Thursday, March 31, 2005

Cases of Refinement

I got my first
chance to play World of Warcraft yesterday.

Let me share something with those few who may not have gotten a chance to play yet: There is nothing drastically different or novel in this game to distinguish it from other MMORPGs.

That said, let me make another point: The game takes all the elements of other MMORPGs that are notoriously boring, broken, counterintuitive or just plain stupid, boils it all down and distills a system that is fun, easy to use and gorgeous and then wraps it all up in a Warcraft shell.

What the game does best is not innovate new gameplay elements. It doesn't completely redefine the genre.

It just removes most of the bullshit that infests MMORPGs.

Which brings me to the next game - Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30.

Again, there are so many familiar elements in this game that will be instantly recognizable to anyone that's played at least one other World War II-themed game. There's the parachute insertion, the AA-gun destruction, the tough-talking sergeants and authentic weapons.

But the things that make it different make it feel very different.

The weapons are highly inaccurate. The atmosphere is constantly alive, it feels more like a war is raging than any previous game of its kind. The graphics have their own polish to them, almost a hyperrealism. The ability to survey the battlefield layout adds another element to the gameplay, as does the squad commands (not a new idea, but implemented with such ease).

In other words, it refines the entire genre, taking old cliches and new tricks and wrapping them up into a cinematic and visceral experience.

Refinement, I think, is more important to videogames than novelty. There are always new and interesting gameplay elements to discover and explore, and that quest drives much of the industry forward. But new ideas are not necessarily better ideas. Sports games are very much up on the refinement idea, though sometimes they phone in the improvements.

And I am not just talking about sequelitis, churning out the same game with minimal additions. I'm talking about taking gameplay elements that work and carrying them forward into new settings, mixing and matching proven gameplay.

We see this in platformers. Ratchet and Clank changed very little since the first game, but the third game took everything that went right and cut out everything that wasn't good and made a great game.

What I'm trying to get at is that sometimes a lot of little changes to a system do a better job of innovating the game than overhauling the entire thing.

The problem with little changes is that the criticism can be brutal. Sonic has been tweaking its formula for years and got bashed each time for never being as good as the original, or at least the first sequel.

So what has that led to? Now they're trying to re-create the whole freaking game.

I like what I saw of Shadow the Hedgehog. But I'm one of very few.

See what happens when people can't accept little refinements.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Break it Down

What, to me
, are some necessary aspects of games?

After all, many definitions have been offered over the years. They talk about the interactive nature of games, the competitive aspect, the critical thinking involved. They cover social aspects and psychological influences.

But I look for fun.

Games try to be fun.

That means they don't always succeed. One person's fun is another person's coma-inducing boredom.

When people are not taking things as seriously as we think they should, we say "This isn't a game." In other words, this shouldn't be fun.

Sometimes things can resemble games and just happen to be fun. This does not make them games.

Games are designed; They are designed to be fun.

A conversation is not designed. Unless you write a script.

So is acting a game?

There are games that involve acting. If you give people parameters and then let them create a scene -- improv is a game. At least to me.

If I memorize a scene and act it out - that's acting. The entire thing is directed. This, to me, is not a game.

Games are designed to be fun; They are designed to offer choices.

Life is full of challenges; But not all life's challenges are fun - in fact, many of them are not.

Games become interesting when they contain interesting challenges.

So a game should be designed to offer choices, be fun and present interesting challenges.

End screed.

No, wait. Go ahead and throw some violence in there. That always helps.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

How're things?

My quickest
update to date.

Transitioning from military life is a difficult, frustrating, monstrous activity; It's like trying to beat Ninja Gaiden.

Especially once I realized that I'm an unskilled laborer who wishes to work in the gaming industry and actually make enough money to support myself and my wife.

With no college education.

I wonder if Donkey Kong can give me a recommendation in exchange for a handjob.

Or I can beg for money to go to school. And beg. And beg.

Being a white male really sucks when it comes to scholarships. Wizard needs college money bad.

My problem is every job I've ever had has been like Bowser's castle. I make the tricky jumps, bop the turtles, dodge the fireballs and I get to where I think I've accomplished something and then:

We're sorry, but your job satisfaction is in another castle.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Learning Things

Educational games
diminish both gaming and education.

That being said . . .

Media Release for "Wicked Chemist"

The newest game from Erewhon Productions promises to break exciting new ground in the field of edutainment! Taking on the role of young Bobby Boyle, a boy who's discovered he has the power of atom manipulation, players manipulate elements to form new compounds to solve chemical puzzles.

The game offers a deep and intuitive help system, offering as much or as little as the player requires.

Explore different types of chemical bonds and how they interact to form new compounds through adding or subtracting elements. Collect single elements and use your collection to generate useful compounds, then manipulate them further to form necessary items. Agitate or slow down compounds to change their state. Build up crystalline structures to add stability to your creations. You could join the push to make brand new elements. Perhaps even explore organic molecules in a quest to create life.

A Gameplay Example:
Bobby comes upon a door blocked by a huge vat of water balanced on a scale. There is a plug of iron in the side of the vat. Using his power, the player could either superagitate the iron molecules to turn it molten, thus draining the vat, or agitate the water itself to turn it to steam and boil it away. Or maybe weaken the structure of the ceiling above the scale's empty side, dumping enough rubble to life the vat.

Thus ends the false advertisement.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Finding Things

I've often
wondered what game elements might make tracking an interesting prospect.

The few hunting games I've tried seem to drop you either within sight of quarry or provide a radar or arrows directing you straight to your targets. This strikes me as much too 'game-y'.

I imagine a system where different trail signs show up as glowing traces. These could be things such as disturbed brush or droppings or even the animal's movement trail.

Maybe this system could even be leveled up with enough experience, providing more information to the tracker, revealing more signs of his elusive prey.

This could be extended to many types of games.

A detective game could have the physical gamespace offer up new clues the more information that's collected. A fruitful conversation could trigger glowing footprints leading to a buried clue. Or a smear of blood on the wall that you missed earlier. This is a similar mechanism to the adventure game staple of making important objects sparkle, but in this instance it is dependent on some sort of progression.

An RPG might have you cast as a bounty hunter. In this instance you would have to develop your character to not only track specific signs but also to tune your skills to your specific target. In this instance, filtering out extraneous noise is just as important as finding the information. Gaining items from your mark, a boot say, would keep those boot prints active - if you encountered them, they would show the mark's recent path.

Therein lies another element. Time-dependency.

Different sorts of trails have different durations. Brush trails can be followed for hours or days. A blood trail will remain for a shorter period of time, even less if it rains. A scent trail only minutes.

Part of the challenge: Trails get broken.

The use of trails would mesh into the whole system of hunting. Actually sighting the prey, listening for aural signals, masking your own movement/smell/sound, choosing baits and calls, and, y'know, killing the damn thing -- all of these and more combine together to create a total hunting experience.

Maybe even the Nuge would approve.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Training Our Kids To Kill

By now
, many gamers are aware of Jack Thompson's sheer insanity.

Consider this quote:

"The Army uses these games to break down the inhibition to kill of new recruits.

Look at the Institute for Creative Technologies created by DOD to create these killing games. Tax dollars paid to the industry to create the games to suppress the inhibition to kill, and then the industry turns around and sells these games to kids. One instance is Pandemic Studio's Full Spectrum Warrior. If it works for soldiers, of course it works for teens. The video game industry has absolutely no rebuttal to that argument."

As I've stated before, I am not in the video game industry; I assume that means I am allowed to have a rebuttal to that argument.

Let me give you some background. I am coming out of a four-year stint in the United States Marine Corps. I spent six months in Afghanistan and two months in Iraq (crossing the Line of Departure a mere 72 hours after the word was given by the President).

While not in a combat unit, every Marine's primary job is basic rifleman. We are all considered trained enough to put steel on target when the lawful order is given.

Video games are poor training tools. For anything, really. I think the last games I learned from were Sticky Bear Math and Number Munchers.

I'm not aware of any military unit that uses video games to break down the inhibition to kill.

In fact, this breakdown really only occurs in one place: Boot camp.

Boot camp doesn't even specifically concentrate on the inhibition to kill. Rather, they follow the CIA training manual for brainwashing almost point by point, in order to instill in recruits 'instant and willing obedience to lawful orders' - that is what they do. The assumption, of course, is that these orders may be to kill; But they could be to drag a wounded child to safety, or set up a bunker in 100 degree weather, or pull night watch after being up for a 36-hour convoy.

The inhibition to kill can only be broken down by, wait for it . . . killing.

When we were parked on the outskirts of Fallujah and watched as night fell and the Iraqis came out onto the streets, even though our orders were much more liberal than the current Rules of Engagement, there was still hesitation. And this after our convoy had turned around after taking fire at the front.

When we got ambushed, it was actually unfortunate that my extensive game-playing hadn't prepared me at all for the sheer confusion, excitement, fear and horror of those moments.

If you think America's Army is anything but a half-decent game and a lame recruitment tool, you've never run an obstacle course, or been 'quarterdecked' by a DI.

If you think Halo can help you learn how to shoot, you've never tried to get ten in the black from 500 yards with the piece-of-shit M16A2, with your elbows getting ground by sand trapped in your cammies and the sun causing sweat on your forehead which drips into your eyes.

Video games, or things resembling games, are being used in some areas of the military.

During training ops higher ups often pit virtual countries against each other, but these are basically pushing pieces, simulating battles and using the troops to set up comm architectures and run test flights.

Some first-person-shooters are used by infantry troops to plan out tactics - but these are mostly for higher-level planners; Games will never, ever take the place of constant, demanding, mind-numbing repetition. Proper execution of maneuvers rely on muscle memory; Drill, in boot camp, forms the introduction to this doctrine.

Rainbow Six may let you breach and clear, but this doesn't translate to the motions or related actions: Which direction do you break? What targets are you responsible for? Who can declare a room 'all clear'? Did you check your overhead?

Flight simulators seem like video games, though I'm sure those responsible for both maintaining and operating them see them more as necessary steps to save billions of dollars worth of equipment from inexperienced hands.

If you want to know how to make a person prone to suggestion to kill, look here.

If anyone would like my breakdown of how boot camp uses the steps for Interrogation of Resistant Sources, just let me know.

The only way, then, I would even consider the argument that violent media makes for violent children is if it could be proven that those children who have been violent were denied any sort of balancing social forces. That is, if you took a child and locked him in a room and forced violent images day in and day out and brought them to the level of an infant and replaced their language with one of your own devising and had them progress their violence on increasingly complex organisms -- THEN, and only then, would I be willing to entertain that the media was a factor. And even then, it was not the cause. The cause was you, the sick fuck that provided no guidance other than a violent outlet.

That's how fascists work. They replace free social exchange with their ideas, they re-form language to their own ends ("Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself . . . "), they make natural human sexuality taboo, they declare the War on Some Drugs, they attempt to regulate and control every aspect of human growth and exploration. They embrace stagnation of society and the mind.

Rant ended.

And now for a few choice Dick Cavett quotes:

"Censorship feeds the dirty mind more than the four-letter word itself."

"There's so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?"

Monday, March 07, 2005

Death Of an Industry

SEE! Spine-tingling drama as game companies crumble to dust!

HEAR! The lamentations of the game-craving zombies as their sustenance disappears!

REALIZE! That the game industry isn't going anywhere. No, really.

Of late I've read a lot of online essays/diatribes/articles that all share a common theme: whether due to an overwhelming oversight, a host of minutiae or reasons A, B and C, the game industry is doomed.

Maybe it's Chicken Little syndrome. Or just a bunch of Eschaton fetishists.

I'm sure this cycle is one that endlessly repeats throughout time concerning all mankind's creative endeavors. After all, how many drama-queen fashionistas have declared 'the death of fashion' time and time again only to find out that, y'know what, people want fashion no matter what the pundits say.

Those who wish to draw comparisons to the first crash would do well to take note of the extremely different economic and social factors in place at the time. That being said, the 1983 crash could have merely been a call to re-inject creativity and innovation into the game industry.

What I will allow is that the game industry may be headed for a crossover point.

As I pointed out about the 1983 crash, the game industry did not completely disappear. It re-grouped, re-established its priorities and came back with a whole bunch of new games and systems.

In fact, 1985 saw the birth of Tetris, Gauntlet and Super Mario Bros.!

So the current industry may be exhausting itself in the faster-better-more technology and eye-candy race. Does this mean that everyone is simply going to get fed up and discard the millions of console systems (not to mention PCs) like so many hula-hoops or pet rocks?


We could be heading toward another seeming Extinction-Level-Event that is really just the precursor to a fabulous new age of wonderful evolutionary changes - Or maybe we'll just chug along, with the industry churning out lots of crap, to be sure, but also making compelling, interesting and life-influencing games like The Sims 2, Half-Life 2 and World of Warcraft.

Why won't video games go away?

I know that, for me, video games are more than diversions. That would be like saying books are diversions (Walden had convinced me to live in the woods, or at least think about it, A LOT; Fight Club gave me the idea to make soap - and I did).

Video games help to make up my cultural existence. They are part of the basis for the way I encode the world, what is sometimes called the logogram. And when I talk to other gamers, our logograms create a compelling socializing experience. It isn't necessary in any way for me to know that 'wizard needs food!' But in a setting with other gamers, this could almost be like a code-word, a way of immediately knocking down personal barriers.

We see these experiences given top billing as concerns, let's say, sports.

Sports are physical negotiations, really nothing more than that - but in the context of a University game, they become a battle of wills, a clash of epic forces, reasons to laugh and cry and drink beer. Speaking the language can become either a way to belong (the various superfans) or a way to seem to belong (the way I note the Super Bowl score the day after, just in case I'm asked about it at work).

What I'd like is for game-players to stop calling our own death.

We have enough non-game-playing assholes doing that.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Now It's Time for a Scapegoat

Let's just
ban all media.

At least that might get rid of Howard Stern.

Lawmakers should totally look toward the old Comics Code for help in combating the evils of video games. This would be the perfect way to completely cripple any sort of artistic expression in interactive media.

But we'd still have Tetris. As long as the pieces weren't placed in suggestive positions.

After all, isn't art so much more enjoyable when it is rendered completely devoid of anything that might possibly shock or entertain or produce emotion whatsoever?

Did anybody, anybody at all, ever learn about the idea of sublimation? Sure, it came from Freud so it's probably not politically correct, but it's not a bad idea.

Basically what it says is that humans can refocus their psychic energy from negative outlets to more positive, socially acceptable outlets.

In other words, when I feel like putting my fist through someone's head, I can fire up Grand Theft Auto and cause some virtual mayhem and actually feel better. Rather than being the catalyst, it is the release.

In fact, there's a good chance that a large portion of artistic expression is the result of some kind of sublimative process. Horror writers take the terrors from their heads and put them onto the page. Singers often turn disappointment or helplessness into a beautiful song. Sublimation can be as simple as a person turning their anger on a sack of potatoes.

Did the potatoes make him do it?

The best (that is, worst) thing about lawmakers and fascists screaming for censoring or banning video games is this: They will set our country on a level with the Nazis, who burned books they saw as corrupting, the Khmer Rouge, who killed educators because, well, they educated people, and the Soviet Union, that wouldn't allow their newspapers to print truth because they had to 'protect' the people.

Don't think for a second that this is overinflating the issue. There are people out there screaming for out and out banning of all but the most neutered games.

And they are slowly gaining influence.

To close, here are three things that I absolutely cannot stand:
1. Moral fucking fascists, or fascists of any type
2. Lazy fucking parents
3. Stupid fucking kids that have no concept of responsibility

Thursday, March 03, 2005

I'm an Action Star!

I know that
I blab on and on about RPGs.

But I also love the action titles.

My Half-Life 2 story demonstrates how deep this love goes. I received the game for my birthday last year. The special Collector's Edition. Mmmmm. Well, first off I open the box. Cool, a t-shirt, a mini strategy guide. Uh. No game.

Fuckin EB Games. Their policy of removing the games to from boxes to prevent thefts can be a pain in the ass. So my friend goes back to the store and gets the game disc.

I create my Steam Account. I load up the game. Everything is going smoothly. I input the authentication code.

Sorry, this code is in use by another account. FUCK!

I go to EB Games to explain the situation. The asshole behind the counter smugly tells me that it's impossible for someone to take my code. I think he expects some sort of clever ruse is at work here. I suspect that he's the fucker that took the code, considering it's right on the outside of the cd case that they remove from the box.

So still no game.

I go to Steam's site and try to get info. They are nice enough to tell me that even though it's up to them to authenticate the game, they can't help with the codes, since the codes are issued by the publisher.

The publisher politely informs me on their website that I will have to send them pictures of the cd case with the code and the receipt from the store. Then I have to wait a few weeks to get a new code. I try like crazy to find a digital camera to no avail (and no, I don't exactly have the cash to drop on something like that at the time). I take a few pictures with my wife's camera phone and they're incredibly low-res and prolly won't work, but I fire the e-mail off anyway. After three days and not even an automated response that my mail was received, I get pissed.

I call EB and ask them when the manager will be in.

Days pass as I wait for a time I can actually drive up to the store to coincide with the manager being there. I go in and speak to the manager and explain the situation.

He nods his head and replaces my dvd.

The funny part of this is that he tells me a story of some guy coming in claiming that his code was bad and that he was probably trying to pull some sort of scam. I grinned, the guy being me, and the "scam" I was pulling was me trying to play a fucking game that my friend paid for since the store dropped the ball on 1) not putting the game back in the friggin' box and 2) probably stealing the code.

Of course, it could've just been a bad code issued by the publisher. Supposedly they did that, too, when the lawsuits between VU and Valve were in progress.

Which basically meant that I feel that Valve is responsible for the absolute worst setup experience in the history of gaming (aided by VU's incompetence and EB Games' stupid policies).

The capstone to this touching drama is this: After all that misery and frustration, ten minutes playing Half-Life 2 completely redeemed the situation. Twenty minutes elicited repeated mumblings of 'totally worth it' like a mantra.

Thirty minutes was transcendental.

Single-player action experiences are where I go for a visceral gaming experience. I even enjoy tightly-scripted games like Medal of Honor. Far Cry was beautiful and expansive and one of the first games where I had to think tactically, outflanking enemies and sometimes skipping encounters entirely (which didn't diminish my enjoyment - in fact, I felt that my discretion was the better part of the valor).

Which brings me to the new Republic Commando. It has wonderful art direction. The levels are exquisitely detailed, and their comprehensive use of shaders reminds me of the work these guys do - beautiful rendering and lighting without killing framerate. The action is fast, so fast I often lose track of things - and I accept it all because it adds to the idea that you're on an ever-changing battlefield. Top notch. It's almost difficult to believe that this is a Star Wars game, but spending a little time in-game convinces me that this is exactly how the Clone Wars conflicts played out. This is the sort of chaos and mayhem that just came off as cartoony in Episode I (the Gungan battle).

God, why won't George Lucas learn from the good work that his licenses create?

And why did he have to fuck up Boba Fett's backstory? Tales of the Bounty Hunters did a great job of giving ol' Mr. Fett real personality and morality and sympathy. Episode II made him, y'know, a poor little clone orphan.


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

A Better Ranged Combat Model / General Improvements

I've noticed
that one of the features that seems to lack the most in action RPGs is ranged combat.

I'm not really addressing first-person shooters. They tend to work on an ifHit then thisMuchDamage type of model, which works well in that genre; No reason to muddy up its simplicity.

I'm more interested in bows and slings type of combat. Throwing knives. Firearms could fit into my proposal, especially muzzle-loaders.

What I'm suggesting is that individual weapons gain in their To Hit ratios and their Damage the more a player-character uses them. Essentially, each weapon earns its own level (a system used in the La Pucelle family of strategy games), customizing to the individual.

In addition to levels, there would be earned marksman skills. Think of Final Fantasy Tactics, only in real time. Each weapon would have a certain number of skill slots available that would increase with the weapon's level. You could then choose to attach skills into those slots or randomize the feature through different sets.

Skills would cause obvious effects.

If you earn the Disable Legs skill, your shots would go low. A successful hit would cause damage but not necessarily be a successful skill activation.

However, if your Disable Legs shot works, then the enemy's movement is hampered based upon the skill's development.

Another example: You learn Vital Organ. A successful skill activation hit would cause a gradual decrease in the enemy's function, eventually knocking them out or killing them. Their hits would cause less damage and connect less frequently.

This may be similar to what Guild Wars is after (hell, it may be exactly what they use).

I'm just tired of playing games where my bowman takes one well-aimed shot, then I frantically reload as the enemy closes to melee distance and proceeds to bash my brains in. There's just no need for that.

And why does that seem to be the norm for enemy behavior? Close and destroy? How about avoid and perform strike-and-fade attacks? Or seek cover and use a ranged weapon? Or just avoidance behavior versus straight-line fleeing? Woah, ok, wrong rant.

Let's say you select your ranged skills and head out for some fighting: as you mouse over an enemy a radial menu pops up. Move your cursor over a skill; It will become active. Certain skills can be activated simultaneously, others only singly.

The leveling up and skill gain of weapons allows basic weapons to become useful. This somewhat reduces the 'kill monsters to gain loot to kill monsters to gain loot', though I may have just replaced that treadmill with one based upon skills.

Another interesting feature to add would change the effects of your weapons based upon what sort of skills you favor and enemies you kill.

For example: You use your arrows to kill a giant poisonous adder. After you've killed, let's say, twenty, your arrows become Narcotican Arrows, with a slowing effect and extra damage to creatures sensitive to poison. Again, the number of effects that can be added depend upon the weapon's level.

A similar but opposite system can be used with armors. A number of specific attacks give the armor extra defense against those types of attacks. So the more you go after spear-bearing kobolds, the more your armor ends up protecting you against stabbing weapons. Bear the brunt of many icy breath attacks and you earn a good set of cold weather gear.

This sort of system connects the decisions you make regarding your favored enemies. If you wish to become the ultimate dragon hunter, then go after creatures that will sharpen the skills and defenses you need.

The important thing when presenting a complex game system is the options for simplification; Those who wish to micromanage should be given that control. You could choose to completely automate the earning of skills and the order they are attempted in combat. Or you could go on an attack-by-attack basis. This also ensures that the player is not burdened during simple battles but must utilize what they have earned.

Just trying to make things more interesting.

The Young Science

I figure if
boxing's supposed to be 'the sweet science', then videogames can be 'the young science'.

The thing is, I end up feeling old, all because I remember 'it's the 2600 from A-ta-ri!' And back when the NES was brand new, and everybody in the neighborhood called it 'Intendo'. And the actual Game Boy. No, not the ones with different case colors. Or the one that showed colors on its screen. And definitely not the one known as Advance. Like the actual actual original Game Boy.

Lookie here for a succinct layout of gaming's history.

As old as I feel, I just know there's some guy smacking his gums and reminiscing about the first time he unwrapped a Magnavox Odyssey.

And behind that guy, there's another guy snorting derisively, bragging about how he taught a Q-32 machine on ARPA to play paper-rock-scissors.

And somewhere behind him Charles Babbage is snickering about his plans to have his Difference Engine calculate the rendering of ten colored squares every four hours, allowing his input to react to proposed chess moves based upon simple rules and render the movement of pieces on a simplified board over the period of several months.

But really, gaming is young because of its mass popularity in our culture. It is now a fixture rather than a fad (though some may disagree).

It is a medium in its own right.