Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wii Fit vs EA Active

It's funny, considering that these two games have been in the Top Ten Selling Game lists for months now, you'd think there would be mountains of debate about their merits. For much the same reason that I bought a Wii as soon as they explained that the controller consisted of waving a remote, I bought Wii Fit on Day One. The vast, vast appeal of an immediate feedback system this fully realized is not just a gimmick. It's tapping into the same primal urge that makes babies look at themselves in a mirror and coerces people to fill out those awful facebook quizzes relentlessly. It is a videogame about you.

Feedback, coincidentally, is why I end up concluding EA Active is the inferior product. There were personal reasons for this like my distaste for rubber band exercises, but in terms of design that's the gaping flaw. Wii Fit has a dot in a yellow circle or a bar graph that is precisely indicating where your weight is and thus how you're doing the exercise wrong. There are even gradations to how correct your posture is, doing the exercise imperfectly will still get a pass but a low score in case the person is struggling. EA Active, on the other hand, is an all or nothing feedback system. You either do the precise gesture they want or you have not done the exercise. Furthermore, instead of an easily read graph or yellow dot there is just an avatar reacting to gesture input. The last thing anyone wants to deal with while exercising is a finnicky instructor or being perfect on every move.

I'll probably regret the snark I began the essay with but that whole "Western Workout" PR schtick got on my nerves. Sometimes when people were complaining that Wii Fit wasn't a very good work out it seemed like the equivalent of bitching that your toaster makes terrible eggs. I understand they both claim to make breakfast, but that doesn't make it reasonable to expect a white sensor board to be the equivalent of a full gym.

It is what it is. And apparently that's enough to sell millions of copies.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Legal Dicta

As my third and final year of law school draws near, you're going to start noticing me focusing on the reality that I need to have a job when they finally hand me that expensive piece of paper in May. I don't think many longtime readers harbor this illusion, but if you've got any fantasies about me "Fighting the Good Fight" by staying unpaid or not working for a major corporation because they're "The Man", you're on the sunny side of confused. After watching people whine about Rohrer commit the atrocious crime of doing contract work to help fund his kid's education, I thought I'd make this clear now. I fully intend to keep this blog up as long as I can along with several side projects I'm working on. But eventually that bridge is going to come.


If you're an indie developer, I-Phone Apps developer, or just curious about a fairly big shift that's about to happen, there is a lawsuit coming down the pipeline you should keep an eye on. Two people who made competing farting games for the I-Phone are getting into a lawsuit over who stole what. It's making the news rounds because it's hilarious to watch the two sides argue and because on the surface it seems mostly harmless. You can't claim a copyright on fart noises, 'Pull My Finger' (the name of one of the Apps) cannot be copyrighted because it's in the general domain of public use, the programs use different code, different features, and other than both involving farting have nothing in common. If I had to bet money, I'd say the lawsuit claiming infringement will go out with a noise resembling the kind its App generates.

The reason this is a problem underneath the surface is that, between the media coverage and the fact that we're talking about a person indignant over a farting game, that case is going to hit the mat. It's going to go to court, be argued, and have a final ruling. In a large student essay I worked on concerning modding issues, one of the problems I had to deal with was that you really can't find much litigation on this precise topic. Microsoft and Apple got into it a while back over their respective OS's but that ended up being argued over their visuals being too similar because they couldn't find any past court rulings supporting a function argument. A lawsuit on whether or not two programs, based purely on their function, is going to have a final ruling.

If you're not a lawyer, the reason that's important is that most lawsuits are built out of 1) what the law says about the facts of the case and 2) what court rulings on similar lawsuits say. Copyright law for video games was always just a panoply of legal principles meant for other media. I don't even know if laws for games are deficient, nobody does, they might turn out to work fine. The problem is that they aren't particularly clear about when someone has copied a video game too much. They say when they copied the code or the visuals too much...but what about the basic function of the program?

So all things considered, the indie gaming scene and I-Phone App store are ripe for these kinds of lawsuits precisely because there are so many people generating clones and copies of one another. As Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and numerous PC gaming websites all enter the online gaming and App market featuring similar games they will soon develop the same kinds of problems. Of all the things that will help start off this legal frenzy, I suppose a dispute over a farting game is appropriate.

Anybody can make a video game these days. They just might be making yours.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Remake Culture + Conduit Review

You know, part of the reason it's a bit ridiculous for me to criticize other reviewers is because I'm pretty much a softy. Unless a game royally screws up or royally succeeds, it's probably going to get a 6 to 8 out of me.

This isn't necessarily for any nefarious reasons. I think if I tried to give every game I played and didn't like a 1/10 someone would say something, but overall we're left to our own devices at the big P. I'm just not sure a 30 year old medium has a large enough audience that's critically able enough to support more strict scrutiny. I don't mean like they aren't intelligent enough, I mean like they probably haven't played as many games as one of the more intense gamer types. Think about when you got sick of the FPS. I've been playing them since Wolfenstein, so I get pretty tired of them once the tech and game design starts to repeat. But for someone young or just playing games? It's probably like trying guacamole for the first time or something. Nor does it help that the stakes are very high with games since most come in at 60 bucks a pop. A critical culture's richness has a direct connection to the cost involved for the consumer. Music? Grand, epic critical culture. Movies? Pretty big. They're also all cheap to get into. Personally, I think working with old games is more fruitful than trying to make some bold "This new game sucks" last stand. They're cheap, I can play with things like nostalgia, and the audience has typically grown a second pair of eyes. Then again, it has to happen on all fronts.

I also have to admit my preference for working with older games is a byproduct of a lot of luxuries I indulge in with my site though, so it's just something I'm always promoting. Don't think this review of The Conduit isn't 100% what I would give it anywhere else. As has been said about it countless times, it's a decent FPS with multiplayer on the Wii. It's just...if I want to play an FPS I'll reach for my Xbox 360.

This week's blog post is a sort of broad summary of what exactly goes into judging a good remake. I take the approach of showing how different mediums have a different relationship with remakes, like how film does it when technology updates visuals or music does it when someone has a new version. Games add a third element, and then I round it off with a basic ethic that applies to all mediums.

I did manage to work the Brady Bunch remake into it at the end.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Link Aggregation

Decided to throw something together for Tuesday last night when the bug hit. I basically just string a couple of unrelated ideas and links from various magazines and critics to make a coherent argument about why the awkward emerging genre of 'girl games' are technically more dangerous than violent ones like Grand Theft Auto.

Yeah, I dunno either. It just sorta popped into my head and jumped onto the keyboard.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Column Alternating

My current editor, G. Christopher Williams, has started alternating the monthly Multimedia column with me at Popmatters. He decided to start with a bang and I thought I'd highlight it for anyone who frequents this site.

Of all the games that deserve credit for being ahead of their time, Killer 7 gives new meaning to the term. It's rife with ambiguous plotting, totally alien controls, ultra-violence, and social commentary. As a video game, it's very taxing to analyze because you have to be on your A-game with multiple fields at once. Suda 51 is making an allusion to global politics while you're shooting an invisible suicide bomber while a little girl chants weird taunts at you. The controlled camera means he has control of your eyes more than usual, the shifting camera means you're juggling multiple identities at once.

It all just starts getting to be a bit of James Joyce and Ulysses in the end. It's not that there isn't a coherent narrative or game going on, it's that the presentation is wild, experimental, and impossible to catch in one sitting. I've played the game all the way through before, but after getting a third into it I stopped taking notes and decided to just go for the ride.

Williams downright nails it.

Enhancing Narrative Delivery

This one seemed to have gotten posted earlier than usual, which is no big deal but I can't double-up on posts without screwing up my larger schedule for the coming months.

This week's intended post is a theory jangle that I put together after reading through a few interesting grad. student papers. I don't know how these things get online, but they are a good bit more useful than most of the other academics publishing about video games. I understand that academic journals are the hip thing to do for someone in that profession, but nobody can read the damn things online because they want you to either subscribe or pay for the individual article. Normally throwing a writer a few bucks is no problem to me, but the average price I've seen so far for these is thirty dollars. I might as well buy a real book at that cost. It's hard to take someone seriously when they are that apathetic to people actually reading their work.

It mostly connects a few unrelated concepts floating around such as video game plots where you're not the main character and focusing on emergent details. The largest statement I made is one that comes from the first paper I cite: video games do not have a narrative arc because of the player. That's actually a much larger statement than the paper really goes into. If there's no narrative arc, there's no dramatic pacing. If there's no dramatic pacing, then by the same argument there's no challenge pacing either. Players are just bopping around, taking breaks, doing whatever they want even in the most linear of games.

There is a fairly extensive branch of thinking about games involving charting the pace of challenge that runs on the same presumptive problem. The challenge graphs and pacing arcs that were all the rage last year at Gamasutra still rely on the notion that the player is going through the game perfectly in a linear fashion.

Or put another way, they keep acting like the player sits and does the entire game in a single sitting.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sloppy Arguments in Game Reviews

This blog post is a good opportunity to show the merits of Vapor Culture in practice. Several months ago, for some random reason, I was reading an actual game magazine to see how their reviews worked. Considering that I have a fairly different agenda than the average person who "can't believe they get paid to review games for a living", I ended up pretty angry about what they were writing.

In particular, several of the reviews knocked scores for reasons silly enough that I worked myself into a rage. Using block quotes, citing people's names, and generally shredding anything I could find, I wrote a pretty scathing blog post about bad reviewing habits. I then chucked it onto the vapor culture pile, had a nice walk, and got on with my life.

A few weeks later it was time to add photos and give it my first edit. Having calmed down, I couldn't really understand why I had such a bug up my ass. Any valid arguments I made were drowned out in nasty jokes, sarcasm, and the general sound of 'WHHAAARRRGGBLLL'. More problematic was that I realized I was guilty of several of these things I was railing about so much.

Normally, I would've just tucked the file under my 'You're an Idiot' folder in my Documents. Instead I threw it back into the waiting to be edited pile and decided to mull it over. To make sure I wasn't just complaining about certain problems, I went onto Twitter and did an impromptu poll. Several issues I'd never thought of were suggested. I also decided quotes and naming people would just make critics get defensive instead of listening. If the post wasn't going to improve game criticism, I didn't want to publish it. Otherwise, I'd just come across as grubbing for attention.

It's still a testy topic and someone has already rolled into the comments, but it's a helluva lot better than if I'd just written it the weekend before and then posted it for a rush. The other aspects of vapor culture, fleshing out the ideas and editing, are also present. Improving the quality of writing on the internet is not just an exercise in having a good idea, it's making sure that idea is given time to work itself out.

That's the theory, anyhow.