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A Gaming Blog by Sean Perkins

Sep
06

As I mentioned last time I’ve been playing Halo: Reach lately, and in order to get those last few Achievements I needed I spent most of my time in online multiplayer games. I’ve never really been one for online multiplayer…I guess I never bought into the whole ‘online community’ spirit. Of course I’m talking about the XBox Live community, so by spirit I mean team-killing, teabagging, rage-quitting and generally being a fucktard. I guess that’s the problem with multiplayer games…the game part’s good, but the multiple people part really isn’t most of the time.

Bungie have tried their best to forge a kind of community out of the horde of degenerates that FPS games usually attract, and have come up with some pretty useful carrots to don their “Please don’t be an idiot” stick. Credit bonuses for those who regularly finish online games are just the start, although these should be more regular in my opinion. An incentive loses it’s appeal if you never receive it. The other feature is the option to boot or forgive a player who team-kills you from the game. However there are nuances to this system which, arrogant of me as it might sound, seem to have evaded my fellow players.

Firstly the ever present controversy associated with awarding penalties in football is also present here – the level of intent. Did your team-mate kill you because he’s formed an unhealthy attachment to that sniper rifle your holding, and can’t bear to see it snuggling up to someone other than himself? Or did you just fail to notice the bright blue instrument of death that your ally gleefully adhered to your opponents face moments before you decided to headbutt him into oblivion? The first is quite obviously deliberate, the second as obviously accidental but in both scenarios you are given the option of kindly showing your team-mate the door. I’ve been on the wrong end of the “deliberate vs accidental” decision making process quite a few times, and I’m certain that it isn’t helped by the fact that the X button is used to boot the offending player. The same button is used to change your equipment loadout before you respawn, so I wouldn’t be surprised that people have been booted by mistake.

The other thing to consider here is the position that being a player down puts your team in. If it’s a deathmatch game then it can sometimes be to your advantage to have fewer players on your team. Sure, you might get ganged up on but on the other hand your enemies have less opportunity to score kills. I’ve played games before where I’ve been on my own against 3 players and managed to keep the scores pretty close. I lost once they figured out how to stick together, but it was actually a pretty even match until then. In an objective based game like Invasion, basically a hybrid of King Of The Hill and Capture The Flag, you really need to use numbers to your advantage. So sure the guy hitting you and dropping your shield while you wait for the enemy to turn the corner might be being a dick, and when he goes a step too far you might be tempted to boot him…but in the long run you need him if you’re going to have a chance of winning.

And besides, you can always leave him negative rep after the game. He probably won’t give a monkeys left peanut, and there’s no way he’s ever going to change his ways…but at least you won’t have him on your team again.

Sep
03

I was speaking to a friend/former lecturer of mine who asked me if I was still blogging….well….no, I wasn’t in all honesty. I was still writing, I just wasn’t posting anything. So I guess some kind of revival of this little corner of the internet may be in order, and with that in mind I’d like to get some ideas out there.

Todays topic is Achievements, or whatever else you may know them as, the dizzy heights of 100% completion and DLC. I’ve written on the subject of DLC in the past, for those of you who are interested. Shameless plugs aside I’m an absolute sucker for Achievements – they prey on my naturally competitive nature and my obsessive need to collect and complete things. I imagine the same is true for many of us, and if it wasn’t before then the introduction of an arbitrary number showing how ‘good’ you are may well have made it so for some.

Now we all know that Gamerscore doesn’t come close to being an accurate representation of how good you are at games. It’s arguably a good reflection of how much time you spend playing them, but even then that’s not really the case. Nevertheless I strive to complete every last Achievement a game throws at me, although I do have the good sense to know when I’m beaten. However I always get this ludicrous sense of longing, almost verging on shame, when I see that I’m only missing a few Achievements from a game.

Recently I had this very feeling while looking at my Halo: Reach progress and decided that I would do my utmost to complete those missing Achievements. Now I’m proud to say that after much blood, sweat and sticky grenades I have accomplished my goal and my Reach Gamerscore now stands at 1,000g’s…

…Out of 1,400. Halo: Reach has for some time now had new multiplayer maps available for download, something that I have never felt inclined to purchase. Those extra 400 Gamerscore are from Achievements that you can only complete on those maps.

The effect of this is, as far as I see it, twofold:-

Firstly, I am left in the dark and lonely wilderness of having an uncompleted game (if only in the sense of Achievements). The problem is that I HAVE completed the original Achievements that were available upon the launch of the game, but I don’t plan on buying the DLC in order to access the new Achievements. I know that it shouldn’t diminish my sense of accomplishment, I did complete what I set out to do after all, but it really does – especially when I scroll through my Achievements to see that I’m (as far as I’m concerned) being accused of only having unlocked 83% of the Achievements. For those of you who don’t know there is a screen on the 360 Dashboard that shows you how many games you have 100% Achievement completion for, and I’ve now been robbed of adding another game to that list.

What I don’t understand as a gamer is why these DLC Achievements show up on my games when I haven’t bought the DLC. I haven’t bought or played Kinect Adventures, and sure enough the Achievements for that game are a mystery to me, so why then are DLC Achievements put there if not just to taunt me?

Well, when I look at things more objectively I know the answer. They ARE there to taunt me.

Logically speaking there are 2 ways to sell a product. The first is to determine what people want or need, make that thing and then tell people that you have it for sale. The classic example of this is food – it’s something we all need, but there are many different types of it and a marketer’s job is to make sure that we know about their product. The second way to sell something is to make it and then convince people that they want or need it. The classic example of this is the car. We have legs and can travel far enough to find the essentials, but cars lets us go further and faster…we don’t need them, but we want them. In fact we want them so much that we think we need them.

DLC based Achievements are a great example of creating need. The marketers of Halo already know that I want to play their game as I already play it. It’s also likely that I’ll want to buy the DLC and expand or improve my gaming experience….but how do they let me know that it’s there to buy? Sure, they can place an advert online, on the 360 Dashboard or even in the game itself, but what if I don’t want to buy that DLC? What if I just skip past those adverts? Adding those Achievements to my game file let me know that there’s DLC to buy and in a place that I can’t just ignore. They immediately create a sense that there’s something missing from my game. Something that I don’t have, but that I could have for a reasonable price. And last, but by no means least, they prey on my naturally competitive nature and my obsessive need to collect and complete things.

Oct
26

If there’s one thing that’s always irked me as a gamer it’s got to be PC games. I like PC games, indeed my favouritest game of all time ever for really is a PC game, but I am a bit of a consoletard at heart. Seeing as most games have a multi-platform release I buy the console version. The main reason for this is that I know what I’m getting, and that’s the same technical performance as everyone else (on 360 and offline, that is). On the other hand, PC games are only as good as the PC that runs them. Even my favouritest game has been rendered unplayable thanks to Windows Vista. OK, so that’s an exaggeration….it still plays, just with weird black boxes around all of the game items and characters.

As a working class man my other concern is the price, and this is where it gets really annoying. PC games are almost always £10 cheaper than their console counterparts. For the life of me I cannot fathom why this is. They are released in the same style of case, in the same shops and contain all of the same content, so why are they 25% or so cheaper?

Last year I was fortunate enough to be invited to an open day at Blitz Studios. Many things were said and done and generally a good time was had by all, myself in particular and the 2 designers, 3D Artist and the 2 Welsh students that were my company in the bar that night. One lesson that was taught that day was on the pricing of a boxed console game. I won’t go into specifics and percentages here, but suffice it to say that there is no discernible difference in process when you compare console and PC games.

To compound the issue it would seem that PC gamers are subjected to a far greater amount of content than us poor controller bound creatures. Regular updates, bug fixes and patches would all be welcomed with open arms by anyone who has played a Bethesda game on a console (more on that subject next time), but the big hitter has to be the level editing software packaged with games like Fallout 3 and Half-Life 2 to name a few.

The fact that this content is exclusive to PC gamers is ludicrous in my opinion. As far as I can see it there is no reason why the extra £10 we console gamers pay shouldn’t be used to either include that content in the console version or allow us to download the editing tools to a PC. Just think of how much creativity has been stifled or left to wither with no encouragement or outlet thanks to this nonsensical PC policy (no I don’t mean you, Government…this time), which honestly has no reason for continuing to exist. Trials HD and Halo 3/Reach have amazing and easy to use level editors for their console versions and I didn’t have to pay any extra to use them – other than the levy for playing them on a console in the first place that is.

Level editing software is capable of giving rise to the next generation of game industry employees, and to restrict their use to PC’s is a betrayal of those who make this industry as huge, successful and profitable as it is – gamers. They’re the ones who dream of working in the industry and they’re the ones who we need to encourage before they abandon those dreams. I was one of those who slipped through the net, and it was only a moment of cocky ballsiness that turned me back towards what I had always wanted to do with my life – designing games. Now if only someone would pay me to do it, I’d be set for life.

Oct
08

As you may have noticed I’ve been consistent in having the titles of my last few posts begin with the letter C. This wasn’t initially intentional but it made for an interesting way for me to choose a topic to write about. You may also have noticed that I’ve been rather inconsistent with the timing of this post. I’ve been busy for these past few weeks and didn’t have the time to write this until now. This inconsistency annoyed me, and hopefully you as well, to the extent that I decided to write this post about consistency in computer games.

Of course I’m not talking about the physical feel of the game; rarely can a game be accused of having an odd consistency in those terms. I’m talking about the other kind, the ability to stay true to a concept or idea; to be consistent.

Some games do this very well. Mario, for example, has always been consistent. Too much so, even. Princess Peach’s kidnapability has always been such that I sometimes wonder if she WANTS Bowser to take her away and marry her. Perhaps Mario is actually the overly possessive ex-boyfriend who just can’t let go. And let’s face it, Peach and Bowser are both Royalty, whereas Mario is naught more than a plumber; the very symbol of Communism, fighting against the bourgeoise tyrant – albeit to ‘rescue’ his bourgeoise missus. In fact Mario began his career as an ape-imprisoning antagonist way back in 1982’s Donkey Kong Jr. While I’m on the subject, don’t believe everything you hear; Mario is at least 28 years old – so long as you don’t count his appearance as ‘Jumpman’ in the original Donkey Kong to be his debut.

In any case the core gameplay and concept have remained pretty much the same since the days of ‘Jumpman’. Even the fabled Mario 2 contains many of the same concepts as Super Mario Bros. In fact some of the abilities and characters from Doki Doki Mario made it into subsequent titles in the series.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of other franchises. As Halo: Reach has only just been dropped upon us I feel it fair and just that I point my deformed claw in it’s direction. Firstly the game is a prequel. As such it is to be expected that certain truths be upheld, particularly those that are accepted by previous titles to be canon. If only things were that simple…

Many new additions to the series can be found in Reach, some of which simply don’t make any sense when put into the context of the series as a whole. The armour abilities in particular strike me as removed from the setting of the series. The hurried departure of the Pillar of Autumn from Reach could explain why there are no armour abilities in Combat Evolved. Surely though Master Chief would have had access to these armour loadouts after his return to Earth around the time of Halo 2? The same is true of some of the weapons found on Reach, both Human and Covenant. It’s hard to believe that either side made the sudden decision to halt production of a weapon that had been effective for a time, particularly when the war was at its peak.

Still, at least Bungie manage to be consistent within each individual game – something that can’t be said for BioWare. Dragon Age: Origins was a great game and provided me with many hours of entertainment. However, there was one little inconsistency that really grated on my nerves throughout the whole experience. Early on in the game Alistair explains to you and your fellow Grey Warden recruits that he, and all other Grey Wardens, can sense the whereabouts of Darkspawn. The caveat is that the Darkspawn can also sense the Grey Wardens as they share the same taint that allows them to hear the machinations of the Archdemon.

That makes perfect sense within the canon of the game and could’ve created some interesting gameplay situations. What I don’t understand, however, is how in the name of Ferelden every Darkspawn Assassin manages to hide in the shadows and ambush your party. I could understand if it only happened in the early stages of the game when your character is still learning to harness the power of the Darkspawan taint, or if Alistair happened to be absent from your party. Perhaps then Alistair can only sense them when he can be bothered to, or maybe he can only sense them when they’re visible…by seeing them….with his eyes….like anyone can.

Annoyingly the opposite situation is also true – Darkspawn cannot sense your stealthy rogues which allows you to backstab and critically injure Darkspawn with ease. In fact it’s often easier to teach Zevran to be stealthy and play as a Rogue yourself. That way you can have 3 characters, Leliana being the 3rd, who can all hide in the shadows which lets you take out small Darkspawn units quickly and effectively. That being said, having a super stealthy Rogue who can’t hide from the Darkspawn would have made for some much more difficult and interesting encounters – alas the opportunity was missed. Whether it was an error in the programming or a lack of communication between writers and designers remains a mystery, but nevertheless it resulted in a constant source of irritation for moi.

So there you have it. Consistency can be a source of inspiration that can fuel a franchise. Its antithesis can be a source of annoyance and frustration. Mario is in fact an evil monkey-hating Communist with Royal desires. Master Chief forgot to pack his sprint ability, and possibly his lunch as well. Alistair is a lier and for all intents and purposes the Dog is a Grey Warden. Oh, and I’m back to blogging…..albeit inconsistently.

Sep
13

I’ve already written about the possible horrors that Kinect could bring to the world, but now I want to tackle the software from a different angle. [Disclaimer – Do not attempt to tackle software. Much of it is incorporeal and trying to tackle such objects will likely result in personal physical trauma.]

As far as I see it Kinect has two major unique selling points: it’s intangible and intuitive. By that I mean that there are no controllers to hold while playing, and the method by which you use the software should come naturally to most; if you’re trying to kick a ball, you just pretend to kick a ball for instance. As a concept this amazes me as it truly breaks down most of the barriers associated with playing computer games. Age and level of ability are no longer a factor, and even hand-eye coordination is an afterthought as even if you’re not good at running you at least know how to run. Physical ability, or rather disability, is still an issue though. Remember that Nintendo Wii advert with the guy suffering from MS who’s in a wheelchair? Of course you don’t, it was never made – and for reasons beyond any fear of causing offence.

As intriguing a concept as this is, I feel that those behind the production of Kinect have failed to realise that they are taking a step backwards in terms of immersive interaction.

Computer games allow us to interact with a world using three of our five sensory systems. The first two are sight and sound, both of which are covered by Kinect; the missing link here is touch. Although we are unable to reach into the game world and physically touch the surroundings or the characters (which is probably a good thing in Lara Croft’s case…) we still have tactile feedback in the form of a physical control device. This feedback is highly limited to a slight vibration now and then, but more importantly it allows us to feel that we have done something in the game world by touching and pressing a physical button in the real world.

Kinect’s use of gestures is a good attempt at filling this void, and certainly the critters of Kinectimles react to being ‘stroked’ realistically. Unfortunately no matter how realistic it looks, no matter how imaginative the player, we will never be able to feel the animal we’re touching because it doesn’t exist. Now I know that we wouldn’t be able to feel the animal with a regular controller either, but we’d at least be able to feel something. The controller could vibrate to mimic the soft purring of a kitten or the panting of an excited dog, but more importantly we would know that we had pressed a button, and that this had caused our avatar to reach out and touch something.

Think for a second about the keyboard on an iPhone. You can’t possibly touch-type with an iPhone because you can’t touch the keys. This makes typing much more difficult on an iPhone, and results in more mistakes. If you’ve never used a touch screen keyboard then just trust me on this – I’ve actually written a whole blog post on an iPhone before, and it took far longer than it should’ve done.

Kinect suffers from the same problem as smart phones. Games that have relied on button inputs for so long aren’t going to make the transition to Kinect without making some sacrifices along the way. The Wii got away with it thanks to the fact that it still has controllers. Playing Call of Duty 3 on the Wii is fun thanks to the fact that you eventually feel like you’re becoming a better marksman, but I honestly can’t see something like an FPS working on Kinect. It’s not just FPS games either.

Music/rhythm games are another genre that will likely have a mixed future with the platform. Dancing games will be fantastic on Kinect, of that I have no doubt. It’s a bit of a marriage made in Heaven, and being able to dance however you want to dance will be a great experience for those who like dancing. For others, the constraint of a dance-mat allows them to follow simple directions while creating the illusion that they can dance. Games like Guitar Hero are very much the same. Again, the issue here is a lack of physical and tactile feedback. Playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band isn’t fun because playing air guitar is fun; it’s fun because you can hold and ‘play’ a physical guitar which causes the immersion and fun of the game rather than enhancing it. After all, without the constraints you might as well just play guitar or dance till your heart’s content – there’s no need for a game to not tell you what to do.

As gamers we have understood from the very beginnings of the computer game medium that what we are playing is an abstract representation of a world, real or otherwise. As part of this comes the realisation that our actions upon the game world, and the way we control them, are also abstract. Kinect does away with this, or at least is attempting to, but if gamers didn’t want abstract – if they wanted real life – they wouldn’t play games.

Like I said earlier I’m fascinated by Kinect and I would love the opportunity to design something for it. However, I honestly don’t think that it will be the glorious future of gaming that Microsoft would have us believe it to be. It will succeed somewhat, and might make Microsoft reevaluate its foray into the casual market, but it’ll end up being no more than a footnote in gaming lore. An interesting one, no doubt, but a footnote nonetheless.

Sep
08

As some of you may know I recently studied Computer Game Design at the University of East London. It was a great course and I met some fantastic people there. If you’re into games, are reading this, live near London and want a degree then I highly recommend that you apply.

A warning though: if you’re anything like me (pity you if that’s the case) then you may find that the more you learn about games, the less you enjoy playing them. This isn’t true for all games, but it’s certainly the case for digital ones.

One of the most aggravating practices in the industry from my perspective is conventional design. It’s a subject that I only really took note of while I was writing my dissertation, but it really is holding the industry back from the greatness that it could so easily achieve.

So what is it?

Well to put it very simply, it’s when a design works and other designers ‘take inspiration’ from that design. This then gets applied to the new game, and so on and so forth. It isn’t copying per se, as the inspired designers don’t have the source code that implements the original design. Their only option is to hazard a guess at the functionality of the mechanic in question and reverse engineer it, as it were. Obviously they will add their own designs to this framework and will change bits here and there to make it work with their game and keep things consistent.

Perhaps the greatest example of this can be seen in health systems. This was the dependent variable in my dissertation, which is how I stumbled across the phenomena of design by convention. If you’re wondering, the independent variable was ‘playing style’ and the control was the FPS genre. I won’t bore you with the details, but if you want to discuss it further then feel free to leave me a comment.

Health systems really started in non-digital games, particularly RPG’s like Dungeons & Dragons, and were represented as a numerical figure. Avatar death occured when the health reached 0 and there was usually a limit as to how much health you could have. It was a resource that you had to manage and it was often regained by finding and consuming in game items. This should sound very familiar to anyone who has played DOOM or Half-Life, or even more recent computer games such as Dragon Age: Origins, Borderlands and Final Fantasy 13. The fact that this system is still being used in much the same way as it was 20 years ago is a testament to its success and usefulness, but its also a damning statement on the game industry as a whole.

Afterall, the only reason that this system was used in the first place is because it was easy to code and would work within the technological limits of the time. Why we haven’t moved on to something more affective or realistic is beyond me, especially when you consider that the limits of technology aren’t very limiting at all these days.

In fact in the entire lifetime of this industry there have only been two additions to this system. The first is health bars, most often seen in fighting games like the original Street Fighter. In this case the avatar’s health is represented graphically, but underneath the interface is the same simple mathematics that drives the numerical system. In fact the tutorial or practice modes of most fighting games show you how much damage each attack does as a numerical value. Again it’s clear that very little has changed as the latest generation of the genre still uses health bars in the same way; as a pretty smoke-and-mirrors facade rather than a true alternative.

The second addition is automatically recharging health, popularised by the Halo series and now used in just about every AAA title that involves guns; Call of Duty and Gears of War to name two. Just in case you haven’t played any of those games the ARH system replenishes your health for you so long as you can avoid taking damage for a certain period of time, usually a few seconds. This system uses the slightly more modern health bars (don’t be fooled, the Crimson Omen and other red interface overlays are health bars for all intents and purposes) and makes health a resource that is constantly available and doesn’t need to be sought out. Again, this has a smoke-and-mirrors element to it as there is undoubtedly number crunching going on behind the scenes. The key with this system is that health is no longer an in-game item and is always there. This has a huge impact on gameplay, but in all honesty it just doesn’t make any sense.

Sci-fi games like Halo can use this system well as it’s explained that the recharging health bar is in fact the ‘shields’ of your armour. In fact Halo: Combat Evolved, the first game in the series, used this shield bar alongside a notched bar that represented Master Chief’s health and this could be replenished by finding health packs in the game world. This explanation of the system makes sense as we have already accepted the fact that we are a space marine and that we’re fighting aliens, so the technology that makes the armour work in this way is at least plausible. What doesn’t make sense is for World War 2 games like Call of Duty 2 trying to make us believe that our run-of-the-mill soldier has been shot in the face, but will be all better after he spends a few seconds bandaging the wound.

So why does Call of Duty use the ARH system?

It’s simple: ARH is the new convention. It’s what everyone else is doing, so it must work…right?

Wrong. If it worked then it worked for that specific game.

Others have tried out different approaches to health, such as lives and 1-hit deaths. Both of these are again so similar to the numerical system that they are essentially one and the same. Either your health is 1 and you’re good to go or it’s 0 and you’re dead. If anything, this is even less advanced than using a number or a percentage as there is no need to design a damage mechanic for different weapons or wound locations.

I guess that the point that I’m trying to make here is that while it’s all well and good for designers to influence one another, that shouldn’t be their only source of inspiration. Designs should be made to fit the game, rather than trying to center a game around an existing convention i.e. any 3rd person shooter since Gears of War to use a cover system. Like I said in my dissertation design by convention isn’t conducive to making interesting new games.

Customised design, on the other hand, is a convention that we should all follow.

Sep
01

As a ‘new’ medium computer games have always been surrounded by controversy, naysayers and negative press. Jack Thompson and his ilk have always been quick to point out the evil that computer gaming has unleashed upon the world at large and we gamers have always been quick to jump to the defense of our passion. Although, when it comes to Jack Thompson even I have to admit that I respect him for the way he goes about his nefarious business. As crazy as he sometimes appears, he’s more willing to engage the gaming community in discussion and debate than most of those who have spoken out against computer games. He even went so far as to attend ScrewAttack.com’s convention SGC in order to participate in a live debate on the issue.

Like I said, I usually have a response to all of this fear-mongering….something along the lines of “Shut up and grow up in equal measure”. The big problem for me though is that the industry has looked at all this negative press that they get and thought “Wow…look at all this FREE press that we get!” Rather than trying to show the world that computer games are capable of being an experience unlike any other and can be mature about their content, most developers are happy to take the opposite route.

The whole ‘women in games’ debate is largely caused by this as few developers take the time to make their female characters believable to all but 14-15 year old guys. The fact that Team Ninja spent more time developing “Breast Physics” than they did developing an actual story for Dead Or Alive is a telltale sign that all is not as it should be.

The sad fact is that controversy can sell anything. Even the established religions of the world were considered controversial at some stage, and some still are in areas where they are ‘new’.

As long as this is the case we will continue to see developers and publishers alike using controversy as part of their marketing strategy. If you don’t think that this is the case ask yourself the following: Why did Infinity Ward release information about MW2’s “No Russian” level? Surely they could’ve kept it quiet and saved themselves from the barrage of negative press and concerned parents if they’d truly wanted to, so why do it?

Why were Lara Crofts jubblies so jubbly? Why does Bayonetta spend most of the game semi-naked? Why does having sex with prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto restore your health?

Because these things make your game a talking point. If the mass media are talking about a game then people are hearing about a game and, regardless of what’s being said, a good percentage of those people are buying that game.

Looking at things this way it’s easy to see why games contain controversial content. It has little to do with games being more mature, as the mature content is rarely treated in any such manner. I don’t mean to keep on at Infinity Ward but they’re not killing playable characters because they’re being mature; they do it because it’s shocking. Oddly enough the more they do it the less shocking it will become. Even stranger is the fact that they’re rather adept at treating killing NPC’s with the maturity that such a graphic and harrowing act warrants.

Sex scenes are just as bad, if not worse, and really don’t add anything to the game. Films use sex scenes to great effect (in some cases) but when they’re in computer games they just feel so false. Animation just isn’t at the stage where characters can share a loving embrace down by the fire and have it look natural, or even enjoyable for those involved. The fact that nudity is still a minefield in games only compounds this further, as characters usually have their undies on the whole time. Forgive my vulgarity, but I don’t seem to recall wearong clothes as being all that conducive to the act. Even the few games that dare show a bare (sometimes blue) bottom do so with very carefully managed camera angles, which in all honesty make the whole spectacle even more embarrasssing to behold. The whole mess screams of a 15 year old boy chuckling to himself as he backs Ms. Croft into a corner to get a better look at her polygons. Purely for educational purposes of course.

Hopefully this will be a short lived trend and game developers will go back to the days of story and gameplay being the talking points of their games. I’ve no doubt that there will still be some people out there who will damn games for the corrupting influence that they may well be. On the other hand, at least we’ll be in a better position to defend the medium. Perhaps one day we’ll even be able to ask “Games have grown up, so why can’t you do the same?” Personally I very much look forward to hearing the answer.

Aug
23

As I mentioned a few posts ago many genres of games have tried and failed to revolutionise themselves and have now been forced into scouring their pasts for inspiration. The latest iteration of Mortal Kombat is even using this as one of its unique selling points and other franchises, including the famous plumber himself, have ‘gone back to their roots’ so to speak.

Once again I see that uncreativity had reared its ugly head on the horizon and is now staring directly at me; the utter contempt in its eyes for all things original commanding me to conform and take my seat in the soulless production line that is the games industry.

Normally I would spit curses at such a creature and vow to destroy it, even at the cost of my own life, with the most original and creative thing ever created by an original individual. In the face of this particular Demon however, I find myself torn. On the one hand creativity is a notion that should be defended to the last, especially in an industry such as computer game development where it can truly be used to its fullest potential.

On the other hand….these uncreative ‘homages’ to an age long past in the games industry is the beginning of a new cycle. The cycle in question? That of them and us. These games are aimed at us, but this is a fact that has thus far remained unmentioned by the majority of the games industry. The industry understands that members of ‘them’ who buy games are a larger market than us, so they want these *ahem* new games to seem as though they are marketed to them….even though they’re made for us.

Take New Super Mario Brothers Wii as an example. It’s a very retro-inspired 2-D platformer with modern day graphics, and is marketed as a game that all of the family can enjoy in their unrealistically large, clean, dog shit and IKEA free, Grandad accessible living room. In reality however it’s the Mario game that Mario fans have been waiting for. You see when I first played Mario many moons ago there was no such thing as us and them; there was just us. You either played games or you didn’t, and the type of game you favoured or the number of hours you played for was irrelevant. We were all part of the same fraternity of oft bullied social lepers and outcasts, and that made us stick together for the most part.

The rise in the popularity of gaming as a pastime has seen that gaming fraternity split and divide into several warring factions, all claiming their chosen console/genre/studio/etc to be the best way to game. Nonsense. There is no right or wrong way to game. Sure I have my preference and yes I get frustrated when franchises or developers abandon their core fans, but ultimately the survival of the industry depends on gamers of all shapes and sizes. Creativity would be nice, and is certainly essential for the industry to grow beyond its current state, but the industry can live without it….just about.

So is this foray into the past a good idea? Well….yes, it probably is. While it may not unite the denominations of gaming it is still a step towards that lofty goal. Games will be released that the gamers of old and old gamers alike can play and enjoy and this is surely a good thing. The worry for me is that the uncreativity Demon will rule unchallenged and that eventually all we will be left with are revamps of old franchises. Mario will be forced to save Princess Peach yet again, and I bet she still won’t give him that other cake that he really wants. Solid Snake will never be allowed to retire and claim his pension. Sonic won’t ever have the time to open that jewelery store he’s always wanted and won’t be able to sell any of the millions of gold rings and emeralds he’s collected. Samus Aran will never find a way of gluing those upgrades onto her Power Suit properly and will have to find them all again and again and again.

Should this be allowed to happen at least the denominations of gamers will finally be united, albeit in their suffering. For my part, I will sit there on the production line chained to my work station, ensuring that every game that is subjected to my scrutiny is as dull, colourless and unimaginative as the last. All the while harbouring dreams of originality, freedom and Demonicide.

Aug
17

The Meta Game has been described, I forget by whom, as the actions that players take in relation to a game when they’re not actually playing the game. An easy example of this can be seen in Trading Card Games such as Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering. In this case the game is played between two opponents, whilst the Meta game consists of buying, collecting and trading cards, as well as creating various decks. In computer games, meta is a bit more difficult to quantify unless, like me, you take it to mean the actions that you take in the game world that aren’t related to the spine of the games’ plot and missions. Examples include completing side quests, buying items, shooting civilians, blowing up cars for fun, collecting herbs, hunting animals, etc, etc, etc. If you don’t agree with me on this or think that I am using the term ‘Meta’ incorrectly…fine. Think that. Better yet write a comment or even a whole blog post describing how and why I’m wrong. It might just change my mind….I doubt it though.

In any case the reason for this post is that I am starting to notice that the Meta side of computer games is often more fun, engaging, challenging and interesting than the actual core game itself. This is especially true in sandbox and Role Playing Games, which feature vast worlds filled with interesting characters and locales. What I can’t understand is why a studio would spend so much time and effort in creating Meta content when they could be extending the game spine.

I suppose the argument for it is that doing so creates a more fully realised world, and makes the player feel like the world around them is alive and dynamic. There’s also something to be said for giving the player some freedom to act both in and on the game world but in some games, particularly sandboxes, your actions in the Meta have little or no consequence in the game as a whole.

Perhaps my favourite example of this can be seen in [Prototype]. Halfway through a mission I had to drive a tank along an idiot path (more on those next time) and I squished literally hundreds of innocent civilians and left a trail of mangled corpses and entrails in my wake. Around the time I turned my 123rd or so victim into a lumpy red paste the Playable Character, Alex Mercer, began to wonder aloud as to whether or not his current course of action was the right thing to do. Well I’m sorry Alex but no, it wasn’t, and neither was questioning your own morality when there was the far more pressing issue of the intestines of countless innocent bystanders clogging your tank treads to concern yourself with.

I guess what really made this whole ‘Meta’ thing stand out for me was watching my older brother play Saints Row 2. Eddy has always been one for sandbox games and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before he “forgets” that he’s no longer in a game world and undoes all of my arguments against the censoring of computer games one massacre at a time. If that ever does happen though we’ll at least have some respite from his ‘carnage for the sake of carnage’ ways as Eddy has two vices: clothes and cars. I recently watched, bemused and more than anything bored, as Ed used the cheats in Saints 2 to spawn every car in the game and store them in his garage. He then took them out one-by-one and drove them to the mechanic…where he proceeded to ‘mod’ each car to his own specific recipe of bad taste. This took him the better part of 4 hours and just when I thought he was finished he found a new type of spinner for the wheels of his cars. Lo and behold, he went through the whole process again to make sure that every car had the right spinners on it. It was one of those “I can’t look away from the horror, but I better not interrupt it in case it bites me” moments and it was followed immediately by a population decreasing joyride to the clothes store. Another 2 hours were spent trying on the same suit, but with different accessories and colours.

In all this time he didn’t play through a single mission, only took in the joys of casual murder on the journey to and from various shops and he only stopped now and then to use a cheat that gave him more money. I genuinely hope that his is a VERY isolated case and is just another of the many intricacies that makes Eddy the brother I know and tolerate. Oh, and love I guess. A bit. When he isn’t around.

Family ties aside, this did make me think back to all the time that I’ve essentially wasted by not playing the game. If I just stuck to the main story of Red Dead Redemption I could’ve completed it in a few hours, and as for Final Fantasy 7….don’t even get me started. Then again, did I really waste that time? I don’t think so. I certainly enjoyed exploring the world of FF7 and meeting all the weird and wonderful characters in RDR, and finding glitches and Easter Eggs is a not-so-secret shame of mine. It all added to the sense of fun, wonderment, awe and the feeling of being so small and insignificant in such a huge world that only games can create, at least on a regular basis.

Personally I’d rather that the Meta game had a greater impact and influence on the rest of the game, and I’d like to see fewer cases of repetitive gameplay being used to pad out the length of a game. I guess it’s a case of it being better to have and not want than want and not have. So here’s to the Meta game, long may it be played. Just not by Eddy….he plays it more than enough as it is.

Aug
12

For an industry formed by and of creative minds the games industry seems to have hit a bit of a rut in recent times. Things look to be improving with the success of the Nintendo Wii as a money printing device, and now SONY and Microsoft both have their own versions of motion control in Move and Kinect respectively. This is all well and good if you happen to be working on the games made for these platforms, or if you belong to one of the small child, single mum or blue-rinsed pensioner demographics that these games are tailored to…but what about the rest of us?

I’m wary of calling us ‘Real Gamers’, afterall anyone who plays games can be referred to as such. It’s an exclusive and dismissive term that should be ousted from our increasingly inclusive industry. I’ve also mentioned before that I don’t like the term ‘Hardcore’ as the internet on which we now live our pseudo-lives (Pseudo, not Second…don’t even get me started on that affront to society) has given me a very different connotation when thinking of that word. What to call us then? We’re not all males, we’re not all adults, or single, or without children, or straight, or anything. We don’t even like the same genres of games! This really is becoming an issue with which I struggle to make headway. I suppose that ‘us’ will have to suffice for now, or else I’ll be referring to ‘us’ as ‘the others’ and that’s just as exclusive to us as the term ‘Real Gamers’ is to them. Ah dear….now I’ve made it an ‘us and them’ situation. Well I’m sorry, but I was left with very little other choice. In any case, I digress. Perhaps I shall have to return to this topic in a future post.

So where was I? Ah yes, the games for us. I, like many people, like Halo. I like Gears of War and Call of Duty and all those other battleship grey and mud brown shooter games that usually involve some beefed up space Marine with a hatred of clean floors and living beings. I like them, but they’re all starting to get a bit….same-y. Fighting games have remained mostly unchanged since their inception, and even when a new idea was introduced it was soon shot down by fans of the genre. Mortal Kombat is even going so far as to revert completely to its classic format, albeit with modernised graphics, animations and so forth. Racing and sports games follow a similar trend, with each new iteration receiving little more than a facelift, more realistic physics and a slight tweak of a gameplay mode now and then.

Is this, then, all that we have to look forward to? Will Call of Duty 17 still use the same outdated mechanics, a health system based on convention and a playable characters death as a tool for shoveling tension into the game? I certainly hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that turned out to be the case. Even casual games stick to the same trends and conventions and so long as this brings in money for the publishers, the developers will continue down this bleak path to unimagination.

Maybe in another 10 years, when the casual gaming market has reached its peak, the industry will turn full circle. Nintendo will lead the way and will abandon their core fan base, and will develop a console and game library solely for us. SONY will sit on the fence for as long as it can, while Microsoft will hold itself up as the last great bastion for the Casual masses. Eventually Nintendo will be proven right, and SONY and Microsoft will destroy their useless peripherals and gimmicks in favour of First Person Shooters, Space Marines and whatever Activision have on offer at the time. And then, just when we think that our time has come again….Sega will release a new console. It will be the 2nd coming, and yay we shall beholden its divine glory and know that the true Messiah is among us more.

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