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3:51 AM on 12.12.2008

A Good Debate

In a continuation of my last post, regarding Blizzard's "The Art of Persuasion" quest, Richard Bartle has responded, and I to him, over at the main VGD site. To prevent clutter in the previous post I am posting the discussion here, and will update it should the discussion continue any further.

RB: > I might be playing the old school string a bit fervently here, but it would seem that someone from such nascent industry roots as inventing MUDs might have a hard time accepting that the game mechanic option of aborting the quest is a functional story element.

You are playing it a bit fervently. I may have started with MUD, but Iíve been involved in the industry ever since. Actually, in my experience itís the people with the longer backgrounds who have a better idea of whatís going on than those who have only spent 5 years playing MMOs.

Thatís the case here. You misunderstand what it is Iím complaining about. Itís a meta-design point: if youíre going to put in a quest that shocks players out of their comfort zone, you have to mark it. Otherwise, they wonít necessarily realise it was put there deliberately, and any point you were trying to make is lost.

OK, so you abandon the quest. Fair enough, you lose XP, and you miss out on a quest chain. However, you also realise that youíre not playing the same game that you were playing before: thereís been a shift in its ethical structure. Whereas previously you might have been able to justify your actions on the grounds that they were morally justified, now you find yourself being asked to do things which arenít morally justified. Itís as if you were watching The Simpsons and it suddenly changed into South Park. So what was previously a fun game with a vague cover that all those killings you were doing were acceptable because those bad guys would have killed you if you hadnít killed them, now youíre being asked to go beyond the pale.

What if you do the quest, though? It runs just like every other quest - thereís no indication that it was anything out of the ordinary. So whereís the story element? There is none. If players arenít told somehow, ďyou might want to reflect on what you just didĒ, theyíll think itís just part of the game. They wonít recognise it as a story atom; theyíll just think Blizzard is OK with torture.

The design principle is that if you push people over a boundary, you have to provide a context to justify it, or immediately pull them back. Blizzard does know this: thereís a quest in Teldrassil where some satyr asks you to kill things you know youíre not supposed to kill, and if you do them then you get in the bad books of the dark elves and have to do another quest to redeem yourself. Thatís fine: it tells people that if they want to step over the line, they can expect consequences. Thereís no such response in the WotLK torture quest, and thatís what Iím complaining about.

>I would bet that even Bartle himself has completed the quest

Yes, but then Iím a designer, not a player: I had to complete the quest to see how Blizzard handled it.


VGD: Firstly, thanks for taking the time to comment (and not starting with ĎDear Trollí)

In no way am I questioning your experience, or suggesting you would be out of touch. Iím simply suggesting that someone whoís been playing these sort of games since their inception are going to see things differently than someone much newer to the genre ó you have different expectations and, probably, different definitions of good MMO storytelling; not to suggest those differences are wrong.

Alright, that makes it much clearer; you would have a quest with this sort of content divided into a quest category, or at least make the Ďmoral testí aim clear in the text and objectives, if Iím following. But that brings me back to the idea of actual choice, not necessarily accounted for by the quest structure but rather by player actions through mechanics. Does a quest have to be marked in order to evoke player choice and recognition? Isnít it counter to getting a point across if you put up a big neon sign saying ĎThis is a moral quest, please choose the high road or be punishedí.

The point youíre making is going to be consonant or dissonant to players, which is not going to change their mind. Given the choice, through mechanics, to do or not do a quest, youíre letting the player actually make up their mind. Itís not accounted for and itís not a part of the story if they choose not to do it, but that player knows if they did or did not do it. Maybe someone who hunts isnít going to complete the Cenarion anti-Nesingwary chains because they feel weird attacking something they agree with ó itís not part of the story or quest structure, but the function for the individual is still there. Maybe that could be called bad game design, but the player behaviour still exists even though itís not planned for ó you could go so far as to call it emergent.

The risk of defending this quest, and by proxy Blizzard, is that it implies I think the quest is perhaps perfect. Itís not, and I can agree that they tread on thin ice when dealing with torture. But I donít think itís as large a shift in ethic theme as youíre proposing. Blizzardís light, cheeky style is fairly consistent. The mage you torture responds with quirky insults, verging on the whole black knight persona, ďtis but a flesh woundĒ. The Kirin Tor mage simply turns his back and arranges books while you torture this person. Itís a rather comical situation, and taken as satire, does not condone torture.

That said, some quests do seem to make that shift, now that you mention it. Collecting poacher ears for the Cenarion Expedition made me a bit uneasy. The zealous nature of the CE is unsettling, while the poachers are comically evil (collecting deer skin for that new set of Nesingwary knives). Itís an odd combination that seems to have been executed effectively, but is surprising nonetheless.

To your point about the story value of that quest; itís exposition. Players knew the Kirin Tor were a bit shady (watching over Medivh with the Violet Eye ó wiretapping reference, anyone?) but now players are aware that torture, while not condoned officially, is allowed. This is the sort of thing that led me to suggest you might have quite a different perspective here: Iím quite content seeing that the quest is saying and not telling. If Blizzard told me that torture was bad then I havenít decided for myself; so I havenít really decided anything.

I hope Iím not driving home the subjectivity point too hard here, as I glance up to see it seep into just about every paragraph, just in a different phrasing, but hopefully you see my point in all of this.

RB: >Iím simply suggesting that someone whoís been playing these sort of games since their inception are going to see things differently than someone much newer to the genre

Well no, thatís not what you were suggesting. You said I ďmight have a hard time accepting that the game mechanic option of aborting the quest is a functional story elementĒ. That does indeed imply that Iím out of touch. It seems to be saying Iím so dyed-in-the-wool that these new-fangled ďMMOsĒ are beyond my understanding. Theyíre not.

>Does a quest have to be marked in order to evoke player choice and recognition?

Basically, yes, it does. If you look at what people have been saying in the comments to blog postings on this topic, itís painfully clear that a good many of them see nothing wrong with the quest and donít know what all the fuss is about. If you donít hit them over the head with it, these people arenít ever going to recognise that the quest was in any way making a point.

For those who do feel the quest stands out in a disturbing way, you have to reassure them that it was intended or theyíll think you put it in because thatís how you feel. If this were a tightly-written narrative game, you could probably get away with it because players would be expecting to have to look for subtexts for everything; here, though, this isnít clear. There are people arguing in other forums that this quest is simply an example of Blizzardís dark humour and thereís no subtext to be read into it at all. Therefore, in a game like WoW, you do need to mark the quest as being there to make a point, otherwise even those people who recognised it will not know thereís a subtext and will look for other explanations.

>Isnít it counter to getting a point across if you put up a big neon sign saying ĎThis is a moral quest, please choose the high road or be punishedí.

That may be, but you can mark it afterwards. They can do the quest and THEN you can indicate that they may like to think about what it is they were asked to do. This is what we see in that Teldrassil quest I mentioned, for example.

>Maybe someone who hunts isnít going to complete the Cenarion anti-Nesingwary chains because they feel weird attacking something they agree with ó itís not part of the story or quest structure, but the function for the individual is still there. Maybe that could be called bad game design

The anti-hunting quests are flagged up as making a point by their pretty clear parodying of PETA with DEHTA, and the ďDEHTAís little PITAĒ achievement you get at the end. Where is the equivalent for the torture quest?

>I donít think itís as large a shift in ethic theme as youíre proposing.

Itís perhaps not a huge shift, but itís still a noticeable one.

>Blizzardís light, cheeky style is fairly consistent. The mage you torture responds with quirky insults, verging on the whole black knight persona, ďtis but a flesh woundĒ. The Kirin Tor mage simply turns his back and arranges books while you torture this person. Itís a rather comical situation, and taken as satire, does not condone torture.

If they wanted it to be comical, they could have made it funnier than they did. It just plays as a run-of-the-mill quest - nothing to mark it out as different.

>but now players are aware that torture, while not condoned officially, is allowed.

Yes, but large swathes of the player base donít seem to think thereís anything wrong with that. If Blizzard is making a narrative point here, itís lost on those people.

>Iím quite content seeing that the quest is saying and not telling.

Those people who donít want to do it would be content with that, too, if they were sure that was indeed what it was saying. We really donít know, though - with no in-game explanation, weíre reduced to second-guessing Blizzardís intentions. Blizzard could come up with any one of half a dozen explanations. If one of them was the ďyou kill people, so whatís a bit of torture here and there?Ē answer that keeps coming up in forum discussions, your understanding of the quest would have changed. It wouldnít be about saying and not telling - it wouldnít really be about much at all, other than Blizzard thought torture was small beans in the great scheme of things. Thatís why we needed it marked here: to show that itís intended to be stand-out, and to hint at what it was saying.

>I hope Iím not driving home the subjectivity point too hard here, as I glance up to see it seep into just about every paragraph, just in a different phrasing, but hopefully you see my point in all of this.

I do, but then I see everyone elseís point, too. You read the quest one way and are happy with that; other people have read it other ways. Some of these people are also happy, and some are not happy. Whatever, they canít all be right..!


VGD: ďWell no, thatís not what you were suggesting.Ē

But it was, even if you interpret it that way; perhaps youíre used to being on the defensive on that point. Every developer knows a fresh set of eyes sees things more clearly and without preconceptions ó thatís not to say more correctly or less correctly, but itís a different perspective that should be considered. It seems that to you the quest is broken from a design standpoint, but youíre not acknowledging any other set of criteria that might be applied to judge it ó is your criteria not influenced by your experience more so than what fashion this quest is communicating a message in?

ďIf this were a tightly-written narrative game, you could probably get away with it because players would be expecting to have to look for subtexts for everything; here, though, this isnít clear. Ē

Tightly-written as in linear, short and dense, like a single-player RPG? While there is no easily condensed single story there are multiple story threads that are continued and added to, and I think some players ARE looking for subtext in the quests that make up these story threads. What was interesting with the Death Knight quests is that the bad guys really arenít that different from the good guys, because for a while the usual good guys are the enemy. Then the Ebon Blade becomes a friendly faction, etc, and now they have a storied background and their thread is more interesting going forward. The Kirin Tor also have a story thread, and this torture quest is no doubt a part of it, as they are increasingly built up to represent the secret society, the illuminati, the vanguards of good that seem to have very dark secrets. The significance is there for the people looking for it, and the people not looking for it donít care to see it; bonking them over the head with information isnít going to paint them interested.

ďSome of these people are also happy, and some are not happy. Whatever, they canít all be right..!Ē

But they can! If one player hates a game because of the music and one player loves that same game because of the music, both of them are right ó they have different tastes. Beyond quality of workmanship, games are difficult to objectify, and so too is the manner in which this quest was implemented.

As you, reportedly, donít wish to make a huge deal out of your own unhappiness with the quest, who is to say that Blizzard was trying to make a point with it? I say it fits into the usual lighthearted style because it does blend in with other quests ó nobody who already thinks torture is a terrible thing to do is going to complete the quest and suddenly think torture is fine because Blizzard treated it in such a light way. And just the same, nobody who is ignorant to the reality of torture would change their mind if the quest made a point of showcasing morality.

Say the tortured mage dies when youíre done torturing him, and the next quest in the chain has you dispose of the body. You return to claim your reward and the Kirin Tor, while thankful, think less of you now. Maybe you even lose some rep with them for doing what this lackey has commanded, breaking Kirin Tor policies. So what? Itís now become a very pragmatic quest, and those who donít think much of torture are still going to plod along and say ĎWasnít that torture quest great, I feel like such a badassí.

In its current state the quest is of the common variety, and I believe it would have the same effect on people who are fine with torture, while beating people who are aware of that sort of cruelty over the head. Surely when you played the quest, yourself against the practice of torture, you saw what they were trying to say. Itís a highly sardonic and deadpan mockery of any government, and maybe specifically the US government and the trouble theyíve gotten into lately in the press. A good portion of the audience, I would bet, are on the same page, and the rest are not. No matter how you create the quest itís going to satisfy one part and turn off the other.

What I find odd is that you seem fine with giving players a way to think, and letting them go down that path. Because the DEHTA quests are obvious and thinly veiled, and more or less tell the player who the good guys and the bad guys are, then itís fine because a line has been drawn? In that case you have a quest writer telling players what to think, and whose place is that?

All the better that the quest ísayí rather than Ďtellí and allow players to make up their own minds; thatís how theyíre going to think anyways. You cite the satyr quest in Teldrassil as being perhaps a good mark to hit in order to make a morally challenging quest, yet the only thing to do is redeem yourself; itís built into the quest and comes off as artificial. You didnít really do anything wrong, this is what the quest is supposed to do. So does that teach players that doing the wrong thing is fine if you do something nice afterwards? The logic just doesnít hold up if what you want to accomplish is to sway someoneís opinion.   read

3:19 AM on 12.11.2008

WoW Quest is Controversial?

Kotaku has been following a story (sounds contrived, but itís true!) wherein Richard Bartle ó the man who created Multi-User Dungeons ó has decided to call out a quest involving the subject of torture. Mind you itís not the only torture quest in the game, (the Death Knight content has players murdering townspeople and harvesting human skulls) but his point is still relevant. Is it moral for Blizzard, even in jest, to more or less condone torture? The quest has you using a magical neural needle (guaranteed not to cause permanent harm!) to convince a member of the Beryl Mages to give up information on the whereabouts of a member of the Kirin Tor (the preeminent group of wizards in the Warcraft universe, and generally the good guys). The Kirin Tor has strict rules on torture, but youíre technically a free agent, so theyíd rather have you do it for them. Bartleís issue is that in order to complete the quest you must torture the Beryl Sorcerer, and there is no branching path where the player can choose not to use torture.

Now, as an act of reinforcement I agree it looks irresponsible. Is Blizzard teaching players that torture is necessary and effective? Yeah; no, thatís not good. But viewed through a different and more appropriate lense, I would have to disagree. As a commenter on Kotaku stated, you can just abort the quest and face the consequences of making the right choice; which is the loss of twenty some thousand experience ó the usual experience reward. I might be playing the old school string a bit fervently here, but it would seem that someone from such nascent industry roots as inventing MUDs might have a hard time accepting that the game mechanic option of aborting the quest is a functional story element. One might, more traditionally, expect a branching story. Give the player more options. The idea that you can *actually* choose not to do the quest is quite foreign.

Iím no expert on MUDís, but Iíve written some crude text adventures in Java. And in that situation you a) take the winding path or b) enter the cave. Youíve got to choose. From my perspective the option to organically eliminate roadblocks is more of an actual choice ó thatís why itís harder to make. You really want that experience. Sure itís questionable, sure you may disagree with what your character is doing. But at the end of the day you need to get to level 80, because your boss isnít going to believe youíve been sick for more than a week. I would bet that even Bartle himself has completed the quest; I did. In fact I found the quest incredibly amusing if only for the insults slung my way by the detainee, especially as I thought back to one of the Death Knight quests that involved Ďpersuadingí Scarlet Crusade soldiers to relinquish information by replacing your weapons with hot pokers and wading through huge blocks of insult text until they either spilled the beans or died.

My point is that itís nothing new; itís Blizzard humour through and through, and itís done tastefully. I mean really, as much as I respect the right to get upset over something you view as irresponsible, whatís next? Accusing Monty Python of condoning torture because their Spanish Inquisition sketches were hilarious and didnít end with a message saying ĎThe actual Spanish Inquisition was really bad, donít torture peopleí? I think, as Blizzard has proved with itís quest vocabulary and subject matter, we have to respect the intelligence of the playerbase. Anyone who plays the quest and thinks torture is alright wasnít convinced by the quest ó not because itís Ďjust a videogameí but because the subliminal pull isnít there. I can tell when a religious informercial is trying to convince me that their faith saves or whatnot; there isnít someone at Blizzard championing torture and hoping to convince others of its wonderful uses, and itís easy to see that. If anything the quest text makes the Kirin Tor seem unwilling to get their hands dirty, and willing to keep some skeletons in the closet ó which is called story development; it gives the Kirin Tor more character. The whole thing seems to be much ado about nothing.

By the way, the topic option on Destructoid for PC content is "Games for Windows"? Really? Jeese, maybe the PC really is dead.   read

6:19 AM on 11.16.2008

Wrath of the Lich King

It's hard to overcome the skepticism that should surround any expansion for an MMO. Presumably any additional content should be more of the same, aiming to prolong the experience. But Wrath of the Lich King is different. Wrath of the Lich King has a theme and it follows it to a point, and that theme seems to have inspired Blizzard to create something amazing.

The original WoW content was rather tame. You were finding your place in the world, and the world was stable. The Alliance and the Horde were not at war. The idea was just to provide some neat fantasy surroundings. With Burning Crusade came a bit more instability; the Dark Portal was open again and it was apparent that Outland and its inhabitants had been ravaged. The demon-controlled Orcs had left scars and infuriated Draeni, the Blood Elves were subverting the land's magic for their own addictions, and the world was being openly assaulted by the forces of evil.

But in Wrath of the Lich King the situation has escalated. All throughout the continent of Northrend is a feeling of threat and immediacy. You're coming across people who have lost their homes and families, entire races that have been displaced and are deciding how to save themselves -- whether they should run or fight. The dragons, ancient protectors of the land, are embroiled in a war of attrition -- the blue dragonflight feels the only way to stop the abuse of magic and save the world is to destroy all magic-possessing life, while the red dragonflight fights to preserve all life on Azeroth. Arthas and his undead armies are seeping into the world and disturbing the natural order.

This content -- quests, dungeons, writing -- is above and beyond any previous content available in WoW. Northrend is such a tragic and hopeful place that it makes the ordeals of Outland and the old world seem rather juvenile.

The dense and detailed environments come together with the quests to paint a picture of a doomed land that has chosen to stand and fight, because it has no other choice. And as evidenced in the new Death Knight quests, even the 'bad guys' have an understandable agenda. In several books that you have the option to read, the Lich Kel'Thuzad explains that the Scourge is not so much evil as it is the acknowledgement of sinful nature. The Scourge -- at least the...upper management...are fighting for a different way of life, a life of inevitable death and undeath, and strength in the immoral. They allow the living to believe they are pure evil because they are sure that they cannot win against their sinful nature.

If you had asked me about three years ago if WoW had a story worth listening to I would have said no. But with the advent of Wrath of the Lich King the tattered and brave world that I had gotten to know as a kid playing Warcraft II has finally exposed itself, and this new direction is wonderful. Blizzard didnít pay me to say this, butÖcheques or cash are fine.   read

5:59 AM on 11.12.2008

Nintendo > Science

Thatís a big claim, but Nintendoís new Canadian ďBuild your brainĒ ads seem to support the equation. In the ads a respectable looking adult can be seen playing a DS while an onlooker with a tiny head attempts to make small talk. The person playing the DS either rolls their eyes or produces a forced smile ó these people not playing games are idiots.

NowÖgame ads are at worst dumb and at bestÖwell letís just say that the best game commercials might not be up to par with your common toothpaste commercial. But games represent an entire subculture ó not only is a game commercial responsible for selling a product, itís the only glimpse into what gamers are all about that most non-gamers will ever get.

And in the past Iíve been infuriated by commercials for games like Call of Duty: Big Red One, which was quite simply false advertising. The commercial featured a completely pre-rendered battle scene that looked similar to the actual game in context (thereís your weapon, itís in first person) but was completelyÖcooler than the actual game. The advertisement conveniently forgot to mention, except for maybe in tiny fine print, that the footage does not represent the game whatsoever. They might as well have just ran thirty seconds of Saving Private Ryan and told consumers ďIf you like World War 2, have we got a game for you!Ē.

But while the Big Red One ad tugged at my gamer sensibilities, these new Nintendo ads genuinely concern me. Why? Because this isnít just a trick like a pre-rendered sequence, itís an outright lie that flies in the face of scientific fact.

People used to think that crossword puzzles kept the mind fit and in working order as old age started to take its toll. And quite literally it was just what people thought. When it was put to the test it turned out that filling in the blanks in a crossword puzzle doesnít magically repair your brain. Thatís because no matter what mental acrobatics you do, it wonít stop your brain from shrinking as you age. When people age their hair dies, their muscle wears away, their skin loses its elasticity, their teeth get worn down, they get shorter as their bones shrink and their brain gets smaller.

Human beings have evolved to live short lives ó our hunter-gatherer ancestors were extremely fit and died of natural trauma before they grew into old age. As such, nature didnít develop our bodies to live long lives. When we developed agriculture we started to live in large groups with an abundance of food. We started to live longer, albeit more sedentary lives. Along the way weíve developed technology to compensate for the new deficiencies weíve created for ourselves, at a much faster rate than evolution. In very early agricultural societies people subsided on grains; being high in sugar this unbalanced diet quickly rotted their teeth. Thanks to modern dentistry and fluoride we donít have that problem.

But I can assure you, Brain Age is not the piece of technology that is going to slow or halt the shrinking of our brain. Doing math does not create new brain tissue or generate new cells. It does not keep the brain cells you currently have Ďfití and it does not prevent them from dying.

And this is concerning because when all of the non-gamers in my family see these ads, they will ask me about it. They will be curious, because who doesnít want to keep their brain fit? And I will have to tell them ďNo, itís not true at allĒ. And my chance at showing them that videogames are just as valuable as other games and forms of entertainment will have been lost.

There are so many benefits to playing games already that it confuses me as to why Nintendo feels they need to lie in order to attract new gamers. People have no problem with watching movies and playing sports, sinking hours and hours into them. But videogames are still a passtime that non-gamers donít understand.

Itís not like theyíve seen what games have to offer and have decided it isnít for them; we keep telling them that games are great but we never inform them. I managed to get my mother to play Gears of War about a year ago and she had the same reaction she has while playing air hockey ó once she got a hold of the controls (enough to move around and aim a bit) she was excited and loud and a bit afraid. Itís been said that women have a hard time with high tension games, and this was apparent. But she was having fun. She had no problem with the setting, no problem that it wasnít Ďdirected at her demographicí. Her big problem was not understanding. It took her a while to grasp which character was hers, that other characters in the world possessed a different viewpoint from her own (the game world seemed one dimensional to her), and that the game had objectives.

The industry spends so much time smugly targeting groups of pretend users with stupid and deceitful advertisements that it doesnít realize that everyone would be interested if they just knew the facts. Itís easy to advertise toothpaste; everyone needs toothpaste and everyone knows what it is. Imagine the first ads for toothpaste ó nobody would know what it was or why they needed it.

Thatís the problem that videogame advertising faces today, and itís the problem that no marketing team wants to solve. They believe firmly in demographics and trendsetters and viral campaigns and market research, but Iím not sure they believe in people.   read

6:03 PM on 11.04.2008

Far Cry 2 & Responsibility

While reading Luke Plunkettís Love/Hate review of Far Cry 2 over at Kotaku, this paragraph caught my eye:

"I Know That I Must Do Whatís Right Ė While Resident Evil 5 probably wishes it had done things a little differently, Far Cry 2 does a surprisingly good job of tackling the continent responsibly, without ever resorting to heavy-handed clichťs of social responsibility and morality. There are bad men, there are good men, there are lots of men (and women) in between. Same goes for your missions. Youíre free to make your own morality in Far Cry 2, the game never forces it down your throat."

While Resident Evil 5 may have been insensitive in its advertising, itís not a game that fits in the realm of responsibility. Itís a game about the walking dead, and it just happens to be set in Africa ó thatís not to say it canít communicate anything, but at the end of the day it exists for scary head exploding fun.

But not Far Cry 2. Itís set in what tries to display itself as a realistic African country in the midst of a civil war, and for this reason I believe itís Far Cry that isnít being responsible. There are no women (or children) that I have seen ó the game presents a world that I might have naively depicted in some school essay years ago. Itís a world full of men fighting men, of friendship and betrayal ó absolutely bereft of any social conflict, moral responsibility, or any of the realities of life.

Interestingly enough Kotaku had another post up where Angelina Jolie offered her stance on violence and her children:

"Jolie tells Harperís Bazaar 'My kids play video games. I let them play with toy soldiers. We donít take war and violence lightly, but we donít hide it from anybody.'"

And this is just what Far Cry 2 does; it hides the real violence and doesnít even begin to grasp the seriousness of the situation. In fact itís almost a farce; the player finds blood diamonds in hidden briefcases and easily plays both sides of the conflict without repercussions. As a portrayal of Africa in conflict, itís a childís cartoon.

The only tinges of moral responsibility in the game are player created ó Iíll often find myself playing pretend inside of the game, as if the game cared about my actions at all, which it doesnít. For instance in a mission where I was charged with finding a corrupt police officerís brother in order to dig up some dirt I squeezed off a submachinegun burst into his chest after he had given me the documents. The game clearly expected me to complete my objective and move on, since he casually requests you now leave him and his family alone. And instead of my character gaining a reputation as a merciless double dealer, or even seeing something akin to Fallout 3ís ďkarma lostĒ, I just go on with my mission. And where was his family? He was just sitting at a desk in the middle of a swamp fort guarded by mercenaries.

In fact where does anyone live in the world of Far Cry 2? It seems like only highwaymen exist; nobody else lives in the entire country. No houses, no kids playing on the street, no women hanging their laundry out to dry, no civillians just driving or walking and minding their own business. Itís a videogame world, through and through.

So as a bit of a thought experiment, take two pieces of media: Far Cry 2 and The Last King of Scotland. Give one of these to a man with a plane ticket to the Congo. My guess is that after playing Far Cry 2 his opinion might not change, because it depicts an imaginary place. But after watching the film the same man might fear for his safety and cancel the ticket.

And thatís because the game doesnít even seem to consider morality, or the situation. The game could be set in Kansas and nothing would change. Nothing. The game has no systems to deal with responsibility, so how can it be said that it gives the player free reign? Rather it seems like it doesnít have anything to do with the game, so they didnít bother with it.

What Far Cry 2 does do is apply strict reductionism to a complex human situation. It depicts a caricature of a war torn Africa, and I fail to see the responsibility in that. What I see is an effort to avoid any meaningful commentary, to avoid any volatile tugging on human emotions, to avoid being relevant so as to not stir up any trouble with the censors or the media. Thatís quite understandable, but far from commendable.   read

9:41 PM on 11.02.2008

On the State of the Industry

While I was browsing the usual suspects for gaming news today I noticed something very ordinary that struck me as unusual Ė a thumbnail of what looked like an N64 era Hulk about to throw a car. Itís a mobile phone game. Business as usual; itís a crappy cash in doomed to disuse and neglect. But it got me thinking about how far the industry has come, and itís not the rosiest picture.

There are so many developers out there making games that nobody wants to play, games that nobody cares about, not even the developers. Game developers can come to the end of their careers not having made a game they liked. Itís highly probable that nobody reading this will ever come across that Hulk game. So why is it even being made?

The most obvious answer is money; but it goes a bit deeper than that Ė why not make an honestly good game in order to make money? Because not everyone can afford to make a good game, but everyone wants in. Gaming is the hot new thing, and while it may inspire a group of geeks to work nonstop to put something they love onscreen, it also draws in businessmen who see an opening. There are companies that exist to make bad games, and are happy to survive off of high profit margins. Even big studios like EA produce cash crop games; games that only the most defiant developer could defend with a straight face. A producer from EA once told me that there was a reason EA was founded by Stanford graduates; by businessmen. They might as well be selling toilet seats, it doesnít change anything.

All for money. And just now gamers are seeing some of EAís money going towards new and quality titles. But surely it didnít take Madden sales that long to fund a new game. So even when these small businesses evolve into giants like EA, it takes them a long time to change their ways. They invest the money they make so they can make more money. And with that money they find a way to make more money. The consumer doesnít really fit into the picture, besides as the unwitting dope with money to spend.

And all the while they look on with wonder at Blizzard, Nintendo, at Valve, Bungie, id, Epic, and at Infinity Ward. How do they do it? They make the games that other game developers love more than their own projects. Yet thereís no secret Ė they make games for themselves. Nobody asked for Mario; the market didnít seem right for Mario, nobody advised that Mario would make some money. Nintendo made it and told you to love it.

Just look at EAís Facebreaker Ė made for everyone! Made for the casual and the hardcore! It sold just over fifty thousand copies. And instead of looking at the evidence and seeing the failure associated with pandering to demographics, you know that theyíll do? For starters they wonít publish Tim Schaferís Brutal Legend, because itís too risky. Itís not for any demographic, so why should it sell? And when the game finds a publisher and outsells games like Facebreaker, theyíll be left wondering again. How did they do it?

Clearly theyíre doing something these business oriented companies canít Ė think clearly. People donít know what they want, and trying to service demographics is a misguided use of statistics. Every developer is a human being, and chances are if they love what theyíre making then other people will love it too. But if you donít love the project youíre working on, why should anyone else? Does that invisible casual gamer exist? What exactly is a hardcore gamer, and are you sure there is just one type of hardcore gamer? Why do some Counter Strike players also love Warioware, and why do some casual gamers play Halo? Itís hard to classify what people want in their entertainment. No Country for Old Men wasnít made for the cowboy murder fiction demographic. It was made for people.

And to be clear, a business oriented company is not just a company with a smart marketing team. Valve has great business people, but they exist to keep the company alive long enough for the creatives to deliver their game. A business oriented company is the exact opposite Ė their creatives make games in order to support the business.

There isnít really a precedent to fall back on here, so who can say what direction the industry will go in; but one thing is clear Ė if money continues to drive the production of so many games then gamers can expect more Hulk games on their phones, and developers can expect to be working on them.   read

1:00 AM on 11.02.2008

So...Mirror's Edge

I'm just going to go ahead and accept that my excitement for this game will come across as vapid and flavourless, because liking things on the internet makes you a pussy. So instead I'm going to focus on the faults. I was under the impression that the controls were really simple and, excuse the pretentiousness -- elegant. Somehow I had construed the idea that duck was mapped to LT and jump to RT. So you'd be jaunting over a cluttered rooftop and tap LT to slide under a pipe, then tap RT to bound seamlessly over another.

That would have been fantastic, probably. But LB is jump, and LT is crouch? I scoffed when a friend told me it felt like you were playing with one side of the controller, but I'm an asshole, because he was right.

I'm not that stupid, so I got the hang of the controls pretty quickly; it's not that it increases the barrier to entry or affects the learning curve, it's just that they're asinine. Punch is mapped to know what? If punch needs to take RT, remove punching. Remove the NEED to punch. Remove enemies from the game. Save yourselves some work, DICE. Don't hurt the free running with negotiated controls.

Now I've lost my train of thought...well the next thing that comes to mind is the colour red. I've heard you can turn the red markings off in the full game, but I didn't try in the demo. There's really nothing wrong with the system of marking things you need to interact with red, except that they screwed it up. I'm not sure how you do that -- well I am actually; you also colour things that have nothing at all to do with the player red. I spent about five minutes shimmying across a pipe with a large red line above it, and then trying to grab onto some red overhangs. Turns out you IGNORE all of that, and just keep on running to the left. Silly me.

So I came away from the demo thinking "Wow, that main menu is really cool". I guess the game is OK too.   read

8:34 PM on 11.01.2008

Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway Review

I do some reviewing for a site called Evergeek, check out the latest review here.   read

10:11 PM on 10.28.2008

The Collective Anticipation

[Cross-posted on Vancouver Game Design]

Assassinís Creed was built up to be a period piece, a historical thriller and a look inside the mind of ancient assassin. Gamers were preparing to gear up and step into those medieval shoes. With such a lack of actual information gamers were clinging to a premise. And when that premise turned out to be a lie when they slid the disk into their machine, a crowd of spiteful gamers let everyone know that they thought the game was complete garbage. Ubisoft had wasted their time and money on a failure of a game.

But you donít really believe that, do you? As someone who read about the leaked premise, I wasnít surprised by the game taking a turn into sci-fi territory within the first five minutes. What I witnessed was a simple but well executed action game, that in fact benefitted from its simple nature and leant itself to real free roaming.

Did the marketing team at Ubisoft fail catastrophically, or were gamers living in two different realities? Well the game was in fact critically hailed (even Zero Punctuation liked it) and sold extremely well, so it should be safe to say that the game is not objectively as poor as some gamers made it out to be. Prospective players had built their own idea of the experience over the gameís long road to release, and when they saw that the actual game ran counter to their previously held beliefs, they exploded. Call it cognitive dissonance ó they couldnít accept that Assassinís Creed was not the game they thought they would love, and so they just had to hate it.

And now itís happening again with Dead Space. Reviewers have been kind to it so far, and it has an 89 on Metacritic ó so expect a sequel. Yet the gaming audience is divided again. Some people love it, and some people fervently hate it. Some people find it scary, and some people donít. But how can that be? Games are a relatively subjective medium, but thereís something fishy going on here.

Most of the complaints railed against the game are easily dismissible ó it copies mechanics from other games, but what game doesnít? It isnít scary, itís just tense; but the same can be said about Resident Evil. They seem more like invented dislikes than genuine flaws. People have chosen to not enjoy Dead Space, perhaps before they have even laid hands on it ó and maybe they never will.

And because Iím a professional unprofessional psychologist, Iím going to label this the Ďcollective anticipationí. People who see eye to eye have a tendency to congregate and bounce their beliefs off one another for affirmation. ĒDead Space sucks because itís derivativeĒ says one gamer, and another answers back ďYeah, itís shitĒ. And so for those two gamers, Dead Space is going to be shit. But it isnít just two gamers who share the same opinion, itís hundreds and thousands, maybe more. Obviously it isnít enough to negatively impact a gameís sales, but they are a loud minority.

So next time youíre yapping about a game, ask yourself if youíve placed yourself in an echo chamber ó because you might be missing out on a good time.   read

7:37 PM on 10.17.2008

World of Warcraft is Full of Cylons

Originally posted on VGD Sister Site, Heatwaves & Gamma Rays

Iíve been on a Battlestar binge lately, but the reference is perfect. When a Cylon dies their conciousness is downloaded into a reproduction facility and transferred to a new body. Essentially, there are no inexperienced Cylons. Like videogame players they learn from death and adjust accordingly in their next life.

And now, as World of Warcraft reaches its peak playerbase, you can see the same thing. That level 40 Hunter isnít really a level 40 Hunter, heís a level 70 Paladin, who is a level 70 Rogue on another server. Itís hard to find someone thatís still on their first character, who hasnít transferred their experience to another class.

For the Cylons that means theyíre incredibly dangerous to their enemies, and the same thing applies to WoW players. In fact, I would guess that a WoW player who has lead several different virtual lives with different characters has built up a wealth of experience within that game system that is unparalleled. An FPS player might be an excellent shot with the MP-5, so it should go without saying that heís a crack shot with a pistol ó itís not like other games donít have this transfer of knowledge, but firing a virtual weapon at a target isnít a skill that takes long to learn. It may take a long time to master, yes, but WoWís nine classes all play quite differently. A player who used to be his enemy has a lot of valuable knowledge at hand.

But I wonder if this isnít detimental to a virtual world. At the outset of the experience I felt quite a bit of wonder and excitement as I explored the world with others. But now we all know where everything is, and what everyone does, because weíve been there before.   read

8:41 PM on 10.09.2008

Breaking Old Habits -- WWII Games

Back when the Day of Defeat mod was the bees knees in the Half-Life community I remember there was a big deal made out of the gun balance. It's expected that a WWII game is going to attract gamers with an eye for history as well as people who 'just want to shoot bitches'. When it was discovered that although the German and American side had different weapon models most of the guns were in fact exactly the same statistically, people were pissed. If the guns were the same, what's the difference between the sides? I'm not sure whether the guns were changed or not, or if they were updated in the Source mod, but that event sticks in my memory.

Now, as I watch the gameplay trailer for Call of Duty: World at War, I'm wondering what those disgruntled gamers would think. I myself was a bit confused when I saw the Japanese toting a Thompson submachine gun. While it may have made sense for Call of Duty 4 to have weapons that weren't dependant on your side in the conflict, it just doesn't seem to make sense in the WWII setting.

It would be interesting to see a poll on the subject and to see what sort of gamers the game will attract. I'm quite aware that there is probably a majority that would call me nitpicky and love the idea of shared weapons. But at the risk of sounding like a senior citizen -- what is happening to my beloved first person shooters? Most shooters have already rid themselves of fire modes (single, burst, automatic), and now they're not bothering to differentiate the teams through gameplay mechanics.

Nobody will be complaining about the stopping power and semi-automatic capabilty of the M1 Garand, and the frightening versatility of the MP44 won't be quite as frightening when both teams can grab it from the get go.

That's what gave these games flavour -- when my clan would lose the coin toss and take the American side on an open bocage map in Call of Duty 2 we would have to use trench clearing tactics and cunning to get around the superior German bolt-action rifles. The few snipers on our team were a godsend, and it was thrilling to flank a team of riflemen with submachineguns. It might have been imbalanced, but my God it was fun to have to make up for it with skill, wit and teamwork.

Is it a concession in balancing, like when Blizzard gave both the Alliance and Horde access to paladins and shamans, or do gamers not want these kind of polarizing choices anymore?

Or is it more telling that games like Call of Duty: World at War aren't even available on the PC, and I'm just not the 'target audience'?   read

10:01 PM on 10.08.2008

Games For The Depression

The U.S. economy isn't looking too great right now. Despite the smirking visage of Senator
Joe Biden gracing my page here I'm Canadian. That means that should the world devolve
into some sort of war torn desert hellscape, I won't be the first guy to enter the
Thunderdome. So what will I be doing while your father is fighting for his life in some
deathmatch, and what will you be doing while you wait for your turn?

Chances are I'll be playing games for as long as I live, even as the earth consumes itself in
awesome post apocalyptic violence. So the issue at hand then, is what the hell am I going
to be playing?

1. World of Warcraft.

The Why: I don't know a gamer that, in an economic crisis, wouldn't trade in their
food stamps to keep their WoW account up and running. It might not be a healthy pastime,
but if the world is going down the tubes I can bet you that smokers will be stuffing their
faces with stogies, so what the hell is wrong with me doing my dailies?

The How: We're assuming that we've still got power, and that enough other people
are still alive to play against. Big assumptions but gamers aren't daft -- are you above
stealing power from the fear mongering mega corporation that takes over the world after
the United States collapses? Just try not to get caught.

2. Fighting Games

The Why: While Blizzard might still be able to pump out new content, using their
subscription funds to supply a small army and keep Mega Corp at bay in their Californian
haven, other games are going to get mighty stale. But not fighting games!

The How: Be it a 2D fighter or one of those new-fangled 3D fighters, all you need is
a friend and you're good to go. But don't worry, if your friend dies of malnutrition you can
always play single-player versus matches!

3. Dungeons & Dragons

The Why: Ok, ok, so it's not a videogame, but listen: you don't need to steal vital
power to play and pretending to save a town from an orc invasion will take your mind off of
the situation.

The How: You'll need some rule books, lots of dice (many sided), friends, and
snacks. Ok, well you can do without the snacks -- the point is D&D cannot be stopped by
'The Man'. Although it is only a matter of time before you and your friends are sent to the
salt mines, so get your fill while you can.

What will you be playing as the world burns around you, and why?   read

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