hot  /  reviews  /  videos  /  cblogs  /  qposts


kona's blog

2:39 PM on 12.10.2012

Gamers Are from Mars, Players Are from Venus

You know, I fancy myself a pretty nice guy most of the time. I call my mom to tell her I love her all the time, and usually it’s not even before I ask for another loan. I donate to local charities regularly. And I always make sure I smile and look homeless people right in the eye before I tell them to stop being lazy and get a job.

But every once in awhile, I see a comment in threads like this:

“I actually WANT easier games where I can stroll through them, see everything, collect everything and then move on having felt I got my money's worth. Basically I want a game that rewards perseverance without demanding skill."

And I'm filled with an uncontrollable rage. There is literally nothing I want to do more than find this guy's address and cave his face in with a baseball bat. Because he is WRONG, and crazy, and the very epitome of everything that’s wrong with games today and I MUST RIGHT THESE CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY. (Deep Breath)

So much hate...Clayton would be proud.

After a few hours and a couple Valium, my nerd rage subsides a bit, and I got to thinking that I've had it wrong all these years. People who say things like that aren't wrong, it's just that they play and interpret games in a vastly different way than I ever have—and I’m beginning to accept that that's okay. I have a theory that there are two types of people. “Gamers” and “Players.”

What the hell am I talking about? Let me walk back a bit. Yahtzee coined what he calls the three-pronged concept of game theory. He surmised that there are three intrinsic aspects within any game that determine it’s quality: Context, Challenge, and Gratification. Every game has varying amounts of all three, and in order to be enjoyable, at least one of them needs to good enough to compensate for deficiencies in the other two. First, there’s Context. Context could be defined as the story of the game—I personally think that motivation is a better word for it. Essentially, Context is that which motivates the player to push through the game to find out what happens next. It could be an intricate (read: confusing as fuck all) story involving dozens of characters steeped in a tale of diplomacy and war like FFXII, or the reassuring simplicity of saving the princess in every Mario game that Miyamoto will release from his money printing factory.

Gratification can simply be described as the Fun Factor of a game. It’s that thing that makes killing the 10,000th zombie in Dead Rising as fun as the first, or the reason I spent hours doing backflips off of everything in Mario 64’s courtyard. Then there’s Challenge. The thing that makes you not give up on that unforgiving Trials HD track even though its 3am, or that giddy feeling you get after surviving an apparent unwinnable gunfight with only a sliver of health remaining. It’s a constant fear that you savor, and the wave of satisfaction that rides over you after being driven to wit’s end by a tough boss. And it’s also the element that differentiates Players and Gamers. Now I should get this out of the way first and say, this is not about being hardcore or casual, a Player could be a guy whose been a faithful RPG fanatic since Colossal Cave, and a Gamer could be the dudebro whose copy of Madden never leaves his 360.

This isn't exactly what I meant when I said Gamers and Players...

Players are the type of um…players(I really should have picked a better term, shouldn’t I?), who enjoy advancing through a game at a steady pace. They like having a smooth, authored experience without too many bumps in the road. They like to see much of what the game has to offer without being stretched outside of their comfort zone. In other words, Players want their play to feel like just that, play. Gamers, on the other hand, welcome a worthy challenge, and dying for the 99th time in one place just means they’ll try 100 times. To them, facing adversity in a game just makes their experience all the more memorable, and their own.

Players tend to feel like their time is a commodity, and that if they invest enough of it into a game, they deserve to see the ending. Hindering progress according to an arbitrary requirement of skill feels like a book slamming shut before they get to the end. Gamers, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. They have no desire to see a compulsory ending. To them it feels like a participation medal you get in kindergarten; it's worth nothing. Actually it's worse than that, it's worth less than nothing. An ending that isn't earned feels like an insult to a Gamer's time and efforts. Unlike people who have given up on games like Dark Souls for being punishingly hard, on more than one occasion I have actually quit and shelved games for being infuriatingly easy. I’m looking at you, Mario Galaxy.

Oftentimes, I've seen Players label Gamers as elitist assholes who are obviously compensating for something for wanting challenging games. What the hell is wrong with you, they say. Who wants to be challenged during their leisure time! I just want to have fun. As a Gamer, it's really hard to hear complaints like these and not to walk around feeling like a member of the Video Game Master Race.

Have you ever watched a very young child sitting in a racing game arcade cabinet? They'll hop behind the wheel as their dad is at the counter ordering pizza, and they'll sit there, twisting and turning the wheel in every which way, thinking they're playing the hell out of this game. Of course they're not, it's just the pregame demo running on a loop because they didn't put any quarters in the machine. They’re blissfully unaware that their actions have no bearing on what's happening on the screen. But they don’t really mind...they're having fun. I had always felt this was the perfect allegory of someone preferring to play on easy. With a sneer on my lips and contempt in my heart, I looked down on these people.

That kid in the back's powerslidin like a boss.

And it seems many devs don’t think much of easy settings either. The lead designer of Assassin's Creed III, Alex Hutchinson, created a bit of a dust up recently when he commented, "A lot of games have been ruined by easy modes...If you have a cover shooter and you switch it to easy and you don't have to use cover, you kind of broke your game."

It's statements like this that incline me to believe most game designers are Gamers at heart. Think about it: they spend an unspeakable amount of time designing different game levels, enemies, skills, and weapons; balancing them in such a way that the person playing will gradually learn and appreciate the different systems at work. But when a game is made easier, either by an easy setting or from pressure the inevitable sea of complaints that are thrown at any game even remotely difficult, a lot of that thoughtful game design goes out the window. Who needs to learn a complex combo system when you can mash X like it was a win button? Why bother trying to be a stealthy spy when you can kick in the front door and get all Duke Nukem on some asses? Why try any of the dozens of different but uniquely useful guns offered when you can pick a favorite and breeze through everything?

Quite simply, games that let you proceed without failing does not lend themselves to learning. On second thought, learning isn't the correct word here. From the eyes of a Gamer, the problem with an easy game is that it does not require mastery to complete it. Gamers like learning from their mistakes; Players like to be forgiven for their mistakes.

To see how Gamers tick, let’s use basketball as an example. When someone looks for a pick-up game on a court, most people don’t look for middle schoolers to play against. They want an opponent who’s around their skill level or better, they want a Game. When looking up the definition of a game, the very first entry says: A form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck. Gamers have a need to utilize their skills because the source of their fun is directly tied to a sense of accomplishment. They want to win, but not win because the other guy was going easy on them. They want it to mean something.

Kiiiinda abusing your power there, Barack.

I contend that Players are looking for something entirely different in their gaming experiences. Play is what kids do when they play house, or cops and robbers. What they're doing wasn’t really a game per se—but it was definitely playing and having fun. Their sense of fun is very much linked to how much they are having at right now. It sounds like a very shallow way of thinking, but it’s not; Players just like to live in the moment. This is also the reason sandbox games are so appealing: they mainline pure instant gratification directly into your pleasure center, no preservatives added.

Now considering how markedly different Gamers and Players are from each other, it's no wonder that the industry is having fits trying to please both camps. There's a delicate balance between the two, and I believe the market has shifted it's tendencies greatly over the years. Back in the early days of gaming, when 8-bit dinosaurs roamed the earth, it was a Gamer's market. Video games were hard. They were unforgiving, and sometimes you'd swear they hated you. But we managed. With a copy of Nintendo Power in one hand, and a phone dialing a helpline in the other, we persevered, and even enjoyed ourselves.

There was just one problem: games were incredibly alienating for anyone other than kids with unlimited leisure time and masochistic geeks. Over time, games became more and more welcoming for normal people, including Players. Until today, when the balance of power has swung completely in the other direction. So far in fact, that I find myself putting games on “Hard” before I even press start. These are dark days for Gamers everywhere, but there is one glimmer of hope. And that lies in online multiplayer. I'm beginning to suspect that a lot of challenge starved Gamers are getting their fill by competing with others much like themselves. But what about single player experiences? There lies the rub.

I contend that although these sides are diametrically opposed, they don’t have to be mortal enemies. It's not as if you're either a Gamer or a Player and that's the end of the story. Every person that plays video games exists on a continuum between those two extremes. It’s not that Gamers don’t want unhindered, flowing experiences, its just that that’s not all they want. Gamers don't need to be challenged and engaged all the time. Sometimes they may just want to Play too. The GTA series are some of my most favorite games ever purely for the ability for me to blow off the story and goof off for hours. And it would be laughable to think that Players didn't want at least some ability to be challenged and pushed, it just has to be in a way that keeps their fun at maximum and their frustration at a minimum.

Even Indy plays on easy once in awhile.

So what have we learned? I think everything I’ve said up to this point can be boiled down to one statement: Gamers are easily bored, and Players are easily frustrated. Now how do we parlay this information into making better games? I know many of you don’t want to hear this, but I think games need to be harder again. Now remember: there is an important distinction between the distaste of easy games and the desire for hard games; in between those two extremes is a whole lot of ground. Not having a pushover game is one thing, but requiring the Konami Code is another story entirely. If you’re a masochist or looking to perfect your skills, there will always be a Dante must Die mode for you. But as it stands now, there needs to be at least some ground given back to the Gamers. I just played through the new Mass Effect DLC, Omega, and I was literally falling asleep in combat until I bumped it up to Insanity.

I have no earthly idea why the onus is put on the player to figure out if the game is way too easy or not. Every single time I boot up a game now, I have to debate if I’m going to be bored to death on Normal, or if Hard really is going to be tough for a first time player.

Why should you balance the game first with Gamers in mind instead of vice versa? Because the other way around makes for some really lazy game design. For most games, setting a game to Hard mode usually just means your enemies ate their Wheaties this morning and didn’t leave their kevlar vests in the car. As a result, everyone takes entirely too long to die. They aren’t smarter, the level layout hasn’t changed, and you don’t see any new enemies you haven’t seen before. Your biggest concern usually isn’t even the guys you’re shooting at, but whether you have enough bullets to shoot them in their titanium reinforced faces over, and over, and over, and over, and over.

Now if a person does happen to find a game too tough, well then that’s what easy mode is for. Uh oh, I see all the Players out there are readying their pitchforks…but just hear me out! ME3 actually did something very right to placate Players by including a “Narrative” difficulty. Instead of calling it easy, which is a word some Players consider a dirty word, they avoided conflict entirely by clearly explaining the purpose of the mode. Narrative and Casual mode granted Players a relaxed playing experience to see what the game has to offer at their own pace. And from my understanding, a lot of people bump up the difficulty after playing through once anyway. Taking another note from ME3, there also needs to be an option in more games that lets you can change the difficulty at any time. There really is no good reason for people to be getting stuck at one tricky area of a game or on the flip side, finding themselves absolutely bored to death because enemies have decided to hit them with pillows instead of bullets.

Speaking of getting stuck, LA Noire had the great idea to give you the option to skip over any potentially frustrating parts of a game. If skipping over entire sections of a game is unacceptable, there could always be a way to dynamically scale down enemies if the player died too many times in one place. I sure as hell wouldn’t use it, but I’m sure there’s plenty that would.

Where the hell was this when I was in the Water Temple?

Oh, and here’s a biggie: for the love of Zeus can we have more responsible use of regenerating health? There are few ways to more quickly hamstring the challenge and flow of a game than encouraging the player the do the ol’ squat n heal every 30 seconds. There doesn’t have to be a banishment of it of course, plenty of people seem to like it just fine. But can’t we get a little creative with it? I know I’ve mentioned ME3 several times already, but their hybrid approach of regenerating shields and partially regenerating/collectable health worked pretty seamlessly. Or even better, how hard would it be to offer both options in a game? On Normal and Easy you could gallivant around as Wolverine and Marcus Fenix’s bastard love child, and on hard, you’d be forced to grab random health drops from enemies, just as nature intended.

There’s this great TED talk by Malcolm Gladwell that talks about how a similar problem was discovered in the food industry. That there was no perfect Coke, no flawless spaghetti sauce, or ideal cup of joe. “When we pursue universal principles in food, we aren't just making an error; we are actually doing ourselves a massive disservice.”

It was found that people’s tastes seemed to cluster in bunches, and that if you just took the average of those groupings, you would get just that: a samey average product that doesn’t really please anybody. But if you instead concentrated on making the best possible offering for those smaller groups, you got back a much stronger response.

And that’s the crux of the matter; that any attempt to please everyone with a one size fits all approach to game design will surely lead to folly. Either you leave Players out in the cold, forced to walk away from half-finished games stuck and disappointed, or you alienate Gamers by making them feel coddled and marginalized. Gladwell closed his presentation with this:

“That is the final, and I think most beautiful lesson...that in embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.”


4:35 PM on 11.08.2012

It's Uncanny.

A simple wooden door. I've lost count of how many times my gaming adventures have been halted by one of them. In my possession I hold an axe, a crowbar, and my trusty bazooka on my back. But none of these items that are super useful in real life at getting past a two inch locked door will get me past this one. Not unless I find some ancient artifact or keycard or secret password the game demands I must.

You shall not pass.

I feel like Dante knocking on the gates of hades without Virgil to guide me through. And so off I go! Maybe even two hours in the opposite direction to get what is required. That’s just playing the game, right? And playing is what we're all here to do. But sometimes, I just wish for the option to solve this problem more like someone would in real life.

I’m not sure when it started, or when I first started noticing it. That feeling. You know the one, the unease that something is just not right. And no, I'm not talking about the uncanny valley—even though it is related. For nearly a decade now, video games have rapidly approached the age of photo realism—slowly hoisting ourselves out of that seemingly bottomless valley—but it seems as if we are steadily falling deeper into another canyon. Quite simply, the better graphics seem to get, the harder it is to actually tell ourselves that these things happening in front of us are nothing more than a facsimile of reality.

These “glitches” in the Matrix that snap our attention out of the game could manifest as a gameplay element, lackluster AI, or simply a technological limitation. And you know, things didn’t used to be this way.

I never begrudged for mario being able to change directions in mid-air or Alucard for using a well-timed double jump to reach a platform. Was I blissfully ignorant, or did these things just not matter?

In 1985 everyone accepted that a plumber could jump five times his height.

I think the answer lies in the sometimes underestimated power of imagination. You see, sprite-based, or even some of the less sophisticated polygon based games of old—the ones we grew up with and defined us as gamers—were simple looking games. Some of them had color palettes that struggled to reach double digits, and others had models you could count the polygons of on one hand. Because these visuals were so basic, so abstract, they encouraged the full use of the players imagination to make us believe we really were fighting guerrilla soldiers in a lush rainforest or saving the earth from yet another alien invasion in the heart of times square. In this way, a pixellated but charming world like Midgar seems real and alive—and Final Fantasy XIII's Gran Pulse feel like hollow window dressing.

Today, an imagination is hardly necessary for your gaming enjoyment. Thanks to multi-core processors and motion capture technology, games are filled with believable water effects, individually rendered strands of hair, and faces capable of a range of emotions we’d expect from breathing actors. But in this mad-dash towards hyper-realistic visuals, our brains no longer have the job of filling in the blanks to enhance our playing experience, and it gets a bit bored. Since our minds don't particularly like sitting idle, it begins to take note of anything that seems out of the ordinary, finding the seams and faults in every little thing.

Every time your character jumps a little farther than he should, or you set off a bomb in an office and all the papers stay on a desk, or the fact that grabbing a health pack can heal multiple gunshot wounds in seconds, or my character dies instantly in WAIST HIGH WATER (sorry, huge pet peeve)—there's bullshit alarms going off every which way in your head. The very part of your brain that used to enhance immersion is now actively sabotaging it.

Also died in chest high water...but I'll allow it.

It’s kind of funny how so many games are now reducing their UI’s and HUD’s to an almost non-existent level, attempting to gain a movie-like level of immersion, but forgetting the fact that there’s all these...for lack of a better word: “videogamey” elements that never allow us to forget that we are just sitting in front of a TV with a dualshock in our hands.

Simplistic, inconsistent, or just plain bad AI is also a big contributor to the dissonance that can pull a person out of a game. For example, in open world games with a police presence: cops don’t even mind when you do 120 down a one-way blowing every light and having 10 hit and runs every ten seconds. Or when they finally do give chase, they give up in three blocks even though you’ve just robbed a bank. Even better, being able to walk into a police station with an assault rifle with nary a soul batting an eyelash.

That's a mighty fine park job, citizen.

Townspeople are seldom any better. It is extremely rare to get even the slightest reaction out of someone in a car you’ve just sideswiped and rammed into a light pole. How awesome would it be if instead when you cut someone off, they chased you around for ten minutes tailgating you and leaning out the window and flipping you off?(Trust me. In Chicago rush hours, it happens.)

In shooters, it drives me nuts when the AI either stands out in the open standing directly next to suitable cover, or even worse, running directly into the fusillade of bullets I'm throwing across the room, giving the game almost a shooting gallery effect. But games that require stealth seem to be the biggest AI offenders. Ever wonder why some guards have ZERO peripheral vision? You can practically reenact a full Broadway show a two feet from a guard by tap dancing just out of his cone of vision. On the flip side if there’s a level with snipers, sticking out half a joint of your pinky from cover will result in it being blown off from 400 yards at night. If you happen to find a sniper rifle yourself(with a silencer of course), there’s also a tendency for guards to ignore the exploding craniums of their co-workers right next to them, as you slowly pick off an entire facility’s guards.

For some reason these are standard issue for every guard in the history of ever

In driving games, how infuriating is it to be winning a race by several city blocks, only to have a minor collision 100 feet from the from the finish line and have half the field pass you. Gotta love slingshot AI. And then, you have escort/teammate AI. Need 10,000 examples? Go find a copy of Dead Rising or Resident Evil 5. No rush, I’ll wait. Done? Or rather, put your foot through your TV yet?

Then sometimes, there are just flat out limitations on what you can and can't do in a game world because of hardware. Yeah, there are going to be invisible walls around the city limits, or doors to buildings that wont open. But it still makes me a little sad every time I cause millions of dollars in property damage—totaled police cars and charred bodies stretching clear into the horizon—and if I walk around the corner and come back, it's as if I imagined the whole thing. Where there once was a flaming pile of victims to my flamethrower, now sits a lovestruck couple in a cafe. The place I shot that police helicopter with an RPG, now sits an elderly man, feeding pigeons. The overturned bus where I made my last stand is now filling up with commuters, eager to start their workdays. All my beautiful work, for naught!

Officer, if you just walk around the block and come back this mess will be gone. I swear!

How much difference can a little realism injected into games go? All you have to do is think back to the times when you expected something videogamey to happen, and it didn’t. That time when you tried to flee Nemesis by running into an adjacent room but quickly finding out he knew how to use door knobs! Or when a seasoned RPG player who is used to breaking into houses and swiping everything that isn't nailed down tries the same thing in Skyrim and gets thrown in the slammer for weeks. Or the first shooter that you noticed finally allowed bullets to you know, behave like bullets and *gasp* go through walls. I've also always appreciated the game that prevented the hero from carrying several metric tons of weapons, ammunition, and supplies in their infinitely deep knapsacks.

Vidjagames have taught me that this is how every soldier looks in combat. PROVE ME WRONG.

Of course most of the time, the lack of realism in video games is preferable. It is a hobby of escapism, after all. I’ve mentioned before that games far too oftentimes are obsessed with excessive violence and brutality—perhaps the entire problem is how unrealistically most games deal with death in the first place. How often have you to empty half to an entire magazine just to down a bad guy? Then, when you finish an someone off, you get these incredibly gory, exploding gibs that used to be heads, limbs and torsos. It’s so cartoonish in fact, that there’s automatically a disassociation with what's going on onscreen, and what would actually occur in real life. This allows us to shoot pretend people for hours on end without bordering on being a psychopath. Maybe if there was a bit more weight given to death, or guns as RamWar’s blog mentioned, we’d think twice about the amount of digital genocide we were committing.

Just look at the COD level “No Russian”. The game gives you the option of either not participating or simply skipping over the entire scene, and many players have admitted they did just that. Regardless of how you felt about the it's execution, it's hard to deny that there was a weightiness that made a lot of players squeamish and hesitant to pull the trigger that they've pulled hundreds of times just minutes earlier.

It's for reasons like that, that we should be wary of just blindly pushing for a more realistic virtual reality. There’s also a delicious irony somewhere in there—yearning for more realistic games to make escaping from real life more enjoyable. But as we sit on the cusp of a new console generation, one cant help but wonder what new graphical heights games will reach, what fantastic new worlds we will have the privilege to visit. And In the back of my mind, if just for a second I'll ponder: when does Master Chief find the time to go to bathroom in that suit?   read

2:14 PM on 10.17.2012

You Can Go Home Again. And Again and Again...

Press Start. Such a simple, innocuous command. A directive that lies at the beginning of any player’s journey into a game, that glorious moment when anticipation transforms into reality, and the analog rubber hits the digital road. So why does this moment terrify me? Maybe not all the time, but often enough where I find myself playing old, familiar gems, in lieu of That Hot New Game Everyone Is Talking About. It's always perplexed me why I was this way, so I think it's about time to do some soul searching and get to the bottom of it.

True Horror.

First, there's the paradox of choice. As a gamer who came of age in the 8 and 16-bit eras, I grew up with very few games. Christmas and birthdays were my ONLY opportunities to play something new, short of visiting a friend’s house—who also had a paltry selection—or borrowing a game from a classmate via a clandestine trade under the lunch table. As a consequence, I learned to appreciate what I had. Regardless of what awful, worthless hunk of PCB shovelware masquerading as a video game I got from aunt Mabel for my birthday, I went home, crammed that cart into my system and gosh darn it, it didn’t come out until I started having fun. I wrung every drop of enjoyment there was to be had out of those games, and when I beat them, I hit reset and went back for more.

Of course we wouldn’t dream of this now, with backlogs in the dozens, or even hundreds, and the ability to hear about a game in the street and start the download before we even get home. Fat On Games, indeed. There’s this great TED talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz on the subject of the glut of choices each of us are faced with every day. From hundreds of options of salad dressing in the grocery isle, to the imprecise science of choosing of which cutting-edge cell phone offers the best features. This bottomless pool of options has given us more freedom of choice than we’d ever know what to do with; and therefore the easiest choice to make, is none at all. There's a great quote in that video by Schwartz that has an almost Buddhist quality in its apparent absurdity/simplicity:

“Everything was better back when everything was worse.”

Another reason I’m a bit reticent to fire up a new game—and perhaps one better saved for my therapist’s couch—is my crippling fear of failure. The allure of experiencing an expansive new world and going on a new adventure is only so appealing until I realize I’m probably gonna suck at playing this game for a few days. Of course this is all understandable, and when you think about it, it's a wonder how adaptable gamers truly are. Continuously learning and internalizing complex systems, rules and techniques until they are mastered—or at the very least skilled enough to perform on reflex. Even similarly-genred first person shooters can be played in radically different ways. A Borderlands isn't a Call of Duty isn’t a Bioshock. Approaching these titles the same way would translate into frustration and many, many deaths. And sometimes, you never quite get the hang of things. My recent playthrough of Sleeping Dogs comes to mind. Learning to drive on the left side was like wiping with my other hand; even when you get the hang of it, it still feels weird, and very often things get messy. And let’s not even get started on fighters…there are few games with learning curves as steep. Hell, I’m sure everyone has that one friend who they've been playing Street Fighter with for 20 years, and for 20 years they’ve been furiously mashing on buttons like a toddler on Redbulls and Ritalin—and beating you most of the time too.

There was supposed to be some sort of picture of Sleeping Dogs here, but any image search of that game gets derailed by disgustingly cute doggies.

Which leads to another frustration that is a fact of life of playing practically any open-world game: getting lost and the feeling of helplessness that comes with it. Every new game is like reliving your first day of school all over again: I've got no friends and what if nobody likes me and where do I go for first period and…ARGH! You spend the first ten hours with your eyes glued to the map like a snot-nosed freshman, praying you don’t wander into a high level zone where Bad Men will beat the crap out of you and take your lunch money. Why subject myself to all that stress, when just a click away I can be whisked off to a world where everybody knows my name, and my enemies cower whenever I walk into the room? Where with just a snap of my fingers I can incinerate entire armies in a hail of fire and brimstone? I grinded for that power, dammit. It’s MINE. Why relinquish it so easily?

Speaking of insecurities, there’s the ever-present threat of disappointment that looms over every new game. The press hype, the glowing previews, the glorious sneak peeks that are brimming over with bullshot. You really have to ask yourself, how many times has a game met expectations? And how many times have you been let down? Don't they say whole review industry is fixed anyway? Rife with furtive payoffs in backrooms and promises of sparkling 9’s and 10’s and GOTY awards? Nah, I’ll just play Half-Life 2 again. It's never let me down yet.

Here’s another problem I have: Games starting off e-x-c-r-u-c-i-a-t-i-n-g-l-y slow. I don’t know if it’s got something to do with the death of the instruction booklet and the advent of the opening-level training, but a lot of games seem to be intent on holding the players hand for longer and longer periods. I can't count how many times I've poured five, ten hours to a game waiting for it to open up—only to be turned away like a horny teenager in the back of his mom's Camry on prom night. I understand wanting to spread out a game's best parts for pacing's sake, but it shouldn’t take me half a game to get access to all the abilities that make a game what it is. How many times have you gotten a gun or a power or a move very late in the game, and then everything just “clicks.” You finally see the vision of what the designers had planned for the game, and the entire system makes sense. And you're sitting there wondering, WHY THE HELL DID THIS TAKE SO LONG?!!? I'm sure if Mitt was a gamer, he'd call it Trickle Down Gameplay.

Don’t worry kid, you'll get a real one when you're ready.

Why is a guy like Batman leveling up anyway? Isn't he already the World's greatest detective trained in the ninja arts for decades? And yet you have to jump through hoops to 'learn' how to throw a two bit thug across the room.

Welcome to this expansive, exciting world…and here’s your dunce cap and training wheels for the next 7 hours. Try not to poke an eye out on the pointy end, dumbass.

Gameplay isn't the only element that a lot of the time is postponed until the last possible moment. All too often, the story of a game starts off with a bang, a Hollywood blockbuster-esque spectacle even Michael Bay would be proud of. There's a chase sequence on top of a train, filled with dynamite, and the bridge is out—right over the mouth of an active volcano! You fight through a legion of 700 ninjas(mostly by Quick Time Events), but villain just barely gets away with the princess in a helicopter (It's ALWAYS a helicopter.) You're stoked, hands tightly gripped around the controller and ready for the ride of your life. The hero wakes in the starting town, and what do the designers decide is the best course of action to maintain momentum and keep the player's interest? “Dear valiant hero, the one who is destined to save us all, earth's savior and bastion against all that is wrong in the world...would you kindly go kill the rats in my chicken coop?”

The discovery of this prevented me from subjecting you to another one of my awesome photoshops. Thanks Bethesda!

But you do it. Gladly, even. Anything to open up the next leg of the story right? You can't wait to find out the main character's backstory, or the reason the Bad Guy wants to exterminate humanity, or the reason why there's an ancient dragon living in the center of the planet...and then you get another fetch quest. And then another. And another. By the time you realize whats going on, three quarters of the game is over, and you start to wonder if there is no underlying story to this game, but it's just fetch quests all the way down. I'll never be able to figure out why busy work is considered a valid gameplay element in this day and age. A healthy respect of the player's time and dedication to maintaining interest should always be at the top of the list for any game designer.

But short of any real or perceived shortcomings the next game around the corner may have, there's one reason above all that I find myself playing FFVII for the 27th time, or doing yet another run of SMB3 on a lazy Saturday afternoon, or revisiting my town in Animal Crossing yet again, long after I've paid off my debt to that bastard slumlord of a raccoon. It's nostalgia and familiarity.

Leigh Alexander has a great piece on this effect that says,
I believe one of the main drives that enables people to endure is the power of nostalgia. When we were kids, games fascinated, inspired and intrigued us, acting as windows into other worlds. Simple bits, line art and softly glowing green text were the scaffolding we fleshed out with our imaginations. Every single one of us has at least one story about how a game saved a summer, created bonds between friends, between parent and child. We learned the power of this medium in ways we’ll never forget, and that still motivate us today.

Playing a familiar game is like listening to a song you know and singing along. You know when every drum hit comes, and when its time for that awesome high note or guitar solo. There's a rapport that one can only get from knowing every nook and cranny of a game. When every extra life, every shortcut, every warp whistle is yours to wield. No secrets are held, no boss a worthy challenge. Playing something that you know, know is like seeing the code in the Matrix.

Now is every new game guilty of these problems? Of course not. We are living in the most incredible and exciting time for gaming ever. Am I guilty of complaining about a distinctly #FirstWorldProblem, bemoaning having too many good games to play, clutching childishly to the well-worn blanket of nostalgia? Most likely. Do I have a clinical case of being completely unable to cope with change? Definitely. But whenever I reach for my game rack, and I get that nagging sensation in the pit of my stomach telling me to give that tried and true classic a spin instead of ripping the shrink wrap off that new title, I hesitate. I ask myself what it means, and I've come to the conclusion it all boils down to trust. Trust that I know I'll have fun, trust in my abilities, trust in the memories and experiences which have defined me as a gamer—and that's not a feeling to be taken lightly, right?   read

7:43 PM on 03.12.2012

A History of Violence

Something about that Jennifer Helper interview and the misogynerd flamefest that ensued bothered me. Not because she asked for a combat skip button in games—it's been experimented with before, and even Bioware offers a “combat-lite” option in ME3. No, what struck me was the fact that someone felt the need to ask for one in the first place. Here's what she said in her own words:

Games almost always include a way to "button through" dialogue without paying attention, because they understand that some players don't enjoy listening to dialogue and they don't want to stop their fun. Yet they persist in practically coming into your living room and forcing you to play through the combats even if you're a player who only enjoys the dialogue. In a game with sufficient story to be interesting without the fighting, there is no reason on earth that you can't have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting.

Now after you get over the obvious knee-jerk reaction thinking that no “true gamer” would say this, think for a minute about what she called herself: “a player who only enjoys the dialogue.” Hmm. This statement stuck in my craw for a good while, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. After some time it finally occurred to me why the answer eluded me; it’s because Ms. Helper posed the wrong question. The real elephant in the room isn’t “why can’t you skip combat.” It’s why are violence and video games two such inseparable concepts?

For years, my mom would quizzically poke her head into my room and ask, “who are you killing today?” I would always in turn scoff and roll my eyes, entrenched fully in my belief that 'parents just don't understand', then resume decimating another defenseless legion of henchmen. But think about that for a moment. Gaming, our beloved pastime, looks like an endless buffet of murder to a casual observer. Have you ever had to take a public conversation about a game down a few notches to avoid a situation like this?

One really has to sit down and re-examine their hobby when a casual conversation between two enthusiasts makes them seem like psychopaths to the uninitiated. Now I’m not saying that putting a pretend bullet into a polygonal representation of a human head is anywhere near the same thing as witnessing or participating in actual murder (I have no desire to take on Jim on this) but what I am saying is that as every day goes by, video games are slowly crawling their way out of the uncanny valley, and it’s already getting hard to be able to tell the difference between real and simulated brutality. And what then? Will there be a tipping point where games just get ‘too realistic” and our gamer bloodlust begins to waver? And is it possible that there a separate uncanny valley for graphic violence, one that we will slowly begin to trudge out of until the depictions of violence become too real? Or is it more likely that the slow graduation of graphical fidelity is just subtle enough that we won’t notice when things go too far: like a proverbial frog in boiling water.

Every once in a while we should hold a mirror up to our culture—and more importantly ourselves, to make sure we like what we see.

Lets try an exercise. Try to forget we're gamers for a moment, that we don't have three decades worth of deeply entrenched mores and expectations associated with video games. How to enter the Konami code, throw a fireball, or that plumbers are excellent at resolving royal hostage situations. Now look at this list of games that were released for the Xbox 360 in 2011.

See any patterns there? The vast majority of these games include violence towards people, or at least reasonable facsimiles of them. And half of the few games that aren’t, are sports games. WTF? Is it not the tiniest bit alarming, if not altogether creepy, that our favorite hobby is so enamored with the death, torture, and suffering of incredibly realistic pretend people? Hell, even our driving games are violent now. Murder Simulators, indeed.

As my favorite Salarian biologist would say: Chances of survival...slim.

Critics of this view inevitably roll out the same platitudes every time. “Of course it isn’t real” “They’re just games anyway” and the like. Now this is all fine and good, until you have to reconcile the fact that games have been trying to transcend the “just a game” stigma for a very long time. Practically every other title released today tries to reach some part of your humanity, to make you believe for even the most briefest of moments, that those avatars on your screen are real—people with hearts and souls, dreams and desires, entities deserving of your love. If this wasn’t true, people wouldn’t talk about how Aeris’ death made them shed real tears, or how Celes’ leap from that cliff still sticks with them to this day. And if Red Dead Redemption didn’t affect you in any way—you may already be one of those innumerable zombies you've mowed down with a shotgun.

Isn't it weird though? That we aren’t supposed to care about those people on the other end of our cross-hairs? These motion captured, intricately detailed computer representations of human beings? It wasn’t so bad in the old days; when you could shoot a bad guy and he would crumple to the ground, only to flicker and disappear moments later like a flame in a brisk wind. Today, you’ve got designers that dedicate their lives to making those pixels on your screen move and sound as real as possible--some even beg for their lives as you kneecap them and slowly walk up them, in a writing heap, and execute them in the most brutal way imaginable.

So lemme get this straight: during cutscenes gamers are supposed to open our hearts, exposing ourselves to the intricacies of love, loss, and sacrifice; and 30 seconds later we’re supposed to be stone cold harbingers of torture and death, reveling in every kill as the mutilated bodies stack to the ceiling. The cognitive dissonance at work is deafening. Yes, most games require a degree of suspension of belief, but should we also be required to leave bits of our humanity outside on the coat rack, every time we power on our PS3's?

Another argument I seem to hear a lot is that games are really about “escapism” and “wish-fulfillment.” That we play games to do things we only dream we could do, but could never get away with. To that I say: is that really what people walk around wishing they could do all day? Aspiring to eviscerate every living thing within arms length? Honestly if it is, we’ve got some far more pressing issues within our culture to address than who lives and dies in a computer game.

" games get ever more immersive and lifelike, it starts to feel less like healthy play and more like unsettling aspirational fantasy to me. And as the economic competition around the genre heats up, the push for bigger-bloodier-more seems especially opportunistic and shameless. I don't understand the continuing appeal; I don't understand the unquestioning audience." – Leigh Alexander "Who Cheers for War?"

But it is obvious that wish fulfillment is definitely an aspect to games, as people have long yearned to be rock stars and they responded to the arrival of Rock Band by filling their houses with hundreds of dollars worth of plastic instruments. So yeah, people can have fun without needing to kill things--it just feels like we forgot how. Is there any wonder why non-gamers have such a tendency to gravitate towards violence-lite console choices like the Wii and DS? Most people--especially women (not all, of course. shout-out to all my lady fraggers!) do not enjoy playing bloody gib-fests to relax after a long day at the office. As long as gaming remains the domain of mindless brutality and careless violence, what's keeping the average person from continuing to assume gaming is only for immature teenage boys?

Is there any wonder that games, much like comic books, are seen as near-impenetrable to women? But that doesn’t mean it has to be that way. In 1989 there was a groundbreaking graphic novel by Neil Gaiman named “The Sandman” that took the comics world by storm. It stepped forth into an industry full of testosterone, capes, overdeveloped pecs and endless violence, and turned it on its ear with thoughtful tales of life, love, and the human condition. And then, a funny thing happened. Women started buying it in droves—eventually becoming half it’s readership and even outpacing Superman(!) in sales.

And I fully believe that video games could do the same thing. The real beauty of it all is the fact that finding a non-violent game didn’t used to be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Just a few short years ago we had Grim Fandangos, Monkey Islands, Mysts…games that didn’t require twitch reflexes and an insatiable desire to inflict pain on other people. They relied on things like character development, atmosphere, and imagination to draw the player along. What happened to our sense of adventure? Even though I have an all-around distaste for the Elder Scrolls series, it warmed my heart to see gamers of every kind having so much fun just playing and exploring in Skyrim, creating their own unique experiences rather than just hitting things with swords until all the hit points came out.

“As an industry, I’m ashamed that we explore only a generally tiny slice of the human experience,” he continues. “If we want to reach a broader audience, we need…to make our games about feeling differently from ‘fight or flight’.”--Double Fine's Nathan Martz

There was plenty of killing to be had in Skyrim too, but it wasn't the only appeal. Too often, games that weren't originally action heavy are devolving into balls-out shooters. *coughResidentEvilcough* And let’s be honest, was there any need for L.A. Noire’s action scenes? The controls were stiff and unresponsive, and they were generally very short and uninteresting. Most of all, Team Bondi’s hearts didn’t seem to be in it anyway considering they let you skip them completely if you failed too many times. And I thank them for it. Far too often, games aren’t allowed to simply be what they are—they have to be an RPG, a first person shooter, a driving game, an RTS…with stealth elements.

Here’s another consideration, how about games with just less killing, or even better, more mindful violence? Hideo Kojima seems to be acutely aware of the myriad of issues that war presents, and wants you to too. I’ll never forget The Sorrow from Metal Gear 3. In quite possibly the most non-standard boss fight in history, in a game full of convention-shattering elements, Snake was forced to slog through a swamp of a soldier’s personal hell. Every knife to the sternum, every headshot, every snapped neck you inflicted upon your enemies and forgot about, was thrown back into your face in ghastly detail. You were forced to look every one of those people in the eye, and face the horrors you had inflicted in the previous 10 hours. The Sorrow couldn’t hurt you physically, but by the end of the scene, you almost wish he was launching stinger missiles at your face rather than heat seeking daggers of remorse into your conscience.

After the brief exchange was over, and I was back on my impossible mission to save the world from thermonuclear war, I shook my head and got back to work. The thing is, when I encountered the next generic, army-fatigued solder and pulled out my silenced M1911A1, I froze. For just a second, I thought of all of those “men” I had sent to an early grave. Eventually I did pull the trigger, but I didn’t feel any satisfaction after hearing the hammer’s click launching a bullet into the guy’s skull. Instead I felt an ever so slight pang of regret, knowing that I had sent yet another number to the parade of victims I had just met. It was then that I realized that I hadn’t escaped that tango with The Sorrow unscathed after all; in fact, he and in turn Hideo Kojima, had won. Of course I did finally finish my mission, taking out whoever got in my way, but murder was never quite as automatic as it had been before.

Listen to the voices of the dead...

A game that makes you weigh the consequences of every life you take is quite the game indeed, and any game that allows you to solve conflicts non-violently but still allow them to be fun, should be commended. Why don’t more games allow you to do this? About halfway through my Red Dead playthrough I got bored shooting everything that moved and started disarming and lassoing bad guys whenever I had the opportunity. Sure it wasn’t easy, chasing down some perpetrators for miles in in order to get close enough to rope them, but it added an interesting layer to the gameplay and my character, as I tried to play Marston true to his story, an ex-gunslinger turned family man reluctant to return to his old ways.

It begs the question that after all these years there really has been no police game that focused on apprehension of criminals with minimal collateral damage. The game could make you get creative in catching the criminals, forcing the player to ram cars to cause spin-outs instead of just filling them with bullet holes. Or maybe using pepper spray, tasers, and cuffs in addition to a realistic grappling system like UFC games to bring bad guys to justice. Maybe sometimes you do have to get all Dirty Harry on some asses, but it means you get your butt chewed out by the chief back at the precinct. You're off the case Mcgarnicle! It would certainly be more interesting than what every other game tells you to do:

Now I enjoy violent games just as much as any other John Q. Gamer. I’ve been playing First person shooters since Wolf3D, and I still remember most of the fatalities and the blood code from Mortal Kombat on the Genesis (I'm a blast at parties). And I understand the instant gratification from pulling a trigger and watching something die on the other end of your gun--it's game design 101. What bothers me about all the violence, is the blind ubiquity of it all. The fact that people don’t question it, and eventually don’t even consciously see it anymore. And if you don't like playing these very specific types of games, you don't belong here. Get the hell off our playground.

One reason there are so many violent games, is because violence is one of the easiest ways of stimulating or generating arousal in somebody. I don’t deny or dislike violence per se in games, but I don’t like the use of violence merely to bring about this sense of heightened, excited emotional state in humans. That I don’t like. If the violence is used to make the player realize that violence is a destructive and often negative force, if it is used in a ‘balanced’ way, then I don’t mind violent content in games. So I wouldn’t say I was ‘anti’ violence, I just want to bring so many other elements into games in terms of proper pacing and a better variety of emotional responses…which I think leads to a much healthier gaming scene. – Yasuhiro Wada, creator of Harvest Moon

It sorta reminds me We're encouraged to perform these repetitive motions until we're rewarded with a messy, briefly satisfying moneyshot. Aim. Shoot. Splat! Its thoughtless, its mindless, its excessively masculine and gratuitous. It's without context. It strokes our boners for destruction and not much else. No wonder people are always saying “games don't need stories.” Porn doesn't need them either.

I'm aware of the irony here, but Roger Ebert said something about movies that when tweaked, I think translates perfectly to video games:

Many games diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life...they're fun, but just scratching the surface of what they are truly capable of.


9:43 AM on 02.22.2012

Enjoying the Simple Things: 25 of My Favorite Gaming Tropes

Life is full of simple pleasures; those little fleeting moments that make you happy to be alive. Waking up to the smell of coffee in the morning, the thrill hitting all green lights when you’re running late, or the pleasant surprise when you find ten bucks in a pair of old pants. As gamers, we have dedicated a large portion of our real lives living virtual ones. These lives artificial as they may be, are full of countless micro-thrills that make our pastime all the more worthwhile. Below is a list of my twenty-five favorite.

And due to my inability to count thanks to public schooling:

26. The achievementBOO-KAP! Even if I’m not the one playing, I get a little Pavlovian thrill every time I hear it.

25. The double jump - because fuck you, Issac Newton.

24. The fireball – QCF + P simple enough to do on reflex, but engaging enough to still occasionally fuck up and take the other guy’s fireball to your face.

23. The trampoline – don’t ask me why, but the act of jumping on one of these IRL or in a game is flat out fun.

22. The spin dash – tapping B to make your hedgehog (or echidna, or fox) rev up like a muscle car with a big block engine, and then obliterating everything in his path.

21. Active reloading – the ingenious mini-game that makes one of gaming’s most mindless actions fun and vital for your success.

20. The throw – nothing says FU to your turtling asshole of a friend like calmly walking into their face and sending their punk-ass to the canvas.

19. Getting mail in Animal Crossing – Getting a letter from one of my furry buddies is like a mini-Christmas.

18. Web slinging – somehow better than flying, I’ve played some bad games to get my fill of one of the most liberating feelings in all of video games.

17. Ending credits – Yogi said it best. It ain’t over til it’s over.

16. The Melee Kill – It may be the easiest kill there is, but there’s nothing quite like sneaking up and sticking 6 inches of steel into some poor bastard’s Medulla oblongata.

15. The charge shot – The press. The hold. The payoff. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

14. Setting ANYTHING on fire – Whether you’re a flame eating yoga master or a grunt with 50lbs of napalm strapped to your back, burning shit rules!

13. Clearing a line in Tetris – here comes the I block….BAM. gamergasm.

12. The shotgun - the meaty kick of double-barreled goodness can make you forget all of your problems. Shotgun, take me away.

11. The power pill – I can’t think of a game changer more significant than the power pill. Omgomgomg Im gonna diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiee! *CHOMP* Get. In. My. Belly!

10. Stomping a Goomba – whether it’s the first goomba or the 1000th, the satisfying squish of one of these little guys under your feet is the greatest thing ever.

9. Leveling Up – DING! If it didn’t feel so great designers wouldn’t be trying to shoehorn it into everything.

8. The strike out – I can’t think of a better way to make your opponent feel like dirt, and you feel like The Man.

7. The perfect powerslide – Hitting a corner way too fast, easing off the gas, and whipping the tail around before flooring it again. Every turn is a new adventure.

6. The grenade multi-kill – the confluence of perfect planning, timing, and luck.

5. Snake’s neck snap – One of the most brutally subtle and satisfying moves in all of gaming—tap tap tap SCRUNCH.

4. Taking health – let’s be honest: even if you’re at 99%, you’re walking across the room to pick up that health pack.

3. The headshot – a single well placed shot sending your foe to the ground in a bloody heap. Bonus points if their cranial cavity pops like an overripe grapefruit. <3

2. Picking up a teammate – yeah headshots are a blast, but I’d give up ten to save my bro.

1. Pressing start – all of the anticipation, the build-up, the hype, comes to reality with one press of a button. A crescendo of sound confirms what you already know: The game starts now.

Honorable Mentions:
The super combo finish – insult? Meet injury. Lots and lots of injury.
The rocket jump – what’s not to love? It’s like the trampoline, but with explosives!
Hitting a streak with the entire band – for a few brief moments you and your friends are a well-oiled machine of awesome.
Picking up game currency - rings, coins, fruit...who cares if having 77 Wampum Fruits instead of 76 means nothing. I’ve gotta pick it up BECAUSE ITS THERE. *pops a zoloft*
Breaking bricks with Mario – if Nintendo made a game that was just Mario in a dark room with infinitely regenerating bricks...I’d probably preorder it.

Feel free to chime in with some of your favs too, I'd love to hear em!   read

9:42 AM on 02.17.2012

Keep It Simple, Stupid.

On a particularly boring and nostalgic night this week I decided to pop in one of the greatest arcade games of all time: The Simpsons Arcade. In the midst of a litany of pithy catch-phrases and indiscriminate henchman whomping, something hit me; things sure were a lot simpler back then. Most games you were given two options of action: jump and attack. And actually, that's all you ever needed. Regardless of the game, from beat-em-ups , to sports games, to RPG's, two to three buttons was all you required to get the job done.

In my day you got one button and YOU LIKED IT

As a result, games back then were extremely easy to just pick up and play. Training levels and and hand-holding popups were absolutely unheard of. You were thrown into the fire in the first level and instructed to figure shit out. This was in part for three reasons: games respected player's intelligence's enough to not treat them like morons, second, most games were usually carefully designed to be very easy to learn, but tough to master and third, even if you were a moron or lost, designers didn't give a shit if their game left size 12 boot marks on your prepubescent ass.

For an industry who's claimed to be striving for “accessibility” this past decade, screens like the one above are increasingly common and are daunting to even the most seasoned of gamers. It used to be that if I person walked in on you playing a game and showed interest, you could hand them the controller and in less than a minute they could be making their way through the game and having fun while doing it. Now a days, you're more likely to see this happen:

Non Gamer: That looks cool, what is it?
You: Lord of Destruction XVII: The Revengence
NG: Can I give it a try?
Y: You're gonna love this, you can even rip out a guy's scrotum and feed it to him!
(hands controller)
NG: So how do I start kicking ass?
Y: You see that guy? Hold L1 to lock on to him.
NG: Where's L1?
Y: It's that little button up top, closest to you on the left. Then you have to use the D-pad to select your Chains of Fury and then press triangle to equip them.
NG: ...d-pad?
Y: Now here's where it gets tricky: You need to rotate the right thumbstick counterclockwise while strafing the guy with the left stick to attack, and then once his health is low enough, click R3 to activate the finisher.
NG: rotate what? Why is my guy running in circles?
Y: Didn't I tell you to keep holding down L1 to lock on? And it's counter clockwise, not clockwise!
Y: Now once you've got the guy by the neck, you need to tilt the controller side to side to activate the motion controls to twist his head off.
NG: dude, you know what? Here's the stick, I'll just watch you play.
Y: Why are you giving up? This game is so much FUN!

It's wonderful that games have reached such a level of complexity and depth that there's a near-limitless amount of ways you can interact with the world, but there's a lot to be said about a game that needs an hour long training course before you're competent in the game's basics. I remember many a time handing a spare controller to my dad or a younger cousin, and them instantly hopping in and enjoying themselves. There were even times when my game-phobic mom would be so intrigued that she would help me clean up the mean streets in Double Dragon. Those days are now long, long gone.

Hell, as a gamer with over two decades of experience under my belt, even I'm sometimes overwhelmed. I was a huge fan of NFL, NHL, and FIFA games as a kid, but after not playing anything for a generation or two, it is quite off-putting to even attempt to learn these incredibly convoluted and nuanced control systems. Every other year without fail I go through the same routine: I download the madden demo when it comes out and I tell myself: “this will be the year I reclaim the gridiron glory I had in NFL2k.” I then proceed to play two quarters(completing maybe one pass), rage quitting, and then dusting off my Dreamcast to play NFL Blitz 2001.

It's obvious that game designers aren't completely blind to this issue. For the past 15 years as game complexity has increased, along with the number of buttons on controllers, difficulty and challenge have been careening down a slippery slope. It's hard to deny that some recent games exist now as little more than interactive cut-scenes. But does that really fix anything? Now all we've got is marshmallow-soft gamers who throw a bitch fit if they die and lose more than 30 seconds of progress.

Shit happens, deal with it.

This is also why EVERYONE seems to be throwing their hats into the motion(and touch)gaming ring. Sure, the industry is always looking for the next hot gimmick, but motion games really did stem from a tangible need. It was painfully obvious that gaming was reaching a saturation point, and desperately in need of an infusion of new blood. What better way to do that than to eliminate controllers completely? Want to swing a sword? Imitate swinging a sword. Want to move forward? Jog in place. It's so easy a grandma could do it. And just like that, The Great Wall of Hypercomplexity had been torn down—potential gamers who were either very young, or very old, or just easily intimidated were now allowed back on the playground.

And yet instead of welcoming a new generation of fellow gamers into the fold, they were met with disdain and backlash. “Where are the core games!?!” they cry. “Casual games aren't for real gamers,” they sneer, while poking out their chests to proudly display their hardc0re g4mer badges. I've got one thing to say to those people. Grow the fuck up.

The “Hardcore” demographic has always claimed to have been the gatekeepers for gate that has never actually existed in the first place. Any game that brings enjoyment to the player, whether it be a macro-heavy RTS, an FPS twitch fest, or a facebook game about clicking kittens can and should be be welcomed into the culture with open arms. Crossover appeal and mainstream success ARE NOT NEGATIVES. Frankly, anyone that says otherwise starts sounding like a pretentious gaming hipster. A “Gamester”, if you will. And no one wants to be one of these:

...right?   read

2:02 PM on 01.20.2012

Shorter? Longer? Better? A Counter-counter Case for Shorter Games(Dubstep remix)

This is a blog in response to Altum Videtur's blog. which was in turn was a response to my blog here. Feel free to ignore this or even better, pull up a seat and grab a plate...theres enough gamer indignation for everyone!

When I saw your post the first thing I could think of was this old XKCD gem:

I see that like mine, your inner hardcore gamer is alive and well. But like the ancient saying goes: If you see your inner gamer on the road, frag him. I appreciate that you felt moved enough by my blog to make an impassioned response, but I feel like I've been misunderstood on a few points, so allow me to clarify.

You make an excellent point that the very reasons that Citizen Kane was so groundbreaking and celebrated was the fact that it opened people's eyes to the vast possibilities and techniques that film was truly capable of. And while it is true that in order gaming to have it own watershed “Citizen Kane” masterpiece, it must go forth and blaze it's own path to fully realize the greatness of the medium. I contend that that's not really what most games are trying to accomplish—and thats okay too.

As I said, then you said, and I'm saying again (down the rabbit hole we goooo), “game designers continuing insistence on aping Hollywood narrative structure necessitates more truncated campaigns in order to better serve the story's pace” is generally the default approach game design today. This is in major part because of the very fact that Gaming is such a fledgling medium. Movies are like the big brother that videogames look up to and aspire to be, so we shouldn't be surprised when we see games trying on it's older brother's clothes; pants hanging around it's knees, shirt dragging on the floor, with a hat so big it looks more like a helmet. Sure, he does bear a strong resemblance to his elder sibling, but games cannot and will not grow up to fill the same job. But can you blame the kid? The interactive entertainment medium is a vast unplowed field with near-limitless potential...It's more than a little daunting. Hell if I was him I'd stick with what I knew too.

Gaming's awkward teen years...we try not to talk about it.

The part where I think I've been most misunderstood is this: I'm by no means suggesting that there should be “an arbitrary limit borne solely out of monetary and market concerns.” In actuality, my entire point was that games should be RELEASED from the artificial and arbitrary boundaries of length that they are forced to conform to.

Now think, who could possibly be the ones forcing conformity on the industry to fit very specific ideals and mores? I hate to break it to you, but its us. The greater gaming culture has got to shoulder most of the blame here. For the past 20 years, we have been insistent in our demands of how much “game” is acceptable for our money. If theres a game we feel should be ten hours instead of five, or 20 instead of 10, boy, are they going to hear about it. This is the kind of culture that cultures an industry environment where it's tack on “ identical corridors and hobbling back and forth across the same barren, static landscape filler” to meet the acceptable game length quota as decreed by us, the fans.

If a game is structured like a film, is written like a film, and is paced like a film, why the hell can't it be as long as one too? For far too long designers have been coerced into to stuffing ten pounds of game into a five pound story, and it's really not enjoyable to any of the parties involved. Theres a cardinal rule of storytelling that each time you insert a scene you make sure it has a purpose. If it does not either move forward the plot, or convey an important aspect of a character, you cut it out. I believe the same approach can be beneficially applied to games. If it ain't fun, and it's not moving the story along, cut it the hell out.

This is an example that is quite easy to see in movies. Films that are excessively long often lack directorial and creative oversight. Ever see the directors cut of a movie with added scenes? While a lot of times those scenes are cool...most of the time you see why they were cut out. I don't care if a game is 10 mintues long or 100 hours, one should always be mindful of proper pacing.

That's not to say games should be any shorter AS LONG AS THEY HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY. This is something I absolutely love about Mass Effect. Every side mission, every encounter, every conversation is an opportunity to shape and define Shepard and her mythos. There are very, very few games that are that dense with meaning and purpose.

I rather liked your analogy that many games are structured like books, with very long narrative arcs, gently guiding the player throughout the ebb and flow of the story. Like I said before, if it walks like a book, talks like a book, and acts like one too, let it be a damn book. Modern games should be released from their shackles of public opinion, and allowed to be whatever it is they goddamn want to be. There's a great big wonderful world out there, and theres room in it for games of all sizes: the five second facebook games, the 2-8 hour “movie narrative”, the 15-25 hour “average experience”, and the 40+ hour Skyrim-esque marriage destroyers.

Gamers aren't the only ones to blame for putting pressure on designers though. A super important part of this entire discussion (which is my fault for not stressing strongly enough in the first blog) is the problem with standardized game prices that the “powers that be” vehemently refuse to budge on. Games have pretty much always cost in the $50-$70 range, and this is a huge issue that stifles both designer freedom and creativity.

Let's say a designer has the idea for a game. It could be the bestest game that ever was. Great story, fun, engaging gameplay, incredible setpeices...but it's only six hours long. Ruh roh. We've got a problem Scooby! Why? Because if you release this awesome game as is, your bosses are going to insist that there's a $59.99 price tag on the outside. Of course this is going to make gamers pitch a fit, flamewars will be declared, and the there may be talk of a boycott. So there goes option 1. Option 2 is to try to cobble together a poorly planned and implemented multiplayer mode in order to placate the mobs.(I'm looking at you, Bioshock 2.) Option 3 is the one that seems to be hated the least, and therefore everyone uses: Filler! A.K.A. out of place RPG elements, pointless fetch quests, and endless backtracking.

Yet another codex page? Dammit I just want to learn about the Templars!...and maybe stab them. alot.

Games so often lack the strong, singular vision of films who have directors. Sure, every now and then you have an El Shaddai, Ico, or Killer 7, but instances of the Molyneux's, Levine's, and Miyamoto's are few and far between. And this is the way it's always going to be, until the incredibly stubborn “powers" say otherwise.

A quick thing on what I said about difficulties. Quite simply, this is an old, personal holdover from my 80's gamer pedigree, so feel free to chalk that one up to personal preference. But! It is still hard to argue that games are not laughably easy nowadays. A large part of that has to do with the ever present issue of low game completion. I actually cited that CNN article not to suggest that gamers are lazy, fickle, and sometimes have the attention spans of ferrets on adderall(which they do) but instead to point out the problem of the aging gamer. Quite simply, none of us are getting any younger. Studies are actually reporting that the “average” gamer is well into his 30's. Taking normal adult responsibilities into account, and also considering the war for our free time that's being waged by our ever connected world, it's almost impossible for the “average” gamer to burn through games like he used to—disposable income be damned.

The request for shorter games is not only a design suggestion, but a plea: for the love of God, make shorter games so that your audience has time to play them! This is problem that backlogs come from, this is the climate that creates the need for places like the backloggery, this is the reason why the industry loses people who are still in love with the medium, but eventually fall by the wayside before quitting altogether. And it Makes.No.Sense.

Here we are with games that are artificially long, created by developers using cheap lenghening tactics they don't want to use, to be sold to people who don't have time to play them in the first place. This my friends, is the definition of insanity and a deeply broken industry.

This is about as sad as seeing two people wait for five dates and play various mind games on each other because “that's what you're supposed to do.” But in reality, they just want to go home and fuck. Yo, Games Industry! You know I want it, I know you want it, so why can't we just cut the bullshit and get it on?   read

9:22 PM on 01.19.2012

Harder, Better, Faster: The Case for Shorter Games

Recently, I’ve been wrestling with a truth I dared not utter: I firmly believe that the industry would actually benefit from shorter games instead of longer ones. I’ve suspected it for quite some time, but whenever I got close to realizing it, my inner hardcore gamer would spring into action: swiftly taking this idea and locking it in the deepest, darkest basement of my subconscious it could find, leaving it with only a leaking pipe and stale MRE’s to survive on. The only thing to comfort him were his plots of revenge: the numerous elaborate and deeply satisfying ways I would make Uncle Joe pay for locking me down here…oh…wait. We were talking about videogames weren’t we? Shit. They said this would happen if I stopped taking the pills cold turkey.

So, yeah. Game length! For quite some time, gamers have ballyhooed the fact that games seem to be getting shorter and shorter. There was once a time when all games were expected to give you a good 15 to 20 hours of fun or they were considered rip-offs. Nowadays, you’ve got the campaigns of Uncharted and COD clocking in routinely under 10 hours, and I actually think things could be taken a step further.

Why? There are several reasons, really. Primary among them is the strengthening of narrative. Quite simply, if games are to truly make the next step and finally offer up our “Citizen Kane,” there needs to be more care put into storytelling. This is really, really hard to do with a game that’s over 10 hours long. How many times have you been playing something and by the end, you have no idea why you’re standing in a missile silo across from this guy in a Halloween costume who's holding a gun to your girlfriend’s head? Sure, lazy or more aptly—non-existent writing is partly to blame here, but this is also a problem when a game is just too big for the story’s britches.

A lot of games really just need to be in the 4-8 hour range. Imagine tight, cohesive story lines similar to movies, consistently paced to keep the player engaged. Hell, maybe we could finally have some decent character arcs for once. A more story and character driven medium also has the possibility to draw the attention of more film directors like Guillermo del Toro; potentially broadening the appeal of games the likes we have never seen.

Another positive aspect of games being made drastically shorter is the removal of the fluff and time wasting that is such a plague today. Admit it, every game has them: the fetch quests, the backtracking, the ubiquitous RPG elements. These are all artificial lengetheners that absolutely no one enjoys. After awhile, they start to resemble a kid that writes a paper and starts repeating themselves in different ways to meet the page requirement. Quite frankly, I don’t have time for this shit anymore. And who does? With more and more great games coming out every year, and many gamers starting families of their own, there is just not enough time to be a good grown up and be a good gamer at the same time. With the advent of shorter games, a person could conceivably finish a game in a weekend, and still have quite the satisfying experience.

Speaking of finishing games, shorter games also equal higher completion rates. According to some studies, only 20% of people who start any given game will actually see it to completion. This makes it obvious that the problem lies not in difficulty, but in excessive length, and waning of player interest.

Backlogs: they're not just for hoarders anymore

This brings me to another point: for far too long difficulty curves have been cascading down a slippery slope towards games just playing themselves as the player watches. The advent of substantially shorter games would herald the return of actual challenge and the requirement of skill. This isn’t some new concept either. If you’re old enough to remember, most games from the 8 and 16-bit eras could be completed in a couple hours, provided you knew what you were doing. If not, a game like Ninja Gaiden could take weeks, or even months (or in some cases a couple days and a team of professional gamers). Back then, backbreaking difficulty was not the sign of a broken game, but a feature. Kids wanted their bang for their buck in playtime, so designers happily obliged by killing them. Over, and over, and over. The mere thought warms my icy curmudgeon heart.

Another great reason for short games? Price. And this applies to all parties involved. There’s this huge contingency of gamers (that I used to be a part of) that bemoaned shorter games. I think this complaint is not rooted in enjoyment, but instead the need to feel value in a purchase. Lets face it: buying a video game has always been quite the investment. Every time a gamer commits to a purchase, he’s forking over fifty to seventy bucks of their hard-earned cash. So of course people want to get their money's worth. That’s why if a game’s length is halved, the price should be too. Can you imagine how many more games people would play if both the price and time commitment were more akin to going to the movies? You shell out $20-$30 dollars and a few hours of your time and in return, you get a satisfying and complete gaming experience. No backlogs, no struggling to find time to play, no story amnesia, and no gaping hole in your pocket.

Now there’s going to be plenty of naysayers to this plan. This mostly has to do with the false equivalency between length and quality(at least that’s what I tell my girlfriend). All you have to do is think back a little to realize that this is hardly the case. Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Portal , Limbo, Resident Evil 1-3, Silent Hill 1-3, The Uncharted series, Heavy Rain, Rez…All unforgettable games that can completed in under 10 hours. In these cases, abbreviated length actually helped leave a lasting impression. As the old saying goes: “Always leave em wanting more.” Besides, just think if we applied the same logic to movies. Transformers: Dark of the Moon was almost three fucking hours, and by the end of that I was gnawing on my wrists like a coyote in a bear trap. In a similar vein, I think L.A. Noire would have been a much stronger game if it were about five hours shorter. Even a good story can overstay it’s welcome.

Only three hours but stays with you much longer.

Despite much of gamers’ crying and gnashing of teeth, I think that the entire industry is ever so subtly setting up for this paradigm shift. Looking at the writing on the wall, the Wii U may be the last time we see a physical media based console. Even today, bite-sized dlc episodes are becoming the norm for most AAA titles, and it really wouldn't take much of a push for an entire game to be released this way. And would that be so bad? Your favorite studios releasing great games every three to six months, instead of one to two years. This means they get a much more steady flow of income, and gamers get a steady flow of good, affordable games. And if someone really missed their 20-30 hour gaming experience, they could always wait for the trade at the end of the year.

Now after writing some 1200 words rallying for shorter games, I would be remiss in not clarifying that all games need not adhere to this standard. Sweeping epics like Skyrim and trilogies like Mass Effect all have their place in the world. The core problem isn't that games are too long, but games that are artificially long. Developers, listen up! Stop wasting our time and we'll start giving you more money. It's as simple as that.

Don't listen to cryogenically frozen British don't need one of these to be please.

3:38 PM on 12.21.2011

Hustle and Flow: Why Games Need to Keep it Moving

Heat came on TV the other day which meant much like Goodfellas and the Godfather, I had to stop whatever I was doing and watch it. Eventually, I get to THAT scene. Yeah, you know the one. I’ve seen this one scene a stupid amount of times, and it’s still thrilling after dozens of viewings. This time though, struck me as a bit different. There was a familiarity--a kind of deja vu of the entire setup, and there’s where it hit me. Heat’s heist scene feels exactly like playing Left 4 Dead. This made me realize there was something timeless between the two, and perhaps examining them a little deeper I could discover why they are so effective at what they do. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main things that all video games could learn from Heat and L4D: rhythm, immediacy/flow, and danger.

There’s this great blog on Kotaku by Kirk Hamilton named The Rhythm of Play. In it, it describes how many great games have an intrinsic tempo and feel, one that compels you to keep playing. Watch that shootout again, or a video of Left 4 Dead for a few minutes. You’ll begin to notice a rhythmic beat underlying every encounter. RAT TAT TAT, aim, RAT TAT TAT, aim again, RAT TAT TAT, run, reload, and repeat. The sheer numbers of enemies allows for you to remain engaged, and keep the beat going indefinitely.

This rhythmic aspect is present in countless games, but you may not have noticed it until now. Ever notice in classic beat-em-ups like Final Fight are founded upon that old gaming trope: the three hit combo. Princesses have been rescued, kingdoms toppled, and galaxies saved all by this simple three button sequence. But haven’t you ever wondered why it’s so ubiquitous? Sure, it’s simplicity makes it the logical option to introduce new players to a game, but the fact stands that by the time you’re at the last level, you’ll still be using it, and having a blast. The true greatness of the three-hit-combo lies in its rhythm. Punch punch, punch. Punch, punch, kick. Punch, kick, slam. Easy, effective, and deadly, but it’s the rhythm that keeps it from becoming unbearably repetitive.

But acts of violence aren’t the only way rhythm presents itself. You can find plenty of satisfying rhythms in the act of simply getting around. Take Assassin’s Creed or Mirrors Edge. There is a visceral enjoyment to be had in the run, the jump, and the landing. There’s a hypnotizing quality to it. Over and over again, you do this until you’re locked in a kind of rhythmic tango with your surroundings. If the rhythm is particularly enchanting, I’ll even tolerate a “bad” game to get my fix. I can’t count how many questionable spider-man games I’ve played just for the awesome web-slinging.

The problem is, some games today seem to be in love with elements that obliterate a game’s cadence, grinding it to a halt. Cliffy B seemed to be acutely aware of this when he designed Gears of War. Here you have a game where you are up to your eyeballs with chest-high walls, but ingeniously maintains a driving rhythm with active reloading. Kirk Hamilton describes it as such:

The rip and spray of a Gears weapon is like a snare-drum roll, and the active reload is the cymbal crash at the end. Waiting the perfect amount of time before jamming the right shoulder button to slam in a super-charged round is so viscerally, rhythmically satisfying that I don't know why the mechanic hasn't been copied by every game since.

Immediacy/flow is also a vital component of a game that serves to retain the player’s interest and level of excitement. At any given moment in Left 4 Dead, there’s always something going on. You’re actively being pushed to progress through the level as it was designed, keeping the player’s adrenaline high, and unable to become bored. I don’t care if it’s a scrolling camera, a mob of enemies, an imposed time-limit, or an avalanche, the player needs to be encouraged to not drag their ass through a game. Even in games that focus on exploration or being methodical should still have moments of high tension to prod a player.

One of the great things about flow is that a lot of times you have just as much control over it as the designers do. Have you ever been in the “zone”: that magical moment of perfect confluence of ability, awareness, and timing. Time slows down for you, and it’s as if every encounter is divinely scripted: one, two, three pulls of the trigger, and three bodies fall at you feet. This, my friends is what perfect flow looks like, and boy does it feel good. Of course this is an exceptionally rare occurrence, especially for people who aren’t named Johnathan Wendel, but the job of a designer is to create environments and situations where the player has the opportunity to feel this as often as possible.

I’m not a big fan of Modern Warfare’s rather pedestrian single-player campaigns, but I’m not afraid to admit I absolutely loved the Mile High Club mission. It only lasted a couple of minutes, but it was far more exciting than any of the “epic” paint by the numbers battles or BS scripted events in the rest of the game. It’s just you and your trusty MP5 versus that accursed clock. Without the usual luxury of being able to pitch a tent safely behind cover as long as you like, COD’s usual plodding flow gets thrown out the window, and it’s like you’re playing a different game. Now, if you get hit by a bullet you don’t turtle up, you push harder because you know your only choice is kill them before they kill you. You feverishly run from encounter to encounter because the only thing more deadly than a bullet from an AK-47, are the seconds on the overhead clock.

Last but not least, we have danger, which is tied in closely with the first two elements I mentioned. Danger is the carrot on the stick, or rather the stick you beat your players with to keep them from getting cocky. Spare the rod and spoil the gamer, as they say. This isn’t about back breaking Dark Souls’ level difficulty, it’s about respect. A player that has a healthy amount of respect doesn’t run into rooms blindly. No, he’s always paying attention to his surroundings and wondering what’s going to happen next. It means that sometimes, shit gets real. With all the hand-holding going on in games today, it seems that devs forget how fun it is to be in over your head. Dangerous situations get people thinking, and asses in gear. Check out that scene again. There is very little cover to be had, no corners to hide until their health and shields regenerate; they can’t sit back and safely take pot shots at every cop for an half hour. Their butts are in the fire, and they’re operating purely on instinct and adrenaline. This is exactly how you craft an engaging sequence.

My old-school sensibilities can’t help but bring up another one of my favorite games: Bangai-O . Bangai-O forces you to forgo all instincts of self-preservation in order to be most effective. That means jumping headfirst into the teeth of the enemy and then not pulling the trigger until milliseconds before death. This was a game that rewards you on how big your balls are, not how good you are at hiding behind cover, and it was fucking awesome.

I’ve got them just where I want them

But danger doesn’t always have to be about being in bullet-hell. The entire survival horror genre USED to be based upon fear, helplessness, and the unknown. Every time you reached for a door handle, you never knew what was waiting to greet you on the other side. Suspense and the absolute lack of a feeling of safety makes for a truly immersive experience.

One of my favorite examples of this will always be Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis. You didn’t see him often, but when you did, you’d usually let out an audible scream, followed by hastily making your way to the nearest exit. Sure, you could attempt to stand your ground and exhaust all your precious ammo in hopes that he would drop before he ripped your spleen out, but it wasn’t recommended. So let’s say you made it to the door and into the next room. Time for a breather, right? Wrong. You hear the door open behind you and a familiar voice: STAAAAARS! You were never allowed to relax outside of save rooms, and frankly, you didn’t feel too safe in those either.

Sometimes the simple act of needing to run for your life makes a situation all the more thrilling. You have to ask yourself would Pyramid Head have been nearly as memorable if James could have just emptied a machine gun into his face the first time he saw him? Nowadays, most “survival horror” games look like someone set a bomb off in a gun shop. There’s no need to ration, plan, or run from anything because baby, you’ve got a NRA membership card, and you’re not afraid to use it. This short-sighted approach obliterates every iota of danger and suspense in many games. Yawn.

Put simply, a lot of games today (particularly first person shooters) are suffering from an extreme case gameplay constipation. What’s the remedy? A healthy dose of rhythm, flow, and danger. If you want to see an example of a game that does it right, look no further than Left 4 Dead 2’s final level, the bridge. The stage is essentially the “end boss” of the entire game, and boy is it a doozy. It’s actually very disorienting the first few times you play it. You are given the task of traversing the entire length of a dilapidated suspension bridge all the while fighting through an endless stream of brain-thirsty zombies. Once you figure out that being overwhelmed is inevitable, you begin to settle into a groove. You discover the feverish tempo the game wants you to operate at, and you match it. There is no thinking to be had, there are only footsteps and gunshots. You can feel the relentless grasp of death creeping in from all directions; you fear it, but you will not succumb to it. You push ahead, not only because you are fighting for your life; but because you are having the time of it.

12:48 PM on 11.24.2011

Thanksgiving: Sega, the Little Multinational Corporation That Could

In the land before time (the early 90's to be exact), before the Xbox was a twinkle in Bill Gates’ eye and a Playstation sounded more like something you'd shove a screaming toddler into, there was a company named Sega that made an indelible mark on gaming for years to come.

I was a Nintendo zealot at first, as most were during gaming's formative years. That was until a little blue hedgehog with sneakers stepped into the scene and stole my heart away. Ok, I'll be the first to admit it. My little sugar addled, 10 year old mind fell hook line and sinker for Sega's marketing. Nintendos were for babies with their pastel colors and goomba stomping. No it was gritty, realistic games like Streets of Rage and Altered Beast that put hair on your chest. Genesis does what Nintendon't, as they say. On that fateful December night as I peered through the crack of the door as my parents brought in gigantic bags from Toys R Us, only one thought entered my mind: “Santa's getting jacked tomorrow.”

The moment it all changed.

After several stern warnings from the parental units about staying far, far away from their bedroom closet, I devised a scheme to stay home sick from mass the next day and get a peek at my Christmas bounty (sorry God, a gamers gotta do what a gamer's gotta do). As I opened up that bag and saw the words: “Leader of the 16-bit revolution”, I lost it. Ten minutes later in a frenzy of plastic and cardboard, my ill-gotten prize was completely hooked up to the den tv. I slide in the slim black cartridge, flip the power switch, and a heavenly chorus fills the room:SEEEEGAAAAAAA!. It's funny how a simple compressed voice sample can still shake me to my core the same way it did 20 years ago. And thus, a Sega disciple was born. That day I only played for about 30 minutes, still in absolute fear of the repercussions of my dark deed. In the three weeks leading up to Christmas, I came down with a series of mysterious and debilitating illnesses that required me to stay home from school. I ended up beating Sonic the Hedgehog a full week before Christmas, but when the big day finally came I hammed it up and ran around the house thanking the heavens with the Genesis box over my head. No one was the wiser.

The next three years were probably the best in my gaming life. Sonic, Shinobi, Gunstar Heroes, Vectorman, Comix Zone, Ecco, Road Rash, Streets of Rage, the list just goes on and on and on. Sure it may have played a large part in their downfall, but Sega was NEVER afraid to innovate. Who remembers the Sega Channel, the crazily bold and revolutionary precursor to PSN and XBLA? Yes in 1994, 50 games a month could be streamed into your house for the low, low fee of $14.99! Of course not low enough for my parents, but my lucky SOB of a best friend got it, and that is where I practically lived for the next year. Despite these happier times, dark days were ahead.

"Daddy what are those carts doing?" "You see son, when a boy game and a girl game love each other very much..."

The true next generation of systems was coming and after the massive missteps of the 32x and Sega CD, my faith in the home team was fading. The $400 price tag of the Saturn was the last straw and I began saving up for the mysterious newcomer, the Playstation. Caught up in the relentless multimillon dollar hype campaign, and FAR short of the $299 needed with 9/9/95 right around the corner, I did the unspeakable. A deed which I still regret to this day, for which I may never be able to atone. I boxed up my precious Genesis and its cadre of games, and marched down to the neighborhood Funcoland. After hawking the system, 40+ games and a Menacer, the pizza faced cashier handed me $238.56. Yes I remember the exact price of my betrayal, down to the CENT. $238.56! I felt like Judas Iscariot. With a heavy heart and my 30 pieces of silver, I went home looking forward to the great gaming that was to come.

And what great times they were. The PS1 was a groundbreaking console; some of the best gaming I ever had was with that little gray box. Alas, I still had feelings for my old flame. At home I played games like FF7 that changed the landscape of gaming forever. But every time I had a quarter to spare I could be found at the local arcade, plunking my entire allowance into any cabinet with a SEGA decal on the front of it. Daytona, Virtua: Racing, On, Cop, Fighter, Tennis, Crazy Taxi, Dynamite Cop, Sega Rally, House of the Dead…I was broke as hell, but I couldn’t care less. Big Blue still had it.

It was then 1999 and there’s a ton of buzz about a new killer console that’s supposed to put everything else to shame. “128 bits!” The reports shouted. But despite the ongoing love affair I was having at the arcades, I reluctantly passed on the Cinnaboncast to wait for the PS2. That was until that ominous date: 9/9/99. One of my buddies had just picked up a Dreamcast, so our entire gang ran there directly after school to check it out. He pops in Sonic Adventure and proceeds to run through a breathtaking beach paradise while being pursued by a killer whale. It was then that something snaps in my brain. That familiar feeling that washed over me when I took that Genesis out of the shopping bag hits me yet again. This only meant one thing: if I didn’t get a Dreamcast immediately, I would die. I barely remember playing anything else that day save for a little Trickstyle and Ready 2 Rumble, because I was a man on a mission.

Being a fourteen year old with virtually(virtua, get it?…no? screw you guys then) no source of income, I did the only thing I could do. I begged. I pleaded. I bargained. Time after time I was turned down but I wouldn’t take no for an answer. The Sega lust had me completely. I then devised a way that was sure to get a DC under my tree. Hard work, with a heaping side of guilt sauce. For the next two months I was a machine. All my chores? Done before I was asked to do them. Floors: mopped, toilets: scrubbed, laundry: washed, dried and folded. I even started stealing chores from my brother to get brownie points. Being the great brother he was he begrudgingly allowed me to do his share. After those two months the basement and closets looked better then than they ever did the five years we lived there. I was even thinking about painting the house, but I couldn’t afford the damn paint. When Christmas rolled around, I knew I had it in the bag. There was no way I wasn’t getting my Dreamcast…and I was right. Too bad asking for it meant I didn’t get anything else that year, including games. Between the demo disk I played an obscene amount of times and the weekly Soul Calibur tournaments over my bro's house, I was in heaven.

The Dreamcast really was a special console. Four controllers, arcade perfect ports, and most importantly, it brought online gaming to the masses. Fortunately as consoles were entering the internet age, so was I. Between exploring the vast and futuristic world of Ragol in PSO, destroying all comers with my Jaguars in NFL2k1, and discovering the wonders of Napster, it’s a wonder my family got any phone calls through from ’99 -‘02.

And then there was Shenmue, the grandaddy of sandbox games that came out almost 2 years before GTA. Yu Suzuki’s open world epic almost single-handedly sank what was left of the Sega empire. It was said that in order to be successful, every Dreamcast owner would have needed to buy two copies. And goddamn it, they should have. Shenmue was that good. Compared to games today it still holds up very well. As usual, Sega was ahead of their time.

At the turn of the century, forklift simulators were all the rage.

So what am I thankful for? I’m thankful for a game company that was either too crazy or too stupid to know not to compete with the big N. I’m thankful for lazy Saturdays with my brother as we beat Streets of Rage 2 for the 1000th time. I’m thankful for the premature, but still vital Sega CD, which paved the way for all disk based consoles that came after it. I am thankful for the Model 2 board, which powered some of the greatest arcade games of all time. For games like Rez, and Jet Set Radio, which were quirky, stylish, and unbelievably fun. I am thankful for names like Suzuki, Naka, and Koshiro, for making games that are so very dear to my heart.

Thank You Sega, for making me the gamer that I am today.


11:21 AM on 11.14.2011

Love Thy Neighbor: The Need for Compassion in Games

They had us pinned down. There’s so many bullets flying overhead that mere seconds of exposure meant certain death. There was blood in the water, and those sons of bitches could smell it. And that’s when I hear him: “Shit! I’m down man!” I look up, and my teammate is 50 yards away behind a concrete barrier and bleeding out on his knees. Without a second thought I pop a smoke grenade and toss it between us. Within moments the battlefield is blanketed in a gray haze, and I’m off and running. I pick up my comrade, blind fire a few rockets, and then we hightail it back to our team’s fort behind the sandbags. “Thanks man,” my teammate says to me. “This wave isn’t nearly over,” I reply. “We need you.”

This is just one of the many acts of heroism that transpired during a three hour session of the Horde last week. We did eventually make it past the 50th wave. After the last brumak went supernova and gave us a well deserved light show of victory, the four of us stayed in the chat channel for another 15 minutes, giddily reliving our favorite close calls and “oh shit” moments. It truly was one of the best gaming experiences I’d ever had.

"Can I get a hug, bro?" "...maybe later, Dom."

This got me wondering, I’ve played hundreds of hours of team-based games before, so why did this stick with me so much? I had to think back to my times playing Left 4 Dead until the sunrise crept in through my blinds to recall a similar feeling. Then it finally hits me. L4D and Gears’ Horde mode provide a frenzied feeling of being overwhelmed, and from that despair you end up leaning on your teammates, and in turn they lean on you. You begin to put yourself in harms way to pull them out of fires, going back for them if they get left behind, giving them a spare health pack if they’re limping. Put simply, you stop treating your teammates like helper bots, and more like—you know, people. Individuals you actually show compassion towards, instead of just running past them and not giving a second thought about their well-being.

I think that’s kind of huge. The act of injecting a little compassion into games changes the texture of every encounter. How the team fares directly correlates to your success and survival; so you end up not only monitoring your own health, but the group’s. And what do you know? Not being a selfish jerkwad all the time feels good. In a time when gaming is so full of instances being a one man army going for top kills and the most points, it’s refreshing to be able to dial it back once and awhile.

FPS’s, MMO’s, RTS’s, the genre doesn’t really matter. What matters is that every warm body is required for survival. This is especially strong in games where there are specialized jobs. Everyone will lay down cover fire for the engineer who’s the only one that can fix the bridge. And anyone who’s played MMO’s knows how key deaths can easily = wipes. The group being a well oiled machine is the only way to win. To double back and whack those zombies off that newb who may be playing for the first time. To brave tank fire with health supplies for your squad who desperately needs it. To keep aggro off the healer because the tank died—even if you are just a squishy rogue. When the shit hits the fan, traditional gaming conventions go out the window, and the good of the many outweigh the good of the few. This mentality makes for awesome, memorable gaming.

Online multiplayer isn’t the only place that can benefit from a little empathy and compassion. There are far too few games where the player really cares about the protagonist’s motivations. We are usually given a standard issue save the girlfriend/princess/world/get revenge story and sent on our merry little way. Is it really that hard to craft a halfway decent motivation to push players? Instead we get carrot-on-a-stick rpg elements added to everything to “entice” us to keep playing.

Give us something to really fight for, something to protect, dammit. For example, even though you cannot die in Ico(save for falls), the encounters still mean so much since you’re protecting Yorda. You feel so bad letting her down, you do everything in your power to win. In Bioshock, you feel driven to help free the Little Sisters from their horrible fates. Even with the prospect of getting a ton of Adam in return, it really is difficult to look into those big, yellow eyes and harvest them. When the Big Daddies continue to search for their wards, you also can’t help but feel at least a little pity as they give a slight sigh of defeat after knocking on a wall and receiving no response.

Yeah she's a princess, but at least she's no Peach.

My favorite example of a game using compassion to strengthen a narritive is Heavy Rain. Some people may find it boring, but I loved spending the first hour of the game caring for Ethan’s sons. This brief family time is so important to setting up the story. When you see how much those kids mean to Ethan, you can’t help but feel some of his pain when Shawn is kidnapped. Of course you’re playing to find out who the Origami killer really is, but you’re also fighting to reunite a downtrodden father with his son.


This quote by Penny Arcade’s Gabe always sticks with me:
“I’ve spent a couple nights with Heavy Rain now and I think it’s really special. If you’re a parent, (especially a Dad) this game can be pretty difficult to play at timesI don’t know if it’s an 89.85%, or a 9.7 out of 10. What I do know is that after a late night playing it, I sneak into my son’s room and hug him before I go to bed. I think Heavy Rain is probably one of the most important games ever made. Maybe not one of the best, but definitely important.”

When you’ve got games touching people like this, it’s something that’s hard to ignore. Come on developers, gamers have hearts too. Why net let us use them once and awhile? The theme of Heavy Rain was: “How far are you willing to go to save someone you love?” I don’t know, but give gamers a chance and we might surprise you.

p.s. I may love a good sob story, but if I see another hometown blown up in an RPG I’m going to seriously hurt someone.   read

12:01 PM on 11.03.2011

Dude, You Got RPG in My Peanut Butter

(old man Kona sits in a rocking chair next to a fireplace)

Ya see kids, back in my day, you knew what a game was when you blew into it a few times and plugged it in. Platformers were platformers, beat-em-ups were beat-em-ups, shooters were shooters, and RPG’s were RPG’s. Nowadays, you don’t know what you’re getting! Played this one game called CAD: Modern Warfight and guys were leveling up like Final Fantasy! This is all too much for an old veteran like myself. Did I ever tell ya the time I was in the great console wars of ’92? Barely made it out with my thumbs. Best friend wasn’t so lucky, and he’s got two wooden ones to show for it…

(but seriously folks…)

After Role Playing Games struggled so hard to garner a large playerbase in the past, games with RPG elements seem to be everywhere today. Experience, hit-points, skill trees, sub-quests, loot drops, chances are more than one of these is in the game spinning in your xbox right now. What’s up with the ubiquity of RPG elements all of the sudden? More importantly, do these elements enhance or hurt the games they appear in?

Honestly, I’m actually pretty on the fence about this. For every Deus Ex and Infamous that does it well, you have a bunch of games like GTA: San Andreas(a fat meter? Really?) that make you wish for simpler times. Done right and you’re rewarded with a highly customizable experience that allows you to tailor a character exactly to your playstyle. Done wrong, and you’ll be stuck doing some crap you don’t feel like doing to get stronger (i.e. grinding) or even worse, not mattering in the first place since you have max stats by the end of the game. Maxing your stats actually has its own set of pitfalls in and of itself. It’s entirely possible to end up with a game that gets substantially easier as it progresses, thus obliterating the difficulty curve.

In my eyes, the biggest offenders of all are online First Person Shooters. Levels and experience are outrageously unfair to new players or people with only a little free time. For an industry that strives so hard to make games “more accessible” they really drop the ball here. As a new player, one has to contend not only with learning the maps and controls, but also seasoned players who have better weapons and run 3x faster than you, in silence. Contrast this with a game like Quake or Counterstrike where everyone enters on equal footing, where skills and smarts are the ultimate deciders of victory. If you must include levels in your competitive FPS, Gears 3 does this best, awarding the dedicated with purely superficial player and weapon skins.

Another problem I have is with the disconnect experience levels create within a story’s narrative. Even some of my favorite games like Deus Ex and Mass Effect are guilty here. Does it make any sense at all for your character, an elite solider, to be unable to hit a tank with a machine gun at 10 paces? Or maybe Heroguy™ can use Assault and Sniper Rifles with ease, but has to leave behind an awesome pistol he found because he hasn’t bought that talent. I’m sorry but this isn’t fun, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense either.

Are there any instances where sucking at the beginning of a game actually makes sense? Sure. In Infamous, Cole starts off very weak, just learning his powers. By the end of the game, Cole is quite confident in his abilities after killing thousands of bad guys, making him the savior or villain he was destined to be. One of my favorite instances of this comes from Shenmue. Ryo, being the son of a master martial artist, is quite respectable with his skills. Most common thugs are no match for his training. Through the months he spends tirelessly looking for Lan Di, he encounters other masters and hones his skills to the point where he can defeat more seasoned fighters. All the while, he knows he’s still not strong enough to defeat his father’s killer. Last but not least are sports games. Game modes like Road to the Show and Nba2k’s My Player are a perfect fit for experience and levels. Real life athletes dedicate their lives to improving their skills, so starting off as a diamond in the rough and fighting your way up to the big leagues feels right.

This is how you do it, guys.

So if its so difficult to integrate RPG elements into games properly, why does everyone keep trying to shoehorn it into everything? There are a couple reasons for this. First of all, games like every other form of entertainment is a monkey see, monkey do industry. If one successful game has a specific feature, you can bet your ass that you’re going to be seeing it in EVERYTHING for the next few years—regardless of how well it actually fits. Second, there seems to be this tendency this generation to take those little addictive elements from MMO’s and apply them to anything within arms reach. Achievements and trophies are structured specifically to give the player micro-highs like one gets from ding’ing in WoW. Adding experience points in every game just reveals the bullshit for what it really is: videogames as a virtual skinner box. Just like the experiments psychologist B.F. Skinner ran on his rats, game developers desire to trap gamers within a constant behavior-reward cycle. This steady stream of instant gratification mixed with more long term rewards is the exact same bottomless pit that MMO’s and social networking games trap their players within. Click, treat. Click, treat. Click, click, treat. Click, click, click, click, treat.

The question is, does anyone really like being jerked around like this? Weren't games already fun enough in and of themselves without needing to be tricked into playing? All I’m saying is, how about using RPG elements where they fit, instead of freaking everywhere. Hell, if you guys really want to keep ripping off RPG’s how about starting at the story? Far too often when games are almost finished the writers are wheeled in to tie together the firefights and minecart rides into something faintly resembling a story. You want to keep a gamer engaged? Give us captivating adventures with interesting characters. I mean, that is why people play RPG’s isn’t it?

I'll leave you with this quote by Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid:

"That kind of reward system is very easily turned into a Pavlovian or Skinnerian scheme. It's considered best practice: schedule rewards for your player so that they don't get bored and give up on your game. That's actually exploitation...Developers should provide activities that interest players rather than stringing them along with little pieces of candy so that they'll suffer through terrible game play, but keep playing because they gain levels or new items...a lot of modern game design is actually unethical. They are predicated on player exploitation...developers should design innovative, ethical and personal art because players are hungry for inspiring new games."

Back to Top

We follow moms on   Facebook  and   Twitter
  Light Theme      Dark Theme
Pssst. Konami Code + Enter!
You may remix stuff our site under creative commons w/@
- Destructoid means family. Living the dream, since 2006 -