Monday, May 17, 2010

Extended Hiatus

I'm afraid this blog is going on hiatus for a bit. The BAR is coming and I'm going to focus on it. I've built up a huge bank of posts so I don't think I'll be stopping the weekly updates. I've also decided to start putting the ideas and energy I apply to the intros into revising the actual posts since this thing doesn't get much traffic. Normally I'd just delete it but the dream essays still get a lot of traffic along with some of my law papers.

I never was any good at this reader relationship crap anyways. I'm not great with people on the web and the pleasant things about my personality don't really translate. Well, if you consider sarcasm and deadpan Southern humor pleasant that is. I think I originally conceived this thing as a casual explanation of what my post was about or where I got the ideas for it from, but I'm not really sure how that's relevant anymore. You can just, y'know, read the post.

I'll keep the updates coming though, Tuesdays on Popmatters like always.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Julian Dibbell's Guide to Gold Farming

I'd be lying if I said I was spending my post law school but not yet studying for the BAR days in quiet reflection. If I come across as erratic on Twitter or something, I've been hitting the sauce. After 3 years of law school the only emotions I'm feeling at the finish of it are an intense sense of emptiness and anger. I was never a good law student. I have a lot of trouble learning things in classrooms and I'm even worse at taking tests. School has always been really hard for me but if it's something like an English course I can write papers perfectly fine so I used to just avoid it. Unfortunately, it's intrinsic to the way law exams work to be able to parrot information back at a person. It's sort of...a good analogy would be if I asked you to explain everything to me about playing a Paladin in Diablo 2. During Act III. If you have the boots of Ice Protection. And sometimes an Amazon player joins you. And your entire grade is based on this.

I don't think I would have made it through this experience without blogging and, to a larger extent, my readers. So thank you for showing up and helping me through this long period of my life.

This week's post ends my economy discussion for a while. It's all about gold farming and the larger principles at work when you try to extract real world value from an MMO. As much fun as it is to talk about the hypothetical value of your chain armor or magic sword of blah blah, turning that into cash in your pocket is another story. A fairly complex one that involves a lot of mean people and unpleasant realities about what happens when people take a game seriously.

Something I know about all too well at this point.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Team Economics in Halo 3: ODST

Doubling up this time, my post seems to have gone up early this week. First is my review of the Perfect Dark remake for N64. I found the game to be an interesting example of how intrinsic the controls are to a game's experience. In this case, using one of those god forsaken N64 setups was an intrinsic part of how the game handled difficulty. Using the 360 dual-analog made the game very easy and unbalanced for the same reason that auto-aim makes the game boring. It's too easy to kill people. Multiplayer survived remarkably intact if not slightly lobotomized, I felt like I was having a quickdraw session in the Wild West most times.

On another note, holy crap level design has come a long way.

This week's post, which is the next to last one in the economy series, is about team game economics. In this case, ODST and its wonderful subgame Firefight. I didn't think very highly of the campaign and it didn't improve my expectations for Reach, which seems intent on abandoning the Saturday Morning Cartoon roots and gunning for this end of the world crap. I hate to say it, but you can only take a story about giant cyborgs so deep before it gets silly. Maybe I'm just getting old though.

If an MMO represents the most sophisticated economy a video game can produce, then it seems reasonable to say that the means of measuring that sophistication can be number of players x number of resources being exchanged. A game like WoW or Everquest has thousands of players and hundreds of resources being exchanged. The key principle being that any one individual player cannot get all the resources they need to survive. So they have to barter and do so by providing the resources they have. This comes in the form of both abilities and actual goods.

A team based FPS reduces all of these figures considerably. Usually resources are only temporarily unavailable, a player can access any of them if they want. A very strict team economy would be L4D, which lets you be pinned by opposing zombies and thus always potentially needing something from your teammates. Something like Team Fortress 2 is a bit looser in that you can still cut loose but coordination often helps. I generally categorize Halo 3 into that concept, it always pays to buddy up BUT you don't really have to. The economy system is optional but obviously relied upon by sophisticated players as they exchange abilities.

Firefight was interesting to me because it blends all of these elements into a pretty clever package. You need energy weapons to take down shields, bullets to take down enemies. The equation gets more complicated if you're trying to make par in terms of score. A shared pool of health and ammo makes sure players are constantly debating who uses what. I think it's one of the best team games I've ever played in the sense that people begin working together immediately and discussing how to use their limited resources against the never ending waves of bad guys.

Simple, but elegant.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Make the Next BPM Banner, Win Money

As long as we're all jabbering about money and art...well the last one anyways, I think it's time to change the BPM banner. Same rules as last time about what I want the banner to be. Lots of chopped images with a nice background and the cropped image of the woman holding the mask must be in it. That specific image can be found here. I'm open to putting her in a new position but I'm going to admit being partial to that setup above. Please put 'Banana Pepper Martinis' in there somewhere.

When you've got something together put it in the comments. Make sure your e-mail is in the comment as well. I'll be posting this post a second time in 2 weeks for a final call, then picking one. I'll probably want to tweak a few things, but once that's done it goes up.

Winner gets 20 bucks on the game service of their choice. The way I did this last time was to just go buy one of those point cards and then e-mail the code. I think that means this will only work out for folks in America, but I can always gift something on STEAM. Thanks for all your support!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

T.L. Taylor's Guide to MMO Culture

The next book in our economy series focuses on MMO culture and how various parts of the design affect different people. Since players are the labor pool of an MMO whose work and shared interests create the value in the synthetic economy, studying how design changes culture is essential. Without people, you've got nothing.

Taylor's perspective was interesting because she was a veteran of MUDs and forums, 3-D games were very new to her and she admits to motion sickness when first trying Everquest. As a result she knew what to look for while at the same time seeing things with fresh eyes. The first third of the book is her discussing how design affects culture, which pans out in a lot of fascinating ways. The second third is on gender and race issues that arise from design limitations like how your avatar looks or where it starts. The final bit she casts her net wide and talks about a lot of things but not in as much detail.

An interesting part of the last third was a criticism she made of Castronova's text. The book was written several years ago so I'm going to modernize her point just a tad. Castronova presumes that people behave rationally in an MMO in regards to the economy. You can go turn on your TV or drop off a job resume if you want to know how that can pan out. The rational market is just as unreliable a presumption in the real world as it is in virtual ones. Taylor doesn't quote Huizinga but she makes the same point, people are here for the competition. Money is just a way of showing how much better you are than someone else. Players will keep accumulating money, or throwing it away heedlessly, for reasons that have nothing to do with economic interests.

Sometimes people just do it for the lulz.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Coin-Op Mechanics

I'd forgotten about this, but it's relevant to the MMO's and money theme going. I had to review Data East Arcade Classics for Popmatters and ended up looking at it from a money making perspective. How much money did it cost to beat the average game? How did they ramp difficulty and flow to maximize profits per player? I'm intrigued by the idea enough that I'll probably expand it into a longer post and download a couple more arcade games to check my ideas. But here's the gist of it:

Truth be told, the whole experience became a lot more fascinating once I started keeping track of when I had to spend money. Bad Dudes cost me $3.25 to beat, Wizard Fire was $4.75, and Secret Agent came in at $3.50. The flow of gameplay always seemed to revolve around long periods of easy fighting followed by an intense choke point of difficulty. This is when you almost always dump another dollar into the machine. The last boss always involved some ridiculously unfair setup. The first level of a game was always beatable in one quarter, while the second was guaranteed to kill you. Some choke points were even designed to make me feel like it was my fault, like the platforming or maze sections in Wizard Fire. A lot of the things that I initially dismissed as bad design suddenly made a lot of sense from a money-making perspective. The game would get its claws into you and then kill you right when the game knew you’d be happy to drop another quarter into the machine.

Give the rest of the review a viddy if you like.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fable 2's Fantasy Economy

In what is becoming a sheer delight for probably all of you, here is another post about game economies. This time it’s a single-player but that doesn’t really make it go any smoother. It’s just a really difficult topic to discuss because for most gamers this is the equivalent of someone identifying all the trees in a park. To most it’s a tree and it will go back to being a tree when you finally stop bothering them.

Generally speaking, games have fairly dull economies in that they are transparent and mostly serve game design functions like punish or drag out the length. A JRPG has a pretty flat system that just buys low and sells high to penalize stupid purchasing habits, there isn’t much to it. A faction economy would be something like STALKER or Wing Commander: Privateer where certain groups buy things high and sell them low, then you go travelling and making a profit off it. Something more complex would be a simulation game like SIM City or Civilization but those always have transparency issues because value and effect are always explained. The exchange usually ends up binary as you do whatever the game design says will win.

Fable 2 is one of the most interesting economy systems out there because it ties so handily into the rest of the game. It is totally transparent and simple. Crime, stealing crap, cruel rents, and general badness will turn an area evil and make it an unprofitable area. Stopping crime, buying goods, fair rent, and general goodness will turn an area good and make it more profitable for business. Yet unlike most economy games where the only strategy is 'How do I make money' here multiple complications come into the mix. It really forces the player to pay attention and notice all kinds of collateral effects. Whether it’s by making you fat or more probably just forcing you to look for cash, Fable 2 pretends that you can get money by collecting chests and digging it up for just the first few hours. And then it is time to start cutting back on all this nonsense and buy some real property. I’m not sure what that amounts to in terms of procedural rhetoric, maybe it means if you don’t buy houses you’re the Devil, but it’s probably the most fascinating part of the game.

And it even has magic and British people!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Edward Castronova's Guide To Synthetic Economies

This is the first entry in a trilogy of posts on MMO's that tries to engage with the culture and business more than just rambling off stats or game design stuff. The other are write-ups on T.L. Taylor's discussion of Everquest and Julian Dibbel's guide to gold farming. I'll probably be spacing them out but I think together they paint a solid picture of MMO culture. For the record, I used to play MMO's when I was younger but can't really afford to bother with one now. It doesn't look like much has changed except how addictive they are anyways.

If there is a single unifying idea to this book it's that people will turn to whatever culture or mode of life offers them the most fulfillment possible. Even if that means creating one out of thin air. I see a fair number of people complain about this but I can't shake the feeling their concern mostly comes from the fact that as people go to other cultural value systems, their own social capital decreases. The transition from print to internet for news comes to mind as an example, but I think an MMO represents a much more profound shift. We're not talking about where someone gets their news, this is the question of whether or not a person respects or even gives a shit about you. If you are not powerful in their world, the answer is that they probably won't.

Castranova draws his own conclusions about all of this and uses it as a criticism of capitalism itself. I broke down all the essential elements he outlined for an MMO economy and the problems that crop up. It might be dry even by my powdered milk standards but it really helped me to understand the genre and what it has become today.

Money, even in virtual worlds, is a drag.

The Mass Appeal of Farmville

A critical discussion about Farmville is one that inherently revolves around money. All art is naturally about money on some level, you’re still selling crap to people, but in terms of intrinsic importance most critics seem to ignore it. You can declare something is not worth the 60 bucks and that this ruins the experience, but I think most people still critically separate the two elements when discussing a game. Once you start addressing the money element in a video game you cross into Andy Warhol territory and that tends to make people uncomfortable.

Warhol was an enormous fan of capitalism as an art form and understood that the difference between good and bad art had a lot more to do with the consumers than it did any intrinsic element to the work. Or put another way, I don’t really have to make a good painting so long as everyone thinks it’s good and will cough up money for it. The knee jerk reaction is to bitch and moan about this idea because it implies that people are being ripped off but I think that’s a bit misleading. We are, unfortunately, living in an era of things that are mostly good at selling and not actually being good but that’s another rant. You still have to admit that convincing millions of people that you are correct/talented/worth buying is extraordinarily difficult. I’ve heard people describe this talent any number of ways. Alan Moore called it a type of magic, lawyers call it trial advocacy, charisma, charm, divinity, whatever. Warhol simply declared that the act of persuasion itself was an art. And by that standard Farmville is an astounding piece of work because it does not bother with convincing anyone of anything. It is not, by itself, a persuasive work of art. It is instead selling persuasion itself through the mechanics of video game trophies.

The game of Farmville is to see how much money you can not spend while still effectively competing with your friends. This is not quite the same thing as buying a magic sword for WoW on Ebay. The magic circle is not broken here, it simply never existed. Almost none of the goods you can buy in this game serve any purpose except decoration. Creating an elaborate farm has more in common with posting a funny link on your facebook profile than it does being a high level warrior. And if you hadn’t noticed, people like to post crap on their facebook profiles. It does not need to persuade anyone of anything, it is simply another set of things to broadcast about yourself on the internet. That twinge of pride you feel at your gamerscore? That urge to post on Twitter what you’re ticked about that day? That’s Farmville. That’s Warhol’s prediction about 15 minutes of fame, but now Zynga is selling it one minute at a time to whoever will pay in time or money.

This post is the culmination of several months of working on various critical approaches and combining them. The ideas I’ve been using to critically discuss a multiplayer game come into play along with a lot of research on synthetic economies and culture I’ve been doing. I actually finished this column a month ago, which is recent by my standards, but I decided to post it since everyone seems to be jabbering about this game lately. It seemed appropriate to sell out a tiny bit and stay in the spirit of things.

So long Farmville, and thanks for all the free stuff.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Making a Better Spectator Game

I swear I wrote this post before AHoG, although I ended up going in a pretty different direction from Lowood's lecture on whether or not playing a game is poetic in the sense an athlete is poetic.

This was inspired, in part, by a notion Jim Rossignol brought up in his book but I thought warranted a closer look. Most e-tournaments are dull. I don't mean like they aren't interesting or that complex things aren't going on, just that it's not particularly exciting. So I got to thinking about why I watch real sports when essentially I'm just as apaethetic to them as I am an e-sports event. Gambling, booze, social conventions...I gloss over it all while trying to point out that variety is also a huge factor. I'm pretty sure if they just modified Fantasy Football to cover an e-tournament they'd probably have their ratings sky rocket.

Is there anything gambling doesn't improve?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Literary Merits of Dante's Inferno

The first person to actually get me interested in Dante’s Inferno was Simon Ferrari, though I don’t think he intended his breakdown of the game’s offensive and bizarre PR campagin to have that effect. Back before anyone knew much about the game, Ferrari theorized that EA was covering up for a mediocre brawler by having an outrageous series of campaigns that would get the gossip blogs talking. That caught my interest because that wasn’t my understanding of what a major publisher did with a game it did not believe would sell. They usually just throw it under the bus. I mentally filed the game under the ‘Odd Behavior’ folder and moved on. I wonder if, looking back now, they were instead trying to cover up the game’s literary aspirations. Nothing says fun to kids like old books, after all.

The people who made this game did their homework. They knew that the best literary adaptations in video games ditch the original book’s plot and keep the setting. To make sure this happened they borrowed from every great artistic depiction of the poems and recreated many of them in lush 3-D landscapes. They knew that the best design for creating a sense of place is a third person game, one where you can see your avatar interacting with the space so that we experience the world’s limitations vicariously. They understood that the appeal of The Divine Comedy is hearing about all the grotesque punishments Dante conceived of and debating who deserves to go there. They brought out all these elements with visuals and clever design quirks. While playing this game I kept a ragged, heavily marked up copy of the poem next to me at all times and had a blast. Finding this little bit of trivia or figuring out where they were getting a particular line from became a kind of weird literary treasure hunt. I think there was some brawling in there but I don’t remember much about it except that I watched the ‘Pillar of Death’ attack more than any person should have to.

I mumbled on Twitter a few months back that I thought Dante’s Inferno was going to be one of the most important video games of 2010. Like Far Cry 2 it is divisive, difficult to play, and flawed. Like FC2 it is bland when it emulates the traditional norms of game design and like FC2 it is uncompromisingly bold when it strikes out into new territory. As a brawler it is not particularly impressive and bears the marks of a genre that has yet to significantly evolve in ten years. As a game with aspirations to recreate a famous place from a literary work through interaction, set pieces, and meta-narrative it is possibly the best game of its kind.

If only because it’s the only game of its kind.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Moving Pixels Podcast

Hey! Rick Dakan along with the rest of the staff have started a podcast and it's up at Popmatters. G. Christopher Williams, Nick Dinicola, and Thomas Cross are all in there as well. They discuss their impressions of storytelling in games and how that trend has developed alongside the medium. I had to sit this one out because I'm up to my eyeballs in BAR review crap and honestly, I'm a bit of a frag job these days.

I like that they engage with it from a design perspective. Player motivation to keep going, how memorable a story is, and basic elements like setting & character along with presentation.

Give it a listen.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

RedLetterMedia’s Spin on the Crazed YouTube Reviewer

I think it was Chris Dahlen who said that a Youtube video or webcomic about video games, even a shitty one, gets more clicks than a well-written essay. I can’t remember the context for that statement but that part has stuck with me for a while. Kids today simply respond better to visual media and I don’t blame them. It’s more accessible, requires less thinking, and it’s easier to balance out humor while still making a larger point. Most gaming websites (or at least the ones I regularly read) have picked up on this effect and capitalized on the market. Hell, I’ll bet a hundred bucks that a video of me sitting in my bathrobe screaming at Shiren the Wanderer and knocking crap over would get more views than my average posts.

For the most part, this is a new craft and finding people who can make it work is not the norm. When I do stumble on someone doing something interesting with Youtube I like to do a write-up on them because most of these folks don’t get nearly as much credit as they deserve. Since they keep referring to the video game section of Popmatters as Multimedia, I figure I might as well take them up on it. defines it as, “the combined use of several media, as sound and full-motion video in computer applications.” With limitations like that, is there anything I can’t write about that’s on the internet?

Red Letter Media is a prime example of someone negotiating all the inherent difficulties of creating an educational video without becoming tedious or having more jokes than actual content. He’s able to pull this off for a couple of different reasons but I think the core value, which we talked about over e-mail, is that deep down inside this is still a pedantic rant.The original video he crafted was a long, droning discourse on why the TNG films are terrible. He also likes to produce comedy videos or even his own stand-up. The foundation is still the pedantic rant, but he knows that for anyone to listen it also has to be entertaining. That’s the Devil’s bargain every Youtube or video reviewer strikes.

Watching the videos for yourself will do a better job of showing the quality work than me jabbering about it. Don’t be put off if you think he’s being too comical in the opening sections. Almost all of the videos start off hilarious but by the half-way marker, he knows you’re listening to the meatier portions more.

I really should consider that Youtube video thing…

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ubisoft's Imagine Series

I'm at a conference this week, but it ain't GDC. It's something I have to do to get my lawyer license so it's not exactly a riveting intellectual experience. Lots of people telling awful disbarment stories, ominous reminders of how my entire lifestyle will soon be changing, and the very ugly reality that the legal business is not doing well.

I explain how this post came about in the beginning just because it's such an odd thing. There are different posts about these games but most of them are content breakdowns. The games are so blatantly stereotyping young girls that I just did a quick recap of how that works and instead focused on the actual mechanics themselves. How do these things play? Are they any different from games targeting other groups?

The final answer is up for debate but most of this stuff is just RPG mechanics set in different content. Instead of kill things you perform some other grind activity, money buys decorations or equipment, and you nicely progress along a reward scheme towards a final goal. Even decorating stuff, the one consistent design across all 3 games, is located in plenty of other titles. It's odd to me because it really shows how much an activity is defined by the content rather than what you're actually doing.

I still kinda want to play the one about being a Music Festival Organizer. Loved those things back when I was younger.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Troubleshooting Review

I wrote this a while back to try and get myself to write something slightly risky. I dunno if it's law school or what, but often I feel like my writing starts to feel excessively safe. Not in the sense of being overly-friendly or not saying anything batshit, there's plenty of that to go around. I mean just posting something that I don't really know what the response will be. I'm not always right when gauging the interweb's reactions but I can usually narrow it down to what ballpark I'm going to land in.

This post, instead, was just me spotting a problem that I'm not really sure will ever have a final definitive answer and throwing one out on the table anyways. As games begin to rely heavily on dialog trees, QTE's, and branching paths a reviewer can't really presume that one playthrough of a game is going to fully describe it. Time constraints make it so you also can't expect them to play the game repeatedly, leaving you with a weird problem of what exactly one is supposed to discuss when reviewing a video game.

All I propose is to just think of them like machines that produce experiences instead of experiences themselves. A lot of reviewers already do this, almost all academics I've met do. A more design-centric approach is nothing new, but what it means for a reviewer is to put a bit more effort into actually seeing if you can break the game. So many people who review games are accustomed to gaming's conventions that they often aren't really accurately describing how the game will work for someone new to the genre.

I'm guessing the reaction will be interesting.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Modern Warfare 2's Multiplayer Map Style

Slight schedule adjustment: I have enough posts to last until May now. I seem to have taken a liking to writing about games, although I'm phasing out just about everything else. I gave up Twitter for Lent and I'm starting to feel guilty about it because it was a pretty easy thing to give up. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, if you ain't paying rent you ain't getting a room.

This week's post is one tackling the multiplayer elements of Modern Warfare 2. I was touched by the various blogs struggling with claiming 'No Russian' meant something but it was just the cherry on a big sloppy mess to me. Nobody who actually plays MW2 gives a shit about the single-player component of these games. Out of the dozen or so people I've spoken to about that section of the game, most complained about not being able to run during the opening.

I interviewed and relied heavily on e-mails swapped with Simon Ferrari and Iroquis Pliskin for this piece, along with actually coughing up the cash for the strategy guide. After spotting a lot of the problems with the Halo 3 post I needed them to balance out my views. A lot of it was confirming what I'd spotted myself while playing, so I used two choice quotes at the end rather than try to balance out their input with my own.

Basically, MW2 is a map game. You learn the map, you get in position, you shoot people. That has its merits as a design and is really just a spin on what the FPS has always been about. In Goldeneye you ran to the armor or the good gun, in Halo 3 you ran for the right weapon, and so on. If anything, the game is depressingly commercialized because it will taper out so rapidly once the majority of players know the terrain. It will be too difficult for someone new to play.

Which will probably happen...oh...about when the next COD game comes out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Peak of the Mario Franchise

I have no idea how to discuss 2-D platformers. We all play them. We play them a lot. Sonic, Kirby, Commander Keen, etc. But what am I supposed to say about them? You can engage in an intensive breakdown of the design elements but the problem is that the first rule of a well-designed 2-D platformer is that you should be intuitively sensing the spaces and actions. Any content analysis of this style of game is going to be dubious at best for the same reason. The purpose of a platformer is that you’re using a set of abilities to engage with environmental puzzles that impede your progress. Obviously I love yapping about content if the game’s design actually works with it or it’s relevant to progressing in the game, but the 2-D platformer has more in common with Tetris than it does a brawler, FPS, or RPG.

My pick for Bestest Mario Game Like Evar is Super Mario World, but that’s because I still play the game obsessively when I’m upset and need to not think. It’s a detox game to me, one that I come back to every couple of years and play from scratch to 100% completion. Mario games were a good place to figure out why this title drew me in and others did not because there are so many styles and variations. They always change the games, but just a tiny bit each time. What I concluded was that because of the way the powers and Yoshi were a bit unbalanced, I ended up enjoying the game because it let me choose how I wanted to engage with the environment. Mobility is always the power under debate in a platformer and I liked Super Mario World because it didn’t try to limit my freedom.

This post bothers me because I know there are rough edges present, but I’m not sure where they are. That’s the annoying thing about the critical process. If you want to propose a new approach, there isn’t much chance of getting it right the first time. You just have to dive in and hope for the best.

People will let you know what they think of it soon enough.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Problem With No More Heroes 2

Charles J. Pratt made an interesting point to me during the after-party of AHoG about my discussion of Retro Game Challenge over at Brainy Gamer. He disagreed with my comment that the game essentially took 8-bit classics and “fixed” them. To paraphrase his argument, they simply modernized their design to suit this era’s tastes. While I thought they had fixed all the broken elements of Galaga to make a much smoother game, he claimed they took out all the things that made the title what it was. A design aesthetic is never improved, simply changed to suit another person’s tastes.

That’s a concept I’m continuing to struggle with as I find myself steadily more perplexed with mainstream games. Take something like Farmville. As companies start to plant DLC in their games and now withhold content just to make sure they can skim off the top, the question Farmville raises is how is an AAA game different in terms of purpose? It may not be fun to you, but a Zynga game and a Bioware game are both making money by convincing players to give them cash for imaginary crap in their game. One is some kind of monopoly money for buying stuff, the other is a quest you’ve never played. While people can and will argue that they aren’t even remotely similar, from a creator perspective they intrinsically have the same goal. That’s not a bad thing. This isn’t a value judgment, money doesn’t grow on trees, and it’s not like there is a lot to go around these days. It’s just a part of the overall aesthetic of an easy, accessible game meant to sell as many copies as possible. Just like every other game that has come out the past few years.

This conversation is incredibly important if the critical community is ever going to open itself up to make room for new and innovative video games. Leigh Alexander posted a very effective rebuttal to the ”NMH2 is over-designed” complaint and she also referenced this point in her Gamasutra piece, but I like her better when she’s being blunt. I cite her points in the essay to illustrate that accusing this game of losing its character is not an exercise in pining for a busted game. As I continue to struggle with how I’m supposed to feel about one of my favorite games from 2009 being an awful broken mess, the solution does not really seem to be an elaborate logic bender of ‘Bad is Good Sometimes’. If you’re going to say that bad design is acceptable, why even call it bad anymore?

During the Q&A after a talk on the parallels between the avant garde and video game development, I asked a question in response to a mod shown of Quake by a person named Jodi. He removed the graphics and barriers, but left the design in so that you moved through this elaborate abstraction of the game to create a new experiential system. Feeling the overwhelming urge to be a little bastard, I asked what the difference was between that and a game like Big Rigs. The answer is contextual intent, but that didn’t stop me from dragging the joke out all weekend to the point that I think a few folks were ready to strangle me by Saturday. Like any rhetorical device, the reverse can be said about a game that’s well-made.

What is this crap?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Art of Place in Hitman: Blood Money

After finishing up Cybertexts I found myself going back to a concept my colleague G. Christopher Williams had written about extensively in a manuscript he e-mailed me. A couple of different people have discussed the idea of approaching a game as a conceptual place but initially looking at it purely from an architectural perspective seemed flat to me. It's big 3-D building, so what?

What Aarseth argued, very successfully in my mind, was engaging with the various elements of a game as a sum total. He uses the word ergodics, which is greek for something or another, to mean a kind of textual landscape. One that you literally move around in. The concept started to click for me when I was thinking about System Shock 2 and then more extensively when I fired up Hitman: Blood Money. It's not just a 3-D building, it's the way you tuck away details into the space and how you coordinate that with the design.

This post technically represents the latest paper while I was thinking about this approach. The other is a long, wordy breakdown of psychological spaces and then one that describes this elements from purely a game design perspective. I'm probably just going to post them on here when I get around to editing them again or maybe turn into a Moving Pixels post. I figured starting off with a simple example of the concept and then expanding out to the larger points would work a lot better than just repeating my own fumblings with the idea.

Also, Hitman: Blood Money is badass and you should play it if you haven't already.

Jesper Juul's New Book 'A Casual Revolution'

Got a hold of this one over Christmas Break and plowed through it pretty quickly. A lot of it is Juul's notes and lectures from the past year on casual games compiled into a solid reference. Not all of it was totally relevant to the topic at hand, the latter portion of the book was breakdown of how match 3 games have evolved over the years which is to say they haven't really changed all that much.

The best parts of the book are when Juul gets into solid analysis of the different variations of the casual genre and interviewing their creators to see what they were thinking when they made them. He also gets rid of a lot of bad misconceptions about casual games like the notion that they are supposed to be easy or lack a fail state. As he points out in the book, the last level of Zuma will kick your ass no matter who you are. The same goes for a lot of other matching games.

Interesting book, it got me to start looking harder at the stuff over at Popcap and take a lot of Zynga games more seriously.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Rogue Warrior and the new Genre of Games

I've never actually played a game that succeeds at being a B movie experience. It's always a catch-22 because you can't intentionally be campy. There is a certain degree of honesty that must be present in the work, a degree of sincerity from the person that holds the otherwise awful experience together.

Someone on reddit commented that Rogue Warrior might be the Plan 9 of video games and I think that's accurate. It is so incredibly bad and cliched at every level yet somehow because of how serious it takes itself the game had me dying laughing the whole time. A lot of this is because Mickey Rourke is the entire game. Literally, as in he's the only person who ever talks. Four hours of him rambling about video game logic and swearing at everything while you play this awful game makes the whole thing incredibly meta. You can catch a video of the opening level here.

As different bloggers start to recognize that No More Heroes 2 kinda sucks, I think Rogue Warrior offers a strong alternative. If having clunky game design but insane content is to become a new genre, I think the defining trait will always have to be that the game is genuinely trying.

It just keeps failing so hilariously.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

ZA Critrique: Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space

Twofer for ya. My review of Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles went up last week. Generally speaking, it's Resident Evil 4 without controlling where you go. The original games already made it so you can't move while your gun is out, so they were always half-way to being a light gun game anyways. Fun enough if company is over, but it seems like it would be a bit dull by yourself.

Oh, lots of things about the plot you didn't know that you didn't know are in there too.

This ZA Critique features an indie game. I realized a while back that I had never done a ZA for an indie title and I decided to change that. It's not that I ignore the indie scene (though I take my sweet time getting to some of them), it's just usually I write a review for the game instead of putting on the analysis pants.

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is a roguelike but based loosely around Star Control 2. Play sessions are very short, 5 to 10 minutes, and usually end with you getting blown up. It's a good example of a game that relies heavily on randomization to keep itself interesting. I borrowed heavily from a great post by Greg Costikyan over at Play This Thing! to hash out the major points. It's a bit pricey at 25 bucks, but there's no other game quite like it.

Hell, I even bought it twice after losing the first one.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jim Rossignol's 'This Gaming Life'

The weekly post is a closer look at Jim Rossignol's newest book This Gaming Life. He makes the argument that the future of video games lies in multiplayer. While single-player games are starting to run into a brick wall in terms of possibilities, in multiplayer the possibilities are just being realized thanks to the internet. You've got the fascinating spectator culture of South Korea, the intensive global community of EVE Online, or just the FPS culture that dominates the West. The book is a closer look at all three along with some random facts and figures.

It was a nice shift from the academic stuff I'd been slogging through and reminded me that not everything has to be that particular brand of stuffy prose. It's not really about theory but rather just culture, so from that perspective it might disappoint someone looking for that type of text.

The South Korea section was what really made it worth reading in my mind.

The Film Noir Roots of Cowboy Bebop

I got a new feature up, an essay on Cowboy Bebop I wrote a while back. Rewatching the series for what is now the fourth time for me was interesting this time because I did it totally alone. The other times I'd been introducing people to the show and wowing them with the style and music. Watching the show while scribbling notes and analyzing things was surprising because I realized how truly barebones the stories are. That's not a bad thing, but it made me realize how much of the series is driven by style over substance. The show is about slick anime, fantastic music, and tight action scenes.

It's also very appropriate for film noir, because that's the gist of the genre as a whole. There are no complex moral decisions here. A guy who got dumped, a woman who won't risk another person wrecking their life, and another guy who won't take no for an answer sums up just about everyone in the formula. I think it worked then, today in stuff like Brick, Uncharted 2, my own terrible blog fiction, and finally Cowboy Bebop because these are things people can immediately relate to. You don't become too angry about the ending to Bebop because even if you don't agree, you know why Spike is making that decision. Which is all you really need to tell a good story. I broke down the basic elements of film noir and then used the film that the show was pretty blatantly copying to outline why Bebop is such a great show ten years after its release.

Plus, c'mon, the soundtrack is badass.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Style of Cel Shading

This is one of those things that you already knew, but probably have never seen someone spell out in exact detail. You know what cel shading is, you know it makes games have a different vibe than their gritty HD siblings, and you've hopefully played a few games that employed it well. I decided to write about the basic artistic effect going on based on a few architecture principles. Smooth surfaces = bouncy, light feeling, gritty surfaces = heavy, dark feeling. A few distinctions about what is not cel shading and what actually is, good examples of it being used, and then a part where I ramble about Uncharted 2's effective combination of the two elements.

Art stuff and such.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Perpetual Value Machine

After dumping buckets of money into Valve's little online service this holiday season, I got curious about how exactly they make money by charging things this cheaply. It's not exactly the same process as bulk distribution like Costco and it's not really Wal-Mart either. They basically just sell CD Keys and then wrap that up into this really handy update service with social networking. They have low overhead but not as low as their competitors. Instead, the reason Valve owns this scene is that waaaay back when Half-Life 2 came out, you had to install STEAM. They've had that policy for a while now with all their games. And it looks like it's paying off.

For some reason or another, the process reminded me of a perpetual motion machine that is supposed to generate infinite energy if you just set it up right. Prices go down, value inflates, prices go back up, sales continue. I'm not sure this would work for every single game out there, but something like Madden or Team Fortress 2 would be the prime candidates for perpetual value games.

On paper anyhow, these things never quite work like you'd expect.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Few Notes On 2010

I was jabbering with my sister over the holidays about good television this year and the subject of Twin Peaks came up. In many ways, it was the first show to attempt the union of soap opera formula with something besides amnesiacs and hospital employees. People die in soap operas, but Twin Peaks was unique at the time for the strong emphasis on Agent Cooper and the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. I usually tell people to watch up to about half-way through Season Two and then watch David Lynch’s movie Fire Walk With Me, which acts as a prequel. After the plot twist the writers had to reinvent the show’s driving force while David Lynch had wandered off to go do…David Lynch type things. It falls apart without the driving mystery and Lynch’s eccentric touch, replacing the concrete formula of who killed who with ham fisted mysticism and convoluted motivations.

My sister disagreed with this advice about skipping the last few episodes, arguing that the ending was a valid statement about the show’s nature. What, after all, is the defining flaw of every great show these past few years? They fuck up the ending. For shows that are all about mystery and watching people interact, tying up loose ends is inherently never going to be satisfactory. It will always disappoint. While a show like The Sopranos chose to end on a touching note before cutting to black, Lynch came back to direct the last episode and end it on an enormous cliff hanger. There are various reasons for this choice, he wanted to coerce the network into funding another season and probably had a few more stories in his head to tell. But in the end, the bluff has a larger meaning in the context of a show about people’s lives: they don’t really end. Something is always going to be happening, interesting or not.

I’m opening with that point because we’re going to talk a bit about 2010. I graduate in May from school and will be spending the summer studying for the BAR. It is not a forgiving test. You take seven 3-hour essay question sections (for each area of law) followed by a multiple choice test that covers everything they left out. I have to pass six out of the seven and correctly answer a certain percentage of the multiple choice. BAR passage is not determined by your score but rather is based on the top percentage of scores so that only so many people pass per year no matter what. Very smart people take this test. This is going to put a damper on my blog output. I will be producing the bi-monthly column as scheduled but I can’t really produce the rest of it anymore. I may discover that I still need a personal escape and continue to write posts while studying or I might be even build up a large enough surplus that you won’t even notice. More likely is that when I have a free moment I will have a glass of whiskey, a good cry, and slap myself into studying more. I’ll be done at the end of July and then I am unplugging from everything. Internet, video games…everything. I’m going to do some backpacking in Montana to figure out what to do with myself and the mess I’m in. I don’t find out my BAR results until November and there is fuck-all chance of me being hired until a firm knows whether or not I’m dead weight. I am in trouble if I don’t pass, but we’re not going to dwell on that.

This isn’t really a resignation post. I’ve got about 9 blog posts already written and have several more sketched out. That puts me well into March and probably April for when I will actually run out of material. Furthermore, Hell will freeze over before I ever quit writing. But I doubt I’ll come back quite the same. The schedule that allowed me to produce all of this material was never a realistic one, just what you can get done if you’re the sort of person whose sick of giving a shit about school and just wants their diploma. I thought about doing a bi-weekly post or maybe some ‘Link of the Week’ gimmick (I mean like jacking someone else's post and rephrasing it, not an aggregate) but I’m not really interested in half-assing something with my fake name on it. Not everything I’ve written is good, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

The finale of Twin Peaks is confronted with the same issue that is becoming the Achilles Heel of most television shows (or some games) today: how do you explain your big mystery? The second half of the season deals with a serial killer obsessed with the Red Lodge, a mystical place where evil spirits dwell and escape into our world. Cooper, at first only visiting there in his dreams, eventually steps through a gateway into the Red Lodge to be greeted by crashing symbols and dark flashing lights. People he has met appear, others he is only seeing for the first time. He walks about, people say weird things, and we are clued into the fact that something very bad happens to Cooper there. Not much else is ever really discussed (though do check out Fire Walk With Me if you have the inclination). What irked me about that scene was that here is the ultimate moment of the second season’s plot arc, here is the equivalent of ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer’? And it just goes by. We see the mystical place, and then the story keeps on chugging along. I suppose I resented the audacity of that, enough to tell people to skip it, but as I find myself writing this post I think I appreciate it a bit more. You’ve got to tell people something, yet all you’re really telling them is that it’s you who's changing.

So, posting will continue as normal into March or April. After that, I’ll be going on hiatus for a bit. I figure if you care enough to read my personal blog, I owe you the heads up.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Brainy Gamer Confab

Just a quick post, trying to squeeze a few more seconds of relaxation before the grind starts back up. I was really lucky to be asked back onto Michael Abbott's podcast for 2009 to discuss my GOTY for 2009. I got to chat with Steve Gaynor and Chris Dahleen as well, each of us picking out the game that most impressed us.

I won't spoil the surprise, but it's a good chat.