12 April 2013

Upcoming Consoles

A friend asked what I think about the upcoming Xbox and PlayStation consoles, with a link to this video. I wrote an absurdly long reply.

Errrrrgh. Why are you doing this to me? You know I have billions of thoughts on the subject. Where to even begin?

I guess I'll start by answering the question posed in the video's title: No. I don't need them. No one does. And to be clearer about my feelings, I don't want them, either, just as I haven't wanted any PlayStation or Xbox system to date. The games which define these systems do not appeal to me. I'm going to try to list every game ever released on an Xbox or a PlayStation - but NOT on a PC or a Nintendo system - that I even kind of like:

PaRappa the Rapper
Deadly Premonition
Double Fine Happy Action Theater

One of those games is 16 years old, the next is distinctly so-bad-it's-good, and the last is a playful mockery of the hardware for which it was released. And I'm not being flip; I just looked through lists of hundreds of games across seven different systems and I came up with three games that I KIND OF like, but haven't actually bothered to even play because my interest level really isn't that strong. I love video games, but I'm not the audience here.

Clearly the Xbox and PlayStation brands appeal to someone, though. In fact, they appeal to millions of someones. So let's change the question to, "If you like Xbox 360 or PS3, should you upgrade when the opportunity arises?" And the answer to that is, "Probably not." Not right away, at least.

I'm a huge Nintendo fan, but I still wouldn't recommend the Wii U to anyone who isn't such a fan that they wouldn't be asking me for advice. At this point, there are a number of good exclusive games available - Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros. U, Zombi U, Lego City Undercover - but of those four, I only own the one that came packed in the box with my console. Since getting my Wii U, I've enjoyed playing it, but I've also spent much more time playing Wii, DS, and GameCube games. The Wii U is a great piece of hardware, but there are far more great games available for much cheaper on older systems, and that's what I'm playing.

I'm glad I got my Wii U at launch because I like being a part of that new system zeitgeist, but the actual launch period software has been spotty, which I guarantee will be an issue on the new Xbox and PlayStation (more on that in a moment) and, on a system level, the Wii U is a mess. Turning the thing on a transitioning between system menus takes forever. Games freeze with alarming frequency, and the only way to get things working again is to - I'm serious - physically unplug the power cord and plug it back in again. Everything is tied in to the Internet, but the connection will come and go, and all the online features will suddenly vanish. It's bad.

These are OS problems; not hardware problems. There's a major system update scheduled for release later this month which should mostly alleviate these issues, but it's only coming MONTHS after the Wii U's release, and I promise you that other new consoles won't be any better. It is a product of consoles in the Internet era, overambitious hardware, and the security of the knowledge that shoddy user experiences are now (thanks in no small part to the embarrassingly blundering early years of the Xbox 360 and the PS3) the accepted norm. How many people eagerly kept shoveling their money to Microsoft even after their third Xbox 360 Red Ringed? Consumers have proven their complacency when it comes to getting screwed, and if I'm putting up with this nonsense from Nintendo now, don't think Microsoft and Sony won't match it. And there's plenty of reason to believe it will be much worse.

There's been talk from various (albeit uncredited) inside sources for a very long time now that the new Xbox will require an always-on Internet connection in order to run any games. It's something publishers have been attempting to get away with as an anti-piracy measure on the PC for years, acting though it's a completely harmless practice, but it's caused nothing but problems for players. The days of games that work as intended upon their release are...well, I hesitate to say over, but server problems, patches, basic content being gated behind pay walls are becoming the norm. I could point to dozens of examples of egregious offenders. If you haven't heard about the recent SimCity debacle, check out this article:

Oh, and according to EA, the only problem was that players "were having such a good time." Disgusting.

When asked if the next Xbox would have similar always-online requirements, Microsoft Studios creative director said he didn't understand why that would be a problem, and that anyone complaining should "deal with it." He's since been fired, but make no mistake: He was fired for putting the sentiment bluntly; not for thinking it.

Orth isn't the only person in video games who's lost a job recently. EA CEO John Riccitiello was recently asked to step down. Same for Square-Enix CEO Yoichi Wada. In fact, Square Enix recently blamed poor sales of key games such as Tomb Raider (3.4 million copies sold), Hitman: Absolution (3.6 million; the article below has that number wrong). How completely out of touch do you have to be to sell about 3.5 million copies of a reboot of an old series and still be disappointed that you've fallen so far below expectations? Yet Square Enix was predicting $37 million in profit for the year, and ended up losing $138 million. $138 million!

And entire companies have been shutting down left and right. LucasArts was just closed after more than 30 years of making games, as have loads of lesser known developers, and it may seem as if I'm getting off subject with all this inside baseball, but it matters. Thanks to the incredible (and technologically premature) demands the last round of Xbox and PlayStation consoles put on developers, games have become outrageously expensive to make and market. This means more safe, proven ideas and less risky experimentation. It means more consumer-unfriendly piracy-combating garbage that prevents games from working as intended. It means more obtrusive and expensive in-game purchases. It means a handful of over-produced, cookie-cutter, Call-of-Duty-style retreads released around November/December each year because they seem like the only sound investment to publishers on such expensive hardware, and more tiny, unpolished indie games made by teams of 2-3 people working without pay or health insurance in the hopes that they'll score just enough success to break even on games that present huge personal risks in their development, with little in between.

Which is not to say I'm not hopeful for the future of video games, but the prevailing attitudes in the games industry right now are fear and an almost-willful naïvety. Traditional console game developers are terrified of competition from phones and tablets, and can't afford to take risks. Indie developers have this world-beating optimism that shows an alarming ignorance of the history and the current state of the medium. We go through crashes of various magnitudes every few years. We're right on schedule for another one. This always happens. Anyone who pays attention anticipated it. The trouble is we're not dealing with it well. This isn't going to be holistically industry-stopping in the way that the whole 1982 Atari thing was, but with the amount of energy and money now wrapped up in the business, the effects actually could be much worse.

But there will still be those who survive the shake-up, and there will still be good - better than good! - games.

So turning our attention back to new Xbox and PlayStation 4 specifically, what can we expect? Well, nothing official has been announced about the Xbox, so treat anything you read about it as pure speculation, although Microsoft has a really embarrassing history of being unable to keep anything secret, so no doubt their are a few genuine leaks mixed in with all of the noise.

The PlayStation 4 has kind of been revealed, with specific games and hardware features being announced and even shown to some extent, and Sony is making much smarter choices than I would have expected. Putting Mark Cerny in charge of the system's development was inspired. I think Gakai will have huge issues upfront, just as OnLive has for years, but I think it will ultimately pay out as a good investment for Sony. The simple Share button definitely won't be for everyone, but it's new and aggressive in its way, and it will find its fans. Sony has shown far more pluck in courting indie developers than Nintendo and Microsoft, and I think you can expect to see the fruits of that in their downloadable exclusives in the years to come, although those games won't be major system-sellers, and they'll do little to make use of the power offered by new consoles that isn't already available in current systems, because indies typically lack the resources (and the desire) to take advantage of bleeding-edge technology.

And the big new games look exactly the same as the big current games. Many of the key PS4 titles are being simultaneously released on the PS3.

These are games I, personally, have no interest in playing. For the type of person who excitedly buys the same bland Assassin's Creed game every year, whoopdie-friggin'-doo, now you can buy the same bland Watch Dogs game every year (which looks for all the world like the same game in a new setting, and will still be released for current systems). But the PlayStation 4 has its own version of Kinect now, so yay.

And, of course, with the exception of the first-party series which even fans are beginning to agree have been run into the ground (new installments of God of War and Gears of War came out a few weeks ago - does anyone care?), better versions of PlayStation and Xbox games are usually available on PC. Now, I've mostly stopped buying PC games because I got sick of buying games that don't work, and without investing a lot more in my computer, that's always going to be a problem, but we're increasingly seeing console games that don't work very well, or are missing features, or get patched later, or a whole host of other malarkey.

So here's what I think: Video games are awesome. Enough video games will continue to be awesome to, without a doubt, maintain my interest in the medium. But! We're in for a few rocky years. Unless you're talking to an idiot like me who just has to be there to experience the roller coaster of a console launch firsthand, these system launches are going to be more trouble than they're worth. In time, if you like the games that are out now, you'll find reasons to be excited by the games on new hardware, but don't buy a console on the promise that those games will one day arrive. Enjoy the games that are already available - there are plenty of good, cheap ones available - and consider the purchase once these systems have proven themselves. Because right now, they haven't done that.

22 February 2013

Death, Figurative and Literal

I miss doing this site for real. There's been a lot of video game stuff to talk about lately, but today there are only two things you need to know:

 It's True: 1UP has Reached Its End

Kenji Eno Dead at Age 42

It's a sad day for the world of video games.

27 January 2013

That Thing With the Links That I Haven't Done In Months

Someday - someday! - I'll get back to original content. For now, here are some articles and videos that are very worth your while.

Laura June - The Verge
For Amusement Only: the life and death of the American arcade
This is a tremendous article. I'll admit, if you've read any books on video game history, you won't find much new information here, but you will find clear, concise writing from someone who clearly has a commanding grasp of the subject, and its her perspective, emphasis, and conclusions about a well-documented slice of Americana that held my interest from start to finish. And if you're new to arcade history, wow, you're really in for a treat.

Bonus: This might be the best Web layout I've ever seen. I really need to start reading The Verge.

Ryan Davis and Partick Klepik - Giant Bomb
Quick Look: Tokyo Crash Mobs
In 1998, development Studio created a a new type of match-three puzzle game with Puzz Loop. They later followed it up with the incredibly similar Magnetica, while imitators like Zuma and Luxor did little to differentiate themselves. Now, Mitchel is back to breath a little life in the tired formula, and the result just might be one of the most delightfully bizarre games I've ever seen.

Tony Ponce - Destructoid
Boob Wars, the  last game you will ever need
Boob Wars: Big Breasts vs Flat Chests might be one of the most bizarre games I've ever prayed to never see, and not in a delightful way. If that title isn't enough to convince you that the human race is wretched blight on this poor planet, one that deserves nothing less than immediate extinction, the game's official description (found in the link above) should be more than enough to change your mind.

Leigh Alexander, Jenn Frank, and Mattie Brice - GDC Vault
Writing the Unsung Experiences: Gender In Game Storytelling
Recordings of several panels from previous Game Developers Conferences have recently been made available online for free. That means you can watch three cool, smart people talk intelligently about a subject that deserves intelligent discussion.

Will Wright - GDC Vault
Classic Game Postmortem: RAID ON BUNGELING BAY
I will gladly listen to Will Wright (SimCity, The Sims) talk about anything. The man's a genius. I've always heard that Raid on Bungeling Bay was fairly mediocre, and Wright starts off this talk by echoing the sentiment. After listening to a few minutes of what went into making Wright's first game, I'm not convinced that it's the most exciting thing to play, but I do know that I want to play it for myself.

Mark Cerny - GDC Vault
Classic Game Postmortem: Marble Madness
One more GDC postmortem, and this time it's for a great game I have played. It's a good talk!

Time Extend: P.N.03
P.N.03 was one of those games that grabbed my interest from the moment it was released, but I never played it outside of a few minutes at a demo station in a Wal-Mart or something. Reviews were none too positive, and I always suspected I would either find a misunderstood work and fall madly in love it or completely hate it. This article comes from someone in the former category. Maye it's finally time for me to give P.N.03 a shot.

15 December 2012

Untold Ludo-Narrative Dissonance

Hey! I have written anything here in ages! But sometimes I write stuff on other parts of the Internet, like today when I left a long comment on the Untold Entertainment blog, and I'm not above recycling blog comments as original content for my own site. This was a response to another reader's comment. You can get the full context over there, but all you really need to know is that the subject was the validity of linear storytelling in interactive works.

What you’re talking about is “ludo-narrative dissonance.” The story you’re being told doesn’t match the experience you’re creating, like when you gleefully blow up thirty cars with a tank and then immediately follow it by watching a cutscene where Niko Bellic kvetches about not wanting to hurt anyone. And then you fire a bazooka at a helicopter flying above a busy downtown intersection.
This is bad, inconsistent storytelling, but it’s silly to say that games should never have canned story elements just because so many games suffer from sloppy execution.
You mention that player actions should be accompanied by animations and sound effects, but are these not canned, as well? If I accelerate a car in a game, I expect to hear engine sounds and see spinning wheels. This is reasonable feedback. It would be confusing to hear footsteps and see footprints left in the mud behind the car. Unless Fred Flintstone is driving, in which case it would be perfectly appropriate.
I think the reason you see so many people eagerly deride linear storytelling in games is not because games and pre-written narratives don’t work together, but because they are frequently mismatched. In fact, and I hope I’m overstating this, ludo-narrative dissonance is the norm in story-driven games.
Pairing interactivity with defined narrative can work, but it often falls apart when the story is about the player character’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and actions, because, guess what, the player’s own decisions might not match what some writer had in mind. But rather than looking at the elaborate, movie-like scenes of today that I suspect you find unsatisfying, let’s peek back at some of the earliest cutscenes in games. After all, it was the early examples that must have convinced later game developers to keep moving in this direction.
In Pac-Man, a circle with a mouth eats dots and avoids ghosts, except sometimes he eats the ghosts. After every few levels, control is mercilessly wrestled from the poor player’s hands, and an unskippable, non-interactive cutscene rears its ugly head. In the first, Blinky chases Pac-Man off the screen, only to chased himself by an enlarged Pac-Man. It’s cute, it’s quick, and while this event couldn’t play out exactly this way in-game (Pac-Man never gets bigger) it’s true to the nature of the characters and mechanics. An individual player may not actively try to eat the ghosts, but the scenario doesn’t deny the player’s experience – Pac-man isn’t crying because he just wants to stop eating dots. Moreover, this scene reinforces that the relationship between Pac-Man and the ghosts reverses when the ghosts turn dark blue. Now, please, please try to tell me that Pac-Man is wrong for including linear storytelling.
One more example: Maniac Mansion. There’s a good explanation of why Maniac Mansion had cutscenes in an era before they’d hit the big-time in 1UP’s Maniac Mansion retrospective from earlier this year (http://www.1up.com/features/maniac-mansion-retrospective), so I’ll stick to what other games could still stand to learn from this game. The player gets to choose a set of three characters at the start, and while each has a broad personality, they’re all fairly blank. Rather than trying to tie together a story about whichever characters the player uses, and trying to keep that story in line with the player’s actions, most of Maniac Mansion’s cutscenes, in fact, CUT to other characters in other locations. These characters are seldom even aware that the player’s crew has entered the mansion. Their thoughts, motivations, and actions have nothing to do with the players, and they shouldn’t. The cutscenes aren’t about you, but they more than justify their existence by being entertaining and informative. And, yes, it helps that there are different outcomes depending on how you affect the mansion, but that’s not essential to the concept of cutting away from the player and focusing on outside characters.
(I’ll stop now. If you want more, I wrote an essay on this subject once, specifically as it relates to Rockstar Vancouver’s Bully. It could have used a little editing, but here you go: https://sites.google.com/site/hotlavy/all-articles/bully-a-course-in-narrative-disconnect)

04 November 2012

Finally! The Seventh Fantasy (VII)

I played a little Final Fantasy VII this morning, even though I haven't enjoyed any part of the game so far. Aside from some of the music, nothing has grabbed me yet. Overall, I think it's not only overrated, it is an actively bad game.

But after seven long hours, I've finally moved beyond the first city, and the game is opening up a little. I'm still being funneled very much in one direction, but the characters are holding back their inane dialogue, at least a little, and I'm finally getting enough equipment and magic spells that I'm able to tailor my team to my liking. In other words, I can focus on the game part of this video game. After successfully working out a strategy to catch a giant cartoon bird, and then riding it through the world's expansive valleys while that classic Chocobo theme played, I found that I was almost beginning to enjoy myself.

Then the game crashed and I lost an hour's progress.

03 November 2012

Finally! The Seventh Fantasy (VI)

[CLOUD runs across a narrow metal pipe in a narrow industrial metalscape. Steam billows out from a pipe. A blue glow emanates from the metallic, industrial abyss below. CLOUD twitches back and forth as he attempts to grab a slowly swinging chain. He jumps on the chain, then accidentally jumps back on the platform, then twitches until he jumps back on the chain. He climbs down the chain and jumps onto the broken pipe below. He deftly jumps across the gap where the pipe is broken onto the other end of the broken pipe. Steam continues to billow in a cycle of two repeating frames. CLOUD runs across the narrow metal pipe above the blue light until he reaches a platform near a piece of industrial metal machinery covered in wheels, switches, levers, blue diodes, and pipes that emit two-frame loops of billowing steam. You know, technological science stuff. BARRET and TIFA ignore the laws of conservation of mass and walk out of CLOUD.]

BARRET: Shinra! %$@!


TIFA: Mako materia SOLDIER Shinra.

BARRET: %#$%#! Damn!

TIFA: Midgar Sephiroth Shinra. Mako Planet life-force.

[TIFA waves her arms expressively.]


[CLOUD waves his arms in a way that expresses nothing.]

BARRET: #%@&! AVALANCHE Jenova! Promised Land. Midgar &$#@!!!!!!!!

[CLOUD slowly walks in an arbitrary direction, pauses, then walks back to his original place. He raises his arms, then lowers them, and places his head in his palm. He shakes his head, as if to say, "..."]

CLOUD: ...

BARRET: Damn! @%#*&!

[A SOLDIER from Shinra appears. He is defeated by CLOUD, TIFA, and BARRET. CLOUD is a good soldier because he is ex-SOLDIER. He is very good at selecting ATTACK from the menu until the SOLDIER (not from SOLDIER) turns red and fades away. Everyone receives EXP. The party receives a potion.]

CLOUD: ...

CLOUD: Mako Shinra. Midgar Sephiroth.

[BARRET and TIFA walk into CLOUD. The platform shakes. CLOUD falls. Fade to black.]

CLOUD: Materia Jenova... Sephiroth.

[Fade to a slum made. Buildings are made from sheets of discarded metal. The ground is dust with no traces of plant life. Neon lights are everywhere. A MAN walks east, then west, then east again, repeating this cycle for the duration of his existence, pausing only to wave his arms and say, "Shinra Mako inn potion!" when interrupted by strangers.]

AERIS: I have a bodyguard. Planet.

BARRET: #%@!

[The party runs out of the desolate neon slum in search of the next steamy, industrial tower lit by blue lights.]