the needler. Spartans have an even harder choice between the DMR, shotgun, grenade launcher or assault rifle. All are accompanied by different armor abilities. There are multiple objectives, only some of which must be completed for the game to advance. Strategies are endless, and teamwork, wit, and, yes- experimentation- win matches.
Invasion is what I've been looking for all these years. Halo has come a long way, and I would have never guessed that it would take an experience so vastly different from the original game to finally achieve a similar feeling. If Bungie can deliver even more come September, Reach may be the actual Halo-killer the industry has been seeking for so long. Is it balanced? Sometimes. Is it perfect? No- and thank God for that.
FarmVille gets a bad rap, but rarely for the right reasons. As gamers, we harbor a justifiable helping of skepticism toward things that are different and new, especially things that appeal to so-called "non-gamers." The Wii had everyone's panties in a bunch at first, but four years later, the hype has evaporated and many gamers' Wiis are weighting down papers. While the iPhone has great potential as a gaming device, we're right to criticize its current offerings for faults that everyday saps are blind and indifferent to- while excellent games no doubt exist in the app store, the top-selling games are invariably licensed crap and board games.
FarmVille tends to make a bad first impression, as its updates flood the news feeds of players and non-players alike. Even when Facebook users finally cave and create a farm of their own for the first time, the game is slow to start and provides very little in the way of tutorials. The interface is clumsy and sluggish, and interactions with the game world are buggy and frustrating. Every animal, tree, plot of land and other object must be clicked multiple times to accomplish the most basic interactions, and there's no way to select more than one item at a time. To top it off, every week there are new issues- progress being lost, items disappearing, constant slowdown, and more plague farmers on a daily basis.
For these and many other reasons, FarmVille can easily be described as really, really dumb, especially in the lengths it requires players to undertake to accomplish tasks that should be simple and painless. Non-gamers don't understand that games are supposed to be smart, though. They don't know that a game shouldn't hinder your ability to play it, or that they have the right to demand more from developers. Does Zynga take advantage of their audience? Like neon banner ads take advantage of elderly AOL users.
Yeah, FarmVille does a lot of things wrong. It's what it does right, though, that should have gamers excited.
There is no established formula for a web based game of this magnitude. Console DLC is delivered with little variety and practically zero innovation: "Here's your new character, level, vehicle, or whatever, thanks for the money." FarmVille, on the other hand, delivers a steady stream of new content, much of it at zero real world cost. The in-game marketplace is updated almost every single day with new animals, buildings, decorations, and seeds to plant.
In fact, the term "downloadable content" can't even apply to a game that doesn't exist outside Facebook. Zynga simply updates FarmVille content whenever they see fit. Experimental new features are rolled out with startling frequency. If you've been tearing your hair out at the number of painted eggs, gold coins and valentines popping up on your news feed the last couple months, then you've seen the evidence of this. Never before has new content for an existing game been so lavishly showered upon its players. Old models of distributing new content seem archaic and inhibiting in comparison.
FarmVille also gives players plenty of incentive to interact with other farmers. Visiting neighboring farms results in extra coins and experience, as well as other perks like eggs and fuel. The latest new feature, implemented last week, takes this to the next level: co-op jobs task players with teaming up to complete goals like growing a certain number of crops in a short amount of time.
I'm not saying that everyone should abandon "real" games and start playing FarmVille. Experienced gamers rightfully find it hard to excuse the glaring faults that casual players are somehow able to ignore. The fact is, though, some of its features- like the constant free updates and the high level of player to player interaction- are things that gamers may want to start asking for. Why are we paying ten dollars for a map pack when 12 year old girls are getting new, free content every day in FarmVille? It's something to think about, at least.
Xbox Live's Director of Programming, known by legions of gamers as Major Nelson, spoke to a conference room packed with eager college students last Thursday at the Microsoft New England Research and Development center (aptly named NERD) near Kendall Square.
Of course, everyone there was a nerd, and when this many nerds get together, we get excited. Major Nelson, real name Larry Hryb, knows that well. He was excited too.
Major Nelson knows what we want
He began by telling us how he got started working with the Xbox Live team. "Everything I did leading up to this kind of prepared me for this role," he said. "I was brought on the team specifically to have a dialogue with the community."
He's done a good job, too. Through Twitter, podcasts and majornelson.com, Hryb has spent the last several years becoming the public face of Xbox Live. He's a necessary and beloved intermediary between the aggressive Xbox community and the suits at Microsoft.
"I wanted to have.. a real, honest conversation, that was open, and had a real level of transparency," he said.
Hryb was part of the small team that came up with Xbox Live Achievements, for better or worse, and he had a large role in 2008's massive New Xbox Experience (NXE) interface update to the Xbox 360. What made the NXE so important to Hryb was the fact that it was the first time a home console had been completely revamped with a software update.
"At Microsoft, we learned the power of software," he said.
He also had plenty to say about Microsoft's upcoming mobile plans. Though he couldn't give us too many details, he hinted at some things that sound pretty worthwhile.
"Think about how you can stay connected to the community," Hryb said in response to a question about Xbox Live functionality on Windows phones. "We're really forcing the team to think about how to do gaming the right way." He suggested that in the future, a puzzle game you play on your phone could have an effect on your FPS experience on Xbox Live. "You got your Bejeweled in my Modern Warfare!" "You got your Modern Warfare in my Bejeweled!" It should be noted: I definitely made up that example.
When asked about the possibility of a web browser for the 360 ("The PS3 has one!"), Hryb quipped, "Have you tried it on the PS3?" He confessed that they've got it working "in the lab," but that it's not something they would ship. Instead, he said, they're concentrating on delivering "optimized," bite-sized "best of the web" experiences, like the 360's Last.FM, Facebook, and Twitter widgets.
"Granted, [Twitter's] maybe not the best app," he confessed, eliciting a collective wry chuckle.
As far as being in Boston goes, Hryb said he "would love to have an office here." He knows that a team works better when they're not geographically separated. "There is a tangible value to having people in a single place like this."
All these people want to work in the games industry. NONE OF THEM WILL. Actually a lot of them probably will.
Following his talk was a panel discussion that included such industry personalities as Michael Cummings, Darius Kazemi, James Silva, Kent Quirk, Dan Scherlis, and Major Nelson himself. The panelists focused on how to get hired in the game industry (although they somehow failed to address the very important role of game journalists- what an oversight, right?).
"We get it. You play games," said Scherlis, production and social media guru. "That's not a differentiator." He said that game companies are looking for people who are truly passionate, and have more varied experience than simply a life spent playing lots of video games.
Networking expert Kazemi wanted to stress that experience with games is, indeed, important, however. "The number one thing that I want students to be doing when they are students is to make games," he said.
That's how indie developer James Silva, of The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai and I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1 fame, got his foothold in the industry. In addition to helping you get a job, he said, developing your own games has the advantage of allowing you to maintain the purity of your ideas.
"We've all played games that have had their visions compromised," said Hryb. That can happen when a team of hundreds gets their hands on an idea, but indie developers- and students developing their own games- retain the ability to control every aspect of their games.
"It is a bit of a God complex," said Silva. "I kind of worry about that."
Hryb also instructed aspiring game developers to consider creating games for less obvious, relatively untapped markets. "My mother's a gamer. She's 72 years old," he said. "She just plays a different kind of game." Namely, Mahjong.
Overall, the panel stressed that all programmers should learn design, every artist should learn programming, and most of all, everyone should love what they do (and do what they love). The message sounded familiar to me, as most of my journalism professors like to stress the importance of having numerous skills and being an all-in-one package, of sorts.
As the panel wrapped up and a few bits of swag were distributed to audience members, folks began to trickle out of the conference room, heading to other floors to mingle and network with the multitude of Massachusetts game companies in attendance. Attractions included mega sized Rock Band, free food and less-free booze. I don't know about anyone else, but I wasn't getting carded (I'm fresh enough over the legal drinking age threshold to still feel a tingle of excitement at this).
It's a question I asked several people this weekend, and one that journalists, publishers and lots of other random people have been wringing their hands over for years. A panel of game journalists with experience including both print and online tackled the subject Saturday during a PAX East panel aptly titled "The Death of Print."
The panel included GamePro's Editor in Chief John Davison, freelancer Julian Murdoch, EA's Jeff Green, Kill Screen's Managing Editor Chris Dahlen, and The Escapist's Editor in Chief, Russ Pitts, who led the discussion.
Pitts began with the very same question that had been racing through my mind: "Is print dead?" The overall tone of the panelists' reactions seemed to indicate that though print is struggling, it might be on the verge of a renaissance through reinvention.
left to right: John Davison, Julian Murdoch, Russ Pitts, Jeff Green, Chris Dahlen
"What you really have with print is the ability to run nice features," said Dahlen, who, with Kill Screen, has helped create a magazine filled with "nice features," and little else. Kill Screen is free of previews, reviews, news and, notably, ads. That's because, Dahlen said, finding out the latest video game news has become a simple matter of checking Twitter. Why would readers wait for a gaming news magazine to hit shelves, or their mailboxes, when they can get the same content on the internet practically instantaneously?
That's precisely why the focus is shifting for magazines. Take GamePro, for example. When Davison took hold of the reigns in Fall 2009, he realized the shift wouldn't be as simple as designing a new layout. They needed to "reinvent the brand, not just the magazine."
"They had a 20-year-old brand," he said, "and they didn't know what it stood for."
Freelancer Murdoch said the industry needs to "reinvent what we mean by a magazine."
"The nature of what you expect out of a magazine has changed because of the internet," he told those in attendance.
* * *
The panelists, and many audience members, agreed that print has certain inherent qualities that may just ensure it never dies completely.
"What we compare it to is more like vinyl. " said Dahlen. "The art means something, the cover.. it feels more permanent." He pointed out that vinyl, which was technically "killed" by cassettes (which were in turn slaughtered by compact discs), has been gaining momentum for a number of years, and he sees future print publications filling a similar role in readers' lives (and wallets).
Green said that the EA web site gets around 2 million hits a day, though he confessed that much of that traffic is composed of clueless non-gamers "typing the word 'video game' into Google."
"It's great to get the eyeballs," he said, "but what is the quality of those eyeballs?"
Regardless of their relative quality, those "eyeballs" are certainly important, but developers tend to place a disproportionate value on print coverage, according to Murdoch. He said that in today's world of the 24-hour news cycle, in which web sites' front page headlines are in constant flux, developers usually frame magazine covers that feature their games- even if it's just in a line of text in the bottom corner.
"Online it's all about reach," said Davison. "In print, it's something else."
"It's still a really big deal when a print magazine comes to visit [developers]," said Green, whose job is to maintain an "open dialogue" between consumers and EA. "It's all about the cover."
The panelists also revealed that print media has several advantages over online, as far as writers and publishers are concerned. As publications go online-only, they often come to rely solely on advertising. "A lot of the bullshit that we've seen over the last few years is because of that," said Davison. A move back to print would help knock overly aggressive advertisers down a few pegs.
Besides, the effectiveness of advertising as a revenue stream has been waning since the recent popularization of ad blocking software. Pitts chimed in at one point to say that though he may have helped kill print in his role at The Escapist, readers who utilize ad blockers are "killing online."
Kill Screen was on sale for the first time at PAX East; Issue No.0 is currently on its way to subscribers' houses
Davison also said that content for print is naturally of a higher quality, due to a little thing writers and journalists call the editorial process. Print articles are vetted, fact-checked, revised, edited and revised again until they're fit for the pages of a magazine.
"There's a luxury to print," said Davison. "There's a back and forth in the editorial process."
He said that "because of the immediacy of most online editorial processes," that degree of quality control often falls by the wayside.
"There's a flow to it, a real craft," he said. "It's sort of a lost art in a lot of ways."
* * *
The panelists agreed that print and online have the potential to work in tandem. "The real change in print is it's a small piece in a larger puzzle," said Davison. "Anyone who's doing print is doing a web site that's also a business."
Dahlen agreed, saying that the print version of Kill Screen is a foundation for them to build upon. "We're not going to make a million dollars off a print magazine," he said. "We will have a digital strategy."
"This has largely been a good will project so far," he added. "I haven't made a dime off it."
Despite that, Dahlen is dedicated to helping print find its place, and other panel members shared his views. "If you just distribute online," he said, "it doesn't have the same charm."
With the iPad's release imminent, Davison pointed out that there is great potential for magazines to become more interactive on newer platforms. "There's definitely room for a product that sits in between," he said.
Green neatly summarized the panel's conclusion with an anecdote involving a flight full of Kindle readers who were urged to turn off their electronic devices during take off and landing. Fortunately, Green had a real life, old-fashioned book on hand, but the other passengers were "fucked," as he put it.
"In the end, you still have the toilet, you still have the couch, you still have the airplane," he said. "Sometimes I just want to sit outside on a bench and read something not digital."