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Memories, Annotated

The memories of my life are all largely centered around which games I was playing at any particular time. Since I've been playing games for as long as I can remember, and I've been playing games continuously since then, it's a strangely scientific-seeming means by which I can record the timeline of my life. It goes something like this:

-Combat, Gyruss, Gauntlet, Space Harrier: memories of being five or six years old in San Francisco
-Phantasy Star, Super Mario Bros., Ultima IV, Ultima V: being seven or eight years old in Walnut Creek
-Break Thru, Kung Fu Master: vacation in Hawaii for my 10th birthday
-Double Dragon, Gauntlet II, Yie-Ar Kung Fu: vacation in Russian River when I was 11

-Golden Axe, Final Fight, Contra: moving back to San Francisco when I was 12

-Ultima VI: getting ready to move again
-Street Fighter II, Street Fighter II: Champion Edition: first two years of high school

-X-Wing, Dune II, Doom, Star Control II, Ultima VII: high school highlights
-Street Fighter II Turbo, Mortal Kombat II, Samurai Shodown: next two years of high school
-Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Samurai Shodown, World Heroes Jet: my first trip to Japan

-Crusader: No Regret, King's Field, Quake: starting work at GameSpot
-Killer Instinct, The King of Fighters '96, Marvel Super Heroes: "socializing" in my first two years of college

Mind you, that's a small sample of games that are important to me. But that's how my life pans out--what was I playing, and around which circumstances was I playing it. For any notable point, there are one to three to go with it. My trip to Portugal in 2002 is Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis. Christmas of last year is Fire Emblem. Christmas the year before is Panzer Dragoon Orta. September 11, 2001 is Red Faction.

That's really the point of this story, but I felt that it needed an introduction. That's what I did on September 11, 2001. I spent the whole day playing through the PC version of Red Faction, which ended up being a pretty good game. I especially liked the railgun that could shoot through walls, but the "geomod" stuff wasn't all that interesting. Anyway: I contacted all my colleagues and asked them to not come in to work after what happened that morning, and what I proceeded to do was, with the TV turned on nearby and with news anchors hypocritically swearing to me about how life will never, ever be the same--I knew this to be false even then--I played through Red Faction, knowing that I needed to review it, glad that I wasn't dead, and quite certain that the world was going to carry on.

A couple of weeks later, when the highly anticipated Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor was released and disappointed game players were screaming bloody murder against the developers of the game all over gaming message boards on the Internet, I knew things were already pretty much back to normal.

How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

Step 1: Be a game publisher.
Step 2: Produce a perfectly good game.
Step 3: Set your revenue goals high--you've got a perfectly good game to sell.
Step 4: Ship your game on the same exact day on which a whole bunch of other, similar games come out.

Why are so many game publishers following this model this month? Is it more important to successfully ship a game in September, or to ship a game successfully? I apologize for the obviousness of these observations; I mean, how could anyone into games not notice what's going on here? How could anyone into games not be frustrated by it?

Let me give you a very specific example of what I'm talking about. Take Tuesday, September 21 (which is just one moment in time during a season that will be filled with many other such moments in time). On this day, the following PC real-time strategy games will be released: Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War; Rome: Total War; and Kohan II: Kings of War.

Now that's a lot of war for one day!!!

And "war" is an appropriate theme here, it seems. How it happened that these games' release dates ended up exactly coinciding, I will never understand or accept. I am and have been excited for the release of these games since I first heard about each of them in turn. I am representative of the target audience for each of these games. I would gladly buy each of them in turn, assuming they finally turn out well. But you know what? I'm certainly not going to buy and play all three on the same day.

The fact that this kind of head-on bloodbath occurs hot on the heels of a summer season almost completely devoid of worthwhile game releases simply speaks to the lack of foresight and planning on behalf of game publishers--either that or they're just very arrogant about their prospects. They're only hurting themselves by all simultaneously waiting for the exact same day in the fall season, because people like us--the people who'd actually buy and play these games--are going to have to make some tough choices that we wish we wouldn't have had to make.

Guess what else? A whole bunch of people who might otherwise be interested in each and every one of these games very likely aren't going to buy any of them, because one week prior to their simultaneous release, that game called The Sims 2 hits store shelves. You know, the long-awaited sequel to the best-selling computer game of all time? If I was publishing a PC game, I would want to steer its release date as far, far away from The Sims 2 as possible.

How does a reasonable human being with an interest in games and with a limited budget of time and money deal with this sort of situation? Russian roulette-style, maybe? Do you just pick the game that catches your eye, hope it's good, and never look back at what you might have missed? Or do you heavily research a careful decision, buy the game that sounds perfect for you, and then hope you made the right choice?

I thank my lucky stars I get to work with this stuff. I still buy a lot of games, but fortunately, I don't necessarily need to buy all the ones I'd really like to play--I'd be completely broke if I had to. My colleagues and I are rallying around this season, knowing full well that some of the most important buying decisions of the year are being made right here and right now, and that our responsibility is to responsibly help inform those decisions. Unfortunately, though, if a whole bunch of these games turn out to be pretty good, then they'll all get pretty good scores--and the pressure's on our readers to make those tough decisions on the margin.

I think it's going to be a real shame when some of this season's great games get buried. It's going to happen, and it's going to hurt. All we can do, as consumers, is try to make our bottom dollar count towards the good stuff.

"I Work Late"

"I work late." With these words, Hephaestus, the ugly Greek god of the forge, convinced the unspeakably beautiful goddess of love, Aphrodite, to marry him, of all people--and gods.

Or so I heard in junior high. Some years later, I decided these were good words to live by. Ironically, I find that my best work gets done around the day--meaning, either very late or at the point at which very late becomes very early. The day itself, while generally quite productive, is spent focusing on a lot of different things that aren't specifically mine. The rest of the time is when I spend on most assignments that have my name on them, and it's also when I spend most of my time playing games (weekends are the exception). Want to know what's the best part about my job? There's never a dull moment. And much like Aphrodite didn't take for granted Hephaestus' bluntly honest implications, neither do I ever for a second think that having to spend most of my evenings "working" with games isn't a good trade-off in exchange for working in the greatest industry in the world, and for GameSpot in particular.

These thoughts occur to me as I sit down to work on two projects this evening, one major and one minor. I'll save the hard part for last. The minor one is a preview of SVC Chaos, the Xbox version of the NeoGeo fighting game. Online play again makes all the difference in the world--a fairly run-of-the-mill 2D fighter becomes pretty exciting when you can play it against other people online. I mostly avoided the original NeoGeo version of this game since I heard bad things about it, and didn't want to experience the disappointment first hand--not after getting pretty psyched about the screenshots I'd seen. At any rate, now I'm glad I played it. Do you know for how long I've wanted to see the Sagat character sprite redrawn? For nearly 10 God damn years, that's how long, since that's when they messed him up in Street Fighter Alpha. You don't understand--me and Sagat, we go way back.

Also, let me mention NeoGeo Battle Coliseum. Now this looks promising indeed, and if I still ran my NeoGeo fan site, Mega Shock, I'd be spending a lot more time talking about it. I'll say this: The presence of World Heroes' Hanzou and Fuuma as playable characters in that game is some of the best fighting-game-related news I've heard all year. But then again, the fact that, of all the incredible World Heroes characters, they'd pick the two least interesting ones to include, is deeply troubling. Where's C. Kidd, who is the best Guile clone ever imagined...? Where's Rasputin...? The World Heroes series (beginning with World Heroes 2) is the Rodney Dangerfield of the fighting game genre.

That's all I've got for now.

Our Highest-Rated Game of the Year (So Far....)

This is why we're "tough" on games: So that there's plenty of room in the upper portion of our rating scale for the rare games like Burnout 3 to stand, rightfully, head and shoulders above the rest.

Burnout 3: Takedown is GameSpot's highest rated game of the year so far. The review is very specific about why it's so amazing, so read it if you're skeptical. In between pouring most of my Labor Day weekend into Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen, I was fortunate to get to play a few good, long sessions of Burnout 3 on my newly-repositioned-in-the-living-room Xbox. Playing that game on a widescreen display and with the Dolby Digital cranked up is just something else...but I think the biggest surprise about Burnout 3 isn't just that it's a really great-looking, exciting game (since its predecessors were great too), but that it's genuinely innovative.

Think about it. In racing games, all you're trying to do is drive fast without crashing. Crashing is bad. In Burnout 3, crashing is still kind of unfortunate in most cases, since your goal is ultimately to win a race. But there are some very interesting, inventive, and fully developed gameplay elements that take place entirely in the context of a crash, and that's completely and utterly unique to Burnout 3. Yes, it's completely "unrealistic" that you can steer your flaming wreck around. And, yes, it's completely amazing to take an opponent driver down in flames with you--an act for which the game rightfully rewards you.

Despite a few frustratingly soul-sapping EA-isms in Burnout 3, I stand in awe of the work that the developers at Criterion pulled off with this game. Not only is Burnout 3 a technical marvel--most game development studios could only dream of pulling off such a good-looking, responsive game--but it's a genuine feat of original game design. When's the last time you could say something like that about a racing gaming? Earlier today, Jeff and I were discussing how this is by far the most we've enjoyed a racing game in years...or ever. But it's not even just a racing game, is it? It's one of the best games so far this year. It just so happens to involve cars.

According to Plan

September all of a sudden is bringing tons of promising new releases, after several months of near-drought. It's interesting just how quickly the new games piled on, and it's definitely exciting--I've got like five different games to play this long weekend. Among these, I'm particularly looking forward to checking out Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, which is part of a series that I really ought to have seen and played more in the past than I have (especially considering I play most console RPGs anyway). The fact that this game recently earned an M rating due to its mature themes makes me all the more interested.

However, the slow release season these past several months has allowed me to concentrate on helping to design and launch new community features, such as the journals and reader reviews and lots more. It's hard to imagine a time before we had all this stuff, even though we only launched GameSpot Community in May of this year. As much as I love reviewing games, this process has been particularly rewarding for me. Most recently it's been great to see the "Friends' Journals" feature working exactly according to plan--see that list of my colleagues on the right-hand side? Already, I'm having a great time diving deeper and deeper into friends' of friends' of friends' profiles, reading their journals, checking out their game collections to see what games we have in common, and so forth. It's very satisfying to take such an idea from just being "on paper" to being on the site, in full effect. I don't get to make games for a living, but working on this stuff scratches that same itch for me.

These community features aren't just for fun, either. As I mentioned on our message boards this morning, despite all the effort we put into our reviews, we know that the best recommendations for great games come from our friends. One of the ultimate objectives of GameSpot Community is to help you find more people with similar interests, so that you'll always be that much more confident about the games you choose to play--and you'll always have people to discuss them with and even play them with.

Our new journals are just one more step towards our goal of making GameSpot the world's best community for people with an interest in games, but some of our most exciting, most important new community features are still to come.

A Farewell to Acclaim

My most recent editorial summarizes my thoughts on the recent events surrounding Acclaim. In short: The death of Acclaim isn't exactly the most tragic news of the week, but relative to our own little world here, it's pretty messed up, and indicative of other, similar events that may come to pass. Support smaller game publishers [when they make good games].

By the way, I'm trying to convince my colleagues that we should move GameSpotting into our journals. With a few tweaks to the journal format (specifically, we need a way to be able to link to specific journal entries, which is in the works), I think it could work out well. It's no accident that "GameSpotting" is in the present-progressive verb tense; it was always intended to be a continuous feedback loop between people like me and people like you. Now that our journals are set up and running, it seems like a good opportunity for us to try something new.

"The Jerk Store Called..."

This evening it was my pleasure to meet Ron Gilbert, who worked on such games as Total Annihilation and the Monkey Island series. When he's not making games, Ron updates Grumpy Gamer, which provides a funny, insightful, insider's look at the gaming industry. Ron contacted me recently for a project he's working on, for which he's been interviewing various people from the game industry to get their perspectives on the way things are and the way things will turn out to be in gaming. I'm not really a talkative person, but when it comes to games, I can hardly shut up--so I had a rollicking good time responding to Ron's interesting questions. At any rate, I'll be looking forward to seeing how that all turns out, and was glad to learn that Ron still seems as gung ho as ever about gaming.

The part that'll stick with me is: Ron asked me (to break the ice, I guess), if I could be any character from a television show, who would I be? Strange question, but for some reason it didn't take me long to answer: Jerry Seinfeld. Even when Jerry's got problems, they're funny. Turns out Ron's own choice is Kramer. I think we're onto something here...

Ron and I hadn't met before today (well, maybe once at an E3 years ago) and I don't really know to what extent he's familiar with my work. As for me, besides thinking very highly of several of Ron's games (I strongly argued in favor of Total Annihilation's winning GameSpot's 1997 Game of the Year, which it did), I have this one particular memory of Ron that I didn't get a chance to share with him. In 1998 for April Fool's Day, I wrote a review of chess, which was an article I was uncharacteristically pleased with... probably because one of the responses to the review came from Ron Gilbert himself, who had some very flattering remarks to say about it, which was inspiring. It's always strange to meet someone you look up to; you don't know how to react, since it seems inappropriate to act like some crazy fan, and yet you want nothing more than to gush on and on. Dude, who came up with the Brawler? Who discovered Jeremy Soule? But you need to act all normal.

There's a lot of pessimism in the game industry sometimes, but it's guys like Ron Gilbert who make me (at least) entirely hopeful for the future.

Presenting GameSpot Journals

We're very pleased to present a brand-new feature available for free to all registered GameSpot users: your very own personal journals. Your journal is for you to share or explore your thoughts about gaming or other topics. It's yours to decide whether you'd like for your journal to be publicly visible, readable only by your friends within the community, or completely private.

The possibilities for your journal are infinite--try keeping notes on your favorite (or most frustrating) gaming experiences, tracking important dates or events, jotting down your innermost thoughts (for all to read and pass judgment on, of course), practice for the local poetry slam, propose your best idea for a better banana, list all your favorite recipes--whatever! Also, if you have friends in the community, their journals will automatically be linked in the space to the right. It's a great way to keep track of what your friends are up to, or to get acquainted with others with similar interests.

Our goal is to make GameSpot the ultimate destination for anyone remotely interested in gaming. With our continued efforts to build and expand our community features, we hope you'll agree that we're moving in the right direction towards that goal.

Let me know what you think by posting a comment below.