Wednesday, May 14, 2008

When You're Backed into a Corner

Take a look at this first (skim it if you're impatient).

While you're at it, try to skim through the comments as best you can. I can wait.

Basically, what Leigh Alexander of Sexy Videogame Land is trying to say is that games have been 'discovered' by mainstream movies just as comics were 'discovered' by mainstream movies in the late 70's, early 80's. See the first Superman movie, the first Batman movie for examples. Of course the Reeves Superman was a child of the Star Wars science fiction movie boom, but the Keaton Batman was an attempt to take the commercial success of the Frank Miller "grim and gritty" Batman character and punch it up for film release.

So now that game movies have found a few AAA releases (see: Halo movie, WoW movie, and now the Bioshock movie) are they headed for a Star Wars style boom, followed by a decline, followed by a set of serious movies ten years later that actually explore the possibilities involved? Most likely.

Is there any way to stop this train? Not a chance.

That's the reason for the title of this post, it's from the entertaining picture Leigh Alexander used for the header of her thread. An image from Paranoia Agent. The idea is that, when you're backed into a corner, you can call on this boy with a baseball bat ("Little Slugger") to come and knock you on the head and solve all your problems.

In a sense, games feel 'backed into a corner' right now - everyone talks about the '7 billion dollars a year' industry, everyone wants a piece of that pie. Kids want some of that money making games. Stores want some of that money selling games. Movie studios and baseball players, and so on, want to buy in now so they'll be all set for the waters to keep rising. And they hear the best way to buy in is with a big chunk - so they go right for the AAA games and the MMOs, and most of them are DOA.
But enough new chumps are lined up at the door, so there's not much worry that AAA games will stop being made.

Until, of course, the bubble pops - and Viacom unloads Activision for a song, or whatever. Then a lot of money men will be unhappy, but more importantly, a lot of game developers and publishers will be out of jobs for a while.

So why are games backed into a corner? Because small developers can't afford to live on one small title at a time, and larger developers tend to depend on larger titles. And larger titles need more money, which puts them more in thrall to the people with the money. Which makes them dependent on the boom and bust cycle of the market. So they're in a tough place with no way to get out.

Why off on the tangent - what's this got to do with movies? Well, movies are one of the directions suits like to go in when they have no idea what to do. Say you're on the board of Viacom and you don't like the projections for Activision's next quarter. Maybe a AAA game got canceled or postponed or poorly reviewed, and you know if the money projection isn't where it needs to be, shareholders will lower the price of your stock, and you'll be sad. What to do? Increase 'shareholder value' by trading on existing properties in a new medium.

So we get toys, we get card games, and finally we get movies. But movies are very, very hard to do right, and so far the rate of successful big budget game movies getting made (much less showing a profit) is 0%. Everyone in the business ought to recognize by now that the hill is steep and there's a gunner's nest on the top. But the generals keep ordering one more push...

Ultimately there will be successful game movies made, without a doubt. I just wish they'd go to the indie market first. There are a lot of smaller filmmakers that could do something very interesting with a Silent Hill-type property (of course not Silent Hill; that bird has flown). But that wouldn't help the suits make their next quarter projections, so it won't happen.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Downloadable Content Comment

Comment excerpted from a discussion on SVGL of the downloadable content for EA's upcoming Battlefield: Bad Company.

Personally although I support DLC wholeheartedly when it comes to Rock Band and other full price games that come out with expansion items after the fact for additional price, I think publishers have to be very careful to avoid the implication that they're deliberately holding back content in order to charge more for it later.

Keep in mind games like Armageddon Empires and Sins of a Solar Empire use free expansions to help de-incentivize piracy, while other games may release at a different price point and sell additional content. The pricing model for games is in flux right now, and some game publishers seem (in the eyes of this audience, at least) to be pushing the envelope as far as it will stretch. What happens down the road, when we try to transfer DLC to our XBOX 720 or PS4? Ultimately a lot is still up in the air. Community reaction, although it won't determine the success of games like Bad Company, may help to inform publishers if their game doesn't do as well as expected.

Competitive multiplayer games are especially sensitive to balance issues, and this DLC seems to create one. DLC for slightly different models of the same gun wouldn't matter in the least, as long as it's just 'bling,' but when it has any impact on the multiplayer community it has impact on the game people bought.

Finally I'd like to point out I'm a little hurt by the 'My Life as a King' DLC - basically I went from a day one adopter to a 'wait for the review' purchaser. Paying for additional races and buildings - at this point, having no idea whether this will impact gameplay or not, I don't want to take a chance. When pricing strategies increase audience uncertainty this way they damage the sale of a product. Of course, MLK was guaranteed such a huge success at launch IMO perhaps they added the question mark in order to decrease the load on their servers...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Vernal Equinox

You can find Vic Davis's comments on his new patch for Armageddon Empires here.

I haven't really posted about AE in this blog before but this game is an amazing combination of turn-based strategy with collectible card mechanics. Most importantly, his 'Iron-Man' mode helped me discover something about myself - I enjoy these games (turn-based strategy) much more if I don't have the option to save and reload. More is on the line and the game is shorter, and of course it feels like more of an achievement when I win.

If AE were more of a commercial release, it would have multiplayer or at least allow us to compete against shadow data, have an online repository for high scores and custom maps, a smoother UI, etc. etc. But this game is still an excellent example of what you can produce with an indie design team. And it's amazing Vince Davis can give us this significant upgrade for nothing - if you haven't had time to read the link at the top of the post, the Cults patch adds in independent rivals for control of the wasteland that show up every game. This creates some of the randomness I felt the game was missing, and of course the novelty of meeting and fighting the cults will be a great experience at first.

So that's it - try Armageddon Empires if you haven't already. Remember there's a free demo available if for some reason you didn't know that already.

Monday, March 10, 2008

So Yeah, I Finally Got a Copy Myself

So I finally got the game, and I'm working my way through the adventure mode now. The story so far seems like a sad attempt to find excuses to shovel in as many characters as possible, but who minds?

I mean seriously, the story in fighting games is only ever an excuse to get characters fighting for no good reason - most of the time two characters show up in an out-of-the-way location, look at each other meaningfully, pose, and then the fight is on. No dialogue required. Maybe more of the fights in comics should be like this? I mean if you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all.

Anyway yeah, so Smash Brothers Brawl is great. The wireless connection doesn't seem to be working well enough for me to play it online yet, however. Someday when I have a lot of money maybe I'll invest in a repeater or something and see if the connection's any better in the living room. For some reason the connection works great for buying games, but not well enough to play them? Haha, funny how that works.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Shut Up About Your Preview Copy

This may be meanspirited, but I honestly wish game reviewers wouldn't blog to announce they'd just received a copy of a much-awaited game about a week before everyone else.

One of the faults in our internet culture is that it encourages bad ideas as well as good. Everything is grist for the mill... but sometimes I feel these type of posts are poorly thought out and, if anything, have a few bad outcomes these reviewers don't consider:

  1. It fuels the hype machine. Invariably if you're talking about a game before you've played it this amounts to a preview, and the more previews and fewer reviews a game has, the more it's hype-to-reality ratio goes up.

  2. It causes their audience to resent them. More importantly, it trivializes their position as reviewers to make them seem like 'fans who get the games first' rather than 'members of the media with a responsibility to report on the games.'

We're all sick down here

So I'm sick this week, which is pretty rare for me. I mean I oversleep, undersleep, get drunk, get into accidents like everyone else - I'm not unbreakable by any means - but colds, fevers, etc. rarely bother me.

But this week I've had one of those persistent colds, and it's kind of sad. I can't keep any energy going, I'm sniffling and coughing and craving soup (salt and hot water), and no matter how much sleep I get, it's never enough.
(By the way, I'm not the only one coughing and sniffling my way into work - on the train into work this week I've noticed a low rumble of sickly sounds coming from almost everywhere in the car.)

Don't worry, this post is more than a whine into my pillow. I think I can connect this to the perennial "hardcore versus casual" debate. This week I have no energy. Most weeks when I get home I have at least a little energy. This week the only games I wanted to play were casual games, like Forumwarz, or else just read a book or a Let's Play thread.
ps. I need to write a long post on the significance of Let's Play threads for our generation at some future time.
I even purchased a game I'd been looking forward to for some time, Dawn of War: Soulstorm, and all I could do last night was play through a tutorial, because I wanted a chance to look at some of the new units under no competitive pressure.

The key concept there is competitive pressure - because I was feeling down this week, I wasn't interested in doing anything difficult, that required a lot of mental focus or physical dexterity, because I was afraid of failure. What if anything makes me more afraid of failure on weeks when I'm depressed or sick? Well, on these weeks I'm looking for soft fun and avoiding hard fun, just as I'm looking for comfort foods. Disappointed and frustrated outside of gaming, I seek easy victories in a game - or just read a book - because I don't want to feel any more down. Maybe I'll feel better next week...

In any case, Ryan Schwayder's article on Adapting Games for the Aging Gamer expresses how this experience impacts my feelings on game design:

So, for people like me who are getting older and are acquiring new preferences and responsibilities, we need to look for other games for satisfaction; we don’t need to gripe about the games we’re playing and hope that they change for us.

The best way to combat a temporary feeling of malaise is to play games outside your usual scope. Play board games even, card games, do anything but what you usually do - because if you try to compete at your usual level when you're sick, you'll invariably fail and depress yourself still further.

Does this mean someday I'll get so old I'll have to give up first-person-shooters, or will I be forced to find older and older groups of gamers to shoot?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Sometimes the Bandwagon is Full for a Reason

Found out yesterday, but I was in bed with a cold. Gary Gygax is dead. Not much more to say on that note...
I posted the "Empty Chair Eulogy" on RockPaperShotgun yesterday for him.
Vic Davis on Forgotten Lore has a better quote:

May You Always Make Your Saving Throw
March 4th, 2008

May your blade be Vorpal
May your foes taste your cold steel with a natural 20
May you never roll a critical miss
May your Cheetos never touch the basement floor
May you always roll for treasure type Z
May you fare well Against the Giants
May you survive the Descent, Conquer the Kuo-Toa,
Vault over the houses of the Drow
And Slay the Queen of the Demon Web Pits

Well, if you get all those references you pretty much understand Gary Gygax's contributions to gaming. Anyhow, it's a pity more people don't talk about Dave Arneson's contributions to the game - seeing as how he is listed as having co-created D&D. Hopefully he gets some recognition before his time runs out.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Play Forumwarz

OK. We have all had this idea. As Warren Specter said in a recent 1Up podcast, "Ideas are cheap."
So I can't very well complain that I have design documents and a forum set up for my game, "Flame Wars," which would have allowed gamers to flame each other and then rate, at the end of the week, the best / worst poster. This is an idea anyone in the last ten years could have had... but now that Robin "Evil Trout" Ward, Mike "Jalapeno Bootyhole" Drach, and Jason "The Other Other Hole" Kogan have realized it in Forumwarz, nobody else can create it and pretend to be original.
That's okay with me.

I understand when MIT comes up with its working death ray powered by cold fusion, I might as well burn all my nonworking plans for said death ray. I didn't have a working prototype, so I can just shut up and sit outside.

OK, angst aside, this is a really great game and everyone should play it. Go to the link in my first paragraph and get playing right away - if you read one of the newspaper articles about the game, they mention one of the innovative ideas there is you can start without having to log in. This is a great, inclusive idea - I'll spare you the rant for today on why newspapers shouldn't have protected content. Suffice it to say the fewer roadblocks the better.

Anyhow imagine an RPG where you meet the internet memes you know and love, and get to destroy them utterly. I have more complete thoughts on this game I'd like to post, but I've already gone on too long and I don't want to turn new players away. Think of this as the preview, and since buying the game involves spending a few minutes of your time (obviously abundant if you're still reading this drivel) then I have no shame in recommending your purchase.

You Tube: Better than Walkthroughs?

Note: This was originally a long response to Chris Dahlen's excellent post "You Tube: Better than Walkthroughs?" I've reprinted it here so it won't get lost.

Why do I like to view the 'bad' ending of a game on You Tube rather than play through it a second time? Yes, I understand I'm missing the entire experience. However...

Most of us don’t have the time or our interest flags before we can play through a 50 hour game a second time (talking about modern RPGs, not Bioshock). We have a lot of good games on the shelf!
Plus it was tough for me to kill one little sister, I couldn’t stay interested in playing through the whole game a second time just to see the bad ending.
That’s why I Youtubed the bad ending of Bioshock…

And you’re forgetting the games that are so bad / broken we can’t make it to the end. That’s how I felt about Jericho. After being stuck at the same annoying part for hours, then getting on to the next part, and then losing all my progress due to a crash, I said ‘forget this,’ Youtubed the ending (which was awful!) and was glad I hadn’t made it there myself.

So, sometimes you Youtube an ending because you love the game but don’t have time to play through it a second or third time, sometimes you Youtube an ending because it’s awful and you can’t force yourself to get to the end. My personal opinion is that it’s great we have these options these days and we don’t have to feel bad at ‘missing out’ on part of our $50.00 purchase…

ps. Playing through a 50 hour RPG with hint guide in hand to make sure you don’t miss anything is one of the most dull experiences known to man (or woman). The fact that you can miss a little dialogue or an item near the beginning and get a bad ending at the end because of it… this is just poor design.


I don't plan to make this a regular event, but if you've come here by accident, then welcome.
Although I'm interested in The Invisibles and King Mob is an Invisibles character, the idea is to talk about games and education rather than comic books.

I might use this as a repository of some of my longer comments, so they're all somewhere I can find. In that case, if you've linked here from somewhere else, sorry there isn't more content :)