Monday, March 31, 2008

Finding a Voice: Part 2

Moments after posting the previous entry, I went over to Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer to listen to the latest podcast, where he interviews fellow blogger Leigh Alexander of Sexy Videogameland. It's a great interview so go check it out. What's interesting is that she too found herself in the same predicament as I am in, unable to find a voice. She eventually found a niche topic, that of hentai games, that gave her her distinctive sound.

This was a completely different solution than my proposal, which was to expand to a different form of communication altogether. She was concerned about her content, I was concerned about my medium. I guess I am too much into the Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message" school of thought that I never taken my content into consideration. Hmm... trying to find a niche topic to talk about? That's going to happen with time. I'll just continue whacking away at all these thoughts in my head until I find it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Finding a Voice

It's amazing how only a couple of months ago, we were complaining about the lack of video game criticism. Now, many have stepped up to the challenge of providing intellectual discourses or more subjective, and often crass, reviews. With so many entering the gaming blogosphere and many prominent figures already existing, I admit I find it hard for myself to forge a distinctive voice. So far, my medium of communication has been text, but I find myself getting lost among wordsmiths like N'Gai Croal, Stephen Totilo, Leigh Alexander, Mitch Krpata, Michael Abbott, and Jerry Holkins (all of whom are in my blogroll, by the way).

I think a good path for me to take is to expand to a new medium. After all, unlike most of the above mentioned names, I'm not a professional writer and thusly, text is not my greatest strength. Currently, I'm trying to set up a podcast with three other gaming personalities, which I think would compliment this blog nicely. Having four people with differing opinions brings an interesting dynamic to gaming discourse that you won't find in the blog, which is basically one man's soliloquy. Besides that, I'll continue to find new ways to make Theory Fighter more interesting.

While we're on the subject of game criticism using alternative media, why don't I point out other successes? Here are four that I really love and that you've probably already heard of. Nevertheless, they discuss games using non-textual media and all of them are very humorous.

1) 1UP Yours (Podcast) - I subscribe to Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine and visit the 1UP website every so often, but I don't particularly find anything special about them that I can't find with other enthusiast presses. The exception, however, is the 1UP Yours podcast. There must be over a hundred gaming podcasts on the internet and I've tried out a quarter of them, but 1UP Yours is definitely the best one. It's updated weekly, the cast is funny and informed, and they get game developers for guest spots every once in a while. Given their nature as a gaming magazine, they have the opportunity to cover a large range of games and to preview upcoming games. If you look past the immature jokes, you'll find that the cast has a lot of intelligent things to say about the games they play.

2) Penny Arcade (Webcomic) - There are a dozen or so gaming webcomics, but Penny Arcade is the first and still the best. Other webcomics put video game characters in funny situations and although it may bring out a chuckle or two, I find that they don't have much to say. Whereas Penny Arcade strips take a more critical approach, summing up everything they like or don't like about a game and presenting it in three panels. There is often a better game review in those three panels than many reviews you'll find in the enthusiast press.

3) Zero Punctuation (Video Reviews) - Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's reviews are hilarious and overly critical. His rapid-fire speech and his minimalistic cartoon style are so distinctive, he obviously had no problem distinguishing himself from the myriad of mediocre video reviews you'll find on Youtube.

4) Mushroom Singdom (Music Videos) - I'm not really sure what this is, but it's absolutely genius! GameJew summarizes and reviews new Virtual Console releases in the form of music. The music is great and the lyrics are hilarious. Go watch the reviews for Kirby and the Crystal Shards and Super Turrican if you don't believe me.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jack Thompson's Allegations

Whenever Jack Thompson makes a claim that Counter-Strike is a murder simulator, the gaming community just calls him crazy. Well, he has to be crazy, right? There has been no evidence proving the correlation between violent games and violent acts, so he's just spouting gibberish to the uninformed media. But is there a little basis to his allegations?

In 1983, Paladin Press published "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors." What started out as a fictional crime novel, turned into a how-to manual about starting a career as a professional hitman, receiving contracts, and pulling off hits. Ten years later, a triple murder was committed by a man named James Perry, who claimed to have used the book as a guide in his murder. Naturally, the families of the victims sued Paladin Press and the U.S. appeals court unanimously ruled that "Hit Man" was not protected by the free speech cause of the First Amendment.

Two years after this decision, Paladin Press settled the case, giving the families of the victims several million dollars, destroying the remaining copies of the book in their possession, and surrendering all rights to publish and reproduce the work. That's right, "Hit Man" was a work of literature that was deemed to be an exception to free speech and free press. Now, you can argue that "Hit Man" is a technical manual, which is distinct from a creative, fictional work, and therefore, the court's decision was justified. I'll give you that.

In the world of video games, we have games designed specifically for military training, ranging from flight simulators to Mission Rehearsal Exercise's combat training to Full Spectrum Command's tactics training. These war simulators train soldiers to make decisions in combat situations and respond to threats. In some ways, these games train soldiers to fight and kill. These games aren't exactly creative, fictional works; they are how-to technical software comparable to "Hit Man."

One of those games I mentioned was turned into a retail version called Full Spectrum Warrior. According to the FSW website, Full Spectrum Command involves more high-level command akin to moving symbols on a map, whereas in Full Spectrum Warrior, the player is on the ground engaging in combat. In other words, Full Spectrum Warrior is a more visceral experience, showing realistic 3D models shooting at each other rather than abstract symbols on a map. With its more accurate representation of war, it's also a more accurate and persuasive simulation of it. The military got the tactics simulator, but the public got more than that; we see our avatars kill and we see our enemies die.

The distinction between "Hit Man" and any regular crime novel can be clearly seen, but can you tell the difference between a military flight simulator and Ace Combat? How far removed is a military combat simulator to Tom Clancy games or Counter-Strike? And what's to say about Full Spectrum Warrior, a tactical game that's more realistic than its military counterpart? Does Jack Thompson's allegations, as far-fetched as they are, have some basis to them?

Whether you like it or not, games teach. There's an entire field of serious game developers who are making games with a positive educational purpose. And some games, without intending, teach useful skills that can save lives. But if it's possible to teach positive lessons, then surely negative ones go through every once in a while. I personally think the ratio of negative lessons to positive is very low, like one in every million, because we are trained to block out negative influences and to differentiate between right and wrong. But there's always the possibility for an unstable mind to pick up one of these games and use it for malicious means. So, in the end, is making a violent game worth this risk?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bad Game Design: The Slowly Regenerating Health Bar

One thing I can thank Halo for is popularizing the trend of the quickly rechargeable health bar, even if it isn't the first game to do it. With Gears of War, Rainbow Six Las Vegas, Call of Duty 4, and a myriad of other first person shooters following suit, no longer am I subjected to the agonizing wait of the slowly regenerating health. Other genres should incorporate the quick health recharge, if they're not already using a health potion system.

What brings me to talk about this subject is the first X-Men Legends, which I was playing the other day. Wolverine, whose mutant ability is regeneration, can slowly regain his health, while other characters can equip items that allow them to do the same. Although useful, it ends up being an annoying and ultimately boring feature. Simply stated, it's bad game design and I wish to never see it again. I hope developers take the following two rules in mind when they design their health systems for future games.

1) If it can be abused, it will be abused.

With the right equipment and powers, every character in the party can recharge their health bars like Wolverine. Sure, there are health potions in X-Men Legends, but if my characters can regain their health for free, then I would always go with the free option. The levels are designed with a number of set battles and some quiet pauses in between each group of enemies. Thus, the game affords plenty of opportunities in between battles to use the health and mana regeneration feature. Just stand in one place for a full five minutes as you watch your bars fill up pixel-by-pixel. Since the battles themselves aren't very long, standing around waiting to heal ends up being a large percentage of the playtime. This inevitably makes the game boring and ruins the pacing, which bring me to my second point.

2) It's not the players' responsibility to pace themselves.

If I completely ignore the health regeneration and use health potions regularly, then the pacing of the game would be as intended by the developers. But I shouldn't have to put artificial rules or barriers on my style of play to make the game more fun. I would prefer if the game forces me into contrived scenarios that doesn't let me straddle for too long. For example, if the game detects me trying to abuse regeneration, it can spawn some enemies to keep me in motion. Better yet, replace the regeneration with something else entirely. Two sequels later in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, the developers came up with a pretty good solution. Although health regeneration still exists in the game for some characters, you generally regain health and mana by defeating enemies, giving players the incentive to move forward and stay on the offensive. The game ends up being much better paced than its predecessors as a result.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Product Review

Every time I watch a great movie, or even a terrible one, the experience sticks with me upon finishing it. I always feel the urge to talk about the movie with whomever I watched it with and when I get home, I immediately bring up online reviews to see what other people thought of it. Yeah, I use reviews the wrong way. I don't read them to make an informed decision on what movie to watch. I make my movie decisions based off previews and word of mouth. Rather, I read reviews after watching the movie because it's fun to find others who share my opinions and it's interesting to understand the opinions of those who don't agree with me.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for game reviews. They're incredibly boring to read. There's already a lot of criticism written about game reviews -- whether or not they're influenced by advertisement pressure, how they differ and are inferior to game critiques, and how broken the number rating system is. Nevertheless, I'll share my personal gripes about game reviews.

1) The long descriptions of fact and features
Q: "Wait, reviews are just opinions. Right?"
A: Actually, we don't think so. We make no excuses for our verdicts about games and believe our reviews stand for themselves. While our reviews, of course, do contain an element of subjectivity to them, we see the process of reviewing games as one that primarily involves the reporting of facts. -- Gamespot, in the FAQ section of their review philosophy.
What facts are there to report? The game runs at 60 fps, it has 16 player online matches, it includes 20 different game types, and it takes 20 hours to complete. These aren't very interesting to read at all, especially for someone like me who reads reviews the "wrong" way. At the top of every review, they should include a bullet list of all the features and get it out of the way early, or just post links to previews that already covered the different modes and characters. I frankly don't want to read three paragraphs of facts before I get to a sentence telling me the story is good.

2) The pullback comment

The pullback comment happens when the reviewer makes a negative criticism, then immediately relents it with a positive note that is of a different category. Below are three examples of the pullback comment selected at complete random.

"If you're a Ninja Gaiden fan, it's a bit disappointing to realize that on standard difficulty level, you'll be able to take the majority down in one try. Even some of the attack patterns are practically the same among bosses, which is disappointing. That doesn't mean, however, that Dragon Sword isn't a lot of fun, regardless of how you feel about its level of challenge." -- Gamespot's review of Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword
"While there's a huge selection, very few [maps] stood out as iconic in actual layout – the bigger maps were a little bland, while the smaller maps were incredibly pretty, but without much personality beyond looks. Don't get me wrong, UT's gameplay is more than strong enough to carry maps that aren't wildly interesting" -- IGN's review of Unreal Tournament III
"That’s right, the framerate is a major problem in this game and it does get bad during multiplayer and sometimes in the single-player game when you’re in a massive battle. The game does feature online functions using the Wi-FI connection but it is reserved to trading Moogles with others. It’s hardly a worthy substitute for going on quests with other gamers. Still, with a game with solid controls and good use of the touch screen, you can’t complain too much." -- GameZone's review of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates

3) The cliché fan recommendation

"It's a blast to play with friends, but not alone. It's certainly worth a look if you're a fan of this series." -- PCMag's review of Mario Party 8
"Check it out if you're a fan of the series or want to go questing with local friends." -- Game Daily's review of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates
"If you're a fan of the genre, you pretty much owe it to yourself to pick this game up." -- IGN's review of Virtual Fighter 4 Evolution
It's a given that fans of the series or genre will check it out. Instead, inform fans when they should stay away. Not surprisingly, most of these boring reviews are from the big enthusiast press outlets. Thank goodness for the Tom Chicks and Mitch Krpatas, or else I'd think game journalism is doomed.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Death of the Movie Theater

We always talk about how the game industry imitates the movie industry, from cutscenes to product placement to its maturation, but I think the converse is true when it comes to the future of the movie theater. Earlier today, I went to see 10,000 BC, which is #1 at the box office, and I was surprised to see how empty the movie theater was. Where was everyone? Were they at home playing Smash Bros.? That was a reasonable prediction seeing as how games were replacing movies as people's favorite past time. The release of Halo 3 led to the worse month in box office sales since 1999 and Hollywood is already afraid that Iron Man would lose ticket sales to Grand Theft Auto 4.

Sitting in a half empty theater for a big budget movie made me think that the movie theater is going to go the way of the arcades. By that, I mean movie theaters will start to die out until they adopt gimmicks that cater to a niche audience and leave them barely alive. Back when Street Fighter 2 came out, arcades were booming. Everyone was at the arcades... it was the cool place to be. But over the years, arcades lost their audience and many started closing. I remember frequenting five different arcades in my city and now there's only one left. But what made the arcades die out and why are movie theaters following the same path?

There are three main reasons. The first is because the home experience became much more competent and eventually exceeded that of the arcades. In the beginning, arcade cabinets provided superior hardware and the console ports often had less features or were downright terrible. But when console ports became equal to their arcade counterparts and eventually started including more features, the arcades lost their appeal. Likewise, in the movie industry, high-definition television and surround sound systems have been infiltrating homes, providing a very high quality experience that rivals the movie theater.

When arcades realized that they were losing to consoles, they started introducing gimmick-based hardware to differentiate themselves. Thus came the age of Beatmania, Dance Dance Revolution, and all those other games that make you work up a sweat to have any fun. Now that the Wii, Playstation Eye, and Rock Band are paving the way for gestural gameplay at home, I don't see any point for arcades to still exist unless they come up with another big innovation. With the movie industry, my prediction is that they'll need to rely on gimmicks as well to stay alive. Expect to see more movies coming out on IMAX 3D and new stuff like interactive, vibrating seats that we normally see as amusement park rides.

The second reason why arcades died is that people grew out of them. Arcades were a great place to play against strangers and meet other gamers, but now we have the Internet and online gaming for that. Not to mention that meeting people at the comfort of your own home is a better experience than being surrounded by lots of smelly, sweaty nerds in a dim-lit room. Likewise, watching a movie on your big screen HDTV from your couch is a more comfortable experience than having the guy behind you constantly kick your chair while someone up front is talking on his cellphone. By the way, despite how empty the 10,000 BC theater was, I still managed to get a group of commentators, a crying infant, and a jerk with a laser pointer.

Finally, the third reason is because the consoles were getting media as quickly as the arcades were. At one point, you had to wait forever for your favorite arcade game to get a console port and most of the time, you weren't even sure if there was a console port coming. But then console ports became only a few weeks wait and eventually, consoles became the premiere launch platform for every game. We're seeing the exact same thing in the movie industry. Lots of movies are direct-to-DVD while movies that are released in theaters get a home port much sooner than before. In fact, Atonement just came out on DVD and Blu-ray, while the theater next to where I work is still showing it. Something like that never happened two years ago. It further proves my point that the movie theaters are going to diminish like our beloved arcades.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Addicted to Game Culture

When fellow blogger, Leigh Alexander, tried to abstain from playing video games for an entire week and found it nearly impossible, I said to myself that that wasn't me. I'm not addicted to video games. In fact, I've gone weeks without touching a single game. I'm usually far too busy with school or work to make games my priority. And I have a healthy dose of secondary interests to satisfy my itch for entertainment.

A couple of days later, the unthinkable happened. The Verizon DSL service in my area went down. My first reaction was, of course, confusion and panic. Was there something wrong with my modem? Was my computer attacked with malware? I called Verizon and literally went through an hour of waiting and providing information before customer service tried to help me reset my PPP connection. It worked. My computer was finally online again and I could continue my daily Internet routine.

Twenty minutes later, it went down again. And thus, I called customer service and this time, they told me my modem was broken and offered to sell me a new modem for $65. I declined and called my friend, who is much more technically savvy than I am, and he told me that the network was probably down. The only solution was to wait it out. But how long would I have to wait? A couple of days? The entire month?

The prospect of being disconnected from the Internet almost gave me an anxiety attack. I felt depressed. I tried to play some video games to get my mind off the problem, but I couldn't get myself to play them. I picked up a book that's been on my reading queue for a while and I only got through four pages before my depression compelled me to stop. I did manage to marginally forget about the situation when my technically savvy friend invited me over to his house for the weekend. We watched the entire fourth season of Alias in one sitting, but the moment we finished the season finale, I was reminded that I had nothing to do when I returned home.

Fortunately for me, my Internet was back up the following day. I was ecstatic. Feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation were all instantly gone in one moment. It was then when I knew I had a problem and I started investigating its origins. In my discovery, I realized that I didn't particularly have an Internet addiction; I had a video game addiction. I have over 100 RSS subscriptions, all but two are related to games. The guys I chat with the most online are fellow enthusiast gamers and the girls I chat with the most often play against me in casual web games like Boggle and Scrabble.

I was addicted to games, but not in the same way that Ms. Alexander was. I could go weeks without feeling a game controller in my hands. But going a few days without reading the latest gaming news and previews, without chatting with friends or posting in forums about games, without checking gamers' blogs for their insights on the medium, was just too much for me to handle. When I made my triumphant return to the Internet after a five day hiatus, the gaming community had moved so quickly ahead of me that I felt like I had been living under a rock for a year. There was so much backlog of news in my RSS feeds, it took me two days to catch up to the world.

Now at work, whilst everyone else has their headphones on to listen to music, I'm listening to three game-related podcasts a day. In my browser, I'm constantly running my RSS reader and checking it every hour or two. Next to my bed are a stack of game magazines and a pile of game theory books. On my desk are some philosophy and cognitive science textbooks and a copy of my unfinished dissertation about games. It's funny how I spend much more time reading, writing, watching, and talking about video games than I actually spend playing them. Is that abnormal?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Things Thereof

I love crossovers. I love the character interactions found in Godzilla vs. King Kong, Robocop vs. Terminator, Freddy vs. Jason, and Aliens vs. Predator. I love the bigger company crossovers like Marvel vs. DC, Capcom vs. SNK, and Kingdom Hearts. And I love the random franchise mash-ups like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Harvey Birdman, and Super Smash Bros. It's so interesting and rewarding to see these characters, who you've invested so much time in, come into contact with other characters that you love. You'll see your favorite characters put into funny situations -- a former-superhero-turned-lawyer defends Secret Squirrel for allegedly flashing a woman, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny play a prank on a human detective whilst he's falling to his death, a team of street fighters challenges the super-powered X-Men to a match, and a pink marshmallow sucks in Solid Snake to grow a manly beard.

Yes, I've been playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl recently and it prompted me to write this post. The game is such a great homage to the Nintendo brand. You'll see obscure references like Mr. Game & Watch, R.O.B. the useless NES peripheral, and Dr. Wright from the SNES version of SimCity to newer characters like Captain Olimar from Pikmin, Lucario the fourth generation Pokémon mascot, and Mr. Resetti from Animal Crossing. The game is so entirely self-referential, from its playable characters and stages to its trophies and stickers, that it'll sure bring a nostalgic smile to any gamer's face.

There's a lot of great things to be said about the Smash Bros. series. It's very easy to get into, simplifying special moves to a directional tilt of the joystick coupled with a button press. Its gameplay plays off the familiar design of the platforming genre and has enough random elements to give an unskilled players a fighting chance. But I think the most important aspect of why the series is so fun is the variety that each character brings in. Nintendo's rich history and diverse franchises make me think that they are one of the few companies who can pull off a game of such magnitude. You see, it was common for games of yore to rely on a gameplay gimmick to differentiate itself in its oversaturated genre. Bionic Commando had his grappling hook, Mega Man stole powers from defeated bosses, Rainbow Islands had the rainbow arcs, Lode Runner had terrain deformation, and Castlevania had the whip. Nintendo franchises, many of which originated from that era, each had their own gimmicks and I'm glad to see these characters appear in SSBB with their gimmicks intact.

Princess Peach, whose incarnation is based off of Super Mario Bros. 2, has her floating skill and the ability to pick up turnips and items from the ground. Kirby has his multiple jumps and the ability to suck up characters to steal their powers. Pokémon Trainer controls three different pokémon and can switch between them at anytime. Captain Olimar has to pick up pikmin from the ground and command them to do the fighting for him. Yoshi has his unique second jump he received in the Yoshi Island games and all his egg-related glory. Sonic's gameplay is about constantly moving and staying on the offensive, much like how his games are about speed and forward motion. It's also great to see characters who didn't originate in gimmick-based games appear in the Smash series with original movesets like Captain Falcon, Fox McCloud, and the Ice Climbers. I'm personally a little disappointed to see Diddy Kong, who originated from a series that revolved around tagging and piggybacking, not show up with Dixie Kong as a partner. Instead, he's based around his later incarnations in Donkey Kong 64 and Mario Power Tennis, which is a bit less interesting.

Nevertheless, since each character came from a gimmicky background, they brought their gimmicks with them into Smash. Smash is a mish-mash of dozens of platforming ideas, which gives the game its variety. Not very often do we see a fighting game where every character is based on a different gameplay concept. I can only think of the Guilty Gear games and to an extent, Mortal Kombat II. And I'm not talking about Mortal Kombat's fatalities, which are completely useless aesthetic gimmicks. I'm talking about how some of the characters introduced ideas to the fighting game genre that did not exist back then like Shang Tsung's morphing and Reptile's invisibility. Square Enix is making their own crossover fighting game called Dissidia: Final Fantasy, but I'm not convinced that it'll be as good as the Smash series as their characters originated from a rather gimmick-less series.

Far too many games today try to do everything from your Halos to your Grand Theft Autos. What we're ending up with is a homogenization of ideas and design. Everything is starting to look the same to me to the point where I usually can't tell what open-world game or first-person shooter I'm looking at. I think we need to roll back the clock and start relying on gimmicks again to differentiate our games. We're seeing this in the independent scene with games based on space or time manipulation, perspective changing, obfuscation, shifting characters, and lots of other neat ideas. The only commercial game with the same design philosophy was last year's Portal, whose entire gameplay revolved around shooting portals and teleporting oneself from point A to point B.

Going back to Brawl, there are lots of gimmicky stages as well. My favorites are WarioWare, Pictochat, Flat Zone 2, Mario Bros., 75m, and Elektroplankton, in which it seems like you're fighting on an exact replica of the respective games. Other creative stages include the Mushroomy Kingdom where you play desolate versions of the first two stages from Super Mario Bros., Smashville whose time of day and various events are based on the Wii's internal clock, and The Summit where you fight on a large melting iceberg. These stages further epitomizes the brilliance of this fictional world that Nintendo created. Being able to stand on a line drawn in Pictochat is completely ludicrous, but in the context of this game with all its zaniness, it's actually somewhat believable.

That's because from the start, these characters are treated as figurines, as toys for the player to play with. In the original Smash Bros. game, the opening movie shows a child's room where the figurines come into life and start their fighting. In the Subspace Emissary mode in Brawl, when these characters die, they don't actually get killed but revert back to trophy form. The entire narrative is placed under the prospect of a child's imagination. The Master Hand is representative of our own hands playing with these toys and this is a common theme used throughout the entire game. In the character select screen, for example, players control a glove as a cursor that points at characters and can drag icons around, unlike other fighting games where players merely highlight characters on the screen. With this notion, Nintendo has perfected the art of creating a unified world from their various character mythos. Even with weird juxtapositions like a deformed Mario vs. a realistically proportioned Captain Falcon vs. a flat Mr. Game & Watch vs. a cel-shaded-inspired Toon Link, I accept it as a believable universe.

I wasn't really sure where I was going with this post. I just wanted to talk about some random thoughts I've had while playing Brawl. To summarize, I love crossovers, I love gameplay gimmicks, and as ridiculous as the Smash universe is, I love its fiction.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Brainy Gamer

The Brainy Gamer is a wonderful gaming blog written by Michael Abbott. He is a member of academia and his writings are much more intellectual than my own. So please head over to for some interesting reading.

In his latest podcast, episode 10, he plugged this blog and attempted to respond to an earlier post I made about video game violence and art. You can listen to the entire podcast here, it's only a little over an hour long. Or you can skip to the last ten minutes where I'm mentioned. Saving the best for last. :o)

To visitors from the Brainy Gamer blog, welcome to Theory Fighter! I've only gotten started, so I hope you enjoy reading the few essays I've posted. Please bookmark this site and expect to see more updates and hopefully, learn something new in the process. I will be starting my own podcast soon with a fun group of brainiacs and interviews with new media artists. So I hope you'll come back for more!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

From the Movie Model to the Television Model

I'm probably the only person in the world who doesn't download music. I don't own an mp3 player, as I still have a bulky CD player in the side pocket of my winter jacket. But every single person I know downloads music and none of them does it through legal channels. I try to convince them otherwise, but to no avail. "Look at those stars," they tell me. "They're rich despite all the piracy that's going on."

Sure, the rock stars are rich because they still make a lot of money selling concert tickets. But the production houses, the ones who spend the money doing the promotions and making the artists look good, lose millions of dollars each year due to piracy. As with any big production house, they would stop taking risks and start cutting the not-yet-famous, upcoming bands -- the bands that a lot of my friends listen to. Despite my efforts to convince them to the light side, piracy is here to stay. Evidently, it's incredibly hard to compete against free. But the music industry isn't going to die. The music industry is going to change. Perhaps it would react the same way the Korean music industry reacted to piracy and saturate music videos with advertisements. Perhaps we'll see a lot more licensed soundtracks in other media. Or maybe they'll use video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band as platforms to sell music.

The video game industry is dealing with a similar situation. Developers are wary of the rampant amount of piracy on the PC platform, as evidenced by recent reports of piracy on Call of Duty 4 and Crysis. As such, many companies are moving development towards consoles as they generally have much less piracy; that is until all the modders and pirates move onto the console platforms. But like my predictions of the music industry, I think that video games have to take a similar approach to respond to this problem in any successful manner. They will need an increase use of advertisements.

I see that a few companies are already taking this path. EA's Battlefield Heroes will employ their new "Play 4 Free" model, in which the game will be available free for download with revenue generated from advertising and micropayments. Since in-game advertisements would look out of place in Battlefield's World War II setting, the advertisements will be used in the menu screens before matches. Likewise, Id Software is releasing their web-based Quake Live under their "freemium" category, which will use in-game advertisements for revenue. Finally, Blizzard's Starcraft II, while not free, will also be using advertisements to maximize revenues.

Advertisements have always been detested by players, but if they're playing a high production game for no cost, I don't think they would mind adverts at all. Nevertheless, I'm not convinced that a couple of ads in-game or in the menus are enough to cover the cost of making these big games. The fact of the matter is this approach is too similar to the film model, in which advertisements are shown before the movie starts and in-film adverts are subtle enough to be completely ignored. Films do not make much revenue from their ads, so why would we expect games to do so while using the same model? Advertisements need to be more blatant for them to work.

The web is a good example of this. Every standard website you go to has banner ads, usually an image or some interactive flash that is displayed at the top of the page and on the side. We've become so familiar and accustomed with this that we've learned to completely ignore it. This was the subtle approach. Nowadays, most websites employ more blatant techniques such as pop-up ads, hover ads, or interstitial ads where you sometimes randomly load a web page displaying nothing but a large advertisement.

Interstitial ads are very much like television commercials, as they obtrusively interrupt your experience. But people can still enjoy a website with interstitial ads and people can still become immersed in a television show with commercials. Can video games adopt a television model and still provide an immersive experience? What if we put one-minute commercials during loading screens or better yet, at cliffhanger moments during the storyline much like what television does? The advertisement would certainly be more effective, but would it remove the player from the virtual world so far as to ruin the entire game? I don't have answers to these questions, but I'd like to think that in-game commercials could work.

Drawing more from the television parallel, I think it would be interesting if consoles adopted a cable channel model. Even though the PC gaming industry is in disarray, so much that a PC Gaming Alliance was formed to remedy the situation, there is one massive exception to the rule known as Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Blizzard is making a fortune from this game not because of the number of copies it's selling, but the number of subscribers it has, which at last count was 10 million. This is a crazy idea, but what if players can subscribe to a game channel of their favorite company? For example, I can subscribe to a Capcom channel, where I pay a monthly fee to receive all their new games at no additional cost at an episodic magnitude and frequency. I'm not proposing this as a replacement to our current model, but as an alternative. Analogously, the television industry both airs their series and releases their shows on DVD.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Removing Genre Awards

With the near release of the U.S. version of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, I'd like to comment on the petty arguments over whether or not the game is a fighting game. On one side, since the game involves characters fighting against each other, it's a fighting game by its most elementary definition. On the other side, people argue it isn't a fighting game since it has too many random elements, it lacks several standard fighting game elements such as health bars and command inputs, and half the game has to be turned off in order to make it competitive.

After a while, most people just stopped caring, as did I. So what if SSBM is accepted as a fighting game? It doesn't make the game any better or worse. Genres are simply marketing terms after all; they're there to help consumers find something that matches their interests. I'd like that to be the common sentiment, but unfortunately, the video game industry is stuck in a state in which genres do matter.

At the end of the year, every media outlet and publication gives out their "best of year" awards. These awards tend to fall under three categories. The first one is achievement awards, which include best graphics, music, writing, and artistic direction. The second is platform awards, which include best PC game, PS3, PSP, XB360, Wii, DS, or whatever platform is on the market. Finally, the third category is genre awards. Out of these three categories, the achievement awards are the only ones that are stable and ubiquitous. For example, "best graphics" is a stable category since all games of past, present, and future have some form of graphical display.

Platform awards, on the other hand, such as "best PS3 game" is not a stable category because 50 years into the future, someone would look back at these lists and have no idea what a Playstation 3 is. Platform awards also sometimes create ambiguous or paradoxical situations. For example, more than one publication of 2007 gave Call of Duty 4 the "best XB360 game" award over Bioshock, but Bioshock won "game of the year" award over Call of Duty 4. Isn't a platform award just a subcategory of the "game of the year" award? If we already establish that Bioshock is the better game overall, then shouldn't Bioshock still be the better game on the console? Personally, I think we should get rid of platform awards altogether and add a new achievement award called "best handheld game." It's the equivalent of "best animated movie" at the Academy Awards.

Genres are even less stable and more ambiguous than platforms. Genres fade away and new genres are formed every year. Beat-em-ups and shoot-em-ups are a rare breed, while rhythm/music games are relatively new. In addition, most games nowadays are a combination of multiple genres and it's difficult to place them into one specific category. Mass Effect is a role-playing / third-person-shooter, Halo 3 is a vehicular-combat / first-person-shooter, Kingdom Under Fire is a hack-and-slash / real-time-strategy, and Smash Bros. is a fighting / platformer. Who really is to say which one encompassing genre these hybrids fall into? It's okay if we attach arbitrary keywords to these games that would help other people find something to their interests, but to define exactly which genre they fall under is quite pretentious and irresponsible.

The way we think about classification is very different now than it was back then. I attribute this change to the advent of the Internet, specifically Web 2.0. We don't necessarily have this notion of a hierarchical taxonomy anymore, but more of a folksonomic classification system. Things aren't broken down into a tree-like structure where every node only has one parent. Instead, they resemble a giant spider-web, where nodes have multiple neighbors, therefore multiple precedents and derivatives. I made a mock-up of the two types of genre classifications for your viewing pleasure.

Game publications should leave genre awards out of their annual award ceremonies because it's irresponsible for them to define which genre a game belongs to. We don't define a game by its genre; we define genres by the games. Let's stop putting so much emphasis on genres and perhaps, the forum posters would stop their petty arguments over whether or not Smash Bros. is a fighting game, or if Zelda is a role-playing game.

Now, I certainly know why game publications have genre awards -- it's to give mention to games of niche genres that generally have no chance of winning game of the year. When was the last time a puzzle game, a sports game, or a fighting game won best game? These genres are the equivalent of comedies and horror movies at the Oscars. Removing genre awards would be removing any appraisal these niche games would get. My solution to this is a simple change to the nomenclature. Instead of giving out the "best puzzle game" award, we give out the "best puzzle mechanics" award, which makes it more of an achievement award than a genre award. As explained before, genres are not very stable and most games are cross-genre nowadays, so placing a hybrid game into one genre is an opinionated decision. However, the different mechanics that the game employs can be clearly defined. Attacking enemies with ranged attacks is a shooting mechanic. Getting from location A to location B before the opponents do or under a specific time is a racing mechanic. Gaining a form of experience points and upgrading character statistics, skill set, and equipment is a role-playing mechanic.

I find that this is quite an elegant solution that solves a number of problems. First off, hybrid games can be nominated in several mechanic categories, instead of being arbitrarily thrown into a specific genre. Secondly, the merits of its mechanics will be judged, not the overall package. So if a game like Puzzle Quest wins best puzzle game because of its RPG mechanics and not its derivative puzzle elements, then it's not exactly fair to other more innovative puzzle games. There's always the "game of the year" award for the overall package.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Violence is an Art

Being the social outcast in the entertainment media family, games are generally looked down upon by outsiders. It's not hard to see why gamers make a stand for their passion -- seemingly more so than comic book fans and action figure fans -- and fight back against claims that games turn us into immature child-men and man-teens, obese children, sodomizing rapists, and violent adults. To be fair, video games were only mentioned in passing in the articles about immaturity and obesity. The issue of violent video games, however, has been repeatedly debated upon with new "scientific studies" appearing every two months, contradicting data and questionable testing methods intact.

Who truly knows if there's a direct link between video games and violent behavior? Certainly not I as I'm not a psychologist or a scientist. I haven't done any scientific studies, but even from anecdotal sources, I hear conflicting reports. Most of the gamers I know claim that video games make them less violent since games provide a framework in which they could relinquish external pressures and act out innate anger issues. However, they also admit that they drive more aggressively after playing a racing game, in which they receive minor time penalties for crashing and wrecking cars, or that they felt an urge to go paintballing after playing a first-person shooter. Not to mention those who easily get frustrated with difficult games and throw their controllers at walls, but act considerably more civil when confronted with difficult problems at work.

I'm not going to attempt to prove or disprove a link between virtual violence and aggressive behavior. However, I like to think that games can influence players to be violent. I find it hypocritical for gamers to so quickly dispel the notion of violent games influencing violent behaviors, then simultaneously be on the forefront of the "games are art" movement. Art is a creative work that influences, whether that influence is positive or negative. Art engages its audience and instigates emotions and behaviors -- excitement, dread, enjoyment, depression, courage, anxiety, loneliness, compassion, and yes, even aggression. If we are fighting so hard to get games recognized as art, then we must also accept the notion that games can influence violence.

I think coming to this realization can lead to improvements in our industry. For one, game retailers and more specifically, the staff who work at game retail stores, should get their act straight and stop selling Mature-rated games to kids. Similarly, the ESRB should promote higher awareness of the ratings to parents. If parents decide to let their children play mature games, then that's their decision, but stores should never be the decision makers.

Secondly, admitting that violent games can be negatively influential can lead to designers and developers to start moving away from the violent model. With the exception of a few standout games, the mainstream game industry is littered with two extremes -- the violent adult games and the non-violent children's games. The non-violent adult games can be found in the independent industry, which I'm absolutely grateful for, but wouldn't it be great if these games had bigger budgets and bigger marketing campaigns?