Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What video games have in common with fantasy sports

Above: The new high-score list. And also some straight-up bragging on my part.

Two video game genres I've never gotten into are sports and strategy. The finer details of sports sims elude me (unlike, say, Bill Harris, who times his virtual running backs with a stopwatch). I can't tell if a sports game is realistic or not, and even if it were, that wouldn't help me play it. In a strategy game, or a strategy-heavy RPG, the top-level thinking -- resource management, planning ahead, multi-tasking -- doesn't track with the way my mind works. Yet for several years now, I've been hooked on a game that combines the most challenging traits of both of these genres: fantasy baseball.

We don't tend to think of fantasy sports as video games, not even as a part of the increasingly misnamed "casual" realm. Yet it's hard to imagine how else you could classify them. In the same way that pen-and-paper role-playing games have informed generations of electronic RPGs, old-time rotisserie baseball provides the basis for an electronic version that millions of people play. All the complicated stuff is automated, like updating players' statistics and trips to the disabled list, just as Final Fantasy keeps track of hit points and status ailments. The player needs only to set his lineups, and give himself the most favorable matchups possible.

Creating a balanced fantasy baseball team is a lot like putting together a successful party in an RPG. You can't overload your roster with too much of one kind of player. Imagine trying to plug through the first Final Fantasy with four fighters and no mages. It would be impossible. The same is true of fantasy baseball. If you load up on beefy sluggers with high strikeout rates, you might lead the league in homeruns, but you'll almost certainly be near the bottom in batting average and stolen bases. Both the player draft that starts the season, and later roster moves and trades, require this sort of give-and-take.

As with video games, you can put as much or as little effort into fantasy sports as you want, and still have a good time. There are the obsessives, who are intimately familiar with their pitchers' splits. (You may have a pitcher who throws well during the day and in his home park, for example, but serves up meatballs during nighttime away games.) There are the active players, who make sure all the spots in their lineups are filled each night, and none of their starters are spending any time on the DL. And then there are the people who check in once in awhile, just to make sure their team still exists. Everyone can do it their own way -- though it's generally more fun to play with people of similar ability.

Fantasy baseball has a little more in common with games. If you enlarge the graphic atop this post, you won't just see the stats from my historically dominant season, although I certainly encourage you to look at those. You'll also see several offensive team names. If you were to visit the main league page, you'd also find reams of trash talk, an area in which, again, I have had an historically dominant season. In that respect, fantasy baseball is not so different from Halo.

(And, yes, Penny Arcade did tackle this subject last week.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

I haven't played any video games this week, and I've had no problem falling asleep at night. I hope these two facts are not related.

-Some very smart people are trying to get a new gaming magazine called Kill Screen off the ground. They're trying to raise $3,500 to publish the thing. As of this writing, they're over halfway there. Take a look and see what you think.

-Congratulations to Denis Farr of Vorpal Bunny Ranch, who is the newest writer for GayGamer.net. Here's his first article, "NieR's Gender Confusion."

-Michael Abbott says it's time we paid more attention to the Sims. It's a point he also made persuasively about sports games: lots of non-"core" games actually have incredibly deep role-playing and storytelling elements, if we'd bother to look for them.

I don't know, though. All I ever did when I played the Sims was make a bathroom with glass walls, and then I named two Sims after my friends and got them to kiss.

-This is only marginally related to video games: (former?) NBA player Paul Shirley writes in his ESPN.com column that the Beatles don't hold up. I am glad to see somebody make the anti-Beatles case in this ham-handed a fashion, because it deflects attention from my much milder criticisms of the band. Among Shirley's silly, self-evidently false statements are things like "We were not around for The Beatles. Therefore, we cannot judge their impact on popular music," and "The arrangements used by Oasis are more complex, the sound is denser, the production is better."

Shirley also claims that Dean Koontz is superior to Bram Stoker.

-Hey, since we're not even talking about video games at this point, why not also take a look at Dan Brown's 20 worst sentences? Sometimes I think that I should read one of Brown's books before declaring him a shitty writer, but I really don't think it's necessary.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fall games preview

Above: A game whose promotion you are already sick of.

It's September, so it must be time for my fall video games preview in the Phoenix. Given that you use the Internet, I imagine there is not much news in this piece for you. It's a snapshot of the biggest games coming out this fall, at least as I interpret them from looking at Gamespot's "new releases" section. That means it's tilted more toward big-budgeted titles whose art will look good in the paper. I'm not passing any kind of value judgment here; I'm just telling you what it is.

The fun for me is finding out which game gets delayed immediately after the preview goes to press. One year it was Bully, and one year it was Super Paper Mario. It's also enjoyable to see what game I overlook that ends up knocking my socks off. In 2007, I failed to mention Call of Duty 4; last year, I couldn't spare the column inches for Far Cry 2.

There's no doubt that this year is lighter on big names than some past years, but I've been doing these previews since... 2005, I think, and only in 2007 was I genuinely enthused about the selections. (With good cause, as it turned out.) I still think it's a blessing in disguise that so many games have been delayed, giving us more time with the games that do come out this fall. There's plenty to be excited about, too. I'm always up for first-party Sony titles, Valve has never stepped wrong, and it's an Infinity Ward Call of Duty. I mean, come on.

Still, I look forward to the real work, which will be playing and reviewing these games. That'll be much more fun.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

It's hard to believe it's been 8 years since 9/11. I don't have any commentary, sincere or snarky, nor do I want to say anything about it in relation to video games. Not even, "Really puts it all in perspective!" Just a terrible anniversary to have to mark every year.

-I mentioned in my review of The Beatles: Rock Band that the future of the franchise lies with the Rock Band Network, and not tributes to past bands. Why do I think so? Because of things like this: local rockers the Bon Savants are beta testing the RBN, and video-blogging their efforts. Tell me this isn't going to be an incredible way to hear new music.

The Bon Savants, by the way, are very good and you should listen to them.

-I also really enjoyed Ian Bogost's trenchant, contrarian take on Beatles Rock Band. The comments show what can happen when you take aim at a sacred cow (though it should be said that most are thoughtful in their own right, which is what happens when you've got dudes like Iroquois Pliskin calling you out). I think a lot of people disagreed with the broad brush Ian used to paint the older generation, which is fair, but his point was sound: it is precisely this older generation that pivoted from peace and love to grabbing everything for themselves at the expense of others (giving us gems such as "Get your government hands off my Medicare!"). Is it everybody in that generation? Of course not. But who else is highjacking social progress in this country?

Okay, so the argument does pertain only slightly to the Beatles. Fair enough.

-Two last links about The Beatles: Rock Band. First, John Teti's perceptive takedown of Seth Schiesel's New York Times review. I am very happy to see game reviews getting column inches in the Times, but I am less happy when they are as silly as Seth's was. He means well, I know, but Teti correctly notes that the tack he took in this review was to denigrate the entire medium of video games in order to convince his readers that this one really is good.

Beyond which, whenever I find myself typing in a review that a game is "one of the most," "one of the best," or "important," I delete it and write something else. That way lies madness, not to mention looking like an idiot in retrospect. Sean Sands at Gamers with Jobs notes that, at the time, no one predicted the impact that Guitar Hero would have: "...in November of 2005... No one in our forums was even talking about this odd and expensive game full of cover bands and fairly simplistic gameplay. On the cusp of a cultural phenomenon, no one saw it coming."

And now that everybody knows how important and popular music games are, now we're going to anoint the 800th music game as the most important of all time? It's never that easy. This is selling low and buying high.

-Although she doesn't mention me, I'd like to think I had something to do with moving the gears that resulted in Meghan Watt weighing in on Game Informer's Metacritic article. For the record, although I didn't contact Meghan for comment when I wrote my piece, I did ask OXM editor-in-chief Francesca Reyes to respond. Though she agreed to get back to me, it never happened, and ultimately I felt I had to run the piece as it was, especially after Kevin Gifford's "Game Mag Weaseling" column remarked positively upon the same GI piece.

-In Crispy Gamer, Kyle Orland answers a question I've had for a long time: how PR companies decide what outlets get which games to review. It explains quite a lot about the difficulties we've had in the past getting some companies to respond. PR people from Boston, or with Boston ties, are almost always excited to get covered in the Phoenix. Others may need some convincing.

There does seem to be a quid pro quo involved, too. I understand not wanting to send a first-person shooter to a reviewer who's previously said he hates the genre, sure, but it's infuriating that PR companies may decide to punish reviewers who run negative reviews. I've said it before and I'll say it again: ultimately everybody is better served with honest and tough reviews. If an outlet has a reputation for being hard on games, then wouldn't a positive review from them mean that much more? Won't the median quality of games go up if critics and gamers are demanding more of them? It seems basic to me.

Of course, it takes just one influential publication to trade scores for early access to throw that out the window. And there's more than one.

Hey, that was the longest links post ever. Maybe I should start cutting these into individual posts.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

It's not called "Rock Band: The Beatles" for a reason

My review of The Beatles: Rock Band is up now at thephoenix.com. This is probably Harmonix's strongest work in terms of presentation, and I understand that the music of the Beatles is highly regarded in some circles.

Still, it seems like there's no way to talk in a measured way about this game, or the band, without coming off like the proverbial turd in the punch bowl. When I say on Twitter that I'm not a huge fan of the Beatles, I mean exactly that. I'm not taking a veiled dig. I have a couple of their CDs. I find many of their songs to be terrific. And yet I don't make an emotional connection with almost anything they've done, not like I do with my very favorite bands. Therefore I say I like the Beatles. But I am not totally sold on a music game that features only them.

Maybe I buried the lede, too, because the real issue I see is that Rock Band has been the catalyst for introducing people to new bands, and new ways to experience music. This game is more about elevating the Beatles over the player. That's no small distinction. For example, I've developed a habit of delivering a drum solo at the beginning of every Rock Band track -- just a little wailing away while the song cues up. It's a way of making the songs mine. You can't do that in The Beatles. Hit a drum pad before the song starts, and nothing happens, because that sound isn't on the original recording. There goes your live performance feel. (I should say that they did a great job with the audio of shrieking teenaged girls, though.)

More important, it's the game's way of making sure that you don't dare mess with perfection! I'm not a huge fan of that attitude. Past -- and, technically, current -- Rock Band games are about engaging with the music on an equal level. This game, though, is a ball-washing of the highest order. Maybe the Beatles are more deserving of such treatment than any other band, but I don't think any band deserves that treatment. Not now that I've seen the alternatives.

There I go, sounding like I didn't like the game. I liked it a lot! I like the Beatles! I had a lot of fun with this game, and I look forward to playing it more in the future. I am just suspicious of claims of divine authority.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Ah, Labor Day weekend -- that special time when we celebrate the industriousness of the American worker by taking Monday off, sleeping until noon, and getting drunk before dinner. What a great holiday.

-The Beatles: Rock Band is the big story next week. CNN Money ran an interview with the founders of Harmonix, who explain how years of failure set them up for big-time success when the right opportunity arose. They could never have planned for Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but those games have allowed them to realize their original goals in an unexpected way. I'd bet many of the employees -- rockers all -- feel the same way.

-Speaking of The Beatles: Rock Band, we are not allowed to speak of The Beatles: Rock Band. There's a strict embargo in place until tomorrow night, to the point where I'm afraid to even speak the group's name out loud, as though they were Bloody Mary or something. Yet somehow the New York Times went ahead and posted their review, with a September 6 dateline. Crafty. Sadly, I can say nothing more at this point, lest you find my corpse floating in the Charles River, a microphone cord wrapped tightly around my neck.

-Two very interesting takes on Batman: Arkham Asylum from Travis Megill and Justin Keverne. Both are concerned with the game's portrayal of mental illness as something to be stigmatized, instead of the health problem it actually is. Although I did take note of the shrieking "Lunatic" enemy type, none of this occurred to me while I was playing. It's a fair point. Even though the majority of the foes are garden-variety criminals, Batman does lay a beating on a good number of inmates who've committed no crime, and may understandably be freaked out by a six-foot bat in their midst.

The argument you could make in defense of the game is this. Many writers in the Batman universe have explored the idea that Batman himself helps to foment the crime that he fights. Gotham City is often seen to be feeding on itself. Arkham, too, can be interpreted to be creating the dangerous, criminally insane element that it's ostensibly there to cure. In all likelihood, these inmates were less dangerous before they arrived there. This doesn't exactly play out in the course of the game, and I wouldn't hold it up as a bulletproof argument. But there is something to it.

-Another good critical compilation at Critical Distance, this time with a look at the strange saga of PixelVixen707. Part 1 is by L.B. Jeffries (himself writing under a pseudonym!), and part 2 is by Michel McBride-Charpentier. As an ARG, PV707 was undeniably well executed, although it was strange that this was not an opt-in game. Pen names are one thing, but misrepresenting oneself is another, even when it's not malicious. It still makes me feel a little weird. No one can deny that "Rachael Webster" was a valuable voice in the games blogosphere. Whether she was written by J.C. Hutchins or someone else, it's too bad that her contributions ran out when the marketing budget did.

-Chris Dahlen's awesome weekly Edge column continues with Dr. Demento's take on Kind of Bloop, the cover of Kind of Blue done entirely in chiptune. You read that right: Dr. Demento is still alive.

-Finally, Simon Ferrari created a very cool tool: a game bloggers search engine, which exclusively searches "independent, non-commercial game bloggers." You'll never guess who's the top result for "Fairway Solitaire."

Labor away, my friends.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Serious house on serious earth

Above: More evidence that the fans love performance-enhancing drugs.

My review of Batman: Arkham Asylum is up at thephoenix.com.

Some leftover thoughts from the cutting room floor:

With the short space I have in the paper, I don't like to do token complaints when a game is great, just to prove my critical distance. Still, I do have a couple of token complaints, and I may as well get them out. The combat works quite well, with a streamlined interface and beautifully animated battles. The only problem is when enemies start to get stronger, and entire boss battles become about trapping you in a room with wave after wave of them. It's not too hard on the default setting -- it's just boring. Fortunately, this only happens two or three times.

Additionally, although the stealth aspect of the game works great, the reliance on gargoyles as your only means of escape starts to feel strange after awhile. Why do gunmen only populate rooms that have gargoyles? Why is Batman unable to hide on any other structure besides gargoyles? And why does every building in Arkham, while sharing few other common design elements, all prominently feature gargoyles? Yep, this is the level you have to stoop to in order to criticize this game.

One thought kept coming up while I was playing: "This is the game Metal Gear Solid 4 should have been." I don't say that just because of the heavy stealth element. In fact, the stealth gameplay was probably a little stronger in MGS4, although not much. There just wasn't very much of it. And whenever that game diverted from its core strength, it suffered, and sometimes badly.

Arkham Asylum
, by contrast, varies its gameplay nicely, and it all feels of a piece. Stealth sequences and beat-em-ups come in equal measure, without anything silly happening like a Batmobile driving level. Sometimes Batman needs to do some light problem-solving to navigate the prison, and sometimes he needs to use his detective skills to track key NPCs.

The real reason I made the comparison, though, was one particular sequence that happens late in Arkham Asylum. At several points during the game, Batman ingests the Scarecrow's fear toxin, which leads into clever and frightening nightmare scenarios. The third of these is the kind of brilliant fourth-wall breaking that Kojima used to do so well, but only intermittently in MGS4. Granted, I'd been playing Arkham Asylum for several hours at that point and it was well past midnight, but I honestly questioned my sanity for a minute.

Oh, and Arkham is also shorter and has no filler. So there's that.