Friday, 30 September 2011

Stagnation in Gaming - What we’re Asking for vs. What we Want

I don’t necessarily think that this is completely true, but one of the complaints that I hear made over and over about this generation in particular is that the games have gone stagnant. I already touched upon why sequels aren’t a bad thing, but when as Yahtzee says in his Resistance 3 review that, “there’s Gears of War 3, Serious Sam 3, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3...” that there might be a, you know, tiny bit of recycling going on outback.

When we see so many sequels, movie based games, and games that are “just like x” in that they ripped x off wholesale, it does become worrying that the market is kind of just spinning its wheels. The thing is that it’s easy to blame the industry for this, to say “well, they aren’t coming up with anything new” but really, even though it’s a tough question to ask, shouldn’t we also be asking what parts we play in all of this?

We do see people complaining, but when it comes time to take home the tally these sequels always end up being the most popular games that sell the most units and make the most profit for the companies involved. We all talk about how we want something new, but when the time comes to put our money where our mouths are, we tend to get a little gun-shy. Plenty of critics and gamers praise games like Ico, Psychonauts, Shadow of the Colossus, and indie games like Trine, but when you compare sales of these games to the ones that everyone complains about being unoriginal, there’s really no contest. It’s almost not even fair to compare these games side by side, but really, if this is what we’re asking for vs. what we’re actually buying, then where’s the disconnect coming from?

I’m not trying to blame anyone for why game stagnation might be occurring. The thing is that most of us like to play it safe, and really when it comes to a hobby that costs $40 to $60 bucks a pop, it’s often times that you simply don’t want to take a risk, even if the game that is being hailed as new and innovative is being lauded by all comers. In the back of your mind you just can’t help but think “what if I don’t like this? What happens if I’m disappointed, or I feel like I’ve wasted my money?” So rather than go for a potentially high risk/high reward scenario, you just shrug your shoulders and buy the latest copy of the latest series that you know you’ll enjoy, even if it is just a rehash of every game that the series has done up to that point. Of course, when you buy the game, you end up saying something like “it’s good, but I wish that they’d have done something else with it for a change.”

Yet, companies are just as afraid to innovate because they don’t want to drive away a lucrative fan base by giving them too wide a divergence from what they’ve come to expect. Look at Square Enix’s bungles with Final Fantasies XI and XIV. Trying to take the series online has been disastrous for Square -- even though the ultimately lacklustre showing of XIV is also their fault due to a seeming rush to release it that caused it to be buggy as hell -- because among other reasons it alienates those that played the Final Fantasy series for their stories and enjoyed it being a single player experience.

To boil it down to basics, we can’t really have our cake without eating it. If we want games that push the boundaries and actually bring innovation to the medium, we’re going to have to shell out the money for those games once they actually get made, not just say “there, that’s what I wanted” give a satisfied sigh and walk away without investing anything. Not every game is going to be gold, but if you do the research you can at least generally be sure that what you’re buying will be worth going through once. I know it’s not the best solution, since as before affordability is a major issue, but at the same time the almighty dollar speaks volumes more than all the dissent in the world at times, and right now it’s basically saying “play it safe, we want what we’ve had before” and it will take effort to change that to “show us something new, and get rewarded for it”.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Power to the People (Not the Trolls) - The Case for Metacritic

Recently there has been some news regarding Metacritic and games. Metacritic revealed that they had banned and negated the scores of people who they believed were “review-bombing” certain games like Bastion and Toy Soldiers: Cold War were apparently targeted by swathes of people that simply gave the game a zero without any justification. The group was apparently large enough in number to have an impact on the metascores of the games they targeted which is one of the reasons why Metacritic took the action of banning them, believing it to be unfair abuse of the system.

I for one say good on them for doing what they did.

As the case has been covered by other far more notable voices in the industry than myself, there might not be a whole lot of original content to add to the discussion. That never really stops me from trying though.

Metacritic gets a lot of heat because of the “average Joe” factor that to many people seems to rob the Metascore of some level of authority or prestige. The fact that anyone can effectively register and share their thoughts on any movie, music, or game they want seems to turn a lot of people off. Again, I find the need to segregate reviewers of any kind of medium and put them on pedestals like their words are worth more than anyone else’s to be a foolish notion that we really don’t need; reviewers are meant to be helpful guides, voices that can help you make a decision, not the sole factor in making the decision.

What Metacritic has done though, in banning these review-bombers, is essentially making sure that unfair and clearly biased and troll based scores aren’t tolerated. One of the sorest spots would seem to be the idea that people can just say what they want and give the score that they want to give without consequence or justification. This banning clearly proves that there is a line between not liking a game and rating it lowly for reasons legitimate to you, and just plain giving a zero because you think it’s funny to do so.

Certainly, when it comes to Metacritic, there are going to be a lot of pointlessly high and pointless low scores, with no justification given other than “this game rocks my socks off” or “this game sucks and you should never buy it” whether due to poorly expressed personal taste or just a case of hype backlash or what have you. At the same time though you’ll still find people using Metacritic in hopes of becoming more topical and recognized reviewers. These people are finding their voice and hoping to become part of the crowd that has enough recognition that people do take what they have to say seriously. The reviews you’ll find will be varied, and hopefully informative, and I’d say if you are looking to decide on whether or not to buy a game then they certainly can’t hurt if you use them as a tool, as they were meant to be used.

I do find it somewhat strange that, as the previously linked Giantbomb article claims:

“Metacritic is often used to determine royalty and bonus payouts for developers, though its exact use varies from publisher to publisher. I've never heard of a publisher leveraging user reviews as a metric for payment because of situations like this, but especially for small studios, perception is king, which is why user reviews remain very important.”

Though I see the need to base priority on something, I don’t believe that basing whether or not to give bonuses or even keep designers on over reviews -- and I mean any reviews from any critics -- is a fair thing to do when it’s not tempered against things like sales and production costs. Certainly, reviews should be taken into account, but again they shouldn’t be the sole factor to be taken into account.

I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that Metacritic shouldn’t be unfairly blamed for the way that users on it act, especially when they are taking steps to ensure that those that have unwholesome motivations can’t exploit the system to their own ends without being punished and ultimately removed from the system for it.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Why DRM Needs More Batman

DRM, if you're a gamer you've probably heard of it and if not then odds are likely that you've still been affected by it. DRM, short for Digtial Rights Management, is what companies use to attempt to ensure that people pay for what they get; in other words, DRM is meant to stop people from pirating software. From things like OS and development suites, to digital copies of movies and music, and of course, games.

Now, don't get me wrong; there's absolutely nothing wrong with game companies and developers wanting to protect their copyrights and actually make money from what they are selling. These days though, it seems that most DRM is going in the completely wrong direction. By becoming more and more pervasive and envasive, DRM has lead to a lot of misery on both sides of the gaming equation. Companies lose customers who believe the DRM to be obtrusive and overbearing, and gamers might not play the games they want to play, or have to bend to what the the rulesdemands they do in order to play them.

A good example of how DRM has hurt both sides of the equation is Spore. Released in 2008 Spore was a hotly anticipated game from Will Wright, creator of the Sim series. However, when EA revealed that Spore would be using a DRM system called SecuROM the shit really hit the fan. SecuROM was a rootkit program that installed itself onto your harddrive without your knowledge or consent, and remained there even if you uninstalled the game. EA found itself facing a class action lawsuit over the decision to make SecuROM the DRM. More importantly, there was a massive and instant consumer backlash against Spore, leading it to be pirated by a staggering 1.7 million people, earning it the disgraceful title of "The Most Pirated Game Ever". Now, it would be foolish to say that every person, or even a majority of the people that pirated the game did so in protest to the DRM, but was it a factor? Absolutely.

The problem with a lot of DRM these days is that it seems to be evolving into a race between developers and pirates, and the innocent gamers -- the ones that pay for their purchases -- are the ones caught in the middle and taking the most damage from the fight. It may come off as a somewhat defeatist attitude, but let's face it, as long as there is someone that doesn't want to pay money, there will be piracy. People will crack any amount or kind of DRM given enough time and enough desire to do so. Throwing greater and greater amounts of DRM at them only provides them with more of a challenge and greater bragging rights about how they cracked the latest, toughest codes. In the meantime the average gamer is the one that ends up having to deal with crap like SecuROM, or games that demand an online connection at all time to be played, like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood did at one point. All you get are companies spending more money on solutions that clearly aren't working, and gamers getting more and more frustrated by what they have to put up with.

So, is there a solution?

Well, yes and no. There isn't any kind of perfect catch-all solution that will guarantee that a game will never be pirated. However, I believe that the future of DRM isn't about an ever increasingly difficult and intrusive methodology to ensure that gamers are "playing nice" rather, I believe that the best DRM is the kind that has already seen use in the past and even recently: most notably in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

What did this DRM do, you ask? Well, if you had purchased the game the DRM did nothing, just like it should. If the game detected that you were playing from a pirated disc or copy though, then the game gimps Batman, making his glide-jump move -- a somewhat pivotal part of the gameplay -- absolutely useless. Eventually there would be a room that a person playing a pirated copy of the game simply cannot get past, because it requires use ot the glide-jump in order to proceed.

This is the kind of DRM we need: the kind that doesn't punish players, but pirates. The kind of DRM that is subtle, insidious, and utterly hilarious to hear about a game pirate falling pray to. This isn't even the only example of this type of DRM, and although with enough patience it probably is possible to override the DRM, the fact that the subtly of it makes it incredibly difficult to catch on that something is wrong -- which leads to moments like a person playing a pirated copy asking what's wrong with his game only to be flat out told their playing a stolen copy -- makes the subtle game mechanic screwing DRM an obvious choice that pleases both the developers need to protect their materials, but also the average gamer who not only doesn't have to jump through hoops, but also gets to laugh alongside the devs when the pirates get screwed over.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Pay to Play (with Girls) - A Vitriolic Rant

Okay, normally I try to keep a level head and an open mind about most issues and news when it comes to gaming. However, there are points that just force me to say "Come on, what the fuck people?"

This is one of those points.

To basically sum up the issue here: recently a couple of porn stars decided. "Hey, we like to play video games, and we like money too. So why don't we start a service where gamers pay us fees to play against us and watch us game topless?"

Where the fuck do I even begin?

I've got nothing against the women that started this website and service; they saw the potential for a lucrative market and decided "why not?", I can't fault them for that. The thing is though, that I can and will fault a service like this for even existing in the first place, let alone actually doing well.

For years and even now, people that play games have struggled against the stereotypes that society has placed on them: from being violent, isolated loners, to nerds that contribute nothing back to society, to people that need to "grow up" and get out of the phase in their lives when they get enjoyment out of playing games. When some people think of gamers, they think of the people that will jump at this kind of thing, the people that need this service when in reality most people that play video games are -- shockingly -- average people living average lives that just enjoy playing video games.

Something like this I feel is not only offensive to all the women that play video games -- which, by the way, happen to be "Forty-two percent of all game players" according to the ESA -- but also to the majority of the game playing population, which again according to the ESA has an average age of "37 years old and has been playing games for 12 years". In other words, something like this hurts everyone.

Why? Why isn't it just pointless cheesecake that should be dismissed as such? Because to everyone out there that sees gaming as a childish hobby for childish people, this is exactly what they need. It's the fodder that "proves" that gamers are all just 18 to 2X year old basement dwellers covered in a fine layer of Cheeto dust, that think that girls are magical creatures that they can never attain, let alone girls that actually play video games. It's the kind of pandering that doesn't just put back the efforts of a few individuals, but openly harms the group as a whole.

There are plenty of women out there that play video games not because they want attention and a quick buck, but because they, you know, enjoy playing video games as a hobby. When clans of women gamers band together and actually proceed to kick ass and prove themselves, how disheartening do you think it must be for them when the inevitable comparisons -- mostly coming from sour grapes gamers they beat -- to these video game escort services come down the pipe. To be accused of winning due to being "distracting" or "eye candy", even in games where people's voices and faces are never even seen. Likewise the people that get told "you only got beaten because you were thinking with your 'joystick'" when nothing of the sort was going on.

Maybe I am blowing this issue out of proportion and making a mountain out of a couple of molehills. But seeing something like this just forces me to ask: aren't we past this by now? And if were aren't then can we get past it soon? Like, tomorrow would be nice, or yesterday would be even better.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Sony Says "You Can't Sue" - The New Terms of Service and You

It's been extremely difficult to actually be keeping track of gaming news over the past week and not heard of this story. I know that because of the theme week I had last week that my reaction to this news is a little late, but I feel that this issue is important enough that I need to weigh in on it even if it is coming a little late to the party.

The issue here is that with the latest Terms of Service to use the Playstation Network, Sony has slipped in a clause that probably went unnoticed by many gamers -- let's face it, most people don't read the terms of service to begin with and even the ones that do rarely read it every time to check for what changes have been made; something that Sony was probably banking on -- but not by the media. The change was that by agreeing to the ToS, a user of PSN effectively gave up their right to bring a class-action lawsuit against Sony should the need arise.

Sony claims that this change to the ToS was not a decision that had any part to do with the recent hacker induced network outages, but rather that a Supreme Court ruling made them decide that it was a viable thing to do.

Even after being made aware of the clause, some gamers seem apathetic about the whole thing taking an, "It doesn't matter because I'm not going to sue Sony any time in the future anyways." stance. The problem is though, that if something like the PSN outage happens again, or at any point you or a group of people believe that Sony has unfairly infringed upon your rights, you can't take them to public court. Oh, you can still get an arbitration, but in cases of those the individual bringing the case against the corporation probably has better odds of being struck by lightning than actually winning the case, and with arbitration the arbitrator doesn't even have to tell you why the case was thrown out, or why they reached the decision they did. Not exactly what you want in terms of a system that is supposed to be holding people and corporations accountable for their actions.

Legal experts are predicting that it's very unlikely that the no sue clause would hold up in court to begin with, mostly because Sony basically snuck it under the noses of most of its user base. Even if it does, gaming sites have begun to fight back, with GiantBomb giving a generic letter that will allow a user to opt out and retain their right to sue and many other sites directing users towards the opt out and encouraging users of the PSN to do so.

This move on Sony's part has bothered a lot of people, myself included. Truth be told I haven't even updated my PSN to the current state, which means that although I currently don't have access to the online components of my PS3, that I also still have a right to take civil action against Sony should the need be. Slipping this clause into the latest terms of service is a really underhanded move, and one that other companies might try if they think they can follow Sony's example. Certainly the odds are not in Sony's favour, but there's a slight chance that this will hold, and in the event it does Sony has just rendered hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of its user base unable to pursue legal action.

It would have been understandable, if just as unreasonable, if a change to the ToS like this would have come immediately after the PSN outage. But the fact that it comes just when users aren't being vigilant about any changes anymore just stinks of dirty pool tactics. If this is how a game company decides to treat its clientele is it any wonder why people are wary or outright hostile towards the industry?


It seems that before I can even take this to post that it has come to light that EA has done this as well. Basically the only way that you can protect yourself from giving up your rights is to actually read the ToS every time a new update comes out. It might be tedious, but at the same time it's also the only way you might be able to know if you're giving away something you really shouldn't be by clicking that "I agree" box.

Friday, 23 September 2011

"The Future is Disc-Less?" Week Part 5 - The EULA, Ownership, and You

As the final instalment of this week's topic, I find it important to mention how the players are going to be effected by the potential change to completely digital media. This change is something that a lot of people wouldn't even be thinking about most of the time, but is a potentially huge one to the way we look at games. A comment on the first part of this series already brought part of the concern to light -- the idea of rights of ownership -- and while I plan to talk about that, it's equally important to delve into something that we might end up hearing a lot more about in the future: the End User License Agreement, or EULA for short.

The EULA, alternatively known as "that bunch of text that no one ever bothers to read when they install things" is something that we as a society have to be paying more attention to. Hell, arguably we already should be paying more attention to the EULA, but when the media we get no longer comes in physical format is when it goes from being important to being absolutely crucial to have at least a basic grasp of what they're throwing out there in those walls of text before you check that little box that says "I agree". Technically even physical games can come with a EULA that basically states that by buying the game you've agreed not to do things like crack it for piracy or hack the online components if any are present and generally just respect the copyrights.

It's the same deal with games or other software that you download online as well (as an aside, this is how a lot of less than reputable companies dump crap like endless tool-bars and stuff on your machine, by saying that you have to download them in the EULA in order to actually access the software in the first place). The major difference is that if you violate an EULA when you buy the physical copy of a game, then you're generally not going to have agents from the company knocking down your door to take back the disc or anything; on the other hand if you say, hack in Left 4 Dead and the company actually takes notice, then you might be saying goodbye to that copy of the game that you bought upon your next log into Steam.

Now, you might not see this as a problem, because you don't hack or pirate or generally do anything else that might be seen as grounds for any company to strip you of the game that you bought. The thing is that in some cases people have at least had their abilities to play games or access certain features of games withheld due to activity that is deemed suspicious, and in some cases that can be anything from the credit card company calling the retailer up to say that the charges might be suspect, to someone accusing you of hacking in an official server without any real merit or proof.

I will grant you that the above scenarios are somewhat unlikely -- although not impossible -- but there's going to be something that I believe is inherently off-putting about this system. I'm not a betting man, but I'd lay good odds that at least once in your life someone has given you the "privileges and rights" speech: that certain things are privileges and thus can be revoked. Now, I'm not here to argue whether or not gaming itself is a privilege, but currently, our access to games -- specifically the physical copies of games -- is a right that we have. Once we buy a disc we expect to be able to access the data on it whenever we're inclined to do so; in this case that means playing a game whenever you feel like it. That idea might be going out the window though, because without hard copies of games, you aren't really buying a game so much as you are buying the privilege from a publisher or developer to play the game, a privilege that can be revoked with a lot more ease than that copy of "New Game X" that you bought at Best Buy or Wal-Mart or wherever.

There's a lot more potential for problems in these kinds of scenarios. If a company server goes down, people could lose access to attributes they need in order to play the games they've bought. It's not a case where once it's out of the publisher's hands there's no longer a need to worry about the product. Companies are going to have to become a lot more responsive and take greater steps to ensure that potential disruptions of service like the hacker induced PSN outage and other high profile network foibles are addressed quickly, or else have the irate gaming community breathing down their necks demanding to play the games they bought.

There's no easy solution to this problem, but it's one that's going to have to be addressed, and addressed quickly, if companies expect people to fully embrace a disc-less tomorrow.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

"The Future is Disc-less?" Week Part 4 - Changing the Game

Admittedly I've painted a somewhat bleak picture so far in regards to a future where all consoles are disc-less: game retailers struggling to stay relevant, and the secondhand market perhaps simply winking out of existence altogether. It isn't all bad though by any stretch, because there are plenty of upsides about a fully digital distribution system as well, as long as it's handled intelligently and steps are taken to ensure the transition goes smoothly.

Although the secondhand market might encounter a lot of problems, one of the upsides to digital only distribution is that games will become cheaper; with no disc or packaging to manufacture, no manuals to print, and no shipping costs to cut into profits, the games can be sold with lower overhead than is currently possible. Publishers can sell a game directly to the players that want it, and reap 100% of the effective profit. This is a major incentive for publishers and developers to get behind disc-less media, because it will actually help bolster profits off of each sale, while keeping the price point competitive.

Another upside to digital media is a greater incentive on the part of companies to make sure that their games are working right and kept up to date in terms of patches and updates. There's already not much of an excuse to push out a game that has obvious bugs in it, but if something slips past the testing and then is only found after the game goes gold then currently companies have no choice but to put out a day one patch -- something that doesn't earn a lot of praise from the gaming community -- but with digital only distribution changes can be made much later and closer to the release date without as many potential problems cropping up. Since the games will also be more online involved simply via being sold through the internet, the developers can also keep a closer eye on what needs attention and what's working well.

In one of the better scenarios, the move to digital only will also help bridge what seems to currently be an ever widening gap between developers, publishers, and their actual audience: the gamers themselves. It's a strange but notable trend that companies currently seem to see the very people they sell to as at the very least unpleasantly adversarial and at most outright venomous and contrary. Gamers don't tend to view the companies much better in a lot of cases, with most coming off as giant monolithic creations that don't really care about the content or enjoyment that games bring over the almighty dollar. A disc-less future will in some ways force these two groups closer together, and hopefully also assuage some of the more negative feelings that each has about the other.

Regardless of any of that though, what we're experiencing now, with the mix of discs and downloads, is merely the start of a trend that's going to continue to rise more heavily in favour of the latter as time goes on. It might even be possible that we'll see more gamers embracing a purely digital library even when the physical media is still available. Odds are that until given no other choice that we'll never be disc-less entirely, but perhaps the current trends will help acclimate us all to the days to come.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

"The Future is Disc-less?" Week Part 3 - What Happens to the Secondhand Market?

Yesterday I talked about how the notion of disc-less systems could end up putting a major strain and may even end up rendering the physical game store obsolete. There is another huge aspect of the gaming market that stands in just as much of an unknown and perhaps nonviable future: used gaming.

As it stands right now the industry isn't in love with the idea of the secondhand market, and never has been. Game developers and studios say that the sale of used games -- which they see no profit from -- costs them millions of dollars a year. Recently one of the developers behind Heavy Rain claimed that the studio lost somewhere in the realm of 10 million dollars due to people buying the title used. In the 1up article on the subject Guillaume de Fondaumiere claims that:

"We basically sold to date approximately two million units [of Heavy Rain], we know from the trophy system that probably more than three million people bought this game and played it. On my small level it's a million people playing my game without giving me one cent. And my calculation is, as Quantic Dream, I lost between 5 and 10 million [Euros] worth of royalties because of second hand gaming."

Now, the debate between how exaggerated the claims might be and how much damage the used games market is actually doing is still a highly contentious debate that would take much more time than a single person running a blog could hope to solve (although admittedly I did try to take a crack at it in a previous article). Putting all that aside though, there's the real possibility that game studios, developers and companies at large probably see the disc-less system as a very tidy solution to what they consider the problem of used games.

Right now digital games are often sold for cheaper than their physical counterparts, not counting things like sales in both the physical and digital sides of things. However, no digital distribution service currently allows people to trade used games that they have bought access to. It is true that the Steam Trading system allows people to buy games for trade, but with the caveat that they cannot play the game themselves. If they choose to "open" the gifted game, then it becomes part of their gaming library and no longer a viable trading item. It is difficult to speculate as to whether any system will allow users to eventually be able to rebrand their games as gifts for a small price, or if there will be some method developed in the future that will allow used digital content to be traded, but currently digital content is completely prohibitive towards the second hand market: once you've got a copy of something it's yours for good (with certain exceptions that are best talked about another day) whether you like it or not.

Right now, having it "forever" isn't an issue with the majority of the console game market. Certainly there are people who make a majority of their purchases from the consoles online stores, but a good number of people still go down to the nearest physical store and pick up a hard copy of the game; something which allows them to later sell said copy back to a store or to another gamer for profit. The game industry itself isn't in the wrong when they say that they want some of the profit that the secondhand market sees, but to date there simply hasn't been a good method developed to ensure that is the case. Disc-less consoles may make the point moot anyways, since from the industry's perspective it is probably easier and simpler to cut the used game market entirely, rather than trying to find some way to compromise with it.

It's extremely hard to say what the future of used gaming might be when this change comes to pass. Perhaps something will be worked out in the interim. It's also possible that even with disc-less consoles that there will still be a market for used games. Gamers are a clever bunch when we want to be, after all, and someone may figure something out; whether or not it will be completely legal or not is another matter. One thing is certain, as much as the industry may dislike the used market, it plays a valuable and indeed crucial role in the current gaming infrastructure and economy. Without the secondhand market, it's hard to say what the future of gaming might turn out to be. We may however, be finding out sooner rather than later just what the repercussions might be.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

"The Future is Disc-less?" Week Part 2 - Game Store, No More?

I've already touched upon the fact that game stores aren't exactly enjoying having to compete against their online counterparts. The internet was already enough of a mire for them with sites like Amazon and other distributors offering comparable prices on games while having things like free shipping. The coming of Steam and other digitally driven media delivery systems only increased the woes of the brick and mortar game store. It's not hard to imagine the reaction that a retailer like EB or Gamestop will have to a console that a person buys and then never has to walk into a game store again to purchase any title for.

We've actually already had a small taste of the unwillingness of game stores to sell systems that cut them out of the loop. The PSP variant system the PSP Go is a portable platform that actually cannot play disc related content at all: everything that you can play on the system is meant to be downloaded from the Playstation Store and then played from the internal hard drive. You simply load in different games from a library that you build on your user account: having access to all the older titles you've purchased in case you want to replay them, but also making space for newer releases when necessary. Of course game stores were less than thrilled to be selling something that didn't help them sell games which are their main mode of profit. Some retailers outright refused to sell the Go, citing that they would be hurting their own business by doing so.

So, what happens when suddenly it isn't just one offshoot of a portable system that doesn't need the retailer anymore, but every system? If a disc-less future is what's in store, then stores are either going to have to undergo massive changes to how their infrastructure works or risk fading into the past due to being completely obsolete. Boycotting the consoles will in the end prove to be ineffective because gamers will ultimately buy their goods from someone who is willing to sell them, even if it means going directly to the manufacturer themselves.

So, what can game stores do in the face of this paradigm shift? Some game stores have sold both online games and DLC via simply offering packages with a coupon for redemption online. This approach is somewhat novel, but doesn't have a lot of long term sustainability in the face of simply getting the games and DLC from the comfort of your own home. The answer might be in the game stores themselves abandoning their physical location in favour of a purely online model in order to compete. Gamestop is already planning an online distribution service. Even this option though seems somewhat tepid in the face of just buying a game directly from the publisher, something that disc-less gaming would no doubt encourage.

It would seem that under these circumstances -- at least at the moment -- that the best and perhaps only trump card that retailers might have are the exclusive content packages that they buy the rights to. I can foresee a future where store exclusive DLC becomes an even more prominent measure, because that will almost literally be the only defining factor that can be offered in terms of place of purchase. I've already gone over the pitfalls and foibles of making gamers choose certain content over other content, and if it does get to the point where retailer exclusives do have a significant impact on game progression then it's only going to exacerbate the problem. The issue here is though, that I can't really see any other way for the current game stores to stay competitive if everyone does indeed go disc-less. Whether or not they will be able to come up with a solution innovative enough to sustain them is their job, but they'd better hurry, because it seems the clock is ticking either way.

Monday, 19 September 2011

"The Future is Disc-less?" Week Part 1 - The Future is Coming (Like it or Not)

 A somewhat short article today, because I'd like to think that this will serve as an introduction more than anything else.

I've already talked a little about downloadable games vs. physical copies, but at the moment the choice is available. Certainly there is a market for digital only games; platforms like Steam have proven that, and according to the ESA "Purchases of digital content accounted for 24 percent of game sales in 2010, generating $5.9 billion in revenue." While this includes things like DLC, there is no doubt that digital media is certainly a growing and profitable trend.

However, there is speculation on the part of the industry that eventually digital only content distribution might be the only type available.

In this Game Stooge article a couple of industry figures talk about the future of video game consoles. THQ CEO Brian Farrell believes that we could see a disc-less generation as early as the next console iteration. Kaz Hirai believes that disc-less consoles are at least a decade off due to the current infrastructure built around the sale and distribution of physical media. Note that he did not say that it would never happen, just that it wouldn't be in the immediate future.

The move from physical and digital content distribution to pure digital doesn't seem too scary on paper, but in reality it would mark nothing less than a huge change in the one of the fundamental ways we game: how we get our games would be altered. Right now physical and digital media share and compete against one another, but if the disc is taken out of the equation completely there are going to be widespread ramifications for not only the industry itself, but also the sales industry, the second hand market, and of course the gamers themselves.

That is of course not to say that the changes will be all bad or all good. As with everything there will be both positive and negative traits associated with turn to disc-less systems if -- or more seemingly when -- it does happen. Will it be a case of an innovative new way of getting the games you want making everyone happy, or will we end up wishing that we still had our jewel cases and discs intact? At the moment anything that anyone can offer (myself included of course) is mere speculation. But based upon some of the pros and cons that are associated with content delivery systems like Steam, The Playstation Store, Xbox Live Marketplace, and Wii Shop Channel, we can make some educated guesses as to what needs to be worked on, and what can do well enough as is.

That is why the majority of this upcoming week will be devoted to looking at just how a disc-less future would affect the various facets of the entire video game community. And this is something that I do believe will have to be explored, because it seems that the future may invariably leaning towards this method of getting games.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Achievements and Milestones in Gaming - Striking a Balance between Incentive and Burden

Since I've already spent most of this week talking about game length and how players themselves try to get more mileage out of their titles I thought that it was only logical to look at one of the most popular ways as of late that game designers and developers are adding incentive to play longer and try harder: in game achievements and milestones.

From a technical standpoint, gaming achievements are nothing new; beating a game always has been and always will be an achievement after all. The same can be said about getting to the highest level in an RPG, or getting the ultimate weapons in any given game. Of course the only reward for these things used to be the thing in and of itself: the ultimate weapons were worth getting because they kicked ass, and of course when you start a game you will generally want to see it through to the end. Starting with the last generation and then really hitting full force in this one is the relatively new phenomenon of in-game achievements: in other words, rewards (or at least platitudes) for completing certain objectives and tasks in game.

It's quite uncommon to actually see a game without achievements these days, especially one with an online component. Even a fair deal of flash games on sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate can have achievements for things as simple as actually clearing the game to ones that are a fair bit more complex like having a perfect run or coming in under a certain time which is often somewhat prohibitive to achieve. Hell, there's even the flash game series "Achievement Unlocked" where the only point of the game is to get achievements, and the game ends once you've achieved everything.

The Achievement Unlocked games though are obviously satire. The thing is, they are a satire that came about in part due to what many people have viewed as an over-saturation of achievements in games. Most achievements in console and PC games track things like difficulties beaten, or number of enemies killed. A fair bit of them do happen to overlap with the actual progression of the game itself, so simply by playing you're likely to get a handful of them. Other things though, like getting all golds in side missions or beating a ridiculous number of enemies though are obviously there in order to compel players to play the game long after they've initially cleared it.

Most of the time achievements are innocent enough; you can ignore them if they involve doing something that isn't your cup of tea, or you can try and get them all if you're a completionist. However, in the case of the latter sometimes achievements do hurt. There are instances where achievements require completion of certain events that are only available at certain points during a playthrough. An example of this is the Treasure Trove achievement in Lost Odyssey, which requires a perfect run through of all the treasures in the game. You can see just from the comments that this achievement is incredibly hard to attain, and in the case of some people has probably stalled their progress through the game due to not wanting to miss anything in order to actually get the achievement. This is pretty much a case of an achievement actually hampering the gameplay for a select group of players.

I know that a lot of you are just saying "Well, why can't they just ignore that achievement?" but for some people it's just more than a compulsion or a goal: it's something they have to do. Adding achievements to games has driven some people into gaming stagnation: they don't move forward from a select few games because they can't get all the achievements therein, and it keeps them from engaging in new titles.

Of course this isn't even going into the fact that achievements don't actually do anything in most cases. Although in some games like Team Fortress 2 some unlocks can be obtained through achievements (although they can be gotten just about anywhere else as well) most achievements are just there for show. And show they do: although it's not an epidemic by any measure, there are plenty of people out there that put way too much stock into their gamerscore or trophy collection, to the point where they get friends to help them get certain multiplayer achievements that it would be otherwise impossible to get, effectively scamming a system for no real point other than to show off "how pro" they are because they have a hard to get achievement (that's been obtained through no effort on their part). Like I said it's not a huge problem, but the fact that it exists at all is still quite an annoyance to those that just want to play their game without being hassled because they haven't unlocked the "mega death murder crap" trophy.

It's really a double edged sword. Achievements are still new enough that some of the kinks are still being worked out of the system, and hopefully there will be improvements. There's going to have to be, because it doesn't look like achievements are going anywhere anytime soon. And whether you like them or loathe them, odds are you're going to be getting some unlocks at some point in the future.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Make Your Own Difficulty (and Fun) - Player Imposed Challenges

I can say without a lot of doubt that a lot of stupid things have probably resulted from the phrase "I bet you can't do that" or "I dare you". However, along with the stupidity often comes entertainment, and these terms are no exception in the realm of video games.

There are plenty of reasons why self imposed challenges in their various forms exist in the first place. Perhaps a person loves a game so much that they know its ins-and-outs by rote and despite still wanting to play it have become sort of bored by the normal way the gameplay unfolds. Or, of course there are the dares and bets of friends, or even that own voice in your head that goes "I wonder if it's possible to do this like this or if there's no chance at all". Sometimes people attempt the things they attempt to get recognition, or prove that their playstyle is viable or competitive or even superior to those that already exist. Sometimes people even just do it because they have nothing better to do and figure "hey, why the hell not?"

Regardless of the initial reasoning though, the player imposed challenge has given life to its own communities of players that love nothing more than trying (and often succeeding) at doing the seemingly impossible. These challenges have breathed life into older games, and helped allay some of the concerns that modern day gaming is "too easy" (a concern which I don't personally share, but that a lot of people seem to voice nonetheless). Whatever the premise behind the challenge though, the result is still the same: people hone and often times get to showcase their skills, and add hours, sometimes in the ranges of 10s or even over 100, to games that they've already played quite a bit of in the first place; in other words, people are getting more bang for their buck, and that's never a bad thing.

Some games of course already cater to a limited selection, thanks to things like difficulty levels that present more challenges and less room for error. To some though, even the most challenging difficulty becomes mundane after countless playthroughs and enough practice. That's where one of the most basic challenges comes in: playing a game (often on the hardest difficulty) with the starting weapon, or without upgrades, or even without trying to gain levels in the case of RPGs. Certainly, going through a game with the first weapon you're handed when you know there's going to be five to ten upgrades that are going to be offered to you is going to present a challenge: bosses that were already difficult even with the best gun or sword in the entire game turn into monumental tests of skill and stamina: knowing when to attack, when to back off, and how not to get yourself killed after whittling the boss into the red over the course of a half hour or more.

RPGs are even more difficult: how does one avoid random encounters and leveling up from the mandatory boss fights? There are guides out there for such low level runs that are massively complex and detailed. I personally remember the ones that sprang up for Final Fantasy IX after people learned that if you got to a certain point in the game - near the end of the final dungeon actually - within a certain amount of time - I believe within ten or twelve hours, which for a Final Fantasy game is kind of insane - then you could get an excellent weapon for one of the characters. People took the challenge not because the weapon was good (hell, arguably it is nowhere near worth it) but to prove that it could be done. So you had guides that detailed how to get through boss fights as fast as possible, how to make it from area A to area B in the least amount of time, even how to walk in order to avoid random encounters through complex exploitations of the games coding.

All of this amounted to one hell of a low level speed run community that centered around Final Fantasy IX. But of course speed runs themselves are nothing new, and are in fact one of the most commonly seen type of challenges: doubtless because under certain circumstances they can get you worldwide recognition up to and including a place in the Guiness Book of World Records. It's common to see "tool assisted" speed runs on Youtube, where through the use of various tricks that things like playing the game from a ROM allows, the player blasts through a game with lightning speed. While doubtless impressive, the unassisted speed runs sometimes even more so, and there have been some rather impressive ones: games being beaten in minutes that would normally take hours to clear, such as beating Quake on the hardest difficulty in less than 20 minutes. Records have been kept for both assisted and unassisted speed runs, and the amount of effort and planning that goes into either type is truly impressive.

Perhaps the ultimate extension of this are ROMs that are meant to test the absolute limits of player ability. ROMs like the infamous Kaizo Mario World series exist only to prove that with enough time and determination, a player can make their way through what seems like a ridiculously impossible situation. And despite the brainmelting, keyboard smashing frustration that must come from playing this kind of game, people do, and do so often. Because sometimes, really, all you need and all you want is a good challenge; sometimes that just means you have to end up making it yourself, one way or another.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

How Much is Too Much? - Is There a Point When a Game Becomes Long Enough?

I’m writing this article coming off the back of Nintendo’s announcement that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword will be anywhere from 50 to 100 hours in length. When people generally talk about game length the consensus is that longer is better, but in my mind, hearing that a single player game is going to potentially run into the third digit makes me a little leery. Certainly, there are games that can have play length of hundreds of hours, but those are generally due to different circumstances, rather than a game literally being just that big.

As I’ve mentioned before, online multiplayer games can have playtimes of effectively infinite length because the community is always changing. Even single player games can have longer playtimes though, when people play a game they like they might be compelled to complete it to 100%, and then to keep playing it even after everything has been achieved. Skyward Sword doesn’t seem to be a case of this though, as Nintendo is implying that the narrative itself is going to last a tremendously long time, longer than any other game in the Zelda series to date and even most RPGs which “only” clock in at 40 to 60 hours on average.

With this admittedly larger playtime though, I can’t help but wonder if some people will be turned off, knowing the kind of investment that’s needed. I know that out of all the fans that the percentage will very likely be minimal and that a lot of people are pleased that they’re getting a lot of bang for their buck, but I know that at least a few people are going to look at the estimated time to complete the game and go “You know what, it’s not worth it.” Some people simply don’t have the time to invest in such an adventure.

I think I can be forgiven for putting on the nostalgia goggles for a moment, not in regards to games, but in regards to how I used to play them. I remember during my high school days that if I really wanted to then after I got home I could literally do almost nothing but play video games for the rest of the day and not have it be a problem. One instance that is particularly clear to me is when I was playing the Playstation re-release of Chrono Trigger one weekend, and literally wound up playing the game for 16 hours and not caring a wink. I stopped to eat and go to the bathroom, but other than that I spent the entire bloody day playing Chrono Trigger. And you know what, that was completely ok. School wasn’t that challenging, and wasting a Saturday doing something I enjoyed wasn’t much of a concern.

It’s not something that I could - or would - ever do now though.

Now I work for eight and a half hours a day five days a week. When I get home I have a couple of hours to myself, some of which is of course used to write what you’re reading right now. Sure, I have days off, and could squeeze a couple of hours of gameplay out every night, but then I’d also feel like I was neglecting other things that needed to be done. So my time actually playing games became somewhat limited. I’m not alone though, it pretty much happens to everyone. There’s just a certain point where you can’t invest the time you used to anymore.

I used to love RPGs, and I’d have to say I still do. I haven’t played one in ages though, simply because of the amount of time that I’d need to invest in order to finish it in a decent amount of time. And remember, those RPGs are going to be shorter than Skyward Sword seems to be promised to be. So if I had a Wii, it would actually be a difficult choice for me. I know that as a Zelda game that Skyward Sword is probably going to be above the curve, if not fantastic in and of itself. But part of me would be saying that I could finish two or even three regular length games in the time I could finish this one. It’s no one’s fault really, but sometimes circumstances leave you little choice.

Perhaps my concern is irrelevant after all though. But time investment isn’t the only concern. Certainly a narrative that lasts that long might become somewhat fatigued in places, and there’s also the possibility of filler, such as the sailing from Wind Waker, rearing it’s ugly head - I know that some people enjoyed the sailing in WW, but a lot of people hated the fact that it ate up a lot of time and mostly didn’t serve much of a purpose other than getting from point A to point B - all of these are factors that have to be considered when looking at whether or not you’re going to want to play this title. Sometimes longer doesn’t automatically mean better, after all.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Throwing Fridges - Is Having Players "Break" the Game Really a Bad Thing?

With the newly rejuvenated Deus Ex series still very much in the spotlight, some names within the community like Yahtzee have turned to the original to take a look at the roots of the series. Among the things that were mentioned was the fact that the original Deus Ex was a very free-roaming title. You could pile up garbage in people's offices, go places in buildings just to see if there were any particularly interesting bits of dialogue or Easter eggs associated with doing so, and you could do things like break the game by using the somewhat wonky physics engine to get places where you should be able to get or otherwise make the NPCs do really stupid crap. The point is that with the rise of more graphically intensive games, there was been somewhat of a lack in the area of "screwing around" space in titles, and while this may not seem important to most game developers and designers, a lot of gamers, myself included, believe that it's something that is sorely missed these days.

Now, I'm not saying that games should be spat out without beta testing or anything, dear lord no. That's just asking for the most horrifically nightmarish shitshow to grace any platform, something like another Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing or Superman 64. We don't need those titles. No, what I'm saying is that these days the developer response to thinking about what gamers will or won't do seems to have the almost knee-jerk reaction of "well, just limit them" without any real rationale as to why. Stuff like invisible walls, doors that might as be wallpaper, objects that have no purpose other than just just sort of being there since they can't be interacted with, and so on. Perhaps it is the price we pay for having more pretty looking games, but I think it's still a pretty high one.

Even though some railroading is often the case though, in a lot of these games players still try to find ways to just screw around. It's what made the sandbox genre so popular in the first place. If in Grand Theft Auto 3 you said "You know what, fuck the missions" and just decided to drive around, seeing what you could find or do, then you could absolutely do that. You could use cheats to spawn a dozen tanks, parade around while cops chased you, hell, you could even be a good Samaritan if you really felt like it and do the ambulance or firefighter side missions, or you could even be mundane and follow all the laws, not run anyone over or do anything out of the ordinary at all. I'll grant you that most people didn't just drive around being good little boys and girls, but the point is that if you wanted to, you totally could, and then if you got sick of that you could go throw a Molotov cocktail into a crowd or run people over or even, you know, actually do one of the missions that the game gives you.

Developers surely can't account for everything that a player is going to attempt to do. Hell, we've all done some strange stuff in games. I remember playing Goldeneye and just shooting the walls to see how many bullet holes I could get in there before the old ones started disappearing, and laying on proximity mines one on top of the other until there was a ridiculous stack, just to see how big the explosion would get and how ridiculous this gravity defying tower of discs that's jutting out of the wall could become. I hear stories all the time about people who kept holding up when Mario reached the end of a vine in Super Mario Brothers, just because they though the silly little animation he did as he tried to keep climbing to nowhere was funny, and people who played Fallout in the strangest ways just to see how much crap they could actually get away with (Protip: it was quite a bit, actually). Hell, even the origins of the combo started off as a glitch in one of the Street Fighter games, something that the dev team was confident that no one would actually find, let alone exploit; but players found it, and exploited it, and learned to counter it, and so on, and in the next Street Fighter, combos were feature, not a bug.

Screwing around and just seeing how badly you can break something, or if it can even break at all, is hardly a waste of time. In some cases, doing just that is what causes games to evolve and become better down the line, and even if that's not the case, it's not like the people doing this are wasting anyone's time but their own, although when you look at some of the results, and the popularity of programs like Garry's Mod which are almost built specifically to cater to such impulses, I can't really see where the time is being wasted, and neither can a lot of other people.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The 3DS Analog Add On - What to Make of the Second Stick

So, recently it has come to light that the Nintendo 3DS is getting an add on for use with at least the next Monster Hunter game: a peripheral that will give the 3DS a second analog stick. Even though at the moment it is uncertain whether any other games will support the add-on, people are still very unimpressed at the announcement, which they believe could be the first inkling of a redesign at this early stage of the handheld's life cycle. Certainly there have been redesigns before, but it seems that a number of factors have added up to this becoming more of an issue than Nintendo had thought it would be.

Console and handheld redesigns are nothing new, after all: the first Game Boy had a redesign in the form of the Game Boy Pocket. The Game Boy Advance had the SP. The Playstation family have had their slim redesigns, the 360 has its special editions, and so on. Even redesigns to address the flaws of the initial release are common, with ones like the Playstation's initial overheating problem and the original Xbox's disc reading capabilities being addressed in subsequent releases. So why all the bitterness directed towards Nintendo now?

The answer seems three-fold: timing, the userbase, and potential.

The timing and the userbase kind of go hand in hand on this issue, so it's best to cover them together. This announcement of the second analog stick seems to indicate in the minds of many that a redesign for the 3DS might be right around the corner, and the fact that it seems to be happening so early in the system's lifespan means that the initial adopters are seemingly left high and dry. Combine that with the fact that the price drop caused some of the people that were formerly on the fence about buying a 3DS to take the plunge and you have a rather large, rather vocal group that feels slighted. The suggestion that the system should have had two analog sticks from launch might be a somewhat unfair one to make at the moment, but in light of what's happening now it would have doubtless spared Nintendo a lot of headaches and even more criticism from voices that are now saying that the handheld might have been pushed out of development too early for its own good.

The third part: potential, is also a strong reason behind the current mood of those that have taken issue. I'm not sure how much stock to put into this personally, but there are people out there that think that the lack of a second analog stick from out of the gate has hampered the system's potential, and that if the 3DS is about to get a second one, either through the addition, a redesign, or both, that there will finally be games that will be of a higher calibre than what we've been seeing currently. While many would hail this as a good thing, the people that bring this up are also quick to point out that the system should have been designed with such support and capabilities from the start in order to ensure a higher quality output. While I don't agree 100% with that assessment, there is some merit to it, and surely if Nintendo itself adopts the second stick for some of its first party games we could see a wider spectrum of titles than what is currently on the table.

Perhaps more than anything though, is that people seem angry at how poorly this entire thing is being handled. Nintendo has been somewhat evasive regarding this whole issue, and while the designs might change the current way that the add-on looks is failing to inspire much, if any, confidence. The notion that people that just got a 3DS might now also have to shell out more money (just how much more is an unknown factor at the moment, but it will probably be more than zero) is less than appealing to everyone that only bought one due to the price drop. All in all, it just seems like a strange misstep on the part of Nintendo, if and when the overall health of the system.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Making More of Motion Controls - The Power Pad was Doubtless Bad, but Can it Lead to Better Gaming?

Myself and a friend (you can hit up his own blog for his postings on many various topics, by the by) were talking last night about how motion control and motion capturing devices seem to have a somewhat limited user end spectrum: most of the time you seem devices mapped for sports games, or perhaps FPS's via use of various peripherals. It's not often though, that you see them used - let alone successfully - for games like action titles or RPGs or the like. Certainly there are cases of them being used, like for the Wii version of Twilight Princess, but many people commented that the inclusion of motion controls (which still also used the joystick for movement) made the game somewhat clumsy, so the difficulty overall had to be toned down due to that fact.

The game that got him, and alternately me, thinking about motion controls is Gunstringer, an on rails shooter that's eventually going to be out for Kinect. Now, I'm not a fan of the on rails experience myself, but looking at the trailer I had to admit that both the premise and the actualization of the controls intrigued me. One hand functions as the gun, while the other hand was used to control some of the actions. Due to the fact that you're partially taking on the role of a puppeteer in the game, holding you hand and using actions like flicking your wrist to make the Gunstringer jump over obstacles seems a lot more intuitive than some of the other methods that motion controls have made.

This got me to thinking though, about how one of the largest (at least to me) issues with motion controls currently could be handled: movement. Right now, most motion controls are used to swing something around, whether it be a bat, a sword, a gun, or whatever else, but the Wii still primarily uses the joystick located attachment for the nunchuck for facilitate movement around the given game world. The Kinect has no controller at all, and for some games does register movement as such, but also has a lot of games that are on rails or use certain motions to move through areas. My question is, why not use something to register the movement of a persons' feet and have the in game character react accordingly.

Now, this is hardly the first time that such technology would have been used. We've seen the among the earliest of the incarnations in the Power Pad, a large mat based controller for the original NES. While it was a clumsy and limited, the potential is certainly there to make a more intuitive version of it for the current generation. Surely, something where you can take a step forward, then keep lightly stepping in order to move in that direction. something almost akin to a DanceDance Revolution gamepad, but with some minor changes, could do wonders for freeing up the hands to do more dynamic things without being distracted by the movement issue. It's not a perfect solution, but I believe that it would be a step in the right direction.

Perhaps the biggest problem would be the fact that it would take up a lot of space, and in the heat of the moment if you fall or slip or run off the mat then there's going to be problems. The latter can be averted of course by having a sensor indicate whenever you might fall or leave the pad and automatically pause the game.  There is also the fact that it's simply not going to be as intuitive as using a controller. That is an issue that only time and increasingly progressive technology can sort out. Really, we don't even need a pad at the most rudimentary levels: you can lean in the direction that you want to go in: it's less to think about for most of the same results. The point is that it's something that can be done but seemingly hasn't been so far. It would be infinitely more complex for some games, of course, for games that require things like quick dodging and fancy footwork, but without these first small steps we'll never make the journey anyways.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Playing the Antagonist - We Can be Villains, Just for One Day

After yesterday's admittedly heavier subject matter I thought it would be nice to get back to something a little more whimsical, but not often visited upon: games where a person plays the villain.

I'm not talking about being pure evil in a malicious sense, although that is a distinct possibility, but I'm left wondering just why this sort of set up hasn't been explored beyond some of the rather rudimentary "morality" systems of games like Knights of the Old Republic, Infamous, or the sort of vague evilness implied in games like the Overlord series. What I'm here to ask is why we can't play a bad guy and be subtle about it, or have a morality system in place that allows for subtle machinations and long term long term ambitions rather than "Give the woman back her home (be a hero)" or "Kick her out and sell her place (be a dick)".

Some of this thought process was prompted by my recent playthrough of No More Heroes (which I do promise I'll stop talking about soon enough). See, throughout the game even the most of the people that Travis kills in order to rise up the ranks and become the top assassin are pretty bad themselves, Travis is really no better than any of them. His main motivation from the get go for doing this is wealth, the easy life, and the chance to get into a girls' pants. Even though near the end of the title some deeper running issues get put on the table, Travis never really stops being - for lack of a better term - pretty much a depraved lunatic who only really has our sympathy because we're the ones controlling him and looking from his point of view in the story. Now, there's nothing wrong with that fact, and I found it to be a rather refreshing change that Travis was mostly doing things for a completely selfish motivation, rather than anything noble like saving the world or bettering himself.

I personally don't think there's anything wrong with a little ambiguity in games like this. I mean, you can go around being a puppy eating prick in a game world because it's a game world and your actions don't have any real life ramifications. At the same time though I'd like to see a game where you can choose to be evil, but also be subtle about it, perhaps tricking people into thinking you're the good guy when in fact you're the guy that they want to stop, things like that. I think that it would be a concept that hasn't ever really been explored and could lead to a lot of genuinely fun and fascinating games, and of course if at the same time you want to actually be benevolent there's nothing wrong with that either, I just appreciate the choice. And by choice I don't mean the black and white morality systems of the game I mentioned earlier, where it's immediately obvious as to whether a choice is going to have a good or bad impact on your karma meter. The first Fable promised a sort of system where you could be as good, evil, or ambiguous as you wanted, but ultimately failed to deliver - although it ultimately failed to deliver on many things, but that's a moot point this late in the game - but I think that it would be a challenge both for designers and players to develop and then test the upper limits of more complex moral systems than simply right vs. wrong and pure good vs. pure evil.

Essentially, to put it in perhaps some of the nerdiest terms possible: I want a game where you can be Chancellor Palpatine from the prequel trilogy in Star Wars, sending groups against each other and reaping the benefits of seeming to be a nice guy while in actuality being a giant asshole. I’m not saying that you can’t pick up a lightsaber now and then and have a little fun, but being the man playing everyone behind the scenes is something that just hasn’t really been done in games to this point, and frankly, it sounds like an enjoyable if potentially dark experience.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Racism in Games

I’m not terribly sure that I can actually say anything about this that isn’t going to be a retread, but two specific and recent events compel me to write a little about what is no doubt a touchy subject regardless of medium: racism.

The first and by far the lesser of the two incidents involves the recent release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The game has been notably praised for resurrecting the series, but a lot of people began to notice and point out one particular point in the game: a conversation with Letitia the Trash Lady now, the article that I’ve linked to has already come down on the side that this is undoubtedly a racist character. Personally, I reach the end of the line with a judgment that while the character is undoubtedly in extremely poor taste and should have been caught at some point along the development cycle, I’m loathe jump on the bandwagon saying that Eidos and Square Enix are racist pieces of garbage perpetuating an age old stereotype of minstrel type black character.

Should it be in the game? absolutely not, but the fact that it’s one random character that isn’t even important to the plot means that of all the black character portrayed in the game that Letitia is the exception - an egregious one surely, but still an exception nonetheless - to most characters that people have no problem with the portrayal of. It is true that you’re going to be hard pressed to find anyone that looks or talks like that in real life, and while video games generally constitute an acceptable break from reality they only generally remain so when the characters and environments that we are submerged in are either so out of touch with reality that they simply can’t trigger these kinds of responses, or if they are more realistic like in the case of Deus Ex simply avoiding triggering the responses in the first place.

I’m struggling to talk about this subject without seeming to come down on the “it’s not so bad” side, but really, honestly, I don’t believe it’s so bad when taken against the whole. The reaction honestly should have been expected, but part of me is screaming that it’s another one of those incidents where for the sake of political correctness people are suddenly willing to lambaste an entire game and companies by extension when, while the decision was made in poor judgment and ignorance, which are hardly excuses, they probably didn’t look at it at the time and go “Hey, I bet this will offend people and cause controversy, let’s keep it in!” Certainly I would hope that Eidos and Square Enix will take away lessons from this, but I can’t help but feel like this is an overreaction, if only by a slight margin.

Of course, some people do aim for controversy. At around the same time that the Deus Ex segment was being discussed, something came up that has seemingly slipped under the radar of most people. Perhaps people have dismissed it as an obvious forgery, or perhaps they are unsure of just how to react if what they are seeing is real. What I’m talking about is a trailer for a game: Slavery: The Game to be precise. The trailer was posted on you tube on September 2nd, and seems to promote an “Adults Only” rated RTS - it should be noted that The Creative Assembly is responsible for the Total War RTS series - which focuses on buying, abusing, and eventually rising to the top of the slave trade of the 17th century. The design firm, one “Javelins Red” is a nonexistent subsidiary of The Creative Assembly, which has publicly denounced any knowledge or involvement with the title.

The strange, and to me really confusing thing here is that some of the comments I’ve seen; specifically the ones on this thread have people saying that a game on the subject wouldn’t be so bad, or that while the topic is controversial, that it would be standard fair for RTS games that already push the boundaries in some cases (their words, not mine). So, I ask the question: what is the huge difference between a game that seems to revolve entirely around the subjugation of a race, and the other has one instance of a racial stereotype, that seems to invoke the opposite reactions than one might expect?

People aren’t rushing to defend “Slavery: The Game” but at the same time I’m not seeing the same backlash that there was against the inclusion of one minor non-essential character in Deus Ex, and to be honest it really confuses me. It cannot be primarily because people think it’s a fake game, some of the comments I’ve seen at least are ones that say that whether the game is real or not that it’s simply not a big deal.

Many, myself included, have been left wondering to what end the trailer was created for, because at this point it almost seems like if it aimed to create controversy that it has actually mostly failed to register on any front. Is it a case of something so straining the grounds of believably that our willing suspension of disbelief regarding even its said existence is shattered, causing us to shrug off something that should be outrageous and inflammatory while reacting like we do to something like what was presented in Deus Ex, or do I simply have this entire thing ass backwards?

I’d really like to know. And no, that isn’t a rhetorical question. If anyone has an answer, please tell me, because right now I’m just confused, because it seems to be a case of racism being wrong (which is good) until it sort of reaches a point of supersaturation, at which point instead of reacting with anger we react with confusion and/or apathy.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Difficulty in Games - The Difference Between Challenge and Cheap

Yesterday I touched upon the fact that No More Heroes, while a good game in its own right - wasn’t really as challenging as I expected it to be. That got me to thinking: just what defines a challenge in games? We talk about games as being easy, or being too hard because of cheap tactics, but what do these terms really mean?

Again looking at NMH because it’s what is freshest in my memory: I played on the hardest mode last night “Bitter” difficulty, which is only unlocked after beating the game once. Using the option to fight the bosses again without going through the levels, I took a stab at some of the bosses that were considered the difficult ones. One notable change I found was that every boss now attacked at a rate that made it harder to trigger the dark step, and would even dodge away when I entered dark step mode, thus depriving me of an opportunity to get a good combo in. This, in and of itself, was something that I believe increases the challenge without being “cheap”. But in order to move forward I have to first set a baseline for what cheapness is.

We’ve all played a game like this: often times racing and fighting games are the worst offenders. A lot of the recent complaints about the Mario Kart series for example, revolve around the fact that the computer often seems to go out of its way to ensure that you don’t make first place; incidents like that last second blue shell shoved up your tailpipe right before the finish line have caused many a gamer to nearly break controllers in a rage. This is an example of so-called rubber band A.I.: wherein the computer exceeds the probable limits of possible gameplay in order to stay on par with the player. In Mario Kart it comes in the fact that no matter how well you play the opponents will always be breathing down your neck, and any mistake (or random “lucky” stroke from the computer) will mean that you lose. Interestingly, the first Mario Kart game for the SNES was notable for its lack of rubber banding, as such things as lapping opponents on some tracks was possible.

That’s of course not the only kind of cheap gameplay gimmick. For example, rationally it would be possible to have a fighting game where the highest difficulty is literally unwinnable, because the player controlled character still has to route their commands through the computer, which the A.I. opponent can then perfectly counter with a higher priority move. There’s also the fact that an A.I. opponent will never have to remember any combinations for move sets or super triggers, they can process a ridiculously long combo in the time it takes you to start the first input for the first move. This results in the literal unwinnable (at least without exploiting weakness in the A.I. itself) matches. Of course, no one would play on that level of difficulty because of the almost pointless amount of frustration it would engender. Even using A.I. exploits to beat it wouldn’t be as fun as simply playing against a challenging but still balanced computer opponent.

Of course, those two aren’t the only genres of games, but it’s still easy to recognize the problems that occur in other games. Having extensively played both series, I can easily say that Ninja Gaiden is cheaper than Devil May Cry. Both games are utterly punishing and have difficult opponents, but Ninja Gaiden has situations where some attacks are relentlessly spammed - I’m looking at you explosive shuriken throwing ninja - and there are times when the camera makes already frustrating battles nearly impossible. Now, this isn’t to say that DMC is without problems, but it’s a case where if I take damage in the latter, I know that it’s my fault, whereas with the former game, it seems that even if you play to the utmost perfection that a human could possibly hope to achieve, that you’re still going to take some hits “just because” which is something that doesn’t need to happen in order to challenge the player.

To call upon NMH one last time, I can give examples of both “cheap” ways that the game makes itself difficult, and ways that it makes itself legitimately challenging. One of the last fights in the game has the boss - Bad Girl (no seriously) - that has a lot of hp and extremely damaging attacks. That in itself is fine, because she’s one of the last bosses in the entire game; she does however, have an attack where she sends lesser enemies flying at you with her baseball bat. While you can send these enemies back at her, it requires fairly precise timing, and while she does this you’re not really in a position to attack her, not to mention that this attack “spawns” at least three minor enemies to deal with. This wouldn’t be so bad if she only did it at certain points rather than randomly; but the fact that she does do it randomly means that she might start doing it three, four, or five times in a row, which gets extremely annoying because it prevents you from fighting her and is a potentially extremely damaging attack. This I would consider cheap because it’s spamming a hard to counter, highly damaging move. This same boss does have an instant kill attack, but strangely enough I don’t consider that cheap, because it’s sort of a bait and switch technique, and if you fall for it it’s your own fault.

The true last boss of the game, though, is perhaps the pinnacle of true difficulty in the game. He’s got a ton of hp, and most of his attacks are fairly straightforward but incredibly damaging if you screw up, get too greedy or cocky. Especially on the highest difficulty, he’s a challenge that is a good test of how well you’ve mastered the game, as any final boss - particularly in an action game - should be. The fight can last anywhere from 10 minutes to a full half hour, but it’s not ever something that you can accuse of being cheap, because whether you win or lose is completely on you, not whether he spams one particular attack or not.

Now, some people might think that the fact that the final boss has a lot of hp and damaging attacks in itself to be cheap. But I would counter that since none of those attacks are taking off half your life, and that the only arguably cheap attack he has is an instant kill move that is incredibly telegraphed and easy to dodge, I say if you die, it’s your own fault. That, to me, is the difference between a game being cheap and a game being actually difficult. If you throw a controller down in frustration knowing that there was nothing you could have done to prevent your untimely demise, even if you were some sort of demigod of the game, then that’s the game being cheap for the sake of difficulty. If you die and you go “you know what, that was my fault” then that’s not cheap, that’s just a difficult game giving you exactly the challenge you want

Monday, 5 September 2011

Grahf Reviews - No More Heroes

Now, No More Heroes is an older game to be sure, but since the port to the PS3 and 360 - although a North American port of the 360 version has not been released yet -  was more recent I've decided to cover the port of the game on the PS3. No More Heroes is a game that has held my interest from the time it came out, and having the opportunity to now play it without having to spring for another console just to do so was too good of an invitation to pass up.

Title: No More Heroes: Heroes' Paradise
Genre: Action/Hack n' Slash
Console: PS3
Release Date: August 16th, 2011

Overall Grade: C+. A quirky and enjoyable game that might make a good starting point for someone just getting into the action genre, but might prove too kitschy for some and not challenging enough for veterans of the genre.

No More Heroes is the story of Travis Touchdown, an otaku (seriously, he's an otaku) who buys a beam sword off an internet auction one day and decides "Hey, why not become an assassin." Now, there are two ways most people are going to react to that premise. If you balked and said "Are you fucking serious?" then this likely isn't the game for you; on the other hand if you went "That sounds absolutely insane and stupid, but in a completely awesome way." then keep on reading, because this might just be the game for you.

The game basically revolves around the following format: you need to fight 10 assassins to get to the top spot, but in order to fight against any of them other than the first you need to make the entrance fee. You make money for the fee and other various things in game like new weapons, training, and clothes, by either doing part time jobs which have so completing silly but fun mini-games like lawn mowing or trash collecting (no, seriously, funner than they actually sound) or taking assassination side jobs, which do have to be unlocked by doing well enough at the part time job first.

The assassination jobs, and of course the 10 levels that you have to fight through to get to the ranked bosses, are all done with your trusty beam sword. Combat is fairly intuitive - although it should be noted I used the regular PS3 controller as opposed to the Playstation Move - fights boil down to breaking through the opponents defences to deliver death blows or various wrestling moves followed by the coup de grace. The game rewards successful deathblows (which are intended to be the primary way to finish off an enemy) with the possibility of getting one of the various super modes. In the Wii these would mostly be activated immediately, which sometimes lead to the last enemy in a room setting one off and you running around like an idiot; luckily in the PS3 version all "Dark Side Mode" moves are stored for later usage, which makes them much more convenient.

Since we're now starting to get into the differences between the ports, I should mention that the PS3 version has a couple of new part time jobs and assassination missions, including assassination missions that revolve completely around use of the uberpowered Dark Side Modes, which are fun if horribly unfair to your opponents. The port also features the ability to watch the in game cinematics again, as well as fight the bosses you've already beaten. There's also the addition of some of the bosses from the sequel as well, which are just optional fights that have no ramifications win or lose, but are still a nice addition. It should be noted that for some reason the port has cut part of the city off, making the bridge to the northern part of Santa Destroy closed and that part of the map inaccessible, but from what I've read nothing was really over there except for a couple of part time jobs, which were moved to the mainland anyways. The final additions are the inclusion of a score attack mode that again features all the bosses, and a "Very Sweet" mode, a completely cheesecake inclusion that basically seems to play like the easiest difficulty, but with the addition of more scantily clad outfits for the majority of the female cast.

For the basics, the graphics are solid enough, not really showing any improvement over the Wii version but also not hard on the eyes by any stretch. The music is what I believe to be one of the high points of the game, with all of the themes done extremely well. One complaint with the audio I do have is that on the game I played at least the audio would completely cut out or become terribly distorted. It only happened three times to the best of my memory, but apparently this was a problem with the Wii release as well, and not fixing it seems to be more than a little lazy on the part of the team that ported it over.

Now, the gameplay itself. This is a strange game, in that it's almost a deconstruction of some of the ways that other games work. If you want to just blaze through and just do the main missions, then you can easily find a part time job or assassination mission that you can spam for cash and eventually just stop unlocking new ones or bothering entirely. You don't have to get the training to increase your health and strength, nor any of the weapon upgrades. The thing is though, that the part time jobs and the assassination missions, as well as those various side quests and things are really the meat of the game, so if you don't enjoy doing those then you're not going to enjoy a majority of the time that you spend playing No More Heroes.

As for the primary missions themselves, each of them offers something unique, from having to play an impromptu game of baseball for a chance to kill some mooks easily, to fighting on a moving bus, and even running down a ton of enemies in a baseball field with your bike. All of this is interspersed with the more normalized "Beat up those dudes, progress through the level" gameplay. All of the levels lead to some great boss fights that have a mostly memorable cast of fellow psychopaths to beat for your next rank up. These fights are of course the highlight of the game, and most of them are quite enjoyable and the guys and girls you fight against quite memorable.

Now, the thing is, and this is by far my largest complaint with the game, is that for the most part, I was never really challenged by anything that the game threw at me. I have no idea if it was supposed to be harder with the motion controls, but as someone who's played series like the Devil May Cry games and Ninja Gaiden, this really wasn't anywhere near as difficult as I expected it to be. Even the bosses that a lot of people were having trouble with I found didn't take much effort, I only died more than once on one or two fights, most notably one where the boss has an instant kill move that I couldn't properly figure out the quicktime event to avoid until I'd done it about five times. Even the final boss, while a pleasure to fight, wasn't really a challenge in terms of anything but the war of attrition you engage in with him.

It's also worth noting that while the combat is solidly put together for the most part, that it's not without flaws. The fighting system in game seems to work best in one on one situations. Often times if you're fighting a group of enemies you're going to get your attacks interrupted and take damage because you're trying to attack one guy while another is merrily hitting you in the back. In cases like these there's little more you can do than spam the block and dark step (the game's version of bullet time triggered off proper dodging) to try and thin the numbers. There were also a number of times I found myself doing charge attacks at inappropriate moments, even though you should have to be holding down the respective button to do one of them. It's not enough to mire the combat, but they are concerns.

That said, if anyone is just thinking about getting into the genre, then No More Heroes might serve as a good introduction to them. However, the game isn’t without flaws: the way that the game is set-up will invariably turn people off, and the strangeness that permeates the title might prove to be overwhelming, even to people that accepted the initial premise. Still, if you can see past that then there’s a decent, if far from perfect, action title that might be worth checking out. My final verdict is that it’s at least worth a rental if you can get it from somewhere.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Looking at the Steam Trading Beta - What's In Store for the Future?

So, to conclude this week's soft topic I'm taking a look at a relatively new addition to the Steam application: the Steam Trading Beta. Announced and implemented early last month, this application lets users do a couple of things: they can trade in game items (for now limited to Team Fortress 2 items) without needing to actually open the game, which is fairly cute and quite handy. However, the program also allows people to trade games for other games or in game items as well. That feature piqued my interest and got me thinking that given enough time this could be a legitimate way for people to sell used games digitally if - and it is a rather large if - the companies are willing to cooperate with it.

Admittedly right now this beta is for the TF2 community more than anything else, since currently they have the only set of in game items that are tradable through the system. But reading the F.A.Q. shows both some potential merits of the system. Currently, if a person wishes to buy a game to have as "trade fodder" they can do so, buying from the store and selecting the game to be a gift for themselves rather than someone else. These gifted games - which cannot be "opened" and played on the account if they are to remain open for trading - can then be given to other people for their games or in game items which are available for trade. There is of course an upper trade limit (in terms of the amount of items, not the monetary value thereof) but it is quite high, higher than the 10 slot trading available in game for TF2.

I first and foremost have to go on the record as saying that I think that this is a step in the right direction towards fixing the unusual hat problem that I mentioned way back (two months ago is a billion years internet time after all). People that trade games for hats - which does happen quite frequently - can now do so through official channels which decreases the risk substantially. Steam is also being proactive about potential cases of fraud, with the statement that in the event that traded games have been bought with a stolen credit care that, "the trade will be reversed and the offending account, not the receiving account, will be locked." This allows some peace of mind for both parties, who now know that if one of them is less than scrupulous that only the guilty party will be punished, and while the innocent party may lose whatever they traded for they do get their original stuff back, so there's no real loss.

Now, currently the F.A.Q. also states that you cannot sell your used games (which in this case means the games you haven't purchased as gifts, or basically anything that you've actually download and played yourself) but the potential is there. Aside from the potential logistical problem of getting all the different developers and companies to agree to let their games be sold "used" I could see some real benefits here to actually introducing selling used games over the system.

First of all is the fact that unless it is a multiplayer game like TF2 - which is free to play anyways and thus there should be absolutely no reason why anyone should be buying it new or used... - is that eventually you're going to get to a point where you're essentially done with the game: you've found all the loot, killed all the bosses including the pain in the ass secret uberboss, and you're satisfied. So now while you can free up the hard-drive space by deleting the game, it will always be there, on your account. Sure, maybe sometime down the line you'll get the urge to replay a game, but most of the time you know whether or not that's going to be the case, and for most games it honestly isn't a lot of the time. But you can't sell the game, or even give it to a friend so that they can enjoy it, it's just there, not being played.

So, why not give the player the option to resell (or in this case trade) their older games? Make it a small, set price; say, 10% of the initial cost, to 'deactivate' a game and turn it into a gift. The developer may not be seeing full market price, but consider that people will be buying new games to trade for these old titles, along with the fact that if someone likes a title by a developer that they will be more likely to check out any future works, thus adding the potential for repeat customers to the mix. It's not a perfect system, but when you consider that any amount of profit from the reselling of a game is really potentially better than just having it languish in someone’s Steam Library, lost in the shuffle, then it ultimately makes a bit of sense to allow the reselling of used digital games. Hell, if they wanted to, developers could even offer the same deals that game stores do: something like trade in three of that publisher's games to get one of their games free or at a nice discount. In this case it's not as lucrative as the physical trade in would be, but it also moves games and provides the company with good rep, which is better than having titles 'sit' on the digital shelves due to high price point.

Admittedly, it's not a perfect system, and at the moment I know there would be quite a bit of rallying against the idea. But considering that the trade beta has been out for less than a month, it's good to bear in mind that any speculation can only be useful in terms of weeding out what works and what doesn't, and I believe that if the decision is made to sell used digital games, then physical game stores will find themselves in an even stickier situation than they are presently in, and for the digital store owners isn't that exactly the situation they would want? Their clientele growing and becoming the predominant source of sales? It seems to be a good opportunity if they can get more people on board with it.