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Ever since my dad held me up to a Pole Position cabinet to steer as he worked the pedals, I've been absolutely hooked on games. It just took me 25 years to figure out that I loved writing about them too. I don't have any particular genre biases, I'll play just about anything that involves pressing buttons (that's probably why I shouldn't visit hospitals...). This blog is just the thoughts of a guy who loves games, but is occasionally frustrated when they squander their potential.


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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?








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 spies...games don't need one of these to be please.








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.
Photo Photo Photo








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.

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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.



Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaasoooooooooooon!


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.
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(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."
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