Thursday, January 31, 2008

Curse my self-imposed No More Heroes embargo!

Here's the thing: I really want to talk about No More Heroes. I want to read Leigh Alexander's "Aberrant Gamer" column about it, and Michael Abbott's post at the Brainy Gamer. In all likelihood, I want to comment on their posts. This is the kind of game that demands to be discussed. It is impossible to play it and not think about it; think deep and analytical thoughts about what it is, what it isn't, and what it means. And it's impossible not to want to share those thoughts.

But I can't, just yet. I'm filing my review overnight tonight, and until that's done I don't want to read what anybody else has to say about it. No reason to go into it biased.

So... be prepared for some No More Heroes posts starting tomorrow. They're going to be great. I swear!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ten dollars to any reader*

Who can point out one real, substantive difference between Kotaku, Joystiq, and Game|Life. I have them all in my Google reader and it's like getting the day's most unimportant news in THX surround sound. Did you know they're making a game based on the Saw movies? Can I tell you three times?

Seriously, though: which of these three should I keep in there?

*Offer not valid. User-Submitted Previews: Turok

I didn't much cotton to the Turok demo, but with the full version shipping, why not take a look and see what our friends over at have to say?

Gamestop user "Turok" provided this unbiased take:
i was blown away when i put in the demo its awsome i played the turoks of the past i like this change of pace they did breaths new life into him the detail in the game is crazy you can tel this a 360 game right here i love the A.I. unlike most people who say they are dumb i disgree with them they are smart a tell there comrades to flank you and they start come from all sides i like the fights with the dinos that alone makes the game worth buying i love pulling out my knife and geting into it with them im impressed so far im looking forward to the full game cant wait my blood is pumping turok rocks

What's it like when your blood is pumping Turok rocks? Is it like passing a kidney stone?

Rnylee seems a little too concerned about the fortunes of Turok retailers:

I've been a Turok fan since the golden days of the N64,but this is by far one of the best in the series.I just got through the demo and it was awesome.It was everything I expected it to be it a must own title dont settle for a rental on the release date go pre-order it and experience Turok like you've never seen him before.

Dollars to donuts Rynlee shares an IP address with Gamestop CEO Richard Fontaine. "Why not pick up some GME shares while you're at it, fellow young people? Free t-shirt with market order!"

Jack Sprat thinks guys like me should sit down and shut up:

i think its stupid that people bash a game before its out because they have a bad experience with the demo. you cant really tell how good a game is until you play the full thing, you cant expect the demo to have everything good that the full game will have

It's true. The reason companies release game demos is so that they can later exceed our low expectations.

But adile98 makes a persuasive case:

I cant wait for this one to come out ive played all 4 of them and they are some of the greatest games ever turok is gunna be awsome and for sure im gunna buy this one i advise all you to do the same


I was on the fence until that third "S."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Who's that guy in the suit?

My review of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law is up now. It was a difficult game to review, because it really is like five interactive episodes of the show. That's a good thing for all the reasons the show is entertaining, but it's not so great from a gameplay perspective. Comparisons to Phoenix Wright are perhaps unfair, but inevitable. The biggest difference between the two is that Phoenix's cases are taken all the way through to surprising and satisfying conclusions, whereas Birdman's go for the abrupt gag. The Birdman game is true to the spirit of the show, but as we've seen from most of the attempts to translate games into movies, it's not always easy to translate from one medium to another. It's just not enough of a game.

And if I can toot my own horn a sec, I'm pretty proud of the closing line to this review.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Balancing Puzzle Fighter

This is a bit old, but it's just fascinating. I always think people happen upon excellence by accident -- that innate talent tends to take care of the little details that can mean the difference between success and failure. Maybe that's true sometimes, but more often it seems that dedication and persistence are the most potent fertiziler for the fecund mind. So it was interesting to read about the design decisions that went into the Super Puzzle Fighter II remake for Xbox Live Arcade, not least because I wouldn't have thought the original needed any improvement.

Most of the Puzzle Fighter re-balancing involved each character's drop patterns. The funny thing is that we all played as Donovan back in the day without having an inkling of the advanced strategy this piece describes. Specifically: "Because you know the pattern of colors that the opponent is capable of dropping on your side, it’s possible to build your side so that enemy attacks sometimes help you. If all characters sent random patterns of blocks, it would be very difficult to build up large Power Gems on your side without having them covered up all the time."

Who knew? Not me. Nor was I aware of the "Diamond Trick." Maybe it's a good thing I haven't downloaded the XBLA version, because people would probably be wiping the floor with me.

Friday, January 25, 2008

"A deeply flawed and laughably shallow exercise in comic book violence"

Jeremy Parish has written the definitive take on Crackdown, which he calls his favorite game of 2007. I agree with every word. Many games were "better" than Crackdown last year, from an empirical perspective. There were games with more satisfying and thoughtful narratives, prettier graphics, and what Erik Wolpaw referred to as "dicey underwater moral choices." But there was no game that was nearly as much fun from start to finish.

People often say that they play games for fun, which is not a position I wholly agree with. Yes, fun is a component of games, but the kinds of games I usually like aren't "fun" in the traditional sense. They're often grueling, depressing, and, ideally, thoughtful. BioShock was a great game, the best of 2007, but making those dicey underwater moral choices wasn't exactly what I'd call a good time. Fulfilling, yes. But it didn't make me giddy. It left me drained some of the time, awed at others, and when it was all over I felt more a sense of relief than elation.

Crackdown, though? Completely naughty, illicit, guilty-pleasure fun. There's a troubling, not terribly buried subtext to the game that takes the shine off if you look at it too closely, and if the gameplay weren't as exciting and addictive as it is, I wouldn't be so apt to let it off the hook. But the game is loud and dumb, and so reckless in its pursuit of open-world mayhem that it's hard not to be won over simply by its energy. Parish says the musical equivalent of Crackdown is Journey; I'd suggest Andrew W.K.

It's worth remembering that this game was a fairly low-profile winter release, marketed not for its gameplay but for the included invitation to the Halo 3 multiplayer beta test. Lots of people made the joke that Microsoft was selling the beta invite, with Crackdown as the freebie. I've never been happier to be wrong about something. Almost a year later, this game has stuck with me. That's a rare feat.

Oh yeah, it's less than $30 at Amazonnow, too.

Demo May Cry

Yesterday, the Devil May Cry 4 demo landed on both Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. This, along with Burnout Paradise, is one of the games I'm most looking forward to this winter. After playing the demo, I have one overriding thought: what the hell happened to game demos?

Remember the days of shareware, when a demo was practically the whole game? Wolfenstein and Doom each gave you an entire episode, with several levels, a complete storyline, and most, if not all, of the game's weapons. Wolf3D even let you escape from the freaking prison. Now that's a loss leader! Did I ever end up buying the full versions of these games? Of course not! I just played the free portions over and over. And that's way I likes it.

Clearly, game publishers disagree. Demos these days tend to contain a couple of minutes of gameplay, don't show much of the game, and cut off abruptly. They also weigh in around a gigabyte, compared to a single meg for the original Doom download. It's just ridiculous. They're also plastered with disclaimers about the demo not being indicative of the quality of the final version -- in which case, I'm not sure why they'd release it at all.

In the case of Devil May Cry 4, I am fairly certain that the demo is indicative of the quality of the final version, or else Capcom has some amibitious plans between now and February 5. But I'd say that's a good thing.

I keep telling myself I'm going to stop gaping at HD graphics, but again and again I just can't help it. This game looks gorgeous. One of the first locations it drops you into is a castle courtyard area that should be familiar from screenshots. At 60 frames per second, the structures look solid and the draw distance seems infinite (granted, the matte backgrounds are a little less impressive). I just wanted to run around and look at everything. Unfortunately, of the two game modes included in the demo, the one that features the castle has a ten-minute time limit.

So instead, I turned my attention to opening up a can. The only DMC I've played before is the third installment. I think it's a great game, one of the best for the PS2, but it's also ludicrously difficult. That's part of the charm. Advancing through that game took real skill. That's not the case with this demo. Your enemies seem to have taken their fighting techniques from classic martial arts movies, in which hordes of villains maintain a respectful distance while the hero battles one of their cohort. And since the demo also gives Nero only one sword and one gun, the rapid weapon switching that led to big combos in DMC3 isn't available here.

Instead of a time limit, the other portion of the demo limits you to one life. The purpose is to showcase a boss battle, a fight against a very large and angry flaming demon. Again, it seems a little easy -- I only tried it once, but I hacked away more than half of the boss's hit points before dying, without even attempting to analyze his attack patterns. Graphically, though, it's very impressive, not least because the size and detail of the monster doesn't lead to any perfomance hitches.

While it might have been nice to have an entire level to play through, at the end of it the Devil May Cry 4 demo did what it's supposed to do, which is make me want to play the full game. Just would have been nice if it had also made me want to play the demo again.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Turok demo impressions

Eventually, they'll get around to ruining all of our childhood memories, but at least Turok: Dinosaur Hunter has the advantage of not being something anybody remembers too fondly. It was pretty well reviewed at the time, but especially in retrospect it's a shining example of what not to do in a first-person shooter. Much of the gameplay was based on platform-style jumping sequences, for which the controls were simply not up to the task. The player was also encased in fog, with a draw distance of about ten relative feet, with environmental objects jumping into view right in front of you. Overall, I preferred Doom 64, which wasn't as technologically advanced, but at least had the benefit of good level design and lightning-fast gameplay. When I played Turok, what I most liked to do was input the code to unlock all weapons, and then fire the nuclear-powered arrows in order to ogle the particle effects.

So I'm not really sure why I downloaded the Turok demo, except that I was home and nothing much else was happening. It seems as though the developers have scratched some of the more mystical Native American aspects of past games and put you in the shoes of "Joe Turok," a special forces soldier who, in pursuit of his rogue former commanding officer, crash-lands on an alien planet and finklghhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Sorry. Fell asleep on the keyboard, there. Almost immediately, Turok does several uninteresting things. Besides that cookie-cutter premise, you're also saddled with computer-controlled allies -- one of whom seems like a dick! Whoa! And you can dual-wield! Dual-whoa!

The demo begins in a drab cave. After dispatching some raptors, you move outside into a drab forest. Not much is interesting about fighting the dinosaurs, with the annoying exception that they can knock you over, which was an idea first conceived and rejected in the making of the original Quake. The dinos can also leap on top of you, but you can get stabby on them by hammering buttons really fast. Just which button changes each time, to keep you on your toes.

Then there's the "stealth" portion of the game. If Joe Turok can sneak up on a human enemy, he can quickly dispatch them -- again, stabbily -- by hitting the R2 button. It's an all right way to do things, and certainly not enough to hang a whole game on, but since this is apparently optional to completing the game it's not worth getting too worked up about. The problem I had was that the game gives you no indication as to how visible you are. I was crouched in some tall grass, and assumed that I was adequately camouflaged. I assumed wrong, as I found out when somebody far away started shooting at me. Whoops. Clearly, Joe Turok is not one with the earth.

Or with the hostile alien planet that's without precedent in the annals of games, I should say. I mean, really: dinosaurs, people! That's how you know this game's different.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Blu Ray ascendent

The post-Warner Bros. announcement numbers are in, and it looks like Blu Ray is off to the races. Money quote:
The week after the announcement? Blu-ray players outsold HD DVD players more than 12 to 1.

Believe it or not, even though I'm a PS3 owner I don't feel I have a horse in this race. My setup is dedicated exclusively to games -- it would be a terrible place to watch movies. I do have one Blu Ray disc, RoboCop, but other than that I still watch movies solely on DVD (in the living room, where we still have an SDTV). If HD-DVD were to become the dominant format, I'd be happy enough to adopt it when the time comes. All the same to me.

And yet, what's interesting is that we may eventually have to admit that Sony knew what they were doing all along. This would be a paradigm shift akin to discovering that the earth revolves around the sun, but you can't argue with hard numbers, unless you're a Republican politician. Their strategy from the start was to leverage the PlayStation brand as a Trojan horse in order to establish their high-definition media format media format globally. They took a bath on the hardware. They took a drubbing from the online gaming community. And now, it seems, they're going to take us all to the cleaners.

Well good for them, I say. It was a ballsy strategy that, unbelievably, is going to pay off. That's why they're Sony, and we're not.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The folly of man

When I tell people that I review video games for the Phoenix, usually they're shocked to find out that the Phoenix runs video game reviews. Their second reaction is something like, "How cool!" Usually, I agree with them. Most of the time it is very cool.

Then there are the times I have to play games like Godzilla Unleashed. It turns out that you literally could not pay me enough to play this game more than two hours.

Books that should be made into games

Yesterday's post got me thinking. Despite its truly unfortunate portrayal of Jim, a Tom Sawyer game sounds like a great idea. So many games are based on movies and TV shows. Why not games based on books? There are centuries of fantastic literature to draw from, and in most cases the source material is in the public domain -- no need for onerous licensing fees. I offer these suggestions free of charge.

Don Quixote

A third-person action-adventure game -- think God of War in medieval Spain. Besides the standard brawling elements, the signature sequences would be on-rails jousting events with Don Quixote on his horse. Sancho Panza is the wise-cracking, AI-controlled sidekick, who can be ordered to attack, defend, or heal Don Quixote. He frequently gets caught on door frames, because there just wasn't enough time to iron out all the kinks in testing.


A lush, 3D update of the basic gameplay established in the mostly-forgotten NES Jaws game. Cruise the seas on the Pequod, battling various oceanic creatures in search of the ultimate prize: the great white whale, Moby Dick. Mini-games include squeezing the lumps out of a barrel full of whale blubber, and taking control of Queequeg for harpooning target practice (using the Wiimote, naturally).

War and Peace

A sweeping, turn-based strategy game that lets you take the side of Russia or France during the Napoleonic Wars. With thousands of units to command at once, the game quickly becomes untenable and overwhelming to all but the most dedicated strategy buffs. But everybody claims to have played it all the way through and loved it.


Stealth action is the name of the game in a dystopian future with chilling parallels to our own time. Take control of Winston Smith and attempt to foment revolution under the all-seeing gaze of Big Brother. The "Two Minutes Hate" button-pushing mini-game is inspired by Konami's arcade classic Track and Field.

Finnegan's Wake

Just a bunch of incomprehensible ASCII art and system error messages.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Most Stereotypical Black Characters in Gaming History

Today is Martin Luther King Day, a day on which we celebrate Dr. King's life and legacy, and recommit ourselves to achieving his vision of racial equality. Race relations have come a long way since the 1960s, but there's some distance left to go. Want proof? Check out these cringe-inducing, decidedly politically incorrect portrayals of black characters in video games.

Dee Jay, Super Street Fighter II

According to Wikipedia, Dee Jay was based on Tae Bo founder Billy Blanks. Billy Blanks, you may recall, also played the wide receiver who blows his brains out on the football field at the beginning of The Last Boy Scout, which is probably one of the ten best movies ever made. I guess what I'm saying here is that Dee Jay isn't really that much of a stereotype, except for his hip-hop style moves, but god damn The Last Boy Scout is awesome.

Barret Wallace, Final Fantasy VII

Moreso than the other characters on this list, Barret is an example of the residual racism that still hangs over global culture. He's an honorable and complex guy, quick to action but also with a nurturing instinct that informs his relationship with his adopted daughter Marlene. And yet... on the Japanese side of things, Square just couldn't help giving the guy a Mr. T haircut and a permanent scowl. The American translation is even worse, saddling Barret with uneducated, profane dialogue that makes him sound like a doofus. Why Barret, and no other character? Why, indeed.

By the way, if you're wondering why I haven't bothered to spotlight the other stereotypical Final Fantasy characters over the years, like the brooding goths Squall and Lulu, it's because moody goths have historically not been oppressed by the state and cultural institutions -- only by their parents.

Augustus "Cole Train" Cole, Gears of War

I was willing to overlook the Cole Train for most of Gears of War, even though, of all the characters in the game, he was the only one who couldn't spit out a sentence without swearing, and had been a pro athlete pre-Emergence Day. (At least Epic Games are equal-opportunity stereotypers, also giving us the tight-assed white guy, Baird. How much would it have blown your mind if Baird had been the cocky pro athlete and Cole the uptight wuss?)

Then I beat the game and was treated to the Cole Train rap song that plays over the end credits, featuring the repeatedly lyrics "Whooo!" and "This my kind of shit!" That just pushed it over the top. The only redeeming thing is that the Cole Train was portrayed by the same guy who played Terry Tate, Office Linebacker.

The Entire Cast of Def Jam Vendetta, Fight for NY, and Icon

The Def Jam games aren't games. They're a marketing nightmare. This is a case of savvy businessmen peddling an image to a large group of people who are not in on the joke. In the case of the most recent game, Icon, the horrid gameplay was really just the platter upon which endless courses of ads were served. Ads for clothes, electronics, record albums, and, most of all, the participants themselves. Product placement and celebrity endorsements are nothing new, but they should serve to accent the gameplay, not to take the place of it. Not that it matters if the game is hit. I'm sure the people who made this game are crying themselves to sleep at night, on top of a pile of money.

Jim, Tom Sawyer

Well, geez, just look at him. That would have offended the Confederate Army. At least this game never came out in the States. Thanks to Jeremy Parish for having once posted about it.

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Table of Contents

The series "A New Taxonomy of Gamers" wrapped up last Friday. For your convenience, here are the links to all 11 parts in one convenient post.
Part 1: What We Talk About When We Talk About Games
Part 2: Hardcore? Casual? Hardcasual?
Part 3: Skill Players vs. Tourists
Part 4: Case Study: Guitar Hero
Part 5: Skill Players: Drilling Down
Part 6: Case Study: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
Part 7: Cash Rules Everything Around Me
Part 8: Supply and Demand
Part 9: Case Study: The Orange Box
Part 10: Tying It All Together
Part 11: Know Thyself

That does it for this series. I hope people enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, and that it gave you some food for thought about the way we play our games. I'd like to do more of this type of essay in the future.

Friday, January 18, 2008

MTV Cribs: Insult Swordfighting

Inspired by the recent Kotaku series, here's a look at my personal gaming space. This is where the magic happens.

My Xbox 360 shares space with my PC. The 360 is hooked up this way because I bought it before I had an HDTV, so it seemed to make sense to buy the VGA cable and run the picture through my monitor. The Xbox's audio also runs through my PC speakers, which are pretty decent, if nine years old at this point. Yes, the Guitar Hero guitar is in an actual guitar stand.

Close-up shot. That's the DS Lite over there against the wall, but it's hard to make out among some scraps of paper. Note identical bottles of hand sanitizer under monitor, from my Christmas stocking in two consecutive years. Notice also fiancee's skin care products on the dresser behind my desk.

Okay, those are actually mine.

No, not really.

I turn 180 degrees and this is what I see. The Samsung and the PS3 are both just under a year old, which is hard to believe. You SDTV holdouts may think that going HD will not improve your life in any appreciable way. You are wrong. This thing still brings a tear to my eye. A progressive-scan tear, with 720 lines of resolution.

The problem with this setup is that I can't really jump around to play the more physically involved Wii games, but that TV stand is on a swivel so I can point it toward the middle of the room, where there is a little space. And also a ceiling fan that I've almost knocked down several times while playing Wii Tennis.

I keep most of my games on some wall shelves above the TV (the PSP is currently hanging out there, too, as you can see). Generally, the rule is that as soon as I can't fit any more games on the shelf, it's time to trade some in. I have not been following this rule too closely. The PS2 games that you see there are the ones I couldn't bear to part with, plus Karoake Revolution Vol. 3. The rest are some combination of games I really liked or games I couldn't be arsed to trade in yet. The coffee can contains my retirement fund.

If the spirit moves you, please post your own setup in the comments. I'd like to see how people are customizing their own game space.

Is Cloverfield a video-game movie?

Gus Mastrapa has seen Cloverfield and concludes that it has more in common with video games than do many films that are based on video games. He draws parallels between scenes in Cloverfield and games like BlackSite: Area 51 and Half-Life 2, concluding that this is the first film whose method of storytelling seems to be primarily informed by the way games tell their stories. There's also room for this interesting take on Super Mario 64:
When I think about the third-person video game camera, I always think back to Super Mario 64 and that moment when Mario walks up to a mirror and we see Lakitu, the bespectacled turtle, floating on a cloud, dangling a movie camera from a fishing pole... Part of me thinks that it was the introduction of Lakitu that made games too complicated for the average player. Because when we're playing Super Mario 64, we're really responsible for two characters. We move Mario around. And we have to keep tabs on Lakitu to make sure he's giving us the shot that we need. These new perspectives complicate things. Are we Mario? Are we Lakitu? Or are we the camera that Lakitu is dangling?

And here I thought Cloverfield was just about a big slimy monster!

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Know Thyself

This is the last in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Tying It All Together."

Employing this new taxonomy, we're able to discuss games without resorting to a simplistic rubric in which games either suck or rule. And we're able to see gamers as a lot more than simply hardcore or casual. Instead of talking past each other when we're coming at games from fundamentally different perspectives, we'll be able to seek common ground and at least disagree with one another from a place of understanding.

Again, I'm not suggesting that we simply slap labels on people and let that take the place of constructive dialogue, especially because nobody is likely to fit neatly into one category or another. In particular, Premium and Wholesale Players aren't necessarily in separate groups as much as they are points along a continuum. Thinking seriously about your own inclinations can give new focus to what you like and why.

For myself, I'm predominantly a Tourist. To the extent that I have any Skill traits, Completism ranks high above Perfectionism. On the value scale, I'm more of a Premium Player than a Wholesale Player. Now that I know this, it explains a lot about myself that I had never been able to concretize before -- like why I preferred Ratchet and Clank Future to Super Mario Galaxy.

Ratchet and Clank is almost all Tourist events: fairly rudimentary combat, lots of jokes and well-produced cutscenes, and unique platforming elements from one world to the next. The Completist aspect consists of searching for hidden golden bolts and the secret components of a weapon schematic, but these parts are fully optional. Powering up each of Ratchet's individual weapons is also a Completist factor, but because this happens as a result of simply playing through the game, it's a side benefit to the Tourist. Perfectionism doesn't really factor in.

Super Mario Galaxy, on the other hand, is primarily Completist and secondarily Tourist. It's close, which is why I did enjoy the game quite a bit. But I could never quite shake the feeling that I wasn't loving it as much as I should have. The reason is that collecting stars is the objective of the game, and experiencing all those wonderful galaxies supports that aim. You don't have to collect all the stars, but to advance through the main story you do have to revisit the same places over and over and pick up most of them.

On the value tip, Ratchet was fairly short, and although there was some optional content (like the battle arena rounds), for the most part it was a linear, narrative game. That fits it comfortably on the Premium end of the scale. Mario Galaxy is similarly short for the main game, but since collecting about half the stars is optional, that puts it on the Wholesale side of the divide. As before, it's not so much that Mario is fully one kind of game or another -- it's that the parts of it to which I responded most strongly were usually not the most salient ones.

This isn't to say that I fully eschew Perfectionist games, either. Some games, like and Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry, are so difficult that they require the rigorous effort a Perfectionist craves. These games also have so much to offer my Tourist nature that I play them as a Perfectionist without even realizing it. That doesn't mean I achieve an S ranking -- or even care to -- just that it takes a greater level of effort to beat these games than I'd ordinary be willing to commit.

None of what I've written here is intended to be the final word. In fact, I hope it's only the first step toward a broader and more constructive gaming conversation. There's much more to be said, and probably better than I've said it. I'll consider this series successful not if people adopt the terms I've suggested, but if it inspires anybody to think more critically about the way they play. That's the critical next step for games to achieve cultural relevance.

I cede the floor to you, readers. What are your thoughts?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Not owning Rock Band is becoming physically painful

Anybody who knows me knows that I love three things above all else: video games, Oasis, and beer. Well, two of those are about to come together in a big way. Word on the street is that Harmonix is delivering an Oasis song pack to Rock Band owners next week.

It's an excellent troika, featuring "Wonderwall," "Live Forever," and "Don't Look Back in Anger." Of those three, "Wonderwall" seems the least suited to the game, given the lack of a blistering solo. Some better choices might have been "Supersonic" or "Champagne Supernova," but considering that the game has been lacking in power ballads, it could have been a lot worse. "Wonderwall" is still a fantastic song. As for "Don't Look Back in Anger," it's one of my top five songs of all time -- maybe even number one.

I've been able to resist the siren call of Rock Band to this point for several reasons: the price, the lack of space in my game room, and my desire never to invite anybody to my apartment for any reason. Now, though, I don't see what choice I have. Ever the optimist, I have added the game to my wedding registry. I'd prefer that over, say, a salad spinner.

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Tying It All Together

This is the tenth in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Case Study: The Orange Box."

By now, we've developed two different ways to group gamers. First, we considered taste in gameplay. We differentiated between Skill Players and Tourists, and for good measure theorized that Skill Players can be further split into Completists and Perfectionists. Then, we talked about how the perception of value can vary from one person to another, and identified two possible types of consumers we called Wholesale Players and Premium Players. Both of these taxonomies suggest a way to talk about games that's based on a common understanding, and not the subjective nature of game characteristics like genre, storyline, or presentation.

What's still unclear is how to integrate them. It seems logical to assume that Tourists are more naturally going to be Premium Players. The Tourist is looking for dramatic gameplay sequences and narrative high points, and isn't terribly interested in finding hidden items or achieving a perfect rating. That seems to match up with the Premium Player, who is willing to pay more per hour of play in order to finish a game. Skill Players are more likely to also be Wholesale Players. Our Skill Players would seem to want the extended gameplay a Wholesale Player seeks; for the Completist, that means lots of things to find and the time necessary to find them, and for the Perfectionist, many challenges to conquer.

That doesn't necessarily hold true in every case. There's no reason a Skill Player can't also be a Premium Player, and no reason a Tourist can't be a Wholesale Player. And it's here that I want to go all the way back to the beginning -- to when we talked about "hardcore" versus "casual" gamers. We couldn't figure out what those terms meant, and now we can say why.

The reason "hardcore" and "casual" fail as classifications for gamers is because each of those classifications contains contradictory meanings.

Essentially, when you call someone a hardcore gamer, you are saying nothing about what type of games they like to play, or the manner in which they like to play those games. You are simply saying that this guy seems to really like games. Is that helpful to anybody? If anything, it leads to the sorts of pissing matches that inevitably overwhelm online game discussion. That designation becomes a badge of honor to be defended instead of what it should be -- a simple, objective term with no value judgments attached.

There's no reason a Tourist can't be "hardcore" -- no reason he can't be the sort to simply rip through one game after another in search of unique experiences. No reason a Perfectionist can't be "casual," and simply try to master, say, Wii Carnival Games. A Wholesale Player may still want linear, narrative games like Okami, and a Premium Player might be getting his money's worth with quick sessions of the latest Tetris. Who in that group is the casual player? Who is the hardcore player?

So if there is no easy or quick way to combine these questions of taste and value, maybe that's a blessing in disguise. Maybe that means we can stop stereotyping ourselves and broaden the conversation. We gamers contain multitudes. It's time we realized it.

Next: Know Thyself

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The infinite idiocy feedback loop

So, first I said Kevin McCullough was not worth responding to, and then today Tycho of Penny Arcade said much the same thing. But not before writing a comic about him.

The point is well-taken that page views are the fuel that drives this man's infernal idiocy engine, and that we only encourage this sort of behavior by giving him more of them. Not to mention that finding himself besieged by a horde of frothing gamers will only serve to further convince Kevin McCullough that game players really are a bunch of trogs driven wholly by their baser impulses. It hardly matters that on the subject at hand, hot alien sex in Mass Effect, he is empirically wrong and we are right.

Still: Should we simply let these insults pass? I would agree that there is probably a better way to reach Mr. McCullough than the way most people chose, but I guarantee you that he also received a fair number of thoughtful and considered responses from people who showed him the respect he never afforded them. I further guarantee that McCullough disregarded the substance of these emails, except for his admission that, okay, you can't really make your character's boobs whatever size you want.

I tend to think that a hard truth is more valuable than a beautiful lie, and so while it would have been easy to let this moronic column die as McCullough himself one day will, alone and unloved, the fact is that the record needed to be corrected. That so many felt it necessary to stoop to his level does not undercut their essential rightness.

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Case Study: The Orange Box

This is the ninth in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Supply and Demand."

On the back of The Orange Box is a quote from declaring it "the best deal in videogame history." They may not be wrong, but I'm not sure if they're right for the reasons they think. They're calling it a value because The Orange Box contains five games. The reason it is a value is because those five games have something to offer to Wholesale Players and Premium Players. If they offered only a low dollar-to-hour ratio, then it might be the best deal in game history for Wholesale Players, but Premium Players would get almost nothing for their money.

Any game with a multiplayer component could theoretically be said to offer unlimited playing time, making its dollar per hour value infinitesimal. Even a game like Disgaea isn't technically endless, but completing every aspect of it would probably cost fractions of a penny per hour. For the Wholesale Player, that's unbeatable.

By that standard, four-fifths of the contents of The Orange Box are essentially useless to the Wholesale Player. Portal is about three hours. Each of the Half-Life episodes takes four to six hours to complete. Half-Life 2 is a little longer, clocking in somewhere in the teens. Each game on its own represents a poor investment for the Wholesale Player, but together you could be talking about 30 hours or more for a $60 game. That's not bad, and we haven't even mentioned Team Fortress 2 yet -- the one game in The Orange Box that theoretically provides so much play time, it's almost free.

Because The Orange Box is split into those five separate chunks, it also provides an easier point of entry for the Premium Player. Take Portal: at three hours, it would make anybody feel like a Wholesale Player if it cost full price. Nevertheless, the Premium Player is likely to be the one to respond more positively to the game, because it better suits his natural instincts. "It was only three hours long" ceases to be a criticism, and becomes an accolade. It means Portal was short enough to beat! That's the litmus test for any Premium Player.

Just as a skillfully designed game such as Guitar Hero can appeal equally to Skill Players and Tourists, so too can it provide adequate value to Wholesale Players and Premium Players (in fact, I'd argue that Guitar Hero does this as well). Nowhere in The Orange Box is this more apparent than with Team Fortress 2. We've already discussed its value to the Wholesale Player: because the game doesn't really end in the traditional sense, as long as the Wholesale Player likes it he can get infinite value from it.

For the Premium Player, the match-based gameplay provides the appropriate value because each play session is broken into easily digestible chunks. There's are no cutscenes to slog through, or far-flung save points preventing him from quitting at his leisure. He can log in for a couple of rounds and have gotten a full, satisfying game session. A Wholesale Player might need to play for six hours to get his fix, but in both cases the players get what they want from the game -- and thus, what they paid for. That's the ultimate test of a game's value.

We can't pinpoint a specific dollar value as the line of demarcation between a Wholesale Player and a Premium Player, nor do we need to. It's probably different for everyone. What matters is understanding the opposing philosophies. Value can mean either spending as little money as possible per hour of gameplay, or getting the most bang for your buck. What matters is being able to identify Wholesale or Premium tendencies in a game, in other gamers, and in yourself.

: Tying It All Together

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fairway Solitaire review

You thought you'd heard the last from me about Fairway Solitaire? Fat chance. I reviewed it for the Phoenix, and if you're curious that four-star review equates to a 9.0 in the paper. (Why do the web and the print editions use different scales? Only the Shadow knows.) I am still completely hooked, and as I have about five courses left, that may not last much longer.

Final note on the system stability issues: I emailed Bill Harris to see if he had experienced anything similar, and he said not once. Since upgrading my video drivers, I have had one crash, and again it happened after I quit the game and before the Big Fish games app launched. As a result, I am totally willing to put the blame on the publisher and not the developer.

My apologies for casting aspersions on you, Grey Alien Games. You did good.

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Supply and Demand

This is the eighth in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Cash Rules Everything Around Me."

In the last part, we determined that all bad games are too long, but that a good game could be too long, too short, or just right. Let's look at how these can be applied to the question of value.

Any bad game is a waste of money (although you could argue that many games become more attractive in the bargain bin). Not all good games provide an equal value for your gaming dollar -- but your idea of value depends on the worth you ascribe to your own time. Someone who levies the "good and too short" criticism wants to minimize his dollar cost per hour, and considers value through that lens. A 10-hour game that retails for sixty bucks is worth $6 per hour. A 40-hour game at the same price costs only $1.50 per hour -- a relative bargain.

That calculus only works if your time is worth similarly little. That's not meant to sound as brutal as it does. It just means that a person who has forty hours to commit to a single game is selling their own time in bulk, and can afford to charge less for it. Consider now the person for whom gaming time is at a premium: it may be a better value to them to pay more per hour of gameplay, because otherwise they're not actually getting what they paid for -- they may play half of a $60 game, or $30 worth. We'll delve a little more deeply into this matter in the next case study. For now, we need to think of what to call these people.

The terms "Wholesale Players" and "Premium Players" carry some unfortunate connotations because there seems to be an implicit judgment of the quality of the games those people play, or even of the persons themselves. Yet if you think of the comparison solely in terms of the efficacy of the business models each category alludes to, you'll see why it works. A big box store like Wal Mart makes billions of dollars due to volume. A small boutique makes more money per square foot than Wal Mart, because they charge more for their products, but there's a hard cap on how much product they can sell. Both companies can be profitable.

Armed with these terms, we can strip out the personal value judgments and consider only the pecuniary ones. The Wholesale Player, who needs to move dozens of hours to make a profit, has a supply problem when a game is "too short." When a game is too long, it's a case of the Premium Player finding himself unable to meet the game's demand. Now, the "too short" criticism makes sense no matter what game it's applied to, because we know who is making it. And if we disagree, we have a more positive and productive way to engage the issue than simply saying "Nuh-uh!"

Earlier, we looked at Guitar Hero as a game that appealed to Skill Players and Tourists. So, too, can we point to a recent game that offered equal value to Wholesale Players and Premium Players.

Next: Case Study: The Orange Box

Monday, January 14, 2008

File under: Not worth responding to

I know I'm always saying that people should take games a little more seriously, and not absolve them of responsibility for their ethical, moral, or political subtexts.

This is not what I had in mind.

It's not just the condescending, authoritarian tone that has been so in vogue among the country's right wing in recent years. Nor the homophobia, nor the misogyny. But this guy has obviously played Mass Effect even less than Dean Takahashi! He obviously should have disclosed how much time he spent playing the game before filing his review. Otherwise, he loses all credibility.

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Cash Rules Everything Around Me

This is the seventh in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Case Study: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption."

There's an old joke I've seen attributed to Woody Allen: "The food here is terrible -- and the portions are too small!" Many critics have said much the same thing about games, only without irony. The graphics are terrible, the play control is non-existent, the storyline is stupid... and it's only six hours long! What a rip-off!

Thus far, we've been able to talk about gaming in a vacuum, without consideration of the practical side. Games cost money. Consoles cost money. For most of us, that means we've got to choose carefully what we play, and what system we play it on. That's the obvious reason for the fanboy phenomenon, in which people declare themselves on one console's "team" and do battle with opposing teams: people don't want to have wasted their money. With games these days costing sixty dollars apiece, and consoles going for as much as $500, it's only natural that people want to get their money's worth. As with the disparity between Skill Players and Tourists, it turns out that getting one's money's worth can mean completely different things to different people.

Let's try to put this in the simplest manner we can. A consumer buys a game, and either likes it or doesn't. For that person's purposes, the game is either too long, too short, or the right length. That would seem to leave us with the possibility of a game being any of the following:
  • Good and too short
  • Good and too long
  • Good and long enough
  • Bad and too short
  • Bad and too long
  • Bad and long enough

"Good and too long" almost seems like a contradiction. But what if you really don't have enough time in your schedule to play a 40+ hour game, no matter how much you like it? We've covered this topic before, and it's a real concern for a lot of people. We'll leave that on the list. A lot of people would tell you that most good games are too short, and "good and long enough" works to describe any satisfying game. Those all stay.

The "bad" list is a little different. Can a bad game be too short? I would submit that no bad game could possibly be short enough! So let's strike that one from the list. A bad game could conceivably be too long, but if it's truly that terrible then you'll quit playing before you ever reach that point. In a sense, every bad game is too long. Strike that one, too. That leaves us with "bad and long enough." What does "long enough" mean in this case? It means playing long enough to know the game stinks -- making the temporal descriptor redundant.

Our new list looks like this:

  • Good and too short
  • Good and long enough
  • Good and too long
  • Bad

Relative terms like "too short" and "too long" are likely to mean different things to different people. If we can define them in a way that works for everybody, we have another chance to broaden the foundation of gaming discussion.

Next: Supply and Demand

Friday, January 11, 2008

Recommend gaming blogs

Hello there, Insult Swordfighting readers! I have a question to ask of you. What are some gaming blogs I should be reading? My blogroll is woefully thin, and I'm starving for new content. I'm looking specifically for blogs that traffic in commentary and analysis moreso than straight news or reviews, but anything you enjoy is welcome.

Please leave any suggestions in comments, and, if you're so inclined, a few words about why you recommend those sites.

Buy Smash Bros. for $19.82

No, that's not a typo. As of this writing, Super Smash Bros. Brawl is available for pre-order at for under $20 (shipping raises it by a couple bucks). Limited quantities? Bait and switch? Colossal corporate screw-up? Either way, you probably should act fast if you're interested.

(In fact, the site has several games available for pre-order well under market value, such as Haze and The Club. That lowers the likelihood that somebody messed up.)

Update: They fixed it! It's now $49.82.

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Case Study: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

This is the sixth in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Skill Players: Drilling Down."

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption would seem, on paper, to have something for the three types of gamers we've identified so far. For the Tourist, there are imaginative worlds to traverse and dramatic narrative moments linking a galactic conspiracy. For the Perfectionist, there are tough boss battles and difficult puzzles. For the Completist, there's a wealth of hidden treasures to discover and secret areas to explore. It sounds like there's something for everyone. But let's go back to that quote from Penny Arcade's Gabe:
Tycho talked about the different reasons people play games ... I remember it came up while we were both playing Metroid Prime: Corruption. I was talking to him about how I was getting frustrated because some of the boss battles were really giving me a hard time. I realised I don't play games for the challenge. I don't need or want to be punished by a game for making mistakes. I play games for what Ron Gilbert calls "new art". I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don't play games to beat them I play games to see them.

Gabe is a Tourist, which shouldn't ipso facto preclude him from enjoying a game that rewards Skill Players. Indeed, Metroid Prime 3 seems like a better candidate than most to satisfy gamers of all types. Judging by its Metacritic score, you could say it did.

Hold on a second. We've already said that these categories aren't mutually exclusive. A critic seems more likely than your average gamer to exhibit traits from across the spectrum, thanks to his obvious passion and extensive experience with all types of games. When somebody raves about Metroid Prime 3, it's because they responded in more than one way to it. They enjoyed it as a Tourist and as a Skill Player.

In that case, the question is why Gabe's Tourist tendencies were unsatisfied by a game that clearly possesses many of the qualities a Tourist looks for. The reason is that the elements in Metroid Prime 3 that Gabe responds to were not unified with those he doesn't. As we saw in the Guitar Hero analysis, the way to do this successfully is to associate more than one kind of feedback with a single action. Metroid Prime 3 doesn't do that. Rather than cohering the Tourist, Completist, and Perfectionist aspects, it keeps them separate.

Here's an example. Early in the game, you're told that you've received a signal from a particular location in Skytown. Samus hops out of her ship to see a whole new environment and with a specific and definable goal: reach the location of the beacon. This is a Tourist moment, but one that doesn't put off either of the Skill Players.

As she makes her way across the level, she blasts at some wimpy foes, which disappoints the Perfectionist. Very little is involved in fighting the grunts of Metroid, as most are complete chumps. It's simply not challenging to move from one place to another.

Finally, Samus reaches her destination, only to be told that she is missing a specific upgrade necessary to continue. To the Tourist, this is like turning down a dead-end street on the way to the Eiffel Tower. Why would the game direct you to a place where you couldn't do anything? In this five-minute span, the game has managed to alienate Tourists and Perfectionists. Only a predominantly Completist gamer wouldn't notice the missteps.

(It's important to note that this wasn't a case of the player simply exploring and bumping up against an invisible wall. The game explicitly instructs the player to go to that far-flung location for the purpose of demonstrating that the player needs a new power-up.)

There are numerous other examples. Obviously a Tourist like Gabe found it jarring to contend with the boss battles. And indeed, the boss battles are repetitive and difficult, nearly all featuring some variation on the "shoot the glowing weak spot" strategy, as well as pattern-based enemy attacks. The bosses are usually just guardians of power-ups; few are germane to the storyline. For Perfectionists, this is ideal -- but they have to wade through long stretches of unchallenging gameplay and a fairly intricate storyline in order to find what they want. Both Tourists and Perfectionists would likely be put off by the game's endless tangents and backtracking.

As for Completists, there's a lot here for them to like: tons of hidden upgrades, and a giant map to fill in. If someone's primary motivation for playing games comes from the Completist point of view, then I suspect that's the true cause of Metroid Prime 3's critical success, particularly if those Completists also harbor Perfectionist or Tourist tendencies.

That's the key: if a player fits more squarely in one category than another, than that will necessarily color his perception of the game. And it explains why a Tourist with Completist tendencies will feel put off by Metroid Prime 3, without even realizing why, whereas a Completist with Perfectionist or Tourist tendencies will probably love it. (For an example of the former, read my original review.)

Notice that we have not made any judgment here as to whether Metroid Prime 3 is "good" or "bad." Those terms are irrelevant! We're critiquing the game by identifying the desires it satisfies, or fails to satisfy, wholly in terms of our new gamer taxonomy. We're creating an unambiguous vocabulary for talking about games that applies across genres and transcends the vague notion of "hardcore" versus "casual." This method of evaluating games is starting to look much more robust and useful than a ten-point ratings scale.

Unfortunately, we're still missing a big piece of the puzzle. And it's got nothing to do with Skill Players and Tourists.

Next: Cash Rules Everything Around Me

Thursday, January 10, 2008

In praise of Capcom

That Umbrella Chronicles post reminded me of something. Whenever I get to thinking about my favorite game development houses and publishers -- and, believe me, this is what I spend most of my time thinking about -- one name invariably rises to the top: Capcom.

I could spend all day lauding the work of other companies, but not often without caveats. Valve has never made anything but a great game, but they barely ever release anything. Nintendo has been making great games for decades, but many of their 3D flagship games have struck me as a tad overrated, or at least less interesting than what their competitors are doing. Square Enix falters whenever they step outside their comfort zone, going back at least to Einhander. I have the utmost respect for what Atlus does, although their games are usually a bit too out there for me. Konami is one of the more reliable large publishers, but particularly with their 3D Castlevania offerings they can be guilty of one of gaming's cardinal sins: making boring games.

Capcom, on the other hand, may not always make great games, but even their failures are more interesting than other companies' successes. Dead Rising, for example, was so obtuse as to be maddening, but the bold vision behind it was unmistakable, and those who took the time to delve into it were amply rewarded. Lost Planet, a rather rote third-person shooter, presented a chilly Arctic setting that stood out among the gray and brown mechanical nightmares of other science-fiction-inspired games. Even God Hand, a gigantic mess by any measure, was an audacious joke that cleverly tweaked video game clichés.

And when Capcom connects, they get all of it. Capcom released my game of the year for 2005 (Resident Evil 4) and 2006 (Okami). This year's Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition was a more thrilling, complete game than any new intellectual property. It's quite likely that the upcoming Wii remake of Okami will do the same thing next year. With RE4, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, and Zack and Wiki, Capcom is showing a mastery of the Wii that's far beyond the half-baked mini-game collections of their competitors.

They're no upstarts, either: Capcom has been rocking consoles and arcades for decades. Check out Wikipedia's list of Capcom games and try to count all the classics. Tally up the high-quality franchises. Mega Man. Street Fighter. Resident Evil. Devil May Cry. Phoenix Wright. Look at the memorable arcade games: Bionic Commando, Ghosts 'n Goblins, all those great beat-'em-ups and shooters.

And, of course, they also made Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. I rest my case.

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Skill Players: Drilling Down

This is the fifth in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Case Study: Guitar Hero."

We've established that Skill Players are concerned primarily with mastery of the game rather than enjoying the stops along the way. Their idea of "beating" a game is to pound it into submission. But this can mean different things depending on the game and on one's inclinations. It may be that Skill Players themselves, while broadly similar, have different motivations for playing games, and can be further classified into two more similar but distinct groups: Completists and Perfectionists.

A Completist may be less interested in maximizing his ability to play a game, and more interested in making sure he doesn't miss anything. Certainly you wouldn't say it takes skill per se to locate all the packages in Grand Theft Auto III, or all the agility orbs in Crackdown. It takes patience and determination. And while the game does offer incentives to do these things, in both cases they're non-essential to the task of beating the game in the traditional sense. The reward is having no mountains left to climb.

Compare this to the Tourist, who may find packages along the way and appreciate the financial reward, or who grabs agility orbs as a necessary part of gameplay, but won't take the time to find that 500th one. In the case of Crackdown, there is no quantifiable difference in your character's jumping ability between the 499th and 500th agility orb. It does not help you complete the missions to acquire every single one, but it does net you achievement points. The reason a Completist falls under the Skill Player heading is because his concern is not with surrending to the rules of the game world, but instead with asserting his dominance over them.

A typical Perfectionist is the classic high-score freak. Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe come to mind. They don't care about rescuing the princess; they care about proving who's the best Donkey Kong player. Donkey Kong himself is not the antagonist to these players. The scoreboard is. Other players are. There's a reason the only people still playing Donkey Kong are Perfectionists. A Completist would just need to make it to the kill screen once. A Tourist would probably do a cost-benefit analysis of rescuing the princess and move on to a different game.

Bottom line: the Perfectionist sees success as relative to the performance of others. In a sense, the last-place player in a Halo match could be said to have finished the game. But for the Perfectionist in him, it sure doesn't feel that way. Other examples of the Perfectionist style might be trying to get all "S" rankings in Devil May Cry, or playing through Ninja Gaiden Black on the hardest difficulty. In both cases, the appeal is in accomplishing something that only a select few ever will.

As with the earlier Guitar Hero example, which described how Skill Players and Tourists may differ in their approach to performing the same task, we may see situations where the Completist and the Perfectionist seem to be doing the same thing. Consider somebody who earns all 1,000 achievement points in an Xbox 360 game. For the Completist, there's no surer sign that he's completed everything there is to complete. There are no more worlds to conquer. For the Perfectionist, it means he has earned the highest possible score -- a perfect score. The biggest difference is that this likely means the Completist has, for all intents and purposes, finished his experience with the game. We can't infer the same thing about the Perfectionist unless we have more information.

Earlier we looked at how Guitar Hero was able to appeal to Skill Players and Tourists equally. Now that we've split Skill Players into two sub-groups, while leaving the Tourist group as it is, it's time to consider a different scenario. What happens when a game contains discrete elements that appeal to all three types of gamers, but those elements work in discordance with each other? Can we use these terms as a window into why a well-made, premium console game might still seem off -- why it might not work on a gut level? And can we isolate those traits in a single game that appeal separately to Completists, Perfectionists, and Tourists?

We sure can.

Next: Case Study: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Our own worst enemy

Via Kotaku, the latest episode of the aroused fanboy hordes involves an op-ed piece in the Sun-Sentinel. In it, the author, Ralph De La Cruz, grapples with the moral issues raised by Call of Duty 4, which he bought as a Christmas present for his son. De La Cruz contrasts his sanguine attitude toward killing Nazis on the virtual battlefield with his uneasy reaction to a game set in modern times, and which speaks to contemporary fears. The column is thoughtful and moderate, completely lacking any animus toward games. But you'd never know it from the comments -- 15 on the newspaper's website as of this writing, and 227 on Kotaku.

The majority of the comments challenge De La Cruz on the same point. Although he says the game "sends you... into the teeth of the Iraq war," most commenters point out that Iraq is never mentioned and then do a victory lap. This is the first, typical response to the newspaper piece: "Call of Duty 4 is an entirely fictional conflict that takes place in an equally fictional country. How you missed this, I can't even imagine."

Well, er, that's not right either. The Middle Eastern country is indeed not Iraq, and given the storyline of the game -- a strong-armed dictator controls a nuclear-powered military -- there are several real-world countries that are better parallels. Pakistan, for one. Furthermore, much of the game takes place in Russia and Azerbaijan, which certainly are not fictional. Nor are the allusions to the nuclear material that went missing and unaccounted for in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. (For crying out loud, there's a slideshow somewhere online that compares the computer-generated Pripyat with its real-life counterpart. "Entirely fictional," you say?) The single greatest security threat in the Western world today is nuclear terrorism. How willfully obtuse do you have to be not to apply that knowledge to a topical game like Call of Duty 4? Maybe playing games really does desensitize you.

My biggest problem, once again, are the kneejerk attacks on Mr. De La Cruz simply because he bothered to engage the content of the game with his higher brain functions. Besides the petty gotcha of the "fictional Arabic nation!", one thing most people are saying is that it's just a game -- no need to take it so seriously. If you'll recall, when Roger Ebert dared to suggest that video games are merely playthings, unworthy of scrutiny or respect, the fanboy howls could be heard from miles away. After all, games are Serious, Important Art, and anybody who doesn't think so is trailing the zeitgeist by a good 20 years.

I've said it before and it didn't take, but I'm going to keep saying it until somebody listens: if you want people to take games seriously, the necessary first step is for you to take them seriously.

If your stock response to these types of criticisms is that it's only a game, then why are you playing video games at all? Why not just play Parcheesi? I don't accept that any video game is "just" a game, although there is obviously some wide latitude for pure escapism, or even video Parcheesi.

Call of Duty 4
doesn't fit that mold. Its aim, plainly, is to be realistic: to show the hectic and confusing nature of the battlefield, in which the difference between living and dying often comes down to something as simple and arbitrary as where you choose to take cover. It invokes historical events and real-world locations. It is deliberately set in legitimate geopolitical hotspots. Instead of running from this, as gamers, let's embrace it! Let's start the conversation ourselves.

Look at what De La Cruz actually wrote. He didn't condemn violent video games or worry that he was turning his son into a psychopath. He considers what the computer-generated foes of Call of Duty represent. One of the great things about art -- if you want to call it that -- is that it can mean different things to different people. One person isn't wrong and the other right, as long as they're arguing from a place of reason and mutual respect.

Why are we, as gamers, so apt to distance ourselves from this kind of discussion? When a movie like No Country for Old Men comes out, critics and audiences spend weeks or months talking about what it means. Gamers are more likely to be talking about how much it rules or sucks, and the extent to which we can pwn n00bs at it. Frankly, I find this embarrassing. I love games too much to treat them so disrespectfully.

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Case Study: Guitar Hero

This is the fourth in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Skill Players vs. Tourists."

A game doesn't get as loyal a following as the Guitar Hero series has unless it appeals to people with different tastes. We've tended to think that hardcore gamers and casual players have taken to the game in equal measure -- but, as stated in part two, those labels aren't specific enough for us to embrace. Instead, we'll look at how a Skill Player's approach to the game might differ from that of a Tourist. And we'll speculate as to what each player think he's accomplished afterward.

If you were to look at the screen during a game of Guitar Hero with the sound muted and the player out of sight, you'd see what appears to be a purely skill-based experience. Multi-colored gems stream down the screen in irregular patterns and need to be destroyed as they pass a static point. You'd quickly discern Guitar Hero's precise timing requirements, but from this perspective, it's hardly different from Space Invaders. Even if you weren't acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of the guitartroller, you'd guess the game required good hand-eye coordination, as well as manual dexterity. Even more so, you see the goal of the game to be detonating every single one of those gems. You're seeing the game through the point of view of the Skill Player.

Now imagine a different scenario: the sound is on, but your back is to the television and you're watching the Guitar Hero player. Exactly what he's doing when he holds down the buttons and hits the strum bar isn't quite clear, the one thing you can say for sure is that his actions drive the song you're hearing. Now he performs star power. You don't realize it's multiplying his score -- you just see him tilting the guitar like a rock star. The cause and effect relationship that you observe is the guitar controller producing rock and roll music. Things like the high score and the difficulty level are irrelevant here. Now you're looking at the game from the perspective of the Tourist.

It gets tricky when you're the one playing the game. Now, you have to synthesize visual stimuli (the streaming gems), digital manipulation (fret buttons and strum bar), and aural feedback (the song). The distinction between playing as a Skill Player and as a Tourist is harder to define, because their disparate motivations result in interlocked results. For a Skill Player, accurately detonating the gems makes the song sound correct. For a Tourist, playing the song well will naturally result in a good score. These two people may not realize they're playing for different reasons -- even if they're playing cooperatively!

How might we differentiate between Skill Players and Tourists in Guitar Hero? The intention of this piece is to suggest a better framework for talking about games, not to try to pigeonhole gamers, so I offer these suggestions only as a place to start -- to show how people could derive equal enjoyment with entirely different goals in mind. (It's also possible that someone could exhibit traits of both the Skill Player and the Tourist; in fact, I imagine most people do.)

Characteristics of the Skill Player in Guitar Hero:
  • Plays on expert difficulty, or strives to
  • Activates star power with the select button instead of tilting the controller
  • Uses practice mode
  • Pursues a five-star ranking in every song, even the terrible ones
  • In multiplayer, prefers face-off or pro face-off
Characteristics of the Tourist in Guitar Hero:
  • Plays on whatever difficulty they've mastered (this could still be expert)
  • Activates star power by tilting the controller
  • Learns songs by playing them
  • Disproportionately plays the songs they like
  • Prefers co-op multiplayer

Defining people simply by these traits may be problematic, because to do so is to attribute motivation to action after the fact. But if you know that you fit more comfortably in one category, you may be able to apply that perspective to other games where the dichotomy is less obvious.

The question now is whether we've taken this to its logical conclusion. I think there's further still to go.

Next: Skill Players: Drilling Down

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Stand underneath my Umbrella

So what if it's not the timeliest review in the world? January is slim pickings, and Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles is a fine game that deserves some belated props. Like the man said, if blasting those damned, dirty zombies is wrong, I don't want to be right.

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Skill Players vs. Tourists

This is the third in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Hardcore? Casual? Hardcasual?"

The problems with the hardcore/casual distinction are evident. The terms may still be useful to us, but for now let's leave them there and explore some other top-level possibilities. In a recent news post, Penny Arcade's Tycho mused on a different dichotomy: "people who play games in order to excel at them, and those who play games as a conduit to fantasy." I'd been thinking of something similar for awhile, but had never written about it because I couldn't think of what to call those groups of people.

The solution hit me while reading Slate's Gaming Club. Seth Schiesel writes:

Thinking about the twist in BioShock—and the huff that some folks have gotten into over it—brought to mind something Hilmar Petursson, chief executive of the Icelandic game company CCP, told me recently. He was referring specifically to online games, but it illuminates an important component of single-player games as well.

"There are basically two schools of thought for operating an online community," he said. "There is the theme-park approach and the sandbox approach. ... Most games are like Disneyland, for instance, which is a carefully constructed experience where you stand in line to be entertained. [My company focuses] on the sandbox approach where people can decide what they want to do in that particular sandbox, and we very much emphasize and support that kind of emergent behavior."

Couple that with the words of Gabe from Penny Arcade, who said:

Tycho talked about the different reasons people play games in his post and I thought it was pretty interesting. It's a conversation we've had before and I think it's something a lot of gamers probably don't think about. I remember it came up while we were both playing Metroid Prime: Corruption. I was talking to him about how I was getting frustrated because some of the boss battles were really giving me a hard time. I realised I don't play games for the challenge. I don't need or want to be punished by a game for making mistakes. I play games for what Ron Gilbert calls "new art". I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don't play games to beat them I play games to see them. Coming to that realisation was actually sort of important for me.

There are two fundamental reasons people play games. They're not mutually exclusive, but they are separate. Some people play to master a game -- to perfect its mechanics, to explore every inch of the game world. Some play to "see the sights" -- to hit the high points and not get too caught up in the minutiae. Let's call these groups "Skill Players" and "Tourists."

"Skill Players" is a nice, literal designation that I think will make sense immediately. We're talking about people for whom the appeal of a video game is becoming an expert at it. People who hanker for high scores and unlockables. These are the guys who pursue achievement points long after beating the main campaign of a game, because, to them, completing the story isn't the real purpose of the game. Genre may be less important to these gamers than simply having a challenge to overcome.

"Tourists" is more euphemistic, but I think it carries the right connotations. Imagine somebody visiting France for the first time. They want to see the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, and the Louvre. They don't speak the language or know the streets, and they don't much care. As long as they can get where they're going, they're not interested in experiencing what a native might call the "real" Paris. And when the trip is done, they probably won't be heading back to France any time soon to find some hidden gem of a crêperie. Instead, the tourist wants to go to China to see the Great Wall. The Tourist gamer is the same way: "beating" a game is more about checking off the big moments than earning a 100% completion rate.

I like the sound of this. We've got a way to classify gamers not by the games they like, but why they like those games. But remember, the reason we're talking about this in the first place is to try to solve the problem of how to talk about games on common ground. We're still not there, not least because many successful games find a way to appeal to Skill Players and to Tourists. It may be useful to look more closely at a single game through this prism.

Next: Case Study: Guitar Hero

Monday, January 07, 2008

Water in video games: A retrospective

A user at Gametrailers has put together a seven-minute video that details the evolution of water in video games, from the earliest Atari games up through Uncharted. It's an awful lot more interesting than you might think.

Water has always been one of the things people point to when talking about the power of new hardware. I remember having my mind well and truly blown by Wave Race 64; in fact, their water still doesn't look that bad in the video. Even so, you can see the individual polygons dancing on the surface, and the progress from there to games later in the video, like Far Cry and BioShock, is remarkable. Try to envision how much better it'll look in another ten years. The game console will probably spray a fine mist at you.

I was astonished when Sonic the Hedgehog showed up less than halfway through the video, since when it was released it seemed like the logical endpoint to game development. And, of course, it was -- in 1991. But the original Sonic was released only 12 years after Asteroids. We're now 16 years past Sonic. Feeling old yet?

One last note on this video: I haven't listened to Sigur Ros in years. That's an unexpected song choice.

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Hardcore? Casual? Hardcasual?

This is the second in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games."

Think about all the words we have to describe our games. You probably have concrete, specific associations with words like "platformer," "JRPG," and "brawler." Hell, "Metroidvania," with all its rich connotations, has even made its way into the lexicon. What words describe gamers with a similar lack of ambiguity? Those few that spring to mind are nebulous at best.

To the extent that we consider ourselves specialists within the broader rubric of "gamers," it's mostly to express a preference for a genre. That's not good enough. It confuses the effect with the cause. You don't like role-playing games because you've liked other role-playing games. You like them because you respond to qualities endemic to that genre, but there's no reason you wouldn't respond to those same qualities skillfully deployed in another type of game. We need a bottom-up taxonomy that accounts for this.

The two classifications most commonly applied to gamers are "hardcore" and "casual." These terms may be hopelessly broad, but they're an excellent jumping-off point. It would help to define them, once and for all. That's easier said than done. Is a "hardcore" player somebody who eschews popular mainstream games like Halo, or plays weird Japanese games like Persona to the exclusion of all else - that is, someone with narrow or elitist taste? Does a player count as "casual" if they spend hundreds of hours playing only mini-game collections for the Wii, or racking up high scores in online puzzle games?

Maybe we should distinguish the two solely in terms of dollars spent on games -- but I think anybody who got hooked on Desktop Tower Defense this year would admit to having felt hardcore at least some of the time, like when their boss was at the door but they kept on placing turrets. And some of the most committed gamers around pirate a good majority of their software. So expenditure isn't it, either.

If we can't accurately define the two most common terms applied to video game players, then we'll have to look for better ones.

Next: Skill Players vs. Tourists